Key words: Torah, midrash, aggadah, values, violence
In the context of the teaching of Humash much use is made of material found in the texts of Torah she-Be'al Peh, the Oral Law. As Orthodox Jews we see the Written and Oral Torah as going hand in hand, both crucial for an understanding of our place in the world and our obligations to God and man. One of the central quarries of sources mined for these purposes are midrashim, both halachic and aggadic. This material is used either in its classical forms or through the prism of later adaptations, including their citations in the medieval commentaries. The use of this material in the classroom is multifarious and rooted in a number of different goals. In very broad, and admittedly, imprecise strokes we can outline some of the basic approaches to teaching this material as follows:
1. The text of the Humash is often enigmatic and basic questions of interpretation and meaning arise. Today, many teachers, under the influence of the work of Nehama Leibowitz, z"l, and Meir Weiss, use the method of close reading in teaching the biblical text. In this method the reader seeks to arrive at an understanding of peshat, the plain sense of the text, by carefully noting the choice of terms, order of words, shifts in voice, presentation of characters, use of honorifics, first person or third person accounts and other literary devices. This method gives rise to many exegetical problems that are not easily resolved by internal biblical solutions. The solutions suggested in many of the midrashim are used to resolve textual and exegetical problems of the first order, which are raised either by the students themselves or by the commentaries that have been prepared by students for analysis. On this level the midrashim are used in a purely exegetical context and are seen as part of the continuum of attempts to reach the coveted goal of understanding peshat, the plain sense of the text. To that end, only those midrashim that fit into this category are utilized and explored. Sometimes a statement more removed from the plain sense of the text may be cited, but only for the purpose of highlighting why it most definitely is not peshat. Thus, in many of the worksheets of Nehama Leibowitz there is often a question devoted to articulating the exegetical reasons why Rashi or Ramban did not cite midrashic solution x or y in their comments to the chapter.
The use of Midrashic material to resolve exegetical problems and note literary anomalies is also popular in many academic circles which share the concern for the close reading of the biblical text and an appreciation of the order syntax and literary; style used by the Torah. Teachers trained in both literary approaches as well as more traditional avenues are often comfortable in utilizing midrashic sources in this fashion. The use of midrash in this fashion keeps the material in the realm of exegesis, parshanut haMikra, careful not to go beyond the boundaries of that framework. Midrashic sources are rarely cited solely for their hortatory value or to enliven a lesson; they are part of the building blocks of arriving at a clear understanding of the text. In this scheme it also occurs that whole lessons may be devoted to evaluating the merits of one solution over another. Students are often asked to cite support for Rashi or Ramban from the text as the focus of the lesson. The text of the Torah, however, remains the yardstick by which one judges the "correctness" of the various suggestions put forward.
2. On the other side of the spectrum are educators who continue to use midrashim in a more haphazard fashion. They often do not attempt to anchor this material in an exegetical framework and are content to cite the sources as is, without any further development. Sources may be cited for their moral messages or to familiarize students with famous or "key" Rabbinical statements or concepts. In addition the sources are used to expose students to rabbinical terminology, develop textual and reading skills and highlight the importance of the oral tradition. The connection to the text of the Torah is rarely explored, neither is the historical or philosophical context in which the midrash operates examined. The midrashim are cited as sacred texts for their religious and moral inspiration. In addition they are often read literally, with out delving into their symbolic meaning and message.
Haggadah is any talmudic interpretation which does not concern commandments... and you need not learn anything but what seems reasonable. You should know that whatever Halacha Hazal maintained regarding a commandment from Moshe Rabeinu which he received from the Almighty may neither be added to nor subtracted from. But as regards the interpretation of verses which is framed according to individual intuition and personal opinion, one need learn from such explanations only that which seems reasonable; and as for the rest, one is not dependent on them.
The Rabbis, according to this approach, never considered Aggadah divine in nature, but rather attempted to interpret the Biblical text according to logic, ancient traditions and their understanding of the text before them. This position was one of the bases which allowed for freedom of interpretation in the narrative section of the Torah throughout the ages. This sentiment runs through the parshanut literature from the period of the early Geonim, to Rashi, Ramban and Abravanel in the middle ages up until our own era. It was a guiding principle in such disparate works as the rationalistic commentary of R. Yosef Ibn Caspi (Mishneh Kesef) in the 14th century who writes: "But in matters which do not concern the commandments, I shall favor no authority and let truth take its course" (Shemot 21:7), to the mystical commentator, R. Hayim Ben Atar, who writes in his introduction to Or haHayyim:
"There are times that I will interpret the text with my writer's pen in a fashion different than the interpretations of Hazal. However, I have already expressed my opinion that I am not, God forbid, arguing with the predecessors...rather permission is granted to the interpreters of Torah to cultivate the soil of the text and yield fruit (i.e. suggest original interpretations)... except in the area of Halacha where one must follow in the path set out by our forefathers."Similarly we find identical sentiments in the classical commentaries written in the 19th century by such rabbinical luminaries as R. Yaacov Zvi Meklenberg and R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin and a full throttled adoption of this approach in the textual and scientific commentary of R. David Tzvi Hoffman to the Torah, in the early 20th century.2
This approach logically leads to a more critical understanding of the whole process of midrash Aggadah and its goals. In this approach one can recognize that some aggadot are didactic or polemical in nature, using the biblical narrative as their point of departure for moral and religious teaching. Lest there be some misunderstanding, it is critical here to emphasize the educational outlook that must be the bedrock of such an approach. We are directed, tell us the Geonim and Rishonim, to take every Aggadah seriously, though we are not obliged to read every one literally. The scaled back literalism or authority that we give to these sources does not in any way speak to the sense of respect and seriousness which should animate our approach to these ma'amarei Hazal. If we see ourselves as following in the footsteps of medieval and modern parshanim this point needs to be kept in mind. Trivializing the words of the Rabbis in any shape or form was not the intention of any of these exegetes. This point must be stressed in order to ensure that the spoken and unspoken messages conveyed in our classrooms embody a traditional world-outlook.
At the other end of the spectrum reside those midrashim that are totally removed from the plain sense of the text and do not resolve any inherent problems in the verses. These midrashim often engage in creative and imaginative readings and translations of the texts before us and leave us dazzled by their ingenuity. Yet, in reading them we often feel they are working on a different plane; one far removed from the structured atmosphere of peshat with its clear rules of grammar, syntax and context.
In the middle of the continuum stands the vast majority of midrashim. This is a group that is hard to classify as exclusively belonging to one camp or the other. The material may be rooted in exegetical concerns and yet will often go beyond them to express ideas, teach lessons and address problems that the darshan would like to raise in his study of the passage.
The units prepared here are designed to explore a second level of analysis: reading the biblical text through the prism of midrash Aggadah. The Rabbis read the Torah carefully, and often saw in its words the springboard to address the basic issues of philosophy, morality and meaning that they and their societies faced. Many of these issues were time-bound; many, however, were and are perennial in nature. It is in the midrashic reading of so many of the narratives in the Torah that these ideas, dilemmas and debates come to the fore. I believe that occasional use of this material and level of analysis has great potential for enhancing and enriching the learning and teaching of Humash as well as of basic Jewish values.
This project envisions a structure in which students devote one or two lessons every three weeks to the study of one of these units. In an average year that would result in the study of ten units, with a four year curriculum covering forty units by the end of high school. In these units, after the primary level of study has taken place, students will study midrashim that take them beyond the plain reading of the text. This study will focus on understanding what the Rabbis say, including their use of literary structure, metaphor and parable. The student will then explore how they are rereading or interpreting the text and finally what may have been the impetus, exegetical or external, for such readings. The class will explore historical and philosophical background that may help shed light on the issue that stands behind the midrashim being studied. In some instance students will be exposed to discussion of basic philosophical issues or moral dilemmas that Hazal discovered in reading various narratives in the torah. In others, students will explore the polemical thrust of some of the aggadot that were responding to movements or ideas antithetical to Jewish values. In others, still, the historical debates that split the Jewish people will come to life. The Rabbis saw in the Biblical text a guide that yielded contemporary and immediate lessons for their generation. In many of these units students will hear strenuous debates between the rabbis, with various opinions proffered on essential questions of morality, philosophy and Hashkafah. The structured use of these texts and ideas can yield the following benefits for our students:
To be clear about the goals, let me note that I am not advocating the study of Aggadah per se. These units are to be part of the Humash curriculum, with the focus remaining on the biblical text. We are trying to bring students into the world-view that saw and sees the Humash as allowing for multiple layers of discussion and teaching. We hope to initiate our students into the historical continuum of readers of this text; readers who saw it as Torat Hayyim, a dynamic and never ending fountain of instruction. They will hopefully enter into the historical conversation around the text of the Torah that eliminate gaps in time and spans centuries of Jewish life and history.
The study of values and Jewish philosophy should not be limited to the formal class on Mahshevet Yisrael. First, in many schools such a course does not exist. Second, in the few that it does, it is often built upon a formal study of texts and topics that were of great concern to medieval thinkers but do not trouble modern man as "live" questions. One goal of these units is to take the study of mahshavah out of this more formalistic and limited context and make it part of the ongoing study of Humash as well. Where feasible, coordination with the mahshavah teacher would be desirable. This could also lead to the team-teaching of selected topics that would emphasized the continuity of sources and the notion that the Humash and Hazal are addressing the central issues of meaning.
As some of this study involves historical and philosophical analysis students will be exposed to approaches to learning sources that will complement the "standard" modes of reading texts. In this aspect the units here fit nicely into a modern-orthodox conception of Talmud Torah which does not, a priori, reject out of hand the methodologies and fruits of historical studies of midrash and Aggadah. The notion of using the fruits of this enterprise is not new to Orthodoxy. The German Jewish experience and the work of Orthodox scholars and thinkers in the previous and current century certainly provides ample precedent for the successful integration of traditional and modern modes of study. Gedolei Yisrael such a Rav Azriel Hildesheimer, Rav David Tzvi Hoffman and Rav Yehiel Yaacov Weinberg, are shining examples of the productive encounter of using disparate methodologies in approaching mekorot. To a lesser extent some of the leading sages of our generation such as Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik3, zekher tzaddikim liverakhah, have on occasion used such approaches in various writings and derashot that they delivered in public. In addition the writings of master teachers and scholars in our circles such as Nehama Leibowitz, Efrayim Urbach, Yonah Frankel, Yoel Bin Nun and others are dotted with examples similar to the ones outlined in the units below.
A. The units are to be preceded by the careful study and analysis of the biblical text in classic fashion. After the unit has been studied in this manner the other material can be introduced.
B. The sources chosen are ones that are part of the genre of expansion of the biblical narrative. Folk saying and aggadic material found in the sources that are not connected to the biblical text such as the R. Akiva narratives, or those of the fall of Jerusalem will not be utilized. This is not a course in the study of midrash; it is an attempt to enter into the historical conversation of Jews who read the Torah in multiple layers of meaning and heard its voice resonate in approaching the existential and moral issues of the day and eternity.
Although most teaching begins with some sort of text, and the learning of that text can be a worthy end in and of itself, we should not lose sight of the fact that the text is often a vehicle for achieving other educational purposes. The goals of education transcend the comprehension of particular texts, but may be unachievable without it.In that spirit the units presented below are based on the fruits of some of the modern studies in Midrash by scholars such as Yitzhak Heinemann, Nehama Leibowitz, Yonah Frankel, Avigdor Shinan and Efrayim Urbach. However, the study of these sources is not intended to be one in which every nuance and text is analyzed and scrutinized in the fashion and style of the academy. I have chosen to use this vast collection of material as a resource for building educational units with the hope that they will help stimulate the learning process and open up areas of thought and discussion in the classroom. I hope that in presenting this material for teachers I have done so with integrity to the sources and their meaning. The review of the units by scholars and other educators to ensure fidelity to the basic contours of the midrashic material is the best way to ensure that those boundaries have not been crossed.
Saying that a teacher must first comprehend both content and purposes, however, does not distinguish a teacher from non-teaching peers. We expect a math major to understand mathematics... But the key to distinguishing the knowledge base of teaching lies at the intersection of content and pedagogy, in the capacity of a teacher to transform the content knowledge he or she possesses into forms that are pedagogically powerful and yet adaptive to the variations in ability and background presented by the students.4
The teacher of the Humash sections could be trained in using this material in an intensive mini-course during the summer months. Two or three major articles on the topic by Heineman, Frankel, and Leibowitz would be distributed well before the sessions. Teachers would then engage in studying the material presented below, analyzing the sources and practicing the methodology. Finally, they would be asked to prepare model units themselves and present it to their colleagues and workshop leaders for evaluation and criticism. This kind of work could be continued in a number of in-service sessions organized throughout the year for the Tanakh faculty.
In addition, it is my feeling that introducing three or four sessions of this type into the standard course on teaching Humash in the graduate program at Azrieli, Touro or the various teachers seminaries would also be productive. Student-teachers would be exposed to these approaches in addition to the study of pure pedagogy or parshanut-centric teaching methodologies.
In order to demonstrate the type of material and pedagogy that feel should become part of the curriculum below the reader will find two sample units from the larger project for perusal. They deal with passages in Bereishit and Shemot that are commonly taught in every religious high school.
And God completed speaking to him; and the Lord departed away from Abraham. Abraham then took his son Yishmael and all the children of his household... and he circumcised them on that very day as God had instructed him. And Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he circumcised his foreskin... on that very day Abraham and his son Yishmael were circumcised. (Gen. 17:22-25)Yet if we turn to the midrash here and in a number of other places in Bereishit Rabbah a different picture of Abraham's attitude to the divine command emerges. Let us examine two short passages:
At the time that the Holy One Blessed be He commanded Abraham to circumcise (himself and his family) he went and consulted with his three close friends (as to whether he should fulfill this duty). Said Aner to him: "You are already 100 years old and you are ready to go and afflict yourself with such a procedure?!" Said Eshkol to him: "Why are you ready to go and set yourself apart amongst your enemies?" Mamrei said to him: "This is your God who stood by you and protected you from the burning furnace and hunger , and the war with kings, and now when He commands you to circumcise, will you ignore His request?" (Bereishit Rabbah 42:8)DIDACTIC NOTE:
Said Abraham: "If circumcision is so beloved why was it not given to Adam himself?" Said God to Abraham: "It is sufficient that I and you are in this world, and if you do not accept upon yourself the obligation of circumcision, it is sufficient for the world to have existed till this point."...Said Abraham: "Before I became circumcised people would come by and interact with me; now that I will be circumcised will people come and join me?" Said God to him: "Abraham! It is enough, that I am your God, it is enough that I am your patron; and not only for you, but rather it is sufficient for the world that I am its God and its patron." (Bereishit Rabbah 46:3)
The second passage is more explicit in that here Abraham challenges God about circumcision on a number of different planes. Students should be asked to clarify the difference between the two passages.
This can lead to a wonderful discussion in class about the topic: can one be a religious Jew with doubts or questions or struggles with particular mitzvot. Does the fact that one has questions about a mitzvah, though one performs it, invalidate or diminish its significance? Is one allowed to try to understand the rationale and meaning behind mitzvot as Abraham tried to do in the opening part of the second midrash? All these issues are in the background of the two dialogues that the midrash sees as going hand in hand with the biblical story.
In the first passage in the midrash, Abraham is presented as having reservations about undergoing the process of circumcision. And yet in the end he fulfills the will of God; he remains for us Avraham Avinu. In the eyes of the Rabbis, the founder of our people was not only the model of the ma'amin be'emunah temimah par excellence, he was also the model of the Jew who struggle with kiyyum hamitzvot in his life. He is the person who examines the commandments, exploring its reasons and meanings. He is the person who constantly feels the existential need for rational decision and choice about his religious life. Avraham Avinu is, in this reading, the Jew who chooses consciously to submit himself to the will of the almighty. He makes a faith commitment that expresses itself in action and behavior after struggle and reflection.
At this point it might be productive to direct discussion towards analyzing the early history of mankind as presented in the Torah. One might raise the question: what is the purpose of the first 11 chapters in Bereishit. It is possible to read the first section of the Torah as God's attempt to set up a world in which the divine covenant with man was to be established with all of mankind. God first entered into a relationship with Adam and his descendants, directing them to observe a few basic ground rules and giving them dominion over the created world. In addition, according to tradition, mankind received a detailed code of laws and behaviors, the Noahide code. This attempt unfortunately failed as man corrupted the earth with murder and vice and the break down of boundaries leading to the reversal of creation.
God subsequently attempted to reconstruct the world and once again set up a covenant with all of mankind. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the flood, His will and authority were once again challenged. Thus the broad universal attempt is put on hold. While God retains a relationship with the entire world and demands adherence to a basic code from all mankind, he decides to establish a different mechanism for ushering in malkhut shaddai on this earth. God enters into a covenant with one specific nation, demanding from them allegiance to a detailed and comprehensive way of life. In the history and actions of this people, God's name and message will be manifest and brought to the attention of mankind. This is a longer, more circuitous route that seeks to redeem mankind in the long range of history rather than the immediate here and now. In that long range of history, Am Yisrael, as a representative of the divine message in the rough and tumble reality of the "real world", must continue to exist and bear witness while at the same time live up to the demands of the creator to be a mamlekhet kohanim ve-goy kadosh.
The famous midrash that speaks of God going to the various nations and offering the Torah fits into this model as well. On the ultimate level Torah is and should be the patrimony of the entire world. Indeed the language of that midrash speaks of God's requesting the nations "to accept the Torah". It is not imposed, but rather must be accepted. For various historical and philosophical reasons, however, the nations of the world were not ready, willing or able to adopt and accept it as their standard. It is the Jewish people, who are ready to accept and take upon themselves the task. They are the only people ready to say na'aseh ve-nishma, to make the faith commitment to God and his demands.
This discussion is important because it defines the concept of chosenness as synonymous with mission and fulfillment of mitzvot. It does not speak of inherent worth or superiority in some more racial sense. Am Yisrael is unique in its willingness to take upon itself the burden of fulfillment of covenantal responsibilities. Am Segulah is a term that reflects demands made by God rather than His grace. This is what engenders the close relationship between God and the Jewish people. In the words of the prayer: asher kiddeshanu be-mitzvotav; the chosenness is expressed in the obligation to perform mitzvot.
The second argument of Abraham in the midrash relates to the actual practice of mitzvot, represented here most intensely by circumcision. The practice of a unique code of behavior separates the Jew from the rest of the world and creates an unbridgeable gap.
Observing the totality of Halacha is a barrier to the full integration of the Jew into general society. Moreover, one might read the argument as stating that the mission of the Jew is paradoxically hindered by his "uniqueness" and otherness. People do not come to share with him and thus they cannot benefit from his message.
In these arguments students will hear more than an echo of the debates and struggles surrounding Jewish uniqueness in antiquity, but especially in the modern era. This is a wonderful opportunity to invite the Jewish history teacher to come and discuss, for example, Napoleon's proposal of emancipation to the Jews of France. Students might read some of the early literature of the Reform movement in Germany or the more extreme writings of the assimilationists in Europe of the mid-1800's. The students would explore the belief amongst many in the early nineteenth century that the more Jews assimilated into general society the less anti-Semitism they would face. Students could analyze the arguments and the various factions and judge them in light of subsequent Jewish and world history. The questions can also turn to the thorny issue of inter-group dialogue and whether one should or may downplay the particularistic aspect of one's tradition in order to participate fully in the world whether as a citizen or in relating to other faith communities. Students might read excerpts from R. Soloveithchik's essay "Confrontation," as well as articles by R. Samson Raphael Hirsch or Dr. Michael Wyschograd who touch on some of these issues.
And Moses grew into adulthood and he went out to his brothers and saw their suffering. And he saw an Egyptian striking (makkeh) a Hebrew, from his brothers. And (Moses) looked to and fro and saw that there was no man around, and he struck (va-yakh) the Egyptian and buried him in the sand. (2:11-12)In this episode, Moses for the first time fully understands and empathizes with the extent of the suffering that is the lot of his fellow Jews. He sees first-hand the exploitation and distress that is the life of the slave "and he saw their suffering". The net verse in the Torah tells us that after witnessing this general suffering, Moses encounters an Egyptian striking a Jew. Moses, checking that there are no witnesses, immediately intercedes and slays the Egyptian thereby saving the Jew from his oppressor. This passage highlights the sensitivity of Moses to the plight of his brethren and his willingness to personally step into the fray and take action. Moreover, on the literary level it foreshadows the fact that through his efforts, the Egyptians will be "smitten" (the phrases makkeh and va-yakh clearly echo the subsequent chapters in which the Egyptians experience the makkot) and the Jewish people as a whole will be saved from their oppressors.
This might be a good opportunity for the students to use a concordance. Students could be asked to check how many times words based on the root NUN, KAF, HEIH such as makkeh and va-yakh appear in the first 12 chapters of Exodus.
Once an Egyptian taskmaster went to the house of one of the Israelite guards (guards who were the overseers of the slaves themselves. N.H.) and he was attracted to the wife of the Israelite who was beautiful, without blemish...Later the Egyptian returned and came upon this woman... Once the taskmaster realized that the Israelite man knew what had occurred, he put the Israelite back into slave labor and began to beat him till the point of death, and Moses gazed upon him; and through the holy spirit he saw what the taskmaster had done in the house and what he was about to do to the Israelite in the field. Moses said: "This person is certainly liable for the death penalty as it states 'And one who slays another man shall die' (Lev. 24:21)." Moreover he came upon the wife of Datan (the Israelite) and for this he is liable for death as it states: "The adulterer and adulteress shall surely die," and this is what it states: "and he looked to and fro;" he saw what the Egyptian had done to him in the house and what he did to him in the field. "And he saw that there was no man" - for he (the Egyptian) was liable for death... the Rabbis say he saw that there were no righteous offspring that would emerge from this man till the end of all time. Once Moses saw this he turned to the angels and asked: "Is this person liable for death?" They responded to him: "Yes". This is the intent of what is written: "and he saw that there was no man;" there was no one (in the heavenly court) who would find any merit on his behalf (no one could offer any defense for him).DIDACTIC NOTE:
"And he smote the Egyptian;" With what did he kill him? Rav Evyatar says he struck him with a fist... the Rabbis say he pronounced the name of God upon him and killed him as it says: "Do you intend to kill me (halehargeni atah omer) as you slew the Egyptian?" (Ex. 2:14) (SHEMOT RABBAH 1:28-9)
"Striking" - ready to kill him
a. "saw" - through the divine spirit into the past and into the future.
b. "to and fro" - looked to what occurred in the house and in the field.
c. "saw" - in the divine spheres.
d. "is no man" - referring to the Egyptian, he was a dead man.
e. "is no man" - no worthy offspring would come from him.
f. "is no man" - no angel ready to speak on his behalf.
g. "and he smote" - he spoke the divine name
This gives students a clear picture that this verses have been read in an intense midrashic fashion with many of the elements being taken out of their "plain sense" meaning. In addition the first midrashic passage gives us an entire biography and history to the anonymous "Israelite" and Egyptian". These elements are entirely absent from the biblical text and there is nary a hint of them in any subsequent verses. On one level, of course, this is part of the general midrashic attempt to give background and "color" to anonymous characters who appear in the biblical narrative. In addition this background helps us better understand the motivation of why the Egyptian decided to strike the Jew. This last point of course is a bit strained for one could argue that it is common that slaves are beaten everyday, and yet the Bible chooses to focus on the fact that on this particular day Moses saw the oppression and chose to respond. Be that as it may we clearly are standing before a series of exquisitely creative midrashim on a seemingly straightforward text.
At this point one might leave the midrashim and return to the text with the question what would the students have done in Moses' place. Would they have reacted as he did? Would they have been afraid or would they have hesitated? What factors would have gone through their minds before they took action? What would they have to know?
The discussion will probably give rise to various opinions as to whether Moses reacted properly or not? Lest the suggestion that Moses erred here be taken as out of bounds, it is important to highlight a number of points. First, we here are dealing with Moses at the very onset of his career, before he has even spoken to the Almighty for the first time. The Rabbis themselves speak of him in Chapter 3 as a "fresh recruit (tiron)" in describing his fear of speaking with God. moreover, we know that the Torah does not hide the mistakes committed by even the greatest of prophets and late in his career speaks openly of the sins he committed that prevented him from entering into the promised land. Finally, and most telling in our context, we have an explicit statement in the midrash that takes Moses to task for his actions. In the Midrash Petirat Moshe rabbeinu6, which recounts traditions relating to his last days, it is reported that Moses pleaded before the Almighty that he should continue to live. After a long dialogue in which Moses attempts to show that he was greater than the Avot and thus should merit immortality, God turns to Moses and says:
"Did I in any way tell you to kill the Egyptian?" Said Moses to him: "You slew all the first born of Egypt, and I shall die on account of one Egyptian?!" Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to him: "Can you compare yourself to me who causes death but can revive the dead? Can you in any way bring someone to life as I can?!"This passage contains a direct indictment of Moses' action, even to the point that it is presented as the ultimate reason that Moses is not allowed to remain on this earth.
One issue then that will immediately arise from the study of the biblical narrative and these sources is the evaluation of Moses' act. In line with the thrust of the plain sense of the text, the midrashim from Midrash Rabbah take a totally different tack than the source quoted above. In these sources, the students will note, Moses is not presented as a young hot-head who simply strikes without thinking. In the various passages cited before, we are informed both of the wickedness of the Egyptian taskmaster and the deliberative nature of Moses' thinking. The taskmaster has raped the Israelite's wife (a capital offense) and is an instant away from killing the Israelite slave. Moses is aware of all this and still, in one version, looks for divine sanction to kill this oppressor. The Egyptian is liable according to the laws of the Torah but Moses requests that he be judged in the heavenly court as well. No one can find any defense on his behalf, and Moses, with divine assistance, sees that no one righteous will come from this evil man. There is, in short, no redeeming element that can save him from his fate, and it is then and only then that Moses strikes the Egyptian, again with divine intervention. These midrashim clearly reflect a strong tradition to defend Moses' course of action in this very difficult episode. Moses, in this reading took the difficult but morally appropriate action to save a Jew from death.
Taking this approach to the lesson the discussion would focus on the morality of Moses' act and possibly enter into a discussion concerning the evaluation of biblical figures in general. This is a wide- ranging and important topic that comes up frequently in any serious high school classroom. This is not the place for a full blown discussion of the basic issues and the interested reader is directed to the sources cited in the notes below.10 As a general comment, I would just say that it is crucial that we strive for balance. We should be forceful in teaching our students that we are dealing with gedolei olam, spiritual and moral giants who shape and direct the contours of our life. At the same time, in line with the Torah's and Hazal's own teaching, these were figures who remained human and were not free of error or flaw. We should not, as Mori v'Rabi Rav Aharon Lichtenstein once put it so well, turn the Avot into "ossified figures of petrified tzidkut" having no relation to the world in which we and our students live.
Finally, beyond the purely moral issue there is of course the tactical issue of the effectiveness and long-range results of such a policy. Let us take for example the case of the Soviet Jewry movement in the late 1960's. There were many discussions as to what was the best course of action for individuals and groups to take in putting pressure on the Soviet government. The mainstream groups used all the tactics of the political process including private diplomacy, political advocacy, public demonstrations and economic pressure. A few individuals took it upon themselves to bomb certain sites owned and operated by the soviet government. One such bombing led to the death of an innocent Jewish secretary. The bombers aimed for Soviet officials or sympathizers and murdered a young woman instead. Moreover, some of the moral high ground that had won the Soviet Jewry movement widespread public support was to some extent lost by this act of violence. The bombing did not visibly affect Soviet policy one wit, and may have even hardened some positions as well.
It is in this light that one may possibly approach teaching the sources on Moses' slaying of the Egyptian. The reader of the Torah could easily come away with the impression that seeing injustice before one's eyes, one must step in violently without a moment's thought or consideration. The action of Moses, the greatest of all prophets, is at first blush an extremely powerful precedent for future generations of Jews who would find themselves under oppression. The temptation under similar circumstances is to take the law into one's own hands and lash out. One might argue that the Rabbis in their statements here are attempting to limit the scope and applicability of the story for future generations. In the Rabbinical reading, we are speaking of a criminal who was on the verge of killing the Jew and who had already committed a heinous crime. Moses, in his unique position of access to the divine realm sees that no good will ever come from this person. Moreover, Moses receives divine permission to execute this man after he has been tried and found guilty. These midrashic passages turn the impulsive, emotional act into a rational, deliberative act that meets out proper justice to this criminal. In effect, we have now neutralized the potential for precedent inherent in the story and put it into its proper context. Only when one confronts an irredeemable criminal with no potential for righteous progeny can one have recourse to violence. Only one who has received divine sanction and can use the divine name at will to execute another. For the rest of us the better course is one of direction and fighting through other, less problematic, means. Unless we have prophecy and can be sure that we ourselves are committing no evil in our use of violence, the story of Moses cannot serve us as a basis for our actions. Of course this is not the only passage in the Bible that deals with individual acts of violence (as opposed to the area of war carried out by the nation as a whole which requires its own discussion) in response to injustice. The stories of the rape of Dinah and the massacre of Shekhem, and Pinhas's zealotry, to name just two, also can be analyzed in the context of such a discussion. However this is beyond the scope of this unit.
Beyond the very significant lesson about the caution we need to take in the use of violence to solve problems, we also are communicating a very critical message about how we learn values. In traditional learning we cannot derive our values and attitudes from a Tanakh-exclusive perspective. As committed Jews, we read the Torah through multiple layered colored glasses; not only peshat but peshat as well as derash. While this is clear to all in the study of legal sections of the Torah, it sometimes is abandoned in the more narrative parts. We read the Torah on numerous levels and these various dimensions taken together shape our world-view and the messages we take with us from the text. While it is critical, of course, that students develop skills in the study of peshat with its literary, grammatical and historical element, we cannot abandon the secondary and tertiary readings that are at the heart of the Rabbinical tradition.
1. This article is an adaptation of a more lengthy curricular project prepared under the aegis of the Jerusalem Fellows during 1995-6 when I had the great privilege and good fortune to spend a sabbatical year learning and living in Jerusalem.
2. For background on this entire section see Yonah Frankel, Darkei haAggadah u'Midrash (Jerusalem, 1991) pp. 504-525; Uriel Simon, ha-Mikra va'anahnu (Tel Aviv, 1979) pp. 28-41.
3. See, for example, the treatment of the last mishnah in Yoma in the last section of his magisterial essay Sacred and Profane in Gesher Vol. 1 (1966).
4. Harvard Educational Review 57:1 (1987), 12-13.
5. A useful tool in the preparation of these types of sources is the 10 volume vocalized edition of Midrash Rabbah with commentary by Moshe Merkin (Tel Aviv, 1986).
6. A late midrash of unknown origins, quit popular in the middle ages and cited authoritatively in various midrashic collections such as Yalkut Shim'oni and even in "Peshat" commentaries such as Rashbam cf. His comments to Numbers 12:1 (Rozin ed., printed in Torat Hayyim edition of Mikraot Gedolot.)
7. This was first pointed out to me by my good friend and colleague Rabbi David Silber.
8. See, further, in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot (Jerusalem, 1993), 39-41.
9. See the excellent discussion in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereishit (Jerusalem, 1993), 239 ff.
10. See the articles by: David Berger. "On the Morality of the Patriarchs in Jewish Polemics and Exegesis," Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah ed. Shalom Carmy (Northvale, 1996), 131-146; Avisha David: "Perspectives on the Avot and Immahot," Ten Da'at 5:2 (Spring, 1991), 24-26; Zvi Grumet: "Another Perspective on Avot and Immahot," Ten Da'at 6:1 (Spring, 1992), 25-27; Yitzhak Twersky: "Baderekh Hazeh Asher Anokhi Holekh," Rinnat Yitzhak, ed. Nathaniel Helfgot (New York, 1989), 69-81.