Torah MiEtzion: New Readings in Tanach
Edited by Ezra Bick and Yaakov Beasley
Yeshivat Har Etzion and Maggid Books, 2011
Reviewed by Rabbi Shalom Z. Berger, Ed.D. '77
The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education
When I first arrived in the study hall of Yeshivat Har Etzion, I was a high school graduate, not yet 18-years-old, coming to study in Israel. My high school experience at Mesivta Chaim Berlin had offered appropriate preparation for bet midrash study (although, admittedly, my high school rabbeim were not enamored with my decision to choose "the Gush" as the bet midrash where I was to continue my studies), and I looked forward to delving into the tomes of Talmud as did my ancestors in Eastern Europe, Babylonia and the Land of Israel. I was certain that Talmud study was the epitome of what Talmud Torah was meant to be; that indeed, from the time Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the oral law accompanying the written text of the Torah, this is how Torah was studied.
It was with no small amount of concern and consternation that I discovered that many of my peers in the bet midrash kept books authored by Rav Kook next to their Gemarot, Rambams and Humashim. Furthermore, it was, apparently, acceptable practice to spend significant bet midrash time studying those books, as well as tanakh - time that could have been spent on further Talmud study! Perhaps my concerns would have been assuaged had someone told me that in the yeshiva in Volozhin the Netziv gave public shiurim on Humash, but in the absence of such assurances, I knocked on the door of Rav Yehuda Amital zt"l, one of the heads of the yeshiva, and asked him to explain these questionable practices. Patiently Rav Amital assured me that if I did not feel a need to study Jewish thought and philosophy, that was fine (although he suspected I would develop a need for that as time went on), but that the study of Tanakh was the single most fundamental building block of Torah study and, indeed, of Jewish life, and that every yeshiva student should include serious study of the written Torah in his daily routine.
This clear direction set by Rav Amital set Yeshivat Har Etzion apart from other traditional yeshivot, and his belief that serious Torah study encompasses not only Talmud but Tanakh and mahshava as well changed not only his yeshiva and its associated Herzog teacher's college, it changed the way we study these disciplines in the Modern Orthodox/Dati Leumi community today.
The fruits of these studies can be found in Megadim, the Hebrew journal published by Herzog College, as well as online on the Virtual Bet Midrash website. Now a collection of essays organized by the weekly parasha has been assembled by Rabbis Ezra Bick who heads the VBM and Yaakov Beasley. This collection is important because it puts a spotlight on the methods that have been harnessed by the various authors in their attempt to understand the written Torah on its most fundamental level. Whether the method is structural analysis, text comparisons, character analysis or analysis of terminology, the idea is to make use of the Torah's text to understand what the Torah means.
One example that struck me was the choice of three separate essays, all of which begin as an analysis of Avraham's purchase of a burial place at the beginning of Parashat Hayyei Sarah. Here we find Elchanan Samet searching for "leading words" and concluding that this is a story that serves to model how family relationships work, Amnon Bazak comparing various purchases of land throughout Tanakh, showing the importance of establishing places of national importance and Yehuda Rock separating and reattaching passages thematically, illustrating how Avraham faced difficulties and challenges, even as God supports him throughout his trials.
These examples point to the value of this collection to classroom educators. All too often a class in Humash is an opportunity to study "Humash with Rashi." While a talented educator may make use of Nehama Leibowitz' parasha sheets to introduce other commentaries, even so, the focus is often on individual passages and the student never learns to step back and take a wider view of the Biblical landscape. It is surely important to focus on the pasuk, but both teacher and student should recognize the larger significance of the story - something that is reiterated time and again in these essays.
Even without Rav Amital's admonition, it is likely that I would have chanced across the Rashbam's description of his conversation with his grandfather, Rashi, who admitted that there was a need to continue searching for the "simple interpretations that arise anew every day." This collection is a fulfillment of that search, which will give the reader the impetus - and the tools - to continue their own search for a true understanding of the biblical text.
This book is available from Amazon.com and from Maggid Books. Available to Har Etzion and VBM talmidim at a 25% discount.