By Elka Wiesenberg
I’ll start with a confession or two: I rarely read for pleasure anymore. I love reading, always have, but it’s just a lot easier to watch TV. There’s no brainpower, no thinking, not even pages to turn — just open Netflix and the show autoplays until your mind is numb. When I do read for pleasure, it’s often something light and meaningless. I feel like I get enough heavy reading in school (first as an English major at Stern, now as a law student at Cardozo), and I don’t need to add to that. But lately, I’ve found that TV shows and light reading don’t provide me with the thrill I used to get from my Shabbos (Sabbath) afternoons, immersing myself in a really great read that has the time slipping away without me realizing it. There’s something about a deeper read that gives so much satisfaction, an enjoyment that comes with intellectual stimulation and not shutting your brain off. Still, it can be hard to get into a book that challenges you, hard to pick reading material that may not be quite so easy to read.
That’s why one of the most incredible feelings is finding a book that is accessible, that you can read easily and enjoy, but also is a learning experience that opens your mind. This is what I found in Professor Nechama Price’s sefer (Judaic book) “Tribal Blueprints: Twelve Brothers and the Destiny of Israel.”
Professor Nechama Price is a renowned scholar, one of the most famous teachers at Stern College for Women, particularly in the subjects of Jewish laws of marriage and purity, but also for her insight into the stories and personalities of the children of Jacob, the twelve brothers who would become the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. “Tribal Blueprints” is divided into sections for each brother, or sometimes for a group of the brothers. It takes the reader through an incredible analysis of each tribe, starting with their origins of name and birth, telling the stories of the brothers, and explaining how the characters of each brother ultimately impacted their entire tribal lineage.
I have to say, this sefer made me happy because it is just so well-organized. It’s clear, it flows, and as I alluded to earlier, it’s really an enjoyable read. For anyone who just wants something interesting to read during social isolation, this is a perfect option. For people looking for new English material with a chavrusa (partner in learning), it’s broken down into sections so you can easily divide your learning sessions. For those who want even more in-depth learning, the footnotes provide sources on every page, so you can go look up your biblical commentaries and find the roots of the characterizations.
My favorite part of the sefer, though, is the way Price deals with differing opinions in the text. For example, there is much debate on the nature of Reuben’s sin against his father, and the two main opinions on his transgression completely change the story and how it is read. “Tribal Blueprints” separates the two opinions into two possible storylines and what they mean, creating two complete narratives that a reader can compare. Each alternate version of the story is comprehensively fleshed out, and Price explains how the differing versions lead to different understandings of the character, following through to discuss how this affects our interpretation of the entire tribal line.
An unexpected — but welcome — aspect of “Tribal Blueprints” is how deep the sefer goes into the intimate dynamics of Jacob’s family as well, including the impact of his relationships with his wives. Much of the actions and characteristics of the brothers themselves are affected by the complex nature of their parents’ relationships: Leah’s children feeling the lack of care Jacob has for their mother and his seeming indifference towards her children, the maidservants’ children’s inferior treatment, and Jacob’s preference for the children of Rachel, the most beloved wife, after her many years of struggling with infertility.
“Tribal Blueprints” lent me a lot of perspective on the backgrounds, stories, characters, and impacts of the brothers that became the twelve tribes of Israel. I loved the combination of the excitement of learning more Torah while also experiencing the joy reading an interesting book. This was honestly one of the most well-written sefarim (Judaic books) I’ve encountered, and it should be on your quarantine book list! The only thing I have to say is that I wish I had taken a class taught by Professor Nechama Price while in Stern — go do that, too!