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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

The Sanctity of the Subway

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on August 13, 2021)
Topics: Halakha & Modernity, Prayer & Religiosity, Sefer Devarim, Shoftim, Torah

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The Torah scroll is one of our most sacred religious objects, and so it is reasonable to ask:  What is the best way for us to act so as to honor its sanctity? Intuitively, we should do our utmost to keep it separated and elevated from the grime and gore of our physical reality. But is this really the case?

The Torah, in Shoftim, commands that when a king ascends to his throne he must write a Torah scroll: וְהָיְתָ֣ה עִמּ֔וֹ וְקָ֥רָא ב֖וֹ כׇּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיָּ֑יו. “It will be with him and he will read it all the days of his life” (Deut. 17:19). By learning from the scroll constantly, the king, it is hoped, will internalize the message that it is God–and not he–who is all-powerful, that he is subject to God and the Torah, and that he must devote his life and his leadership accordingly.

Now, the king wasn’t learning from the scroll constantly. He was, in the end, a king and not a Torah scholar. But even when the scroll wasn’t being opened and studied, it was right there with him. “He would go out to war, he would take the scroll out with him. He would return from war– he would bring the scroll back with him. He would sit to judge cases, it would be with him. He would recline to eat his meal–it would be in front of him. As it states: “And it shall be with him, and he will read from it all his life” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 21a). 

In the middle of a war, a king did not stop to read from the Torah before returning fire. He did not open the Torah and read from it when reclining and entertaining dignitaries. While he studied it some of the time, it was the constant, seen presence of the scroll, even more than the learning itself, which shaped, day-to-day, the king’s perception of himself and of the world around him. 

The Rabbis teach that this scroll was a tiny miniature one, suspended on a bracelet and kept around his wrist. Had the king just worn such a scroll and never learned from it, it could easily have become a talisman. But he did learn from it–he turned to it and devoted himself to it as the source of Divine authority, wisdom and morality. And that relationship–those lessons, values and mandates–were nurtured and internalized in him through the daily presence of the scroll around his wrist, making him and the Torah one.

This is a lesson that extends beyond kings. I tell my students that, as people who want to be Torah leaders, they need to be an embodiment of Torah. And this can happen when the Torah is always a part of you. It is a part of you because you are always learning Torah. It is a part of you because it informs and infuses all your actions. And it is a part of you because it–a physical volume of the Torah–is always with you. Wherever you are going, I tell them to have a Torah volume, be it Talmud, Tanakh, Mishnah, Chassidus, anything, in their knapsacks or in their back pockets. I tell them: Pull it out when you are waiting for the bus or when you are on the subway and catch those five extra minutes of learning. Be learning at every opportunity.

There was a time I thought that the lesson ended there. That the goal was to turn every place– even a subway–into a beit midrash. But the mitzvah of the king’s Torah scroll teaches that not every place is a beit midrash. Some places are battlefields, and some places are dining halls. So in fact the lesson is a different one. It’s not always about learning at every moment. Even if you can’t learn right now on the subway because it’s too loud and too hard to concentrate, you can still have the Torah volume there with you, ready to be learned when the time is right. And because it is there–and by this I mean an actual physical volume, made out of paper, and not just an app on your smartphone–it is real. You see it and you feel it. And that has an impact. Your awareness of what is happening around you is being heightened by its presence; your sensitivity to your moral and religious obligations are being sharpened. And so you see that older man who is having a hard time standing, and you see that woman who needs food to eat, and you get up and give him your seat, and you stop, look her in the eye, give her an apple, share a smile and wish her a nice day.

Indeed, the mitzvah of tefillin can be understood as functioning in exactly the same way. Tefillin, in the Torah, juxtaposes and immediately follows the mitzvah of learning Torah constantly, when you rise and go to sleep, in your home and on the way. And yet, it is not possible to always be learning Torah when going on the way. You will get into a lot of car accidents if your eyes are in the Talmud and not on the road ahead of you. So while you won’t always be learning, you can always be wearing your tefillin, and indeed, people in the past wore their tefillin the whole day. And thus even when you are not learning Torah, by wearing these tefillin, this physical sign as a second skin, you and the Torah become physically one. Your perception, your identity, your very body are transformed. 

It is precisely because the Torah scroll carries so much symbolic and identity-forming power,  that being distanced from it can be experienced as a deep form of exclusion.This is something that many experienced during the age of COVID, particularly when so few were able to attend shul, and this is something that a growing number of Modern Orthodox women and girls feel on an ongoing basis, when access to the Torah scroll is limited to only boys and men. 

Which brings us to the other way in which sanctity is expressed. Not through use, but through separation. The Rabbis teach that the king would actually have two Torah scrolls. One–the central one–which would be with him at all times. A second one would be kept locked up in his treasure house. 

The obvious question is: What good does that second scroll do anyone? The answer, it seems clear, is that this second scroll was written and locked away to show that we have not forgotten about the other way to demonstrate respect. If the Torah is high, elevated, and sacred, then one way to demonstrate this is to insist that it must be kept as far away from the physical, mundane world as much as possible. Such a precious object can only be taken out of its protected place on rare occasions. You must wear special gloves; you must turn every page slowly and delicately. This is how one treats a holy, precious item.

Many halakhot do embrace this ethos, if not fully, then at least to a significant degree. There are rules that govern how and when the Torah scroll may be taken out of the ark. People must stand when it is being transported. People must approach it. It isn’t brought to people for their convenience; it cannot even be moved to a mourner’s house unless it will be there for a certain duration of time. The central idea is that access and use must be restricted. 

We thus have two competing views of sanctity. One focuses on protecting and preserving the Torah’s sanctity, while the other emphasizes bringing and spreading that sanctity to others. Where do we find ourselves on the balance?

Either absolute would not be acceptable. A fully locked up Torah helps no one. It would make it like the fancy sofas that are covered with plastic to only be used for the “good company,” which somehow never comes. Or it would be like the good china and fancy goblets that are just too fancy and too delicate to ever really be taken down and used. 

A Torah with no protections, however, can become so common, so familiar, so mundane, that it can lose its power. Its sanctity must be protected if it is to spread forth and sanctify others. 

The two Torah scrolls of the king tell me that while these two views must both be embraced, the weight must always be in favor of the Torah scroll that is taken into war, brought to the table, and carried with a person on the subway. The sanctity of the Torah is most powerfully expressed when–protected and respected–it is brought into life’s dirt and dust. It is the sanctity of the subway, not the sanctity of separation, which has in it the power to sanctify and transform.

Shabbat shalom.