Published in the J Weekly of October 8, 2015
This Shabbat, Jewish communities across the world will begin anew the annual reading of the Torah, starting at the very beginning with the creation of humanity and the world. As we set out on this journey once again, I would like to focus our attention on the traditional division of each Torah portion into seven distinct sections, known as aliyot.
The Jerusalem Talmud notes that the reading of each aliyah cannot conclude with mention of curses. Rabbi Moses Isserles (16th century), commonly known by the Hebrew acronym “the Rema,” codifies this practice in his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, the major code of Jewish law and practice: “One should aim to always begin reading [an aliyah] on a good note and end reading it on a good note as well” (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 138).
In a 2009 article titled “The Last Oral Torah? The Division of the Torah Into Aliyot,” Ephraim Stulberg argues that based on the Rema, our accepted custom is “to eschew, if at all possible, ending an aliyah on a melancholy or disconcerting note.” In fact, the current division of aliyot “appears to interpret the Talmudic injunction underlying this principle relatively stringently” (http://tinyurl.com/last-oral-torah).
One such example appears toward the end of this week’s Torah portion. The sixth aliyah, a section that describes the genealogy of Adam, ends abruptly in the middle with mention of the ascension of Enoch, “for God took him” (Genesis 5:24), instead of a number of verses later where a natural paragraph break occurs. The rest of the paragraph, which mentions the passing away of other members of the genealogy, is then integrated into the seventh aliyah, a section introducing the story of Noah. This forced division highlights the stories of Enoch and Noah, two righteous individuals, and in a way buries into the text the deaths of lesser-known individuals.
Stulberg points out that a similar phenomenon occurs in Parashat Vayishlach. An especially lengthy fifth aliyah “passes over two separate paragraph breaks before ultimately stopping in the middle of a paragraph.” In this instance, ending the aliyah at the natural paragraph breaks would have meant ending the Torah reading with mention of Deena’s rape or with the death of Deborah, Rebecca’s nursemaid.
Another classic example comes from Parashat Vaera where several aliyot purposefully skip over natural paragraph breaks to avoid ending with mention of Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Israelites go.
In his article, Stulberg offers many more such examples from throughout the biblical text. Time and time again, those who divided the Torah chose blessings over curses, life over death, hope over despair, in their rendering of Torah portions into distinct aliyot.
I would like to believe that the division of Torah aliyot by our rabbis offers a critical insight about the way we must strive to lead our lives.
The rabbis have empowered us to be the editors of God’s holy story, to accentuate good over bad in the way we read the biblical narrative every Shabbat. Certainly this imperative must also extend to the way we tell the stories of our own lives. As human beings, and primarily as storytellers, we must also cut, paste and edit. In other words, the rabbis’ imperative to always end on a good note, even if it means forcing a particular reading of the biblical text, must also apply to the living text, to the stories of our lives.
At this time of year, as we begin to tell the story of the Torah anew, we must also begin to tell our own personal story anew. Hopefully, through the experience of introspection on Rosh Hashanah and repentance on Yom Kippur, each of us was given the gift to think of our lives, our relationships and ourselves differently. In a similar vein, Sukkot, through the experience of moving into an impermanent shelter, might have forced us out of our comfort zones and the constructs that normally define who we are. No longer sheltered by pretense and false security, we can now begin anew.
In that spirit, how might we tell our story differently this year? Like good Torah readers, how might we also choose blessings over curses, life over death, hope over despair?
To see this article in the J Weekly, please click here.