Slow it Down

A Martial Arts Lesson from the Torah

Actually this is a martial arts lesson from reading the Torah. OK, allow me to explain; the Torah, the five books of Moses, has been read by the Israelites/Hebrews/Jews for over 3,500 years. We chant it three times a week in the Beth Knesset, House of Gathering . We have a certain tune we use. Now, this goes back to antiquity but since then our people have been dispersed to the four corners of the world and have mingled with the local populations.

Over these many years of separation different styles of reading/chanting developed. European Jews no longer sound like Jews from Yemen or Morocco. In fact even within each region there are differences. Just imagine the old game "telephone" and you will understand.

Jews in each country were influenced by the local songs and the local pronunciation. In the Middle East every Arab uses the sounds Th, Wa, and Ayin (deep guttural sound) but Europeans cannot pronounce these. As a result European Jews have lost the ability to pronounce Hebrew correctly.

Also, the trials and tribulations of persecution, expulsion, and occasional pogroms (organized 'spontaneous' attacks on Jews) made it difficult on Jews to stay in one place and achieve some sort of stability.

There are exceptions. With all the persecution of Muslim states, the Jews there still enjoyed better stability, although with a status of dhimi (non – citizen), then their brethren in Christian Europe. The Jews of Yemen (Teman) began arriving from Israel to Yemen around the period of the First Temple. Some say this happened as early as 451 B.C.E., that's 2,460 years ago.

The community stayed put until they began to return to Israel in 1881. Over several waves of immigration most of the Jews returned home to Israel. Today only a few hundred remained. During this entire time the communities stayed put, tightly organized, strictly observant of tradition, and passed on the traditions from father to son.

Unlike the Jews of Europe, they never left. They lived in poverty often, suffered discrimination, but enjoyed stability. This allowed the religious traditions to be preserved intact. In addition, the pronunciation of ancient Hebrew and Arabic are similar, so unlike Europe there was no diluting of the language. Among the dialects of Hebrew preserved into modern times, Yemenite Hebrew is traditionally regarded as the form closest to Hebrew as used in ancient times.

Now, to my point; their chanting of the Torah. It takes much longer than that of any other Jewish group. They pronounce every word slowly, every letter, every vowel. If you are off by the tiniest amount, they will stop you and correct you; the ancient ways must be preserved.

Now I tend to try to get things done quickly, always in a rush, looking for shortcuts, doing two things at once. Sometimes I am a bit impatient. So, when preparing the part I am going to read I try to do it quickly. Like, yes, later at the House of Prayer I will read it slowly but now I will go through it quickly.

Recently however, a change occurred. For some reason it finally hit me that the traditional chanting of the Torah must be done very slowly, that is the only way to get the "flavor" to come out, it is the only way to hit each note, to pronounce each letter correctly. It cannot be done fast. There are no shortcuts.

The result? A stream of compliments and nearly no need for corrections. Amazing, such a simple things as 'just slow down' and it makes a world of a difference. Why did I not get it earlier?

I encounter the same thing every day with every age group when teaching Krav Maga. The students are eager to do the technique, hard and fast. I tell them, give it time, first learn it slowly, do it slow enough to appreciate the subtleties; otherwise you will never get the technique. But they don’t, they fight me on this, they are still taking short cuts. "But if you listen very well, the tune will come to you at last." (Led Zeppelin)

You have to learn to 'listen' to the technique, so that 'it will come to you at last', you have to give it time, take it slowly. The long path is the short path while the short path is the long path. It took me years to realize this.

Just as with the chanting of the Torah, when you slow it down you will be satisfied with the results, and the tune will come to you at last.