Machinations and twisted ambitions

Kahn’s book series is appropriately entitled Echoes of Eden, since the author finds traces of Eden’s evil snake venom or the serpent’s shedded skin in many, if not most, of the biblical episodes from Genesis through Numbers.

Boy looking at snake 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Boy looking at snake 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
What is it that connects the shoes that Joseph’s brothers bought with the 20 talents they received for selling Joseph into slavery, to the shoes that Moses removed from his feet at the burning bush? And what connects these to the shoes that the Israelites were instructed to strap on as they waited for redemption on the night before they left Egypt, and to the shoes of the ugly halitza ceremony (when a man refuses to marry his deceased brother’s childless wife and carry on the family name)? Rabbi Ari D. Kahn seeks to answer such cryptic questions in his intricately complicated essays on the weekly Torah readings.
His method rests on plumbing mystical glosses and less-well-known kabbalistic commentaries on the Bible alongside traditional commentaries, and pointing out overarching themes that cross chapter boundaries. In doing so, he teaches us that the Bible has recurring, emphatic moral themes.
The result is an extraordinarily sophisticated biblical commentary, laced with penetrating psychological insight and written in elegant English.
Kahn’s book series is appropriately entitled Echoes of Eden, since the author finds traces of Eden’s evil snake venom or the serpent’s shedded skin in many, if not most, of the biblical episodes from Genesis through Numbers. Likewise, in almost every weekly Torah portion, he finds echoes of cosmic love and spiritual attraction that hark back to the first union between Adam and Eve.
On the ladder of Jacob’s dream in Beit El, he finds dancing angels whose kinetic movement teaches us how to build a home of Godliness, defeat melancholy and rebuild Jerusalem. He connects the sulam (ladder) with Sinai (the mountain and the revelation) and shidduch (matchmaking) to combat the poison unleashed in human history by the demonic angels that stem from Eve and the snake, and to overcome the bewitching powers of the tainted serpent skins that serve as dictatorial clothing for Nimrod and Esau.
Kahn links Joseph’s coat of many colors to the atonement of the High Priest in the Temple; to the Biblical prohibition of sha’atnez (mixing flax and wool in a garment); to the tragic sibling stories of Cain and Abel, and Amnon and Tamar; and to the almost adulterous trespassing of Joseph and the wife of Potiphar. In all cases, he discerns the sacred powers of clothing, unleashed or abused.
In his newest volume – examining the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar) and provocatively subtitled “Spies, Subversives and Other Scoundrels” – the author connects Korah’s sly rebellion against the ultra-modest Moses to Reuben’s bedroom rebellion against his father Jacob, to the sale of Joseph into slavery, and to Miriam’s mutterings against Moses.
He links Korah to the sins of Cain and King Saul, and to the teachings of the Kotzker Rebbe. He contrasts Korah’s Machiavellian machinations and the twisted ambitions of Dathan and Abiram with the burning and honest spiritual desires that consumed Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. He connects the maladjusted seer Balaam to Jacob’s uncle/ nemesis Laban, and Abraham’s silent donkey to Balaam’s talking one.
Kahn also finds parallels between today’s debates over the service of haredim in the IDF, and Moses’s devastating moral attack on the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who wanted to hang back in Transjordan.
A student of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik – one of the greatest thinkers and yeshiva heads of the 20th century – Kahn today directs foreign student programs and lectures in Jewish studies at Bar-Ilan University. It was the Aish Hatorah organization that first brought Kahn’s highbrow and exhilarating essays to public attention through its broad-ranging website.
His writings are not for everyone. They require a willingness to fly rapidly and almost haphazardly with the writer across biblical texts, through far-apart centuries and divergent scholarly disciplines.
They make sense only if you accept the mystical rabbinic premise that the actions of our biblical forefathers created spiritual scaffolding and patterning that impact our lives in the present and future.
But if you are prepared for something new, Kahn ranks right up there with the likes of former British chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Lau of Beit Morasha College, and Rabbi Dr. Yonatan Grossman of Herzog College in the originality and depth of his commentary.