Usually we want to know why we have to do something before we do it. That’s true whether someone else makes us do it, or we make ourselves. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that sometimes you do something and then you find out why you did it.
The Bible tells us that the Jews standing at Mount Sinai, when asked to accept the Torah, said the words "na'aseh v'nishma"--"We will do and we will understand" (however you translate the second word, “understand, hear, etc.” doing comes first.) Jewish people have always been raised to learn what to do above what not to do. And of course, some of the things we do really aren’t logical or even explainable.
One way of thinking about this idea is that, with something as vast and baffling as the instructions of the Torah, you have to follow those instructions and see what the result is in your life, because you might not be able to understand the reason any other way. The poet Theodore Roethke came to the same conclusion when he wrote, in wonderful ambiguity, “I learn by going where I have to go.” He learns where he has to go by going there, and he also learns because he goes there.
Too deep for you? Okay, check this out.
When I was 13 I had a bar-mitzvah, like most Jewish boys. You’re supposed to do several things: Chant from the Torah in Hebrew, chant another passage from the Old Testament (Haftarah) in, and give a speech about what you’ve learned. Well, when I was 13, I thought my second obligation, that Old Testament thing, was too hard, so I only agreed to do half of it.
In my defense, I did get one of the longest ones they give out. The one you get is chosen for you by the date of your Bar Mitzvah, and some people only have a little to do, while others end up with a lot. Because I didn’t think it was fair how I’d gotten the longest one, because I didn’t really feel competent, because I was not committed to the process, I rebelled and only did half of my Haftarah.
They let me get away with it. It’s the only time I ever rebelled, and it worked. At the time I thought I was clever and I’d won.
I hadn’t. As the years went by, I thought more and more about how I’d shirked my responsibility. I felt like a failure, and I couldn’t shake the feeling.
So when I was in my 30’s I decided, even though my Jewish learning was sorely lacking, that I’d go back and finish that portion, read the whole thing from start to finish for the congregation I was in. It took me a year, and was somewhat terrifying to prepare and to do, but I did it. What I ended up with was more than just relief.
You see, the passage I was supposed to chant told the story of Deborah the prophet, who tells the General Barak that he has to defeat the army of his enemy, Sisera. Barak insists that Deborah go with him to help him, and because he won't fight the battle by himself, he wins the victory but doesn’t get the glory. The enemy general, Sisera, ends up getting killed by a woman from another tribe.
I never tried to understand the story when I was 13, and I had a lot of trouble with it even as an adult. But as I continued working, it finally dawned on me that, as a man in his late 30’s, I had a problem accepting responsibility because of my fear and, like Barak, I often expected, even manipulated, other people to fight my battles for me. I wouldn’t have discovered this about myself if I hadn't gone back to finish my Haftarah, and once I did, I felt like was finally able to begin to grow up.
Now my oldest son is getting Bar Mitzvahed in 2 weeks and, again, I’ve taken up a challenge. As my contribution to his day, I decided to read publicly from the Torah again, something I haven’t done since I was 13. It’s very scary, and it requires a lot of work.
Here’s some of the things that make it hard: You are to read and chant Hebrew words out of the actual Torah scroll. The words don’t have vowels, so you have to memorize what they sound like. The tune you chant also isn’t written in the actual scroll, so you have to memorize that too.
And the method for learning the tune is equally maddening if you’re a Western-trained musician. Instead of each symbol referring to a particular musical idea, you’re given a series of symbols that do not reflect the sounds they make and whose actual sounds change depending on what order they’re in, the same way “e” at the end of a word is different from “e” in the middle of one.
I’ve bitten the bullet, stopped complaining, and delved into the process. Two weeks out, I’m getting pretty close. I really have memorized my passage fairly well and I’m starting to get the flow.
What’s interesting is that, as I come to acquire this skill, I’m finding that I start to think a different way. The information I’m memorizing is organizing itself, without my help, into larger chunks. I didn’t really see the larger chunks when I was learning about them, or if I did, then I saw them in the way that you see a person for the first time…you don’t really know how all of their personality quirks fit together into someone who will help you, love you, or hurt you.
My inability to "chunk" like this has been a serious deficit in my life. Because I’m a detail-oriented person, I’ve had difficulty with anything that requires connecting larger and larger pieces of information. This has hampered me in games like chess, in subjects like mathematics, and in music.
Many of you know me as an accomplished musician. The truth is, anything I’ve ever done was in spite of my difficulties with the big picture. Symphonies, large-scale chamber works, and jazz soloing.
Especially jazz soloing. While after 30 years of trying I can now solo reasonably well, I continue to feel that something’s missing in my understanding which prevents a kind of flow, especially at higher speeds, and I’ve never been able to adequately come up with a way to look at the problem. What floors me is that my adventure with the Torah is clueing me in on how, perhaps for the first time, I might overcome this block.
I can already begin to see how torah Tropes (melodic formulas) are like bebop jazz phrases. There’s a greater logic to them, a way that you learn to think in combinations of phrases rather than note-by-note, or even phrase-by-phrase. I never expected this connection, and I’m very excited about it.
The funny thing is, most people don’t try to understand bebop before they learn it: they just solo a lot, play a lot, write a lot of transcriptions. I never wanted to do that, for some reason...maybe I was rebelling again, but whenever it came time to “just do it” in jazz, I overthought it, got frustrated at my lack of progress, and gave up.
Now I see that all those crazy bebop lines that I hear are really phrases, just like the phrases in the Torah trope. I may understand all the notes, but that hasn’t helped me learn how to create those flowing lines. I won’t be able to do that until I get the larger gist of the way the phrases fit together, the formulas of them, the bigger picture.
So here I am learning the skills I need in my Torah study, something I did, not because I wanted to, but because I forced myself to. In that arena I was able to bite the bullet, to do, and then to understand. Now I might be able to go back to jazz and say, “Okay…if I just go through this same process with the music, what’s going to happen to my mind as a result will be something similar, something I can only explain afterwards.”
It’s funny how there’s a way I can get what I need in life even when I'm the one keeping myself from getting it. I just have to recognize the connection between things that seem to have no connection, seeing the bigger picture. And sometimes (just sometimes!) that comes from shutting up and doing what I'm told!