Center Field: Rescuing a Torah uplifted us

“How did you get that out? Do you know what the inside of an Arabian jail looks like?” one expert we consulted with said – which explains why I won’t specify the country we visited.

Transplanting this 'Tree of Life' home to Israel  (photo credit: GIL TROY)
Transplanting this 'Tree of Life' home to Israel
(photo credit: GIL TROY)
It took decades before most people realized that while the Nazis were mass-murdering Jews, they also robbed them blind. The often-overlooked mass expulsion of 850,000 Jews from the Middle East and North Africa several years after the end of World War II also became one mass mugging.
My wife and I recently encountered a small, profound victim of that grand Arabian larceny when we visited North Africa. In our trip’s final hour, we crossed the Casbah toward one last palace. Stopping in a souvenir shop, we entered a labyrinth. Downstairs, in the eighth room, strewn on a couch, was a Torah scroll.
If it had been in a glass case, we wouldn’t have given it a second look.
But there it lay, partially unscrolled, a majestic relic, but yellowing, frayed, with its two bottom handles sawed off – displaced, disrespected.
We thought about how many people over the decades had kissed the scroll, prayed over it, lifted it aloft after reading it, danced around it. We thought about how many Jews would fast 40 days if they dropped it, or would run into a burning building to save it. We thought of how many martyrs died wrapped in similar scrolls. These extraordinary actions, which we take for granted, reflect our communal commitment to protect those sacred writings.
Proving that one mitzvah inspires another, we remembered that a few years ago students from our daughter’s high school, Pelech, had smuggled out of Poland a Torah scroll that some shopkeeper was cutting up for decorations.
“We can’t leave it alone,” we hastily agreed.
Holy hand luggage!
After my wife bargained down the price, we found ourselves with an unexpected, 100- to 150-year-old traveling companion.
Naturally, we asked the shopkeeper if it was legal to remove scrolls from the country. Naturally, he said “yes.” Still, while passing customs, I casually dropped the package to my side, maneuvering behind my wife in a basketball-style moving pick. I caught myself whispering to the Torah, “Don’t worry, this is the last time you’ll be dissed. We’re bringing you home.”
I don’t think of myself as a spiritual person. Yet transplanting this “tree of life,” bringing this sanctified storehouse of Jewish knowledge, values, history and hope home to Israel, was one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. I felt privileged that we could participate in this small act of historical redemption. I felt humbled that our tourist jaunt became this rescue mission. I felt as if we were repairing a small tear in the fabric of the universe.
As we landed in Israel, I started thinking about my late friend Haim Avraham, who fought so hard to bring his kidnapped and quickly killed son Benny home, and whose motto through years of struggle was “V’shavu banim l’gvulam” – “and thy children shall return home, within their borders.”
YET WHILE playing that sacred song in my head, I recoiled. I recalled those despicable parents this summer who sang those hallowed words when their sons returned from their alleged Cyprus sex-spree where they were accused of raping a British tourist. Many of the teens clearly denigrated her – or worse.
Of course, life is complex, people are flawed, the Jews are not a perfect people. We have our share of moral slobs. The Torah retells many stories of Jews behaving badly – then teaches us how to distinguish good from bad, while redeeming ourselves when we fall. Otherwise the Torah wouldn’t be the eternal fountain of worldly wisdom it is, but a pile of clichés.
“How did you get that out? Do you know what the inside of an Arabian jail looks like?” one expert we consulted with said – which explains why I won’t specify the country we visited.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.” I’d like to think we were noble. Truthfully, we just acted instinctively – programmed as Jews through the ages to cherish this ultimate symbol of who we were, who we are and who we strive to be.
“Wow, they probably stole this from Jews, it’s amazing you saved it,” said an Israeli friend from that country, visibly moved. Friends and relatives who enter our house, be they religious or not, are awestruck. Impressed by the weathered script’s clarity and elegance, they proudly recognize a phrase here, an idea there. Even the rips, cigarette burns and childish Magic Marker scrawls that make the scroll unkosher stir us: they tell the autobiography of this particular scroll and the history of our people – once homeless and defenseless, today home, able to defend, enjoy and fulfill ourselves.
The magic Torah-fixers at Machon Ot cleaned it, repaired it, added bottom handles – atzei hayim – trees of life. We dressed it with a striking century-old Torah mantle, also from the Mizrahi tradition, after my kids warned, “Don’t you dare Ashkenify it!”
Now that we have this Torah, we’re wondering: What do we do with it? We seek a new home for this still holy yet unkosher scroll. You can learn from it, dance around it, but not make a blessing over it.
One thing we do know. This Simhat Torah, when we dance this Torah into synagogue for its first time in decades, we will sing “V’shavu banim l’gvulam” – welcome home! While exorcising the ugly spirits generated by those parents, while besting the Torah-thieves, we will once again feel blessed to live in freedom in a rebuilt Jerusalem, still anchored by Judaism’s old-new ideas and its living artifacts, thriving trees of life.
The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology published by JPS. He is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.