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Temples of Words and Tropes
Rosh HaShanah 2, 5762/2001
© Rabbi Jack Moline

If yesterday I spoke about uncomfortable truth and the role of faith, today I want to speak of uncomfortable faith and role of truth. The song we just sang is young by Jewish standards, but ancient by the measure of popular music. It was written by Naomi Shemer, and is called “Shiro shel Abba,” or “Daddy’s Song.” It is about the rebuilding of the Temple, but not really.

I love that song because of its gentle rhymes and its easy harmonies. But mostly I love that song because it taps into a romantic place in my soul. Among my favorite phrases in any language is the last line in the last verse: shir shehu k’ven alpayim u’v’khol yom chadash, “a song that seems two-thousand years old, yet every day brand-new.” It seems to me that there is no better summary of what our task is as Jews than those few words – to sing a song that seems as ancient as our ancestors, yet has the power to inspire the creative wonder of new discovery.

In a way, it is peculiar for me to love a song whose chorus is y’baneh hamikdash, because I don’t spend much energy yearning for the rebuilding of the Temple. The desire for a return to Temple pageantry and sacrifice is one of those official Jewish emotions I cannot deny, but in which I do not share. A year ago – it seems like a lifetime, at this point, but it was only a year ago – the debate that raged among the Jews of the world was over the Temple Mount, and whether it should be ceded to Palestinian control. The arguments were passionate and powerful. The Temple Mount represents the very heart and soul of Jerusalem, which represents the very heart and soul of the land Israel, which represents the very heart and soul of Jewish peoplehood and covenant.

But very few people want to see the Temple Mount restored with the Temple. Certainly, Prime Minister Sharon, whose visit to the mount was the beard that Yassir Arafat used to mask the well-planned uprising that derailed the peace talks, does not wish to see Jersualem returned to the hands of a ruling class of kohanim. The hundreds of thousands of Israelis who rallied near the Jaffa gate for an undivided Jerusalem with the Temple Mount in its center are not anxious to line up with their bullocks and their doves in hand for sacrifice. The ultra-orthodox would block any attempt to build the Holy of Holies Hilton. The only people interested in the Temple Mount for Temple purposes are Jewish fundamentalists. I do not consider myself such a person.

You’ll notice that my reticence has nothing to do with the fact that there are two mosques atop the Temple Mount. Frankly, I wish they weren’t there, but I am strangely grateful that they are. My disinterest in rebuilding the Temple is possible only because I know it is current impossible. My disinterest would turn to strong opposition if the cornerstone were laid. Our only model for the Temple and its service is 2000 years old. It comes with an extended set of practices and penalties that have not evolved with the rest of our tradition, and would be administered by people who wish to turn back the clock of civilization and eliminate the corrupting influences of Western culture. We have all had enough of that for a millennium or two.

But I do yearn for the power and the piety that was present in the Temple ritual. I do long for the sense of meaning that came naturally because the instruction of Torah was second nature. And so I look for ways to sing a song that seems two thousand years old, yet is every day brand new. And in one small way – or maybe not so small, you’ll be the judges – I think we have found a way to do so.

One of the finest teachers from whom I ever learned is Professor Avigdor Shinan. He is presently the dean of students at Hebrew University. He is a man of extraordinary sensitivity and honesty, and he is a modern orthodox Jew. The place of collision of his academic integrity and traditional practice must be very uncomfortable, but he maintains an uncomfortable faith. He maintains a covenant not only with God, but also with the history of our people’s trust in Judaism and Jewish life. Yet he can illustrate with certainty and without a sense of guilt that the best-known prayer in our siddur – the Kaddish – and the best-known prayer in Christian liturgy – the Lord’s Prayer – emerge from the same source, with the earliest attestation in the Book of Matthew. Kaddish has been reinvented so many times, it is hard to imagine the original form. The newest form is the most familiar: Kaddish Yatom, the Mourner’s Kaddish, a sad example of an ancient song with a new meaning that seems to have developed during the slaughters perpetrated by the Crusaders of medieval Europe.

Prof. Shinan was our scholar last year, and he presented evidence that the weekly cycle of Torah readings was unknown in the land of Israel when the Temple stood, and perhaps even well beyond. Communities would read the Torah consecutively over a period of time that ranged from just over two years to almost three-and-a-half years. People would be called to read as much as they chose, and rabbis would be challenged to develop lessons involving the verses selected for the day. When the reading was finished, the Torah was begun again.

The reason that there is no holiday of Simchat Torah mentioned in the Talmud is that the celebration took place locally whenever the Torah scroll was completed. In Yavneh it might be in the fall of one year, in Tiberias the spring of the following year, with Modin the summer beyond. It was the Temple ritual that unified the Jewish calendar. The cycle of reading Torah reflected the community’s devotion to considering the message it presented. Only when the Temple was destroyed, and with it the unifying ritual, did the annual cycle of reading Torah take its place as a means of marking the passage of the Jewish year.

Some communities attempted to maintain the meaning in the reading of Torah. In many of the Jewish communities of Africa and Arabia, Torah was translated, verse for verse, as it was read. The printing press allowed volumes containing commentaries to be produced so that the listener could follow a discussion across the generations, not just a recitation.

But mostly, reading Torah became a performance art. In most congregations, for most Jews who are not well educated in Biblical Hebrew, Torah reading has meaning only for the peripheral rituals that have grown up around it. We have endless debates over who gets called to the Torah in what order, about how many such honors are a minimum and a maximum. There is a book filled with prayers for the sick, the well, the grateful, the frightened, the prosperous, the poor, the bride and groom, the mourner, the new parent, and the bar and bat mitzvah that are recited when they come to the Torah, and that command the attention of the congregation much more compellingly than the sacred words of the holy text. Our wonderful and devoted Torah readers in this congregation scrupulously study the difference in pronouncing a kamatz, a cholom chaser and a kamatz katan that devotedly preserve the form of the reading, but the rest of you are clueless about the meaning.

And to make matters worse, for the last thirty years or more, we have played hopscotch through the Torah, reading only a third of each weekly portion each week and then skipping ahead two-thirds of the way the following week. For over 30 years – ten cycles of reading – an Agudas Achim regular would leap from the story of Creation to the Great Flood – and have to wait an entire year to hear of the expulsion from Eden. Over the course of any given three years, the Israelites would wander back and forth in the wilderness, retracing their steps. By our reckoning, it took 120 years to reach the Promised Land.

The reading of Torah has become a symbolic gesture, like the passionate claims to the Temple Mount. It is an exercise in historical imitation, a foreign song in a foreign land.

Synagogues that claim to be more traditional than ours – some Conservative shuls and almost every Orthodox congregation – seem to address the dilemma by reading the entirety of the weekly portion. I cannot believe that our congregation is so different in its make-up than any other, especially here in North America. It seems to be that a longer reading exacerbates the other problems by making the race with the clock that much more desperate. And when a reader whose comprehension and skill seeks to caress the text and present it as it was meant to be read – with expression and slow consideration – the congregation is exasperated. And, to be honest, so are the rabbi and the chazzan.

Last year we announced a bold and somewhat controversial decision to recapture the integrity of our Torah reading and renew an ancient Jewish tradition. Beginning with Shabbat B’reishit, October 13 this year, we will begin a consecutive triennial reading of the Torah. To be clear: we will take three weeks to read each portion. We will conclude the reading of Genesis in the spring of 5762/2002, and we will not reach Deuteronomy until 5764/2004.

If we only repartition the readings, we have accomplished very little. Instead, this slowing-down of our encounter with Torah must be coupled with an increased attention to its message. Weekly summaries and questions on “our” portions will be posted on a listserv and discussed on Shabbat morning. Our b’nai mitzvah will provide some of them; you are invited to study, ponder and write on portions that have no celebrants scheduled.

But we must also commit to personal dedication to Torah as well, or this innovation is nothing but an aberration among synagogues. Some of you have been devoted followers of the United Synagogue daf yomi program, a daily examination of biblical text connected electronically on the Internet. Few of you, I suspect, have done what Gerry Serody undertook a few years ago – to read the Bible cover to cover, slowly enough to consider its variegated message. I must admit that without the discipline of preparing for weekly sermons and Torah discussions with you, I would likely neglect to consider the words of Torah with the diligence they deserve.

Preserving our devotion to Torah means tampering with our faithfulness to its form. It is bound to make us all uncomfortable. It will certainly put us out of sync with the rest of the Jewish world. How will we avoid losing our connection to the practice of the rest of world Jewry, reading the Torah annually? We will retain the designated maftir each week (including the special readings) and the annual cycle of haftarot. A child who celebrates bar or bat mitzvah, or an adult who returns to the bimah on the anniversary of the celebration, will chant the same haftarah as if the cycle were annual.

And, by the way, this particular approach will also justify our celebration of Simchat Torah along with the rest of the Jewish world during the intervening two years. Remember -- our current celebration is no less symbolic. Only in form do we read the Torah through each year. We complete the reading publicly only at the end of the third year.

But the net result of this uncomfortable expression of faith will be the realization of a comforting truth. If we approach Torah with integrity, we as a congregation and as individuals will have renewed a deep and abiding connection to the sacred teachings within. Instead of paying lip service to the public proclamation of God’s word, we will do and we will actually understand. Instead of reducing Torah to bromides and slogans, we will have the time, the impetus, to consider the values by which we profess to live. Instead of merely going through the motions of an ancient ritual, we will sing a song as aged as fine wine and as sweet as honey.

I am especially grateful to one of my finest teachers I have never met, Rabbi Simcha Roth of Herzliyyah, who made this experiment possible. Rabbi Roth wrote a responsum proposing this triennial cycle for practice in Israel. It was met with academic enthusiasm, but we are the very first congregation to use Rabbi Roth’s cycle of Torah readings.

Your traditional Jewish friends will think we are crazy. Your liberal Jewish friends may wonder why we bother. And while you may be intrigued and engaged for the next ten months, the heart of Leviticus, with its chapters of sacrificial details, may present a longer-term challenge! Still, when we conclude our reading on Simchat Torah 5765 (October 8, 2004), we will have accomplished the renewal of an ancient tradition, and perhaps set the paradigm for others.

I have given you and me both a break from the relentless focus on the terrorist attack on our country. Every time I have stood to speak before you – before any group of people – since Tuesday a week, I have struggled to find words of comfort, words of wisdom, words of insight. By the time I sat down to write this sermon, I was spent. But as I crafted my thoughts on the Temple and found the resolve to articulate them, and as I contemplated the potential that this experiment in learning holds, I found myself renewed and refreshed. It is the Torah that is the life-blood of our people, and our wearied souls, drained of energy and uneasy about the role that religious faith might play in society, need a transfusion. The words of Torah are our life and the length of our days. They make us uncomfortable with their truth, and with our need to struggle with them, as our ancestors have done for thousands of years, and I find no greater comfort than that knowledge.

So join me, my friends, as we reconstruct the Temple not of stones and cedars, but of words and tropes. Gather them from the disarray in which we have left them and restore them here in this sanctuary and beyond as a place where God’s glory can dwell and shine forth. If you have not sung me such a song already, then sing me a new song – one that is as fine as aged wine and as sweet as honey. A song as fine as aged wine and as sweet as honey; a song that seems two-thousand years old, yet every day brand-new. Shir shehu k’ven alpayim u’v’khol yom chadash.

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