Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
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Meir Levin

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Behaalosecha 5764

And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the desert of Sinai in the second year form the exodus from Egypt in the first month, saying... (Bamidbar 9,1)

The verse speaks to detriment of Bnei Yisrael for it was 11 months that they were encamped in front of Mount Sinai, to teach that there is no earlier and later in the Torah (ein mukdam umeuchar btorah). For in the beginning of the volume (of Bamidbar) it states: And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the desert of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting on the first of second month in the second year...and here it says in the first month - to teach that ein mukdam umeuchar batorah[1].

Rebbi says -one does not need it for it already states (Shemos 16): "and Bnei Yisrael ate the manna 40 years until they came to inhabited land." So (at this point when the story of the man is first being told) they have not yet eaten (from the produce of the inhabited land). That teaches you that ein mukdam umeauchar batorah (Sifri Bamidbar 9).

While the first reported derivation is straight-forward and sensible (after all what can be clearer than an obviously out of order chronology), Rebbi's words are somewhat obscure. Why would one not need the other derivation; the one that Rebbi proposes is hardly as convincing as the one he rejects. Granted, his derivation is from the book of Shemos which comes before the book of Bamidbar; but is this not the whole point of ein mukdam umeuchar batorah[2]. It seems, then, that Rabbi does not assign any significance whatsoever to the later event being recounted earlier in the book and the question is why not?

The principle of ein mukdam umeauchar is usually explained as follows: "The Torah did not care to for chronology and chapters that were given first are preceded by those given later (Rashi Pesachim 6b)." In other words, the Torah is arranged by topics, not chronology. "... the Torah was given scroll by scroll (Gittin 60a). When Moshe heard the commandments from the Holy One Blessed be He, he wrote each one in a separate scroll. When he came to leave this world, he arranged the book of Torah and set chapters in it until this day according to fitting similarities (semukhin), as our Rabbis taught (Chezkuni Shemos 34, 32)."

It is reasonable to assume that the anonymous Tanna understood this principle thusly. However, Rebbi may not have understood it in the same way.

If the issue is that of arrangements of chapters, why is this principle of ein mukdam umeauchar often invoked to explain the order of verses and even of words within a single verse[3]?

Perhaps Rebbi has something else in mind when he speaks of ein mukdam umeauchar.

Literary experts, such as Meir Sternberg in his seminal The Poetics of Biblical Narrative..., Indiana University Press, 1987, draw our attention to the role of the Biblical narrator. The narrator is not the same as the author; it is the point of view from which a story is told or presented. The narrator can be the author himself, in which case the narrative is in first person; he or she can be a person or being within the story which is then presented from within and in third person. It can also be a point of view not otherwise identified, above and outside the narrative. The narrator is the proxy for the author and the author remains hidden behind the events.

The Biblical narrator, according to Professor Sternberg, is omniscient and above the story. This point of view far above the story, protects the honor of the Author, and at the same time, allows editorial comments upon the mortal characters, their struggles, successes and failings; it also leaves an opportunity for proper perspectives to be inserted for our edification. Usually the distance is maintained through the employment of the narrator to intersperse comments in third person, as in the example that Rebbi quotes. Occasionally the distance lapses and this accounts for the not infrequent phenomena of changing person, especially in regards to the Divine Author, who sometimes is seen as breaking into the narrative speaking in first person.

Rebbi's point is precisely this: the verse from Shemos reveals a narrator who is above and outside the unfolding narrative. He is also above time for he tells us of something that had not yet happened and will not take place for 40 years; the principle of ein mukdam umeauchar naturally follows.

Can literary insights help us to understand Chazal? We have addressed this issue in Midrash Acharei. The question is certainly far from settled but I offer this interpretation as a contribution to clarify the potential of literary methods to understanding Midrash.

1 See Rashi ibid who connects these two facts together in his retelling of the Sifri.

2 While one can explain that Rebbi goes on in the Sifri to derive from this verse that they used a calendar that started with Exodus at that point in time, the mention of months and years remain unexplained (See also Netsiv's commentary bid to the Sifri).

3 See Encyclopedia Talmudit, entry ein mukdam