During one of my pastoral visits with a congregant, he shared his fear of dropping the Torah each time he was called upon to hold it. His fear increased during Kol Nidre because of the service’s importance and duration.
I was struck by his apprehension and deep respect for the honor of holding a Torah, and found myself resonating with his words. I remembered that during Kol Nidre I often find myself monitoring the older men surreptitiously (since they are usually the past presidents) to make sure the Torah is not becoming too much of a burden. Like my congregant, I do not want to see the Torah dropped, both to protect my congregants from embarrassment and out of respect for the Torah itself. I thought about the connection between holding the Torah during Kol Nidre and the words of that particular prayer, and wondered why this custom developed.
The Kol Nidre prayer speaks of vows spoken and not fulfilled, of future vows that are intended to be kept but will, in all likelihood, be broken. It is an acknowledgement that, even as our words are in keeping with our intentions, circumstances and life forces collide in such a way that we are not always able to live up to our highest ideals.
As part of B’nai Mitzvah celebrations, I offer an invitation to the family to pass down the Torah from generation to generation. I always mention that the physical weight of the Torah is symbolic for the spiritual weight of its words, and therefore symbolizes the weighty responsibility of carrying those words through the generations.
The words found in the Torah are the spiritual, religious, and ethical foundations upon which we base our Jewish understanding of the world and our role within it. They create a standard toward which we continually strive. We view them as the ideal, though we know that we will often fail to reach their heights. For those of us who try to live by the ideals of the Torah, the weight of its words is great. Living by its guidelines is a deep responsibility.
Holding the Torah during a prayer teaches us that our words, when they are couched in the language of vows, promises, and the covenant between ourselves and others, carry within them the same weight as the Torah. As we try, often unsuccessfully, to live up to the ideals expressed by the Torah, we also make promises based upon our internal vision of ethical living and often find ourselves wanting.
Words, both spoken and written, carry responsibility and obligation. In standing and feeling the weight of Torah during the thrice repeated Kol Nidre, we are reminded of this both physically and psychically. This sets the tone for the rest of Yom Kippur, as we use our words to ask for forgiveness for the multitude of our sins, including those of our mouths.
Rabbi Andrea M. Gouze is rabbi of the Temple Shaare Tefilah in Norwood, Massachusetts, and director of Pastoral Care at New England Sinai Hospital and Rehabilitation Center in Stoughton, Massachusetts.