The Hebrew word for ‘one’ is echad. The Hebrew word for ‘other’ is acher.
The first two letters in each word are the same. The last letter in each word (daled in echad, reish in acher) are remarkably similar. Both resemble an inverted capital L.
When it comes to reading and understanding the Torah — the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the center of Jewish identity — similar doesn’t cut it. Any slip of the pen, any misplaced spot of ink, any smudge or crease or crack on or near any letter can confuse or alter the meaning of God’s Word.
“So,” explained Rabbi Gil Perl, dean of Margolin Hebrew Academy, “if in the verse known as the Shema, which reads, ‘Hear O Israel The Lord is our God, The Lord is one,’ the daled of the word echad (one) is mistaken as a reish it would read, ‘Hear O Israel The Lord is our God, The Lord is an other,’ — or The Lord is our God, the other God.”
The difference between the one God and an other God is the difference between one faith and another.
That’s why every Torah scroll for more than 2,000 years has been handwritten by trained Jewish scribes who spend months, even years, painstakingly replicating each of the sacred manuscript’s 304,805 ancient Hebrew letters.
That’s why Torah scrolls are kept covered in cloth and housed in special cabinets. That’s why rabbis and other Torah readers don’t allow their skin to touch the parchment of a Torah scroll.
And that’s why the damage recently and intentionally done to Margolin Hebrew Academy’s Torah scroll was particularly disturbing to its faculty, students, parents, as well as to others in the Memphis Jewish community.
A Torah scroll is more than a fancy copy of a holy text. Each loving and laborious recreation of the Book of Moses is itself a holy object.
“Jews view the Torah almost as a person,” said Rabbi Uriel Lubetski, the Academy’s Upper School Principal. “When a Torah is damaged or destroyed, we mourn its loss.”
Margolin Academy has been mourning since the morning of Jan. 12. That’s when about 50 faculty, male students and family members awoke at a Jackson, Tenn., hotel to find their Torah, along with about a dozen prayer books, ”marked on, torn or otherwise damaged or defiled,” according to the Jackson Police Department.
School leaders and parents were taking Margolin’s boys on a weekend field trip to Gatlinburg. They stopped in Jackson to observe the Sabbath. They held Friday evening’s prayer service in one of the hotel’s meeting rooms. They left the Torah, siddurim (prayer books), and musical instruments in the room overnight to be used again for Saturday morning’s prayer service.
During the night, someone got inside the room and defaced the religious books with phrases such as “Gentiles Win, Jews Lose,” “Satan has won,” and “submit to Satan”, along with profane derogatory remarks.
Justin Shawn Baker, an overnight security guard at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Jackson, was arrested and charged with vandalism. He is free on bond.
The hateful anti-Semitic words scrawled on their holy texts were hurtful to members of Margolin Academy, but this was more than an act of vandalism. It was an act of desecration. It was more than a violation of the law. It was a violation of The Law.
“I had never felt as sick to the stomach as I did when I peered under the cover of our Torah earlier that morning,” said Rabbi Gil Perl, dean of Margolin Hebrew Academy/Feinstone Yeshiva of the South.
Perl, who has been in Memphis six years, grew up in New Jersey. His grandparents survived Auschwitz.
“I grew up knowing that my grandparents and great-grandparents had been subjected to unspeakable horrors,” he said. “I even visited the places where that happened. But nothing I had personally experienced compared to this.”
Jackson police, the FBI and Homeland Security all were at the scene investigating the incident. Jackson Mayor Jerry Gist even came by to offer his condolences and support. The desecrated Torah scroll, damaged prayer books and other items remain in police custody.
“It was tough to see the Torah being carried out of that room in an evidence bag,” Perl said. “But everyone — the hotel staff, the police, the federal authorities — were incredibly helpful and respectful.”
Dylan and Ethan Cooper, twin brothers, seniors and co-presidents of Margolin Academy’s Student Council, were on the trip. They said students were upset, confused and enraged by the vandalism,
“We’ve experienced anti-Semitism before, walking down the street on a Friday night after prayers, wearing our kipas, having someone yell some slur at us from a passing car,” said Dylan. “But this felt different, much worse. This was not aimed at any individual. This was a threat to us collectively as Jews.”
Ethan said the experience, while disturbing, has also been enlightening. “We learned a new lesson about life and faith,” he said. “It’s brought us all closer together, all of the students here. It’s something we’re facing together. We want to turn this into something positive.”
They will continue that effort Monday evening at 7 at an open meeting called “Hatred & Holy Books: A community response to the Torah vandalism in Jackson, TN.” The program will be co-sponsored by Facing History and Ourselves and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and hosted by the Baron Hirsch Congregation, 400 S. Yates.
Perl said the meeting is open to the entire community for several reasons. He wants the larger community to understand the sacred nature of a Torah scroll. He wants to make a statement “to our city, our region, and to ourselves that there is no place for hatred and bigotry of any kind.”
And he wants to tell another side of the story of the desecretion of a holy text.
“It’s the story of a non-Jewish hotel manager who was close to tears when she saw what had happened,” Perl said. “Not because she was concerned for her job – she did nothing wrong – but out of genuine concern for us.
“It’s the story of a dozen law enforcement officials who showed up on the scene, each more respectful and caring than the next.
“It’s about the member of the Jackson Police Department’s criminal investigations unit who, covered from head to toe in his white sterile suit and meticulously documenting the evidence, told me about the year he spent in Israel living in the King David Hotel on assignment by the U.S. military and the lifelong admiration he’s had for the Jewish State ever since.
“And it the story of Nancy and Bert Bennett, residents of Jackson whom I have never met, but who wrote me the following letter:
Dear Sirs, Madame,
My husband and I were truly sorry to hear of the terrible incidents that happened to your holy books in Jackson. We have lived here for over twenty years and have never heard of such a thing happening. As I watched the television report, I did not think you got the sincere apology you deserve.
This world seems to be filled with such hatred.
But there are many Christians that recognize that the Torah is God’s sacred word and the Jewish people are God’s chosen people. My husband Bert and I sincerely ask for your forgiveness for the city of Jackson and again, though we hold no official power, we apologize for what happened here.
Nancy & Bert Bennett
“I’d like to turn this story from a tale of victimization into a tale of education,” Perl said. “I want it to be a teaching moment for everyone — for our kids, for our community, and for the Memphis/Jackson communities as a whole.”
Two weekends ago, it was Margolin Academy’s girls’ turn to go on a field trip. Perl said faculty, students and families discussed whether the trip should be cancelled. They decided to go.
On the way, they stayed in the same hotel in Jackson. They conducted prayer services Friday evening and Saturday morning in the same meeting room. They read from a different Torah, but the words they read were exactly, precisely the same.
It’s what they say every time they read the Torah: “Blessed are you, Hashem, our God, King of the universe,” they read, “who selected us from all the peples and gave us His Torah. Blessed are you, Hashem, Giver of the Torah.”
HATRED & HOLY BOOKS
What: An open meeting by Jewish community leaders to address last month’s desecration of a Margolin Hebrew Academy’s Torah scroll.
Who: Speakers include Rabbi Gil Perl of Margolin Academy, Rachel Shankman of Facing History and Ourselves, and Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in L.A.
When: 7 p.m. MONDAY
Where: Baron Hirsch Congregation, 400 S. Yates.