TORAH LIGHTS: Exodus Defines the Birth of a Nation

TORAH LIGHTS: Exodus Defines the Birth of a Nation
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    TORAH LIGHTS: Exodus Defines the Birth of a Nation

    by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin


    "The world of biblical commentary reveals many secrets. First and foremost, the Bible... may be likened to a magnificent diamond, glistening with many brilliant colors all at the same time. And although the different hues often appear to be contradictory, when you view the totality of the light emanating from the diamond, you begin to appreciate how complementary they really are. Thus the sages of the Talmud understood that there are many possible truths contained in each biblical statement, each adding its unique melody to the magnificent symphony of the whole, synthesizing not in conflicting dissonance but in holy dialectic...."
    -from the Introduction


    About the Author:
    Rabbi Shlomo Riskin's contributions to Israel and world Jewry over the course of the past 35 years have been instrumental in shaping today's Modern Orthodox society. His vision of an authentic Judaism which is inclusive of every Jew and appreciative of universal human concerns has made him an outstanding figure and leading voice in today's Jewish world.

    The founding rabbi of the famed Lincoln Square Synagogue of Manhattan, Rabbi Riskin is internationally renowned for his innovative educational and social action programs, as well as his personal outreach to Jews of all backgrounds. He is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, a network of groundbreaking educational institutions including a rabbinical and communal leadership college for men, a college for advanced Jewish studies and the training of women advocates for the rabbinical courts, a women's "hesder" program, and a Legal Aid Center for agunot.

    The author of several books, monographs and articles on Jewish tradition and modern life, his weekly columns on the Biblical portion-of-the-week appear in The Jerusalem Post, as well as in over 30 Anglo-Jewish newspapers worldwide.

    Rabbi Riskin received his rabbinical ordination from his mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, at Yeshiva University, and his Ph.D. from New York University. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Rabbi Riskin serves as the Chief Rabbi of Efrat, where he resides with his extended family, traveling frequently around the world for speaking engagements.


    volume II in the Torah Lights series
    published by Ohr Torah Stone
    2006, hardcover, 320 pages
    ISBN 965-7108-87-X


    Praise for Torah Lights:

    Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is one of the leading rabbis in Israel. He is the Chief Rabbi of Efrat and Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs. The institutions he runs include a broad network of high schools, university programs, a major Rabbinical Seminary, and a center for training women as Torah leaders. He is a widely respected spokesman for the State of Israel and for modern traditional Judaism. I have been reading his columns, and have heard him speak numerous times over the years. He is steeped in the tradition, extremely intelligent, very charismatic, and above and beyond all of the above, he is a mensch and a person who lives what he teaches.

    This book is a great gift to his many students -- people who have met him, and others who know him only from his writings. The book on Genesis brings together his best columns from The Jerusalem Post and his syndicated columns, so that the diligent student of Parashat HaShavua will have one place to find vintage Riskin in one volume for every week of the first Book of the Torah. (One hopes there will be four more volumes to complete the cycle). There are many scholars who have Rabbi Riskin's deep learning, but few who combine that with his modern openness to new ideas, who involve women in a respectful and progressive way -- which will help Orthodoxy find creative ways to make 21st century Judaism more egalitarian, and some day possibly lead even to ordination of women (my interpretation -- not Rabbi Riskin's). Many in our day have a dim view of fundamentalism and orthodoxies of all kinds, which is the bane of the new century. It is so important in Jewish life to have an Orthodox rabbi who represents authentic scholarship, traditional values, and an openness to the modern world. Rabbi Riskin reflects the best of Jewish tradition in both traditional and humanistic ways. His book on Bereshit reflects this rare combination.
    -Dov Peretz Elkins, Jewish Media Review


    Contemporary Torah commentaries in English are ubiquitous. They are available to reflect every Jewish denomination and to accommodate every religious or secular sensibility. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi (and architect) of Efrat is a master teacher and preacher. He speaks and writes with a modem cadence that reflects very traditional Jewish values. He applies classical and modem interpretations to contemporary issues affecting sentient Jews from all backgrounds. Torah Lights is really a mistranslation of the Hebrew title of this volume. It should be Torah Light-Ohr Torah. Not only is Ohr Torah the name of his network of educational institutions and programs, but Rabbi Riskin truly sheds Torah light on a wide range of topics.

    Most such books contain one essay on each parsha or weekly Torah portion. In Torah Lights, Rabbi Riskin follows the style of one of his teachers, the late Nechama Leibowitz, by including an average of six essays on each weekly portion in Genesis. Again, like his teacher whose works appeared piecemeal and then were collected in five volumes, this is only Volume One. We may expect volumes two through five to appear in short order.

    For a number of years Pinchas Peli contributed a Column on the Torah reading of the week for The Jerusalem Post (See Jewish Book World, Spring 5764/2005, p. 40 for a review of Torah Today, Peli's collection of essays from The Jerusalem Post). Rabbi Riskin has been writing this column, which is also syndicated in 30 other Anglo-Jewish newspapers world-wide, for the past many years. This collection is from those weekly essays. He writes in a breezy style which makes a point but is never pedantic. He often illustrates his thesis with a Hasidic story or an episode from his personal history. It is pleasant, informative, concise, and well-structured.

    Granted that Genesis frames the history of our first families, the subtitle Genesis Confronts Life, Love and Family is too modest. Riskin deals with broad societal issues, theology, history, science, sociology, psychology, messianism, etc. These are mini-sermons meant to stimulate thought and reflection couched in a bite-sized format. The late Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, dean of American Jewish preachers in the mid 20th century, once observed that a good sermon can be summarized in one sentence. These essays carry one thought and are weIl developed.

    Rabbi Riskin has shed Torah lights on a myriad range of topics, and we eagerly anticipate the following volumes in this series for those who may not have initially seen them in the pages of their local Jewish paper.
    -Wallace Greene, Jewish Book World


    You Are What You Know
    In two new works, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin teaches Torah and writes about strengthening family

    The home, writes Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the well-known scholar, teacher, leader and institution-builder in the introduction to his new book Around the Family Table,is "an important -- perhaps the most important -- element in handing over our tradition from generation to generation."

    "In large measure, Dr. Riskin continues, ...my own family ... was formed and shaped, and continued to be directed and inspired, by our family Shabbat and Festival meals.

    "It would not be an exaggeration to say that over the last forty years, thousands of individuals have shared these Shabbat and Festival meals with our family and have likewise discovered meaning and inspiration through their participation."

    Thousands indeed -- and I am forever grateful that I was privileged to be among that multitude.

    I was in my second year at Yeshiva College in New York, an Orthodox institution for men, during the 1965-66 academic year. For an hour a day, four days a week for two semesters, I attended Rabbi Riskin's Talmud class in the Jewish Studies Program, devoted that year to the fourth chapter in the Tractate Gittin.

    Only a few years earlier, at the age of 23, Rabbi Riskin had become a newly minted rabbi, a husband, and -- in a daring move for an Orthodox rabbi -- the head of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, then a Conservative institution.

    Many of us in the class did not know that our teacher was an outstanding student of J. B. Soloveitchik ("The Rav" was the intellectual inspiration for a "modern Orthodox" revival in America). Some also did not know that the Lincoln Square Synagogue was a closely-watched Petri dish -- an experiment in the injection of a muscular Orthodoxy into an unwelcoming secular and anti-traditionalist environment.

    Yet while the details of his background may have eluded us, we were all familiar with our young teacher's moniker, "Stevie Wonder". The nickname, we discovered, was as much an acknowledgement of the extraordinary early achievements of this Wunderkind as it was a playful reference to his animated speaking style, which conjured up the lively body movements of the popular singer and song writer.

    Our teacher was, indeed, dynamic, engaging and charismatic. Gesturing and emotionally enunciating each word as he taught, he spoke as if he held a topic in his hands and was trying to find the best way to pass it to us (my friend George Kornfeld, who sat in the first row of our class, reminds me that occasionally Rabbi Riskin would become so involved in discussing a topic that he would be oblivious to the fact that he had placed his hand on George's gemara and stepped on his foot!).

    In the classroom, Rabbi Riskin was master and commander. His thorough familiarity with the material went beyond book learning; he was transmitting a living heritage to his students. Yet his vast knowledge of Jewish and secular subjects was never an impediment as he searched, with his students, for insight and understanding. In those instances in which he was at a loss for an answer, his response was to write down the question and, the next day, to report to the class about the answer which he had found.

    Never distant but always accessible, his command of the classroom earned our love and respect -- for him and for the material. Looking recently at my classroom notes from four decades ago, I am struck by the fact that it is (untypically for me) all business -- the margins contain no doodles or meandering notes.

    He cared about his students, personally as well as intellectually. He addressed each of us directly and by our Hebrew name. So familiar did he make himself with our strengths and weaknesses that a student's facial expression would not infrequently prompt him to call out to discover what it was which appeared bothersome about the material.

    As a way to enhance that acquaintance with each of his talmidim (students) -- there were about 15 of us in my section -- week by week Rabbi Riskin invited us (entirely on his own initiative) in pairs or in groups to stay with his family for Shabbat or Yom Tov.

    For each of us, it was an anticipated event: he made us feel special. We knew this was a privilege, and as we grew older we realized it was unlike anything else we would ever again encounter. During those visits, we observed our teacher in his family setting as husband and father, and as the inspiring leader of his synagogue.

    In these ways -- as master, commander, and caring teacher -- Rabbi Riskin was a polestar for us, an example of how a Jew ought to conduct his life.

    Rabbi Riskin's demeanor in the classroom, and his interaction with us, were memorable. So was his pedagogical technique in studying Talmud. It was characterized by four interconnected aspects. The foundation was a technical understanding of the material, not as an end in itself but as a means to an end.

    Mastering a text in Aramaic and Hebrew only mattered if we drilled down to the foundation level to extract the core substance. It was when we were close to, or grasped, that core, and thereby became able to grapple with the essence of an issue, that we could make it our own. The second aspect was related to the first. While drilling in search of the core substance naturally required a methodical approach, it also had to be undertaken fearlessly.

    The assumption was that students learn best by questioning, and the most important questions did not come from the lectern. Rabbi Riskin believed that there was no such thing as a question which was too outrageous, a thought which was too suspect, or an inquiry which was too "out of the box".

    The best learners were the best questioners; the best questioners were the ones who asked until they were satisfied with the answer, or with a work-in-progress response. A third aspect underlay the motivation for pursuing the other two: instruction which is valuable is instruction which is shown to be significant. That is not to say that young unmarried men, most of whom were under 20, found any immediate relevance to studying Jewish divorce law as presented in the Tractate Gittin. No. The point was that we needed to be shown that what we were learning was important to us because Judaism had priceless lessons to teach us.

    In those tumultuous, rebellious 1960s, when the basics were doubted, old patterns discarded, and self-gratification and material needs emphasized, Rabbi Riskin appealed to us: Seek out Judaism's teachings!

    The German philosopher Feuerbach had famously stated his belief in materialism: "Der Mensch ist was er isst" ("Man is what he eats"). Shoving that dictum aside, our teacher responded: "Essentially, you are what you know, and what you believe in."

    Finally, interwoven into his approach to students was an outlook which has largely disappeared from today's Orthodox world. In Rabbi Riskin's world, doors and windows were open. Lights shined. Although saying "yes" when it comes to matters of Jewish conduct is frequently more difficult than saying "no", accommodation -- where possible -- trumped rejection. And why not? If you understand an issue at its core, if you constantly test and question, if you are convinced of the eternal relevance of Jewish teachings, then why not be outward looking and welcoming, interacting with all who seek the path ahead?

    It is fortunate that two new books by Rabbi Riskin offer readers an opportunity to sample the instruction which I encountered as an undergraduate. Around the Family Table: A Comprehensive Bencher and Companion for Shabbat and Festival Meals and other Family Occasions (New York: Lambda Publishers, 216 pp., 2005, $19.95 or $9.95 pb) is a novel creation from a teacher who cared for his student "family" and from a pulpit rabbi, husband and grandfather who cares about the Jewish family and its future.

    "I am convinced," writes Rabbi Riskin, "that the family ritual is a far more authentic and significant expression of Judaism than is any synagogue service." Yet today, as we know, the family is under stress from many directions, and family members are hardpressed to eat a meal as a unit, much less be engaged in "table talk" (hence the Hebrew title, si'ah shulhan). The purpose of the book is thus to strengthen family by, firstly, reminding us of the importance of home life interaction (especially for those with young children), and additionally to provide a family with an educational tool to use during family gatherings -- both Jewish holidays and notable life cycle events.

    It consists of standard Hebrew prayers with accompanying translation, and Rabbi Riskin's brief notes and comments.

    Many readers will be able to anticipate the contents of Torah Lights. Volume I: Genesis confronts life, love and family (New York: Lambda Publishers, 309 pp., 2005, $27.95), the first of a five volume commentary on the Chumash, scheduled to be completed next year. The New York-born Riskin, who made aliyah in 1983, has been producing a weekly commentary on the Torah for North American Jewish newspapers since 1985. When Pinchas Peli died in 1989, he succeeded him as "Tora Today" columnist for the Jerusalem Post. At that time he became the third of the outstanding Torah commentators from Israel in our day who reached out to a popular audience -- following the gifted teacher Nehama Leibowitz (1905-97) and Rabbi Peli's marvelous midrashic style reading of the Torah.

    Rabbi Riskin's columns -- a sampling of which form the basis for this book -- are a worthy example of his teaching style. In exploring troublesome questions in, or significant issues arising from, a parsha, they offer an insight into the ways in which Torah speaks to us today.

    A bedrock axiom of this commentary is found in the dustcover illustration (the artist is unnamed). It depicts Jacob's dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder rooted on earth and reaching to the heavens ( Torah Lights,chap. 38). "If Judaism and Torah have any message at all to convey to the world," the author writes, "it is the possibility of bringing together the Divine and human, the spiritual and the material." "The angels ascend the ladder in order to ultimately descend," Rabbi Riskin explains, "and to bring with them a sanctity which can and must infuse the kitchen and the bedroom, the market-place and the wheat field, the Prayer House and the sporting fields."

    As the book's subtitle indicates, a theme of this Bible commentary is family. The treatment of this topic, while not systematic, is nonetheless beautiful, wise, and nuanced. Through the medium of his commentary, Rabbi Riskin has special words of advice for fathers and their sons, and for grandparents and their grandchildren. To parents, he emphasizes the importance of "allow[ing] our children to fulfill their own potential and our challenge... to learn to respect their individual choices".

    Within that context he talks -- realistically and respectfully -- of the significance of Israel and aliyah. I have emphasized the continuity of the teaching of Rabbi Riskin over the years, but in two areas his writing takes a new direction. Although deeply involved in the Soviet Jewry movement from the 1960s, and familiar with issues of the day, as our Talmud instructor Rabbi Riskin eschewed publicly voicing an opinion on controversial issues (unlike another of my Yeshiva College instructors from those days, Rabbi Irving Greenberg).

    Over the years in his Torah columns, and now in Torah Lights, however, he quite correctly measures today's headlines against Torah teachings. This is particularly notable in the present volume in his comments on Islam ("Our Torah is the very antithesis of Islamic fundamentalism, preaching peace and unity rather than war and uniformity") and his view on Arab-Israeli reconciliation. A second innovation consists of the many fascinating anecdotes which Rabbi Riskin relates from his personal experience. At Yeshiva, he rarely spoke to us about his personal life. But thankfully he now permeates his lessons with a number of instructive and marvelous anecdotes in both of these new books.

    Once, during a visit to New York in the early 1970s, I went to Lincoln Square Synagogue. Having arrived a bit early for my appointment with Rabbi Riskin, I was wandering in the hallway when a man asked if he could help me. "I'm here to see Rabbi Riskin," I announced. And in order to impress upon my questioner that I was not simply any visitor but one with a proprietary claim on the man's attention , I added: "I was a student of his." "We're all his students," came the reply, at once deflating my prideful remark and reminding me of how my teacher's reach had so greatly expanded.

    I must admit that in the case of Rabbi Riskin, the words on paper do not fully capture his dynamic personality, the intellectual and emotional excitement of being in his presence, and his warmth and humanity. Yet the words do a good job. And so the beauty of these two books is that they allow those who never personally encountered him to glimpse the teaching of one of our generation's foremost Jewish teachers, scholars and leaders. I applaud the reader who comes seeking Torah from this extraordinary man and gifted communicator. Sitting in Rabbi Riskin's virtual classroom, they, too, will be able to count themselves among a new generation of his students.
    -Douglas Wertheimer, Chicago Jewish Star Magazine


    Bridge over troubled Jews

    Very few texts are as foundational to any nation as the book of Genesis is to the Jews.

    The book begins with the most universal themes of creation, sin and punishment, then proceeds to tell the saga of the Jewish nation's Patriarchs, from Abraham's liberating journey to the Promised Land to his descendants' enslaving departure to Egypt. In the interim, the tales of friction between Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers, all read to Jews in general, and Israelis in particular, as if written here, now and about us.

    And if this is so even for those who were not raised on these stories, it is obviously even more so for that majority of Israelis who indeed were told as infants about the snake, the flood and the Tower of Babel, the binding of Isaac, the rape of Dina and the selling of Joseph. Indeed, the stories of Genesis have for millennia been a dominant presence in Jewish childhoods, and as such played a constant role in shaping adult Jews' outlooks, metaphors and associations, as well as their interpretations of daily events, whether personal, communal, national or universal.

    Shlomo Riskin - chief rabbi of Efrat and before that of Manhattan's Lincoln Square Synagogue - is no exception in this regard. As he recalls charmingly in the opening pages of Torah Lights: Genesis Confronts Life, Love and Family, his acquaintance with Genesis came during the Friday nights he spent in his grandmother Haya Bayla's home in Brooklyn. A heavily accented Polish immigrant who would not take any criticism of the "savior of the Jewish people, Franklin Delano Rosenfeld," she taught the future rabbi, through Genesis, what some would define as Judaism 101, namely anything and everything from the basics of courtship to her theologically novel concept of "divine disappointment."

    In sharing these roots with us early on, Riskin displays his trademark ability to communicate what is dear to him by touching what is dear to his audience. In his exegesis, the rabbi, who during his decades here has painstakingly built a reputation as a bridge builder - between Israel and the Diaspora, Orthodoxy and modernity, Greater Israel and land for peace, and when possible also between Arab and Jew - tenderly transmits a quest for harmony in a world that so often seems hopelessly disharmonious.

    In his discussion of Eve's creation as a solution to Adam's loneliness, for instance, Riskin says that just like humanity is tasked with overcoming sin, it is also demanded to overcome spousal control. Being the kind of rabbi that is common in America but all too rare in Israel - the one who dutifully acts not just as an impartial jurist but also as an involved social worker - Riskin unabashedly presents himself here as a sometime marriage counselor, a capacity in which he is "never put off when one partner screams at the other." Surely, he writes, shouting is far from recommended, but silence signals the much more dangerous condition of non-communication.

    Indeed, Riskin, and this entire generation's experiences and anxieties are reflected throughout the book. The Flood reminds him of fascism, whose godlessness led to the rise of "demi-gods" who were reminiscent of the Aryan ubermenschen who believed they were predestined to rule mankind. The Tower of Babel reminds him of today's Islamist fundamentalism, which seeks to violently impose one faith on all people and whose symbol is the ziggurat, a protruding structure whose construction - according to the Sages - was more important to its builders than the lives it took.

    ON A somewhat lighter note, Riskin's delightfully associative writing leads from Jacob's choices prior to leaving Laban's home, to a very contemporary - and intimately familiar - description of what is at stake: "a good job, a good income, a nice house, even respect from the local council."

    Here, Riskin's Sisyphean search for harmony leads him to conclude that if tempted to follow Laban rather than Jacob's lead, the Jewish people would be "sitting happily with our paychecks," but at the same time replacing ladders that could connect between heaven and earth with ones that lead "to the world of Wall Street and investment, cattle and livestock."

    Still, in a book that nonchalantly waltzes between discussions of contemporary themes like terrorism, vegetarianism and the art of negotiation, none seems as pertinent to Riskin as brotherly strife.

    After having endured the tragic relationships of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau and Joseph's betrayal by the brothers, Riskin's arrival at the tearful encounter between Joseph and Benjamin feels almost like a desert hiker's long-overdue sight of an oasis.

    "We can feel assured that Joseph drew Benjamin close to him, protected him, and shared with him the precious memories of the mother Benjamin never knew," writes Riskin, as he constructs the kind of rich detail of which Genesis is so famously devoid.

    Citing Rashi's view, that the two were crying over the future destruction of God's sanctuaries in the biblical fiefdoms of Benjamin and Ephraim, Riskin says the two major sins in Genesis are Adam and Eve's rebellion against God and the brothers' betrayal of Joseph. Of the two, it is the latter that is worse, for it was the historic "fountain of causeless hatred between Jews."

    Benjamin and Joseph's love was the antithesis of that blind hatred, having endured both the hatred of the other 10 brothers and the test of time. Still, during his 22 years in Egypt, including those following his rise to prominence, Joseph preferred to forget his family, until the tearful encounter which made him understand that "to deny his family would be to deny himself."

    Today, too, many warring Jews have yet to understand both the futility and immorality of their conduct. Reading Rabbi Riskin may help them understand.
    -Amotz Asa-El
    Jerusalem Post