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Parshas Ki Savo (5773)

Hagbaha: An "Uplifting" Message

There was a guy in the synagogue who was very insulted that he never got Hagbaha.[the honor of lifting up of the Torah after the reading and displaying the Torah’s Hebrew text for all to see]. He went up to the Gabbai [the one in charge of giving out honors] one week and was like, hey, what's up with me never getting Hagbaha? The Gabbai looks him up and down and says, frankly, you don't look like you can handle it. Well, the guy was very insulted.

He immediately signed up at the gym, purchased a Bowflex and began working out. Six weeks later, he is pumped. He can't even cross his arms over his chest. His muscles have muscles. He swaggers into shul that week, flexes his impressive biceps at the Gabbai and says: Who can't handle Hagbaha now? The Gabbai, looking duly impressed, smiles at the guy and nods his head.

The guy sits anxiously in his seat all through the Shacharis [Morning] Service. He shifts his weight from foot to foot as they open the Ark. He is practically trembling with anticipation all through the Torah reading. Then, the moment comes! The Gabbai calls him up! He marches up the aisle flexing his muscles the whole way. He picks up the Torah, nearly sending it through the roof. He turns around displaying the steadiest hands to ever hold the holy scroll. As he puts the Torah back onto the Bimah [the raised platform upon which the Torah was read], he turns to the Gabbai and says, now was that a Hagbaha, or was that a Hagbaha?! Indeed, said the Gabbai, that was the most impressive Hagbaha I have ever seen - but I called you up for Maftir [the concluding public reading of the Torah before it is lifted up and rolled shut].

Now this might be a humorous story, but Hagbaha is no joke, as we learn from a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Ki Savo.

The Torah tells us how the Jewish people stood at the feet of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal and publicly acknowledged (by saying ‘Amen’) the blessings that await those who observe the commandments of the Torah, as well as the curses that will befall those who neglect them (see Deuteronomy 27:11-26).

The final curse that the Jewish people heard and accepted upon themselves was the following: “Accursed is one who will not uphold the words of this Torah, to perform them.” Many commentaries struggle to explain what new reprimand this curse is adding, as it seems to just be a repeat admonition to observe the entire Torah.

Nachmanides, in his major commentary on the Torah, explains the verse to mean that every Jew must accept the validity of the Torah in full, and dare not claim that even one of its commandments is irrelevant and no longer applicable.

Yet another interpretation of this enigmatic verse is offered by the Jerusalem Talmud - as quoted and explicated by Nachmanides - which explains that it is referring to one who does an improper Hagbaha by not lifting up the Torah and displaying the Hebrew text for all to see. He is thus cursed for literally “not upholding the words of the Torah” in the proper way.

As we are taught in Maseches Sofrim, “One is required to lift up the Torah and show its text to those standing on the right and on the left, for it is a special commandment for every man and women to see the Torah’s text and to bow and say: ‘This is the Torah that Moses placed before the Children of Israel, upon the command of G-d, through Moses’ hand’.”

The Halachah (Jewish law) teaches that to do a proper Hagbaha, the Torah should be opened so that three columns are visible. After lifting the Torah scroll one should turn around so as to show the words of the Torah to the entire congregation. There are various customs as to how to accomplish this. The more common custom is to turn 90 degrees to the right and then do a full circle to the left in order that everyone should see the letters of the Torah. The main objective is to allow all the congregants to see the writing in the Torah, and he should turn slowly and patiently and make sure to cover all directions.

The members of the congregation, both men and women, should try their best to see the Hebrew text of the Torah. The Mystics write that one should ideally be able to read the letters in the Torah, as this causes a great spiritual light to shine on the viewer.

Upon seeing the writing one should bow slightly toward the Torah and say: ‘This is the Torah that Moses placed before the Children of Israel…’ as printed in the Siddur (Prayer Book). Many have a custom to point at the Torah with either their index finger or pinky as it is being shown.

I believe that Nachmanides’ two interpretations of this final curse that the Jews accepted upon themselves just as they were about to enter into the Land of Israel are actually one and the same.

You see, when we stand up as the Torah scroll is being lifted up during Hagbaha and we point to the holy words of the Torah and say ‘This is the Torah that Moses placed before the Children of Israel, upon the command of G-d, through Moses’ hand’, we are basically declaring the cardinal tenet of faith that the Torah now in our hands is the same one that G-d transmitted to Moses.

And if this is indeed the exact same Torah that we received over 3300 years ago at Mount Sinai and we are still reading from it and absorbing its beautiful wisdom and life lessons till this very day, it can only mean that the Torah is as relevant and applicable today as it ever was.

Who knew that a simple Hagbaha contained within it such a powerful and “uplifting” message?!

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