Rabbi Fohrman on His Parsha Companion Series
Seforim Chatter Podcast
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In this interview with Nachi Weinstein, Rabbi Fohrman digs deep into such topics as:
- Insights into how Midrash and Rashi approach Torah text
- The contrast between Torah and Talmud learning (and teaching)
- How we can read Tanakh to discern things that are meaningful in astonishing ways
- The power of asking obvious questions
- How cartoon videos open a path to the beauty of Torah
Nachi: Hi everyone. Welcome to another edition of the Seforim Chatter Podcast. On this episode of the podcast I'm going to be joined by Rabb David Fohrman, who is the founder and principle educator of alephbeta.org. He has served as an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University and is a lead writer and editor for the Artscroll Gemara translation project.
Now he also is the author of a number of books. Mainly we will be focusing today on his work at Aleph Beta, and his new book is called, A Parsha Companion. He has so far published Bereishis and Shemos, those were published in conjunction with, I believe, Maggid, which is Koren Publishers. There are also a number of other books that he is the author of The Beast That Crouches At the Door, The Queen You Thought You Knew and The Exodus You Almost Passed Over. So thank you, Rabbi Fohrman, for joining me.
Rabbi Fohrman: Hey, Nachi, it's great to be here. Thanks for having me on.
Nachi: My pleasure. So, let's start off, tell the listeners a little bit about yourself and your background.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, sure. I live currently in Woodmere, New York, but I'm not a native of the East Coast. I grew up in California in the Bay area. People say California and they say, oh, do you know Schwartz in L.A.? But that was 400 miles south of where I grew up. So I grew up in a one room little school house living in Berkley, California, commuting to Oakland. So it was a very different kind of Jewish education than most of us on the East Coast and in Israel are used to. I'm proud to say I was the valedictorian of my 8th Grade class, which was all of three people, but we had 13 people in 6th, 7th and 8th Grades all together. It was a sweet little school and it gave me my first taste for a love of learning.
I grew up in California. There a wonderful little Orthodox shul in Berkley run by, the rabbi's name was Yosef Lebowitz. He currently lives in, or splits his time between Kfar Saba and Efrat, but he really gave me my first taste of just a revelatory way of thinking about Chumash. I remember when he helped me prepare for my bar mitzvah drashah, just as a young kid, he really opened my eyes. Instead of doing what most people do, which is here's your pshetle now go and repeat it back to me, it was like read through this parsha and tell me your three big questions on the parsha and we'll discuss them. I just found that so freeing. It was just fascinating.
That launched me on the beginnings of a path. My father was a psychiatrist. He lived in Berkeley. He died when I was young after a long struggle with cancer. My mom remarried, bringing me out to -- remarried Zev Wolfson. I joined the Wolfson family and came to the East Coast when I was a young teenager and made the real transition from slightly long-haired Berkley kid to pretty straight-laced Kew Gardens upbringing in Tiferes Moshe and that whole world over there. Short order took me to Rabbi Riskin's school and then to Ner Yisrael where I was for many, many years. So that's kind of like my early background.
Nachi: Okay. Obviously, something I should mention, something. I forgot at the beginning, is that, what alephbeta.org is. People are probably listing and asking what is that? So, as you put it to me so eloquently before, it's the omek pashutah shel mikrah in cartoon format. It's a very in-depth -- I liked that a lot. If people are familiar with it they'll probably appreciate that as well. There are cartoons, cutesy animated videos and it's really delving into the p'shat of the pesukim and the Torah. We'll get into Aleph Beta and your books, which are really I think an outgrowth somewhat of Aleph Beta or similar. I don't know if it is exactly from that.
So let's just start off even before that though. How did you get into Chumash and then we'll approach your interesting and novel interpretation and the way that you learn it. We mentioned that you were involved in the Artscroll translation project for the Gemara, so that's different from Chumash and you're working on Chumash here.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, very different from Chumash. Although the truth is that my work for Artscroll in the Gemara translations was a very important predicate for my work on Chumash. It gave me a lot of skills which I don't know if I could have done the work I’m doing without the rigorous training. I mean, I spent seven years working on the Gemara project. First in writing Kedushin, Volumes 1 and 2, most of it and then working as an editor in Lakewood. So Rabbi Danzinger was quite a mentor to me in life and hashkafah and in other ways. I think his influence is felt in my work as well.
One of the things that he did that is, again, you mentioned that what Aleph Beta is, is omek pashutah shel mikrah. In a way that's really what Artscroll is trying to do in their Gemara series, is being omek pashutah shel Gemara, in a way. You know, Yechezkel always used to say, learning p'shat gets a bad name. It's often seen as simplistic because we translate the name p'shat as simplistic, but it's anything but simplistic. To find something simple, a simple way through complex material, is one of the deepest things you could possibly do.
He began to teach me art of what it is to boil something very complex down to its simplest form and to stop before you oversimplify it. That's a real are. I can tell you funny stories actually back when -- I started doing it when I was a bochor in Ner Yisrael. I was working under him on Mishnayos Bechoros before we even started Gemara. One of the things he taught me also was the skill in writing of how much power an editor has and how subtle an editor can be.
Nachi, you work in seforim a lot and one of the things I think we take for granted is the extent to which the seforim who really matter for us, are those who are great writers. You know we were talking off camera about a few people who we won't mention, we don't want to impugn them, but you were complaining about the length of their writing and that they needed an editor. Editors really create -- if you think about Rashi and why Rashi became Rabban shel kol Yisrael. I think a lot of it had to do with he was such a good writer. It wasn't just that it was as holy a man as he was and as much as he knew, but his ability, his clarity of thinking and his ability to distill that thinking with real concision on a page where he can just make things flow for you, it was magical.
To me, I think one of my early -- I think if you asked what got me involved in Chumash, part of it was can we do that? The challenge of creating a book which is a page turner, which is really well written but is a sefer at the same time. Those things usually don't go together. You know you write a sefer, I'm just putting my thoughts out there, whoever wants to read it will read it, right? If I'm writing a mystery novel, I pay attention to the craft of writing. But what if you wrote a sefer and you really paid attention to the craft of writing? You wanted to write it as a page-turner. A page-turner as a sefer on Chumash, it struck me as a wonderful challenge. That's kind of what led me to The Beast That Crouches At the Door.
I realize I still haven't quite answered your question. So I'll jus quickly say this. How did I get to Chumash in particular? Part of it had to do with the kind of move that I described to you before, moving from the West Coast to the East Coast. Back in the West Coast in shul, Chumash was a thing. Rabbi Lebowitz, his drashos were amazing. Even as a 10-year-old I remember listening to them and being captivated. Somehow I remember moving to high school on the East Coast and somehow Chumash just wasn't on the radar anymore. It was like you've got homework that you've got to learn Chumash with Rashi and get tested on it on Sunday morning. But nobody actually spent any time on it. We just spent time on Torah Shebe'al Peh not on Chumash and I just couldn't fathom it. It just didn't -- if you really believed that God wrote this book, hakol mo'dim that God wrote this book. As great as Ravin and Ravashi were they're not God, so God wrote this book. So you've got to believe that God was smart enough to write a book that could touch us. That any generation could pick up and read and by captivated by. Yet why were we ignoring it?
Somehow, I remember in my early teen years being frustrated. Having this sense that there must be a way to read this book just in p'shat, even without commentaries. If you think about commentaries, any commentary read the book before they wrote the commentary. They didn't read another commentary. They read the book. When they're talking to you they're assuming you read the book too. So there's something called reading the book itself with basic reading comprehension, which somehow seemed to be lost in our world. All Chumash courses were learning the commentaries without really learning the book.
So the same way that you couldn't -- if you went to an advanced Gemara shiur and you said, well I learned Reb Chaim and I learned the Ritvah and I learned a really geshmake Sha'arei Yosher, I haven't actually learned the blatt Gemara that this is all on, they'll look at you like you're crazy. You've got to start with the text. Somehow it felt like we weren't really doing that in a serious way in Chumash. So it as the frustration that I experienced in younger years. I think that frustration over time is something which propelled me into the kind of work that I'm doing now.
Nachi: I'm curious because you mention this, I’m curious how much you think that, for example, Rashi plays into that. I'll tell you what I mean by that. Rashi, obviously like (inaudible 00:11:03) on chalav yisrael. We've all gained so much from Rashi and I chas v'shalom don't mean this is any negative way, but Rashi -- we know the famous Rashbam who talked to him where he said, he's not really pashut p'shat so to speak. Either way, you know someone once told me, I think he said that the Brisker Rav said it, that for us Rashi is pashut p'shat. I don't know. That's the thing. Everybody learns Rashi and Rashi's understanding of the pesukim with Midrashim and they come out with that kind of understanding. So how much of this is that? The pashut p'shat, I think you do discuss this in your books, everybody is reading the text and they already know this is what happens here, and they all are basing it on the Midrash.
You know I do shnayim mikrah and you're reading the pesukim and you're reading Onkelus, and you're like, wait, that' really what happened? You just read the actual text and then Rashi says something else and that's what we understand p'shat in the pasuk is, but that's not really, -- I mean, I don't know, we don't know so we look at different meforshim -- what necessarily the Chumash is saying. I mean how much of that plays into it?
Rabbi Fohrman: Sure. I mean, I think you make a good point with Rashi. I think a lot of it gets back to what a good writer Rashi was. Rashi is such a seductive meforesh in way because he is so clear when he writes. Rashi, I think, is very difficult and fascinating, but probably one of the most difficult Rishonim to learn. I think it's ironic that we consider Rashi the easiest meforesh, the simplest thing in the world is Chumash Rashi. Rashi can be very, very difficult to understand as well as he writes. The reason is that it's not always clear what Rashi's doing.
My sense is, and Rashi never really defines for us what he thought the meaning of his work was, what he was actually trying to do. But if you had to reverse engineer it my personal feeling is that Rashi, sometimes, is telling you p'shat but he's not always telling you p'shat. So when is the sometimes and when is the not? How do you know the difference? With my experience with Rashi it's that when the p'shat is difficult, it's kind of like in Gemara you know when Rashi is silent a lot of times in Gemara? When Rashi's silent in Gemara it means you can figure this out yourself, you don't need help. When does he step in? When you really need him. So I'll step in.
So that's what happening in Chumash also. In other words, what happens with Rashi is that when you really need him he'll tell you p'shat. So when you get to Parshas Terumah all of a sudden and you have no idea what pa'amon rimon is in the Mishkan so Rashi's going to come and he'll take your hand and hold on to it and say, trust me yidele, it's going to be fine, he's what this means and I'll explain it to you. I'll explain all the measurements and all of a sudden Rashi transforms into this wonderful book that actually will tell you p'shat.
The only difference between Rashi in Gemara and Rashi in Chumash is I think when you get to the areas of Chumash that are simpler Rashi is not silent like he is in Gemara. What he does instead there is he uses the opportunity to introduce Midrashim to you. What he does when he introduces Midrashim to you is he seems to be connecting Torah Shebich'tav and Torah Shebe'al Peh in a very interesting kind of way. This really leads into a larger discussion on how you understand Midrash, which is something which I have an interest in in Aleph Beta. Midrashim are a big part of life in Aleph Beta. I say it's omek p'shuto shel mikrah, it's omek p'shuto shel mikrah informed by Midrash in a way I think the commentary, which is most significant in Aleph Beta land, really more than the Rishonim, is really the most ancient commentary that we have, which is Midrash.
The question is how do you learn Midrash? One of the questions is how did Rashi learn Midrash? I think what you find a lot in Rashi is -- one of the things that if you go to Seminary or if you go to high school or you go to anyone, they'll say well what's bothering Rashi. So the real question, what's bothering Rashi, is a very tricky question and I'll give you my really quicky answer to I think a really handy thing which you can try at home when you learn Rashi and you are struggling with what's bothering Rashi.
Usually, the answer to what's bothering Rashi is what's bothering the Midrash. Usually what's bothering the Midrash is not one thing, but two things; one thing is overt and one thing is covert. I call it my trigger and gun powder theory. If you're going to fire a gun you need two things. You need to pull a trigger, but you also need gun powder in the chamber. In order for a Midrash to be a Midrash you've got to have a trigger and you've got to have gun powder in the chamber. The trigger is the nominal diyuk which is happening in the text which is an anomaly which Rashi or the Midrash is picking up on and becomes the basis for a d'rash.
So, for example, if you're learning the story of Bas Pharaoh and you get to the words, "vatishlach et amatah v'tikacheihah," so my kid came home from gan, kindergarten, with those long white arm of the daughter of Pharaoh. I immediately knew what it was. It was the daughter of Pharaoh's long arm. I thought, oh no, how do I explain this to him? It's one of these Midrashim that make you jump out of your seat. Like, I’m going to have to explain to all of my friends that really she didn't send her maidservant, she sent to pick up little baby Moses in the Nile, but her arm actually extended.
The question is, how do you even understand that? Here's the difficulty with Rashi in the way we've grown up with it. Which is that because Rashi is so good at telling p'shat to us we kind of live under this illusion that even when Rashi's telling us Midrashim he's telling us p'shat. It leads us to confuse what p'shat in d'rash was. But I think Rashi would be horrified if he ever understood that's what we were doing with it, confusing p'shat and d'rash. It's rabboseinu amru, this is d'rsah, it's a whole other level of understanding. It's level of understanding which harmonizes with p'shat. By harmonize I really mean harmonize.
Nachi, I don't know if you play piano. If you play piano, you know there's a right hand and a left hand of piano. So the right hand typically carries the melody and the left hand carries the harmony. So if you play just the melody, it's a very nice thing. You play Old McDonald Had a Farm with just the melody. But if you just listen to the harmony of Old McDonald Had a Farm, the left hand, it sounds like complete nonsense. It's just completely from left field. But if you listen to the two together, there's depth and richness. So if you think of p'shat as the right hand of the piano and you think of d'rash as the left hand of the piano, you read d'rash without p'shat it's like it makes our head explode. What, her hand stretched like the Fantastic Four in the comics? She reached and she grabbed baby Moses?
Nachi, let me ask you a question. If you were the daughter of Pharaoh, a nice self-respecting member of the royal family, and here you were taking a little stroll by the Nile, with everything going well. You've got your maid servants with you and, all of a sudden, you see these little cries from the bullrushes. So you want to investigate. So you think you're going to send your maidservant to go check and investigate but all of a sudden, Nachi, your trusty arm begins to extend, like magic, like the Fantastic Four, 35 feet and then grabs this crib. Then takes it back to you, then whoosh, and brings it back, What you do next if that happened to you?
I mean, honestly, if it was Nachi walking along and, all of a sudden, your arm extended. It would destroy the story. Wouldn't you go rushing back to the palace screaming, my arm, my arm, get me a doctor? That's what you would do. How could real life go on immediately after that happening? So really if you think about our tradition and you look at all the meforshim. I'm not saying anything controversial here. You look at the Maharsha, you look at the Rambam, you look at Rav Avraham ben haRambam, no one really took a literal understanding in Midrashim. They all understood the Midrash was getting to something deeper. It was giving a take on p'shat. A harmony on p'shat. They were seeing something that was happening in p'shat and they were responding to it.
This gets back to the trigger and gun powder theory. So in a nutshell I'd just say this, the trigger is what's nominally happening in p'shat. In other words, there's something strange happening which is "vatishlach es amata v'tikacheihah." The word, amah, when she sends her maidservant, can be a homonym. It can mean not only maidservant, it can mean arm. So the d'rash is going on the possibility that it doesn't mean maidservant, it means arm. What is she sent her arm? It's not the p'shat but that's the d'rash. The d'rash is that she sent her arm instead of sending the maidservant.
That's only the trigger. Chazal would never say what they were saying without gunpowder. Gunpowder is that Chazal had a larger 50,000-foot view of what was going on and they were bothered with larger themes within the story. The larger themes within the story, I don't know exactly what they were, but I can theorize. Which is like, Nachi, if you put yourself in the shoes of the daughter of Pharaoh at that moment, so you might say, think about what she actually did. Chap what she really did.
Here's the daughter of Pharaoh, you're the daughter of Pharaoh and you grew up in -- actually, forget it, you're not the daughter of Pharaoh, you're the maidservant, you're the amah. Imagine you're the amah, right? So I play daughter of Pharaoh and I say, Nachi, my amah, I hear there is crying in the bushes. Can you do me a favor and go get the child? So you're a smart guy. You know who's crying in the bushes. It's Nazi Germany over here, we're throwing babies in the Nile. Obviously, if there's this little foundling in the bushes, it's a Jewish child. All of a sudden, the daughter of Pharaoh comes along, she's going to get herself into trouble, she says, oh Nachi do me a favor, go get the child.
Well, who pays your salary as maidservant to the queen over here? What do you think your job is right now? What are you supposed to do? What would you do?
Nachi: Right. It's like divrei harav divrei hatalmud, kind of thing.
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly. It's like, your highness, I understand you're compassionate and all of that but the king has an order and all these children are supposed to be thrown into the Nile, and that's just the way it's supposed to be. Imagine I was really pushy and I said, no, it's the right thing to do, Nachi, I insist that you go and that you bring me this child. So you might say, well, all right your highness, certainly I'll do that but do me a favor. We'll pass it off to some Jewish mother, but you can't bring up this child in the palace. She says, no, I must do it. I'm personally responsible. I have to take care of this child in the palace of the king. So you'd say, your highness, at least don't bring him up like a Jew. Never tell him who he is. But look what she does, she tells him who he is. Because he goes out to see what's going on with his brothers. So clearly, he's aware of who he is because she told him who he is.
So if you think about what she actually accomplished. She accomplished something that literally seems impossible to accomplish. How are you supposed to actually do that? If you're the daughter of Pharaoh, how are you getting away with that in the palace? It's like Hitler's daughter deciding to take this little Jewish kid and show him off before the Reichstag once a year. You don't get to do that if you live in Nazi Germany. How does she get to do this? And she did it.
I think that's the larger question that Chazal are dealing with.
In other words, "vatishlach et amatah v'tikacheihah," yes, the word amah is a homonym for the word for arm. But what Chazal are darshenim is they're saying there's a sense in which as she sent her amah, in fact she was doing something crazy. If you think about your arms reach as a metaphor for what you can actually achieve in life there are certain things you'd want to achieve but your arm can't reach there. That's beyond your reach. Well, what if you ever reached for something that was really beyond your reach, but it was good and it was noble and it was right. Could you reach it? Chazal are saying you can sometimes, that miracles can happen, and that's what happened with her.
So, I think, when Rashi's brining down these Midrashim he's not trying to tell you rules of p'shat have changed and this is how you translate the pasuk and anybody who translates the pasuk as amah is an apikores, and you have to translate it this way. I think taking this approach to Midrash, frankly, I think it saves a lot of kids from being apikorsim. You read Midrash and it makes no sense to you and it's crazy and I have to believe this? So I think that this is one of the cases where Rashi is telling us something other than p'shat and never meant anything other than that.
Nachi: Okay. So that was a Rashi discussion. I would mention two more things that Rashi needs. You said, Rashi's very hard, I mean yeah. You know you have the people who may know the Yud-Alef meforshei Rashi Chumash and now there's a whole another Chumash with another bunch of meforshim. Rabbi Phillip in Eretz Yisrael published many more meforshim and there are so many more meforshim. It's like you said, which Midrash does Rashi bring? Which one does he leave out? What does he tweak in the Midrash? There's so much there. Another thing about p'shat that I would mention also is that maybe the issue that we have today is the dikduk. Everyone gets to a dikduk Rashi and it's like, oh, let's just through that, let's just skip it. It's like Ibn Ezra, who learns Ibn Ezra? What's going on over there? That's another issue that's for another discussion.
So we did kind of get into your style over there. I was going to ask what is your style? Something that I would say, as I was preparing for this podcast, is I saw you had an episode with Ari Koretzky, of Jews You Should Know, so I took a listen to that. A really wonderful episode. You talked a lot more about yourself there. You said something interesting there that I liked and I want to bring up. You said that you're not going to do shalosh seudos Torah, as you called it. So maybe you want to explain what you mean by that expression which you don't do and rather what you do do.
Rabbi Fohrman: Sure. I think that one of the challenges that we have in Chumash really -- getting back to this issue that I struggled with as a teenager. How come nobody's learning Chumash? It didn't make any sense to me. If you believe God wrote it why aren't people learning it? I think the answer to some extent is that in Gemara, for whatever reason, we settled on a derech halimud. So once you have a derech halimud there's a methodology, there's an approach. So once there's an approach and, Nachi, you've learned in a yeshiva for a while and I've learned in a yeshiva for a while, even though we didn't learn in the same yeshivas we can have an intelligent advanced discussion of arbeh p'sachim and we know what the rules are. We know what a good question to ask is. We know what's not a good question. We know what a klotz kashye is because there's a methodology.
Imagine there was no methodology and all you had was just a Soncino Gemara and I had a Soncino Gemara and now we're supposed to discuss things at the level of Rav Chaim. We wouldn't be able to do it, right? You can't do that. You need agreed upon rules. You need some sort of approach. Some sort of derech halimud. Somehow when it comes to Chumash we've had a hard time doing it. Where's the derech halimud? It's almost like there's no agreed upon rules and that makes for a real challenge.
I suspect it wasn't always like that. I actually think, going back to the Midrash, the Midrash had agreed upon rules. That the ba'alei haMidrash were working with a certain system more or less within d'rash, a certain understanding of things, certainly within d'rash, of what they were doing. I think even within p'shat what we were doing. But somehow it's been lost for us. The difficulty is that without that we can get lost in what I call one of two extremes each of which feel wanting to me.
The two extremes are what I call academic, really classic academic Torah, and shalosh seudos Torah. So these two extremes, the academic Torah on the one had and the shalosh seudos Torah on the other hand. Academic Torah is very rigorous. There are certain rules. We understand what we're doing. And yet somehow the problem with academic Torah is that often it can just not mean anything. At the end of the day, I don't have anything to take out of this. I can get into a very nuance discussion of what a certain word means and compare it to Mesopotamian culture what similar words might be elsewhere. There's, perhaps, something to be gained by that but in terms of the larger spirituality of what I'm supposed to take away as an oved Hashem, as someone who wants to serve God, there's often very little to be gained.
On the other hand, at the other extreme, is what we would call sermonics. If I'm a rabbi and I’m giving a darashah, or I need something to say, you look in the seforim store. There are literally seforim you can buy that are called, Something To Say. I mean, that's what they're called. So if you think about it, if I'm reading a book called, Something To Say, what's your claim on truth. Do you even think that you're approaching something that might actually be true? No, I just need something to say. It's not even a issue that this might actually be a way that you could really understand something.
So it's almost like there's a social contract that shalosh seudos Torah has. Which is I'm going to get up and I'm going to speak for five to ten minutes and I'm going to say something utterly preposterous. It just is. It's just mental gymnastics. It's pilpul and I’m going to come up with something and say, you know, but it's something to say. Everyone's going to sit there and they're going to nod their heads politely and when I’m done they're going to say, yasher ko'ach that was really wonderful. But they don't think for a moment that anything I've said is actually p'shat, it's really true or could be true. The person who said doesn't think it's true either but it's this sort of social contract that we have that this is what we do, and you'll congratulate me and everything is fine.
For people who are really looking, again, to be inspired with what God said. If I came to you and I said, so how many times have you read Chumash, or how many times have you faced ethical dilemma's, or wanted real direction in how to live life and you've gone to the Chumash for answers? So how many times in our world would we answer that that's what we've done? You say, no, I've talked to my rosh yeshiva. There's a mashpiah that I've talked to and -- but did you ever consult God's book? What are you crazy? Am I an Evangelical Christian? God's book? Who do you think I am? So you have to be an Evangelical Christian to believe that Genesis would have something to say to you? "Eich naflu giborim?" This is what we've come to?
So to me this was a real crisis. It can't be that there's just three possibilities. One possibility is that I just learn what the meforshim say and I put it out there and this is what the Ramban says, this is what the Seforno says, this is what they said, and here's what it is. But when it comes to me actually looking at the text myself, the actual text, I'm forced between shalosh seudos Torah and mental gymnastics which I don't really think are true. Or this sort of shaving down this word, this academic style, which didn't have meaning.
What I was seeking to do was see is there a way to actually learn omek p'shuto shel mikrah? Is there a methodology to be developed which -- to be honestly true with you, Nachi, that's actually not how I got into it. It wasn't like I was thinking can I develop a methodology? It didn't really work that way. I wasn't really thinking methodology I was just thinking is there any way to bridge this? Is there any way to look at this text and to read it closely and to be able to get to an understanding that felt real, that felt like this is the depth of p'shat. And would it have something to say to me?
What I discovered is that there was something remarkable out there in Chumash. Which is that if you were willing to leave your baggage at the door and that remarkable things could happen. What I mean by that just very briefly, by leave your baggage at the door is, again, in the sort of shalosh seudos Torah realm, or even more charitably sermonics, if I’m a rabbi in shul. So if I'm a rabbi in shul I'm thinking, so what's my darashah going to be this week? I want to talk about loshon hara. Okay. People shouldn't talk loshon hara, they should be nicer to each other. All right, but it's Parshas Toldos so where am I going to see that? Oh, I know where I’m going to see that in Toldos.
So I have a preconceived notion of what I want to talk about. Then I'm going to hang it on one or two pesukim. The pesukim don't quite talk about loshon hara but I can force it in. It's like if I raise my voice and I use my thunderous voice I can get people to -- right? So how inspiring is that? You start with your baggage. You start with your preconceived notion. It's not inspiring because the preconceived notion you have is a preconceived notion that others know you have. So you're not really saying anything new or anything that actually surprised you and the pesukim didn't really help you get there. So the sermon isn't that powerful.
What if you left your baggage at the door? What if you did darashos differently. What if you said, you what, I’m not going to learn Chumash starting with what I want to get out of it. I'm not going to say I want to talk about this ethical teaching and that ethical teaching. I'm taka just going to learn Chumash. I'm going to learn it the way it is and I'm going to really observe what's there and engage in a close reading of the text. What I found is that marvelous things happen. That close reading will lead you, over time if you're patient, to be able to listen and discern something very special in the text that is meaningful to you in surprising and astonishing ways. It will teach you something that you honestly didn't know before and something you can share to others.
That's kind of the spirit behind what I started doing in my books and what I was trying to do at Aleph Beta.
Nachi: So now that you kind of mentioned your style, I should mention you talk about the shalosh seudos Torah, as you're calling it. It became like this culture, I want to say a vort, everyone always has to speak so they say a vort. They find a sefer with a vort, or like you're saying the rav just kind of hangs his preconceived notion, he shoehorns it into the pasuk or that kind of thing. Everyone, I guess in the pardes, they don't say so much with the p'shat aspect of pardes so much.
So what are some sort of example? Obviously, we discussed earlier, you know we've done the whole Rashi discussion, we discussed bat Pharaoh and you kind of pointed stuff out. So that's also, obviously, some kind of example of what you do. So what's an example, and obviously we're going to do Aleph Beta and the books, but --
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. I'll give you an example from and upcoming parsha, one I found fascinating. Again, one of the interesting things about -- what happened was I talked to you about close reading is that over time, I've been doing this for about 20 years, we've just kind of developed basic close-reading techniques. It's like everything you needed to know you learned in kindergarten. It's not rocket science. Each technique is very simple but when you use them together they can be very powerful as just ways of really listening to what's happening in p'shat.
One of them, just to talk about some of the techniques and we can put it together a little bit. Some of the basic techniques are, first of all, the problems that we have when we learn, it strikes me, is that we know the stories too we. Because you've grown up with the story over and over again, we often can't see how surprising the stories really are. We can't intuit the questions which Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants us to ask about this because they're just obvious questions. So in other words, if you know the story of Gan Eden and the Garden of Eden too well, you'll never think to ask a question like, so why would Hakadosh Baruch Hu create a tree that He doesn't want anybody to eat from? That sounds like a strange thing to do. Why put it there? Then, like you say, well it's a nisayon, I get it. But if a parent said, Sonny, I'm going to put chocolate chip cookie right in the middle of the table and the whole purpose that you're not to eat from it. That sounds a little capricious. Why would you do such a thing?
So part of it is looking at stories almost as if you've never read them before and beginning to ask yourself if I was a non-frum person who came across this story for the very first time what would be surprising about it? Why did God not like what was going on at Midgal Bavel? Migdal Bavel seems like a fine thing. It never says they were rebelling against God, they were building a tower, so what's wrong with building a tower? These are basic kinds of questions. Just be aware of the basic questions that anybody should ask. Those questions are opportunities to begin to see something deeper.
Many other just basic techniques. Take it apart and put it back together again. Can you outline a perek? Can you understand the three ideas here? How idea A leads to idea B which leads to C. Is there a break? Do you understand there's that A and B and C but you don't understand how B leads to C? So that's an interesting thing, to be able to focus on that.
To focus on something I call a Sesame Street game. Which one of these things is not like the other. Often times the Chumash will group together four things. It seems like three out of the four is in a certain category but the fourth doesn't really seem to fit. So how do we see those working together?
These are some of the basic techniques. At some of the more advanced levels what I found is a very fascinating thing. I'll just mention it to you briefly. I think it's a technique that the Midrash will use over and over again. The Midrash doesn't give it a name, it just uses it. To put the technique out there, Nachi, what if somebody came to you and said, I'm doing shnayim mikra v'echad Targum this year and I've gone through all the classics. I read through Rashi one year. I did the Seforno another year. I did the Rambam another year. You're the seforim guy, you're Mr. Seforimchatter. I'm looking for a good authoritative accepted meforash that I haven't read yet, something ancient, something classic, something I can really trust, something I can really learn through Chumash with. So give me a -- I've been through all the classics, who should I read now?
Nachi: First of all, it's funny you ask me. The ones that I went through (laughter). You picked the ones. We were discussing this before somewhat. Well, Ibn Ezra, if that's not too --
Rabbi Fohrman: That's all right. I mean, he's pretty reliable. So what if I told you that the oldest and most trusted meforash, older than even the Ibn Ezra. Older than even the Midrash itself. The most reliable meforesh is actually the Chumash itself. What if the Chumash was its own commentary? So you'd come to me and say, Fohrman, that's crazy. How could the Chumash be it's own commentary? I mean the Chumash can't be its own commentary. So what if I said to you, what if I could show you that if you're reading a perek and you come across this strange word or phrase. You realize that word or phrase really only appears one other time in the Chumash. It's a unique word or phrase it appears only one other time in the Chumash. So you say, okay, that's an interesting coincidence but coincidences happen all the time.
Then you keep on reading and you realize it's not just that one phrase, there's a second phrase that's really unusual. I'll be darned if it doesn't also appear in that other same perek, eight chapters ago. So there are these two links between the chapters. Then there's this other phrase and this idea and before you know it there are 12 things about this perek which is reminding me of the perek that -- I want to give you a quick example of it.
Imagine I'm reading the story of the flood which we just read a couple of weeks ago. You get to the pasuk, "vayizkor Elokim et Noach v'et kol hachayah v'et kol habeheimah asher ito b'teiva vayaveir Elokim ru'ach al ha'aretz vayashoku hamayim." God caused the wind to blow over the land and the waters began to recede. So I said to you, Nachi, where else in the Torah do have a ru'ach Elokim, blowing over waters? Do you ever have a ru'ach Elokim blowing over waters in any other place other than the flood?
Nachi: Bereishit? I'm trying to think where --
Rabbi Fohrman: You do.
Rabbi Fohrman: Bereishit, at the very beginning. "Ru'ach Elokim," you actually have a ru'ach Elokim, "merachefet al p'nei hamayim." It's like the second pasuk in Bereishit. "Bereishit barahElokim et hashamaying v'et ha'aretz. V'ha'aretz hayta tohu vavohu v'chosech al p'nei t'hom. V'ru'ach Elokim merachefet al p'nei hamayim." Now there, ru'ach doesn't mean wind it means spirit, but the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. It's interesting that the same words, ru'ach and Elokim, blowing over the waters. Here you have the floor and you've got this "vayizkor Elokim et Noach et kol hachayah v'et kol habeheimah asher ito bateiva vaya'aveir Elokim ru'ach al ha'aretz vayashko hamayim." Elokim causes a ru'ach to blow on the land and the waters begin to recede. All there was, was water and, all of a sudden, the waters began to recede.
Now if I just told you that so that could be a coincidence. Right? That could be a coincidence. It's not davka that Genesis 8:1 is connected to the beginning of Bereishis, but it's definitely eyebrow raising. It's kind of interesting, tell me more. So I would say, okay, what if there was a second link between them? What if you were thinking about the flood itself? You were thinking about the flood and you were looking back into creation and you say, well what does this world look like? "Bereishis barah Elokim et hashamyim v'et ha'aretz," in the beginning God created the shamayim and the aretz, "v'ha'aretz hayta tohu vavohu," and the only thing I know about the universe is that it was all mixed up. It was all chaotic. "V'choshech al p'nei tahom," it was very dark, "v'ru'ach Elokim merachefet al p'nei hamayim," and there was this wind and there was water. So all I really have here is water and it's really dark and windy and chaotic.
So, Nachi, if I put that all together and I said it's windy, all I have is water, it's a water world, it's really dark. What does a really windy, chaotic water world that's dark sound like to you? Where else in the Chumash do I have a really windy, chaotic, dark water world? I mean the only other time you've got it is the mabul, the flood. So I've got two links between these. I've got the windy, almost as if the first vision of creation feels like a flood at some level and then as things start getting better there's this ru'ach Elokim. It's blowing over the waters.
So you say, all right that's kind of interesting, Fohrman, but I'm still not convinced that there's taka a link between Bereishis 8 to Bereishis 1, you'd have to show me more. Can you show me more? It's really the preponderance of lengths that make you convinced that it's not a coincidence at some point. But what's more? So you keep on reading. "Vayisachru may'yonot tehom," the next pasuk says in Bereishis 8, then what did Hashem do after the flood? So He stopped up the waters of the deep, "v'arubot hashamayim," and he stopped up the storehouses of the heavens.
In other words, how did the rain come? The rain comes because there were clouds, on the one hand, pouring rain from the heavens, and there were "may'yonot tehom," there were waters of the deep that were underneath the water. The waters from the deep also combined with the water coming from the clouds to make the flood. So what did Hashem do? He stopped up the waters from the deep so there were no more waters coming from the deep. Then there was no more water from the clouds, "vayikalei hageshem min hashamayim," and that's how He caused the water to stop.
Now, does that remind you, Nachi, of anything back in creation? What does it remind you of in creation? The answer is, sure, the next thing that happened in creation is this really strange verse that God was mavdil between mayim l'mayim. God actually separated between two sources of water. There was mayim mei'al haraki'a, there was heavenly water up there. There was "mitachat b'raki'a," there was mayim underneath. All of a sudden, there was a separation between these two and there was something called raki'a in between. Raki'a we often translate as sky.
It's almost like a vision of what would be the flood. Where there the waters from the heavens go back to the clouds, water vapor goes back to the clouds. Water from underneath goes under the ground. There's raki'a, there's sky in between. So there's a third link, in order, between the world of creation and then the world after the flood. So you say, all right, there's a continuance, it continues.
The next pasuk you have is, "vayashuvu hamayim mei'al ha'aretz haloch vashov vayachseru hamayim miktzeih chamishim u'me'at yom. Vatanach hateiva bachodesh hashevi'I b'shiv'ah asar yom lachodesh al harei Ararat." The next thing that happens is the water recedes and dry land is visible. Well, what happened in Bereishit? That's the next thing that happened in Bereishit. "Yikavu hamayim mitachat hashamayim el makom echad," that brings the water in and the dry land appears. Now you have a fourth link. They're not just links they're links in order.
So what happens is, and this is a more advanced thing and we use this at Aleph Beta all the time, is that the Torah is actually commenting on each other. At a certain point, now you would say, well I guess so but I’m still not convinced. But if I could show you a fifth link and a sixth link and a seventh link, somewhere between the 22nd and the 23rd link, in order between these stories, you'd be convinced that it's not a coincidence.
So why is it this way? What's taka going on? The answer is Hakadosh Baruch Hu's is telling you how to read His book. He's saying that if you want to know what's going on in story A look at story B. Story B is almost like an overlay of story A. If you look at these two things together they actually comment on each other. Story B is working almost as a kind of commentary on story A. I understand story B through the lens of story A. I understand story A through the lens of story B. All of a sudden, something really magical happens, it's almost like stereo vision.
If you think about why you have two eyes. Why do you taka have two eyes? What's wrong with one eye? You don't have one eye and a spare. The reason why you have two eyes is because your two eyes have two different perspectives and when you look with these two different perspectives at one thing and your brain makes them come together, you get the feeling of depth.
Similarly, when the Torah says I want to give you the feeling of depth, I'll give you two stories that are linked to each other, and when you overlay one on the other, all of a sudden, they'll pop out into three dimensions. You really want to understand what was going on in the flood? You have to understand creation. Well you have to understand what was going on in creation. It's almost like there was a recreation happening. It wasn't just that God was repopulating the world, He was recreating the world. There was a new creation.
Then the question is, okay, so was it the same creation or was it a different creation? Were there different rules? Did it work differently? What's the relationship between Creation 2 and Creation 1? The Chumash is inviting you to explore this, and the Midrash is full of this. Of seeing these parshios in connection with one another and beginning to comment on them and Chazal saw it in their way. In a way this is one of the really powerful pieces of methodology.
It leads you to fascinating and surprising places and often, by the way, it leads you to new havanos in Chazal. You can find these things and you look back in Midrash Rabbah and it's like, oh, that's what they were talking about. I have to tell you a funny story about that. I was actually giving a talk on Shir Hama'alot that we say before bentching. I said, okay, so we begin with "hayin k'cholmim," we begin with real-life dreamers. What's the last image you have in Shir Hama'alot? "Bo yavo v'reina noseh alumosav," the man's going to come and he's going to be holding his alumos.
So, Nachi, if I tell you so put that first image of Shir Hama'alot together with the last one. There's a dream, right? "Hayinu k'chomim." The very last image is he's "noseh alumosav," he's bringing his alumos home, a dream about alumos. What does a dream about alumos remind you of in the Chumash? A dream about sheathes.
Nachi: From Yosef, yeah?
Rabbi Fohrman: It's Joseph's dream. So that's weird. So it's like Shir Hama'alos is referring to Joseph's dream? Is this the beginning of this connection? It's almost like, is the Torah telling you that Shir Hama'alos is supposed to be overlaid on the story of Joseph? I think it's quite possible that that's true. By the way, Rashi even thinks that's true. If you look in Rashi, Rashi doesn't know what alumos -- alumos is this very unusual word. You never have alumos in the Torah. Do you know how many times you have alumos in the Torah? Exactly twice. In Joseph's dream and in Shir Hama'alos. So much so that in Joseph's dream Rashi refers to a Shir Hama'alos to help you understand what it even means. That it's these sheathes.
So it's remarkable. So could it be that the "haloch yeilech," I mean if you play it out, so when you say well, who matches up with who? So let's say it's Joseph. By the way, isn't it interesting that "shuva Hashem es shvi'seinu," bring out captives back, well what was the whole story of Joseph about? It was about bringing the captive back. The very first captive who was ever taken away from his family, away from Eretz Yisrael, who eventually had to come back, was Joseph. "Shuva Hashem es shvi'seinu," God bring out captives back, "ka'afikim banegev." Afikim, what an unusual word, like these well springs in the desert.
But the word, afikim, as unusual as it is, is one of those really unusual words that appears in the Joseph story as a verb instead of as a noun. Instead of afikim, which is a noun, afikim as a verb is "lo yachol Yosef l'hitapeik," Joseph couldn't hold himself back. Then began sobbing. Almost like flash floods in the desert. If you were Judah looking at Joseph sobbing, what are you thinking? It's like there was dry all of a sudden and all of a sudden, I mean the Negev, "shuva Hashem es shevi'seinu k'afikim b'negev," this is the moment Joseph comes home. When he reveals himself to his brothers and he starts sobbing. All of a sudden, he says, "ani Yosef ha'od avi chai?"
Speaking of sobbing, somebody else has been crying this whole time but he hasn't been sobbing. "Haloch yeilech u'bachol." There's a man walking around crying. Who's the guy walking around crying who's eventually going to come home with the sheathes? Who's the man in the story who's crying the whole time? "Va'yeivkoso aviv," his father is crying and crying. Somehow Shir Hama'alos is a poetic representation of the Joseph story. Almost saying that the very first blueprint of God bringing home captives, is how Joseph came home. You think it would never happen. If you're Judah going to Mitzrayim, the last thing in the world. You think you're sunk and you're going to get into trouble. You think Benjamin's going to be a captive. You think you're going to spend the rest of your life in prison. All of a sudden, the prison guard starts crying and says, I’m your long-lost brother and in an instant everything changes. That's the metaphor which Tehillim uses as a model for how geulah can come, for how redemption can come. "Shuva Hashem es shevi'seinu." This is how God should bring back all captives, in this kind of way.
So this approach is something which happens all the time. From a different sifrei Tanach, from Tehillim to Chumash, within Chumash itself, the Torah is its own commentary. You can read Rashi and you can read everything, but it's a fascinating world.
Nachi: I'm curious, do you ever use mesorah? Mesorah gedolah and mesorah ketanah? That's something that the mesorah, which unfortunately doesn't really exist anymore, but it does make reference to, how was this word written? Chaser and hamalei? How many times in Tanach? Where else is this word written? Or that's an old source? Not really, you don't really use it?
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, I haven't really used it that much. I mean kri and k'siv's become important. If you look back into -- a fascinating example is in Book of Ruth, if you look at the discussion between Naomi and Ruth, between them going down to the garden, there are all these kri and k'siv's which are fascinating. Between the v'shachant to (inaudible 00:55:01) simlosa'ich," and it gets into this real issue of attention between kri and k'siv over who is really going down to Boaz. Is it Ruth or is it Naomi? At some level I think the kri and k'siv are overlaying off of each other because both are true. In other words, even though in p'shat Ruth is going down to Boaz, but the yibbum which is being performed is a vicarious yibbum for Naomi.
Remember Naomi is also childless. Naomi is also lost her husband. Naomi has also lost her children. Whatever yibbum, so to speak, works for Ruth to be able to keep the name of her dead husband, Machlon, alive is a way that keeps the legacy of Elimelech alive, the husband of Naomi, as well.
So, yes, in general I think the Torah will us what I call a 'no holds bar approach' to conveying meaning. We'll use every trick up its sleeve in ways that, by the way, that Western literature won't. The literary techniques which the Torah uses are literally techniques, but the Torah uses them in ways that are utterly unique. What I just described to you, intertextuality, you can't find that. That's using one part of a book to overlay on another part of a book. You know Shakespeare wasn't written like that. Chaucer wasn't written like that. It's the Torah that's written like that.
So it's a matter of really listening to the Torah and picking up what the Torah itself is doing and then seeing that as, okay, that's one of the tools that God uses, let me keep that in mind.
Nachi: So I'll just mention that The Parsha Companion series, which so far only have Bereishis and Shemos and in discussion maybe you'll mention when the other volumes will come out, but those are -- each parsha has a long essay similar to what you've been discussing and Aleph Beta has the videos about this. Before we get into Aleph Beta a little, I did want to ask you, first of all, did you get direction in any of this from anywhere? This is more like you're saying, your own unique style? Also are there sources that you use? Obviously, I'm sure, you look at meforshim, but in general are there sources, or no? It's what you've been mentioning, it's kind of that you're using the Chumash itself and not necessarily using classical meforshim.
Rabbi Fohrman: So in terms of the influences that I had that brought me here. I can't say there wa one influence that I had but there were many influences and I picked up pieces from many others. As well as some it came from me as well. Among the influences I had were, to some extent, Rav Tzvi Berkowitz, who was a Ram in Ner Yisrael that I was close to many years. The kinds of things that he was doing in Gemara were, I think, very fascinating and innovative. I felt that there were pieces of that which you could take and bring into the world of Chumash as well.
Similarly, Rav Ezer Neuberger, the rosh Kollel there, also I had the pleasure, even as a bochor, hearing a hashkafah chaburah from him. Which left on me a deep impression on me. So there were tools which they were using in Gemara which I found very captivating and found had its application and I kind of applied it to Chumash as well. One of those was, for example, from Rav Ezer Neuberger, one of the interesting ideas was the notion of what Rav Tzvi Berkowitz would call the "s'vara chitzonah," or the "s'vara kedumah." Which wat that when you were learning Gemara, of times when you focus on a machlokes, on a dispute, between two Amora'im or two Tana'im, it's easily you focus on the nekudos hamachlokes and what divides them. What they taught me to do was to focus also on what unites them.
In other words, what's interesting is not just what they're arguing about but what they agree about. What's their hanachah kedumah that everyone simple agrees that "kulo am amod," everybody agrees X, for the applied X, which is accepted by all, was a fascinating search. Something which I've used in Aleph Beta in many kinds of ways. So there were influences like that, probably more than I can count, from different teachers along the way. Again, much of it was my own noticing. Again, I just think it's, to some extent each person needs to find their own way because what you're really talking about.
One of the things that came up in that hashkafah chaburah from Rav Ezra Neuberger early on, I remember it was very influential, at least for me, a two-part chaburah on derech halimud. It was the seven habits of highly effective lamdamim and what those were about. When he was talking about those what he said is that the way to really become a lamdam. The way to develop a derech halimud is not to try to develop a derech halimud. Anybody who tries to imitate what the rebbeim do, or come up with something fancy, is really bound to fail. He says the way that you really become great in learning is by focusing on the fundamentals. He gave a baseball analogy. Cal Ripken back in Baltimore was the man of Baltimore. The way Cal Ripken became Cal Ripken wasn't by trying anything fancy, it was by focusing on the fundamentals of being a shortstop.
What are the fundamentals of learning? The basics of reading comprehension that define your real grasp of p'shat? Later on, in Artscroll, these are the things that became super important in writing the Schottenstein Gemara. What are the basic tools of close reading? Those are the things you didn't really need to learn from anybody. They just the fundamentals. They were just being a clear thinker, understanding so how did Eli (inaudible 01:01:23), like my clear on how did Eli (inaudible 01:01:26)? What was the transition? Oh, that was the transition. It's simply reading comprehension, it's basics. As I told you before, it's the simple things. It's which one of these things is not like the others. Take it apart and put it back together again. What happens next? These are the basic things that we just sometimes forget to do.
A lot of my methodology is really just that. It's simple reading techniques that to some extent each person needs to find their way to understand what does close reading mean to you? When do you feel you really can say, I think I really understand p'shat, I just think this is the simplest and clearest way to understand this. Then that becomes your starting position. So in a certain way what I’m doing isn't so new. It's not like I’m coming along with something really edgy out there that even requires a new perspective. I’m just trying to suggest that we do something very old that any book requires of any reader. Which is to read it carefully.
Nachi: So, about Aleph Beta, obviously we mentioned a while back that there are cartoon videos. I will obviously include the link in the show's notes. Also, Aleph Beta, for those who don't know, A-L-E-P-H B-E-T-A dot org. So that's spelled out. I'll include the link so you can check it out.
Why cartoon videos? Obviously, like you're saying, this is kind of the methodology, this is kind of what you're bringing out, this is your interpretation, this is what you're doing, but why a cartoon video?
Rabbi Fohrman: That's a good question and I admit it's a little playful and I will admit it's not a classical way that Torah has been transmitted for generations, but it has its advantages. I just got off a video call before you with a family and two little kids, 10 and 8 years old, from across the world in the Netherlands, who are these huge Aleph Beta fans. These girls are watching an hour or two a day. It's because kids swim in the world of cartoons, swim in the world of video.
Frankly, I've developed a newfound respect for the intelligence of little kids. We often think we're so sophisticated as adults and kids are so much less sophisticated, I'm not convinced that that's true. I think the difference between us, and kids is that we have more life experience to us than kids do. Life experience, I think, gives you almost this intellectual alpha bet of ideas that is at your beck and call. If you tell me a new s'vara, so I know what a s'vara is, I understand certain components of s'vara, so I immediately have the vocabulary to be able to understand what you're talking about. But if I'm a kid and I've never come across that vocabulary before, I have to make it up on the fly. It requires a lot of work to my brain so it's difficult. It's hard to visualize things without a vocabulary.
One of the beautiful things about Aleph Beta is that it's words but with the videos, the videos are not there just to be cute, they're there to illustrate ideas. Sometimes the ideas are complex, sometimes it's text, sometimes it's just a visual illustration of what's going on or a visual illustration of the structure of how ideas relate to each other. When you give kids that, even adults that, what you're doing is you're giving them a ready-made visual vocabulary to understand what it is they're talking about. All of a sudden, things jump out in new kinds of ways.
I'll tell you a funny story. There was a guy who came to me, I did a teacher training thing in a school up in the Tri-State area. So I showed some videos and was talking with teachers about the methodology behind them. So all the teachers are very excited about it except this one rebbe who is an old-timer. He was the big (inaudible 01:05:21) and he wasn't buying it. He says like, ah, this goofy old stuff, and he wasn't into it. Then something happened and then at the very end he really came alive and was like, this is amazing.
He came over to me afterwards and said he had a question for you. Who do you think you're doing these for? Who's your target audience in these videos, your cute little videos? He said, before I could answer he said, I know who you think your target audience is. He says, do you think your target audience is that you've got all these sophisticated ideas, and you're talking to these sophisticated kids, and sophisticated adults. You think in my classroom you're talking to the top third of my class, that's who your target audience is. He says, let me tell you the truth. It's great for the top third of the class, and they'll love it, but you know who your real target audience is? He says, the bottom third of the class. You know what it's like to be in the bottom third of the class? You know what it's like to not really chap what's going on and all the other kids get it. When there's a joke in the classroom you don't really even get the joke but you have to laugh along because that's what you do.
For these kids they've never tasted the amkus of Torah, they've never tasted real depth. What you're doing with the visuals, with the clear explanations and leading them through piece by piece into the world of depth and with these cartoons, is you're literally it's Kriy'as Yam Suf for these kids. You're giving them an entrée into an intellectual world that they would have otherwise never had, into the world of the beauty of Torah and connection to Torah, that they simply never would have had. It's life changing for them. That's who your audience is.
That was a very humbling thing to hear. That as sophisticated as you think you are, it's those kids that are the-- So it's a very wide audience but somehow the shiluv, the merger, of sophisticated Torah clearly presented with cartoon animation seems to work in its own quirky way.
Nachi: You really just answered my next question, which was who is it geared towards? Interestingly, but I'll ask it, but are the books the same way? You know you're doing The Parsha Companion and you have Bereishis and Shemos, and I'll send a link to those in the show's notes and you're working on the other ones I assume. I'll ask you about that. But the books obviously, don't have cartoons in them. I don't know where there aren't any cartoon images in there, but there's not, so, spoiler alert. But, interestingly, the tone that you use and the way that they're written is very engaging. It's almost like we're schmoozing here. They're a little like schmoozy. It's not like you mentioned this earlier, you alluded to it, it's not like taking out this heavy s, even though there are real "heavy ideas" in there, its written very engagingly. Or at least, I felt that way going through some of the.
So if it's done with the same thought in mind? Is that the same reason for that? Or no?
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, I was searching for a writing style that worked. Honestly, for many years I've been working on the Artscroll's and it's a very different writing style when you're writing for the Artscroll Gemara. It's much more hands on. What I was searching for here really was something intimate. You know, what would it be like to write a book that literally felt like you were having a conversation with the author? But I didn't want also to sort of push my ideas on you. What I really wanted to do was engage the reader in a quest, in a journey. To say, look, I had a journey of discovery and I want to try to recreate something of that journey for you. So I'm not going to tell you what to think but let's explore this. I'll share with you some of my questions and you think about some of your questions. Could you create that in writing? That sense of a mystery unfolding. That sense of a journey done sort of through a conversation, almost as a fireside chat.
So that was the goal. It's not a conventional way of writing a sefer. You won't find sefarim written that way. There are some people who, frankly, it will turn off. If you go on the Amazon reviews they're generally pretty good but you'll get some Amazon reviews that are like, oh, I couldn't stand the style, it was too in formal for me. It is a kind of informal, chatty style but it's designed to try to recreate something Socratic. Recreate the feel of a conversation with a real sense of discovery.
If I've done my job then, first of all, readers don't always have to agree with me. They can go on a journey of discovery and end up somewhere else than me, and that's fine also. I'm seeking to try and share some of the love of the material and the love of the Torah itself that I've experienced by seeing some of its layers. It's a thrill to be able to put ot books that have a chance of doing that.
Nachi: You mentioned there Socratic, I think I've had enough of the Socratic Method being a law student, so enough of that. So you mentioned Amazon reviews, what generally has the reception been in general? I'm not talking about so much the cartoon aspect, but just of your style? Especially more the yeshiva world. What feedback have you heard about this style -- I'm not saying it is a little different, a little unique.
Rabbi Fohrman: It is a little unique. I'll tell you a funny story. I was learning with my step-father, aleh hashalom, and occasionally I would read something with him and I'd work on a p'shat and share with him some of the work that I was doing so he'd be very fascinated, but then he'd be like, one second, who says this? I was, well, it's the p'shat, we're learning it through the p'shat. He would say, hum, how could you say such a thing. He wasn't used to that. You come from the world where you read the meforshim and you pretty much weren't going to think outside of that box.
My view is that look, we have a mesorah through the ages that that's what people do. In non-halachic, in divrei hagadah or in divrei p'shat in Chumash, the Rambam did what the Rambam did and the Seforno did what the Seforno did and the Emek Davar did what the Emek Davar did. Hirsch did what he did and the Malbim did what he did, all the way down to Emes L'Yaakov, in our generation. Every generation has to come and really look at the text themselves and see it. Again, keep Chazal in mind and see how it all comes together.
Anyway, in this story, so my step-father said you know you've really got to run this by some gedolei Yisrael and see what they think. So he set me up with a meeting with Rav Moshe Shapiro, ZT'L. So I was in Israel and I sat down and I met with Rav Moshe Shapiro for about three hours or so. I went through what I considered my most controversial material with him. I did a piece on Judah and Tamar with him, I did a piece on the Aseret Hadibrot, at the end he said, this is fantastic. He says, you should go back to America and build a school and teach this. This was before Aleph Beta, this is before the internet was of an age to really be a way to disseminate it.
I said to him, what do you mean build a school? He said, well, what you're actually teaching is yir'as shamayim. I said, what do you mean? He said, people read Midrash and they think it's craziness. What you're showing is that Midrash isn't craziness. Where Chazal was coming was from a deep analysis of themes in p'shat and people will read this, non-frum people will read this, and they'll -- it's emunas chachamim is what you're showing them. You should build a school.
So I didn't build a school. I didn't see myself as a -- you know the Peter principle, you get promoted to your position of incompetence, I'd be a terrible administrator, a terrible principle, but I -- in a way Aleph Beta becomes kind of like a school. It's a community of thousands and thousands of people. We've got 11,000 subscribers and about 100,000 free users, it's really something. It's an astonishing thing. It's a community of people who are engaging around Torah in a way that's meaningful and it's a real privilege to help create that community. It's a thrill to be a part of that ride.
Nachi: You mention The Parsha Companion, Bereishis and Shemos are now available. Any idea when the next volume will come out?
Rabbi Fohrman: I'm working on Vayikra, but it takes a while to write these things. I consider myself a pretty decent writer, but it takes me forever. I don't write quickly. I write and I rewrite. You know there's this saying with writing that you've got to be able to kill your babies. You've got to be able to write something and (inaudible 01:14:52) read and really work on it and be able to come back to it a week later and just delete the whole thing. I've had my share of that. So I'm about two-thirds of my way through Vayikra and hopefully we'll have it out soon, and Bamidbar and Devarim too.
To some extent, starting with the work in Aleph Beta, with what we do with the videos, some of the material is new and hasn't appeared in the videos at all. Some of it started with the videos and this is kind of a further refinement and extension of those ideas. As you mentioned, it's taking one idea in a kind of a fairly long essay format and the kind of thing that can be read leisurely after your Friday night cholent, or whatever it is, and shared with folks on Shabbos afternoon.
Again, so we're about two thirds of the way through Vayikra. I’m in the middle of Tazria and Metzorah, which is its own special kind of challenge. So we'll see where that goes. Everyone once in a while there's a deep dive, so in the sefer that you have you were looking at the piece on Rivkah, if you were Rebeca's lawyer, which is kind of a 10,000-word piece, it's one of the deeper dives. So that's probably what Tazria Metzorah will end up being in Vayikra.
Nachi: Okay. So are there any -- I did mention that -- I'll mention one last time, that I'm going to include the link to Aleph Beta, the link to the books, and perhaps I'll try to include the links to your other books as well that you wrote. Are there any other future projects or right now it's Aleph Beta and you're focusing on completing The Parsha Companion for now?
Rabbi Fohrman: I've got about 400 books that I'd like to write. The challenge is actually sitting down and doing them. The other future project is that there's a piece on Eishes Chayil, which I'd really love to get into book form. There's a piece in Shema which I would love to do as a Shema companion, a kind of tefillah companion. Then going back to one of the greatest challenges, which is the two creation stories in Bereshis, Bereishis 1 and Bereishis 2 and how do you understand the merger between those two very mysterious stories. I did a discovery in that which I consider, I think it has remarkable implications that the stories are not meant to be read separately but are meant to be read in tandem. If you actually map out the stories side by side you'll find fascinating links between them that correspond going all the way down.
Again, as I've talked to you before, that one story can end up being a meforesh on the other story, it seems like Genesis 2 is actually meant as a commentary on Genesis 1, and Genesis 1 comments on Genesis 2. The full story of creation is that mysterious merger between them. So that's a book too. So, halevai, I should get a chance to publish them all but those are some of the things I’m working on.
Nachi: Sounds good. Looking forward. Okay. With that, thank you very much Rabbi Fohrman, for joining me.
Rabbi Fohrman: Thank you, Nachi, it's been a real pleasure. Thanks for your work in bringing the excitement of sefarim and of authors that might not otherwise get to the view of a large pubic into places where we can hear them speak. To me, it's been a joy listening to your podcasts and getting to encounter folks that I otherwise would never have stumbled across.
Nachi: My pleasure. I'm glad that that's the case. Thank you again.