Last Thursday, we studied the Sefat Emet's parsha on Va-Yikra -- the beginning of the Book of Leviticus. Naturally he had a lot of wise things to say about doing Mitzvot, but then he launched into something entirely new to me and I got especially attentive. " With regard to the small Aleph of Va-Yikra..." he said, in the middle of his talk ... What small Aleph? I didn't know there were small Alephs or big Alephs, and not capital letters either. Tammy, Ann, Mike and Rabbi Margaret knew all about them, because they read from the Torah scroll itself, while Walter, Jerry and I were unaware.
Apparently at a few strategic places in the handwritten scroll a letter of a different height is thrown into the calligraphy -- it's been done for a couple of thousand years. But why? to the Sefat Emet (who died in Poland in 1905, which is not that long ago by Jewish reckoning,) said that the "reduced letters seem connected to matters that depend upon action, the light of Torah flowing in a reduced and concentrated way into the actual doing of the mitzvah." I was sitting there thinking I'd like to see that aleph -- it was like a little homeopathic dosage -- when Rabbi Margaret suddenly said "I've been thinking we ought to use our Torah scroll more regularly. Let's go look at it."
With a little due ceremony, but not much, we got the Torah out of the ark and on the big table opened to the weekly portion. Our Torah, I must say, even for a renegade like me, commands respect because it's a holocaust survivor from the town of Sedlcany in Czechoslovakia -- one of the scrolls the Nazi's stole for their Museum of Jewish History after they sent the Jews to the camps.
Our Torah scroll was liberated after the war, made its way to London where it was repaired and resanctified by scribes and then by a series of remarkable coincidences either we found it or it found us on the Northern California coast, where we live, due east of Chelm.
And there it was: the little homeopathic Aleph, just as predicted! And there were all kinds of other gaps and spaces in the columns, all traditional Margaret told us. At her suggestion we rolled through the parchment chapter by chapter, book by book, with Tammy and Mike at the handles. Now we were looking for the gigantic Ayin and Dalet in the calligraphy of the Shema which also had mystical import.
As we were scrolling along I noticed that the bottom half of two columns was discolored. It had become reddish, sepia toned, almost pink. Not blotted, but faded. "What's that?" I asked. "Probably a water stain," someone replied. "Who got water on it?" I wondered.
And then the whole scroll writhed and turned and rose to life and jumped off the table (metaphorically) in a magnificent way.
We kept rolling on and on. Here there was another water stain -- a couple of chapters later, another one. Then many turns of clear black scribal lettering. Oops! Here were two grease spots that looked to Margaret like elbow marks. Maybe someone fell asleep studying. Here were soot stains: a candle, a fire? How did it happen? There were a few holes too.
But those water stains kept coming back, drawing our attention because the pinkish color on the parchment was very arresting. "Maybe they had the whole Torah scroll unrolled out of doors for Simchat Torah," Ann suggested," and it started to rain, so they threw their coats on it, but some places got wet?"
"Who knows? Maybe different stains happened at different times."
"Maybe the Nazis threw it into a wet cattle car?"
"Maybe the shul in Sedlcany was damp on certain days?" Then the outermost parchments, according to where the Torah had been rolled to by that week of the Jewish year, would have been more exposed to the elements.
The whole history of that scroll, and the people who read it, who loved it as well as who hated it, was inscribed on it by life itself. As completely as the laws and legends and genealogies were written in it, so were the small joys and sorrows of the community written on it. And the great angst of the Jewish people was too. And both have their truth.
I bet we could discover some of the story. We'd need a forensic scientist to come and study the ink, the stains, the grease spots. With different tests we could approximately date the events , and even cross-check them with the time of year that the parsha would have been read. Maybe there are DNA samples in the sweat or tears of the readers -- or in the Chazan's spittle, or in the German anthropologist's finger prints?
Do anyone know a forensic scientist who would like to come and help us?
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