Title: Mikra and Meaning: Studies in Bible and Its Interpretation
Author: Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot
Accompanying the return of the Jewish people to its homeland is the return of the Jewish people to the Tanach, its central book. While Solomon complained that “of making books, there is no end” (Ecc. 12:12), with regard to Tanach, this growing number of works is only a blessing. Both the number of Israeli scholars and the quality of their scholarship has blossomed. And just as Isaiah predicted, “Ki mitzion tetzei Torah – Torah will come forth from Zion” (2:4). Not only are many works written in Hebrew are now translated and accessible to the English reading public, most importantly, former students who learned their craft in Israeli yeshivot are now teachers in North America, publishing in English.
Among the burgeoning number of books on Tanach in English filling the shelves, however, only very few can be considered essential. Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot’s work Mikra and Meaning is one of those books. Fewer people are more qualified to write about Tanach; not only is Rabbi Helfgot the head of the Tanach department at YCT Rabbinical School but also the founder and organizer of its yearly Yemei Iyun in Tanach that attracts hundreds of people to hear scholars of the highest caliber from both North America and Israel discuss their findings.
Mikra and Meaning contains 18 close readings of various texts ranging from Genesis to Jeremiah. However, the central portion of the book focuses on the book of Numbers, and these studies alone are worth the cover price. Serious scholarship on the experiences of the Jewish people in the desert has been a wasteland, and these essays fill an important gap. They combine both textual and thematic readings, dealing with both larger issues such as the leadership provided by Moshe and how even great people fail, as well as unflinchingly confront the ethical issues regarding Saul and the command to kill Amalek. Several times Rabbi Helfgot demonstrates how the order in Torah presents halachic sections contains literary significance.
Perhaps his most valuable contributions, however, are his careful readings of the episodes of the people in the fortieth year, as they slowly but surely move towards the land of Israel. Carefully and painstakingly, Rabbi Helfgot demonstrates how the Torah uses similar wording and literary parallels to connect these episodes with the experiences of the people in their first year in the wilderness. Just as the Egyptians posed a threat to the first generation of freed Israelites, Balak looms over the second generation.
In retrospect, we are not surprised to discover connections between the devastating episodes of Golden Calf and the Spies from the first generation with the parallel episodes of ba’al pe’or and the complaints of Reuben and Gad in the second generation. Sometimes, though, it is precisely this feeling, of “why didn’t I think of that, it’s so obvious and simple” that is the distinguishing mark of a great scholar.
The studies alone make this work an essential acquisition, but in addition, this work contains three important essays on the essential questions of modern religious Tanach study. The first two are introductions from Rabbis Aharon Lichtenstein and Yoel bin Nun of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and their influence is palable throughout the book.
Most significant, however, is the masterful overview by Rabbi Helfgot himself, which not only outlines the methodology he will apply in his studies, but concisely and honestly, without apologetics, confronts the challenges of learning Tanach in our generation. He describes the desperate need we face for textually grounded study that addresses all facets of limudei kodesh – both intellectual and spiritual.