Sunday, January 09, 2011

Disrespecting Rashi

In Parshas Bo, there is a famous Rashi that, like most famous Rashis, is only partially remembered and rarely taught in full. The verse on which the comment appears is Exodus 11:4

 4 וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה כֹּ֖ה אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֑ה כַּחֲצֹ֣ת הַלַּ֔יְלָה אֲנִ֥י יֹוצֵ֖א בְּתֹ֥וךְ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

The bold words are strange. At first glance, they seem to mean "around midnight", but would God speak so inexactly?
Rashi gives two answers, the second being the famous one. He writes: [Around midnight means] before or after. Had he used the precise "at midnight" the royal astronomers may have calculated the time incorrectly and accused Moshe of fabricating God's message when nothing happened at midnight per their mistaken calculation.

Thus God (or perhaps Moshe) used the inexact language for the sake of Moshe's reputation in the royal court.

In his first answer Rashi says something completely different, something that is rarely taught or repeated in sermons. There Rashi argues that verse's the language isn't inexact as all. Instead the prefix "כַּ" means "when" and the word "חֲצֹ֣ת" is a verb, not a noun. Thus, it means כהחלק הלילה or "when the night divides", ie, midnight.

Thought I don't think this is done intentionally, teaching Rashi's second comment, without mentioning the first, is a misrepresentation of Rashi's goals. Rashi did not write his commentary to share midrashim, or to provide background stories. He wrote it to address textual anomalies, and to prove that what might at first be perceived as an anomaly is in fact nothing of the sort. In his comment on Ex 11:4, he does this masterfully, but his accomplishment can only be appreciated if the whole comment is studied and taught. Most teachers, I suppose, are reluctant to bore their students with grammar, and find some inspiration in the effort to protect Moshe's reputation. But by teaching the second answer, and focusing on its moral lesson they are actually obliterating Rashi's real objective.

A similar instance of Rashi's true aim being disguised by well-intentioned teachers is found on Exodus 8:2 where were told "וַתַּעַל הַצְּפַרְדֵּע" [=and the frogs came up] The midrash, alert as always to textual oddities, notes that the word the verse uses for frog is singular and teaches that the plague actually began with one frog. Whenever an Egyptian struck the frog in fear, anger or frustration, the frog broke apart into streams and streams of frogs that soon covered the land. Rashi cites this midrash, and every year at Parshas V'ayrah it is repeated.

What is rarely repeated is the second half of Rashi's comment, where he says (I'm paraphrasing) "You know what? Maybe the use of the singular isn't so strange. After all, the singular is used to identify the swarm of lice (keenom, not keenim) that overtook Egypt in the very next plague, and the singular is used for the fish (daga, not dagim) who die in the river during the plague of blood. So perhaps the singular in our verse simply refers to one swarm of frogs."

Unfortunately, when our children are taught Rashi's comment on Exodus 8:2 or 11:4, Rashi's real goal is never explained. Our children don't come home saying "That verse uses a strange word, and Rashi justifies its presence in two radically different ways."  Instead they are taught to tell over the part of his comment that sounds like a story, and to present the story as if it was true and factual history, and not merely a plausible interpretation of a perceived anomaly.

I would contend that teaching Rashi this way is disrespectful to his aims and to his work.

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