While I normally try to give my book reviews pithy titles that sum up the main themes of the book in a single phrase, Rabbi Josh Gerstein’s “A People, A Country, A Heritage” is a little too broad for that. The book contains two short pieces on each of the weekly Torah portions from the biblical books of Bereshit and Shemot, each containing a relatively unique set of idea. So in lieu of attempting to sum up the book’s themes, I want to briefly discuss its format, which I think will give a better idea of the book overall.
As I mentioned above, the book follows the traditional structure of the weekly Torah portion, containing two self-contained essays on each week’s portion. For the most part, the essays start by proposing a textual difficulty and a possible resolution, and then using that as a springboard to a larger philosophical discussion. For example, the first essay on Parashat Tetzaveh begins by asking why the description of the structure on the Mishkan mentions the daily Tamid offerings, which would be more at home in Vayikra or Bemidbar. While the essays often solve the textual difficulty by quoting a medieval biblical commentator, this essay goes straight to a text by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, who says that the daily offering was in intrinsic to the purpose of the Mishkan, so it made sense for the Torah to mention it in a discussion of the structure itself. The textual difficulty thus resolved, Gerstein moves into a discussion of the place of repeated, daily, might I say even monotonous, ritual within Judaism, bringing more quotes from the Rav Aharon Lichtenstein text.
While perhaps most of the essays take this form, many take the form of self-contained explorations of a given topic. They always have some sort of connection to Torah portion, but they are essentially independent. For example, Parashat Terumah discusses the donations given for the construction of the Mishkan, and “A People, A Country, A Heritage” features a corresponding essay focusing on different medieval and modern authorities’ opinions regarding a Jew’s responsibility for building the 3rd Temple, and ending with practical steps, such as education, that are viable according to all opinions.
This essay is in keeping with the one major theme throughout the book, appearing in the lion’s share of the essays: the land of Israel. As evident from the book’s title, Gerstein is interested in discussing the relationship of the land with the Jewish people and their heritage. While the book is not attempting to argue for any given position, it takes the important role of the land within Judaism as a given. However, it does not focus on the contemporary state or the Zionist movement, but on the land itself. While the land comes up in obvious locations, such as in an essay on Avraham buying the Cave of Makhpelah for Parashat Hayye Sarah, it also appears in more surprising essays, such as an essay for Parashat Terumah discussing the symbolic meaning of the Mishkan’s structure and vessels.
The essays in the book are on the shorter side, making them convenient for reading on a busy Shabbat, though I sometimes wished they went a little more in-depth. That said, they provided me a window into some contemporary thinkers, such as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, whose works I have not had the chance to study myself, and for that I am grateful.