Chicago – It was a bittersweet event, filled with the conflicting emotions that come with extreme sadness mingled with joy. You could sense the powerful feelings, blending in the air along with the fuzzy white confetti drifting down from the cottonwood trees above.
Hundreds of men, women and children from across the Jewish community marched down the streets on Sunday bearing flags and little bottles of water thoughtfully provided along the way; it was a humid start to the first official day of summer. They were there to welcome a new Torah scroll, carefully written on a long roll of parchment.
Amid the loud music and cries of congratulations was a profound sadness. The Torah was written in memory of Reb Gavriel and Gayle Sassoons’ seven children, who perished in a March 21 fire that tore through their home in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Gayle Sassoon, who remains in a coma, and their 15-year-old daughter, who was released from the hospital last month, survived.) A number of other cities will welcome Torahs in their memory, but the one in Chicago was the first.
Rabbi Baruch Hertz, rabbi of the Chabadcommunity in Chicago, noted that the event was the result of a widespread effort spanning the entire community. There were no official sponsoring organizations or congregations listed on the advertising material; it was for every member of the Jewish nation, all connected to a single grieving family.
Looking like a lost child, Gabriel Sassoon, who had suffered so much, gamely carried the Torah scroll out of the house where he had just written its final letter. Once on the street, he marched with it under a chuppah on wheels.
His suit was pressed, his hat was brushed and his tie was straight, but he looked like a man living on a different plane—a man too wrapped up in his own thoughts to take notice of what was going on around him.
“Where are my children?” I could imagine him thinking as he shuffled through the proceedings.
The music was loud, perhaps a touch too loud, and my 3-year-old snuggled her sweaty head into my shoulder, begging to go back to the quiet of the car. But the others were pulling forward, eager to take part in the festivities, especially my 6-year-old son, who wanted to dance with the Torah.
Finally, we broke through the crowd to the inner circle of men and boys dancing around the Torah as it slowly made its way to the synagogue. Clasping the hands of those nearest us, we bobbed and swayed to the words: “The Torah of the L-rd is perfect; it revives the soul.”
Later on, Gabriel Sassoon would speak passionately about how the Torah revives his soul as he struggles to absorb the loss of his children.
‘Soul of the People’
As I danced with my son, I kept wondering if all the children teeming about only reminded him of his own.
And then it happened. As Mr. Sassoon cradled the new Torah in his arms, my son innocently pulled his hand out of mind and brushed his fingers against the Torah’s velvety mantel, and brought them to his mouth to kiss them. It was painful to see—my son kissing the Torah held by a man who had lost his sons and daughters. Tears mingled with sweat, and a choked sob became part of the song as we continued to dance around the Torah.
“Where were his children?” I wondere. “How can this whole event take place, and how can we be so happy when those poor precious children are not there? How can we sing and dance as if nothing is wrong?”
Finally, the parade wound down. We brought the Torah to its new temporary home in the ark of a Sephardic synagogue in the neighborhood, where it took its place amongst its peers, each in an ornate cylinder case, true to the custom of the Jewish communities of Asia and North Africa.
Mr. Sassoon got up to speak. Suddenly, he was alive and animated. The forlorn-looking man was converted to a powerful orator who spoke with strength and conviction.
“The Torah is the soul of the Jewish people; it unites us and it lives forever,” he declared. “The soul is eternal, and the souls of my children live on through the holy letters of this Torah.”
“There is so much joy in toiling in Torah, and there is so much happiness to be found in mitzvahs,” he exhorted his audience.
“Show your children how much you enjoy learning Torah! Make sure they see how much there is to enjoy in the observance of the holidays, and make sure to involve each and every one of them!”
And then, I realized that I had my answer. His children were there with us in the room. They were there in the Torah, and they were there in the tiny joyous changes that would be brought to hundreds of home starting today. His children had become ours.