Saturday, July 9, 2016

How did they know that? Chazal's approach to Midrash

One of the things that I love about teaching high school students is their refreshing honesty. When one of my students thinks a Midrash is far fetched, he/she is not afraid to tell me. The answer that I often received when I was a kid to the question, how did the rabbis know that, was that the rabbis had a tradition from Moshe or some sort of divine inspiration. This was hardly satisfying to me so I try never to foist that one on my own students. My answer to a question about the source of a Midrash is usually that they knew based on a close reading of the text, not only the verse in question but the entirety of Tanach. Sometimes we can deduce their source other times we just don't know yet.

As the saying goes: דברי תורה עניים במקום אחד ועשירים במקום אחר, the words of Torah are "poor" in one place but "rich" in another.

Let me provide an example from this past week's Parsha. Many of us know the Midrash that was made famous in Rabbi Soloveitchik's talk, The Common Sense Rebellion Against Torah Authority.  The Midrash Tanchuma explains that Korach took 250 men clothed in a Tallit entirely made of the blue Tekhelet thread and asked if it required the blue Tzitzit string. Moshe replied that it does. Korach then filled a room with Sifrei Torah and asked if it required a Mezuzah on its door and Moshe replied that it does. Korach then mocked the seemingly nonsensical responses of Moshe. If a single blue string of Tzitzit will remind us of G-d and his mitzvot then why wouldn't an entire blue garment be an even greater reminder. If a single paragraph of holy writ attached to the doorpost will serve as a reminder of G-d in our home then would not a room full of Torah scrolls be an even greater reminder?

The imagery in this Midrash begs the question, how did the rabbis know this story? There is no mention of Korach or his men wearing in the Tekhelet garments in the Torah. To approach this question, one must analyze the purpose and method of Midrash. Firstly, one rule which is true almost always is that virtually every Midrash is addressing some type of textual anomaly. There is a question on the text which sparks the rabbinic discussion. The answer given by the Midrash might seem far fetched and not the simple pshat but the Midrash grapples with the text just like every later commentator. The question in Parshat Korach is obvious and dealt with by every commentator. The Parsha begins, וַיִּקַּ֣ח קֹ֔רַח, "And Korach took", but does not indicate what he took. In this case the Midrash addresses this issue using proximity by analyzing the verses immediately preceding this one which present the Mitzvah of Tzitzit and then presuming that Korach in fact took these Tzitzit. The question then becomes why and in its approach the Midrash creatively utilizes these Tzitzit as a prop in Korach's rebellion.

This does not merely fill in the gap concerning what Korach took but as explained by Rabbenu Bachya amplifies the primary theme of Korach's argument to Moshe. Korach's argument fundamentally is one for pure democracy. He asks, "If the entire community of Israel is holy and G-d dwells amongst everyone" then why should Moshe and Aharon raise themselves above the people. This is fundamentally the same argument as the Tzitzit strings. If the purpose of the Tekhelet string is to remind one of G-d then a garment made entirely of the blue string should not need any reminder. If the purpose of the mezuzah is to bring G-d into one's home then a house full of Torah scrolls should need no such symbol. Similarly, if the purpose of Moshe and Aharon is to help serve as the conduit for the people to connect with G-d then a people who are entirely holy and dwelling with G-d should not need a Moshe and an Aharon to lead them.

When looked at in this light, one sees the beauty of the Midrash. It not only answers an obvious textual difficulty by connecting the account to verses elsewhere which shed light on the text but enhances the underlying theme that is the crux of the story.

This type of analysis can be undertaken for many other Midrashim. The key is to try to find the verses which often are not in close proximity but are located in other books of Tanach upon which Chazal based their seemingly fanciful Midrashic accounts. I will present two such examples.

We know that Moshe Rabbenu had some type of speech impediment. This is stated directly by Moshe during his argument with G-d at the burning bush as a reason that he should not be chosen for the mission of redeeming the Children of Israel. Many of us learned a famous Midrash which provides the background story for Moshe's difficulty speaking. As the story goes, Moshe as a baby on his adopted grandfather Pharaoh's lap grabbed the king's crown. The royal magicians were worried this was an omen that this young boy would seek to topple the Egyptian dynasty in the future. So they developed a test where they would place gold and hot coals before the young boy and see what ensued. If he went for the gold, it would confirm his rebellious aspirations but if he went for the coals, it would prove he was just a regular precocious baby boy. Baby Moshe of course went for the gold but the angel Gabriel moved his hands to the coals and put it towards Moshe's mouth so he was burned resulting in his later speaking difficulties.

Where did the rabbis get the idea for this creative story? To answer one must look at the inauguration of three other prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. In each of these stories the prophet is initially reluctant to start his mission similar to Moshe's reluctance at the burning bush. But there is a key difference in G-d's response to each of them. In the case of Isaiah Chapter 6, verses 5-7, after the prophet says he is of impure lips, G-d responds by utilizing one of the Seraph angels to purify his lips.

וַיָּ֣עָף אֵלַ֗י אֶחָד֙ מִן־הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים וּבְיָד֖וֹ רִצְפָּ֑ה בְּמֶ֨לְקַחַ֔יִם לָקַ֖ח מֵעַ֥ל הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ׃Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.וַיַּגַּ֣ע עַל־פִּ֔י וַיֹּ֕אמֶר הִנֵּ֛ה נָגַ֥ע זֶ֖ה עַל־שְׂפָתֶ֑יךָ וְסָ֣ר עֲוֺנֶ֔ךָ וְחַטָּאתְךָ֖ תְּכֻפָּֽר׃He touched it to my lips and declared, “Now that this has touched your lips, Your guilt shall depart And your sin be purged away.”

Similarly, G-d touches Jeremiah's lips to make him worthy of prophecy and in the case of Ezekiel actually has the prophet eat his words in a scroll in order to transform him into a vehicle for the divine message.

Our rabbis knew this so they had a vexing problem when looking at Moshe's opening exchange with G-d. Why didn't G-d respond to Moshe by touching and purifying his lips? They looked at Moshe's claim that he had a stammer and came up with a creative response. The reason G-d never touched Moshe's lips at the burning bush to make him a mouthpiece for the divine is because he ALREADY HAD touched Moshe's lips previously. The angel Gabriel touched Moshe's lips with hot coals when he was just a baby. Ironically, the reason Moshe gave that he could not function as a prophet, his speech impediment due to this childhood incident, is then the very reason Moshe COULD function as a prophet. G-d purified Moshe's lips for prophecy when he was still a baby. 

This is a fascinating example where the words of Midrash about Moshe as a baby only makes sense when looked at in the greater context of many other books of Tanach.

My final example is from another famous Midrash we all know from preschool, that when G-d split the Yam Suf, the Children of Israel did not cross in one path but the sea split into 12 paths, one for each tribe. The source of this Midrash is also often questioned. It is cited by Rashi on Psalms 136:13 which states G-d split apart the Yam Suf but this hardly indicates that it was split into 12 paths. However, once again, what is cryptic in the Torah and Psalms becomes readily apparent when analyzing a similar story in a different book of Tanach.

Isaiah Chapter 11 when describing the messianic era explicitly states that the ingathering of the exiles from faraway Egypt and Assyria will be modeled after the miracles of the Exodus. This account even mimics the splitting of the Yam Suf with a portrait of the Egyptian sea drying up and the Israelite crossing of the Euphrates River. This is where the account becomes very relevant to our question as stated in Isaiah 11:15:

וְהֶחֱרִ֣ים יְהוָ֗ה אֵ֚ת לְשׁ֣וֹן יָם־מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהֵנִ֥יף יָד֛וֹ עַל־הַנָּהָ֖ר בַּעְיָ֣ם רוּח֑וֹ וְהִכָּ֙הוּ֙ לְשִׁבְעָ֣ה נְחָלִ֔ים וְהִדְרִ֖יךְ בַּנְּעָלִֽים׃The LORD will dry up the tongue of the Egyptian sea.—He will raise His hand over the Euphrates with the might of His wind and break it into seven wadis, so that it can be trodden dry-shod.

Note that the crossing of the Euphrates River will not be in one path. Rather the verse states that it will be split into 7 streams. The Israelites as the commentaries elaborate will cross between these 7 streams similar to how they crossed the Yam Suf. If one is walking between 7 streams then one has six paths. And if the Children of Israel are crossing on each side of the stream within these 7, one gets 12 paths in total, the 14 sides minus the two outer ones which the Israelites obviously did not use. So one gets an account of the Children of Israel crossing the Euphrates on their way back to Israel for the final redemption in 12 paths. The next verse then says:

וְהָיְתָ֣ה מְסִלָּ֔ה לִשְׁאָ֣ר עַמּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִשָּׁאֵ֖ר מֵֽאַשּׁ֑וּר כַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר הָֽיְתָה֙ לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּי֥וֹם עֲלֹת֖וֹ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃Thus there shall be a highway for the other part of His people out of Assyria, such as there was for Israel when it left the land of Egypt.

The Midrash deduced that if the highway out of Assyria crossed the river in 12 paths, then the original Exodus upon which this account is based also must have involved the Children of Israel crossing the Yam Suf, not in one path, but in 12 paths as well, one for each tribe.

Sarajevo Haggadah from

Once again, a fanciful Midrash which does not seem to have a basis in pshat attains a new meaning when looked at in the context of the entire Tanach.

 דברי תורה עניים במקום אחד ועשירים במקום אחר

You can view the source sheet for this shiur below. I welcome your questions, comments, and constructive critique of this approach.


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