The JCS Torah Scroll: Purim-Torah. What a Megillah
When Adar comes in, joy increases. On Purim we engage in Purim-Torah: jokes and irreverent teachings that blur the differences between the sacred and the profane.
The Jewish Chaplaincy Society has wanted a Torah Scroll of its own since its inception in 2002. Every once in a while, I would check out the Torah section of ebay and dream. The notion of acquiring a Torah through ebay is Purim-Torah to begin with.
In March 2007, being in an Adar frame of mind, I decided that if there was a suitable, somewhat affordable, scroll on ebay, I should just go for it.
The ad read “Rare Antique Gorgeous Torah Scroll VERY CLEAR”. I checked out the seller’s feedback rating (100% positive), I examined the photos (looking good!). I bid and I won. How beautifully simple! The seller sent an email saying that he just arrived in New York for 10 days, but his wife in Bnei Braq would pack up the scroll and send it.
10 days later, I heard from the seller again: he’s back in Bnei Braq and my Sefer Torah is sitting on his desk and he doesn’t really know which Torah Scroll his wife mailed to me. I emailed back that the scroll had not yet arrived. He found out (in Israel!) that the scroll was indeed in Vancouver and that two attempts had been made to deliver it and that I had been notified. All of this was news to me. The seller asked me to examine this scroll to see if it would an acceptable replacement for the one I had purchased.
By this time, my pre-Purim joy was replaced by anxiety and a sense of surrealism. I picked up the scroll from City Square and considered the interface between the sacred and the mundane and that this whole process was getting too Purim-Torah for me. The scribe was out of town so I started checking out the holy traveler on my own.
This scroll has obviously had a long and active life. I have never seen a Sefer Torah like it. I could tell that repairs had been made at different times by different scribes and that not all of them were gracefully done. Whole k’lafim had been replaced in several places. There were stretched letters here and cramped letters there. I imagined that this scroll had been the treasure of a small congregation somewhere in the old country. They couldn’t afford a new Sefer Torah and just kept repairing this one. I imagined the joy and celebration when the community finally acquired a new scroll and retired this one. These thoughts were totally imaginative because the seller told me that he really didn’t know very much about this particular scroll.
As much as I wanted this scroll to be ‘The One’, I emailed back just before Purim and described my observations and asked for the scroll that I had purchased to be sent. I told him that I would send this one back COD by the evening of the next day (so I would be able to hear back from him before sending).
Most of the packing material that the scroll had arrived in was still a small mountain in my living room, so I repacked it and, using some fabric I had around the house, sewed it into its final outer layer for additional protection. I mailed it late on a Thursday evening. There is no COD available to Israel, so I cringed and put the postage expense on my credit card. In my mind I could hear my friends telling me NOT to do that and me replying something about faith.
There was an email from the seller Friday morning: Don’t send it back! Apparently Israeli customs could charge duty as if it were a new scroll. He asked if I would look for a home for the scroll here and he will mail ‘my’ Sefer Torah after Shushan Purim (the next business day).
This is when the real miracles happened: I was actually able to retrieve my beautifully packaged holy traveler from the postal outlet where I had mailed it the evening before. I was also able to reverse the charges on my credit card.
In shul the next day, I announced that this Torah Scroll is looking for a good home, most likely a retirement home. I have a hard time calling a Torah Scroll ‘un-kosher,’ even if it is no longer usable for public Torah readings. The holiness remains. The history is there, even if it is as hidden as the name of God in the scroll of Esther.
The Purim-Torah Scroll, as I think of it, is now in the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia where it is used for educational purposes.
The Jewish Chaplaincy Society’s Torah Scroll eventually arrived in March 2007 with a slightly smaller amount of confusion. Customs Canada opened the parcel and decided that it was ‘wall-covering material.’ The Scroll is over 100 years old, but very little else is known about it. Even as Torah Scrolls go, it is big and heavy.
The JCS Torah was first used in Vancouver for a Bat Mitzvah in April 2007. When that announcement was made during the service, a big moment got bigger. The awe and wonder was palpable. Since then, the Scroll has been used for Sh’ar Harim High Holyday services in Whistler BC.
Both of these Torah Scrolls have been written about in greater detail by Ronnie Tessler in The Scribe, The Journal of the Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia Volume XXVI. No. 2., 2007.