Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Thoughts on Midrash

Over three years ago I wrote about Midrash on this blog. Today I thought of another analogy -- animation. Quite a while back, the New York Hall of Science had an exhibit on animation. Cartoons are produced by bringing together a number of elements. There are the characters that convey the action -- the plot. There is the background to provide a setting and to indicate movement. There is also the aspect of sound, which is not only a matter of dialogue but of sound effects and music. Now you could have the basic story just told by a character with no background (like on a stage with no scenery) and get the basic gist. But the extra elements add aspects of mood and possible depth to the story.So in the case of pshat in Tanach, we have the basic story line as understood from the text alone. But what the Midrash comes to add is not simply extraneous matter that we would be better off without but like music and backgrounds that enhance the story, bringing out particular nuances of meaning.

That's on  one level, which is the way Midrash is instructive for children, but there is yet another level that some people never move to -- that is an appreciation of what the Midrash comes to teach us, something that the Maharal does brilliantly in a number of places. Here's one of his observations inBe'er Hagolah, e in the third Be'er on p. 44 in my edition. This is a direct quote translated by myself:
A  man who is a stranger to matters of wisdom will be astounded on the distance that appears [at the Midrash of Chazal] and he cannot apprehend their words. And this is nothing new, for also in the Torah and all the Scripture it is thus, for the man who is a stranger to the matters of wisdom sees in Torah some things that seem distant [unlikely]. However, the the intelligent man will say that it is not that the words are empty, and if they appear thus to him, it is due to him [the shortcoming of his own understanding]. That is the way for all the drashos in the Talmud and in all the other midrashim. Not a single one of them, whether big or small, does not [reveal] the depths of the Scriptures according to its truth. As one deeply investigates the interpretation of the Text, he will find it thus. That is why it is called drasha, for it is drishas [an investigation of] the Text with extreme [deep]chakira [digging out the truth] and drisha of up to the depth of [meaning of] the Text.

 Even if at time, he will find that one interprets a point one way and one another, this matter is not a difficulty, for, certainly, the shape of the pshat is one, but the deep matters that emerege from it are very many. It thus for every thing that is found in the world. It is one thing unto itself when revealed to everyone's eye. Yet, when each thing is examined [analyzed] in terms of the truth of its idea and being, many thoughts and ideas can be found in them. And they are all clearly truth. Consequently, when we study the truth of the Text we will find many things that appear contradictory and various ideas according to the issue, and it is all truth. Only to the one who doesn't grasp their words [the teachings of Chazal] does it appear to be a strange [illogical] view.

A few pages later, the Maharal offers an analogy to illustrate how Midrash is always rooted in the truth of the text even if it seems distant from it. The pshat would be analogous to the trunk of the tree, which is singular. But the tree extends into branches, leaves, and even fruit. Though they may extend very far beyond the trunk, they are still integral to the tree and stem from the same root.

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