Few books make available an approachable mosaic of wisdoms from Torah. Rabbi Ari D. Kahn’s most recent work, Echoes of Eden: Sefer Bereishit, the first publication in his five volume Me’orei Ha’Aish, Fire and Flame; Insights into the Weekly Torah Reading (Gefen and OU Press, 2011), is that rare read. This text, which is woven with frequently cited as well as with exceptional commentary, and which is accessible in its ideas and in its styling, provides us with a fresh synthesis of vital content.
Whether we sit in kollel and seek expressions, examples, and explanations, with which to bring our understandings of Torah to levels appropriate for our families and guests, whether we labor, per the exemplar set by Shevat Zevulan, and look to raise ourselves and our loved ones in our comprehension of Parshat H’Shavuah, or whether we live through our days and nights in some other manner, this book will suit us. Echoes of Eden lovingly and carefully lays out the components of Torah while retrofitting traditional beliefs about the human condition with an abundance of conviction. According to Rabbi Kahn, “[w]e cannot escape evil; since the sin in Eden, evil has become internalized in us all. What we can do is live up to the destiny to which Yaakov and his descendants were born: to face up to Esav, to persevere against evil, and with God’s help, defeat it (166).”
One set of tools we can employ in this service are the weekly packets of revelation provided by Echoes of Eden. These portions illuminate how we can: move from bestial choices to “observing the commandments, both those we understand and those that seem to us paradoxical [,] add holiness to our lives [,] set ourselves on a higher rung [,] find our spiritual, ethical and social abilities exponentially increased, [and improve] our ability to effect change and fix a broken world (93).” That is, Echoes of Eden empowers us by giving us “the language [to] establish the relationship[s] that will allow us to share with [others] what we learned at the summit [while urging us to] first becom[e] as holy as we can (91).”
More specifically, Rabbi Kahn’s thoughts are supported by his vast knowledge of halacha, of ritual and of tradition. Echoes of Eden, it follows, references a wide range of written law, of oral law, of commentary on written law, of commentary on oral law, of contemporary rabbinical writings, and of the writings of chazal.
On pages visually bisected into summary and detailed accounts of each sedra, from Bereishit to Veyechi, Rabbi Kahn teaches us that “Torah is more than history, more than literature; it is theological truth, which the sensitive reader should seek out and internalize (271).” In other words, Rabbi Kahn’s book instructs us that whereas it is necessary to read Torah and to live Torah, it is similarly essential for us to grapple with the “what” and the “why” of our engaging in Torah-driven activities. He shows us that we must be answerable for our choices.
This moral responsibility, Rabbi Kahn’s espouses, is within our capability to realize in deeds. Hashem has given us a“[m]erkavah …a spiritual vehicle, a means of connecting our physical world and ourselves with the spiritual world that lies beyond our sensory grasp. [That] spiritual elevator that enables man to connect with Heaven (365)” is available to all of us, our moral foibles notwithstanding. That conveyance is another of our tools.
In other words, as “[w]e learn from Na’amah [in Parshat Noach,] despite the violent, oppressive nature of the surrounding society, despite the extremely challenging family history, despite the genetic and genealogical challenges with which we are born, we are all capable of making choices for our own lives (50).” Uncomplimentary superlatives which we might be tempted to attach, or to leave attached, to ourselves, are simply untoward. We have the required faculty and have to use them to mend ourselves.
Correspondingly, it is unbecoming for us to apply negative mentations to others. Because we are robust, we need also to be compassionate. Rabbi Kahn writes that
Avraham did not want to push away his wayward son Yishmael. He interceded on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom, despite the knowledge that their beliefs and behavior contradicted everything he himself believed and practiced. A lesser man would have accepted God’s judgment … with a sense of moral superiority, perhaps even a sense of validation .… But for Avraham, these were not evil, corrupt enemies of his faith. They were misguided people who simply had not yet found truth (86).
When we fail to look at ourselves and at our brethren with an ayin tova, we actualize “the essence of sinat hinam…. (332).” We can and ought to do better, to “feel mutual responsibility [,] take care of one another [,] imbue all of Jewish history, all Jewish suffering, with meaning and purpose, and … bring the redemption that much closer (339).” We remain in galut because we can not or will not recognize others’ good “qualities [,] innate talent[s, and] God-given gifts (332).” We will not find geulah until we validate our own and other Jews’ worthy traits.
Consider that “[e]xile is, above all, a disconnection from the source of our spiritual identity (186).” It is up to us to “fulfill our mission of tikkun olam, to enlighten, to educate, to heal and repair the world (91).” Another of our tools, hence, in keeping with Echoes of Eden, is our skillful negotiation our individual middot.
Perhaps a manifesto, which asks us to put into play Torah, Hashem’s Merkavah, and our own middot, in our effort to better ourselves, our klal and our world, seems exaggeratedly ambitious. Nonetheless, we Jews possess a way of life assembled from Torah, from Torah commentary, from learnings on that commentary, and from lifetimes devotes to those learnings. In view of that truth, Echoes of Eden, a text that celebrates our core values, that assumes our innate ability to work through our “growth opportunities,” and that helps us find means to forgive our individual and collective imperfections, is not too high a hurdle, but is, instead, a set of guidelines to our ultimate destination.
Among our frequently minimalized, rationalized, and denied experiences, such sentiment, unfortunately, is too rare. Our shelves might be full of volumes about the Shoah, about the birth of the modern State of Israel, about the shtetl life of our great-grandparents’, about the mussar given by Chofitz Chaim, and about living modestly in today’s world and we might own Shas, machzorim, siddurim, Sefer Tehillim, and so forth, though probably, we have few books that, like Echoes of Eden, address our contemporary need for regarding life via the expectation that we, specifically, are good, that creation, in general, is good, and that the resolution of inherent flaws in either is workable.
Although this book is both succinct and rich in its giving over of vital facts and of encouragement, this great work is set apart from kindred writings in its focus on our need to show kindness to and respect for ourselves and other Jews. As members of Bnai Yisrael, as sensitive humans, and as lovers of the commandments issued from Shemyim, it behooves us to buy Echoes of Eden.