You may recall that last year around this time I chanted Torah for the first time since my bat mitzvah, and it was a disaster. But then I got back up on the horse that threw me and chanted successfully in the spring.
This past Saturday I tried getting up on that horse again. It was certainly not the fiasco that the first time was, but it definitely did not meet my standards for success. I had been practicing diligently and had the beginning and the end down cold; I was slightly iffier in the middle but had been working hard at it. Unfortunately, I'd basically been memorizing it rather than exactly chanting it as I read; I knew that but found it difficult to do otherwise once I was memorizing it, which sort of happened accidentally. I thought it would be better to be reading since one's memory can go on the fritz.
So there I was on Saturday morning, up at the bimah, facing the scroll, and I froze. And I could do the parts I had memorized -- which I did just fine -- but I suddenly couldn't read for the life of me. (The lettering in the scroll is ornate, and words get squished or stretched out.) This means that if I'd actually memorized the whole thing and had it down cold and hadn't been trying to read, I would have been fine. The rabbi had to help me out three times (whispering the word to me), but at least I ended on a strong note, having memorized the last verse.
It was in no way the humiliation of the first time around, but it was SO frustrating! I had spent hours working on the darn thing, and it was all over in less than a minute, and I goofed it up but the service went on without my getting to say, "Wait, let me try that again."
I was so frustrated that after I went back to my seat, as soon as the service went on, I slipped out and went into the bathroom and cried. (I wondered at the time if it was poor etiquette to walk out as the Torah scroll is being dressed, but I really didn't want to call attention to myself by crying publicly.)
Fortunately, I had a good conversation with the rabbi afterward. He came up to me afterward and said, "Yasher koach" (which I just learned -- as I was looking it up online to make sure I spelled it correctly -- is the traditional congratulations offered to someone who has just read Torah), and I guess I looked at him sort of dourly, because he paused and then added, "I sense some disappointment." At that, I went on and on -- at annoying length, perhaps -- about how much I had studied and how I knew my performance didn't suck but it certainly didn't reflect all the preparation I'd done and was studying to chant something that would last less than a minute really the best use of my time spent in Jewish study?!
On this last point, which I'd been thinking about all week, I had already reminded myself that the blessing for studying Torah calls on people to engage with the words of Torah and that there are different ways to do so and that maybe even spending all those hours on three freakin' verses when I was focusing on how they sound more than what they mean could still count as "engaging." But I was still kind of grumpy (obviously).
My rabbi -- whom I seriously just love -- told me that I was practicing a skill, that it's one that takes a long time to learn, and that these tiny Saturday morning services are totally about folks learning together. And, indeed, the sermon following the Torah chanting was the very first d'var Torah that the speaker had ever given. And, quite frankly, it wasn't great -- that's me talking, not the rabbi! -- but there was still food for thought in it. I wondered aloud, both then and later at home, if there was value for others in the minyan at my chanting Torah if I didn't do it well, especially since most folks in the congregation, including me, don't understand Hebrew. So what's the point?
The rabbi gently but firmly reminded me that Torah is important for its own sake. And he then expressed concern that so few members of the congregation know how to chant Torah and that the opportunities are so limited to do so. The Torah scroll doesn't come out on Friday nights, and most Saturday mornings are taken up with bar/bat mitzvahs in which the kid chants; it's just one Saturday a month that is reserved for this community worship service with no bar/bat mitzvahs. So even if I wanted to get in lots of practice, I couldn't do it more than once or twice a year, which indeed is the pace I've been going at. He was quite discouraged at this ... which kind of answered my question about "is there even any point to all of this?" Clearly if he thinks this is something more people should be learning to do, he thinks it's important, even if most of us don't even understand what we're chanting. And then he recommended a book to me, which perked me right up.
On this last "what's the point" point, D. was stern with me: "You're doing this because you're a Jew, and chanting Torah is what Jews have done for millennia. That's the point." She was quite right, of course. And in response to my fretting about being a bad Jew, she asked, "and how Jewish are you?" and waited for me to grudgingly say, "100% Jewish."
She also was super sweet and made me a grilled cheese sandwich and comforted me when I cried for another hour once I got home. And then I lay down and took a two-hour nap because I was so emotionally drained. And afterward I felt much better, as though all of that emotional drama had happened a day or two before, and we ate stew and watched "Dr. Who" and everything was fine.
I still have much internal wrangling to do with my many conflicting thoughts about all of this -- about Torah; about the point of continuing to use scrolls and no punctuation when codexes and punctuation make so much more sense; about learning Hebrew; about being part of an ancient tradition when I just joined that tradition two years ago; about trying to move away from an emphasis on performance; about everything, basically.
And then I remember that "Israel" means "contending/wrestling with God," and I feel better about the whole thing.