According to the rabbinic imagination, the Torah, the blueprint for the universe, existed before the Big Bang, before creation. One might imagine in a universe whose master plan was conceived prior to God’s intervention in the laws of physics that the poetry expressed by divine script should start with the letter alef and end with the letter taf, kind of like a very long acrostic, from A to Z.
One might be wrong.
As we finished the reading of the Torah this past week, we concluded with the word Yisrael, ending with the letter lamed and soon thereafter began the Torah again from Bereisheet with the letter bet. Put those two letters together and we come up with the word lev, heart.
A few weeks ago, visiting the Jewish Theological Seminary for its first board meeting of the year, I had an opportunity to visit with the cantorial students at their Wednesday morning get-together, mifgash. As I entered, the professor was teaching them elements of meditative practice and answering a challenging question, the essence of which was that there are certain words he changes in the liturgy because he doesn’t believe them intellectually nor do they speak to his heart.
As I was introduced, I decided to riff briefly on the professor’s final lesson, providing a connection between his presentation and mine. I reminded the students that the dichotomy between mind and emotion is primarily an ancient Greek innovation in Judaism, a decision to divide aspects of human experience into different categories. But when the Torah uses the word lev, heart, it does not imagine Valentine’s Day cards with huge red curvy non-anatomically-correct-but-recognizable blood pumping muscle diagrams. The Torah doesn’t seem to view the heart as the symbolic seat of emotion and the head as the sole container of the mind, of intelligence. The Torah, to the best of our ability to read it contextually, seems to conceive of the heart as containing aspects of both emotion and intelligence.
So, I suggested to the students that they aim their intent, what some call kavanah, to cohere as an experience their heart/mind/soul can fully and authentically express. They should sing what they mean and mean what they sing.
I’m a bit more traditional than the professor I followed. Although I approve of some changes to the words of the liturgy to fit my own community’s prayer experience, I generally prefer to adjust my interpretation of the words I’m singing if I encounter a cognitively dissonant or difficult passage. The beauty of musical expression is that it can convey joy, full-throated assent as well as pain, anxiety, even doubt.
After my meeting with the students, I reflected further on our conversation. The heart as the connective tissue between the end and beginning of the Torah-reading cycle could certainly benefit from a more concrete, physical symbolic understanding.
The heart pumps blood throughout the body, energizing the organs, recycling the carbon dioxide back to the lungs to be exhaled. The Torah is the living, pumping heart and soul of our people, it’s spiritual DNA. Its stories and rituals, law and lore have animated the imaginations and actions of our people for millennia, through diaspora and homeland, tragedy and triumph, song and celebration.
If we were to imagine a more acrostic approach, one in which the Torah ended with the letter taf and started with the letter aleph we’d be in far less comfortable symbolic territory. Taf aleph spells ta.
A ta is, after all, a cell.
The Torah should liberate, circulate and animate, not enclose.
Cantor David Lipp is the hazzan of Adath Jeshurun and current president of the Cantors Assembly.