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

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The Rock and the Foundation.

So far in this series we have focused on exegetical Midrash and on exploring the method and technique of this unique interpretative approach. One should not, however, think that Midrash does not contain many comments that are inspired by the text but are not explaining the text. There are, in fact, so many of these comments that some students of Midrash have erroneously concluded that midrash is a collection of "folk-legend" or folklore, similar to folklore and legends of other nations.[1] This view is of course incorrect, not only because so much of the Midrashic material is text centered, straightforward explication of the verses or a somewhat more complicated and informed, if not literal, reading of the text, but also because the non-exegetical comments are integrally connected to interpreting and understanding it. Whether in the form of long narrative expansion or as a pity aphorism, these comments communicate a moral and religious perspective that is indispensable to any exegesis. After all, any commentary must have a perspective and a set of principles. Was Pharaoh a good guy or a bad guy? Is Esau a misguided but basically admirable individual who was a victim of trickery or is he a violent, hypocritical and corrupt character against whom any method of opposition is morally correct? Was Balaam a worthy prophet or a despicable traitor to his destiny? Is the Akeida a lesson in self-transcendence or, G-d forbid, a pre-figuration of the Christian myth? The assumptions with which you start will determine how you answer these questions and the direction that your interpretation will take. The Midrash provides direction through parables, aphorisms and narrative expansions. It much prefers inculcating the correct exegetical attitude in the indirect manner to direct labeling of individuals or situations. In this sense, even non-exegetical asides serve an exegetical purpose by structuring and defining the interpretative approach.

And Pharaoh dreams...and behold I stand over the Nile(Genesis 41,1)
Pharaoh said: Who stands over whom, I over my gods or my gods over me?
They said to him: You over your gods.
The wicked stand over their gods -" and behold he stands over the Nile".[2]
The righteous, their G-d stands over them - "and behold Hashem stands over him."
The forefathers they are the chariot (for Divine Presence). (Genesis Rabba 89)

This apparently non-exegetical comment serves an important purpose by inculcating an attitude to how all the subsequent chapters should be approached. It serves as an introduction to the entire Yosef narrative.
1. Pharaoh was not a sympathetic character. He was, perhaps, the same monarch who later refused to acknowledge G-d and to send the Children of Israel out of Egypt.[3] This informs our exegetical approach to interpreting the entire narrative.
2. Long before Voltaire, the midrash teaches us that "man made gods in his image". Idolatrous beliefs contain human-like gods, only bigger and more powerful, and they are creation and reflection of their makers. This realization is an important antidote to the allure and attraction of the glitter of advanced idolatrous civilizations, such as, say, Ancient Egypt. Once we know this, we can stand with Yoseph in the midst of Egypt and see what he saw.
3. They cue us into state use of religion for political purposes. We now understand that Egyptian religion was at the service of the state. This helps us interpret subsequent references to religious functionaries and their relationship to Yosef, the viceroy.

The Netsiv in his commentary (41,1) sees a different lesson in this midrash. "They taught us through this that there is a secondary intent in this verse - that Pharaoh always dreams and considers,[4] "Is the extraordinary success of Egypt at that time due to my personal success (and the Nile and the land succeed because of me) or that of the country.[5] The fact that he stood over the Nile revealed that the story happened so that at the end the Jews will descend into Egypt. Pharaoh and the land were led as consequence of the decree that the Children of Israel will descend into it. It was not a decree that they should be exiled under this Pharaoh as such."

Whatever the interpretation of the midrash, it is clear that it shows us the way to interpret and teaches us the basic axioms of how to understand ambiguous passages and verses. When faced with a genuine doubt in interpretation, we must return to the basic hashkafic guide-posts of the Chazal to re-orient ourselves and to choose an explanation that is consistent with them.
In our own day and age we have seen a multitude of interpretative strategies. Some of them do not share basic assumptions of the divine origin of Scriptures[6] or employ questionable methodological assumptions.[7][8] Others are an integral outgrowth of new ideologies. They often offer a new and attractive interpretation of familiar texts and this can be seductive to serious student of the Tanakh.
The Sages understood that underlying any interpretation there is a set of values. They offered a set of parameters and a moral structure that should underlie it. Without it, we run a significant risk of "calling good bad and the bad good". The non-exegetical midrash is concerned with setting forth the parameters that define a chiddush, a novel interpretation as Jewish in form and spirit. These passages are crucial in keeping exegesis within the tradition and true to its deepest values.

1 A noted proponent of this approach was Professor Louis Ginzberg of the JTS in his Legends of the Jews. See http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/loj/loj101.htm, where this approach is laid out. Professor Ginzberg's ideas have now been largely discredited even within the academia.

2 The Egyptians worshipped the Nile (Rashi to Exodus 8,17)

3 Sota 11a

4 It does not state "and Pharaoh dreamt" but "dream" in the present tense.

5 The Netsiv may be referring to that old disagreement among the historians - Is history shaped and formed by great men or is it a product of historical forces and trends? Had the great person not been, would history have taken a different turn, or would have another man arisen to same effect.

6 Various historical approaches: Source, Form, Tradition-historical and Reduction criticism.

7 Social-scientific criticism, Canonical criticism, Rhetorical criticism, Intertextuality, Narrative, Reader-response or Post-structuralist citicism.

8 Feminist and Socio-economic criticism.