Shekhinah: Kriyat HaTorah (Torah Reading)

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Shekhinah: the Presence
Shekhinah: the Presence

Section 7 of “Shekhinah: The Presence” by Joseph Zitt
This is an unedited scan of the text, courtesy of Josh Ronsen
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These ancient walls
These silent speaking stones
These wooden seatbacks
  worn smooth
  by the books and hands
  of generations

In the haze of words and tones
of our leader's repetition
we float our souls
in search of others
similarly focused

to Brooklyn
to Vilna
to Yemen
to Jerusalem

to the chambers by the Western Wall
to the place that,
  when all places become one,
  will be the one place
  these places become

to the place where the dreamworld
  the world to come
  the world from which
    we were called here
    summoned to take on
    temporary flesh
  brushes closest to
  this world in which we breathe

Step up to the Western Wall,
facing east
(we pray at what was
  the outside of the temple,
  the inside having drawn the faithful
    of other faiths
    of other tastes of God
  to establish their own
    solemn sacred domains within),
kiss the stones,
slide a bit of paper in
  within the cracks
  between the massive bricks
  where so many others
    have inserted their own prayers
  in hopes that God will read
    these small requests
    with greater interest,
step back one step,
turn left, and face
another wall
of arches,
  and somewhat less ancient stone.

Walk through the nearer arch.

Here: a small chamber
  dressed in stone on stone.
  Wooden bookshelves line its walls,
  filled with well-worn volumes:
    books of prayer,
    books of law,
      mysteries, and

Lift one book down.
Open it: the pages are yellow, brittle,
  brought from a town that no longer lives
    a town whose ashes
    and the ashes of its citizens
    still drift in the air over
      Poland, Hungary, Austria
    still sting the eyes,
    still trigger sudden tears
      for those (now older, now scattered)
      who survived the war

  (and few recall the gentle storms
    whose raindrops caught the ashes
    and carried them back to earth
    grounding the microscopic angels
      who were guiding them to Jerusalem.

  Listen: in the dim silence
    of dawn-lit desert roads
    you can hear them
    walking back eastward 

    to ascend again to heaven
    from the welcoming shadow
    of the Temple Mount.)

Walk on, walk forward
a few steps more, another archway
then a cavelike hall extending to the left
from which echo remnants
  of the voices and students
  present, past, and yet to come
  who sit within cavern-rooms
    by the light of candles
    by the light of the sun
  and argue fine points
    of the laws and mysteries
    again and again

  (The walls have heard
  these arguments so frequently
  that the stones themselves have memorized
  the cases, counterpoints, and deductions.

  Look closely: the veins of rhetoric and logic
    are embedded deep within
    the porous rock.)

Do not turn there;
walk forward, walk on.
To your right: grate-covered shafts
  expose more of the Western Wall
  down to where the ground had been
  when Solomon built it there.
To your left: another bookcase
  more volumes
  some different
  but mostly the same
  and small signs urging that you treat
    the books and rooms
    with due proper respect for
    their sanctity and antiquity.

Ahead again, again to the left:
another arch, another gate.
Iron bars run floor to ceiling,
  to the smoothly curved arch
  set in time-cooled stone.
The gates are open,
  swung back into corners,
    welcoming us within.

We have arrived.

Before us: The Arks
  up a series of steps
  dressed in fine, polished wood
  wearing curtains of velvet
    of golden braid
    with golden threaded
    letters and images

Touch the curtains gently:
the softness of velvet
  caresses our fingers
the roughness of the golden script
  transfers its meaning
  from hands to souls to hearts,
  in holy braille.
Our eyes, our minds can only see
  the edges of the glory;
we open wide our senses
  and absorb the moment
    the distant sounds
    the promise of the Presence
  through breath
  through touch
  through the resonance of centuries
    of wanderers and pilgrims
    whose prayers,
    have accumulated here;
    the echoes of their souls
    still coat the grey stone walls
    long after their bodies
      no longer walk these roads.

And these Arks,
  these cases and curtains,
are echoes of the first holy Ark
  that was built in the desert
  that contained the twin tablets
    of the essence of the law
  that traveled to Israel
  that went into battle
  that came to rest upstairs from here
    in the original Temple
    in the holiest of places
that was the resting place of the Presence
  when she came to stay with us
that disappeared into history
  buried, some say, in a hidden mountain
    to be retrieved
    when the Temple is rebuilt
    in the world to come
  carried, some say, to the world of dreams
    where we will gather
    where time is silent
    where the rivers carry angels
      to and from our world of flesh.

Look now;
Lay your hands upon the curtains;
Grasp and follow the opening cords:

In this moment, all Arks are one.
We concentrate on the moment
  with a focus greater than reality.
We look beyond the present
  beyond these chambers in Jerusalem
  beyond the prayer hall
    where we still also stand.
All images merge:
the curtains from a single canopy of velvet
  its folds waving in and out
  of the three mundane dimensions
  its length, its texture, its embrace
    wider, deeper than the sky
a single glowing golden thread
  creating, joining all the letters
  into a single pictogram
    which, if we could but pronounce it,
    would join all of the holy Names
    into a single syllable of joy

and at its center
  (that is-
the image of the original Ark

On its curtain, infinitely tall,
  portrayed in gold,
  their bodies closer to ideal
  than any human artist's
  craft, conception, calculation,

  Cherubim--angels, intermediaries--
  stand and wit
  infinitely patient
  listening to heaven
  formed from the souls of clouds
  (Male and female he created them) 

  They need not speak;
  the Ofanim, the Seraphim
  call out, at times,
  bless the Blessed
  from his holy place.

  From this holy place,
  the Cherubim need not call;
  the Presence is forever here

  and thus they stand
  side by side
  their contact sign enough
    of their love of the Presence
    of their love of each other
    of their love of humankind.

Approach the Ark, then,
(in the hall of prayer,
  in Jerusalem,
  in the near and distant
    world of dreams)
touch the shoulder of a cherub
  the cord of a curtain
  the place within your heart
    which leads you to
    what rests inside the Ark,
open the gates,
  the everlasting doors,
  that we may see the mysteries
  that lie concealed within,
and the doors, the curtains,
  at the breath of a touch
  from our solemn, exultant leader,
part and open wide for us
  like frost on a mirror
    at the warming exhalation
    of one who is still alive
  like the water of the Sea of Reeds
    before Moses's unyielding staff
  like the thighs of a long-accustomed lover
    at a gentle touch
    a familiar embrace

And we gaze within and see

The Scroll of the Law,
  covered, also, in velvet
  lettered, also, in threads of gold
  the fine-lathed spools,
    her arms and legs,
    crafted from the richest wood
  her cool skin
    formed from the purest of parchment
  the meticulous letters,
    the black pools of eyes
    glistening upon the
      pale white background
    reading us as we read from her
  a slender silver arm reaching downward
    guiding us to see the words
    from which we draw our life.

Carefully, now, our leader
then raises the scroll,
bringing her out
  from the eternal womb of the Ark
  into the merely physical
  light of the now-risen sun

(The Cherubim part,
  then move silently around our leader
  and crouch before us,
  silent guardians of the Holy Word)

and gently, slowly, evenly,
with the strength and balance gained
by uncounted years
of practice and devotion,


the scroll into the air,
shining her pearl-sheen light upon us
  as we rise to greet
  the unveiling of her Words
  with scattered unison
  whisperings of our own,
raising her closer to the skies
  as she brings the breath of heaven
    closer to our lives
  and inspires the spark of the Eternal
    and buried deep within us
    to burn more strongly
    to melt another fraction
      of the husks of darkness
      that surround and mask the sparks
      that make our world remain distant
        from the world of dreams

then, again slowly, again gently,
brings her back down
back to the grasp
  of those of us who honor her
back down to our realm to accept our kiss

but we dare not kiss her directly, no,
lest she be defiled by the lips of those of us
  who have allowed words of evil,
    of human hurt,
    distrust, and battered truth
  to be formed by them
  to pass between them
lest her holy glow of love burn our mouths
  making us as slow of speech as Moses
  with no inspired, willing Aaron
  to speak of us the words we try to mean

and so we clutch the corners of
our prayer shawls in our trembling hands
as, as she passes,
kiss the cloth, and the fringes on it,
then touch it softly to her velvet cloak.

And, having travelled, having blessed
the perimeters of our sacred hall,
she rests
relaxed on her back on the reading desk,
  its surface covered, also, in velvet,
  its fringes, also, threads of gold.
Carefully we remove her silver ornaments:
  her crown, circles with subtle filigree,
    rests on a platform by the Ark;
  her pointer, her hand,
    olive wood with silver chain,
    the leader holds,
    preparing for the reading.

Cautiously we raise her again
from her resting place,
and remove her cloak ,
  slowly, smoothly.
Upwards our hands slide it,
  along the smooth firmness
    of her parchment torso
  over the slender symmetry
    of her dark wood spools and arms.

We lay her down again,
and roll the columns outwards,
exposing her night-black text
  and pale white skin
  to the eastern light
    of the glass-refracted sun
  to the cooling breezes
    of dim Jerusalem halls
  to our loving gaze
    and shyly tender touch
as the leader extends a well-trained hand
  that holds the simple pointer
  and its own silver hand.

We shall begin.

"And may his kingship over us be revealed
and become visible soon
and may he be gracious to our remnant
  and the remnant of his people
  the family of Israel
for graciousness, kindness, mercy, and favor"

And we respond,

Listen, now;
awake from your reveries;
the leader is calling you,

"Descendant of priests,
approach, arise"

speaking a name
that you realize must be your own,
and another name,
which must be your father.

Step up to the reading desk,
slowly, slowly;
in these moments of revelation
you have infinite time.

(The dreamworld is fading for you now;
this temporary flesh
in which you clothed yourself
when called from the river
  where you guided the child's ark
    toward the Ark of the covenant
  where you drifted homeward
    summoned by voices of prayer
feels slightly more concrete now,
  more confining:

you have been called by your name
  and the name of your father.
A lineage has been thrust upon you:
The weight of centuries
  now rests on your shoulders;
the decisions of the fathers
  delimit the children
  far past the tenth generation.

Descendant of priests,
the law has determined
  that you are first in line
    to be called to read from the holy scrolls
  that you may bless the people,
    your hands spread in the unseen salute
      that so many know
      and so few recognize
        the Presence resting gently
        on your outstretched fingers
  that you and your fathers and sons
    will be called
      in the world to come
      in the world beyond dreams
      to celebrate the sacrifices
        and forgotten rituals
      in the third temple
        the everlasting hall
        the sanctuary, outside of time,
          from which the plans
          for lesser sanctuaries were drawn.

Thus, by your name encircled,

you take a deep breath
  of this world's air
and move infinitely slowly
  to the reading desk
  to her resting place
    she whom defines all worlds.)

"Bless the Lord, who is blessed!"

Again, your words wrap back upon themselves,
  reiterating, restating,
  repeating the recursion

"now and in eternity!"

We carry the phrases as before
  in a feedback loop of blessing

"who has chosen us from all peoples
  and has given us your teaching"

Focus your heart on the text, now,
  on the beauty and glory
  unrolled before you.
The leader points to the appointed words;
grasp the prayer shawl fringes
  in your silent hand
then touch them
  to the black, enveloping letters
then kiss them

and listen
and merge your inner voice
  with the voice of the leader
  with the words that rise
    from the holy scroll
    from her pale, near-glowing skin,
    from her heart.

Clearly, emphatically,
the reader sings out the words of the text,
each vowel, each note, all punctuation
  ringing out from memory
  unwritten in the text as seen
  but deeply etched in tradition

The pointer hand,
  olive wood and silver,
  a perfect echo of the human hand
    that guides it
    smoothly, lightly,
    along the letters
    (black as the pupils
      of the eyes of the soul)
traces the text,
revealing the words
  that flow up through it
  absorbed and transmitted
  by the skin
    the nerves
    the sinews
    the blood
    the breath
    the heart
    the voice of the reader
  through the air
    through the ether
    through the light
      that underlines all space
      that overlays all time
  to all out hearts.

And these words
  that we hear now
  fill the rooms
  fill every hidden crevice of silence
    that might have been left behind
    by the now-departed night.

(Listen: in the light of the fully risen sun
  even the crickets have muted their song
  in honor of the chant of our leader
    of the repetition, the recitation
    of the words of the law.)

And when the selection has come to an end
  when our leader has finished
    the impassioned reading
  when the melodies of meaning
    find their final major cadence

reach down again,
  fingers still wrapped
    in the tassels of the shawl
touch the tender scroll again,
then kiss, again, the tassels.

"You are blessed,"
you call out to the Creator
"who gave us these teachings of truth
and planted eternal life in our midst."

And you step back, away,
around to the side of the reading desk

and another approaches,
and another still,

and the scroll waits for their approach,
her columns lying open to their touch,
  their kiss,
  their prayers

and she gives of her words,
  her light, her love,
  equally to all
  who come to her with open hearts,
  who call to her with willing souls.

Then, all readings complete for the day,
  (though the reading, the learning
    is never complete,
  and the words cycle endlessly
    as the dawn whispers across the planet,
    as the years draw us around the sun,
  as, on this day in other ages,
    our fathers, our children,
    have read, will read,
    the same pages, the same texts,
    from physically different scrolls,
    letter for letter, point for point,
      the same
  as the original letters, inscribed at Sinai,
    in black fire on white fire
    on pages of stone,
    burning through the ages,
    all scrolls joined end to end
      across dimensions,
  flowing, black pools of letters
    endlessly deep,
    sacred scrolls all joined at the text)
our leader softly grasps the scroll's dark wood limbs
rolls her columns close again, together,
and raises her, again, high into the air.

"She is a tree of life for those who hold her,"
we chant, "and those who support her
  are filled with joy.
All her ways are pleasant;
all her paths are peace."

"And may it be the will," our leader replies,
"of our Father who is in heaven
to establish the Temple, the home of our lives,
and to restore his PResence among us,
in our time."

Then we all join the leader,
and together,

And our leader
lowers her, evenly
  with the perfect balance
    born of perfect faith
  and cradles her,
    head resting
      in comfort, in love,
      against her solid side,
    nestling the other side
      in the crook of an arm,
    right hand lightly grasping
      her finely lathed spindle leg,

and circles, again, the congregation,
and again we kiss the scroll by proxy
  hand wrapped in tassels,
  tassels touched to lips,
  kiss transferred by tassels' touch
    to our beloved
    to our law

And you sit upon the simple chair
provided on the podium
and the leader rests the scroll
  in your waiting arms,
  her back resting against your chest
    (breathe lightly, now,
    so that you won't disturb her),
  her slender legs straddling your thigh,
  her weight against you,
    heavier than flesh
    but still warm with comfort.

"May it be the will
  of our Father who is in heaven,"
the congregation meditates
on ancient words again,
their silence again the scattered unison
  of the individual,
  the universal,
as the leader continues the litany of wishes:
"to have mercy on us,
  on those of us who still remain to worship...
to keep destruction and plague
  from us and from all his people...
to preserve among us our sages,
  their mates,
  their children,
  their disciples and
    the students of their disciples...
that we may be told of good tidings
  of deliverance and comfort...
that he gather the dispersed
  from the four corners of the Earth...
that he may have mercy on our brethren
  who are handed over to distress and captivity,
  on the sea or on dry land,
  and may bring them
    from darkness to light,
    from servitude to liberty,
    speedily, soon..."

Focus, again:
  The Ark again is open,
  the Cherubim by its edges, waiting,
  the velvet throne room
  awaiting her return.

Sense, feel, open your eyes:
  she must return soon to her home.
  Cautiously the leader
    lifts her forward,
    tightens, again, her columns together,
    ties the narrow sash around her waist,
    lifts the gold-threaded velvet cloak
      and lowers it over her arms,
        over her torso,
        sliding it softly
          along her smooth sides
        till it rests about her,
        balanced on her shoulders,
    rests the silver-olive pointer hand
      suspended from her limbs,
    and places her ornamented,
      filigreed crown
      as a completion of her beauty,
        her glory.

The leader takes her from you
  (you wish to hold on
  but know that would be futile;
  there are laws, commands, and rituals,
  and to depart from them
  would hurt the one whose life,
    whose giving of life,
  is dearest to your heart)
and moves with her

but in your love
  (in the blindness of your love)
you no longer see the leader,
and the scroll dances alone
  a dance of heaven, a dance of magic,
  a dance that newborns know,
  but, as they learn to walk
    like other men,
  the dance that is the way that angels move
    in the world to come,
    the world of dreams,
  a dance of words
    that dance without words.
In silence you observe her motion
  and wish that you could comprehend
  for in her footsteps are spelled out
  all the mystic names of God.

Then, murmuring (again the scattered unison)
  with all who worship in the sacred hall
    (and in Jerusalem
    and all the places that will
      someday be as one)
  you prepare for her departure
    with words of psalms:

"This is the generation of those
  that seek the Lord,
  who yearn for the Presence...
Gates, raise up your heads,
Be uplifted, ancient door..."

We must conclude.

The room seems almost empty, still,
  the whispering surrounding you
  not revealing the sight of any others.

The Cherubim, now still as wood,
  are as if they were part
  of the Ark themselves  

and you move to join them,

and you touch the Ark,
  stroke its wood, its velvet
  trace the markings
  in golden-threaded braille

and its spirit flows into you,
  merges with you,
and in your reverie
  you become the Ark
  become the sacred home
  wear the eternal flame
    as a signpost upon your brow

and the scroll rests with you,
  rests on your shoulders,
  her ageless ancient legs relaxed,
  thighs balanced about you,
  legs draped down your chest
    like the leather straps
      of the boxes of prayers
    like the exact fringes
      of the shawl

and she closes her eyes,
  calms, sleeps,
and the leader shuts the doors,
the Cherubim reassuming their initial position 

("She is a tree of life," they sing again,
"for those that hold her,
and those that support her
are filled with joy.")

and in the warmth, the darkness,
  the velvet holiness
  of the place you have become

you know that,
for the moment,
you have found peace,

that you,
and the scroll of life,
and the Presence,

are as one.

(return to Shekhinah: the Presence)