What does it mean to open the Ark?
In my experience the Torah service exhibits more diversity than any other part of a Jewish service. Reading length varies across denominations. General approach ranges from informal circles embracing Torah to formal, long-standing choreography. And the Torah service is one spot where women’s absence on the bima, in congregations without egalitarian practice, is the most obvious. Moreover, it is one of the few moments where division of Jews into Kohen, Levite, and Yisrael is still obvious in Orthodox and Conservative congregations (where a kohen [priest] is called to the first aliyah [“going up” Torah honor] and a Levite to the second).
How much is shared across this variety? And what do the variations mean? — Are they matters of custom, preference, and leadership style, or theology? Which one(s) work for you and why?
The Torah service is not the only point when the Ark is open. But the beginning of the Torah service presents a prominent opportunity to contemplate what it means to us, individually and communally, to open the Ark… to approach Torah and have Torah brought into our midst.
Here is a prayer of my own, based on words commonly recited as the Ark is opened. Below that are links to the prayers that inspired mine — B’rich Shmei and Anim Zmirot — and more thoughts on opening the Ark.
What is your prayer for approaching the Torah?
To what are you opening?
Entering the Torah Service
Here in this Torah Service we travel the wilderness in the company of the Ark, stand again at Sinai, and re-enact the process of transmission and interpretation as multiple individuals rise to bring the Torah from script to voice. Time collapses. We join the ageless chorus reciting verses that challenge and comfort, awe and enrage, perplex and command. We feel the presence of Jews who have experienced much, in endurance and in celebration, preserving these words. We feel the call of future Jews depending on us to grasp this Tree of Life and hold it for them.
At this expansive point we pray that our hearts open to the essence of Torah and ask for the gift of God’s good light to guide us through our daily lives.
In this precious, liminal moment, fear and need merge with strength and hope. May we all, particularly those observing lifecycle events at the Torah, emerge from this service with a renewed sense of blessings. Let the divine flow of communication represented here bring to us, and to all whom we touch, peace, mercy, sustenance, and gratitude. Thank you for this good teaching. Amen
More on Opening the Ark
בריך שמה דמרא עלמא
Blessed is the name of the ruler of the universe
(from Zohar, parashat vayakhel)
The Zohar says, “Rabbi Shimon said: When the scroll of Torah is removed from the ark to be read to the congregation, the heavenly gates of mercy are opened and love is aroused in the world above. Here a person adds….”B’rich sh’mei d’marei alma…. [Blessed is the name of the ruler of the universe!…]”
Blessed is the name of the Master of the universe. Blessed is your crown and your place [v’atrach] May You love your people Israel forever. Reveal the salvation of your right hand to your people in your sanctuary. Lead us to discover the goodness of your light, and accept our prayer in mercy. May it be your will to prolong our lives in happiness.
I am the servant of the Holy One, whom I revere and whose Torah I revere at all times. Not on mortals do I relay, nor upon angels [or “messengers”] do I depend, but on the God of the universe, the God of truth whose Torah is truth, whose prophets are truth, and who abounds in deeds of goodness and truth. In God do I put my trust; unto God’s holy, precious being do I utter praise. Open my heart to Your Torah. Answer my prayers and the prayers of all Your people Israel for goodness, for life, and for peace. Amen.
–See My People’s Prayer Book
אַנְעִים זְמִירוֹת וְשִׁירִים אֶאֱרֹג כִּי אֵלֶיךָ נַפְשִׁי תַּעֲרֹג
Soothing songs and poems I weave because my soul longs for You.
I was also inspired by a woman’s kavvanah [intention] associated with Anim Zemirot. This hymn is recited when the Ark is open, sometimes early morning, sometimes in concluding prayers; sometimes on Shabbat, often on Festivals. It is not included in the Shabbat Mishkan T’filah, but it does appear in the Weekday/Festival edition. Here’s a link to the full text of Anim Zemirot, sometimes called “Shir HaKavod [Song of Glory],” as well as several recordings.
Master of the universe. Just as the Holy Ark is opened here, so may a window be opened in heaven: the gates of mercy. May my prayer be accepted among the other pure prayers that are surely accepted before You, and may it be a crown for Your head….Remember me, my husband, my beloved children, and dear ones, at the time that is called a time of favor and a time of success, so that our lives may be called lives of joy, lives of sustenance, lives of blessing, lives of peace, lives of mercy, and of Your good teachings. Bless us with the three keys that have never been handed over to any emissary, but come about only through Your own blessing. With this I conclude; hurry to my aid, God of my deliverance.
…Protect us all from that which my heart fears, and spare me, my husband, and my children from mortal charity. Hear my prayer [name of worshipper], daughter of [mothers name], as You heard the righteous Hannah and the other righteous women. Amen. Selah
— A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book. Aliza Lavie NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2008
More Thoughts on Opening the Ark
A few more thoughts, from two different prayer books, on opening the Ark and taking out the Torah…
We approach the Torah slowly. First we open the ark so that the Torah is visible. We look at the Torah but refrain from touching. Next, the Torah is removed from the ark and held by the service leader. Later the Torah is carried through the congregation, and everyone can touch the Torah. This demonstrates that the Torah is not the property of those leading the services; the Torah belongs to the Jewish community. Finally, the coverings of the Torah scroll are removed, allowing us a privileged intimacy with the words we hear.
– Dan Ehrenkrantz, Kol Haneshamah [Reconstructionist] siddur
The verses we sing when we take the Torah scroll from the Ark and when we return it recall the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, when they carried the Ark with them….We are a people defined by history. We carry our past with us. We relive it in ritual and prayer. We are not lonely individuals, disconnected with past and present. We are characters in the world’s oldest continuous story, charged with writing its next chapter and handing it on to those who come after us.
–Jonathan Sacks in Koren Sacks [Orthodox] Siddur, p.xxxiv-xxxv
I asked local scholar Norman Shore for help with understanding the “three keys.” Here are the sources he provided, shared with gratitude.
R. Johanan said: Three keys the Holy One blessed be He has retained in His own hands and not entrusted to the hand of any messenger, namely, the Key of Rain, the Key of Childbirth, and the Key of the Revival of the Dead. The Key of Rain, for It is written, ‘The Lord will open unto thee His good treasure, the heaven to give the rain of thy land in its season,’ (Deut 28:12) The Key of Childbirth, for it is written, ‘And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb.'(Gen 30:22) The Key of the Revival of the Dead, for it is written, ‘And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves.’ (Ezek 37:13). In Palestine they said: Also the Key of Sustenance, for it is said, Thou openest thy hand etc. (Ps 145:16) Why does not R. Johanan include also this [key]? — Because in his view sustenance is [included in] Rain.
— Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 2a-2b
And it came to pass after a while, that the brook dried up, because there had been no rain in the land (1 Kings 17:7). Now, when [God] saw that the world was distressed [because of the drought], it is written, ‘And the word of the Lord came unto him (Elijah), saying, Arise, get thee to Zarephath’ (ibid 8ff). And it is further written, ‘And it came to pass after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick’ (ibid 17). Elijah prayed that the keys of resurrection might be given him, but was answered, “Three keys have not been entrusted to an agent: of birth, rain, and resurrection. Shall it be said, ‘Two are in the hands of the disciple and [only] one in the hand of the Master?’ Bring [Me] the other and take this one, as it is written, ‘Go, shew thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth’ (ibid 18:1).”
–Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 113
Footnotes, like text, from Soncinco, public domain edition:
1) Since the key of rain was already in Elijah’s possession, and now he was asking for the key of resurrection too.
2) I but not Thou. The whole passage is adduced to shew how God, having given the key of rain to Elijah, obtained its return, and that the illness of the widow’s son was for that purpose.