Book Review: Using Rashi to encourage Torah discussions

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The project began in 2013, when attorney Steven Levy was inspired to study Rashi’s Torah commentary after his rabbi requested congregants to set a “meaningful goal for the new year.” Steven started to record his thoughts about the different ways Rashi approached the Torah text so he wouldn’t forget what he read. That led him to ask his wife, Sarah Levy, who is a psychologist, whether she would write a book with him – one that would feature essays about Rashi’s commentary and offer questions to encourage discussion of the Torah text. Their work together led to the publication of “The JPS Rashi Discussion Torah Commentary” (Jewish Publication Society).
An introduction offers a short biography of the medieval commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhacki, also known as Rashi, along with information about his method of interpretation and the time period in which he lived. The remaining sections of “The JPS Rashi Discussion Torah Commentary” are divided into parashot (the Torah portions of the week). The two authors picked three Rashi comments from each parasha; the Torah verses and Rashi’s comments appear in Hebrew and English. Then they offer a very short essay that explains their interpretation of Rashi’s commentary. Each essay is followed by three questions that are, according to the authors, “a modest attempt to relate the Torah’s timeless message to the experiences of our modern lives.” 
An excellent example of the way “The JPS Rashi Discussion Torah Commentary” works can be seen in the first parasha, Bereshit. The authors quote from the beginning of the Torah: “When God began to create heaven and earth. (Gen. 1:1)” They then note that “Rashi is bothered by why the Torah, which is ostensibly a book of law, does not begin with the first commandment.” They quote from Rashi’s commentary about how this statement proves that, since God created the world, God could give the Israelites whatever land God chooses. The authors not only mention the ancient sages Rashi quotes, but the fact that Rashi was writing during a time that the state of Israel did not exist. That leads them to include several questions about Israel in order to stimulate discussion about how the Torah relates to contemporary times.
Sometimes the authors and Rashi go beyond the simple meaning of the text in their discussion. In Tazria, the comments about eruptions on the skin that a priest must view (Lev. 13:12) lead Rashi to say that a priest with a vision impairment cannot perform this role. The authors then write about how modern medicine has changed the way disabilities are viewed, which makes them ponder whether older adults should be required to retire if they feel they can still work. The authors’ questions for discussion include, “Do you think reasonable accommodations should be made for older employees who desire to continue to work despite some age-related disability? If so, at what point do these accommodations cease to be ‘reasonable’? Should this determination be made by the employer, or should it be subject to government regulation?”
Another interesting discussion is found in the essay “Honorable Mention,” which is found in parashat Shoftim. The authors quote from Deuteronomy 20:8 how soldiers who are afraid should be allowed to return home, rather than endanger their lives in battle. They note that Rashi uses a comment from the Talmud to show that “if a soldier fears he is vulnerable on the battlefield because of his transgressions, his officers should let him return home before the battle – and let him cover up the true reason for his departure.” People could then assume the soldier went home because of other reasons listed in the Torah: the soldier has built a new house, but not lived in it; he has planted a vineyard, but not enjoyed the produce from it; or he is engaged to someone, but has not yet married. The authors then offer questions about military service, in addition to one about what people might find too embarrassing or shameful to publicly admit.
“The JPS Rashi Discussion Torah Commentary” is an excellent way for those unfamiliar with Rashi to begin studying his commentary. Readers do not need to have any previous experience with Rashi’s commentary, although they may want to have the Bible handy in order to place some of the discussion in context since the authors do not provide a summary of the complete parasha. The essays and questions offer discussion material for a variety of ages – from children to adults. The book is a good resource for use in adult study sessions or Hebrew school classes.