Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
on the weekly parasha by
Meir Levin

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Midrash and Method Home
3 Weeks 5765

Speaking to the heart.

The three weeks that lead up to the Ninth of Av are not only a time of sorrow and remembrance, they are also a period in which we reflect and contemplate the relationship between God and the Jewish people. The rest of the year we bask in the security and warmth of knowing that Hashem always accepts and loves his people and that the bond between the Mater of the World and his children is forever and will never be broken. At such times we have the luxury of being philosophers and pontificating about Immanence and Transcendence. In this period of the year we need consolation. How is God's love and acceptance affirmed in the times of trouble, persecution and exile? How is history integrated into the terms of the Covenant? How is simple faith, reliance on God and trust reconciled to the darkness, despair and darkness that envelope us during this period of time? Religious tenets and painful experience must be brought together so that from this encounter a mature faith emerges. The solution lies not in philosophy but in poetry that speaks to the heart. The tension between religious optimism and naiveté and the burden of Jewish history is subject to Midrashic reconciliation and not in philosophic reflection. There is of course place for the latter and I do not argue for crude anthropomorphism as religious ideal. It is just that the heart has its own language and it is not the language of philosophy. A complete religious personality must be able to simultaneously incorporate both conceptions within as real and true.

An interesting passage in Petichta to Eicha Rabbati 24 considers "where was God during the destruction?" [1]. In a long and moving segment it tells the story of Divine displeasure and reconciliation with Israel … but in radically opposite conceptions. That tells us that the answer cannot be encompassed in simple formulations and that the ability to simultaneously perceive concurrent and overlaying realities is in itself part of the solution.

The Midrash is very long and cannot be reproduced here. Instead I will schematically summarize its constituent parts. It starts with the die having been cast, the decision having already been made. God's anger demands that He avert His eyes and withdraw from His people. Initially it seems to be simply a pragmatic step - enemies cannot triumph while He dwells in the Temple . Paradoxically, however, after He withdraws, He becomes even closer. He returns to the site of the destroyed Temple in order to weep over it. Here Hashem recalls what led Him to order the destruction. New characters appear at God's bequest and belatedly argue for his Mercy. Their intercessions are not successful until Rachel, who was not initially invited to the deliberations, forces her way into the proceedings and accuses God, essentially, of jealousy. He responds by promising the eventual redemption.

Hashem appears to oscillate between firmness and pity, Justice and Mercy. At times He seems unaware of what He himself decreed or "felt" before. The complexity of this narrative is poetic and not philosophical. No metaphysical discussion has ever consoled a mourner or comforted one who suffers. The decision to bring Hashem into an active dialogue with mortals and to ascribe compassion, uncertainty and pity to Him may confuse the philosophically minded but it brings solace and consolation to those who mourn. As such, the decision to combine the un-combinable must be seen as a deliberate act of inspired religious genius. The reader is reminded why the destruction was deserved but not by a testament of a judgmental and unsympathetic Master but through a conversation within the family, all members of which have lost and suffered. Hashem is a part of this family, He is right there with us. He also suffers and regrets, and through this philosophically faulty but personally meaningful device, the Covenant is restated and Love is reaffirmed.

1. When God sought to destroy the Beis Hamikdash, He realized that as long as He dwells within it, enemies cannot touch it. He withdrew his eyes so that they can come and destroy it.

2. Immediately God swore by his right hand and drew it back. The enemies came and destroyed the Temple .

3. God said: "I no longer have a place for me upon the earth; Let Me go to my original place.

4. God cried over what he did and the need to withdraw His presence from the lower realms.

5. Metatron [2] came and prostrated himself before Him. Metatron said, I should cry and not You.

6. God said: "If you do not let me cry, I will go to a place where you cannot enter and I will cry there. He took his angles and went to the place of the destroyed Temple .

7. Yirmiah came and prostrated himself before Him.

8. God sees the destruction and cries. He blames Children of Israel for not listening to His warnings and causing Him this pain.

9.He tells Yirmiah to call Abraham, Isaac, Yacov and Moshe, who come and prostrate before Him. They cry and mourn bitterly before Him and the angels join them. In a long passage replete with the Alef Beis and many verses and incidents, each one argues for mercy in the merits of their own difficulties and trials but God rejects their arguments.

10. Matriarch Rachel jumps on front of Hashem and argues for her children on the basis of merit of her giving signs by which Yakov would know her to her sister. ""I who is but dust and ashes did not envy my competitor and did not allow her to suffer embarrassment and shame, You Eternal and Alive King, why did You grew jealous of worthless idols and exiled Your children, led them to slaughter and allowed enemies to do as they wished with them." God accepts Rachel's argument and promises an eventual Redemption.

I end with pointing out that philosophical issues are certainly important and have their place within Torah study. The reason for religion, however, is to touch the heart. The writers of the Midrash understood that better than anyone else. They were not afraid to employ anthropomorphic ideas and expressions, knowing full well that they were philosophically imprecise and inadequate, for their first and perhaps only concern was to inspire and reconcile Israel to their Father in Heaven.

1 I first became aware of this Midrash while reading David Stern. Midrash and Theory, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1996, pp.80-88; however, this series takes a very different approach to explicating this passage.

2 The highest angel. In kabbalistic literature he is a symbol of Shekhina or the sefira of Malchus. Once the Shkhina was withdrawn from the Beis Hamikdash, Metatron can no longer enter there.