Thursday, November 1, 2007

Hayyei Sarah III: Genre

ואומר י"י אלהי אדוני אברהם וגו' - כל אריכות דברים להודיעם שמאת הק' יצא הדבר:

One of the most striking things about our parashah is the repetitive nature of the narrative. Not only do we hear about the Avraham’s servant’s journey in great detail, but we then here him retell it in all its picayune glory to Rivkah’s family. Why is this repetition necessary?

My question itself presumes something about the Torah: that it only tells us that which is necessary. Indeed, many voices in Hazal approach the Torah in this way, assuming it to prize parsimony of language and they relate to it as a mythic, mystical work where every word is (and must be) pregnant with meaning. That is why this week’s parashah was so troubling to those who would seek deep purpose in every line of the Torah. Consider the following midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 60:

א"ר אחא יפה שיחתן של עבדי בתי אבות מתורתן של בנים, פרשתו של אליעזר שנים וג' דפים הוא אומרה ושונה, ושרץ מגופי תורה ואין דמו מטמא כבשרו אלא מריבוי המקרא, רשב"י אומר טמא הטמא ר"א בן יוסי אומר זה וזה.

Said R. Aha: “The idle chatter of the servants of our forefathers is [apparently] more precious than the teachings of their children! The parashah discussing the adventures of Eliezer (the midrash assumes the anonymous servant of Chapter 24 to be none other than דמשק אליעזר, who is referred to in Bereishit 15:2 as the still-childless Avraham’s presumed heir) can take up two or three pages (of parchment when written out in a Torah scroll) and is told twice. On the other hand, with regard to the impurity of reptiles—which is a fundamental principle in the Torah—we only learn that the blood of reptiles defiles as powerfully as their flesh from an exegetical inference! (The midrash then proceeds to give the inference from Vayikra 11:29 that produces this law; see further at Sifra Shemini Parashah 5:2.)

R. Aha hardly knows what to do with our chapter; it is so out of character with what he expects from the Torah that he can only conclude that there is some mysterious counterintuitive importance to the stories of our ancestors that we must somehow find a way to appreciate. Rashbam, on Bereishit 24:42, cuts the Gordian knot here and simply understands the genre of the Torah as sometimes being quite different from what R. Aha expected. The Torah indeed tells stories, and those stories often require detail in order to make them compelling and sensible to the reader or the listener. In this case, the lengthy and repetitive telling of the story is critical so that Rivkah’s family will understand how miraculous this match is so that they will quickly send Rivkah back to marry Yitzhak. A simple ויספר להם את כל הדברים האלה—which formulation is indeed found in Bereishit 24:66 when the servant relates the chain of events to Yitzhak—would not have sufficed, since we need to understand how Rivkah’s family came to internalize that מה' יצא הדבר—that this was truly a match made in heaven.

I might also add that this telling also seems to be of great importance in understanding how Rivkah is able to pick up the morning after meeting a stranger at a well to follow him to a land where she has never been to live a life she could not possibly have planned for herself. This story is eerily similar to Avraham’s own journey. But whereas Avraham was given a direct command of לך לך by God, Rivkah receives a more indirect charge through Avraham’s servant and his telling of the momentous events as they unfolded. Without this excruciating level of detail and repetition, Rivkah’s willingness to go seems almost shocking. But with this added telling of the story, we can both admire and understand her.


At November 4, 2007 at 5:42 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You don't have to follow Hazal's assumption that every word is pregnant with meaning to find this story problematically long.

If you had to guess which of the following story is by far the longest: Rivka; the Sneh; the Akeidah; Moshe and the rock; etc. etc. would you think this story would get the most detail?

Somebody once told me that the way you can tell the Stone Chumash is not a real commentary is that the pages of Bereishit have as much commentary as the pages of Hayyei Sara. Should Yitzchak's shidduch really require as much space (or more) as Creation or Gan Eden?

At November 4, 2007 at 3:13 PM , Anonymous Dov Weinstock said...

A friend (VF) discussed this with me after I quoted you Friday night at the "Delafield Jewish Center". He pointed out another reason why stories are repeated - so that we can make inferences from changed details (a la Nechama Leibowitz).


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