Rather than following the usual practice of writing a single book on one or more volumes of the Five Books of Moses with the authors ideas supplemented by up to about a dozen commentaries from other sources, Koren Publishers Jerusalem has launch a huge project that will benefit many Jews and non-Jews. This new series of books offers much more. There will be 55 volumes, one volume for each of the 54 biblical portions read during Shabbat morning services in synagogues, with a small part of that portion on Monday and Thursday mornings, and a small part of the following portion on Saturday evening in the synagogue services. The 55th volume will be an introductory volume. Five of the first books of Exodus have been published. The work necessary to complete the project may take some years. Each volume contains abridged excerpts from more than forty commentators from Philo (25 BCE-50 CE} and the early Midrashim until the present day.
The books are divided into two parts. Opening the books from the right side are the Biblical Hebrew text and the Hebrew commentary of Rashi (1040-1105), the new much improved translation of the Torah portion by the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, and the commentary of Rashi with a new very readable English translation by Rabbi Jonathan Mishkin in which he frequently adds words to clarify what Rashi is saying and why he is saying it, a three-page discussion on the translation of Rashi, and in the Va’era volume the haftarah for the biblical portion and the Maftir and Haftarah for Shabbat Rosh Chodesh in Hebrew and English translation. This section comprises 45 pages in the Va’era volume.
Rashi’s commentary is often not based on a literal reading of the Torah but midrashic and sermonic. He sometimes inserts his view that demons exist and that God has a physical body. For example, in this right-hand Rashi section, Rashi explains that 6:3’s “But by My name y-h-v-h I did not make Myself known to them” [to Israelite ancestors], God is telling Moses that the ancestors did not know that God can be trusted to keep His promises. In 8:14, he states that the Egyptian magicians’ demons were unable to perform the miracles done by Moses and Aaron. In 7:4, where God tells Moses He will set His hand against Egypt, Rashi explains yad mamash, an actual hand. In 6:8, he writes that God lifted His hand and swore by His throne, which Rabbis Mishkin changed to “promised.”
Opening the book from the left side readers will find an additional 205 pages divided into four sections. (1) Commentaries from the early time of the sages. (2) The classic commentators. (3) Confronting modernity. (4) Three essays surveying some of the previously mentioned remarks. Each of the first three sections begins with a chart showing the dates of the commentators. The commentaries are translated by Rabbi Jonathan Mishkin.
The first section in Va’era has the abridged ideas of 21 commentators from Philo, the Talmuds, and over a dozen different Midrashim from the beginning of the Common Era until the thirteenth century. Among the many comments is the view of Targum Yerushalmi to 6:18 that Jacob’s grandson Kehat lived 133 years, long enough to see his descendant Pinchas the High Priest who is Elijah the prophet who will be sent to the Jewish people at the end of days. Mekhilta Derabbi Shimon to 7:1 says that God instructed Moses to speak to Pharaoh in Hebrew which his brother Aaron would translate into Egyptian. Philo to 7:15 writes that Pharaoh would visit the Nile because he believed it was the original source of creation and worthy of worship.
The second section contains interpretations from 15 sources from Saadia Gaon who was born in 882 until 1619 such as on 6:8 where God promises to bring the Israelites to Canaan despite most dying during the 40 year stay in the desert, ibn Ezra explains that the promise was kept, many individuals who left Egypt entered the land including children. In 6:11, where God tells Moses “Go to the king’s palace,” he informs us that the biblical “go” often means “enter.” Rashbam explains God’s description of Aaron in 7:1 as Moses’ prophet, that the word means “spokesman.” Similarly, Maimonides’ son Abraham tells us that scripture’s tzevaot in 7:4 and elsewhere where it describes the many Israelites and which is often translated “host,” is a term used to describe a large system or huge component.
The third section has commentaries from ten sources beginning in the seventeenth century to the present time. Contrary to those who understand God’s statement to Moses in 6:2 “I am Y-h-v-h” as signifying a God of mercy, Shadal feels that God is telling Moses that He is all powerful and can perform good and evil in the world. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sees 6:8’s “And I will bring you to the land” suggesting that Israel is designated as a nation even before they acquired their homeland and the Jewish nation does not depend on the possession of the land. Malbim to 7:6 stresses that even though Moses and Aaron were old men, they exerted themselves to follow God’s commands precisely
The fourth section called “The Biblical Imagination” has three essays: ““The Redemption Begins with Us” by Rabbi Shai Finkelstein, “Who is Targeted by the Theological Display of the Plagues in Egypt” by Dr. Brachi Elitzur, and “The God who Acts in History” by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
In summary, this new series of 55 books, 5 of which have so far been published, will offer readers what could be called an encyclopedia of abridged interpretations from over 40 traditional Jewish sources on a single biblical portion. Examples from the portion Va’era are given here. While the original more detailed version of each of the selected sources would give even more information, and it would have even been nicer if some other sages such as Maimonides were included, and readers will not always agree with the midrashic and sermonic comments of the sages who are included, what we are given is an enormous gift that will undoubtedly open our eyes and minds to the many ideas in the Torah and Jewish tradition, and will give us delightful books to read on Shabbat.