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

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Vayera 5765

Sifting interpretations and choosing pshat.

Many Midrashic explanations at first glance appear to be far from the simple meaning of the verses that they purport to explain. On extended reflections, however, many such passages can be seen to present a sophisticated pshat, one that requires a 360% review of exegetical, theological, or interpretative issues to be fully appreciated. What may at first seem to make no sense as pshat will often then begin to look eminently reasonable. One must also be exquisitely attuned to the idiom, linguistic and syntactic structure and vocabulary of ancient Hebrew. Commentators, such as the Malbim, were able to utilize their sensitivity to the choice of words, idiom and phrase structure, and syntax to demonstrate that many Midrashic statements are rooted in linguistic sensibility of highest order. Superficial consideration of midrashic statements almost ensures that such a review does not take place and that its full import and depth is missed. There is a temptation to interpret such passages as homiletic or mystical -kabbalistic, while theya re nothing of the sort. A feature that contributes to this state of affairs is the tendency of many midrashim to bury the exegetical function within what looks like a homiletic expansion.

A passage from Genesis Rabbah 50,6 illustrates these points. The Chumash (Gen. 19,1) tells us that when the angels arrived to Sodom in the evening, "and Lot sits at the gate of the city". From the flow of the narrative it seems that he just happened to be there at that particular time. But why and to what purpose should Lot be sitting at the gate of the city as dusk falls? Farther more, why is this fact important and how does it relate to the rest of the story? One could, of course, take it as an expression of G-d's pulling the strings behind the scenes so as to fulfill his promise to Avraham, much as He arranged that Rivkah just so happened to come out to meet Eliezer and Rachel to encounter Yakov at the well. These seemingly chance events are presented as embodiment of Hashem's supervision of the world and as a part of his plan.

The midrash, however, is guided by its sensitivity to language to a different interpretation.

It is written Yshav (although the traditional vocalization is yoshev, meaning sits in the present tense, it can be read as Yoshav in the past tense). This teaches us that they appointed him to be a judge on that very day.

This passage is usually understood[1] to mean that past tense indicates the meaning of a discreet action - he sat down, on other words, sat down among the judges for the first day on that very day. This understanding, however, is difficult for a number of reasons. First, the short form of the verb is the usual verb form throughout Tanach. How can it then serve as the sole basis for a drash? In addition, in other instances the same drash works differently.[2]

The most serious objection to the concept that a past form of the verb signifies a single, short action is that in Hebrew there is no distinction between a discreet action that starts and quickly ends at some point at the past and an action that is continuous over a long period of time. Yoshav can mean either. English, as most other Indo-European languages, does possess different verb forms for different types of actions.[3] Yoshav, "sat", is undefined: it can mean "has been sitting", "was a wont to sit", "would sit" or even, as if joined by a suffix as in languages that employ a suffix - "sat down".

Hebrew does not make this distinction.[4] Yshav could mean that he sat down, was sitting down, would sit there every day etc. How do we then choose between these various meanings of the verb to sit and how do we interpret it?[5]

The Midrash appears to have taken several steps:

1. We are told that Lot sat or was sitting or sat down at the gate of Sodom. If interpreted as something that just happened discreetly at that time, as "sat down", it would fit well with the sense that Hashem arranges his being there to carry out his plan, as we find with Rivka, Rachel and in many other Biblical passages. Therefore, we select the meaning that signifies that Lot just sat down at the gate for the first time. As often in midrash, the actual derivation (Yoshav) is an abbreviated key to the steps taken rather than the actual derivation.

2. The idiomatic expression' "sitting in the gate" often means judging in Tanach.[6] Given our conclusion in 1., this means that he was appointed to be a judge that very day.

3. If so, however, why are the other judges not described? It must be because Lot was the Supreme Justice - he was the essence of the court and there is no need to mention others. However, this presents a problem. If Lot was the Chief Justice, he presumably pursued justice and did not pervert it. If so, why did Sodom deserve to be destroyed?

The Midrash resolves this problem by explaining that Lot was only a figurehead. As many good but weak mean throughout history he allowed himself to be manipulated to provide legitimacy to an utterly corrupt system.

There were 5 main judges in Sodom - False to extreme, Big Lie, Hide-a-lot, Exceedingly Venal, Kleptomaniac.[7] Lot was the Chief Justice over them. When he said to them what they liked, they said: "Come closer". When he said to them what they did not like, they said to him: "Look, he came to live here and he presumes to judge!?"

With this story, the Midrash completes its work of sifting, considering and selecting the "best" interpretation. Far from being a homiletic comment about wicked denizens of Sodom or a "difficult derivation" to an obscure purpose, the passage shines forth as testimony to the care and depth of Rabbinic study of Scripture.

1 See Gur Arye

2 See Gur Arye on a very similar drasha to 18,1. There use of Yshev form is understood by Genesis Rabbah 48, 7 as signifying Avraham's attempt to desire to terminate the action of sitting, in other words to put it in the past by getting up before the 3 visitors.

3 In Spanish for example, the continuous or concurrent action uses -aba or -ia ending, whereas simple preterite often connotes a discreet and dis-continous action.

4 Many times the binyanim carry some of this function. In Biblical Hebrew the vav hahipuch functions somewhat similarly though not identically to the imperfect past while the preterite is analogous but also not identical with simple past verb form.

5 On the significance of how these variant ways of expressing action impacts on differing perception of reality between Western and Semitic peoples, see T. Boman. Hebrew thought compared with Greek (especially Ch. 1, static versus Dynamic Thinking), SCM Press, 1960.

6 For example, Gen 23,10; Deut 17,8; Zechariah 8,19 and many others, especially as interpreted by various midrashim.

7 I translate these terms somewhat idiosyncratically; please refer to standard commentators for various explanations of these terms.