Chumash Musings

Rav Itzeleh Volozhiner and the Bi’ur

Rav Itzeleh (Yitzchak) Volozhiner succeeded his father as rosh yeshiva of the premier yeshiva in Europe. A Torah scholar and famous orator, he also served as a leading representative of the Jews to the Russian Czar. Rav Itzeleh Volozhiner was royalty in the yeshiva world, the son of Rav Chaim Volozhiner with descendants that include the Netziv and the Soloveitchik ...

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How Hard Is a Hardened Heart?

by R. Gil Student I. Hardened Hearts When God hardens a heart, shouldn’t that mean that the person whose heart is hardened cannot repent? While reading the beginning of the weekly Torah portion of Bo, I was struck that this does not seem true. God tells Moshe that He hardened the hearts of Pharaoh and his servants: ”And the LORD ...

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Texts: Reuven and Bilhah

by R. Gil Student The Torah (Gen. 35:22) briefly tells how Reuven lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine-wife. Ostensibly, this seems like an act of great disrespect for his father as well as an act of some form of adultery. In Ya’akov’s last words to his sons, he decries Reuven’s having mounted his (Ya’akov’s) bed (Gen. 49:4). That seems to ...

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Angels and Afterlife

by R. Gil Student I. Angels and Visions The Torah speaks explicitly about angels but gives little detail about these supernatural creatures. A debate about these biblical narratives reflects not only different understandings about the nature of angels but also about other crucial concepts. According to Jewish tradition, Avraham is visited by three angels (Gen. 18:1). Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 2:42; ...

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Long Biblical Lives

by R. Gil Student The biblical lists of generations include descriptions of very long lives. For example, Adam lived 930 years (Gen. 5:5), Noach 950 (9:29), and the longest — Mesushelach 969 (5:27). How do we relate to these descriptions of longevity, well beyond anything we can expect of human beings? Two approaches emerge from Medieval Jewish commentary. I. Theories ...

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Koheles and Political Struggle

by R. Gil Student Who wrote Koheles, the biblical book of Ecclesiastes? The traditional answer to the question of Koheles’ authorship is Shlomo HaMelech, King Solomon, who according to tradition wrote Shir HaShirim, Koheles and Mishlei (Koheles Rabbah 1:1), which were copied and finalized by Chizkiyahu and his counterparts (Bava Basra 15a). My question is not which person wrote Koheles, ...

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Bilam’s Biblical Critics

by R. Gil Student The story of Bilam (Num. 22) is one of the narratives of the Torah where the text’s literary and psychological brilliance are most evident. The text’s subtleties have cause biblical critics to suggest that the text has different underlying sources. For example, Jacob Milgrom (JPS Torah Commentary, Numbers, Excursus 57, p. 468) writes: The opening segment ...

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A New Look at Esther

by R. Gil Student The book of Esther reads like a novella—palace intrigue, bad marriages, military danger, sudden reversal of fortunes. However, from that perspective, the last two chapters seem out of place, focused as they are on legal details. The truth is that the entire book contains multiple layers of narrative, law, religious guidance and more. For a commentary ...

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What is the Shekhinah?

by R. Gil Student I. Divine Presence The Bible and Talmud refer frequently to the Shekhinah, God’s presence, without explaining the term. This leaves students relying on their intuition. When informed by years of study, this intuitive understanding usually fares well. However, historically, some people have reached theologically dangerous conclusions on these matters, leading important thinkers to explain this term ...

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Yael’s Exploits With Sisera

by R. Gil Student The Gemara seemingly unnecessarily attributes to Yael surprising exploits in a successful effort to destroy an enemy. The Bible says that Sisera, the enemy general, fled his lost battle and hid in the tent of his ally, Chever the Kenite. Chever’s wife, Yael, greeted him and offered him shelter. She covered him with a blanket and, ...

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