Although in ancient times Shavuot was one of three major harvest festivals, for many Jews in the Diaspora, it is a minor holiday. Other than offering us the occasion to read the pastoral tale of “The Book of Ruth” and eat blintzes and ice cream, does Shavuot have significance for our contemporary lives? On Shavuot last week, we marked how Moses received the Ten Commandments and the Torah from God, but that seems like an abstract concept to most of us in our secular lives.
Growing up, I was jealous of the boys who learned how to chant from the Torah for their bar mitzvahs. Without even knowing that chanting by women was permitted in progressive communities, I dreamed of learning how to chant. It seemed as if those who chanted were deeply connected to the physical scroll and to the metaphorical Torah, to their spirituality, and to God. I always understood the work of reading Torah to be sacred work, just like prayer leadership or blessing Shabbat candles. I didn’t know if I could do that awesome work I saw others do, or if I could even manage to sing in tune for a whole aliyah, but I wanted the chance to wrestle with the challenges.
At the age of 32, I asked Congregation Or Haneshamah’s Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton to tutor me and a hevrutah (study partner) in chanting Torah trope. Learning to chant is no easy feat, as many bar and bat mitzvah celebrants and their parents can attest. But my hevrutah and I were serious adult students and, for about six months, we prepared to chant from the Bamidbar parsha for our big debut on Saturday, June 7, 2014. I remember this date because it was exactly a week before my PhD convocation, and only two days after Shavuot, which concluded on June 5 that year. It was a heady time.
I also remember our learning process. My hevrutah and I studied together sometimes several times a week. We practised trope and we also talked about our spiritual practices, our desire to connect more with community, and our keen interest in learning. We shared articles and books with each other. We were not simply studying our portion, we were truly studying Torah. We joked that she was the mystic and I was the rabbi-in-training. We were a good team and we challenged each other.
I was so nervous when we finally went to the bimah that June morning. It wasn’t a bat mitzvah, but it wasn’t a regular Shabbat. The room was packed with congregants, family and friends who had come to witness our work. I felt I was held up and supported by my community.
My hands shook as I gripped the yad, but, when I turned to the scroll, my focus was clearly fuelled by fear. But, as I read the words on the scroll, and as my voice rang out, I felt I was simply following a text I already knew, simply singing out words that were already there. And, yes, it felt awesome and transcendent. It felt powerful and, at the same time, I was deeply humbled.
My hevrutah and I gave a D’var Torah that day in which we discussed the parallels between our own journey and the one Ruth undergoes in her quest for community, family and spirituality. Learning to chant enabled us to tackle something that had seemed inaccessible and impossible, both because we were women and because it was difficult. Our learning process deepened our friendship and also created a spiritual partnership that we had not expected. Moreover, it opened up new possibilities to connect with our community and with our faith. We learned later that our work inspired several other adults in our congregation to study Torah cantillation.
So, what is Shavuot? It marks the moment God gave the Torah to Moses for the Jewish people and thus it is one of the touchstones of our faith and history. Shavuot is also about renewing our spiritual practice, rather than taking it for granted, just as Ruth actively chooses a new faith when she decides to live with Naomi’s people. Shavuot, therefore, is a reminder that we all have the potential to connect with our spirituality, with community, and with Torah, even if it takes a little work and a little risk.
I dedicate this piece, with gratitude, to my hevrutah and to our teacher.