What I Learned Standing at Sinai

Many years ago when I was a student rabbi, our congregation was chosen to receive one of the 1800 Czechoslovakian torah scrolls confiscated by the Nazis during WWII.

Decades after the war, one by one, these sifrei torah were redistributed to congregations around the world, and we were ecstatic to accept one of these precious scrolls.

On the day of the arrival of the sefer torah, which ironically fell on the week of Shavuot, we drove a dozen kids from the youth group down to JFK, and convinced the airport officials to allow us onto the tarmac to receive torah, quite literally.

In their excitement, the kids pried open the crate as soon as it was carried out of the cargo hold.

But as the sefer was removed from the box we understood that this torah would never be used again. It was damaged to the point of no return—its waterlogged, brittle parchment was so fragile, it was impossible to unroll it more than a few inches.

For a full minute, no one moved. No one spoke. Suddenly, and much to our disbelief, one of the kids leaned over the torah, looked carefully, and realized that the words before him were familiar to him—because he had read them three years before on the day that he became bar mitzvah.

Right there, on the tarmac of JFK, he began to chant from parashat Kedoshim: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” In that moment, that broken parchment became whole again. In that moment, this verse became everything.

And that’s what I learned standing at Sinai.