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Torah – a masterclass in music

  • RabbiGreg
Being Jewish is not a punishment – it is a gift. But a funny thing happens with this gift.
by RABBI GREG ALEXANDER | May 17, 2018

A friend and teacher taught me once that it is like a musical instrument. It’s an analogy that I like very much.

We are given the instrument at birth – or, for some of us who choose it later in life, we’re given it as adults. And it comes to us for free. We may play it enthusiastically or less so, depending on who our teachers are (our parents, our cheder teachers, our rabbis). But then we put it away in the cupboard, usually at around 13 years old and it sits there gathering dust, perhaps being taken out to be played (badly) once or twice a year.

Then, usually when a tragedy strikes, we rummage around in the cupboard desperately looking for that instrument that we knew we left there. But when the strings are out of tune and our fingers clumsy, we put it back with a feeling of disappointment, even anger. And then it is very likely never to come out again.

Judaism is a complex and difficult musical instrument which takes years of love and labour to master. And as any leading musician will tell you, once you attain mastery, you have to continue working at it daily or you will lose it quickly.

But what music it can make! What sounds you can produce, what wonders, what joy! We have forgotten how to be masters of our instruments, or maybe we never even learnt. So, it is no surprise that on the rare occasions that we take them out to practise, the sounds they produce are less than inspiring. The tunes sound worn, the strings are hard to control.

If Judaism is the instrument, then Torah is the manual. We have to learn again how to play, to become masters – and to do that takes work.

Opening the manual is a good start. Anyone who has just opened the Bible and started to read will tell you that it’s not always “easy reading”. And the rabbis, 2 000 years ago, knew that when they began the process of writing down the wisdom gathered over the generations in commentaries that continue to be written today.

Every minute someone somewhere is publishing or uploading a new Torah commentary that talks to every possible area of life. It’s a never-ending story and if you are missing it, there is a piece missing from your Jewish life.

Our passion for Judaism will only grow if we can educate and inspire people with the sense that our lives have meaning. And I don’t mean bar or batmitzvah students. Judaism is not just “kids’ stuff”. Only with life experience and mental maturity can one appreciate the depth of Torah teachings, of the sages, Jewish heritage and belief.

Nowadays, if you ask a South African Jew what is the most serious threat to the Jewish community, they are likely to say BDS or anti-Semitism. But it is not true. The greatest threat to our community is apathy and lack of knowledge. Lack of inspiration and education. Because if we don’t know why it is amazing and fantastic to be Jewish, then WE will take care of the slow undermining of the Jewish people much more effectively than any anti-Semite would.

“Yes,” you might say, “but I’m not a yeshivah-bocher – how will I read all this Hebrew stuff?”

Firstly, it’s never too late to start, but actually one of the greatest blessings of living in 2018 is the range of tools available to the modern-day wannabe Torah scholar. There is an app for everything and there are many for beginner Torah learners. For example, many of our greatest texts are now translated into English – check out Sefaria.org to begin with.

And for shiurim on nearly anything Jewish, try myjewishlearning.com. Most synagogues run a tikkun leil for Shavuot, where you get to stay up all night eating cheesecake and studying Torah.

Still, there is nothing that beats a human being face-to-face. “Get a teacher and acquire a friend,” the Mishnah in Avot teachers us, and Shavuot is a great time to find a rav and a chavrutah at the same time.

Your rav is your spiritual guide and your go-to person for all questions about life and the meaning of it. And your chavrutah is your peer-challenger, your friend who asks you the difficult questions and, with love, challenges you to be the best person you can be.

So, dust off your chumash, brush up your Hebrew, sign up for a weekly email dvar torah, a Melton course or your local synagogue shiur. Not for a degree – just the pleasure of feeling more and more competent in playing the music of Jewish life.

  • Rabbi Greg Alexander is part of the rabbinic team at the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation.

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