Sunday, January 15, 2006

In Rashi's Bes Medrash

"During those many days, the king of Egypt died, and the Jewish people moaned because of the bondage, and they cried. And their cry for help from the slavery rose up to God." (Exodus 2:23)

"Pharaoh had leprosy," said my teacher, citing Rashi on this verse, and when the young DovBear wanted to know why Rashi disagreed with the verse itself, he received the stock reply:"Rashi had ruach hakodesh [a kind of low grade prophecy.]"

All together now: ARGH!

Fun fact to know and tell: The top several sites returned by a Google search for ruach hakodesh are Christian sites which translate it as "Holy Spirit."

All together now: ARGH!

In his mission statement, (Genesis 3:8) Rashi says he "I have come only to teach the plain meaning of the passage and such Aggadah which explains the words of the Bible,” yet everywhere in his commentary we find instances where Rashi does the opposite.

Our verse, for example, says the king died, but rather than leave well enough alone, Rashi digs up Shemot Rabbah 1:34 where the bit about the leprosy is found. But why is this needed? Rashi is not an anthology of midrashim, and in this case the midrash doesn't appear to give the plain meaning of the text but to obfusicate it. Dead people aren't leperous. How is this the "literal meaning of scripture?"

lit·er·al adj.
Conforming or limited to the simplest, nonfigurative, or most obvious meaning of a word or words.

Years later I studied under a wise man who introduced a twist to the stock answer so many teachers before him had given me: "Rashi had ruach hakodesh, " he would say, "but we can have ruach hakodesh, too. Let's see if we can see what Rashi saw."

"The king of Egypt died... and they cried."

Cry? Odd isn't it, that the slave people might shed tears over the death of Pharoh. Look, for example, at the Palestenians who rejoiced at the news of Sharon's stroke, or the Jews who scheduled celebratory kidushim when Yassar Arafat finally went to his punishment. But when Pharoh died, the Jews of Egypt cried. Seem weird to you? It appears to have bothered Rashi. [Siftei Chachamim]

"During those many days..."

During? Death comes in an instant, yes here we're told the king died over a great many days. Not "after", but during [Malbim]

"...the king of Egypt died..."

King? Everywhere in the bible, Kings lose their title when their death is reported. King David, becomes "David" on the day of his death, and the same is true for them all. So how can this king, this Egyptian, retain his dominion in death? [Vilna Gaon.]

"...we can have ruach hakodesh, too. Let's see if we can see what Rashi saw."

If you're Rashi, you have the gift of second sight. You're a close reader of complicated texts who can see things that most others miss. As you look as this verse, with these three anamolies you know you aren't seeing the simplest meaning of the text, because if we're meant to know that the King left this mortal coil, the grammar and diction just don't add up.

How does leprosy solve the problems? Well, to begin with "a leper is considered as dead” (Avodah Zarah 5a)." But that's not enough to change the meaning of our verse (no other dead person is said to be a leper instead.) However, when you take into account the drawn out "death" [Malbim] the unexpected use of the word "King" [Vilna Gaon] and the fact that the slaves didn't rejoice at the death of their oppresor [Vilna Gaon] the Midrash's teaching seems to fit.

To Rashi, this is the simplest meaning of the text because it addresses the text's inconsistancies.