Friday, November 5, 2010

So Rashi, I think I finally get you!

As a teacher of Jewish texts, I find that Rashi is often one of the discussants at our learning table when we are learning material from Tanach or Talmud. Further, I often think that more than only considering Rashi’s analyzing of text, we often analyze Rashi himself. As Nechama Leibowitz (z’l) always taught, “Mah Kasheh LeRashi?,” that is “what is bothering Rashi?”. So, I personally have had my battles with Rashi through the years, or to be more precise, with THE WAY IN WHICH MANY PEOPLE USE the commentary of Rashi, on a par with the actual text, be it Torah or Talmud! Somehow, this always bothered me. As a response, I have tried to figure out not WHAT Rashi says but WHY HE SAYS IT. Nechama would be proud of me, I think!

Now, you know how you do the same thing so many times and then one time you do this thing, a light bulb goes off in a way that it never did before?!

Now, we all know the teaching of Rashi that

אין מוקדם ואין מאוחר בתורה
(Loosely translated as “there is not chronology in the Torah”)

Allow me to explain how this always bothered me on a rather simple level. Of course there is chronology in the Torah. One explanation of this principle is that there is not chronology within Parshiot. But this also does not necessarily hold. So, after hearing Rashi’s voice when he asks “Why is this story connected to that story?” as he did a few weeks ago in Parshat Va’Era in terms of why the story of Sarah’s pregnancy and birth of Yitzchak is right after the incident of Avimelech’s illness and setback and in looking at the connectedness of the narratives of the scouts going into Eretz Canaan and the conflict between Miriam, Aharon and Moshe over Tzipora in BaMidbar, I think the question regarding his stated principle is different. This is not necessarily about chronology per se. It appears that what Rashi is saying is to not assume or think that chronology dictates how stories are joined together but rather LOOK FOR THE BIGGER LESSON! So, for example in Va’Era, we are taught that there is a “Midah keneged Midah” (a measure or a lesson to complement a measure or a lesson) dynamic where Avraham prays EVEN FOR HIS ADVERSARY in asking G-d to heal Avimelech and those with him; AND THEN immediately after this, we hear about the healing of Sarah and Avraham with the birth of Yitzchak. In BaMidbar, the story of Miriam and the contention in her family and that of the Meraglim/scouts are both stories that teach important aspects of how we should and should not use language. These are, we are told, both stories tied by the theme of how we should not use destructive language/Lashon HaRa, even with the most positive or benign of intentions.

The point is, I think, that we are to always look for the BIGGER LESSON and the Torah is written and crafted in such a way as to give us a hint regarding the presence of these lessons. This makes sense!

So, while I may have intuited this idea along the way, it blasted through me like a lightening rod when Brian and I were continuing our intensive learning of Berachot, Perek Aleph from the Gemara this past week. There is a discussion of HaMelech David and his crafting of the Tehilim/Psalms (10a). One of the questions that is posed in the Gemara is why does the Tehila/Psalm that is connected to David’s running from his son Avshalom before (chronologically speaking) the one that is dedicated to his experience of running from Shaul. Once again we listened to Rashi’s voice and then Brian and I tried to figure out the meaning – that is the BIGGER LESSON found in this ordering. We came to the point where we proposed that it is more painful to have to run from one’s son than from one’s political opponent, so to speak. This makes sense in terms of one idea I remember hearing that Tehilim generally move from Tehilim of vexing and anguish to those of praise and thanks. It was at this point that the light bulb shone brightly in my head – we are to look first for the BIG LESSON and afterwards, ONLY THEN attend to the other aspects of how Torah and the texts of our beginnings are handed over, for it is in fact these BIG LESSONS that are the raison d’etre of our continued and repeated study of these important documents and their narratives. It is this deeply rooted emotional and personal reflective aspect of study that is most valuable when we consider the purpose and timeless presence of these texts in our lives and the purpose of relearning and reviewing them in an ongoing rhythm.

Thank you, Rashi; and thank you, Brian. Now, I really get this!

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