Whole Lot of Torah Going On
November 22, 2004
My friend the rabbi will be out of town this upcoming weekend, spending Thanksgiving with family, so I volunteered to lead services on Saturday morning. I swing by shul this morning to pick up a printout of the Torah portion for the week.
This week we're on Vayishlach, so I'm reading Genesis 34:1-31: the story of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob. She is raped by Shechem son of Hamor, who then decides he wants to marry her. Jacob and his sons are angry, but they hide their anger, and tell Shechem that if all the men in the tribe of Hamor become circumcised, they'll allow Dinah to marry in. The mass circumcisions happen, and then Jacob's sons attack and slaughter them all in recompense for the rape. It ends with Jacob chiding his sons for bringing trouble on him (slaying and plundering just aren't nice things to do), but the sons counter, "Should our sister be treated like a whore?"
If I had nothing else to do this week, I could probably spend the whole thing reading commentaries and working on preparing my Torah discussion. This is a fascinating, fascinating story and I'm sure there's a ton of commentary on it. (I'd love to reread Anita Diamant's "The Red Tent", for instance, which tells the story somewhat differently from Dinah’s point of view; and it would be fun to learn what traditional commentators have to say about this portion, too.) Of course, I don't have the luxury of being a fulltime Torah scholar, especially not during Thanksgiving week. And what time I do have is likely to be devoted to learning the Hebrew, because this Torah portion? Is huge.
Seriously. It's at least twice as long as anything I've read before, maybe three times as long. The Torah portion handout for the congregation (Hebrew in one column, English in the other) fills both sides of a full 8.5 x 11" page. The synagogue administrator handed it to me with a smile and I swallowed an eep and said, a little weakly, "Gosh, that's a long one."
The first thing I did was go to the synagogue library to pull the tikkun from the shelf. (It's an enormous leather-bound volume which pairs printed text-with-vowels and Torah-calligraphy-style vowel-less text in facing columns.) This way, once I can read it fluently with vowels, I can switch over to the Torah-script side of the page and practice reading it as it's printed in the scroll. Honestly, even the fact of this book is a little daunting: it's huge, covered in red leather embossed with gilt, and there's not an Engish character in it anywhere. (I was proud of myself simply for finding this week's portion.) The facing pages are filled with more columns of Hebrew in still different typescripts; I know they're commentaries of some kind, but no way is my Hebrew good enough to understand them. For some of my readers (rabbis, rabbinic students, yeshiva students) this kind of thing is old hat, but it's new to me, and it's a stretch.
I'm a little bit intimidated by the prospect of reading this much Torah. I keep staring at it, nervously, wishing I had more than five days to learn it in.
Another part of me is amused at the size of this thing. If I want to be competent at this, the Universe seems to be saying, then I'd better step up to the plate. And what time better than the present?
I guess I know what I'm doing with my tomorrow afternoon. And my Wednesday. And Friday.