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Kahn ex­plores a mix of bib­li­cal, rab­binic and mod­ern commentary

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • ALAN ROSEN­BAUM

Rabbi Ari D. Kahn, pro­lific au­thor, rabbi and ed­u­ca­tor, has is­sued an up­dated edi­tion of his book on the weekly To­rah read­ing, Ex­plo­rations, in a new ver­sion ti­tled Ex­plo­rations Ex­panded: Bereishit. The orig­i­nal ver­sion was Kahn’s first book, and this re­vised edi­tion con­tains new es­says, as well as the ear­lier ver­sion’s orig­i­nal ar­ti­cles, which have been ex­panded and reed­ited.

In Ex­plo­rations Ex­panded: Se­fer Bereishit, Kahn takes a closer look at the foun­da­tional sto­ries of the Book of Ge­n­e­sis, be­gin­ning with the cre­ation of the world and con­clud­ing with the death of Ja­cob. The book is di­vided into 12 chap­ters, each cor­re­spond­ing to the se­quence of To­rah read­ings in the Book of Ge­n­e­sis.

In each sec­tion, the au­thor presents sev­eral ques­tions about the To­rah read­ing and, us­ing midrashic and Tal­mu­dic sources, at­tempts to pro­vide a deeper un­der­stand­ing of the text.

For ex­am­ple, writ­ing about parashat Lech Lecha, which be­gins with God’s com­mand to Abra­ham to leave his home and set out for an un­known des­ti­na­tion, Kahn notes the Bible’s sparse de­scrip­tion of Abra­ham’s life and his ac­tiv­i­ties. “Who was Abra­ham?” he writes. “What were his ac­com­plish­ments? Re­gard­ing all these ques­tions, the To­rah is si­lent.”

Kahn con­trasts the bib­li­cal text with nu­mer­ous midrashim about Abra­ham’s early life, which present sev­eral ac­counts of how he de­vel­oped his be­lief in one God, as well as his tri­als and tribu­la­tions with those who dis­agreed with his be­liefs.

These texts, he ex­plains, de­scribe Abra­ham’s the­o­log­i­cal devel­op­ment, and stress that he ar­rived at his con­clu­sions on his own. That be­ing the case, asks Kahn, why does the To­rah omit these sto­ries, which il­lus­trate Abra­ham’s re­li­gious search­ing and per­se­ver­ance?

Kahn ex­plains that God pre­ferred to be­gin the story of Abra­ham with rev­e­la­tion. God speaks to him, com­mands him to leave his home, and the rest of the story flows from this com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Abra­ham ar­rived at his con­clu­sions through logic, but ul­ti­mately, he writes, the covenant be­tween God and the Jewish peo­ple must be based on rev­e­la­tion, by God’s com­mu­ni­cat­ing with man. “Rev­e­la­tion is the vehicle through which God com­mands us,” he writes.

Kahn cites a midrash that likens Abra­ham to a man who was trav­el­ing, and who saw a fully il­lu­mi­nated cas­tle. “Is it pos­si­ble that this cas­tle has no mas­ter?” he won­dered. The owner of the cas­tle looked out, and said, “I am the owner of the cas­tle.” Sim­i­larly, the midrash con­cludes, Abra­ham could not con­ceive of the world with­out a cre­ator, and it was then that God spoke to him, and told him to leave his land.

Kahn posits that Abra­ham un­der­stood that there was an un­der­ly­ing force re­spon­si­ble for the cre­ation and main­te­nance of the world. God’s rev­e­la­tion was his an­swer and con­firmed that his log­i­cal con­clu­sions were cor­rect.

Writ­ing about the Bind­ing of Isaac in parashat Vayeira, Kahn has a more dif­fi­cult task, ex­plain­ing the para­dox­i­cal na­ture of God’s com­mand­ment. God had in­formed Abra­ham that Isaac would be his heir. If Isaac were to be sac­ri­ficed, how could he fol­low in his foot­steps? In ad­di­tion, notes Kahn, Abra­ham’s per­sonal tragedy would have been al­most in­sur­mount­able. He cites Philo, the an­cient Jewish philoso­pher, who wrote that the sac­ri­fice of Isaac, whose very name means “laugh­ter,” would have meant the erad­i­ca­tion of all laugh­ter from the world. Abra­ham’s life would have lost all of its mean­ing.

Kahn ex­plains that Abra­ham stood for the prin­ci­ple of hessed, kind­ness. By call­ing upon him to sac­ri­fice his son, he writes, “God was ask­ing of Abra­ham not merely to sac­ri­fice his son Isaac, but to sac­ri­fice his own life’s mean­ing and mis­sion.” The Bind­ing of Isaac, sug­gests the au­thor, taught Abra­ham, and, by ex­ten­sion, teaches all of us, that man can go beyond his in­nate ten­den­cies and skills. There­fore, God asked Abra­ham to per­form an act that was the com­plete op­po­site of his nat­u­ral in­stinct. Abra­ham’s 10th test, Kahn ex­plains, was to re­late to his Cre­ator in a way that was con­trary to his per­sonal in­stincts.

Kahn’s an­swer, while in­ge­nious and well-writ­ten, may not con­vince some read­ers. In an in­ter­est­ing par­al­lel, Kahn quotes midrashic sources that sug­gest that Isaac him­self sym­bol­ized the trait of judg­ment (din) and was a will­ing par­tic­i­pant in his bind­ing. Isaac was will­ing to give his life in obe­di­ence to God’s com­mand, and, ul­ti­mately, his real test was to re­join the world, live his life, and re­late to God through the at­tribute of kind­ness – in a mir­ror im­age of Abra­ham’s test.

KAHN’S IN-DEPTH com­ments ac­com­pany the re­main­der of the story of Ge­n­e­sis. In parashat Vayi­gash, which is the cul­mi­na­tion of the en­counter be­tween Joseph and his broth­ers, when he re­veals his true iden­tity, he quotes Nah­manides’s fa­mous ques­tion – why didn’t Joseph at­tempt to con­tact his fa­ther ear­lier, af­ter he had risen to a po­si­tion of lead­er­ship in Egypt? Kahn quotes Nah­manides’s de­fense of Joseph, as well as those com­men­ta­tors who were crit­i­cal of him.

He also dis­cusses the ex­pla­na­tion of a con­tem­po­rary com­men­ta­tor, Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, who sug­gested that the ques­tion could be re­versed: Per­haps Joseph was won­der­ing why Ja­cob had not con­tacted him, and he did not know that his broth­ers had led their fa­ther to be­lieve that he was dead. Bin-Nun sug­gests that Joseph may have felt that his fa­ther had de­cided to send him away.

Kahn ul­ti­mately re­jects this ex­pla­na­tion and uti­lizes the ex­pla­na­tion of Rabbi Shimshon of Sens, a 12th-cen­tury Tosafist, and Rabbi Sam­son Raphael Hirsch, the 19th-cen­tury Ger­man au­thor­ity, to pro­pose that while Joseph’s con­tact­ing his fa­ther would have brought him per­sonal hap­pi­ness, it would have pre­vented him from re­unit­ing and re­pair­ing his re­la­tion­ship with his broth­ers, which he ul­ti­mately car­ried out as de­scribed in the bib­li­cal nar­ra­tive.

Nu­mer­ous midrashic ci­ta­tions are in­cluded through­out the book, in He­brew along with English trans­la­tion, and the He­brew se­lec­tions from the midrash are fully pointed, which read­ers will find help­ful. Kahn ably uti­lizes the explanatio­ns of the midrash and other tra­di­tional sources to fill the gaps in our un­der­stand­ing of the bib­li­cal text.

Ex­plo­rations: Ex­panded is well-writ­ten and pro­vides nu­mer­ous source ma­te­ri­als that stu­dents of Ge­n­e­sis will find use­ful. While the es­says con­tained are not quick reads, and de­mand a fair amount of study and at­ten­tion, they are ac­ces­si­ble and un­der­stand­able to any­one who has a ba­sic fa­mil­iar­ity with the sto­ries and ac­counts of the Book of Ge­n­e­sis. Kahn’s explanatio­ns hew to a tra­di­tional and con­ven­tional un­der­stand­ing of the text, are well-rea­soned and thought­ful, and will ap­peal to those who are in­ter­ested in the syn­the­sis of the bib­li­cal text with its midrashic com­men­taries.

(Reuters Ar­chive)

THE BOOK gives new takes on Ge­n­e­sis. Pic­tured: A guide in an­cient He­brew dress in 1994 de­scribes bib­li­cal set­tle­ment in the Judean Desert at the Land of Ge­n­e­sis tourist at­trac­tion.

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