12 Oct Q&A With R’ David Fohrman of Aleph Beta About His New Book, Genesis: A Parsha Companion
Rabbi David Fohrman is the Dean and founder of Aleph Beta and scholar for the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Study. He lectures internationally on Biblical themes. Rabbi Fohrman grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. He came to NY (Kew Gardens, Queens) as a teenager after his father passed away and his mom remarried. He went to Ner Yisrael starting in tenth grade. While in Yeshiva, he earned a Master’s degree in History of Ideas at Johns Hopkins. While living in Baltimore, he wrote for ArtScroll for about seven years as part of their Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud. Rabbi Fohrman slowly developed a methodology for approaching Chumash and Nach and for interpreting Midrashei Chazal. He began using his methodology to teach both yeshiva groups at Ner Yisrael, and, simultaneously, to non-frum groups at a local bookstore in Baltimore, called Bibelot Books. He eventually started teaching courses in Biblical Themes as part of the faculty at Johns Hopkins University. Rabbi Fohrman also learned with Rav Tzvi Kushelevsky in Israel and Rav Shternbuch’s Kollel in Har Nof. He has four published books to date: “The Beast that Crouches at the Door” (about Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel), “The Queen You Thought You Knew” (About the Book of Esther), “The Exodus You Almost Passed Over” and his most recent “Genesis: A Parsha Companion.” He and his wife Reena live in Woodmere, NY, with their two sons and five daughters.
What is Aleph Beta up to these days?
At this point, we’ve got five years of parshah and holiday videos. We’re branching out to do some other things which includes some sort of general, religious topics that people are interested in. We are doing a six-part series on prayer, shemah, and on shemah’s place in tefillah. In response to the pandemic, we did a six-part podcast on “refaeinu” and the roots of the “refaeinu” prayer in Shemoneh Esrei. We’re also doing some live events. I actually did one live event last night on Selichot and similarly, we’ve done some live events on Kinnot. We’re working on a lot of material weekly. I’m working on some material on Shabbos.
The other thing is that I’m writing more books. We have Beraishit that just came out, Shemot is at the printer, and we’re working on Vayikra. I am trying to get Vayikra, Bamidbar, and Devarim done by next year’s cycle. So that’s the plan.
Are Aleph Beta subscriptions higher due to Corona since people are home for so long?
Yes, Aleph Beta has been an important resource for a lot of people during the Pandemic. We made a decision early on, because people were hurting so much, to make Aleph Beta free for the first five-six months of the pandemic. We rely on subscriptions to fund our projects, but during this hard time we were just trying to be a public service. About 5,000 people took us up on that, which was very meaningful.
What was interesting is that we didn’t see a lot of paying members drop off during that time. People wanted to continue to support us, even though they knew others were receiving free accounts. Many people wanted to do that, which I think says so much about our community.
We went back to our regular model of subscriptions about a month ago, but we are still offering free subscriptions to anybody who is unemployed because of Corona or is out of work for any other reason. All they have to do is write to us and we’ll give them a free subscription.
One way or the other, we’re still seeing more and more people using Aleph Beta.. In general, I think maybe people are finding new uses for Torah online. There was a time when Google was a mathematical word and now it’s a household word. There was a time when Zoom meant something else and now it’s a household word that means video conferencing. In that kind of environment, I think people are beginning to look at the unleashed potential of online material. Aleph Beta has been there for seven years so we’re in a good place to provide people with that service.
Let’s talk about your new sefer, Beraishit: A Parshah Companion. First of all, when did it come out?
It came out approximately a month ago. This is our first joint publishing venture with Koren/ Maggid books. They’ve been great to work with. They released it and they are the main publisher, but we’re partnering with them in creating it. It was released at least two weeks ago in Israel and around the world. I’m actually happy to say that they are just now selling out the first printing. They are ordering a second printing of books.
People seem to really be responding to it. Even Amazon is managing to get a lot up on their site. I’m pleased with the response so far. The cover is very interesting: sky on the top, oceans on the bottom, patterns covering everything. Very clever.
How did you decide to do this cover?
The truth is, I wasn’t the cover designer. His name is Cory Rockliff. He was the text editor for the book and the cover’s graphic artist. Interestingly, when I publish books, cover design is always a top, agonizing choice. We go back and forth. We once did an auction. You can do this on the internet.
There’s a site called “Ninety-Nine Lines,” I believe, where you can ask different artists to compete for a vision of the book. Cory came up with an idea, he sent it to me, and I immediately approved it. There was no back-and-forth. He came up with it. I thought it was a genius idea; I really loved it. We also have something similar for Shemot, Vayikra, Bamidbar, and Devarim.
The idea is five, abstract art images with the theme of the sefer without showing any faces. Kind of a visceral image that captures the sefer. For Shemot, there are some Egyptian hieroglyphics on stone.
For Vayikra, there’s a roaring fire on the mizbeach. For Bamidbar, there are simply long footsteps in the sand to convey the desert.
For Devarim, there’s actually a remarkable shot, an abstract photo, looking out towards the plains of Yericho, where Har Nevo would be (the place of Moshe’s last view of the land). There is also that abstract imagery with different types of colors.
The idea that we have here is the primordial world of Genesis and it’s overlaid in a pattern which evokes, to me, one of the themes of the book — something that makes this book a little different from other books. It is a search for patterns. And commentary emerges organically from those patterns.
If I ask you what the earliest commentary in the Torah is, you might think, Rashi, Tosfot, Sforno, etc. But what if I told you I wanted to do something different and authoritative? What if I told you that the earliest, most authoritative commentary on the Torah was the Torah itself? It’s kind of mind-blowing. You might ask, “I don’t get it. How can the Torah be a commentary on itself???” The idea behind these books is that is You’ll ask yourself, “What are these patterns? How can I look at this in a different way? I wonder if I can find any.”
Again, one of the things that I kept in this book that is sort of distinctive of the way I write, for better or for worse, is that I write as if I’m in dialogue with the reader. I’m trying to make you feel like I’m there with you, actually kind of talking to you. I’ll try to ask you questions and lead you through a sort of thought-process. I think that’s an exciting aspect of the book which is the chance to get a sense of what these different kinds of patterns look like and apply the same kind of methodology a few different times over the course of these sefarim so you can see what’s hidden there.
I was looking through your Table of Contents of every parshah. In Beraishit, you ask, “Does man acquire woman?” Another question you ask that stuck out to me on Parshat Vayeira is, “Why didn’t the Torah use ‘eifoh’ when it describes Yitzchak’s question about where the lamb was?
Yes, I talk about two kinds of ‘where’. An eifoh kind of where and an ayeh kind of where. Yitzchak is asking ayeh. If you look throughout the Torah, eiphoh is always a genuine request for location. Ayeh is never really a request for location. It’s a question that expresses a little bit of astonishment: Why isn’t something here, where you expected it to be? Where did it go? That’s ayeh. Yitzchak isn’t asking, dad’, where exactly is the lamb; did we leave it behind the woodshed or was it near the barn? He’s asking: Dad, where did the lamb go? How come there’s no lamb.
And that’s a different question entirely. This is the moment Yitzchak starts to sense that something is strange about this offering; that perhaps, just perhaps, he is the offering. And yet, look what happens?
When he asks this question to Abraham, Abraham — as much as he might like to run away from the question — answers ‘hineini’, beni; here I am, my son. What will happen up at the mountain is up to God. He’s going to have to find himself a lamb. I don’t know what the lamb will ultimately be. Maybe it will be you. But… no matter what happens at the top of the mountain — I am not running away. I am here for you, my son. It adds a new dimension to the story, I think.
How long did it take you to write this book?
There are two answers to that. 1) It took me forty years to write this book. In a way it’s a distilled thought. You know, you come up with a thought, it marinates in your head, and then you come back to it the next year, the year after that, etc. The book is a distillation of various different things that I’ve been working on for decades. 2) The actual writing of the book was a process that probably took over the course of two years. It was a full-time endeavor for four-five months. It’s one thing to come up with an idea and it’s another thing to write it down in a way where it really makes sense to folks. I enjoy writing but it doesn’t come easy to me. It takes time. When will the next sefer on Shemot/Exodus be out? It should be coming out a few weeks before the beginning of Sefer Shemot, so folks should have Beraishit and Shemot on their hands and hopefully next year Vayikra, Bamidbar, and Devarim.
What else are you working on these days? Is this your full time endeavor? Obviously between Aleph Beta and this, there’s a lot on your plate.
Between Aleph Beta and this, this is really what I’m working on. I’m lucky to have a kind of job that you can only dream about — which is a job where you basically learn Torah and share it with people. What could be better than that?! So I’m splitting my time between video, audio, and book writing. Aleph Beta has branched out to develop audio podcasts where you can listen in cars. Between all the kinds of media we produce, that’s pretty much my work day. Additionally, I work with some of our scholars. We hired some folks for Aleph Beta who are trained in these methodologies. We’re working with them to find new things and put those things out into the world. That’s pretty much what I’m up to.
Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?
Just that this is a book that is a little bit different from my other books. I think this book makes for a good introduction to my other books since it’s a ten-minute investment. You don’t need to commit to reading an entire book, you can just get a little flavor. If you like it, you can try it next week and the week after. It’s meant as a parshah companion. It’s a different kind of experience from the other books. In a sense, it is more approachable.