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Turn, Turn, Turn

October 23, 2008 By:
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The title of Simeon J. Maslin's new book, ... and turn it again, needs little explication. The former, longtime rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel is referring to the famous aphorism from the first-century sage known as Ben Bag Bag, who said of the Torah that one should "Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it. Contemplate it, grow old over it, and never depart from it, for there is no finer pursuit."

That is also the clearest description of what the rabbi has done in his newest work. The Torah has been his guide and, as he moves through selected passages, he turns them individually, then turns them again till he extracts new meaning from these ancient words. And sometimes, it's not just one interpretation but several. At times, the insight comes through personal biography, bits of his past; other times, it comes from sheer explication of the text or by applying a biblical story to some trying element of current history. Every page of the book is carefully and exquisitely written -- he can "turn" a phrase as well, so that the work amounts to a quiet little jewel well worth the reader's time.

As Maslin explains, his book is about Torah and not the Torah. He contends there is a considerable difference. If you were speaking in the strictest of senses, the Torah is the Pentateuch, notes the rabbi, the Five Books of Moses, also referred to as the Chumash. "The word Torah means 'teaching or direction,' and it is as old as the Torah itself. In the book of Deuteronomy alone, it appears 15 times, in most cases referring to particular sets of laws but in a few cases referring to a collection of teachings that Moses had set before the people Israel."

But there is a larger meaning that goes beyond the sense of a codified book. Writes Maslin: "The sages of the Talmud felt certain that their interpretations of the Torah, what they had learned from their teachers as sacred traditions going back to Moses and the prophets, were also Torah. They called their deliberations and decisions Oral Torah, and as time went on, the oral Torah (Torah she-b'al peh) took on almost the same degree of sanctity as the Written Torah (Torah she-bikh'tav). ...

"And so we see that Torah means far more than the Five Books of Moses or even the Bible with all its commentaries. Every generation of Jews is capable of adding to the definition of Torah, as long as the starting point of the creative process is the Torah itself. Torah is the leitmotif, the unifying theme of Judaism, and all of the writings of the sages and prophets and poets and teachers of Judaism are variations on that venerable theme."

A Love of Midrash

As Maslin points out, the process of reading a verse of Torah and then commenting upon it, thus expanding or adding to it, is called midrash. The simple meaning of the text, he says, is called peshat and the newer or added meaning is called derash or midrash.

The rabbi admits that his love of the midrashic process -- of telling stories about stories -- which has been nurtured in him since childhood through wonderful and inspiring teachers, is what has provided the basis for his new book. He writes: "I read a biblical verse for possibly the 100th time, and I am suddenly confronted by a new possibility. Rashi, the master commentator, wrote in several instances of verses that cried out to him, 'Dasheni (Interpret me)!' (Gen. 25:22 and 37:20 are notable examples.) I know that feeling well. Often, as I am reading or teaching Torah, it is as if I can hear a voice calling out to me: 'Stop, Shimon! There is more to me than meets the eye. Let's talk it over.' "

Since there are 24 books in the Hebrew Bible (when one considers the entire Tanach and not just the Five Books of Moses), Maslin states that, in homage to the text, he's limited himself to 24 turnings of the etz hayim. These are the ones that have shouted out to him, begging for special treatment.

Since we are on our way in Genesis in shul these days, I think it's appropriate to begin with Maslin's Turn #3, taken from Genesis 27:22: "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau." This particular section begins with a startling insight: Maslin says that after reading the story of Isaac in the Bible one might conclude that he's "not really worthy of inclusion along with Abraham and Jacob among the patriarchs of the Jewish people."

There are several reasons why the rabbi advances this idea. First, the book of Genesis devotes 14 chapters to Abraham's saga and another 10 to Jacob, along with parts of other chapters. But although Isaac is often mentioned throughout the Bible along with his father and his son, only one chapter, Genesis 26, relays the story of Isaac. According to Maslin, "the meager material on Isaac in the Torah seems to serve as little more than a bridge between the rugged iconoclasm of Abraham and the heroic struggles of Jacob/Israel."

The rabbi continues: "Isaac seems always to be acted upon rather than acting. His very name, Yitzhak, is derived from tzhok (laughter). Mother Sarah, as you will recall, laughed when told that she, at her advanced age, would bear a child. And then when Isaac was a little boy, his mother drove the concubine, Hagar, and Isaac's half-brother, Ishmael, out of their camp because she feared that Ishmael might lead her precious little Isaac astray. And of course, one of the most basic and compelling stories in the patriarchal saga is the one known as the Akeda (the Binding) in which Isaac is the intended victim, splayed on the sacrificial altar. Not only was Isaac passive through that ordeal, he was more than slightly naive. He accepted his father's assurance that some animal would suddenly appear to be offered on the altar."

A Truly Meek Isaac?

Maslin continues through the story of Isaac and finds that the text shows him to be less than forthright, not altogether virile in most of his encounters. The rabbi comes to the conclusion, as a number of modern literary critics have also suggested, that Isaac may be "the classic prototype of the schlemiel, the antihero."

So, Maslin asks, "How did it happen that Jewish tradition for these thousands of years has linked the passive Isaac to the powerfully active Abraham and Jacob?" The author suggests that, perhaps, the story of meek and gentle Isaac "might be at least as relevant and instructive for us today as the stories of the fearless pioneer, Abraham, and the virile God-wrestler, Jacob?"

As the rabbi notes, it was Isaac's task "to keep alive the dynamic heritage of his father and to transmit it to one of his two problem sons. That he somehow succeeded in this task is attested to by the fact that Jews to this very day pray to Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzhak, v'Elohei Yaakov -- the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. So how did he do it?"

According to the author, in the Torah's single chapter dealing with Isaac, there is a seemingly bland verse that reveals a good deal about the nature of the man: "Isaac returned and dug again the wells which had been dug in the days of his father, Abraham, and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham's death."

The name of the Philistines, notes the rabbi, is still evoked today as those people who carry out assaults against civilization. In the Bible, they were the "coastal people who harassed the Israelites from the days of the patriarchs through the periods of the judges and kings until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. And so what does the Genesis text mean when it tells us that Isaac dug the wells of Abraham that had been stopped up by the Philistines?"

He offers a homiletic interpretation: "Abraham spent his life, as it were, digging wells, making available to his people and to those who passed through their territory the water which is essential for life. Abraham found the land to which God directed him a spiritual desert, and he left it well watered. But then Abraham died and the land was in danger of relapsing into barbarity. There were Philistines in the land, and they stopped up those wells of Abraham. Isaac did not have the pioneering strength of his father; he was not capable of digging new wells. But he understood that it was his sacred obligation at least to repair the wells of his father. And so Isaac searched out these wells that had been dug by his dynamic father, those wells of life-sustaining water that had been stopped up by the Philistines, and he hewed them out again."

Maslin goes on to explicate what this talent of Isaac's might mean for us in today's world. It's but one of numerous insights he provides as he turns his favorite passages this way and that, again and again, managing to find new angles on old, even dusty phrases. All of it is a pleasure to read -- to say nothing of the depths of analysis he also reaches.

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