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

AishDas Home

Midrash and Method Home
Introduction to Cycle 2

We have been fortunate to begin our second cycle of Midrash and Method. As the list evolved and matured, our focus subtly shifted from the kind of generic consideration of Midrashic form and style that can be found elsewhere to the concern with describing, cataloguing and investigating the actual method of interpretation - how we get from the text seems to say to what the Midrash says that it means. In a way this work is analogous to what Malbim has done in his introduction to Vayikra. As one of the greatest scholars of his time, Malbim aimed to produce a comprehensive catalogue of idiom and expression based hermeneutic. We take a somewhat different direction in this list. I cannot hope to come close to the sensitivity to language, deep understanding of language and, of course, profound and comprehensive knowledge that the great Malbim brought to his work. Instead, we will explore the Midrashic method, aided by the advances made by his contemporaries and successors in understanding structure, parshanut, Hebrew grammar and cognate disciplines and also selectively utilizing contributions of academic scholars. While engaged in this exposition we must take care to remain faithful to the ideological and philosophical inheritance of our holy teachers, discarding all of the shell and taking care also not to accept every kernel. Much sifting must take place before new linguistic, hermeneutic and archeological discoveries may be accepted and brought into the Kodesh. Academic fashions come and go but "the word of out G-d stands forever". Yet, the scattered sparks must be lifted for they can throw light upon the words of our Chazal, dispel confusion that surrounds many of their statements, and therefore protect and increase their honor.

Let us begin this cycle with some words about the Oral Law.

The Torah begins with the letter "beis". Many reasons for this choice have been advanced by various midrashic works; among them that the letter "beis" should refer to the two Laws that we possess - The Written Law and the Oral Law.

Beis - for two Laws, the Written Law and the Oral Law, and to teach you that the world is created for those who study it (Midrash Mei Hashiloach)... Bareishis - (through rearranging letters) bara shtei - for He created two Laws (Tikkunei Zohar).[1]

Great many different explanations have been offered for the need to have the Oral Law. I would like to share one with you from an unlikely source, but... no one could say it better.

... anyone who leaves behind him a written manual, and likewise anyone who takes it over from him, on the supposition that such writing will prove something reliable and permanent, must be exceedingly simple minded...if he imagines that written words can do anything more than remind one who knows that which the writing is concerned with[2].
...that's the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly analogous to painting. The painter's products stand before us as though they were alive, but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with the written words; they seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever (Plato, Phaedrus).

Written text cannot tell you more than is written. It is the genius of the Torah that it includes, incorporates, alludes to and evokes within itself a host of interpretations and explications that constitute the Oral Law. Chazal were guided to uncover these interpretations by received traditions and by rules of interpretation and it is these that we aim, with Hashem's help, to explore and investigate in this cycle of Midrash and Method.

May it be His will that we shall not stumble nor err... Enlighten our eyes so that we may see wonders in Your Torah, - ken yihi ratzon.

1 All cited in Ba'al Haturim to the first verse of Genesis.

2 This is reminisncent of R. Samson Rapheal Hirsch's explanation (in the beginning of his commentary to Mishpatim) that the catalogue of case-law found there is to serve as a set of notes, each case to remind and recall an entire category of law. He compares it to a student whose lecture notes may be nigh incomprehensible to some one who had not attended the lecture but make perfect sense to the student himself for they serve merely to recall for him the involved explanations and clarifications that behind each note.