Mordechai Silverstein
Mordechai Silverstein

The Shared Task of Understanding Torah

The study of the interpretation of texts is call “hermeneutics” and is a pertinent subject as we begin another year of reading the Torah. We are often concerned with trying to get at the intent of the Author when we read the Torah. We call this the search for the “pshat” or plain meaning of the text. We sometimes forget though that the reader also acts as a second “author” of the text. In the Jewish tradition, the sacred texts are said to have layers of meaning. Midrash is a second layer of meaning largely based upon answering textual curiosities and using them as a means for infusing the text with relevance for the “new” author. These interpretations are both deeply rooted in the text and tradition but also reflect “hiddush” – new reflections or interpretations.

In a widely heralded and controversial book, L’nevukhei Hador, which was left unpublished for close to a century, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, Israel’s first Ashkenazic chief rabbi, noted clearly that where Scripture conflicted with science, it was the responsibility of the generation’s sages to reevaluate how they understood Scripture. What seems controversial in this statement should not have raised an eyebrow. Anyone who studies the midrashim on the creation story in Genesis chapter 1 as found in Bereishit Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic midrashim from the period of the Talmud, would see that the sages already engaged in these sorts of reinterpretations intuitively.

This is readily apparent from the get go even in its first midrash on the opening word of the Torah – “Bereishit”: The midrash declares in the name of the Torah: “‘I was the working tool of the Holy One Blessed be He.’ It is the way of the world, when an earthly king builds a palace, he builds it not with his own skills but with the skills of an architect. The architect, moreover, does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to plan the chambers and the doorways. So, too, God consulted the Torah and created the world, while the Torah declared: ‘In the beginning (b’reishit) God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1) – “Beginning” referring to Torah, as in the verse: ‘The Lord made me as the beginning (reishit) of His way’ (Proverbs 8:22)” (Bereishit Rabbah 1:1)

In brief, this little vignette seeks to resolves two questions; one concerning the meaning of the word “bereishit” and the other, to frame the significance of the creation story so that it conforms to what made sense to the author of this midrash. Building on the science of his time, he knew that proper building projects require plans. The upshot of this is that for the world to be a worthy “building project”, it must have been planned out before building. What plans did God use? Well, since as the Sages saw it, the Torah is the source of eternal wisdom, the Torah must have served as the plans. (The Sages postulated that the Torah contains all of the secrets of the universe.) To top this off, the sages found a verse in Proverbs where “wisdom” is called “reishit – beginning”. This allowed them to toy with the opening verse of the Torah and read it: “With the Torah, God created…”

In sum, the bottom-line here, is that we, the loyal readers of the Torah share the task of interpreting the Torah so that it will continually shine a light to guide us on our way.


About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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