Speech given by Rabbi Yitzchak Mizrahi during the ceremony dedicating the Martin Chait Torah on 4 December 2016.
With the dedication of a new Torah scroll a new chapter has been written into the history book of the Wellington Jewish community. The Jewish community in Wellington is blessed to have numerous scrolls under its guardianship. What these scrolls all have in common is their age of well over a century. A few scrolls have been maintained for use during services but most of the scrolls are in disrepair, some of them beyond repair, although they all are equally precious to the community.
Each and every scroll has a story behind it. Each scroll was brought under particular circumstances, some were transported to this country by European Jews making their way to freedom and new opportunities, who painstakingly transported a scroll with them on their trek from overseas. In some cases great sacrifices were made, with precious personal possessions left behind so that a Torah scroll could be included in their meagre luggage. These sacrifices were definitive in forming the backbone for the religious vitality of the Wellington Jewish community. While it is has been home to as many as 20 Torah scrolls, in its 173 year life the congregation has never been privileged to acquire a new scroll, much less one written, from the very first letter, expressly for this congregation.
We have a tradition of 613 commandments in the Torah. The very last commandment, #613, is to write a Torah scroll. Rabbenu Asher, one of the great Torah scholars of the 13th century who served the community of Toledo, Spain, explains that the main intent of the commandment is to enable the study of Torah. Before the printing press was invented the primary text was the scroll itself. Today we use the scroll almost exclusively for reading during prayer services. We typically don’t open a scroll for any other purpose. One of the very few legal justifications for selling a Torah scroll, therefore, is to enable the study of Torah. In that vein Rabbenu Asher rules that one can fulfil this commandment of writing a Torah by acquiring (or writing) books of Torah literature.
Rabbenu Asher also rules that one who writes a single letter in the scroll fulfils the requirement of writing a scroll. This is because if a single letter is missing in a scroll the entire scroll is invalid. Each and every letter has the potential to render a scroll valid by completing it, rendering it a kosher scroll. This new scroll was underwritten by contributions from hundreds of people, both within the Wellington community and outside of it. Every contribution went toward the purchase of materials for the scroll as well as the inscription of its letters. The completed scroll is the fruit of this joined effort and all involved are part of this investment.
The Jewish nation has existed as a people for well over three millennia. Its charter as a nation was established when this same Torah was handed down through Moses, committed to writing during the years our ancestors wandered through the wilderness. After the first commonwealth and the destruction of Solomon’s Temple the Jewish people scattered from their homeland, and for 2500 years the Jewish people have not had a majority of the nation in one region.
Scholars and historians from all circles are hard pressed to explain the survival of the Jewish people to this day. Many nations and civilizations have enjoyed their time in the limelight. Empires have risen and fallen, most of them now long gone with only archaeological traces, relegated to a few pages in history books. Astonishingly, the Jews have retained a culture and identity despite having had no homeland, no physical roots, for well over 2 millennia. What is the secret of this endurance? What unique quality has prevented Jews scattered in different parts of the world, often tiny minorities in their host countries, from assimilating and becoming absorbed into the majority culture? To remain distinct and continue to identify as Jews under the difficult conditions in which Jews have existed over the generations is mystifying and begs explanation.
For Jews the answer is very simple. The identity of a Jew is not grounded in any particular land or even network. The lifeline of a Jew, the core of a Jew’s identity, stems from the Torah, from the shared mission outlined in the Torah to which every Jew is bound and committed through the covenant at Sinai. The study of the Torah, its transmission from one generation to the next, expressed as the most precious asset we have, pored over with sacrifice and joy, gave fortitude and provided a sense of meaning and belonging to Jews for all of these centuries. You can kill a Jew, you can take away everything he possesses, but you can’t take away what a Jew knows and believes in. The answer to our survival is this Torah, this idea, this culture and this relationship.
Martin Chait, of blessed memory, intuited this. Faced with his own mortality Martin wanted to ensure that something immortal would remain behind. Although there are 100 more urgent causes for which to raise funds, myriad issues that require attending to, nothing defines the survival and the raison d’état of a Jewish presence like a Torah scroll. When Martin talked about the Torah project his eyes would light up with that excitement and fiery passion we know so well. He was excited about it because he understood what a Torah scroll represents! What other religion takes their book and dances with it? Where else do we find such reverence for an object of literature? Who else stands in respect when such a book is carried? Who else gathers to greet a book with their arm outstretched to kiss its cover out of love?!
At his stone setting Martin’s brother Sonny mentioned that he asked Martin, why of all projects, a Torah? Martin answered that God had given him a good life and he wanted to give a gift to God. As he was concluding his life he wanted to fulfil the final Mitzvah in the Torah, that of writing a Torah scroll. The Talmud states regarding the afterlife, “Fortunate is he who arrives and his Talmud, his study, is in his hands.” Martin fulfilled that literally.
There is a fascinating passage in the Talmud (menachot 30), where the sages note that one who purchases a ready-made Torah scroll from the scribe is like one who snatches a mitzvah from the marketplace. The intent of this passage is that since little personal effort went into the preparation of the scroll it lacks some of the value present in a scroll over which one has expended great effort and energy. The Talmud continues and states the more proper way to fulfil this Mitzvah. “If he writes it, it is considered as though he had received it directly from Mt. Sinai.”
It was Martin’s original intent to commission a mostly completed scroll on behalf of the congregation. We all knew that his time was limited and it was important that the scroll was completed without delay so Martin could be present at the ceremony. When Martin sadly passed away before a scroll was purchased the urgency was lifted. We could now entertain commissioning a scribe who was at an earlier stage in the writing. A wonderful opportunity presented itself, as a highly qualified scribe residing in Auckland was prepared to devote the year to the writing of this scroll. It was especially significant to Martin that to the extent possible we use local materials. The 62 sheets of parchment used for this scroll come from NZ calves. The wooden poles were crafted from native Kauri wood and the dressings were designed and created by artists in Wellington, members of the Jewish community.
Our task from here is to keep these words living; to ensure this Torah, commissioned as a testament to the vitality of Judaism here in this city, is not left behind this curtain, visited on weekends and festivals. This Torah, the spirit expressed in its letters, words and columns, raised high during the ceremony for all to see, needs to be carried with us always, reflected in our lives at home and outside, a symbol of our mission and the key to our survival.