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

AishDas Home

Midrash and Method Home
Ki Tavo 5764

How do you lain that again?

Some midrashic passages are nigh incomprehensible. It is tempting to approach them with pilpulistic machination or to try to convert them into an allegories. In fact, that is how such passages have often been approached in the past.[1] With the development and sophistication of the study of various medieval exegetical methods over the past 100+ years, we have now another way. The 360 degree exegetical review that we have described in the past provides an excellent approach to difficult Midrashic passages.

As you may recall, a 360 degree review consists of carefully considering all interpretative issues in a particular verse, referring to the approaches of classic commentators to these issues, and then reconsidering the midrash. Let us see how it works itself out in regard to a comment of the Sifri in the beginning of our parsha.

And you shall respond and say: Arami oved avi, and he descended to Egypt to reside there and he became there a great nation (Devarim 26,5).

Arami oved avi - this teaches that he (Yakov) did not descend to Aram but only in order to be lost[2] and it (the verse) considers it for Lavan as if he did make him lost (in the sense of 'destroyed').[3]

What in the world does this mean?

Let's do a 360 degree review.

We begin with the Passover Haggada that interprets this passage to mean that Lavan desired to destroy our forefather Yakov. He is not the only one; in every generation ill-wishers arise against us but the Holy One Blessed Be he saves us from their clutches. This interpretation is so familiar to us form childhood that we overlook considerable exegetical difficulty that it engenders. Quite simply, as Ibn Ezra points out, the word oved is always intransitive; as such it cannot mean destroy, for that is a transitive verb.[4] An intransitive present tense verb that follows a noun can have only one meaning in classical Hebrew - it must serve as an adjective. The meaning therefore would have to be - a lost Aramean was my father.[5]

Apparently the Sifri and the Haggada cannot accept this explanation, for it entail calling our forefather Yakov a lost Aramean, a term both disrespectful and not quite true, for Yakov was never an Aramean as he merely sojourned in Aram and always expected to return.

We have here, therefore, a very common situation in regard to Biblical exegesis: two very different interpretations, with one suffering from logical and theological disadvantage and the other deficient from a grammatical or idiomatic standpoint.

We might expect that some sources may attempt to express or reconcile both of these interpretations. Targum Yonasan, for example, translates as following: "In the beginning our forefather Yakov went down to Aram and desired to destroy him..." The Targum deliberately commingles the two interpretations of the word 'oved' and at the same time introduces the ambiguity about who sought to destroy him. Was it Lavan, who is not mentioned at all in this passage, or was it Yakov himself who let himself into a situation where he could be lost?

The Sifri likewise plays up the two possible meanings of the word 'oved'. Was it Yakov who was lost or was it Lavan who tried to make him lost, on other words, to destroy him? The Sifri presents both interpretations.

Parenthetically, the trop as we have it reflects the traditional interpretation that we know from the Haggada. By putting a separating ta'am pashta over the word arami, the trop separates 'arami' from 'oved', discouraging an interpretation in which 'oved' is an adjective of 'arami'.

R. Mordechi Breuer in his Ta'ame Hamikra (Chorev, Yerushalaim, 1989, p.370) suggests that the two interpretations reflect two historical realities. Both were in evidence in the lives of the patriarchs and in the Egyptial exile. Exile is being outside of one's own land but it need not necessarily be accompanied by oppressions and servitude. The Torah in this parsha includes both experiences in its short review of Jewish history - the declaration of first fruits. In the First Temple era, the confident declaration of the pilgrim bringing first fruits resounded with the optimism and pride of national accomplishment, despite humble beginnings as a wandering Aramean. This is the meaning that the trop favors. After the experience of enslavement, reconstruction and disappointments of the Second Temple period, the destiny of Jews among the nations did not look quite as bright. When it looked toward its beginnings, it saw Anti-Semitism and oppression. Not only Lavan but in every generations they rise against us to destroy us. It is that understanding of Jewish history that informed the interpretation of the Haggada and the trop.

Here we have a good example of a situation in which careful consideration of easily accessible exegetical issues leads us to a straightforward understanding of an otherwise hard to fathom Midrashic passage.[6]

1 See the beginning of the recently published dialogue version of Mesillas Yeshorim, where this method of midrash study is not only definitively described but also considered equal in importance to the study of Talmud and practical Halacha.

2 As per Vilna Gaon's emendation.

3 Rashi to this verse explains that although Lavan did not succeed, his evil intention is considered as if he did succeed. This is the principle that applies to the nations of the world - evil thought is considered as if it was an action.

4 A transitive verb is one like teach, the action going outside the subject to an object. An intransitive verb is such one as sleep. A verb like that can only modify the subject and not anything or anyone outside of the sleeper. One cannot 'sleep' others (unless he is a train compartment) but one can and does teach others.

5 This interpretation is also offered by the Rashbam and the Sipurno.

6 This interpretation of Targum Yonasan and the Sifri is suggested by Simcha Kogut, in Hamikra bein ta'amim l'parashanut, Mangus, T'SH'N'V, p. 65