Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Vayeitzei I: Just the Facts, Ma’am

ויקח - אחת: מאבני המקום - כדכת' ויקח את האבן אשר שם מראשותיו: על כן קרא שמו לוי - יש לומר שיעקב קרא לו שם:

I don’t want to jump the gun too early in this process (particularly since we haven’t yet gotten to Rashbam’s famous comment at the beginning of Parashat Vayeshev), but I think we can begin to say some useful things about what peshat means for Rashbam. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it seems to me that one of his core criteria for considering something peshat, is that it requires only the facts and details of the Torah itself to understand it. That is to say, once I need to interpolate external information in order to make my interpretation cohere, I have left the world of peshat for that of derash. A peshat interpretation reads like a planned, authored work of literature, prepared with its reader in mind. The peshat acts on the reader, who can passively absorb its meaning. Derash is an active process, whereby the reader acts on the text, exploiting its inconsistencies and lacunae to make points that find their origin outside of the text itself. Peshat is sacred Scripture, to be understood on its own terms, derash is religious language, where the text becomes the sacred lexicon for expressing broader religious insights and truths. We will have to test this hypothesis as we continue.

In any event, there are (at least) two places in our parashah where Rashbam implicitly assaults the midrashic read of the text cited by Rashi and offers a way of reading the text without any esoteric presumptions. The first is in Bereishit 28:11, where Rashi notes the discrepancy between the plural form מאבני, possibly suggesting that Ya’akov took multiple rocks and placed them under his head, and 28:18’s use of האבן, indicating a single rock. This then becomes an opportunity to assert that a miracle occurred here, whereby the multiple rocks were fused into one after fighting over which one would merit supporting Ya’akov’s head as he slept. Rashbam rejects this and asserts a reading that eliminates any need to posit this extracanonical story: ויקח מאבני can just mean that he took one of the many stones present, and this then matches perfectly with the subsequent description of Ya’akov’s removal of the single rock that lay under his head.

Second, in Bereishit 29:34, we are told that קרא שמו לוי, which distinguishes Levi, Ya’akov’s third child, as being the only child that is not named with the female form of קרא, suggesting that someone other than Leah named him. Rashi cites the midrash that this alludes to the angel Gavriel’s intervention in the naming of Levi, as a portent of the latter’s eventual priestly character. But Rashbam turns us back to the text and suggests that it must be that Ya’akov is the anonymous male namer here, thus freeing us from engaging angels or other beings that have not been introduced as part of the story.

For more examples of this sort of dynamic, see Rashbam on Bereishit 21:9 (where he claims that the word מצחק has no sinister connotation, but merely indicates an age of sufficient maturity such that Sarah realizes the time has come to act to secure Yitzhak’s primacy in the household), 25:27 (where interprets the phrase יושב אהלים to be a simple reference to shepherding, as opposed to a more esoteric reference to the study of some sort of primeval Torah), and 27:1 (where he insists that Yitzhak’s poor eyesight is solely a function of age, as opposed to post traumatic stress disorder from the Akeidah or Esav’s intermarriages).

In none of these cases do I think that Rashbam is necessarily rejecting the alternative reading; it is just that it is not peshat. He is invested in defending the notion that the Torah can also be read as a book without necessarily also seeing it as an esoteric repository of wisdom and magical tales.


At November 16, 2007 at 12:41 AM , Blogger ADDeRabbi said...

Rashbam's contemporary, fellow pashtan, and some-time chavruta R' Yosef Kara famously wrote (the citation escapes me) 'ha-mikra mefaresh et atzmo' to express the notion of pshat that you describe in this post.

At November 16, 2007 at 3:30 AM , Anonymous Dov Weinstock said...

To digress from Rashbam to Rashi - so why does Rashi report the midrash about the stones? The peshat as presented by Rashbam seems obvious, Rashi (to my mind) is not forced to resort to having to reconcile texts. You seem to imply that Rashi is looking for opportunities to endow the text with these miraculous tales? Or is there some other dynamic at work?

At November 22, 2007 at 11:27 AM , Blogger EMT said...

Good question. The midrash is already out there in one form in Midrash Tanhuma Vayeitzei 1:1, and my guess is as follows. Bereishit Rabbah already talks Ya'akov picking up 12 rocks, which correspond to the 12 tribes that emerge from him. The desire to insert that detail comes from the fact that this is Ya'akov's first independent encounter with God and therefore an appropriate moment to begin thinking about the ways in which he will expand his clan in ways his ancestors had not. Once that motif is established, the midrash cited by Rashi becomes a natural next step, inviting us to square this interpretation with the data of the text. In other words, this midrash is not necessarily a reading one would come up with based on the words themselves, but rather it is a second-order midrash that builds on an insight coming from elsewhere.

Any other thoughts?


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