I’m preparing to chant Torah this coming Shabbat. It is not the easiest thing for me, but it’s good for me, because if I don’t use this skill, I’ll lose it. The process of preparing the portion to chant takes me into a deep analysis of the text, a dream-place where the text transforms before me.
Yes, there are some texts that bore me, at least before I’ve studied them. This one is a case in point: Exodus 30, the directions for the small golden altar for burning incense. The Torah goes into excruciating detail about its dimensions and construction. When I first read it, I sighed. Not only do I need to chant it, I need to preach on it, and I had the feeling it was going to be a job to get a good drash out of a small piece of furniture.
So I began: first translating the passage for myself. It’s very straightforward, almost a cookbook. Nothing catches my eye. Then I begin to chant from the tikkun, the book that has all the marks to designate vowels, punctuation, and melody (the Torah scroll itself has none of those.) I go one short phrase at a time, singing it over and over until I’ve got it. Periodically I stop to figure out how to fit phrases together. Still boring: details, details. Details, details, details. Yawn.
Then I begin to notice how the melody comments upon the text: emphasize this word, that phrase. Make a sort of soprano hiccup (geresh!) on one little preposition. Gradually the text warms up, or I warm up to it. The little incense table begins to take shape, and glow.
Sometimes Torah is transparent. More often is it opaque. All I know is that if I will spend time on it, invest my heart in it, open my soul to it, every time it will come to life before my eyes.