Three in one.
From time to time in this series we deconstruct and discuss a representative Midrashic passage. Aside from value as Torah Study, such exercises both improve our ability "learn' midrash and to appreciate the exegetical complexities that underline a seemingly simple passage. Let us look at a midrash in Leviticus Rabbah 18,1.
Remember Thine Creator (Boreicha) in the days of Thine youth before days of evil come and arrive years of which you will say, "I do not wish them". (Eccl. 12,1).
It was taught: Akavia ben Mehal'el said: Consider three things and you will not come into sin. Know from whence you came - from rotten drop, and where you are going - to dust, rotting and worm, and before whom you shall give judgment and accounting - before the Holy One Blessed Be He.
R. Abba said in the name of R. Pappa and R. Yehoshua of Siknin in the name of R. Levi: All three R. Akiva derived from one verse.
1. Boreicha - be'ercha. This is rotten drop.
2. Borcha - this is 'rotting and worm'.
3. Borecha - Creator. This is the King of Kings of Kings before Who you shall give judgment and accounting.
It is highly unusual for midrash to transpose the spelling of the same word in three different ways and 'darshen' all three. The more common pattern is for a single 'man d'omar' to derive a single lesson from a single letter substitution.
What difficulty indicates that a derash may be warranted? Etz Yosef points out that the spelling of Boreicha is highly unusual - Beis, VaV, Reish, Aleph, Yud, Chaf. The Yud is extra. In fact, as spelled the word means 'your creators', not your 'Creator'. Because of this difficulty, intervening with a 'derash' is warranted.
Alternatively and simpler, the word 'Creator' seems somewhat ill-fitting in the context of the verse. What shade of meaning is characterization of G-d as Creator adding to the main argument of verse - that one should repent while there is still strength?. Seen in this manner, the 'derash' becomes nothing more than 'mining' the word for the entire depth of its meaning.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that the third derivation is nothing more than simple meaning, pshat, of the verse. Why Creator? Because He is the King of Kings by virtue of creating every power and authority that exists; He is the one who shall sit in judgment. By explaining Creator as Kings of Kings who sits in judgment, the midrash is explaining the choice to use this word in an unexpected context.
Now let us look at the other derivations. The first derivation appears to move the aleph from its position as the 4rth letter to 2nd. It is not uncommon to find aleph disregarded for purposes of derash as well as pshat or be a subject of Keri and K'siv. As noted by several grammarians, it is common for letters AHOY (aleph, hei, vav, yud) to drop out of words or to be inserted in unlikely locations. This fact aside, the explanation of 'boreicha' as 'rotten drop', or seed, is fairly close to pshat, for the word as written actually means not "Creator' but 'creators', possibly referring to father and mother. Hence, it can easily be understood to refer to 'rotten drop' that is provided by the father and then 'rots' within the mother.
What about the second derivation? Here also the aleph is involved but, rather than moved around, it is disregarded, so that the word is read as 'borcha', instead of 'borecha'. Besides the fact that aleph often drops out in Tanach, it is especially easy to disregard aleph in derush for it is barely audible.
This passage also illustrates the tendency of Chazal to derive or find a source even for self evident teaching within the Tanach. What could be more self-evident and sensible than the teaching of Akavia ben Mehal'el? Yet, it too must be somewhere written in the Torah and therefore, R. Akiva derived it from this verse.
To end with a mussar point, as befits the subject, I share with you a 'vort' of the Kotsker. He notes that every holy thought is opposed by and matched with an unholy one. The three questions that Akavia ben Mehal'el asks every Jew are also asked of Jews by Eisav - but not to uplift but to cause depression and spiritual downfall, R"L. These questions are powerful and can raise a person up as well as take him down.
...when my brother Eisav meets you and asks you: Whose are you, where are you going, and whose are these ones that are before you (Gen. 32,18).
In the study of Midrash as much as in life it is not sometimes what questions you ask but how and in what spirit you ask them.
1 Etz Yosef suggests that Akiva should be emended to Akavia and this is how this midrash is quoted in Yerushalmi Sota 2, 2. See how it is phrased in Rashi to Koheles ibid.See Psalms 72,20 Proverbs 9,1 ,25,1 (These also are proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out.), 30,1 and R. Menachem Mendel's introduction to Vilna Gaon's commentaray on Mishlei cited in Moshe Philip's edition 1,1.
2 Rashi does it fairly commonly (see for example Deuter. 32,6) but in the case of Rashi, he is usually citing three different opinions as one. This passage, on the other hand, is simultaneously deriving three different lessons from a single word.
3 The only other occurrence of this word is in Isaiah 43,1 and it is spelled without a Yod and vocalized differently.
4 Sefer Harikma 7, p. 106; Ibn Ezra to Genesis 8, 2
5 In the deeper sense these letters, all part of Divine Name, symbolize the so often unexpected emergence and appearance of the miraculous within the familiar and ordinary.
6 Aleph is often grouped with guttural sounds. I am aware of at least two sources that suggest that is used to be pronounced in some fashion although we currently do not pronounce it at all. See Rashi Ex. 10, 21 and Bahir 70, where Aleph seems to be thought of as a letter that is pronounced with a mouth open. Rashi quotes several examples of aleph's that drop out.