I generally do not explore the intricacies of “intercalation” (the way the calendar works) in this blog. They are just too confusing and of little interest to most people. However, I realize that, for some people, the most challenging aspect of entering the Jewish community is to get into the peculiar rhythm of its calendar. And this time of year, even more so than the fall holiday period, is quite confusing. But there is one thing that is unusual this year, even more than in most other years, for those who follow the regular cycle of Torah readings (one of the various things that identifies where we are in the ongoing journey of the Jewish people).
The weekly Torah reading is read publicly on Saturday (Shabbat) afternoons, Monday and Thursday mornings, and Saturday morning. It is also read on Rosh Chodesh (new moon/new month) mornings and festival mornings (and a few holiday afternoons), as well as on fast days. There are two basic systems for the cyclical reading of the Torah—either the annual cycle or the triennial cycle (for more information on the types of Torah reading cycles, click here)—although there are some institutions that have adapted these cycles to fit the needs of their own communities.
This year, because of the way Pesach (Passover) fell on the calendar, we read the beginning of the portion called Shemini on three Sabbath afternoons and numerous times during the week before and after Pesach (a total of eight times which, coincidentally, is what the root work for shemini means). While this is a peculiarity of the calendar, it is worth exploring that this portion has been read so many times, and why.
This portion comes from the midpoint of the Torah. One might say, therefore, that it represents the halfway point in the Jewish people’s journey. It is from the book of Leviticus, the first book taught to students in the classical Jewish educational curriculum. One might expect that study would begin with the book of Genesis, but it is the book of Leviticus, referred to as the Torat Kohanim, which establishes the standards for ancient Jewish behavior within the context of the ancient Temple. Lest we think that the holiday of Passover completes the passage to freedom, the placement of this weekly Torah reading reminds us that we have a lot of work to do before we can enjoy the fruits of freedom that we just earned.
The holiday of Passover provides us with a lens for this Torah reading material, and we can insight from the Seder itself, as well as from those who sat around the table with us. More often, perhaps, than any other holiday or celebration, we recognize that the “mixed multitude” who joined us as we fled Egypt, also joined us at Passover. And we should invite more of them as we continue forward on our journey.
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