Bringing Torah to Life
The great prophets gave flesh to the bones of the Law. They showed us that, beyond simply doing what is right, we should aspire to greatness. They showed us how our daily interactions with elements of the world around us – whether human, animal or the very soil beneath our feet – must be infused with a thirst for justice and a love for all creation. But the principles and attitudes to which they hint – ever at risk of becoming lost beneath the sheer weight of their breadth and subtlety – are clarified and organized by the various collections of midrash.
While remaining passionately loyal to traditional Jewish thinking, these essays offer new thoughts about specific – and often well known – midrashic passages, along with more general guidance: what’s a student to do when faced with a midrash whose simple reading is patently deceptive? What about one filled with unnecessary characters, complicating what by all rights should be straightforward? And what about theological contradictions? Since the authors of the midrash obviously knew better, these calculated “errors” are clearly designed to teach.
A Call to Action: If Abraham was really as eager to follow God’s instructions as the Torah suggests, why does a midrash portray him as being unsure?
I Can’t Believe My Eyes: What were Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Yishmael really arguing about in Berachos 35b? Some acharonim have opinions, but how well do they fit the gemara’s words?
For Crying Out Loud: The well-known but little-understood midrash in which Satan’s willful lie causes Sarah’s death. Just what is Satan? An angel? Does he have free will? Can he oppose God’s will?
God and His World: How does an infinite and transcendent God fit in with our finite and mundane physical world? Rambam says one thing. A midrash seems to say another. Something’s got to give!
A Revealing Revelation: God redeems His people. But how? And why? What paying careful attention to midrashic detail can teach us about how much God cares for His people.
Koheles: Despair and Responsibility: Shlomo (King Solomon), in his Ecclesiastes (Koheles), sometimes appears depressingly bleak. But there is a lot we can learn from the darkness.
The Hasty Nation: Standing at Mt. Sinai and declaring “we will do” before “we will listen (learn),” the Jewish people demonstrated unexpected wisdom. But what made it so wise? And how does that lead us to reconsider the leaves of an apple tree?
Beyond Reason: What are chukim (statutes)? Are there really mitzvos that have no reason at all? What do Judaism’s classical scholars say?
White Donkeys and the Perfect Poverty: That fact that Divinely-decreed poverty can be a blessing might be true, but that alone isn’t enough: people also have to understand and appreciate it.
What is a Proof: How do we know that God will revive the dead…and why does the Talmud have to take so long telling us about it?
Moav and Midyan and Me: An apparently straightforward passage of Talmud masks some deeply subtle observations about great cultural struggles and the psychological forces that drive them.
Mazal: getting the straight goods: Everyone talks about it. Its power can sometimes be invoked in the strangest of places. But just what is mazal and how are its effects determined?
Ramban on Providence: An assessment of the subtle and – at a first glance – contradictory sources that make up Ramban’s position
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