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Lenses, Parallel Universes, Facets, and Faces

By: Rabbi Uri Cohen

 One man's knowledge is another man's waste / One man's patience is another man's haste

One man's stupidity is another man's brains / One man's freedom is another man's chains

And it seems like there's a million sides to everything

– Peter Himmelman<1>

Any pasuk (verse) in the Torah can be read with multiple types of perush (interpretation). Let's take a famous example from Ki Tavo.<2> When you brought your bikkurim (first-fruits) to the Temple, you had to recite a paragraph that can be summarized as "We were slaves in Egypt, Hashem freed us and took us to Israel, and here's my bikkurim." The first words of the paragraph are "Arami oved avi." It's a cleverly constructed phrase – its words are three syllables, then two, then one – and it's alliterative to boot (in Hebrew, anyway). What does it mean? Avi means "my father." Arami is an Aramean, someone from Aram. But what's "oved" (spelled with an alef)? The standard translation here is "wandering" or "fugitive." So the phrase gets translated as "My father was a fugitive Aramean." Since the next words are "He went down to Egypt," presumably the subject is Yaakov. That's peshat, a straightforward interpretation. So far, so good.

Now the imagination soars. The Haggadah says, "Go and learn what [awful] plans Lavan the Aramean had for Yaakov our Father. While Pharaoh intended to kill only the boys, Lavan wanted to uproot all [of Jacob's family], as it says, 'Arami oved avi.'" The Haggadah apparently understands the phrase to mean "An Aramean [wanted to] wipe out my father." What a completely different way of reading the words! This is derash, a creative interpretation.<3> As one haggadah commentary points out, this is "an outrageously forced reading of the Biblical text... to make an eyebrow-raising point."<4>

But wait, there's more! The same words can be interpreted as remez (a hint) or sod (a secret). Ohr HaChaim reads "Arami oved avi" as a remez to how the yetzer hara (evil inclination) is always trying to destroy our neshamah (soul).<5> As for sod, well, I can't tell you what it is – it's a secret! But rest assured that it's there as well.

This phrase is just one example. The question is how we can relate to the existence of these multiple types of perush. How can peshat and derash and the others all be true? Here are four metaphors that can be useful in answering the question.


Peshat and derash can be understood as different lenses or glasses. Metaphorically, as indicated in the expression "rose-colored glasses," the type of lens you look through may well affect your interpretation of what you see.<6> You might switch back and forth between reading glasses and distance glasses, depending on what you'd like to see. So too here, you can view the Torah through different glasses, just not more than one pair of glasses at a time.<7>


I like to imagine peshat and derash as parallel universes.<8> Although you can't be in both at the same time, they're both always there and you can go between them anytime you want.<9> Furthermore, functioning in one universe need not involve being judgmental of the other one. Nevertheless, for this metaphor, the different types of interpretation are more removed from each other than in the glasses metaphor.


We've all heard the midrashic sentence, "Shivim panim laTorah."<10> But what exactly does it mean? The word "panim" can mean either a face (as a person has) or a facet (as a jewel has).<11> Does the midrash mean the Torah has seventy faces or seventy facets?

It's more standard to assume the latter and to imagine the Torah as a multifaceted gem. One of my teachers, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, presents this approach in his fascinating booklet, Confessions of a Biblical Commentator:

The world of biblical commentary revealed many secrets. First and foremost, the Bible – which contains the wisdom of the Divine – may be likened to a magnificent diamond, glistening with many brilliant colors all at the same time. And although the different hues often appear to be contradictory, when you view the totality of the light emanating from the diamond, you begin to appreciate how complementary they really are. Thus the sages of the Talmud understood that there are many possible truths contained in each Biblical statement, each adding its unique melody to the magnificent symphony of the whole, synthesizing not in conflicting dissonance but in holy dialectic:

The School of R. Ishmael taught: "As a hammer shatters a rock" (Jeremiah 23:29) – Just as a hammer subdivides into many different sparks, so does the biblical verse extend into many different interpretations (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 34a).

Hence the code word for biblical commentary, which encompasses different approaches to the same verse, is PaRDeS (literally "orchard"), comprising P'shat (the plain meaning of the text), Remez (symbolic meaning of the text), D'rash (rabbinical explication of the text), and Sod (the secret, mystical meaning of the text). The sum total of these add up to the "seventy faces" of the Torah, symbolizing the seventy nations of the world, the seventy distinctive approaches to life, reflecting the myriad possibilities and entranceways to the meaning of the Bible and to an understanding (however imperfect and incomplete) of the Divine.<12>

Rabbi Riskin, in other words, extends the metaphor of facets to say that just as a gem's facets all contribute to its magnificence, so too the different types of perush are not contradictory but complementary. In passing, he throws in another metaphor – they are multiple instruments playing in harmony.


It is also possible to explain "Shivim panim laTorah" to mean that the Torah has seventy faces. How can the Torah have faces like a person? It can be compared to the Dodecahedron, a character in the classic book The Phantom Tollbooth:

"What's a Dodecahedron?" inquired Milo, who was barely able to pronounce the strange word.

"See for yourself," he said, turning around slowly. "A Dodecahedron is a mathematical shape with twelve faces."

Just as he said it, eleven other faces appeared, one on each surface, and each one wore a different expression.

"I usually use one at a time," he confided, as all but the smiling one disappeared again. "It saves wear and tear. What are you called?"

"Milo," said Milo.

"That is an odd name," he said, changing his smiling face for a frowning one. "And you only have one face."

"Is that bad?" asked Milo, making sure it was still there.

"You'll soon wear it out using it for everything," replied the Dodecahedron. "Now I have one for smiling, one for laughing, one for crying, one for frowning, one for thinking, one for pouting, and six more besides. Is everyone with one face called a Milo?"

"Oh no," Milo replied; "some are called Henry or George or Robert or John or lots of other things."

"How terribly confusing," he cried. "Everything here is called exactly what it is. The triangles are called triangles, the circles are called circles, and even the same numbers have the same name. Why, can you imagine what would happen if we named all the twos Henry or George or Robert or John or lots of other things? You'd have to say Robert plus John equals four, and if the four's name were Albert, things would be hopeless."

"I never thought of it that way," Milo admitted.

"Then I suggest you begin at once," admonished the Dodecahedron from his admonishing face, "for here in Digitopolis everything is quite precise."<13>

Perhaps the Torah too can be imagined as having different faces, each with a different expression. In fact, there's a midrash that actually applies this to different types of Torah books:

[T]here are four faces to the Divine word. Scripture has a frightening face; Mishnah has a dispassionate face; Talmud has an understanding face, but Aggadah has a playful face.<14>

If we combine this midrash with the "seventy faces" approach, we can say that the same way a person's face can have many different expressions (usually one at a time), so too the Torah can have many different expressions. Peshat, derash, remez, and sod are four standard expressions, but there can be many more as well.

I hope you find these four metaphors useful in relating to different types of perush. But who says there are only four? Perhaps there are seventy here too! Feel free to come up with your own.


1. Peter Himmelman, "A Million Sides," Synesthesia (1989 album). Himmelman is an acclaimed singer-songwriter. It is well-known that he is Bob Dylan's son-in-law. What is not as well-known is that he is also a ba'al teshuvah.

2. Devarim 26:5.

3. Some argue that this interpretation can be considered peshat. See Rabbi Gil Student, "The Aramean," Torah Musings Blog, Aug 31, 2007.

4. Noam Zion and David Dishon, The Family Participation Haggadah: A Different Night (Jerusalem: The Shalom Hartman Institute, 1997), p. 81.

5. Rabbi Chaim ben Atar (1696-1743), Ohr HaChaim, Devarim 26:5.

6. Cf. Brandon Sanderson's offbeat Alcatraz fantasy book series (2007-2010), in which lenses are used for many different activities and powers. A partial list is here:

7. The phrase "multiple-layered colored glasses" appears in Rabbi Nathaniel (Nati) Helfgot (1963-), "Beyond Parshanut: Using Midrash to Enhance the Teaching of Values," Ten Da'at: A Journal of Jewish Education, Vol XI (Spring 1998).

8. I first formulated this in "The Parallel Universe Theory of Torah," Tiger Torah 1:1 (Center for Jewish Life at Princeton University, Sept. 12, 2003).

9. Parallel universes figure in many works of fantasy. Here, I am specifically thinking of the kind described in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials book trilogy (1995-2000). Interestingly, the premise of parallel universes is commonly used to solve continuity problems in comic book stories. For an uncommon application of this, see Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, "Spanning the Archieverse – Or, Crisis of Infinite Jugheads," Comics Buyer's Guide #1169 (April 12, 1996), p. 30.

10. Bamidbar Rabba 13:15.

11. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (1934-1983) has a posthumous essay collection  entitled Faces and Facets (New York: Moznaim, 1993).

12. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (1940-), Confessions of a Biblical Commentator: The Rights – and Wrongs – of Individual Interpretations in Biblical Exegesis (Efrat: Ohr Torah Institutions, 1997), pp. 2-3.

13. Norton Juster (1929-), The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), Chapter 14.

14. Masekhet Sofrim 16:2 with the emendation of the Vilna Gaon. Translation from Prof. Marc Bregman, "Isaak Heinemann's Classic Study of Aggadah and Midrash." (Parallels to this passage appear in Midrash Tanchuma (Buber), Yitro #17 and Pesikta DeRav Kahana (Mandelbaum), 12:25.)





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