In The Heart of Torah: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion, Rabbi Shai Held offers thought pieces on the parashat ha-shavua whose scope, depth, ethics, and insight will delight readers from all Jewish backgrounds, as well as anyone interested in mining the Bible for its timeless wisdom.
Rabbi Held, the president, dean, and chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar in New York, is not afraid of examining morally thorny Biblical passages that don’t allow for easy interpretive solutions (see, for example, his wrestling with how a Torah which so strongly emphasizes the concept of loving kindness nonetheless mandates the social isolation of an individual afflicted with leprosy), and offers striking readings of previously well-examined texts. An example is his analysis of the well-known phrase “one does not live by bread alone, but by everything that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Through citations of traditional medieval commentators (Rashbam and the Malbim), Jewish academics (Professors Jeffrey Tigay and Moshe Weinfeld), and non-Jewish scholars (Richard Nielson and Christopher Wright), Rabbi Held offers an interpretation in which the phrase “everything that comes from the mouth of the Lord” refers to both the manna, the miraculous food provided to the Israelites in the wilderness, as well as the words of command emanating from God. As Rabbi Held summarizes, “Everything [emphasis in the original] that comes from the mouth of the Lord” surely includes God’s commandments, but it encompasses God’s promises and commitments [as manifested in the manna, for example] as well. As Christopher Wright notes, ‘everything’ refers to ‘the declaration of God’s promises, the claim of God’s covenant, the guidance of God’s Torah, the articulation of God’s purpose for creation and humanity. Words that promises bread came from the same mouth that promises much, much more.’ ”
Striving to live by the divine word while wrestling with the idea of human independence and autonomy is but one of central dialectics threaded throughout the work, a collection which succeeds in its goal of offering intellectually rich and religiously edifying examinations of the heart of Torah and its ability to resonate so deeply within our own hearts.
Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost of Yeshiva University. He has edited or coedited 17 books, including Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity and Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought, and has lectured in synagogues, Hillels and adult Jewish educational settings across the U.S.