Friday, November 23, 2007

Jonathan Rosenblum: Man and Beast

On the nuances in learning Torah.
Man and Beast
by Jonathan Rosenblum

The name Rabbi David Fohrman flashed brightly on my radar screen for the first time in twenty years this past summer. I was in Lawrence, and a good friend told me that he had been challenged by his partner in Torah learning, a highly successful hedge fund manager, to prove that the Torah is the product of a single Author.
My friend had arranged for his learning partner to meet a number of people, and asked if I wanted to join them. The last stop on our highly stimulating tour was Rabbi Fohrman.

Though Reb David and I had learned in the same yeshiva about two decades ago, I was completely unprepared for the brilliance of his presentation. For two hours, he held us transfixed as he showed repeating ideational patterns in Bereishis. He demonstrated how many of the key events in the story of Creation are related as chiasms – or, as they are sometimes known, at-bash patterns. In this literary form, the first idea mirrors the last, the second idea mirrors the next to last, etc. Or, to put it another way – the key ideas follow a pattern of A-B-C-B-A, with C forming the fulcrum.

After showing how this was true for the story of Creation, he then demonstrated how the same ideas and literary patterns are repeated in the story of the Flood (re-creation), and of Avraham Avinu (the creation of the Jewish people).

When he was done, I sat there stunned. The parallel chiasms from story to story (and there are many of them) are the Torah's way of conveying great depth of meaning in a particularly concise form. But once revealed, they also form compelling proof of the Torah's unitary authorship.

As we were leaving, Rabbi Fohrman mentioned that he had just finished writing The Beast that Crouches at the Door (Devora Publishing), a close examination of two encounters in parashas Bereishis: that between Chava and the Snake and Kayin's murder of Hevel. I could not imagine anything equaling the interactive power point presentation I had just witnessed, and feared disappointment. I need not have worried.

Rabbi Fohrman has been lecturing to mixed groups of non-religious and religious Jews for many years, and the ability to provide something that is shaveh l'kol nefesh (enjoyable to all types of people) is evident. The Beast that Crouches at the Door will equally delight a reader who has been studying Chumash his entire life and one who cannot read Hebrew. It is the ideal text for any experienced chavrusah who wants to introduce a non-learned study partner to the subtlety and depth of Torah learning, and is destined to become a key tool in kiruv worldwide.

The book is philosophically deep, emotionally in tune, hypersensitive to nuances in the Biblical text, and reads like a mystery. Each short chapter ends with the reader hanging on the edge of the cliff eager to proceed to the next.

Rabbi Fohrman is not afraid to confront the Big Questions: Why would Hashem have wished to withhold the knowledge of Good and Evil from mankind? Why were Chava and Adam punished for eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil if they had no previous knowledge of Good and Evil? In other words, how were they changed by eating of the fruit? Why would G-d, Who is by definition perfect, have created the world? If He "needed" to create the World, does this not constitute an absence of perfection?

Nor does he shy away from hot button issues. He notes that Hashem curses Chava – "your desire will be towards your husband, and yet he can rule over you" – in almost the same terms He uses to describe the yetzer hara to Kayin, just before the latter murders Hevel - ". . . its desire is unto you, yet you can rule over it." What are we to make of the apparent analogy of Chava to the yetzer hara?

Rabbi Fohrman’s answer avoids apologetics. He explores the text in conjunction with a Midrash that mentions two additional teshukahs to that of Chava for Adam and the yetzer hara for Kayin: Hashem’s teshukah for humanity, and rain’s teshukah for the land (not vice versa). The Midrash forces us to redefine teshukah, not in terms of need, but as an overflowing life-force – a view that both gives us a clear view of the relationship between masculinity and femininity and a far subtler understanding of the yetzer hara.

The yetzer hara is not a “devil in a bright red suit,” but the sum total of one's desires, passions, and ambitions -- particularly the desire to create (yetzeris a variant of yotzer, to create). Thus, Chazal describe Torah as the tavlin (spice) for the yetzer hara, indicating that the yetzer hara is the "meat" of life. Now we can begin to comprehend what Chazal meant when they said that Hashem's approbation of man as “tov me'od (very good)” refers to the creation of the yetzer hara.

The insights in the book derive from highly nuanced readings of the texts. Over and over again, Rabbi Fohrman notes “obvious questions” – ones we would come up with on our own if we paid adequate attention when reading Chumash.

In a particularly fascinating section early in the book, for example, Rabbi Fohrman points out what appears to be a long digression in the Etz HaDaas Story. After the initial description of the two trees in the Garden of Eden, and before Chava's dialogue with the Snake, there is an extended section on the creation of Chava and man’s attempt to name all the animals. Why add this section in at precisely this juncture? Why not start with Adam's failure to find a suitable companion among the animals, continue with the creation of Chava, and then tell the story of the planting of the trees and the eating of the fruit consecutively?

Rabbi Fohrman shows that the apparent “digression” supplies the missing motivation for the Snake. Adam's rejection of the animals as suitable companions forms the necessary backdrop to understanding the Snake's actions: The Snake sought, in the words of the Midrash, to kill Adam and claim Chava for himself – in other words, to reclaim mankind for the animal kingdom. Rabbi Fohrman not only answers a difficult series of questions here, he also demonstrates the acuity with which Chazal addressed the text.

In a subtle analysis of the ways Chava changed Hashem's prohibition against eating from the Tree of Good and Knowledge, Rabbi Fohrman shows how desire overcomes us: by overstating the importance of the object of desire – Chava moves the Tree to the "center" of the Garden; by minimizing the significance of what is permitted – Chava omits Hashem’s permission to eat of "all" the other trees; by overstating the extent of what is prohibited – Chava adds a prohibition on "touching" the tree; and by trivializing the consequences of giving into desire – Chava does not mention that the death will become an immediate and inevitable reality on the very day of eating.

Above all, The Beast that Crouches at the Door is an extended meditation on what it means to be human and the nature of desire. What is it that distinguishes the primordial Snake, which can speak, walk upright, and construct logical arguments, from a human being? The answer lies in the Snake’s challenge to Chava, as interpreted by Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch: "Even if G-d said do not eat from any of the trees of the Garden, [so what]?" (Genesis 3:1). Didn't He also create your desires and instincts? Why not listen to those; aren’t they the authentic voice of God as well?

The argument is a natural one for a Snake – for animals really do “listen” to HaShem by following their instincts. What distinguishes humans from animals, though, is that we hear a different voice of Hashem; we hear God’s commandments, which require us to take our desires and make something more out of them.

Adam and Chava's failure to adhere realize fully what it means to be human led directly to Kayin's murder of Hevel -- not just chronologically, but thematically. Like Adam, Kayin experiences exile, difficulty wresting a livelihood from the earth, and hiding from Hashem, only in a more intensified form. By letting his passions overcome him, Kayin has become “animal-like” himself. As Rashi tells us, after the murder, he immediately fears being killed by his "fellow" animals, whom he senses will no longer experience the natural awe of animals for humans. And he is killed by Lemech after being mistaken for an animal.

Every page of The Beast that Crouches at the Door is filled with such delights, as previously overlooked depths of meaning stand revealed. Every reader will immediately want to buy several more copies to share with loved ones.
This article appeared in the Mishpach on November 22 2007.

Read other articles by Jonathan Rosenblum at Jewish Media Resources

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