Rabbi Reuven Mann’s latest book in his series on the Torah, “Eternally Yours: God’s Greatest Gift to Mankind – Numbers,” builds on the work he’s done over the last 10 years. Mann, founder of Congregation Torat Emet in Phoenix, writes a weekly d’var Torah, but he is not content merely to publish a collection of earlier work. He values the art of writing, having dreamed of becoming a writer when he was in high school.
The third in the series has an updated essay on each “Numbers” parsha. His goal is “to ask penetrating questions that get to the heart of the story, and to decipher them to extract their deeper meaning.”
The book, like the previous two, is a kind of dialogue between his students and him — and new readers — in which they wrestle with the book’s meaning and interpretation.
You use a collaborative process when you work on these books. How does that help you keep everything fresh?
My whole life has been as a rabbi and a teacher of advanced students. These are accomplished people — professionals in many areas — but they love to study Torah together with me. Many of them have been students — actually even from 1993 — which means I can’t repeat stuff.
I’m only human, and sometimes I have to get something out. But when I work out a new idea, I want to write it up. Even at this stage I have no choice but to be creative. I can’t be singing the same songs.
We use the Socratic method. We work together, and I regard it as more like a laboratory — asking the most challenging questions. I am not afraid if I don’t have an answer.
It doesn’t change my conviction that there’s something profound even if I don’t have the answer. I believe the Torah is from God.
What is the process? How long does it take you to write one of the books in this series?
I would say a number of months, because even though the articles exist already, they have to be polished for publication. There’s a selection process, and this student of mine, Estee Lichter, is sort of the editor and proofreader, etc. — I mean, she loves it. She says it’s a labor of love.
Let’s say I have nine or 10 articles on a particular portion and she’ll pick
about five or six that she thinks are basically the best. These were written for congregations, but there’s a difference when it’s for a book. It’s more serious. She’ll make comments and send it back to me — back and forth until we’re
Sometimes it’s easier to write an article fresh rather than make alterations to a pre-existing one.
I’m really concerned not just about the intellectual quality, but I’m very
concerned about the literary quality. I have a tremendous respect for the
written word. It’s a significant thing for me.
There are other students helping you too, right?
It’s like a whole circuit of emails back and forth, and then I make changes and edit again. I’ve been teaching for over 40 years, so I have a lot of students. They’re very happy to lend their talents to help me out, because they believe in the project. They want to get it out there.
What is it about the introduction that is special in this book?
The introduction was more challenging with this one. It’s easier to summarize the first two books (Genesis, Exodus). In this one, they’ve completed the work they have to do, and yet there’s one rebellion after another; one negative after another negative. Where’s the positive note?
I wrote an intro and sent it out to a few editors. They said it was sad. So it took me a long time, and it’s a book of failure and hope. This became one of the most important essays in the book.
In the case of the other books, the intros were somewhat perfunctory. Here, it had to be more. It turned out to be one of my most creative pieces of writing.
Is it harder for people to read a book that’s not dealing with the well-known stories of Genesis and Exodus?
It’s a quick read.
I don’t want to bog the person down. I want to present something interesting, educational and enjoyable. The Torah should be enjoyable. You should have fun. You should be able to bring this up at the table and discuss it.
Stories and action are definitely easier, but even in the seemingly dry portions — if you dig into it — you see there are things happening even when you don’t see anything going on. There seems to be endless details, but you have to notice the nuances, and they can be very profound. It can turn out to be the most significant thing you write about.
And there are stories. There’s a lot of stories where you see even the greatest leaders are human and have flaws and make mistakes. There are moments of great inspiration. For example, the two tribes wanted to take their inheritance on the eastern side of the Jordan, and a big dispute arose between them and Moses. They were able to work out a compromise. They heard his position. They offered to stay with their brothers until everybody was settled and only then would they go back.
In my mind, it’s extremely inspiring. It’s a lesson for us today. For example in Israel, they just had three elections. Serious political differences are there, but they could put them aside and work out a compromise because of the commitment to the national project. These are some of the themes.
Moses commanded the people to bring the Passover sacrifice and some people had been in contact with a dead body. And because they’re not in a state of purity, they can’t do it. They lamented to Moses, because to them it’s not about obligation. Moses spoke to God, and God set aside, and it’s called the second Passover. But they were exempt, so why did they complain? They recognized the benefit of performing the commandment, and didn’t view it as a burden.
That should be our attitude towards Judaism. The requirements of Judaism are intended for our benefit. We shouldn’t look at them as a burden.
What do you want people to take from this series?
In the battle of life each of us face, we falter and have failures. The important thing is understanding how someone is supposed to face those. Torah offers guidance and inspiration. I’m a student. There’s a method of reading the Torah. I ask my students what they think, and we create the interpretations together.
I’m bound by this ideal. I can’t just get up and say ordinary and nice things.
The Torah is eternal and from God. I feel an obligation to demonstrate that there’s something very unique in the Torah.
It’s a great joy when you get something of value and you can show how this book — written a few thousand years ago — is dealing with issues that all of us deal with and have something very profound to say about it. That’s the reward. JN
Rabbi Mann is offering free digital copies of his new book to readers of the Jewish News. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy.