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When a colleague suggested that this book be subtitled "a contemporary midrash" I felt it would be presumptuous for me to appropriate as revered a concept such as midrash which comes from another era, another world. Midrash constitutes one of the high points in the formation of the Jewish classical literary heritage. No one can write a "Bible," nor compose a "Talmud" or a "Midrash" without risking the sin of parody, or at best, poor imitation. The essays collected in this book do, however, represent a conscious attempt to follow and emulate the traditional midrash, not only as a certain specific literary genre, but also in the way the midrash responds to the ever-renewed encounter with Torah.
There are numerous connotations of the word "Torah" in biblical as well as in post-biblical, even modern, Hebrew. It is used here both as referring to the Pentateuch (the first five books of Scripture.) and also to the sum-total of the "teaching" (that is indeed the etymological derivation of the word) of Judaism on the essence of life and how to live it. This teaching identified itself as embracing the word of God the supreme Teacher (ha-melamed torah—"the One who teaches Torah"—is an epithet of God in Jewish liturgy), along with all other "teachings" gleaned from Torah that conscientious disciples in every generation "heard" and learned from the "Teacher" in their innermost being.
Torah was passed on to posterity, not as closed, boxed-in wisdom, but as open-ended, ongoing conversation, originating in the eternal encounter between the will and word of God and the people of Israel (and through them to all humanity), throughout their historical vicissitudes.
The event at Sinai may have been a one-time historical event, but the act of Revelation, the revealing of the truths of Torah, never ceases.
By tuning in and responding to the encounter with Torah, we recreate the experience of "hearing" the divine voice. Jewish tradition ensured this permanent encounter by establishing the cyclical weekly reading of a "portion" of Torah, the so-called parashat ha-shavua, "the portion of the week:" Every week and its "portion." Every Sabbath the entire congregation, not only scholars or saints, is called to a rendezvous with the Teacher, as he emerges from the words of Scripture.
This weekly rendezvous is not a one-sided performance where the audience sits and listens passively and then goes home. The very first act of Revelation at Sinai was not like this either. God did not address his commandments to the children of Israel in the wilderness before entering into a lengthy dialogue with them. (See the essay Blind Obedience Is Not Enough, pages 75-79.)
The community, as well as each individual person within it, does not come to this weekly encounter with God's word empty-handed, awe-stricken, and speechless in the presence of the Almighty. The setting is not that of a mighty king issuing orders to his subjects in the form of a solemn royal edict, but rather that of a concerned and wise teacher whose pupils are expected to be ever alert, questioning, probing and debating every word and idea. It is precisely this encounter that turns God's word into "Torah."
The word Torah, as said before, comes from the same root as the word "moreh" or "moreh", meaning a teacher (male or female) in spoken Hebrew. God, the giver of the Torah, is the master teacher; we are the pupils. Torah is constantly recreated and revitalized as a result of this interaction between teacher and pupils.
We bring with us to the "classroom," which springs into being whenever and wherever Torah is studied, the full dimension of our being. We ask questions and search for answers. All questions are allowed, even encouraged. New insights emerge from the encounter with the text which yields more than one answer to any one question. "The Torah has seventy faces," said the ancient rabbis. If one looks hard enough, one finds the face he is seeking.
God spoke once, but that once is always. With the help of the method of midrash we are able to hear it again today. Every day. That is why midrash became one of the most important words in the vocabulary of Jewish life and religion—it teaches us to "hear" ever new "sounds" within the one everlasting voice.
The sages who created the midrash did not come empty-handed to their encounter with Torah. On the contrary, they brought with them all their human experience and accumulated wisdom, their doubts and pains, their wanderings and wanderings. This encounter resulted in renewed understanding, in new insights surfacing as direct replies to immediate questions. The art of midrash consists in the ability to pour old wine into new, contemporary vessels, to transplant some ancient divinely inspired secrets of struggle and joy, and celebration of time and life, into our own limited, often dismal, situations. Midrash is the link that ties together the chain of being first perceived in the Bible and continuing up to this very day. What would the world have been like without it? At times, it seems that the instant this chain was severed, there would be no more world; that continuing to listen to this divine-human conversation, which began with the pronouncement of the words "In the beginning God created heaven and earth," is vital to our very existence today, an existence in dire need of a "beginning" and an "end," a destiny and a destination, a meaning beyond absurdity.
A modest contribution to this kind of listening to Torah, today, is offered in the following essays. Ours may not be a generation of towering giants in the study of Torah, but we are nevertheless a link in the same chain. It would be false humility to claim that our generation is spiritually barren and has nothing whatsoever to add to the eternal, ongoing Torah conversation. We may indeed be "midgets" as compared to earlier generations of "giants;" but as "midgets riding on the shoulders of giants" our vistas are enormous. We are in the privileged, albeit awe-filled, position of living in a time when we can reap the fruit of the labor of many a genius in the physical sciences as well as in the realm of the human spirit and social vision.
In the Jewish world too we are in possession, as never before, of many of the great treasures of the wisdom of the past. Libraries and bookstores abound in what used to be classified as "rare editions" limited only to the privileged few. Precious spiritual and intellectual treasures are now within the reach of all.
We are the direct heirs of some of the most exciting periods of Jewish living and spiritual creativity. We are chronologically, post-enlightenment-centered worldly maskilim, post-piety-centered mystical hassidim and post-study-centered rational mitnagdim. Historically, we are the immediate survivors of the Holocaust and witnesses to the living miracle of Israel reborn.
Rarely have people lived in a time of such heightened historical and spiritual tension.
Such as we are, our generation again encounters Torah. Some of us are fascinated by it, not only by way of getting to know the past out of scholarly curiosity or nostalgic yearnings, but primarily by way of asking in all candor: what does Torah have to tell us today?
We come to this encounter as open-minded people of our time, yet fully aware that we were not born today, nor were we suddenly parachuted from nowhere onto a desert island. We are aware that behind us are three thousand years of living with Torah and its teachings and that there are unfathomable fountains of insightful wisdom, fascinating cultural achievements, and enlightening moral guidance which we might draw from that rich heritage.
Shelves upon shelves of Torah commentaries, the products of the best minds of the Jews for many generations, await our acquaintance, but, alas, they all have their backs turned toward us! What are the secrets they hold? What is the nature of the warmth they exude? Shall we try to find out? And if we do, would it be possible to apply some of it to our own lives?
The sages of the midrash tried to answer these questions in their time; we would like to try in our own small way to try doing it in ours. Aware of the tremendous gap that stretches between our meager strivings and the possible results, we nevertheless keep on trying.
Our efforts may be classified as both "exegesis" and "eisigesis," namely, reading out of the text and also into it, while drawing on all the resources at our disposal—ancient as well as medieval and modern. Our aim, though, is clear: relating to Torah as it speaks to us, today.
The essays presented herewith are based on a weekly column under the name Tora Today published during 1984-5 in both the local and international editions of The Jerusalem Post. The hundreds of letters that reached the Post and the author from all corners of the world, from Jews and non-Jews alike, are proof that people today in every walk of life seek the word of Torah. When the "Guide to Values and Topics" of this book was composed (with the technical help of Rabbi Baruch Gold, my assistant at the Blechner Chair for Jewish Values at Ben Gurion University of the Negev), I was, as some readers may also be, amazed to discover how many and how varied are the values and issues covered in only one annual cycle of Torah reading. It confirmed the saying of the second-century sage Ben Bag Bag: "Keep turning to it [Torah] again and again, because everything is in it." (Mishna Avot 5, 28).
The weekly burden of meticulous study of the parasha, consulting scores of commentaries, the selection of the topic for the week and the attempt to share it with others, writing in a way that would nevertheless appear as "light reading" befitting a daily newspaper, was no easy task. I cannot say however, that it was not a pleasurable task. The letters and phone calls of so many readers were most encouraging, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them all for their kindness and interest. I also wish to apologize for not replying personally to the muchappreciated correspondence.
It is particularly a joyful task to acknowledge the active participation and contribution of ideas emerging from Torah discussions with my wife and family and numerous guests, Jews and non-Jews, around our Sabbath table. I am grateful to our mind-probing son Avraham Deuel, as well as to our gifted and learned daughters and sons-in-law—Bitha and Dov Harshefi, Emuna and Benyamin Elon, Batsheva and Gilead Seri—and my marvelous grandchildren.
I cannot conceive of this work being accomplished without the constant involvement of my wife and life's partner Penina Peli, who was the first reader and editor of the following chapters. Her own comments on the Torah portion of the week were broadcast year-round every Friday on the English language radio program of the Voice of Israel from Jerusalem.
The editors of The Jerusalem Post Erwin Frankel and Ari Rath and the members of its editorial staff, especially Joe Blumberg, Douglas Davis, David Gross, Sasha Sadan and Hanan Sher, deserve special thanks for helpful and friendly cooperation in first bringing Tora Today to tens of thousands of readers throughout the world. Robert Bleiweiss, president of Bleiweiss Communications in Calabassas, California, Aliza Yunick and Cybil Kaehimker of Ben-Gurion University, and Raihanna Zaman of Cornell University, all deserve thanks for their technical help during the various stages of the preparation of the manuscript for publication. Thanks are also due to Rabbi Israel C. Stein of Bridgeport, Conn. and Dr. Faezeh Foroutan of Washington, D.C. for their careful and sensitive corrections.
I am grateful to the Almighty for having granted me a share in His Torah enabling me to write these columns at a time in my life when it was most meaningful for me. Writing Tora Today every week prompted, and even forced me at times, to set aside—in spite of many obstacles—time for learning. Thanks to Tora Today, I gained some wonderful new friends who have been instrumental in publishing this book. Foremost among them is Dr. Michael Neiditch, the resourceful director of the Commission on Continuing Jewish Education of B'nai B'rith International. For Robert Teitler, president of Information Dynamics, publishing significant Jewish books is not merely a business venture but a labor of love. The friendship and cooperation of the renowned artist Phillip Ratner came also thanks to his enthusiastic response to Tora Today.
And finally a note on the translation of biblical quotations in the following pages. Many different translations, ancient and contemporary, were regularly consulted. None of them however was exclusively or faithfully followed. The deciding factor in choosing an English rendition was always the original Hebrew text, often as I understood it with the help of the traditional commentaries.
Pinchas Hacohen Peli