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Op-eds

Morasha goes from darkness to light with new Sefer Torah

  • Thurgood8
Sunday, 3 February, was a day of intense emotion for the Beit Midrash Morasha and the Cape Town Jewish community. We began the day by burying the remains of six Sifrei Torah which were destroyed in the fire that engulfed the shul in December 2018, and ended it by completing and welcoming a new Sefer Torah.
by RABBI SAM THURGOOD | Feb 07, 2019

Neither of these events are common occurrences, but holding a funeral for a Sefer Torah is particularly rare. The customs and procedure surrounding it are difficult to find. They required numerous calls to the Beth Din, Chevrah Kadisha in Johannesburg, even America, to gain clarity on how to proceed.

The essence of the ceremony is reflected in a conversation I had with a reporter in the morning after the fire. “I heard,” she said, “that the synagogue contained sacred scrolls worth millions of rands!” “No,” replied a friend of mine and member of our shul committee, “they were priceless.”

These Sifrei Torah were beloved friends and mentors, the custodians of the word of Hashem, divine instruction for life as copied perfectly from generation to generation for more than 3 000 years. They were our morasha (heritage and inheritance), received from those before us and transmitted to those after us. We held them each Shabbat, and declared Shema Yisrael (Hear, O Israel). We read from them four times each week (and often more). We raised them high, and said Vezot HaTorah (this is the Torah that Moshe presented to the Jewish people). We stood up for them when they were raised, and danced with them on Simchat Torah. On Sunday, we tearfully acknowledged that we would never do this with these Sifrei Torah again.

In the days before the ceremony, I transferred the remnants of the scrolls into two large clay containers, closed them with lids, and sealed them. I visited the cemetery to choose a plot – we try to bury them next to a Torah scholar – and then we applied ourselves to answer the question of how to lower the heavy jars into the earth in a dignified fashion.

The solution we found was to place them in an open coffin, which would provide stability and handles to lower them gently. This decision was pragmatic, not halachic, although it was not out of keeping with the tone of the event.

Among the hundreds who attended were Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein and Rabbi Jonathan Altman. The latter was the former rabbi of our community, and was primarily involved in recovering the destroyed Sifrei Torah. Rabbi Shmuel Steinhaus, another former rabbi in the community, who was present for the last Hachnasat Sefer Torah (dedication of a new Torah scroll) in our shul 30 years ago, came from Israel and tore kriya (ripped his jacket in mourning).

That afternoon, when we welcomed our first new Sefer Torah, couldn’t have been more different in tone, but it was actually identical in theme.

We had been using the Lichtenburg Sefer Torah, graciously loaned to us by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ country communities division, and until Sunday, we had no Torah to call our own.

The story of this Torah is remarkable. The day immediately following the fire, Rabbi Ori Einhorn, a previous Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Cape Town, began raising funds in Israel for a new Torah for our community. Together with members of Kehillat Kfar Shmaryahu, Ron and the Bar On family donated this Torah in memory of his father, Jack Bar On (Abromowitz), and grandparents Joseph and Pauline Abromowitz.

Once again, hundreds came together, and once again, tears were shed, this time in gratitude and celebration. In our people’s millennia-long love-affair with the Torah, I don’t think there have been many celebrations as heartfelt and meaningful as this one.

We had come from burying all of our Sifrei Torah to being blessed with another one. It was our journey from darkness to light, and a taste of what it will be like to come from exile to redemption.

On the day after the fire, I quoted a verse from Hallel, “This came from Hashem, it is wondrous in our eyes.” It was an acknowledgement that the destruction of our spiritual home was by divine decree, but that we couldn’t understand it. And yet, now we were able to say the next verse, “This is the day that Hashem has made, let us exult and rejoice on it!” And exult and rejoice we did!

Representatives of our community, other communities in Cape Town, and communal organisations filled in the concluding letters of the Torah. As soon as the ink had dried, we were off on a musical parade through the streets that even had traffic officers joining in and dancing. The parade was followed by celebration in the shul, in which everyone had a chance to meet our beloved new Torah.

A particularly poignant moment was when Holocaust survivor Ella Blumenthal held the new Torah in her arms and wept. She told me she kept thinking of her Torah in Warsaw, with a maroon cover, that was brought into the ghetto shul, but perished in the fire that consumed the Warsaw ghetto.

This new Torah is not only the word of Hashem faithfully written for a new generation. It is not simply the beautiful centrepiece of our Shabbat services. It is also not just the story of our people from creation to the borders of the Promised Land. It is the story of Jewish eternity.

  • Rabbi Sam Thurgood is the rabbi of the Beit Midrash Morasha community in Cape Town.

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