Reviewed by Rabbi Moshe Maimon, Jackson, NJ
I have never had the pleasure of meeting Mitchell First personally but after spending a good few hours with his new volume, Words for the Wise, it almost seems like I have known him for years. Mitchell writes openly and candidly, often including personal anecdotes and observations. Tellingly, he concludes his articles with his signature flourish; always a whimsical self-observation that somehow ties in humorously with the theme of the article.
Mitchell, clearly a knowledgeable and well-read individual, has a wide variety of interests and appears to be at home in an equally wide spectrum of Jewish disciplines. Significantly, his witty and informal writing style lays bare the workings of his active mind in an inviting and comfortable way.
The book meanders leisurely through lessons in Jewish history, from the ancient to the recent, weaving observations on minhag and halachah with insights into Hebrew language and liturgy. Indeed, as the title of this volume would indicate, a main focus of First’s is the Hebrew language, and the other courses as well are typically offered with a side of linguistic appetizer. The reader need not fear getting bogged down in overly technical etymological discussions, however, as our author has a keen practical sense and engaging style, and he is endowed with that uncommon knack for presenting even arcane topics clearly, cogently, and compellingly.
The following summary of an article (pp. 83-86) dealing with the battle between the Israelites and the Amalekites, recounted at the end of this week’s sidrah, Beshalach, is representative of some of the themes we touched on, and should serve to give a taste of the book on the whole.
In this piece, Mr. First highlights the dichotomy between the various commentators as to how to explain the phenomenon of the Israelite victory being associated with Moshe Rabbenu’s raising up of his arms. Initially, First demonstrates how many pshat-oriented mefarshim (such as Rashbam, Bechor Shor, Chizkuni and Rav Hirsch) view the association between the two in a natural way; variously explaining that Moshe’s outstretched arms had the effect of rallying the troops and providing them with encouragement, confidence and emotional support, thereby giving them the psychological edge in battle.
Then, First underscores the irony of finding in Shadal’s “plain-sense” commentary a repudiation of the rationalistic explanation proffered by Rashbam and others, preferring, instead, to accept the supernatural understanding of the events, namely that it was a “salvation from God and by way of miracle, like the other signs and wonders that Moses performed.”
After the victory, Moshe built an altar which he called Hashem Nissi, and in a footnote, Mr. First refers the reader to an earlier discussion in which he explores whether the use of the word nes in this context connotes something miraculous, lending support for Shadal’s point of view. First’s conclusion is that the term did not originally mean miracle, though that is how it came to be understood by later generations, and in this case the name simply means ‘Hashem is my banner’. [It may be noted that this term is also at the center of the parallel episode of the fiery serpents in Bamidbar (21:8) where Moshe was instructed to place the copper serpent he had fashioned atop a nes upon which the smitten would gaze and be healed].
Yet, maintains First, the case can certainly be made that the pesukim seem to plainly describe a supernatural occurrence, and as Mr. First proceeds to explain, Shadal’s commentary is chiefly concerned with understanding the plain sense of the pesukim. According to Luzzato, when the pesukim seem to be relating a miraculous occurrence, then that is precisely the way we should understand them.
This is a significant point. Whereas other mefarshim sought to bring the events described in the Torah in line with rational sensibilities, Shadal’s focus was on understanding the text of the chumash as simply as possible, even if that meant accepting as fact events that are difficult for the rational mind to comprehend.
[I can’t help but note in this context that though Shadal’s main motivation may have been fealty to the plain sense of scripture, he may well have been aided in this quest by his sense of “freedom” from the absolute belief in the veracity of the scripture as the literal word of Hashem. This is not the place for this discussion but to my mind it is a central issue that cuts to the heart of Shadal’s conception of Judaism, as well as his critique of Maimonides’ religious philosophy. My acquaintance with Luzzatto’s oeuvre leads me to the impression that whereas others like the Rambam approached Judaism as a real, living and breathing entity, one that by definition was forced to contend with, and make accommodations for, everyday realities, including advances in science and philosophy; Shadal’s study of Judaism was wholly historical, and he approached it with the detachment of a scientist dissecting a dead specimen preserved in formaldehyde].
The article concludes with a quote from Herzl extolling the value of the flag in exciting the masses and propelling them to action. “Believe me; the policy of an entire people – especially one that is scattered all over the world – can only be made of imponderables that float high in thin air.” To Herzl these imponderables likely centered on the banner of nationalistic ideology, but his words can be equally applied, and with better profit, to the spiritual yearnings and convictions of the Jewish people. Just as it was with their skirmish with Amalek, the Jewish nation, given the proper guidance and encouragement, will always win out in ways that seem to perpetually hover between the natural and the supernatural.
Readers interested in purchasing this delightful volume are encouraged to do so by clicking on this link.