So I decided that I would start learning all the Mikraot Gedolot (Rashi, Seforno, Rashbam, Ramban, Ohr Hachaim, Kli Yakar, Ibn Ezra, Baal Haturim, etc.) on the parsha each week.
Not surprisingly, it only took a few weeks to discover that I had bitten off way more than I could ever chew, but 2 very good things came out of it:
- I discovered the poetic beauty and wisdom of the Kli Yakar.
- I learned how to look at things from a Torah perspective.
I realized that regardless of their cultural or economic background or era, the Sages had a common method for interpretation.
- They aimed to understand what the verse really meant.
- They aimed to understand what the Torah wants to teach us.
- They leaned toward a positive spin.
For example, with Hagar’s poor behavior toward Sara Imeinu, the Sages labeled it as wrong while at the same time defending Hagar’s intentions as basically good. In fact, the Ohr Hachaim goes into this whole Talmudic exposition basically explaining how Hagar simply misunderstood the halacha.
In other words, Jewish Sages interpret events according to their context.
Did great people make mistakes?
Did that mean they weren’t great or that they were even, chas v’shalom, evil?
Who is this person and what is the Torah saying about him or her?
What is the Torah trying to teach us?
The only way to understand anything in Torah is to set aside one’s cultural context, one’s own background, and one’s ego, and expand the mind to make room for the Torah’s wisdom to trickle in.
One of the incredibly annoying and mind-shrinking aspects of the Conservative Judaism movement is its insistence on bringing even the greatest Torah personalities down to the level of, say, a typical Jewish Red Sox fan in New Jersey. Or whatever.
The small-minded person reads the Torah and asks, “Well, what would I mean if I said that? What would be my motivations for doing that? Hey, this reminds me of what my teacher in sixth grade (or my dad) used to do or say, and I HATED that!!! So I hate this Torah personality or commandment too!!!”
Me, me, me, me.
This is when people get offended by Judaism.
Instead of trying to understand the Torah or the Sages on the Torah’s own terms, they remain trapped within the limitations of their own mind and experiences and can’t get out.
*I had to struggle with this personally because being raised in secular liberal cultural meant that there was overwhelming social conditioning to view Judaism through an extremely narrow and subjective lens, and then get mortally offended by anything that didn't fit exactly into that into that teeny space (a teeny space which was deceptively portrayed as a wide expanse).
A Deeper Look: The Great Benefit of Being Bothered
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t be bothered by something.
You can be bothered by an issue in Torah or Chazal (Sages).
It's even helpful to get bothered by an issue in Torah or Chazal!
Why? Because it’s supposed to motivate people to look more deeply and research the topic, not slam the book shut and say, “How misogynistic! How racist! How primitive! Now I must Tweet out my rage to all my followers and then calm down by watching bad reality show auditions on YouTube and sneer at the losers while exchanging lewd jokes with my latest boyfriend via Instagram! Yeah, I’m the modern superior me and not like those primitives in the Torah! Woo-hoo!”
A deeper look at anything that bothers you in Torah eventually reveals powerful truths. And parts that seem insensitive or ignorant at first glance actually posses great sensitivity and wisdom.
People who study Torah with the sincere desire to be influenced by it start to see how their very thought process changes and improves.
*Note: This is a general truth. For example, just because someone learns Torah all the time doesn't mean he is influenced by it. A left-brained intellectual type could learn Torah the way those same types learn Philosophy or Neuroscience, and not internalize Torah values properly.
In Judaism, actual desire and intention are king.
And then when you read or hear something irksome, instead of automatically feeling appalled, offended, or disdainful, you find yourself wondering what the writer or speaker actually meant.
You step outside of your head and take a peek into theirs.
- Maybe you realize that the idea is amusing because…it’s actually a joke and not meant to be taken literally.
- Maybe you realize that the idea is correct and you need to internalize it.
- Maybe you realize that the idea is wrong, but the speaker or writer is on the right track and just needs some gentle guidance to get to the right place.
When Denial Goes Glatt
In Garden of Emuna, Rav Shalom Arush discusses how Avraham Avinu was in a state of simcha (defined by the Malbim as a perpetual state of spiritual joy) as he went to carry out the famous “binding of Isaac.”
Now, can I personally relate to this?
However, can I at least intellectually understand that someone who regularly communes directly with God in the exalted state of nevuah/prophecy and has access to profound insight and the reasons for everything, someone for whom Olam Haba and death aren’t theoretical ideas (or a truly final end), but very real spiritual places where we all end up eventually (i.e, he’ll see Yitzchak again), someone who realizes that his son won’t truly die and who knows without any doubt that Hashem knows exactly what He is doing and is running the world perfectly in away that is only good—can I understand that someone like that could be in a state of simcha upon carrying out such a command, even though emotionally, I cannot at all relate to that level?
And yet…in my experience, every single person who rejected and wholly dismissed Rav Shalom Arush’s book cited this very episode as the reason.
“Avraham Avinu couldn’t have been b’simcha at that moment,” they say. “That’s impossible!”
Seriously. Ask anyone who didn’t like or was not inspired by the book, and they will cite this particular section as the reason.
(As if a bush that burns but is not consumed is possible. Or living in the digestive system in a large fish for a few days. It just shows how painful the concept is for some if people believe in the truly miraculous feats in Tanach, but not in this.)
Now, all these people (as far as I know) have suffered in life. They are disappointed and frustrated, and legitimately so.
Furthermore, many people are afraid to face their true feelings about God:
- They are angry at Him, afraid of Him, feel like He’s out to get them, feel betrayed by Him, feel hurt by Him, and so on.
- They don’t want to develop a relationship with Hashem or start talking to him because they don’t trust Him.
- They’re afraid of what they’ll discover.
- They’re afraid of all their repressed pain and memories.
These responses are quite understandable in light of the suffering and trauma so many have experienced. However, pretending these issues away will ultimately make life worse.
So regarding the one book that actually addresses all the painful and thorny issues holding people back from strengthening their emuna and connecting to God…it's dismissed from beginning to end based on this one issue.
And in this way, the reader needn’t feel any push to do anything advised in the book (and advised for millennia by Chazal).
And because it “can’t” be true, they don’t feel the need to check whether Rav Shalom’s assertion is true.
Remember when we said that feeling bothered by something in Torah or Chazal merely means you should research it more thoroughly?
Well, a quick perusal through the main commentaries reveals the following on Beresheit [Genesis]22:6:
Rashi: “Avraham…was going with desire and simcha…” to bind Yitzchak.
So rather than looking into it, people who are otherwise very religious and educated dismiss the idea out of hand, as if it couldn’t be true.
Without realizing it, they condemn Rav Shalom as wrong; he just doesn’t understand.
The problem is that Rav Shalom isn’t making stuff up, Rashi says it.
Is Rashi wrong? Does Rashi simply not understand? Is Rashi just one of those “wacky Breslovers”?
Of course, such people then reply, “Well, we can’t know what Rashi really meant because, you know, Rashi was just so great, it’s beyond our comprehension.” Or, “He means something different.” Or they go into total self-contradiction and say, “Well, that was Avraham Avinu. But we can’t reach that level.”
(Wait a sec…didn’t you just say that Avraham Avinu couldn’t have been b’simcha? And now you say, oh sure he was!)
Honesty and Humility Lead to Amazing Growth
- You can say you don’t understand.
- You can say that something bothers you.
- You can say that you can’t imagine.
What’s wrong with saying all that?
That’s honest and by being honest, you give yourself room to grow.
Saying, “I’m on a low level and I can’t relate to such lofty concepts or to such great people” is humble and leads one to conclude, “So I guess I’d better learn more about it all. Or ask for help. Or struggle on as best I can!”
On the other hand, where can you go after saying, “I personally cannot relate to this and don’t think like that, therefore, the lofty concepts and great people just aren’t possible and don’t exist”?
Personally, I definitely don’t want to inhabit any world that is as small as I am.
I want room to grow.
LOTS of room!
Being Bothered by Something in Torah: A Gadol's Response
Rav Schach was bothered by the Sages’ condemnation of Yaakov for hiding Dina from Esav.
Yes, he was one of the gedolei hador and something in Tanach bothered him!
And understandably so. Who wasn't at least a little disturbed upon learning that particular Chazal?
He brought up some very good support for Yaakov’s actions by pointing to how responsible and caring parents want only the best spouse for their child.
And of course Yaakov would hate the idea of his daughter marrying and evil and corrupt beast like Esav. YUCK!
So Rav Schach concludes that Yaakov’s mistake was not feeling bad enough about blocking the shidduch for Esav. Meaning, he should have loved Esav enough to feel like, “I’d love for Esav to marry such a wonderful girl and possibly do teshuvah, but I just can’t do that to my daughter.”
And that's what Chazal criticizes Yaakov for.
(I’m paraphrasing here as I do not have access to the book at this time.)
Looking at Things in Context: The Key to a Happier Life
Needless to say, I don’t manage a Torah perspective in every situation.
Sometimes, I just don’t know how.
But the point is, just asking: “What does he/she/it really mean?” can transform a situation and how you feel about it and lead you to the truth of the matter.
Just the thought of that one question automatically prevents outrage, unnecessarily negative judgments, hurt feelings, and lashon hara.
May God grant us all the insight to understand what things really mean.