Many a bar mitsva boy, or even a seasoned ba’al qeria, has spent countless hours trying to memorize the proper vowelization and cantillation of a text spanning sometimes well over one hundred verses. Is there a secret to make this process easier? Is there a golden bullet, a holy grail?
My bar mitzva teacher taught me a tip that I ignored sometimes at my own peril: study the text before attempting to memorize the vowels and cantillation. Understand its meaning before trying to present it.
Now this may seem counterintuitive to some. After all, how does the meaning of the text impact the cantillation, for example, which is more about breaking the longer verses into smaller groups of two and three words? Sure a most basic understanding is helpful, especially with the vowelization, but beyond that?
As it turns out, my teacher was right. First of all, understanding the rules of grammar and cantillation allows one to very successfully guess and understand a large part of what one is otherwise trying to memorize, but studying the text may be beneficial even when we are no Hebrew grammar buffs, or even after we have internalized the rules. That, dear readers, is a conclusion we reach following a study about memorization. Williams College psychologist Nate Kornell ran a study about how good people’s predictions are about how they will do on a test, PhysOrg reports. As it truns out, people don’t necessarily remember what’s easy, but rather what they find meaningful:
“If something is easy to process, you assume you will remember it well,” says Kornell. Second, there’s the “stability bias”: “People act as though their memories will remain the same in the future as they are right now.” Wrong again.
Actually, “effortful processing” leads to more stable learning. And “the way we encode information is not based on ease; it’s based on meaning.” We remember what is meaningful to us.
I’ll try to remember that next time I prepare the Torah reading, which is really soon. And let’s hope the bar mitsva teachers and their students take this message to heart. It worth every effort to also study the parsha, because through study, we not only become acquainted with the text, but we learn to truly value it, cherish it and therefore remember it in its many dimensions.