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Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Why is the Torah reading so boring?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 43

We had just left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea to freedom at last.  Only to find ourselves trudging through the wilderness.  It had been three long days and we’d encountered no water for our children or ourselves, let alone the animals.  And then we finally reached the water, it was bitter!  Until Moshe threw a special plant into the water and it miraculously became sweet! 

On a mystical level, water represents Torah.  It is our life-force.  It is our basic sustenance.  As Rabbi Akiva would say, a Jew without Torah is like a fish out of water.

This deeper symbolism and its connection to our search for water in the wilderness set the tone for a law that we have until today.  Following the event, Moshe instructed our people that we must publicly read from the Torah at least every three days.  Just like we couldn’t survive without water, and when we finally found it, it was bitter, if we go too long without Torah, it becomes bitter to us. 

How could anyone find water bitter?  And yet we did.  Likewise, if we let Torah be absent from our lives for too long, we stop appreciating its sweetness.  Instead of being invigorating, it becomes a burden.  Hence the obligation to publicly read from the Torah every Shabbos, Monday, and Thursday.  That way we are constantly energized and the Torah is forever fresh and exciting!

If a Torah scroll was stolen from a city, local citizens may not judge the case nor testify, for a Torah is there for all to listen to.
Rashbam explains: Every person in the city is an interested party (and therefore disqualified to be a judge or witness to the case of the stolen Torah), because they all enjoy (listening to) the Torah.

Listen to what Rashbam says: everyone enjoys listening to the Torah!  We all benefit from it!  How lucky we are to have the opportunity to hear the Torah Shabbos morning, Shabbos afternoon, Monday, and Thursday!

Okay now, let’s be honest for a minute: do we all really find the Torah reading the highlight of our religious experience?  How many contemporary shuls make the Torah reading an immensely enjoyable experience?  An awesome moment.  Something we just can’t wait for? 

Back in the day, the layning (Torah reading) was a much more stimulating experience: the Baal Koreh (reader) would read a verse and then an interpreter would stand there and bring it to life for the congregation.  Nowadays, we don’t need all that, because we have printed translations right in front of us.  So many of us end up tuning out – either we find something else to read or we end up chatting quietly to our neighbors.

If you find yourself dreading the Torah reading, you need to figure out how to make it more stimulating and exciting.  Speak to the rabbi.  Speak to the gabbai.  Or even better, offer to be part of the solution.

There are lots of different ways to make it more exciting.  In our shul, we’ve used various approaches over the years.  At one point, I would ask a question between each aliya; the answer could be found anywhere in the text and Stone Chumash commentary.  We currently have a couple of 2 minute D’var Torah breaks – not before every aliya, that can get a little tedious; but here and there, and with different presenters.  We have rabbinic and lay-leader presenters – as long as they’re interesting and present succinctly and cogently.

A good service also can’t afford to allow the gabbaus (ritual call-ups) to be boring.  If you have too many long misheberachs (blessings), people tune out and start talking to their neighbor.  Misheberachs should be short and sweet (and generate maximum funds for the shul)!  And of course, the layning itself should be error-free and read at a pretty decent pace – fast enough to keep things moving, just not too fast that the congregation cannot follow along. 

On the odd occasion, the Baal Koreh should make a deliberate mistake.  That serves two purposes: first, you make sure that people are paying attention.  Second, it gives people a chance to shout out the correction which keeps everyone awake.  (I’m kidding, a good Baal Koreh is always letter-perfect and trop-perfect!!  I was just checking to see you’re all still awake!)

The Torah reading should be the pinnacle of our Shabbos experience.  Find ways to keep it fresh, alive, and stimulating for everyone.  May you merit being part of the solution and quenching the thirst of our people with the holy sweet waters of Torah!