In synagogues everywhere we raise the Torah after we finish reading it and recite a verse from this week’s parsha: “V’zot hatorah asher sam Moshe” (This is the Torah that Moshe presented before the children of Israel).
We would expect this verse to follow a lofty commandment such as leaving our fields unharvested for the poor or refraining from gossip. However these words, which proclaim the glory of the Torah, follow the laws of the cities of refuge — people convicted of negligent homicide must stay in specially designated cities.
Why are these words, which praise the Torah, placed within any proximity to laws that show our lowest point? Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky answered this question with a wonderful story:
In the early 1900s a rabbi who lived in the tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side had to attend a city function at which a notoriously anti-Semitic minister was also present.
The minister turned to the rabbi and remarked, “Last night I dreamt I was in Jewish heaven.”
“Jewish heaven?” inquired the rabbi. “What is it like in Jewish heaven?”
“Oh!” replied the minister. “In Jewish heaven the streets were filled with Jews. Children with filthy faces and clothes were playing in the dirt. Women were haggling with fish vendors as Jewish beggars tried to interrupt, asking for handouts. The clotheslines stretched across the roads with the dripping wash mixing with the dust below to add more mud to the existing mess on the ground. And of course,” he added with a sinister laugh, “Rabbis were running back and forth with large Talmudic volumes tucked under their arms!”
The rabbi replied, “That is truly amazing. You see I dreamt last night that I was in your heaven.”
“Really?” the minister asked. “And pray tell me what is it like in my heaven?”
“It is magnificent. The streets shine as if they have recently been washed. The homes are exquisitely lined up in perfect symmetry, each with a small garden that has beautiful flowers and a perfectly manicured lawn. The homes were freshly painted and they sparkled in the sunlight!”
The minister beamed. “And what about the people? Tell me about the people!”
The rabbi smiled at the minister and tersely stated, “There were no people.”
By placing the words “this is the Torah that Moshe presented” directly after the laws of the cities of refuge, the Torah declares that its glory is that it guides us through every aspect of life. The laws of priestly blessings and sharing the Passover story, as well as the laws about rehabilitating a man who accidentally killed are equally part of the Torah and must be proudly proclaimed as such.
Our Torah is a Torah for real people.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)