Creativity Restored: the Mesoras HaRav Chumash
R. Yisroel Salanter, it is said, decried the fact that derush had turned the corpus of Chazal from an instructional form into a plaything for rhetoricians. Every rov found pesukim and midrashim to be infinitely pliable, capable of taking whatever shape he wanted. They became springboards ready to launch any thought that met his fancy. But if Torah texts could mean anything, R. Yisroel lamented, then they effectively meant nothing. If you didn’t like what a rov said about some passage, just saunter down the street and a different rov would likely assure you that the words meant the polar opposite. Whatever lesson – or lessons – HKBH and Chazal had in mind when they wrote what they did were lost to the surrounding static.
Perhaps the conservatism, the cautiousness we observe in new works on Chumash and Chazal are part of a corrective to R. Yisroel’s observation. Perhaps people reasoned that it was more important to showcase the words of the Sages themselves than their own verbal pyrotechnics. Maybe that is why we see lots of works citing lots of other, earlier works, but not very much genuine creativity.
Or so it seems. While studying Netziv, or R Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, or Meshech Chochmah, or Rav Kook, or Pachad Yitzchok can regularly elicit gasps of wonderment, more recent works don’t seem to work the same way. They enlighten, they inspire – and those are wonderful blessings. But we don’t see too much that “wows” us for its unexpected conclusion.
If you are nodding your head in agreement and regret, you will likely appreciate the newly-released Mesoras HaRav Chumash on Shemos, which will slake your thirst for the creative deep insight. R. Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik zt”l was a Brisker, which means that he was slow to release his words to the publisher. In the decades since his passing, a much larger body of his work has emerged than was available during his lifetime. Some of it comes directly from his pen; some from the notes of talmidim. Much of this literature is in the form of an address here and a lecture there. The average reader can’t find what he/she may be looking for on a particular topic, because it just isn’t organized that way.
A number of years ago, loyal talmidim began to organize the treasure trove to make it more accessible. Machzorim for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offered R. Soloveitchik’s thought as it addressed not only the text, but the issue around the text. What I took away from those works in the last few years not only made sense out of what I had never understood about sections of the machzor, but contributed insights that animate my davening the rest of the year.
Dr. Arnold Lustiger gets the credit for those works, and we are fortunate that he wouldn’t think of resting on his laurels. His next project was a chumash, and the second volume has just been released. I had time only to look at parts of it close to where we are in the yearly cycle, but will assume that what I saw was representative of the work as a whole.
R. Soloveitchik addressed a wide range of audiences – and housed various conflicting interests and leanings within his own personality, sometimes without resolving the tension between them. The citations in Mesoras HaRav are not cut of the same cloth. There are shorter pieces, and longer ones. Some are in the classic style of question-and-answer about anomalies in the text; others are biurim of a particular halachic position of the Rambam. Some are brief distillations of a take-away from an entire episode; others offer penetrating insights using the vocabulary of the philosophy student. Readers will find some profound and others less so, but aware that they all come from the colorful palette R. Soloveitchik held in his hand, applying the right colors and textures to the right place on the canvas.
In the style of conventional textual commentary, R. Soloveitchik points out that the two tablets of the Ten Commandments are twice called luchos ha-even (singular), and once luchos avanim (plural). Why? Because the luchos represent the Torah in its entirety. A Torah scroll is always made of separate sections that become one only when sewn together. The luchos are called luchos avanim before they are brought up to Sinai for inscription. Once the Dibros were written upon them, they achieved unity like a sewn-together sefer Torah, and are called luchos ha-even.
Inching out a bit further to the explanatory, R. Soloveitchik asks why donating tzedakah is mandatory and court-enforceable, but donating to the Mishkan was entirely volitional. Man, he says, never has a home that can provide real security. Only within Hashem can man find genuine protection. The Mishkan’s construction was predicated on this understanding, on man’s comprehending that he needed to provide a home for G-d, and in so doing, secure one for himself. “For G-d to descend from infinity was a sacrifice He was willing to make, but only if the people themselves wanted a Mishkan and were willing to contribute to build it.” Thus, the contributions had to be voluntary.
He comes back to this theme of the shifting places where He resides, and becomes poetic: “G-d created the world to reside in it, rather than reside in transcendence…In the wake of the original sin of Adam and Eve, He retreated. ‘And they heard the voice of the Lord G-d going in the garden…’ These ‘footsteps’ were those of G-d leaving the garden and departing into infinity.”
There are pithy observations. R. Soloveitchik writes that both korbanos and prayers are halachically mandated at different points on the calendar. But the two are crucially different. “A sacrifice is accepted even if there is a great distance between G-d and the owner of the sacrifice – even if it is offered by an agent. This is not the case with prayer. If there is no closeness, there is no prayer.”
There are contradictions left unstated and unresolved. Mesoras HaRav cites several pieces developing the theme of Mishkan as an abode for the Shechinah. Yet after a few such pieces is a another, in which R. Soloveitchik declares that according to the Rambam, the Mishkan was not meant to house the Shechinah. Its function was as the place where korbanos were brought. Following this piece, there are additional pieces returning to the theme of abode for the Shechinah! The reader is expected to be sophisticated enough to be comfortable examining different approaches in the rishonim.
And then there is the occasional philosophical tour-de-force, the likes of which no one else in his time was capable. Here, in part, is his reaction to the Torah speaking of the appearance of the Kevod Hashem as a consuming fire:
The image of man in Judaism is reflected in two experiences: the cosmic and the covenantal. At first, man emerges in the Bible out of the depths of nature; he belongs to the cosmic continuum, involved in the great drama which follows an unalterable order and sequence. His methods of thinking and experiencing were born out of these patterns in the unfolding of the cosmic process. He attuned himself to the great occurrence of which he is a part and tries to accommodate, through his intellectual gesture, his sense-awareness of creation. In a word there is a Bereishis- logic which reflects the wisdom of God embedded in nature.
However, the Bible also sees man in a different role. Man, in his encounter with God who ad-dresses Himself to him not from within but from without the cosmic continuum, is exposed to an experience wholly other from the cosmic encounter. This apocalyptic dialogue which takes place between man and God consists of entirely different categories and a singular vocabulary….The logos which rules cosmic events and which expresses itself in the stem of ideas is not identica1 with the devar Hashem, the word which was disclosed to man in his meeting with God.
… Any attempt to rationalize religious concepts overlooks this unbridgeable gulf which separates the cosmic from the covenantal experience, the logos of creation from the logos of the revealed message.
Can a complete harmony be achieved? Certainly not since the natural and the covenantal belong to different and incommensurate orders! They must engender conflict and strife. Man must wrestle with himself: cosmic man is engaged in combat with covenantal man. Man oscillates be-tween the cosmic and covenantal experience like a pendulum swinging back and forth between two poles. This schism in the personality is indicative not of a sick soul but of a great one that sees God in both the flames of a rising sun and the fire of the Sinai apocalypse.
In describing the revelational experience, we have isolated two antithetic moments. First, there is the moment of shock, when finite man, upon being confronted with infinity, becomes aware of the ontic void, of the inner contradiction within his existential experience, and suddenly realizes that the very foundation of his existence has collapsed. Man in his rendezvous with God is confronted by non-being, since God, addressing Himself through apocalypse, negates any other existence.
Second, there is the moment of ecstasy and rapture which rehabilitates and reconstructs man to heights unattainable at a cosmic level. Meeting God is a glorious and the most blessed event; it helps man transcend himself and make him greater than he really is. Man becomes transported out of himself and suddenly awakens to new dimensions of reality that were alien to him. expresses itself in a leap outside of oneself, in a journey from a here-and-now reality to the numinous.
So much goes on in this passage that others do not touch. It is a magisterial presentation of an essential tension that must exist within every religious person. At times, we find rational space to account for our connection to Hashem by employing models taken from the world we are part of. We deal with it psychologically, ethically, morally. But at other times, this process fails us. We totter about, unaware that, as R. Soloveitchik says, this is a sign of our greatness, not our smallness. Confrontation with Hashem leaves us cut off from our moorings within the world of time and space, and thus unsure of our own selves and our own natures. (I found this similar to the frequent thought of the Slonimer Rebbe that a Jew whose begins to sense doubt should have emunah that he has emunah! While the part of him that tries to make sense out of things may be short on explanations, he should be aware of the other part of him that still sees the fire of Sinai clearly, and will not take leave of it.)
May HKBH give Dr. Lustiger the energy and the time to keep enriching Klal Yisrael with volumes like this!