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The Midrashic Parable as a Means for Transmitting Faith
In the Mekilta of Rabbi Ishmael there is a passage about Rabbi Elazar Hamodai, who wanted to know what it was like for the Israelites to have eaten manna (bread from heaven, Ex 16:4) for forty years in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. He took the verse:
"Now the house of Israel called its name manna; it was like coriander seed (gad), white (lavan), and the taste of it was like wafers mixed with honey" (Ex 16:31);
and explained it thus:
And the House of Israel called the Name Thereof Manna... It was like the seed of "Gad" . It was like the word of Haggadah which attracts the heart (libban) of man.(1)
This teaching just quoted, over and above its own interpretation, brings out the special relationship which is found between the Jewish people and the unique literature known by the name of Aggadab or Midrash. (1a)
If we wish to seek a reason for this in so fat as it may be found, we should first of all make clear what are the characteristics of the midrashic language and style. It is an idiom extremely figurative and rich in symbolism which, in its uniqueness, succeeds in reaching the reader's imagination as much as his/her religious sentiment. Afidrasb does not fit into any logical or chronological category; any number of paradoxes are possible both in theory and in fact. In the same way, midrash has the possibility of expressing affirmations that we cannot always fit together with the thread of tradition; thus, precisely through the symbolism and metaphor of the midrashic form, we are able to discover and regroup all the contradictions which, in normal language, would be almost impossible to harmonize.
The didactic value of the midrash is brought nut through many ways. There is a teaching, for example, attributed to the school of Rabbi Ishmael which states:
If you wish to get to know Him by whose word the world came into being — study the aggadah! Only in this way vou will learn to know Him who spoke and the world was createch2 you will succeed, in other words, to bind yourself to His nature.
If we wish to consider more closely any of the teachings of the aggadah, we must remember a fundamental idea of Judaism, according to which God is considered as the creator of the human person and of the universe and that he continues to maintain a providential relationship with his creation.
The Lord Reigns in Majesty
In Yalkut Shimoni there is a commentary on Psalm 93:1 which tells that, scarcely was man created than he stood upright and seemed to be almost divine, with his height reaching the distance of east to west. When the other creatures saw him, they were in awe of him, believing that they had to consider him their creator, and they all came and bowed before him. The man said: "Why have you come to bow down before me? Let us go together, robe ourselves in dignity and strength, and proclaim as our king him who has created us!" At that moment, the man opened his mouth and proclaimed with the whole of creation: "The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty" Ps. 93:1.
It can be deduced from this midrash that every Jew has the duty of proclaiming before the whole world, as did the Patriarch Abraham of old, the idea of the divine unity as well as of the transcendence of God, the creator of everything that exists. One could add that the consciousness of that idea is sufficient to raise the human person and all of creation towards a level and a dimension which is almost metaphysical.
In the Prophet Isaiah we read:
"You are my witnesses," says the Lord "I, I am the Lord...» Is 43:9,10.
This passage is explained in the Pesikta of Rah Kahana:
"When you are my witnesses, I am God. When you are not my witnesses, it is as if I were not God." 3
The Role of Torah and Its Study
The observance of Torah joined to its study forms perhaps the fundamental clement which permits Israel to maintain its own special character, that is to say, to be the people chosen by God to fulfil religious and ethical duties for the whole of humanity. In this context it is related that
"Although the people had now clearly expressed their desire to accept the Torah, still God hesitated to give it to them, saying: 'Shall I without further ado give you the Torah? Nay, bring me bondsmen, that you will observe it, and I will give you the Torah? Israel: "0 Lord of the world! Our fathers are bondsmen for us." God: "Your fathers are My debtors, and therefore not good bondsmen. Abraham said, Whereby shall I know it?' and thus proved himself lacking in faith. Isaac loved Esau, whom I hated, and Joseph did not immediately upon his return from Padan-Aram keep his vow that he had made upon his way there. Bring Me good bondsmen and I will give you the Torah." Israel: "Our prophets shall be our bondsmen." God: "I have claims against them, for 'like foxes in the desert became your prophets.' Bring me good bondsmen and I will give you the Torah." Israel: We will give Thee our children as bondsmen? God: "Well, then, these are good bondsmen, on whose bond I will give you the Torah. 4
The midrash just quoted points to the necessity of a certain moral integrity on the part of the individual, as well as the capacity to transmit religious teaching. There is question obviously of the conditions which render the individual fit to receive the Torah and the moral law, and to understand all their principles.
A certain tractate records that every day a messenger goes forth from the bosom of the Holy One, blessed be he, in order to accomplish the ruin of the world and to reduce it to its original state. Scarcely however does God see Jewish children studying the Torah and' the sages gathering at their academies than his anger is changed into mercy.
The Torah Bestowed in Heaven
Down through the ages, Jewish masters have wrestled with the problem of trying to understand the meaning of and the reasons for the divine precepts. The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Yehoshua bar Levi taught that, when Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah, the heavenly hosts said in the presence of the Holy One, blessed be he: 'Lord of the Universe, how has it happened that a man born of a woman is here among us?' 'He has come to learn Torah', God answered. But they replied, Is it possible that such a precious treasure, which has been here in heaven for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the creation of the world, is now going to he given to a creature of flesh and blood?' The Holy One, blessed be he, said, 'Moses, answer them!' He replied, "Lord of the Universe, I am frightened that they can burn me with the breath of their mouths!' Then God said to Moses, "Grab hold of the throne of my glory and give them an answer: Then Moses said in the presence of God, 'What is written in this Torah that you are giving to us? I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. Did you ever go down into Egypt? Were you once Pharoah's slaves? What have you done about the Torah? And again, look what is written in it: Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not steal. Are you jealous perhaps? Is there a bad instinct in you?' All at once the heavenly hosts agreed with the Holy One, blessed be he; each one became Moses' friend and bestowed gifts upon him." (Cf. T.B. Shabbath 886, 89a.)
This midrash, impregnated so profoundly with mystical elements, helps us to understand the inestimable worth of the Torah, as well as the human dimension of its admonitions and attitudes, so that we may correct and eliminate the negative aspects that are met with in the reality of daily living.
Midrash - Dialogue between Heaven and Earth
In the depths of the consciousness of every Jew the midrash, in its unique style, has represented as it were a kind of continuity in the biblical dialogue between God and the human person. The fixing and closing of the biblical canon should not be considered as an interruption to the dialectics between God and his creature; in the midrash this dialectic takes on a new aspect and plumbs further depths of meaning. Exactly from this point of view there enters in the passionate search for an answer to the special historical circumstances of the Jewish people. In such a way, problems of a theological and religious nature can be formulated anew, as well as every messianic and eschatological hope. Let us try to see some examples.
The text of the Pesikta Rabbati states that, when the children of Israel enter into the house of prayer or of study to learn the Torah, they read in the sacred text:
"And I will have regard for you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and will confirm my covenant with you" Lev 26:9. "In the future, when the time of redemption arrives, the Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Israel: My children, I marvel how you were able to wait for Mc all these years! And Israel will reply: But for Thy Torah which Thou wrotest for us, the nations of the earth would long since have caused us to abandon Thee." 5
These motives, where doubt, hope and comfort are migled with exegetical elements, are found also in another talmudic midrash where it is narrated:
"At the time of the destruction of the Temple the Holy One, blessed he Ile, found Abraham standing in the Temple. Said He, `What bath My beloved to do in My house?' Abraham replied, 'I have come concerning the fate of my children'. Said He, 'Thy children sinned and have gone into exile'. Perhaps', said Abraham, 'they only sinned in error?' And He answered, 'She bath wrought lewdness'?" 'Perhaps only a few sinned?' "With many', came the reply. "Still', he pleaded, 'Thou shouldst have remembered unto them the covenant of circumcision'. And He replied, The hallowed flesh is passed from thee'. Perhaps hadst Thou waited for them they would have repented', he pleaded. And He replied, When thou does! evil, then thou rejoices!!' Thereupon he put his hands on his head and wept bitterly, and cried, Perhaps, Heaven forfend, there is no hope for them'. Then came forth a Heavenly Voice and said, The Lord called thy name a leafy olive-tree, fair with goodly fruit: as the olive-tree produces its best only at the very end, so Israel will flourish at the end of time." 6
Midrash Drawn from the Past for the Present
One can see how, by means of midrash, Jewish masters were able to speak of the capacity of God to look at the present time in the light of the meeting with Israel and with the Patriarchs of byegone days and how these moments, long since past, have the ability to be transferred into the present, bringing with them effective benefits and promises of blessing and redemption.
The teachings of the midrash, their style and language, maintain their validity in our days also and bring them their positive message. Thus it is worthwhile to return to what we find in the Midrash on the Song of Songs:
"Sustain me with raisins,
refresh me with apples;
for I am sick with love". Song of Solomon 2:5. "One taught: While a man is well he eats anything he gets; when he is sick, he wants only dainties. R. Isaac said: Formerly the main outlines of the Torah were known to all, and people sought to learn some lesson of Mishnah or of Talmud; but now that the main outlines of the Torah are not known, people seek to learn some lesson of Scripture, of haggadah. R. Levi said: Formerly everyone had enough for his necessities and people were eager to learn something of Mishnah, halachab, or Talmud; but now that they have not enough for their necessities, and still more that they are worn out with oppression, they want to hear only words of blessing and of comfort. "
* Rabbi Abramo Piattclli is one of the Rabbis of the Tempio Maggiore, Rome's principal Synagogue. He has been a friend and close collaborator of the SIDIC Center for many years, in particular as the Jewish scholar in our Course on the Psalms, which studies each Psalm from both Jewish and Christian traditions.
1. J.Z. Lauterbach, ed., Mekilta De-Rabbi Ishmael. Tractate Vayassa', Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society of America 1976, Vol. II, p. 132.
1a. Agaddah is that portion of rabbinic teaching which is not halakhah, that is, it is not concerned with religious law. Agaddah is amplification of those biblical portions which include narrative, history, ethical maxims and the reproofs and consolations of the prophets.
2. Sif. Deut. 29.
3. Pesikta de RAba Kahana 12,6.
4. Louis Ginzberg: The Legends of the Jews, ' Pesikta de Rab Kahana 12, 6. Philadelphia, J.P.S. 1939, Vol. III, pp. 89f.
5. Pesikta Rabbati, 21:15, New Haven and London, Yale U.P. 1968, Vol. I, p. 438.
5a. Quoted from Jer. 11:15, referring to the people as a whole.
6. Menachoth 53b (Soncino Talmud).
7. Midrash Rabbah: Song of Songs 11,5,5 1, London, Soncino 1961, p. 105.