RE:VERB THIRTY-TWO / NASO / HEAR
A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie
A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.
Next door to my apartment in the German Colony is a small synagogue, belonging to a Turkish community. Now that it’s summer and my bedroom window is wide open, I lay in bed on Saturday mornings and hear them pray and chant the Torah. It’s beautiful, trance-like - very different from the European style synagogues I grew up in and am most familiar with. These guys are all sing-song and rhythm, drumming and banging with their hands on the tables. The man who chants the Torah raises and lowers his voice dramatically, using a Middle Eastern trope that makes haunting music of the worn words. Last Saturday I sat up in bed and followed along, listening, familiar enough with the text, enjoying his subtle interpretations. I have no idea who they are or what any of them look like.
When I tell this to my nephew, Y. at lunch, he asks ‘why didn’t you go inside and join them?’
Good question – coming from a bright Yeshiva student, who, like me was taught to always attend synagogue on Shabbat, and unlike me, does. The truth is, I tell him, that I was perfectly comfortable in bed. And besides, the experience was so moving for me not because of ‘being there’, meeting the people, seeing their faces, joining their ‘togetherness’ but precisely because I wasn’t ‘there’. This particular experience was about ‘here’ and about ‘hearing’ – using ears only to connect, privately, to the sacred, relishing an intimate moment of meaning, of connection, of beauty.
Would I have had the same level of attention had I been sitting inside the little synagogue, surrounded by strangers?
Y. considers this, briefly. ‘It’s ok to pray alone, and even to hear the Torah alone, but isn’t the full expression of the religious experience supposed to be communal? Isn’t it about adding your voice to the ones they - we - hear?’
I take the mystical approach and remind him of the “Sh'ma Israel” – Judaism’s briefest and most popular prayer - a declaration of faith opening with the word – ‘shma’ –‘hear!’ – in the singular.
Sometimes, I tell him, it’s ok to go solo… some things are best done privately, in the privacy of one’s own room.
We laugh, and agree to not always agree and lunch is soon over.
But also, and this I didn’t tell Y., sparing him the details of my minor Sabbath desecration - on the other side of the building, my neighbor J. plays classical music on Saturday mornings. After the Torah Service ends – and they are usually done by 9:30am – I switch to the balcony and drink coffee and groove on J.’s weekly selection of concertos. Last week, right after BaMidbar, she played Brahms.
So when it comes time to read this week’s Torah tale, Naso, and pick a verb that reverberates with my reality, I flip all the way to the last verse and find Moses, alone, hearing voices.
"When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with God, he would hear the Voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Pact between the two cherubim; thus God spoke to him." (Bamdibar 7:89)
Hearing is a privilege. Not just for those of us whose hearing is not impaired physically, but also for those of us who take the time to stop, listen – and hear what is out there – and what is in here. Moses represents the peak of this human ability – he enters the most sacred domain to receive the transmission from beyond. In mythic imagination it is he alone who achieved such privileged status – but by transmitting the knowledge on to us he made sure that each and every one of us is able to access – or at least to attempt to access – to the same mystery, to the same voice. Moses reminds us how to hear reality.
In the early part of the 20th century, when Martin Buber begins the monumental project of translating the Bible into German, he writes: "Do we mean the word? We mean the voice. Do we mean that people should be reading it? We mean that people should be hearing it."
This week the Jewish world celebrates Shavuot – the holiday on which, according to tradition, Moses brought down the Ten Commandments from the flaming top of Mount Sinai. On Thursday night, May 28th, Sixth of Sivan, the eve of the holiday, many will stay up till dawn, engaging in various forms of study, contemplation and discussions on anything and everything that has to do with Torah and with Jewish life. A supplement in Jerusalem’s weekend paper listed over 500 different study events in Jerusalem alone – offering everything from Ultra Orthodox lectures to Jazz concerts and everything in between. (And I’m happy to note that I will be presenting two events, teaching at a third, and going to two other Storahtelling events by new local Storahtellers – all within 12 hours! Details for Shavuot Storah in Jerusalem )
On the same night in Tel Aviv, NY, London, Berlin and elsewhere – Jews will stay up till dawn to celebrate the voice that has become the legacy of words – the backbone of the people of the Book.
The willingness to hear, read and argue these same words is perhaps the one real unifying elements for all Jews, at all times. I love the fact that on the night of Shavuot, everyone is literally on the same page.
So here’s an irony. Because of the holiday of Shavuot falling this year on a Friday, the Jewish world will, temporarily, separate, and not be on the same Biblical page for about two months. Since this has some implications to this blog – here’s a quick summary:
The Torah is divided into 54 portions, one for each of the weeks in the Year, with some fluidity built in for pairing up specific portions.
Due to various historical reasons, the Jews in Israel only celebrate one day of each Holiday while the Jews living outside Israel get a bonus and keep two days per each holy day. Thus, this coming Saturday, Israelis will only be celebrating Sabbath as Usual, while Jews in the rest of the world will be celebrating the Second Day of Shavuot. The only reason this matters (it’s the same food) is the selection of the weekly Torah reading. In Israel, Naso, the second episode of the Book of Bamidbar will be chanted. Elsewhere, a special selection for the Second Day of Shavuot will take the stage –and Naso will be read the following week, catching up with Israel. At the end of Bamidbar – and the end of June – two Torah portions will be read together both in Israel and the Diaspora and the world will once again read the same verses on the same Sabbath, making it easier for everybody to get along and share blogs. FYI.
REVERB, currently physically located in Jerusalem, is taking the Israeli side on this one – and this week’s word comes from this week’s Torah selection, Naso. For my readers around the world (I got the nicest note from Moscow last week) – consider yourselves one week ahead of the game. We’ll soon be back together. Being together, it seems, can happen in a lot of different ways...
When the Turkish cantor will sing Naso outside my window this coming Saturday– I hope to be there – here - hearing Moses hearing God, yet again, for the very first time. And maybe J. will play Bach.
to learn more about the division of Torah portions: