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

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Bamidbar 5765

Lists and exception.

As we discussed in the past, making lists of similar cases in both Written and Oral Torah appears to have been an activity that engaged the generations before Tannaim. These teachers were called Sofrim because they made lists that "counted" and organized received laws into categories. These lists became the basic backbone of both the Mishna and Midrash. We have also seen that subsequent generations labored to understand and explain the omissions of one or two examples from some of these lists, Additional layers of interpretations were overlaid over the original lists in order to clarify, limit or particularize in an attempt to explain these omissions.

This introduction has methodologic significance for it guides us to take no list as final without looking for such omissions. I we find that there are really, say, five examples and the passage cites only three, understanding the passage requires addressing the similarities of the examples included in the list and how they are different from the examples not included. We now have a powerful tool to uncover the original intent of the passage. Let us look at an example of how ti may prove helpful.

Three set out for ground and profaned themselves. These are Cain, Noah and Uziah.

Cain, as it says, "and Cain worked the earth (Gen. 4)". What does it state afterwards? "A stranger and sojourner shall you be in the land".

Noah, as it says, "And Noah, the man of the earth started and planted a vineyard…..

Uziah, as it says, ""for a lover of earth was he (Chronicles II, 26)". He was a monarch and he gave himself over to earth and did not connect to Torah. Once he happened to be at a Torah gathering and he asked them, "Where are you holding?" They said: "The stranger who approaches to sacrifice, he shall die (Num. 1)". He said: "He is a King and I am a king; it is fitting that a king serves before Him and sacrifices to the King." Right away he went in to offer incense…."and leprosy shined form his forehead". At that moment the Heichal cracked apart 12 by 12 mil and they rushed him from there… What caused this? That he did not study Torah and joined himself to the earth (Tanchuma Noah 13; see Gen. Rabba 36, 5 for a more concise version).

The passage lists three individuals who "lusted after the ground and there was nothing good that came of them".[1] At first glance this appears to be a simple and complete list of three cases in which an individual was identified with ground to his detriment. This is not the case, however, for there are other examples. While these examples do not identify specific individuals, it is wholly within the midrashic style to use such passages in midrashic exposition, as long as the actual words are similar.

Zecharia 13, 5

And it shall come to pass in that day, that the prophets shall be brought to shame every one through his vision, when he prophesieth; neither shall they wear a hairy mantle to deceive;

but he shall say: 'I am no prophet, I am a man of earth ; for I have been made a bondman from my youth.'

Why does the Midrash not say something like this: and the false prophets, as it says "I am no prophet: I am a man of the earth"?

Isaiah 24, 21

And it shall come to pass in that day, that HaShem will punish the host of the high heaven on high, and the kings of the earth upon the earth.

This passage uses an unusual expression "kings of the earth" rather than "kings of nations"' yet, our passage does not cite it.

How are Cain, Noah and Uziah different from these other cases? Careful consideration of the local context of these three cases reveals an unexpected similarity - all three have descriptions of their earthiness juxtaposed to offering of sacrifices. This is most prominent and explicitly stated in case of Uziah; however, it is also the case with Cain and Noah as well.

Cain - but Cain worked the earth.

And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto HaShem (Gen. 2-3).

Noah - And Noah builded an altar unto HaShem; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar (Gen. 8, 20). And Noah the husbandman began, and planted a vineyard (Gen. 9,20).

Uziah - And be built towers in the wilderness, and hewed out many cisterns, for he had much cattle; in the Lowland also, and in the table-land; and he had husbandmen and vinedressers in the mountains and in the fruitful fields; for he loved earth. .

But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up so that he did corruptly, and he trespassed against HaShem his G-d; for he went into the temple of HaShem to burn incense upon the altar of incense (Chronicles II, 26:10-16).

The similar context of these three cases and not of the others, must of resonated with the audience who were undoubtedly intimately acquainted with their Scripture. These three were pulled down by their earthiness and crushed to the ground at the very pinnacle of their spirituality, as they sacrificed to Hashem. The unstated lesson of the Midrash may be exactly that earthiness is an impediment that pulls an individual down even as they soar to the heights of Divine Service. One cannot fly while wedded to earthiness. It must inexorably pull him down and subvert all spiritual progress. This idea is expressed in the following Midrash about Noah.

Once he joined to the ground he became profaned. R. Yehuda Bar Shalom said: In the beginning "righteous men in his generations" and now "man of the earth" (Tanchuma ibid)".

R. Berachia said: Moses is more precious than Noah. Noah after he was called "righteous man "was called "man of the earth". Moses after he was called "Egyptian man" was called "man of G-d) (Gen. Rabbah ibid, 6)[2]".

The technique of finding similar expressions in Tanach and then looking for similarities of situations to derive therein insight has recently become common among certain circles of Tanach students in Israel and United States . It may be that once again the Sages were there first.


1 Language of Gen. Rabbah

2 For an interesting explanation of this midrash in mussar vein see the section on R. Dovid Bliacher in, M. Levin (1996). Novarodok: The Movement that Lived in Struggle and its Unique Approach to the Problem of Man, Jason Aronson, Northvale , NJ .