Jewish Journal


October 19, 2006

Guide to Torah fleshes out flat characters in stories


"Between the Lines of the Bible: A Study From the New School of Orthodox Torah Commentary," by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom (Yashar Books)

Besotted with Torah.

That's the phrase that springs to mind when reading Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom's "Between the Lines of the Bible: A Study From the New School of Orthodox Torah Commentary." The title is somewhat academic, and I have to admit that it does not make the book sound user-friendly. But make no mistake, this lovely and lively volume is a valuable addition to traditional Torah study and to the layman's library.

One of the first maxims any budding Torah scholar learns is: Aseh L'cha rav -- find yourself a teacher. For it is understood that no one can study Torah alone. The corridors of Torah study are an endless maze that can only lead to confusion and frustrating dead ends. Everyone needs a guide, and even the most brilliant talmudic students in the finest yeshivas must have a study partner.

Etshalom's book cannot replace a study partner; no single book can do that. I'm sure that Etshalom would agree with me on this point, but his book is not meant to do that. Etshalom's book is meant as a sort of introductory field guide to Torah.

Let's admit something right away: When we read the narratives in the Torah, we often say to ourselves, "Gee willikers, this story is really weird; this narrative makes no sense. Do people really act this way? Did people ever act this way?"

This is why you have to study with a teacher. This is why you have to scrutinize the text using Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of 11th century France), the greatest of all commentators, so that you can, as Etshalom says, read between the lines.

I'm a screenwriter and novelist. I think in terms of fully realized characters. I insist on the primacy of characters that act and think in coherent ways, with what's called in the trade: internal logic. I'm also conditioned to think in terms of plots that work in three acts and have setups and payoffs. I look for stories that end with neat fades to black; stories that are tidily resolved with no narrative problems left dangling. This rarely happens in the Torah.

Thus, reading the stories in the Torah can be a frustrating experience. So much is left unsaid. Biblical dialogue is so spare it makes Hemingway look positively chatty. But in truth, the bare bones tales are without literary peer -- the basis for almost all Western literature. Etshalom uses traditional Torah sources, plus some of the newer disciplines of archaeology, philology, Assyriology, Egyptology, anthropology and literary theory to disclose the internal logic of the characters and to reveal the full magnificence and truth of the Torah narratives. He's like a hugely gifted screenwriter filling out a skimpy outline stage by stage (on occasion, Etshalom even refers to the biblical characters as "actors") so that finally the director can see the epic that he is going to shoot.

In his passionate and eye-opening second chapter, "Entering the Character's World," Etshalom analyzes the story of Joseph and his brothers. Here Etshalom introduces the reader to his principal methodology of parshanut -- understanding the portions:

"The first principle of parshanut is that we, the reader, are far more knowledgeable than any of the characters whose lives are unfolding before us, if only because we know how every story will end. We also have access to the plans, fears, and background of all of the players, whereas each player only knows -- beyond himself -- what he is allowed to learn. To properly understand the text, to be properly surprised or impressed by anyone's actions, we must keep this in mind by entering, one at a time, the mindset of each character. This will allow us to solve a mystery surrounding the story of Joseph, the Dream Interpreter."
This is just beautiful. Etshalom is determined to take the seemingly flat characters off the pages of the Torah and invest them with three-dimensional qualities.

Here are just a few of the questions he poses about the Joseph cycle: Why did Joseph tell his brothers about his dream? He already had a tempestuous relationship with them. Surely he knew that telling these dreams would only make things worse. Joseph is confident in his ability to interpret dreams.

Where did he get such confidence? After all, previously, he was just a dreamer. It was his brothers and his father who interpreted his dreams.

Why did Jacob send nearly all of his sons down to Egypt? Why didn't Jacob just send his servants and one or two brothers?

How would bringing Benjamin to Egypt prove the honesty of the brothers of Joseph? "Between the Lines" covers a great deal of territory in surprising depth. We get a penetrating analysis of the "Rape of Dinah" and the subsequent revenge upon the city of Shechem by the brothers Simeon and Levi.

Dueling sharply and with a sniper's deadly aim, Etshalom takes on the grim and joyless Bible critics using the two creation stories, the two flood stories and the settling the land narrative. His chapter on Sodom and Gomorrah is a masterpiece of biblical interpretation. On the edge of my seat, I felt like I was back in yeshiva grade school, trying and finally comprehending the fiery end of this wicked city.

Etshalom is smitten with the particulars of each and every character in the Torah; this rhapsodic volume is not some dry academic exercise. The passionate author faithfully explains and transmits knowledge so that both scholar and layman will more fully understand the Torah narratives and thus, become intellectually wiser -- and spiritually richer.

Robert J. Avrech is a member of Young Israel of Century City and attends the early minyan led by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom. He is also an Emmy award-winning screenwriter whose films include "The Devil's Arithmetic," "A Stranger Among Us" and "Body Double." His novel "The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden" received the Notable Children's Book of Jewish Content Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries. He writes about Hollywood, politics and his family on his award-winning blog, seraphicpress.com.

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