Opening Talk: Project 304,805
This is a transcript of the talk delivered by Scribe Julie Seltzer at the opening of the exhibition, As It Is Written: Project 304,805. Julie will be periodically be sharing her thoughts on what she is writing, her process, and the experience of writing a Torah on public view.
These words were offered in memory of my mother, Chaya bat Pinchas v'Batsheva.
This weekend is Simchat Torah, the Celebration of Torah, which marks the end of the yearly Torah reading cycle. It feels like a particularly auspicious time to begin writing a Torah. On Simchat Torah we read the very end of the Torah, and then immediately read the beginning, making the Torah more like a circular document than a linear one.
The last Torah portion, called v’zot habracha has a mysterious word at its start. The word is אשדת “eshdat,” meaning, well, not clear. It’s the only time the word appears in the entire Torah. Even more strange, is that eshdat is written as one word: “eshdat”; however, it is read as two words: “esh” “dat,” often translated as “fiery law.” The verse reads:
“And Moshe said: God came from Sinai, and rose from Seir unto them; God shined forth from mount Paran, and came from the myriads holy, at God’s right hand was a fiery law unto them.” (Deuteronomy 33:2)
The medieval commentator Rashi describes this “eshdat” as Torah: black fire on white fire. On the simple level at least, this means black letters on white parchment. (Actually, parchment isn’t totally white; often it’s spotted, just like the cow it came from).
Another commentator, Ramban, addresses this black fire on white fire in his introduction to Bereishit (Genesis). He speaks of Moshe as a scribe, and says that when Moshe received the Torah on Mount Sinai, he did just as all scribes must: he copied from another Torah. But wasn’t this the first torah? No, says Ramban. There was an original that Moshe copied from. And there was one difference between this primordial Torah and the Torah that Moshe wrote down; the original black fire was one long stream of letters.
If you look inside a Torah today, it looks a lot like one long stream of letters! There are no vowels, no cantillation marks1, no breaks between sentences or verse; if there were, the Torah would be invalid. However, there are word breaks. In the primordial Torah, not even word breaks were indicated; rather, oral tradition brought us the word breaks we have today, broken down to convey the mitzvot2, the commandments. However, says Ramban, there is another way to divide the words, which reads not as understandable laws, but as a series of Divine names. What he is hinting at here that there are in fact an infinite number of ways to divide the black fire. The fact that there is ambiguity as to how and if to divide the word “eshdat,” the fiery law itself, hints that the Torah, the black fire on white fire, has infinite meaning.
Let me offer a very timely example. On Monday I will begin to write a sefer Torah, and I’ll be starting with the second panel, not the first. This approach is in sync with what is done on Simchat Torah – when I write the last page, God willing, I’ll circle back immediately to write the first. If the original Torah was one long stream of letters, it makes sense that it was circular, with no beginning and no ending.
So, in my preparations this week, I took a peek at that second sheet of Torah – I’m curious – what are the first words on that panel? What words will I begin with? I open up my tikkun, my copy of Torah text that will be my guide for writing. I look at the top of page two and what do I see? In Hebrew, והוא ימשל בך “and he will rule over you.” The context is the Garden of Eden. God curses both Adam and Eve for eating from the forbidden fruit, and Eve’s curse reads as follows:
To the woman God said, "I shall surely increase your sorrow and your pregnancy; in pain you will bear children. And towards your man will be your desire, and he will rule over you." (Genesis 3:16)
An interesting place for a female scribe to start writing a Torah! At first I laughed out loud, just at the irony, but there was something more than that – for me, it’s the parts of the Torah don’t make sense, the concepts that challenge my sensibilities that beg for deeper digging.If we go back to Ramban’s idea that the primordial Torah was one long stream of letters, perhaps our phrase והוא ימשל בך “and he will rule over you” could be broken down differently? Indeed! The letters can also divide to והוא ימש לבך"” “and it/he will touch your heart.” When I write these words on Monday – with their proper spacing – it will be with the awareness that another meaning, and in fact infinite meanings, lay just beneath the surface.
1cantillation marks: Symbols that tell the reader how to chant a Hebrew text.
2 mitzvot: Commandments.