Saturday, June 10, 2006

334. Dragged across Sinai

I have a Shavuot name, which I realized only recently. My middle name is Ruth; her story, of the devotion of a daughter-in-law and love of a kind man that led to the line of David and one day (so they say), the Messiah, is read on this holiday. And my last name is a key word in the tale, as well. I was always told that Ruth was my father's grandmother, but now I wonder if he--learned in Torah, although we never, ever discussed the topic--was trying to connect my life in some way to Shavuot.

I considered the question last Thursday and Friday, but reached no conclusions. For me, the Torah-receiving theme of Shavuot, originally a harvest celebration, always seemed grafted on in order to align it more closely with other Jewish holidays of beginnings. Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world, Yom Kippur the acquisition of a clean slate. Pesah commemorates new-found freedom and growth, and Hanukkah is a light at the darkest part of the year. Even trees get a fresh start (Tu Bishevat). It's nice to imagine that the Torah really was given on Shavuot, but it's not like Moses marked the date in his Palm Pilot when he came down from the mountain.

So even as I take Shavuot seriously, the learning, the services at dawn, I've had trouble connecting its meaning, and the meaning of my own name, with the events they're supposed to celebrate. Today, however, I think I figured it out.

I read Torah again this morning, a short section about the rituals of the Nazirites. I've chanted a lot lately, almost every weekend or holiday for the past month. I still get nervous, am glad when I don't have too many lines, and grow more and more annoyed with myself for feeling this way. Most of the reading has been at the cantor's invitation, when he was short of other volunteers. He always seems to ask me when I need to do it most.

Although they were tricky, with a few trops and patterns in unexpected combinations, after a week of study I knew the verses backwards and forwards. I noticed that the words "to place" and "to present" were always sung with notes soaring upwards, which I tried to use as anchors for memorizing the rest of tune. I generally weave understanding into the back of my mind as I sing, but this time could remember the trop only when focusing on these signposts and what that priest was actually doing with his matzah and wine.

Still, I wasn't worried. I walked up to the bima and the new scroll that my synagogue welcomed a few weeks ago. I located my words in a sea of night-black ink and began to sing. My concentration flagged after a line or two; maybe I forgot to think about the priest's wine and instead waited for the tune to flow effortlessly, as it usually did. I stumbled. The rabbi corrected me, and I continued. But only for a moment, until I reached a word I had practiced a thousand times, whose melody and meaning were like my own breath, and suddenly I didn't know what to do. The rabbi sang quietly, and I stared in confusion at letters whose strokes seemed to have blown apart. I searched for a kof but saw only a crowd of vavs, all stacked against each other like sheaves of wheat. Is this a mistake in the scroll? I wondered in a panic. The letters shuddered slightly like Jell-O trying to escape from under a film of Saran Wrap. And I felt equally trapped, couldn't go forward, couldn't make a sound.

The rabbi leaned over and moved my yad onto the word, the same word I had been looking at all along, and I was able to resume the journey. I tried to keep my voice strong and steady. I felt as if I had been dragged, like a balky dog on a leash, all the way across Sinai.

(To be continued.)

1 comment:

Judith said...

Last year I chanted a chapter of Esther. I didn't get to see the scroll ahead of time, but I was assured it was fairly new and easy to read.

Well, it was very clean and new, but the letters were very thin and widely spaced and it was very difficult to read. I made a lot of mistakes just because I literally couldn't tell what word I was looking at.