Allen S. Maller
Allen S. Maller

Study how our rabbis read the Bible to help Judaism thrive

Although Rabbis read and study the Bible all the time, they never read it just literally. Rabbis, from the most Reform to the most Ultra-Orthodox always study the text Midrashicly. Midrash involves paying close attention to what the Biblical text says, what it doesn’t say, and the various ways it says what it says. Here is a good example of Misrash.

“[Jacob incensed at Rachel,] said, ‘Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” Jacob said to Rachel: God withheld fertility from you, not from me. She said to him: ‘Is this how your father behaved with to your mother? Did he not gird up his loins (in prayer) for her?’ He replied: ‘My father had no children (so it was unclear who was infertile) whereas I do have children.’ She responded: ‘Your grandfather [Abraham] did not have children yet he too girded up his loins for Sarah!’

He retorted: ‘Can you then do what my grandmother did?’ ‘What did she do?’ He replied: ‘She brought (Hagar, her maid) her rival into her home.’ She then said: ‘If that is the obstacle, then “Here is my maid Bilhah. Consort with her, [that she may bear on my knees and] that through her I too may have children”’: as she [Sarah] was built up through her rival, so was she [Rachel] built up through her rival.

“Rachel said,‘God has vindicated me (dannani)’: He has judged and condemned me (dannani vechiyevani); He has judged me and acquitted me (dannani vezikani). He has judged and condemned me: “Rachel was barren” (Genesis 29:31); He has judged me and acquitted me: “[indeed, He heeded my plea and] given me a son” (Genesis 30:6). (Genesis Rabah 71:7)

The most fundamental question one can ask about existence is: why is there something rather than nothing. Scientist can not answer this question, and theologians would need to know what was on God’s mind at creation: a super human task. But our sages of Israel did offer some ideas about the spiritual archetypes God created prior to creating creatures with the free-will capability of living self conscious, moral lives.

Knowing that all creatures of free will are always likely to make mistakes, and will often choose evil; there has to be a process to return human beings to the correct path and keep them going on the right way. Because God has excellent foresight “The Holy One prepares the remedy before the wound.” (Talmud, Megillah 13b).

Thus, according to the Talmud, the healing remedy of repentance was among the first things God created, before God created the physical universe: “Seven things were created before the world; Torah, Repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehenna, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah.” (Nedarim 39b)

Torah (Sacred Scriptures) is preventative medicine proscribing diet, spiritual exercises and moral behavior for both nations and individuals. Repentance is the active healing process for individuals.

Eden (reward) and Gehenna (punishment) are the consequences (Karma or strict judgement) of transgressions for individuals.

God’s Throne symbolizes God’s ability to override the natural judgement of consequences of sin, with Divine mercy and grace for individuals. The Temple in Jerusalem, and nowadays churches, temples and mosques in general where prayer or meditation is practiced, provide the possibility for all individuals to connect to Devine mercy and grace for self therapy and healing.

An individual human Messiah (with a name and followers) provides a human being who with God’s inspiration, catalyzes national redemption for Israel and all the other nations.

On a much more popular level, the Midrash created a list of ten objects that God foresaw would be needed by the Jewish people: “Ten things were created at the eve of Shabbat at twilight. They are: the opening in the earth that Korah and his followers fell into (Numbers 16:32), the mouth of Miriam’s well (Numbers 21:17), the speaking mouth of Baalam’s ass (Numbers 22:28), the rainbow (Genesis 9:13), manna (Exodus 16:31), Moses’ staff (Exodus 4:17), the Shamir worm (I Kings 6:7), the alefbet, writing, and the two tablets of the covenant (Exodus 31:18).

There are those who say: also demons, or Moses’ grave, or Isaac’s ram. Others say: also tongs”. Pirkei d’R. Eliezer, Chapter 19 Those who add songs to the list might be today’s Hassidim.

This list of things created at the very end of the 6th day (Erev Shabbat) appears 11 times in rabbinic literature. If you add up every item that’s included in each of the lists (plus the added ones), there are 22 items in all.

Five are on every list. They are all odd things the rabbis knew would be needed by future generations of Jews but could not be anticipated or prayed for, so God must have created them providentially.

With seven exceptions (demons, mules, fire, the rainbow (hope), the alefbet, songs and the first pair of tongs–how do you forge red hot tongs if you have no tongs to hold them), the rest are items whose existence enabled Jewish history to progress. For instance, the Shamir worm was used by Solomon to split stones when building the Temple.

Or, Miriam’s well that followed the Jewish people through the desert (and at which nearly all the patriarchs met all the matriarchs), was required for the people to survive in the wilderness, as was manna.

The ram was necessary, for without the ram, the substitution of animal for human offerings would not have occurred. Look how recently human sacrifice ended in Mexico and India (Suttee).

Also, the left of the ram’s 2 horns was the shofar blown by God on Mount Sinai, and the right (bigger) one will be blown to herald the Messianic Age.

The great freedom of the rabbis to speculate about Israel’s needs is evident from the fact that the full list of the 22 items includes only five that are in all 11 versions: the Rainbow (Optimism humanity will survive), Manna, the open Earth which swallows Korah, the speaking mouth of Balaam’s Ass, and the Tablets of the Decalogue.

In most versions we find: the Alefbet and Writing (needed for easily written and read scriptures). Moses’ hidden grave, the Well, and Shamir.

In approximately half of the 11 versions we find: demons, a Cave where Moses and later Elijah stood (Exodus 33: 22, 1 Kings 19:9), the Ram, Moses’ Staff, tongs, and Aaron’s rod with its almonds and blossoms (Numbers 17:23). The ram gets 7 (but it’s always a ‘some say’).

The relatively rare items are: Fire, mules, clouds (perhaps of glory or of rain), the First Man’s clothing, garments, or (animal) skins (the last 3 are variations of each other).

I think that fire is an anti Greek polemic i.e. fire wasn’t stolen from the Gods; it was prepared for humans by a considerate God, who also made mules (very useful for poor farmers) to be an exception to the Torah prohibition on crossbreeding.

The clothing for Adam and Eve shows that God knew they would eat of the tree of moral knowledge and prepared animal skin clothing in advance for them.

Demons (like anti-semitism and all kinds of religious fanaticism) were created to introduce life’s adversities in order to challenge humans to grow stronger.

I wonder what things Jews today would think the Jewish People needs, that have already been created, to survive all the way through the next century.

(The list appears in the following places: Mishnah Avot 5:6., Mekhilta d’R. Ishmael, Vayassa, 6, Midrash Tannaim to Deuteronomy 33:21, Sifrei Devarim, piska 355, Mekhilta d’R. Shimon bar Yochai to Exodus 16:32, B.T. Pesachim 54a–Twice, on one page, and the two versions aren’t the same–, Avot d’R. Natan B, Chapter 37, Targum Yonatan to Num 22:28, Pirkei d’R. Eliezer, Chapter 19, Midrash Lekah Tov to Gen 2:3.)

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 450 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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