Eitz Hayyim Hi/Lo BaShamayim Hi

This kavannah was given to Herzl-Ner Tamid Synagogue, WA, during the Shabbat of Parashat Toldot by Rabbinic Intern Natasha Mann.
Eitz Hayyim Hi/Lo BaShamayim Hi

‘Eitz hayyim hi l’mahazikim bah, v’tomheha m’ushar.’ She is a tree of life to those who hold fast to her, and all of her supporters are happy. It’s a phrase that we know well. We’ll sing it a little later, when we put the Torah scroll back into the ark. Sometimes we also sing it when we wrap the scroll after the Torah is read. Even the wooden poles of the Torah scroll are called the ‘atzei hayyim’ – the trees of life. ‘Eitz hayyim hi’ is obviously referring to the Torah.
Except… actually, it turns out that it’s not that simple. In that prayer for putting the Torah back in the ark comes an interesting liturgical sleight-of-hand. See, the prayer is made up of verses from different biblical books, and just before ‘eitz hayyim hi’ in the prayer, we have this verse: ‘Ki lekah tov natati lakhem, torati al-ta’azovu’ – ‘for I gave you a good inheritance; do not forsake my Torah’. And then we get the line, ‘She is a tree of life to those who hold fast to her’. Placing those separate verses together creates one long sentence, in which the ‘she’ is clearly Torah. But in its original context in Mishlei (Proverbs), this verse is actually referring not to Torah, but to Wisdom – hokhmah.
And Wisdom is pretty explicitly not Torah – wisdom is the kind of knowledge that you can only acquire through experience. Wisdom is a tree of life to those who hold fast to her. So why do we find it here, referring to the Torah instead of Wisdom? Why do we sing this to the Torah as we close the ark?
I think that a clue lies in the words ‘lamahazikim bah’ – ‘to those who hold fast to her’. Compare this with another of the most famous things ever said about the Torah, this one from the Torah itself: ‘Lo bashamayim hi’; 'the Torah is not in Heaven.’ This verse goes on to impress upon us that the Torah is here, with us. It’s not somewhere else. It’s not somebody’s job to go and get the Torah, and bring it to you. The Torah is not in Heaven. 
So our prayer, our liturgical sleight-of-hand, is telling us emphatically that Torah is here, with us, and that we should hold fast to her. And what better time to remind us than when the Torah scroll is in front of us, and when we are about to close the doors of the ark and hide her from sight?
What a blessing it is to be able to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of [name removed] today. [Name removed], as we watch you take ownership of your Jewish identity today, I pray that we should all learn from your example to hold fast to Torah.

Shabbat shalom, and mazal tov.


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