BOOK REVIEWS BY RABBI ELI MALLON:
By Divine Design:
The Kabbalah of Large, Small, and Missing Letters in the Parshah
Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin
Sichos in English Publications
review by Rabbi Eli Mallon, M.Ed., LMSW
“Oifn Pripitchek,” a popular Yiddish song, says of the Hebrew aleph-bet: “You’ll find strength in the letters…”
It’s as if to say they’re more than central to Jewish culture; they’re part of the Jewish soul itself.
“By Divine Design” is a follow-up to an earlier book on the Hebrew alphabet, “Letters of Light,” by HaBaD-based Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin. I hope to review that book in the future, too.
The current 400-page book examines each parshah in Torah with regard to special features of some of the Hebrew letters in it. Right there, it opens up what distinguishes traditional Jewish Torah-commentary from commentaries on translations alone. The Hebrew itself can be a major factor; even the forms and strokes of the letters. That said, this book is written in lucid English, easily read even by those with no knowledge of Hebrew. Those who find the descriptions of the Hebrew letters themselves at all complicated or unclear will still find the derived interpretations and lessons understandable, enjoyable, and useful in life.
How to characterize these interpretations?
The modern scientist finds nothing “random” in “nature.” Everything, when properly understood, has a purpose.
Likewise, the traditional interpreter of Torah finds nothing “random” in the variations and peculiarities of the Hebrew text of Torah. Everything is, in fact, intentional; by “Divine Design.” Meaning and life-lessons might be derived from a Hebrew word, or even by comparing it with other words that use the same root-letters, even in a different order: “Keresh has the same letters as kesher and sheker”(p. 145). But “Hebrew text” means more than the words themselves. It can mean the actual letters. For example: “We have a general rule [that] if a letter is missing from a word [in the traditional Hebrew text], it teaches us that there is some form of incompleteness in the concept. Either someone’s actions were incomplete, or the actions perpetrated in a certain place were incomplete” (p. 307).
Each chapter is introduced by a “joke,” in emulation of Rabbah, a rabbi of the Talmud “who began each lesson with a joke” (p. 18). While some of these gave me a light chuckle, I was much more interested in the Hasidic stories and personal anecdotes that Rabbi Raskin includes in each chapter: For example, the story of the fish-stains on Rabbi Baruch of Medziboz’ tallit (p. 259-261) and it’s connection with Rabbi Raskin’s teachings on parshah B’ha’a’lo’teh’chah about spreading light in the world.
In addition to the Torah-commentary, later chapters on the Jewish holidays and appendices on special topics likewise give us deeper insights into them.
As a good teacher, Rabbi Raskin concludes each chapter with a suggested action to take as a result of the material covered in that particular chapter. This is a good practice, and underscores his attempt to make this “Torah-study” — something that’s “known,” but something that’s also applied as specific changes in our lives. Implicitly, any reader can substitute for the rabbi’s suggestions certain intentional decisions of his/her own choice. Such could be the basis of future study-groups based on this material.
This isn’t a book that will be read once, and then forgotten. It will be referenced again and again. Rabbis, teachers, and writers will surely find inspiration in this book – not only for its own ideas, but for the interpretive methods it opens up. Lay individuals will almost certainly be inspired to greater levels of Jewish learning and spiritual striving, as well.
Jewish book-jacket design has come a long way in the last 20-30 years. The book-jacket by “John Bernstein Design” deserves special mention as one of the most creative that I’ve seen on any recent Jewish publication. It effectively portrays the “contemplative” quality of the Hasidic-based interpretations this book offers.
Rabbi Raskin’s “By Divine Design” is highly recommended reading.