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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

April 30, 2020 Julie Matlin

What Carrying the Torah Taught Me About Faith

My daughter’s bat mitzvah took place on Purim, March 10, right as the country was introduced to social distancing and mere days before we were encouraged to stay home. The weekend before, my family went to shul together for Shabbat services. My son has been volunteering as a bimah boy since his bar mitzvah last year, so he’s there regularly with my husband, but my daughter and I often stay home.

Being in shul fills me with conflicting emotions. I love the community, the warmth, and the sense of connection amongst a group of people that large. But I have issues with some of the actual tenets of the religion itself, and a very uncertain relationship with G-d. It’s my love for the clergy and fellow congregants that keep me coming back. I spend my time there in reflection upon myself, my actions, and how I can be better in the future. I rarely follow along in the Siddur, feeling those words so separate from my own.

On that particular Saturday, our Rabba came up to us near the beginning of services and sat down. She leaned in towards my daughter said, “Today is one of the few Shabbats when we take out two Torahs. One of them is carried through the women’s section. Would you like to carry it?”

My daughter was nervous and declined. She opted instead to practice carrying the Torah in private, and then at a later two-Torah occasion accept the honor. So, the Rabba turned to me. “Will you carry it?”

I knew, for my daughter’s sake, that I couldn’t decline. But it felt wrong. This is a high honor and should be bestowed upon someone worthy. But then I thought further and decided to embrace this as an opportunity. Maybe such close contact would provide me with an epiphany, or at the very least bring me a little closer to one.

I spent the rest of that morning’s services immersing myself in my surroundings. I turned away from my natural tendency towards seclusion and consciously studied those around me. I noted who was following along in their Siddurs, and who was not, who knew the prayers and who did not. I was naturally in the minority, as most people were actually there to pray. I waited until the moment came, and then I stood up to carry the Torah for my daughter.

As the Rabba placed the scrolls in my arms, I felt the weight of the words thousands of years old – both physical and spiritual. While the spindles were solid, the scrolls themselves were slightly unwieldy, forcing me to cup from the bottom and squeeze in along the sides. “Like an unruly toddler,” the Rabba whispered in my ear.

I belong to a large synagogue with a large congregation. As I walked down the aisle, along the mechitzah, all the women reached out towards me, either with their scarves or their Siddurs. They knew what to do, what the ritual was, and what it meant. They were certain in their faith. I had hoped this experience, this honor, would give me that same sort of certainty.

It’s as if I thought that somehow, through the Torah’s cover and the fabric of my dress, my body would absorb the scribe’s words. As if I could find faith through osmosis. As if a 48-year-old search for meaning could be resolved in this one moment of carrying a scroll down the aisle of a sanctuary.

“You’re doing great,” the Rabba said from behind me.

I almost burst into tears. Great was not the word I’d have used. But her reassurance bolstered me, nonetheless. I stood up a little straighter and looked around at the women coming towards me, arms and books extended, as we neared the end of the aisle. So certain in their faith.

It was through them that I finally understood the significance of what I was doing. I was carrying the Torah through the sanctuary so that all these women could touch it, could for one moment connect to the words of G-d and their ancestors. This experience may not have given me the faith I was searching for, but it allowed me to be the vehicle for theirs.

And I’m okay with that. That is enough. After a lifetime of torturing myself because I cannot believe like those around me, I’ve decided that the fact that I struggle with it is enough. So long as I have the desire, the need, to explore my connection to Judaism, it is enough.

“You’re almost there,” the Rabba whispered.
Maybe I am.

***

Julie Matlin is a freelance writer based in Montreal, Quebec, with work appearing in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, Chatelaine, and other publications. Follow her on twitter @jmatlin and Instagram @j.matlin.


  • Amy

    So interesting, and from your piece I gather that you are in a Modern Orthodox community. I am in an egalitarian Conservative community, but I, like you, have over the years had those “issues.”
    When my kids were young & started to attend Hebrew school, I figured that if I made them go (I never went as a child, nor did my brothers, we were strictly secular except for seders with my paternal grandparents) learn about being Jewish, I’d better back that up. So when our Rabbi at the time offered to teach adults to read Hebrew, I took his 4-day class. And I still read aloud like a kindergartener, but this has been my gateway to appreciating the Shabbat and High Holy Days liturgy.
    I still do have my “issues” to be sure, but in my late 60s I am now starting to appreciate Judaism. Better late than never!?