Thursday, October 22, 2009

D'var Torah class

Tonight I sat for two hours in my first d'var Torah class, a class to learn how to provide an analysis of a Torah portion, or parasha. I've been looking forward to this for so long. The analysis of the Torah portion is always my favorite part of a service. I sometimes go to Torah study, where a member of the congregation explicates that week's portion (last week, Bereshit, when God creates the universe, was explicated by a Berkeley astrophysicist who pulled in the prophet Einstein and tried to teach us about 11 dimensions, among other things).

It is said that, since there were 600,000 people at Mount Sinai when Moses received the Torah, there are exactly 600,000 interpretations of it. Or of each passage. Or of each word. Or mark. I couldn't help but think of physics analogies: those 11 dimensions, all rolled up so we can't see them; fractals, which retain their complexity no matter how close you get to them. Jews have been analyzing Torah, and then analyzing the analysis, for more than two millennia. And yet there are always new approaches: apparently there was an instant classic analysis done at Torah study this past year when someone took a passage in Deuteronomy where someone got stoned and analyzed it in the context of pot, ending with Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35." That counts as one of the 600,000. We are also going to learn how to recognize when we've found 600,001st, the one that is wrong.

And I am so humbled. One man in the class had three translations in front of him. Another would suggest sort of historical analysis that the rabbi said needed to be tabled because of their complexity. One woman could read the marks on the letters and chant the passages correctly. I think the purpose of the session tonight was to give us a framework for understanding how to approach a Torah portion. But the content of every sentence was so full of new information for me that I took a ton of notes and feel like I know nothing.

Not to mention how to take notes in English and Hebrew when they are written in opposite directions. I really wanted to write a "bet" (the first letter of Bereshit, a letter that is written larger than the others and that certainly has had 11 dimensions worth of analysis), and I couldn't for the life of me, even staring at the printed letter itself, resolve how it should show up on my paper.

The class itself was enchanting. We jumped back and forth through Genesis and Exodus, taking apart passages and pieces of passages and names of passages and diacritical marks on passages ("Abraham | Abraham" versus "Moses Moses"). At one point, the rabbi decided we needed to look at the real sefer Torah, so he reached into the ark and pulled it out; we rolled it out on a tallis. (It was startlingly casual. Where was the standing and singing and praying?) He wanted to show us that there are gaps, like paragraph breaks, in the Torah and that they are so important that they are indicated in the book form of the Torah we are using.

I've got degrees in literary studies. I can take apart any text using a variety of methodologies (Marxist being my favorite). I've been doing this my whole life. But to analyze the Torah is an entirely different process.

It reminded me of when I started playing hockey a few years ago. With absolutely no athletic experience or talent, I knew from day one that I was in over my head. I knew I was pretty bad. I immediately made plans for extra practice -- I had to work three times as hard as my teammates just to keep up with them. Saturday morning 6:15 practices, stick time, skating clinics, hockey camp. And I did succeed in keeping up respectably in beginner's hockey.

So I asked the rabbi for extra work so I can start feeling like I have traction. He was kind enough not to say, "Learn Hebrew," but I will at least brush up on my numbers so I can follow the verse numbers (hah -- I know how to count to one) and my writing (which is screwy because I can write in script and not print, but even most of my script letters are gone). He gave me the name of a book to read and an online Torah to take a look at. This is like starting from scratch. I do not often feel this far from understanding what can be understood.

What I love is that it is a central principle of Judaism that it is all connected. Everything in the Torah has purpose and meaning. Our job is to work to understand it.