A funny thing happened to a busy rabbi who returned to work after a year on sabbatical. He discovered downtime – surprisingly, even during his regular workday.
There were minutes between appointments, for example. Or perhaps half-an-hour spent waiting to marry a couple. Then there were the hours late at night when he could work on the computer undisturbed.
All spare time Rabbi Shmuel Goldin never realized he had, until he needed it to write “Unlocking the Torah Text: Shmot” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem 2008/5769), the second in what promises to be his five-volume series, subtitled “An In-Depth Journey into the Weekly Parsha.” The first volume, on the book of Bereisheet, published in August 2007, was written in Israel where Goldin, religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, spent a year. It was thus unclear to him that a project of this scope could be tackled once he was re-immersed in the day-to-day responsibilities of a 750-family congregation.
“It was an important life lesson, how much downtime you really have,” Goldin told The Jewish Standard in a telephone conversation about his new book, available next week in Judaica shops and bookstores. “I always carried my latest notes with me, and [doing that] gave me a focus, which was very helpful,” he continued. “Since I knew I’d be using any free time I could find for the book, it also made me more efficient in doing everything else I needed to do.” (In addition to his pulpit, Goldin is a Bible and philosophy instructor at Yeshiva University and lectures in the Eve Flechner Torah Institute, which he founded at Ahavath Torah.)
Goldin is delighted that Shmot is coming out right on schedule, just as the annual Torah reading cycle approaches the first parsha of Exodus. (Shmot 1:1-6:1 will be chanted next Shabbat, on Jan. 16-17.) And despite having to wait several weeks for the books to be shipped here, he said, having an Israeli publisher was an added bonus because of how important it is to support Israel.
Regarding content and style, Goldin said he took the same approach in Shmot he did in Bereisheet: emphasizing p’shat, study of the plain meaning of the text, over midrash, later rabbinic interpretation that often takes the form of stories or attempts to fill in the blanks between words and lines of text. Thus, following a description of each parsha, Goldin asks probing questions that arise out of a direct textual reading; offers insights derived from textual references; and connects the text to historic and contemporary interpretation and issues, always leaving readers with “Points to Ponder.”
The book of Shmot, Exodus, Goldin noted, is focused on the birth of Israel’s national identity, largely through the two seminal events of the Exodus and the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. In this context, some critical questions he raises are: “Why was slavery necessary?” “Why did the Israelites have to experience both the Exodus and the giving of the Torah at Sinai; why are both those events formative in our history?”
In a section on parshat Yitro, in which the mystery of Moshe’s father-in-law sparks a look into the issue of conversion, Goldin considers, “What is it that makes a Jew Jewish, and how does Jewish identity derive from the experience at Sinai?” concluding that on one level, “because the laws of conversion are derived from the steps taken by our ancestors at Sinai, we end up all being converts.” An extensive discussion on slavery inquires, “How does the Torah condone the practice of slavery?” In yet another section of the book Goldin deals with the development and meaning of Oral Law. Another example of the probing questions Goldin raises focus on Moshe’s actions in response to the Sin of the Golden Calf. Why, he asks, did Moshe break the Tablets of Testimony? Why didn’t Moshe simply destroy the golden calf?
“A beautiful lesson that emerges,” said Goldin, quoting 20th-century scholar Rabbi Meir Simcha HaCohen, “is that the tablets themselves are not intrinsically holy. Only God is holy, and only when God invests particular items with holiness do they become sacred. Moshe is teaching the people that when they abandoned their relationship with God and failed to follow God’s Law by fashioning a golden calf, the tablets became transformed into just stones, devoid of holiness.”
Goldin’s self-described passion for p’shat in which he seeks to uncover the Torah’s overarching lessons and discover meaning hidden within the language, is rooted in the belief that “unless we struggle with biblical narratives, God’s word and intent will remain distant from us,” he added. “Scrutiny of biblical text is encouraged in Judaism.”
Readers who followed him through Bereisheet now eagerly await the publication of Shmot.
“I used to go to his shiur, lesson, on Tuesday mornings, but now that I babysit for my grandchildren that day, to have his book is bringing his shiur to life,” enthused Teaneck resident Linda Karasick. Also, said Karasick, Goldin’s insights have enlivened the family’s weekly Shabbat dinner tradition of storytelling and reading segments of the parsha. “Every Shabbos, my husband Mark [who is a rabbi] and I read from his book. He really brings the parshiot to life and makes them relevant to what’s going on in the world today. It’s a challenge to do that, but people are really searching for [that].”
Joe Goldman of Englewood, a member of the Ahavath Torah community, first became acquainted with Goldin’s approach to p’shat over the years he accompanied his three sons to the rabbi’s Friday evening class for fifth- through eighth-graders and their parents and was pleased to find that, presented in written format, Goldin’s lessons were just as accessible and, at the same time, sophisticated as they had been in the classroom. “It’s simple, but profound, easy to read and extremely well organized,” remarked Goldman. “I’ll be first in line to buy the next volume.”
Another fan, Rabbi Howard Jachter, instructor of Jewish studies at Torah Academy in Teaneck, used Goldin’s first book in his ninth- through 12th-grade classes and plans to do the same with the second. Although the book was designed for and well-received by learners of all levels, Jachter found that for his students, “This is a wonderful, beautiful introduction to Chumash for the sophisticated beginners. He has a tremendous eye for issues that people find compelling and that are particularly relevant today, giving a wide variety of opinions. My students love it.”
Both Jachter and Karasick are hoping for future volumes.
That is Goldin’s hope as well. “There is no question of continuing the series,” he said. “For me, this has become a project that is ongoing.”
“I want to make people think,” he asserted. “They don’t always have to like my answers, but I want them to like my questions, or better yet, I want them to ask their own questions, because the wealth that’s there [in Torah] is just so amazing.”
Goldin will sign copies of “Unlocking the Torah Text: Shmot” at Judaica House, 478 Cedar Lane in Teaneck, from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday.