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

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Midrash and Method Home
V'Yakhel 5765

Getting a handle on multiplicity.

Every beginning student of Midrash encounters a basic difficulty - the sheer number and diversity of Midrashic comments on any particular verse, passage or text. How does one make sense and order of such an abundance of riches? With the profusion of newly published manuscripts and previously unknown targumim, this methodological difficulty has multiplied and grown. It should be obvious when discussing method that a way to organize, classify and rank midrash is urgently needed. Scholars such as Yitzhak Heinemann and Yonah Frankel suggested classification of Midrashic passages by form. Thus, they spoke of homiletic midrash, interpretative midrash or halachic midrash and the like. A literary approach comes naturally to those who aim to describe midrash as of literature but it does not particularly assist in understanding the goal, purpose and function of the texts themselves. In addition, focusing on literary forms and genres as method of study, while often helpful in defining a type of a teaching that one encounters, are entirely too supple, intertwined and vague, and in many ways are foreign to the traditional Talmud Torah approach [1].

Last week we discussed the concept of exegetical motif and how, when coupled with the historical method, it can produce a coherent and systematic framework for classifying Midrashic comments on a particular theme. As presented, it starts from a supposition that there is an early received core of exegesis that subsequent midrashim attempt to explicate and reconcile. It allows one to order Midrash according to root and branches, with the later sources seen as commenting, explaining and reconciling earlier ones. At times, it can be demonstrated that multiple explanations were inherent and co-existent from the beginning. While consistent with belief in Oral Law, this method also represents a deviation from the purely traditional approach and its origin lies in Wissenschaft des Judentum and not in traditional methods of study.

Let us consider another approach, one that we have repeatedly utilized in this series but never explicitly discussed. As the first step, the student identifies the exegetical problem or difficulty in a verse or passage. It may be gap, contradiction, difficulty, uncertainty or others that we discussed in the introduction to this series. Consulting the classic commentators will often aid in identifying the difficulty, for they may explicitly discuss it, or one may be able to deduce it from their comments. A 360%, all around overview will almost always bring the exegetical problem to fore. Finally, one can classify various Midrashic comments by how they solve this problem, keeping in mind that midrash tends to resort to only a number of basic approaches.

Let's look at one example from this week's parsha.

See, Hashem called by name Betsalel Ben Uri Ben Dan of the tribe of Judah ( Exodus 35, 30).

There exist numerous midrashic comments regarding this verse that, at first glance, appear to range all over the place. In truth, they all attempt to explain the very serious difficulties with this verse. Among them is the theological severe problem of Hashem calling one specific individual to build a communal center of worship, nor the propriety for doing so, and several Midrashic passages do address this issue. The classic response to this source of difficulty is a demonstration that the individual was uniquely qualified or that he possessed special merit, or showing that this procedure is not as unique as it may appear. We also will focus on the very unusual structure and syntax of this verse. Where else do we find that an appointment to a position requires an explanation to the public, especially one couched in such grand language? While there is ample precedent in the Chumash for a verse starting with "See…" [2], it is invariably a direct address to the person appointed or sent and is never about a third person, as is the case here. "Calling by name", usually means praying to or relying upon, whereas here it seems to have a meaning of "appointing". We can classify disparate midrashim as addressing one of these several points.

1. Why is the format "See…" used here to describe a third person whereas it is usually used as direct address? The answer is that here too it is a direct demand to an addressee who is not specified in the verse itself.

R. Yitshak said: We do not appoint an official (parnes) over a community unless we consult the community, as it says, "See, Hashem called by name…(Brochos 55a)".

See wisdom that I put in his heart (Tanna D'Vei Eliahu 17).

2. Why the expression "called by name"? The following midrashim explains its relevance to Hashem's selection of one individual out of many and presents it as regular procedure and not something unique in this instance.

It says,"He called all of them by name" and it says, "He called them by names"…When the Holy One Blessed Be He calls them as a group, he calls them by (one) name. When he calls them as individuals, he calls each one by a name - Michael, Gavriel. This we know regarding above; regarding below, how do we know this? It says, "See, Hashem called by name…"(Tanchuma Yashan 2).

R. Yochanan said: Everything is (done) through calling whether it is for good or evil. For good - "I will call to grain and make it numerous". For evil - "And He called hunger upon the land". The same is regarding appointing authority. For good it says, "See, I called by name, Betsalel". For evil, what does it say? "A sinner, from womb I called him".

3. Insofar as the theological problem, several midrashim connect the selection of Betsalel to the merit of his grandfather Hur, or Miriam, the prophetess. The common thread in all of these answers is that Betsalel's appointment was a just compensation for some great act. Hur gave his life to protect G-d's inheritance and Miriam risked hers to save Jewish children and was rewarded with the promise to build "houses", including the House of G-d by her descendant, Betsalel. These midrashim can be found listed in Torah Sheleima.

The ability to classify midrashic texts into groups or to assign them to one of several common themes, is extremely helpful in being able to rationally approach Midrash. After classification is accomplished, in depth approach to both specific midrashim and the overarching themes becomes possible. Without a method, one flounders in the " sea of midrash without a vessel or rudder with which to traverse it.

1 See the remarks of S. Peter in Learning to read midrash, Urim Publications, 2004, p. 9-10

2 Genesis 41, 41;Exodus 7,1