Thoughts After Reading From The Torah For The First Time
By Barbara Grosh
I knew when I converted to Judaism that I wanted to stand on the bimah and read from the Torah. I knew I would be connecting myself to Jewish tradition, but I didn't know in just how many ways I would feel connected.
First there were the connections we built in 2 years of studying together. We had so much to say about the weekly Torah portion that it was hard to move on to the rest of the agenda. I love knowing that our temple is full of such thoughtful people, with really profound things to say (though the week we dressed for pictures, we spent a lot of time showing off our shoes to each other, and I felt connected to all those shiny 13-year-olds I see on the bimah on Shabbat mornings).
On Shavuot we each brought something significant to share. An intimidating assignment, but one person bravely went first, sharing something marvelous. Then another person said, "That leads really well into mine..." and they were connected, and someone else's was connected to that. It was uncanny how each led to the next and by the end of the evening I felt like I'd had a fifteen-course spiritual banquet. No wonder Jews love to study on Shavuot! Some year I hope we'll try the traditional all-night study marathon.
Learning Hebrew did not come easily to me. My difficulty in remembering the letters and sounding out words letter by letter connected me with my daughter as she learned to read. Two years later she's a whiz, and I cleave to her example. If she can learn, then I can keep this up and improve. But I feel a newfound connection to every person who tells me they found Hebrew school a torture.
I started studying my portion with a d'var torah on my one sentence that I was to read. It seemed a very humdrum sentence when I started, but it yielded unexpected riches. I'd learned that the Torah is very terse, and anything that gets repeated is significant. My sentence says that Abram and Sarai set out for the land of Canaan and they arrived in the land of Canaan. Why the repetition? Because setting out and arriving are two different things. I imagined all the obstacles they faced, I forgave myself for finding obstacles blocking the realization of my own good intentions and I found the strength to overcome them.
In the days after September 11, I wondered what to do. By then I was seriously delinquent in preparing my portion, and the desire to avoid humiliation dictated what I should do: I should practice. Soon the haunting minor-key melody filled my head and my heart: "I am Adonai your God...Have no fear; I will be your help." Chant that a million times and you will have no fear, and you find the strength to do what needs to be done. I'm sure the power of Torah has sustained Jews in many bad times, not just this one. I felt that chain of people who came before me and those who will come after, and it was very comforting.
The night of our adult b'nai mitzvah surpassed my expectations. It is remarkable to stand in front of such a large and lively community chanting the ancient melodies from our Torah from the Czechoslovakian collection. It still bears its number, assigned by the Nazis as they planned their museum for the vanished races. Far from vanishing, we are here, and in that moment before the Torah, I felt oh-so-alive-and-well.
The Torah really is a tree of life, just as we sing every week! A new adult b'nai mitzvah class is starting now. I'm excited for those who will come next in the chain.
Barbara Grosh is the Outreach Coordinator of Temple B'rith Kodesh, in Rochester.