Listen each Shabbos and you shall hear
Fifty-Four Parshas in the course of a year.
Parshat Bereishit is first of them all:
Adam and Eve, the snake, and the Fall,
And Creation of Earth and stratosphere.
Then God said to Noach, “I’m bringing a Flood;
The world is so violent, so corrupt,
Over-run by evil and shedding of blood.
It’s time for an end decisive, abrupt.”
Abram leaves home and the City of Ur,
Embracing a faith in God secure.
In Lech Lecha we read his decision,
His marriage to Sarah, their divine mission,
He, Ishmael, and Isaac undergo circumcision.
Vayera’s familiar from High Holy Days:
God’s cruel command, Abraham still obeys,
Isaac is bound hand and foot on the altar.
Spared in the end, Abraham does not falter,
So tenacious the faith our founder displays!
Chayei Sarah records the Matriarch’s death,
Her funeral rites, held in Chevron.
Her sepulcher, bought from the Children of Heth.
What an historic, august gravestone!
In Toldot the birthright is sold for soup
To Jacob by Esau, unfortunate dupe!
Jacob flees, stealing the blessing, too,
From blind Isaac, who nevertheless probably knew,
That spiritually Esau hadn’t a clue.
A ladder with angels is in Jacob’s dream,
He declares his camp holy in the extreme.
To marry fair Rachel is his fondest wish,
But he’s tricked and gets Leah: not such a dish!
Vayetze makes clear: things aren’t what they seem.
Jacob sends Esau a sizeable gift,
To smooth the way as they’re reunited.
He assumes in Vayishlach that Esau’s still miffed.
Jacob’s twin is, in fact, simply delighted.
His father loves Joseph more than his brothers.
Gives a nice coat to him, but not to the others.
Vayeshev details Joseph’s sale as a slave,
With Potiphar’s wife Joseph won’t misbehave.
Which lands him in jail, though he was Jacob’s fave.
Joseph interprets his bad dreams’ import
For Pharaoh, and then serves high in his court.
His brothers come begging for food and supplies,
In Miketz. Joseph sees them and harshly replies.
He threatens to jail them, but is just making sport.
Judah must plead for Benjamin’s life,
In Vayigash Big Brother touches a nerve.
Joseph forgives their fraternal strife.
His dysfunctional family so as to preserve.
Israel, dying, blesses his sons
Cursing a couple unfortunate ones.
Parshat Vayechi ends a long family drama.
Jacob’s death although timely was still quite a trauma.
Wrapping up Sefer Breishit is Joseph’s embalma.
In Parshat Shemot Joseph is long forgotten
By a new Pharaoh who treats Hebrews rotten.
He harshly enslaves them with back-breaking work,
Which he claims they are constantly trying to shirk.
But Moses stands up to this king misbegotten.
He tells Pharaoh: God says, “Let My People go;
Their purpose is now to venerate Me!”
Pharaoh’s response? An intransigent “No!’
The last thing he’ll do is set his labor force free.
In Va-era Moses unleashes the plagues,
Taking down Egypt’s king a couple of pegs.
Blood, Frogs, and Vermin are to no avail.
Flies, Pestilence, Boils also all fail
To change Pharaoh’s mind. Moses smites him with Hail.
In Parshat Bo is the first Pesach Seder.
Pharaoh relents, though he is such a hater
Of all Hebrew kids, women and men.
He gives in after plagues numbers eight, nine, and ten.
Jews celebrate yearly. Some cook and some cater.
Deus ex Machina! God splits the Red Sea,
Allowing the slaves to cross on dry land.
Parshat Beshallach shows triumphally,
The power of God’s providential right hand.
In Yitro, God gives us the Decalogue,
Known to every Church, Mosque and Synagogue.
We’re to honor our parents, the Sabbath and God.
Avoid bearing witness that’s false, lies, or fraud.
Don’t murder, steal, covet, or cheat like a bawd.
In considerable detail Mishpatim reports
On fifty-three laws: slavery and torts,
Festivals, finance, and animal rights,
Idolatrous cults, prophetic insights,
And capital cases in Israelite courts.
Terumah records a camp-wide collection:
Wealth to construct and outfit the Shrine.
In Tetzaveh the priests undergo ordination:
Sons and grandsons in the Aaronic line.
Israelites worshipped a golden calf
In Parshat Ki Tissa, misguided riffraff!
Moses replaces the Tablets he broke
In anger: the prophet was a volatile bloke.
No doubt ‘cause he led such a tough, stiff-necked folk.
Vayakhel comprises a second recension
Of our Tabernacle, it’s every dimension.
The ram skins, the seal skins, acacia wood,
The sacred precinct where the candle-stand stood.
Hooks, sockets, utensils, too many to mention.
Pekudei, well-named, is highly statistical,
The breastplate bore gems, in four rows of three;
The Ephod’s significance, patently mystical.
The incense was burned ceremoniously.
The Hebrews erected the whole Tabernacle
By hand, without benefit of block and tackle.
The shrine became filled with clouds of God’s Glory.
Thus ends for a while the Exodus story.
Leviticus now: sacrificial cult gory.
Vayikra lists all types of sacrifice
The focus of Isra’lite religious life.
Burnt offerings, meal offerings, offerings for sin.
Guilt offerings were brought, God’s favor to win.
Peace offerings for freedom from all cosmic strife.
The Altar with oil, says Tzav, was anointed.
Moses convokes all twelve of the tribes.
They watch as he installs the priests he appointed
To function as pastors and healers and scribes.
Aaron and sons undergo ordination,
A sticky and seven-day-long elevation:
Blood was symbolically daubed on ear lobes,
On big toes and thumbs, on their priestly robes,
To sanctify actions and paths and wardrobes.
Aaron’s two sons are consumed by a fire
Divine; their unspecified sin was so dire.
Aaron stays silent, the consummate Stoic,
Just continues his priesthood with fervor heroic.
A model of faith to which few can aspire.
Kosher Laws can be traced to Parshat Shemini:
Permitting consumption of beef, veal, and lamb.
All suitable entrees to eat with linguini.
No lobster or catfish or camel or ham.
Seafood requires both fins and scales;
Mackerel is kosher but not shrimp cocktails.
Impurity brought about through parturition,
Is addressed in Tazria with sacral precision.
Lepers treat priests as diagnosticians.
Metzora concerns a leprous eruption,
Understood homiletically as moral corruption,
And bodily discharge, as from gonorrhea.
Metzora is often paired up with Tazria
In a continuous reading without interruption.
Acharei Mot prescribes Yom Kippur rites:
Scapegoats, sincere confession, and fast.
Contritely we each must atone for our slights.
The mis-steps, offenses and sins of our past.
Chapter eighteen regulates sexuality,
Firmly prohibiting unchecked carnality.
Consanguineous unions are strictly taboo,
Egyptian morés forbidden the Jew.
Intimate life meets hallowed worldview.
Parshat Kedoshim says sanctification
Is the core mission of the Israelite nation.
Don’t curse the deaf; don’t trip up the blind.
Don’t sow a field with seeds of two kinds.
Don’t worship false gods through prayer or libation.
Designate produce for gleaners as charity,
In order to show your neighborly love.
And so as to counteract income disparity.
It’s a Commandment from God up above.
Conduct business deals with fair weights and just measures.
This Holiness Code: it’s a Scriptural treasure!
Don’t delay paying a laborer’s wage,
Show deference to those of more advanced age,
Do not take revenge, a grudge to assuage.
Parshat Emor forbids cursing God’s Name,
Disqualifies priests hunch-backed, blinded or lame.
They must remain pure, not enter a graveyard.
Can’t marry divorcees; such unions remain barred.
They illumine God’s Shrine with the eternal flame.
A series of Holy Days is herein prescribed:
Yom Kippur, Sukkot, an un-named New Year.
The “Feast of the Spring,” as Passover’s described.
Observe Shavuot: eat cheesecake and shmear.
Behar insists we observe years Sabbatical.
Septennially, to be mathematical.
After seven Sabbaticals comes Jubilee,
Whence the inscription “Proclaim liberty
Throughout the Land.” Set captives free!
Bechukotai teaches sin brings execration,
Covenantal compliance is cause for elation.
Of the Torah’s five books, Vayikra’s the third.
Placing ritual scruples at the heart of God’s Word.
Maintaining that Law is the way to Salvation.
As its name might suggest, Numbers starts with the counting
Of the tribes, and their members: the process was nifty!
The citizenry in Bemidbar surmounting
Six hundred three thousand, five hundred and fifty.
The tribes are all given their marching orders.
The Levites their tasks: some are priests, some are porters.
Thus, the Torah turns back to a narrative plot,
We’re now in the Wilderness, ready or not!
With special instructions to the sons of Kohath.
Tribal princes all bring identical gifts,
Preventing thereby any covetous rifts,
As they dedicate the Lord’s Holy Altar.
The consistency’s like the Rock of Gibraltar:
Each day a new leader, in orderly shifts.
The priests are instructed on just how to bless:
“God bless you and keep you” from all kinds of harm.
There’s a trial by ordeal for the adulteress.
Side effects for the guilty are cause for alarm.
This Torah Reading is longer than any
Other, and as we’ve seen there are many.
This, too, is included in Parshat Naso:
The Nazirite’s vow requires he forego
Chianti, Champagne, Cabernet, and Merlot.
Behaalotecha requires a Menorah of gold
Be kindled each day by the Levitical fold.
Pillars of cloud show when to break camp,
And transport the aforesaid seven-branch lamp.
When to re-pitch their tents is in the same way foretold.
When Moses marries an African beauty
His sister and brother object to the match
Obeying God’s prophet, though, is their sworn duty,
So Miriam’s stricken with a leprous patch.
The people complain they have nothing to eat,
No bread and no fish, neither veggies nor meat.
Miraculously God sends Manna and Quail:
A menu not varied, but hearty and hale,
The whole time they follow their wilderness trail.
In Shelach twelve spies are sent into the Land.
Ten of that dozen proved a scared, faithless band.
Only Caleb and Joshua’s faith remained stalwart.
God ordered the rest to die off in the desert.
An ironic sanction for their lack of sand.
Korach fomented anti-Moses rebellion
The Earth swallowed him, and the same for his crew.
An ignoble fate for that disloyal hellion.
Ditto for Dathan and Aviram, too.
Now take a Red Heifer, that’s not borne a yoke.
Slaughter the cow, reduce its carcass to smoke.
The ritual Chukat prescribes with such surety,
Is quite paradoxical: deep, dark obscurity.
The ashes somehow restore our purity.
Xenophobic Balak was a Moabite King,
Who feared what misfortunes Israel might bring.
So, he hired a prophet to curse the twelve tribes.
He offered Balaam extensive gold bribes
For his expertise in calumniating.
En route he was blocked by an angel of God,
Whom he could not see, though the donkey he rode
Stopped, so Balaam beat her with a rod.
The donkey spoke up: “Better treatment I’m owed!”
Three times Balaam struck her, and three times he tried
To deliver his anti-Israel broadside.
But Providence caused him to utter a blessing:
“How goodly your tents!” — which Balak found distressing.
In God’s will Balaam was, perforce, acquiescing.
Two sinners are killed by Pinchas, that zealot,
Without any trial, ecclesial or appellate.
For religious coercion, Pinchas is rewarded.
The entire affair is inexpressibly sordid:
A “Covenant of Peace” is bestowed on this prelate.
Parshat Pinchas lets women inherit.
Moses names Joshua, his aide, to succeed him,
For loyalty, service, and personal merit.
In the conquest to come, the nation would need him.
A fixed sacrifice is to be offered each day,
Thus did our most distant ancestors pray,
In addition to offerings for Sabbaths and Feasts.
A spiritual regimen carried out by the priests,
Inspiring for Israelites, but tough on the beasts.
Matot makes clear your vows must be fulfilled.
In the war against Midian all their menfolk are killed.
Menashe, Reuben, and Gad settle in the Trans-Jordan,
An alluring sub-region to worship the Lord in.
Moses agreed; the three tribes were just thrilled.
Cities of refuge protect the offender
Whose act of manslaughter is absent intent.
Providing a Biblical bill of attainder,
The poor victim’s family vengeance forewent.
The Torah’s fourth Book ends with Parshat Masei,
The Israelite encampments day after day.
The thirty-third chapter’s sung with festive trope:
A musical detour, a melodic hiccough.
With the Book’s final verse you know your Numbers up.
In Parshat Devarim, Moses starts an address,
Reviewing the wilderness trek, placing stress
On the spies’ mission, on Moab and Ammon,
The inhospitality and defeat of Sichon,
His concern that the People might lose faith and regress.
Va’etchanan says “Love the Lord your God,”
Israel is told: You are God’s Chosen People.
You will conquer Canaan, riding rough-shod,
Thou shalt destroy any idolatrous steeple.
Moses is informed he won’t enter the Land
Notwithstanding his forty-year leadership grand.
So he continues to reminisce,
The Ten Commandments appear, please understand this:
With textual variants — mutatis mutandis.
Fealty to the Covenant earns a reward.
Ekev threatens punishment for behaviors untoward.
Israel’s Promised Land flows with milk and with honey.
Prospects for its conquest are certainly sunny,
So long as God’s Laws do not go ignored.
Free will means choosing between blessing and curse.
We are to choose freely and refrain from swine.
Self-mutilation is out; idolatry’s worse.
Re’eh requires establishment of one central shrine.
Festivals are observed three times every year.
To a schedule of pilgrimage the faithful adhere,
As they must to tithing at ten percent:
Saving the poor indignity and torment.
Hebrew servants, after seven years, to freedom are sent.
“Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
A judicial system is the proverbial glue
That Shoftim asserts holds nations together,
And determines in times of crisis whether
To our founding principles we will remain true.
Commandments in Ki Tetzei number seventy-four:
Sexual probity and ritual fringes,
Returning lost property, the ethics of war,
The first year of marriage, on which so much hinges.
Ki Tavo consists of blessings and curses,
Truly the Torah’s most unseemly verses.
The Parshah includes the rite of first fruits,
Along with a liturgy recalling our roots.
Faith in God and our mission: moral absolutes.
Parshat Nitzavim marks ratification
By Israelites of high social station
And low: everyone giving assent
To live by the terms of God’s Covenant,
Equally binding on each generation.
Should we fall short of that spiritual mark,
We can repent and try again harder.
God wants us back, though our misdeeds be dark,
Renewing our passion, commitment, and ardor.
Moses gives Joshua an inspiring charge.
He has sandals to fill, sized extra large.
Moses is ready to meet his demise.
In Vayelech he prepares to summarize
God’s message for Israel; he’ll rhapsodize.
Moses delivers his valedictory,
In poetic form, no banal oratory.
In Parshat Haazinu, he speaks of God’s grace:
His willingness Israel’s sins to efface.
V’Zot Ha-Berachah brings an end to his story.
At one hundred twenty, Moses has finished
His prophetic career and long leadership.
His vision’s still clear, his strength undiminished.
A feat all but unequalled by his readership.
He takes leave of each tribe with an apt benediction,
Affirming his faith with abiding conviction.
Atop Mount Nebo, He approaches his Maker.
The Almighty Himself serves as Undertaker,
Laying Moses to rest at long last in God’s Acre.
The cycle of Reading ends on Simchat Torah,
Amid singing and dancing, quite often the Hora.
But it’s on Shavuot we recall Revelation,
Scriptural Law, prose, verse, and narration.
We decorate pulpits and homes with fresh flora
As a true “Tree of Life” we esteem Holy Writ:
Offering meaning and manners refined,
Ours to embrace, explore, and transmit.
Priceless this gift God gave humankind!
Fresh wisdom is constantly mined from its pages,
Though this ancient text has endured countless ages.
Rapt our attention to codex or Scroll,
Searching this roadmap to earthly life’s goal.
Food for the mind. And the heart. And the soul.