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A Story of Humanity

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A Story of Humanity

  I’m the 30-year-old assistant rabbi of Temple Judea — a congregation of a few thousand in Tarzana, California.   It’s my third year running high holy day services.   I’m in the main sanctuary. The senior rabbi is at the satellite location as the sheer number of people who want to attend has us run the same liturgy in two locations. (We rotate who is where.)   I’ve just taken the Torah scroll from the ark and paraded it around the sanctuary while the congregation stands, loosely singing along with the cantor and choir — but, mainly chatting with each other like a 7th inning stretch.   Judaism Pro Tip:  One does not sit if  the Torah is not at rest.   It’s a bit idolatrous, to be certain, but I enjoy the break from the Hebrew prayers and English responsive readings.   Moreover, it gives me an opportunity to show off my skill at greeting as many people as I possibly can by name — making them feel special.   (The senior rabbi tells me that he once made an appointment with his dentist during a hakafah — the Hebrew word for ‘encircling’ which is what we call the tradition of marching around the congregation with the scroll.)   Returning to the altar, I remove the scroll’s cover and place it on the lectern.   The congregation sits.   I’m about to read the day’s portion: the troubling section about the binding of Isaac.   But I have a problem.   I took the wrong scroll from the ark.   The one that is before me is rolled to the last book of the Torah, to a section about religious autonomy that we will read in ten days, on Yom Kippur.   Torah scrolls are like cassette tapes, not records—one is not able to simply lift the needle from Deuteronomy and play a track from Genesis.   I can’t simply roll it to the right place without it taking at least five minutes, navigating through a text with no chapter heading or even vowels.   The text I’m looking for is about half-way through Genesis, but, gulp, I’m never going to find it.   Do I just read the Hebrew text from the prayerbook?   If so, what was the point of taking out the Torah?   If I don’t read from the hand-lettered parchment, something holy, some gravitas would be missing   Without thinking about what words will come out, I open my mouth and speak honestly.   “Beloved friends, I don’t know how many of you have ever wondered what a junior rabbi’s worst nightmare is, but it goes something like this.”   I smile, give a little sigh and out comes a tiny chuckle.   “A junior rabbi’s worst nightmare is that you are at high holy day services, you’ve just paraded the Torah scroll around the congregation, trying to greet as many people by name as possible.”   I pause.   “Then,” I continue.   And pause again.   “Then,” I repeat, “Then you undress the scroll and lay it down, only to realize that you’ve taken the wrong scroll from the ark.”   The room is patient. Silent.   Waiting.   Holding me in their hearts. Silent.   The absurdity of the situation erupts as a smile on my face.   I feel connected to my humanity. And, to theirs. They’ve all made mistakes.   They are rooting for me.   “And, so, my friends, I need to ask you to please rise as I return this scroll to the ark and take out the right one.”   I continue with logistics, “If the cantor and choir would sing some of the hakafah music, I’ll ask you to rise as I exchange the scroll from the ark.”   I have just given a better sermon about kindness than the 15 minute talk I have prepared and will deliver later in the service.   After I place the proper scroll on the reading table, I cue them with my hands to sit and they do.   Leaning into the mic I say, “Let’s not tell the senior rabbi about this, OK?”   I feel their love in their laughter.     ===     Immediately after services, I call my boss, the senior rabbi, and fess up as to what happened.   “Oh Brian,” he exclaims, “I switched the scrolls around yesterday to make it easier for you to get the scroll closer to you. Only I forgot to tell you!”   And, just as quickly as the congregation forgave me for my humanity, I forgive him.

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