Torah Lights: Bemidbar
Trials and Tribulations in Times of Transition
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Maggid Books, 2012, 303 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - August 15, 2012
Highly respected modern Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the author of this book, is the chancellor of a network of educational programs that include high schools, university programs, a rabbinical seminary, and a center for training women as Torah leaders. He is the chief rabbi of the city of Efrat, Israel, and is responsible for turning the settlement Efrat into a large populated city with a thriving Yeshiva. He is the author of many books. Before coming to Israel, he built up the Lincoln Square Synagogue from a handful of families associated with the Conservative Movement to one of the most successful Orthodox synagogues in America.
He was inspired by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik to become what many call "the model of the congregational rabbi and Jewish leader." He follows the thinking of Rabbi Soloveitchik and Nachmanides and generally not that of Maimonides. Thus, for example, he considers the biblical episode of the donkey speaking to the pagan prophet Bileam a miracle, and not a parable or dream as Maimonides contended.
This volume on Bemidbar is the fourth of his series of biblical commentaries in which he comments upon the weekly Torah readings. He offers from five to eight short, incisive, thought-provoking commentaries on each of the ten biblical portions that are read in synagogues from the book of Numbers, Bemidbar in Hebrew, although some people call it Bamidbar. The essays are well-written and generally combine modern concerns with a traditional approach to the Bible. There are many references to current events and time-honored and long-established Bible commentaries. He stresses the relevance of the Torah, that it speaks to every generation. His writing ability can be seen in such clever titles as "Does God Speak to Us Today? And If So, Can It Be through the Mouth of a She Ass?" and "It Is the Attitude of the Dissenter Which Counts."
One essay, for example, notes that if God can communicate a truth through a she-ass, He can and does teach us in many ways, even through non-Jews, for the truth is the truth no matter what its source. The Talmudic sage Ben Zoma taught, "Who is wise? He who learns from every person." Rabbi Riskin concludes, "God-waves continue from Sinai (even today) and are consistently prepared to deliver the divine word – even from the most unseemly messenger. The question is: are we prepared to receive them?"
He compares the prophet Bileam with Moses, in another discussion. He notes that while Bileam intended to curse the Israelites, God caused him to compliment and bless the people. In contrast, Moses criticized the Israelites on many occasions. Which, Riskin asks, is the better approach?
In still another discussion, he analyses who influences who when Jews interact with non-Jews. He emphasizes that all people were created in God's image. He stresses that it is not words that are important, even words from God, that "will succeed in changing the minds of (those who hate Jews); rather, it is the deeds of the Israelites themselves which will evoke change."
Among interesting facts, he tells us that Adolf Hitler, who murdered Jews, brought a book of the Talmud to his bunker where he later committed suicide. This Talmudic tractate which he probably intended to besmirch survived, but he didn't. It was the volume Pesachim, dealing with the holiday of Passover that commemorates the freedom that the Israelites obtained from another oppressor.
In short, this is an informative, thought-provoking, interesting, and relevant Bible commentary by a leader of modern Orthodoxy.