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.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

The thought that counts for gifts in the Torah

Chanukah really was the time of gifts over 2,000 years ago when the nesiim of each shevat brought their offerings, and the way they did it tells us much about the Torah perspective on bringing gifts.
I was very impressed by this particular dvar Torah from Rabbi Yissocher Frand. I'm also taken by "herring from New York," as the ultimate standard of luxury. In NY itself, herring is of no account for most kiddushes today, and you'd have to set out sushi platters to really make a statement.   http://www.torah.org/learning/ravfrand/5774/miketz.html

The Torah Readings Of Chanukah

the Mishkan was completed on the 25th of Kislev. The actual inauguration of the Mishkan was put off until the first day of Nisan, which is when the Nessiyim started bringing their offerings. But since the Mishkan was actually completed on the 25th of Kislev, we read the section of the Nessiyim on Chanukah, to link the rededication during the Chanukah period with the original dedication of the Mishkan in the time of Moshe.
...... The Medrash indicates that when the Nessiyim brought their offerings, every Shevet had in mind what they would be bringing. The first day, Nachshon ben Aminadav of the Shevet of Yehudah brought his offering. The second day was the turn of Nesanel ben Tzuar of the Shevet of Yissachar.
The second person to offer was faced with a dilemma. What should I bring? The first person brought a beautiful offering, but what should I bring? Should I bring the same offering? No! That is not going to be good enough anymore. He was tempted to bring something even more impressive, which would have put pressure on the third Nossi to bring something even more expensive and so on down the line.
It is very easy to fall into the trap of one-ups-man-ship. It is like kiddushim in shul. The first week's sponsor has one potato kugel. The second person to make a Kiddush the following Shabbos has to add kishke to the menu. By the third week they are adding "herring from New York". It quickly becomes a contest of outdoing one's predecessor.
What did Nesanel ben Tzuar decide? He resisted the temptation. He recognized that the purpose of the Mishkan was to bring unity to the Jewish people, not strife and competition. He recognized if they began the inauguration of the Mishkan with competition, there would not be 'achdus' [unity] amongst the Jewish people, there would be dissension. Therefore, he took heroic action and brought exactly the same type of Korban as did Nachshon ben Aminadav, thereby sending a message -- my friends, this is not the time for competition or ones-up-man-ship. His example was followed by the third, fourth, and fifth Nessiyim and so on down the line.
This explains why the Torah, which is so frugal with its words, spends 60 plus pasukim in repetition of that which we already knew. The Torah could have told us in a pasuk or two that they all brought the same offering. Why go through the repetition, over and over again? The Almighty is teaching: "It is so precious and dear to Me that you each brought the same offering and did not play ones-up-man-ship that I will give each Nossi the exact same amount of 'print' in the Torah."
The Chofetz Chaim suggests it could be for this reason -- the Almighty's pleasure at the unity of His children by this non-competitive gesture -- that He made an exception and ruled that 'This private offering can even negate the laws of Sabbath.'