In-depth Reflections on the Parashah
By Rabbi Asher Brander
Mosaica Press, 2011, 651 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - November 20, 2011
Tradition states that Moses, to whom the Torah was revealed, instituted the practice that a parasha (portion) of it should be read publically each Sabbath, so that the entire Torah should be read to all Jews. The current practice is to divide the Five Books of Moses into 54 portions, taking leap years into account, and reading a portion each Sabbath in the synagogue, and completing the entire Torah reading every year. After Moses, Ezra, who lived and led the Jews in the fourth or fifth century BCE, extended to practice to read parts of it to even more days. Moses' and Ezra's goal was that the Torah should not be restricted to a privileged class. By presenting one or two essays on each of the 54 Torah portions, Rabbi Brander has further extended the knowledge and understanding of the Torah. He states that his purpose is to present "an all-encompassing analysis of" each parasha. A host of rabbis have congratulated his work. Rabbi Emanuel Feldman wrote, for instance, that the book "casts fresh light on many areas of Torah and Judaism that, over the years, many of us have taken for granted."
Rabbi Brander is not afraid of questioning the acts of the patriarchs (Why did Jacob violate the Torah law prohibiting the marriage of two sisters?) or the opinion of famous Bible commentators (Is Ramban's interpretation of Jacob's behavior reasonable?). He stresses the need to evaluate Torah events (When Joseph was reunited with his father Jacob, the Torah states "he wept." Who wept? Just one or both? Why?) He also analyses Midrashim (Why does a Midrash say that when Joseph and his father met after two decades, Jacob was reciting the Shema prayer, "Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one"? Why does another Midrash say that God punished trees for disobeying Him? Can inanimate trees disobey?)
In his first essay, for example, he analyzes the opening of the Torah, and using Hebrew words, notes a Midrash that states that Cain and Abel had a dispute "rooted in spirituality. They were arguing about whose land would be chosen for the Temple. Kayin (Cain) then kills Hevel (Abel). The Talmud records an incident where a kohen (priest) was so incensed at losing his chance to perform the avoda (service) that he killed the victor (who reached the altar first) – in the Temple itself! The obvious lesson: Even service to God can become egocentric. As the baalei mussar (teachers of ethics) teach, we must be wary of our sins – and even more of our mitzvos (good deeds)."
In his last essay, to cite another example, he discusses the opinion of Rashi (1040-1105) that Moses had four accomplishments: He took the Israelites out of Egypt, received the divine revelation, participated in miracles, and "his heart rose up to shatter the Tablets" of the Ten Commandments. Rabbi Brander sees Rashi's list as ascending in importance, with the breaking of the two tablets being Moses' greatest achievement, because he did so when he had no idea that God would replace them. This was "an act so full of challenge that it threatened to undo his life work and dash his dreams." Rabbi Brander reads a lesson into this. "Sometimes, life thrusts at us excruciatingly painful decisions – choices that pit expediency against eternity…. Truth can be extraordinarily painful and often requires enormous personal courage." We need to learn what the truth is and choose it over what is convenient, easy, and widely acceptable.
Besides Midrash and the views of the classical commentators, Rabbi Brander includes mystical thoughts and explains customs. In his discussion on the tabernacle in the portion of Terumah, he tells us about "an interesting and common custom that the table crumbs are not be removed (from the table) before we bench (say the grace after the meal)." This custom is mentioned in the mystical book Zohar, which explains: "in order that the blessing from above should rest upon it." The Zohar is presumably saying that leaving the bread crumbs on the table miraculously assures that there will be food on the table in the future.
These are just some of the dozens of teachings, explanations, challenges, and comments that the rabbi gives his readers in this volume.