Kahn explores a mix of biblical, rabbinic and modern commentary
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.
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.