When I read Relics for the Present, I am quickly enamored with the ancient wisdom of our tradition. Levi Cooper intricately and intelligently interlaces the p’shat of the text together with the interpretations of a variety of commentators, which results in meaningful interpretations that the Talmidei Chachamim may have actually wished to convey to future generations. With his choice of commentators, Cooper brings texture to the arguments and stories of the Talmud. He could easily stop there, but doesn’t, adding one more piece to his thoughtful tome that simply makes the book magical. Bringing his own ideas and interpretations to the meaning of the questions and challenges posed by the Talmud, Cooper offers new wisdom for the modern Jew, deeply rooted in the ancient text. This last element transports readers straight to the Beit Midrash, as if they are sitting across from Cooper, pouring over the Talmud with him in chevruta. Readers will come away from the encounter with a fresh charge for living a Jewish life in the modern world.
Review by: Leah Kahn, Pardes Experiential Educators Program ’13
Before Purim, alum Matt Bar (Year ’07-’08, Fellow ’08-’09) of BIBLE RAPS fame visited us at Pardes (and he stayed for the Purim spiel)! We videotaped him rapping for us during community lunch:
We also got to talk with him about why he tries to visit Pardes regularly, and got him to share some thoughts about the Jewish “aristocracy”.
These&Those: Matt, how often do you come to Israel?
Matt Bar: Twice a year, usually for gigs in Israel. This is my first extended stay in a while. I’m here for 3 weeks total; and I’m here to come up with a complimentary digital Torah package for the new Bible Raps album.
Th&Th: Could you please explain the concept of a ‘digital Torah package’?
This week’s parsha contains many famous and thought-provoking stories, but I would like to focus on what I see as an emerging motif in the Rashbam, where he criticizes his grandfather’s reading of a verse before offering an alternate interpretation which he sees as sticking more closely to the pshat, the simple reading of the text. In the blessing that Hashem gives Avram regarding the sojourning of his descendents in Egypt for 400 years, which will be followed by inheriting the Land of Cana’an, Hashem says: “And the fourth generation will return here because the sin of the Amorites is not complete until now [then]” (15:16). Rashi explains that the fourth generation refers to B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel), as after they are go down to Egypt, there will be three generations, and the fourth will inherit Cana’an. Rashi explains his theory by saying that Yaakov went down to Egypt, and Calev – the only other person besides Yehoshua to enter the Land who came from Egypt and did not die during the forty years in the desert – is four generations removed from Yaakov. However, the Rashbam does not think the verse is talking about Israelites here. There is a simple flaw with Rashi’s logic, in his mind: if the text just finished saying that the Israelites will be in Egypt for 400 years (15:13), why would it then also explain how many generations that works out to – in any case they will be there for 400 years! So instead, the Rashbam sees this verse as referring to the inhabitants of Cana’an, who will be driven out of the land after four generations. Yes, it’s true that B’nei Yisrael will return after four generations, but our verse is speaking from the perspective of the nations (specifically the Amorites) who dwell there currently. And why is it important that four generations go by between B’nei Yisrael going down to Egypt and the Amorites being kicked out of the Land? The Rashbam sees this as Hashem treating all peoples the same. In Shmot 20:5 it says that Hashem “visits punishment on the sons from the fathers for four generations to those who hate me,” which the Rashbam interprets as Hashem giving all sinners four generations to change their ways before punishment is visited upon them. So Hashem, though expecting that the Amorites would be kicked out when the time came, still gave them four generations with the chance that, if they changed their ways, they would not be expelled from Cana’an. I think that this interpretation is all the better because the Rashbam thinks that this is the simplest way to read the verse.
With the conclusion of Simchat Torah we are embarking upon reading the Torah from the beginning once again. For my own study, I have moved ahead (or behind, depending on who you ask) two generations to study the commentary of the Rashbam on the Torah. The Rashbam was one of Rashi’s grandsons, and, along with completing Rashi’s commentary to certain segments of the Talmud, also wrote his own very different commentary on the Torah. His commentary is renowned for its focus on the pshat – the simple explanation of the text, as opposed to his grandfather who focused a lot on midrashic interpretations. This is evident especially from the first chapter of the Torah: where most commentaries spill much ink over their understanding of what the creation stories recounted in the text mean, the Rashbam is, on the whole, quite concise. One comment of note is what he says about one of the many ambiguous phrases in the opening verses: “And Hashem called the light ‘day’ and the darkness he called ‘night’ and it was evening and it was morning [on] the first day” (1:5, translation mine). This is traditionally the source for why Jewish holidays (all days, really) begin on the previous night. The Rashbam, however, states that clearly when, in the previous verse, Hashem “distinguishes between the light and the darkness” (1:4), it means that the world was created starting during the day, through Hashem’s saying “let there be light” (1:3). If so, did the Rahsbam think that the universally accepted tradition of starting a Jewish day the night before did not have a textual backing, or did he find that backing elsewhere?
Pardes is honored to have had Bar-Ilan Professor Uriel Simon lecture. Below are last year’s lectures from Professor Simon on “Am I My Brother’s Keeper: An Anatomy of Fratricide.” This is an example of what Pardes students and community benefit from. Professor Simon was the chair of the Bible Department at Bar-Ilan University.
This is from the Annual Hershdorfer Kantrowitz Brettler Lecture Series at Pardes on February 9, 2010.
Since I was inspired to undertake this project due in large part to being at Pardes, I thought I would post this here too.
My ‘Chumash Project’: My plan is to tackle one commentary a year, Rashi this year, reading Chumash with that commentary in line with the weekly parsha. Given certain circumstances largely out of my control, I am nearly a month late in posting this summary of Bereishit, but better late than never. A caution: this is for the most part a technical overview of alot of Jewish text, and a lot of work could be done to make it more literarily appealing (which I hope to do next time). So here is a list of 9 noteworthy questions/thoughts/issues that I had with Bereishit:
First off, the textual impetus to bring the project from an idea to a reality was my sitting in shul and following along as Bereishitwas read only to come to the realization that, on the face of it, the first thing Hashem ever says to humans is a lie. Bereishit 2:17: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you must not eat thereof; for on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.” (Artscroll translation). So this issue seemed too pressing to restrict myself to Rashi, who doesn’t address the issue. The Ramban does address the issue, but not satisfactorily in my opinion. He says that the verse means that from that day forward Adam (and Chavah) becomes liable for the death penalty, to be exacted at Hashem’s discretion. Since the verse explicitly says that they will die “on the day [they] eat of it” this explanation doesn’t cut it. And so, since I was at Pardes, I did the sensible thing and asked someone much wiser than me. Baruch put it this way: the creation story is a metaphor, and so no actual death is being referenced here. Rather, Hashem is saying that by going down this path of disobeying the divine vision for humanity, one will inevitable come into contact with death – i.e. such a path leads to death.
Another early point that caught my attention was the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” (1:28). I devoted a blog post to my reading of this verse back when it came up, and so rather than re-hash it all here, I will point you to it – though feel free to leave comments here.
This comes up all the time later on, and so it is worth mentioning that Rashi posits that the Torah is not written chronologically in 6:3 for the first time
A few other points about the form that Rashi’s commentary takes
In 3:8 Rashi sets out his goal in his commentary of providing the pshat interpretation of the text (echoed in 3:22, 24, 4:8, 6:3)
However, beginning (I think) in 7:17 Rashi begins using what becomes a common formula where he offers an interpretation followed by a second interpretation which he calls the pshat, implying that the first interpretation is not pshat – while it may not contradict what he said earlier about providing the pshat, it would hardly be considered ‘good literary form’ to do so without at least mentioning that drash (interpretation of a ‘deeper’ sort) will be a major part of his translation, especially when the drash seems to precede the pshatinterpretation in many places
i. And in certain verses the goal of giving a simple reading has clearly left Rashi’s mind, e.g. 17:5
Rashi, especially in Bereishit, has a fascination with squaring all the events in the text chronologically, the first example of which is how much time Rashi spends elaborating the dates of the flood (beginning with 7:11)
Very rarely, but noticeable if you are looking, Rashi notes that his own commentary is not as airtight as usual, first noting that it is kashah lee (difficult for me) in 13:14, and noting that he simply does not know why the text is so repetitive in 28:5
The theme of buying and selling runs right through Bereishit, from Avraham buying the cave of Machpelah (23:16) to Yaakov buying Eisav’s birthright (and then tricking Yitzchak to receive the blessing, 25:33 and 27:19 respectively), to Lavan ‘selling’ Leah to Yaakov when Rachel was promised (29:23), to Leah selling Rachel the du’daim for a night with Yaakov (30:16), to the brothers selling Yosef (37:28), Yosef depositing the goblet in Binyamin’s sack (44:2), etc. And it is not coincidental that so much deceit appears in connection with these early monetary transactions
Names also carry a deep meaning, from the naming of the animals and Chava by Adam in the Garden, to the naming of the wells, to the naming of children (especially the tribes)
Reading the way that Rashi sees the Patriarchs, and the protagonists generally, throughout Bereishit (too many examples to mention) has forced me to look at Rashi’s social situation as charitably as possible in order to understand what drove him to go to the extreme lengths that he did. The simplest way I can understand this is by saying that Rashi lived at a time when Judaism’s validity was being questioned, and his way of countering that movement was to interpret the Torah in such a way where the ‘Jews’ (i.e. the Patriarchs and those that eventually became called Jews) were near-perfect humans. And so the reason why modern readers have trouble with this way of reading it can be seen as a reflection of the culture we live in where Judaism is not being challenged in the same way
However unusual it may be, every once in a while I come across a midrash brought by Rashi that I like, e.g. 43:30, where Rashi explains why all of a sudden Yosef has to run out of the room where his brothers are – the prompting question being what exactly made Yosef lose his composure. Rashi brings the Gemarah in Sotah that says that the following conversation occurred: Yosef asked Binyamin: “do you have a brother from your mother?” He replied, “I did, but I do not know what happened to him.” Yosef then asked: “do you have sons?” and Binyamin replied: “I have ten…their names are [46:21]” Yosef asked: “what is the meaning of those names?” And Binyamin then answered that each one of his children was named in memory of some lost part of the life Yosef would have had or the part Yosef would have played in Binyamin’s life.
The final motif that I want to draw attention to is the giving of blessings. You could really start with Hashem, but the ones that deserve the most reflection, and a detailed analysis side-by-side, are Yitzchak’s blessings to Yaakov and Eisav and Yaakov’s blessings to Ephraim and Mennashe, and the rest of the Tribes (where blindness figures in as well)
And as a bonus for anyone who is still reading, here’s a picture of what it looks like outside my house right now, (so much for me trying to convince you that Vancouver isn’t cold like the rest of Canada):