We all have encountered midrashim that appear to use very technical means of interpretation to derive laws or facts that do not seem intended by the verse that they expound. This difficulty so often seems insurmountable and the connection between the simple meanings of verses and their midrashic representation so frequently appears unbridgeable that one finds no recourse other than an appeal to some asmakhta-type mechanism, an escape into the claim that the surface meaning encodes deeper meaning, or simple professions of ignorance. While I do not claim that all such examples can be successfully understood, almost always a "360 degree" overview of the source verse will succeed, if not in demonstrating that the midrash is the simplest meaning, then at least in reducing the distance between pshat and the midrashic interpretation. By uncovering the problems of the "pshat" reading, we begin to understand the recourse to midrash. In addition, we often then find that there are several different Midrashic interpretations that each responds to a different problem; some of them are modifications of pshat and others do not offer an interpretation of the verse at all but solely of a word, phrase or a construction. Understanding the aim of each Midrashic comment reduces confusion and enlightens the interpreter. The point is that midrash is usually a serious and sincere attempt to explain, not to decode, a difficult verse or idiom. Let us illustrate these points by discussing two Midrashic comments to a verse in R'eh. Each will be quoted followed by comments.
...but at the place that Hashem your G-d shall choose to rest his Name, there shall you bring up the Pesach at the evening, at sunset, on the anniversary of your going out of Egypt. And you shall cook and eat it in the place that Hashem your G-d shall choose and you will turn in the morning and go to your tents. Six days you shall eat the matzos and on the seventh day - a day of restraint to Hashem your G-d, do not do work.
1. One verse says six days and another (Shemos 12, 15) says seven days. How shall both these verses be maintained? Six from the new (after omer sacrifice) and seven from the old.
The Midrash explains the apparent contradiction between the two verses by assigning them to different time periods. Six days refer to matsah baked from the new produce, after the omer sacrifice had been brought on the 16th of Nissan and the produce of that year became permitted. This explanation has strong corroboration in the passage, which speaks of six days after "you will turn in the morning and go to your tents". The morning seems to refer to the day right after the Pesach sacrifice, however, which is the 15th of Nisan. The Chazal could not accept this interpretation for a number of reasons.
1. There is a requirement of linah, staying over one night after bringing a sacrifice, see Chagigah 17
2. It is illogical to assume that the Torah would command that the pilgrims who made an arduous and long journey, arrived on the afternoon of the 14th, stayed up late bringing and consuming the Pesach, would be required to go back immediately on the following morning. Why should they miss the Temple service ceremonies, the benefits of imbibing the sacred atmosphere of the Holy City, and the opportunity to see and participate in the Omer ceremony on the following day?
3. As Ibn Ezra to Devarim here points out, there is evidence from the book of Chronicles that pilgrims left at the conclusion of the festival and not on the day of the festival itself.
4. What about the Yom Tov prohibitions of work and travel! While many of these may be Rabbinic, surely some are Biblical. Mass migration of people on the festival would undoubtedly lead to violations of festival laws and it is inconsistent with the purpose of the festivals; why would the Torah command it when the alternative of staying an extra day is readily available?
Therefore, the Sages modified the simple understanding to refer to the six days after the omer. This is an example of "deeper pshat"; when the simple meaning suffers from multiple disadvantages, a slightly more complex explanation that solves inherent problems is much preferred.
There is another point that must be made. We have often spoken of the importance of context in interpretation. For the Rabbis, this meant that when searching for an explanation, nearby verses must be considered. For them context serve not only to suggest but often to inspire an interpretation. The point is not to connect or elucidate the meaning of this verse so that it reads or flows better within the surrounding narrative. Rather, there is an advantage to interpret it using concepts or ideas from the nearby, even if logically there may appear to be no connection. Thus, because the laws of the omer immediately follow our passage, they utilized the related ideas of new and old produce to explain this verse.
Let us now proceed to the second explanation.
2. One verse says six days and another says seven days. How shall both these verses be maintained?
The seventh day was included (Klal) and "went out" of the inclusions (Klal) to teach about the klal. Just as the seventh day is voluntary (to eat matsos), so are all of them voluntary.
The Midrash goes on to demonstrate from nearby verses that the first night does require eating of Matsos (i.e. during the Seder).
The Midrash, I believe is speaking to a different issue in this verse. It is not proposing a pshat in the verse but only aims to explain an unexpected form of a single word. It picks up on the use of the term shivas and sheshes, rather than a simpler term used elsewhere - shivah and shisha. While the latter terms mean simply seven or six days, the former represents a unit of seven and a unit of six. The Midrash explains this usage as presenting two sets of days, each characterized in a particular and different way. The two terms are not in opposition to each other; the six days are an independent unit but also a part of the unit of seven. What this must mean then is that the six-day-unit is held together by something other than what unifies the seven days unit; what this factor may be is not ever explained. One may suggest that sheshes yomim refers to the entire Passover holiday, a period from the afternoon of the 14th day of Nissan to the 22nd excepting its last day which is called Atseres but is not of the six-day Passover unit. The flow of the verses in Devarim certainly suggests this interpretation. While in the first Midrashic interpretation six days are the last six days of the holiday, in the second interpretation they are the first six.
At the same time the six-day-unit is still a part of the seven-day-unit. What is the factor that holds 6 and 7 together? The Midrash finds this factor to be a non-obligatory eating of matsah. We have two units, a six-day-one which is Passover and the six+one (Passover + Atseres). What unifies the seven days set is their non-obligatory eating of matsah.
This discussion hopefully bears out two points of methodology. First, one dares not approach a difficult midrashic comment without a "360 degree" all around review of all exegetical issues. Only after doing so can one begin to understand what the midrash actually says and what problems it addresses. Secondly, one must differentiate between Midrashic comments that "learn pshat" and those that explicate isolated phrases, idioms or expressions. Only after this kind of preparation will the words of our Sages yield their meaning to a sincere student of their words.
1 I quote the modrashim as Rashi in Devarim and the Sifri arranges it; however, the actual quotation is form the Mekhilta, Bo, 17. The relevant passages are repeated in the Mekhilta, Sifri ad loc., Toras Kohanim, parshas Emor and Pesachim 120.
2 This use of the 8th of R. Yismael's laws of interpretation does not seem to follow the usual application of this principle. For example, when the 6 days "go out" of the klal, they should be the ones that retain the obligation to seat matsa (chovah); how does the 7th day, which admittedly remains non-obligatory (reshus) then comes back in another step to remove this obligation from the 6 days. See Gur Arye and Mizrachi ad loc. The explanation that we offer here obviates these problems.
3 Rashi Shemos 12, 15 translates shivas as "steine" of days
4 Relevant to this discussion is the issue of the dual counting of days in the Torah, sometimes from evening to evening and sometimes from morning to morning, see Midrash Emor.