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Rina Krautwirth
Rina Krautwirth

Does the midrash fit the text?

וְגַ֨ם הֲקִמֹ֤תִי אֶת־בְּרִיתִי֙ אִתָּ֔ם לָתֵ֥ת לָהֶ֖ם אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן אֵ֛ת אֶ֥רֶץ מְגֻרֵיהֶ֖ם אֲשֶׁר־גָּ֥רוּ בָֽהּ׃ 

I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners (Exodus 6:4). 

At the start of Parshat Vaeira, God tells Moshe that God will fulfill the covenant to give Israel their ancestral land of Canaan. This verse seems perplexing. Did the forefathers in reality have a claim on the land of Israel? The midrash, as quoted by Rashi in Exodus 6:9 (third comment), points out the inconsistency between this verse and information that appears elsewhere in the Torah:

וגם הקימתי וגו׳ – וכשבקש אברהם לקבר את שרה לא מצא עד שקנה בדמים מרובים, וכן יצחק – עוררו עליו על הבארות שחפר, וכן יעקב: ויקן את חלקת השדה (בראשית ל״ג:י״ט) לנטות אהלו, ולא הרהרו אחר מדותי, ואתה אמרת: למה הרעתה (שמות ה׳:כ״ב).

In Exodus 6:4, it sounds as though the forefathers had some sort of claim to the land of Israel. However, the Midrash reminds us, when Avraham wished to bury Sarah in the land of Israel, he needed to purchase the land from Ephron at a very high price. Likewise, when Yitzchak dug wells in the land of Israel, people contested these wells. Finally, the Torah elsewhere states that Yaakov had to purchase land on which to pitch his tent. In all three cases, it sounds as though the forefathers never actually had ownership of the land of Israel, as Exodus 6:4 would have it seem. The Midrash uses this inconsistency to teach a moral lesson, as it so often does. The Midrash connects verse four to an earlier verse, Exodus 5:22, and envisions a conversation between G-d and Moshe about how in spite of not having a claim on the land, the forefathers did not question G-d’s attributes (midot) whereas Moshe earlier had complained: 

וַיָּ֧שׇׁב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶל־יְקוָ֖ק וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗-י לָמָ֤ה הֲרֵעֹ֙תָה֙ לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה שְׁלַחְתָּֽנִי׃ 

Then Moses returned to the LORD and said, “O Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me?” (Exodus 5:22).  

While this Midrash might raise some theological questions, such as why the Midrash faults Moshe for complaining, Rashi finds this Midrash difficult from a technical perspective: 

ואין המדרש מתיישב אחר המקרא מפני כמה דברים: אחת – שלא נאמר: ׳ושמי י״י לא שאלו לי׳. ואם תאמר: לא הודיעם שכך שמו, הרי תחילת שנגלה על אברהם בין הבתרים נאמר: אני י״י אשר הוצאתיך מאור כשדים (בראשית ט״ו:ז׳). ועוד, היאך הסמיכה נמשכת בדברים שהוא סומך לכאן: וגם אני שמעתי וגו׳ (שמות ו׳:ה׳) לכן אמור לבני ישראל (שמות ו׳:ו׳)

Rashi raises two objections as to how the Midrash about the forefathers does not seem to fit in with the peshat meaning of the text. Firstly, the first verse quoted above about the forefathers, Exodus 6:3, does not state, “and My name they did not ask,” i.e. it does not seem to refer to questioning of G-d’s ways. Secondly, the Midrashic interpretation does not fit in contextually – semichut – with the surrounding verses, Exodus 6:5 and 6:6, which discuss G-d remembering the covenant to the forefathers and redeeming the Jews from Egypt.   

Here we see a key aspect of Rashi that points to his overall methodology. Rashi views this Midrash as going against the peshat, the plain meaning of the text. Rashi in his commentary on Beresheet 3:8 spells out in a programmatic statement his approach to when he brings a Midrash in his commentary and when he does not. Prior to Rashi, when anyone learned the parsha, they used the Midrash as commentary. Rashi innovatively explains that he only brings Midrashim that support the peshat. Beresheet 3:8 states:

 וַֽיִּשְׁמְע֞וּ אֶת־ק֨וֹל יְקוָ֧ק אֱלֹקים” מִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ בַּגָּ֖ן לְר֣וּחַ הַיּ֑וֹם וַיִּתְחַבֵּ֨א הָֽאָדָ֜ם וְאִשְׁתּ֗וֹ מִפְּנֵי֙ יְקוָ֣ק אֱלֹקים בְּת֖וֹךְ עֵ֥ץ הַגָּֽן׃ – 

They heard the sound of the LORD God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day; and the man and his wife hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.”

In his commentary on this verse, Rashi perhaps famously states:  

וישמעו. יֵשׁ מִדְרְשֵׁי אַגָּדָה רַבִּים וּכְבָר סִדְּרוּם רַבּוֹתֵינוּ עַל מְכוֹנָם בִּבְ”רַ וּבִשְׁאָר מִדְרָשׁוֹת; וַאֲנִי לֹא בָאתִי אֶלָּא לִפְשׁוּטוֹ שֶׁל מִקְרָא וּלְאַגָּדָה הַמְיַשֶּׁבֶת דִּבְרֵי הַמִּקְרָא דָבָר דָּבוּר עַל אֳפַנָּיו: וישמעו. מַה שָּׁמְעוּ? שָׁמְעוּ אֶת קוֹל הַקָּבָּ”ה שֶׁהָיָה מִתְהַלֵּךְ בַּגַּן:

And they heard — There are many Midrashic explanations and our Teachers have already collected them in their appropriate places in Genesis Rabbah and in other Midrashim. I, however, am only concerned with the plain sense of Scripture and with such Agadoth that explain the words of Scripture in a manner that fits in with them. And they heard — What did they hear? They heard the sound of the Holy One, blessed be He, as He walked in the garden.

The key phrase of “וּלְאַגָּדָה הַמְיַשֶּׁבֶת דִּבְרֵי הַמִּקְרָא – in a manner that fits in with words of the text” (literally seats or supports) has led to much scholarship. This exact phrase echoes in our Rashi, the commentary on Exodus 6:9, where Rashi writes: וְאֵין הַמִּדְרָשׁ מִתְיַשֵּׁב אַחַר הַמִּקְרָא מִפְּנֵי כַמָּה דְבָרִים” – But this Midrashic exposition does not fit in with the text for several reasons.”

Rashi then concludes that he prefers to read the text literally, presumably based on his comments on Exodus 6:4 that the verse refers to the promise that G-d made to the forefathers. However, if one wishes to, one may use the Midrashic interpretation:

לְכָךְ אֲנִי אוֹמֵר יִתְיַשֵּׁב הַמִּקְרָא עַל פְּשׁוּטוֹ, דִּבּוּר דָּבוּר עַל אָפְנָיו, וְהַדְּרָשָׁה תִדָּרֵשׁ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר “הֲלוֹא כֹה דְבָרִי כָּאֵשׁ נְאֻם ה’ וּכְפַטִּישׁ יְפוֹצֵץ סָלַע” (ירמיהו כ”ג) – מִתְחַלֵּק לְכַמָּה נִיצוֹצוֹת (סנהדרין ל”ד):

Therefore I say: let Scripture be explained in its literal sense so that each statement fits into its proper setting, but the Midrashic exposition may also be given, if you like, as it is said (Jeremiah 23:29) “Is not my word like as fire, saith the Lord, and like a hammer which, by the force of its own blow, the rock at which it strikes shatters in pieces.”

Regarding this last piece, Nechama Liebowitz in her gilyonot (worksheets) asks about the significance of the hammer analogy in the verse quoted by Rashi, as an open question. I will leave this as a thought question for the reader to ponder.

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About the Author
Rina Krautwirth attended Barnard College, where she majored in Biology. She is a graduate of the Drisha Scholar’s Circle, where she studied for three years. She also holds a Master’s degree in Modern Jewish History from YU and an MLIS from Queens College. Rina has served on the young leadership board of the New York chapter of the Israel Cancer Research Fund, where she helped to organize fundraising events. She also has interned at the American Museum of Natural History, including at its butterfly exhibit. She is interested in the intersection between science and Judaism and has written articles and spoken on the topic. Additionally, she has authored an article for Researchers Remember, an anthology of writings by children of Holocaust survivors.
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