Elul 5761 – Midrash and P’shat

1 Elul 5761

Dear Rabbi Orlofsky:

The other day I had a friend who had asked me how to explain where all the midrashim in the Torah come from and how do later commentators, (Rishonim and Achronim), have the right, I guess, or know that they are right, to write their midrashim and interpretations down in the Chumash. I explained to her that these were all Emes and that they are all from Moshe Rabeinu when he gave us the Torah at Har Sinai, and how B’nei Yisroel were at the level where they understood what was behind each word on their own, but because of the yiridas hadoros, downfall of the genenrations, we have lost that great understanding and it needed to be written down. She also was confused about midrashim themselves. In her words, “sometimes they just seem so off the wall.” I explained as best I could and to the best of my knowledge that some midrashim are true and really did happen while others did not, but are there for us to learn from or to better understand something. I hope I am right.

She understood what I was saying and accepted but something still bothered her. Is there something else I am missing or is there a better way of understanding these two issues?

Thank you very much. I look forward to your response.

Name withheld
Darchei Binah

Dear Friend,

Medrashim and aggadic gemeras are there to teach things that are only alluded to in the Torah itself. If Moshe disappears at age 12 and reappears at age eighty, then obviously he was somewhere doing something during that time. The medrash fills in the story.

However, the purpose is not merely to fulfill our curiosity. Yitchok was seventy five when Avraham passes away. Presumably they had many conversations, but the only thing we are told that Yitzchok ever said to Avraham was “where’s the sheep?” Nothing else was essential for our understanding of the universe and it’s spiritual reality.

The Talmud is divided into halacha and aggadata. Halacha is from the word to walk, meaning it describes for us the path we need to take in our fulfillment of Hashem’s purpose for us in this world. Aggadata is from the word to tie together. It is the source of everything. As such the chazal wanted to reveal to us certain basic spiritual truths. What happened before creation, how do we grasp infinity and what is going on in the level called yesod? These are questions that can not necessarily be answered by the simple use of words and concepts familiar to us.

Rebbe Akiva explained not only every letter in the Torah, but even the tagin, the crowns on top of the letters. What in the world are the crowns on top of letters? Do they make sounds or have meaning? No, they are above the words, above the letters, beyond the sounds. Those are the secrets of the underlying spiritual meaning of existence. There are no words to describe them.

As such the chazal need to use as your friend says “off the wall” stories and descriptions to tell us ideas that are out of this world.

I was once discussing with a college student in Leeds University the story of the flood. He said he didn’t think that he could accept it from a historical point of view. I told him to put that aside – there are many historical events that are not described in the Torah. The question is why did the Torah tell us about the Flood. There is a message in it for us.

The question about a particular medrash is what is the message for us. Are they all “true”? Yes, but not necessarily historical. But they reveal truths.

This is of course the briefest explanation of a subject that volumes have been written about, but I hope this will serve as a helpful introduction.

Dovid Orlofsky