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

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Chayei Sara 5765

How the Torah tells a story.

The account of how the servant of Avaraham met Rivka is repeated twice in our week's Parsha, when it is first narrated and then when he re-tells it to Lavan and Besuel. Chazal took note of this fact.

Said R. Acha: Better is light talk of the slaves of patriarchs' families than the Torah of descendents. The section of Eliezer is two, three pages - he says it and repeats. The defilement of insects is one of the main categories of the Torah and it is derived only from an extra verse expression (Genesis Rabbah 60, 11).

The fact, however, remains that repetitions abound both in Torah narratives and legal section. Laws of Kashrus are found in 2 places (Shemini and R'eh), the story of dedication of the Mishkan in three, of the giving of the Torah twice in Shemos and once in Devarim, the laws of Hebrew Slave in two disparate versions etc. In fact, one might say that this kind of repetition is more of a rule than an exception. This general feature of Chumash structure has been seized upon by Bible critics who saw in it strong evidence for activity of a supposed Redactor who spliced together different sources into a unified narrative. Sometimes he elected to combine different versions and at other times he simply incorporated them in different places verbatim as he found them (R"L).

Needless to say, Chazal have already dealt with this narrative feature and bequeathed us a simple and sensible solution.

As they saw it, the general principle in these cases appears to be:

Any parsha that was said and repeated, was repeated only for a detail that is new (Sotah 3a).

How is one to understand this?

A parallel source suggests that the explanation of this statement goes something like this.

The Torah could have certainly sufficed with telling us the story or teaching us the Halacha all in one time. It chose, however, to purposely leave out an important detail so that it not be overlooked or lost among other details; in other words, in order to highlight it in repetition as it repeats the entire section again.

Every section that was said in one place and a detail (or matter) was omitted and it came back and repeated it in another place - it only repeated it because one detail was omitted (Sifri Bamidbar 5,5).

This statement represents it as a conscious compositional technique. What is the purpose of such literary device?

To put it into modern language, we can invoke the cinematographic device of "split screen" action, first used by Ilya Erenburg some 80 years ago. This quite simple consists of viewing two different representations of the same scene or event at the same time running side by side at the same time. The advantage of this method is stereoscopic vision, superior perception of depth and better grasp of specific relationships between details and particulars of the scene portrayed. By enabling us to experience the two narratives or legal sections at once, specific details come into sharper view. Viewed in this fashion, the repetitions, far from being the result of inept editing, become an intentional literary and exegetical technique employed by a unique work of Divine literature that anticipated contemporary developments in storytelling and science of composition by some three thousand years. It is precisely its Divine origin that enabled the Chumash to utilize literary techniques unknown by the Ancient world and only discovered (or re-discovered) with the flowering of knowledge and creativity in the modern era.[1]

1 The approach taken here is quite different from that taken by Mordechai Breuer in his Pirkei Bareishis. There he argues that the kind of storytelling that we are familiar with in the Chumash is the way people used to tell stories or teach legal precedent. He applies the talmudic statement "dibra Torah k'lshon bnei adom", originally used narrowly regarding repetitions of words to the entire narrative structure of Chumash. I find the entire approach unconvincing for many reasons, both those advanced by others (see Modern scholarship in the study of Torah, ed. S. Carmy, Jason Aronson, 1996) and because of my own objections. The latter center largely on the uniqueness of the Biblical narrative technique among ancient literature, a point made by E. Auerbach in his classic Mimesis more than 50 years ago (for a short review see here)