Can you remember a time you really enjoyed reading a good book? Perhaps the story engrossed you, or the style of writing intrigued you? Or perhaps the book opened you up to a time period or place you knew little about beforehand? Good books, in my experience, reveal a truth about the world or society you may have suspected to be true, but had not articulated before encountering the book. If you can remember reading such a book, then you know what the love of Torah is all about.
It is a proud day in the life of any parent when a child picks up a book to read for fun-to curl up with and enter a new world. Not because of homework, or outside prodding but simply for the joy of it.
Commenting on this week’s Torah portion, Rashi notes that:
“one should not study in order to become wealthy or to be called “rabbi” [or for any extraneous reason], but only out of love.”
Studying Torah is a way to cultivate love for God, which is an ultimate goal in our tradition. Learning, or reading, for its own sake, out of love, is the jewel of Jewish culture. Yet how do we instill this-a love of God through learning and reading-in our children? The V’ahavta begins with the commandment to love God with everything we’ve got our heart & mind, our whole being and all our resources. In that same paragraph we chant the commandment to teach our children the commandments of Torah. Which comes first? A love of Torah or a love of God? To the rabbis, Torah, the word which comprises all valuable learning, is thought both to be an expression of God’s love for us and the mea ns by which we come to love God. It is in the meeting place between the words on the page — whether the new idea or story or metaphor –and our very being that we come to love both God and Torah. As Art Green teaches, “The voice of Torah beyond calls forth to the Torah within.” That is when you know you have found Torah and not just any old book-when its truth touches you, resonates with the source of truth within you, the spark of God.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses recounts that time when God commanded him “to carve for himself two stone Tablets like the first ones,” the set that he had dropped upon witnessing the people praising a golden calf. God commands Moses to carve the tablets and then set them in the Ark. Yet the next sentence describes Moses’ response: “So I made an Ark of cedar wood and I carved out two stone Tablets like the first ones, etc.” Picking up on the reversal of the order between God’s command and Moses’ actions, Rashi asks why? Rashi inserts an explanation in Moses’ own voice: “I made an Ark first, for when I would come with the Tablets in my hand, where would I put them?”
Wise and practical words from our great teacher, Rashi. Moses built the ark first because he needed a place to put the completed Tablets. Rashi goes on to teach that the ark referred to here is separate from the ark that Betzalel constructs for the Mishkan, the sacred Tabernacle, in the Desert Wilderness. With the Ark described here, the Israelites would take it with them into battle-which is a metaphor for taking the teachings with them into their lives, to do battle for them in the struggles and strivings of their lives.
We too need a place at Temple Sinai, not only to hold our actual Torah scrolls here in the ark, but to house the many volumes of books where children and adults alike in our holy community can incorporate the wisdom of our rich tradition to do battle for them in the work of their lives. A place to cultivate our members’ love of learning and reading that each of us may have and savor that experience, again and again, of the truth on the page resonating with the deepest source of truth inside of us.
The Library Committee, like Moses and Betzalel before them, have overseen the building of more than an improved physical space to house Temple Sinai’s books. They have done that, but they have also created an accessible and beautiful setting to find, read and check-out books. The committee has led us to the edge of the water, and now it’s up to us to drink. They have also made it easier and more likely for our children to find a Jewish book that makes them think and grow, and with the creation of the Youth Library, they have made learning through technology and multi-media more inviting. Marsha Cohen of blessed memory laid the foundation for much of the work our current Library Committee has been able to do. I especially want to recognize the Library Committee members: Jill Flanzraich, Ellen Lessinger, Heidi Slater, Amelia Currier, Annie Flanzraich, Maia Povolny, Honor Edmands and Talia Guzman. As well as the several donors that have contributed to their work: For the Temple Sinai Main Library, those donors include: William Garrell, Michael Meiner, Ellen Minuk, Martha Gould, Rod Sloan, Les and Marsha Cohen, the Flanzraich Family and the Rappaport Family. For the Temple Sinai Youth Library, I want to recognize the contributions of Amelia Currier, the Slamowitz Family, the Temple Sinai Men’s Club and again, Rod Sloan. The Library Committee Chair, Jill Flanzriach, has worked tirelessly making the Temple libraries hum, and contributing countless hours of time and love. She specifically asked me also to recognize the support of the synagogue Board of Directors and president, Marilyn Rappaport, without whose support and encouragement the project could not have succeeded. I’d also like to highlight a few points of interest: There are rotating special interest and new arrival book displays in the Main Library. The Youth Library, as I mentioned, includes a new multi-media center. As the committee has overhauled the coding and organization system, there is a new barcode check-in and check-out system with every Temple member household having their own check-out card that lives in the library. The Library Committee will also be assisting Sunday mornings in reading books to different grade levels during Sinai School. And the library supports the Temple Sinai mission of tikkun olam as well as learning through its ongoing Book Drive to support the Northern Nevada Literacy Council. Just deposit any used books you no longer need from home in the donation basket and any book that the Library does not need for its own collection will be donated to the N. NV Literacy Council. I encourage you to visit Amazon.com to view the Temple Sinai Library Wish Lists and support the growth of the committee’s ideal collection. And finally, please join us this Sunday at 10:30 a.m. for the Grand Opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony as we hang mezuzot on the three doors of the libraries, receive a tutorial on the check-out process and share in refreshments to celebrate our new & improved libraries.
On a personal note, every time I now attend meetings or teach Talmud or another class in the Main Library, it is a joy to know that our libraries are being so expertly tended to and invested in. When I need a book, it is intuitive to find and I have been surprised repeatedly recently by books we have that I did not know about. As Temple Sinai continues to grow into its mission of learning, caring, Jewish practice, and promoting Jewish culture and tikkun olam, I thank the committee and donors for helping us do all five of these, especially learning, promoting Jewish culture, and tikkun olam. But also making our whole community feel cared for and assisting our Jewish practice as well. The kitchen table is often said to be the heart of a home. The library is the heart of our Temple. Thank you to everyone involved.
In chanting from the Torah this evening, I included the 6th line because right after Moses deposits the Tablets from Sinai into the Ark, the next sentence is about Aaron’s death. Torah and books in general are a lot about legacy. They are the means by which we keep wisdom and lessons alive and pass them down from one generation to the next. Aaron’s death comes only after Moses describes the successful deposit of the Tablets of the Covenant into the ark. Torah, like books, allows us leave wisdom behind for the next generation to learn. The next generation may not agree with all that’s in it. And that is exactly the point: Torah evolves as we do, through the ages. This Library project has in many ways been a great legacy project. When Jill first approached me with it, it was as a way of honoring the memory of her beloved husband, Nils Flanzraich, Zichrono Livracha, as Nils and Jill shared a great love for books, esp. by American Jewish authors. Les Cohen’s interest in setting up a Memorial Fund in the name of his beloved Marsha, was similarly as a way of channeling his love for Marsha and her love for books into the learning of the next generation of Temple Sinai.
Rashi teaches us one more thing about the two arks in this week’s parsha. He cites one view that after the permanent Ark was made by Betzalel, the wooden ark that Moses builds here would come to house the broken tablets. It was these broken ones in the wooden Ark that the Israelites would take with them into battle. As painful as the memory of the broken tablets must have been to all Israel, the community deemed them important and important enough to bring them with them into battle against their enemies. Why? As proof of the enduring covenant between God and Israel, even after the Israelites’ sinned? As a warning not to stray again into idolatry? One thing for sure is that in our tradition, our past is inextricable from our present and informs our future. Our brokenness travels with us-as does our wisdom. And through our culture of Torah learning, even death cannot rupture the essence of our people’s enduring covenant with God. Our mantra from generation to generation is best assured through learning- in understanding the brokenness of where we’ve been as well as the wholeness we discovered in us to weather the storms along the way. Thank you for celebrating this special dedication of our libraries with us tonight.