This latest book by the wondrously prolific Rabbi Steinsaltz is a collection of essays on the weekly Torah reading, including essays for three special Shabbatot: Shabbat HaGadol (the Shabbat right before Passover), Shabbat Shuva (between the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement) and Shabbat Zachor (the Shabbat prior to Purim).
These essays tremendously engaging in terms of the breadth and depth of ideas as well as the considerable erudition that they reflect. Each attempts in some way to make the issues introduced immediately relevant to the reader — no small task, especially when dealing with esoteric topics found for example in the book of Leviticus. As Rabbi Steinsaltz self-consciously states at the very outset, “Everything that is written here refers not to Jews who lived in past times, but to contemporary Jews. The Torah serves as a kind of wondrous looking glass in which we can simultaneously see the end of existence and our own reflection, and within that reflection not only are our outer facades visible, but the image of our true inner selves as well.”
Two exemplary essays, containing astute observations regarding the challenges of living an observant life, deal with the Torah portions of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, which are read together in the synagogue. Rabbi Steinsaltz addresses the problem of becoming “overfamiliar with God and His service.” Calling upon the examples from the Bible of Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, the Priests —particularly those serving in the Tabernacle, the sons of the High Priest Eli, Uzzah (who reached out to steady the Ark and died for his trouble), and even contemporary students of Torah, Rabbi Steinsaltz identifies the routinization and a sense of overall ease and comfort that erode religious feeling and proper observance. Furthermore, he notes that as destructive as such attitudes may be for those in the limelight, the consequences for onlookers and those who revere these “insiders” can prove to be even worse.
Rabbi Steinsaltz’s comments on Kedoshim complement the theme he explores in the previous essay, when he turns to how holiness can be achieved even with respect to actions that at first glance do not appear to be terribly exceptional or transcendental. He maintains that sinful behavior typically does not suddenly crop up, but rather is the result of a gradual erosion of standards and values over time. When challenges recur day after day, they can sap the strength of an individual to resist temptation: “A lion or a bear can be struck down, but a million termites is a different kind of challenge altogether.” Holiness, therefore, means committing ourselves to take on the “million termites of life.”
Each essay in R. Steinsaltz’ book offers considerable food for thought, and the volume in its entirety is highly recommended.