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Rosh Hashanah D'var Torah by Marcy Tepner & Rona Kosansky, September 21, 2017

02/10/2017 10:44:19 AM


We are about to participate in a mitzvah – the sounding of the shofar. But, before we do, I would like to talk about the last of the 613 mitzvot, the obligation for every Jew to write a Torah scroll, and about the concept of “Hiddur Mitzvah”, the “beautification of a mitzvah”. 

Take a moment to look at the magnificent panels of Torah that surround us. This is Hiddur mitzvah. For those of you not familiar with the Torah Stitch by Stitch project, what you see hanging on the walls, and in the lobby space outside the social hall, is the completed book of Bereshit – the Book of Genesis, lovingly cross-stitched by over 1000 people in 22 countries, on 6 continents.  Torah Stitch by Stitch is an international, interfaith project, joining hands and hearts to cross-stitch 1,463 individual panels in Hebrew, which together will create an entire Torah. Cross-stitch is a form of needlepoint traditionally used to educate women. The purpose of this project, conceived by Toronto textile artist, Temma Gentiles is to engage, educate, and inspire by illuminating this sacred text, one stitch at a time, and to exhibit the completed Torah in order to engage, educate, and inspire all who see it.

In Judaism, we search for meaning in life through a lived tradition, involving exploration through learning, teaching and experiencing. Art – in this case cross-stitching - renders the search visible and tangible. The very act of handling the aida cloth and manipulating the threads, of painstakingly recreating the text with accuracy and precision, and illuminating it with images, helps to actively connect and engage the participant with the ancient scroll. Each stitcher’s individual panel becomes part of the mosaic of the greater piece.

So how is TSBS connected to the shofar service and the mitzvah of sounding the shofar? Well, aside from the fact that the sounds of the shofar may remind many of the stitchers of their cries and groans of frustration when ripping out errors after many hours of stitching, the shofar service, like TSBS, is also a renewal of engagement with our faith.

The Shofar service has 3 parts, each associated with one of the three sounds made by the shofar. Rabbi Michael Strassfeld writes, “Malchuyot: Self-control, Zichronot: thinking/remembering and Shofarot: speech are what make us human. To realize our full potential, we must strive with each of these aspects of our humanity...”

Malchuyot means sovereignty, and traditionally refers to God as king of the universe. Sovereignty is defined as a power or authority that is superior to all others, highest in rank, quality, or importance. Recontsructionists hold diverse ideas about God, but we share an emphasis on Godliness. Recognizing that for many of us, descriptions of God are a metaphor, sovereignty here means using our power and authority to act in a Godly way.

Mordechai Kaplan writes “The sounding of the shofar…functions …as an invitation to the individual Jew to renew the oath of unqualified allegiance and loyalty to those ideals, the realization of which would convert human society into a kingdom of God. Torah contains the ideals we renew our allegiance to.”

Torah is our roadmap –it is a template on how to conduct ourselves in a Godly fashion. TSBS stitchers also follow a template in order to create a panel that is letter-perfect. And just as we use our words to interpret the Torah text in ways that are meaningful and relevant to each of us, each stitcher is able to create an illumination that illustrates a deeper, more personal meaning of the text.

The shofar sound of tekiyah – one strong blast - defines Malchuyot; it commands courage and action. TSBS is a project of action and engagement – physical, educational and spiritual. There is no doubt that signing up to participate in the TSBS project is a courageous move. Cross-stitching 4 verses of Torah is a daunting task involving close to 60 hours of time.  Participants are also required to share their experience with the text they are stitching.

Shared experiences include stitchers recalling that they would muse and meditate upon their verses, engaging with them, educating themselves to read Hebrew and to understand the passages they were stitching. One stitcher wrote that she had all but given up on her affiliation to Judaism, but was reconnected through the act of stitching the Torah text. This particular stitcher did not stop there, but went on to have an adult Bat Mitzvah to celebrate her new-found connection.

The second part of the shofar service Zichronot, remembrance, is perhaps a little easier to connect with.

Mordechai Kaplan writes, “People who have a historical consciousness actually feel that the life they live extends far beyond the actual life of their bodies. Conscious of the experiences of the past, attached by a kind of umbilical cord to history … the individual’s being becomes coextensive with the being of their peoples. The individual enjoys, as it were, an earthly immortality.”

Zichronot is defined by the three short blasts of shevarim. Each blast ends with an upward inflection, sounding like a question, and asking us to look beyond self-absorption and to engage with the world. Each blast expresses a yearning to grow and improve.

Remembrance offers perspective. It allows, as Leo Baeck writes, the ability of our people “to take a step backward, as artists do, to view the totality of their work… to think in generations and live in generations, to look backward into the far reaches and to look forward into the great distances.”

For the artists of TSBS, remembrance connects them to the text and adds depth to their experience. Family stories are passed on through the stitched illuminations. Pictures and designs are reproduced – one from a grandmothers’ tablecloth - honouring past generations. Panels are dedicated to people who have had an impact on their lives. These stitchers are creating a tactile memory, an umbilical cord to history; as Joelle Silver wrote, a living legacy for generations to come.

The third and final part of the Shofar Service, Shofarot, the plural of shofar, is meant to remind us of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The Shofarot liturgy quotes Exodus 19:16: “You revealed yourself… to teach your people Torah and mitzvoth… amid the shofar’s call to them did you appear”.

Shofarot is associated with sound and thus with communication and speech. The shofar is the articulation of our voice, our will, and our desire to dialogue with the Torah’s words of Godliness.

 Shofarot is defined by teruah: nine broken staccato blasts that provide a wake-up call. They challenge us to refocus on those hopes, beliefs and values that impel us to work for a better world; to push us beyond our comfort zone.

The Shofarot liturgy says, “Raise up the banner for the gathering-in of those in exile, and bring near to you all those dispersed among the nations. Let all our scattered people, as if by miracle, be reunited from the earth’s remotest lands.”

TSBS is doing just that. It is creating a real banner that is uniting scattered people from all corners of the earth. The exhibit of the Torah panels communicates a joining together of disparate voices sharing a common desire to inspire personal and communal change, creating a more unified world.

Rabbi James Ponet writes, “Beginning again, renewing the old, remembering the sounds, recalling the words, recreating the world – this is the stuff of Torah, the business of the Jew.”

We conclude the Shofar service with the dramatic proclamation of the tekia gedola, a final push toward courage and action. The sounding of the shofar is not subtle; it makes a statement; it is bold, loud and proud. As the TSBS project makes its way to completion, and then exhibition worldwide, may the impact of this Hiddur Mitzvah, this illumination of the Torah scroll, be bold, loud and proud.

Hayom Harat Olam, Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world.  Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz writes, “On Rosh Hashanah we are reminded that today is a first day. We still contain within us the awesome and godly potential of our creation. The potential is in our hands.”

Shana Tova.

Thu, 23 May 2024 15 Iyar 5784