Title: The Beast that Crouches at the Door: Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, and Beyond
Author: Rabbi David Fohrman
Publisher: Devora Publishing Company
Books have a problem. When they want to teach something, they’re limited by their stoic two-dimensional constraints. They can’t parry a conversation with the reader. They can’t give the reader feedback on his progress. And they can’t lead the reader in a discussion based on a primary text.
This last one is a particular bummer for Torah lecturers who try to break into the world of publishing – a noble goal considering how many more people they could educate through a book than through a shiur.
Rabbi David Fohrman, a resident scholar at the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, has been lecturing for 10 years. He has built a strong following of admirers who seek out his lectures and CDs. Attend one of his shiurim and you’ll immediately notice how often he’ll ask you to open the Chumash sitting in front of you and read along with him, steering the audience to ask key questions and prompting them for the answers.
How to translate this to paper was surely one of Rabbi Fohrman’s chief obstacles when he sat down to write his first book, The Beast that Crouches at the Door: Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, and Beyond. But he has succeeded in large measure, and has beautifully adapted his brilliant and unique approach to Chumash to print form.
The book is based on a long series of articles he had written for this newspaper from 2004-2006. In it, Rabbi Fohrman has not let go of the goal of inviting his audience to read the text along with him. In the introduction, before he gets going, he calls on the reader to join him. “Before you go any further, I invite you first of all to re-read the story of Adam, Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden Read the story slowly and carefully – just the text, no commentaries. And as you do, ask yourself these questions: If I were reading this for the first time, what about it would strike me as strange? What are the ‘big questions’ that the Torah wants me to ask about this story? What are the elephants in the room? Take some time to think about it. I’ll meet you right back here and we’ll compare notes. See you then.”
Many book authors would be terrified of inviting their readers to step away from their book. What if they don’t return? But Rabbi Fohrman embraces it. After all, it’s the best way for him to teach and draw the reader into a discussion with him.
After he has the reader engaged and joining him in a careful reading of the text, Rabbi Fohrman teaches him how to notice anomalies, how to ask the obvious questions, how to spot parallels with other texts, and so on. After a few minutes of this, one can’t help but notice that all the questions seem so simple and straightforward; and then one can’t help but wonder why he didn’t ask the same questions first.
The book is split into two parts. The first focuses on Adam and Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden, while the second concentrates on Cain’s murder of Abel. As the book regularly makes clear, these two topics are connected not just chronologically, but also thematically.
In each part, with Rabbi Fohrman’s guiding hand, the reader begins to see the same texts he may have read dozens of times since elementary school come alive and look wonderfully new.
While it would be difficult to give specific examples, since so much of the book is meant to build on top of earlier chapters, here’s an attempt. Rabbi Fohrman notes that most people probably have a misperception of Cain, viewing him as a “grudging imitator of Abel.” But the Chumash tells us of Cain’s offering to God first – and then Abel’s. “It seems strange to say so,” Rabbi Fohrman writes, “but this fact alone qualifies Cain as a kind of spiritual genius.” This is surely a whoppingly original notion. And Rabbi Fohrman says this not just because he believes it’s an accurate description, but also because it can help give us clues and ask the right questions. It’s one thing to wonder why Cain brought only “nondescript, average produce,” as Rabbi Fohrman puts it. But the question takes on a whole new meaning in light of Cain being a spiritual genius.
And while it may be exciting to ask and answer new questions on Chumash and to follow along as the book reveals more and more insights, Rabbi Fohrman is after something more. His approach unmasks significant, real life lessons that the Chumash holds for us, if only we’d read more carefully. Among these lessons are the nature of truth and falsehood, good and evil, parenting, the yetzer hara, and gratitude. Learning the Chumash is not about strengthening our logical abilities or taking in some nice stories of our ancestors. Most profoundly, the Chumash teaches us life lessons. Many come to life in Rabbi Fohrman’s superb book.
The book is also a pleasure to read, as Rabbi Fohrman does a splendid job of keeping the reader engaged. In addition to the captivating questions and approaches to the Chumash that make up his topics, his style is witty and fun; the reader goes through the book as if it were a mystery, with each passing chapter adding either new questions or solving some older ones. As the reader approaches the latter chapters of each part, more and more pieces begin to fit together.
Rabbi Fohrman’s wit and humor also help make the book very readable. In a passage in which he wonders why Cain’s punishment comes through the earth, he writes, “One can’t help feeling that the ground’s role is rather incidental here. It happened that Abel’s blood fell on the ground and soaked into the earth, but that doesn’t describe the essential heinousness of the crime. If Abel’s blood had fallen on the kitchen floor instead, would Cain have been cursed through linoleum tiles?”
The Beast that Crouches at the Door is a good way to begin a new look at the Chumash that may change the way you view Torah study. It is also a good introduction into the wonderful approach of Rabbi David Fohrman, who has figured out a way to share his inimitable voice without saying a word.