Title: Explorations Expanded: Bereishit
Author: Rabbi Ari D. Kahn
Publisher: Kodesh Press
Rabbi Ari D. Kahn is an outstanding talmid chacham and a teacher of Torah at its most profound levels. The title of this work expresses his ongoing search to plumb the depths of the issues that might otherwise remain impenetrable to his readers.
For me, the salient example is Rabbi Kahn’s analysis of two enigmatic issues we find in Chazal:
- The existence of 974 generations of human beings prior to Adam.
- Adam’s “subhuman” progeny from the years before Seth was conceived.
Rabbi Kahn goes through a more than exhaustive array of sources. Yet, despite the breadth of his erudition, his conclusion is fittingly humble: “The Torah is a book of truth, not merely a history book; only ideas that are spiritually relevant to us are recorded… The question we are left to ponder is whether they [the generations before Adam and his progeny from those until 130 years after Hevel was killed] existed in fact or in thought alone” (p. 55).
Rabbi Kahn does occasionally cross over to the world of Drush – speculative, deductive exegesis of a text – but those excursions are often fascinating. For example:
Terach, son of Nachor, named one of his sons after his father; he is the first person recorded in the Torah to do so. And so, every day of Avraham’s youth, when he looked at this brother Nachor he was reminded of his roots and of his father’s roots. Perhaps this is what started Avraham wondering about the origin of other things. This approach, taken to its extreme, eventually led Avraham to break out of the pagan mindset and to embrace monotheism (p. 94).
One of my personal pet peeves is the derogation of Yitzchak Avinu’s parenting of his children. I must grudgingly admit that great luminaries such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch engage in such discourses, but this does not make me happier. What right do we have to criticize the Avos concerning matters in which neither Chazal nor the Rishonim issued censures? The nadir of my personal experience in this regard was at one of my own Sheva Berachot, which came out around Parashat Toldot, at which one of the speakers blessed my wife and I that we build a bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael – unlike the dysfunctional household of Yitzchak and Rivkah! I was therefore most gratified to see what Rabbi Kahn has to say on the matter:
The story of Yaakov’s surreptitious acquisition of the blessings his father intended for Esav is well known. This episode, coupled with the Torah’s declaration of Yitzchak’s love for Esav, leads many readers to misinterpret Yitzchak’s feelings for each of his sons. While some assume that Yitzchak loved Esav more than Yaakov, the text does not bear this out. Additionally, it is incorrect to assume that Yitzchak intended to bequeath Avraham’s legacy to Esav; this is certainly not the case. Yitzchak knew exactly who Yaakov and Esav were, what their respective strengths and weaknesses were. Nonetheless, unlike his wife who possessed “inside information” regarding their destinies, Yitzchak dared to dream that his son Esav, the hunter, might yet be part of God’s plan (p. 147).
While this volume is on Sefer Bereishit, it also illuminates for its readers murky depths of other, related parts of the Torah. Thus, in Parashat Vayishlach, Rabbi Kahn tackles one of the Torah’s most enigmatic issues, that of the se’ir la’azazel, the goat that is pushed off the cliff as part of the Yom Kippur atonement ritual. Rabbi Kahn again cites sources comprehensively, and explains to us the connections between Esav’s guardian angel and Samael, the Satan.
Rabbi Kahn’s erudition stretches from the Zohar to the contemporary Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, from timeless Kabbalistic approaches to modern re-readings of the text. His lucid writing clarifies the most obscure concepts, such as God’s name Shaddai and its relation to tzimtzum, the manner in which God “constricted” Himself to create the Universe.
If there is anything to critique in this volume, it is the absence of both a topical index and an index of sources. We must hope that as Rabbi Kahn continues to publish the Explorations series with Kodesh Press, he will compile such indices, and that we can look forward to seeing them in the final volume. We hope that Rabbi Kahn and Kodesh Press will press forward with all appropriate haste to bestow the complete series upon a world of learners that have so much to gain from it.