Ed.'s note: This article, reprinted from the Pittsburgh [Pennsylvania] Post Gazette, was written a week after Simchat Torah, in the midst of the Presidential campaign. The author is not Jewish.
by Dennis Roddy
When Beth Shalom synagogue caught fire Tuesday, there was the usual evacuation: students from classrooms, workers from offices, visitors from the various quarters of worship and study.
Then, congregants and passersby rushed back inside, pried open locked arks, and brought out 22 heavy scrolls filled with Hebrew script.
They were saving the Torahs.
In a week when Bob Dole called President Clinton a "bozo," and Clinton called Dole's tax proposals "a scheme," at a time when words seem to have the worth and the commonalty of dirt, ordinary people ran into a burning building and saved armloads of them.
Rabbi Steven Steindel, 6 feet 2 inches, bearded, angular, younger than his 49 years, mourns the loss of two other Torahs. They were kept in the room that burned the worst. The remnants will, in accordance with Jewish custom, be treated as dead relatives and buried in the congregation's cemetery.
Of the Torahs still living, 22 of them, each penned by hand after the Holocaust, a meeting had to be held. They had been parceled out to three homes and arguments were bruited in a synagogue office over how best to get them all back in one place. It was, Rabbi Steindel later explained to me, how a teacher would try to keep a class of children intact, a father, a family.
Surely, there are other copies of the Torah. The word of G-d is plentiful, if not always heeded. But in risking limb for these long scrolls of words, Jews were paying homage not only to their truth and importance, but to the continuity of faith they bespeak, stretching back to the Creation.
In a time when violent language darkens the Internet and radio, there are still words of immutable beauty and mystery for which ordinary people on Beacon Street ran into a smoking building.
"It's not that we don't have those words on a million copies," Rabbi Steindel said. But right-thinking people understand the mystical power of words in the way a physicist looks at a falling leaf and suddenly senses the presence of G-d in the order of its descent.
Words matter. They always have. We simply forget.
Among the scrolls inside the burning synagogue was one in a glass case. It survived the Holocaust, and for the abuse it suffered, is no longer considered a kosher Torah, meaning it is no longer suitable for worship. It has smudges and smears and other defacements applied by the minions of hell. This is worth thinking about: Evil men so hated a religion they learned its rules well enough to know what it takes to kill their words.
"They destroyed houses, they destroyed people, they destroyed kitchens, and they destroyed Torahs," Rabbi Steindel said. Ordinarily, such a Torah would be buried. Instead, this was turned into a memorial of the lost of Europe.
But that Torah stayed in its case. It was the living Torahs, the ones still fit to be chanted at prayer, that passers-by braved darkness and smoke to bring out.
I doubt that Bill Clinton or Bob Dole or any of the courtiers who construct clever things for them to say will produce, at least for now, anything a stranger would inconvenience himself to protect. There are mere words and there are words in which we hear the voice of a G-d we cannot see.
For now, our civic leaders will play with words, and we will reward the one with the best sleight of hand.
Last weekend, Beth Shalom, like other Jewish congregations, observed the celebration of Simchat Torah, marking the point in the year at which it has read through the entire Torah. With the new year, the Torah has begun again.
The cycle continues. Tradition has it that two esteemed elders of the congregation are brought to the bima and named, in essence, a bride or groom of the Torah - worthy in their adherence to the truth of Scripture to be wedded to its embodiment, a large, heavy scroll.
It is hard to imagine a better tribute to a person of faith. It is hard, too, to imagine that the winner for what passes for our political campaign raises a hand to G-d Almighty at swearing-in, and places the other in reverence upon a Bible that begins with the Five Books of Scripture that make up the Torah, the only words I can think of for which strangers will walk past fire.