Gateways to Torah: Joining the Ancient Conversation on the Weekly Portion

Gateways to Torah: Joining the Ancient Conversation on the Weekly Portion

by Russell Resnik

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A commentary on each of the weekly portions read in traditional synagogues, a practice seen in the New Testament.


A commentary on each of the weekly portions read in traditional synagogues, a practice seen in the New Testament.

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Messianic Jewish Communications
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Ben Bag Bag used to say, "Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don't turn from it, for nothing is better than it."-Pirke Avot 5.22 Torah-the five books of Moses-has been a unifying force in Jewish life since the earliest days. Today virtually every synagogue in the world reads the same portion of the Torah each week, completing the cycle of readings every year. Each weekly Torah portion, called a parasha in Hebrew, has been the subject of commentary and discussion since before the days of Yeshua the Messiah, and continues to be today. This book is one student's contribution to the ancient discussion.

Study of the weekly parasha creates a sense of common interest with other readers, and with the Jewish community around the world and throughout the ages. In this form of study, the parasha becomes the topic of conversation. The study is more interested in considering possibilities, exploring tough questions, and discovering novel interpretations, than in reaching binding conclusions. It finds the text of Scripture to be multi-faceted, infinitely rich, and endlessly engaging. A recent book on Jewish spiritual guidance puts it this way: As we study sacred text-the touchstone of Jewish spirituality-we become conscious of every dimension of what is written; we also become insightfully aware of its silence. The rabbis understood this phenomenon. They drew meaning out of every aspect of the text. We should do the same.

The authors encourage us to engage in the ancient conversation with and about Scripture that has been the pursuit of Jewish thinkers over the ages.

Let us consider an example of this conversation from the Midrash. Midrash is an entire genre of rabbinic literature that explores the meaning and implications of the text of the Hebrew Scriptures. The earliest Midrash (on Genesis) dates from the classical Amoraic period of 400-600 CE, but is based on older oral material. Midrash Rabbah is the collection of such commentaries based on the five books of Moses and the five scrolls-Esther, Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations-that reached final form during the medieval period, but also reflects much older tradition.

Midrash comprises both halacha, or legal argument and rulings, and haggada, stories, homilies, and illustrations that expand the biblical text. Haggadic Midrash especially is characterized by its imaginative and creative treatment of the text. As Rabbi H. Freedman notes in his introduction to Midrash Rabbah, it ". . . continued to express the ideas, aspirations, hopes, fears, and collective thoughts of the people of Israel in successive generations. Many of the thoughts in the Haggadic Midrash were due to poetic inspiration, and these were often ahead of their times. In this sense they were prophetic, and in respect of function they continued the prophetic tradition, though formally and chronologically they were the direct descendants of the Scriptures, children of their verses, souls of their soul." Midrash Rabbah on Numbers 7:19 considers the offering of "one silver bowl of seventy shekels" presented by the tribe of Issachar. This bowl, it says, represents the Torah, because Issachar was considered the tribe of great Torah scholars. Furthermore, the Midrash claims, Torah is like wine and it is customary to drink wine in a bowl, like the silver bowl of the offering. But why is the bowl seventy shekels in weight? "As the numerical value of yayin (wine) is seventy, so there are seventy modes of expounding the Torah."

The point of this rather imaginative (even by Midrashic standards) interpretation is that Torah has multiple meanings and ap above, "Everything is in it." Moreover, it is to the Torah's glory that it has such a wealth of meanings. Seventy is a number of completion and perfection, ten times seven. It intimates that every verse of Torah is filled with meaning. The best Jewish minds throughout the ages will spend their best energies exploring its meaning and never come to the end of it. Further, says the Midrash, seventy is equivalent to yayin, wine, according to the Hebrew numbering system. Torah yields sweet and even intoxicating meanings as we drink of it deeply.

Thus Rashi, the great medieval Torah commentator, savors the views of his predecessors, explains them, and expands upon them. He often seems just as interested in keeping the conversation going as in uncovering the one true meaning of the passage under consideration. Rashi is considered the definitive commentator. His approach to Scripture defines the Jewish outlook and methodology to this day, and it often reads like a friendly conversation.

In the same way, Ramban, another great medieval commentator, comments on the opening words of the book of Leviticus or Vayikra. Vayikra begins with an unusual verbal construction, literally, "And he called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the tent of meeting." Ramban explains that the Lord had to call to Moses because Moses would otherwise not be able to enter the tent of meeting, according to Exodus 40:35. He then goes on to give a different, earlier opinion concerning the use of the word "call" in this verse. "All communications [that came to Moses], whether they are introduced by the word dabeir (speak), or by emor (say), or tzav (command), were preceded by a call," that is to say, G-d said to him, 'Moses, Moses' and he answered, 'Here am I.' This was a way of expressing affection and encouragement to Moses. Finally, Ramban adds a third interpretation . . .

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