Wednesday, January 2, 2008

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.]


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