Torah Lights - A Biblical Commentary
Bereshit: Confronting Life, Love and Family
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Maggid Books, 2009, 339 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 24, 2011
The charismatic Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is responsible for turning the Israeli settlement Efrat into a largely populated city with a Yeshiva. He and his wife are descendants of secular, non-religious Jews. He was inspired by his grandmother and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik to become religious and 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. Before coming to Israel, Rabbi Riskin 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. Today, he is the Chief Rabbi of Efrat and the Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone College and Graduate Programs in Israel.
Rabbi Riskin offers from three to seven short incisive thought-provoking commentaries on each of the twelve biblical portions that are read in synagogues from the book of Genesis, called Bereshit in Hebrew. The essays generally combine a relevant and traditional approach to the Bible with many references to current events and time-honored and long-established Bible commentaries. He stresses that the Torah speaks to every generation.
In his first discussion, for example, he writes that the first chapter of the Torah teaches that God created the world, and since we owe our existence to the creator, we should expect that God expects something from His creations. The Torah gives God's instruction. He mentions Nachmanides' view that just as Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden after eating the forbidden fruit, anyone who disobeys God will suffer alienation and exile.
He discusses why people suffer in another essay and writes that: "The price we must pay for the divine compassion and human freedom of choice is the phenomenon of the innocent who suffer." He writes that "God created an imperfect and sometimes unjust world to allow the possibility of change and growth." (Maimonides felt that the world is good and people suffer evil when they bring it upon themselves, others inflict them, or what is good for the world as a whole, such as a heavy rain, destroys the home of an individual.)
He considers "the most fundamental commandment of the Torah, the commandment to emulate the divine: 'And you shall walk in His way' (Deuteronomy 28:9), and he explains how this is done. He cites Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch who refers to the story in the Garden of Eden and who said that "the first commandment in the Torah is a kashrut commandment, a command concerning forbidden food." He offers his opinion that God prefers that people be vegetarians, as they were before the flood in the days of Noah, but God allowed people to eat animal meat as a concession to the human lust for meat. He says that sages have written that there will be no animal sacrifices in the future third Temple. He writes that: "There is a beautiful custom to cover the challah knife (during part of the Sabbath meal) in order to highlight our revulsion for an implement that could be used to kill and destroy."
He addresses questions such as were Dina's brothers Shimon and Levi terrorists when they killed not only Shekhem who raped their sister Dina, but all the inhabitants of this ruler's city? Why didn't Joseph, who is extolled as a pious man, contact his father during the twenty-two years he was in Egypt; his father was grieving and was not that far away? He speaks about the widely-held notion that there is an evil eye that can control people and which must be avoided by spitting or saying the magic words kinenahora. He talks about the limits of science: are there any limits? His book sometimes reflects his sense of humor, as seen in the section called, "Abraham is the Rabbi because Sarah is the Rebbitzen."
In short, Rabbi Riskin covers a host of interesting subjects in this volume. Readers may not agree with everything he says or suggests, but they will find that he opens their minds to new ideas and does it well.