Off the Shelf: Parasha and prophet by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

There are many different ways to contemplate and study words of Torah. We can study the intricacies of the Chumash, the first five books, mining them for how best to live our lives. Or we can focus on the prophetic writings, which speak to ethics beyond ritual. Fortunately, we don’t have to choose only one option because there are books for every type of spiritual searcher. Those who prefer to study the parasha shel shavah (the portion of the week) can look to “Exodus: A Parsha Companion” by Rabbi David Fohrman (Aleph Beta Press/Maggid Books), which focuses on individual sections of the Chumash. Anyone looking for inspiration from the prophets in order to create a more just world will appreciate Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “Thunder in the Soul: To Be Known by God” (Plough Publishing House), which is edited by Robert Erlewine. 

“Exodus” is Fohrman’s second Torah companion and it’s as excellent as the first one. (To see The Reporter review of “Genesis: A Parsha Companion,” visit Even when I disagreed with his vision of the text, I found it fascinating and well done. That’s because he is an excellent teacher: he talks directly to readers as if he is having a conversation with them. He also carefully and clearly explains his interpretations in easy to read language. 
Fohrman begins by noting the difference between the Hebrew and English titles of the book: Shemot (Names) vs. Exodus. Why, he asks, is this book of the Torah called “Names”? Many commentaries focus on the central event of the book, which is the Exodus from Egypt. But names are also important, especially since the Israelites grow to such multitudes that no one could have known all their names – that is, no human. Fohrman writes, “When we call the book names we are not attempting to evade discussion of Egyptian enslavement. On the contrary, this, itself, is a way we talk about enslavement. Through it all, God knows our names. He cares about each and every one of us, in all our pain, all our anguish.” 

The author also discusses about how seemingly fanciful midrash (rabbinic stories) can teach important lessons. When writing of Pharaoh’s daughter, he notes the midrash that says her arm grew and stretched across the river in order to save Moses in his basket. For Fohrman, the question is not whether that literally happened, but what it can teach us. In this case, he believes it shows the princess striving to save someone almost outside of her reach: someone whom her father was trying to destroy. She exceeded her reach, metaphorically in the midrash and literally in the original text, to save an infant slated to die. 

One of the most important lessons Fohrman teaches is that readers should look at the biblical stories as if they didn’t know the ending. That leads to great insight. For example, although we know that Moses will be saved, that is not true of Miriam and her mother when they placed the basket holding their beloved relative into the Nile. Fohrman ponders whether Miriam had hope that something good would happen or even knew that things would turn out alright. His answer is, no, that “Miriam didn’t have any privileged information at this point. She doesn’t know the end of the story, she doesn’t have the benefit of reading the book of Exodus as you and I do and flipping forward to see what happens.” What she does have instead is faith that God will save her brother. 

Another intriguing thought comes when Fohrman discusses the plague that turns the Nile into blood. He sees a connection between that and Pharaoh’s drowning of male Israelite children in that river. That water, which is filled with the bodies of those who perished, has run clear – that is, until God uses the plague to reveal the blood of those innocent babies. 

“Exodus” is filled with interesting insights and clever looks at individual parashot. One need not have read Fohrman’s first book in order to appreciate this one. It is perfect for readers studying on their own, but would also work in classes and study groups to generate discussion. According to the publishers, Fohrman is scheduled to publish commentary on the remaining three books of the Chumash and I plan to keep a watchful eye out for those works.
While Fohrman focuses on the intricacies of the biblical text, Heschel takes a larger view. “Thunder in the Soul” features short selections from his writing rearranged and organized by the editor. The short work is part of the Plough Spiritual Guides series, which seeks to “briefly introduce the writings of great spiritual voices of the past to new readers.” The publishing house is a Christian one, which helps explain the work’s emphasis on prophecy, rather than law, but that doesn’t detract from what’s offered. Since the forward is written by Suzannah Heschel, his daughter, it seems to have to the approval of his family. 

The book has two main focuses: Heschel’s idea of radical amazement and the way that amazement should move us to action. Heschel asks readers to take leap of faith, rather than depend on reason because he believes the world contains a mystery we cannot answer, one that we cannot even speak about: “When we stand in awe, our lips do not demand speech; we know if we spoke, we would deprave ourselves... All we want is to pause, to be still, that the moment may last. It is like listening to great music: we are swept away without being able to appraise it. The meaning of the things we revere are overwhelming and beyond the grasp of our understanding.”

Interest in Heschel might be limited to mystics, however, were not for the practical applications he offers for these experiences. He notes that experiencing this religious mystery is not an end in itself. Instead, we are given a task: we must make the world a better place. Judaism for Heschel means that people have a duty to stop evil, even if they are not actively participating. He writes that “there is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being accepted.” This was the basis of Heschel’s work with Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. 

I found it interesting to explore the two theological strands running through Heschel’s writing. Rationalists may have difficulty accepting a theology that asks them to leave their reason behind. Yet, as much as a rationalist as I am, I have experienced Heschel’s feeling of awe, although it felt strange not to be able to put into words exactly what was happening. His call for social action is unfortunately as relevant today as it was when his words were first published.
Fohrman and Heschel both speak words of Torah, words that will resonate with readers today and in the future. For me, the beauty of Judaism is that I can mine the biblical text and the words of great modern writers, both of whom offer different Jewish paths. Together “Exodus” and “Thunder in the Soul” show us the breadth and depth of our heritage.