Book Review: Life lessons from the Bible

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

While the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (known in Hebrew as Kohelet) suggests that study wearies the body, the opposite is true for those who love to contemplate the Torah. Learning something new and interesting about the text is invigorating. In contemporary times, many commentaries focus on one particular aspect of the material, rather than offering a general overview of the Bible. For example, two recent works explore how to improve our lives through Torah study: “The Artist’s Torah” by David Ebenbach (Cascade Books) discusses ways each parasha can inspire artists and writers, while “Passing Life’s Tests: Spiritual Reflections on The Trial of Abraham” by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, D.H.L. (Jewish Lights Publishing) uses the story of the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) to teach coping strategies for dealing with life’s challenges and sacrifices.

Collections of essays on the parasha aimed at specific groups are not uncommon; recent works for women, men, GLBTs and teens come immediately to mind. What is unusual about “The Artist’s Torah” is that Ebenbach is the sole author. Readers may wonder if he’s set himself an impossible task, something he discusses in his introduction: “Could I really find ideas and stories relevant to the artist’s life through the Torah? Not just in Genesis, that is with its explicit interest in creation, but also the wanderings of Exodus and Numbers, the focus on the Priesthood in Leviticus, the repetition in Deuteronomy?” My answer is a resounding yes: Not only did Ebenbach find enough material, but the more difficult sections – the last three biblical books – contained the most inspiring work. Drawing on the collective wisdom of Jewish writers, painters, composers, sculptors, dancers and choreographers, he offers insights to artists’ experience and perceptive interpretations of the Torah text.

One of my favorite essays looks at tumah (ritual impurity), which is explored in the combined parashot Tazria-Metzora. The section discusses what makes someone tamei (impure) – for example, a dead body, menstruation and childbirth – and how the person who is impure must isolate himself from the community. Ebenbach connects the biblical requirement of separation to the artist’s need to sequester himself when working on a project, which can also make it difficult for an artist to reconnect to the more mundane aspects of his life. The Torah portion teaches the artist an important lesson by noting that this separation should only be temporary. Just as the Bible outlines ways people can rid themselves of ritual impurity, Ebenbach suggests ways for artists to reconnect to everyday experiences after the emotional high of creation.

Other selections offer wonderful insights into the parasha itself. For example, Ebenbach believes the story of the Akedah represents two different types of God and two ways of looking at the world: “Left to his own devices, still listening to the voices of the past, Abraham might have killed his son.” However, instead of following the cruel gods of his ancestors, Abraham hears “a new divine voice,” which opens a “new religious path – one in which he is most definitely not called on to sacrifice his son.” In looking at the opening parasha to Devarim, Ebenbach relates how embarrassed the Israelites must have been when Moses recited all the wrongdoing and mistakes they made over the course of their travels. Yet this recitation frees us in contemporary times: If God was willing to protect our imperfect ancestors, so, too, will God help us during our trials. These and others insights will inspire artists and non-artists alike to open themselves to the Torah text and the creative impulses found within us all.

While Ebenbach offers comments on the first Five Books of the Bible, Artson focuses on only one story – the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. In order to explore the implications of this difficult and controversial tale, the author offers his own translation with four levels of commentary based on the plain meaning of the text, allegorical interpretations, emotional explorations and mystical readings. Artson then offers ways for readers to use the text to learn about their own lives and discover holiness in the world. To do so, they must first free themselves from “the structure of the narrative itself and read the story not from the outside in (with the Bible’s priorities at the forefront) but from the inside out (with our own personality, issues, shortcomings and strengths at the center).”

Different chapters explore the Akedah through the lens of morality, priorities, solidarity, integrity, mindfulness, suffering and more. When looking at the paradoxes life offers, Artson notes the one Abraham faced. How can God’s promise of a lasting covenant through Isaac come true if this same God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son? The author reconciles the difficulty by declaring Abraham a man of faith, one who trusted that God would not abandon him or the covenant. We, too, face paradoxes and challenges in our lives and Artson believes that we can – like Abraham – connect with God “by refusing to abandon hope in the face of bleak reality, by refusing to wish away a challenging reality in favor of simplistic beliefs and wishful stories.” This path is not an easy one, but the author sees it as an authentic one.

Artson also examines whether or not it’s possible to articulate a theological response to suffering. Although he is unable to offer one himself, he does suggest several guidelines for a successful religious response:

      • It must acknowledge that evil is real.
      • It must help the person in pain – offering comfort, not judgment.
      • It must include elements of our Jewish heritage.

For Artson, the path to this theology will be through a modern approach to Kabbalah, one showing “God suffers when we do, [that] God is in need of human mending and able to contribute to human and spiritual empowerment.” Artson believes, that together, God and humanity will be able “to oppose” suffering and repair the world.

While Artson does an excellent job explaining his theological approach to the biblical text, it was Ebanbach’s work that inspired me. This speaks more to my personal theological approach than it does the worth of either book. “Passing Life’s Tests” reminded me of bibliodrama, which seeks to integrate biblical stories into our lives, something that makes me uncomfortable. “The Artist’s Torah” challenge was a different one: it reminded me not only of my love of Torah, but my connection to the arts. Which book appeals will depend on the spiritual path individual readers seek.