Telling them apart.
Our midrashic collection include mostly midrashim that explore the meaning of Biblical verses and those that use these verses homiletically to explore ethical, philosophical or theological issues. A much smaller number of passages contain mystical intent. Whereas the first two types of midrash are often fairly easy to identify, the mystical passages often confuse and perplex. They often propose an apparently, albeit fantastic, pshat or they can sound homiletic, but unclear. Identifying such passages is important. It goes without saying that attempting to force mystical meaning into non-mystical midrash or misreading a straightforward statement as mystical not only not productive but can be worthy of ridicule. We can rely in the Rishonim to identify mystical undertones but there are also stylistic or literary clues to the intended meaning.
As an example, it is axiomatic that one goal of Midrashic exposition is to make general and abstract concepts accessible. This is accomplished by rephrasing them as concrete applications to immediate experience, through identification with known characters or events or through parables. Consequently, when a number of objects are listed in a verse, each one will usually be correlated one-to-one to a familiar personage or occurrence. Here are two examples from this week's parsha.
This is the offering that you shall take of them: gold, silver and copper (Shemos 25,3).
1. Gold-this is Abraham who was tested like gold in a fiery furnace.
Silver-this is Isaac who was purified like silver on the altar.
Copper -this is Yakov... (Exodus Rabbah 49,2).
2. Gold is for kingdom of Babylonia of which it says (in Daniel 2, 38), "You are the head of gold".
Silver is for kingdom of Medea for it says, "ten thousand kikar silver".
Copper is for kingdom of Greece which is the least significant.
Skins of red-dyed rams is for kingdom of Edom, as it says "the first (twin) came out red (edomi) Tanchuma 60,7).
When this pattern is broken and the same meaning is ascribed to different items, look for a mystical intent.
This is the offering - this is congregation of Israel which is offering as it says, "Holy is Israel to G-d, first of his harvest".
Gold and silver - this is congregation of Israel as it says, "the wings of dove is covered with silver and its parts with purified gold".
Copper-this is the land of Israel as its says, "its mountains are mines of copper".
Blue-dye-this is congregation of Israel "and they shall put on the ends of garment wings a thread of blue".
Purple and red worm - this is congregation of Israel as it says, "Do not fear the worm of Jacob..."
The meaning of this midrash is taken up by Ramban ibid and Devarim 33,1 and R. Bachya here and to Genesis 49, 28. For our purposes, note that this passage classifies disparate items in the verse as being the same thing rather than directly correlating each one to a separate and different item, as is usually the case.
A similar midrash that bears out the point is quoted by the first Ramban on Chumash.
In the beginning...
The beginning is nothing but Chalah as it says, "beginning of your dough.
Beginning is nothing but tithes as it says, "beginning of your grain".
Beginning is nothing but first fruits as it says, "beginning of fruits of your land".
Beginning - in merit of Moshe as it says, "He saw beginning for him".
Ramban writes: "Their intent is that the word 'in the beginning' alludes to that the world is created with ten sephiros and to the sephirah that is called chochma in which is the foundation of 'all' as it says "Hashem founded the earth with chochma". It is offering (teruma), it is 'holy'....".
I suggest that Midrashic passages that stand out because of unusual structure and for violating the usual patterns of midrashic genre are likely imported into our standard Midrashic collections from kabbalistic midrashic manuscripts, a number of which are known to have existed and been accessible to Rishonim. A comparison between style of a surviving kabbalistic Midrash, such as the Bahir, and collections like Exodus Rabbah bears out his point. If correct, we have new style and literary pattern based criteria for identifying passages as either exegetical and homiletic or mystical.
1 I must note an exception to this characterization. The writings of Ari and his students routinely expound simple and apparently literally intended passages as representing Kabbalistic principles because they use words that represent technical Kabablistic terms.
2 All midrashim this week are quoted from Torah Shelema on 25, 5. It sometimes uses a different chapter and subchapter system when quoting than the one in standard editions.
3 The Midrash goes on the say that olive oil mentioned later on in our verse is for the King Messiah who is anointed with olive oil.
4 Cited by Torah Shelema ibid from Yalkut and other midrashim.
5 See Bahir 103. The issue is interrelationship of the sephiras chochma and malchus (ateres), both of which are represented by the letter yud.