A few weeks ago, we began another cohort of our Adult B’nei Mitzvah class. In the second class I unwrapped the Torah and invited the students to come close and ask questions. It is one of my favorite things to do. Whether I am showing the Torah to kids or adults, someone always asks some version of this question: “Does it have the vowels in it?” Or “Does it have the trope marks? If not, how do you know how to read it?” The answer is always no, no matter which Torah you are looking at. Which is why reading Torah is not merely reading, it is revelation. I experience the way a leyner lifts the words off the scroll and sings them into the room as pure magic.
Thank you to everyone who reads Torah at Kol Tzedek. You are of incredible service to this community. And to Char Hersh, for coordinating leyning and make sure Torah can be revealed each week. I do not take any of this for granted.
The Torah service is meant to return us to Sinai, week after week, as many as three times a week! Which is a bit ironic, because from what I can tell, Sinai wasn’t much of a Torah service. Sinai was thunder and lightning, shofar blasts and looming clouds. It was Moses on the mountain for what felt like forever. And the people gathered at the foot of Mt Sinai, eager and terrified. Exodus 19:16 reads,
וַיְהִי בַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בִּהְיֹת הַבֹּקֶר וַיְהִי קֹלֹת וּבְרָקִים וְעָנָן כָּבֵד עַל־הָהָר וְקֹל שֹׁפָר חָזָק מְאֹד וַיֶּחֱרַד כׇּל־הָעָם אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּחֲנֶה׃
On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.
Based on the description in this week’s Torah portion Yitro, one might expect, or at least imagine, fireworks and a laser light show each week. Meanwhile the Torah service is all pomp and circumstance. It is highly scripted, ceremonial, and sometimes staid. The proscriptive calls and responses followed are by a sea of Hebrew few can understand. How did this become our weekly opportunity to stand again at Sinai?
We read in the 8th chapter of the book of Nehemiah (at the very back of a Tanakh),
“The entire people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the scroll of the Teaching of Moses with which the LORD had charged Israel…
They read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading. Nehemiah the Tirshatha, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were explaining to the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God: you must not mourn or weep,” for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Teaching.”
This is the very first Torah service. It probably took place a few thousand years after Sinai, likely around 300 years before the common era. Which was itself some 2300 years ago. The echoes of similarity, as Ezra opens the scroll and the people rise (in body or spirit), is eerily familiar. The continuity of practice that spans exile and diaspora is striking. As is the depth of emotion, the people prostrate and weep.
But perhaps what is most familiar is the fact that there were Levites working the crowd translating the text. The emphasis on understanding is core to learning Torah. In Nehemiah 8:2 it specifies, וְכֹל מֵבִין לִשְׁמֹעַ, everyone who could listen with understanding, was present. By the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the people were speaking Aramaic and very few understood Biblical hebrew. It required translators. When I first learned this text, it was a relief to realize that the problem of translation is not merely a postmodern, assimilationist dilemma.
We live in a time when listening with understanding is feeling increasingly impossible and urgently needed. It is meaningful for me to imagine that listening in a way that increases our understanding is core to what it has always meant to receive Torah.Torah was never meant to be inaccessible. In fact, it has always required translation and interpretation.
There is a midrash that imagines that in the moment when the Holy Blessed One revealed the Torah, it was whispered into the heart of every Israelite so that each person could uniquely understand and receive it.
Each week, with hearts full of longing, we sing Bei ana rachetz - דְּתִפְתַּח לִבָּאִי בְּאוֹרַיְתָא - Please open our hearts through your Torah.
May we merit to channel the drama of Sinai into our Torah service each week, as Torah is revealed to each of us anew.
And may our study of Torah allow us to listen in ways that increase understanding and bring us closer לְטַב וּלְחַיִּין וְלִשְׁלָם, to goodness, to life and to peace.
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.