Timeless words of the Torah speak to each generation

'Most of us are not great, not giants nor Abrahams,'

bible times horse illustrative (photo credit: Reuters)
bible times horse illustrative
(photo credit: Reuters)
The weekly Torah reading has provided inspiration to generations of Jews, as each year we relive the experiences of our forefathers.
Rabbis throughout history have delivered their particular teachings through the lens of the weekly parasha.
Two new books of this genre have recently appeared, Derashot Ledorot (Sermons for the Generations) by Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University, and Awaking to a New Day by Rabbi Yakov Nagen, a teacher at Yeshivat Hesder in Otniel.
As Rabbi Meir Soloveichik notes in the introduction, “the homiletical beauty, or derush, that produced these original defenses of Judaism can scarcely be found in synagogues today; we have experienced, in Rabbi Lamm’s own words, a ‘loss of verbal potency.’ Ironically, in our noisy world, because we have so much language, so much email and texts and tweets, so many words, we no longer take the time to craft them with care.
And that is a shame, for, as Rabbi Lamm noted, if Halacha is the science of Torah, then derush is its art, its song.”
Lamm was the master of the “song of Torah,” and the present volume is a collection of sermons on Genesis that he delivered from 1952 to 1976 in synagogues in Springfield, Massachusetts, and New York City. (Volumes on Exodus and Leviticus are expected in the coming weeks.) To supplement his message, he brings sources from the Midrash and Talmud, traditional medieval commentators, the hassidic masters, the literature of the Mussar movement and contemporary teachers. In one of his sermons on parshat Vayera, he surprisingly focuses on the character of Lot – as opposed to the main character Abraham. Lamm asks: Why does the Torah devote inordinate attention to Lot’s story? “Because we identify with him more easily than with Abraham. Most of us are not great, not giants, nor Abrahams, but ordinary mortals with ordinary foibles and weaknesses, ordinary virtues and ordinary goals. Lot is the average man, and from him and his life, the average Jew can learn more in a negative way than perhaps even from Abraham in a positive way… Like Lot, we have begun to live an underground existence insofar as our Jewishness is concerned; for like the nephew of Abraham, we have learned to adjust to every conceivable kind of Sodomite practice in the world around us.”
The tragic story of Lot is, in a sense, the main message of the book. Like the ancient Lot, many of Lamm’s congregants had moved away from the geographic centers of traditional Judaism to the new suburbs with all their promises of the American dream, and Lamm was struggling to make Orthodox Judaism meaningful to this generation. The beauty of the book and the secret of derush is to make the timeless words of the Torah speak to each generation. As the recently released Pew survey on American Jewry demonstrates, Lamm and his contemporaries were successful beyond their wildest dreams in making Modern Orthodoxy a viable option for the postwar Baby Boomers.
Lurking behind these sermons is the imposing figure of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Lamm’s main teacher and PhD adviser. As Lamm himself notes, Soloveitchik was the darshan par excellence of his generation, unrivaled in his ability to make the words of the Torah sing. The primary mission of Soloveitchik’s life was to make Halacha meaningful and relevant to the modern, educated, liberal person.
Soloveitchik’s brilliant exposition of and devotion to Halacha were transmitted to his students, such as rabbis Lamm, Rackman, Wurzburger, Riskin and others, to whom he provided the intellectual cover that enabled them to confidently communicate this message to the laity.
NAGEN IS, in a sense, a poster boy of this process. Raised in an Orthodox home in New York, he subsequently attended Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy, before moving to Israel where he received ordination from the Chief Rabbinate and a PhD in Jewish thought from the Hebrew University.
His book, too, is structured as a series of essays on the weekly Torah reading.
While Lamm’s book is titled Sermons for the Generations, Nagen’s is titled Awaking to a New Day, perhaps emphasizing the fact that new essays and Torah scholarship are necessary for the current generation, whose questions and concerns are very different than those of Lamm’s congregants.
In his essay on Vayera, Nagen has very different concerns than Lamm. According to the Zohar (to which Nagen frequently alludes), the Akeda was a punishment to Abraham for not inviting poor people to the party that celebrated the weaning of Isaac. Nagen explains that “the purpose of man in this world is to repair the vessels, and reveal the sparks and elevate them.
The ‘broken vessel’ is man himself. In every one of us is a spark of God which is broken, and the challenge for man is to repair the missing element of humanity, which is really a lack of God. The Zohar explains that charity is not only between men, but is truly a gift to God.”
Following this line of reasoning, he explains the religious imperative of social justice – but expands the concept to not only include a just distribution of monetary resources, but also consideration of the spiritual well-being of the whole community.
He ends the essay with a description of a gathering of Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druse celebrating the end of the fast of Ramadan. At that gathering, Nagen spoke of the importance of charity and the acceptance of the “other” in the respective religions.
These concerns of Nagen, of social justice and the common brotherhood of man as reflected in kabbalistic teaching, are certainly reflections of his particular time and place. The book is full of perceptive insights and descriptions of his encounter with Eastern cultures, an experience shared by many young Israelis.
The beauty and song of the Torah are eternal and timeless, and the books by rabbis Lamm and Nagen each in their own way demonstrate this beautifully. The Torah, through its interpreters, has the ability to speak to each generation in a meaningful and profound way.