Kollot Haftarah D’var Torah: Three Rules for Reading in 5780
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 26 October 2019
At the end of today’s parashah, there is a moment of extraordinary love and intimacy. Despite everything that has happened, God clothes Adam and Eve.
As they are about to be thrown from Eden: “Vaya’as Adonai elohim l’adam u’l’ishto kotnot or va’yalbishem – The Eternal God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them.”
This morning I want to dwell on this verse for a little while.
Not only because it is a thing of great beauty, hopefully setting the tone for a year of finding beauty in Torah. But I also want to suggest that in its complexity we can take from this verse some guidance on how to read. As we begin a new cycle of Torah, three principles of Jewish reading to accompany us into the year ahead:
The first is that when we read as Jews we must be open to the possibility of diverse interpretations and understandings.
What exactly are ‘kotnot or’ – garments of skin?
If we look to the midrash or medieval commentators, we are presented with a variety of possibilities. The ellipsis in this week’s haftarah replaces a conversation about what exactly it means (it rather breaks the flow so I’ve removed it, but it’s there).
What are kotnot or? Were they wool; or it a particular type of animal skin (though that would make this the first killing of animals for human use – an idea with which many are uncomfortable); perhaps a hard exo-skeleton just for Adam and Eve; does it just mean a fabric that is comfortable to the skin?
According to one commentator, it means our actual skin – in Eden according to Ibn Ezra, Adam and Eve were flesh and bones – as they left their skin was provided.
It’s not a major matter it’s true – but the diversity of answer is significant. More important still is that all these answers sit comfortably together within our tradition – not only do we not know ‘the answer’, but our tradition is largely unconcerned by this fact.
The sages and commentators may express a view one way or the other based on their reading of the text, but they never seek to strike the other version from the record.
So, in 5780, may we reflect this in our reading – open to the possibility of difference of interpretation – and to the recognition that we do not know. We do not need to know every answer –rather, to be Jews is to live creatively with the ambiguity, and to carry on telling the story in its multiple different ways.
A second principle from our verse: we have to be grown up about the text that we read.
To understand that not only does the text contain within it ideas that are complicated, that we will struggle to understand – often struggle even harder to justify – but the text itself also has its own complicated history. So, as we read, we should be wary of treating the text as if it is simple or infallible.
How does our verse teach is this?
One of the most interesting things about our verse is that, according to Midrash Genesis Rabbah, one of the sages had a different version. We read there that Rabbi Meir, in his Torah scroll, had a version that read not kotnot or with an ayin – garments of skin, but kotnot or with an aleph – garments of light. Now this doesn’t help much with our understanding of the verse – Garments of skin is no less opaque. But what’s important is what it tells us about the origins of our text.
The midrash does not say what it would say if was simply a matter of rabbinic interpretation – in that case it would say “Rabbi Meir said do not read or (ayin) but or (aleph).” Here though it says “In the Torah of Rabbi Meir it was found written.” He had a different version in front of him. In fact, this is one of three places where we are told that Rabbi Meir’s version diverged from that which others had in front of them.
This is not the only example of this kind. Elsewhere in rabbinic literature we also find references to scribal variants, and in numerous places the Talmud bases an interpretation – sometimes on a matter of law – on a text different to that which we have before us. Which is hardly surprising. Our text has a history – unseen to us. The oldest written biblical texts that we have are fragments – the oldest complete versions of any kind are from over a thousand years after the time of composition of even the latest biblical books.
So, when we read bible we are not reading some perfect original text. The received text is the result of a process of redaction and transmission akin to any other ancient text.
And our reading needs to be open to that awareness. We must be wary of anyone who says that these exact words were the words of God. We can and should revere a text which has been central to Jewish life, in this form, for 2000 years – but not be closed to what it is – a human text with a story of transmission. As Progressive Jews, we read the text with our eyes open.
And finally, a third principle of Jewish reading – one articulated beautifully by our haftarah this morning: Jewish reading is, in large part, about doing.
That is, when we read as Jews one of the questions that sits with us is, “How does this affect how I am in the world”. This is true not only of legal material, but also of narrative; it is not true not only of our foundational or formative literature but of every time we pick up a book. However text-critical, sceptical and academic we might be – we allow ourselves to be changed by the text that we receive – not as a normative work, telling us what to do, but certainly as a formative one, shaping how we are.
Our haftarah from Rabbinic literature this morning is the perfect example of this Jewish reading.
The Bavli, the Babylonian Talmud, takes this moment of narrative and asks that we let it shape how we are with others. That we recognise it as an example of how we can be in the world. It asks us to engage in imitation dei, imitation of God, in our treatment of others.
Whatever the textual history of Torah, whatever the challenges of understanding, it reminds us that Torah, t’chilatah gemilut chasidim sofah gemilut chasidim, it begins and ends with acts of lovingkindness, and so should we.
As we begin again the reading of Torah, may we be open to diversity – in our reading and in our lives.
May we approach the text and our religious lives with eyes open to its complexity.
And may we allow the text to move and shape us, as Jews have done for thousands of years.
Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a
Rabbi Chama said, son of Rabbi Chanina says: What is the meaning of that which is written: AFTER THE ETERNAL YOUR GOD SHALL YOU WALK… UNTO GOD SHALL YOU CLEAVE (Deuteronomy 13:5)?
Is it possible to follow after the Divine Presence? Has it not already been stated elsewhere FOR THE ETERNAL YOUR GOD IS A DEVOURING FIRE (Deuteronomy 4:24)?
Rather, one should follow after the attributes of the Holy One.
Just as God clothes the naked – as it is written: AND THE ETERNAL GOD MADE FOR ADAM AND FOR HIS WIFE GARMENTS OF SKIN AND CLOTHED THEM (Genesis 3:21) – so too, you should clothe the naked.
Just as the Holy One visited the sick – as it is written [of God appearing to Abraham following his circumcision]: AND THE ETERNAL APPEARED TO HIM BY THE TEREBINTHS OF MAMRE (Genesis 18:1) – so too, you should visit the sick.
Just as the Holy One consoled mourners – as it is written: AND IT CAME TO PASS AFTER THE DEATH OF ABRAHAM, THAT GOD BLESSED ISAAC HIS SON (Genesis 25:11) – so too, you should console mourners.
Just as the Holy One buried the dead – as it is written [of the burial of Moses]: AND HE WAS BURIED IN THE VALLEY IN THE LAND OF MOAB (Deuteronomy 34:6) – so too, you should bury the dead…
Rabbi Simlai expounded: The Torah – its beginning is an act of lovingkindness and its end is an act of lovingkindness.
Its beginning is an act of lovingkindness, as it is written: AND THE ETERNAL GOD MADE FOR ADAM AND FOR HIS WIFE GARMENTS OF SKIN AND CLOTHED THEM (Genesis 3:21)
And its end is an act of lovingkindness, as it is written: AND HE WAS BURIED IN THE VALLEY IN THE LAND OF MOAB (Deuteronomy 34:6).