My friend Sue used to volunteer at a prison in Michigan City, Indiana. She led worship services and celebrated holidays with the Jewish prisoners. They even had a name for their community: Beit Heirut, House of Freedom.
Now, this is an unusual name for a group of men in a prison, and, when asked, they would tell you all about how there were certain freedoms for them that they attained through their worship and camaraderie. Their name aside, there were, of course, many restrictions put on Beit Heirut – the House of Freedom – because they were in such an unusual setting. One Hanukkah, for instance, the volunteers wanted to bring in home-baked goods (a real no-no in prisons and, well, schools I guess) like potato pancakes (latkes). For many Jews, Hanukkah just isn’t the same without latkes, those delicious, greasy symbols of the miracle oil that burned for eight days when it should have run out after one. The volunteers were told that they couldn’t bring in latkes from home, so that year the men in Beit Heirut – the House of Freedom – celebrated Hanukkah with McDonald’s hash browns (which, ironically, are probably healthier anyway).
The members of Beit Heirut – the House of Freedom – worshipped like we do for the holidays. They prayed from the same prayerbooks that many Jews “on the outside” use; they sang the songs we sing and they told sermons about topics that are difficult for all of us – things like teshuvah, or repentance; forgiveness and finding the holy in everyday life. There is nothing like hearing a man who is serving a life sentence for murder talk about forgiveness to make you stop and think, that’s for sure.
One thing that the men did not have was a Torah – the holy scripture. Torahs are expensive, and, while old prayerbooks can be found in used book stores and in forgotten storage places in overcrowded synagogues, one is unlikely to find an unused Torah hanging around. Physically, they’re heavy, big, awe-inspiring things: two heavy wooden posts with yards and yards of parchment wrapped around them. The production of a Torah takes hours and hours, and, well, you just don’t find them lying around.
We Jews revere the Torah. We have a special place to put it when it’s not being read. We stand when it is presented to the congregation. It is an honor to bless it, carry it, dress it and certainly to read from it. Torahs are checked regularly to make sure that they remain intact and are not pasul – unfit for public reading. Sadly, when a Torah becomes torn or otherwise unreadable it is retired from public use and destined to be buried – mourned forever by the community it leaves.
It was such a Torah that my friend Sue managed to find and acquire as a donation to the men of Beit Heirut – the House of Freedom. Pasul – yes – and unfit for the general community – it was almost fitting that this dejected Torah spend the last of its days in this unusual brotherhood of Jews.
The men of Beit Heirut – the House of Freedom – were elated. To have their own Torah from which to read, to honor, with which to dance – this was a true cause for celebration. They didn’t care whether or not it was pasul – they just cared that they be able to embrace this wonderful gift and treat it as it deserved to be treated.
When one is not reading a Torah, it’s not like you put it on a shelf in the office or stick it in a drawer. It sits in a very special place – the Aron Kodesh, or holy Ark. When you enter a synagogue sanctuary, the Aron Kodesh is often at the front of the room. They are likely to be majestic structures, ornate and decorative. Magnificent even. They have words on them like holy, community, and Torah.
What were the men of Beit Heirut – the House of Freedom – to do? They didn’t have the means to purchase an Aron Kodesh, and it surely would be impossible to get one donated to this ragtag group of Jews.
The members of Beit Heirut approached the warden of the prison. Did he have any ideas? Was there any wood that they could acquire to build an Aron Kodesh? They had skills, and the prison had a woodshop. All they needed was the material from which to build the holy Ark.
The warden had a solution. There was an old wooden table that the prison was no longer using. The men could use the table to build their Ark.
This would work. The men could use the table and repurpose it to house their Torah. Not only would they have this wonderful Torah to have as their own, they would be able to honor it as it required, with its own home.
The table was taken out of storage, the men got to work, and the Aron Kodesh was built. The men of Beit Heirut – the House of Freedom – were happy. Their community felt sacred.
Why am I telling you this story in a blog about healing from divorce?
You didn’t ask me what the table used to be used for.
Go ahead. I’ll wait. Ask.
You’ve seen prison movies, right? You know prison lore, don’t you? What’s one of the last things that happens before a condemned prisoner is put to death?
He or she gets that last meal. You know – their last chance to eat that great steak (extra cholesterol, please), fatty fries and super-creamy chocolate pie. With a triple ice-cream milk shake, too. No calorie counting.
Where do you think they used to eat that last meal in the prison in Michigan City?
Uh-huh. On that table. The table that now houses the Torah, the sacred scroll of the community of Beit Heirut – the House of Freedom.
The men took that table – a symbol of the desperation of a person about to lose his life, the failings of a society that has no choice but to put such people to death, the sadness of a grieving family who wonders if “an eye for an eye” will ease their pain – and made it into one of the holiest symbols of the Jewish people.
Out of pain, suffering, and a last resort we can create a sacred space. This we learn from the story of the Aron Kodesh and the men of Beit Heirut – the House of Freedom.