As this week is also the Shabbat preceding Yom Kippur, I would like to combine our treatment of the parsha and Yom Kippur.
The final mitzvah that appears in the Torah is the actual writing of the Torah itself. We are all instructed to write our own Torah scroll. As not many of us are able to fulfill this particular mitzvah and we have grown accustomed to having communal scrolls in the Bet Knesset it seems strange to even require each individual to have their own, but that issue we have already written about many years ago (see http://harova.org/torah/view.asp?id=1054).
I came across a little known source that records a peculiar custom that would take place on Yom Kippur relating to the sefer torah. The Mishna and Gemara in the 7th perek of Yoma describe the end of the Avodah – the special service in the Mikdash that was carried out on Yom Kippur. Near the very end the Kohen Gadol reads the Torah. We are told that he reads the relevant parts of the Torah that describe what was to be done on Yom Kippur.
[This leaves room for a lot of thought on the subject that is not the topic of this shiur. Why does the Kohen Gadol have to read the Torah at all in public? What is the purpose of the reading? If he is already reading maybe we could have chosen a “more inspirational” text. After all, the reading of exactly what to do in the mikdash may be very moving for those of us who are not actually standing there, but I can only imagine it being anti climactic to hear the Kohen Gadol report on what had already taken place!]
The surprising part is the next line of the gemara:
“Afterwards everyone brought their sefer torah to read from in order to show its form to the people.”
It seems that the masses who had assembled in the Mikdash to be part of the crowd on that holy day, produced their very own sefer torah and a bragging pageant took place with everyone pointing out the beauty of their scroll.
Rashi explains that ” each scroll owner displayed the beauty of his scroll and the honor of the owner that went to the trouble to beautify the mitzvah, as it says ‘This is my God and I will glorify Him’- one should glorify the mitzvoth by having a beautiful lulav and a beautiful sefer torah, with good parchment and good ink and a skilled scribe”.
[See Rashi and the other commentaries on the technical problem of how they got the scroll to the Mikdash on Yom Kippur. This source also proves key in the discussion of the permissibility of transporting a Torah from one location to another on a temporary basis.]
I think that this scene seems very strange on any day of the year, especially on Yom Kippur. Why would we encourage or even tolerate self promotion in such a manner? The one-up-man-ship in the Torah scroll itself? Doesn’t this contradict many important Jewish values of humility and modesty?
Rav Yissachar Teichtel writes a very interesting explanation of this gemara.
(Rav Teichtel is famous for his work, Em Habanim Semaicha – for an overview on him see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yissachar_Shlomo_Teichtal.)
In his work Mishne Sachir he notes an equally puzzling custom that on the first day of Sukkot everyone engages in an “etrog comparison”. Everyone brings their etrog to shul and shows it off to others extolling its beauty. Rav Teichtel claims that the source of such a parade is actually our gemara in Yoma that describes almost the exact same process.
The justification for such behavior, says Rav Teichtel, is to focus our teffilot on this special day. When we approach God with our requests for health and wealth and all other wonderful things that we wish for ourselves and pray for, our intent is critical. If we are trying to improve our lot then we are judged based on our merits. If we are worthy then God will provide what we have asked for. On the other hand if we are not as worthy, we may encounter a negative response. If, however, our intent is not self centered but rather we pray for all of those things in order for us to increase the service of God Himself, then the equation is totally different. In such a case it is really not on “our tab” but rather we are looking for the tools and resources necessary to serve God. If we demonstrate that we have already understood and applied this message we can be trusted to continue it. If we have invested the resources that God has granted us in previous years for good things we need to show it.
The sefer Torah is 100% valid if it is written with any parchment, and any ink. The scribe can be a novice and a bit sloppy as long as he stays within the bounds of the law. Surely such a scroll would be available at a discount. However when we decide to fulfill the mitzvoth in a manner that is not simply “getting away” with the minimum but rather striving for the maximum, we make a tremendous statement about our attitude towards the mitzvoth. When we set our budget of money or time or any other resource, how do we factor the mitzvoth into the equation? Do we treat our spiritual needs as necessary operating costs, to be minimized in order to increase bottom line profit? Or do we see them as the ultimate profit themselves and our own personal needs are the actual operating costs?
On Yom Kippur, along with the heart wrenching taking stock of the teshuva process, we must also be proud of what we have done right. If we have written a “beautiful scroll”, which may manifest on its own any form of avodat Hashem that we have taken seriously and prioritized at the top of our list, we are entitled and maybe even obligated to boast about it. We need to recognize it and those around us need to recognize it as well. The person sitting next to you in shul could have done many other things with their time and money over the last year but they have chosen to do things for heaven’s sake.
Our attitude towards the mitzvoth tells the whole story.
Gmar Chatima Tova.