Imagine it is time for you to go up to the Torah, perhaps your bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. You are about to become a witness and participant in the reading and interpretation of Torah. Go ahead, approach the aron, the ark; it represents the Ark of the Covenant, in which the Israelites carried the carved tablets with the Ten Commandments in the wilderness. The doors of the ark are opened. You will cross a threshold in your life as an elder or leader of the community places the Torah in your arms. The sacred mantle of leadership is upon you.
Experience the weight, feel, and appearance of the Torah. Most likely it will be dressed in an embroidered cover, a Torah mantle. (Sephardic communities encase their Torahs in beautifully painted cases.) The Torah is dressed according to the garments of Aaron, the high priest, who wore a blue robe embroidered with pomegranates alternating with real golden bells along the bottom. (Exodus 28:34) Folklore says this fruit has 613 seeds, which is our sage Maimonides' (Rambam) accounting of the total number of mitzvot in the Torah.
The forehead of the high priest was crowned by a piece of hammered gold with the words kodesh l’Adonai, “holy to God,” engraved upon it. When they can afford to do so, communities commission a crown, keter, or crowns of precious metal to place atop the Torah scroll to reflect this memory. The crown is also said to symbolize God as melekh, “king,” which can be understood as a metaphor for the governing principles of creation.
Gold bells, rimonim, dangled from the hem of the high priest’s robe. The crown of your Torah likely has tiny bells that tinkle when it is lifted. The community would be alerted by the bells to the presence of the high priest in their midst. Commentators also imagined the high priest’s experience in Temple's Holy of Holies (kodesh kodashim) as so wonderfully intense, that his soul might leave his body in order to cling to this experience of God. Our sages understood the bells on his robe a signal system, alerting temple workers to run into the Holy of Holies to save the high priest’s life, should the bells cease ringing.
The Torah in your arms may be wearing a precious metal breastplate, the chosen mishpat, breastplate of judgement. The high priest wore this for ritual occasions. It was embedded with twelve stones, representing each of the tribes, and it had a secret compartment containing stones known as the "uriim v'tumim" used for decision making, aka, judgments.
The Torah scroll is mounted on two wooden rollers that are its handles. These are called the eitz chayyim (atei chayyim, pl), the Tree of Life. You may remember the trees that stood in the Garden of Eden: the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life has traveled through time and become the words of Torah. You are holding the Tree of Life in your arms.
The yad, a pointer, often made of precious metal and shaped like a hand with one finger pointing, will likely be hanging over one of the eitz chayyim roller handles. The pointer’s shape recalls what the Torah says (Exodus 32:18), that the Ten Commandments were written in stone with the “finger of God.”
There is a artistically beautiful between readings (aliyot) cover that is placed over the Torah. It is customary not to chat between each section of the Torah reading, "Bein gavra l'gavra," so out of respect many Ashkenazi communities have such a cover and it is called a "Bein Gavra." This protects the Torah in the interim, just as we cover the challah on Shabbat while blessing the candles and the wine.
You see, all of your life you have been traveling toward Mount Sinai, which is symbolized by the bimah, the stage or reader’s platform, sometimes just the front of the congregation. At your ritual, you will make aliyah, “ascend,” as Moses ascended the mountain, in order to bring down Torah for your people.
Receiving Torah can change your life; it has for our people. What a wonder that the Israelites did not replicate the system of pharaoh, taskmasters, and slaves out there in the wilderness! Instead, they entered the promised land after a journey from slavery to freedom based on what was then a radical new system for living that today we know began as Torah.
You will carry that radical document, Torah, the record of our people’s journey from slavery to freedom, through the community on the day you hold, read and/or interpret Torah, whether as a youth or adult. Torah contains the first known guidelines for how to create a society based on respect, freedom, and love within healthy social structures.
Faces from the story of your life—family, community, teachers, and friends—will be looking at you as you turn to face them with the sacred scroll in your arms. They will see and hear you in a new light, stepping into the role of teacher, rabbi, cantor and high priest, whenever you do so, and especially on the occasion or bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. They will see you in the light of Torah.