18 You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread — eating unleavened bread for seven days, as I have commanded you — at the set time of the month of Abib, for in the month of Abib you went forth from Egypt.
19 Every first issue of the womb is Mine, from all your livestock that drop a male as firstling, whether cattle or sheep.
20 But the firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every first-born among your sons.
None shall appear before Me empty-handed.
I read from the Torah at our synagogue yesterday.
I technically had my bat mitzvah in Israel on my Birthright trip nearly two years ago. It took place in the basement meeting room of a hotel in Jerusalem. It was a very important moment, but being surrounded by my community was important too. On that day I made a promise to myself that I would read from the Torah at our synagogue. What I didn’t think about was the actual execution of the promise. It was more like, Hey, this is an important thing for me to do…someday.
The reason that I did read from the Torah yesterday and not last month or next year is because we were celebrating Marcus’ cousin’s bat mitzvah. As a part of her Shabbat service, she also had family and friends reading from the Torah, taking it out of and returning it to the ark, and reading the blessings over it. We were all participating to honor her. And she did such a very good job. She lead the congregation through whole parts of the service, read several Torah portions and the whole Haftorah, and delivered a D’var Torah (sermon). She was smiling through the entire thing and did not even bat an eye.
I…was not smiling. I was so nervous as the services started. As in stomach-turning, mouth-drying anxiousness. I don’t even get that nervous before the marathon, so after trying every coping skill in the book, I accepted my extremely nauseous fate.
As we were navigating the Siddur (prayer book) and the service, we flipped to a reading that is set apart for Sukkot. It was an ancient Rabbi discussing how we can carry-out the words of Micah 6:8, which are, Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. And I took some comfort in that because it is a verse that is well-beloved by my family. The odds of it appearing in our liturgy on that particular day were so small.
It was a nerve-wracking morning, but it was also an emotional morning. I guess I hadn’t really dedicated any amount of time or thought to how I would actually feel about reading from the Torah, because I had spent so much time trying to learn the words to my lines of the portion and how to read them and chant/sing them correctly that I was more worried about that. Anyway, don’t worry guys, I won for Most Emotional Family Member of the day and promptly burst into tears before the Torah Service even properly started. I had to bring kleenex with me in my sleeve up to the bimah (lectern). I looked at Marcus and hissed, What if I cry on the Torah. He assured me that this would not happen. I was not so sure.
Torah reading is a very involved activity. I remember in high school when I used to participate in church services as a reader. You walked up to the lectern, pronounced The Word Of The Lord and then read the selected verses for the week. Or the Gospel. Sometimes you read from a sheet of paper. Other times you actually read from a Bible.
It is not that way with Torah reading. Someone has to take the Torah out of the ark. Prayers are read. We parade the Torah around the sanctuary because it is something to be celebrated. When the Torah is not being read, it is literally dressed. The scrolls are covered in fabric. The handles are capped with silver crowns, a breastplate rests on top of all of this. So in order to even begin with the reading, all of this has to be removed. Only then is the Torah placed on the bimah to be read.
It does not stop there. The Torah is written in Hebrew, right? But it is written specially. Where the words of the Torah appear in books, the Hebrew words include vowels. No vowels appear in the Torah scrolls. So 2-3 people who are expert Torah readers must stand by the Torah not only to hold the scrolls open, but also to make sure that what is being read is being read correctly. At the beginning and end of each section of the reading, several other people read a aliyah (blessing).
Why am I telling you all of this? Because I want for you to be able to imagine that when it was finally time for me to approach the bimah for my part of the reading with my twisty stomach, wet eyes, and cotton ball-dry mouth, seven people (the five people blessing/reviewing plus Marcus and Jacki who were also reading from the same section as I was) were huddled around me and the Torah.
It’s a real production. And this is exactly how it goes for every reading every Shabbat at every synagogue. There are no shortcuts.
When you’re running, sometimes you just have to get your feet going in a rhythm and wait for your body to fall into place from there. So as Marcus’ aunt and uncle finished the blessing over the Torah, I just opened my mouth and let it go. I honestly don’t know what my reading actually sounded like or what anything else besides the words on the page looked like.
After I finished reading my lines, Jacki stepped in to read hers. I backed away from the Torah and started to shake. Marcus’ aunt hugged me and then I began to tear up again. But praise God, I did not cry on the Torah. Marcus was right.
When it was time for us to leave the bimah, I attempted to escape the sanctuary through a side door, so that I could have a moment. I think that we can all agree it was a great idea in concept, until I walked straight into a room filled with 70 people who had joined one of our rabbis for some sort of study session.
What I had yesterday was the community I did not have in Jerusalem. Which is exactly what I had hoped for when I made that promise to myself, thousands of miles away from home.