Chanting Torah is kind of a big deal. It requires an ability to read Hebrew, the willingness to sing in public, the ability to learn a special melody unique to Torah and the tenacity to practically memorize the portion because in the Torah there are no vowels. What makes it even more intimidating is that there can be no mistakes while chanting. Each word must be chanted correctly. In fact, there is someone there whose primary job is to make sure there are no mistakes and to correct you on the spot if something is said incorrectly.
The first time I chanted Torah I was 13 years old at my Bat Mitzvah (quite a few years ago!) and I may have read a few more times in my childhood. In March 2014 my daughter had her Bat Mitzvah and I had the opportunity to read again and I loved it! It offered me the opportunity to relate to what my daughter was doing as she studied and reminded me that this is about more than invitations and DJs. Connecting to this ancient practice is powerful.
An attainable challenge
For some reason I really enjoy chanting Torah. For me it hits the sweet spot between boredom and stress. I know that if I put my mind to it I can learn it, so I have confidence for mastery. However, it is not easy for me so I have to practice and commit. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has researched this idea of balance between ability and challenge and has discovered it is a strong predictor for success and happiness. It is recommended that people find activities in their life that hit that sweet spot. So
everyday for four weeks I practiced my Torah portion.
Allowed for a pause each day
Preparing for the high holidays has always been a goal of mine. I would start reading Alan Lew’s This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, or writing up New Year’s resolutions, but I would rarely commit. When preparing to read Torah, I had a deadline and a motivation—not to embarrass myself. Therefore, I stuck to it and practiced every morning and sometimes at night. I would listen to my Cantor’s voice chanting and then I would try to “copy” her (ha!). I loved hearing her beautiful voice fill my kitchen as I practiced and I really loved that my kids would hear her voice too. Perhaps this was helping them prepare for the high holidays too?
In the past, I have dabbled in maintaining a meditation and yoga practice, but this practice was just as meditative and fulfilling. I connected to the music and the upcoming events. I was able to experience the Rosh Hashanah service before there was a hint of chill in the air. It was peaceful, spiritual and satisfying because each day I learned more of the portion. I was able to observe my progress in a tangible way.
Mental Preparation for High Holiday Services
This preparation benefited me greatly during Rosh Hashanah. As someone who has introverted tendencies, I find High Holiday services overwhelming. There is the constant socializing in the hallways, and when I finally find my seat I find myself replaying various conversations to make sure I said the right thing or I worry that I did not go up to someone to say hello in an effort to finally enter the sanctuary. For me, I find it difficult to just sit, pray and enjoy. This time, however, it was different. I was ok with the social element because I had already had a nice fill of Hebrew, Torah and chanting. I didn’t feel like I had to try to connect with the service as much and without that pressure, I actually was able to connect in a way I have not before. It was like I had been working a muscle ahead of time so I was able to jump into the game.
Reading Torah Involves Teamwork
My synagogue places the Torah reader in the front of the room; however, the reader faces the ark rather than the congregation. This arrangement diminishes the feeling that the reader is performing. The reader is leading and the congregation is following – it is a group effort. In addition, our Bima is on the floor-it is not on a stage above the congregation. This contributes to the team vibe since I was on the same level with the congregation.
While I was reading Torah, several congregants surrounded me. Standing around the Torah with me was the person who read the Aliya (the introduction to my portion) and the individual who was there to help me if I made a mistake as well as a gabbai who is in charge of the logistics for the reading—he or she calls up the participants as they are needed. My reading was a little less smooth than in the past. I fumbled a bit in the beginning trying to remember the tune, I got back on track and then needed a correction in the end. It was the first time I had to be corrected while reading the Torah. Surprisingly, I actually found it comforting to know that someone is there to help me if I ran into trouble. Even as he corrected me, he did it in the most supportive and kind way. He was not trying to embarrass me instead we were in it together.
This was what I liked most about the experience. Everyone knows it is tough to get up there and read and you get the sense that everyone wants you to do well. The fact that you are up there doing something challenging while connecting with Judaism is what is important. Being a gifted Torah chanter is great, but not necessary thankfully, because we need people to read the Torah constantly in synagogue and we cannot just rely on the most talented. We need subs as well as starters.
Later in the service our Rabbi had a wonderful sermon where he talked about how connection is often more important than being right. I feel like this is what is taught with chanting the Torah portion. There is no shame in making mistakes, it is considered part of the experience. If you make a mistake, you are corrected, you fix your mistake, and then you move on. Wouldn’t it be good if we could all live life that way?