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Studying Torah: Commentary, Interpretation, Translation.

THE FIRST PORTION OF THE TORAH HAS A DOUBLE ROLE: it conveys its own story, and it sets the context of the entire Torah. The Torah's stories have been observed to be rich in background, as opposed to, for example, the epic poems of Homer. In Homer each episode is self-contained: all the information that a reader needs is provided then and there, and all action is in the foreground. That is fine, but it is not the way of the Torah. To read the Torah at any level beyond "Sunday school," one must have a sense of the whole when one reads the parts. To comprehend what happens in the exodus and in the revelation at Sinai, you have to know what has happened in Genesis 1. Like some films that begin with a sweeping shot that then narrows, so the first chapter of Genesis moves gradually from a picture of the skies and the earth down to the first man and woman. The story's focus will continue to narrow: from the universe to the earth to humankind to specific lands and peoples to a single family. (It will expand back out to nations in Exodus.) But the wider concern with skies and the entire earth that is established in the first portion will remain. When the story narrows to a singular divine relationship with Abraham, it will still be with the ultimate aim that this will be "a blessing to all the families of the earth. "Every biblical scene will be laden--artistically, theologically, psychologically, spiritually--with all that has come before. So when we read later of a man and his son going up a mountain to perform a fearful sacrifice, that moment in the history of a family is set in a cosmic context of the creation of the universe and the nature of the relationship between the creator and humankind. You can read the account of the binding of Isaac without being aware of the account of the creation or the account of the covenant between God and Abraham, but you lose something. The something that you lose-depth--is one of the essential qualities of the Torah.

The first portion initiates the historical flow of the Torah (and of the entire Tanakh). It establishes that this is to be a related, linear sequence of events through generations. That may seem so natural to us now that we find this point obvious and banal. But the texts of the Torah are the first texts on earth known to do this. The ancient world did not write history prior to these accounts. The Torah's accounts are the first human attempts to recount history. Whether one believes all or part or none of its history to be true is a separate matter. The literary point is that this had the effect of producing a text that was rich in background: every event carries the weight of everything that comes before it. And the historical point is that this was a new way to conceive of time and human destiny.

There is also a theological point: this was a new way to conceive of a God. The difference between the Torah's conception of God and the pagan world's conception is not merely arithmetic: one versus many. The pagan deities were known through their functions in nature: The sun god, Shamash, was the sun. If one wanted to know the essence of Shamash, the thing to do was to contemplate the sun. If you wanted to know the essence of the grain deity Dagon, you contemplated wheat. To know Yamm, contemplate the sea. But the God of the Torah was different, creating all of nature--and therefore not knowable or identifiable through any one element of nature. One could learn no more about this God by contemplating the sea than by contemplating grain, sky, or anything else. The essence of this God remains hidden. One does not know God through nature but by the divine acts in history. One never finds out what God is, but rather what God does--and what God says. This conception, which informs all of biblical narrative, did n ot necessarily have to be developed at the very beginning of the story, but it was. Parashat Bereshit establishes this by beginning with accounts of creation and by then flowing through the first ten generations of humankind. (Those "begat" lists are thus more important than people generally think.)

The Torah's theology is thus inseparable from its history and from its literary qualities. Ultimately, there is no such thing as "The Bible as Literature" or "The Bible as History" or "The Bible as ... anything." There is: the Bible.

The first book to be printed on the printing press in Hebrew was not the Bible but the Torah with the commentary of Rashi, for the Torah is not to be read, it is to be studied. To do this, one needs a teacher. Studying the Torah with Rashi's commentary is a joy because he shows what questions can be asked of a text. Look here! Is this a contradiction? Look here! This can have two opposite meanings. Which is right? Why does the Torah not tell us this piece of information that we need to understand the text? Why does it give us this fact that seems to be of no significance at first glance?

Rashi wrote his commentary nine hundred years ago. Recent commentaries for laypersons are different. They have been written as introductory notes to help explain the text and are often composite collections of comments from scholars of the past and from current biblical scholars. This is different from what Commentary meant classically. The purpose of Rashi's commentary and of Ibn Ezra's and Ramban's was to show the readers new things in the text, problems that they had not seen, or to address old problems that had not been solved--and then to offer the commentator's solutions to those problems. In this commentary, I mean to return to the classical purpose. I shall have some basic explanatory comments of help to the new student but, above all, I intend to try to offer explanations for old problems and to address new ones. I aim to shed new light on the Torah and, more important, to open windows through which it sheds its light on us.

There are new sources that were not available to the great medieval commentators. Through the archaeological revolution of the last two centuries, we have new knowledge of the biblical world, both of Israel and its neighbors. We know the languages that they spoke and wrote in addition to Hebrew and Aramaic: Akkadian, Canaanite (Ugaritic, Phoenician, Moabite), Egyptian, and Sumerian. We have hundreds of archaeological sites and tens of thousands of ancient texts. We have manuscripts of the Torah and of the entire Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, from Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) that are a thousand years older than those that Rashi had. We have the use of the Greek version (the Septuagint), which, together with the Qumran texts (and Samaritan and Aramaic and Latin texts), gives us a more precise knowledge of the original text. And we have the great commentators themselves. Their thinking and their conclusions are our starting point, enablingus to learn from them and then to go farther.

There has developed a kind of Rashi fundamentalism in recent years. Especially in orthodox communities, it is practically heresy to question whether Rashi was ever wrong. I think that Rashi himself might have been disappointed that it would come to that. The commentators who immediately followed him--Ibn Ezra, Ramban, and Rashi's grandson Rashbam--knew better. They expressed respect for Rashi, but they disagreed with and offered alternatives to his comments.

What Rashi and the other commentators taught us to do was to look at a text critically. They were teaching us to do philology: the art of reading well, reading with care, and thinking about what the words of the text mean. It is thus ironic that some people have become Rashi fundamentalists. They have learned not to read the Torah critically but to parrot the critical reading of Rashi. And they do not read Rash critically. Although Ibn Ezra and Ramban questioned Rashi and pointed out where they thought he was wrong, more recent generations of teachers have lost faith in their own knowledge and judgment, and so they risk failing to relate the Torah to the lives of their people. But something has happened in the present generation. There have been great scholars, and they have acquired new sources of information: archaeology, knowledge of the ancient Near East, literary sensitivity, and knowledge of the social sciences. And so it is time for new commentaries--not to replace the classical commentators, but to jo in them.

My commentary is meant to do that: to be in the tradition of the classical commentaries but to use this new learning. There are many volumes of such new commentary, but they are mainly on single books of the Bible, sometimes gathered into collections of volumes on the Torah or on the whole Bible. There have been few that follow the tradition of being a single scholar's commentary on the Torah as a whole. Some take the form of introductory footnotes on a translation. I mean to do the opposite: precisely to show how united and connected the whole Torah is, and to try, like the commentators who are our starting point, to relate it to life. In this respect the most useful part of my preparation for writing this commentary was to attend study groups for laypersons on the weekly reading of the Torah. Every week I attended one such group led by an orthodox rabbi and another led by a reform rabbi. And I had grown up studying with a conservative rabbi. Various commentaries were on the table when we studied. What I fou nd was that none of those commentaries was answering the kinds of questions that the people at the tables were asking.

I have been attracted to synthesis. A commentary, however, seems to be the opposite sort of human enterprise and thinking: a focus on the small, the individual insight, shedding light on the meaning of a single word, relating two adjacent passages. What I mean to do in this commentary is both: to interpret and shed light on individual words and passages--to try to find new solutions for classic problems, show cases of beauty of wording and profundity of thought--but also to show how intricately, how essentially connected all of it is, how logical its progression is, how essential the early stories are to what follows them, and how essential the later stories are to what precedes them!

The classical commentaries were a product of Europe, written before the discovery of the New World. My commentary is a product of that New World, coming at the end of the century in which that New World stepped into a prominent place in world history. And, extraordinarily, it was also the century in which Israel was reborn in its location on the tip of Asia. The classical commentaries came at the midpoint between the end of old Israel and the rebirth of new Israel. Rashi came about nine hundred years after the destruction of Israel, and we have seen the rebirth of Israel about nine hundred years after Rashi.

I stand between two poles of other kinds of commentary: midrash and critical scholarship. For example, in the case of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, at the end of the story it says "And Abraham returned to his servants." It does not mention Isaac. Some midrashim suggested that Isaac was in fact sacrificed (and later returned to life). Critical scholarship, too, has raised the startling possibility that in the original version of the text Isaac was actually sacrificed and that this story was changed by someone who found such an ending inconceivable. I am familiar with both of these interpretations. They are intriguing and worthy of study and analysis, acceptance or rejection. But they are simply not the kind of commentary that I am doing in this book. Here I am doing my best to understand and to help others to understand the meaning of the text that we have called the Torah for two and a half thousand years. Like Rashi, I am trying to do what is known as peshat--pursuing the straightforward meaning of the text.

The idea is to be helpful both to beginners and to experienced students of the Torah, but not by providing standard introductory points. Rather, the aim is to show the readers new and interesting things: points they might miss, connections that are not readily seen, answers to old questions, and some new questions that have not been asked or answered before.

This commentary includes a new English translation of the Torah. None of the existing translations was adequate for my purpose, and that led me to the task of producing a new translation.

Translation is an art, not a science. It is the art, the skill, and the sensitivity of the individual translator that make the difference. He or she must make the individual decision on each and every passage: how to capture it, how to convey what it means to someone who cannot read it in the original. Translation of the Bible is a string of decisions. The translator is always searching for the balance between literal and idiomatic. To get that balance exactly right is impossible. The closest any translation has come to it in English is the King James Version. All English translations since then have been steps in refining that balance, with varying degrees of success.

The translation here is my attempt at finding it. The following are some notes on a few basic points of this translation.

1. Mixing old and new English: Many translators eliminate old English terms--the whithers and thithers, whences and thences and hences, thees and thys and thous--to produce a contemporary translation; yet they still retain some archaic terms that do not have ready counterparts in contemporary English, such as "lest" and "in the midst." The result is unfortunately an English that no English speaker ever wrote or spoke. And so it just does not feel fight. I have tried to produce a translation that is consistent in the English it employs. Sometimes there is simply no way to convey a Hebrew phrase's meaning in contemporary English, but I have tried for this consistency to the extent that it is possible while being true to the original.

2. Contractions: English translators rarely use contractions, even when translating discussions in common speech. But in normal spoken English, one almost never speaks for as much as five minutes without using a contraction. The result is that practically every conversation in the Bible sounds artificial in translation. I do not use contractions when translating narration; but, when translating conversations, I have used contractions where they would normally be used in English conversation.

3. Possessive case: English translators have tended to avoid the possessive case. They would rather say "the house of Moses" than "Moses' house"--even though the latter is the way people express this type of phrase ninety-nine out of a hundred times in English. The translators do this with a good intention: they are trying to capture the Hebrew, which uses a construct form to express such things. But this requires adding a word ("of"), which does not appear in the Hebrew, and it often makes an unnatural English. I freely use the possessive case. This is not an absolute rule. I still use the "of" form if it makes better sense, as, for example, in the case of a well-known phrase like "the children of Israel."

4. Starting verses with the word "and": The Hebrew conjunction begins almost every verse. It usually means "and," but it has a wider range of meanings as well, so translators make it "but," "since," "while," "then," and more. I usually leave it as "and" in English, but I do use the other terms in cases in which the context directs us to take it differently. Further, some recent translators simply leave it out altogether; so, unlike the King James Version, the Revised Standard Version, and the Jewish Publication society translation, each sentence in these translations does not begin with the word "and." On this point, too, I prefer to preserve the feel of the original. I retain the word "and" where it occurs in the Hebrew.

5. Hebrew idioms: Sometimes I keep an idiom rather than translate it away--so long as its meaning is clear--because then my translation makes known to the reader of the translation how the Hebrew works. For example, in Genesis 16:2 I translate the Hebrew quite literally as: And Abraham "listened to Sarah's voice," which is unusual and even a bit redundant in English, but I would rather have the reader of the translation see how this is expressed in the Bible than modify it to something like "listened to Sarah." Similarly in Genesis 19:8 and many other places, I translate the expression "good in your eyes" literally because it is understandable in English even if it is not the common idiom.

6. Paragraphs: Separating a text into paragraphs is a basic part of writing and reading in English. It is now impossible to know for certain where the paragraphs began in the original text of the Torah. Some translations do not separate paragraphs at all. I have made decisions on where to begin new paragraphs based on the content, logic, and emphases of the stories. My divisions between sections likewise are based on these factors. They do not necessarily correspond to the points at which chapter breaks come in the text.

7. The name of God: I write it the same as it appears in the original, with the four consonants showing, thus: YHWH. This is known as the Tetragrammaton. In biblical times people would have read the name aloud. In the period following the completion of the Hebrew Bible, Jews began the practice of not saying the divine name out loud. Christians followed this practice as well. The practice for centuries was to say "the LORD" (Hebrew adonay) whenever one came to this word rather than to say what the four Hebrew letters actually spelled. Currently, some people have returned to the practice of saying the name out loud. Readers should follow the same practice in reading this translation that they would follow when reading the original. If they do not pronounce the divine name aloud, then they should say "the LORD" whenever they see the four letters.

8. The gender of God: Even though, like most people, I do not conceive of a deity who is male or female, there is no way around the fact that the Torah does in fact present God in consistently masculine terms. Even the name of God is masculine. (The feminine would be THWH.) I have therefore conveyed the masculine Hebrew conception in the translation as well. My point is that in each case I am translating an original work that someone else wrote, and I do not seek to impose my theological conceptions on that person's work, nor do I want to hide that person's views by means of a translator's power.

9. The infinitive of emphasis: Hebrew sometimes has the infinitive of a verb placed before the verb itself in order to convey emphasis. Thus the Hebrew mot yumat would mean literally: "dying he shall be put to death." Most English translators use some formulation such as "he shall surely be put to death" or "he shall be put to death, yes, death" to convey it. Since the function of this infinitival formulation in Hebrew is to emphasize, I think that it is best translated by the usual mechanisms of emphasis in English. The usual ways to convey emphasis in English are the use of either italics or exclamation points. I therefore generally use italics to convey Hebrew infinitival emphatics. Occasionally I use an exclamation point to convey this emphasis. In a few cases in which neither of these English conventions properly conveys the Hebrew meaning, I leave the infinitive untranslated.

10. Cognate accusatives: Cognate accusatives (for example, "I dreamed a dream," "I did a deed") are fairly common and a hallmark of literary style in Biblical Hebrew. Cognate accusatives are not incorrect grammatically in English but are sufficiently rare as to be felt by English readers to be uncomfortable. And so, like nearly all translators, I convey cognate accusatives without repeating the cognate forms. Thus, for example, I translate halom halamti as "I had a dream" rather than the literal "I dreamed a dream."

11. Cohortatives: Like nearly all translators, I convey the cohortative as "let me" or "let us" or "may I" or "may we." Unfortunately, these English forms suggest permission, as if the person using the cohortative is asking to be allowed to do something. The reader should note that the Hebrew does not usually have such a connotation. It merely expresses the person's wish or intent, without necessarily implying that action or permission by anyone else is necessary.

12. Jussives: The same applies to the jussive, which I convey as "let it" or "let him" or "let them" or "let there be" or "may he" or "may they."

13. A redundant formulation: The formulation "And he said, saying..." occurs fairly often in the Hebrew text. Although it feels redundant and awkward in English, I still prefer to retain the extra word--"saying"--to reflect the original.

14. Etymologies of names: Often a story is told that explains the origin of a name of a person or place. For example, the name Isaac, Hebrew yishaq, means "he laughs" or "let him laugh," and it is derived in this story from the fact that Sarah laughs at the idea that she could give birth to a son in her old age (Genesis 18:12-15). It is difficult to convey this in an English translation without adding a bracketed or footnoted comment. Similarly with the names Noah, Babel, Jacob, Moses, and so on, it is usually impossible to convey such Hebrew etymological material in translation. A note or bracketed insertion interrupts the story for the reader, and I did not want to do that. So, as most translators have done in the past, I have left the text itself alone, accepting the fact that this is one of the inherent limitations of translation, and I have explained some of the etymologies in the comments.

15. Words with multiple translations: Hebrew terms sometimes have a wider range of meaning than any single English counterpart. Hebrew 'abadim, for example, can be "slave" or "servant" and therefore must be translated by different English words in different contexts. Hebrew 'ayep can be "tired," "exhausted," "faint," or "famished." Hebrew gadol can be "big," "great," "high," or "old." Hebrew terms for groups of animals-- flock, herd, sheep, oxen, cows, animals, domestic animals, wild animals--do not correspond exactly to English terms, and it is virtually impossible to translate each term consistently through the Tanakh. Translators must make decisions in translating such terms individually in their contexts.

16. The text: The translation follows the Hebrew text that is beside it. That is, it is a translation of the Masoretic Text. I raise notable differences in the Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls, and other versions in my comments on the text.

We should appreciate the significance of the Jewish practice of returning immediately to Genesis I anew after completing the reading of Deuteronomy. It conveys the point, with each new reading of the Torah, that the Torah (and the entire Bible, as well) is a whole, that our concern is with the totality as well as the individual parts. That may seem obvious, but it is easy to lose sight of because we are used to studying the text in small units. The weekly reading is only a few chapters. Then the rabbi is constrained by time to comment on only a small portion of that reading. Both the Christian and the Jewish sermon are thus limited to a small corner of the tapestry. Likewise in Bible study groups and in Hebrew and Sunday school classes, we usually deal with a single verse or story. We would do well to learn from Rashi, who never lost sight of the whole while making comments on the parts. His commentary implicitly reminds us at its outset that the word TaNaX (Torah, Nebi'im/Prophets, Ketubim/Writings) stands f or a whole-composed-of-parts, because in commenting on Genesis 1:1 Rashi brings in citations from all parts of the Bible: from Torah (Genesis and Exodus), the Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and Amos), and the Writings (Psalms and Proverbs). Even the seemingly obvious fact that Jews study the weekly readings in order, rather than commenting on whatever passage one chooses each week, reinforces the idea that, even as we focus on the component, our concern ultimately is with the full narrative, with continuity, with context--with Torah.

At the beginning of this commentary, I emphasized the point that the Bible is rich in background, that the events in the first reading, Parashat Bereshit, remain as an essential substratum in all that follows in the Bible's story. Every biblical scene will be laden--artistically, theologically, psychologically, spiritually--with all that has come before. The broad concern with the earth that is established in the first parashah remains. So when the story narrows to the divine relationship with Abraham, it is still with the ultimate aim that this will be "a blessing to all the families of the earth." Now I want to add the opposite point: that one also has a finer sense of what is happening in each biblical episode, starting with the creation, if one reads it with consciousness of what is coming.

For example: the Sabbath is set in the very structure of the universe, but for most readers the Sabbath draws its significance in Genesis 2:1--3 not only from its being a feature of the creation but from the readers' knowledge that it is to be a prime commandment later, one of the Ten Commandments, and will be identified as the sign of the relationship between God and the Israelites (Exod 31:16--17).Just try to read about the seventh day in Genesis 2 without thinking about what Shabbat comes to mean later.

Some things change dramatically over the course of the Hebrew Bible's story: from an undefined divine-human relationship in Parashat Bereshit to a series of covenants in the books that follow; from a depiction of all humankind in Genesis 1--11 to a focus specifically through Israel for many books thereafter; from explicit depiction of divine power in Genesis 1 to divine hiddenness in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther; and as the face of God becomes more hidden through the course of the narrative, humans grow up and must take ever more responsibility for their world.

When I go to a movie or play, I prefer to know as little as possible about its story in advance. Few of us are able to come to the Bible that way. It is too well-known. But few of us experience our knowledge of things that come later in the Bible as spoiling Bereshit for us the way it might spoil a mystery story to know "who done it." When we read the difficult account of the divine beings and the human women in Genesis 6, which results in the deity's setting a 120-year limit on human life (6:3), we gain rather than lose something by knowing that the Torah will end with an announcement that Moses lives the maximum and dies at the age of 120 (Deut 34:7).

Likewise, we can have a richer appreciation of the story of Cain and Abel if we know that fratricide will become a recurring theme--Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Abimelek and his brothers, Absalom and Amnon, the woman of Tekoa's story of two brothers--culminating in Solomon's executing his brother Adonijah and thus establishing the stability of the Davidic line on the throne of Israel. It is no longer just a tale of Cain's fate; it is rather an introduction and first installment in an ongoing, agonizing biblical treatment of the envies, rivalries, and affections of siblings.

And we can better understand humankind's loss of the tree of life as the price of gaining knowledge of good and bad if we know that life and death, and good and bad, will become crucial themes in Moses' last speech in Deuteronomy. And we understand it better still if we know that later, in the book of Proverbs, the highest form of knowledge of good and bad in the Bible-wisdom-will be characterized this way: "It is a tree of life!" (Proverbs 3:18). And so jews sing this passage from Proverbs when they return the Torah to the ark after reading it each week. The garden of Eden and the tree of life are not destroyed in Genesis; they are rendered inaccessible. The initial divine-human alienation that is marked by the eviction from paradise, therefore, is not necessarily to be understood as final. The possibility of human return to a condition in which the creator is so close as to be perceived as walking among humans in the breeze of the day (Genesis 3:8) is left open. Cherubs guard the path back to the tree of li fe, but this, too, can be understood better if one knows what is coming: golden cherubs will spread their wings over the ark and its contents inside the Temple. The cherubs keep watch over the path to the tree of life, and their images symbolically keep watch over the keys to the path back: covenant, Torah, knowledge, wisdom.

How does the end of the Torah indeed lead us back to the beginning (as well as on to Joshua)?

At the beginning of the Torah, the tree of life is lost, and death becomes the fate of all humans. Now the Torah ends with the death of Moses. At the beginning, Cain worries that "I'll be hidden from your presence" (literally, from your face). Now God tells Moses, "Let me hide my face from them; I'll see what their future will be." Back in Genesis, God promises a land to Abraham for his descendants. Now God shows Moses the land that God promised. In Genesis, Abraham "passes" through the land. Now God tells Moses: you won't "pass" there (34:4). In Genesis, Isaac's eyes were dim. Now we are told that Moses' eye was not dim. Genesis ends with Jacob's blessing of twelve sons (The Blessing of Jacob, Genesis 49). Now the Torah ends with Moses' blessing of twelve tribes (The Blessing of Moses, Deuteronomy 33). Genesis recounts the first merging of "spirit" and "wisdom" in a man: Joseph (Genesis 41:38-39). Now these two words are applied to Joshua (Deut 34:9); and Joshua, coming from the tribe of Ephraim, is a descen dant of Joseph.

We find all of these (and many more) reminiscences and denouements at the end of the Torah that remind us of things we found at the beginning. But this look backward is only half of what we get--because our custom is to start over immediately, going back to Genesis. So we begin the Torah looking forward. Now when we go back to Genesis and read about the 120-year limit on human life, we will think of how Moses arrived at it. Now when we read about the divine promise of the land to Abraham in Genesis, we may think of Moses' reminder to the people that this promise is about to come true at the end of Deuteronomy.

And note: the promise to Abraham is not fulfilled at the end of the Torah. It is fulfilled in Joshua. So the last chapter of the Torah invites us to do both: to turn back to Genesis and to read on in Joshua.

The Torah thus involves a looking forward and a looking back, a linking of past and future. It is a strange concept of time: linear and cyclical at the same time, historical and timeless at the same time. It is the first known work of history on earth: telling a record of events through a progression of time on a line. Yet we read that record in a cyclical manner, always returning to the beginning. And so Returning becomes one of the central concepts of Judaism.

RICHARD ELLIOTT FRIEDMAN, author Who Wrote the Bible?, The Hidden Face of God, and The Hidden Book in the Bible, is Katzin Professor of Jewish Civilization at the University of California, San Diego.
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Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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