So I read those 29 verses yesterday morning, the fifth, sixth and seventh aliyot. I was also slated to chant the maftir ("additional") aliyah, the honor after number seven that goes to the reader of the haftarah. This time, as is often the case, it was simply a repetition of some of the verses I had just read. Easy. I moved off to the side to wait for the Hatzi Kaddish, the short prayer before the maftir aliyah that signals a transition from one part of the service to the next.
The rabbi leaned over. "Do you want to sing Hatzi Kaddish?" he whispered.
"No," I whispered back, and immediately regretted it. How rude of me to turn down the honor... but I was so busy sighing with relief at completing the bulk of my task that I could barely remember my own name, let alone another tune. I had to go right back to the bimah to chant the maftir, so had little time to dwell on my really bad decision.
I rested the yad at the first word I would read from the scroll, and waited for the soon-to-be haftarah reader to kiss the spot with her tallit. And then my peripheral vision registered something quite out of the ordinary, and alarming: the cantor, who had been sitting off to the side, rushing up front, open tikkun in hand.
Services at my synagogue, despite frequent moments of spontaneous ecstasy, run like a well-oiled machine. Any unnecessary delay is considered disrespectful to the congregation; the rabbis work hard to keep things moving. So when the cantor, looking serious, suddenly stood right behind me at this moment of high drama, I got very worried. The only other time I recalled a pause in the Torah service was when an elderly man tripped on his way up to the bimah and fell down unconscious. Did I screw up? Did I read the wrong lines?
"Don't start from verse 27," he said, sotto voce. "Start from 24."
Meanwhile, everyone was waiting for me to chant... something. "Just a moment," announced the rabbi, clearly bemused. "They're discussing an important point of Torah."
But where was verse 24? The scroll is one long sentence without punctuation; I had practiced finding only the beginning of verse 27 in that sea of words. The cantor saw my confusion, leaned over to help me locate the spot, and then disappeared as quickly as he had arrived. I waited for the blessing. "She already read it," someone whispered. Ah. I proceeded without incident. The whole delay took less than a minute, but felt like an eternity.
After services I gingerly asked the cantor to explain what happened, not convinced it somehow wasn't my fault. No, no, he said; not at all. According to one of the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of rules about chanting Torah, at least three verses must be read for an aliyah--and those three have to begin at least two verses away from a natural break in the text on the scroll. (Each Torah portion has prescribed divisions according to different traditions, but it's also permissible to take some liberties.) When the cantor chose verses for the maftir aliyah, he looked at our humash and saw no break. But in the middle of the service, for some reason, he suspected that the humash put the break in the wrong place. He ran backstage to check the tikkun, which looks exactly the scroll, and his doubts were confirmed--seconds before I had to chant. So I had to begin a few verses earlier to make sure the reading was ritually correct according to Jewish religious law.
I was really impressed. The difference was just couple of lines...would anyone have noticed the mistake? But God is in the details. And this is the time of year when we remind ourselves that words do count, and make amends for when we might have used them to hurt rather than heal. Maybe getting the verses right was one little drop on the positive side of the scale, encouraging God to inscribe us for good in the coming year. I can only hope.