Unplanned Detours

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May 1, 2012
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Elan Babchuck

The first time I was ever asked to be the hagbah (ritual lifter of the Torah scroll) was at the age of 13. While I had the status of Jewish adult, my body hadn’t yet caught up. Never­theless, when called upon, I marched with great purpose up to the bimah, grabbed the wooden handles, bent my knees, crouched, and in one swift motion lifted the massive scroll over my head, in full view of the minyan community in which I was raised. The moment was both exhilarating and thrilling, albeit short-lived.

Soon after lifting the Torah, I was overwhelmed by its weight, and it began tipping backward. I took a stutter-step back to try to meet the Torah’s trajectory; the congregation gasped. I held on for dear life and closed my eyes as the unthinkable was happening. At the last moment, my heroic glilah partner (redresser of the Torah scroll) saved the day and righted the teetering scroll.

After she finished wrapping it, I caught my breath and felt the blood slowly flow back to my horrified face. I was given the Torah to hold on my lap for a few moments, and I felt its immense weight grounding me. I held it tightly, snug against my chest, floored by the notion that this object, which had almost knocked me over one minute before, could comfort me so deeply in the next.

Seventeen years later, my relationship with the Torah has developed and matured immeasurably. I have learned to read the black letters on the page, the white spaces in between, and the countless commentaries in its margins. I have traced themes from their original sources through thousands of years of development to today’s world, and all the way back again. Most important, however, Torah continues to both challenge and uplift me, just as it did so many years ago.

Torah is both the fuel for my life’s speedboat and its anchor. Not a day passes in which I am not driven by a piece of Torah — as defined in the broadest sense of the word. For every powerful piece of midrash that lingers in my mind, I do my best to share it with as many people who will listen.

There are, however, plenty of times in which I get stuck on a word, a verse, or an idea, and this is when Torah forces me to slow down, to dwell upon its very nature. Recently, I spent hours contemplating whether or not Moses’ smashing of the tablets was reactive or proactive — out of frustration or out of a desire to break the Israelites’ sin cycle. I pored over commentaries, flipped through a dozen books, and found myself feeling enriched and moved by the ongoing process. I still don’t have the answer.

There are times when I’m in need of fuel, but the Torah wishes only to anchor me. In these moments — especially on Shabbat afternoons when I have planned for a nap — the Torah has other ideas. Rather than resting, I find myself poring over ten open books on my desk, hungrily chasing a delicious thread through the sources. In these unplanned detours with Torah, my only option is to trust that it has plans for me, and to buckle up for the ride.

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This month, Rabbi Elan Babchuck will receive his rabbinic ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, as well as an MBA in nonprofit management from the university. He is thrilled to begin his rabbinic career this summer as second rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, R.I.

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