Midrashim Are Like Imagined Tastes
The record of how people in the past behaved is basically based
on memories that in writing sometimes are recorded and sometimes only orally recalled.
That is the essence of what’s known as history.
Reports about how people in the past both thought and felt are like a taste
which if you’ve not experienced you can’t, however deeply you may wish, be totally enthralled,
and, though described, remains a mystery.
For bible stories there are no written records till the Book of Kings.
Instead, their record has been aggrandized by midrashim and then augmented
in bold interpretations claiming to know how the characters both felt and thought.
These midrashim supply – with great imagination – literary wings
to all the bible’s authors, though, as far as we know, none of them consented
to the additions which by great midrashic masters have been wrought.
In an article in the New York Review about Hilary Mantel, Jenny Uglow points out that while the historical record can tell us what people did, only fiction can imagine what they felt and thought:
Mantel’s exuberant writing worked in multiple dimensions. It could carry the weight of a physical moment or the tone of a real person, while simultaneously evoking the social world, with all its battles for power, and hinting at a realm of spirit, story, and belief that lurked beyond. She was deftly experimental, trying different genres, moving between settings, darting across time, from Tudor England to modern Britain. “What is time, anyway?” wonders the young nun Philomena in Fludd (1989), faced with baffled schoolchildren. “‘It’s to do with Greenwich,’ she said. ‘All would be well if you were right by Greenwich.’” In Mantel’s novels time turns back on itself; the present is haunted both by the past and the possible future.
In his 11/25/22 “Off the Pulpit,” Rabbi David Wolpe wrote:
One way of being grateful is to throw oneself into an empathetic future. Sure, relatives can be difficult to sit with at the Thanksgiving dinner table. What will I feel when they are gone? How will I yearn for these moments, even those that irritate or upset me, when I can no longer be with people whom I love? It is a paradox of human nature that we realize this truth but seem unable to absorb it. My late teacher Rabbi David Lieber once told me that we can foreknow things but we cannot forefeel them.