...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Thursday, December 28, 2006

This week in God

Or, really, Saturday-before-last in God, when I experienced another incredible Jewish Renewal Moment (TM).

The last Saturday I spent in Portland, the day before I left for Eugene, I went, as usual, to Saturday morning Shabbat services at P'nai Or. Services there generally last about three hours, and roughly follow this order: singing and chanting in Hebrew from the siddur (prayer book) for about an hour; prayers; the rabbi's sermon (I sort of think that's the wrong word to use, not only because of the Christian baggage attached to it but because Reb Aryeh's sermons are more like discussions, with a lot of participation from the congregation and debate, but the only other word I can think of is farbrengen, which might have too much Hasidic baggage. If anyone reading this knows, feel free to tell me) for another hour. There are Hebrew and English bilingual editions of the Torah scattered throughout the pews so people can follow along. The last hour is spent with the Torah: first prayers are said and the Sh'ma chanted, then a couple people bring take out the Torah scroll and kind of process around the congregation with it while everyone sings and dances and claps. It's kind of like a mini-Simchat Torah; Chris, you would recognize the song--it's the one that we thought sounded like "The Boxer." When the Torah is coming around, most people touch their tzit-tzit (fringes of the tallis, or prayer shawl) or siddur to its covering and then kiss their tzit-tzit or siddur. Then the scroll is unrolled to that day's Torah portion and everyone gathers around the table and Reb Aryeh reads/sings from the Torah in Hebrew, simultaneously translating into English and offering midrash (interpretation). Then more prayers, the Torah is put back into the ark, more prayers, then everyone joins hands and sings this song that's goes something like "Odeyvot shalom aleynu, odeyvot shalom aleynu, odeyvot shalom aleynu veah ruah." That's an extremely rough transliteration but remember that my Hebrew vocabulary is limited to like less than 20 words. I do know that shalom means "peace" (I think everyone knows that) and "ruah" means breath/spirit, though. Edit: This is the song I'm talking about. It turns out that "ruah" has no place in it at all, which means I've been singing the wrong words. Oops! Nice song, though. And other than that my transliteration was actually pretty okay.

The thing about the Torah scroll that you might not know if you don't go to Jewish services or don't have a lot of Jewish acquaintances is that it's huge, and made of animal-skin parchment, with the Hebrew written by hand by scribes. All of the words, especially God's holy name (the Tetragrammaton) have to be very precisely written, and if the ink smudges they have to scrap that whole piece of parchment and start over. There's tons of rabbinic discussion and halakha (religious law) about scribal practices, including huge debates about how much ink should be on the quill before beginning the Tetragrammaton, because the scribe is not allowed to break the writing motion to redip (no double-dipping if you're a Torah scribe) and the thickness of the ink must be consistent throughout. All of this is to say that the Torah scrolls are extremely precious, very expensive, and fragile. Nobody touches the scroll with their bare hands, not even the rabbi, because the oils in the skin could smudge the ink. When the little kids are crowding around the Torah table, the rabbi's always reminding them not to touch it with their bare hands.

After the Torah portion last Saturday, something different happened. A young couple from the congregation had brought their three-month-old baby daughter and their toddler son to be blessed by the rabbi and the congregation. A few people spread out and held up a tallis over the family, as though it were a chuppah (wedding canopy); the rabbi asked the parents to explain the children's Hebrew names and said a few prayers and brachot (blessings). Then he unrolled the Torah to a significant passage, and directed the mother to lay her baby on the Torah.

He put the baby on the Torah!

With no kind of protective plastic layer at all!

I couldn't believe it!

As the little baby girl stretched and wiggled, he said a few more brachot and prayed that, just as she stretched her little arms out and touched the sides of the Torah, as she grows she might stretch and wrestle--like Ya'akov--with God, yet always remain within the tradition and within the bounds of God's love.

It was a really touching moment, and one of my favorite Jewish Renewal experiences yet. The fact that the rabbi would lay a baby directly onto the Torah really struck me, as did his midrash. When I saw Daniel that night, I ran it by him, asking if that kind of blessing of infants is customary in all Jewish denominations, or if it's just a Jewish Renewal thing. He had never heard of it or experienced it, so maybe it's unique to P'nai Or, or unique to the Jewish Renewal; regardless, what an incredible moment. And that night, as we were walking to his house, the only words running through my head were "Baruch ata Adonai Eloheynu," over and over.