Mirroring the Torah

Mirroring the Torah

Teaneck scholar explores the literary structure undergirding first two books of the Bible

David Schwartz
David Schwartz

We might think of the first two books of the Torah — Genesis and Exodus in English, Beresheit and Shemot in Hebrew — as a collection of stories that start with the creation of the world and continue with the families of the patriarchs and continue through the tribes’ move to Egypt, their enslavement there, their liberation through the Exodus and their standing at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.

Fairly soon after that transformative high drama, in the Torah’s next book, Leviticus — Vayikrah — the laws begin, and outnumber the stories from then on.

David Schwartz of Teaneck knew that; he’s known that since childhood. But as he studied the Torah and listened as it was read, year after year, Mr. Schwartz, who is the president of the Young Israel of Teaneck, started seeing a new pattern, which strengthened his old understandings and challenged him to explore them further.

After a few years of work, he’s published his findings in the journal Hakira, in an essay called “Half of the Torah is a Chiasm: The Creation of the Chosen Nation.”

As that title shows, the pattern that Mr. Schwartz discovered are a rhetorical device called chiasmus; in its most obvious form, it’s a narrative arc that starts at the beginning (nothing surprising there!), moves to the center, and then reverses itself, with the discoveries and insights at one end mirroring the ones at the other end.

That’s what Mr. Schwartz found; overall, the beginning of the Torah, when God creates the world, is mirrored by the end of Shemot, when human beings create the Mishkan, so God can live among them.

(Often a chiasmus is on a smaller scale than the one Mr. Schwartz is talking about; usually it’s in a verse, or a few verses, and it’s more about language than themes, he said, but it doesn’t have to be.)

Instead of the chiasmus being shaped as a simple arc, Mr. Schwartz shows it to have what looks, in the color-coded chart that accompanies his essay and is at its heart, to be like steps. The narrative pattern is complicated.

The center of the narrative, where the pattern turns, surprisingly, is occupied by the story of Judah and Tamar, Mr. Schwartz said.

“That turn is counterintuitive, because that story is not thought of as the most important story in the Torah, or even in Genesis, but I think the chiasmus is teaching us otherwise, and is demonstrating why it is more important than is perceived at first blush,” he explained. It’s important because it’s a turning point.

“One of the dominant themes of the entire Bible is the about kingship, and the vicissitudes of the Jewish kingdom. The chiasmus is teaching us that the theme of the first two books of the Torah is the creation of the chosen nation.” It’s about leadership, chosenness, and the relationship of God and human beings.

The story of Yehuda — in English, Judah — and Tamar has Tamar, Yehuda’s childless daughter-in-law twice over, whose two husbands have died and whose third potential husband has been denied her, presenting herself in disguise as a prostitute to Yehuda, Jacob’s powerful but not eldest son, so he can impregnate her. He does, without knowing who she is; later, when she is pregnant, he demands her death as punishment, given that she’s unmarried. But she’s gotten a token of his identity as the father andpresents it to him; she wins that extraordinarily brave gamble when he recognizes what he’s done, saves her life, and her child goes on to be a vital link in that chain that leads to King David and eventually, though not yet, to the messiah.

How is that the Torah’s turning point? It’s dramatic, but not obvious.

The idea of that story as full of chiasmic reversals that explore the question of leadership is not new to him, Mr. Schwartz said. It explains why Yehudah, the fourth-born son, becomes their leader; it’s his “willingness to admit that he was wrong, and put justice ahead of self-interest. He spares Tamar’s life at the expense of his own honor.”

It’s also the story of Tamar, “who no less than Yehuda is the progenitor of the royal line. She’s just as much a hero as he is, and she’s part of the reason that he is a hero. He’s just come off selling his brother into slavery in Egypt. He has just done a bad thing.” Tamar has not.

This story is at the center of the first two books of the Bible because the story has started out as vast, universal, the creation of the world, and then become more and more specific as it leads to the creation of the Jewish people. “The creation of the world matches up with the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, bringing God into the world. The ultimate reason for the creation was for God to bring himself and spirituality into the world.

“The chiasmus matches up creating man with giving the Torah to man. The Jewish people are chosen not in the sense of superiority or privilege, but with the responsibility of being the light unto the nations. To lead by implementing the message of the Torah.

“The story of Genesis is a series of culling and choosing. It starts with creation and winnows from there.” It continues to define and refine the concept of the Jewish people, and then moves outward as their mission, to have God among them and bring that presence to the world, becomes increasingly clear.

As Mr. Schwartz’s chart shows, themes and narratives in the first part of the Torah are mirrored by their reverse counterparts in the second part. The chart shows a jagged series of matching structures a part of an overall pattern. The more he studies them, Mr. Schwartz said, the more patterns he can see, and the more awed he is by their wisdom.

Mr. Schwartz is a financial professional, not a full-time biblical scholar, but “I am very interested in studying Torah, and I do spend a lot of time on it,” he said. “I went to Yeshivat Har Etzion, which is associated with a structural way of reading biblical texts and looking at the big picture instead of only close reading, so I am very familiar with that school of thought.”

He started noticing the patterns he’s written about “because first I noticed a very stark chiastic structure in parashat Vayeshev, where almost every little detail plays a part,” reaching out from the story of Tamar to both ends of that narrative arc, which begins with the first of the two times when Yosef’s age is given and ends with the second mention of his age. Other scholars have explored it, Mr. Schwartz said, but he discovered it for himself. “For a while, I just thought, ‘Vayeshev has a cool chiastic structure,’ but a little later I thought, ‘Who’s to say where it ends? Let’s keep on digging.’” So he did. “The more I looked at it, the more parallel structures I saw, and the more exciting it got.”

So in the end, this is a story not only about the chiastic structure of the first two books of the Torah, but about the intellectual excitement and joy in learning that propelled its discovery. “I view Torah study in general as puzzles to be solved,” Mr. Schwartz said. “There are always new and better ways to understand text.”

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