As a graduate of a Jewish day school, I was one of those children whoreceived this gift, and I still have my little Torah, now tucked away in abox that once contained checkbooks. The Torah itself is basically unreadableand it is falling apart. But each year, around Shavuot I think of thatplastic Torah.
How do you teach the Jewish people to love Torah? If Moses gave littleplastic Torahs to the escaped Hebrew slaves would they still have rebelledagainst him? But seriously, the question I'm asking is this: Are words alonesufficient, or do we, as a people need objects for remembering?
These are the questions I ask on Shavuot, the celebration ofboth the spring harvest and the giving of the Torah at Sinai. And as adultlearning has blossomed in the last few years in Jewish communities, Shavuothas become a time of intensified text study--a time when people sittogether to engage ideas on revelation and redemption. As a result, Tikkuneileyl Shavuot (all-night learning events), have become enormously popularnationwide.
Once again this year, CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning andLeadership is promoting pluralist pre-Shavuot learning events as part ofNational Unity Shavuot. This marks the third year of the project, which CLALbegan in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, and has now been in manyother cities and on-line at www.Shavuot.org.
In New York, as part of a planning committee organizing the programs overthe past two years, I've sat with rabbis from all denominations, in intensedeliberations over what we could study and accomplish together. As rabbis,we all share a love of learning and a desire to challenge one another--whether it is over the meaning of a Midrash, or a fine point of grammar.
After one such meeting, a colleague and I discussed our tendency to attempt"mental gymnastics" every time we got together. "At our public events,hundreds of people from across the denominations come to hear us. How dothey make sense of our theoretical battles? How could we convey, thatdespite our ideological differences we share a simple love of Torah?" Iasked.
While we never gave out little Torahs (we ended up doing a contemporarydramatic re-telling of Ruth), it was indeed clear to everyone thatparticipated last year that we share a love of Torah. But the dialogue onceagain provoked in me the tension between loving the words of the text, whichwe do on Shavuot, and loving the Torah itself, which we do best on SimchatTorah, the autumn holiday in which we dance for hours with the Torah scrolls. The Jewish people have a classic mind/body split. So what do we do tobalance the two?
This year on Shavuot, I suggest that people not only discuss the ideascontained in the Torah, but discuss the experience of Torah itself: Ofseeing it, of holding it, of reading from it. This is an experience thatcuts across ideological boundaries, and has powerful implications.
Just imagine for a moment the metaphors: We hold the Torah like a baby,gently cuddling it to our breast. We dress it carefully; we touch itlightly. We honor it like an elder, standing before it, honoring itshistory. We treat it like a jewel, hiding it away except for specialoccasions.
Those metaphors convey part of the experience of Torah, and also remind uswhy gifts like little plastic Torahs can be more than tacky gift shop items.Toy versions of religious objects can teach children that play andimagination are vital in any spiritual path. Even when they grow up, andmove beyond the objects the associations and fantasies still have power.
My own three-year-old twins play with the popular blue "stuffed Torahs."And at times, when they are not whopping each other over the head with them,I see them using the objects as dance partners. They hum a chassidic-likemelody that often spins off into a Barney tune, or march the Torahs aroundthe room in a big circle.
Will these stuffed Torahs end up in the closet, forgotten, just as myplastic Torah did? I'm sure they will, but then again, the first Torah text,the broken up tablets that God gave Moses were stored away in the Holy Ark.