Volume 3, Number 180
'There's a Jewish story everywhere'

Sunday-Monday, September 6-7, 2009

Reading Torah and the need to take risks

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO—Reading from a Torah scroll is a skill and art which needs to be carefully cultivated. Since a Torah scroll has no vowels, punctuation, or trope (musical notation) marks, the Ba'al Koreh, the reader, has to practice and review many hours each week.

When the practice began of aliyah l'Torah, going up to the Torah, there were no professional Torah readers. Rather, each person read their own section. It was only after Jews could not easily read the unpointed Hebrew text in the scrolls that the practice of using a Ba'al Koreh began.

The rabbis found historical precedent for this practice in parashat Ki Tavo. Ki Tavo begins with Moses telling the Israelites that after settling the land of Canaan the first fruits (bikurim) of their harvest should be dedicated to God. They are to take the bikurim, place them in a basket, go up to Jerusalem, and say to the Kohen: "I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that we have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us." (Deut. 26:3).

The Torah continues: "You shall then recite before the Lord your God: 'My father was a fugitive Aramean . He went down

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to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there...." (Deut. 26:5)

The Mishna comments: "At first, anyone who knew how to recite this passage from the Torah did so, but those who did not had the passage read to them. But soon those who did not know how to recite stopped bringing their bikurim to Jerusalem. (They were too embarrassed.)

"The sages then ordained that everyone who brought bikurim would have the passage read to them [so as to embarrass the others]. (Bikurim 63:47)

This section from the Mishna reminds us of the importance of not embarrassing our fellow human beings. Not only is it hurtful, but it could lead them to absent themselves from situations they find embarrassing.

All of us have been in situations in which we refrained from doing something we wanted to do or needed to do because we did not want to appear weak or incompetent. We sat on the sidelines instead. The Mishna reminds us that we need to go out of our way to make those who attempt to do something out of their comfort zone feel that we welcome their willingness to take risks by trying something new.

It is no more or less than we want for ourselves.

Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue (Conservative) in San Diego. His email:

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