An important aspect of understanding Midrash is to realize that Chazal teach in parable and metaphor. The reason for that is purely educational. It is widely acknowledged that a story and an example are more effective than preaching through abstractions. It is quite clear that they possessed a tradition and exegetical key to every story and character in Tanach. To this end, they set up a parallel universe of images, stories and characterizations that palpably embody central teachings received by tradition.
I do not for a moment mean to imply that midrashic stories about Biblical characters are not historical. They are always eminently plausible and can often be seen to be inherent in the verses by hint or allusion. Certainly, the closer the period described is to the time of Chazal the more likely it is that the stories they tell contain a kernel of historical truth. The question that still remains to be asked is: “Why do they choose to share a particular event with us rather than some other one? A proper understanding of the midrashic method calls for appreciation of the overall message. One starts by discovering the underlying key, the idea or interpretation that is central to various, sometimes disparate rabbinic comments. The first Biblical character for whom the Chazal set up such a parallel universe is Avraham, our Father. As a case in point, however, characterization of Avraham is unwieldy. There is simply so much that they say that a full book treatment may not suffice to illustrate out point. Let us instead turn to one aspect of the figure of Ruth, a character who in many religious and literary ways resembles Avaraham.
In my series on Ruth (Torah.org/learning/Ruth), I attempt to show that Chazal see the book and character of Ruth as teaching the workings of Redemption in History. One of the central ideas that they present to us is that good and evil are profoundly intermixed by actions and behavior of human beings. Redemption consists of separation of good and evil, of light and darkness and this occurs when man makes correct moral choice. This process of separation takes place over generations, each one, in its own unique way replaying the drama of its ancestors, and we call this process History. Generation by generation the good is rewarded and separated form the bad until only pure evil remains and is then consigned to perdition. To drive this point home, the Sages define connections and relationships that are not obvious from Scriptures itself, though they are reasonable and plausible and make exegetic sense. I will list a number of these comments side by side with only minimal comment.
- Ruth and Orpah were sisters.
Ruth and Oraph were desecndents of Eglon, kning of Maob (Ruth Rabbah 2:9)
Ruth was the descendent of Eglon sho was the son of Balak (Sotah 47a)
- Balak was evil but he did some good and it was rewarded.
In reward of 42 saacrifices that Balak, king of Maob offered, he merited that Ruth would be descended form him (Sotah 47a).
- Ditto for Eglon
God said to Eglon: Because you rose form your throne to honor me, I swear that you will have a descendent (David) who will sit on my throne (Ruth Rabbbah 2:9)
- Oprah did something good and was rewarded for it. In the merit of four tears that Orpah spilled for her mother-in-law, four mighty fighters descended from her (Sotah 42b).
At each step, although Balak,Eglon and Orpah make wrong choices, they also do something good. The good is rewarded with another chance for their descendents but after three such chances the process is complete. The warriors who descended from Orpah represent complete and unadulterated evil and they are destined for perdition. This general principle, translates more specifically to the Kabbalistic teaching of the transmigration of the soul, a teaching that is mystically derived from the Levirite marriage in the book of Ruth. The concept of transmigration has little in common with similar concepts found in the religions of the East and this is not the appropriate forum to discuss this advanced concept; however, it is a particular application of the general principle expressed by the Sages for it also takes place for no more than 3 times (Gro to Mishlei 21:16, Nishmas Chaim 4, 14).
Careful correlation of various sayings of Chazal scattered among various midrashic sources demonstrates several conclusions. First, the Sages possessed a tradition of interpretation. As et of exegetical keys widely shared across sources remote from one another in time and space. Second, they expressed and transmitted them by setting up an alternative parallel universe populated by the same characters found in the books of Tanach but with much richer detail and background. However, all such details is designed to reinforce and transmit the received interpretative approach and a specific set of teachings. Finally, there is no disconnect between the approaches of Chazal and the teachings recorded subsequently in Kabbala; rather the latter organically derived and unfold the former.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the readers of this series for your support over the past tow years. To my regret, I find myself unable to continue to write weekly installments of this series due to other commitments and constraints. It will now convert to an occasional series with the goal of completing full 2 years of Midrash and Method.
A case in point is the choices of Ruth and Orpah on the way to Betlehem.