Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
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Meir Levin

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Bechukosai 5764

A midrash about midrash

An interesting and much misunderstood feature of midrashic commentary is its tendency to join distinct and different explanation as one. One frequently finds separate and unrelated exegetical comments that follow each other as if a part of the same explanation. At times, we know that these are different and unrelated exegeses because they are found separately in other sources. At other times, exegetical "overkill" is self evident - when one explanation would suffice and yet, another one and sometimes more than one follows it without a break.

Some have blamed it on the overly scrupulous editors of midrashic works. The claim is that these anonymous editors did not feel at liberty to choose one version over the other and therefore elected to stuff both into the same interpretation[1]. I do not deny that this may have occasionally occurred; however, in this week's parsha we are faced with an example of joined exegeses that cannot be explained by recourse to editorial intervention.

Before we can suggest an explanation of this phenomena, let us delve into a midrashic passage.

(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:

But if you will not hearken unto Me, and will not perform all these commandments; and if ye shall reject My statutes, and if your soul abhor Mine ordinances, so that ye will not do all My commandments, but break My covenant (Vayikra 25, 14-15)

1. Will not hearken - if you will not hear midrash of the chochomim. Perhaps (this means) that which is written down; when it says - and will not do perform all these commandment, the performance of commandments is already stated. So how do I explain "will not listen"? Not listen to midrash chochomim.

2. Will not hearken unto me - what does this say? This is nothing other than a person who recognizes his master and intentionally rebels against Him. Similarly so it says "like Nimrod, great hunter unto the L-rd". What does mean "unto the L-rd"? That he recognizes his master but intends to rebel against Him. So also it states: "and the men of Sodom were bad and sinners unto the L-rd". What does it mean "unto the L-rd"? That they recognize Him and intend to rebel against Him (Sifro Bechukosai 2).

Peshat and not derash

Even a cursory perusal of this passage demonstrates that 2 totally different explanations have been joined together "at the hip". The first one takes the root Sh'M'A to mean "hear", cuts the verse off before the words "unto me" and explains it as signifying the oral teachings of the Rabbis. The second one explains the full verse and, in fact, draws its explanation form the words "unto me" - to suggest, by analogy with other sources, willful rebellion against G-d.

The fact is that the root Sh'M'A carries the meanings of hear, listen, accept and obey. When used a stand alone word, any of these meanings are possible; the context determines. With prepositions "el' or "al" it usually means listen or accept. This root is rarely found with the preposition "l" (unto). As the Malbim here points out, in these cases it usually means obey[2].

That explains why the midrash cut off the preposition "unto" in its first reading of the verse. It is only without this preposition that it can justify reading the verse as "hearing", more specifically, hearing to the midrash Chochomim[3]. The Midrash them goes on to explain the entire phrase with the preposition in place as "obey".

Both explanation, though, seems to be forced and one is tempted to classifyboth of them as derash for this reason. The first explanation is only tenable if we disregard the last words in the phrase, "unto Me", while the second one seems to be only tangentially related to what the verse actually says. Besides, its proofs appear to be proofs only with a stretch of imagination and suspension of disbelief.

And yet, both readings are pshat and not derash. How and in what way?

The usage of the root Sh'M'A with the preposition Li is, as the Malbim points, quite rare. We do encounter two key instances of this usage in the Tanach, and each exemplifies one of the two midrashic reading in our Sifro.

1. Happy is the man that hearkeneth unto me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors (Mishlei 8, 34). The imagery herein is that of a student in the House of Study, the Beis Hamidrash. He spends his days by the door, day-by-day absorbing wisdom and instruction, in other words, midrash chochomim.

2. The other relvant usage is in Tehilim 81, 9-16. This verse uses an almost exact phrasing found in our verse and it clearly explains it as referring to knowing rebelling against G-d.

Hear, O My people, and I will admonish thee: O Israel, if thou wouldest hearken unto Me!
There shall no strange god be in thee; neither shalt thou worship any foreign god.
I am HaShem thy G-d, who brought thee up out of the land of Egypt; open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it.
But My people hearkened not to My voice; and Israel would none of Me.
So I let them go after the stubbornness of their heart, that they might walk in their own counsels.
Oh that My people would hearken unto Me, that Israel would walk in My ways![4]
I would soon subdue their enemies, and turn My hand against their adversaries.
The haters of HaShem should dwindle away before Him; and their punishment should endure for ever

So now using our own devices, we conclude that the root SH'M'A and the preposition Li are used in one of two ways: as signifying instruction in wisdom or as denoting an open rebellion. The midrashic passage follows these precedents in applying them to understanding the verse in Leviticus - pshat, not derash.

Why not just say that?

We are now ready to tackle the question posed in the beginning of this discussion. Why does Midrash so frequently conflate two or more explanation as one? In this particular case, we have succeeded in determining that we are, in fact, dealing with two different explanations, both based on precedent usage in Tanach, both reasonable interpretations of the verse. Why attempt to read both of them at the same time into the same verse? Why can't the Midrash simply list them side by side as two different, equally valid interpretations? Why struggle so mightily force both exegesis together?

Notice that in this particular case, recourse to mythical editorial interference does not work. The two explanations are not simply listed one after the other; both are actively co-located within the verse at the same time. It is as if the Midrash abhors separateness and unrelatedness. There is a basic and important principle here someplace; what is it and how can we access it?

"Splitters" versus "lumpers"

How do we make sense of the myriad isolated phenomena, multiple details and seemingly unrelated particulars that continuously intrude upon our consciousness? Are they representations or fragments of one indivisible whole that we misperceive as distinct or, perhaps, true reflections of the multiplicity in reality. In every discipline and branch of knowledge there are splitters and there are lumpers. The former, to the extent possible, tend to unify and reconcile what they see as different aspects of the One. The latter, driven by the profound conviction, that multiplicity of perceptions reflect multiplicity in existence, on the contrary, divide and subclassify.

Franz Rosenzweig in the Star of Redemption writes that the former is Judaic, the latter is the inheritance of the nations of the world. On one side stands monotheism, on the other paganism and Christianity.

We, in our own time, have been profoundly influenced by the reductionistic models that have been so successful in scientific and societal endeavors. By breaking all phenomenae into finer and finer independent and self-sufficient units, modern man succeeded in harnessing and commanding the very poweres of Nature. Mechanistic thinking justifies itself and revels in its success. Only recently has the pendulum began to swing back. From molecular biology with its signaling interconnected pathways to discovery of patterns in self organization of physical particles, the order and relatedness of Creation is becoming a subject of scientific inquiry and interest. Still, reductionism is in the very air we breath, it commands us and obscures the worldview of our forefathers.

Rabbinic thinking is profoundly synthetic and harmonizing. The Torah is one and does not admit of contradiction and disorder, except perhaps as an intermediate step in out attempts to master it. The Midrashic method is to seek synthesis. It is for this reason that multiple, apparently separate and even contradictory understandings are brought to us as a part of the same whole.

At the bottom of this tendency is a uniquely Jewish way to see the world. Starting form the same data, it aims to discover unity and unification in Torah interpretation as in life. In that, it has a great deal to teach us.

1 See for example James L. Kugel, In Potiphar's House: Interpretive Life of Biblical texts, Harvard University Press, 1994, p. 7

2 Many languages tend to separate these meanings into separate words while others lump them together in a single word. In the first group is Spanish with oir versus escuchar; Russian is in the second group.

3 See Gur Arye on this verse. He seems to have had a textual variant in front of him that is different from our version.

4 Compare to Vayikra 25,3, the heading of the paragraph under discussion : If ye walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them