The Parchments Are Aflame, But the Letters Are Flying Aloft

The Talmud tells us that when the Romans took Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon out for execution, that, while clutching a Sefer Torah, they burnt him alive. There, his terrified students, witnessing the immolation of their beloved teacher choked out the question: “Our teacher, what do you see?” Clearly there was great depth to this question. “Rebbe,” they were asking, “You are a man of penetrating insight, tell us, please, in this moment of Kiddush Hashem, of being murdered for being a Jew, a teacher of Torah, surely your lofty perceptions have a sense of what is taking place beneath the surface of this awful moment. To carry on; to effectively grapple and deal with this awesome tragedy—in a context of sanctity (kedusha)—with an understanding rooted in Torah, and through the Godly lens of eternity, we need your insight.” To which Rabbi Chanina answered:

“My beloved students, I see the parchments are aflame, while the letters are flying aloft.”

The Inner Meaning

The holy Zohar tells us that, “The Torah and the nation of Israel are one.” Beneath the surface, at the deepest dimension of existence, the Jewish people and the Torah are melded together, they are one shared reality. And from this we can understand that just like the nation has a body and a soul, the same is true for the Torah. The “body” is the parchment, and the “soul” is the letters, the eternal spiritual content. The letters are the vehicles (kaylim) through which the thoughts and values, the timeless soul, are expressed.

Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon was telling his students that our enemies may try, through every imaginable means, to destroy us and our ability to move, together with our values, forever into the future, but know: “I see more clearly than ever that they are incapable of shearing away our spirit. The letters, our inner spiritual essence—that—is beyond the reach of their hands. To burn the parchments, yes, but our soul is forever independent, eternal, unbridled, and unconquerable.

Long Before Today

Throughout the many long generations, the Jewish nation has been faced with enemy after enemy that has sought our total destruction. Their poisonous hatred drove their desire to thoroughly uproot the great tree called Am Ysrael. Indeed, their true desire was to thwart the light, the enlightened message that is our mission and destiny to bring to the world. Over two millennia ago, from the midst of the flames of his death, Rabbi Chanina told his students, and thru them all generations that would follow: “Know, my students!” “Know, my people!” Countless forces will arise that champion death and darkness, a darkness that will do all it can to extinguish our great light, but know, know, it is they who will vanish. We, our values, our Godly soul, our light—no matter what—will emerge unblemished. The letters float aloft in the air. They are untouchable, and they are our essence, our truest, deepest self. They are radiant sparks of Godliness, inextinguishable lights that eminate from the highest heights to illuminate the physical, present, everyday life of humankind, and history.

“My precious students, please!” Don’t give in to the awful fear of the horrific scene in front of your eyes, don’t panic before the enemy. Lift your eyes, elevate your vision, and despite it all, know and see that there is a higher reality; the reality of the floating letters, the reality of the eternal nation of Israel. And know that those holy letters embody our eternal wisdom and values. It is they, the letter-sparks of the soul of the nation that give us the inner conviction to carry on. On. On, into the future. It is those letters that sparked, even in our darkest moments, a twinkle in our eyes. A twinkle that allowed us to see nothing less than Yerushalayim itself—Yerushalayim the eternal—the Yerushalayim that was conquered and destroyed, but wasn’t. And from there do draw the transcendent strength of eternity.


The target of that vile enemy who struck at the Jewish community last Shabbat was nothing less than those letters, our spirit and soul. He thought that he could take a cold, steely weapon of death and open fire on our neshama. He thought he could gun down the one-generation-to-the-next soul of Israel. But the fool had no idea that he was igniting just the opposite. That his bullets, and the incalculable pain that he would inflict, would lead to Jews everywhere to deepening their commitment, our commitment. Our commitment to the light, to one another, to the deep love, fusion and solidarity within us. Ironically, despite the horror, he is strengthening us. What is showing from within us is our oneness, our “unified neshama manifested thru a multiplicity of individuals.”

We may think differently. We may have dramatically different opinions and be separated by great distances, but all of that is no more than the surface level of life, the body, the parchment, but not the letters. This is the source of our unbending strength. This is our sanctity. And once again, despite our enemies most ruthless efforts—despite the hail of bullets—we will not, and cannot, be broken. Do we not read, indeed, do we not sing at every Passover seder, “And it is this that has stood by our ancestors, and us; for not just one has stood up in an attempt to destroy us, but in each and every generation there arises those that try to annihilate us (“All the Jews must die!”), and yet God saves us from their hands.” And now on that long list of those who tried and failed to destroy Israel, to destroy our spirit, will be added one more name.

A Eulogy for Sarah

This very concept expresses itself in our parsha. “And Avraham came to eulogize Sarah, and to cry for her.” This is the first time we find the concept of a eulogy in the Torah, and whenever a concept appears for the first time, it’s conveying a fundamental, root understanding. From Avraham we learn how to relate to, and cope with, the death of a loved one. When the Torah says, “and to cry for her (לבכותה),” the word “cry” is written with a small kaf. Commenting on this unusual occurrence, our sages say that Avraham saw the soul of Sarah ascending to the heavens and that it was pure, glowing and radiant with joyous serenity. Avraham didn’t just see the body of his beloved wife, he saw her totality, her body and soul; her eternal radiance. And for this reason he cried a little less. He mourned and cried, yes, but in seeing the big picture—the parchment and the letters—he already began to be comforted.

Though we are not able to see what Avraham saw, nonetheless we can, to a degree, grasp the eternity that is the Jewish nation, and the spark of eternity that shines in every Jew.

My beloved brothers and sisters. I write these words from the land of Israel, the land of kedusha, of sanctity, and my heart is with you. My heart. Your heart. Our hearts are one. In this moment perhaps you can reflect on Jerusalem, the city that “binds us together as one.” And draw from there the inner strength that emanates from our deep connectedness—that has been ours throughout the generations, and will be ours into the future—and to know that even when our hearts are broken, our spirit remains unbreakable. May we stride forward together; to that time when evil and darkness will be vanquished and driven from this world, a time when the holy values of the nation of Israel—the timeless letters—will, as the unfolding geula shleima emerges, illuminate the face of the earth.

Translation by Shimon Apisdorf