I’ve seen it a thousand times, over and over and over again. The ark is opened, and the congregation rises reflexively. The Torahs are resting there, dressed in their finery, the elegant cloaks and silver crowns that beautify them and remind us of royalty. Someone reaches into the ark to lift the scroll, placing it carefully in the arms of the hazzan, the leader of prayer. There is a jingling of metal, silver bells ring softly, the breastplate slides slightly as the Torah moves from one person to the next. Everyone watches, eyes alight with – what? History? Tradition? Yes. And perhaps also a sense of connection and continuity, of momentarily touching something that is eternal, that was, is, and will be. A ritual enacted, the same each time with subtle variations. Same as it ever was.
But this time, for some reason I will never know, my breath caught in my throat. I was moved, struck in some new way by the power of that simple moment. Maybe it was the way the young man so reverentially lifted that Torah, with grace and almost awe reaching forward to grasp it, carefully and gently placing it into the Hazzan’s embrace. Maybe it was how I know the men, the respect I have for them, the love I know they have in their hearts for our tradition. I suspect the way that shadows cast from some tree’s leaves danced on the wall had something to do with it, and also the soft early morning sunshine slowly rising. And that powerful sense we sometimes have of time’s compression, of the swiftly moving years somehow collapsing, of these particular men with their phylacteries and prayer shawls, enacting this ancient ritual that has been going on uninterrupted, century after century, generation after generation.
There was an imperceptible shift in the air and the moment passed. But as the old scroll was carried through the congregation something sacred hung in the air, just out of site, just there. Remember the great and enigmatic line at the end of King Lear? “Look there! Look there!” Whatever did he see? I looked, and it was gone. But a soft soul-tingling sense lingers on.