“With a Mighty Hand: The Story in the Torah” by Amy Ehrlich with illustrations by Daniel Nevins— Beauty, Drama, Mystery

with a mighty hand

Ehrlich, Amy. “With a Mighty Hand: The Story in the Torah”, (with illustrations by Daniel Nevins), Candlewick Press, 2013.

Beauty, Drama, Mystery

Amos Lassen

I compulsively study Torah or the Five Books of Moses (what Christians call the New Testament) and I am always on the lookout for new translations, commentaries and interpretations. What is so amazing about the Torah is that it can be read and reread again and again and it always has something new to say. In the most basic definition, it tells the story of the beginnings of the Jewish people and of their relationship with God. From the time of Adam and Eve through Abraham, the father of Judaism and Moses, the leader of a nation freed from slavery who traveled to the promised land, it is a collection of stories that has been studied and loved throughout the generations for some 3000 years when it was first written down.

Amy Ehrlich gives us a new and lyrical adaptation of the original texts and she does so in a continuous narrative that does not stray from the original and is accompanied by David Nevins’s beautiful paintings. The Torah gains new breath here and we are so lucky to have this version.

Ms. Ehrlich tells us, “I’ve always been fascinated by the Torah — both as an object and as a work of literature. When I set out to create a version of the Torah, I wanted to make a bridge between the little fables that are presented as ‘Bible stories for children’ and the complete (and often impenetrable) text of the Torah. To do this I focused on the characters and events in the narrative and wrote it as free verse to bring forward the poetry and beauty of the language.”

I am pretty sure that all of us remember the first time we saw the Torah and for some of us it was nothing more than a scroll wrapped in velvet and decorated with silver trappings. We did not realize at young ages what it really was and what it means to the Jewish people. For most boys like myself it meant giving up our afternoon when we could have been playing but instead had to go to “cheder” to learn the mystical language with which it was written. It was, for me, at least, not until years later, that we truly realized the importance of Torah and today I cannot imagine my life without it. No matter what the occasion, whenever I approach the Torah now, I do so with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Last year when I was called to read from the Torah on Yom Kippur, I began to weep openly even though I knew what I was to chant by heart. I was later told that he who weeps while reading Torah shall have a good life.

I look at the Torah in the way that Amy Ehrlich does in her rendering—it is a gift to be studied and loved, to be shared and treasured. We do not have to believe every word or story but we must acknowledge what it has brought to the world. Judaism forbids the worship of images or idols and the Torah is a sacred object, revered as the Word of God. Its name in Hebrew means “Teaching” or “Law.” It is the history of our people and it contains all of God’s commandments—not just the ten basic ones but also the 613 laws and prohibitions about every aspect of life. It includes profound assumptions about human beings and how we should treat one another. The Torah states that we are created in God’s image and therefore we share God’s nature. It says human life is sacred and it is also a system of ethics that has continued to be honored for thousands of years. It is both old and new and it brought the belief in one God, a concept we share with other religions.

Ehrlich has chosen to retell the stories of the Torah without commentary or interpretation (which is almost an impossible task for everyone inserts himself into the Torah when it is retold just as every translation is a commentary). The Torah is filled with mysteries and there are some very unsettling stories—Abraham’s binding of Isaac, Joseph being sold into slavery, Jacob wrestling with the angel, Moses being forbidden to enter the land. Some of these have been debated throughout time and conclusions have not always been reached. We have no answers and never will. I find the Torah to shock and make us think whenever we read it and we read it over and over year after year. When we finish it, we start again on the very same day. (And it never bores).

There have been times in my life when I have left the Torah—as a graduate philosophy student I had no need for “Jewish fairy tales”, as an early settler in Israel I did not need Torah; I was in the land. But I always come back—it is the symbol of my faith and it has brought me into my religion. Now that I am older and maybe not much wiser, I cannot imagine going a day without reading Torah.

Ehrlich has kept the beauty, the drama, the surprise and the mystery of the Torah in her rendering. Her verse is beautiful and the stories contain the same strong message as always; the language is “poetic, rhythmic, sophisticated, and accessible” and we feel her respect for and love of the Torah. The artwork is gorgeous and I got the feeling that the book was inviting me to read, not the same old stories, but beautiful stories handsomely retold.

As I sat writing this review, I was reminded of what I went through just last week as I sat to write my d’var Torah for my temple this Rosh Hashanah. Once again I pondered over the story of the Binding of Isaac trying to find something new. I brainstormed, I read and reread and read again and I drew a blank. Then it was as if I had been touched by a mighty hand and I found something. I call what I wrote, “When God Said Please”. I won’t say anymore than that except to look to find where God said please and you will discover something wonderful just as I did. That is the beauty of Torah.