My teacher, who was sitting close by, said later it was no big deal, so I am not sweating it. The next time I chanted, I was more relaxed. One of the regular Torah readers at my synagogue says, “The second time you do it, you really chant Torah.
This whole thing has been a fairly intense experience, so I have a couple pieces of advice for anyone who, like me, undertakes leyning—Torah chanting—for the first time and doesn’t know what to expect or how best to navigate through it.
Tip # 1: Practice chanting with the actual scroll you will be reading from. It’s likely that the gabbai, or the leader of the prayer service, will take the Torah out of the ark for you to go over your portion in advance of the day you chant. This is crucial. Every scroll is unique—handwriting and word spacing vary wildly from one to the next, and I guarantee that the scroll you read from will not look like the text you’ve been working with. The weird calligraphy can make you pause or stammer unless you have had a chance to get used to it. It’s important not to recite your portion from memory; you are supposed to read it. So, familiarizing yourself with how it looks in the sefer Torah is invaluable.
Tip #2: Remember to breathe! You’d be amazed how quickly your breath becomes short and shallow when you are as nervous as I was. If my wonderful leyning friend from synagogue had not underlined this for me, I might have passed out. Lots of breath moving through you not only keeps you from getting light-headed, it also gives your voice power. You don’t want to trail off in the middle of a note when you are chanting Torah.
Tip #3: Concentrate. Stay in your body and keep your mind on what you’re reading. The whole thing reminded me of that scene in “The Matrix” where Neo jumps off the imaginary building and then loses his nerve and splats to the pavement below. You’re not going to fall. But you have to believe that and stay with the reading and remain focused.
Tip #4: Never underestimate the Torah! It almost certainly has some surprises in store for you. Especially in how it makes you feel. One tool people use to prepare is a Tikkun: a big book laid out in column pairs—on the right, a column of Torah text with the vowels and cantillation marks; and on the left, a column with just the consonants, just like the Torah scroll. The idea is you practice at first with the text on the right and then move to the left column when you are confident enough to read without the marks.
The first time I tried practicing with the unmarked text, I of course freaked out. Still later, though, I began to have a strange feeling: Those denuded Hebrew letters seemed to be smiling at me a little, coyly encouraging me. They were just slightly out of my reach, without their vowels and trop marks—I had to stretch out with my brain and my memory to chant them. “Come on, Siannulah,” the Torah letters seemed to be saying, “What are you waiting for? You want to sing? So, sing! Who’s stopping you?”
I had months to prepare for this first chanting experience. Because of the preparation, by the time the day arrived I had the sense that this was a good thing, a right thing, and I was up to it. My portion of the Torah, the first 20 verses of Va’Yakhel, was my friend after all that time, in a funny way. In a wonderful class I took at my shul called “What Is Torah?” we discussed mystical notions of the Torah. My rabbi told us the medieval kabbalists talked about Torah like a beautiful woman, who hid from her lover but who wanted him to search for her and find her. “The Torah is in love with us,” my rabbi said. “The Torah wants us to read and study her, because when she is seen, she comes alive.”
Undeniably, when I first looked into the sefer Torah and saw those familiar words, “Va’yakhel Moshe et kol adat b’nai Yisrael va yomer alehem …” (“Moses gathered all the congregation of the children of Israel together and said unto them …”) they looked like old friends. As though they’d been waiting for me to arrive and were happy I was finally there to read them. Like gracious hosts at a party, they seemed to come forward to greet me. I asked my rabbi if I was nuts to have that feeling, and he said, no; he was certain the words of my Torah portion were thrilled to see me.
So, that would be my last piece of advice to anyone preparing to chant Torah for the first time:
Tip #5: Know that the Torah wants to be read by you more than you want to read it. It’s waiting for you, rolled up snug in its velvet dressing, in the darkness of the ark, patiently counting the days and minutes till you approach to meet it, and together you and the Torah speak with each other and to kol adat b’nai Yisrael. The Torah needs you in order to come alive.