At the Davennen Leadership Training Institute, we were asked to work on our leyning skills. That is, we were asked to step into the ability to decode tropes, the musical system used to chant the Torah. And for those of us who know the trope system, we were given intermediate or advanced options. We could work in partnership to chant conversations as a dialog in English or individually take a section of Torah and provide our own translation.
This project terrified me before I ever opened a Chumash. I am somewhat comfortable preparing a talk on the Torah, from the comfort of my own home with my teachers surrounding me. I take out five or six commentaries and meditate my way into a conversation on a portion.
My process for creating this English story based on the Torah
So, being at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, with a handful of unfamiliar commentaries, was quite disorienting. Further, I chose a section that I thought would allow me to enter into the deep mystery of knowing HaShem, Exodus 24.1-11; the section of the parsha Mishpatim known as the Sapphire Vision; an entry point into Jewish mysticism.
First, I went through the available commentaries and wrote a straight-forward English version of the text. I stared at those words, devoid of any women, full of ancient blood rituals, and I felt a chasm open up between me and HaShem. I asked our holy teacher, Hazzan Jack Kessler, how much space I had for interpretation. He encouraged me to explore the story however I wanted to, and pointed out how strange the ending of the passage is. (You see HaShem’s throne and your response is to eat and drink?)
I practiced chanting the Torah portion in Hebrew, to get myself more deeply connected to the holy sparks within it. I also assumed that it makes the most sense to follow the trope cadence already assigned when developing an English translation. So, initially, I was going to chant my English story as simply as Mishpatim describes The Sapphire Vision. And then, on the first day of English leyning, my holy sisters and brothers pulled out rare tropes to adorn their English. And I thought, well, if any portion deserves adornment, surely it is a vision of the Divine. Plus, all that fancy note work might keep people from booing me out of the room for the heresy of my story. (Because there was still a large portion of me terrified of sharing my story publicly, in front of an open Torah.)
In terror, I stepped forward.
This is the hardest thing I did last week. It cracked open a part of me that I didn’t know was there. I am so deeply grateful to Reb Marcia Prager and Hazzan Jack Kessler, along with our other holy teachers, for creating the space that allowed me to greet the Shechinah with open arms.
Another Sapphire Vision
Yah spoke to Moshe saying: travel up to Miriam and the kohanot. And Moshe went up; him, and Aaron, and the other males thirsting for Divine flow. Miriam showed Moshe the way in.
And Moshe returned and told the people all that he heard.
And Yisrael replied: all that Yah said, we shall do.
Moshe wrote instructions for living a life of goodness.
In gratitude, he built an altar to HaShem and placed twelve pillars around it. He prayed that the Holy One and Her people would fill the world with glory and love.
Then, Moshe took the book of the covenant and read into the ears of the people.
They said: All that Yah has commanded we will do.
Moshe blessed the people and thanked them for trusting him.
Moshe returned to the Mountain of Flow; he and all the men eager to meet the Source. Miriam greeted them; the Kohanot taught the spiral dance.
Lo, they glimpsed the Divine.
BRILLIANT, DEEP BLUE SAPPHIRE.
Blue / Black, Smooth as Ice, Firm as Mountains, Soft as Babies.
The men were overwhelmed. All of the men were overwhelmed by the brilliance. All of the men except Moshe.
Miriam held Moshe’s hand and he felt the pure love and emptying of childbirth.
They returned to the Kehillah Kedushah, the holy community, emanating the pure light of the Divine.
The men were overjoyed to be let in. And the men prepared a great feast. And all of them sat together. And they ate and they drank.