Delivered at Congregation Mishkan Israel, May 7th, 2021 – 25 Iyar 5781
Recently I was thinking about the book Eats shoots and leaves. This short, comical book emphasizes the need for correct punction and the disasters that can result. When we conclude tonight and I say “Let’s eat, Cantor!” I hope that one assumes that I cleverly placed a comma between eat and Cantor. Punctuation matters.
And yet, we have nary a period, semi-colon or m-dash anywhere to be found in our sacred Torah. While the words have endured for 3000 years, the complete “punction” that we use in the Torah, including the vowels themselves, date back only to the 13th Century Masoretic text. Entire books have been written and countless scholarly essays penned as we work to decipher and decode the ACTUAL, sometimes quite ambiguous, meaning of the text.
Often we read the Torah using a vocalized text, one that has the established vowels inserted, as well as the trope symbols. Trope are the marks that teach us how to chant the text – mercha tipcha, munach etnachtah…etc. There are groupings of these symbols and hundreds of variations of their chanting exist throughout the Jewish world, depending on ones culture and history. One difference you may have heard comes clearly when Jews of different synagogues (often Conservative and Reform) chant the v’ahavta and we hear different versions of sof pasuk…for example either וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃ or….. [Rabbi Immerman chanted different trope during the service]
The trope symbols serve as so much more than musical notations, they serve as punctuation. When a particular clause ends, one might imagine ancient scholars finishing a sentence or even inserting the controversial Oxford comma into our ancient text. Rambam in the 12th century wrote in the introduction to his Torah commentary that the lack of vowels and punctuation in the text is intentional because it allows for one to discover many layers of meaning in the text. This ambiguity, of course, is made clear in the oral Torah (the Mishneh, Talmud, and Rambam’s own Mishneh Torah), when we are taught the “interpreted” meaning of the text. We know that our verse in Exodus commands us not to boil a kid in it’s mother’s milk because that is what our sages teach us, instead of not boiling a kid in its mothers fat, which we could read using different vowels. חלב ו חלב
Today we rarely visit this ambiguity because we have long accepted the masoritic text as the ur-text – the standard way to read the Torah. Similarly, over the centuries we have created more ways to add punctuation into our own world – markers that remind us of the week, the day, the hour, even the minute and how that moment differentiates from another. During the week we dress up in our work clothes and on the weekend we wear more comfortable clothing, perhaps we even change after a long day of work. Our seasons are marked with different gatherings – Thanksgiving at grandma’s, Chanukah at the Cohen’s, Passover at bubbie and zayedies.
Or should I say that we used to have these punctuation and vowels. We used to differentiate between clothing, we used to celebrate at other’s homes. The other day a friend remarked that she was struggling to even put on “hard” pants again, let alone dress up. This past year has been a confusing jumble of rules and fear and time standing still and moving fast and hope and sorrow and grief and wonder….some of us might not remember exactly where our commas, where our periods, or even where our vowels used to be, ready to guide us and transition us from one moment to the next.
It’s not remarkable that when I put on my black dress shoes today for the first time since last March they were covered in dust, but it was remarkable that I had to pause and think about what events in my life required me to wear different clothing on this particular day.
Yet for all of the ambiguity over the past year, Judaism has provided markers along this confusing path. No matter what is happening in our world, Shabbat arrives on the seventh day. The holidays arrived at their prescribed times, and even today we are counting up the days from Passover to Shavuot, from redemption to revelation. In our Torah portion we are reminded to count the years; every seven years we let the land rest and every fifty we observe a Jubilee. Judaism implores us to sanctify and mark time even when we are in an unknown, unfamiliar, confusing, and scary path through the wilderness. Not knowing their destination in the wilderness caused the Israelites much strife as we will read next week during the rebellion of Korach. It can be hard to have faith, harder still to have hope, when we aren’t sure why or how we arrived at this very moment.
Just like the Rambam teaches us to find layers of meaning in our unvocalized Torah, I pray that one day we too will find layers of meaning in our unvocalized year. Layers of grief, sadness and despair, combined with layers of love, perseverance, and triumph, layers of leadership, science, and wisdom, and, I pray, layers of hope.
As we continue to get vaccinated and begin to think about living our lives surrounded by others, I invite you to find your punctuation, perhaps dusty or beneath all of your hard pants. Dust them off, and together we can all work to figure out where they belong in our lives.