Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Avraham's Fortress

I can't remember where, but I once read that the Chasam Sofer would review the Midrash Rabbah on the weekly Torah portion rather than Rashi's commentary and would joke that his congregants knew Rashi better than he. At one point, many years ago, I decided that I would also try to go through the Midrash Rabbah every week. Most weeks, I got nowhere near the end of the portion. But I did end up spending many hours each week studying the Midrash. Once you get the rhythm of the text, it is actually quite easy. Additionally, the commentaries published in the standard Vilna edition are excellent and offer great insight into the text.

That experience is why I was so hesitant to look at Simi Peters' book Learning to Read Midrash. After all, I thought, been there done that. What is there to learn? I was totally wrong. Mrs. Peters wrote a brilliant book. She offers a systematic methodology to learning midrash and shows you repeatedly how to use it properly. When I learned midrash, I instinctively used most of her methodology. But by systematizing it, she makes easy to do and, significantly, makes it much harder to miss important details. Without exaggeration, this is one of the most fabulous books I've read in a long time. Plus, she writes in a great style and elucidates a number of interesting midrashim. She does to the midrash what R. Yitzchak Etshalom does to the chumash.

Let me discuss here one midrash she addresses. I will not show her methodology because it does not lend itself to a short blog post but I will instead assure you that she opens up this midrash and shows you how to read it properly and ask the right questions. Bereishis Rabbah 39:1

(1) "And God said to Avram, 'Go, you, from your land...'" (Gen. 12:1).
(2) R. Yitzhak opened: (Psalms 45:11) "Listen, daughter, and see and turn your ear and forget your people and your father's house."
(3) R. Yitzhak said: This may be compared to one who was passing from place to place and saw a fortress (birah) illuminated/burning (dolekes).
(4) He said, "Will you say this fortress has no governor (manhig)?
(5) The master (ba'al) of the fortress peeped out (hetziz) at him.
(6) He said to him, "I am the master of the fortress."
(7) Thus, because our father Avraham would say, "Will you say this world has no governor?"
(8) the Holy One Blessed be He peeped out at him and said to him, "I am the Master of the world."
(9) (Psalms 45:12) "And the king will desire your beauty" -- to beautify you in the world;
(10) "because he is your master and bow to him," that is, "And God said to Avram..."
Mrs. Peters discusses all the lacks of parallel (manhig vs. ba'al, etc.) and other issues that arise. The most important part of this midrash is what the essential message of it is. And on this, I believe that it revolves around how you translated the word "dolekes". Mrs. Peters writes (pp. 39, 42):
In this midrash, we need to determine whether the word "doleket" meant "illuminated" or "burning" for R. Yitzhak, or whether he may have deliberately chosen an ambiguous word to create more than one possible interpretation of the text...

Perhaps we could say that an illuminated world is a world lit up with its own beauty and order, a world that shows every sign of being managed by a "Governor," a God Who is running things. By the same token, a burning world is an ordered structure which is being destroyed by uncontrolled forces, such as human corruption.
If dolekes means illuminated, then we understand why one would conclude that it has a master/governor. But if it is burning, why would the question make sense?

Rashi says that the message of this midrash is that Avraham is teaching everyone that God guides the world. The Yedei Moshe explains this within the translation of "burning" as follows. The fortress was burning and Avram thought that it had no current master to put out the flames. Then the master appeared and said that he is guiding the fortress and he wants it to burn. So, too, God is guiding the world and wants it to deteriorate as it has. Note that these interpretations say nothing about God having created the world.

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes the following about this midrash (A Letter in the Scroll, pp. 55-56):
This is a deeply enigmatic passage, so much so that distinguished Jewish thinkers in our time have often misunderstood it. One of them translated the phrase "a palacca in flames" as "a palace full of light."[11] According to this interpretation, Abraham was seized by a mystic vision of the beauty of the universe and found God in the light within the light. Another theologian interpreted it as an early form of what later became known as the "argument from design"[12]...

These are both beautiful interpretations, and each has its own validity, but they are not true to the passage itself. Abraham sees a palace. The world has order, and therefore it has a creator. But the palace is in flames. The world is full of disorder, of evil, violence and injustice. Now, no one builds a building and then deserts it. If there is a fire, there must be someone to put it out. The building must have an owner. If so, where is he? That is the question, and it gives Abraham no peace.

[11] A.J. Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, John Calder, London, 1956, 112.
[12] Louis Jacobs, We Have Reason to Believe, Vallentine Mitchell, London, 1957, 23. But see also Louis Jacobs, Principles of the Jewish Faith, Vallentine Mitchell, London, 1964, 43, where the author correctly interprets the passage as a statement, not of the argument from design but of the problem of evil.

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