Derashot Ledorot: Genesis
A Commentary for the Ages: Genesis
By Rabbi Norman Lamm
Maggid Books, YU Press, OU Press, 2012, 267 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - December 19, 2012
This book of sermons, lectures, and speeches by the major American Modern Orthodox rabbi and scholar, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm (born 1927) was published by three prestigious presses showing how the Modern Orthodox Jewish community holds this rabbi in esteem. Rabbi Lamm was the President of Yeshiva University for nearly thirty years. The talks were delivered between the years 1952 and 1976 and are poignantly relevant today. They focus on the twelve portions of the first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, with three essays for each portion.
Rabbi Lamm's style is homiletical: he builds on one or more verses in each portion and develops it into a moral lesson. He sweetens his talks with stories and quotes from Jewish and non-Jewish sources. For example, in the first essay on the portion Hayyei Sara, he begins by quoting Genesis 23:1, "These are the years of the life of Sara" the wife of Abraham, continues with the view of the commentator Rashi's description of the matriarch that despite many difficulties, all of her years were good. He then speaks about the need to live a life that is unperturbed. During his discussion, he mentions the views of the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash Genesis Raba, Rabbeinu Tam, Maimonides, and a Hasidic teacher.
In the second essay on Hayyei Sara, he speaks about the sacredness of words, how we must be careful what we say. He touches upon the Ten Commandments, which in Hebrew are called the Ten Words; the view of the Aramaic Bible translation Onkelos that God gave humans a uniqueness, intellect and the ability to speak; Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, "Life and language are alike sacred…homicide and verbicide are alike forbidden"; the view of Baal haTurim that the biblical Hebrew word livkota, that Abraham "wept" for the death of his wife, has a small letter kaf to teach that one should not speak too much; and several other interesting views.
In the third lectures, to cite a final example of the rabbi's thought provoking essays, he focuses on frankness being both a vice and a virtue. It may surprise readers to read that great Jewish sages criticized the matriarch Rebecca, the wife of Isaac, for being too gentle and unable to speak openly with her husband resulting in a ruined domestic life that continued after her death. Yet, on the other hand, being open is sometimes improper. The Talmudic rabbis listed instances where it is proper to lie. Rabbi Lamm quotes a whimsical poet who wrote, "of all plagues, good Heaven, Thy wrath can send, save, save, O save me from the Candid Friend." These examples should show that Rabbi Lamm is justly praised for his lectures. They are informative, eye-opening, and enjoyable.