I am tired of biblical commentaries that sound the same. Operating within the limitation of accepting all the main interpretations of previous generations, weekly commentators today sometimes seem like they all inevitably arrive at similar conclusions. And then someone breaks through that false image and shows how to be creative within boundaries.
R. Mosheh Lichtenstein made news a few years ago by arguing, against many of his colleagues, that biblical commentary must build on the midrashic framework rather than start fresh from the text. He did so himself in his book Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People. R. Lichtenstein’s premise is de rigeur in most Orthodox circles yet his creative handiwork in piecing together a coherent and novel approach from the variant interpretations sets him apart.
R. Ari Kahn, in his recent Echoes of Eden, follows suit (note that I was involved in the book’s publication). R. Kahn studied under R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik and maintains a close relationship with R. Aharon Lichtenstein. It is, therefore, unsurprising that his approach matches that of R. Mosheh Lichtenstein. However, he was also influenced by R. Aryeh Kaplan and even edited some of the posthumously published second volume of Handbook of Jewish Thought. I assume that this is what opened his canon beyond midrash and traditional commentaries to include kabbalistic texts. R. Kahn absorbs the kabbalistic midrashim, interpretations from obscure mystical texts, and blends them seamlessly into his Soloveitchikian/Lichtensteinian approach.
This all seems too much for one book yet R. Kahn brilliantly succeeds in this daring collage. His book contains two essays on each weekly reading in Genesis. Every essay addresses a new topic. This genre has been done a thousand times over yet R. Kahn’s contribution is remarkably original. Using midrash, both from standard and kabbalistic texts, he psychologizes the biblical characters, looking into their motivations and reactions, and symbolizes them, attributing to them philosophical and theological significance beyond their personal identities, and with all that usually finds a message relevant to today.
On the section of Noach, writers find fertile ground when dealing with the sinning majority, the saving of Noach, his downfall or the tower of Bavel. R. Kahn, in his first essay, asks who Noach’s wife was. The answer, Rashi (Gen. 4:22) tells us, is Na’amah. R. Kahn devotes an essay to exploring her heritage, which requires investigating various family tree passages and using midrash and kabbalistic texts to complete her ancestry. When R. Kahn is done, we see a continuation of the Kayin-Hevel episode through the generations and we learn why so many people have names similar to Hevel. Na’amah was the daughter of Lemekh and his trophy-wife Tzillah; she was the culmination of Kayin’s family line. Yet despite her ancestry and upbringing — “born in hedonism and selfishness, heir to the dubious legacy of violence passed down from Kayin” — she became Noach’s righteous wife who was worthy of saving, unique among people. After learning about the post-Adam generations and Cham’s violation of Noach after the Flood, we understand Na’amah’s incredible story of teshuvah, overcoming her upbringing.
The story of Yosef and his brothers in Egypt is full of difficult conversations. Accusations of spying and theft are met with non-parallel answers that serve as weak defenses. On close reading, it is hard to understand the flow of discussion. R. Kahn resolves this by positing that Yosef had a plan and was manipulating his brothers in order to elicit specific brotherly reactions. Carefully reading the text and getting into Yosef’s brain, R. Kahn shows how each step in the conversation leads to the next until Yosef is overwhelmed with emotion and reveals his identity. Yosef was not looking to exact revenge on his brothers but to remind them that there was someone they had forgotten; he wanted them to seek him. Unfortunately, they never did.
Why did Rivkah fall off her camel when she first approached Yitzchak (Gen. 24:64)? Rivkah left the corrupt world of Lavan to enter the pure world of Avraham and Yitzchak. The midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 109) says that when Rivkah first saw Yitzchak, she prophecied that she would give birth to the wicked Esav, which caused her to fall. As she was finally entering a holy life, she learned of her unholy progeny. Kabbalistic texts connect Rivkah’s ordeal with Chava’s sin in the garden of Eden. Ever since that sin, evil is inevitable, even among the righteous. Esav will always exist; the echoes of Eden will continue to reverberate. Ya’akov’s job is to confront evil, to persevere and continue in the battle against all that is bad in the world.
Rather than focusing on Avraham’s actions and intentions when tying Yitzchak to the altar, R. Kahn explores Yitzchak’s experience. The midrash (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 30) states that Yitzchak, when tied to the altar, actually died but his soul returned when God called out not to touch him. Given the place and time of this event, we see a connection to sacrifices brought in the Temple centuries later. Just like Yitzchak, a sinner bringing a sacrifice is all-but-dead, living with a Divine death sentence. The sacrifice acts like Yitzchak’s death and frees him from his liability. He, too, is resurrected. The Temple’s service gives hope when all hope is lost. It restores people’s future, offering them a new beginning like Yitzchak had.
R. Kahn weaves together Scripture, midrash and a rationalist reading of kabbalistic texts. In his capable hands, the biblical characters become alive with human feelings and concerns, yet remain revered as righteous symbols of future events and theological theme. Within this paradoxical web of contradicting approaches, R. Kahn’s brilliance shatters all barriers and renders a coherent and sensitive reading that is true to his sources and delightful to his readers. Each essay is a crushing force of originality that resolves difficult midrashic questions with broad connections and overarching theories. There are many parashah books on the market, but few will challenge and reward you like this one.