Memorize in the Morning

Photo © 2008 Irina Slutsky CC BY 2.0

This past weekend, Rabbi Rich Nichol made a particular point that struck me, in the context of family and parenting. He said, “Memorize in the morning.” That is, when their kids were young, he and his wife Sue made it a family tradition to spend a few minutes each morning memorizing passages from the Scriptures.

And I thought that was a cool idea. My kids are a little older, and I’m not sure whether they’re interested in memorizing bible stories. But I for one have been wrestling with memorization, of Hebrew vocabulary and grammar.

Over the past few years, I’ve been learning more and more Hebrew. And the last time I went through my Hebrew vocabulary flashcards, I impressed myself with how many words I had learned. But on the other hand, there are so many more that I haven’t learned, or at least not very well. Hebrew grammar is something else, although I’ve always found grammar to be easier to learn than vocabulary, even in English my native language. With both vocabulary and grammar, however, I learn much better when I expose myself to practical, real-world usage, than if I just drill myself with flashcards. In fact, flashcards do little for me. They help me to review information I already know, but I’ve never been able to memorize new information that way.

So I want to try to learn more Hebrew by going through favorite stories and passages from the Tanakh. Starting today.

You’d think that with Purim up and coming I’d dive into the Megillah, the book of Esther. Indeed, that would be a fine idea. But I thought I’d start with something a little less daunting. So I chose a favorite inspiring story about the prophet Elijah, from 1 Kings 19, which a recent Haftarah reading reminded me of.

This story occurs after Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a pray-off. They built an altar and prayed for their god to send down fire. They prayed all morning and into the afternoon, but nothing happened. But when Elijah prayed, the fire not only consumed the offering but the altar, too. So Elijah ordered all the prophets of Baal killed.

Well, when Jezebel heard about this, she sent word to Elijah warning him that she was going to make sure the same thing happened to him. He ran for his life, into the desert. Days later, starving and exhausted, he collapsed, resigning himself to die. But angels came and give him food, and the Lord sent him to a mountain to hear what he should do.

When Elijah got to the mountain, he told the Lord, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

And G-d said, “Ha! That’s a good one! — Oh… You were serious? Sigh. I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal.”

And so Elijah went back and finally passed on his cloak to Elisha, who became his protégé.

To study this story in the original Hebrew, I made up a study calendar for 1 Kings 19 (which you can download yourself and even print out if you’d like), 22 pages, with one new verse per page (plus a page at the end containing the entire passage).

Today’s is verse 1: וַיַּגֵּד אַחְאָב לְאִיזֶבֶל אֵת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֵלִיָּהוּ וְאֵת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר הָרַג אֶת־כָּל־הַנְּבִיאִים בֶּחָֽרֶב׃ (“Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.”) This verse contains a couple words I’ve been trying to cement into my memory: הָרַג (“[he] killed”) and חֶרֶב (“sword”).

Each day, I hope to learn a new verse of the story, in Hebrew, and review all the verses that came before as well. If I memorize parts of the story, that would be great. But mostly, I’m hoping I’ll pick up some more Hebrew vocabulary.