Recently I listened as a bat mitzvah chanted Torah and I followed along in the Chumash (the book that contains the Torah text in Hebrew and English and commentary). My finger slid across the text of the Hebrew she was chanting while I followed. I looked up in between her readings to watch the friends and family called up for aliyot (when Jews are called up for an honor before each Torah readings), but once the young lady of honor began chanting again, my focus shifted back down to the Hebrew text in front of me.
What should one focus on during Torah readings? That has been a topic I’ve heard discussed on several occasions. Do we focus on reading the Hebrew? Is it best to practice following along in the Hebrew while someone chants? Should we take the time to practice the trope (kind of like musical notes printed in the Chumas that show you how to chant the word)? Since some Jews aren’t fluent in Hebrew, would it be better to focus on the English translation on the opposite page? Should we read the commentary printed in the margins during the reading or only inbetween readings? What I never though to ask is, “When should we look up from the text?” When are the words being chanted (or the vernacular translations thereof) not necessarily the most important thing on which to focus?
In Judaism, it’s never only about the text. Yes the Torah contains much of our rules and laws, but, in practice, our sages have expanded those rules beyond the few written words. Torah gives us the foundation. Jews build from there. Much of our Jewish practice begins in the Torah and is discussed, argued, and expanded by Jews. For example, Torah specifically tells us not to boil a calf in its mother’s milk. Kashrut laws however, go well beyond that and don’t allow for any meat and dairy to be served within hours of each other. Meat and dairy foods even have their own separate plates and utensils. Our practice is full of situations like this—where Torah says one thing, but interpretations have allowed for practice to expand beyond the text.
Often these expansions beyond the written page are done to take humanity into account. Torah tells us not to curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. Our sages explain how that translates to making buildings accessible and fair business practices. Torah tells us capital punishment is allowed. Our sages place so many specific rules and restrictions so as to ensure fairness that it’s nearly impossible to implement it.
This focus both on the written word and the humanity around us isn’t just reserved for the famous sages. At that bat mitzvah, while the bat mitzvah was chanting one of the later Torah portion, I looked up. In doing so, I did not look away from the Torah in my hands. I looked at it in motion. I wasn’t looking away from the Torah. I was looking at what Torah has created and sustained. I saw parents alongside the girl beaming while she chanted. I saw her father’s hand fly to his chest in awe when she beautifully sang a particularly difficult part. I saw the girls’ teachers helping to hold the Torah scroll open while she chanted. I looked around the synagogue and saw a row of the girls’ classmates (who, earlier in the services, I saw repeatedly give each other bunny ears whenever the bat mitzvah looked over in an attempt to make her smile and feel more at ease). I saw elderly members of the community and of the girls’ family gathered together in her honor.
It struck me to watch the humanity of Torah in action. We Jews are the people of the Book. The Torah is so incredibly important. Torah binds us to Judaism. It binds us to our history, our practice, and each other. Torah exists in handwritten scrolls, in typed books, and in the people around us. Through Torah we learn how to fight for justice, how to live ethical lives, and how to treat all people fairly. How do we apply that in our synagogues, our schools, our homes? At that bat mitzvah ceremony, I lifted my eyes from the written Torah to witness the living Torah and it filled me with hope and left me in awe.