Reviews

Containing God’s Presence


The Heart of Torah, Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Genesis and Exodus

by Rabbi Shai Held, foreword by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

The Jewish Publication Society, 400 pp., $24.95

 

The Heart of Torah, Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy

by Rabbi Shai Held, foreword by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

The Jewish Publication Society, 496 pp., $24.95

Over the course of a year, the Jewish calendar bends to the arc of the Torah reading cycle and assumes its shades. With the end of summer and the start of the Jewish new year, the world is created anew in Genesis and nearly destroyed by flood in the story of Noah, a parsha (portion) which coincides with the start of the rainy season in Israel. As the autumn chill sets in and the nights grow longer, we follow the story of the patriarchs and matriarchs, who look up at the stars and journey through the desert guided by divine promise and by visions of God in the darkness of night. On the coldest and darkest days of the year, we read of Joseph’s descent into the pit, cast down by his jealous brothers, only to rise to prominence in Egypt as the winter days begin to grow longer and more hopeful. Wells and wombs give way to politics and persuasion, and sometime around the start of the secular new year we begin Exodus, the narrative of our deliverance from Egyptian bondage, as part of our spiritual preparation in the months before Passover. Then we immerse ourselves in the details of sacrificial worship as spring sets in, reading of sin and purification as the first flowers break through the softening soil. Just when it starts to get warmer after Passover we trek with the Israelites through the desert, and then, when it’s too hot to move forward anymore, we stop to hear Moses recount it all over again in Deuteronomy during the dog days of summer. 

The Torah reading cycle provides the structure not just for the Jewish year but also for countless volumes of commentary on the biblical text, including Rabbi Shai Held’s brilliant new two-volume collection The Heart of Torah, Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion. Held offers two discussions of each parsha, perhaps a reminder that there is never just one way to interpret Torah. He describes these discussions as essays rather than sermons, which is the more common rendering of the Hebrew term “drashot.” This is apt, since both “essays” and “drashot” have the sense of a search or attempt rather than the statement of a settled position; Held is deeply serious but never sermonic. Interestingly, Held notes that the meaning of the term “drash” evolves over the course of the Bible: In Genesis and Exodus, it is used to refer to seeking out God’s will, whereas in later books, such as Ezra, the object of this inquiry is not God but the Torah: “Instead of inquiring of God directly, people now seek guidance through studying God’s Torah.” This is essentially Held’s project, seeking guidance—especially moral instruction—by inquiring of the text in order to get at its heart. 

The “heart of Torah,” for Held, is chesed, which he translates as “love and kindness.” As he writes, “[w]hen all is said and done, religion is, in large part, about softening our hearts and learning to care.” Most of his essays begin with a close reading of the biblical text, which in turn leads him to a claim about God and then to an ethical message for his contemporary readers. In “People Have Names: The Torah’s Takedown of Totalitarianism,” he rejects the conventional interpretations of the Tower of Babel story: 

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About the Author

Ilana Kurshan is the author of If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir (St. Martin’s Press).

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