I think it’s official now, so I might as well admit it. My name is Michael, and I am a leynaholic.
Leyn or leynen is an old Yiddish word that just means ‘to read,’ but when used in English, the word means to read in public from a Torah scroll. It’s good that Yiddish gave us a distinct word, because when you leyn, you don’t just read. You melodically chant, using timings and structures that have been mapped onto each line of Torah over the centuries.
I’ve leyned three times in the past year, but it’s important you understand that I don’t have much in the way of training. I worked with one of our teachers, the inimitable Rabbi James Stone Goodman, for a few weeks before leyning for the first time last year, in one of the most intense experiences of my short life as a Jew. But almost a year later, I still haven’t gotten around to learning the rules.
That means I have to practice with recordings. As in chanting the text hundreds of times until I’ve basically memorized it. That seems to unlock the spiritual intensity, so when we signed up for a June retreat with one of our favorite organizations, Nehrim, I leapt at the chance to leyn again as part of Shabbat services with Rabbi Jill Hammer and Shoshana Jedwab.
Of All the Portions …
This year’s Nehirim retreat fell in the yearly cycle of Torah readings at the portion of Numbers we call sh’lach lecha. It’s the episode with the ‘spies,’ the twelve tribal leaders sent by Moses to scope out the Land of Israel in preparation for settlement.
In the story, ten of the spies come back consumed by fear. The land is as rich and beautiful as G-d promised, they say, but it is occupied by powerful, well-defended enemies, they say, even giants, and it would be crazy to move there.
The people panic. They weep. They long to go back to Egypt and die as slaves rather than face their fear. They ignore and then try to murder Kalev and Y’hoshuah, the two scouts who come back with a clearer vision.
At this point in the story, G-d has a dramatic meltdown, arguably G-d’s worst moment in the story, and has to be talked down — by a human, Moses — from killing all but a handful of the people and starting over.
That’s the narrative backdrop to the portion Rabbi Jill let me pick, Numbers 14:28 through 35. And so I started practicing. I went through the lines a few hundred times before the text started to open up to me.
And then I couldn’t stop crying.
So Much Pain.
Numbers 14:28 picks up just moments after Moses has talked G-d out of mass extermination, but G-d is still seething with rage and betrayal.
e-MO-or a-lei-HE-E-E-em, chai A-NI, me’um a-do-NA-AI, im LO-O-O-o k’a-sher di-bar-TE-E-em be-oz-NAI, KE-E-en e-e-seh la-CHE-em. Ba-mid-BA-AR ha-ZE-E-E-E-EH yi-PLU fi-grei-CHE-em
Tell them, Moses, you tell them. I am so angry with them, with every fiber of My being, that I’m going to do to them exactly what they said they wanted. Their corpses will rot in the desert. This desert. You tell them that.
ve-chol pe-ku-dei-CHEM le-chol-mis-par-CHEM mi-BE-E-E-en es-rim sh-NA-A-a va-ma-A-LAH a-sher ha-li-no-TA-A-am a-LA-i
Everything I did to give meaning and purpose to their lives, it’s all going to die with them. Everyone who let their loss of faith in Me control them, in spite of everything I did for them, in spite of all the death and destruction it took to set them free — their corpses will drop in this desert.
im a-TEM ta-VO-u el-ha-A-retz a-sher na-SA-TI et ya-DI-i le-sha-ken et-CHEM BA-AH, KI-i-i ka-LEV ben ye-fu-NEH vi-ye-ho-shu-A-A-ah ben NU-n.
Not one of you is going into the land I swore to give you. Not one of you. Only Kalev and Y’hoshuah.
The G-d of these early stories is such an intensely emotional Being, and despite all the jokes about G-d’s anger management issues, my encounter with this text was the first time I really got what’s important.
In this wrenching moment in our story, G-d is in intense pain.
Even as G-d lashes out, G-d is hurting G-d’s own Self. G-d is destroying G-d’s own hope for this generation.
I read from the scroll on a perfect, sunny day with a circle of fellow travelers, praying outdoors. I read G-d’s words condemning a generation to wander in the desert, and the pain of the story washed over me. I read through my tears, through the trembling in my voice.
Over and over, the text reads yip’lu figreichem bamidbar hazeh. Your corpses will drop in this desert. A death sentence, a cry of anger and hurt, a self-inflicted wound.
I never expected to feel boundless compassion for the Angry Being of the Five Books. But there I was, weeping. So much longing. So much love spurned. None of the usual qualifications mattered — not the lingering slave mentality of the human characters, not G-d’s insecurity or outsized expectations. All I felt was pain. G-d’s pain, the people’s pain, it’s all the same.
That’s What Compassion Is, I Suppose.
Empathy without blame. Weeping with each other without looking at the scorecard. As usual, Torah teaches us this in a way no other text can.
And all this leyning has taught me there’s a level of understanding Torah that comes only from immersion, from living with the letters and lines and letting them permeate past my rational mind.
The experience is utterly transfixing, and all I can think about is how to get back up there.