May 18, 2024
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A Deep Dive Into the Parshiot

Reviewing: “Parashah Sheleimah for Sefer Bereshis” by Rabbi Allen Schwartz. Mosaica Press. Hardcover. $24.99.

There are many available books written on the weekly Torah portion. Most feature a specific style or method from the author. However, Rabbi Allen Schwartz breaks that mold in his “Parashah Sheleimah on Sefer Bereshis.” Each parsha contains some connection to the four amidahs of Shabbat, offers a greater understanding of a unique word contained within the weekly portion, connects to seminal life events, provides a general introduction to both the portion from the Torah and the accompanying Haftorah portion, and multiple methods of understanding.

Each chapter contains a Friday night section, which connects an aspect of the parsha to the concept from that night’s Tefillah, that the purpose of creation was Shabbat. The next section provides an introduction to the Torah portion in connection to the Shabbat morning Tefillah, which mentions that Moshe should be happy in his portion. This is followed by the introduction to the Haftorah, which allows the reader to see what the rabbis highlighted from that week’s portion, which was elaborated on and further explained by the Navi. This is followed by a derashah, “the main homiletic exposition of the parsha with a more global message in the realm of d’rash.”

The next section leads into some mussar to be taken from the portion, highlighting an ethical lesson one can internalize from that week’s portion. Then lifecycle sections are followed with a piece of Torah related to birth, then b’nei Mitzvah and marriage. This is then followed by the affirmation that Hashem is One and His name is One, in relation to seudah shlishit. Finally, Rabbi Schwartz finishes off with a word on the parsha, a peculiar word that is infrequent in Tanach. This is what occupies the 10 sections contained in each weekly portion.

Any of the sections can be utilized for their own purpose. For example, one need not prepare for a wedding by reading the section for seudat shlishit. Rather, one can focus on one area and cull out the situation-specific reason for which you are searching. As a commentary on the Torah portion, however, one is able to study the weekly portion in a whole sense, through the prism of the sages, at different levels of understanding of the text, and enhance one’s Shabbat with time-specific moments. The rabbi does a terrific job explaining the ideas presented in the midrashim. He additionally displays his expertise in Neviim and Ketuvim, as he brings complementary verses to help understand the weekly sedra.

The years of Rabbi Schwartz teaching Bible in Yeshiva University is on full display, as his observant notes of peculiarities in the text allow the reader to understand insights of chazal, and recognize the difficulties that lay in the verse. He shows the connection between the text of the Torah and the midrash. In addition, the reader comes away with foundational principles provided by the commentators. For instance, Rabbi Schwartz presents a rule learned from Ibn Ezra, that gematria does not have a place in the pshat of the pasuk. He shares that the spacing in the Torah marks the pauses afforded to Moshe to contemplate the Torah that he was receiving.

Rabbi Schwartz provides this work for novices in addition to the serious Torah student. He is able to present academically challenging material in an approachable way. He lets the messages resonate with modern examples, for instance sharing connections between Noah’s flood and the experience of European Jewry in the Holocaust.

Although this is a serious work, Rabbi Schwartz includes cute things, like everything I need to know about life, I learned from Noah’s Ark. Pithy statements—such as “If we do nothing wrong, we’re probably doing nothing, and that’s wrong” and “It is never too late to become the person you might have been”—prompt a smile and touch the heart. Proper perspective is presented: For instance, when a janitor at NASA was asked what his job was, he declared, “I am helping put a man on the moon.” Parenting advice from Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch is provided as well, highlighting the need for parents to have varied approaches that meet their children’s needs.

Throughout the book, certain themes are compared and contrasted with different incidents found in the Sefer Bereishit—and beyond—to highlight what is probably missed when read in isolation. Rabbi Schwartz contrasts shiras Hayam and Haazinu with Parshat Vayechi based on the spacing in the Torah. He points to the concept that parshiot begin with a new paragraph, with Vayechi as an exception. This stark contrast leads to a greater understanding of Parshat Vayechi.

The footnotes provide another story altogether, taking the reader on a path to teshuvos HaRashba, various Gemaras, academic publications, seemingly a quarter of Neviim, Mishna Torah, and various sources that lead the avid learner down an extended path.

Whether a person is looking for a book on parsha, a book on lifecycle events, a book of guided sources to continue their learning, or an offer to understand the book of Bereshit in depth, this sefer functions as a complete guide for many of life’s endeavors.

By Eliezer Barany

 

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