Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin, author of "Letters of Light" (a chapter-by-chapter study of each of the 22 letters), takes his lifelong love of Alef-Bet and graphic design to the next level in By Divine Design. He analyzes the contextual anomalies; cites midrashic and talmudic source texts; and peppers the parshios with warm Hasidic stories and insights that bring the letters` inner meanings to light. This is not just another book on the parshah. Lay-readers of the weekly Torah portion will appreciate the book`s simple writing style and unusual mystical insights; scholars and lecturers of all stripes will find the book to be a rich resource for their weekly drash. Its stories and jokes are infinitely quote-able, and its arguments well-annotated with numerous cross-references to source materials.
"By Divine Design" is a book that you will return to again and again. Of that there is no mistake.
Our food comes in plastic shrink packaging; our cars are produced by robots. Appearances count. Stores, gas stations, restaurants, look reliably the same wherever we go. We are put at ease by predictability, and find the cool, standardized perfection comforting
Our printed word, as well, is given a technological presentation - computer generated, spellchecked, grammar-checked, arranged beautifully in print on the page by a few keystrokes. All elements of the modern book or magazine have been run through computers in which just about everything in the process has been translated into algorithms.
But unlike appearances, inspiration and truth cannot be reduced to a formula. And the Book of Books is a supreme example of the importance of variations and irregularities. Those irregularities are the subject of this book by Rabbi Aaron Raskin, and he labors to show the profound meaning revealed in them.
It is well known that the Torah scrolls found in synagogues throughout the world are produced by months of labor that can only be done by hand by a skilled, trained artisan. Just a little bit of Internet research will uncover photographs showing the beautiful, lucid forms of the letters, and it is clear that there is a high standard of artistry required.
What is not so well known is that the Torah also includes, by law, many non-standard letters and spellings. Some letters are written larger than others, others are written smaller. Sometimes there are decorative dots over words or letters within them, and sometimes there are words with letters missing or with extra letters added.
None of these are mistakes; a scroll written without these exceptions is not kosher, and deemed invalid for being read aloud formally before the congregation during services. And since the premise that we inherit is that everything about the Torah is a product of G-d`s intent, revealing His wisdom and purpose, each one of these variants stores within it a revelation of its own, a unique insight into the divine mind and will.
Rabbi Raskin makes these irregularities his focus, and the style in which he does so reflects the great lesson that they teach-truth is not confined to that which is grand, homogenous and standardized. In this world, it is also found powerfully in the small, in the seemingly imperfect. A wildflower grows in the crack of the sidewalk; a beam of sunlight strikes a tree`s broken branch; an old and broken doll is the only toy in which a little child finds comfort.
Instead of writing a grandly abstract thesis on this topic, Rabbi Raskin presents us with small insights that can strike us with the power of these small things. His book is meant to be dipped into as we search for those little insights that can make a conversation come alive or make a rabbi`s Shabbat sermon touch the heart or turn from routine to fascinating. He proceeds through the Torah, parasha by parasha, and points out the irregularities hiding in it. He then brings to bear the insight of the ages, from the Rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrashim to the Kabbalists and the Chasidic masters. There is a feeling of freshness that comes from the great variety of sources that he tap-the differing flavors of each time period and of each author imparts a liveliness to the book.
Rabbi Raskin strives always to put the focus on action-every insight should not only delight our mind and heart, but also change the way we act in the world. To that end, he includes stories in each section and suggests an action imperative appropriate to each parasha`s message.
Storytelling is as old as Jewish literature. As much as we cherish law and moral clarity, we can`t do without the narratives that show how our laws and principles come alive in peoples actual lives. Many of the stories Rabbi Raskin includes hit a sweet spot, and bring to life the textual insights he has been developing.
In ending every section with an action challenge, the rabbi is being true to the tradition as well, which requires that we cannot be content to be merely passive participants in the meaning of our own life. We are challenged to become living Torah scrolls, with out own irregularities transformed into sharp and true insights, concrete and real, communicating to others what Jewish life is truly about.
This book is not a smoothly developed paper. It has its own irregularities. I for one become annoyed at such things as the too-frequent use of quotation marks in places where they do not belong and at a few transliteration irregularities. But this is not enough to seriously detract. The overall presentation of the book from cover design to typeface to layout style is attractive and the tone of the author is winning. It finds its niche, both in the heart and in the mind.
For one seeking the sweet spots that allow real people to find their own foothold in Torah, this book will serve nicely. For even the changed form of a single letter can prove an entry place, and as the Talmud says, if one opens up an entry even the width of a hair, G-d assures us He will make sure it will swing open as wide as the great doors of the Temple.