I’m so glad to see all of you here this morning, and I’m grateful for your presence. I am throwing myself this siyyum to celebrate the Torah reading that I’ve done since I started rabbinical school.
I didn’t know how to chant Torah when I started rabbinical school. Let’s be honest, I barely knew Hebrew at the beginning of rabbinical school. So my first bit of thanks should go to Rabbi Daniel Klein for taking a chance on me.
I enrolled in Cantillation my Mekorot year with Cantor Louise Treitman. I was terrified to have to do the singing aloud that the class required. I didn’t know how to learn music. I couldn’t keep the trope sounds or names in my head long enough to practice. But somehow I made it work. And so I first read Torah in this space on Rosh Hodesh Iyyar five years ago, the second aliyah, along with other members of my class. I think the feeling of standing here that morning has long since been eclipsed by the hundreds of times I’ve since stood here — but that morning something grabbed me. And I grabbed back. I became one of the מַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ.
For the past five years, I’ve leyned almost every Shabbat. During the school year, I’ve tried to do the same here as often as I could on Monday and Thursday. I feel confident that I can chant any part of any parshah, and I feel confident that someday I will chant every part of every parshah. But I learned from experts, and I read alongside experts. I’m no expert. I still sometimes forget trope, misremember vowels, mispronounce consonants. I still find myself up at an amud with shaky knees.
But over these past five years, something has happened, and that something is that I’ve gotten better.
Part of getting better is knowing how to practice. I now know how to learn an aliyah: I know how much time I need, and how to split up that time. I know where and when to practice. And I know that practice, and more practice, and more still practice, is the only way to continue getting better.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell claims that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” It’s not a sufficient condition for success, he emphasizes. His point is that that even natural ability takes an enormous amount of time to be made manifest. If I had to guess I’d say I’m probably at about 1/5 of that, maybe 2,000 hours over the past five years.
Where has that gotten me? I can start with statistically, because I’ve kept track, in a spreadsheet, of every verse of Torah I’ve read. To date, since April 2013, I’ve read 63.5% of Torah: 79% of Bereshit; 75% of Shemot; 52% of Vayikra; 38% of Bemidbar; and 69% of Devarim. I’ve read something from all but three parshiyot (Behar, Bechukotai, and Beha’alotcha), and I have a plan to remedy that before ordination.
Ironically, I haven’t leyned any of Genesis 14, the subject of my Capstone and a good 24 verses that I practically know by heart by now.
I’ve read all of Vayeira, Chayei Sarah, Mikeitz, Yitro, Ki Tisa, Vayakhel, Pekudei, Tazria, Acharei Mot, Vayeilech, Ha’azinu, V’Zot HaBracha — and Ki Teitzei. Yes, I have leyned all of Ki Teitzei, the parshah I’ve been telling anyone who will listen how much I dislike.
A few years back Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a short piece in The Atlantic: “A Quick Note on Getting Better at Difficult Things.” He talks about the experience of learning French as an adult: He doesn’t believe in fluency, he says, but he believes in getting better. He says, “There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it. Everyone should do it every ten years or so.”
But getting better, he notes, is really about getting better at stumbling. And for me, stumbling when reading Torah takes a lot of different forms.
One of the most painful experiences I’ve had reading Torah was a few years ago, here, on Yom HaShoah. We were reading the weekday section of Emor. I got to the line
וּבַת אִישׁ כֹּהֵן כִּי תֵחֵל לִזְנוֹת–אֶת-אָבִיהָ הִיא מְחַלֶּלֶת בָּאֵשׁ תִּשָּׂרֵף. (Vayikra 21:9)
And I just started crying; it was just a ghastly line to be reading that day — or any day, really. And I don’t think the coincidence even occurred to me as I practiced. It was only as I was up here, at this amud, in front of the scroll. In that moment I was overwhelmed with anger at Torah. I felt physically ill. I felt helpless, imprisoned by the unfeeling cycle of the weekly parshiyot that have been chanted for generations with the same regularity since Ezra instituted public Torah reading.
It’s Yom HaShoah, I thought, and I just made it possible for everyone to hear the Torah’s directive to burn a woman to death.
I wish that I had stopped and taken a few moments to compose myself, but after a brief pause I just kept reading, tears streaming and my voice catching. Some of you were in the beit midrash that day, and many of you realized what was happening. But at least one person in the room had no clue, and that person was one of the gabba’im. He just kept staring at me, blinking uncomprehendingly and incredulously as I warbled through the end of the aliyah. I think he thought I was crying because I was doing a poor job of leyning.
And to be fair, I have done exactly that. The worst was Shabbat Ki Tavo four years ago, when I was reading all 63 verses of the sixth aliyah: the tribes, divided between Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval, shouting back and forth. It was my first paid gig at this synagogue. And my mind just went blank; I could hardly remember anything: not the words, not the trope. Total disaster. It was brutal. The balm for that morning, however, was one of the elderly congregants who came up to me afterwards and said, “I totally understand what happened. It was all of those curses! You are so sensitive that it was hard for you say them!” (The congregation was kind enough to give me another chance, and I continued leyning for them regularly on Shabbat for about a year.)
And as Rabbi Victor Reinstein and a few of the Nehar Shalom-niks that are here know, each year I cry leyning on Simchat Torah, my favorite holiday (obviously). I always read the end of Devarim, and I have to pause and let the tears flow for just a moment when I get to the line:
וַיָּמָת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד-ה’, בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב–עַל-פִּי ה’. (Devarim 34:5)
As conflicted as I am about Moshe as a leader, by the fall each year he’s become a good friend, and I mourn his death and the fact that he won’t get to see his life’s work completed.
In thinking about what I wanted to share today, I didn’t expect that so many of my stories would center around the gut-wrenching emotional side of leyning. And there are many other stories. But I think what I shared today makes sense for where we are in Torah right now, parshat Shemini.
It’s traditionally understood that this parshah contains, by words, the center of the Torah, the space between the two words דָּרֹשׁ דָּרַשׁ (Vayikra 10:16). “He diligently inquired . . .” In other words, דָּרֹשׁ ends the first half of Torah, and דָּרַשׁ starts the second half. In many scrolls, דָּרֹשׁ also ends a line, while דָּרַשׁ begins the next one. The Chida says:
This means – when you have expounded (darosh) the Torah to the point that you think you have exhausted all its meaning, and you think that you are at the very end of the line – not the line of layout, but the line of enquiry and scholarship – you should realize that you are really only expounding the beginning of the line.
The work continues; there is always more to say.
But I learned Vayikra from Rabbi Nehemia Polen, so I want to talk about a slightly different center of Torah. The chapter in which the words דָּרֹשׁ דָּרַשׁ appear begins with the death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu in a devouring fire. דָּרֹשׁ דָּרַשׁ is what Moshe does when he checks the offerings and discovers that Aharon and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, didn’t eat the sin offering that was meant to expiate the people. Moshe flunks his pastoral counseling class as he angrily confronts Aharon for not doing what he was meant to.
A grieving parent, Aharon responds. What, today, did God want me to eat the sin offering?
Nehemia says, what Aharon means is, My heart is broken, and I didn’t agree to stop being a human being when I became high priest.
And Moshe has no response. How can he? Aharon is right.
Nehemia points out that it’s the way of priests to put the most important things in the middle. It’s true of the mishkan, it’s true of the temple, and it’s true of the P source. What happens here in this exchange is the heart of Torah. And it’s about the human heart. There are times when it breaks wide open, and we have to attend to it even amidst our most sacred rituals.
Vayikra is about the intimacy we create and maintain with God, and about what the presence of God on earth requires of us. And right in the middle of that, in parshat Shemini, we’re told that relationship with the divine means that we should never stop acting with our hearts.
For me, this has meant that I have learned as much from the technical reading of Torah as I have from what has emerged in that process.
To end, I want to thank a few people specifically. Cantor Louise Treitman, first and foremost, as I mentioned before, my principal teacher of trope. To whatever extent I am good at this, it is because of her. (All failings are my own.) I’d also like include many other cantors and cantorial students and faculty. Cantors are the holy transmitters of sacred Jewish music, and it has been cantors who have been generous with their time and patience to help me learn to read many of our most precious texts: I’m thinking specifically of Cantors Risa Wallach, Lynn Torgove, Vera Broekhuysen, Hinda Labovitz, Sarah Bolts, and Aliza Berger.
I also want to especially thank Rabbi Shayna Rhodes, who was a never-ending source of encouragement. In true Shayna fashion, one of the ways that she was helpful was to criticize. As Ebn had done for her, she would correct all mistakes in my reading — not just the ones that were technically correctable mistakes. I am a better reader of Torah because of her.
Thank you to Sigalit Davis and to Harvey Bock, for making me learn Hebrew grammar and pronunciation so well.
Thank you to Rabbi Victor Reinstein of Nehar Shalom, my spiritual home for the past five years. He created and nurtured a community of practicers — in so many senses of that word. For years, I got up and read Torah nearly every Shabbat, and no one there made me feel anything but appreciated for my efforts.
Thank you to my classmates, the best people I know, and the ones who have supported me through everything, including this maniacal quest, these past six years.
And thank you to all of you, the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. Many of you have sat patiently through some pretty questionable leyning over the years.
I am sorry that Rabbi Ebn Leader can’t be here today, but I want to share what part of what he wrote to me from Israel. “The Torah is eternal, but heaven forbid, she could also be eternally dead . . . It is the breath of those who read her words that give her life with which she can then continue through eternity. It is in the communal ritual of reading Torah, listening to it through each other’s voices, that we express our commitment to this ongoing process of giving life to Torah. Perhaps this is the meaning of חיי עולם נטע בתוכנו. God has planted within us the capacity to give life to that which is eternal. And through this of course, both sides, we and Torah, develop in wonderful and unexpected ways . . .”
May it ever be so, and may we strive to make true the words that we sing at the end of our ritual reading of Torah, the anthem of spiritual practice. הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ ה’ אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה.
Thank you — shavua tov, and chag sameach!
Salem Pearce is a student at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.