Sunday, November 26, 2006

Finding pshat

It happens every time. I'm reading the weekly parasha, and I'm intrigued by some questions of pshat, the literal interpretation of the text. Naturally, I peruse the classical commentators for some insight. But nothing.

Generally, the mepharshim focus on the micro level: Explaining an unfamiliar term or grammatical construction, or citing a midrashic approach to explain an odd turn of phrase. But rarely do they seem to ask or answer the story-level questions that any thoughtful reader might pose.

Take yesterday's reading. So many questions are raised by the interactions between Yaakov and Esav.

Take, for example, the birthright. Is it possible to sell one's birthright? Presumably, you could sell the property after you inherited it, but can you sell the right to it ahead of time? If so, was this even a valid sale? Yaakov exploited Esav's hunger to force him to sell; is that not a sale under duress? And surely the price (apparently, the food he served) was far from sufficient. Clearly, Esav would have strong grounds to contest this sale when the time came to inherit his father - why doesn't he?

Then there are the blessings. Why did Yitzhak have to have a meal before he could bless Esav? Why did he ask for game rather than any other kind of food? Is that really how a blessing works: A great man lays his hands on your head and blesses you, and whatever he pronounces comes true? If so, does the blessing irrevocably apply to whoever happens to be under those hands, even if he lied and cheated and deceived to get there? (One could ask the same question about Yaakov's subsequent marriage to Leah, an episode with parallels to this one.) Yaakov was worried that when his deception was found out, his father might curse him - why didn't he? His mother promised to bear his curse for him - is that even possible? And if Rivka could have borne the curse due to Yaakov, that means curses are portable. Why aren't blessings? (So Yitzhak could correct the misplaced one.) Was this whole series of deceptions appropriate behavior for the father of a nation? And was the result worth the long-term provocation of Esav's wrath?

I could go on. And on. And I could suggest plausible answers for most of these questions. But most of them, as obvious as they seem, are not even alluded to by the classical Torah commentators.

Reading the commentaries, one gets the impression of a series of disjointed comments, somehow or other tied to the text of a given verse, but with little effort to explicate the narrative as a story. This is, in large part, why the teaching of Chumash in day schools is generally so poor: There's no coherent message, just a choppy collection of mini-interpretations and selections of midrash.

Why is this? Why the apparent lack of interest in basic pshat?

Any ideas?

(And if you're curious, I haven't been blogging because I've been busy, not becuase I haven't had anything worth writing.)