January 2019 MESSAGE FROM RABBI ARNOW
One of my favorite things to do is prepare for Torah Talk. I love opening up the Etz Hayim Chumash, and just reading through that week’s portion, until I find a few words I don’t understand, or a detail I never noticed, or something that seems interesting or unclear.
I’ll open up a Mikraot Gedolot, a “Great Scriptures,” an edition of the Torah with lots of classic commentaries on it to see if there’s much on the thing I’ve noticed. Sometimes, no one says anything about it, but more often than not, there’s conversation on the page about something related to the verse or verses I’ve taken interest in.
Sometimes, I’ll be looking at the midrash on the parasha, and see something fascinating, and be interested to see what later commentators do with it. Other times, I’ll see where one of my favorite commentators’ comments on the portion, and then see what their comment responds to, and who responds to them.
At some point, once I realize there’s enough there, I’ll start a new document on the computer, and paste the verse into the document in Hebrew and English, and look at a few different translations to see if there are differences. I start to notice some of the irregularities and peculiarities of the verse. I’ll type in any interesting translations, to help provide a sense of the semantic range of the verse or phrase I’m looking at.
Usually, I look first at modern commentaries. Often they’ll refer to ancient and medieval commentaries, but frequently they’ll give a very different perspective than anything older might. I’ll type into the document on my computer salient, different comments, and then start to look, usually in chronological order, at ancient and medieval Jewish commentaries. I often start with midrash, and the Aramaic translation of the Torah.
To look at ancient commentaries in a systematic way, I’ll use the Bar Ilan Responsa Project, a database on a flash drive that has almost all of Jewish religious literature in Hebrew on it. I’ll look at the medieval commentaries, and refer to the translations on my own bookshelf, and copy and paste text from Bar Ilan and type in translations I have from books, or translate myself, when necessary. As I’m typing or translating, I’m focusing intently on the comment, and really coming to understand it. Also, every time I input a comment, I type out a little biographical information (full name, dates, location) of the commentator, and just from doing that repeatedly, I’m getting to know that information by heart. There’s something neat about realizing that I might be the first person ever to translate a particular comment into English!
I try to find comments that don’t all say the same thing, and that offer different perspectives or nuances. I’ll also check Sefaria.org, a fabulous free online Jewish text library for whatever might be on there but not in the other database. I’ll look at a few books I have that are not online at all.
Once I’m confident I have everything relevant, I’ll start putting the comments in an order—sometimes in chronological order. Sometimes though, I group the comments thematically. I remember once, I put Rashi, the most classic commentator, last, because what he said was so discontinuous with what everyone else said, and came as an enormous surprise to everyone.
I’ll then write questions for each source, thinking about what they add to the tapestry of interpretation on the page. Last, I’ll number the sources, and then in a separate document, type out answers to my own questions, so I remember what I was thinking.
This is all to say, come to Torah Talk, most Shabbat mornings at 10:10am in the social hall!