Friday, November 05, 2010

Esav and the Salt and Straw: What the midrash may have really meant

When school teachers wish to prove that Esav was a dishonest sneak, they usually reference the famous Rashi (based on an older midrash) about Esav and his allegedly disingenuous questions:

who understood hunting: [He knew how] to trap and to deceive his father with his mouth and ask him,“Father, how do we tithe salt and straw?” His father thereby thought that he was scrupulous in his observance of the commandments.יודע ציד: לצוד ולרמות את אביו בפיו, ושואלו אבא היאך מעשרין את המלח ואת התבן, כסבור אביו שהוא מדקדק במצות:

Rashi's commentary isn't an anthology of midrashim. Frequently, Rashi cites a midrash out of place or out of context. He'll change the meaning of a midrash, or choose one or two midrashim from among several on the same subject. Rashi does this, I believe, because in his commentary, midrashim are used for a specific purpose, namely, they serve to smooth out rough spots in the text, and to resolve difficulties in the language of the Torah.

As he told us on Gen 3:8, his object is not share or to popularize "cute" midrashim, but to " give... Aggadah which serve to clarify the words of Scripture in a way which fits its words"

The midrash cited at the begining of this post is, I believe, an example of Rashi doing violence to the plain meaning of the midrash for the sake of rescuing the text from a perceived anamoly.

My explanation begins with Gen 25:28 which reads: "And Issac loved Esav because of the game in his mouth." (tzayid b'fiv)  Tzayid b'fiv is a hebrew idiom, which suggests Esav is something like a lion bringing home food in his mouth, or a mother bird dropping worms into her chick's gapping beak. In either case, it's a materialistic and, therefore, difficult explanation for Issac's preference. The plain language makes Issac look shallow, and weak, and more than a little absurd. How can we respect a man who loves a son merely because the son provides his father with meat?

For Rashi such a reading  is unacceptable. Therefore he tells us

in his mouth: As the Targum renders: into Isaac’s mouth. The Midrashic interpretation is: with Esau’s mouth, for he would entrap him and deceive him with his words. — [From Tanchuma, Toledoth 8] בפיו: כתרגומו בפיו של יצחק. ומדרשו בפיו של עשו שהיה צד אותו ומרמהו בדב

Trap him and trick him how? With his words.

As Rashi reads it, Genesis 25:27 tells us more

27. And the youths grew up, and Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents. כז. וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד אִישׁ שָׂדֶה וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים
This verse also has a perceived anomaly. The second part of the descriptions ("man of the field" and "dweller in tents") are roughly atithetical; the first parts ("skilled in trapping" and "simple man") are not. What happened to the parallelism?

The Hebrew adjective tam suggests integrity, or even innocence. To create a parallel  between the first parts of the description, "skilled in trapping" needs to be construed as the opposite of tam. the midrash does this with three examples of Esav's duplicity. Of these three, Rashi chooses one, and only one, to illustrate the point: The story of the straw and salt

I don't know why Rashi selected this example instead of the other three, but I do think most readers today fail to understand the midrash correctly.

Many readers of Rashi use the story of the salt and straw to suggest that Esav was a pious fraud. Like the men who wear large shtreimals, but cheat on their taxes and skip davening, Esav, in their conception, was a master of deception, who used sincere-sounding questions to deceive his father. Indeed, Rash picks us on this idea elsewhere by comparing Esav to a pig, a non-kosher animal that extends its forelegs as if to show off how kosher it is, fooling all who allow themselves to be deceived.

Midrash is not a monolith, and the midrash's view of Esav, especially, is complicated, and full of competing and mutually exclusive ideas. Though it is true that some of our Rabbis did think of Esav as a pious fraud, I will argue that the author of the salt and straw story did not.

First, let us recognize that midrash isn't history. It isn't telling us that such a conversation actually took place. If you went back in time, you would not find Esav and Yizchack discussing tithes. Rather, this story was created by the author of the midrash for the purpose of conveying an idea.

To understand the author's purpose we must begin with the blessings Yaakov received when he was dressed as Esav. They relate entirely and exclusively to the physical world: Esav is promised: tal hashamayim ushmanei haaretz; the dew from the sky and the fat of the earth. Later, at the end of the story, when Yaakov leaves for Aram and is no longer disguised, his father blesses him again, this time saying: ve’yiten lecha es birkas Avraham; he passes Avraham’s spiritual legacy on to Yaakov, and we're led to believe that this blessing had been reserved for Yaakov all along..

It would seem from this that Yitzchak's intention was to let Yaakov stay in his tent and live a life of contemplation and study while, Esav, the man of the field, contended with the world and provided for his religious brother. If, as most of our Rabbis say, Yitzchak was planning for the future of the Jewish nation when he blessed his sons, perhaps intended to set up a sort of Holy Roman Empire (forgive the ahistorical reference) with Yaakov, as Pope, in charge of the nation's spiritual life, and Esav, as Emperor, responsible for feeding and protecting and otherwise sustaining the religious center.

Esav, having grown up in his father's tent, and eaten at his father's table, was aware of this plan, we can assume. The salt and straw midrash tells us that its author thought Esav was unhappy with this plan.

In the ancient world, salt and straw were important preservatives. Salt protected meat from spoiling, and straw was used as a packing material, or as insulation. Yitzchak planned for Esav to be Yaakov's protector, to serve as his straw and salt. The Midrash says Esav asked "How are straw and salt tithed (or "fixed" in the language of the original midrash*) Conceptually, this is like asking "How are straw and salt brought into the realm of holiness?" By putting such a question in Esav's mouth, the author of the midrash is letting us know that, in his view, Esav wants something more. He doesn't want to spend his life merely sustaining Yaakov; instead, he wants a holy purpose, too.

I'll leave it to others to explain why, in the fullness of time, this more-positive image of Esav was lost. My guess it has to do with the fact that Esav was, at the turn of the millenium, linked with Rome. Before that association was made, I suppose, more positive opinions of Esav could be entertained. Not so once the Rabbis had paid themselves the compliment of associating the super-power of the day with their own great ancestor's twin brother. From then on Esav was evil, unmitigated, and unredeemable. The salt and straw midrash gives us a glimmer of another point of view.

This is the language of the original midrash:
ויהי עשו איש יודע ציד

אמר רבי אבהו:
שודני, צידני, צד בבית, צד בשדה.
בבית, היך מתקנין מילחא?
בשדה, היך מתקנין תבנא?

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