How to read a midrashic passage
It is widely agreed that cultural conventions undoubtedly shape how we approach the written word. As Westerns we imbibe from childhood certain assumptions about how information should be packaged, how it is effectively presented and what is clear and unclear communication. As we grow older, schooling reinforces and fixes in our minds the acceptable ways in which to lay out arguments and how to persuade. As Westerners, many beginning readers of midrash find themselves disoriented by patterns of argument and presentation that are at times, bewildering and can even be jarring.
As Westerners, we expect that, when several possible positions exist, the presentation begins with the one we favor, relegating the others to role of counterfoil. We react best to an introduction that leads us to the favored argument, a clear and precise statement of that argument, presentation of proof and summary and restatement. When alternative positions are mentioned, it is only in order to contrast and refine. Not so in the midrash.
The midrash often presents the least favored position first. It then gives us an argument against it and modifies it. It asks another question and modifies again. After a series of such steps, often the result is an inelegant and heavily encumbered proposition. It becomes apparent that it cannot be accepted. At that point, a sharp break occurs and we veer off to a position opposite to the one originally proposed. At other times, as in the example we will shortly consider, the break does not imply that the previous conclusion is incorrect. Rather it introduces a different way to explain the evidence. Sometimes a question is asked on that position as well and a modification is introduced to it as well, and this is where the matter finally rests. The end result is a position contrary and opposite of the one with which we began. Because this sharp break is often missed by an untrained eye, Midrashic passages may appear confusing or contradictory. Attention to this very non-Western feature of discourse goes a long way to properly understanding Midrashic passages.
The passage that we will now read to illustrate this point comes from the Sifri (Eikev 5) on the well-known verse of the Shema: "And it will come pass if you surely listen (shmoa tishmeu) to my commandments and perform them...(Devarim 11, 13). " The Midrash is in bold and my comments are in regular font.
Why does it say "surely listen? Because in Devarim 5 it says, "you shall learn them and observe them to perform them". I might understand this to mean that one is not obligated to study until such time as one has to perform; therefore it states "surely listen: - the obligation to learn is immediate.
We begin by pointing out that the relations between study and performance of the commandments can be seen in one of the following two ways, each with a possible modification.
1. Study is only in order to perform. As such, there is no obligation to study particulars of a commandment except when that commandment is about to be performed.
1a. Study is preparatory to religious life in general. We study Torah in order to absorb its hashkafos, its worldview, its outlook - all in order to fulfill its commandments properly and in the proper spirit. The difficulty with this approach is that it is not immediately clear how Torah study in general leads to better performance of specific commandments.
2. Study of Torah is supreme in its own right with no connection to mitsva performance at all. This approach has later been called Torah Lishmo.
2a. Torah study is supremely important. However, some types of Torah study have the additional benefit of teaching us how to perform commandments and may be intrinsically favored for that reason.
The passage presented option 1. It now questions it and modifies it to eventuate in position 1a.
That, we have, is only for mitsvos that are applicable (in the desert) before they entered the land, such as laws of firstborns, sacrifices, tithes and maaser b'heimah ? How do you know (that obligation to study) includes also the laws that became obligatory only after they entered the land, such as omer, chalah, two breads (of Shevuos) and shew bread - it says, "surely listen", to include other mitsvos. If so, you might think that this refers only to the mitsvos that applied before the land was conquered and settled. Leket, Shikcha, peah, truma, tithes, shemitah and yovel (that became actual only after conquest and settlement) - how do you know those? "You shall surely listen to my commandments"
At this point we are left with the idea that only the study of certain commandments is obligatory, namely those that typify and support central ideas of Judaism - G-d's sovereignty and Land of Israel. Left as such, the role of Torah study becomes extremely limited and functional, as if some kind of indoctrination. The Sifri explains what it means:
How do we know that other mitsvos too (need to be studied even before they actually are about to be performed)? It says, "and you shall study them and perform them". This teaches that that performance depends on study and not vice versa.
What we are left with is that study is important as preparation for performance of commandments in general. It remains unclear, however, how and why that is the case. We no longer claim that it incalculates certain central ideas; if so, how does study of the Torah laws lead to observance of all of them? The statement is now modified by merging it with 1a, thus providing the missing link in the argument.
Likewise we find that He punished for lack of study more than for lack of performance, as it says, " Listen the word of Hashem, House of Yakov for argument for Hashem with the House of Yakov and He shall reproach Israel for there is no truth and no chesed and no knowledge of G-d in the land (Hoshea 4)... And it already happened that R. Trafom, R. Yosi Haglili and R. Akiva were reclining in Beis Arod and question was asked: "Is study greater or performance greater" They all responded and said: Study is greater for study leads to performance".
So, study is more important than performance because it prepares the entire nation for a worldview that values and enshrines mitsva performance. In addition, by connecting the obligation to study with the exalted language of the prophetic utterance, the midrash identifies Torah study with truth, chesed and knowing G-d and negates a perception of study as indocrination.
We have by a gradual process of modification and adjustment arrived at a sophisticated and complex position; in the process we solidified and defended it both textually and philosophically.
Now comes the sharp break. R. Yosi Haglili accepts the textual evidence but reinterprets it consistent with position 2 or 2a.
R. Yosi Haglili said: "Study is greater for study preceded chalah 40 years, tithes 54 years, Yovel 130 years. When they were punished they were punished for study first and when they were rewarded, they were rewarded for study first...
Scriptural proofs follow.
I hope that this example amply demonstrates the unique features of Midrashic presentation and argumentation. Taking the first position presented as the final one and attempting to understand the following twists and turns as proofs for it, is bound to result in a wearying, unsatisfying and ultimately incorrect interpretative journey. Understanding that the original position is to be modified and adjusted and that a sharp break in favor of a completely opposite approach is ultimately to be expected, will make both the journey and its conclusion much more satisfying and correct. May Hashem open our eyes to perceive the wonders in his Torah.
1 Many commentators take the words "shew bread" out as it clearly existed already in the desert.
2 As R.S.R. Hirsch points out in his commentary to 4:25, these commandments, especially shemita and yovel establish central teachings of Judaism and serve as tangible reminders of the need of regular spiritual renewal.
3 The passage goes on to demonstrate that these terms refer to Torah study.
4 See Kiddushin 40 and the end of the first chapter of Bava Kama for a somewhat different textual version of this story.