A YEAR WITH THE SAGES: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion – Reviewed by Jack Riemer, The Boston Jewish Advocate

May 2019 – There are two main types of commentary on the Torah and on Rabbinic Literature. One kind is objective scholarship. The other is personal response.

In objective scholarship, the writer strives to determine what was the original meaning of the Text. He studies the parallel literatures of antiquity. He uses ancient grammar. And he tries to figure out what these texts meant then and there when they were first taught. In the books that strive to respond to the ancient words personally, the author tries to determine what these words mean to us here and now.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer’s book is special because it combines both ways of reading the Torah. He begins every chapter with a brief statement of what the original meaning of this biblical portion meant to those who first heard it. And then he goes on to elucidate what the later generations read into and out of the biblical passage. And then he recounts what this biblical passage and the later commentaries upon it mean to him in his own personal life.
So in the first chapter he examines the ancient story of how the serpent persuaded Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit.

In Christian thought, the expulsion from Eden is considered the ‘Fall of man’ and Eve is considered the great temptress, but in Jewish thought there are no such conceptions. We say every day that “the soul that we have been given is pure” and at every wedding ceremony we pray that the love for each other of this couple may be like the love that the first couple felt for each other when they lived in Eden.

What then happened in the garden? The Sages say that the serpent told Eve that God had commanded the first human being not to eat of the forbidden fruit—and not to even touch it. And then the serpent touched the fruit and said to Eve: “See. Nothing happened to me. And so she ate of the fruit, and gave it to her husband to eat as well.
And why did Adam eat of it and thereby risk death? One of the Sages said that what death was like, Adam did not yet know. But what loneliness was like—that he knew. He had experienced loneliness in the time between when he was formed and when Eve was created out of his side. And so he chose the risk of death over the fear of loneliness. If Eve was going to die for eating of the forbidden fruit, then he would die with her, rather than live a lonely life without her.
And that led the Sages to a whole discussion about when and whether to construct a fence around the Torah, and when a fence can become a wall that is too hard to climb over and that keeps people from even trying.
And that leads Rabbi Hammer to tell the story of how this rabbinic teaching has played itself out in his own life. When the Russian Jews came to Israel, many of them could not show proof that they were Jews. The Chief Rabbinate demanded that these immigrants had to bring documentation of their Jewish status or else apply for conversion, and they made the requirements for conversation so difficult that only the most determined would even try. And so, the Law Committee of the Masorti movement, of which he was the chairman, followed the rule of the Talmudic Sages that a fence should not be a wall that is too high to pass over. They ruled that there is nothing in Jewish Law that requires that converts must agree to obey all of Jewish Law and so they converted the babies of these immigrants and later on arranged for them to become bnai mitzvah. He says that he officiated at many of these events, and that few moments in his life have given him as much joy as these moments did.

So here we have a study, first of the pshat of the Torah, and then of the midrash on the words of the Torah by the Sages, and then a statement of how these statements have influenced his own life. In other chapters, he tells of going to visit Egypt, and of realizing, as he stood before the pyramids, that this is where his ancestors went from service to Pharaoh to service of God. He tells of how he once visited the Jews of the Soviet Union and learned from watching them how fierce was their determination to either live as Jews or else to leave as Jews. He tells the story of how someone in his congregation wrote to him years later to apologize for not having invited him to a certain event—an event that he remembered nothing at all about—and how from this experience he learned how deep is the desire for forgiveness and atonement within us all.

So here we have a year of Torah comments in which the writer moves effortlessly between the Text, the commentaries upon the Text by the Sages of the past, and thoughts about what these words have come to mean in his own personal life.

This is a very effective way for us to read the Torah for it weaves together past and present in a seamless whole.

There is a story that I heard many years ago about a rabbi who took the pre-school students of his school into the sanctuary and pointed out some of the objects there. He was about to open the Ark and show them what was inside when the teacher told him that his time was up and the children had to go on to their next activity. He promised that he would come back some other time to show them what was in the Ark and he went on his way. The next day the teacher told him that the children were all entranced by the question of what was in the Ark, and they each offered different guesses.

One said that there was a car behind the door. (I guess this child had been watching quiz program on television.) A second child guessed that there was nothing behind the door. (I guess this child is on the way to becoming a cynic when he grows up.) A third child said that there must be something holy behind the door, especially since there was both a door and a curtain guarding it. And the fourth child said that he thought that there must be a mirror behind the door. (and that to me was the most interesting guess of all.)

I suggest that if you read Rabbi Hammer’s book you will see, not only what the Text originally meant, and what the Sages read into and out of its worlds. You will also what the Torah can mean to us here and now. And if each one of us finds something different in these ancient words and if what we see in them changes as we change, then you will see that the Torah is indeed a mirror in which we can see ourselves.

And therefore, I suggest that we accept Rabbi Hammer’s invitation, and spend a year with him as he goes through the pshat, and then the words of the midrash, and then sees the Torah through his own eyes.

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