We are often told that the way to learn to write well is by reading great literature. But I think that it is just as important to listen to a good speaker again and again, internalizing their style and learning to craft sentences that echo the cadences of their speech.
I learned to write by listening to my father speak in shul all throughout my childhood. Each Shabbat morning I would arrive in shul just before the Torah reading — the time when my father, the rabbi of our synagogue, addresses the congregation. He taught me how to be eloquent but straightforward; how to engage with a joke or a catchy opening; how to hint towards conclusion without ending, and then how to actually end. Although I now live thousands of miles from home and get to hear my father’s drashot only on occasional trips home, it is his voice that I hear in my ears whenever I sit down to write.
In the Jerusalem shul where I currently daven, no one speaks on Shabbat. I miss getting to hear my father each week. But I have found another voice that speaks to me and informs the shape of my writing and thinking. Every Tuesday night I attend the shiurim of Avivah Zornberg, who speaks for an hour and a half about the weekly Torah portion. Throughout her class I sit there in a trance, mesmerized by her power to stitch words and weave them together into ideas that change the fabric of my thoughts. Avivah gives roughly the same shiurim year after I year, and still I return, now for the third year in a row. “Haven’t you heard everything she has to say,” I am often asked. But as I see it, Avivah’s words are divrei Torah and Avivah, then, is Torah. I read the same parshiot year after year, but each time they sound different– because I am different, and because nothing around me has stayed the same either.
A life of listening – first to my father, and then to Avivah Zornberg – has taught me how to express myself effectively in words. I am grateful that when I sit down to write, it is their voices, most often, that resound in my ears.