The Derashot haRan Essays We Deserve and the Ones We Got

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imageby R. Gidon Rothstein

The title of each installment entrances you, induces you to click or scroll, hooks you into following through to the end. The language floats you from word to word as the ideas infiltrate your being. When each piece ends, you wait impatiently for the next one, anxious for the new vision that will inform and infuse the rest of your life.

Prior essays in this series

I don’t think that’s what I produced. The gap between intention and result weighs on me, but it also provides an opportunity to think about where we are able to access interesting and important Jewish ideas, and where we deny ourselves that access, however interesting or important those ideas may be..

Meeting the Derashot

I was introduced to Derashot haRan by R. Yehuda Parnes, during my first year at YU. He would stop shiur early on Thursdays to examine a short piece of the Derashot. More than any specific content, I remember its whetting my appetite to understand the book as a whole. Enough that, years later, when I had the opportunity to choose a text for sustained study, I chose the Derashot.

By then, I had encountered academic discussions of sections in the course of graduate course work and readings, but no attempt to get at its overall aim, structure, or interests. Or even a discussion of whether those were relevant possibilities; it might have been a random collection of sermons.

That first time through, I prepared and presented it to a weekly shiur, section by section, wrote it up, and emailed each of the pieces. For me, it was striking oil, a source-based worldview that didn’t get caught up in technical philosophy or countering or defending Rambam. Rather, it made its own way to a rational metaphysics, a world in which nature operates meaningfully while leaving room for the real Presence and input of Hashem.

When giving in-person classes, I could see on people’s faces when I hadn’t been clear, could adapt on the fly to hold their attention and clarify what Ran was saying which—to me—was so interesting and which many of us had never seen before.

Not Quite Succeeding

In writing, I lack that educational tool. Converting what I said to writing that first time through, I worked for clarity and consistency. Still, Ran’s many tangents were so enlightening and stimulating, I felt I had to include them.

Readers—bright, intelligent, successful people—told me they had trouble following. The emails were also long, longer than I would dare send now.

I chalked up the misfire to my ineptness, of writing and presentation, leaving a hole I wanted to fill, a failure I wanted to rectify, a sin towards Ran I wanted to atone.  That’s why when R. Gil Student and I were discussing long-term projects for Torah Musings, I jumped at the chance to do Ran better. This time, I told him, I was going to keep each piece short, as close to a thousand words as possible (I don’t think any were over 1200 words), was going to avoid digressions, and frame the discussion to show how the issues Ran raised can shape our perceptions today of ourselves, our world, and Hashem’s role in all of it.

I worked hard, too, going over the material and what I had written several times before submitting. Yet I don’t think I succeeded all that much more than the first time. As I put the book aside until the next time it comes around in my life, I want to mull this repeat failure, where my conscious efforts to do it better had less affect than I’d hoped.

Point the Finger at Yourself First

The first place to look, obviously, is my writing. As I worked on this essay, I started reading a style manual, one of the many books that show people how to become better writers. It reminded me that vigorous prose does more than present ideas clearly and concisely; I have, over time, come to favor being sure that I said what I had to say in ways readers could understand, and do so in as few words as possible, to impose as little as possible on their time.

My sense is that this wasn’t enough to draw people to Ran. No matter how confident I am of the light he sheds on deep questions of how we live our lives, readers wanted or needed more than presentations that were short (although I’ve been told even these thousand words were long), clear, and explicit about relevance.

As a personal matter, that returns Ran to one of my many Great Whites, the projects I thought I could do well but have not yet found the way to do so.

How Good Does Writing Have To Be?

But it also raises a question I think is worth all of our whiles to consider. Growing up, I found many speakers boring. When I began reading serious nonfiction—Torah, academic, or other—much of that was boring as well.

It seemed to me that that was unfortunate and the responsibility of the speaker or writer. It wasn’t enough to have a good idea, to feel you’ve grasped some truth of the world and want to share it. You had to go a step further, present it in a way that didn’t turn off listeners or readers.

I set that as a goal, to learn to do it well enough that it wasn’t hard for people hearing or reading me to access those ideas. I believe I’ve largely gotten there, in my speaking and writing. Readers who made their way through what I’d written didn’t find it a chore.

The rub is in generating the desire to make readers’ way through material, and there there’s a balance I’m not sure we always note.  Some writers and speakers can make the arcane exciting. Good for them (or, more accurately, I’m jealous of them).

But what about ideas not easily or readily transformed into something juicy? Ran is a good example, but by far not the only one. What if he has something to say, is in fact important for Jews to hear and use in their lives, yet expressed himself in a way which, however accessible it might have been in his time, is no longer such in ours?

An extreme answer would be to say that it’s tough on us; if there are important ideas out there, we should, each of us, find them, learn them, and absorb them. My disappointment this time through Ran’s Derashot comes from the dual fact that even going one step closer, rendering ideas in a way that is more accessible to those willing to engage was not yet enough.

The Forbes Magazine View

Coincidentally– if there is such a thing– as I was struggling with how to express myself, I read “A Bold Look at Moore’s Law” by Rich Karlgaard, the publisher at Forbes. He was reviewing Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler (Simon & Schuster), and closes with this quote of Diamandis, explaining when a technology is ready to take off and become essential:  “For me, the most important telltale factor is the development of a simple and elegant user interface–a gateway of effortless interaction that plucks a technology from the hands of the geeks and deposits it with entrepreneurs.”

This time through Ran’s Derashot taught me that, in many areas of Jewish life, we need to find the gateway of effortless interaction. We need a vehicle that plucks Torah from the hands of those willing and able to put in time and effort, and transform it into something effortless and immediately rewarding for wider benefit.

Next time around, God willing.

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