D’Var Torah By: Cantor Josh Breitzer

As a cantor, I pay close attention not only to the words of the weekly Torah readings but also to how they sound. At first, Numbers sounds much like what we’ve been hearing throughout Leviticus and much of Exodus as well. On a particular day of a particular month, in exacting detail, God gives Moses a set of instructions. But if we listen carefully to the end of Numbers 1:1, we can detect in the repetition of select consonants an alliterative, insistent summoning to attention. Note the letters in bold:

B’echad lachode sh hasheini bashanah hasheinit

L’tzeitam mei’ere tz mitzrayim leimor

בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶש ׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית

לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לֵאמֹֽר׃

“On the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt,”

It’s not that hard to imagine a crowd of thousands excitedly talking amongst themselves now that the tabernacle has finally been completed and their journey toward the Promised Land will, at long last, resume. How can Moses compete with that noise? Perhaps he quiets them down the same way teachers today hush their classroom:

“Shh, shh, shh, shh; tz, tz, tz…”

The simple, pulsing series of sounds perks up the ears of the masses. Moses calls up the chief of each tribe, to ensure that everyone is properly accounted for before they head further into the wilderness. As we hear in Numbers 1:5-16, the cantillation of their names is short, sharp, and to the point. These verses are shorter than most, but richly resonant with the zakef gadol trope: they rise, crest, and leave us leaning in to hear what comes next.

As a cantor, I find myself attuned to the sounds of these names. I imagine each tribe breaking into applause after their chief gets his shout-out. Other passages in the Torah contain a series of short verses, but here, each name is followed by a list of affirmations, of “yes-ands,” much like improv. Each name carries with it layers of meaning, some obvious, some hidden. When pronouncing them aloud with their trope, I’m aware of how alien these unique and mystical combinations of consonants and vowels feel in my mouth.

The first time I looked at this passage in depth, some 15 years ago, I was tutoring a bar mitzvah student for whom Hebrew was a brand-new language. My student and I would sit in his home as we slowly and methodically parsed out the sounds of each word, repeating them to each other, varying the volume, duration, and inflection of each syllable before chanting them. They became a sort of mantra, a meditation on the meanings of the names’ rhythms, rising, falling, and reverberating in the room where we sat together.

If we listen carefully, we can hear echoes of the wilderness throughout Numbers. The trials and tribulations our ancestors endured are preserved in these parshiyot, both in the content and our recounting of them. Curious combinations of tropes abound here, calling out for us to interpret them with open minds and open ears. How might the way we tell their story inform the ways we tell our own?

In Numbers 1:16, the tribal chiefs are described as, “keru’ei ha-eidah,” (elect of the congregation). Ibn Ezra reminds us that the congregation does nothing unless they are called. Over the next several weeks, may each of us hear the distant calls issued forth from this ancient, winding narrative as we draw nearer to the sounds of our ancestors’ tales from the wilderness.