We somehow started a terrible habit of staying with our children until they fall asleep. Shalvi and Yitzvi, who share a room, will not lie down calmly unless there is a parent in the room, and Daniel and I have wasted countless hours at their bedside. A few months ago, I resolved to wean them off it, staying for less and less time each night. But then I had an idea: Torah reading has been putting people to sleep in synagogue for ages; why shouldn’t it work for my children too? Now I’m back in their rooms at night again, not because they need me, but because chanting from the Torah is the ideal activity for my nighttime vigils.
I first learned how to chant from the Torah when I was ten years old, and I have been leyning ever since. On weeks when I am preparing to chant the Torah portion—these days, it’s pretty much every week—I will usually spend several hours practicing, chanting the verses again and again and dividing them into increasingly larger chunks which I then go back and rehearse until I know it so well that I catch myself humming them while chopping vegetables or folding laundry. The Torah I chant from each week becomes the soundtrack for my life, and even when I’m not practicing, the words of the weekly portion will creep into my head and weave their way into my speech. Yesterday Liav asked if she could draw a picture on Shalvi’s hand, and I responded by chanting to her the verse from this week’s parsha about tattoos, which I had just reviewed.
I want Torah to become the soundtrack for my children’s lives too, but at this point, none of them is willing to sit in synagogue and follow along as I chant each week. At night, though, when they can’t fall asleep and beg me to stay with them, I have a captive audience. The full Torah portion is chanted in synagogue every Shabbat morning, and if not for the nightly ritual with my kids, I probably wouldn’t start learning until mid-week. But on Saturday night, when I’m stuck at their bedside, I figure it can’t hurt to get an early start. I begin chanting the first few verses, and then going over them again, and again, until sometimes the kids chime in because they’ve begun learning it by heart as well. Often I’ll shush them, because I do want them to fall asleep; but if it’s not too late, I let them ask questions.
“What is the land they keep talking about again and again,” Shalvi asked me last night when I was practicing Kedoshim, about all the abhorrent practices that would fill the land with depravity. “Is it Israel?” I told her she was right. And when I then went on to read about the sinner who would have to bring atonement “before God,” Shalvi was puzzled. “What do you mean, before God? Nothing comes before God. God is first.” I told her she was right, God is first, but “before” can also mean “in front of,” and when people come to God’s holy Temple, it is as if they are coming “before God.” And then I told her that I would keep chanting, but she should save all her questions for the morning, because it was time to go to sleep.
In truth, though, the real reason I didn’t want her to ask any questions was because the part of the Torah that I was chanting wasn’t really appropriate for her. I was reading about all the forbidden sexual liaisons – a man may not sleep with a married woman, or with his father’s wife, or with his daughter-in-law… I didn’t mind if she heard me read these verses; there is no part of the Torah I wouldn’t want my children to hear. But to hear and to comprehend are two very different things.
The rabbis of the Talmud understood that not every verse in the Torah is appropriate for explaining in a public forum. In the early centuries of the common era, it became customary when chanting from the Torah for a professional “translator” to explain the text in Aramaic, the lingua franca, so that the congregation would understand. The Targum was recited alternately with the Torah portion, verse by verse. But the rabbis caution that not every verse should be interpreted; sometimes the translator ought to keep silent. For instance, the account in the book of Genesis of how Reuven slept with his father’s concubine Bilha is chanted without Targum (Megilla 25b). Reuven’s sin need not be amplified and explained for the entire congregation; some affairs are better left unexplained.
There are many verses from the Torah that I heard chanted as a child long before I had any inkling of what they meant; they became part of the fabric of my being even before my conscious mind had processed them. This is still true for me – not just with Torah, but also with poetry. Often I will read a poem several times without any real idea of what it is about; all I know is that it is beautiful, and that this beauty is related to a commingling of sound and sense that enchants but still eludes me. I know that I will keep reading the poem again and again until I have begun to tease out meaning. In the case of Torah, it will be a lifelong engagement. The Torah is described as “morasha kehilat Yaakov,” the inheritance of the people of Israel, but the rabbis say to read the word “morasha” as “me’orasa,” meaning an engaged bride. I want my kids to remain engaged with Torah their whole lives as I am, courting her, uncovering her layers of meaning, getting to know her ever more intimately.
But not all at once, and not all right now. My five-year-old does not need to know about the forbidden relationships at the end of Kedoshim; let her think, for the time being, that “lie with” is what I am doing at that very moment, lying down next to her in bed with the verses of Torah aglow on my cell phone screen. Let her fall asleep wondering why all these people are not supposed to lie with one another; maybe she will have wild dreams. Sometimes when I read a particularly outlandish rabbinic midrash, in which the rabbis come up with a reading of the Torah that is at once highly literal and wildly creative, I find myself imagining that long, long ago, a rabbinic sage fell asleep contemplating a biblical verse he didn’t fully understand, and then he had a wild dream about it that he taught to his students in the beit midrash the next morning. Shalvi is a vivid dreamer, and as I lie with her chanting aloud from the Torah as she sinks into sleep, I’m excited to hear what questions she wakes up with in the morning.