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How to Get It Just Right: Follow Instructions and Improvise

How to Get It Just Right: Follow Instructions and Improvise

architectural blueprint

When I was a little kid, the word “pattern” meant only one thing to me – the origami-like templates on tissue paper, cut-outs for making clothes, that came neatly folded in an envelope. Each envelope featured a drawing of a finished dress or skirt that would result if the enclosed directions were followed carefully. The idea was to pin the tissue stencils onto fabric, cut the fabric along the dotted lines, and sew the resulting pieces of cloth together on a sewing machine to form a finished garment.

In this week’s Torah reading, T’rumah, the word “tavnit” or “pattern” is mentioned three times, referring to a kind of visual model or maybe a blueprint. In the parashah (Torah portion), the Israelites are told three times to follow God’s specific instructions. Our ancestors were supposed to refer to the model in front of them.

In the absence of a visual model or blueprint, we Torah readers conjure up our own images.

It’s clear that the Israelites were meant to avoid slap-dash originality, proceeding instead, one step at a time, to build the Tabernacle precisely, according to God’s revealed design. Indeed, God gave us a pattern to follow.

My mother was good at following directions, and made all my clothes, even well into adulthood. I remember clearly the rustling sound the tissue templates made when Mom pinned them to fabric. And even though my measurements fell between two sizes, requiring constant adjustments, Mom’s sewing projects always turned out right.

We have to imagine that God’s architectural patterns had been carefully laid out and that God’s tent of meeting also was a success. But there was wiggle room.

How do we know this?

A cubit is the distance between a person’s elbow and the tip of the middle finger. According to The Torah: A Modern Commentary, “There were two types of cubits in Israel, one about 17½ inches (about 44½ cm), the other about 20½ inches (about 52 cm).” Apparently, God factored in size differentials, just like my mom, because humans vary greatly in height.

I choose to infer from this “wiggle room” that God believes in improvisation—assuming we follow some basic rules.

Of course, that belief in improv serves my purpose. I am a cantor!

Cantorial art (for European Jews) is all about a kind of musical improvisation. The invented vocal ornaments are sometimes called dreydlach. You guessed its meaning! Dreydlach are decorative notes, ornaments, little twists of melody that spin like Hanukkah dreidels. Of course, these grace notes are firmly grounded in standard musical frameworks, to be sure. These are nusach and trope.

In both prayer and public readings, Jews have historically followed musical patterns. We’ve inherited nusach (the particular prayer patterns, musical and otherwise) of any given community. And we can learn as many as five “alphabets” of cantillation or trope.

At the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, cantorial students study these patterns and others from around the Jewish world. Once students know the basics, they can make stuff up – at least within certain boundaries.

This week’s Torah reading, T’rumah, is about adhering to guidelines and about improvising with artistry.

The list of Tabernacle components ranged from spices and linen to beaten gold and lapis lazuli. The directions were pretty complicated, which makes sense considering the tent was intended by God to celebrate God’s very presence.

Still, if the single most basic unit of measurement was adjustable, we might feel free to imagine creative solutions when constructing the Tabernacle. Indeed, even as the Israelites in the wilderness had a divine list of components and specific diagrams, they also had plenty of latitude with cubits – and permission to apply fancy gold work at the end.

Similarly, just as my mother had thin tissue templates for sewing, she also had freedom (and know-how) to let out hems to accommodate growth spurts and to embroider designs over tired seams.

And so it is with cantors, who have musical scale patterns and trope signs to guide us, as well as the freedom to throw in lots of extra notes and fancy little twists of melody to make prayers and words of Torah come to life.

Cantor Barbara Ostfeld, the Reform Movement’s first ordained woman cantor, served the American Conference of Cantors in numerous roles, including as its placement director. Her memoir, Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim, will be released later this year.

Cantor Barbara Ostfeld
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