Tuesday, February 28, 2006

285. Dancer

I just found out that a member of my congregation passed away, a woman of about 40, of cancer. She was diagnosed a few years ago with a particularly rare form, had surgery and chemo, and was pronounced just fine. Last year she had a recurrence. She leaves behind a husband and young boy and girl. I didn't know her personally aside from saying hello every once in awhile, but watched her almost every week for years dancing at the back of the sanctuary during services--she was thin as a rail and moved like a feather, blowing up and down, back and forth to the beat. She had a beautiful voice and would occasionally chant haftarah.

I saw her a few weeks ago and she seemed to be made of nothing more than energy and eyes, watching everything around her very intently because there was little else she could do, and perhaps to sear it forever in memory. I am so very sad for her children. I hope she's at peace.

Monday, February 27, 2006

284. Finally

Just about done. This was like writing a college paper, only much slower. (If I had written at this rate back then, I'd still be in college.) But I think I figured out how to say what I wanted. What follows is probably one of the longer bunches of words I'll ever post to this blog; one paragraph a day is much more my speed.

Parashat Tetzaveh: Jewels and Seeds

When I was a child, we lived down the block from not just one, but two kosher bakeries; I think my parents moved to the neighborhood for this fact alone. My grandfather was a baker, and my mother grew up behind the counter, ankle-deep in sawdust. So bread was serious business in our household. One of my very first responsibilities was to survey a vast array of each week's selections and make the important purchase: a loaf of rye bread with caraway seeds; the darkest pumpernickel, always sliced; or perhaps egg rolls, if they weren't too yellow. I never carried a crib sheet. The rule was unspoken, but I knew I had to commit all instructions to memory, as if making them a part of myself. And when I handed my mother the white waxed-paper bag with its aroma better than any perfume, and received a hug in return, I was certain I had the best job in the world.

Parashat Tetzaveh, which describes furnishings and rituals that made the tabernacle a fitting place for God to abide (Exodus 29:45), brought to mind this same sense of being overwhelmed by dizzying, loving detail. We're told how to prepare oil for the menorah, fashion priestly robes laden with precious jewels, prepare sacrifices, and build an altar upon which to burn daily offerings of incense. I can imagine the delight of shoppers and merchants at the marketplace in ancient days as they stopped work and, amidst the dust and noise of animals, beggars and crying children, listened to songs about magnificent holy garments. Because public readings of the Torah were translated into the vernacular by a meturgeman, an instantaneous interpreter, the audience could immediately understand and envision every color and precise instruction, rich and sensual as any love song, while also hearing the rhythm of the words as each bell, pomegranate ornament, and silk thread was piled atop the next.

Even though we still listen to the chanting of the Torah, only rarely is it translated at that same instant into our native language. We rely instead upon study of the written text to figure out what's happening. And, for me, the repetitive cadences of Parashat Tetzaveh provoke a frustrating cognitive challenge when read silently. Glorious details that must have come alive to ancient listeners become little more than long, confusing lists lacking a clear relationship to the reality they represent. I struggle to approach this part of the Torah with the same awe as its initial, spare sentences describing the origin of existence.

We live in a world of sensory overload, so much information swirling around that we can barely keep track. But life has no meturgeman to highlight what's important, and so we risk losing the ability to hear our collective music: the bells on the high priest's robe (28:33), the sounds of transformation when all the pieces fit together. As a graphic designer, I'm constantly challenged to maintain a relationship between larger messages and the smaller elements they comprise--type, punctuation, imagery, often crammed into a limited space. I must do the same when I chant Torah, learning its melody from tiny symbols that won't be in the scroll at the actual moment of the service. I used to approach this as a test of memory, but think of it now as the Torah's attempt to get me to understand the bigger picture, just as I did with those childhood orders of bread. If at a key moment I had to read instructions, instead of recalling what I've internalized in memory, I might be too distracted to notice the importance of my task, or the story behind the words I sing.

On the trip to Israel this past December, we held services one morning at the Southern excavations of the Western Wall. I was reminded of those photos taken from space which zoom in closer and closer from solar system to planet, and then to continent, country, city and, finally, to blade of grass. Blue sky above the Wall's top edge yielded to stones that reached down and turned into the rows of steps upon which we sat, leading to a small bimah and the scroll open to the day's portion. Zooming in even closer, the words on the parchment told the story of events that happened thousands of years ago below that very sky. Our tableau was like a page of Talmud, every letter and person a commentary surrounding the central text and creating layers of meaning that spiraled out from each other. And in the smallest details of that snapshot--noticeable only within a larger context--lay the most important part of the message.

"God is in the details," said minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe. But "Less is more," he also wrote, and created buildings with simple, ordered spaces that exposed the inherent qualities of materials and structural frameworks. This, for me, expresses the tension and challenge of reading Parashat Tetzaveh. The tabernacle becomes a fitting place for God to abide only when we, as the recipients of instructions surrounding its rituals, can see both inside and beyond them--can hear the music of its message over the din of the market, and synthesize those smaller parts into the larger story of how to build a place, and a way of life, that honors the words of Torah.

As we approach Purim, a holiday when we obscure identities by hiding our own important details, Parashat Tetzaveh reminds me of my mother's lesson: those poppy seeds on the rolls are important, but bringing the bread back home--growing up, and learning how to love and be responsible to individuals, and to the world--is much more so.

In memory of my mother, whose yahrzeit is on Purim, 14 Adar.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

283. Checking in

These past few days have been an interesting exercise in the pros and cons of trying to psych oneself out. Have I written my page? No. (But I'm trying to do so right now. Well, in a few minutes.) Have I thought about lots of other stuff I wanted to write here, but did not (and felt sad and frustrated as a result) because I vowed not to until I finished the other thing? Yes.

Today, however, I read this article in the New York Times, about a man who had four months to live and so finally said everything to his loved ones that he'd meant to say all his life, and also wrote a book. Then I went to a party for a dear friend who just had her second baby as a single mom, quite by choice. How will you have time and money for this? asked another, not shy friend. It'll work out just fine, said the mom. I'm not worried. Looking around the room at a dozen people who would always be around for her and her son and daughter, I understood the value of identifying the big things first--community, family, love--and trusting that the details--finding time to buy groceries, or write a d'var Torah--will somehow follow.

All of which made me realize I just had to sit down and finish the damn thing, since it's part of what's very right in my life and in no way worthy of any type of self-punishment. I must also acknowledge how truly stellar I am at the art of procrastination. If procrastination involved careening down a snow-covered mountain at top speed, I would have won multiple gold medals last week.

Monday, February 20, 2006

282. Very, very short break

I'm going to take a short blogging break because my brain is only able to write on one topic at a time, and I need to finish my little d'var Torah on Parashat Tetzaveh. Since I'm a champion procrastinator, even when it comes to good, fun things, I seem to be posting here as a way to avoid finishing that other page of thoughts. Only one page, I keep telling myself; over the past year I've written the equivalent of a whole book! But I'm very slow, have limited free time, and the deadline is somewhat sooner then a year. (Well, it was last week.) (And I did have three months.) (But we won't talk about that.)

Be back shortly.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

281. Central Park


I walked across Central Park the other day. This past week has been unseasonably warm, transforming two feet of snow into something like Italian ices mixed with mud. Getting around the Reservoir was slow and sticky, and at 11AM on a Thursday the storybook paths that usually teem with runners and kids on skates were almost empty.

Just as I was marveling at the good fortune of having all this acreage to myself, I noticed a man slipping and sliding towards me on the ice.

"Beautiful, no?" he said. It was Chaim, a security guard at my synagogue. He belongs in front of a door, peering into people's shoulder bags. It was jarring to see him in the middle of nature, minding his own business. We talked for a few moments, surrounded by melting rivulets that smelled of new soil, and he pointed out few small hills still virgin white. Then he continued on to the West side, and I (after documenting the moment with my camera phone, left) to the foreign East.

My uncles' stories, for some reason, continue to reverberate in my head. If we're all part of a larger song, like the rabbi suggested, maybe theirs was the rhythm in each of my steps as I crunched through snow that morning in the park. Sometimes I fear that being a repository of so many memories will distract me from newer experiences. But then a connection to the best parts of the present, like Chaim on the jogging track around a mirror of water, will appear when I least expect it.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

280. Ben and Estelle


Uncle Ben and Aunt Estelle lived a few miles east in a dark apartment filled with ceramic cherubs, tasseled lamps, and sofas covered with velvet brocade, but I didn't mind because Estelle was an excellent cook and sometimes it was nice to eat dinner that hadn't started out in a vacuum pack. (My mother and the stove were not best of friends.) Estelle, the oldest, most wrinkled person I've ever known, loved to play piano and sing along in a voice that sounded like gravel. For my sixth birthday, much to my surprise, she shipped her piano over to our living room; my mother had told her that my kindergarten teacher thought I had musical talent, and Estelle decided that I should to learn how to play. And so I did.

Ben and Estelle also owned an upstate farm, so called because of two sheep who lived on many empty acres surrounding a house that looked rustic on the outside, but otherwise just like their musty, gilt-edged home in Queens. An authentic velvet rope barred entrance to the living room. Ben, it was whispered, once made his money as an importer of illegal booze, but by the time I was born seemed to be on the correct side of the law. My mother was his part-time secretary and spent weekends typing, on an ancient grey Underwood with multiple carbons, letters to Scottish importers about the labels on bottles of whiskey. Ben moved little and said less, a large, box-shaped man with skin the texture of concrete. But he was always there, and I loved him very much.

Only Moe managed to find his match in good humor; Ben, like Charlie and Ruby, chose a soulmate hard-edged as he was gentle. He died while I was in college, after which Estelle entered a nursing home and spent her remaining years sending rambling letters to my mother and I about our many mythic transgressions. I think Ben's death was the first that took me by surprise, like an offense against the proper rhythm of the universe.

(To be continued.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

279. Uncle Moe


My uncles Moe and Ben were the oldest, roundest, and most complicated of my mother's four brothers. Moe resembled the "o" in the middle of his name, and seemed to encircle and embrace everyone in his path. He met my Aunt Lily when they were twelve; rumor has it that he was late to his Bar Mitzvah because they were smooching behind the synagogue. Lily was tiny and gentle and spoke very quickly, like a bee flitting past a flower. Moe became a butcher (non-kosher; he had no patience for a tradition that kept other people from his food) to make sure his family always had enough to eat. He retired to Miami Beach and the stock market, tutoring my mother on weekly long-distance calls about what to buy and sell. (Moe made a small fortune, and my mother approximately $131. But she really did try.) I was always his "little goil," since he sounded just like Archie Bunker, his neighbor back in Queens. The resemblance was in accent only; his former employee and best friend was an African-American man by the name of Jonesy, a tall, handsome version of Moe's smile. I remember seeing Jonesy at Moe's funeral wearing a white yarmulke incandescent against his dark skin, tears streaming down his face.

(To be continued.)


As I toil over writing my tiny d'var on Parashat Tetzaveh, I've decided to add some links on my sidebar to sites with interesting Torah commentary. The first is this great one, featuring the opinions of teachers for whom I have deep admiration.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

278. Doubt

Interrupting myself for a moment of self-doubt, a part of the larger story I wish I knew how to transcend and banish.

Today I received constructive criticism from a person I respect a great deal about something I did when leading services, a technical issue small in itself but affecting the bigger picture. It was couched in praise and suggestions for improvement, delivered with tact, good humor, and gratitude, and in no way implied that I didn't belong up at the bima.

But all I could hear, at the moment this criticism was offered, was: You're being judged by rabbis and professional musicians. Our standards are high. You need to improve. And my unspoken response: what if I don't, or can't? Will I lose the gift of this privilege?

I realize now that I should be honored by the very occasion of this conversation; I've been deemed capable of fixing the problem, and will have an opportunity to do so. But I'm terrified of forfeiting the trust of those who allow me to pray and make music at their sides. I know not to put them on a pedestal; they're as normal and flawed as the rest of us. But I really have never before met this sort of people. Although I've figured out how to act like myself in their presence, in truth I always feel like I've been dropped in the middle of a science fiction story about highly evolved beings who come to visit, teach us to be good and wise, and then move on to some other planet. Precious and fragile, utterly foreign, and completely right. I keep expecting to wake up, in sadness, from a selfish dream about feeling whole.

I know all of this has much less to do with the truth of the situation than with my own personal mishegas. I'll re-read this post and wonder how I could have been silly enough to imagine I didn't deserve such joy. And the cycle of doubt will repeat a few weeks later; I'm a slow learner.

Monday, February 13, 2006

277. Charlie and Ruby


Until I was six or seven, Passover seders involved a raucous bunch of grey-haired aunts and uncles crowding around a big folding table in the living room as I crawled between their legs and made them laugh. My favorite uncle was Charlie, Phil's father. I remember wrestling with him when I was four years old on the gold carpet in our living room, not caring one bit that we might topple over the fake antique lamps. In what seemed a feat of enormous physical skill, he taught me how to stand up from lying flat on the floor without using my hands at all. (Thus making us the only athletes in a family of round, sedentary lovers of heavy Eastern European cuisine.) Charlie was married to Aunt Della, who suffered from debilitating depression; I remember my mother crying because Della wouldn't let her visit her brother in the hospital during his last days.

Uncle Ruby was short and dark, with a gap between his front teeth and eyes crinkled from too much smiling. When I was seven, on a day much like today, he and I and his son, my cousin Jerry, built a snowman right in the middle of the frozen street as cars hid in big white mounds all around us. Ruby survived his wife Viola, a bird-like woman who wore too much red lipstick and didn't seem to like me very much, or anyone else. Then, just a few months before he died, Ruby married Teresa, whose Catholicism was a scandal until we got to know her a little better and discovered her kindness and generosity. (Jerry disappeared when I was nine; I wonder if he might have stuck around had he met Teresa). Ruby died when I was ten, and Teresa not long after.

(To be continued.)

Sunday, February 12, 2006

276. Song of the Sea

There's a blizzard today. Hysteria has ensued, newscasters warning of the next apocalypse. Our mayor, who ran billion-dollar corporations and knows a real crisis when he sees one, remains underwhelmed, suggesting we stay indoors for a few hours and relax until snowplows make it possible to go to the jobs tomorrow to which we'd really rather not go. Across the street, a long line of people shiver in flapping scarves and snow boots as they wait to order croissants from the gourmet bakery. And I sit in Starbucks nursing a Super Grande Extra Hi-Test, or whatever it's called, listening to a compilation of 70s rock while the creeping whiteness covers brave souls who shuffle and slip right outside. Just a few reasons why I love New York.

At services on Friday night the rabbi spoke about the beginning of the Song of the Sea, as the Israelites prepare to take a leap of faith into the Sea of Reeds. "Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord," it says. But "sang" is actually in the future tense--"would sing." Why this choice of word, asked the rabbi (and Rashi, a thousand year earlier)? Maybe, they suggest, we live fully in the present only by singing for the future and surrounding ourselves with the music of hope. I thought of the rabbi's words this Shabbat morning when I met nine-day-old Gavriella Malka, who carries in the song of her name the strength and gentle warmth of her great-grandparents. She's the first cousin I've been able to welcome into this world; when others of that generation arrived, their parents were just addresses on the yellowing pages of a notebook buried among my mother's papers, phone calls never returned, holiday cards bearing names I once heard but had long ago forgotten.

I do see certain members of my family quite often, but at the other end of the lifecycle. As a child I went to very many funerals. (When I started attending services after years away, the only melody that sounded familiar was El Maleh Rachamim, the prayer of mourning.) My parents did an extraordinary job of shielding me from the worst of the sadness, and I always felt safe, secure and loved no matter what was happening around us. I really did not know that other families were any different. My mother, the youngest of five, had four older brothers who all died between my fifth and twentieth years, their wives following right afterwards. Two of my uncles died on exactly the same date, five years apart. I don't know how my mother stayed sane in the face of so much grief, always able to share the smile that defined her father and everyone who followed. That smile, that sweet, deep laugh, shines particularly brightly in my cousin Phil, Gavriella's grandfather.

(To be continued.)

Friday, February 10, 2006

275. My other life

A friend just sent me this link, which bears inclusion as a fairly accurate depiction of how (until this past year, when I took a leave from my chorus) I used to spend hours and hours each week. It's a commercial for Honda Civic UK. Their creative challenge (a phrase I use ad nauseum in my work life, too): convey the human, personal side of the car through the sounds of a choir. In addition to Bach and a bunch of 20th century French guys, my old chorus sang a lot of music written last Tuesday, some of it gorgeous and melodic and some less so. I became expert, over the course of ten years, at making many strange sounds not found in nature, and doing my best not to laugh in the process. The choir in this commercial could be us, performing to an enthusiastic but far from sold-out audience at an impressively major concert hall in New York.

Here's the link:

Skip the intro, then click "Watch" at the bottom--and after that, click on the link to the mini-documentary about the rehearsal process.

I miss my old chorus, and hope to return one day when I get a little better at time management. But given the choice between singing and having fun, and singing and having fun while talking to God, I'll choose the latter every time.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

274. Happy interruption

Barging in on my terribly serious discussions of Yom Kippur, jewels, and poppy seeds to announce something a little cheerier: my cousins just had a baby girl! For the majority of people in this world who do things like converge each summer at national parks with a hundred others in matching T-shirts bearing their last names, a new cousin is not such a big deal. But the average age of my living relatives is about 70 and although I have very many aunts and uncles, they all happen to be, well, dead. I'm not trying to sound morbid, but I do--within the bounds of reason--consider them as much a part of my family as the ones who still get a New Year's card. Since the formerly corporeal tend not to produce heirs, however, a new baby is a big deal. When I discovered these cousins about five years ago (long, wonderful story having to do with my tallit), I felt like I had been given the passport to a new and native country. Strangers, yet so familiar--and they knew more about my aunts and uncles, and my parents, than I ever thought I'd learn. I loved them the moment we met.

This particular cousin was fervently secular until a year ago, when he discovered Orthodoxy, met his basherte (soulmate), and got married--and is now a dad. A lot for a dozen months, but everyone, including his parents, are ecstatic--shellshocked, but very happy. The baby naming is this coming Shabbat, at a synagogue right in my neighborhood. I do not relish spending the morning behind a mechitzah, nor being denied the right to wear a tallit or be counted in a minyan, but it's no big deal for a few hours out of my life. When in Rome, etc. And I'm honored, as always, to be invited into their world. Next Shabbat I'll once again be in foreign territory, at the Bat Mitzvah of the daughter of dear friends. Their synagogue is sort of halfway egalitarian, an interesting concept I do not understand in the least. I'll bring my tallit, but be prepared to stow it under the humash.

I do know that I'll experience symptoms of withdrawal after missing two consecutive Shabbat morning services at my synagogue. They'll probably have to pry me out of the seat when I show up the following week.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

273. Ne'ila, part 4


That morning I had felt hopeful. We had a whole day ahead to reach conclusions and clear consciences. But now it was raining, and in the gathering darkness only one hour remained during which to learn, understand, and make peace. There wasn't enough time.

At the end of Ne'ila in past years I was always relieved and proud to have finished the marathon, as if Yom Kippur was a race. But until this moment I never understood that the day was really about having the strength to stand still, about admitting that we can never actually win in this world but simply learn to love our lives and help others do the same. I looked out at the congregation and was a little frightened; their faces reflected a silent Babel of more kinds of emotion than I could understand. I had no idea what they were trying to say, yet my voice was supposed to represent theirs. I could only be true to myself, and hope my openness would become a vessel. So I sang in desperation, in determination--in anger, not at anyone in particular, or even at God, but at the universe in general for being imperfect and unfair. We were very loud, the rabbi on one side of the bima, booming musaf shaliah on the other, and myself sandwiched in between, as we tried to get God to listen during those final moments.

Monday, February 06, 2006

272. Ne'ila, part 3

(Once again changing my train of thought; apologies for jumping around so much this week. Yom Kippur 5766, continued.)

This was a theater, with a professional sound system, and so I could hear the music swirl around and back at me from all angles. The cellist played the first note of the Ashrei, the prayer beginning the service of Ne'ila. It sounded funny. I looked at her and she looked back, our ballet of quizzical eyebrows lasting a few endless seconds, but neither of us could figure out what the other was trying to say. I decided to start singing, since a thousand people were waiting. The note, I soon discovered, was about five steps lower that what we practiced; a baritone would have been right at home. I'm an alto, fortunately, and was hoarse and tired, so could make the sound. The overall effect would have been a lot better in a cabaret filled with cigarette smoke. But I watched from the bima as everyone watched me, and no one seemed to mind. (The cellist later apologized profusely--she had never before played for so many hours while also fasting. It's not easy.)

Saturday, February 04, 2006

271. Lucky

It was so much fun. I've said this before, I know; it's probably getting a little boring. But I'm no longer nervous when I sit at the bima, surrounded by musicians and people singing, smiling, crying, praying. (OK, maybe a little nervous. But in a good way.) The first few times I helped lead services, I needed to feel the energy of everyone in the room in order to be sure I wouldn't fall. Now my singing not only mirrors their strength, but has grown into an offering that can stand on its own, awaiting with open arms the sounds that return in welcome embrace.

It was great to lead with my old teacher, who doesn't usually get to be in charge (i.e., making announcements, giving a d'var Torah). Together we set tempi and made eye contact with the musicians to indicate when they should speed up or slow down, usually the rabbi's job. It felt a little conspiratorial, like we were kids at play while the adults were away.

This Shabbat my synagogue hosted a dozen rabbis who each spent two years here as part of a fellowship program. One spoke of how the experience taught her to access her true voice, and another of the awesome gift of being allowed to enter the lives and hearts of everyone at services each week. I can in no way compare myself to this brilliant cohort, or to any rabbi, but am continually floored by the honest, beautiful truth of those same lessons each random time I get to sit up front. Last night I saw "The New World," about (among many other things) the experience of Pocahontas as she encountered the Europeans. I feel like her, just a little bit, as I am patiently taught new customs (in this case, my own) by the kindest teachers in the world, and then allowed every once in awhile to partner with them and look through their eyes. I still don't understand why I'm so lucky to have merited this privilege, and hope that it never goes away--I have so much more to learn.

Friday, February 03, 2006

270. Winding down

(Interrupting myself...)

It's certainly been a week. But it's almost Shabbat, which seems to put everything back together. And I'm helping lead the late service again, this (twelfth) time with the woman who taught me how to chant. We'll be accompanied by amazing musicians (who are also cute guys, adding to my personal enjoyment of the evening) on oud, guitar, cello, and percussion. Not a rabbi in sight; they--four, plus two interns, plus the cantor, plus twelve more visiting for a rabbi-centric event this weekend--will be having dinner right downstairs from us. It's a little daunting that they trust me to do this important thing in the presence of so many people who really know what they're doing--and also comforting that an overabundance of expertise and kavannah (prayerful intention) will be emanating from below our feet, quite literally.

Fridays are a little crazy on those rare occasions when I lead the early service; I need to stop work by 3PM in order to have time to wind down and warm up by 5:30 or 6 (depending upon the time of year). But the late service doesn't start until 7:15, allowing me an hour or two to chill out, contemplate, write (like now), snooze, and enjoy the brief luxury of idleness. It feels like time spent on a airplane, where there's really nothing you can do but sit and anticipate the good place you're about to visit.

A wonderful, rejuvenating Shabbat Shalom to everyone out there.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

269. Bread


Some more thoughts about details:

When I was a kid, we lived down the block from not one but two kosher bakeries; I think my parents moved to the neighborhood for this fact alone. My grandfather was a baker, and my mother grew up behind the counter, ankle-deep in sawdust. So bread was serious business in our household. One of my first responsibilities as a child was to make the important purchase, once or twice a week, of a loaf of "the best" (which I suspect my mother scoped out beforehand, since she seemed to know, sight unseen, if this was an ideal week for pumpernickel). I received exact instructions: Rye bread with caraway seeds, but never marble rye. Horn rolls with sesame seeds. Poppy seeds, if a proper, evenly-distributed amount, were fine on anything within reason. Italian or French bread if we were feeling particularly exotic. Pumpernickel, sliced. (Unsliced was rustic, old-fashioned, and unacceptable.) Rolls, six at a time, hard but not brittle and never warm; prime was a half-day old. I never carried a crib sheet. The rule was unspoken, but I knew I had to commit all instructions to memory, as if making them a part of myself.

(To be continued.)

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

268. Jewels

Today I splurged and bought a most amazing book, The Miqra'ot Gedolot (loosely translated, "The Really Big Bible"). It's a collection of Medieval commentaries on Exodus and enough words to study, without interruption, for a lifetime. As a graphic designer, it's also cool to see pages laid out--in English--in classic Talmud style, primary text at the top, surrounding comments radiating like the rungs of a tree. Even at a glance, the explanations look like jewels adorning their centerpiece.

I've had jewels on my mind this week. As I mentioned before, I've been trying to write a short d'var Torah (commentary) on Parashat Tetzaveh, the section about the jewels on the High Priest's breastplate and the various furnishings, offerings and sacrifices of the tabernacle. Since I need about a dozen more years to understand all the relevant exegeses, and my head spins whenever I read Rashi, I'm trying to come up with a personal connection to the text. Unfortunately, my first and repeated reaction to Tetzaveh is: when does it end? Too much information. The universe was created in one line; why so many to talk about some guy's robe?

So I think I need to write about detail. I suspect I'm not the only reader with this problem. (Just the beginnings of an idea; I have a week or two yet to flesh it out. All feedback welcome.) I spend my days moving bits of type by the millimeter, my weekends singing passages that require accuracy in every syllable. But if I get lost in the esthetics of punctuation, I'll forget the overall message my client wants to tell the world through her brochure. And my chanted section will sound hollow, just a pretty tune, if I concentrate on individual notes without keeping the meaning of the text at the forefront of my mind.

"God is in the details," said architect Mies van der Rohe. But "Less is more," he also wrote. After learning from pages sprinkled with tiny dots and lines, we chant Torah from a scroll bereft of vowels and notes, a sea of words flowing into each other. Maybe this is the message of Tetzaveh--challenging us to see the bigger picture while living in a universe of Talmud pages, of sensory overload.