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

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Bo 5765

Bringing order to disorder…

One of the goals that Midrashic literature aims to accomplish is to systemize and categorize events, concepts, ideas and principles found in Tanach. It has been said that the Bible contains philosophy in solution and it was the task of religious philosophers to precipitate it out so it can be grasped and studied. Chazal perceived Biblical literature in a somewhat similar way. They looked for patterns and models that could be used to first organize and then to extract general principles out of the mass of undifferentiated narrative, moral teaching and theological insight. We have already spoken one way in which they did it - through creation of lists (see Midrash Vaeschanan, midrash@aishdas.com). Today we will see that they also used another technique; that is, they traced a point or an idea through a number of apparently unrelated entities. In this fashion, disparate concepts could be united under the same banner, and become coherent and comprehensible.

The Mekhilta (s.v. chutz l'krach) in the beginning of Bo states that Hashem spoke to Moshe outside of the city of Egypt for it was full of idolatry. After completing this discussion, it goes on to say:

Until Land of Israel was chosen all lands were acceptable for commandments (Dibros). Once the Land of Israel was chosen, all (other) lands were excluded [1].

Until Jerusalem was chosen the entire Land of Israel was acceptable for altars. Once Jerusalem was chosen, the entire Land of Israel was excluded…

Until the Temple was chosen, Jerusalem was acceptable for Divine Presence. Once the Temple was chosen, Jerusalem was excluded….

Until Aharon was chosen all of Israel was acceptable for Priesthood. Once Aharon was chosen, all of Israel was excluded from Priesthood…

Until David was chosen all of Israel was acceptable for Kingship. Once David was chosen, all of Israel was excluded…

If you say "I will derive from the case of prophets to whom He spoke outside the Land of Israel" (that all of the above derivations are not valid) - even though he spoke to prophets outside the Land of Israel, He spoke to them solely on the account of the forefathers' merit as it says, "So says the Lord, a voice is heard in Ramah…Rachel is crying for her children….Hold back your voice from crying and your eyes from tear…there is hope for your eventual end and they will return form the land of the enemy (Yirmiah 31).

This passage lines up very different facts - the exclusion of outside lands from prophecy, the prohibition of building altars outside of the Temple in Jerusalem and grants of priesthood to Aharon and reign to David. It must be apparent that the same thread does not necessarily run through all of these instances. It is the concept of Choseness that the author of this midrash perceives in the unsuitability of other lands for prophecy that becomes the unifying principle that is used to explain all of these examples.

The midrash then considers a serious challenge to the entire chain of reasoning, the fact that we find prophecy also outside of the Land of Israel . If the exclusion of other lands from prophecy is not because of choseness but for some other reason, the entire string collapses. The midrash preserves its argument for universality of the principle of choseness by responding that prophecy can occur in other lands because of the merits of the Patriarchs. The Netsiv writes of this in his commentary to the Mekhilta, "It is not understandable at all" [2].

Bais Avrohom suggests a straightforward answer. He writes that at times God may allow a prophecy to be actualized outside the land of Israel so as to bring tidings of redemption promised to Patriarchs. In this case, Yirmiahu was in Egypt , brought there by remnants of Gedalia's followers who were escaping Babylonians revenge that they sought imminent after his murder. The connection to Rachel remains obscure.

Taking a step back to the underlying theme of this Midrashic passage can aid us in understanding this point. The very concept of Choseness, of course, comes to us from the stories of Genesis. It is there that we read of Abraham who was chosen while Lot was excluded, of Yitzhak who was chose while Ishmael was rejected, and of Esau who took himself out of the selection process and Yakov was chosen. By invoking the merit of the Patriarchs, the midrash reinforces the concept of Choseness as an important theological principle throughout the Tanach.

Let us go back to the mention of Rachel. I suggest that this midrash belongs to the tradition that Rachel's tomb was actually outside of the Land of Israel [3]. Such a tradition appears to have existed among Chazal, as attested, for example, in Rashi to Genesis 48,7 [4].

(Yakov says to Yosef) and I did not being her even to Beis Lechem to bring her inside the Land…know that is by Divine Command that I buried her there, so that she may be of help to her children. When Nevuzaradan exiles them and they pass on the way near there, Rachel comes out and seeks mercy for them as it says voice is heard in Rama. The Holy One answers her, "there is hope for your eventual end and the sons will return to their borders"?

The voice that is heard in Ramah is the voice of prophecy that is so loud that it is heard in Ramah even though it originates in Rachel's tomb outside the Land of Israel . This is a reference to prophecy outside of the Land.

Let us step back and look over this passage. We see in it the desire to bring different phenomena under the same theological umbrella; in this case, it is the concept of Choseness or Election, which is the bedrock of Jewish faith. This characteristic Midrashic method can be recognized by a step by step approach to demonstrating how this principle reveals itself in disparate concepts and reference or allusion to the original source, in this case, Election of the Forefathers.

1 When did this election of the Land of Israel and the disqualification of other lands take effect? This midrash suggests that it was sometime after the episodes described in the book of Shemos. However, the Kuzari (2,14) asks how Moshe was able to prophesize in Egypt , which is outside the Land of Israel . He answers that it was for the sake of the Land of Israel , or that the part of Egypt in which these events took place were within the western borders of the Land. (See also Shut Radvaz 6, 2, 2006)

2 He answers that the proof verse indicates that Rachel performed some deed that serves as the source of merit for the eventual return of the Jews. It is hard to understand how this answers the question of the Mekhilta. It is also difficult to explain why it uses the term "merit of forefathers" instead of "merit of Rachel", or "Merit of Matriarchs".

3 It is important to realize that location of Rachel's tomb is not at all clear. The passage in Genesis 48 states that it is in Beis Lechem; however, there are two other Scriptural passages that suggest that it is situated north of Jerusalem , in the property of Benjamin. One of these is the aforementioned verse in Yirmiah 31; the other is in Shmuel 10, 2.

4 See commentators on Rashi and Ramban ibid who attempt to re-interpret this midrash to escape the obvious difficulty that the verse itself states that Rached was brought to and buried in Beis Lechem.