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Peeling Away the Parshah’s Layers

For Rabbi David Fohrman there is no excitement comparable to discovering chiasms in the Torah


I would be remiss if I did not call readers’ attention to the publication of Rabbi David Fohrman’s newest work, Genesis: A Parsha Companion. I have written previously about his longer, thematic works: The Beast That Crouches at the Door on the sin of Adam Harishon and Kayin and Hevel; The Queen You Thought You Knew on Megillas Esther; and The Exodus You Almost Passed Over.

Genesis: A Parsha Companion, the first of a projected five volumes, is much closer to the popular weekly parshah videos produced by Rabbi Fohrman for the Aleph Beta Foundation. Rabbi Fohrman began teaching Chumash many decades ago in the adult education division of Johns Hopkins University, while still in the Ner Israel kollel. And his insights into the parshah hold fascination both for the newcomer to Chumash study and for one well versed in Torah texts and the classical commentaries, though the fascination will be of a different sort.

With respect to the first group, he relates in his introduction an incident in one of his Johns Hopkins classes, in which a medical school professor asked Rabbi Fohrman to comment on what he had been always taught — that the Written Torah is the product of multiple authors and an editorial team, chas v’shalom. But even before Rabbi Fohrman could respond, the student answered his own question: “But I’m having a hard time seeing how that could possibly be true. I mean [based on what we’ve been studying], it’s all so interconnected.”

The surprises for the veteran student of Chumash are generated by Rabbi Fohrman’s invitation to read the text with fresh eyes — e.g., read the Biblical narrative as if we did not already know what comes next, or we were unfamiliar with Rashi and the other classic commentaries. In other words, read the text as the classic commentators themselves did.

My guess is that every longtime student of Chumash will find at least one piece in the collection too novel to accept. But even then, he or she will have to attend to the evidence that Rabbi Fohrman presents. He is a close reader of the Biblical text in a way that only someone who is deeply in love with that text can be. He sees patterns that we have missed, but seem blindingly obvious after he has laid out the text in front of us.

Let me share just one example of his close reading. Bereishis 5:29 describes Lemech’s decision to name a son Noach. “And he called his name Noach, saying, ‘This one will bring us ease (yenachameinu) from our work (mimaaseinu) and from the toil (u’mei’itzvon) of our hands from the ground (ha’adamah) that Hashem cursed.’ ” Nine versus later (6:6–7), the Torah describes Hashem’s decision to wipe out man from the face of the earth, and some variant of each of these four terms appears, and in exactly the same order.

It’s almost as if Hashem is mimicking the hopes expressed by Lemech for his son, but this time, instead of the root נ-ח-ם being used as a term of consolation, it refers to Hashem’s regret at having made man.

What connects the consolation that Lemech expected from his son with Hashem’s regret at having created man? Rabbi Fohrman finds the answer in a Midrashic comment, that Lemech foresaw Noach’s creation of the first ploughshare, an instrument to ease the cultivation of the ground. More than that I will not give away.

For Rabbi Fohrman there is no excitement comparable to discovering chiasms in the Torah — paired structures in which the first element mirrors in some way the last, the second mirrors the second to last, similar to atbash in gematria. Such structures can occur within a single verse or extend over a long stretch of text, and the connections may be linguistic or thematic. They are, he writes, examples of the Torah serving as a commentary on itself by emphasizing the central element to which both sides of the pattern point.

Chiasms abound in the Torah, though most of us would likely miss them and just wonder why the text seems repetitive. Rabbi Fohrman explicates one in parshas Lech Lecha (Bereishis 17:1–17). The first sets of pairs are relatively simple. At the beginning of the passage, Avraham’s age, 99, is mentioned; at the end, his age as of Yitzchak’s foretold birth, 100. The next pair of elements consists of Avraham falling on his face, in response to Hashem speaking to him. In the next pairing, Avraham is told that he will be a father of nations, which mirrors a similar description of Sarah towards the end of the passage. Corresponding to that status, Avraham’s name is changed from Avram to Avraham, and on the other side of the center point of the passage, Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah.

Now, things get a little more complicated than most of us would have seen. Two chiasmic structures within the larger chiasm mirror each other, and both contain a verb with the root ה-פ-ר. In the first chiasm, Avraham is told that he will become fruitful (v’hifreisi), and that nations and kings will descend from him. Individuals become nations and unify further under a king. The other side of the chiasm describes what happens to the one who nullifies (הפר) the covenant: he is cut off from the nation, and returns to being an isolated individual.

I have not even exhausted the chiasm or explicated the two middle verses concerning the covenant. That I’ll leave to the reader. Just one hint: When all is done, the mystery of the Israelites undergoing circumcision on the eve of going into battle at Jericho, an action contraindicated for any regular army, becomes understood.

Join Rabbi Fohrman as he peels away layer after layer of Torah.


Follow the Science

Politicians to respectable people from across the spectrum want to wrap themselves in the mantle of science. “Just follow the science,” we are told over and over, as if doing so were as easy as following the yellow brick road.

It is not, as the COVID-19 crisis makes clear. A Jerusalem Post article last week, for instance, quoted two experts on the possible long-term dangers of two new revolutionary vaccines based on genetic material produced in a lab (mRNA), which enters cells and takes over their protein-making machinery. Because the form of the vaccine is novel, we cannot know what its long-range effects will be, said one infectious disease expert, while acknowledging that the urgency of producing a vaccine justifies taking higher risks — among them autoimmune conditions and the persistence of induced immunogen expression.

Another expert, however, felt there was little concern because mRNA molecules are very fragile and not long-lasting. But that, of course, only raises another question — that of the vaccine’s long-term efficacy.

If there is one thing we have been told repeatedly, it is that wearing masks protects us and those around us. And we all want to believe that, if only to maintain some feeling of control over our lives. (I, for one, will continue wearing my mask outside the home.)

But a recent Danish study of close to 5,000 participants, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (after rejection by three prestigious journals), found no statistically significant difference in rates of COVID-19 infection among those who were provided with 50 masks and instructed to wear masks outside the home over a two-month period and those who were not. While far from conclusive — e.g., about half those in the mask-wearing group were not fully compliant — it still raised questions about how powerful a tool masks are.

But nothing brings out the difficulty of navigating the science more than dueling op-eds in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal this week. In the former, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health lambasted Senate hearings on the usefulness of a number of drugs, including hydroxychloroquine, for early stage COVID-19 sufferers. He states flatly, “Trial after trial found no evidence that hydroxychloroquine improves outcomes for COVID-19 patients.”

But just the day before in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, a Harvard-trained MD-PhD and professor at UCLA Medical School, wrote a piece entitled, “Too much Caution is Killing Covid Patients,” arguing that doctors should follow the evidence for promising therapies rather than demanding the certainty of randomized controlled trials. When treatment options are few — e.g., quarantine and hope for the best — he writes, “holding out for certainty can be catastrophic.”

He mentions at least three drugs that have been used, and found safe, in other contexts for decades. And writes of HCQ, “A meta-analysis of five randomized clinical trials showed that early use of HCQ reduced infection, hospitalization, and death by 24%.” Using safe medications at home, he argues, is the optimal public health strategy for preventing hospital overcrowding and death.

What is a layperson supposed to do when confronted by such blatant differences of opinion among experts?

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 838. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com

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