Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
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Meir Levin

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Vaeschanan 5765

Midrashim that hide, midrashim that reveal.

To reconcile midrashic statements that appear to contradict one another, several approaches can be taken. We can claim that, “we do not ask questions about [1] “aggados” and leave the contradictions in place. When we do this we implicitly affirm that aggada employs metaphoric speech and that contradictions between passages are apparent and not real and stem from a too literal reading [2]. The standard approach in our day to explaining “difficulot” aggados is a refinement of this concept and has been popularized by R. E. Dessler and before him, the Maharal. While giving due to the metaphorical language of aggada, it posits that the contradictions are illusory for they speak to different ideas or notions. While Rambam merely explains that there are no contradictions, R. Dessler innovated a method and an approach to explaining and interpreting them.

As an example of how this may work, let us consider two contradictory midrashim that explain why se say, “Blessed be the Name of Glory of His Kingdom forever and ever” after the first sentence of Shema.

When Moshe went up to Heaven, he saw the angels saying, ”Blessed be the Name…”. He went and decreed that it should be said quietly (Rokeach Brochos in the name of a midrash, also brought by Avudraham).

(When Yakov lay at his deathbed, he was concerned that some of his sons may join Eisav or Ishmael and deny the faith.) His sons said to him, Shema Israel – As in your heart you mean only the One, so we mean only the One. At that moment Yakov began speaking and said, “Blessed is the Name…”.

The Rabbis said.” What shall we do? Shall we say it, but Moshe did not say it. May be we should not, but Yakov said it. They decreed to say it quietly (Pesachim 56a).

The contradiction is blatant. One source says that Moshe said it and decreed for it to be said in prayer and the other states that he did not say it and it stems from Yakov.

The Zohar (Terumah 143) tells us that Moshe set up 25 letters of the first verse of the Shema in ”the mystery of unification”. Yakov wished to bring them down and fix them here below but was unable to complete this task and arranged only 24 letters of “Blessed be the Name…”; his task was later completed by Moshe through building the Mishkan. As I explain at length in my book on the Shema [3], these two approaches represent Higher and Lower Unifications, or, expressed in a different language, the path from down to up and from up to down. The former requires us to raise the particular phenomena of this world to their roots within the One, and the latter to bring the awareness of the One that we gain as we pronounce the Shema into our daily life.

One can employ such an approach by posing, after R. Tsadok Hakohen, that Moshe represents the man who has scaled the pinnacles of faith. A man who knows G-d with utmost clarity necessarily feels ashamed and apologetic for the need to assert sovereignty of G-d and therefore can only pronounce it in a whisper.

Yakov symbolizes a man from whom Godliness is concealed, a man overwhelmed by the disparate multitude of forces and processes all around him, a man amid the confusion and concealment of exile [4].

The explanation is that Yakov Avinu required the Divine Inspiration to rest upon him ( to prophesy). Since it departed from him, he exclaimed, “Blessed be the Name… “, in an effort to have it restored. Moshe Rabbeinu, however, was always “invested with garments of royalty”. Therefore he did not need to say. “Blessed be the Name…” (Rabbeinu Bachya, Encyclopedia of Torah Concepts, p. 294).

Both midrashim are true and correct. One speaks to the time of separation and sense of distance from the Divine and the other about the time of exhilaration and sense of closeness. The contradiction between the two sources is an illusion that comes from an over-literal reading and lack of awareness of true intent of each passage.

1 The only source of this statement that is known to us is Tikkunei Zohar Chadah 166; however, a version of it is quoted by Rambam suggesting a common, now lost source, see next footnote.

2 This is the view of Rambam in the Pesicha and Hakdama to the Guide. Tosafos regularly points out aggadic contradictions and quite clearly disagrees with this approach.

3 Available at Targum.com

4 See Michtav M'Eliahu 3, 205-6, Siach Sarfei Kodesh,4; Nefesh hacaim 3,11).