Having three children around the age of B’nai Mitzvah, the chanting of Torah has been a familiar sound in our household, one that I find very melodic, beautiful, uplifting, and soothing. When presented in September with the opportunity to be part of the “Torah Readers Club” at our synagogue, Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot, I jumped at the opportunity to read from the Torah and immediately signed up.
For this inaugural year, each member of the “club” was assigned a different week to read from the Torah at Friday night Shabbat services. Rabbi Craig Lewis and Cantor Arie Shikler would provide us with the necessary materials and work with us to help master the portion if we needed help. I believe (and hope) there are plans to expand the scope of the club in the coming year to include a trope class where we actually learn cantillation, which are the signs and the notes in the reading of Torah that guide the reader to the proper melodies and intonations of each word. I was assigned the month of May. Our oldest, Harrison, who had his Bar Mitzvah last year, agreed to take on the month of February, and he began learning the melodies of this portion about two days before the service and chanted beautifully and flawlessly.
Having become a Bat Mitzvah exactly thirty years ago and having no trouble learning my Torah portion then, and seeing how easily it came to Harrison, I figured I’d need about a week to learn the portion. This proved to be just barely enough time, and it was definitely more difficult than I expected. These kids (not just my own, but all the ones whose Bar and Bat Mitzvahs we have had the pleasure of attending) make it look so easy, but it was actually quite an overwhelming undertaking.
I started by reading through the portion a few times (in Hebrew, not a transliteration, and I was pleased to see that my Hebrew reading skills are still very much intact). Then I listened to the CD provided by Cantor Shikler and spent some time practicing with the CD and using the side of the text page with vowels. The hard part was yet to come… using the side of the page with no vowels, which proved to be much more difficult!
By Thursday, I felt that I was as ready as I would ever be. Rabbi Lewis called to ask me if I wanted to stop by the synagogue to practice. I felt pretty confident and said that I was ready and didn’t think I needed to practice with him. He suggested that it might be a good idea to have a trial run with the Torah itself, rather than the text I had on my paper, so I agreed. (Who says “no” to the rabbi?)
He was so right. I was shocked at how different the words looked in the Torah itself. The handwriting and word spacing were very different from the text I had been using, and the words were on different lines. I hadn’t realized until this moment that I was a visual learner, so I definitely learned something new about myself. I hadn’t memorized the portion (you’re not supposed to do that), but I was familiar with the layout of the words and had a vision in my mind about what the passages looked like. When faced with the writing and layout looking different, coupled with the awe of actually reading from the sacred Torah scrolls (which has a slight intimidation factor), I actually froze for a minute and my mind went blank. Definitely a good thing that I practiced with the Torah.
Because I know that the mitzvah of studying Torah is more about learning from the values and morals embedded in the meaning of the words, rather than just being able to recite the words themselves, I decided that it was important for me to read the translation and understand what I was reading. The portion was Behar (Exodus 25:14-17), and it was very interesting. It basically says that during a transaction for the sale and purchase of land, we should be honest in our business dealings and not be deceitful with the other party. Even if the other party doesn’t know we’re being dishonest, God always knows. I also learned that the purchase price of land was based on how many harvests were left for the land rather than the size or location of the property. Very different than modern real estate considerations.
We went out to dinner with friends from synagogue before services and sat with these friends during the service. Between that and all the Facebook well-wishes, I knew that I had the support and encouragement of many people. Before services began, I looked around and noted that every seat was full, and we had gone into “overflow” mode. It was a well-attended service with many nice occasions such as our annual teacher and madrachim appreciation Shabbat, youth band, and youth choirs being featured, and the sixth graders (of which we have two) being called to the bima to recite a prayer and receive a blessing. As I sat in the synagogue praying with our congregation, singing the familiar prayers and melodies, and enjoying the service, I began to feel nervous, but then I realized that there was no reason to be. I was with my temple family, in my Jewish community. Our cantor would be by my side and would help me if I got stuck. No one was there to judge me or to criticize if I made a mistake. It dawned on me that this wasn’t a performance…no one, not our congregation or God, would care if I wasn’t perfect… what was important was that I was doing it.
When it came time, I took a deep breath, used the yad to find my starting place, and began. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling that washed over me as I chanted – such a feeling of awe that I was reading from our sacred and holy text, that I was performing this great mitzvah. I felt close to God, almost as if He were right there on my shoulder, and I had this overwhelming feeling of power and “rightness” – as if I were meant to chant from the Torah. As I finished the section (basically flawlessly, although I stumbled over one word), I was disappointed that it was over. Visiting with friends and fellow congregants at the Oneg Shabbat afterwards, it was such a wonderful feeling to receive their positive accolades, and Rabbi Richard Steinberg’s e-mail later that weekend saying “great job, well done” meant a lot to me. Even more than all the praise, which was nice, I had such an amazing feeling of accomplishment…there’s a great deal of satisfaction in struggling with something truly difficult and mastering it, then demonstrating that mastery in front of your whole community. In all it was a wonderful experience that I highly recommend, and I will definitely sign up again next year.