Rediscovering the Joys of Torah Reading
Herbert Shapiro, Rosh haShanah 5763 / September 2003
Lorraine and I have been regulars at Shabbat services for many years. Until 1994 we lived in Brooklyn and were members of a large Conservative congregation with a traditional pattern of having a chazzan, choir and Torah reader lead the service. There was little opportunity for real participation but lots of time for listening to the performance. We attended, but each week left shul feeling disappointed. We each had experienced in childhood services which involved us fully and deeply. We knew what we were missing.
When we moved to Manhattan, the serendipitous discovery of Or Zarua changed our lives in many important ways. Not least among these was experiencing the joy of Shabbat services in which we could participate as part of a community where congregants are active in all aspects of the service. For me this involvement has led to a rediscovery of the satisfactions of Torah reading. I am certainly not alone at Or Zarua in having found this avenue to fuller and richer participation in the life of the congregation. However, my increasing recognition that the act of reading Torah in this setting has resulted in a deeper commitment to my faith motivates me to express my appreciation to Or Zarua for having made this possible.
I read the Torah portion for the first, and I thought the last, time at my bar mitzvah in 1940. In the intervening years as I listened weekly to professional Torah readers, the cantillation remained familiar but it never occurred to me, nor was there an opportunity, to renew this skill - not until we joined Or Zarua. After being encouraged by Terry Krulwich, Yaakov Shechter and others, and after much anxious reflection, in 1999 I agreed to try one aliyah. I told my family that this would be a one-time effort and set to work to recall old skills. My biggest worry was that I would not be able to memorize and retain the words and the cantillation. Torah reading should be as close to perfect in this regard as one can achieve and during the first week of practice I kept forgetting much of what I thought I had mastered the previous day. I kept at it and eventually began to feel that it was within my grasp.
The fateful Shabbat arrived, my anxiety increased as the service progressed, and with uncertain voice I began to read my portion. My relief when I finished was palpable. Soon after, to my surprise, the joy that I had experienced inspired a desire to try again. It is difficult to explain, even to myself, what drove me to repeat the cycle of struggle for mastery, increasing last-minute anxiety and post-reading relief. Still, I was encouraged to try additional aliyot and as time passed I felt increasing confidence, neede shorter preparation time and finally experienced unalloyed pleasure in the act of reading Torah. I now read regularly with deep satisfaction and look forward to continuing to do so among people whom I admire and respect and with whom I joyfully join in prayer each Shabbat.