Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Reading From The Torah - Part (0)

(I'm suggesting you begin reading this series on the 2010 Rosh Hashana Cleanse with Part (-2) and go in order. It'll make more sense. Enjoy.)
Since I moved back to LA in 2005, I started going to Nashuva: “A Spiritual Community of Prayer in Action” led by Rabbi Naomi Levy. It's like a temple, except we have no organization, no physical space (we meet in a rented church) and we only meet the first Friday of every month as well as High Holy Days. We have a band which is loud and fun, and musically diverse using tunes I'd never heard growing up originating from different Jewish traditions from Uganda through Spain.

There are a very few single people there and almost no one between the ages of 18-40 besides me. Originally we hoped it would grow that way, but it didn't. The few people who're interested in progressive Conservative based Judaism that age mostly went to Ikar another temple, led by a young female rabbi. I was very involved with Nashuva for three years hoping to help it grow like wild, until I realized the rabbi, though inspirational like I'd never encountered, was fearful the temple would take over her life if it became a full time temple. She'd had that happen with her first job and she was now a wife, a mother, a best-selling author and a religious lecture circuit mini-star. Her new book comes out next month. She's been on Oprah. 'Nuff said. And she didn't want to give any of that up, so she can squeeze in one day a month to give to Nashuva. I was seduced in to thinking it would grow because she spoke of wanting to make Nashuva into a worldwide movement. For that you need SOME organization, right? I was going to be the catalyst to making it all happen. But it didn't.

Regardless, through my participation at Nashuva, my spiritual and Judaic practice and interest has grown. I've read from the Torah for the first time since my bar mitzvah. I've learned a little Hebrew. I've gone to Israel a second time. I've done the practical exercises she'd sometimes given us in her sermons which lie somewhere between psychotherapy and the Mindfullness teachings of Jon Kabat-Zinn. I've come to host my own Shabbat dinners and festive Jewish gatherings, inviting Jews and non-Jews into a celebratory evening. And I've sought out Jewishness in other places: Rabbi Greyber's and Steven Klein's Shabbat Dinner/Study, LimmudLA (a 72-hour non-stop Jewish learning weekend), other progressive temples like Ikar and Or ha'Torah, and Jewish Federation.

But when it comes to high holidays, I still return to Nashuva.

Last year, however, I spent them with my mom at her temple in Bethlehem, PA. Because of that, the torah portion I'd read the previous two years on the first day of Rosh Hashana was given to someone else. And now they had dibs. It was a great passage. The first two Torah sections read on the high holy days. It's about Abraham and Sarah and how she asks him to turn Hagar and Ishmael out of their house into the desert with nothing but a skin of water. It is the genesis and ground zero of all conflict between Jews and Muslims. It's some important, meaningful shit. And now someone else was reading I found out. But the woman organizing the Torah readers asked if I'd like to learn a new section. The Maftir. It's the same portion read on Day 1 and Day 2. I was available both days, but it's long. And it's hard to learn Torah. It takes time. Still. When I decided I was going to do this fast I said yes.

It's a boring passage about what you're supposed to do on Rosh Hashana.

Numbers 29: 1-6 (NIV)
Feast of Trumpets
1 " 'On the first day of the seventh month hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work. It is a day for you to sound the trumpets. 2 As an aroma pleasing to the LORD, prepare a burnt offering of one young bull, one ram and seven male lambs a year old, all without defect. 3 With the bull prepare a grain offering of three-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil; with the ram, two-tenths [ ; 4 and with each of the seven lambs, one-tenth. 5 Include one male goat as a sin offering to make atonement for you. 6 These are in addition to the monthly and daily burnt offerings with their grain offerings and drink offerings as specified. They are offerings made to the LORD by fire-a pleasing aroma.

BO-RING. Animal sacrifices? Stuff Jews stopped doing 2000 years ago? Talk about anachronistic. I'm telling the congregation what we're ordered to do by God in the Torah and then…we don't do it. So why still say it? I struggled with this, as I struggled with the text and with the tune of the chanting. I learned tropes (musical notations for ancient Hebrew in the torah) when I was 12, but I'd forgotten them all. And anyway, High Holiday tropes are different. So I'd be doing it wrong even if I remembered them. Same symbol, different tune attached to it.

So I found an audio recording of some rabbi speeding through the portion and I stopped and started my little MP3 player again and again breaking down the words and making my own little hash mark notation to remind myself how far up and down he went with the tune for each word. You can't notate Hebrew with normal musical notation because it's read Right to Left. You can only put it down phonetically.

So learning it was a time consuming bitch. I contacted a brand new rabbi (as of May) I'd met twice before. She's the young asst. rabbi at Ikar actually (our competitor temple) and asked her if she had any advice on making meaning of the passage. She said think about how much value all those animal sacrifices set a person back 2000 years ago. It was a big deal. I tried that, but wasn't sure what I'd sacrifice. Monetary value? A lot. More than I bet I could afford. I mean, I've been unemployed for 36 of the last 72 months. Not a pretty figure in my bank account.

So I thought, what else can I give? Then I thought, TIME. Time is precious. I'm feeling it more and more as I grow older. And to spend 10 hours practicing a Torah portion for which I get nothing back in return is a sacrifice. It wasn't a perfect comparison, but it was something to start with.

I studied the piece again and again and finally I looked at the last line. The offerings made to the lord should have a pleasing aroma. While I wasn't making an animal sacrifice, I would be singing. Perhaps I could make my singing as sweet as possible. I should note that most reading from the torah is more chanting than singing. Done quickly, barely touching the notes and certainly not sustaining them. Moreover, most people hear Torah read at only two times, High Holy days and a relatives bar/bat mitzvah. On the High Holy days, they're often read by volunteers. Most of whom are not singers. Some of whom are downright hard to listen to. They often stumble through their passage not well practiced. Worse, at bar mitzvahs, people hear the Torah shredded with the voice of a pubescent boy cracking their way to the end as miserably as possible.

Few people hear the Torah read beautifully.

So what if I treated this my portion as a little aria? I could slow it down and hold out the high notes. Make it dramatic and flowing so that my sacrifice gives a sweet aroma to God and people hear the Torah as beautiful for the first time in a long time, or maybe even the first time ever.

It was settled. I had a plan.

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