July 12, 2024
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Fasting for a Dropped Sefer Torah (Moed Katan 26)

They tell the story of David, who was new to shul and was offered hagbah. It was painful to watch. He could barely lift the sefer Torah, almost dropped it, and sat down very quickly. Feeling very embarrassed about the episode, he resolved to go home and work out. For the next few months, he lifted weights and did push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups.

Finally, he felt ready to face the kehillah once more. The next Shabbat, off he went, pumped and all set to make amends. All of a sudden, he heard the gabbai call his name. He rushed up to the bimah, grabbed the sefer Torah, lifted it and opened it up wide, showing ten columns of the Torah. He pivoted to the left and then to the right. Proudly, he turned to the gabbai and said, “Nu, what do you think?”

“Wow, I must say, that hagbah was amazing,” responded the gabbai, “but, I called you up for shelishi.”

סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה שֶׁנִּשְׂרַף מְנָלַן דִּכְתִיב וַיְהִי כִּקְרֹא יְהוּדִי שָׁלֹשׁ דְּלָתוֹת וְאַרְבָּעָה וְיִקְרָעֶהָ בְּתַעַר הַסּוֹפֵר וְהַשְׁלֵךְ אֶל הָאֵשׁ אֲשֶׁר אֶל הָאָח וְגוֹ׳ אָמַר רַבִּי חֶלְבּוֹ אָמַר רַב הוּנָא הָרוֹאֶה סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה שֶׁנִּקְרַע חַיָּיב לִקְרוֹעַ שְׁתֵּי קְרִיעוֹת אֶחָד עַל הַגְּוִיל וְאֶחָד עַל הַכְּתָב שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר אַחֲרֵי שְׂרוֹף הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת הַמְּגִלָּה וְאֶת הַדְּבָרִים

From where do we derive that one must rend his garments when a Torah scroll has been burned? As it is written: “And it came to pass, that when Yehudi had read three or four leaves, he (King Yehoyakim) would cut it with a penknife, and cast it into the fire that was in the brazier.”

Rabbi Chelbo quoted Rav Huna: One who sees a Torah scroll that was burnt is obligated to make two rents (tearings), one for the parchment that was destroyed and one for the writing, as it is stated: “After the king had burned the scroll and the words.”

The Shela”h elucidates why the double tear is necessary. When Moshe descended Mount Sinai to find Bnei Yisrael worshiping the Golden Calf, he smashed the tablets. Our Sages explain that Moshe did not entirely choose to drop the tablets. Rather, first the holy letters flew off the stone tablets and returned to Heaven. When that happened, the lifeless stones became too heavy for Moshe to bear and they fell from his hands. The same way, says the Shela”h, the double tear recognizes that we are mourning both the physical Torah and the spiritual letters that have flown away.

The Gemara in Shabbat teaches that Hashem approved of Moshe’s conduct when he broke the tablets, as the verse says: “The first tablets which you broke (asher shibarta).” The meaning is, “Yasher koach for breaking the tablets!” However, according to the understanding that Moshe didn’t really break them—they simply slipped from his hands when the letters flew away—why did Hashem give Moshe a “yasher koach?”

Think about a “close call hagbah.” We have all stood in shul watching nervously as an individual who should not have been given the honor wobbles his way through. Who has not thought, “Uh oh, that Torah is looking a little shaky. If he drops it, will we all be fasting?” While I have never witnessed a dropped Torah personally, I have heard of an incident, and the perpetrator was not Mr. Popular in the shul after that.

Now, let’s return to Moshe’s act of breaking the tablets. Did Hashem condemn him? No. On the contrary, He responded “Yasher koach!” For it was not Moshe’s fault that he dropped the tablets. The Israelites were responsible. They built the Golden Calf and rebelled against Heaven. And so, it wasn’t Moshe’s choice to break the tablets. Once he arrived at the scene, it was simply automatic.

The same is true of the individual who drops the Torah by accident. If you should ever, God forbid, see someone drop the Torah, the first thing you must acknowledge is that it is not the fault of the individual who dropped it. It was decreed from Heaven. Just like Moshe’s actions were in response to the shortcomings of the Israelites; if the Torah ever drops, it is an indication that the congregation is wanting in some way. And just like the teshuvah that ensued at Sinai, the Torah’s fall should lead the congregation to a period of introspection, which is the purpose of fasting.

That is the reason for the Almighty’s declaration of “Yasher koach” to Moshe. He was not guilty for dropping the tablets; he was the vehicle providing the Israelites with the opportunity to do teshuvah for their misbehavior. Similarly, the correct response to the falling of a sefer Torah is “Yasher koach! Thank you for initiating a moment of spiritual introspection in our congregation.”

Bringing the discussion full circle, if the falling of a sefer Torah results in communal teshuvah, then certainly, witnessing the destruction of a Torah demands a severe measure of introspection and repentance, the essential elements of mourning. In recognition of the gravity of the moment, we descend immediately into a state of mourning by rending our garments, not once but twice.

Thank God, it is a rare occurrence to witness such disrespect for the Torah, but the message of yasher koach may be applied to a variety of communal situations and circumstances. It’s easy to point fingers and find someone to blame. After all, if he hadn’t dropped the Torah, we wouldn’t all be fasting. And when problems arise, it’s tempting to find fault. Who didn’t switch the yahrzeit lights on? Who didn’t remember to bring the shul key on time? Who was responsible for cleaning up after the kiddush? Whose fault is it that fewer people are coming to daily minyan? Who should be taken to task for the decrease in membership this year?

If things are not working efficiently in the community, don’t look for individuals to blame. When the Torah drops, it is not the individual who must do teshuvah; it is the entire community. The fellow who had hagbah was the congregation’s Moshe Rabbeinu, the Divine emissary, sent from Sinai to awaken us from our slumber.

Next time it appears that an individual has ruined the situation for everyone, go and give him a hug and a big yasher koach! Apart from making him feel better for his “blunder,” your words will remind all present that we are collectively responsible for the incident. May you always remember that community growth and prosperity begin when the members work together and assume collective responsibility!


Rabbi Daniel Friedman is the author of The Transformative Daf series.

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