How does one glean the straightforward meaning of Scripture?
BEMERKUNG: Ich plane diesen Aufsatz ins Deutsche zu übersetzen, werde es aber wahrscheinlich erst während der zweite Hälfte von Januar tun.
Once upon a time, when I was still in secondary school, our primary language teacher challenged us, using two predetermined phrases and a set of conjunctions to produce sentences that explore the logical relationship between the two phrases. The two phrases we were assigned sounded like:
a) he basked for hours in the sun
b) he got tanned.
The class effortlessly combined the two phrases with the conjunction “and,” producing the sensible sentence “He basked hours in the sun AND he got tanned.” However, by the time we had to repeat the same exercise with the conjunction “but,” the whole class butted heads and had no clue how to proceed. “Can’t we add “did not´´ to the second phrase?” we all asked.
Eventually, our instructor explained that the solution is very simple; we simply form the sentence: “He basked for hours in the sun BUT he got tanned.”
“Yes,” we all argued, “but that’s not sensible. If he basked for hours in the sun, it is expected that he will get tanned; why use “but´´?”
The problem we struggled with is a problem of textual interpretation. When reading a text, we read it in light of what we know from elsewhere about the text, and in light of our life experience. But what do you do when these two clash, how do you interpret the text?
This very basic problem persistently occupied biblical commentators, especially those who claimed to seek the פשט, the simple, straightforward meaning of the text. Does one prioritize the primary, literal meaning of words, or life experience?
When the servant of Avraham encounters Rivqah, she draws water from the well, quells his thirst and fills the trough to feed the ten camels the servant took on his journey. When he asks her a series of questions, she answers maturely and intelligently. Finally, after discussions regarding her prospective marriage to Yits’haq are completed, and the question is when she would leave home, her family decides to ask Rivqah what she wants. (Bereishit ch. 24)
How old must Rivqah have been? She probably would have been an adolescent. Indeed, Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi, in his supercommentary on Rashi (Bereishit 25:20), shows that according to the Sifrei, Rivkah must have been fourteen and a half when she was betrothed to Yits’haq.
And yet, to many of us, this interpretation sounds novel, because we very likely were taught that Rivqah had been no more that three years old at the time of that fateful encounter. The source of this interpretation is Seder ‘Olam Rabah, a historic work from the early Talmudic period, by Rabbi Yossef ben Halafta.
Rashi stressed the latter interpretation, despite his reputation as someone who seeks the simple reading of verses – as he himself sates on occasion, ואני פשוטו של מקרא באתי לפרש – “I came to expound upon the simple interpretation of the verse.” Is it truly simpler to explain that Rivqah was 3 rather than 14? This question hits at the core of what the straightforward reading of a text entails.
Why did Rashi explain that Rivqah was betrothed at the tender age of three? Well, in his commentary on Bereishit 25:20 he tells us why:
כשבא אברהם מהר המוריה נתבשר שנולדה רבקה ויצחק היה בן ל”ז שנה שהרי בו בפרק מתה שרה, ומשנולד יצחק עד העקידה שמתה שרה, ל”ז שנה, ובת צ’ היתה כשנולד יצחק ובת קכ”ז כשמתה, שנאמר ויהיו חיי שרה וגו’. הרי ליצחק ל”ז שנים. ובו בפרק נולדה רבקה.
When Avraham returned from Mount Moriyah he received the news that Rivqah was born, and Yits’haq was thirty-seven years at the time, since Sarah died at that time, and from Yits’haq’s birth until the ‘Aqeidah, when Sarah died [Rashi refers to another comment of his, that Sarah died from the shock of hearing that Avraham went to sacrifice their son), thirty-seven years [elapsed], and she had been 90 when she gave birth to Yits’haq and 127 when she died, as it is said [in Scripture]: “And Sarah lived seven years and twenty years and a hundred years”. And it is then that Rivqah was born.
The above comment by Rashi includes several Midrashic interpretations (mostly from Seder ‘Olam) that are not necessarily obvious in the Biblical text. Yits’haq could have been younger at the ‘Aqeidah, Sarah could have subsequently died from other causes, despite the fact that the news of Rivqah’s birth reaching Avraham is reported in the Torah after the ‘Aqeidah, it could have happened earlier, or Avraham might have heard something that had been old news – news didn’t travel all that fast in those days. Rashi linked each of these points, however, effectively creating a chain of unified Midrashic interpretations!
Rashi thus chose among traditional interpretations in order to produce this grand unified Midrash (we’ll return to this later).
The same pattern can be seen in Parshat Miqetz. The central question here relates to Ya’aqov’s life. How old was he when he was blessed by Yits’haq, when he married, when Yossef disappeared, and how long was Yossef absent from Ya’aqov’s life?
The Scriptural facts are that:
* Ya’aqov was 130 when he met the Pharao (Bereishit 47:9)
* Yossef was thirty when he was appointed vicery over Egypt (41:46)
* Yossef was 17 or a tad older when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery (37:2)
* He was born seven years after his parents marriage (30:25)
* Ya’aqov spent 7 years in ‘Haran before marrying
* Yits’haq was old and blind when he decided to bless a son (27:1)
* the twins seem to have hit age 40 before the blessing, but this is a little bit ambiguous (26:34)
* Yits’haq was 60 when Ya’aqov was born to him (25:26)
Rashi, however, attests that Yits’haq blessed Ya’aqov at the age of 123, because he was within five years of his mother’s age at death, and was worried he might die, too; this is how he explains the mention Yits’haq’s elderliness in 27:1. Thus, Ya’aqov was 63 at the time. Furthermore, as Yossef was 30 when he was appointed viceroy of Egypt, and he was reunited with Ya’aqov 9 years later, in the second year of the famine, and Ya’aqov was the 130, thus, it follows that Yossef was 39 at the time of their reunification. Thus, Yossef had been absent for 22 years, and Ya’aqov must have been 91 when Yossef was born (130-39) and 84 when he married (91-7). This poses a little conundrum, as Ya’aqov seems to have taken 14 years to travel a few hundred kilometres north, since he was blessed, and subsequently left home, at age 63, but only arrived at age 77 in Charan, 7 years before his eventual marriages. What happened then? Rashi resolves this difficulty by quoting a Midrash that Ya’aqov spent fourteen years engaged in religious learning and contemplation under the tutelage of ‘Ever, the great-great-grandson of Noach.
While Rashi beautifully strung a number of Midrashim together, he could have made other interpretive choices. After all, while it is within the realm of the possible, especially considering the long lifespans of the biblical protagonists up until that era, how likely is it, that Ya’aqov would only marry at age 84, when his father had married at 40? And when we picture Ya’aqov single handedly lifting the heavy stone that covered the well (29:10), do we imagine a middle aged (they did have longer lifespans) or older man, or rather a vigorous young man?
Interestingly, the Midrash Rabba records a disagreement between Rav Yehuda and Rav Nechemya on the length of the period of Egyptian bounty and famine. While the Torah clearly speaks of seven years each, the Midrash offers the possibility that, on account of the repetitive nature of the Pharao’s dream, there were really 14 years of plenty and fourteen years of famine. The anonymous “Rabbanan´´ even top that by stating that, not only was the Pharao’s dream repetitive, but Yossef, in his interpretation, essentially prophesied an additional seven years of each (meaning, rather tha being a plain interpretation, it was also an additional prophecy), such that in total, the period of cumulative plenty and famine lasted 42 years. Assuming that Ya’aqov and his children only came to Egypt during the last seven years of famine, we could add 14 or even 28 years to Yossef’s age at the time of his reunification with his father, and consequently lower Ya’aqov’s marriage age by the corresponding amount. With 14 extra years, the discrepancy that led us to theorize Ya’aqov was studing under ‘Ever is gone, with 28 extra years, Ya’aqov would have been a sensible 56 when marrying for the first time.
Granted, lengthening the period of alternating bounty and famine is difficult in light of the biblical narrative – difficult, but obviously not impossible, as these are points of view the Midrash recorded for posterity. However, given that we could give Ya’aqov a more sensible age for his exploits, why did Rashi choose to interpret things differently?
The answer, I believe, defines what Rashi attempts with his commentary, explains what Rashi means when he states that he comes to state the simple reading of verses and frames the question of what Pshat is.
Rashi does refrains from using life experience as a source of interpretation. What Rashi wants is to seek out what the words say, and show the greatest number of Midrashim that are compatible with the plain reading of the verses and with each other. In other words, Rashi wants to show us a grand unified practice of Midrash, to show us the greatness of the Oral Tradition, how there are so many seemingly disparate puzzle pieces, which in fact fit nicely together.
So how old was Rivqah when she married, and Ya’aqov when he married? If this is a question about historical fact, then we must say that we don’t know conclusively. What was was whichever way it was. We have in each case at least two traditions, which would give us different answers; both are legitimate, both are sensible in their own way. But which one is right, we do not know. All these answers are part of our Oral Tradition, and they all contain moral, ethical and spiritual insights – we study them all and are enriched by them.
The true facts do exist, and for events so far back in time, we are truly fortunate to have a good enough understanding of our tradition to be able to narrow down the number of possibilities and learn from each of them. May we continue to delve in the depths of Torah.