Torah Schedule Mysteries Revealed!

Some of you have noticed that there is disagreement at the moment about which is the proper Torah reading for the week right now. The calendar from the Jewish funeral home says one thing, the weekly email from a Reform synagogue says another! Let me try and unravel this for you.

The Torah is divided into 54 parshiot [weekly readings.] The Mamre Institute website has an excellent table listing all the regular weekly Torah readings, along with their haftarah readings and the special holiday Torah readings. (Their website is also my go-to Hebrew Bible online. The translation is a bit archaic in some ways, but you can set it up so that both the Hebrew and English are visible at the same time.)

 

Every year, we read the Torah once through, beginning and ending on Simchat Torah. On leap years, like this year, we adjust the calendar by adding an additional month of Adar – four more weeks! In those years, every Torah portion gets a Shabbat all to itself.

On “regular” years, when there is only one month of Adar, some of the portions are doubled onto a single Shabbat. In those years, you get combined portions, like Veyakhel-Pekudei, Tazria-Metzora, or Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.

Add to that that sometimes a holiday falls on Shabbat, crowding the Torah portion onto another week. Again, when that happens, we normally double things up with another portion.

All of this is generally transparent to most Jews, because we just look at the calendar and it tells us what to do. “Read Parashat Behar this week!” or “Read the Torah portion for Shabbat during Passover this week!”

Yes, that’s complicated. But that’s not all. Jews have historically followed a practice in which chagim (holidays mandating no work) are observed for one day inside the Land of Israel and for two days outside the Land of Israel, in the Diaspora. The reason for this was communication technology: when holidays were set by moon observations from the Temple Mount, and word of them was communicated by signal fires, Diaspora communities had to estimate the day of the holiday and then adjust when they finally received the word. To safeguard against mistakes, they took to observing all the chagim for TWO days (for instance, the first and last days of Passover are a single day inside Israel, but are doubled in the Diaspora.)  Holidays that aren’t work-is-forbidden days (Chanukah, the middle days of Sukkot, etc.) were never doubled.

Many Reform congregations in the United States follow the Israeli calendar, because Hillel II came up with a calendar in the 4th century that made worries about communication obsolete. Reform Jews observe one day of each chag, just as Israeli Jews do. Rather, I should say some Reform Jews do – some Reform synagogues observe only one day of chagim but follow the Diaspora calendar of Torah readings.

This year (5776) (aka 2015-2016) we have a leap year, so no combined parashiot. However, in the Diaspora calendar, the second day of the end of Passover fell on Shabbat, so that had a Passover reading instead of Acharei Mot, which Israeli and some Reform Jews were reading. The two schedules will not come back together until the Diaspora calendar doubles a Torah portion on August 6, Matot-Masei. Then the discrepancy will end.

I wish I could have made this simpler for you. The real rule, as with so many other things, is to follow the minhag [custom] of your community. If your rabbi is following a particular schedule of Torah readings, that’s the right one for your synagogue.

In my weekly listings, I’m following the Diaspora schedule of readings, even though I’m a Reform rabbi who doesn’t celebrate double chagim. Or, if you prefer, because I decided to do it that way!

SIMPLE SUMMARY: The schedule for reading Torah portions is the subject of disagreement at the moment. Consult your rabbi for what to read this week. Whatever’s going on, it will resolve itself after August 6, 2016. Welcome to Judaism!

 

What is Shavuot?

Image: A new Jew makes a commitment to a life of Torah. Photo by Linda Burnett.

Shavuot [shav-00-OHT or sh-VOO-us] is coming. Even thought it is a major Jewish holiday, only the more observant Jews will even be aware of it.

That’s a shame. It’s a beautiful holiday – and in real ways, it is the completion of the journey we began at the Passover seder. The trouble is that unlike Passover, it didn’t see as successful a transition to the new realities Jews faced after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

HISTORY Shavuot combines two ancient observances: a festival for the first grain harvest of the summer and the chag, or pilgrimage holiday, celebrated in Temple times. All Jews who were able traveled to Jerusalem to observe the sacrifices and bring the first fruits of their harvests, remembering and celebrating our acceptance of the covenant at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. The drama and pageantry of the holiday made Shavuot a major event in the Jewish year.

Perhaps the most famous record of Shavout is that in the New Testament book of Acts, chapter 2. While that chapter refers to an experience of the disciples that later came to be remembered by Christians as Pentecost, one verse tells us a lot about Jerusalem during Shavuot:

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. – Acts of the Apostles 2:5

Jews from all over the known world gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot! This tells us that:

  • Jews lived all over the world by the year we now remember as 33 CE and
  • Shavuot was so important, and such a pleasure, that they would travel from Italy, and Spain, and Babylon to attend the festival.

In the Bible, the festival has three names:

  • Chag Shavuot [Festival of Weeks] (Exodus 34:22) because it comes precisely 7 weeks (49 days) after Passover
  • Chag K’tzir [Festival of Reaping] (Exodus 23:16) because it aligns with the barley harvest in Israel
  • Yom HaBikkurim [Day of the First Fruits] (Numbers 28:26) because this was the festival at which farmers would bring the first fruits from their fields to offer in the Temple.

THIS YEAR Shavuot begins at sundown on June 11 in 2016.

OBSERVANCE TODAY Today we observe Shavuot in a number of ways:

  • Counting the Omer – Ever since Passover, we’ve been counting UP to Shavuot, building the anticipation for the holiday. Every night observant Jews say a blessing and announce the “count” of the day. We complete the count on the night before Shavuot.
  • Tikkun Leil Shavuot – How better to celebrate the giving of Torah than to sit up all night and study it? Many Jews gather to study the night of Shavuot.
  • Dairy Foods – It’s traditional to eat dairy meals on Shavuot, since if the law is newly given, there’s not yet time for meat to be kosher.
  • In the Synagogue – We read from the Torah, we recite Hallel (a service of praise) and we have a special Yizkor (mourning) service.  For service times, check synagogue websites or call ahead before the holiday begins.
  • The Book of Ruth is the megillah (scroll) read and studied on Shavuot.
  • Many conversions to Judaism are scheduled for the time around Shavuot, because of the connection with receiving the Torah and the Book of Ruth.

Oops, I forgot the Omer!

Image: This is only a drill. Photo of drill by Mitch Wright on Pixabay.com.

You resolved that this year, you are going to keep the Counting of the Omer all the way from Passover to Shavuot, and then somehow, somewhere, you realized that you lost count.

Perhaps it was just a single blessing – after dinner, you go to say the blessing and the number suddenly brings the awareness that you FORGOT it last night.

Or perhaps you see something about it online (like this article?) and realize that in fact you don’t even remember when or how you lost count.

What to do? Give up? Sigh and think, “I’m a bad Jew”?

Never!

I would like to introduce a word to your Jewish vocabulary: the word “PRACTICING.”

As in “I am PRACTICING to count the Omer.”

Perhaps this wasn’t the year for a full-on, complete Counting of the Omer.

Perhaps you aren’t quite ready for that yet.

That’s OK. You are not sitting around doing nothing. You are practicing to count the omer.

And like anyone who is learning an art, you have made mistakes. No big deal! How will you get better at it? By practicing.

So pick up with today, recheck how to do it, and get back to practicing!

Some tools:

The Homer Calendar – All the tools you need to count the omer, plus added humor.

Counting of the Omer – An Omer Calendar, with blessings, on ReformJudaism.org

Some people like to use their smartphone for reminders. Go to your source for apps, and search “Omer Counter” or “Count the Omer” or just “Omer.” I used to have an Android app I recommended, but it was improved into uselessness, so I don’t recommend it anymore. Check out the apps, and if you find one you like, recommend it in the Comments section, please!

 

Bringing Along the Bones

So… Passover is nearly over. We’re on our way to Sinai, a journey from redemption to responsibility.

When Moses and the people of Israel left Egypt, they carried the bones of Joseph with them. (Exodus 13:19) He had requested that they do so when he prophesied that they would someday leave Egypt and go home. (Genesis 50:25) Those bones would wander with the people of Israel for over forty years, until they were finally put to rest in Shechem. (Joshua 24:32) Moses made sure they brought those bones with them because of an ancient promise. Joshua saw to it that the bones were buried in the soil of Shechem to fulfill the promise.

Likely the “bones” of Joseph were actually his mummified body in a wooden box. He had been a high official in Pharaoh’s government, so he would have been buried as an Egyptian courtier. Moses took the time and trouble to locate the box and to carry it along, despite the danger, despite the need to move quickly.

What would you bring along, if you suddenly had to leave your home on short notice? Photos? Legal papers? A precious antique? The pets? The children’s toys? What if you knew you were going to have to walk hundreds of miles? What would you choose to leave behind? What would be too precious to leave?

Passover is almost behind us now. It’s time to look around and say, what practices, what insights am I going to bring along with me, as I walk towards the future? What hurts, what old grudges, what outmoded ideas will I decide to leave behind in Egypt?

Passover Greetings

Image: A fresh spring salad. Photo by Jill111 via Pixabay.com.

Yes, Passover is still going on – the seders may be over, but we’re still scattering matzah crumbs at my house.

Most people know the simplest Passover greetings:

Chag sameach!” (Khahg sah-MAY-akh)  means Happy Holiday. The proper reply is simply “Chag sameach!” right back.

Pesach sameach” (PAY-sahkh sah-MAY-akh) means Happy Passover. The proper reply is simply “Pesach sameach.”

However, in the middle days of Passover are different. They are called the Chol HaMoed, which translates to “Ordinary (days) of the festival.” That means that regular activities like work are permitted (which they aren’t on the chagim, the holy days at the beginning and at the end).

There’s a special greeting for the chol hamoed, the middle days:

Moadim l’simchah!”  (moh-ah-DEEM l-seem-KHAH) – “Festival of Happiness!”

The proper reply to this is, “Chagim U’zmanim L’sasson” – (Khahg-EEM oo-z’mahn-EEM l’sah-SOHN”   “Holiday and Times of Joy!”

Thanks to Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr, who reminded me of these special greetings in a facebook conversation.

Pack Your Bags, We’re Out of Here.

What does it really mean, to leave Egypt in our own time?

The name for Egypt in the Torah is Mitzrayim (meetz-RYE-yeem.) That means “a narrow place.” We can easily see how it got its name when we look at a map of Ancient Egypt:

Image: Map of Egypt by Jeff Dahl or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Ancient_Egypt_map-en.svgThe green area in this map is the arable, liveable Egypt. The Nile is at its heart, source of food, source of water. Without the Nile, no one could live in Egypt. With it, it is the wealthiest, most stable empire of the ancient world. Just beyond the reach of the Nile, though, lies desert, one might even say deadly desert, on each side of it stretching for hundreds of miles.

We can learn a lot from this map, for instance: Egypt was the original “tight spot.” In a land so narrow, I imagine that there could be very few secrets, except the secrets everyone agreed to keep.

It took bravery to leave Egypt overland. Leaving meant not just leaving behind the bad stuff (like slavery) but things like food and water. The wilderness was scary, and for good reason.

So, now, thinking about our situation in the 21st century: where is Egypt, really? What are the tight spots in our own histories? Where have you felt stuck in a narrow place, with few choices and none of them easy? When and how (or were) you delivered?

At the seder, celebrate that deliverance. Or cry out for the deliverance that has not come.

Where are the tight spots in our hearts? Where are we narrow, confined in our thinking? What would it take to strike out into the unknown, to look for a more expansive way to think and feel? What would it take?

At the seder, start in Egypt. Own the narrow places in our hearts. Join hands and hearts for the courage to step into what is uncomfortable.

Where are the tight spots at our table? To whom do we say, “You are Other” and unwelcome? Who is too scary, too different, too disturbing to include at our table?

At the seder, notice who is not at the table. Who is too scary? Too different? Too disruptive? Ask, how could we make our table a little broader? How can this table leave Mitzrayim?

Passover is the time to leave Mitzrayim, not only in the past, but always, every year. Each year has a different story and different Egypts. Each year we strive to leave them, and sometimes we actually make it.

Our seders close with the famous words, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Those words can be literal: next year, we will celebrate in Jerusalem. Or they can be metaphorical: Next year, we will be in a different place. We will live in a city on a hill, a bright light to the lands beyond. We will be different people, because we have been through the wilderness.

So we have a choice: Change, or stay the same. Be free, or be slaves. It’s up to us.

I wish us all a Pesach of sweetness and challenge!

 

 

What is Bedikat Chametz?

Image: Compost Recycling Can, by Alexas Fotos. Pixabay.com

The night before Passover, there’s a traditional Jewish ceremony called Bedikat Chametz.

Bedikat Chametz means “checking of chametz” and it has to do with making a last check for all the chametz in the house. That’s the stuff we’ve been cleaning out for the last month – all the products of the five forbidden-for-Passover grains: wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye. By the last night, there shouldn’t be any left, but the traditional thing is to save a bit back so that you can “find” it and destroy it. I have a half-package of fettuccini pasta waiting for bedikat chametz at my house. Now I’m waiting for sundown – traditionally, 40 minutes after sundown on the evening before Passover is the proper time for it.

Traditionally, you take it outside and burn it. I live in fire country in California, and even in the springtime, my neighbors would rightly call the fire department if I started a fire outside. So I put the last chametz in the compost can, which technically isn’t mine – it belongs to the city. I thereby move it off my property, outside my domain.

(An alternative: My friend and teacher Rabbi Stephen Einstein reminded me that for families with children, bedikat chametz can make an enduring Passover memory. If you have children, consider making the hunt for chametz a hunt for hidden chametz (pieces of bread, perhaps) through the house) then either burn them up or deal with their removal as safety demands. Some families even offer a finders prizes for chametz.)

Then I say the prayer for nullification of chametz:

All leaven and anything leavened that is in my possession, whether I have seen it or not, whether I have observed it or not, whether I have removed it or not, shall be considered nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.

And once I’ve done that, any chametz left in my house is inedible trash.

We’re almost there: Countdown to Pesach!