Monday, June 05, 2006
Baal Korehs, or those who read the Torah in front of the congregation, are a special breed. I've always had a high level of respect for these people. They have chosen to devote time not only to something that is incredibly difficult, namely the virtual memorization of the whole Torah, but also one which is so useful to the community.
Lest you say that they are not actually memorizing the Torah, since as you can see it is written on a parchment which they are obligated to read as they chant the Torah portion aloud, let me clarify that while the words are there, there are no vowels, no punctuation, no indication of the beginnings or ends of sentences, paragraphs, or sections, and no musical notes. All of these must be memorized by the Baal Koreh, and practically speaking, he has to memorize the words along with them.
And it is so useful to the community. I've been to many minyanim, and I've never failed to be impressed when, during a pivitol portion of the service, somebody asks, "can ANYBODY layn (chant) this?" and some fellow gets up and sings the section flawlessly.
Once upon a time, after my Bar Mitzvah, I entertained the notion of becoming a Baal Koreh myself. But I soon found out that this fell under the heading of "a lot of work" and abandoned it.
The Baal Korehs that I've known have all been exceptional people. They excel at whatever they do, whether it's business, medicine, law, rabbinics, etc. These people tend to take whatever they're doing and do it very well. You could argue that this is a chicken and egg kind of thing, i.e. the kind of people who can be very successful in their fields also have the brain power to memorize huge portions of text. Or maybe it's the mental calisthenics of learning to read long portions of Torah that give them the discipline to take any endeavor to its extreme.
I don't know. All I know is that at some point in my life I figured out that I wasn't going to be one of them. I realized that I'd have to make due with my midget-sized mind and make the most of what's left of it (of course, after having memorized all of Star Trek and Monty Python).
I had hoped that my boys would become Baale Kriya themselves, as so far they have shown some aptitude for layning, but none of them seems particularly interested in the "a lot of work" aspect of it. Oh well.
This past Yontiff I was asked to do the Torah reading for the first day minyan in the Shteeble, and although there was this persistant siren going off in my head that kept saying "SAY NO SAY NO SAY NO" I agreed, since it appeared I was the last on a long list of people being asked.
Of course I had no time to prepare, and to be honest, I had mistakenly thought it was another reading that I had once learned many years ago, so I spent an hour or two Thursday night going over the reading about 5 or 6 times. Now, I'm not bad at making a dry reading as long as all the punctuation or trop (musical notes) are in front of me. I am a musician, after all, and I pride myself on my ability to read the words and music correctly. However, it became painfully obvious to me as the night wore on that I was not making any progress towards memorizing it. I resigned myself to doing a crappy job in the morning, which I didn't feel all that bad about since the rabbi had told me, "Don't worry, Steve, everyone will be asleep."
Well, they weren't all asleep, and it turned out that I did a lot more than I had expected, including Akdamus (a tongue-twister in Aramaic) and the Haftorah. And as expected, I fumbled my way through the layning (which unfortunately included the Ten Commandments. I may have skipped one or two). However, the congregation was more than gracious, and a few people even told me they were impressed with the job I did. I can only assume they were the ones who were asleep.
I don't think my brain is as receptive as it was 27 years ago. That would have been a good time for me to try to do this kind of thing. As it is, although I did a passible job (and I enjoyed it), I think I may have sprained my brain or something. It makes me a little sad to think that I'm on the downhill slide of my intellectual capacity (something I noted as well when I tried to learn new music earlier in the year). I can only hope that by increasing my measure of mental exercise, I may be able to stabilize the decline.
For the rest of you Baal Korehs out there, yasher kochachem (may your strength be firm)!