Well, this past Shabbat I really did it to myself!
I volunteer for my synagogue in a number of capacities, and the main role I have is as one of four volunteers, fondly nicknamed the Yad Squad. Yad mean hand in Hebrew, and it can refer to a pointing tool used by those who chant from the Torah scroll on Saturday mornings, and on weekdays and festivals when we read the Torah (the Hebrew Bible, the first five books – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).
There are four of us in the Yad Squad (a “quad”), and we rotate months assigning readers. November is my month. But, even though I know it’s coming, I often find myself scrambling to assign readers at the last minute. This year, that was compounded by my just having finished scrambling to assign readers for our many, many fall holidays, all of which needed Torah readers!!
So, at the beginning of last week, I still had four of the seven readings unassigned. I sent out my desperate plea, and got some volunteers for later in the month, but no one for these last four. So, I put my own name in, figuring that I had enough time to prepare four portions.
Well, I would have had time, if I had actually started preparing before Friday night!! But the week slipped by, and when I did finally sit down, as I was preparing dinner on Friday afternoon, I was a bit overwhelmed at the amount of reading I had inadvertently assigned myself.
So, I got to work.
I ended up spending about an hour on Friday night, around dinner, and then woke at 7am, and studied solidly for 2 1/2 hours to get the Hebrew words a phrases memorized. The trick of chanting from the Torah is that the scroll lacks vowels and punctuation, so the reader must learn the patterns, and it helps to have some understanding of the words in order to remember how to correctly pronounce the words, let alone chant the musical patterns melodiously.
The great thing about learning a portion of the Torah to chant it is that if offers the reader a chance to dive deep into the words, and new insights emerge from such deep contemplation. And, of course, repetition helps with any learning activity. One point which leapt out at me in studying this portion was the pronunciation of the Hebrew letter Ayin – ע – which is often pronounced as a “silent” consonant. And, yet, Ayin is properly a voiced pharyngeal approximant or fricative, which is very difficult for most westerners to pronounce. It’s sort of a “G” sound, generated deep in the throat. At the very least, the Ayin should be marked by a glottal stop, which I try to remember, but don’t always manage.
At any rate, in the Torah portion I was learning, the name Sodom – סדמ – spelled with the letter Samech (“S”), Dalet (“D”), and Mem(“M”) (reading from right-to-left), is clearly “S’dom”. But the accompanying town, Gomorrah, which we all know to be linked in destruction with Sodom? It is spelled – עמרה – Ayin – Mem – Resh – Hey. One would think this should be pronounced “Amorrah”, not “Gomorrah”. Reminding me that the Ayin that we often do not vocalize really does have a pronunciation that should be observed.
The portions that I read were rich in narrative (as is almost all of Genesis, which is always the book we read in the fall, after the High Holidays mark the renewal of the cycle of readings back to the Beginning. This section I learned includes Lot receiving warning from angels of the Lord that Sodom, where he has come with his family, will be destroyed. In this portion, Lot’s wife looks back and is turned to a pillar of salt (we all know this story, and yet, it is only told in a 6-word sentence in the text). Lot’s son-in-laws think he’s a fool, and refuse to leave with him, and so they, too, are destroyed in sulfurous fire.
Lot, with his two daughters, who now constitute the only survivors of this annihilation, go up into the hills, and dwell in a cave. Lot is too frightened to leave the cave, and the daughters fear that their family will die out, so they scheme to inebriate their father, and each daughter goes to lie with him, and become pregnant so that their seed may live on. As I studied this extraordinary passage, I couldn’t help but wonder what poor Lot thought of these sons/grandsons of his!
And, finally, the last part that I read told the story of Abraham journeying south with Sarah, but then lying about her relationship to him, saying she was his sister, and placing the king, Abimelech, in a position of potential compromise. God speaks to Abimelech in a dream, and tells him that he prevented him from sinning with Sarah. It’s such a perplexing story. Why does Abraham put his wife in this risky and vulnerable position?
So, despite the fact that I didn’t allow myself enough time to learn such a hefty amount of the Torah to chant, I had a lot to think about, and fortunately, the rest of this month is almost completely assigned, so I won’t have to struggle through nearly two columns of Torah reading again this month (or put my poor fellow congregants through the pain of hearing my struggle!).
Shavua tov! A good week to all!