Last year we announced a bold and somewhat controversial decision to recapture 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.
As you have heard me explain from the bimah, we are taking this step to restore coherence to our study of Torah and respect for the endeavor. 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.
There is a more traditional solution: we could read the entirety of the weekly portion each week, as most traditional congregations do. Yet I am concerned that with our congregation overwhelmingly unfamiliar with Biblical Hebrew that tripling the length of the Torah service on a weekly basis would present an irresistible temptation to tune out the sacred words and engage in discourse on a much more mundane level. We would preserve the form, but diminish the substance.
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.
This particular spin on the triennial cycle will also justify our celebration of Simchat Torah during the intervening two years. Our current celebration is no less symbolic – we complete the reading publicly only at the end of the third year.
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.
I am grateful to Prof. Avigdor Shinan, whose presentation at our synagogue under the auspices of the Foundation for Jewish Studies, opened the possibility of recapturing this tradition from 2000 years ago. And I am especially grateful to one of my finest teachers I have never met, Rabbi Simcha Roth of Herzliyyah, whose responsum on this cycle provided the structure for our experiment. 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 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.