Shabbat at the Farm
Blessed are the Papermakers

Getting a Jump on Chukat

Between one thing and another, it's three weeks since I last studied Torah with Jeff or cracked my Biblical Hebrew textbook. I feel bad about that, especially since next weekend I'm pinch-hitting again -- leading Friday and Saturday services, which includes reading Torah and running the Torah discussion. (I'm also giving a presentation on Jewish American poetry on Friday night, as part of our summer lecture series -- a brief talk annotating a handful of my favorite poems, plus a reading of some of my own Judaic work -- though that doesn't require my Hebrew skills to be especially shiny.)

This morning I opened my Tanakh to parashat Chukat to begin preparing the Torah portion. Jeff and I had agreed that I should read, and teach on, the passage where Moses is instructed to bring forth water from the rock. There's a lot of good stuff in those thirteen tasty verses: the implicit connection between Miriam's death and the dearth of water, Moses' cynical "listen up, you rebels; shall I bring forth water for you from this rock?", God's decision that because Moses and Aaron doubted  they will not enter the promised land. Moving beyond the p'shat (literal level), there's the terrific question of how we call forth the living waters that sustain us once our spiritual leaders are gone.

Of course every Torah portion is a good one, but this is an especially good one, and I can't wait to lead the discussion -- but I have to be able to read it, first. And since I haven't studied Hebrew in three weeks, I wasn't looking forward to starting my study again and seeing how far I'd slipped.

To my surprise, it turns out I can translate about 95 percent of the allotted portion without help. Sure, there are some words I didn't know -- "buried," "quarreled," "perished," "figs," "rock," "rebels" -- but I can easily learn those in a week. I think I'm going to be able to simultranslate this as I read -- a line of Hebrew, followed by its English translation -- for the first time.

My Hebrew is not what I want it to be. I still can't navigate הארי פוטר ואבן החכמים (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone), and since that's a young adult novel, clearly I have a ways to go before fluency. But as nice as it would be to follow Harry's adventures b'ivrit, the reason I want to know the language is so I can read Torah (and, eventually, commentaries) in the original. And as much as I chastise myself for not practicing verb conjugations, I must be getting somewhere, because I can actually read this Torah portion.

Now I just have to master it reading from my (vowel-less) tikkun, and plan the discussion. Oh, and prep that whole poetry thing. Good thing Shabbat's still almost a week away...

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