By Robin Jacobson.
Around the world, Torah scrolls will unfurl this May to the concluding portions of Leviticus (Vayikra) and then reach Numbers (Bamidbar). And, just in time, Torah scholars Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Dr. Avivah Zornberg have published new commentaries on Leviticus and Numbers, to the delight of their legions of fans. Look for Leviticus: The Book of Holiness (Sacks) and Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers (Zornberg) in our library.
A prolific author, philosopher, and religious leader, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was Britain’s chief rabbi for 22 years until he supposedly “retired” in 2013. Busier than ever, Sacks is currently a professor of Jewish thought at two New York universities while continuing to speak and write widely on religion and morality.
Don’t skip the introduction to Leviticus: The Book of Holiness. Sacks makes a compelling case that Leviticus, despite its focus on animal sacrifices and ritual purity, speaks to timeless religious questions. How can finite humans relate to an infinite God? How can we recapture peak religious experiences on a regular basis? Rabbi Sacks deftly fuses the thinking of James Joyce, Henry David Thoreau, and a Talmudic sage to make the point that the rituals of Judaism – “its choreography of small steps and everyday deeds” – create “a series of epiphanies” in ordinary life.
The remainder of Sacks’s book consists of essays on the weekly Torah portions. For example, in “Thinking Fast and Slow” (on Aharei Mot), Sacks combines traditional sources with modern psychology to reflect on the personalities and choices of the twin brothers Jacob and Esau. If we want to live with purpose, says Sacks, we must choose to “think slow” and act deliberately like Jacob. We must “relinquish the Esau within us, the impulsiveness that can lead us to sell our birthright for a bowl of soup.”
Born in London, Avivah Zornberg grew up in Glasgow, Scotland, where her father was a rabbi and the head of the Rabbinical Court. She credits him with being her most important teacher of Torah. After receiving a PhD in English literature from Cambridge University, Zornberg taught English literature at Hebrew University. Then, 30 years ago, she began offering Torah classes at various Jerusalem institutions. Over time, her reputation for teaching and scholarship soared.
Reading Bewilderments is challenging. Zornberg repeatedly circles back to key passages to reinterpret them, using what she calls a “musical strategy.” Here is a sampling of some of her simpler commentary.
Numbers can be read as a “narrative of failure,” says Zornberg. God condemned the Israelites to a 40-year death march because they panicked when they heard the report of the “spies” or scouts on the Promised Land. While the spies described the Land as bountiful, they warned of fearsome inhabitants and fortified cities. Terrified of the prospect of war against a mighty enemy, the Israelites clamored to return to Egypt. They were ready, comments Zornberg, “to undo the miraculous work of the Exodus.”
Drawing on a lovely midrash, Zornberg contrasts the faithless multitude with the faithful daughters of Tzelofchad. These five sisters claimed the right, in the absence of male heirs, to inherit their father’s share in the Land, confident that the Israelites would reach it. Unlike the men who longed to return to Egypt, the sisters believed in a future in the Land of Israel. No wonder that God praised the sisters and granted their request. This is one of the small midrashic pearls that Zornberg polishes for appreciative readers.