Sunday, September 04, 2011

Echoes of Eden, Weaver of Webs

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book for review.

This article was originally published in "The Beltway Buzz."

Rabbi Ari Kahn is a consummate teacher. A graduate of RIETS, a student of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, director of Foreign Student Programs and senior lecturer in Jewish Studies at Bar-Ilan University, he has also delivered lectures at Matan, Aish HaTorah and at various venues in the community of Givat Ze’ev. He chose to commit his lectures and works to the printed word with the publication of his book on the weekly parsha, Explorations, and his work on Jewish holidays, Emanations. This summer he released a new offering, co-published by Gefen and OU Press. The work is entitled Echoes of Eden and is part of a projected five-part series with one book focusing on each of the Humashim.

The best way to describe Echoes of Eden is like a loom. Strung with colorful thread, the Lady of Shallot “weaves by night and day/ a magic web with colours gay.” And Rabbi Kahn does the same. Taking his sources from a variety of places, including but not limited to rabbinic, kabbalistic and Chasidic sources, Rabbi Kahn creates a shimmering, beautiful tapestry shot through with his incredible creativity. While he addresses conventional questions: Why did Noah send out the raven and then the dove? Why was Jacob given the name Israel but then the text continues to refer to him by both names? Why is it necessary to know that the sons bought shoes with the money they received for selling Joseph? – his answers are anything but ordinary.

Rabbi Kahn dissects the text, analyzing each word and noting parallels to various other verses. His is an exercise in parshanut, the study of interpretation. Echoes of Eden is filled with the fruits of literary techniques such as metaphor, parallel, symbolism and analogy. But what struck me the most in Rabbi Kahn’s rendering is his deep understanding of psychology when it comes to comprehending the characters in Genesis.

One such example occurs by the sale of Joseph by his brothers. Amos 2:6 mentions the selling of “the righteous one for silver, and the poor man for a pair of shoes.” Midrash Tanhuma to Vayeishev explains that the money from the sale of Joseph was used by the brothers to purchase shoes. Rabbi Kahn mentions that shoes are seen as significant in Judaism; when Moses approaches the burning bush he is told to take off his shoes, while when the Hebrews are told to prepare to leave Egypt, they must don their shoes. But there is one halakhic section of the Torah where shoes are particularly relevant, and this is when “a man refuses to marry his deceased brother’s childless wife” (Kahn 265). A central part of the ritual of halitzah, mentioned in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 involves the removal of a man’s shoe.

In a breathtaking connection, Rabbi Kahn refers to the episode of Judah, his sons and Tamar. Judah tells his son Onan to marry Tamar in order to “raise up seed to your brother” in Genesis 38:8. But Onan is not interested in doing this; instead he does not act properly with Tamar and does not create a child to continue his brother’s name. Rabbi Kahn sees this narrative as part and parcel of the former midrash. Tragically, Judah’s children “learned a lesson in fraternal relations and responsibilities from their father. They learned that their brother is not their concern; a pair of shoes is preferable to a brother” (Kahn 268). To Rabbi Kahn, it is not a coincidence that during the process of halitzah “the rejected widow is instructed to remove a shoe from the indifferent brother’s foot. When he fails to recognize his brother’s holiness and the sanctity of the family he is charged to preserve, his shoe is removed as a reminder of that holiness (as it was for Moshe) or as a symbol of his callousness (as when the brothers purchased shoes with ‘blood money’)” (Kahn 268).

The portion concerning Joseph and the wife of Potiphar has often been compared to that of Judah and Tamar. But this is the first time that I have ever seen anyone suggest that the outcome of a certain behavior (buying shoes with the money gained by selling Joseph) demonstrated an attitude that the children picked up on (that a pair of shoes is more important than a brother or continuing his legacy). This is a very clever and innovative understanding of the text, but more importantly, it is a psychological one. Although it seems clear that Judah did not mean to set a precedent with his actions regarding Joseph, his children learned from his behavior nonetheless.

Echoes of Eden is a fascinating, captivating work. It combines multiple threads of Torah tradition to create a multicolored royal cloth. Whether you purchase it to serve as a weekly Shabbat table companion or to read at once, it is sure to be a rewarding experience.