Studying Torah: Commentary, Interpretation, Translation

By Friedman, Richard Elliott | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview
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Studying Torah: Commentary, Interpretation, Translation


Friedman, Richard Elliott, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


THE FIRST PORTION OF THE TORAH HAS A DOUBLE ROLE: it conveys its own story, and it sets the context of the entire Torah. The Torah's stories have been observed to be rich in background, as opposed to, for example, the epic poems of Homer. In Homer each episode is self-contained: all the information that a reader needs is provided then and there, and all action is in the foreground. That is fine, but it is not the way of the Torah. To read the Torah at any level beyond "Sunday school," one must have a sense of the whole when one reads the parts. To comprehend what happens in the exodus and in the revelation at Sinai, you have to know what has happened in Genesis 1. Like some films that begin with a sweeping shot that then narrows, so the first chapter of Genesis moves gradually from a picture of the skies and the earth down to the first man and woman. The story's focus will continue to narrow: from the universe to the earth to humankind to specific lands and peoples to a single family. (It will expand back out to nations in Exodus.) But the wider concern with skies and the entire earth that is established in the first portion will remain. When the story narrows to a singular divine relationship with Abraham, it will still be with the ultimate aim that this will be "a blessing to all the families of the earth. "Every biblical scene will be laden--artistically, theologically, psychologically, spiritually--with all that has come before. So when we read later of a man and his son going up a mountain to perform a fearful sacrifice, that moment in the history of a family is set in a cosmic context of the creation of the universe and the nature of the relationship between the creator and humankind. You can read the account of the binding of Isaac without being aware of the account of the creation or the account of the covenant between God and Abraham, but you lose something. The something that you lose-depth--is one of the essential qualities of the Torah.

The first portion initiates the historical flow of the Torah (and of the entire Tanakh). It establishes that this is to be a related, linear sequence of events through generations. That may seem so natural to us now that we find this point obvious and banal. But the texts of the Torah are the first texts on earth known to do this. The ancient world did not write history prior to these accounts. The Torah's accounts are the first human attempts to recount history. Whether one believes all or part or none of its history to be true is a separate matter. The literary point is that this had the effect of producing a text that was rich in background: every event carries the weight of everything that comes before it. And the historical point is that this was a new way to conceive of time and human destiny.

There is also a theological point: this was a new way to conceive of a God. The difference between the Torah's conception of God and the pagan world's conception is not merely arithmetic: one versus many. The pagan deities were known through their functions in nature: The sun god, Shamash, was the sun. If one wanted to know the essence of Shamash, the thing to do was to contemplate the sun. If you wanted to know the essence of the grain deity Dagon, you contemplated wheat. To know Yamm, contemplate the sea. But the God of the Torah was different, creating all of nature--and therefore not knowable or identifiable through any one element of nature. One could learn no more about this God by contemplating the sea than by contemplating grain, sky, or anything else. The essence of this God remains hidden. One does not know God through nature but by the divine acts in history. One never finds out what God is, but rather what God does--and what God says. This conception, which informs all of biblical narrative, did n ot necessarily have to be developed at the very beginning of the story, but it was. Parashat Bereshit establishes this by beginning with accounts of creation and by then flowing through the first ten generations of humankind.

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