Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
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Meir Levin

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Pinchas 5764

Rules of Drash

We have discussed the midrashic rules of exegesis several times in these pages in the past. It is important to realize that these rules are no less rigorous than the rules of pshat exegesis but they are different and proceed from different assumptions. A great deal of difficulty is occasioned when pshat questions are asked on a drash passage.

These rules are usually implied and not clearly stated but in the Sifri (Pinchas 2) in this week's parsha we find an explicit statement of one such rule. To discuss it fully we will first need to read and discuss the entire passage.

Tzelafchad's Daughters (R. A. Kaplan's translation)

A petition was presented by the daughters of Tzelafchad, son of Chefer, son of Gilead, son of Makhir, son of Manasseh, of the family of Joseph's son Manasseh. The names of these daughters were Machlah, No'ah, Chaglah, Milkah and Tirtzah.


They now stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the princes, and the entire community at the Communion Tent entrance with the following petition:


'Our father died in the desert. He was not among the members of Korach's party who protested against God, but he died because of his own sin without leaving any sons.


Why should our father's name be disadvantaged in his family merely because he did not have a son? Give us a portion of land along with our father's brothers.'


Moses brought their case before God.

...the son of Chefer, son of Gilead, son of Makhir, son of Menashe (Bamidbar 21:7). The verse teaches us that as Tselaphchad was a first born so all of them (in feminine) were firstborns. And to teach you that they (daughters of Tselaphchad) were virtuous the daughters of the virtuous.

This passage is quite difficult for why should we care that daughters of Tsalaphchad were all firstborns. Some commentators suggest that despite the feminine form of the words, it refers instead to their ancestors, Chefer, Gilead, Makhir, Menashe, revealing that they were all firstborns and each received a double portion and that their daughters were therefore in line to receive a very large inheritance. The commentator who suggests this explanation, Sifra D'Bei Rav, himself rejects it, basing himself on the earlier verses that indicate that Chefer was the sixth son of Machir, not his first. R. Prado, the author of this commentary concludes:" …and the matter remains confusing and I do not understand it."

I venture to suggest that the intent of this passage is the same as in the following midrash a bit earlier in the Sifri, only in different words:

And these are daughters of Tsalaphchad: Machla, Noah, Chagla, and Milka and Tirzah. You may think that the ones first in the verse also acted first, therefore it states (Bamidbar 36): and was Machla, Tirzah, Chagla, and Milka and Noah, the daughters of Tsalaphchad…- this teaches us that all were equally worthy.

The difficulty that the midrash faces is that all five daughters presented their claim together. Had they asked for the same treatment as sons, the oldest daughter should have been the one to approach Moshe, for she would be the one to receive a double portion. In addition, it is derech eretz for the oldest one to speak first. Besides, lists are a favorite for midrashic analysis. The situation of 5 daughters who are presented in different order in the two passages cries out for a midrashic comment. The resolution, that all five were firstborns explains why all five involved themselves equally in the matter of inheritance.

Now we take up the rule.
All whose deeds are not specified and his ancestor's deeds are not specified and the verse attributes lineage as praise, he is a tsadik son of tsadik. All whose deeds and those of his ancestors are not specified and his lineage is attributed for a demerit, he is wicked the son of wicked.

At first glance the explanation of this rule runs along the following lines. Attribution of lineage must serve to define the individual who is being presented. If he or she are righthouse and are being introduced as such, their ancestor must also be righthouse, for otherwise this positive aspect of identification will be diluted. It is confusing to have a character introduces as a good guy while at the same time pointing out his shortcomings. A modern novel might do that in order to foreshadow a conflict or development but the Torah, at least according to the midrashist, does not. Since parents to a great extent define an individual, invoking the lineage must be a reinforcement to the general thrust of the introduction, not at cross purpose or against it.

This reminds me of R. Wolf Heidenheims' explanation of Rashi to Bareishis 11, 29, where Haran is introduced as the father of Milka and the father of Iska. Rashi cites that Iska refers to Sarah "shesakah bruach hakodesh v'shehakol sakin b'yofia" - for she is anointed with Holy Spirit and all are anointed by her beauty.

R. Heidenheim points out that the purpose of citing a lineage should be to identify an individual by connecting him or her to a better known individual. Since we do not encounter Iska again anywhere in the Torah, she does not help us learn anything about the better known Haran. It must be that she is Sara who is even better known than Haran. The identification with Iska-Sarah tells us something about him that we did not know before.

This explanation of this rule is offered by the Netsiv[1] in his commentary to the Sifri. He himself points out, however, that the version of this rule cited in Megilah 15 does not bear out this approach. It reads: "All whose deeds and deeds of his parents are specified and the verse specified one of them (either the father or the son) for praise, he is a tsadik ben tsadik. All whose deeds and deeds of his parents are not specified and a verse specifies one of them for demerit, he is a wicked one, the son of a wicked one." Here the rule seems to function much more as a hekesh; in other words, proximity of two individuals allows us to assume similarity between the two in either direction, from son to father or from father to son.

R. Nasan says: The verse came to inform you how great is a righthouse person who grows up in the lap of a wicked one and does not do like his deeds. He goes on to contrast Eisav who grew up with Itshak and Rivkah but became wicked and Ovadiah who lived between Achav and Izevel but remained righthouse.[2]

R. Nasan appears to disagree with the rule or, at the very least, with its application in our case. He may hold that Tsalaphchad was the "gatherer" and therefore a sinner (see Midrash Schelach a discussion of that issue) and that his daughters were the righthouse ones, products of the wicked one. Listing their lineage praises them in another way - it emphasizes their independent pursuit of goodness and their rejection of the legacy of wickedness that their father had left them.

This passage is important because it is one a very few Midrashic sources that explicitly discuss methodology; consequently, it is seminal for our exploration of Midrash and Method.[3]

1 After making this point the Netsiv goes into a discussion of the many exceptions to this rule.

2 The text according to the Gro, disconnects R. Nasan's statement from the matter of Tsalaphchad's daughters. I follow the standard version of the Sifri.

3 See Midrash Schelach. I subsequently realized that the discussion cited in Mevo Hatalmud is taken almost verbatim from Ramchal's introduction to Aggada but without attribution. For the English translation of this important essay, see R. Aharon Feldman, Juggler and the King, Philipp Feldheim Inc; (June 1, 1991), Appendix.