Creating a More Meaningful Torah Service

When the words of the chapters assigned to a particular week enter our consciousness and our "soul stream," we can learn something new and interesting about ourselves as individuals, families, humans and peoples. This new awareness is what may be meant by the term "revelation." This is Judaism at its best -- exciting, meaningful, growthful. Torah reading can be a high point of a services. Here is how to give everyone present a greater opportunity to be included in the Torah reading.  I first saw Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi lead a service using this method at Philadelphia's P'nai Or community, and he is indeed, credited with having developed it. During my travels I'm seeing this approach beginning to appear across the full spectrum of Jewish life.

As you may know, the Torah is read in portions sequentially through the year. Each of these portions (called a "parsha") is given a name based on a key phrase from the text. For the purpose of our discussion let's look at Exodus 18, the parsha known as "Yitro." Here we find Moses having trouble being an effective C.E.O. Fortunately, his father-in-law, Yitro (mistranslitered often as Jethro), has occasion to bring Moses' wife and sons out to join the community in the wilderness. Moses has a heart-to-heart conversation with his father-in-law, who happens to also be an experienced Midianite priest, about how difficult he is finding leadership and the people's need for him to personally settle all their disputes. Yitro commences to give Moses one of civilization's earliest recorded management consultations, including instructions on how to set up a seventy-member governance team.

So, there you are at a Torah service where the above portion is to be read. A good example of this method would be for the person leading the Torah service to ask everyone who is wrestling with leadership issues to come up to the Torah to be part of a group aliyah. Perhaps it happens that you are struggling with such issues in your life, so you join the surprisingly large stream of people heading up to the Torah. This is a moment to honor the place that leadership issues occupy in your life, to realize how human this is. Perhaps you also reflect upon how you are a leader for those in your life or what you might ask an elder like Yitro. What advice might Yitro offer to you? Notice who has chosen to come up for this aliyah. These might be important dialogue partners later, perhaps during refreshments after services. (Engage with these individuals gently, matters of the soul can be very tender. Be understanding should someone prefer privacy.) 

The service leaders traditionally gives a blessing to those who came up for the aliyah. This tradition is known as a "mi-sheh-beirakh." In the case of our example above, we might be blessed to receive the insight, kindness, strength and courage we need to be good leaders, to be able to recognize the great, hidden consultants in our midst. What blessing would you want to receive?

Each aliyah can be themed - by the rabbi or by members of congregation in consultation with the clergy or baal korei (reader). My b'nei mitzvah students work with me to develop themes for their Torah services and they also develop and give the blessing for the theme, when they are developmentally able. 

How to Create Group Aliyot:

l. The person leading the Torah service must study the parsha (Torah portion) carefully. Take note of verses that jump out with meaning for you, the leader. Is there a way of reading those verses that will speak in a healing or particularly meaningful way to a common aspect of the human experience? If so, then you have arrived at a possible theme for one of your aliyot.

2. Most communities utilizing this approach have three such theme aliyot, inviting everyone to come up to the Torah to whom the theme of that aliyah holds personal meaning. It is helpful to briefly summarize what the three themes will be before the first group is called up. This lets people prepare themselves emotionally. Most leaders emphasize that people can come up for one or two or all three, whatever speaks to their spiritual condition.

3. The first group is then called up. The reader indicates the place where the aliyah begins in the scroll, so that those who want can touch that place with a fringe from a tallit (prayer shawl).

4. Next everyone who came up for an aliyah chants an opening blessing together. There are several forms of this blessing now in use, from the very traditional to those that are more inclusive and gender-balanced. (Readers can e-mail me if you have trouble finding these.)

5. In communities where few people understand Hebrew, instead of a lengthy chanting or "leyning" of all the words of each portion, the service leader will first give a summary of the portion. The reader will then chant the verses that most apply to the theme of the aliyah.

6. The closing blessing is chanted and then, the Torah service leader or a designated helper will give a blessing, or mishabeirakh, specifically formulated to empower the healing, awareness, or action implied by the theme of the aliyah.

7. Everyone who came up for an aliyah then returns to their seats. The theme of the next aliyah is described and those who choose it come up to the Torah. Even if someone came up for the first aliyah, it is important for that person to return to their seat with what they learned and then decide whether to go up for another, as well as to recite the blessings again.

8. It is also an important tradition to include aliyot for such specific ritual moments as prayers for healing of oneself or others, blessings for a couple entering a committed relationship ("ufruf"), taking of a Jewish name, or a prayer of gratitude for having narrowly escaped death (such as a car accident, major surgery, lifting of life-threatening depressing, which is known as "bentsching gomel"). One aliyah is usually focused on healing and sometimes the number of aliyot is expanded to allow for other special needs such as recognizing community leaders or the naming of a baby.

9. What if it's a bat/bar mitzvah? It is wonderful to use group aliyot at such events. Bar/bat mitzvah students can be encouraged and assisted in developing their own themes from the weekly portion. Alternatively, sometimes it works well to invite family members and friends to come up to the Torah in affinity groups. For example, "Would all my aunts and uncles please come up for this aliyah," or "I invite my grandparents up for the first aliyah," or "Would everyone who goes to school with me who has already had their bar/bat mitzvah please come up for the last aliyah" or "Would my parents' friends please come up for this aliyah, I would like to honor your important place in the life of our family," etc.

10. A caution: For many Jews the act of coming up to the Torah is seen as a covenantal statement, not to be made by non-Jews or those under bar/bat mitzvah age. If this is the case for your community, then it is a good idea to either say this aloud at the time of the Torah service, or to have this noted near where the Torah service appears in your prayer book.

The "themed group aliyah" is a method of spiritual empowerment appropriate to the times in which we live. Increasingly Jews seek out spiritual leaders who will help a person to connect to the tradition in meaningful ways and grow personally through the process. However, even with desired change there is loss. Losses to consider in adopting this approach which come to mind include:

a) that special feeling involved in having one's own solo aliyah - pride in our skills and presence as we chant out the blessings for all to hear and

b) letting go of the order of calling up Jews by the ancient Temple categories of Cohen (priests), Levi (Temple workers), Israel (regular people). Some religious communities have been inadvertently preserving these categories out of habit, others hope to reinstate the sacrificial system someday and so are thus deliberately preserving a record of the men whose family origins may bear such a history so they or their descendents will be available to serve in a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem.