Book Review: Explorations Expanded

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Explorations Expanded: Sefer Bereishit
Rabbi Ari D. Kahn
Kodesh Press
350 pages

There are many, many contributors whose work appears on OU Torah in the form of written divrei Torah and audio/video shiurim – so many that no one person could possibly follow all of them. (This is true even if that person happens to be the editor of OU Torah.) Accordingly, each of us may have a list of personal favorites when it comes to teachers of Torah – those whose approaches just resonate with our own personalities. I’m pleased to say that Rabbi Ari Kahn is on my personal “short list” of those whose approach to Torah speaks to me on a profound level. As such, I found Rabbi Kahn’s newest book to be the perfect companion to my sefer Bereishis studies.

I first became familiar with Rabbi Kahn’s pedagogy years ago, when I worked for NCSY. I visited the Overseas Students Program at Bar-Ilan University (of which Rabbi Kahn is Director) and sat in on one of his shiurim. I was most pleased a year or so later when we started running his shiurim on OU Torah, including the shiur of his that I had attended. Rabbi Kahn’s areas of expertise include halacha, machshava, aggadata and, of course, parsha. While it is this latter area with which we are concerned today, the breadth of Rabbi Kahn’s scholarship is readily apparent and informs his analysis of the themes of Sefer Bereishis.

A good book on parsha will contain a number of “aha moments” in which the author exposes readers to new ideas, causing them to think about familiar Bible stories in new ways. Explorations Expanded takes this to a whole new level, as Rabbi Kahn completely deconstructs the familiar, only to rebuild it in entirely new form. Take, for example, the akeidah, in which our forefather Avraham was commanded to offer his beloved son Yitzchak as a sacrifice to God. We can all agree that it was a test but are you prepared for the possibility that the test wasn’t what you always thought it was? (For that matter, we universally refer to this test as “akeidas Yitzchak” – “the binding of Isaac” – but God never commanded that Yitzchak be bound per se. For what reason might we use this particular designation? Rabbi Kahn has a suggestion!)

This book does not take the easy approach, nor does it whitewash our Biblical heroes. Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yoseif, Yehuda and others all might have been tzaddikim but that doesn’t mean that they were infallible. Explorations Expanded takes them as they no doubt were – righteous, yes, but also human and prone to all that that entails, including personal biases and occasional tunnel vision. Consider, if you will, the case of Noach, about whom there is a famous debate.

We are told that Noach was righteous “in his generations.” (Actually, it turns out that we’re not told that at all, but that’s another story.) The question is, how would Noach have fared in Avraham’s generation? Did he only possess the potential to stand out in his own times? Could he have excelled in Avraham’s day? (Again, we must leave aside for now the fact that Noach’s life and Avraham’s overlapped so that their “generations” were not mutually exclusive.)

Again flashing back to my days of working for NCSY, I once attended a Shabbaton the week of parshas Noach and many of the teens gave divrei Torah contrasting Noach with Avraham. By the end of Shabbos, one of the staff had apparently had enough and he gave a strongly-worded defense of Noach. Here, Rabbi Kahn seems to take an opposite approach, pointing out flaws in Noach that we might never have otherwise considered, not just when compared to Avraham but in his own right. And yet, Rabbi Kahn’s point isn’t that Noach was “bad” or “inferior.” Rather, it illustrates that Noach was a complex, nuanced individual. The same is true of our Avos and the same is true of us.

For my money, the entire purchase is more than justified by the second article on parshas Bereishis, which addresses the Midrashic concept of the 974 generations that preceded Adam, an idea that is not typically broached in particularly great detail. But the insights on Yaakov and Eisav, Sarah and Hagar, et al., are all equally valuable.

As the title suggests, Explorations Expanded takes Rabbi Kahn’s earlier work, Explorations, and expands upon it. There are new essays that were not part of the earlier work, while those that have previously appeared are both extended and newly annotated. Sources cited in the body of the work generally appear in both the original Hebrew/Aramaic as well as English translation; this is a boon for readers of all educational backgrounds. The copious footnotes provide many additional strata of information to excavate, though the sources cited there often appear only in their original languages. This may chagrin some readers but it may also represent a necessary concession to keeping the book a reasonable size.

Rather than reading Explorations Expanded parallel to my weekly parsha studies, I committed to reading it over the week of Succos so that I could write this review in a timely fashion for sefer Bereishis. This represented absolutely no imposition whatsoever as I found the book to be thoroughly engaging and I absolutely devoured it. Explorations Expanded receives a most enthusiastic “two-thumbs up.”

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.