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.)


Shira Salamone said...

Drash is even worse. What evidence is there *in the text* that Esav was the horrible man that midrashim portray him to have been? Whence comes the idea that he was a rapist, for example? Was he not a good son, seeking the food that his father loved? Did he not go out of his way to pick a wife that his parents would prefer when he realized that they were upset about his previous choices? He may not have been on the highest spiritual level, willing, as he was, to sell his birthright for some lentil stew. But does that make Yaakov any less a thief twice over, with Rivka as co-conspirator, the second time? Does no one have anything to say about the fact that he does not protest Rivka's plan?

DLC said...

There are some more modern works that deal with these questions better. They aren't really commentaries in the sense of "verse, comment; verse, comment" but have chapters dealing with particular issues.

Off the top of my head, I would recommend Pirkei Bereshit by Rav Mordechai Breuer, and Pirkei Avot by Rav Yoel Bin-Nun. Sarna's Genesis also discusses many of these issues more in depth.

Zman Biur said...


Drash doesn't bother me. Drash serves a different purpose from pshat. It is generally homiletical, intended to teach a moral lesson, or else it is a creative interpretation used to illuminate unusual aspects of the text.

But ultimately, most of your questions, like mine, are really about pshat.


Of course, you just strengthen my point. What is it about pshat that made it so uninteresting to the ancient commentators, when the moderns have found it such a ric source of insight? Does this reflect a general change in our culture? Or what?

mnuez said...

Personally, I had a productive youth as a drash maker. I was quite adept at making it alllll fit together. A medrash here, a pasuk there, a gemara elsewhere and some chassidishe drush all put together would explain, just, everything.

Unfortunately however, it was all bullshit. I mean, sure, it got me lots of praise from my Rabbeimim and there was talk of "geoinus', but, as mentioned, it really was all bullshit. Though, in honesty, I didn't know that at the time.

BUT (and there is a happy ending to this story) I can not describe to you the pleasure to be had when you ween yourself off of Rashi, midrashim and meforshim. And I truly mean this. When you detox and simply take the chumash at its word - when you read it as you would any story (and it helps to be a Hebrew speaker here) - you start to truly enjoy it. And to understand it.

And then, as your amazement of how far off your understanding was from the simple pshat grows you see more and more of what was always right there before your very eyes.

And then it's time to learn a little Near Eastern and Egyptian history.

Ah! It may sound like apikursus, but the geshmack in (accurate) chidushim and understanding is as good as a geshmack gets.


Elie said...

Welcome back!

These are all excellent questions and I think they bother more people than would be willing to admit it. I'd like to check out some of the sources mentioned in earlier comments.

In terms of why there is so little discussion of simple pshat questions like these, maybe people are afraid of the answers? It's safer to stick to the tried and true statements by meforshim, than to delve into uncharted territory of trying to answer questions like these.

Elie said...

Just to address Shira's point, it seems pretty clear from the text that Esav had some serious character issues. The Torah tells us directly that he scorned ("vayivez") the birthright, and that he planned fracticide. I agree that some of the midrashic statements seem exaggerated, as midrashim often are, since their purpose is to make a point. E.g., here the point may be that Esav was as unfit to carry on Abraham and Isaac's work as if he were a rapist, etc.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

If i remember correctly, some of the medieval mefareshim did actually do "big picture" work; people like Ramban and Don Yitzhhaq Abravanel.

Zman Biur said...


Understanding pshat is indeed a great pleasure, and in fact it provides the basis for really understanding the midrashim.

Thanks for your comments - in the future I'd appreciate more suitable language, though.


How far "back" I am will depend, as always, on the rest of my life. As it should. Derech Eretz Kadmah l'Blogging.

But I'm not asking why frum people don't ask the tough pshat questions. I'm asking why the mefarshim themselves rarely do.

And yes, Esav had some "character issues". But didn't Yaakov? And Rivkah? Or so it would seem from the text.


Ramban does address pshat sometimes, and offers some tremendous insights. But not that often. Abarbanel is the most pshat-oriented classical commentator I know. Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of his work on chumash.

But where are all the others? Why, oh why, is our tradition so weak on pshat? Is it a reaction against the Karaites and other deniers of the oral tradition?

Mark said...

Alot of the Parasha and other Tanach shiurim from Yeshivat Har Etzion ( a pshat approach, and the Hebrew journal Megadim, to which many of their Rabbis contribute, as does the weekly Covenant and Converation by UK Chief Rabbi R Jonathan Sacks. Re Esav, there's a great shiur by Har Etzion's current Rosh Yeshiva R Medan - the way he finds things in the text - really reading between the lines -that seem obvious once he points them out is amazing. IIRC, he says that Esav was originally a warrior - a major reason that Yitzchak - the archetypal passive person - was so prosperous and was not attacked by surrounding tribes was that Esav ran his defence army. Esav later crossed the line from warrior to murderer.

Zman Biur said...


Again - thanks for the suggestions about modern commentators. But I'm still looking for insight into why the classical commentators spurned pshat.