The first thing we did was we stopped kissing the Torah.
As a Jewish community, we read and chant from the Torah, generally, four times each week. When the Torah is removed from (and before it is returned to) the Holy Ark, it is paraded around the congregation. Many have the custom of touching the Torah mantle – with their hands, their prayer book, their Tallit (prayer shawl) — and kissing said object before or after.
The “kiss” is not worshipping the Torah — it is not idolatrous. Those of us who kiss the Torah recognize the Torah’s implicit sacredness as it contains God’s living word — a word that lives on through the ways we engage it. A “word” that teaches us more about who we are and who we can become.
But more than that, it’s as if the Torah is a love letter from God to the Jewish people — and so we kiss it. The kiss is the gentlest expression of our love and our gratitude. We are grateful to be born into this world — with all of its cracks, and bumps, and bruises. We are grateful for our history — all of its ups and downs. And tucked into each kiss is gratitude for the ability to stand on the shoulders of the many who fought for the religious freedom to live as a Jew, freely. We express a love not only for that tradition, but for God and God’s Presence in our life.
But we stopped. We had to. Because the life with which we are blessed is precious and it seemed that the kiss endangered it.
It is not lost on me that the great Physician-Rabbi Maimonides created a dichotomy of “cleanness” nearly 1,000 years ago.
He taught: ein dvrei Torah mikablin tumah – the words of Torah do not contract uncleanness. To the naked eye, it would seem that Rambam was referring to a spiritual “cleanness”—the holiness of the Torah, writ large. But he subsequently clarifies: v’hu shelo yihiyu yadav mtunafot o m’lukhlakhot b’tit ela yirchatzu yidehem v’achar kakh yigu bo – that is, provided that the holder’s hands are not dirty or grimy, else they must wash their hands and after that, they can touch it (the Torah).
It’s almost as if Rambam is saying: you can never take away the sacred power of the love letter. However, if your hands are unclean, then use common sense before you turn God’s word into something profane, causing illness and pain to others.
This week, not only are we not kissing the Torah, but we are no longer gathering physically together. Our synagogue is closed and the sifrei Torah remains alone in the Holy Ark. We are creatively working on opportunities for our community to join in prayer and learning, together, virtually online—as are many synagogues, churches, and mosques.
We begin to find ourselves isolated in our own homes. And though the Torah may not be near, the words of the love letter can still be dear. For it’s in those moments that we can still engage in the words of the Torah—even without the kiss.
My father Rabbi Kerry Olitzky always taught me that we don’t study Torah to learn Torah — we study Torah to learn more about ourselves. That is the nature of the love letter — we see ourselves reflected within it.
The current pandemic is no doubt a challenge to society as we know it. But it also compels each of us to rethink our role in society, in our family, in our own personal world. It challenges us to consider our need for personal learning and growth even more so now.
Such potential for growth and for change links us as a people, and really, as humanity, created in the Image of God. We may explicitly, physically, be separating ourselves from God’s word, but during this time of separation, we should each find the time to engage it more deeply — and in turn, recognize that we are truly never alone…especially if we have Torah.