Torah Portions

I hope you’ll forgive me should I mess up my description of things. I should point out that I am not an expert on Judaism. Several years ago, I took a book from my mother’s collection entitled Jewish Literacy. It’s by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. It is excellently written and incredibly helpful. I use it, more or less, as my definitive resource for understanding Judaism though I know I could benefit from a broader study and understanding.

Anyway, concerning the weekly Torah readings, centuries ago, the Rabbis divided the Torah into 54 weekly readings. Torah refers to the first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Jewish canon consists of the same 39 books that comprise the Protestant Old Testament. However, they are ordered differently and, of course, Jews do not call it the “Old Testament” (some important Christian biblical scholars would prefer that we stop referring it to the Old Testament as well). The whole Jewish Bible is sometimes called Tanakh. Tanakh is an acronym that stands for the three sections of the Jewish Bible (note: Protestants have five sections of the Old Testament): The first section is Torah—the first five books of the Bible. The second section is the Nevi’im (the Prophets)—Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve prophets. Finally, there are the Kethuvim or Ketuvim (the Writings)—Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 and 2 Chronicles. The Ketuvim are not read from on a weekly basis per se but several make their appearance on special Holy Days. For example, Esther is always read as part of the Purim observance. Hence Tanahk refers to TorAh, Nevi’im, Ketuvim.

The Jewish canon is ordered in order of importance. So that greater importance is placed on the Torah, secondary value on the Prophets and tertiary value on the Writings. To my knowledge, the earliest reference to the three part structure of scripture came in an apocryphal writing known as Ben Sirach or just Sirach. In the prologue Sirach makes reference to the “Many great teachings” found in “the Law and the Prophets and the others” Similarly, I believe that when Jesus spoke of “the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40) he was making reference to the understanding of the Jewish canon at the time.

The 54 weekly readings of scripture begin each year after the Jewish New Years that happens sometime in September each year. Because there are not normally 54 Sabbaths in a year some of the 54 readings double up on one of the weeks. Each of the 54 Torah readings is given a name. It’s usually the first word or first significant word in the Torah reading in Hebrew. Each Torah reading is paired with a Haftorah reading from the Prophets (Nevi’im). While the Torah portion is sequential—the 54 readings read straight through the Torah—the Haftorah portions are chosen because they relate to the Torah portion. For example, the reading on Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23) includes the story of Jacob and Tamar (Genesis 38). This sin is possibly referenced in Amos’s pronouncement against Israel in the corresponding Haftorah portion (Amos 2:6-3:8) in Amos 2:7.

The narrative, verbal and theological connections between texts within the canon is called “intertextuality.” To my mind, the best example of intertextuality at work comes in reference to the creed-like formula spoken in Exodus 34:6-7 and its parallel passage in Deuteronomy 15:10. Parts of this passage are quoted in Numbers 14:17-19; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 85:10-13; Psalm 86:5-19; Psalm 103:8; Psalm 145:8; Isaiah 54:9-10; Jeremiah 32:18; Lamentations 3:18-24; Hosea 2:19-20; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3. However, intertextuality is common in both testaments and across the testaments. It is the way that scripture interprets itself and even argues with itself. Lectionaries like the weekly Torah and Haftorah readings and the Revised Common Lectionary help to reveal this quality of scripture.

Scripture Reading Project

I have recently embarked on a Bible reading cycle that involves reading through the assigned Torah and Haftorah readings from a standard Jewish reading cycle and reading through the Revised Common Lectionary portions. I’ll try to explain what those two cycles are in a later post. First my motivations for doing this:

Several months ago, I attended the Senior Pastor’s Luncheon. This is a gathering of pastors in Arlington who meet once a month for prayer, support, and networking. For the most part, these are ministers who do not desire to be a part of Arlington Ministerial Association. They are entirely protestant and largely evangelical (probably entirely evangelical). Needless to say, I have not made it a habit of attending in part because they were established as the alternative to an organization I was trying to sustain, in part because I didn’t know anyone, and in part because I’m busy. But, I decided to suck it up and go.

The conversation the day I went was on pastoral burnout. We got to discussing signs that we are burning out. One minister said that he knew if he preached from the same biblical text more than twice in a five year period that there was something wrong. It was his standard for himself. I don’t think it should necessarily be adopted by anyone else (nor rejected for that matter). The point I took from his comment was that when we return time and time again to the same biblical texts it may be a sign that something is missing.

On a side note, we would all agree that our personal psychological condition—whether we are in burn out, close to burn out, or feeling whole—does indeed influence our ability to do ministry. But this was the first time that I had ever heard anyone pinpoint selection of biblical texts for preaching as the place where that influence might be felt.

Needless to say the comment stuck with me more than anything else in the day’s conversation which I must admit was better than I thought it would be. Though I love scripture I’m quite guilty of relying too heavily on particular biblical texts to the exclusion of other texts. So in an intentional effort to expand both spiritually and as a pastor, I have decided to undertake this process of reading. Unlike a reading plan that would move systematically through the scriptures canonically, I have chosen these two patterned readings for liturgical and theological reasons. Both the weekly parshot ha-shauva or parshot as I’ll refer to it and the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) selections were made for worshiping communities. And both the Jewish parshot and RCL readings at least attempt an intertextual dialogue. For commentary on the weekly Torah reading see Jewish Theological Seminary’s website. And for helpful resources for the Revised Common Lectionary, see Vanderbilt’s lectionary site.