Every essay addresses a new topic. This genre has been done a thousand times over yet R. Kahn’s contribution is remarkably original. Using midrash, both from standard and kabbalistic texts, he psychologizes the biblical characters, looking into their motivations and reactions, and symbolizes them, attributing to them philosophical and theological significance beyond their personal identities, and with all that usually finds a message relevant to today.
On the section of Noach, writers find fertile ground when dealing with the sinning majority, the saving of Noach, his downfall or the tower of Bavel. R. Kahn, in his first essay, asks who Noach’s wife was. The answer, Rashi (Gen. 4:22) tells us, is Na’amah. R. Kahn devotes an essay to exploring her heritage, which requires investigating various family tree passages and using midrash and kabbalistic texts to complete her ancestry. When R. Kahn is done, we see a continuation of the Kayin-Hevel episode through the generations and we learn why so many people have names similar to Hevel. Na’amah was the daughter of Lemekh and his trophy-wife Tzillah; she was the culmination of Kayin’s family line. Yet despite her ancestry and upbringing — “born in hedonism and selfishness, heir to the dubious legacy of violence passed down from Kayin” — she became Noach’s righteous wife who was worthy of saving, unique among people. After learning about the post-Adam generations and Cham’s violation of Noach after the Flood, we understand Na’amah’s incredible story of teshuvah, overcoming her upbringing.
The story of Yosef and his brothers in Egypt is full of difficult conversations. Accusations of spying and theft are met with non-parallel answers that serve as weak defenses. On close reading, it is hard to understand the flow of discussion. R. Kahn resolves this by positing that Yosef had a plan and was manipulating his brothers in order to elicit specific brotherly reactions. Carefully reading the text and getting into Yosef’s brain, R. Kahn shows how each step in the conversation leads to the next until Yosef is overwhelmed with emotion and reveals his identity. Yosef was not looking to exact revenge on his brothers but to remind them that there was someone they had forgotten; he wanted them to seek him. Unfortunately, they never did.