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Travels in Torah, and Other Scribal Adventures


Thoughts from scribe-in-residence Julie Seltzer on what she's writing, her process, and the experience of writing a Torah on public view.

I hail from the east coast, and moved to the Bay Area for the amazing opportunity to write a sefer Torah1. Last weekend, I visited New York and Toronto for a friend’s wedding, and thought some aspects of my travel were relevant enough to share.It started before my flight, back when I was writing the end of Genesis. The Torah, chronicling the end of Joseph’s life, states: “And Joseph lived in Egypt…”At the daily Q & A sessions I lead with the public in the Museum, one of the most frequently asked questions is, “What do you think about when you’re writing?”

I explain
that I generally have two tracks going. One track is focused on the meaning of the words. I’m “in” the story, so to speak. For example:

Wait a minute. Didn’t this whole narrative with Avimelech happen already with Avraham?
I wonder how Joseph can keep it together in front of his brothers.
Esau’s line is an untapped goldmine of baby names.
The second track is focused on the more technical elements of the writing, for example:

Good quill! Please last another few lines.
I think I need to stretch that lamed to reach the end of the line.
Oops, are those letters touching [not permitted], or are they just a hairsbreadth apart [required]? This might be a case for a magnifying glass.
Last week someone challenged my response, asking, “You never have thoughts of mundane things, like your shopping list?” This person probably had some experience meditating. In my cursory experience with meditation, I learned the principal that when a thought comes in, let it go. Don’t hang on to it. Since my mind is a human mind, “outside” thoughts do come in. I try to apply this principal, and instead of going through my shopping list, I just let the thought of the shopping list pass through, to be returned to at another time.

A funny thing happened right before my trip. I’d like to categorize it as somewhere between experiencing the Genesis narrative and thinking about my shopping list. As I wrote the line “And Joseph lived in Egypt…” and as I completed the word “Egypt,” the following thought appeared: “Julie, you need to bring your passport to travel to Canada!” This “shopping list” thought emerged directly from the meaning of the text! Joseph lived most of his life in a foreign land. His brothers also leave their home for Egypt. I too was headed to a foreign land (if you want to call Canada foreign).

My scribal adventures continued on the trip, as I had the amazing opportunity not only to visit friends, but to visit two mezuzot2 that I wrote.

The friends that I stayed with in NYC waited for my visit to put up their new mezuzah, in their new apartment. The necessary components were collected: mezuzah scroll, case, hammer, nails, two-sided tape. The friends collected themselves [delete]. We said the blessing for putting up a mezuzah*, followed by the shehechiyanu. I have to admit that through the writing of their protective scroll that now hangs on their doorpost, I feel intimately linked to their day-to-day lives.

Bizarrely, I also got to “see” (not really, since it was scrolled up and protected by a beautiful hand-made wooden case) another scroll of mine in Canada. As I entered my friends’ home, kissing the mezuzah, I recalled that I’d written it!

So much for “getting away” for a few days!


*The blessing for putting up a mezuzah
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשַׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָנוּ לִקְבּוֹעַ מְזוּזָהBaruch atta Adonai Eloheinu melech ha‘olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu likboa‘ mezuza.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the Universe, who sanctifies us with commandments and commands us to set a mezuzah.


1Sefer Torah: A handwritten copy of the Torah.
2Mezuzot: Plural of mezuzah, religious texts from Deuteronomy inscribed on parchment and rolled up in a case that is attached to the doorframe of many Jewish households.

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