LOS ANGELES (JTA) — On Shavuot, we celebrate being given the Five Books of Moses by opening the gift and reading from the scroll. But first we need to find the place.
How do we find our place in the Torah?
Newbies to the ways of a Torah scroll will soon realize that unlike the mass-produced technological marvels that bring order and wonder into their lives, this handmade inspiration comes without an operating manual.
As I discovered the first time I tried to find my place, the perfect columns of scribed, unvoweled Hebrew can seem like a phone book without page numbers in a foreign language.
For many, the only time we may have wanted to find our place in the Torah was at our bar or bat mitzvah — and even then someone showed us. But what if as adults we want to find our way back into the Torah — on our own? What if we want to find not only the correct place from which to read but a place to call our own?
There’s no app for that — yet.
“The scope would be limited,” said Russel Neiss, a Jewish educator and technologist who described himself as the “coding monkey” behind PocketTorah. The smartphone app has the text of the Torah and haftarah in Hebrew and translated, as well as with the sound of how they are chanted and commentary.
Asked about an app that lets you find your place in the Torah, he said it would “get in the way of the actual thing you want to be doing,” thinking of the tactile experience of confronting the text and grabbing hold of the wooden rollers, the etz chaim.
But is the absence of an app the only thing keeping us from being able to navigate the source of our spirituality?
Several years ago, at the conclusion of a parade welcoming a new Torah scroll to our small congregation, the Movable Minyan, was when I began to get my Torah bearings.
The plan was to conclude the event with a reading of the Shema from the new scroll. However, just as we entered the room, the one person knowledgeable enough to find the place told us she had an appointment and regretfully had to leave.
What now? We didn’t know the place, and there are no bookmarks that come with a Torah.
However, as we discovered that day, and as I was reminded recently by Rabbi Patricia Fenton of American Jewish University, “you take what guideposts you can” in finding your place in the scroll. Fenton is the manager of Judaica and public services at her Los Angeles school’s library and a rabbinic studies adviser.
According to Fenton, who was named recently by the Jewish Daily Forward as one of America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis, the place can be found by looking for clues such as gaps, familiar words or even sections.
“The Ten Commandments and Haazinu are written in a special way,” she added, the latter being the Torah portion featuring the Song of Moses. “Whether a person considers the Torah to be God’s words or a foundation text, it’s the source of who we are as Jews, and reading from it is a big responsibility.”
Fenton suggests starting with a Jewish calendar to find the week’s portion and then going to a tikkun — a guidebook for Torah readers with Hebrew text as it appears in the Torah scroll in one column and with vowels and singing marks in another — to narrow the search.
But the Movable Minyan had no tikkun and no experience, since the the task of setting the place in the Torah was typically done by an expert.
So how did a group of Torah rookies manage? By navigating with our collective Jewish educations. We knew the Shema was in the Torah’s last book, Deuteronomy — Devarim, in Hebrew — and from a prayer book that it was found in an early chapter.
The current place was somewhere near the middle, and since Hebrew reads from right to left, we would need to roll more up on the right roller to get to the last book. As we rolled, we noted the large gaps in text upon reaching the end of Leviticus-Vayikra, then Numbers-Bamidbar, until we reached Devarim.
“These are the words,” the book begins.
After slowly scrolling over several more columns, and finding the oversized letter ayin in the Shema, we had found our place.
Since then, I have found, like other novice readers, you can find your place by counting the columns of text in the tikkun from the beginning of a book, or the portion — the count will be the same in the Torah scroll. Later, as the Hebrew grew more familiar, key words and phrases became my guide.
Others in the minyan beginning their Torah journeys have used navigational aids — notes written on scraps of paper, photocopy enlargements, even Post-its — to find their place. More than an exercise or a game of word search, it became a matter of truly taking ownership of the text.
There are times, however, when we open the scroll and someone has forgotten to advance it from the previous Shabbat. In those moments of being lost — and it does feel like being physically lost — and amid the pressure to find your way, words become landmarks, even the guideposts of which Fenton spoke.
On one of those rolling mornings, yad in hand, I was looking for the right “va’yidaber” in the book of Exodus, Shemot — many of its verses begin with the word, as in “va’yidaber Elohim,” “and God spoke.” The word began to loom large as I scanned past one after another.
In the moments it took to find the right word and my place, I felt the Torah was speaking to me as well.
(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at email@example.com.)