20 Elul 5783/September 6, 2023
by Cantor David Berger
Rabbi Jacob Moelin (~1355-1427), known as the Maharil, was the leading expert on Jewish custom in 15th century Germany, when conditions were difficult and Jewish communities struggled to keep tradition alive. The Maharil taught that there is always a way.
Asked if an ill prepared Torah reader might chant from a book while another follows along in the scroll, the Maharil immediately affirms that solution (New Responsa #23) and goes further. What about, he ponders, when this unprepared reader faces a flawed Torah scroll? Surely that would prevent the community from reading Torah. Not so, he decries, “since our Torah scrolls are not made properly as there is not, these days, a human being sufficiently proficient in the minutia of Hebrew spelling.” The Maharil invokes a radical rabbinic principle based on a deliberate mistranslation of Psalm 119:126 (“Time to act for God – your law is being broken”). “Time to act for God,” he says – “Break your Torah!” The sacred act of Torah reading is more important than slavish adherence to rules – so bring your unprepared reader to your flawed scroll and make it work.
Our chaotic world gives us ample reasons to give up and let go of our precious traditions. But this is when we must say, “Time to act!” and do what is right.
Let us take up the Maharil’s determination to do our best no matter the circumstances, fill our lives with gratitude, our homes with Jewish celebration, and our communities with hope for a better tomorrow.