Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bo II: Deep Peshat

(ט) לאות על ידך - לפי עומק פשוטו יהיה לך לזכרון תמיד כאילו כתוב על ידך. כעין שימני כחותם על לבך:

In this comment on Shemot 13:9, Rashbam offers one of his most famous and controversial peshat interpretations on the Torah. The verse says “It shall be a sign on your arm and a rememberance between your eyes, so that the Lord’s teaching will always be in your mouth…” Rabbinic interpretation understands this verse to refer to the very concrete mitzvah of tefillin. One is to literally put the words of this passage—and three others with similar formulations—on one’s arm and head in the form of boxes containing written scrolls.

Rashbam comes along and offers a radical, straightforward alternative: The usage of arm and eyes here is figurative. The “sign” and “rememberance” refer to a desire that this powerful narrative be remembered and kept front and center in one’s consciousness. Rashbam cites a parallel usage from Shir Hashirim, where the female figure asks her male counterpart to make her like a seal on his heart and on his arm, which clearly does not refer to wearing some sort of tefillin item as a token of love! (For other examples of this sort of figurative usage, see Yirmiyahu 31:32, Mishlei 3:1,3, 6:20-22, 7:2-3.)

To have something as a “sign on one’s arm” means to have it so ubiquitous in one’s life experience that it is as if it is engraved on one’s body and thus unforgettable and unavoidable. Indeed, this is the understanding of non-rabbinic sects like Karaites and Samaritans, who do not have a practice of wearing tefillin. And, in fact, there seem to have been some of Rashbam’s contemporaries who were seduced by this reading of these verses. R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, a younger contemporary of Rashbam, in his own peshat-based commentary on the Torah, explains in a comment on Devarim 6:8 how the details of tefillin can be derived from the various verses of the Torah. He then goes on to say the following:

“There is no doubt in this matter [that the verses here refer to tefillin and all of the rabbinic specifications of how to make them], for so we have received from our masters, and such is the practice of our ancestors. And one who claims there is some doubt is like one who claims that alef might be bet and vice-versa and will be yet be called to account.”

It is fairly clear that Rashbam himself put on tefillin, however, leading us back again to the question of what exactly he thinks he is doing when he offers comments that diverge from traditional, practiced understandings of the Torah. Here the phrase עומק פשוטו—deep peshat—that he uses here may be helpful, and, in turn, we can understand better what he means by that phrase, which appears in 5 different places in his commentary. [The other 4 are Bereishit 37:2, 37:28, 49:16, and Shemot 3:14.] My best sense of what he means by this is that “deep peshat” is that plain reading of the text that one can only come to after working very hard to peel away the layers of preconceptions that obstruct one’s direct appreciation of the text at hand. In a way, the goal is to read the text like a novice, almost like a child, and to feel the power of what it has to say, unfiltered, as if it were being revealed for the first time today, with only its own language to explain itself.

Rashbam’s commitment to this sort of peshat seems to emerge from a conviction that without it, we would deprive the Torah of a major element of its essential character: its power to speak to us as a book. Even if the Torah is also interpreted in other ways, the deep peshat must not be neglected, lest we minimize the Torah’s power.

So how does this interact with the rabbinic interpretations that ground Jewish practice? David Weiss Halvini talks about this in his Peshat and Derash. Here is a brief passage from page 82:

“Peshat and derash are two distinct levels of interpretation. You follow the peshat when you are interpreting the meaning of the text…When peshat and derash contradict, one teaches the peshat but behaves according to the derash…one lives by the derash…Even when the peshat is not followed practically, one still has to study the text according to peshat. The theoretical (emphasis mine—EMT) value of peshat ought never to be ignored.”

I might soften this a bit and inject a bit more subtlety. The power of peshat is not just theoretical, in the sense of a stimulating and interesting intellectual exercise. It is religiously practical as well, if not ritually practical. One might put on tefillin every morning while still recognizing that this ritual action is ultimately connecting us to deep places in our national memory and to God’s deep love for the Jewish people as expressed through the story of the Exodus. Maintaining deep peshat helps us remember that the Torah retains a power to draw us into its message without need of accumulated layers of interpretation. Even if those interpretations shape and define my entire religious life, Rashbam encourages us to revisit the power of the Torah again and again through peshat, in a way that can help us recover and maintain the kind of connection necessary to keep its ongoing interpretation alive.

Bo I: The Essence of Peshat

ראש חדשים - כר' יהושע שבניסן נברא העולם:

לחדשי השנה - בכל מקום שאומר לכם בחדשים שמיני תשיעי, לחודש הזה הם. ולר' אליעזר האומר בתשרי נברא העולם, עיקר פשוטו כך. החדש הזה לכם. אעפ"י שאינו ראש חדשים לשאר אומות, לכם יהי' ראש חדשים למנות ששי שביעי שמיני תשיעי חדש שנים עשר הוא חודש אדר. ממנו תמנו להיות לכם זכרון [כי] בו יצאתם ממצרים. וכשנאמר בתורה ובחודש השביעי, לירח יציאת מצרים פירושו. וכן רגילים הפסוקים לקחת חשבונם ליציאת מצרים, כדכת' בחודש השלישי לצאת בני ישראל וגו', וכן בבנין הבית ויהי בשמונים שנה וארבע מאות שנה לצאת בני ישראל מ[ארץ] מצרים:

I am not even sure if that is the best translation of עיקר פשוטו, the phrase used in the above passage. What is clear from this passage is that this term clearly does not mean, “the one indisputable meaning that the text obviously has to anyone who would read it closely.” In the above passage, Rashbam refers to the well-known debate between R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua, featured, among other places, on Bavli Rosh Hashanah 10b. R. Eliezer argues that the world was created in Tishrei—a view that ultimately informs the dominant liturgical tradition of considering Rosh Hashanah to be the birthday of the world, היום הרת עולם—whereas R. Yehoshua maintains that the world was created in Nisan, and the Exodus is thus a kind of second creation act.

Rashbam then explains how the peshat here could be read as supporting either view. For R. Yeshoshua, the phrase החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים is almost descriptive: This month, which is the first of the months—because the world was created in this month—will serve as your initial month for your new national calendar. In other words, the Jewish people are here being told that they will order their year in keeping with the history of the world.

R. Eliezer, on the other hand, will have to read the verse differently. החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים. For you, unlike the other nations of the world, this will be the first month of the year. You will be different; you will reckon time by your own calendar and realize that your history is fundamentally different from that of the world.

This reading is potentially an interesting inversion of how I have always read the debate in Hazal. Whereas R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua can fairly be read on their own terms as debating the significance of world history in light of Jewish history, Rashbam seems to read them as doing the opposite. Rather than taking the Jewish narrative for granted and then trying to understand where the global narrative fits into it, Rashbam’s reading of this debate back into God’s words to Moshe and Aharon has the effect of making this the moment when God tells the people how they ought to understand their emergent history in light fo the world context they take for granted. Those are two very different approaches to universalism and particularlism.

As noted above, Rashbam has no problem suggesting that both of these readings might be peshat, which adds another definitional element to our ongoing effort to explain this term. Peshat is not the search for a single, undisputed plain meaning. It is rather a style of reading, one with certain guidelines and parameters, but one which, like derash, can still produce multiple interpretations and theological possibilities.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Va’eira III: Hitpa’el

מסתולל - מתפעל מן סולו סולו המסילה. כובש אותם לעבדים כדכת' ויכבשום לעבדים ולשפחות. ולהודיעך שיטת המתפעלים כי כל תיבת המתפעלים באה תוספת תי"ו בראש חוץ מאותן שאוציא מן הכלל לבסוף. מן אמר יאמר יתאמרו כל פועלי און, יתברך, יתגדל, והתגדלתי והתקדשתי, יתהלל המתהלל, יתווכח, ויתחבא, לשוא תתיפי, והמסכה צרה כהתכנס, יתלכדו, ויתמודד, מתנשא, (ויתלקטו), התעללתי, מתפלל, מתרושש והון רב. הרי לך כל האלפא ביתא תי"ו בראשם חוץ משבעת אותיות הללו, דז"ט ס"ץ ש"ת. השי"ן וסמ"ך באה התי"ו אחריהם במתפעל שלהם. מן סל מסתולל, מן שר תשתרר עלינו, מן שבח ישתבח, מן שמר וישתמר חוקות עמרי, מן שכר משתכר. הצד"י והזי"ן לא יבא תי"ו במתפעל שלהם. אלא אחרי הצד"י תבא טי"ת במקום תי"ו של מתפעל. מן צדק יאמר נצטדק, מן צבע יצטבע בדניאל, מן ציד הצטיידנו ביהושע, מן צרף מצטרף. ואחר הזיי"ן תבא דל"ת במקום תי"ו של מתפעל. זמן הזדמנתון בדניאל. אבל תוספת הן בתיבות ט' של נצטדק, ד' של הזדמנתון ותי"ו של יתאמרו לעשותן מתפעל כמו שפירשתי, וכן כולם. אבל הם עצמם כשהם ראש התיבה לא היה בה תוספת אות להתפעל. כמו וישמע את הקול מדבר אליו, לא יאמר מתדבר. לא יטמא בעל, לא יאמר יתטמא. ועם עקש תתפל לא יאמר תתתפל. תתמם, לא יאמר תתתמם:

I won’t write much on this, but Rashbam’s commentary on Shemot 9:17 is another great chance to watch him work through the fundamentals of grammar that anyone learning Hebrew today takes for granted. Here he takes on the reflexive התפעל form and all of its exceptional cases.

Va’eira II: No Replacement for Bekiut

(יז) הערוב - אומר אני כי מיני זאבים הם שנקראים ערוב על שם שדרכם לטרוף בלילות כדכת' זאב ערבות ישדדם וכת' זאבי ערב לא גרמו לבקר. וכאשר יאמר מאודם אדום, כן יאמר מעמק עמוק מערב ערוב נויטריניר ב"ל, שהזאב ערוב הוא שהוא הולך בערב, עמק שם דבר, והמעשה קרוי עמוק [וכן] אדום שחור:

In the era of the CD-ROM, it is hard to remember how one functioned before the advent of searchable electronic tools, to say nothing of the concordance and the other trappings of modern scholarly research. Rashbam’s commentary often reminds us of the importance—and power—of sheer mastery of the biblical corpus for solving difficult interpretive problems.

Our parashah features one classic example. What is classically known as the fourth plague is described as ערוב by the Torah. Unfortunately, the word appears 7 times in Shemot chapter 8 but is never explicitly defined. How do you figure out what a word like that means? If you are a commentator like Rashbam, you reach for other parts of the Bible to unlock the obscure meaning. In this case—almost certainly influenced by the earlier interpretation offered by Targum Yonatan here—he suggests that ערוב refers to wolves. Why are wolves called ערוב? Rashbam notes that there are two verses where the word זאב is linked to the root ערב, in the sense of nighttime. Wolves prowl in the dark (ערב) and therefore their adjectival form is ערוב, just as other nouns like עמק (valley) generate adjectives like עמוק (deep). Only a stunning mastery of Tanakh could really yield this sort of prooftext, which essentially requires knowledge of all places where the root ערב appears in Tanakh (there are well over 300) such that one can think about the places where it is used in conjunction with animals that might be plausible matches for this plague.

I should also note that if we employ Rambam’s approach of כפל לשון (see earlier post), we might arrive at two very different definition of ערוב. Tehillim 78 features a brief recounting of Israelite history, including God’s punishment of the Egyptians:

(מד) וַיַּהֲפֹךְ לְדָם יְאֹרֵיהֶם וְנֹזְלֵיהֶם בַּל יִשְׁתָּיוּן: (מה) יְשַׁלַּח בָּהֶם עָרֹב וַיֹּאכְלֵם וּצְפַרְדֵּעַ וַתַּשְׁחִיתֵם: (מו) וַיִּתֵּן לֶחָסִיל יְבוּלָם וִיגִיעָם לָאַרְבֶּה: (מז) יַהֲרֹג בַּבָּרָד גַּפְנָם וְשִׁקְמוֹתָם בַּחֲנָמַל: (מח) וַיַּסְגֵּר לַבָּרָד בְּעִירָם וּמִקְנֵיהֶם לָרְשָׁפִים: (מט) יְשַׁלַּח בָּם חֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ עֶבְרָה וָזַעַם וְצָרָה מִשְׁלַחַת מַלְאֲכֵי רָעִים: (נ) יְפַלֵּס נָתִיב לְאַפּוֹ לֹא חָשַׂךְ מִמָּוֶת נַפְשָׁם וְחַיָּתָם לַדֶּבֶר הִסְגִּיר: (נא) וַיַּךְ כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּמִצְרָיִם רֵאשִׁית אוֹנִים בְּאָהֳלֵי חָם:

Verse 44 clearly features a parallel structure with each half referring to the transformation of the Nile into blood. Verse 46 similarly features parallel descriptions of locusts devastating the land, and other verses in this passage seem to be in parallel structure as well. Following this pattern, perhaps ערוב is parallel to צפרדע and refers to some sort of amphibian or other creature similar to frogs? Or, perhaps following Seforno’s interpretation of צפרדע as crocodile, we are dealing with something even more threatening?

Another possibility is opened up by Tehillim 105, which has a distinct account of this narrative:

(כח) שָׁלַח חֹשֶׁךְ וַיַּחְשִׁךְ וְלֹא מָרוּ אֶת דְּבָרוֹ: (כט) הָפַךְ אֶת מֵימֵיהֶם לְדָם וַיָּמֶת אֶת דְּגָתָם: (ל) שָׁרַץ אַרְצָם צְפַרְדְּעִים בְּחַדְרֵי מַלְכֵיהֶם: (לא) אָמַר וַיָּבֹא עָרֹב כִּנִּים בְּכָל גְּבוּלָם: (לב) נָתַן גִּשְׁמֵיהֶם בָּרָד אֵשׁ לֶהָבוֹת בְּאַרְצָם: (לג) וַיַּךְ גַּפְנָם וּתְאֵנָתָם וַיְשַׁבֵּר עֵץ גְּבוּלָם: (לד) אָמַר וַיָּבֹא אַרְבֶּה וְיֶלֶק וְאֵין מִסְפָּר: (לה) וַיֹּאכַל כָּל עֵשֶׂב בְּאַרְצָם וַיֹּאכַל פְּרִי אַדְמָתָם: (לו) וַיַּךְ כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּאַרְצָם רֵאשִׁית לְכָל אוֹנָם:

Here, each verse describes a single plague, whether that of darkness, blood, frogs, hail, locusts, or death of the first-born. The only exception is verse 31, which seems to speak about both ערוב and lice. But what if this verse hews to the pattern of the rest of the section and ערוב and lice are essentially the same thing, either different terms for the same plague or similar invasions of insects?


Va’eira I: Only What is Necessary

ובני קהת עמרם ויצהר וחברון ועוזיאל - על שלשה בני קהת עמרם ויצהר ועוזיאל מפרש בניהם ועל חברון לא פירש. ואם תאמר כי לא היו לו בנים, והלא בחומש הפקודים כתיב ומשפחת החברוני. ולמה לא פירש כאן בני חברון? לפי שאינן נזכרים בתורה לפנינו שמותם אבל אילו שלשה עמרם ויצהר ועוזיאל הוזכרו בניהם בתורה. [בני] עמרם בשביל אהרן ומשה ומרים, בני יצהר בשביל קרח דכתיב ויקח קרח בן יצהר וגו', בני עוזיאל בשביל מישאל ואלצפן דכתיב ויקרא משה אל מישאל ואל אלצפן בני עוזיאל דוד אהרן, ובני קרח אסיר ואלקנה לפי שכתוב לפנינו ובני קרח לא מתו, ובני אהרן על שם שכתוב ואל משה אמר עלה אל י"י אתה ואהרן נדב ואביהוא, ואלעזר בן אהרן וגו' בשביל פנחס בן אלעזר. אבל בבני איתמר לא פירש כאן שאין צריך להזכירן לפנינו בתורה:

Shemot 6 features a genealogy right in the middle of the narrative of יציאת מצרים. Seeing as it begins with Reuven and then shorts out with the completion of details on the Levitic line, the ostensible purpose is the introduction of Moshe and Aharon before they spring into action with Par’oh. But this section is also full of other genealogical details that are not critical for the story at hand. More important, Rashbam notes that while Shemot 6:18 enumerates Kehat’s four children, it only provides names for the children of three of them, withholding details on Hevron. Why?

Rashbam, employing his exegetical category of הקדמה, astutely notes that the other three children of Kehat produce offspring who feature in subsequent stories in the Torah. Amram’s children, Moshe, Aharon and Miryam, are obvious protagonists. But Yitzhar’s children include Korah—Korah’s children are also mentioned because their survival is specifically pointed out after their father’s violent death—and Uzziel’s children include Mishael and Eltzafan, who play the important role of dragging Nadav and Avihu out of the inner sanctum after they are struck down by God. Finally, not only are Aharon’s children mentioned—they will be important as priests later on—but so is his grandson Pinhas, who will play an important role of his own.

This explanation is an example of one so powerful that it seems totally obvious once you have heard it. It also provides important insight into how to read the Torah and the major advantages of a peshat approach. The Torah is not a book of history that records all of the facts associated with the various characters involved. [As I was pointing out to my daughter a few weeks ago, even the highly detailed stories about Yosef leave huge gaping holes both in the narrative of his life and in that of his father and brothers.] Rather, it is a book that seeks to teach us specific things for specific reasons. All the details that have been included play a role and they are chosen not simply because they happened, but because they are critical for setting up the unfolding drama. Rashbam here—through a close reading of an apparently uninteresting genealogical passage—helps articulate the key difference between the Bible and an ancient chronicle, which underscores why so many people still bother to read it today.

[For further expression of the idea that the Tanakh is not a complete repository of the happenings of—and even of the prophecies to—ancient Israelites, but rather a carefully selected set of texts that convey specific, sacred messages, see Kidmat Ha’emek, R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin’s introduction to his commentary on the She’iltot.]

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Shemot III: Peshat as Self-Defense

ושאלה אשה משכנתה - במתנה גמורה וחלוטה, שהרי [כתוב] ונתתי את חן העם. כמו שאל ממני ואתנה גוים נחלתך. זהו עיקר פשוטו ותשובה למינים:

Here, commenting on Shemot 3:22, Rashbam reveals another of his areas of concern: Christian use of Tanakh against the Jews. This verse features God telling Moshe that at the time of the Exodus, the Israelites will ask for expensive items of gold and silver from the Egyptians as they depart, and they will receive all of this bounty. The key question here regards the word ושאלה. This root often refers to borrowing, as it does in Shemot 22:13. If so, then the Israelites claim to be borrowing these items from the Egyptians and then make off with them in the dead of night. This was used by Christians to support the notion that Jews were inherently untrustworthy. Rashbam fights back, arguing that context here implies that the Egyptians gave all of these items as gifts and cites proof from another verse in Tanakh where שאל can bear this meaning. He thus simultaneously deciphers the peshat and refutes the Christian claim.

Whether Rashbam is correct about peshat here is unclear. After all, Shemot 12:36 suggests that the Israelites took advantage of the Egyptians through this “borrowing”, and this was hardly extravagant payback for hundreds of years of slavery. [See also Shmuel’s comment justifying this class action on Pesahim 119a.] Indeed, in the present case, we may have a fair degree of apologetics at work. But what is clear is that peshat was used at times to battle Christian interpretation. Rashbam’s commentary on Bereishit 49:10 also uses peshat to fend off a Christological interpretation of Tanakh, and one can imagine how a return to “the plain sense” of Scripture would have been an effective tool in parrying theological attacks fueled by highly allegorical and metaphorical readings of the Bible.

Shemot II: Peshat vs. Derash, Revisited

אל רעואל - רעואל אבי אביהן. אם כן שם אביהם יתרו, וחובב בן רעואל האמור לפנינו הוא חובב הוא יתרו. ואם רעואל הוא יתרו, אם כן בן יתרו היה. ומה שכתוב בנביאים מבני חובב חותן משה מוכיח שחובב הוא יתרו, שבכל מקום שמזכיר חותן משה מזכיר יתרו:

A number of my earlier posts have pointed on the ways in which peshat—at least as conceived of by Rashbam—is not always actually the best way of getting at the meaning of a text. Let’s consider another example from this week’s parashah. Moshe’s father-in-law is a recurring biblical personality, and yet much remains uncertain about him, most notably his name. Here is a brief review of the evidence.

Our first encounter with this figure is in Shmot 2:16-21 we learn of how Re’uel, the priest of Midian, gave his daughter Tzipporah to Moshe as a wife. In chapter 3, we then hear about Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro, who appears in that role in numerous other places in the Torah. Shofetim 4:11 refers to Hovav as Moshe’s father-in-law, and Bemidbar 10:29 has Moshe addressing חבב בן רעואל המדיני חתן משה. Does this mean that Hovav was Moshe’s father-in-law and that Reu’el was the former’s father (which would accord with the plain sense of Shofetim but contradict that plain sense of Shemot 2)? Or does it mean that Hovav was Moshe’s brother-in-law, with Reu’el his father being Moshe’s father-in-law (which would accord with the plain sense of Shemot 2 but contradict Shofetim)? And how do either of these last two verses square with the traditions naming Yitro?

Rashbam, employing the assumptions of peshat and revealing his desire to read the Torah as a coherent, linear, literary work, decides the following: Shofetim established unequivocally that Hovav is Moshe’s father-in-law, and therefore he must be one and the same with Yitro. These two names refer to the same person. Reu’el, on the other hand, must have been Yitro’s father, and the term אביהן in Shemot 2:18—the subject of Rashbam’s comment here—must be taken loosely to mean “ancestor” or “grandfather.” Like most peshat approaches, we see here a kind of binary choice that must pick winners and losers, emphasizing the plain sense of one passage at the expense of another.

I wonder if, in this case, the midrashic approach taken in Mekhilta Yitro Amalek I—and cited in Rashi on Shemot 18:1—is not more insightful into the fuller meaning of these various traditions. The Mekhilta says that Moshe’s father-in-law had seven names, including the ones enumerated above. This sort of statement embraces the multiplicity of information relayed in Tanakh about this character and attempts to describe the rich tapestry that cannot be captured by trying to spin this material into a single thread. Derash eschews binary choices and, in doing so, sometimes gets at the deeper truth of Tanakh when read as a whole. Peshat indeed preserves a better linear narrative, but derash can sometimes help us see a richer plot.

Shemot I: Write What You Know

ותשם בסוף - אשר סמוך לשפת היאר, והטמינתהו יפה שההולכים על שפת היאר לא יכלו לראות התיבה, אבל הרוחצים בתוך הנהר יכלו לראותה, כי יוכבד לא נכנסה בנהר להצפינו מכל צדדיו היטב. ולכך ראתהו בת פרעה שהיתה רוחצת בתוך היאר, אבל נערותיה שהיו הולכות על שפת היאר לא יכלו לראותה:

The old saw about writing urges one only to tackle the familiar. What is amazing about Rashbam is how much he thinks about the details of real life and how much this is able to enrich his commentary. One example from this week’s parashah followed by a quick recap of a host of comments like this in passages I have glossed over:

Shemot 2:3—Moshe’s mother hides him in the reeds by the side of the Nile. If she was intending to hide him, why was he so easily found by Par’oh’s daughter? And why did no one else find him? Rashbam: She hid him very well vis-à-vis the riverbank such that no one could see him. But she did not wade into the river to be sure that the basket was covered on all sides. Therefore, while Par’oh’s daughter’s servants could not see the basket, she, who was bathing in the water itself, was indeed able to see it.

Bereishit 24:2—Avraham orders his servant to put his hand “under his thigh” when swearing to him that he will not bring Yitzhak back to lands of the east in order to find him a wife. Rashbam: Whereas most agreements are sealed with a handshake, the master-servant relationship is like a father-son relationship and th specific ritual of placing the hand on the groin is intended to convey the notion that the slave adopts the totally subservient posture of a child vis-à-vis his master’s command.

Bereishit 27:45—Rivkah makes a cryptic comment to Ya’akov that he must flee Esav’s anger because she does not want both of them to die in a single day. Rashbam: This assumes the biblical-era institution of the blood avenger; Esav would kill Ya’akov in rage but he would then in turn be avenged by Ya’akov’s closest of kin. The result: both of Rivkah’s sons would die in a short period of time.

Bereishit 29:29—The Torah provides us with the detail, important for the unfolding story, that Ya’akov encounters a very large boulder on the well near Haran. Though this detail will later reveal how Ya’akov was overcome by a supernatural strength when he first met Rahel, the reason for having such a big stone in the firs place is not spelled out. Rashbam goes out of his way to explain: The large rock was either their for safety reasons (if no one could remove it alone, then no individual would ever forget to put it back) or for security reasons, such that no individual would steal the water. The latter possiblilty adds a whole other dimension to the story, as it casts the entire world Ya’akov is about to enter as a world of deception and mistrust, which will indeed be his dominant experience during his 20 years with Lavan.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Vayehi III: Pay attention to those notes!

מטרף בני עלית - את יהודה בני לאחר שעלית מלטרוף טרף באומות ותכרע ותשכב בעירך, לא יבא אויב להחרידך ולהקימך ממקומך. זהו עיקר פשוטו. בני כפילו של יהודה. והמפרשו במכירת יוסף לא ידע בשיטה של פסוק ולא בחילוק טעמים כלל:

Here, on Bereishit 49:9, Rashbam shows us the usefulness of cantillation in deciphering the meaning of verses. The verse reads:

גּוּר אַרְיֵה יְהוּדָה מִטֶּרֶף בְּנִי עָלִיתָ כָּרַע רָבַץ כְּאַרְיֵה וּכְלָבִיא מִי יְקִימֶנּוּ:

The verse has four main parts: 1) Yehudah is a young lion; 2) מטרף בני עלית; 3) He crouches and lies in wait like a lion; 4) Like the king of beasts, who can rouse him? The precise meaning of part 2) is discussed here by Rashbam. Rashi had explained this phrase to refer to Yehudah’s withdrawal from the plot to kill Yosef. Picking up on the verb טרף, which is used in conjunction with Yosef’s feigned death, Rashi explains that Yehudah is here singled out for doing what he could to fend off Yosef’s murder. To read the verse this way, the word טרף must be joined to the word בני, in that Yehudah is said to have “risen above” (עלית) the (potential) “murder of my son” (טרף בני).

Rashbam pounces. A close look at the notes reveals that the word מטרף is matched with the note tipha, which belongs to the class of melekh notes, which end phrases. That means that מטרף is in fact separate from the word בני and the phrase must be parsed as follows: My son (בני), you have risen up (עלית) from your prey (מטרף). [Were Rashi to be right, there would have been a merkha or some other appropriate eved note on מטרף to indicate its connection with the word בני.] The principle of כפל לשון further confirms that this phrase out to be conveying the same basic content as part 1) and thus is merely a praiseworthy comment about Yehudah’s power and dominion over his enemies.

[Rashi, Rashbam’s grandfather, is anonymously criticized here with some force as simply not understanding how cantillation plays into the meaning of a verse. For another attack of this sort, see his comment on 49:16, where Rashbam reveals a general hostility to any interpretation that is overly associative and thematic as opposed to attending to the needs of the context at hand.]

Vayehi II: Biblical Parallelism

ורבו - כפל לשון של חצים שבפסוק כמו יסובו עלי(ו) רביו, חציו. ולכן הוא נדגש. אבל מגזרת מריבה יאמר אשר רבו בני ישראל. כמו מן קם קמו, מן שב שבו, כן יאמר מן הרב רב עם ישראל, רבו. ומדמה הפסוק לשון הרע של [אשת] פוטיפר לחצים כדכת' חץ שחוט לשונם מרמה דבר, וידרכו את לשונם קשתם שקר. ורבו מגזרת רבב כמו סבו מן סבב, צהלי ורוני מן רנן. רבו שיטרוט ב"ל:

One of the things that every beginning student of Tanakh learns is the importance of parallelism in Biblical poetry. Many verses are arranged according to a parallel structure (A, B), where the first part (A) essentially means the same thing as the second part (B). This then becomes an extremely powerful tool for deciphering difficult words in poetic passages, provided they are used in parallel with more common terms.

As we have seen before, Rashbam is among the pioneering voices developing these sorts of theories about biblical literature. He uses the term כפל לשון to describe this parallelism and uses it here to great effect. In Bereishit 49:23, Ya’akov says of Yosef: וַיְמָרֲרֻהוּ וָרֹבּוּ וַיִּשְׂטְמֻהוּ בַּעֲלֵי חִצִּים. The word וָרֹבּוּ here is obscure. The temptation is to see it as describing מריבה, some sort of tension or fight, such that Yosef’s adversaries—using their arrows—are described as dealing with him bitterly, fighting with him and resenting him. Rashbam notes that the dagesh in the bet votes against this reading, since the plural third person past tense of fighting would be vocalized וָרָבוּ. But what really forecloses this interpretation is the principle of כפל לשון. Once we realize that the first and second parts of this verse are parallel, we realize that וָרֹבּוּ is likely synonymous with בַּעֲלֵי חִצִּים. It thus must refer to shooting arrows, which then calls to mind Iyov 16:13, where we find the same root referring to archers surrounding their victim.

This sort of lexical problem solving is at the heart of Rashbam’s work, and comments like this one show how effective it can be in elucidating peshat. [For other uses of the principle of כפל לשון, see his comments on Bereishit 20:13, 25:23, 49:5 and 49:9.]

Vayehi I: Ya’akov and Shekhem

ואני - באותה הארץ נתתי לך חלק אחד יותר על אחיך, שמנשה ואפרים כראובן ושמעון יהיו לי לקחת שני חלקים בארץ אשר אני ובניי עתידים לקחת מיד האמורי בחרבי ובקשתי במלחמת יהושע. ואעפ"י שכת' ביהושע לא בחרבך ולא בקשתך, אותו פסוק בשני מלכי האמורי מדבר וכמו שאמרו חכמים צרעה לא עברה את הירדן, וכתיב ביהושע ואשלח לפניכם את הצרעה ותגרש אותם שני מלכי האמורי אשר בעבר הירדן לא בחרבך ולא בקשתך. זכותו של יעקב גרם להם:

Bereishit 48:22 is a difficult verse. Ya’akov, near death, tells Yosef that he has granted him שכם אחד over his brothers, which he took from the Amorites with his sword and his bow. There are two main problems in the verse: A) What is the exact meaning of שכם אחד? B) When did Ya’akov engage in a military battle with the indigenous Canaanite tribes?

Rashi already engaged with these questions and offered two main possibilities: 1) The term שכם אחד refers to the city of Shekhem, which in fact became the burial spot for Yosef’s bones (see Yehoshua 24:32), and the military reference here represents an extrabiblical account of Ya’akov’s military defense of his clan after Shimon and Levi’s unwarranted slaughter of the peope of Shekhem. This is a forced accounting of Ya’akov’s claim to have captured the city with military might. Rashi thus offers the second possibility: 2) Ya’akov here is talking about giving Yosef a double portion, where שכם refers to some kind of stake (see Tehilim 21:13, 60:8, Hoshea 6:9, and Tzefaniah 3:9 for some roughly parallel usages). The “military conquest” described here is metaphorical and actually refers to prayers and wisdom that were employed to secure Yosef this more prominent status by obtaining the birthright from Esav, who is her described as an Amorite because of his wicked acts.

Rashbam tries to get the benefits of both explanations by asserting that we are dealing with a double portion of inheritance and a military conquest, but said conquest is in the future, and Ya’akov is merely prophesying regarding its eventual fulfillment.

I would like to suggest another reading that may in fact clear up what is happening in this verse. Professor Baruch Schwartz has argued that Bereishit 34 reflects a complex and multi-faceted narrative of Ya’akov’s relationship with Shekhem. On the one hand, there are elements in the story that seem clear that Dinah was raped by Hamor, that Shimon and Levi exacted vicious revenge for this act, freed Dinah and were then condemned by Ya’akov, who feared for his life, claiming that they had put him at risk by attacking the much larger and more powerful indigenous population. On the other hand, there are elements that suggest that a more timid Shekhem falls in love with Dinah and asks for her hand in marriage. The brothers—not just Shimon and Levi—seemingly with Ya'akov's approval, hatch a plot to what they perceive to be a plan to be overwhelmed culturally through intermarriage. They demand all the men be circumcised and then slaughter them. This ruse works and the young clan's distinctiveness is preserved. As noted, these elements seem to presume Ya’akov’s passive, if not active, assent to the proceedings.

Against this backdrop, we can see our scene here as amplifying the elements that reflect Ya’akov’s participation in the conquest of Shekhem. In a lovely play on words, Ya’akov says to Yosef, "I have given you a leg up, in the form of the city of Shekhem, on your brothers, which I took from the Amorites, with my sword and my bow." In other words, I, Ya'akov, acting through my children, fought a battle to win the city of Shekhem and have given it to you as an inheritance. In this way, one can maintain what seems an obvious allusion to the actual city of Shekhem along with a biblical narrative that suggests some form of military involvement by Ya’akov. To be sure, Ya’akov’s condemnation of that attack finds echoes in our parashah as well, when Shimon and Levi are singled out in chapter 49 as being unable to control their violence and therefore unfit to hold inheritable land.

Vayigash III: Can Peshat be Inspirational? (Part II)

(ח) יעקב ובניו - יעקב מחשבון שבעים נפש כמו שמוכיח לפנינו לפי הפשט כל נפש בניו ובנותיו של יעקב ולאה הכל שלשים ושלש עם יעקב. ורבותינו פירשו זו יוכבד שנולדה בין החומות:

(כו) יוצאי יריכו הבאים מצרימה כל נפש ששים ושש - כי יעקב שהוא מחשבון של שלשים ושלש של לאה אינו בכלל יוצאי יריכו, כי יוצאי יריכו לא היו כי אם ששים ותשע. וכי אמר משה בשבעים נפש ירדו אבותיך מצרימה, שיעקב ובניו היו שבעים:

One of the problems that vexes a host of commentators is how precisely the genealogy given in Bereishit 46 yields 70 people. In particular, Leah’s subclan is said to contain 33 people and yet only 32 are listed! How can it be that a passage that seems to be so careful in building up to the number 70 can miscount?

In these comments, Rashbam reveals what, to my mind, is the indisputable plain sense of the verses here. A close reading of the list of names here reveals the fact that none of the brothers except Reuven is mentioned separately; most are introduced by saying ובני שמעון and then listing their children. It is understood that this count includes both them and their children. Similarly, when is says בכר יעקב ראובן, this is intended to make us count Ya’akov as one of the 70. The other language in the passage bears this out: Whereas with the other three wives, it simply says כל נפש, thus totaling up how many people were contributed by each wife, the language when detailing Leah’s descendants is כל נפש בניו ובנותיו, the third-person possessive highlighting the fact that Ya’akov himself is included in that count. This also neatly solves the problem above of Leah’s subclan, which led to the midrash imagining that Yocheved, Levi’s daughter, was born as the family entered Egypt, thus contributing to the count of 70, but not being worthy of mention among those who came down to Egypt. While this reading is intriguing, it obviously suffers from the fact that Menashe and Efraim are named despite the fact that they did not make the journey down to Egypt as well as from the fact that Dinah and Serah are mentioned despite being women. If you just agree to count Ya’akov as part of the 70 and to recognize that the text is associating him with his first wife, all problems disappear.

This, in contrast to the previous post, is an example of the power of peshat, and, I think, its inspirational possibilities in restoring the clarity of the text such that it can once again speak with a full voice.

Vayigash II: Can Peshat be Inspirational? (Part I)

אעלך גם עלה - כלומר ארד עמך וגם עלה אעלך, כמו וברכתם גם אותי. גם עלה. שנקבר עם אבותיו במערת המכפלה:

In an earlier post, I commented on the ways in which peshat sometimes provides a convincing explanation that nonetheless deflates more inspirational and spiritual possibilities. In his comment on Bereishit 46:4, Rashbam provides us with another such example. This verse’s promise of return to Eretz Yisrael seems—in the context of the Torah’s larger narrative—to refer to the eventual redemption of Ya’akov’s descendants. The ominous buildup to slavery starts now and this verse hints at its eventual end. [See Ramban on 46:1 for this reading of the text.] But Rashbam wants to see this promise fulfilled to Ya’akov himself, in a more local, less archetypal way. So he proposes that the divine promise here is that Ya’akov will return to C’na’an, and he indeed does, albeit posthumously. This sort of explanation sometimes takes some of the drama out of the text, even as it often preserves accuracy; here I think it may overreach altogether and sacrifice the larger narrative that the lives of the Avot seem intended to highlight in the first place.

Vayigash I: Philology

אל תרגזו - אל תיראו כלום בדרך מפני ליסטים, כי שלום לי מכל צד. וכן רגזו [ו]אל תחטאו, היו יראים מן הק' ולא תחטאו. וכן ונתן י"י לך לב רגז, דחיל כתרג'. וכן ירגזון יריעות, לשון ניענוע כאדם המתיירא. וכן רגזה בוטחות, המרגיז ארץ ממקומה. אבל רגזה של תרגום של דניאל ושל עזרא לשון כעס. טרנבלר לעז של רוגז של כ"ד ספרים:

Here in Bereishit 45:24 we have a fascinating sensitivity to different kinds of Semitic roots: Hebrew and Aramaic. Rashbam notes that the root רגז in the “24 books”—which refers to Torah and Nevi’im (5 books of the Torah, Yehoshua, Shofetim, Shmuel, Melakhim, Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, Yehezkel and the 12 smaller prophetic books)—is different from the same root used in the Aramaic portions of Daniel and Ezra in Ketuvim. The Hebrew root used in the first 24 books of the Bible means “fear and trembling”, whereas the same root used in Daniel 3:13 and Ezra 5:12 means anger. Rashbam is here shadowboxing with R. Elazar on Bavli Ta’anit 10b, who explains that Yosef was warning his brothers not to engage in halakhic discussions on their way back from Egypt, lest they fight with one another. In keeping with his goal of not losing sight of the plain sense of the text, Rashbam reminds us that as a matter of peshat, such a reading is philologically unsound. The best way to read the text in context is as an assurance from Yosef that Egypt controls all the travel routes back to C’na’an and thus they should not fear that any harm will come to them during the journey.

Mikeitz II: Intertextuality

ויפקד פקידים [וגו'] וחמש - שהממונים יגבו חומש כל התבואות לצורך המלך אשר משפטו בשאר שנים לעשר כדכת' בשמואל את שדותיכם יעשר, עתה יטול פי שנים. וכמו כן הנהיג יוסף לבסוף על אדמת מצרים לפרעה לחומש:

Sometimes Rashbam’s deep desire to have the Torah read as a linear book helps reveal the basis behind ancient exegentical disputes. Bereishit 41:34 features Yosef counseling Par’oh regarding the seven years of plenty. He tells him: וחמש את ארץ מצרים. What does the word וחמש mean here? Targum Onkelos renders this word as ויזרזון, indicating a suggestion to prepare, or arm Egypt for the tough times ahead. This approach makes perfect sense in context and matches the use of the word וחמשים in Shemot 13:18, which describes the Israelites as armed when leaving Egypt. But Targum Yonatan on this verse renders וחמש as ויפקון חד מן חמשא (and the Septuagint renders similarly) meaning that Par’oh should separate out a fifth of the produce during the years of plenty as reserves for the years of famine. This interpretation is not suggested at all by local context, and the figure of 20% might even seem somewhat conservative in light of the disastrous famine that is to follow. So why read this way? Rashbam helps us here: The larger context of Tanakh suggests that a normal tax for the king was 10 percent (note the parallel of tithing for God’s servants in the Temple), and 20 percent represents a doubling in the face of national crisis. But more important, Yosef’s association with fifths returns later in the narrative when he strikes a deal with the Egyptian population that they will sell their land to the crown in exchange for the right to be sharecroppers on those lands and retain one fifth of the annual produce. Though that fifth has little to do with the narrative here, the association of Yosef with fives is unavoidable. [See also Bereishit 43:34, 45:6, 45:11, 45:22 and 47:2 for other examples.] Rashbam helps us understand the associative and intertextual mindset that can affect interpretation.

Mikeitz I: Titles

פרעה קצף על עבדיו - כל פרעה בלשון מצרים מלך, וכן כל מלכי מצרים נקראים. ושל פלשתים אבימלך אפי' בימי דוד, בשנותו את טעמו לפני אבימלך. ושל ירושלים מלכי צדק. ביהושע אדני צדק מלך שלם. ובימי דוד "על דברתי" אני מבטיח שתהיה "מלכי צדק" מלך ירושלים. ושל עמלק אגג, בימי משה וירום מאגג מלכו, ובימי שאול אגג מלך עמלק. אף כאן פרעה לשון מלכות, כי בשמו של מלך אין אומרין לפניו "דוד קצף על עבדיו", אלא כך אומרין לפניו "המלך קצף על עבדיו". וכן לפנינו אני פרעה, אני אהיה המלך לבדי, כדכת' רק הכסא אגדל ממך. לכן נקרא יוסף אברך, אב למלך. ובספר לקח טוב פירש כמותי:

This comment on Bereishit 41:10 is a great example of Rashbam’s sensitivity to tone. He notes that it is impossible that the butler would address his master, the king of Egypt, by his first name, or, for that matter, by anything less than the most honorific title. Moreover, the seemingly ridiculous verse, “Par’oh said to Yosef, “I am Par’oh…” becomes instantly intelligible once we realize that the king of Egypt is saying “I am the king [and therefore I can empower you fully even as I will always be superior to you].” This close readings therefore prove what we already suspected: Par’oh is not a name, but actually the Egyptian equivalent of “Mr. President”, or of the Vatican’s practice of assigning a new name to an incoming pope. He cites further examples of this phenomenon throughout Tanakh: Avimelekh=King of the Plishtim; Malkitzedek=King of Jerusalem; Agag=King of Amalek. This sort of range in Tanakh combined with a sense of how the world works makes Rashbam a particularly powerful and compelling exegete.

Vayeishev III: Sold or Stolen?

(כח) ויעברו אנשים מדיינים - בתוך שהיו יושבים לאכול לחם ורחוקים היו קצת מן הבור לבלתי אכול על הדם וממתינים היו לישמעאלים שראו, וקודם שבאו הישמעאלים עברו אנשים מדיינים אחרים דרך שם וראוהו בבור ומשכוהו ומכרוהו המדיינים לישמעאלים, ויש לומר שהאחים לא ידעו, ואעפ"י אשר כתב אשר מכרתם אותי מצרימה, י"ל שהגרמת מעשיהם סייעה במכירתו. זה נראה לי לפי עומק דרך פשוטו של מקרא. כי ויעברו אנשים מדיינים משמע על ידי מקרה והם מכרוהו לישמעאלים. ואף אם באתה לומר וימכרו [את] יוסף לישמעאלים כי אחיו מכרוהו, אף כן צריך לומר שהם ציוו למדייני' סוחרים למושכו מן הבור ואחר כן מכרוהו לישמעאלים:

(לו) והמדנים מכרו אותו אל מצרים - מדן ומדיין וישמעאלים אחים היו, ומדן וישמעאלים אחד הם לפי הפשט. לכך הוא אומ' כי מדנים מכרוהו וישמעאלים הורידוהו שמה, כי שניהם אחד הם לפי הפשט:

Many of the narrative portions of the Torah are notorious for the difficulty they present the reader who tries to read them through as one consistent, linear text. The narrative surrounding Yosef’s journey to Egypt in Bereishit 37 is one such text and it is instructive to watch Rashbam—who is so adamant about the possibility and importance of reading the Torah is a linear literary work—cope with this challenge.

First, a review of the difficulties in this story:

1) Do the brothers hate Yosef because of Ya’akov’s favoritism or because of Yosef’s presumptuousness and arrogance? Obviously these two factors can be complementary; nonetheless, it does seem that one element of the story has Ya’akov favoring Yosef and finding nothing wrong in his character and providing him with a coat that is at the center of the drama whereas another element focuses on Yosef’s dreams, to which Ya’akov himself objects.

2) Reuven begs the brothers not to kill Yosef after their initial threat to do so. His solution: throw him into a pit. The brothers assume he will die there—especially given the lack of water—but Reuven will be able to come back secretly and save him. But then Reuven seems to disappear, since the story moves on to Yehudah’s proposal to sell Yosef to the passing Ishmaelites. When Reuven returns to the pit, Yosef is already gone. Where was Reuven? And why, when he tells the brothers that Yosef is gone, do they not respond and tell him what happened? And how does the story proceed directly from Reuven’s confusion and despair to the ongoing plot of tricking Ya’akov with the bloody coat?

3) Who actually brings Yosef to Egypt? Yehudah’s proposal is to sell him to the Ishmaelites, and this seems to transpire, with the beginning of chapter 39 confirming that it was they who sold him to Potiphar. But it also seems that it was a band of Midianites that actually removed Yosef from the pit, possibly even without his brothers’ knowledge and that they bring him down to Egypt. In short, is Yosef sold by the brothers to the Ishamelites, or is he stolen by the Midianites as a result of his brothers’ abandonment of him in a pit?

The story, on its own, does not resolve any of these problems.

Rashbam, in the two comments above, seems to struggle with these issues and even to contradict himself as he attempts an answer. At first, he proposes that indeed the Midianites took him out of the pit and that they sold him to the Ishmaelites. The brothers’ involvement in the sale is thus only second-hand, and the plot by Yehudah gets fulfilled only indirectly and incompletely.

Needless to say, this is a somewhat unsatisfactory, and Rashbam, in the second comment above, seems to try to solve the problem by positing that Ishmaelites and Midianites (and Medanites, who are also mentioned in the story) are actually just different names for the same people, given that they are all clans that descend from Avraham.

I think this comment actually gets us at some of the limits of peshat in tackling the meaning of the Torah. The simpler approach here would simply acknowledge that the Torah’s messages here defy a simple linear, literary analysis. There are in fact two elements of Yosef’s journey. On the one hand, the brothers’ malice leads to his vulnerability and subsequent theft by the Midianites. Yosef himself describes this element when he tells Par’oh’s butler later in the parashah: כי גנב גנבתי מארץ העברים—I was stolen from the land of the Hebrews. On the other hand, we see a picture of the brothers actively selling him into slavery, which he confronts them with later in the story: אשר מכרתם אותי מצרימה—you sold me to Egypt. The meaning produced by each element is beyond the scope of this already overlong post, but embracing this complex meaning rather than stamping it out in the name of literary uniformity would seem to be truer to the Torah itself.

All this raises the interesting question of the proper role of peshat. Might the Torah do better being viewed through more of a cubist lens, whereby multiple messages and components make up a rich text that can fairly be described as a work with seventy faces? Or perhaps we might consider the genre of magical realism, which invites the reader to imagine the ways in which the deepest meaning of our lives and memories can sometimes most accurately be related through a composite, non-literary, almost non-sensical narrative?

Vayeishev II: Peshat to the Rescue

ואביו שמר את הדבר - מה צורך לכתוב זה? אלא כשבאה לו הבשורה ולא האמין לבניו שהוא חי וירא ישראל את העגלות אשר שלח פרעה, כי לא נשלחו כי אם על פי המלך כמו שכת' שם עגלות על פי פרעה, אז האמין על ידי החלומות שמוכיחין שסופו להיות מושל ועגלות הללו על ידי מלכות וממשלה באים, ומתוך כך אמר רב עוד יוסף בני חי, כי תימה גדולה היה היאך האמין אחרי שראה כתנתו מלאה דם? כמו שנחרד יצחק על יעקב בשביל שמצא שיער בחלקת צואריו:

I had always been bothered by Bereishit 37:11 and its seemingly cryptic comment that Ya’akov “kept the matter” of Yosef’s dream in his mind after scolding his son. And now I see Rashbam was as well; he provides a fascinating answer: This, like all good Biblical details, is setting us up for a scene we will not encounter for some time. When Yosef finally reveals himself to his brothers and orders them back to C’na’an in order to fetch Ya’akov, he sends a slew of wagons back with provisions and clothing to escort his father down to Egypt. There, too, there is a cryptic verse (Bereishit 45:27) that notes that Ya’akov did not believe the brothers that his long-presumed dead son was alive until he saw the wagons. Why did the wagons make the critical difference? Rashbam ingeniously links these two cryptic verses and explains that Ya’akov, for all those years, suspected that something would come of these dreams. He stored away that little piece of information—and hope—in his mind, such that when he finally saw royally appointed wagons coming to get him, he realized that these trappings of power were indeed evidence of what he had been imagining for years: that his son would indeed have the authority of a king with the power to rule over even his own father. [See Rashbam on Bereishit 45:27 for the second part of this commentary.]

Vayeishev I: The Place of Peshat

אלה תולדות יעקב - ישכילו ויבינו אוהבי שכל מה שלימדונו רבותינו כי אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו, אף כי עיקרה של תורה באת ללמדנו ולהודיענו ברמיזת הפשט ההגדות וההלכות והדינין על ידי אריכות הלשון ועל ידי שלשים ושתים מידות של ר' אליעזר בנו של ר' יוסי הגלילי ועל ידי שלש עשרה מידות של ר' ישמעאל. והראשונים מתוך חסידותם נתעסקו לנטות אחרי הדרשות שהן עיקר, ומתוך כך לא הורגלו בעומק פשוטו של מקרא, ולפי שאמרו חכמים אל תרבו בניכם בהגיון, וגם אמרו העוסק במקרא מדה ואינה מדה העוסק בתלמוד אין לך מדה גדולה מזו, ומתוך כך לא הורגלו כל כך בפשוטן של מקראות, וכדאמ' במסכת שבת הוינא בר תמני סרי שנין וגרסינ' כולה תלמודא ולא הוה ידענא דאין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו. וגם רבנו שלמה אבי אמי מאיר עיני גולה שפירש תורה נביאים וכתובים נתן לב לפרש פשוטו של מקרא, ואף אני שמואל ב"ר מאיר חתנו זצ"ל נתווכחתי עמו ולפניו והודה לי שאילו היה לו פנאי היה צריך לעשות פרושים אחרים לפי הפשטות המתחדשים בכל יום. ועתה יראו המשכילים מה שפירשו הראשונים:

Here, on Bereishit 37:2, we have Rashbam’s first major substantive comment about what his method of peshat is all about (with the exception of a very brief comment at the very beginning of his commentary). He makes a number of important points worthy of explication and emphasis:

1) The core purpose of the Torah is to provide us with rich narratives and detailed normative guidance so that we can lead religious lives. The Torah indeed conveys this substance to us through the use of hints and indirect associations and classical rabbinic exegesis—which is very different from what Rashbam understands to be peshat—is designed to draw this out of the biblical text.

2) Despite the above, אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו, which is here assumed to mean that an exoteric reading of a verse—the peshat—is never fully displaced just because a more esoteric interpretation is offered. This other, admittedly non-central, aspect of the Torah remains a part of its essential character.

3) Ancient commentators were primarily interested in 1) over 2). Rashbam, however, describes himself as part of an intellectually electric environment in which peshat is experiencing an intense revival and thereby, in his view, enriching appreciation of the Torah. His language of הפשטות המתחדשים בכל יום conveys a feeling of scholarly discovery and excitement that plays out on a daily basis (see his comment on Bereishit 36:12 for another example and on 37:13 for an example of the collegial collaboration involved), and his description of the arguments he would have with his grandfather, Rashi, show how the new interpretations of this ancient text could spur tension and controversy.

All of these dynamics are worthy of more consideration, and I hope to return to them throughout the course of the commentary. For now, I will limit myself to one observation: Rashbam reveals to us here the delicate dance required when advancing novel exegesis while simultaneously maintaining established norms and conventions. On the one hand, he emphasizes here—almost to the point of the lady protesting too much—that all of his peshat explanations are not the עיקר, the essence, of Torah. The purpose of Torah is real-time, detailed, normative guidance that cannot be fully contained in the literary boundaries of peshat. On the other hand, his contempt for erroneous readings of Tanakh is palpable, as words like משכילים are trotted out to describe the enlightened pashtanim even as more traditional readers—including his grandfather!—are derided with terms like הבל and accusations of ignorance and unsophistication. Which is it? Is he truly a radical who simply wants to cover his tracks with occasional humble language, or is he truly a pious traditionalist who sometimes gets carried away in the intellectual moment?

I think the most honest answer to those questions is that these sorts of high-voltage intellectual pursuits—such as proposing alternative readings of the canonical word of God that is the supposed basis for all Jewish practice—inherently invite some degree of ambivalence and inconsistency. Rashbam is not alone in this regard. R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, a slightly more junior contemporary northern French exegete, displays similar vacillations. Bekhor Shor viciously attack any allegorization of the verses that produce the commandment to wear tefillin (another Rashbam interpretation we will eventually get to!) even as he advances a radical reading on the supposed ban on cooking a kid in its mother’s milk that would, if halakhically applied, completely eviscerate traditional Jewish practices surrounding mixing meat and dairy. Rashbam is best seen here, in my view, as exploring uncharted intellectual territory as he and others actually consider what it would mean to take the Biblical text seriously in its own terms. Given that he and his colleagues in this enterprise are situated as religious, practicing Jews, that intellectual exercise sometimes has limits—albeit idiosyncratic, not always consistent, internally necessary ones. Rashbam is indeed both a traditionalist and an intellectual risk taker; that is precisely what makes him so interesting.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Vayishlah III: Be Thankful For What You Have

(יא) קטנתי מכל - מלהיות לי [כל] החסדים וגו'. וכן קטן מהכיל את העולה ואת השלמים. ולפי שעשית לי חסדים ואמת יותר מן הראוי לי ואני עדיין לא קיימתי נדרי ולא עבדתיך כראוי, לכך אני ירא אעפ"י שהבטחתני. שאינך [דן] את האדם אלא לפי מעשיו, כמו שמצינו בחזקיה שאמר לו הנביא מת אתה ולא תחיה, ואחר כך בתפלת חזקיהו הוסיף הק' על ימיו חמש עשרה שנה:

(יג) ואתה אמרת היטיב איטיב עמך - אעפ"י שאין אתה מחוייב לקיים לי הבטחתך שהרי קטנתי וגו' אעפ"י כן עשה למען כבוד שמך שתתקיים הבטחתך, כמו שאמר משה להק' כשרצה לכלות את ישראל (ו)למה יאמרו מצרים [לאמר] ברעה [וגו'], וינחם י"י על הרעה. ובמקום אחר מבלתי יכולת י"י וגו' וישחטם במדבר וגו', ואמר לו הק' סלחתי כדבריך:

Rashbam in Bereishit 32:11, 13 highlights what is already evident in the Torah: Ya’akov’s deep gratitude to God even in the face of difficult circumstances. Ya’akov recognizes that he is not truly entitled to anything that God has promised him, inasmuch as he has had plenty of failings of his own in his relationship with God. He therefore merely asks God to act for the sake of divine glory, but not out of obligation to him.

I think this approach to the divine-human relationship has always appealed to me, and I have thus always had a problem with genres of post-Holocaust theology that focus on anger towards God and even talk about nullification of the covenant between God and Israel. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to get angry at God—I have at times felt that way myself—any more than I would so for any relationship that features a range of emotions. But when people use personal pain as a fulcrum for leveraging a new theology, I become uncomfortable. Are we really entitled to anything such that we can really demand that level of divine compliance, particularly when we cannot possibly as humans transcend our own perception of the world and see a larger picture? Isn’t it one of the most striking features of being alive that we are so out of no action—and certainly not merit—of our own? [In the words of R. Eliezer Hakappar in Mishnah Avot 4:22: שעל כרחך אתה נוצר ועל כרחך אתה נולד ועל כרחך אתה חי ועל כרחך אתה מת.] How, then, can we ever see ourselves as anything but in the black as far as our lot in life goes?

Perhaps I am overly privileged and optimistic. And I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t a brit between God and Israel that has terms. But haven’t those terms more or less been met? We still exist, we still have a relationship with God, and we still have a foothold in the Land of Israel. I think Rashbam reminds us here, through his analysis of Ya’akov, that we sometimes forget the baseline of privilege that we enjoy nationally and personally, even if there remains a great deal of pain, uncertainty and fear.

Vayishlah II: Safety in Numbers

המחנה האחת - לשון נקבה הוא, כדכת' אם תחנה עלי מחנה:

הנשאר - לשון זכר. הרבה מצינו תיבות פעמים זכר פעמים נקבה. כמו השמש יצא על הארץ, ותך השמש. רוח סערה עושה דברו, ורוח באה מעבר המדבר ויגע בארבע פינות הבית:

עשו לקח את נשיו מבנות כנען - המדקדק יתן לב כי בפרשה ראשונה של תולדות יצחק נאמר יהודית בת בארי החתי, בשמת בת אלון החתי, מחלת בת ישמעאל, ובפרשה זו לא הוזכר בת בארי כלל, לא שמה ולא שם אביה, אבל [אלון] וישמעאל אביהן של שתי נשיו הראשונות הוזכרו, שהוחלפו שמות הבנות כאשר מצינו בכמה מקומות. בשמת בת אלון נקראת כאן עדה בת אלון, ומחלת בת ישמעאל נקראת כאן בשמת. לכן יש לומר יהודית בת בארי מתה בלא בנים, אבל בת אלון ובת ישמעאל היו להם בנים המפורשים כאן. ואהליבמה בת ענה בת צבעון החוי לקח אחרי כן אחר שהלך לו לשבת בהר שעיר ונתחתן בבני שעיר החורי כ[ד]כת' לפנינו כי אהליבמה היתה בת ענה בן צבעון בן שעיר החורי, וגם תמנע פילגש אליפז כתובה שם בבני שעיר. ולפי שאהליבמה אשתו אחרונה היתה, לפיכך מזכיר אותה ואת בניה בכל הפרשיות האילו לבסוף:

A very brief comment on a strategy that I have already seen a number of times in Rashbam’s commentary, which strikes me as distinctive to a peshat and/or literary approach.

Rashbam notes that the phrase המחנה האחת והכהו in Bereishit 32:9 mixes male and female genders. His response: There are many other cases of such gender imprecision in the Torah. Similarly, in Bereishit 36:2, towards the end of the parashah, he notes that Esav’s wives as reported in that chapter do not match those detailed in 26:34 and 28:9. His response: Names are inconsistent all over the Bible.

This strategy is interesting, in that it doesn’t actually solve the problem head-on; it questions the assumption behind the question and thereby dismisses it: Who says genders are always fixed for nouns? Who says that people’s names are always recorded consistently? It strikes me that this sort of strategy is particularly attractive to someone who sees there entire enterprise as an attempt to learn about a text, such that one is open to questioning one’s assumptions based on what one finds in the text. Someone who is primarily interested in ideas and concepts, on the other hand, is more likely to stick with their premises and find ways to generate meaning out of the problem at hand.

[For other examples of struggling with "anomalous" grammatical forms, see Bereishit 30:38-39 and Shemot 1:10.]

Vayishlah I: Confronting One’s Past

(ה) ויצו אותם לאמר - צוה אותם ואמר להם כה תאמרון. והשלוחים לא ידעו דאגתו של יעקב:

עם לבן גרתי - כאשר ידעת במצות אבי ואמי. שלא יחשוב בשבילי ברח:

(ז) באנו אל אחיך אל עשו - ומצאת חן בעיניו כאשר אמרת, וגם הנה הוא מתוך ששמח בביאתך ובאהבתו אותך, הולך לקראתך וארבע מאות איש עמו לכבודך. זהו עיקר פשוטו. וכן גם הנה הוא יוצא לקראתך וראך ושמח בלבו:

(ח) ויירא יעקב - בלבו, שאעפ"י שהראה לשלוחים כי לכבודו מתכוין, הוא לא האמין שמחשבת עשו לטובה אלא לרעה:

(כג) ויקם בלילה הוא - נתכוין לברוח דרך אחרת ולפיכך עבר הנחל בלילה, כמו שמצינו בדוד בברחו מפני אבשלום בדרכים הללו של ירדן ומחנים שעבר יעקב ובלילה, כמו כן ויאמרו אל דוד קומו עברו [מהרה] את המים וגו' ויקם דוד וכל העם אשר אתו ויעברו את הירדן עד אור הבוקר עד אחד לא נעדר אשר לא עבר את הירדן וגו' ודוד בא מחנים ואבשלום עבר את הירדן וגו':

(כה) ויאבק - מלאך עמו שלא יוכל לברוח ויראה קיום [הבטחתו] של הק' שלא יזיקהו עשו:

Rashbam’s take on the encounter between Ya’akov and Esav is fascinating.

First, he emphasizes that there was no concrete evidence of Esav’s hostile intentions. In fact, all indicators point in the direction of reconciliation! When the messengers return to Ya’akov, reporting that they have met Esav, and saying, in Bereishit 32:7, וגם הלך לקראתך וארבע מאות איש עמו, they are reporting Esav’s benign intentions. Rashbam notes that the לקראתך is also used in Shemot 4:14 to describe Aharon’s loving greeting of Moshe in the desert after the revelation at the burning bush. The 400 men marching with Esav are intended to be a welcoming party to show Ya’akov honor. [This interpretation is not at all necessarily as simple as Rashbam claims, as the word לקראת is often used in hostile contexts—see Bemidbar 20:20 for just one of many examples. But he does open our eyes to realizing that it can be read the other way here.] And even though Ya’akov himself understands this, he still cannot believe that there is not a trap somewhere lying in wait.

Second, he casts Ya’akov’s nighttime crossing of the Yabbok stream—detailed in Bereishit 32:23-24—as an attempt to escape. Rather than read this story as narrating Ya’akov’s effort to keep his family out of the way while he braces for the inevitable moment of confronting Esav, Rashbam casts him as terrified and looking for any way out. ויותר יעקב לבדו—Ya’akov was the only one left, he being the last person to be evacuated, and at that moment, an angel is sent to cut off his escape route, to force him to have the encounter with Esav that he so desperately wanted to avoid.

This interpretation highlights a Ya’akov plagued by doubt, regret and fear. Despite the positive signs from Esav, he cannot believe that it will end well. He doubts the divine promises to keep him safe, and tries to turn tail and leave. Only an emissary of God is able to bring him back to his destined path. Ya’akov ends up projecting outward his own insecurities, and Rashbam’s reading gives us insight into the ways in which Ya’akov must have had remorse about his earlier behavior and a fear that he could never make it right. The story thus becomes as much about Ya’akov confronting himself and his own past as it is about his encounter with his brother. [For more thoughts in this direction, see Rashbam's comments on 32:29, where he suggests that the injury that Ya'akov suffers at the hand of the angel is in fact a punishment for trying to evade God's master plan.]