Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Vashti's tail and some thoughts about Medrash

Penina Besdin Kraut, writing in Ten Da'at, gives an old solution to an old problem:
How then, as a teacher, do I handle this midrash concerning Vashti’s tail? I can simply decide that since I do not understand this midrash, I will not relate it to my class. To merely present a midrash in order for it to be ridiculed is counterproductive. I have too much respect for the Rabbis to present them in an outlandishly inexplicable manner, and too much concern for my precarious preteen students to put them into a position where they must choose between respect for chazal and their knowledge of what seems impossible and nonsensical within reality. If all I have to present to them is that the Rabbis say that Vashti grew a tail, then I will choose not to teach this midrash.

However, I have another alternative. If I can take this midrash and interpret the words in such a way that an inner meaning emerges which conforms to reason and reveals a hidden truth, and thereby highlights the purpose of midrash and the wisdom and insight of our Rabbis, then I will choose to teach and share this midrash with my class. As the Rambam says, “... the sages knew as clearly as we do the difference between the impossibility of the impossible and the existence of that which must exist.... [The] sages did not speak nonsense, and it is clear... that the words of the sages contain both an obvious and hidden meaning. Thus, whenever the sages spoke of things that seem impossible, they were employing the style of riddle and parable.” [Rambam, “Introduction to Perek Helek”]

In this vein, I have offered the following suggested interpretation to my classes concerning the midrash of Vashti’s tail. Who has a tail? A horse, a dog, a cat, a cow... in short ,animals have tails. When Vashti was called to appear before Ahasverosh and his guests, she became so enraged that she lost all sense of reason and logical thought and grew a tail. She became as irrational as an animal, and as emotionally caught up in getting back at her attacker as any animal naturally would.

This is my own interpretation of the midrash, and I emphasize to my classes that it is only my understanding, and therefore they are free to accept or reject it, just as you the reader are free to do...
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