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Machzor Blog: Thoughts on Torah Readings

Our congregation, Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, has been worshipping with a draft copy of Mishkan HaNefesh for three years now, on the second day of Rosh Ha-Shanah.  About four hundred congregants and members of the community-at-large show up for this service, and we have taken the opportunity not only to pilot the new machzor from the pulpit, but also to invite the participants’ feedback.  In general, opinion about the machzor is positive, with many praising the dignified, uplifting, and poetic English prayer-renderings and meditations, and others appreciating the opportunities for study and reflection built into the machzor.

Because the draft copy we have been piloting does not feature a Torah service, we have jumped back into Gates of Repentance for the Torah Service and we have produced our own one-page handout for the Shofar Service.  The Torah service, however, prompts a fascinating question about which our congregation and clergy have been wondering aloud for a couple of years:  what Torah readings will Mishkan HaNefesh propose for reading on First and Second Day Rosh HaShanah?

This spring I taught an eight-week adult education course in midrash using Akedat Yitzhak (The Binding of Isaac, Genesis 22) as our primary text.  While many of the students feel spiritually and emotionally drawn to the Binding of Isaac and recognize its importance within Judaism–an importance that led to our Reform Movement proposing it as the reading for First Day Rosh HaShanah, instead of on Day Two, where it is found in Orthodox and Conservative circles–many agreed that the time has come to re-locate Akedat Yitzhak on Day Two, and replace the Torah reading for First Day Rosh Ha-Shanah with the traditional Scriptural passage, Genesis 21, which not only sets up the drama for day two (Genesis 21 details the birth of Isaac and his place in Jewish genealogy), but also beautifully meshes with Rosh Ha-Shanah themes of birth and hopefulness.

I would warmly support the re-introduction of this text.  It would embrace the value of Klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish People, by bringing us into common practice with other streams of Judaism.  It would also invite the rabbi to explore new and varied preaching topics on Rosh HaShanah morning, and offer new discussion topics for congregants.

Knowing our Reform Movement, and the format of Mishkan T’filah, I suspect that choices will be offered, including the choice of reverting to Genesis 21.  Readers, what do you think?

Rabbi Jonathan Blake serves Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY.

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4 replies on “Machzor Blog: Thoughts on Torah Readings”

In Lawrence we created our own second day mahzor and chose the holiday calendar from emor for we thought it a good time to remind people of holidays other than rh and yk

We also do two days–but the turnout on day two is at best 10% of those who come on day one (unless day two falls on a weekend). Given this, I prefer to keep with the Reform tradition of reading the Akedah on the first day, since it is, for 90% of my congregants, the only day. For the same reason, I blow the shofar when day one falls on Shabbat. In a traditional setting, one foregoes the shofar blowing in this situation–but everyone gets to hear it the next day.

If I could get people to come second day, I’d gladly go back to the traditional reading on day one. But I have not had much luck with that one.

Of course this leaves me with the dilemma: if you read the second day’s parshah on day one, what do you read on day two?

When I led (one-day) liberal services at UCLA Hillel some years ago, we would read both Genesis 21, with an aliyah for women, and Genesis 22, with an aliyah for men, pointing up one one of the intriguing differences between the two stories. Genesis 21 offers important themes for consideration on Rosh Hashanah: our treatment of strangers, encouraging us to open our eyes to see God’s role in our lives, the conflict between conscience and what we perceive as the word of God (two themes of Genesis 22 as well), and the statement that God saw Ishmael ba-ahser hu sham, not as a future enemy of the Israelites but as a boy dying in the wilderness–an important moral point in how we view other human beings. It speaks about God’s faithfulness to the covenant, and gives the background for the poignant challenge to that faithfulness posed by Genesis 22. I hope that Mishkan Ha-nefesh will give us the choice of either–or both–readings, which I agree will add further depth to our observance of the New Year and our own cheshbon ha-nefesh.

Very interesting post! I quite agree with your observation that Akedat Yitzhak should be read on the first day of
Rosh Hashanah, both for its visually dramatic intro to the head of the year and to spark discussions on the subtleties in the text itself regarding its interpretation in the Reform tradition.

On a tangential note, I should introduce myself. I am Ilene Winn-Lederer, the author and illustrator of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). This book is my unique visual midrash on the entire Chumash (all 54 parashiyot) and you might enjoy seeing it as a useful companion to the texts, particularly my interpretation of the Akedah. You can see excerpts from it in a video that I have posted at Kickstarter for my next book project, An Illumination Of Blessings (36 universal blessings in the Me’ah Berakhot tradition with original Hebrew and English calligraphy). Here is the link:

I welcome your questions and comments!

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