It's something like laying your hands on the whole history of your people.
That's what Cheryl Richards said as she worked with a partially unrolled Torah at Congregation Kol Ami, Clark County's reform Jewish temple.
"It is a living thing," she said. "It connects me to God and to our people. And when it's read well, it's an emotional thing of great beauty."
The Torah is the five books of Moses, written in Hebrew on a kosher animal-skin parchment and rolled into a scroll around two wooden stems. Traditionally, the scroll is stored safely inside what's called an ark, and taken out every few days for a reading. According to Richards, Kol Ami's Torah probably hails from Prague; according to Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker, it was in America by the time of the Civil War, was used by the military and eventually purchased by Kol Ami from the Jewish Chaplain Society.
But there's lots more than just that to any Torah, according to Rabbi Gedaliah Druin, who was visiting from Florida this week to teach a group from Kol Ami about Torah maintenance and care.
Druin is what's known as a Sofer, or scribe, and he's also a teacher, storyteller and president of a company called Sofer On Site, which offers numerous Torah-related services — from sales of new ones to evaluation and preservation of aging ones.
Ten adult members of Kol Ami met with Druin on Thursday morning to learn the art of cleaning and rolling up their Torah. Before he got into the hands-on work, Druin quizzed the group about the true nature of the Torah. Because the scroll was made from an animal that ate, and was eaten, Druin said, the scroll literally is food for the Jewish people.
"You have to keep it healthy and take it into you," he said. "It is not a book. It's a living instrument." He said it should be completely unrolled and treated at least once a year, if not far more often than that.
There were gasps of astonishment as Druin got out a wide brush and swept clouds of gray dust off the parchment. It didn't seem like it should be in there — this Torah is always carefully stored and protected when not in use — but Druin said the dust was the typical sign of very slight, natural deterioration — ushered along a little, perhaps, by handling and heat. To avoid any more of that, the whole group engaged in a careful hand-washing ritual before getting started. Druin also advised them about maintaining an attentive, meditative frame of mind while doing the work.
Then he went back over the parchment in detail with an eraser, scrubbing off some spreading stains that were entirely cosmetic, he said. The underlying ink remained sharp and black. Maintained properly, he said, this Torah should last for thousands of years.
Druin, who has worked as science curator and supervisor of education at the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Children's Museum, said of the Torah and the power behind it: "It is awesome. But I have no idea what it is."