This is a guest post by Phil Goldman, a former stand-up, current attorney, and closet Torah scholar. Stay tuned for a new post in the Random Walk with Rashi series every Thursday morning.*
It’s not every day that you can say you did a Mitzvah just by reading an article online, but with this new weekly series debuting today on TC Jewfolk, you can.
I’m part of a Torah study group, led by the Rabbis of Mount Zion Temple, that has been meeting weekly in downtown Minneapolis for over 15 years. Our particular approach has been to study, on average, a single verse per week, and to do so guided by the commentary of RAbbi SHlomo Itzhaki – better known by the acronym Rashi. As you might expect, at this rate we’re barely into Genesis (20:14, in fact), having just left Sodom and just before the birth of Isaac (though we have inklings it is near). To be precise, Abraham has just offered his wife Sarah to the king of Gerar, for reasons even he may not know, but trust me, we can explain.
Over the past few years, I’ve been preparing a summary of most sessions, which have been sent out to the group via email, as a way of providing at least a bit of continuity between the sessions, and permitting those who cannot attend in person to at least peek in from afar.
This new weekly series on TC Jewfolk will be an evolution of those summaries, in an attempt to even more broadly disseminate those thoughts.
One key goal of our group is to simply fulfill the mitzvah, or commandment, that we study Torah. The Talmud and our Rabbis tell us that study is best done in pairs or groups, if even from afar. Most of us, though, have few if any opportunities to fulfill this fundamental commandment. While by no means perfect, if you can read this, our theory goes, you’re studying Torah.
The result tends to be a random walk through Torah, through the lens of Rashi, while taking off on whatever tangents or directions the group may go. And ours is an eclectic group indeed, that includes a lawyer, a psychologist, a retired lawyer, an IT specialist, a non-practicing lawyer (this is a largely Jewish group, after all – that’s about as eclectic as we get), and others.
In this sense, we are able to weave in not only the wisdom of our Rabbi with the thoughts of attendees, but also after the fact research, including the thoughts of an array of commentators and other texts. All in the interest of connecting dots that have likely never been connected before, and probably for good reason, may never be again. But even then, they form but a small part of the continuum, a discussion that continues on, from the original parchment to today’s pixels.
Our approach may not be one you are used to – covering only a single verse per week. It is like other situations where you might be provided with a choice, as between seeing and studying something in its entirety, on the one hand, or honing in to study its individual molecules or parts, on the other. A little like being in a dark room, and trying to take in the entire image in the burst of a flash bulb, or instead, taking the time to slowly scan the room with the beam of a small flashlight. Neither is better or more correct than the other, but they are certainly different, and they both have their place. And both can be all about perception.
As if that’s not enough, we often focus on a phrase, or word, or at times even a single letter or punctuation mark (or lack thereof) for a week or more at a time. In turn, we are clearly not in sync with the weekly parshat (Torah portion), though like a broken clock that is exactly correct twice a day, we can tend to feel like the resident experts once a year, when the congregation has lapped us yet again, and our verse and the congregration’s parshat do happen to coincide.
The result can be disconcerting, though, when the congregation reads through a Torah portion of several pages in length, focusing on other, big picture messages, while skipping right through a handful of verses that we have spent weeks unraveling. At times things can feel a bit like a Rod Serling script, with the lead character shouting “whoa, people, wait a second, do you realize what Abimelech just said? There was no vov in that word! Can’t you all see that, what’s the matter with everyone?” Grabbing their elbows as they walk zombie-like by.
Yet we resist the temptation to read ahead. With my mind currently focused on Abraham and Sarah in Gerar, I often wonder what will become of them and their motley crew. I’ve got to admit I have a pretty good guess that they somehow prevail, since today we begin our prayers with G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, rather than G-d of Solly, Sherwin, and Jered – or in the Women’s Commentary – G-d of Sylvia, Bonnie, and Emily.
Our approach seems all the more useful when we get to the point where we can not only understand the comments of others that have gone before us, or those of present day commentators, but actually begin to challenge them as well. The more we understand a particular verse, its seems – the more apparent it becomes that these others are often no wiser or more insightful than our small little group – but instead, just another voice or opinion. As if picking up in the midst of a conversation that was begun a 1000 or more years ago, and we hope will still be going on a 1000 years from now.
One key benefit is that our approach permits us to study Torah based upon, and beginning with, its original Hebrew (or actually Aramaic). It can be amazing to realize just how different even an objective translation can be, incorporating the inherent biases and assumptions of the translator and times. Quite often, we can find insight in simply comparing the manner in which various texts have tended to translate the very same original verse.
Though we are in the midst of nowhere, at Genesis 20:14, this week is as good a place as any for you to join in.
For these first two weeks of August, we will catch our collective breath, in order to have ourselves a veritable refresher course on Rashi – including who he is, and how he became an important focus of thought to this day, as well as his methodology, and in turn, ours.
Simply put (which you will learn is one way I have of glossing over several minutes of actual discussion), Rashi was very much the right person, in the right place and time.
With regard to place, he lived in France from 1040 to 1105 CE, at the transition between the world’s dark ages to its medieval times, and a time when the center of Jewish thought and learning was itself shifting, from Bagdad and surroundings in the east, to the west and Europe, and in particular to the area between current France and Germany, including Rashi’s own hometown of Troyes, France.
He lived just after the Talmud itself had been codified, providing the basis upon which Jews could now begin to collectively ground themselves in the text. Rashi’s commentary seems to have led that charge, becoming the first Hebrew commentary to Torah ever published, in essentially the form we still read it today.
We ended our discussion last week with readings from the small book “Rashi”, by Eli Wiesel, who eloquently summarizes the impact that Rashi had on Jews generally, and on his own life.
Our study group will pick up this discussion again this week, and we hope you can join us on our walk together.
*On occasion, our group will take a break from our weekly meeting whether for Jewish holidays or those pesky life cycle events. On those in-between weeks we may improvise a bit for this column. Stay tuned.