Thursday, May 03, 2007

Let's Get Textual (1)

I promised Chaim some examples of Rashi playing a little fast and loose with midrashim. Here's the first of many.

Rashi Chooses Among Midrashim

Gen 27:1
ויהי כי זקן יצחק ותכהין עיניו מראת ויקרא את עשו בנו הגדל ויאמר אליו בני ויאמר אליו הנני
And it came to pass, when Yitzchak was old, and his eyes grew too bleary to see he, and he called Esau his eldest son, and said to him, My son: and he said: Here am I
The verse introduces Yitzchaks blindness. The midrash gives five reasons for it, at least two of which are mutually exclusive:
(a) angles cried in his eyes, when he was bound on the alter
(b) To spare him from having to look at evil Esav (megilla 28a)
(c) Avimelech cursed Sarah (Gen 20:16) and his curse was fulfilled through Yitzchak
(d) His eyes were irritated by the smoke from sacrifices prepared by Esau's wives
(e) To give Yaakov the opportunity to take the blessings

On the verse, Rashi chooses two (d) and (e). [*] Does this mean that (d) and (e) are true and the others are not? For what reason did Rashi accept two and reject three pieces of Rabininc wisdom?

The answer to both questions can be found in the comment considered Rashi's mission statement (Gen 3:8): There are many Aggadaic expositions which our Sages have already organized in their proper order in Bereishis Rabbah and in other Midrashim. I have come only to give (1) the plain meaning of Scripture, and (2) the Aggadah which serves to restore the words of Scripture to their proper context and correct meaning.

In other words, Rashi's goal is to tell us the plain meaning [pshat] of the text, but when the plain meaning isn't plain, he'll use Aggadah (ie: Midrash) to clarify the text. Are Rashi comments based on Midrash also considered pshat? No. When Rashi cites a midrash his purpose isn't to tell us the pshat but to address irregularities or anomalies in the text, and to restore the verses original meaning, or intention. Therefore, the mere fact that Rashi choses or rejects a midrash tells us nothing about Rashi's view of its historical truth or validity. He simply is trying to solve textual questions, and he is willing to mine the aggadah for midrashim that can be used for that purpose.

The question Rashi is attempting to answer is Genesis 27:1 is not "Why did Yitzchak go blind?" That question, as noted above, has at least five answers. Rather, he is attempting to explain why the blindness is mentioned here in 27:1 and not earlier or later. The answer is textual, and the midrashim he selects points the way.

In the immediate previous verse we learn about Esau's two skanky wives: When Esau was forty years old he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite, and they brought grief to Isaac and Rebekah (Gen 26:34-35) This leads Rashi to Midrash (d) above.

The section introduced by our verse describes how Yitzchak's blindness allowed Yaakov to steal the blessing. This points Rashi to Midrash (e) above.

The other three midrashim are rejected by Rashi not because they are ivalid, but because they don't serve the purpose of his commentary. They can't be used to address a textual issue, or to clarify the words of the Torah.

If you don't agree, try answering this question: Rashi made a conscious and deliberate decision about which midrashim to include in his commentary. What does this tell us about Rashi's relationship to midrashim and text?


[*] Note: Most printed chumashim include midrash (a) Avigdor Bonchek says this is a mistake. The Reggio di Calabria edition, the frist printed edition of Rashi, does not have it.

[More to come]

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