Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Of course, some Rabbis took magical drashot literally.

In certain communities, it's become fashionable to claim that our Rabbis did not mean what they said, when they provided supernatural or magical interpretations of Bible verses. Drawing on the Ramchal and others they insist that these interpretations are really meant to convey lessons and ideas, and tat the sages always spoke in parables.

Though, I fully agree that this is true in some cases, the claim fails as a general rule for several reasons: 1) At times, the statement is clearly based on a reading of the verse, rather than an interpretation. I've provided many examples of this. 2) At times halachot are established based on these statements.  3) At times, ethical principles are based on those statements.

Here's a case study of #3

 וְהַנַּעֲרָ, טֹבַת מַרְאֶה מְאֹד--בְּתוּלָה, וְאִישׁ לֹא יְדָעָהּ; וַתֵּרֶד הָעַיְנָה, וַתְּמַלֵּא כַדָּהּ וַתָּעַל.16 And the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her; and she went down to the fountain, and filled her pitcher, and came up.
יז  וַיָּרָץ הָעֶבֶד, לִקְרָאתָהּ; וַיֹּאמֶר, הַגְמִיאִינִי נָא מְעַט-מַיִם מִכַּדֵּךְ.17 And the servant ran to meet her, and said: 'Give me to drink, I pray thee, a little water of thy pitcher.'


1) In Verse 16 we're missing a verb that appears later when the Torah described how the damsel [Rebekka] gave water to the camils.

  וַתְּמַהֵר, וַתְּעַר כַּדָּהּ אֶל-הַשֹּׁקֶת, וַתָּרָץ עוֹד אֶל-הַבְּאֵר, לִשְׁאֹב; וַתִּשְׁאַב, לְכָל-גְּמַלָּיו.20 And she hastened, and emptied her pitcher into the trough, and ran again unto the well to draw, and drew for all his camels.

As you can see, we're told in verse 20 that she "drew" the water, while in verse 16 she merely went down to the well and filled her pitcher, without "drawing" the water.

2) The servant runs to her (verse 17) but no explanation for his hurry is provided.


Here's Rashi drawing on Beraishis Raba

And the servant ran toward her: Because he saw that the water had risen toward her. — [Gen. Rabbah ad loc.]

Rebekka didn't need to draw the water, because it rose up from the well to meet her. Seeing this obvious miracle, the servant ran to her.


The midrash ends here, but later interpreters asked further questions on it, and from their questions we can see they did not think the miracle of the rising water was meant to be understood figuratively.

R. Chaim Shmulevitz asks (paraphrase) If the servant saw that Rebekka was worthy enough to experience a miracle, why did he subject her to the test he had conceived in an earlier verse?

הָיָה הַנַּעֲרָ, אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיהָ הַטִּי-נָא כַדֵּךְ וְאֶשְׁתֶּה, וְאָמְרָה שְׁתֵה, וְגַם-גְּמַלֶּיךָ אַשְׁקֶה--אֹתָהּ הֹכַחְתָּ, לְעַבְדְּךָ לְיִצְחָק, וּבָהּ אֵדַע, כִּי-עָשִׂיתָ חֶסֶד עִם-אֲדֹנִי.14 So let it come to pass, that the damsel to whom I shall say: Let down thy pitcher, I pray thee, that I may drink; and she shall say: Drink, and I will give thy camels drink also; let the same be she that Thou hast appointed for Thy servant, even for Isaac; and thereby shall I know that Thou hast shown kindness unto my master.'

Why go through with this trial? Why ask her to water the camels? Why wasn't the water miracle taken as an indication that this was the right woman for Isaac?

Because, R. Shmulevitch continues (paraphrase) the house of Abraham is a house of chesed (charity and good deeds) not a house of miracles.  The servant knew Abraham didn't want a miracle-worker for his daughter in law. He wanted someone who cared about others and was willing to make sacrifices on their behalf. That's why the servant proposed the test in the first place, and that's why he went through with it even after witnessing the miracle.


I, personally, don't think that the water rose up to meet Rebekka, but I do acknowledge that this interpretation is a very clever way to solve the perceived problem in the narrative. I also admire the very clever supercommentary provided by R. Shmulevitch even if I don't agree with him about the historicity of the miracle upon which his teaching is based. What can't be denied, however, is that R. Shmulevitch's lesson only makes in-context sense if he [R. Shmulevitch] accepted the historicity of the miracle.


Once upon a time, we'd argue for hours about stuff like this on Facebook. If you have access to the people I fought with, and the groups where the arguments occurred (God Save us From Your Opinion and others) please pass on the word that here, in exile, a new post has been published. Thanks.

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