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

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Tsav 5765

Parable and its meaning.

Parable is a truly Jewish form of study. Some see in it a reflection of a concrete reasoning style, in which the abstraction remains intimately tied to a specific example, a quintessentially Semitic mode of expression, modeled after how the Chumash itself presents legal material, through cases. When Western thought separates abstract principles from the specific cases, they are easily misunderstood, misapplied or misinterpreted. Playing with, stretching and evolving isolated concepts is a malady of Western intellectuals, who not infrequently support frameworks and constructions far removed from reality. A parable guides against such an outcome by manipulating abstractions at the same time that they are inherent in concrete cases.

David Stern in Midrash and Theory: Ancient Jewish Exegesis and Contemporary Literary Studies, Northwestern University Press, 1996, summarized contemporary academic views of Midrashic parables. These have been variously seen as illustration [1], secret speech [2] or rhetorical device [3]. Some traditional scholars [4] would probably add that they often serve educational and pedagogical means. If so, tt stands to reason that a story that is told for educational purposes need not be 'true' in every detail' [5] although it is absolutely true in verity of its message. How and to what extent aggadic stories are literal is something that continues to be debated into our own day and requires a separate discussion [6]. Suffices to say, everyone agrees that some stories are clearly not literal while others along with their details are certainly received by tradition [7]. The area in between had been subject to disagreement since the time of the Rishonim. Some rishonim allegorized freely and others only as last resort.

The aggada that we discuss in honor of Purim illustrates a moral principle by relating a story about David and his general Yoav. A number of details of this story present various difficulties. One school of thought would attempt to resolve these difficulties by argumentation and reasoning, what we may call pilpul . Alternative approaches would invoke the view of this particular aggada as pedagogy and obviate the difficulties as irrelevant for integrity of the message.

A mistake once it enters, it enters, as it is written, "for Yoav dwelt six months there until he had cut out every male from Edom (Kings I, 11)".

When he came before Davis , David said to him, "Why did you do so?".

The commentators assume that Yoav failed in some fashion and that he was supposed to have totally destroyed Edom , men, women and children. Instead, he had only killed the males and that was what David questioned. The difficulty with this explanation is that while we are commanded to destroy Amalek , Edom is supposed to be treated with kindness [8]; what's more, David himself appointed governors over Edom and did not destroy it. Had he been commanded to do so, why did he not himself fulfill the command when after Yoav's conquest it was in his power to do so? The Maharsho attempts to answer this question by suggesting that David had some private reason to ask Yoav to destry Edom at that time. Presumably it no longer applied after the war was completed [9]. The answer requires elaboration based on the rest of the story [10].

He answered him; "Because it says, 'Destroy the males, 'zakhar', of Amalek". He said to him, "But we read it as zekher", rememberance!". He responded ; "We were taught to read 'zakhar".

He went to his rebbe and asked; "How did you teach us (to pronounce it?)" He said: "zakhar". He lifted the sword to kill him. He (the teacher) said" "Why?". He answered: "For it says, "Cursed be one who does the work of Hashem deceitfully (Yirmiah 48) [11]". He told him: "It is enough that I be subject to a curse". He countered: "Cursed be he who holds his sword back form shedding blood (ibid, the end of the previous verse)".

Some say that he killed him; some say that he did not kill him (Bava Basra 21a).

In addition to Maharsho's question, the classic commentators are troubled about the proportionality of subjecting a lazy teacher to capital punishment. In addition, it is hard to see how killing the teacher corrects his mistake in transmitting something that apparently was not properly transmitted to him by his teacher either.

Clearly, classifying this story as a transmitted tradition brings along many questions concerning the details reported within it. Viewing it as pedagogical story, one that is essentially a parable designed to bring home the important lesson that teachers must be exceedingly careful in how they teach their charges, obviates such difficulties.

Do we, the in our day have the authority to take an easy way out of difficulties that might be solvable with enough application and persistent study? Can it take us down the slippery slope of over-allegorizing whatever we do not immediately understand? These are certainly important concerns that should make us think long and hard before we propose facile solutions to difficult passages. Perhaps, it is more acceptable and certainly more honest to view this approach as an interim solution, until we either learn of or innovate a solution that preserves the integrity and authenticity of Midrashic parables.

1 To assist grasping the intended interpretation

2 To conceal intended meaning form the uninitiated, for political, pedagogical or mystical reasons

3 To involve the reader in unraveling the correspondence between the meaning and correlative parable

4 M.C. Chajhes, Student's Guide to the Talmud, a reprint is imminently forthcoming for Yahsar Books.

5 I follow the view of Ramchal in his Ma'amar on Aggados

6 See Guide, III, 43, Tos. Chagiga 13a s.v. Ben Bno, Tos. Pesachim 94a

7 We have demonstrated in this series that certain 'late' Midrashic elaboration represent a continuous tradition widely shared by canonical and non-canonical writers, an evidence of widespread Oral Tradition that can often be traced at least to early Second Temple period, and oftentimes to late Biblical works.

8 See Ramban to Genesis 32,12 who discusses this point. Amalek was an illegitimate son of Eisav and our brotherly obligations do not extend to him.

9 To fully inderstand this Maharsho, see his comments to Sanhedrin 103b, where he says that Edom should have been prohibited to marry into Israel, just as Amon and Moab who also did not welcome the Children of Israel on their way out of Egypt; however, he had some kind of merit that protected him. The merit is probably that of his forefathers, as the Ramban mentions in his commentary to Devarim 23,5.

10 If I was not afraid to make a novel claim, I would propose that David chastised Yoav precisely for killing every male in Edom while all that was required was to rout her armies.

11 The context is destruction of Moab and the prophet curses those nations who would slack in G-d's work and hold their sword back form shedding its blood.