Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
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Meir Levin
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Bamidbar 5764

To what end a moshol?

(There is no Sifre to this parsha and we will discuss a Yalkut instead)

Bamidbar 1:1

God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the Communion Tent on the first [day] of the second month in the second year of the Exodus,

(א) ואם לא תשמעו לי. אם לא תשמעו למידרש חכמים. יכול למה שכתוב כשהוא אומר ולא תעשו את כל המצות האלה הרי מה שכתוב בתורה אמור הא מה אני מקיים אם לא תשמעו למדרש חכמים: (ב) ואם לא תשמעו מה ת"ל אין לי אלא זה שהוא יודע את רבונו ומתכוין למרוד בו. וכן הוא אומר כנמרוד גיבור ציד. שאין ת"ל לפני ה' אלא זה שהוא יודע את רבונו ומתכוין למרוד בו. וכן הוא אומר ואנשי סדום רעים וחטאים לה' מאד שאין ת"ל לה' אלא אילו שיודעים את רבונו ומתכוין למרוד בו:

This is what the verse says: He did not do so for any nation...
This like a parable of a king who married a first woman and did not write for her a Ketuba and divorced her and did not write her a get. He did the same to a second and same to a third woman. In time, he saw a poor orphan of good lineage and sought to marry her. He said to his intermediary (shushvan): This one I want and I will not do with her as before. This one is of good parentage, modest in how she acts and proper - I will write for her a Ketuba (in which it says) in which year, in which shemita cycle, in which month, which day of the month, in which principality, in which country.
...so also the Holy One Blessed be He created and dismissed the generation of the Flood, the Generation of the Tower of Babel, and the Sodmites and the Egyptians. He did not write when He created them and when He dismissed them, but... (anonymously) on this day all the depths of the great abyss were opened... and same the others. Once Israel came to arise, the Holy One Blessed be He said: "I will not deal with these as I dealt with the preceding ones, for these ones are children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Therefore it says which month, which day of the month, which date, which principality, which country...

Clearly a great deal of meaning and significance lies beneath the surface of this short passage. Of interest is the use of parable to expand meaning. Parables are obviously important or else they would not be used so frequently and so consistently in Midrash. Mining the midrashic mesholim for depth of meaning is crucial for understanding their intended meaning. The parables present Rabbinic theology and worldview. Not being used to parable as vehicle of meaning, we tend to skip over these rich depositaries of thought as ornamental additions to the real business of midrash. That is an error, for parables contain the key to understanding the point of midrash.

A method of accessing the significance of mesholim has recently been presented by S. Peters in her book Learning to Read Midrash, Urim Publications, 2004 (http://www.urimpublications.com). A central feature of this method is to list the significant elements of the mashal and match them to the corresponding elements in the nimshal.

Not being proficient in the method, I will not attempt to duplicate it, referring you to her work instead. Rather, I will focus on the intended literary effects of the moshol. What is the purpose of a moshol and why is it neccessary? What function does it serve and what does it add to the message?

Of course, a moshol can serve many different purposes. One them, is as a literary device, to lead the reader along a path of the author's design toward an unexpected insight. Parables are often the means to persuade the reader to see things in a way that he or she had heretofore not been ready to consider. The reader is set up to expect something but then is presented with something completely different. The surprise breaks down resistance to a different way of thinking about an issue or situation. In this sense it serves a persuasive purpose - literary device as persuasion.

One of the first things that initially strikes the reader of this passage is itís the apparently reprehensible behavior of the king. He takes one woman after another and then unceremoniously sends them away, apparently without compensation. Why does he take them and what causes him to discharge them? (This question is set up to relate to the perception that exclusive election of Israel is inherently unfair). Why would we expect him to grant them a divorce when he had never married them to begin with? Initially we do not know. It is only later that we ( perhaps also the king himself) realize how inferior these spouses are to his ultimate wife - a modest and virtuous daughter of good lineage and excellent character. We abruptly realize that the first wives did not deserve that kind of consideration and respect while this one did. Suddenly the king begins to appear as a fair and just individual, perhaps even one for whom we feel compassion and sympathy, and his behavior as sensible and just. The moral opprobrium shifts to the wives. The king's noble behavior toward the poor orphan rehabilitates and elevates him in our eyes. The impact of having to re-evaluate our original perception of his character causes us also to reconsider the related theological question. One can say that the mini-shock of recognizing that our assessment of the situation was faulty, softens our heart just a bit, just enough to rethink our previous assumptions.

In addition, the moshol translates the abstract question of election or rejection of nations to everyday experience. How often have we seen abstract principles and lofty ideas leading well-meaning intellectuals beyond the boundary of common sense? Shifting the action to the sphere of everyday experience makes it a practical matter. The moshol skillfully aligns our experience with that of the king in the story, and it is only at the end that we learn that he represents the Holy One Blessed be He.

The power to persuade comes from our un-preparedness for the unexpected twist. In itself, this is a technique familiar from mystery fiction and literature in general. The reader is deliberately prepared to expect one thing and is then set-up to experience another. The moshol and its discordance with its nimshol , effectively transitions what would otherwise be an abstract point of theology or ethics into a living and breathing experience that we all can share. As such, it cans teach and edify us on a much deeper level, in our mouths and our hearts - to keep it (Devarim 30:14).