When you visit the “Bob Dylan’s American Journey” exhibit, now at the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, the very first thing you see is a 1940s-era Martin Guitar. It’s a 000-18, narrow at the waist, with lovely mahogany back and sides, and a spruce top mellowed and burnished with the passage of time. In pristine condition, such a guitar would be tremendously valuable, perhaps $15,000-20,000. This poor instrument, however, is not in pristine condition. It is weathered, banged up all over, cracked here and there, probably not even in fair condition. And, this poor instrument has actually been carved on – words have been etched right into the wood!
But on closer examination, it becomes clear that the fact of these defects — the dings on the face, the belt-buckle scratches, the writing — would drag the value of the guitar down less than their source would lift the value up. For scratched into the back of that beat-up 000-18 are the words, “This machine kills fascists. Woody.”
Standing face to face with one of Woody Guthrie’s very own guitars, thinking about how he sang songs of peace and freedom with his fingers on those very frets, and how those songs had inspired Bob Dylan to write as well, was an awe-inspiring experience. I kept coming back to the guitar throughout the afternoon I spent at the Skirball last week, and lingered by it a long while before leaving. I thought about the pictures I’ve seen of Woody Guthrie singing with a “This machine kills fascists” sign taped to his guitar, and his companion Pete Seeger with a similarly inscribed banjo: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
That experience, and those instruments, come to mind in the context of the project we honor and celebrate this morning. For thirty years, Temple has been entrusted with a Czech memorial scroll, one of the 1,564 whose strange journey is described in your weekly handout. And while the scroll has held a treasured place in our Ark, and has been removed on occasion to teach, we haven’t given it the sort of “front-and-center” treatment that many congregations give the Czech scrolls they hold in trust…until now.
Two years ago, Aaron McCoy chose to read from this scroll at his Bar Mitzvah, and to connect its story to his own life. He shared the name of its town of origin – Ceske Budejovice – and Cheryl Gordon approached me after the service to tell me that her family was from there. She and Norman have graciously contributed the funds that have allowed us to give the scroll its new aron, and Dick Scherotter has shepherded the project. Soon, a lovely base, built by our Simon Bir, will round out the work, and the completed project will serve even better as a reminder of the glory that was European Jewry, and what was lost. The side panels tell the story of the Czech Memorial Scrolls project, the town of Ceske Budejovice, and the process of writing a sefer torah.
Norman and Cheryl have graced us with a gift that is part classroom, part aron kodesh, and part memorial to Cheryl’s family. We do not say “thank you” under these circumstances, but rather, tizku lamitzvot. Norm and Cheryl, may you be blessed with continued opportunities to teach and model serious, committed Jewish learning and living, for many years to come.
Like Woody’s guitar, this scroll is a bit beaten up. You should look so good at 180 years old. It is not ritually fit, nor can it be brought into kosher status. A hundred and twenty years in a Central European Ark and two decades in an inglorious stack of scrolls in Prague have taken their toll. But if Woody Guthrie’s machine kills fascists, this machine buries them.
With this machine as our guide, sixty years and more after Hitler’s defeat, we survive and thrive. In North America and Israel we find two of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the history of our people, and even amid the mass graveyard that is Central and Eastern Europe, there are signs of life. We know that all is not perfect, of course. Challenges, both external and internal, confront us. They always have, and they always will. But with Torah as a sign upon our hand and a symbol before our eyes, we are strong.
When you stand face-to-face with Woody Guthrie’s guitar, you come to know that it wasn’t the tone-wood and metal strings that killed fascists, but rather the songs that rang out from the sound-hole. So too, it is not the particular collection of wood and parchment before us that buries fascists, but rather the sound of people chanting the ever-new message, year after year: V’ahavta L’re’echa Kamocha; Ani Adonai. “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself; I am the Eternal One.” In the face of that love, hatred withers. In the presence of that conviction, fascism, ultimately, will surrender.
May this scroll, and the aron in which it rests, teach us and inspire us to strive for peace, for freedom, and for love, now and always.