Torah Lights - A Biblical Commentary
Shemot: Defining a Nation
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Maggid Books, 2009, 370 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 24, 2011
This is the second of so-far three volumes in which Rabbi Shlomo Riskin offers his views on the Torah. Readers may want to look at my review of his first volume, on Bereshit, to find out about Rabbi Riskin and his accomplishments. In this second volume, he offers from six to nine short incisive thought-provoking commentaries on each of the ten biblical portions that are read in synagogues from the book of Exodus, called Shemot 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 offers incisive answers to many interesting questions.
He points out in his introduction that Maimonides felt that the first book of the Bible, Genesis, is Scripture's most important volume because it teaches that humans are created in the divine image, meaning that they have intelligence, and it urges people to use their intelligence. Maimonides also read into Genesis that every person, no matter what his or her religion, is a creation of God and must be respected and treated properly. However Rabbi Riskin prefers the view of the poet Yehuda HaLevi who felt that the most important book is Exodus because it speaks of the story of the birth of Israel.
Rabbi Riskin discusses many subjects. For example, in his first essay, he points out how important women are in Judaism. They hold the family together and help Judaism survive. Pharaoh made a strategic mistake when he told two women to kill all the Israelite males; he would have been more successful in exterminating the Israelites if had he tried to kill the females. Also, tradition states that the two women to whom he assigned this murder were Israelites, and they didn't carry out his instructions.
In another discussion, he tells why God appeared to Moses in a non-extinguished fire in a thorn bush. What do the burning fire and lowly thorn bush signify? Do they have meaning for us today? Does every rabbi agree what these items mean? Do they tell us something about God or how people relate to God?
Rabbi Riskin explores a host of other subjects, such as the following: What do the various names of God signify? Are they actually God's names, or are they relating something about how God acts? Why was Moses reluctant to accept God's mission? Can a prophet refuse to do what God commands? Who really hardened Pharaoh's heart? Did God make him do something bad? When should a person pray and when act instead? What do we mean by the concept of a chosen people? Who is a Jew? What is more important, the people or God? What is the Jewish view of abortion? What were the cherubs placed on the ark? May Jews count people? How should we handle the uncertainties of life?
Thus, as we can see, Rabbi Riskin covers many interesting subjects, and he does it well.