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A Chumash For All Times

The Rav  (Photos courtesy of Yeshiva University)

The Rav (Photos courtesy of Yeshiva University)

Chumash Mesoras HaRav: Sefer Bereishis: With commentary based upon the teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik; Compiled and edited by Dr. Arnold Lustiger; OU Press

 

It is hard to think of Torah in America without picturing the face of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“the Rav”). He was not just a titan of Torah scholarship but a sensitive soul overflowing with creativity. As a rosh yeshiva, his brilliant mind developed new insights in Talmudic law. And as a teacher of laymen in synagogues in New York and Boston, he revealed new depths in parashah and aggadah (weekly Torah portions and Talmudic stories). His lectures combined a mastery of midrash with a profound understanding of the human psyche, yielding interpretations that speak to man’s innermost feelings, that dig deep into human aspirations to create a binding link with Torah. The Rav was able to touch someone’s soul with Torah, creating a permanent connection between man and God.

I am from the generation that never saw or heard the Rav but lived in his shadow, feeling his recently departed presence in his students’ lectures. My poverty in this sense pales in comparison to that of the next generation, who have only a distant notion of who this great man was and his sprawling impact. They cannot comprehend how he maintained an audience’s attention for hours on hours, with an overflowing room of listeners captivated by his Torah lecture. The very idea seems ludicrous to those who never knew the Rav. Yet it is true. His profound ideas, his challenging questions and brilliant answers, his eloquent and dramatic presentations delighted and inspired thousands, from novices to experienced Torah scholars.

Much of that material was almost lost. An infrequent writer and a rare publisher, the Rav left a largely oral legacy. However, his students have taken on the holy task of faithfully disseminating his teachings in writing. My first encounter with the Rav was in high school. We were learning the Talmudic tractate of Sukkah at the same time that Rav Hershel Reichman published his first volume of notes from the Rav’s lectures – conveniently, on Sukkah. Day after day we excitedly drank from the Rav’s well of insights, learning Sukkah with him as our study partner. I was hooked on the Talmudic genius of the Rav.

Over the nearly 25 years since, dozens of books have been published containing the Rav’s Torah on a variety of subjects, in Hebrew and in English. The Toras Horav Foundation has published the few English manuscripts the Rav left as well as a number of other books based on recorded lectures. Others have published transcripts, notes and reconstructed lectures in the Rav’s voice. The ever-growing library is more than any one person can master. Well, almost anyone.

Dr. Arnold Lustiger, a research scientist and expert in the Rav’s teaching, is the Rav’s super-editor. Building in part on the work of others, he has accomplished the intimidating feat of turning the Rav’s teachings into running commentaries of classic texts. With an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the Rav’s entire oeuvre, Dr. Lustiger is able to identify what original insight the Rav said on any given passage. By collecting these disparate teachings from other books, unpublished notes and recorded lectures, Dr. Lustiger has created the Rav’s widely acclaimed commentaries to the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur machzorim and the siddur, all within the Mesoras HaRav series and published in conjunction with OU Press. And now he has turned his attention to the Chumash, with the first volume of the Chumash Mesoras HaRav.

The Rav’s commentary on Bereishis is eclectic by design. Because the Rav was the master of so many Torah genres, his various teachings reflect these different modes of study. The Chumash Mesoras HaRav presents readers with commentaries that range from halachic to midrashic to peshat to philosophical to psychological. The unifying features are the Rav’s brilliance and his soaring language, his magnificent ability to frame his insights in inspiring words. Some people are challenged by the Rav’s complex language but the reader with the courage to persevere leaves the page not only understanding the underlying text better but loving it and treasuring its message.

Most remarkable about the Rav’s commentaries is how they are both timely and timeless. On the one hand, you can clearly see an echo of the concerns of his time, the issues facing Orthodox Jews in mid-twentieth century America. There is no way to miss how rooted these explanations are in the Rav’s experiences with his students and laymen. Indeed, a great teacher would have it no other way. The Rav reached out to his audience, guided them in their religious struggles through, among other tools, Bible commentary. However, the Rav’s genius spoke on another level as well. Torah is eternal, its message applies to all times and places. The Rav’s emphasis was on his time but his teachings resonate throughout the ages, forever speaking to man’s religious challenges.

The Rav’s midrashic acumen was phenomenal but he also maintained an acute sensitivity to peshat. In itself, this is not particularly unusual. Many great Torah scholars are capable of switching from one mode of study to another, in this case from peshat to midrash. The Rav, however, distinguished himself by basing important philosophical concepts on peshat. Peshat serves to uncover the simple meaning of the Bible but midrash is the traditional language of rabbinic wisdom. The Rav utilized both but he sometimes based critical philosophical ideas on the simple, albeit brilliant, peshat.

Some of the Rav’s most famous insights are based on Bereishis, making this volume of the series so rich. Perhaps most famous among the Rav’s commentaries is his distinction between Adam I and Adam II, which formed the basis of The Lonely Man of Faith. In the first chapter of Bereishis, Adam is described as emerging at the same time as Eve while in the second chapter, the story is told with more detail, explaining that Adam was created first and then Eve. The Rav explained (2:22, all citations are to commentaries in the Chumash):

Adam the first exists in society, in community with others. He is a social being, gregarious, communicative, emphasizing the artistic aspect in life and giving priority to form over content, to practical accomplishments over inner motivation…. Adam the second, on the other hand, is lonely, as he becomes aware of his uniqueness and exclusiveness. No external achievement, such as belonging to a natural work community, can reclaim Adam the second from this state. He is a citizen of a new world, but he has no companion with whom to communicate.

Noting other differences in the stories, the Rav builds two types of personalities. Adam I is social, creative, political, constructive. Adam II is contemplative, spiritual, personally connected to God. These two aspects of human nature are complementary. Rather than contradicting each other, as Bible critics claim, the two narratives of Creation provide insight into man’s multifaceted nature and mission.

The Rav with students, in the early 1970s.

The Rav with students, in the early 1970s.

In the landmark essay Confrontation, the Rav lay down his policy for interfaith dialogue in four points: 1) We are an independent faith community, not a satellite of Christianity nor part of a tradition of faiths. 2) We may not debate matters of faith but only discuss and act on a “human ethical level.” 3) We may not ask other religions to change their rituals or texts. 4) We may not even hint that we are prepared to change our historical attitudes. These policies, and the specific guidance the Rav provided the Rabbinical Council of America over the years, have served as guidelines for all responsible Orthodox interfaith dialogue. In contrast, we have seen over the past few decades how non-Orthodox representatives fell into the traps the Rav cautioned against.

The Rav based his essay in the text of Bereishis. He showed the multiple aspects of humanity as described in the progressive process of Creation, beginning with man as a part of nature and culminating in God’s norm, the Divine command (2:16):

With the birth of the norm, man becomes aware of his singularly human existence which expresses itself in the dichotomous experience of being unfree, restricted, imperfect and unredeemed. At the same time, man is potentially powerful, uniquely endowed and capable of rising far above his environment in response to the divine moral challenge. Man attains his unique identity when he grasps the incommensurability of what he is and what he is destined to be, after having been enlightened by God that he is not only a commanded person but also a free person, endowed with power to implement his commitment.

The Rav also ends Confrontation with an explanation of a passage in Bereishis, this time with a very different emphasis. When Jacob fearfully approached Esau after their long separation, he sent messengers to his brother and instructed them in detail. These instructions serve as an excellent guide to navigating the modern world as a faithful Jew. The Rav explains (32:14):

My brother Esau, Jacob told his agents, will ask you three questions. “To whom do you belong?” To whom do you as a metaphysical being, as a soul, as a spiritual being belong? “Where are you going?” To whom is your historical destiny committed? To whom have you consecrated your future? What is your ultimate goal, your final objective? Who is your God and what is your way of life? These two inquiries are related to your identity as members of a covenantal community.

However, Jacob continued, my brother Esau will also ask a third question: “and for whom are these before you?” Are you ready to contribute your talents, capabilities, and efforts toward the material and cultural welfare of the general society? Are you willing to pay taxes, to develop and industrialize the country? The third inquiry is focused on the temporal aspects of life.

Jacob told his agents to answer the third question in the positive. “It is a gift sent to my master.” We feel obligated to enrich society with our creative talents and to be constructive and useful citizens. Yet in regard to the first two questions, he commanded his representatives to reply in the negative, clearly and precisely, boldly and courageously. He commanded them to tell Esau that their soul, their personality, their metaphysical destiny, their spiritual future and sacred commitments, belong exclusively to God and his servant Jacob.

The Rav here presents the proper attitude to the world. On the one hand, we are citizens of society who have much to contribute with our talents and resources. On the other, we are a distinct religious community. The Rav propounded similarly about Abraham’s self-description as a “ger ve-soshav, a stranger and an inhabitant” (23:4):

What is our position vis-a-vis modern civilization – with respect to science, to Western culture, to the countries in which we live? The answer is enshrined in these words. Certainly I am a resident, I am one of you. I engage in business as you do, I speak your language, I take full part in your social-economic institutions. But at the same time I am a stranger and, in some aspects, a foreigner. I belong to a particular world, one that is completely foreign to you. It is a world in which I am at one with the Creator… It is a world full of altars and sacrifices, a world of Torah, of lovingkindness, of sanctity and purity. You live differently, pray differently. Your conception of charity is different from ours; your days of rest are different from ours, and so on. In these matters I am a stranger in your world, and you are strangers in mine.

To my mind, there is no greater description than this of the Orthodox Jew’s role in American society. We are proud citizens, working hard and contributing to society on many levels. But we are also our own faith community with distinct beliefs and values. We see the world in terms of commands and obligations. We look to the Torah for our values. Our very conception of charity is different! The Orthodox Jew must be a valuable citizen and a cultural foreigner at the same time.

Teshuvah, repentance, served as a recurring subject of the Rav’s analysis. Human experience consists of a string of failures and successes. Our response to failure is just as important, if not more, than our response to success. The Torah attitude to personal failure is to grow from the experience, to undo our failings as much as possible and to become better people through the teshuvah process.

The Rav often dissected the Rambam’s ten chapters on teshuvah with lomdus (Talmudic concepts) and psychological insight. He also used it to explain difficult questions in the biblical narrative. For example, he asked why Abraham argued with God that Sodom should be saved if it contains ten righteous people? Why shouldn’t the wicked majority still be punished? Because, the Rav explained, Abraham had hope in the power of teshuvah (repentance). If there is a presence of righteousness in the city, even the most wicked people stand a chance of repenting. Unlike Noah, who accepted without argument the demise of all civilization, Abraham exhibited patience and hope in human potential (18:26). Those who fail must repent. Those who observe failure must retain hope in the power of teshuvah, man’s ability to repair his relationships with others and with God.

Living in prosperous America, the Rav was aware of the intoxicating allure of wealth. This society of plenty, the culture of excess and runaway consumption, is dangerous but that very threat can strengthen us. The Rav used the tools of biblical commentary to express the proper values and attitudes in the face of a prosperous but amoral (or immoral) society (39:1):

Potiphar was the chief executioner for Pharaoh. God placed Joseph in this most impure environment so he could fully appreciate the purity of Jacob and his home. Joseph had to live in the house of Pharaoh, to come face to face with evil, to be present at a hanging, to see how Potiphar himself tied the noose in the public square while the bloodthirsty nation enjoyed the sight of the terrified, writhing victim. Only then could Joseph appreciate the sheer greatness of his father’s teachings, the supreme beauty of the laws of egla arufa which he had reviewed with his father just prior to his exile. Only then did Joseph appreciate the magnitude of the spiritual revolution of justice and righteousness that his great-grandfather Abraham had introduced.

The Rav saw the excesses of American society as an opportunity. Hiding behind the superficial beauty is great ugliness, selfishness, cruelty. The experience of the worst of the West highlights the best of the East. Joseph’s servitude was an opportunity to better appreciate the beauty and wisdom of Judaism, an opportunity we share in this hedonistic diaspora.

Eliezer described himself as Abraham’s servant (24:34). The Rav pointed out that there is a difference between “eved le-Avraham,” which Eliezer did not say, and “eved Avraham,” which he did:

Saying “a servant to Abraham” would emphasize only the juridic-social aspect. That statement would imply that while he belongs to Abraham legally, spiritually he is a free man; he has his own mind and an independent approach to reality. By stating instead that he is “Abraham’s servant,” he identifies his whole personality with Abraham. Serving Abraham is not just incidental; it is the whole purpose of his life. That is why the term eved Hashem, “God’s servant,” is used in the Bible. Our service to the Almighty is not something foreign and incidental; it is indispensable to our existence, intrinsic and inseparable from our ontological awareness. We are just servants of God, and nothing else.

With all our technology, our wealth, our philosophical sophistication, our purpose in life is to be a servant of God. We can engage with society, contribute to its well-being like Abraham and observe its excesses like Joseph. In the end, as Koheles concludes, we must fear God and follow His word for we are His servants “and nothing else.”

Dr. Lustiger’s brilliance is in bringing the Rav’s genius to readers where their interests lie – the weekly parashah. He collected and adapted material from dozens of sources into a cohesive and comprehensive commentary, placing the Rav’s wisdom in an accessible volume. This is not just the Rav’s commentary on the Torah, it is his commentary on life. It is a commentary for the ages and specifically for our age.

About the Author: Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and serves as editor-in-chief of TorahMusings.com. Rabbi Student previously served as managing editor of OU Press and still maintains a connection to the publisher but did not work on this book in any way.


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One Response to “A Chumash For All Times”

  1. Uws IH says:

    I followed 3 Parshiyot before giving up on the book. I recommend a read of the commentary on ויתרוצצו הבנים בקרבה on p. 187 to see if it is your cup of tea.

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