“We resonate with the parashah, whether we know it or not, whether we read it or not. It’s an underlying structure of reality that all Jews resonate with. – Arlene Goldbard, in the name of Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, z’l
Torah tzivu lanu Moshe, morasha kehillat Ya’akov
(The Torah that Moses transmitted to us
is the heritage of the community of Jacob)
For millennia, our predecessors have assumed the existence of a significant link between one’s date of birth and the weekly portion. The midrash evokes the image of an angel who teaches Torah to the fetus in the womb, providing a rationale for focusing on the subject of the final lesson, given on the week of the soul’s emergence in human form. Many teachers seek to align their student’s birth parashah (weekly Torah portion) with the week of their B’nai Mitzvah ceremony.
The preparation which he or she undergoes often includes close scrutiny of accompanying commentaries, which may in turn lead the reflective student to view the parashah as being itself a commentary on emerging events, ranging from those of a purely personal interest to those of family, community, national, world, or even cosmic concern.
Many wedding invitations identify the parashah of the week in which the wedding will take place along with the location, time, and other pertinent data. Ideas or themes or other references can be worked into the sermon or d’var Torah given by the darshan, whether it is the bride or groom, officiant or guest.
I suggest that not only officially recognized life-cycle events but also transition points of many kinds can be energized by an infusion of well-timed Torah reflection. Initial counseling sessions can be organized around a search for a relevant passage in the subject’s birth parashah. Pre-marital counseling can be an occasion to look for complementarity in the couples’ respective weekly – or daily – readings. My particular insight has to do with looking closely at the aliyah that corresponds to the day of the week of the person’s birth.
For example, today, the day I am writing these words (24 Kislev, 5759 / December 13, 1998), is a Sunday, the first day of the week whose parashah is Miketz. This is the middle parashah of the Joseph narrative, and in the first aliyah we learn about Pharaoh’s upsetting dream, which no one in his employ can adequately explain. The wine steward remembers that when he was imprisoned, along with the chief baker, a young Hebrew man in jail with them was able to interpret their dreams. He recalls, “We told him our dreams, and he interpreted them. He provided each of us with an interpretation, and things worked out just as he said they would.” (B’raisheet, 41:11-12) [This and subsequent translations – unless otherwise noted – are from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s The Living Torah (Brooklyn: Maznaim Publishing Corporation, 1981)]
Well, that’s just what I’m trying to do. When it comes to in-depth understanding of complex matters, there’s nothing like the illuminating power of the Torah. I’m not suggesting that every such instance is susceptible to having its outcome clearly predicted, but, as in the I Ching, images, patterns, adages, and exemplary tales can provide inspiration and insight that feels just right for the situation.
Today (25 Kislev, 5759 / December 14, 1998) I served on a Bet Din which examined a male candidate for conversion. I have known this man for several years and consider him sincere and worthy of admission. A few days ago, as the Av Bet Din and I surveyed several possible dates for the examination to take place, I checked the parashah of the week to select the best day. In the second aliyah of Miketz we find the line, “Can there be another person who has God’s spirit in him as this man does?” (B’reisheet, 41:38) In the world of scheduling, human beings can choose auspicious times, based on the readings. The first day of Chanukah, the festival of re-dedication and education (from Chinukh) also seemed auspicious.
Now that he is a Jew, I suggested to him and his wife that they might wish to re-sanctify their union. I asked for the date and year on which they were married. His wife told me it was January 21, 1995. I checked my trusty Standard Guide to the Jewish and Civil Calendars (compiled by Fred Reiss and published by Behrman House, Inc., West Orange, New Jersey, in 1986) and found that the original date was a Saturday night, the 21st of Shevat, 5755, corresponding to the first aliyah of Mishpatim. (One could also check HebCal.com.) This Hebrew year, the 21st of Sh’vat again falls on a Saturday night, the 6th of February, 1999, again corresponding to the first aliyah of Mishpatim, in which we read, “If another [wife] he take for himself, her food, her raiment, and her conjugal rights shall he not diminish.” (Sh’mot, 21:10 – Rabbis Abraham Ben Isaiah and Benjamin Sharfman, The Pentateuch and Rashi’s Commentary: A Linear Translation into English (Brooklyn: S. S. & R. Publishing Company, Inc., 1949)) This struck me as an appropriate passage for a second marriage, as theirs is, and even for a remarriage, after one’s status has changed.
Here is an example of how a d’rosh based on other passages might be developed for a wedding ceremony.
D’ROSHA FOR THE WEDDING OF JESSICA MONTEL AND
AVINOAM BEN-TZUR, 2 CHESHVAN, 5758 / NOVEMBER 2, 1997
Kol ha-olam – Ha-Makom ha-zeh. All the paths of the world converge in this place. Kol ha-olamim – od olam v’od olam – achshav. All the worlds – all eternity – is centered in this moment.
“Jessie, bat Yehudit v’Conrad, was born on the 10th of Adar, 5728, Yom HaRishon, the first day of the week of parshat Ki Tissa (from Sefer Sh’mot), which begins with a directive concerning the taking of a census. V’y’daber adoshem el-Moshe laymor, ‘Ki Tissa’… – ‘G*d spoke to Moses, saying, “When you take a census of the Israelites to determine their numbers, each one shall be counted by giving an atonement offering for his life. In this manner, they will not be stricken by the plague when they are counted. Everyone included in the census must give a half shekel.”‘
“This passage is the source of the Jewish custom – I say custom (minhag), not superstition – of not counting people but only things that represent them so as not to turn the people into integers. People are not numbers. Anashim lo misparim. By giving each other respect – kavod – we avoid terrible consequences, symbolized by the plague – an unchecked and seemingly random chain of disasters.
“One of the guiding principles of B’Tzelem, the human rights organization in Israel for which Jessie works, is that each person is precious and unique, individual and indispensable. The rule of law and due process, principles which B’Tzelem upholds, protect each person. According to this approach, no one should be considered merely a statistic, merely an anonymous dot on a demographic chart. Through her work, Jessie strengthens the soul of Am Yisrael.
“Avinoam, ben Hadassah v’Eliezer, was born on the 14th of Tevet, 5724, Yom Sheni, the second day of the week of parashat Sh’mot, in which it is said, ‘G*d benefited the midwives [Shifra and Puah, whom some commentators identify with Yocheved and Miriam] – and the people increased and became very strong. And it was because the midwives feared HaShem that G*d made them houses.’ ‘…V’ya-as la-hem bateem.’
Avi, in his government work, reviews and approves – or disapproves – the building of houses and other structures and modifications to existing land use. He makes long-term decisions affecting environmental quality, and by doing so he contributes to the physical health – the guf – of Eretz Yisrael.
“Body and soul, soul and body – which is more important? One thing is clear – neither can exist, in this world, without the other. They, and this couple, are interdependent – not co-dependent (chas v’chalilah) – and this assumption is encoded in their ketubah, as you shall hear. They each come to this union from a place of strength, and, therefore, they are able to willingly share themselves with each other, even, when necessary, to challenge and accept the challenges posed by the other – not in competition but in encouraging themselves to become the people they were meant to be – and to engage in forthright and tender dialogue about all the issues of their lives, from the most mundane to the most sublime.
“In this week’s parashah, Lekh Lekha, Avram and Sarai go forth together from their place of origin, from their family domain, with that which they have acquired: their substance (the means to live) and their souls – the spiritual essence and support from whom those they had befriended. Soul and body, body and soul. They go forth in faith, not knowing all that might befall them, what obstacles and what opportunities they might encounter, yet believing in themselves and in one another and following the inspiring love that led them to take this path, to make this choice: to build a home in Eretz Yisrael.
“We, family and friends, are witnesses to the high intentions with which Avi and Jessie begin their journey. When they step forth from this chuppah, they will be more than friends, more than lovers – something deeper than and inclusive of both. They will be husband and wife, full partners in every sense of the word, dedicated to strengthening one another and, together, strengthening the soul and body of Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael.”
Here we see how the life path each partner has already chosen is rooted in Torah and connected one to the other. Self-knowledge is a crucial asset in enabling their union to take place.
My friend Ilana, an ardent social activist and dedicated community worker, was astonished to learn that her birth parashah, Ki Thetze, had in it the following lines, corresponding precisely to her date of birth: “Do not withhold the wages due to your poor or destitute hired hand, whether he is one of your brethren or a proselyte living in a settlement in your land. You must give him his wage on the day it is due, and not let the sun set with him waiting for it. Since he is a poor man, and his life depends on it, do not let him call out to G*d, causing you to have a sin.” (Devarim 24:14-15) Skipping down to verses 17-19, we read, “Do not pervert justice for the proselyte or orphan. Do not take a widow’s garment as security for a loan. You must remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and God your Lord then liberated you. It is for that reason that I am commanding you to do this. When you reap your grain harvest and forget a sheaf in the field, you must not go back to get it. It must be left for the foreigner, orphan and widow, so that G*d your Lord will bless you, no matter what you do.” I had the pleasure of watching her jaw drop as the remarkable correspondences of these verses to her life’s work became apparent. In a recent conversation I had with her, she recalled, “It was really quite an amazing moment when you read it to me.” Why? It confirmed what she already knew about herself and further sacralized the noble impulses of her heart.
A mutual friend of ours, Miriam, is a world-renowned cell biologist. Her specialty is research in the etiology of breast cancer. Her parashah? Tetzaveh. Her birthday? A Monday, corresponding to aliyah shayneet, in which we read, “Make a decision breastplate.” (Sh’mot, 28:15) What else do we know about this scientist? She’s highly intuitive, records her dreams, and seems gifted with precognition. What did the High Priest’s breastplate include, besides the twelve precious and semi-precious stones, which were emblematic of the twelve tribes? The Urim and Thumim, an oracular device which Aaron wore over his heart when he came before G*d. (Sh’mot, 28:29-30)
Coming down to earth, I will conclude by citing one more instance of the Torah’s synchronistic insight. I have another friend, with I share the name Reuven, who lives in Israel and is self-employed as a tour guide. He escorts travelers in the Paths of the Prophets and specializes in taking spiritual pilgrims to places of historical significance, natural beauty, and sacred resonance – “power spots.” He’s initiated many individuals, couples, and families into the secrets of the Holy Land – Eretz Yisrael – land which he has hiked, davened, and meditated in for decades. He was born in New Jersey over sixty years ago, during the week of Parashat Mishpatim, on a Friday. In the sixth aliyah the voice of G*d proclaims, “I will send an angel to safeguard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be careful in his presence and heed his voice.” (Sh’mot, 23:20-21)
In each of the instances I have cited above, the people to whom I have applied this method were all grown, seasoned, and mature. They had already fulfilled many of the stages of life that we are heir to as human beings. I had no concern about them recognizing themselves in the words of the parashah. However, I would be careful about using this technique to predict the future or assume too much about a child’s future development. There are many subtle levels at work which the guide might not be sufficiently equipped to notice or navigate. However, since I have been blessed with this insight, it would not be proper to keep it only for myself. I offer it to you as a wisdom tool which you can use to increase your own self-awareness and enhance that of others. My advice is: be cautious in utilizing it, but where it seems appropriate, do not leave it out of your calculations.
Supplement to the foregoing:
While giving a workshop on this topic at the 1999 Aleph Kallah, I received many questions that have prompted me to add a few essential remarks.
1) What if my parashah section seems unpleasant or meaningless? This can happen. Not every verse in the Torah is crystal clear and speaks to one’s immediate situation. Some, at first blush, seem xenophobic, vengeful, or concerned with extremely obscure matters. These can offend or puzzle the contemporary sleuth. One solution is to have a more advanced student of Torah guide you to the deeper levels of meaning. If no such person is available, and perhaps even before consulting a more knowledgeable person, please consult the sources. Find a Chumash with a good commentary, preferably one that lists a variety of responses to particular passages. Often there is an ethical, homiletic, agadic, midrashic, or kabbalistic interpretation that “sweetens the din” (judgment) and enriches the text. I use Aryeh Kaplan’s Living Torah (Maznaim), the Stone Chumash (ArtScroll), or Elie Munk’s The Call of the Torah (also from ArtScroll, with the same translation but a completely different set of notes penned by the great German born and trained French rabbi). Others may prefer W. Gunther Plaut’s The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Reform), J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text, English Translation and Commentary (very British and for many years the standard text in use in all branches of Judaism – and still unsurpassed in some respects), Rev. A. Cohen’s The Soncino Chumash, the version of Samson Raphael Hirsch (the founder of modern orthodoxy); straight Rashi (“the brother of the Torah”), such as the inter-linear edition referred to above; Etz Hayim, edited by David L. Lieber and Jules Harlow (the Conservative Movement’s new translation); Everett Fox’s path-breaking translation, The Five Books of Moses, inspired by Buber and Rosenzweig’s translation into German; or Mikraot Gedolot (the classic anthology – but available only in Hebrew).
Beyond those options, suppose you’re doing a reading for someone (or yourself) and want to find something more substantive on which to base an interpretation. Check the Haftorah. These selections from the Prophets were chosen for their topical or thematic links to the parashah they now accompany. And, of course, that’s the standard B’nai Mitzvah strategy: compare the Haftorah to the Torah reading or concentrate on the Torah reading with scant reference to the Haftorah, depending on one’s interest in, the clarity of, and the apparent relevance of the various texts to one another and to the individual most concerned with them. And these factors are sure to change year by year.
What else might be germane? Is the date proximate to a holiday? Does it fall during the Omer Counting? Is there a significant Yahrtzeit coincident with it? Any of these might shed light on the implications attendant upon someone’s nativity. This leads us to…
2) Holiday readings. During festivals there is usually a Torah reading for each day. The third intermediate day of Passover, for example, is assigned Shemot 34:1-26. A person born on that day inevitably acquires that passage as a code to decipher. However, there will also be a Torah reading at the end of the week, which can be treated the same as the Torah reading in a non-holiday week. The fourth day of Chanukah is assigned BaMidbar 7:30-41. Should the fourth day be a Wednesday, for example, the individual should also look at Revi’i (the fourth aliyah) of VaYeshev or Miketz, whichever one is the Shabbat reading for her or his year. Both of them are read during Chanukah when the first and eighth days fall on successive Shabbatot, but the one read on the Shabbat that follows her or his birthday is the one to consult.
When one of the days of Pesach, Shavuot, or Sukkot (Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur as well) falls on Shabbat, the holiday reading replaces the regular weekly reading, postponing it to a subsequent week. For example, on the Intermediate Shabbat of Pesach (and of Sukkot), the reading will be Shemot 33:12-34:26, which is divided into seven shorter-than-usual aliyot. One of those aliyot can be read in connection with its numerically corresponding day of the week along with the reading specific to that day. Rosh Chodesh has its own readings, too.
Thus, there are many exceptions to the general rule I laid out earlier. If a seven or eight day Pilgrimage Festival (Sukkot or Pesach) begins on a Tuesday, let us say, and the person is born on a Monday, the passage read that morning in Orthodox and Conservative synagogues world-wide will not be from the Shabbat Holiday reading but from the postponed Shabbat reading that might not be read in full for another week or two. (If an eight day Chag begins on one Shabbat, then the pending weekly reading will be postponed to the third Shabbat. This happens very often with Shemini.) Thus, a person has two options, both of which may be exercised. 1) Pay attention to the second aliyah section of the holiday reading for that week or of the reading that would ordinarily have been read but for the interposition of the holiday. Or, 2) exercise a third option: pay attention mainly to the part of the reading that is actually chanted aloud on that very day.
3) Many Conservative synagogues have adopted the custom of the triennial reading, wherein each parashah is divided into three sections (beginning, middle, and end), only one of which is read on each succeeding Shabbat, so that the entire Torah reading is completed in three years instead of one. I am not well-versed in Reform and Reconstructionist customs, but I understand that there, too, only part of the weekly reading is necessarily chanted aloud. In Jewish Renewal circles, excerpts are chosen based on shifting criteria, but the usual one is perceived relevance or supposed communal interest. (Preparation time and available expertise are also factors.)
Nevertheless, all these communities acknowledge the standard weekly division and, in fact, do not limit the choice of subject matter for a d’var Torah to those passages that have been actually chanted aloud. Therefore, no one associated with these congregations, minyanim, or havurot need feel any less connected to the parshiot than those whose custom it is to hear the entire Kriyat Torah, week by week. It might take more effort on each individual’s part to discern what is actually there, however.
4) There are all kinds of other intricacies and irregularities that one should be aware of. They all offer the possibility of a more diverse and multi-layered understanding of the signals that the Torah is sending to her acolytes. A person born on Shabbat afternoon, for example, might consider checking, for spiritual guidance, not only Shevi’i, the seventh aliyah of the weekly reading which culminates on Shabbat morning, but also the Shabbat Mincha (Afternoon Service) reading, which is the first aliyah of the following week.
A person born in Israel, where the Second and Eighth Days of Pesach, and the Second Day of Sukkot, are not observed as a Chag, should follow, at least initially, the minhag (custom) of her or his birthplace. (Nothing hinders such a person from also checking out other Jewish minhagim. One who lives in the Diaspora or has strong connections to it is likely to find them relevant.) It should be noted here, if only as a matter of general interest, that in Israel Simchat Torah coincides with Shemini Atzeret, while outside of Israel it is a separate day, a “Ninth Day,” as it were. Because of these discrepancies, Jewish communities in Israel and Chutz La-Aretz (outside the land), sometimes read different Torah parshiot in the same week, with Israel a week ahead, until the Diaspora catches up by scheduling a double reading of short parshiot that are combined in non-Leap Years.
5) Some of the theory behind this schema comes from a midrashic cum scientific understanding of pre-natal influences. According to the Zohar, the developing fetus learns Torah under the tutelage of an angel; according to the latest research, environmental influences – light, sound, and emotional currents all penetrate the inner sanctum of the womb. My supposition is that among the many intellectual currents present in the world is the cycle of Torah readings. The family may be more or less attuned to it, but transmission takes place nevertheless. “A voice goes forth from Sinai continually.” Inasmuch as the fetus grows for up to nine months before parturition, it “learns,” however we come to understand that term, or is exposed to, only about 3/4 of the entire Torah. The reading of the day and week of her or his birth is, as it were, the interrupted final lesson of the term and is informed by all that came before it. The just-born soul is unaware of the remainder but continues to absorb its teachings and stories through the social matrix. Inner attunement proceeds on its own course, as allowed or encouraged by the family, culture, and society of which the child is a part. The midrash tells us that at the time of birth an angel taps the child between the upper lip and the nose, where a vertical groove is located, causing her or him to forget the learning she or he has imbibed. Henceforth she or he must reacquire it through her or his own efforts. “The Torah does not come as an inheritance.” Learning it consciously is essential to true comprehension of the world, as the Torah testifies on its own behalf: “All the nations will say, ‘Surely this is a wise and understanding people that has such a set of laws to guide them'” and “Lo baShamayim he – It is not in Heaven…. It is something that is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can keep it.” (Devarim 30:12,14)
6) Knowing as I do how easily the most well-intended suggestions, when offered in a religious framework, might be construed as obligatory, let me say uncategorically that this set of recommendations and guidelines, though based on established custom and usage, does not have any authority behind it except that of this individual’s own experience and whatever other precedents might be discovered. It is not a mitzvah; if you don’t find it useful, you are under no compulsion to proceed with the method; dismiss it. If you do use it, however, please do so with care, respect, and discretion.
Completed on 18 Tevet, 5760 / December 27, 1999, in Arad, Israel, one day prior to the seventh Yahrtzeit of my distinguished father, Shaya ben Yoel ha-Kohen v’Rivka, Samuel Goldfarb, 1906-1993. Last revised on 19 Menachem-Av / August 20, 2008. A close approximation of this version appeared in my booklet, Trains of Thought: Essays, Articles, & Features (Revised and Expanded), published on 22 Sivan, 5768 / June 25, 2008. A skillfully edited version of this essay appeared in Pumbedissa, Vol. 7, No. 3 (2000/5760). Thanks to its editors, Rabbi Gershon Winkler and Lakme Elior, for their judicious pruning. Thanks also to Jennie Cohen, editor of The National Jewish Post & Opinion, where this essay has just appeared. See www.jewishpostopinion.com for Volume 74, Number 25 — September 3, 2008 / 3 Elul, 5768.