Themed Aliyot: Making the Torah Section of the Service More Relevant and Memorable

The most important thing when you get up to teach Torah is not what the portion means to you, but rather, as a new leader of our people how you will help those present connect to the weekly Torah reading. Here's a brief "how to" guide for creating a theme for each aliyah in order to help those present connect to the meaning of reading the Torah.

l.  The person leading the Torah service studies 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.

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.  It also 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.

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. 

What if your community doesn't want to do it this way?  You'll find that studying to create themes for each aliyah will bring your portion alive for you and in your d'var Torah you can show how much of great value truly is in your portion.

For Example:

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.  The quote in the photo comes from the portion known as "Terumah,"

For the purpose of our discussion let's look at the previous Torah portion, Exodus 18, known as "Yitro."
In Parshat Yitro 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.  The person leading asks 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.

   A. This is a moment to honor the place that leadership issues occupy in your life, to realize how human this is. 
   B. Perhaps you also reflect upon how you are a leader for those in your life or what you might ask an elder like Yitro.
   C. What advice might Yitro offer to you? 

   D. 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.)

          Typically you will be offered a chance to place a kiss with a tallit (prayer shawl) fringe at the place where the reading starts and to recite a blessings.  The same thing happens at the end of the reading.  This is reminiscent of kissing the mezuzah, which also contains a portion of the Torah inside. It is a moment of crossing a threshold to new awareness and we consciously seal it with a kiss.

          The service leaders often gives a blessing to those who came up for the aliyah.  This tradition is known as a "mishabeirakh."  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.