We are just about to end our three-year cycle of consecutive Torah readings and return to the triennial cycle observed by many Conservative congregations. Once again, we will read from a section of Torah on a weekly schedule that will lead us from Creation to the death of Moses in a year's time.
Each time we read from the Torah, we return the scroll to the ark with this assertion: its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace. I have sometimes wondered exactly what the ways are, and how many paths are "all."
There is a wonderful teaching in the sixth chapter of the tractate Avot that praises the ability of Torah to lift us higher. Royalty may be achieved by thirty virtues and the priesthood by twenty-four, it suggests (without further elaboration), but Torah is acquired in forty-eight different ways. And then, the forty-eight virtues are listed.
I have been intrigued by this teaching for many years, since I heard my teacher Rabbi Bill Lebeau discuss it at a Rabbinic Training Institute. During my first sabbatical, I attempted to develop a contemporary approach to the virtues described. It was a daunting experience – and an entirely unsuccessful one. But during my recent sabbatical I was drawn back to the text as I tried to reimagine what our congregational Torah studies would look like in the coming year. To my delight, I discovered that there are forty-eight weekly Torah portions between Shabbat B 'reishit and the following Simchat Torah. I set about the task of finding a verse in each weekly reading that connected to each consecutive spiritual practice for acquiring Torah.
It was a difficult but rewarding exercise; I read Torah through different eyes than ever before, with sensitivity to the multiple meanings of words, the numerical values of letters, the hidden anagrams and the plain meaning of the text. In the end, I finished the first phase of the work just as my three months came to an end.
The next step begins with our renewed cycle of readings. Each week, in discussion, sermon, bar/bat mitzvah charge or e-mail posting, I will attempt to engage you in my efforts to find the ways of pleasantness and the paths of peace that lead up every facet of Sinai to the common peak where heaven and earth meet.
You can find the text in Avot 6:6 (pages 658-659 in Siddur Sim Shalom). You can try to anticipate my connections or make your own by searching for each prescription in the weekly portion. And then, I hope you will join me on this adventure and make your contribution to another congregational pilgrimage as we renew our days as of old.