The story of Har Sinai Congregation's rare and mysterious unfinished Torah begins at the end, at the last Hebrew passage of Book of Deuteronomy that tells about the singular status of the prophet Moses, chosen by God to display "great might and awesome power … before all Israel."
Rabbi Darryl Crystal had seen these words before, of course, but when he unrolled this scroll in the Har Sinai sanctuary in Owings Mills one afternoon last October, he noticed that the letters of the last 114 words were rendered only in outline on the parchment and left unfinished.
Tradition dictates that some letters in a newly commissioned Torah — which contains the central teachings of Judaism in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures — be left incomplete, allowing the congregation to finish the work as part of a dedication ceremony. But this scroll, to be completed in a ceremony Sunday, was more than 80 years old.
A student of Torah tradition who has studied with a master sofer or scribe, Crystal found this discovery astonishing. He rolled to the beginning of the scroll, where scribes also often leave words in outline, and sure enough — the first 50 words of the Book of Genesis had not been filled in with black ink, left that way generations ago in Eastern Europe.
"I guess you'd summarize it as 'Wow,' " said Crystal, asked about his reaction to seeing the unfinished scroll. Judging by the style of lettering and the condition of the scroll, he said that the Torah was probably written in Lithuania. He said no one has done the research on how the congregation acquired it.
"It's extremely, extremely rare," said Dick Forman, the executive director of the Reform congregation, which has existed continually since 1842. Nobody knows why the unfinished letters were never spotted before, Crystal and Forman said, or if they were spotted, why no one knew what to make of them.
In any case, the revelation launched the synagogue of 500 families on a project to not only complete the one Torah's letters, but also restore the other six scrolls in the Har Sinai collection. The parchment of the scrolls will be cleaned and the wooden rollers repaired or replaced where needed.
As part of this effort, and as a fundraiser to pay for the restoration, synagogue members have been taking turns sitting with a scribe before the Torah, an honor they realize they might never see again. They put their hands to the turkey quill as the scribe fills in letters of the 164 words one by one with black ink prepared specifically for ritual objects. The last five words will be filled in as part of a dedication ceremony to be conducted in the sanctuary Sunday.
It happens that Sunday's date is 6-13, and it happens that the task of writing a Torah is the last of 613 mitzvot — variously translated as good deeds or ritual duties — mentioned in the Torah. Layered meanings of numbers and letters run through Jewish tradition, as congregation members and their guests heard when they got their turn to fill in the letters of Deuteronomy with Rabbi Moshe Druin, a scribe from Miami visiting Har Sinai to perform this ritual.
One, two and three at a time, the participants stepped to a table in the chapel where the Torah lay unrolled to the last of the 254 columns of type. Druin sat at the scroll offering short lectures on the many meanings of the letter, or the word that contained the letter that the participants were about to fill in, then guided their hands on the quill pen as they filled in the outline drawn by the original scribe.
"Shalom, shalom," Druin said to Marcia Blacker of Pikesville. "How are you?"
"I'm nervous," she said.
"Don't be nervous, be excited," Druin said. "The letter you're going to be writing is 'ayin.' "
It would be the first letter in the word "abadav," which like so many words in this context can be interpreted in several ways, Druin said. It can mean "servant," but also as one who seeks to emulate God, and also a "volunteer" or a person on a mission.
To Deborah Dopkin and her daughter, Robin Zimmerman, Druin explained that their letter, "dalet," means "door … it's there to be opened," as in discovering another perspective, or learning.
Asked why they wanted to take part in the ritual, Zimmerman, an Upperco resident, said "it's probably an opportunity you'll never find again."
Dopkin of Baltimore said, "The Torah is all about learning."
Nearly a third of the congregation's families have taken part in the ritual, which occurred across six days, the first in April. The chapel is decorated with drawings and testimony of children who took part, and photographs taken of the participants as they filled in their letters.
"It's been a sacred undertaking that has so energized the congregation," said Louise Zirretta, president of the congregation. "Many people have said they didn't think the experience would affect them as much as it has."
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