Sunday, June 22, 2008

698. Theater

On Shabbat morning a week ago it was very, very hot at services. Almost unbearable. I debated leaving early, but then we reached one of my favorite moments: The Amidah ends. The rabbis race through Kaddish Shalem; a page number is announced. The b'nai mitzvah are invited to the bima. Conversations stop; everyone looks forward; families gather on either side of the Sanctuary and begin to walk slowly up front. A handful of people, or sometimes what looks to be an entire tribe, step up to the Ark, and a young voice shivering with anticipation begins to sing:

"Ein kamokha..."
"None compare to you, O Lord, and none compare to your creation..."

The families keep climbing, and we wait for this line:

"...tivneh homot Yerushalayim."
" the walls of Jerusalem."

Like sides of a building being lifted into place, we all stand as one. The gabbai motions to a nervous relative, who pulls open the Ark curtain.

"Vayehi binsoa ha'aron..."
"Whenever the Ark was carried forward, Moses would say: Arise, Lord..."

I love that first moment when the sifrei Torah are revealed as they lean solidly again one another, looking proud but tired (who wouldn't be, at that age?). No matter what's changed in my week, what I've left behind, unfinished, or abandoned, the scrolls are always waiting. One is lifted carefully and placed in small arms, and we follow it like a magnet around the Sanctuary.

Last week while the scroll rested, embraced, before its moment in the spotlight, the rabbi spoke about a midrash on the week's Torah portion, Beha'alotekha. Moshe tries to fashion the menorah and its many cups, knobs, blossoms and branches, but cannot. He complains to God: it's too hard! God responds: Look, I will show you. The lesson, said the rabbi, is to persevere and have patience; to ask for help, if we believe in something deeply enough and discover we can't do it by ourselves. I thought of the Torah service itself, and how week after week we repeat and practice its songs, choreography, and melodrama; it's long and complex, but we never give it a rest. We could pore over the same words in the humash alone at our desks, but we need the shared experience of theater to remind us why we come together in order to turn them inside out. Like the backstage crew of a Broadway play, week after week we rehearse, savor, and perfect every small moment of ritual. Read alone, the words can be hard, cold, an intellectual exercise. But performed as an ensemble, music on a crowded stage, the tunes stay on our lips and we can't stop humming. They come alive, part of our breath.

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