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Reflections on the Torah Portion of the Week

January 2008   

The weekly Torah portion that is read in the synagogue every Shabbat morning is actually a section of the Five Books of Moses that becomes part of a Jew’s entire week. Even Elitzur, still in nursery school, has a Rabbi come in every week to give his group of 4 year olds a bit of a taste of the story from that week’s portion, toned down to their level of understanding.Avraham and Netanel, in elementary school, and Atara in High School, while handling their heavy schedule of Religious subjects including Bible, Prophets, Jewish Law, and Talmud, have a class every week called “The Torah Portion of the Week.”Sometimes the teachers review the story, sometimes they delve more deeply into a passage, a thought, a law presented there. And always they are encouraged to write down or remember an idea to share at the Shabbat table.

During the week, my husband Kuti always makes sure to find time to read through the whole Torah portion of the week, enriching his reading with an assortment of commentaries on the Scriptures. He works really hard to find something that can be applicable to what’s going on in the news or more personally, in our family’s lives. And when we sit down to the Shabbat table Friday night, he always manages to introduce ideas that inevitably turn into lively, sometimes heated discussions. It’s thrilling to see my older girls offering insights that draw on their beautifully rich knowledge of the Scriptures while managing to color them with their own original thought processes. It’s sweet how they all manage to get enthusiastic over Elitzur’s simplistic though animated contributions, and they’re very good at figuring out what his nursery school teacher and Rabbi taught in order to draw out whatever he learned.

The Five Books of Moses are separated into sections that take a full year to complete, and following the Shabbat when the last portion in Deuteronomy is read, the following Shabbat the first section in Genesis is read once again. The purpose of this constantly repeating cycle of Torah reading becomes clear to me when I look around my Shabbat table. God’s words are being reacted to and absorbed on so many levels! And how rich the Scriptures are that we can return to them every year and find new nuances, different angles, and fresh lessons.

The Portion of the Week is a popular topic for Bible Study classes all week long, but especially on Shabbat afternoon. The one I attend is very special to me. No matter how tired I am and how badly I need to catch up on sleep from a long, hard week… no matter how comfortable my bed is and how cold and rainy it is outside, I rarely allow myself to miss my Shabbat Bible class. And I know that quite a few women in the neighborhood feel the same. The class was initiated five years ago after a suicide bomber infiltrated our community, blowing himself up outside our local mall’s pizza store, killing three teenagers, wounding others, and changing how we were forced to feel about the safety of our neighborhood.

It was a very hard time and some women, in an attempt to find some sort of purpose, perhaps, or solace in the face of heartbreak, approached the wife of our community’s Rabbi and asked her to help. This woman, a very learned woman in her own right, suggested a weekly Bible class on the Torah Portion of the Week, which would be in memory of Rachel, Keren and Nehemiah, and would offer a way to deal with our sorrow. She decided that, in contrast to some Bible classes which have a specific teacher, usually a Rabbi, this class would be different. She knew that the women of the community– the mothers of Karnei Shomron– would find this class a positive outlet if they were active participants. The idea was that every Shabbat a different woman would be responsible for teaching the class. A class for women by women. And we would never know ahead of time who the speaker would be for that Shabbat. Part of the beauty of this class is the variety, the range of levels and styles of each woman. Some women have strong backgrounds in Jewish education or are teachers by profession, so, for them, it is more natural to prepare and present a lesson. Some women, finding their faith later on in life or not having been privileged as children to have a good Torah education, find themselves, for the first time in their lives, opening the Bible and volumes of commentary and putting together a thesis. It is pure joy to be witness to the growth every one of us has undergone in depth, breadth and comfort as teachers. Some women read straight off the page, some instigate discussion, and some prepare their notes in English and speak aloud in Hebrew, translating as they go. There is such diversity—everyone handles the job differently, adding her own personality, flavor, humor, and wisdom which shine through the hour-long class. Some women volunteer more often than others, finding the challenge both satisfying and not overwhelming. Some have never given a class but come every week to listen and learn.

A teacher by profession and having gone to Hebrew School for twelve years, you would think that the idea of my undertaking the teaching of a class would be trouble-free. But I panic slightly when it’s my turn and don’t volunteer unless the Rabbi’s wife manages to corner me in the local supermarket! We are a wonderfully supportive bunch, everyone encouraging each other and applauding one another’s efforts. I wouldn’t dream of not doing my part because I want to contribute to something that has become such a part of my life. And it’s important to me to prove to myself that I can do it. Truth be told, the fine-tuning of a topic and the research the writing entails isn’t just overwhelming—it is truly fascinating, and public speaking has never been a problem for me, so I’m not overly complaining, though my family breathes a sigh of relief when my turn is over.

When it’s my turn, I find myself looking through the text for some verse, some phrase that calls out to me. I like to focus myself on a thought and then develop an idea fully, even if it means veering away from the section at hand. One year, when I was assigned Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 44: 18- 47:27) with the heart-stopping tale of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers and the reunion with his father Jacob, I decided to turn away from the story line and give my attention to one line in the reading. Pharaoh asks Joseph who his family is and he replies, “We are shepherds as our forefathers have always been.” It spoke to me, because how often are we asked to define ourselves… who we are… what we represent. And here, Joseph had a chance to do just that to the nations of the world and he chose to describe his people as shepherds. What fun it was to go through different places of the Bible where we meet shepherds and see what it means to be the people of shepherds. All our forefathers—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were shepherds, as were Moses and King David. And these were the people God chose to be our leaders, our saviors, our role models. It was a fascinating look, for me, into the qualities God admires and desires from us—the qualities of a shepherd… Modesty, introspection, caring for others. And I couldn’t ignore including Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd.

Another year I was asked to give the class on Parashat Teruma (Exodus 25- 27:20) and was at first a bit overwhelmed with the massive amount of detail regarding the High Priest and his instruments of service and articles of clothing. But then I decided to use it as a jumping off point to speak of what clothing means to me, personally, and how what we wear is how we want people to see us. Each article of the High Priest’s clothing is meant to remind him, teach him, of the higher purpose of his job and the caution and care he must show in his actions. And every law of dress demanded in the Bible is meant to teach us modesty, pride, self-respect, focus, and a desire for achieving goodness. Clothing is a means to a spiritual end and I even joked—only half seriously—that when you do load after load of laundry or have to shop for outfits with your picky teenage daughters—keep in mind that clothing is key to our service of God and by dealing with it you are doing holy work!

This year I was privileged to get Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28- 50:26)—the last Portion of the Week in the Book of Genesis. Again I chose to focus on a couple of verses- one at the beginning and one at the end. The beginning speaks of Jacob’s urgent request from his son Joseph to swear to him that he will be buried in Hebron in the Cave of the Patriarchs. And the last verse of the portion has Joseph asking his brothers to make sure, that when the Exodus from Egypt comes, they should take his bones with them to the Land of Israel for burial. This spoke to me. The strong desire to be buried in the Land of your Forefathers. The connection the people of Israel have with their land– even in death! The longing to be put to rest in the land that will see the coming of the Messiah. The topic also appealed to me because of my work with the Burial Society in Karnei Shomron and my dealing with the dead, while preparing them for burial in the Purification Ceremony. I always try, when I give the lecture, to bring the lesson back to myself and how the Torah reading affects me and my life.

This time I ended my class on Death and Burial with sharing with my audience how it felt to do the Purification Ceremony on our friend Julia. Julia moved into our neighborhood a few years ago and joined our Shabbat study group soon after. She astounded us all. We didn’t know her and at first she would offer short comments on the discussion at hand in her soft voice. They were always—always– brilliant. When she started joining the rotation of giving the classes, we were floored. She shone. Her insights were remarkable, her intertwining thoughts of the commentaries with her own train of thought, leaving us often speechless. We laughed sometimes when she would preface some of her ideas with, “I’m sure you all know what the Sages say about…” We would have to ask her to backtrack a little and fill us in. It only made it more remarkable when we started talking to her after class, finding out that she grew up in the Soviet Union and only returned to her faith once she started having children and moved to Israel. The knowledge she amassed in such a short time was nothing short of inspiring. Julia was killed in a car accident three months ago, leaving a husband, five children and the whole neighborhood, hurting.

As a class, our group of women wanted to do something. This Shabbat weekly learning was what brought many of us to make Julia’s acquaintance and her love for the Scriptures and for always studying and striving for more, was what made her who she was. We decided to create a book— a collection of the classes given by all of us. We are now organizing a publication—a printed version of classes given by us on each Torah portion which we will dedicate to her memory.

We women have become a tight group—even a family of sorts. We were not all friends previously and some of us didn’t even know each other beforehand. But by meeting every Shabbat afternoon for five years, this core group has created a connection. Women are good at connecting, but connecting on the basis of Bible learning is an astounding, strengthening experience. What a privilege to find people whose common thread is a love for Torah learning and who want to set aside time each week to share their thoughts on God and His holy words. I am grateful for the chance and hope our learning together continues, and may it be a source of merit for all of the people of Israel.

Shalom,

Shira Schwartz
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