By Rabbi David Fohrman
It strikes me that most of the tools we need to help us read Biblical text more clearly and more deeply — the kind of tools I use often in Aleph Beta videos — are actually very intuitive and commonsensical. So intuitive and commonsensical, I would say, that it is almost as if everything you need to know to understand the Bible, you learned in kindergarten. A lot of time, these tools remain kind of behind the scenes on our videos, so I wanted to take a couple moments with you, in writing, to profile one of the approaches to text that I find really valuable. You’ll find, I think, that it is something you can use yourself from time to time — and, when you do, you may surprise yourself with the profundity of insight it leads you to uncover.
The ‘kindergarten-like’ tool I want to point out today is a device I like to call “which one of these things is not like the other?” Yes, you heard that right. If you remember Sesame Street back from those kindergarten days, you already know how to play — but for those of you who were deprived of Sesame Street in your youth, allow me to introduce you to the pleasures of this little exercise.
The way it used to work on Sesame Street is this: All of a sudden the screen divides into four segments. In each quarter of the screen you see some kind of object, and then the music starts to play. At this point, your mission, dear viewer (should you choose to accept it), was to identify which of the four object just doesn’t belong. In short, which of the four is just “not like the others.”
Something like that can happen as well, quite often, when we examine core Jewish texts. Every once in a while, as you read, you come across groups of ideas, things or places. And as you look at the group, you begin to hear that Sesame Street song play in the back of your mind. Most of the things seem to obviously fit in a certain category. But one of them doesn’t seem to fit.
Why might the Torah be goading us into playing this little game? Why include the fourth element if it doesn’t really fit? My sense is that the Torah does this as a way of conveying something unexpected and profound. It is the Torah’s way of saying: “You think that last element doesn’t fit? Look again. Things aren’t as they seem at first glance.”
From my own experience, I find that, usually, the last thing really does fit — it just doesn’t fit the way you first expected it to. If you can figure out how the last thing truly is part of the larger whole, it will lead you into a new and deeper understanding of both the whole category — and the apparently anomalous element’s place within it.
A good example of this ‘tool’ in action can be found on the first tablet of the Ten Commandments. The first four commandments on that tablet seem to fall under the category of commands that govern man’s relationship to God. But the last command on the tablet, to honor your father and mother, is apparently anomalous. Last I checked, your parents are people. What are they doing on a tablet that is supposed to be about my relationship with God?
The answer might well be that the category name needs to be refined. The tablet might not be about “relationships between people and God,” as tempting as that title may seem. The tablet might actually be about something else, about something larger. Yes, we have a heavenly creator, God, and earthly creators, parents. The first tablet tells us how to honor both.
I want to challenge you to play our game in this week’s parsha. T the whole parsha is about the story of Joseph, right? He is the main character; it all revolves around him. Or…almost all of it. There is an entire chapter that just doesn’t seem to belong. And that is chapter 38.
Chapter 38 details the long and involved story of Yehudah and Tamar. The story is entirely centered on Yehudah and his life, and seems to have
nothing whatsoever to do with Joseph. So the question is: What is it doing here? Right after the Sale of Joseph occurs, when Jacob’s house seems to be in utter disarray, and the reader is waiting to see what happens next with Joseph — we get a long, extended digression into the life of Yehudah. And then, just as suddenly, it’s back to Joseph. Chapter 39 picks up with the story of Joseph, as if we had never left it.
Why is the Torah doing this? What does Chapter 38 have to do with the price of tea in China, as it were? The Sesame Street music is starting to play. What do you think the answer is? Leave us your answers in the comments below. And if you’d like to hear mine, check out our new Aleph Beta course on the life of Yehudah, entitled “Judah: A Perpelexing Character.”
This Post was sponsored by Bonnie Septimus in loving memory of Shmuel Fishel ben Alexander Chaim, Eliezer Zvi ben Yosef Dov, Devorah bat Zvi Zelig, and Chaya Rachel bat Chaim Yitzchak
For Sponsorship Opportunities: http://alephbeta.org/donate