Wednesday, December 26, 2007

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.


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