Wednesday, February 01, 2023

There were so many excellent books out there this year for the Jewish reader.

I picked four of the most recent selections I’ve had the privilege of reading. Each one of them “spoke” to me personally and helped me with a better understanding of the parsha, Passover or Israel.

  1. “Essays on Ethics, A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible,” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. (2016) Maggid Books. An imprint of Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, Ltd. Hardcover. 384 pages. ISBN-10: 159264449X.

This is one of the books you’d want to have in your library when it comes to a further exploration of the weekly parsha.

Rabbi Sacks, a prolific author with keen insight, writes in the book’s introduction of seven features of Jewish ethics. They include “The dignity of the individual,” “Human freedom,” “The sanctity of life,” “Guilt not shame,” “Loyalty and love,” “The ethics of covenant,” “The dual covenant” and “The eclipse of biblical morality.”

Rabbi Sacks brings out messages in the parshiot that one might not have considered.

For example, in this week’s Parsha Vayishlah, he writes, “As I was writing this essay in the summer of 2014, Israel was engaged in a bitter struggle with Hamas in Gaza in which many people died. The state of Israel had no more desire to be engaged in this kind of warfare than did our ancestor Jacob. Throughout the campaign, I found myself recalling the words earlier in Parsha Vayishlah about Jacob’s feelings prior to his meeting with Esau. ‘Jacob was very afraid and distressed, about which the sages said, ‘Afraid, lest he be killed, distressed lest he be forced to kill.’ What the episode of Dina tells us is not that Jacob, or Simeon and Levi, were right, but rather that there can be situations in which there is no simple right course of action. Whatever you do will be considered wrong. Every option will involve the compromise of some moral principle.

“Shechem’s single act of violence against Dina forced two of Jacob’s sons into violent reprisal and in the end everyone was either contaminated or dead. It is indicative of the moral depth of the Torah that it does not hide this terrible truth from us by depicting one side as guilty, the other as innocent.

“Violence defiles us all. It did then. It does now.”

  1. “The Exodus You Almost Passed Over,” by Rabbi David Fohrman. (2016) Aleph Beta Press. Hardcover. 312 pages.ISBN-10: 0997347600.

Rabbi David Fohrman is a master author at making readers understand and really relate to the subjects and people he writes about. Years ago when he lived in Baltimore, I had Rabbi Fohrman as a scholar-in-residence at Congregation Tiferes Yisroel. We are still talking about his mastery of Torah, and how he makes it relatable to everyone who hears him.

“The Exodus You Almost Passed Over” is required reading when it comes to a different way of looking at the Exodus.

He writes in a way that makes the reader get a possible glimpse of what each of the major Exodus subjects, Hashem, Pharoah and Moses, were thinking. Right from the start he’s asking us to imagine what God was thinking in delivering the enslaved Jews from bondage. How is this task accomplished?

But wade through the book—there’s more. How Pharoah and Moses relate and the nuances of Pharoah’s response to Moses and Hashem are brought out through Rabbi Fohrman’s work.

This is an enjoyable read. Rabbi Fohrman turns the Exodus into a personal story. That feeling about our entire people “being there” really comes through. Not that we’re looking for something easy to read, but Rabbi Fohrman’s work here is chatty, almost conversational, and well done. It for sure will give you more to add at your Passover seders this year. And while it’s only December, it’s never too soon to learn more and prepare. Rabbi Fohrman’s work will get you ready.

  1. “Person in the Parasha, Discovering the Human Element in the Weekly Torah Portion,” By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Executive Vice President Emeritus, Orthodox Union. (2016) Koren Publishers, Jerusalem. Hardcover. 648 pages. ISBN-10: 1592644627.

So, a personal story first. Sometime ago in the late-1980s, my car broke down on a cold day in the parking lot of a Dunkin Donuts. The engine in the red Nissan Sentra wouldn’t turn over.

I decided to let the engine settle for a while. This was before cell phones. I was heading into the shop to call AAA, when a man I didn’t know came over to me and asked me if he could give me a lift home.

At the time, I wasn’t living in the heart of the Orthodox community like I do now. Fact is, I was several miles away in a suburb. The man offered to drive me all the way home. When I got in his car, he held out his hand and introduced himself.

I was sitting in Rabbi Weinreb’s car. He drove miles out of his way to get me home.

I was a young journalist, working for the Baltimore Jewish Times. He was the spiritual leader of Baltimore’s Shomrei Emunah and would lead his congregation to unprecedented growth in his 13 years there prior to coming to the Orthodox Union.

He was a voice of reason and clarity in an often hectic world.

I’ve spent many a Tisha B’Av watching his online shiurim. And like many of you, I’ve read his columns and writings through the years.

We read from the words of a rabbi, a psychotherapist and a person who reaches many of us through his calm and clarity. That he would connect many of his insights to the parsha was always something to look forward to.

Rabbi Weinreb is not afraid to take on difficult issues that we face in our own lives, be it parenting, grief, aging or just about anything involving personal relationships.

The book is a collection of his essays. As we head into Chanukah’s seasons of lights, this is the book that will shine a light on so many issues impacting all of us.

For some of us, that impact started on the level of a broken down car and the offer of a ride home.

  1. “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn,” By Daniel Gordis. (2016)

HarperCollins Publishers. Hardcover. 560 pages. ISBN-10: 0062368745.

Daniel Gordis is the senior vice president of Shalem College and a Jerusalem Post and Bloomberg View columnist. This book, his 11th, is the type of volume one wants to offer someone who wants a history of Israel that can be read in a short time (546 pages) and give them a clear picture of how the dream of Theodore Herzl turned into a thriving Jewish homeland.

Gordis doesn’t just depend on the narrative of the history of Israel; he pins that history to fact. He writes about the beauty of the nation, while also taking on some of its difficult issues.

This is the book on Israel, however, that should be required reading for that synagogue mission taking many first-timers to Israel and even for Birthright’s young adults.

There are ample reviews of this book on the web, but reading this book ahead of the reviews will give the reader the most clarity without the distraction of pros and cons.

Gordis wrote this book for a friend, a leader of a Jewish organization, who wanted to give a group he was bringing to Israel a history they could manage with a reasonably quick read.

It is not so much quick as it is wonderfully complete. Also, Gordis does an admirable job of intermingling aspects of Israeli culture and its people throughout the political and historical milestones the author would naturally cover.

By Phil Jacobs


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