By Yehudis Litvak
Photos: Monika Lightstone, Daron Keets
The Los Angeles Jewish community was treated to a majestic experience on Lag B’omer night, at the hachnassas sefer Torah for Maayon Yisroel Chassidic Center.
Accompanied by beautiful white horses, a decorated carriage, and live music – including singing by Benny Friedman – hundreds of people escorted the new sefer Torah from the home of Rabbi Reuven Wolf, the rabbi of Maayon Yisroel, to the Maayon Yisroel building.
But this sefer Torah’s unique journey began much earlier, and included many more stops along the way. “The story behind it is inspirational,” says Rabbi Wolf, “beyond what I can fathom.”
Maayon Yisroel had been using a borrowed sefer Torah. Three years ago, the owner of the sefer Torah needed to take it back. At shacharis, Rabbi Wolf asked his congregation if anyone knew where they could borrow another sefer Torah. Somebody suggested, “Why don’t we write a new sefer Torah for Maayon Yisroel?”
Rabbi Wolf was hesitant to take on such a large expense. But everyone offered to chip in, and right then and there, enough money was pledged to cover sixteen parshiyos. “In whose honor should we write this sefer Torah?” Rabbi Wolf asked. Together, the shul members decided to dedicate the sefer Torah to the Baal Shem Tov, after whom Maayon Yisroel is named.
Thus the journey began. Many miracle stories happened along the way, not the least being the special sofer in Eretz Yisrael who was hired for the job. When the sefer Torah was almost finished, Rabbi Wolf decided to go to Eretz Yisrael to pick it up. Then a thought occurred to him: why not also bring the sefer Torah to the Baal Shem Tov’s kever?
And then the idea developed further, until it was decided to also visit the graves of other tzaddikim in Eretz Yisrael and Ukraine.
The news spread, and others decided to join the trip. Altogether, exactly 22 people traveled to Ukraine, which corresponds to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Each of the travelers contributed something unique to the journey.
One of the participants, Mushka Lightstone, is producing a documentary film about this trip, called Where Light Begins. “I’ve always wanted to make a documentary about the journey of a sefer Torah, the soul of the sefer Torah, and its connection to the Jewish people,” says Ms. Lightstone. She joined Rabbi Wolf and his wife in Eretz Yisrael and filmed the whole trip.
“It was incredible,” she says. Just as there are four levels in learning Torah – p’shat, drash, remez and sod – there are four levels in this journey, she explains. On a simple level, it was a road trip. On a deeper level, it was about the history of the Jewish people. Yet deeper, it was about the path of the tzaddikim. And deeper yet, it was about the journey of the soul.
The first stop after picking up the sefer Torah from the sofer was the Kosel Hamaaravi. The next stops were the Maaras Hamachpeila and Kever Rachel. At each gravesite, Rabbi Wolf and his companions davened for people with special requests and asked the tzaddikim buried there to shine their light into the sefer Torah, inviting them to the hachnassas sefer Torah ceremony in Los Angeles.
An Israeli sofer, Rabbi Moshe Braun, joined the group. At the kever of the Arizal, they stopped and wrote a letter in the sefer Torah. They continued to write letters in the sefer Torah throughout the trip, wherever there was a shul next to the kever they were visiting. In Ukraine, at the graves of the Chassidic Rebbes, they sang each Rebbe’s special niggun and told stories about him.
The participants agree that each stop was a moving experience. Some kevarim were only accessible by horse and buggy, which added its own magic to the experience.
“Each had its own beauty, its own kochos,” says Shoshana Mansouri, one of the travelers.
The kever of the Baal Hatanya was covered with white flowers which looked like snow. “There was a feeling of light there,” says Rabbi Wolf.
The last stop in Ukraine was the kever of the Baal Shem Tov in Medzhibozh, where the group spent Shabbos. On Erev Shabbos, the men toveled in the Baal Shem Tov’s mikvah.
Then one of the participants took the sefer Torah out of the suitcase and put it down on a cloth on the Baal Shem Tov’s tombstone, dedicating it to the Baal Shem Tov.
On Motzaei Shabbos, the group had melave malkah in the Baal Shem Tov’s shul – a reconstructed copy of the original. “We were sitting in the same place where the Baal Shem Tov sat,” says Rabbi Wolf. “We sang, danced, and told stories about the Baal Shem Tov until 2 a.m.”
“It was me’ein olam haba,” says Mrs. Mansouri. “Now I can tell when Moshiach comes because I know how it feels.”
Ms. Lightstone agrees that the experience was powerful. “We hear the stories, but to see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears – you realize it’s real. It’s visceral, life-changing.”
On the way back from Ukraine, Rabbi Wolf and his wife stopped in New York and visited the graves of the Lubavitcher Rebbes. Then the magnificent hachnassas sefer Torah in Los Angeles exceeded all expectations. “All the tzaddikim I invited came,” says Rabbi Wolf. “Their light was there.”
The new sefer Torah will be read for the first time at Maayon Yisroel on Shavuos, the yahrzeit of the Baal Shem Tov.
Until then, letters of the sefer Torah are still available for sale at http://maayonyisroel.com/sefertorah.