Midrash and Method
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Meir Levin

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Vayikra 5764

The technical and beyond.

As a young man begins to learn how to learn, he almost immediately encounters the 13 principles of interpretation. Most often, they are studied in a technical manner; it is after all so much easier to apply these principles in an off-hand mechanical way so as to quickly move on to what we often consider the real subject of the Gemara, fine analysis of conceptual categories. Only occasionally do we become exposed to a classic commentator that demonstrates the richness of linguistic understanding and wealth of theological insight that lies behind the apparent dryness of the principles of derivation. This happened to me a few years ago with Malbim's explanation on VaYikra and I would like to share it with you[1]... We will first read my adaptation of the Sifro as understood by classical commentators and then review it again according to the Malbim. For ease of cross reference, please refer to the numbered units.

"And called to Moshe and Hashem spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting saying (VaYikra 1,1).

Sifro (in papraphrase):

(1) Called, spoke: calling preceded speaking.

(2) But isn't it logical: here it treats of speaking and by the burning bush it treats of speaking-just like by the bush calling preceded speaking, so also here( we would have known without it being made explicit in the verse )calling preceded speaking. (Therefore there must be a limmud or information encoded through this unnecessary specification of called-spoke)

(3) No, if that is the case by the bush which is the beginning of all the addresses (to Moshe), would you say the same regarding the Tent of Meeting which is not the beginning of all addresses to Moshe.

(4) Spoke of Sinai will prove (the contrary) for it is not beginning of all addresses to Moshe and yet there also call precedes spoke. (Meaning you can see from there that all speaking was preceded by calling and its explicit use here is not necessary - therefore it must carry additional information)

(5)No, if that it is the case, (that call explicitly preceded spoke) by Sinai, is because that call was to the whole of Israel, so you cannot generalize it to the Tent of Meeting where it was not to the whole of Israel (but to Moshe alone).

(6) Let's derive it (that calling always preceded speaking and then pointing out that making it explicit here carries additional information) from the two together (Binyan Av). One has the aspect of being the beginning of Moshe's prophecy (and this aspect is not present at the Tent of Meeting) and the other has the aspect of being directed to whole of Israel (which is also not the case by the Tent of Meeting). From the two together that share the fact that they were both call from Hashem to Moshe, you can derive that always Hashem calling to Moshe preceded His speaking to Moshe, (so there mustbe additional information in having it specified here).

(7) However, both by Sinai and the burning bush there was fire along with Hashem speaking to Moshe, whereas by the Tent of Meeting there was no fire. Thus, we would not automatically assume that calling may not precede speaking in the case of the Tent of Meeting.

(8) Talmud Lomar (the verse states) - learn to say[2] calling preceded speaking even in the Tent of Meeting.

Now to an elaboration and explication:

(1) The Malbim first points out that the usual construction in Chumash is verb-subject-verb, for example: "And appeared Hashem to Moshe and said "(Bareishis 12). When two verbs immediately follow each other, there is a significance in this connection of the 2 verbs (see the many examples quoted by the Malbim). Our case is also of the subject being deferred: "And spoke to Moshe and said Hashem".

The Sifro is trying to determine the significance of this connection.

He then points out that the word call to (kara el..)carries three possible shades of meaning, as this word does in English and other languages.[2] As I understand the Malbim, he means that there are shades or nuances of meaning that the same word would contain based on context. What the Sifro attempts to do is look carefully at the context and determine which nuance applies. The three possible nuances are:

1. Electing someone as prophet for the first time, as was the case by the Burning Bush.

2. Selecting or inviting one out of a group for a special purpose, as was the case by Sinai where Moshe was called out of the whole of Israel to go up to the mountain.

3. Reassurance in frightening circumstances. This was the context both of the Bush and of Sinai as indicated by the presence of Divine fire (but not the case of the Tent of Meeting).

(2) The Sifro first suggests that the call of the Tent of meeting was more like the situation at the Burning Bush. Both represented a certain stage in reaching full prophetic potential. Theologically this proposal has major theological significance. We have several indications that Moshe was a novice in prophecy when he stood in front of the Burning Bush, so much so that he was did not even realize that he was undergoing a prophetic experience when he first turned to see the bush. This would possibly create a doubt about his ability to accurately receive and transcribe the legal aspects of the Torah. Sifro wants to explain that the Tent of Meeting represented the 2nd, the fully mature stage of Moshe's prophecy, one that resulted in word to word transcription of the Torah from the mouth of the Almighty.

(3) The Sifro then rejected this approach, possibly because some commandments had already been given and one has to place Moshe's ascent to the ultimate rung of prophecy much before the construction of the Tent of Meeting.

(4) It briefly considers the possibility that calling before speaking is derived from Sinai where calling also preceded speaking.

(5) But it rejects it since the call at Sinai was clearly an invitation, unique to that situation and this nuance of the meaning of the word call may not be transferable to the Tent of Meeting.

(6) It proposes that calling before speaking is the general pattern of how G-d speaks to Moshe. In other words, it now considers the possibility that we should not be comparing nuances but actual basic and main meaning of the word "call", sans whatever special nuances of meanings this word can have in various contexts. It now posits that nuances are not the most important feature of the word and that this word should be perceived generally, sans its nuances. If so, nuances aside, its basic meaning by the Bush and at Sanai applies to the Tent of Meeting as calling always precedes speaking.

(7) Yet, even if nuances be summarily disregarded, the presence of fire, fear, trembling and danger at both the Bush and Sinai experiences, makes this shared feature of the experience the main point. Thus, the word itself, its basic and main meaning, not only its nuance, describes a different experience in these two cases than by the Tent of Meeting.

(8) It finally concludes form a verse that the calling in the Tent of Meeting was for neither of the three reasons above but as the necessary condition of learning. If we speak of what experience it describes - it describes the experience of revelatory learning rather than prophetic vision. In this way, it supports the concept that what was given at the Tent of Meeting was of special quality thus buttressing the principle of the uniqueness of Moshe's Torah as compared to that of other prophets.

Sifro goes on: You may think that calling was only for this unit of speech, Talmud lomar: "from the Tent of Meeting". This teaches us that calling preceded speaking always in the Tent of Meeting.

The Sifro goes on to show that all forms of speech and commandment but not the stops and interruptions for review were preceded by calling in the Tent of Meeting.

Our elaboration of the Malbim demonstrates how linguistic (and theologic) considerations stand behind what at first glance appears to be a purely technical exposition.

And He called to Moshe and Hashem spoke to him…

Aleph (of Vayikra) is smaller than any other Aleph - to teach us that Moshe made himself small and merited… (Yalkut Midrashei Teiman)[5]

In what sense does the small Aleph denote humility?

A story may help.

A certain grandson of the "tsemach Tsedek" of Lubavitch appeared to be dejected and sad, even broken hearted and depressed. They asked him: "Why are you so broken and dejected?" He answered: "From the Aleph -Beis.

What does that mean?

Aleph of Anokhi and Beis of Bareishis.[6]

This story can be interpreted as referring to the great Divine "I", the overwhelming presence of G-d in our Universe but what is then denoted by Bareishis?

Rather and more likely, the Anokhi here points to the essential puniness of he individual "I" compared to the complexity and grandeur of Hashem's Creation. Moshe realized that G-d's call to him was not a reason to feel self important and to aggrandize his stature. It was, in the contrary, a reason to value His kindness and to recognize His greatness in reaching across the divide that separates even the greatest of men from the Creator. It is through this attitude that he merited to transcribe the Holy Writ.

1 The arrangement and extensions of Malbim's though, points of theology and all errors are solely my responsibility. I recommend that you refer you to Malbim's own comments in his commentary to the Sifro, Hatorah Vhamitsva, 1. If you think that the correct interpretation is different than the one above, please share it with me and I will disseminate it through this forum.

2 In vocalized Yemenite manuscripts this is vocalized ans tilmod lomar, which means learn to say.

3 Many Hebrew words possess multiple meanings which are determined solely by context. KUM means both stand and stand up and persist and set up etc. In Germanic languages, suffixes such as up, down, over, under, on and others help in specifying these meanings. Thus, calling over is different from calling up, calling on, calling in etc. It must be pointed out that the verb kara does change its meanings based on whtehr it is followed by et, le or el, as farther discussed by the Malbim.

4 Ramban Shemos 3,5; Shemos Rabah 3,1 and 45,5

5 Prior to publication of this midrash from manuscript, this idea was found in Hadar Zakeinim, see. Notes of RMM Kasher to Midrash Hagadol for other midrashic approaches to the small Aleph.

6 S. Y. Zevin, Sipurei Chasidim, Yisro