Chumash Mesoras Harav – Bamidbar
The latest installment of the Chumash with commentary by R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l is now available for purchase. Like its three predecessors, the volume on Bamidbar gleans from the vast oeuvre of the Rav, as he is known to many, culling sources not known or readily available to the vast majority of those interested in his thought.
When Chazal tell us that the two pesukim of vayehi binso’a ha-aron (Bamidbar 10:35-36) are a sefer unto themselves, they were doing more than commenting on the need for the inverted letters nun that frame them. Those lines are the fulcrum between the two ends of Bamidbar – the optimistic, forward looking sections until that point, and the darkness and brooding silence of the end of the sefer. Almost four decades go by in those parshios in which the old generation essentially waits to die. The silence is punctuated only by an occasional episode, and a stirring to life at the end of the period.The deeply analytic, pensive qualities of Rav Soloveitchik’s personality make Chumash Bamidbar particularly well suited for his thinking.
One of my favorite sections deals with the makom ha-chetach, the precise episode that divides, in which the pendulum changes direction from expectation of a triumphant march into the Promised Land to the beginning of the end of the generation that left Egypt. This is what he says about Kivros HaTa’avah:
Why did Moses now feel so discouraged? Why didn’t he offer prayers for the people, as was his practice in earlier situations this kind? The people had committed no murder, no sexual promiscuity, no robbery… The incident of Kivros Hata’avah differed greatly from that of the Golden Calf. The making the calf was the result of a great primitive fright. The people thought Moses was dead; they woe afraid of the desert and did not know what the future held in store for them. Overwhelmed loneliness and terror, they violated the precept of avodah zarah, idolatry. There were mitigating circumstances: they wanted the Golden Calf to substitute for Moses, as the Rishonim explain.
At Kivros Hata’avah, we encounter idolatry in a different sense. One must distinguish between avodah zarah as a ceremony or ritual, and as a pagan way of life. Paganism is not only the word of an idol; it encompasses more—a certain lifestyle. The pagan cries out for variety, for boundlessness, for unlimited lust and insatiable desire, for the demonic dream of total conquest, of drinking the cup of pleasure to its dregs. The pagan way of life is the very antithesis of Judaism…When people reach out for the unreachable, for the orgiastic and hypnotic, they do not violate prohibition of avodah zarah, but they adopt the pagan way of life—and the Torah hates the pagan way of life more than it hates the idol.
My friend Dr. Arnold Lustiger has been a perfect choice to shepherd this important project – perhaps because, rather than despite the fact that he never studied with R. Soloveitchik during his lifetime, nor did he attend YU. Like many others who learned in the more right-leaning yeshivos, Dr. Lustiger felt that there was an element of sophistication and breadth missing in the hashkafic part of his chinuch. When he was first exposed to R. Soloveitchik’s thought, he knew that he had found a thinker who offered what he longed for. He never looked back. Because he did not hail from YU, he has been able to sit out the internecine battles between those who claim to know the “true” R. Soloveitchik. Dr. Lustiger, therefore, does not have to choose between the Rav as Talmudist, philosopher, darshan, translator of R. Chaim into the lingua franca of America, or trailblazer of a new path. Dr. Lustiger finds pieces that show all the variegated strands in R. Soloveitchik’s personality, and brings them together in this Chumash.
Dr. Lustiger’s success as a YU-outsider in publishing so much of R. Soloveitchik points to another important phenomenon: with the passage of time, R. Soloveitchik’s influence has spread to parts of the community that by and large ignored him during his lifetime. His chidushei Torah have found there way into more and more of the haredi yeshivos.
The Soloveitchk Chumash may contribute to the next step. It (and his machzorim, also edited by Dr. Lustiger) will now introduce the thought of R. Soloveitchik to yeshiva-trained laypeople, some of them who still do not realize what a delight it will be.