Tuesday, June 13, 2006

336. Shavuot morning, 5766, part 3

(Continued, and backtracking a little to finish this story.)

A friend and I were talking, awhile back, about how chanting Torah is like getting a pitch from a tuning fork. The note is waiting in the air and always will be, but you can hear it only when you hit the fork and create a vibration. Words of Torah also never end; the scroll rolls on and on, its lessons infinite. Chanting is like plucking one message from the millions that hum patiently in the background.

I began to read, tentative and hoarse at first, shaking from exhaustion and anticipation, and then with more confidence as I grew familiar with this new handwriting. I felt like I was meeting an old friend for the first time. "Al tira'u," I chanted--do not be afraid--and how could I be, standing here with my friends and a document that represented the best of strength and beginnings.

On Shavuot we read five aliyot, sections of the Torah, plus one extra (maftir) pertaining specifically to the holiday. (The more aliyot, the more important the day; Shabbat, a taste of eternity, gets seven, even more than Yom Kippur.) So as not to keep the congregation waiting between readings while you roll to the proper section, it's customary to use two or even three different scrolls when aliyot aren't from consecutive passages. So after I read the fifth and final aliyah, the new scroll was moved off the bima and another, an old one rolled to my maftir portion, put in its place.

The contrast was astonishing, the letters so faded and smudged I could barely read them. I looked for the yad; it had been taken away by mistake along with the other scroll. So the rabbi handed me the rose, instead, the one whose stem had pointed his way during the Ten Commandments. Old and new words alike would get the chance to meet something sweet and beautiful. I noticed patches of darker ink, corrections made to broken letters--this scroll had witnessed many stories and tears, and the other, the new one, was just like a baby, still waiting for life to happen. How lucky I was to sing, in the space of a few minutes, words from both ends of the cycle.

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