Midrash can be mysterious. There are passages that are difficult to understand or to interpret in any kind of literal sense. Unfortunately, the intended, or at least, a plausible non-literal interpretation often seems elusive. There is a tendency to aimlessly flounder over the text, searching one's mind for some possible interpretation that would unlock its intended meaning. Let us discuss an approach that employs the concept of exegetical motif as a systematic aid to interpreting difficult Midrashic passages.
What is an exegetical motif. In its simplest sense it is a statement, description or event that is stated in various midrashim to have occurred to different scriptural characters, on different occasions, and at different times. To make it work as an aid to interpretation, one must make an assumption that motifs serve as encoding devices and they mean to suggest or allude to the same idea or meaning in each different context. A review of different Midrashic texts that employ the same motif can guide us to its intended meaning, clearer in some source passages than in others.
Nothing clarifies better than an example; let us see an example. We focus on a passage in the middle of the Midrash Asara Harugei Malchus.
When the brothers of Yosef saw those Ishmaelites, they brought him up from the pit naked and sold him so. The Holy One Blessed be He said: tsadik like this shall stand naked before all? A kamea (amulet) hang around his neck. The Holy One Blessed be He sent Gabriel and he brought out of it a cloak. When the brothers of Yoself saw it, they said to the Ishmaelites: Return to us this cloak for we sold him to you naked. The Ishamelites said: We will not return it to you. (They argued) until the Ishmaelites added 4 pairs of shoes (to the price)...
As we attempt to explicate this midrash, we must note that the motif of an ornament that hangs around the neck is found in Midrash in reference to Abraham as well as Asnas.
A precious stone hang around the neck of Abraham, our Patriarch, so that any sick person that saw immediately was healed (Bava Bathra 16b)
Shchem violated Dina and she conceived and gave birth to Asnas. The sons of Issrael said to kill her, "for now all the people of the earth will say that there was immorality in the house of Yakov". What did Yakov do? He took a plate and wrote a holy name on it. He hung it around her neck and sent her out and she went....when Yosef descended to Egypt, he took her for a wife...(PRDR'E 38).
A possible approach to these passages may take into account the pioneering mission of these three individuals, Abraham, Yosef and Asnas. All three of them left their homes and environment to be exiled in a different and spiritually inhospitable land. In this context, an ornament around the neck signifies a reminder of their origin and of the faith in which they were born.
An infant that is born with a kamea of writing or of herbs - is not a foundling (Kidushin 73b).
A father who transgressed and did not redeem his son...some say that we write on a plate of silver that he has not been redeemed and we hang it on his neck so that he may know to redeem himself when he grows up (Yore Deah 305,15).
Let us now return to the midrash that we started out with.
Yosef is now being exiled into a foreign land. We need to realize that there has not been a precedent until then of a member of the chosen family who has left the family and still remained within the unfolding "bechira process". Lot has left and dropped out, Ishmael has left and dropped out - so also Esau, so, they thought, also Asnas.
The midrash tells us that Yosef was clothed in a cloak that folded out of the amulet around his neck; in other words, he was clothed in armor that derived out of his awareness that he remains a part of the chosen nation, even if exiled. When the brothers saw this they were understandably distraught. That was definitely not the course that they expected his exile to take. They wished, perhaps assumed, that Yosef, that vain and flighty lad that they thought him to be, would only welcome, perhaps pursue an opportunity for adventure and to travel to faraway lands, as Esau and Lot had done before him. He would then leave and be lost to the Abrahamitic covenant. The spiritual grounding and fortitude that they perceived in him at that moment must have greatly discomfited them, for it threatened all of their facile assumptions about who Yosef was and what he was likely to become. No longer could they accept Yosef going to the land of Ishmael - it was too close to home, proximally as well as spiritually. They, therefore, insisted that his new masters sell him far, far away, to a truly inimical civilization.
Why four pairs of shoes? "...teaches us that Yosef was sold many times (Rashi to 37,28)". According to the verse he was sold four times : to traders, to Midianites, to Ishmaelites, and finally to Potiphar, the Egyptian. Hence, four additional pairs of shoes.
There are, of course, many other ways to approach this perplexing Midrashic passage. Yet, exegetical motifs, as a method can give a direction and bring order to the search for meaning in which we engage every time that a difficult passage such as this one comes our way. It can at least serve as a starting point for this exploration and bring order and direction to an admittedly difficult task.
I would be pleased to receive comments or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Some have seen exetegical motif as nothing more than a literary device; what's more, they claim that it represents an unthinking generalization from one Midrashic legend to another. This is, for example, how James Kugel uses this term in In Potiphar's House. As will become clearer in the subsequent discussion, that is not how I use this term here. Rather, exegetical motifs are deliberate symbolic and exegetical signs that are meant to guide us to a deeper interpretation.
2 The full text can be found in Torah Sheleima, Vayeshev 166.
3 This midrash is available in at least 9 versions, see Torah Sheleima, Mikets, 111
4 and is not subject to suspicion of bastardy.