Sunday, January 2, 2011

When Drash Becomes Pshat



Listening to my children tell me what they learned about the parashah is a great challenge as well as a source of nachas. The challenge is to be unwaveringly full of praise, even when I am frustrated at something they have been taught. At this tender age, it's not a good idea for me to dispute their teachers.

This past Shabbos was a case in point. The passuk says ותעל הצפרדע - "And the frog came up, and covered the land of Egypt." Why does it say "frog" in the singular? As Junior told me, there was originally only one monstrous frog, and when the Egyptians beat the awesome amphibian, it became many millions.

In fairness to his teacher, I'd bet that 95% of Orthodox Jews think that this is the peshat. Or at least, they will claim that it's Rashi's peshat. But it isn't.

The aforementioned explanation is a Midrash. Rashi does indeed mention it - explicitly describing it as the derush. And Rashi also notes that the peshat is that a swarm of frogs is called "frog" in the singular - just as in English we speak of a "frog plague," not a "frogs plague."

As my friend Professor Eric Lawee has demonstrated in a recent fascinating article, “Words Unfitly Spoken: Late Medieval Criticism of the Role of Midrash in Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah,” in Between Rashi and Maimonides: Themes in Medieval Jewish Law, Thought and Culture, Rashi's commentary did not initially receive the universal reverence that it has today. A number of Rishonim and early Acharonim were highly critical of Rashi for frequently giving a peshat that they considered to be derash rather than peshat. But in this case of the fabulous frog, Rashi explicitly identifies the more fantastic explanation as the derash rather than the peshat, and yet many people aren't interested in the peshat!

Why is this so? No doubt many people are drawn to the more fantastic, supernatural version, and the "boring" explanation is forgotten. Perhaps there is even a conscious desire to make the plagues as supernatural as possible and thus to make the miracles even greater.

In contrast to this is the rationalist approach. As I explained at great length in The Challenge Of Creation, the rationalist Rishonim preferred to explain events in naturalistic terms wherever possible, as did those who followed in their path:

What is a miracle in Judaism? The word “miracle” in Hebrew does not possess the connotation of the supernatural. It has never been placed on a transcendental level. “Miracle” (pele, nes) describes only an outstanding event which causes amazement. A turning point in history is always a miracle, for it commands attention as an event which intervened fatefully in the formation of that group or that individual. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Emergence of Ethical Man, p. 187)


Rabbi Soloveitchik proceeds to translate this in terms of the events of the Exodus:

As we read the story of the exodus from Egypt, we are impressed by the distinct tendency of the Bible to relate the events in natural terms. The frogs came out of the river when the Nile rose, the wind brought the locusts and split the sea. All archaeologists agree that the plagues as depicted by the Bible are very closely related to the geographical and climatic conditions that prevail in Egypt. Behind the passages in the Bible we may discern a distinct intention to describe the plagues as naturally as possible. The Bible never emphasizes the unnaturalness of the events; only its intensity and force are emphasized. The reason for that is obvious. A philosophy which considers the world-drama as a fixed, mechanical process governed by an unintelligent, indifferent principle, may regard the miracle as a supernatural transcendental phenomenon which does not fit into the causalistic, meaning¬less monotony. Israel, however, who looked upon the universal occurrence as the continuous realization of a divine ethical will embedded into dead and live matter, could never classify the miracle as something unique and incompre¬hensible. Both natural monotony and the surprising element in nature express God’s word. Both are regular, lawful phenomena; both can be traced to an identical source. In the famous Psalm 104, Barkhi nafshi (“My soul will bless”), the psalmist describes the most elementary natural phenomena like the propagation of light in terms of wonder and astonishment—no different from Moses’ Song of the Sea. The whole cosmos unfolds itself as a miraculous revelation of God. The demarcation line between revelation and nature is almost non-existent!


Rabbi Soloveitchik concludes that the wonder of miracle is not in it departing from the natural order, but in it matching the natural order to the historical context:

In what, then, does the uniqueness of the miracle assert itself? In the correspondence of the natural and historical orders. The miracle does not destroy the objective scientific nexus in itself, it only combines natural dynamics and historical purposefulness. Had the plague of the firstborn, for instance, occurred a year before or after the exodus, it would not have been termed “with a strong hand” (be-yad hazakah). Why? God would have been instrumental in a natural children’s plague. Yet God acts just as the world rule. On the night of Passover He appeared as the God of the cosmos acting along historical patterns. The intervention of nature in the historical process is a miracle. Whether God planned that history adjust itself to natural catastrophes or, vice versa, He commands nature to cooperate with the historical forces, is irrelevant. Miracle is simply a natural event which causes a historical metamorphosis. Whenever history is transfigured under the impact of cosmic dynamics, we encounter a miracle.


I hope to discuss more on this topic in the coming days. But, regardless of one's position on rationalism vis-a-vis miracles, derash should never be taught as peshat!

92 comments:

  1. Had the plague of the firstborn, for instance, occurred a year before or after the exodus, it would not have been termed “with a strong hand” (be-yad hazakah). Why? God would have been instrumental in a natural children’s plague.

    The first born dying can be a natural children's plague? Can someone please explain this to me? Tnx.

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  2. Unbelieveable! Rashi has always been the basic level simple pshat. If one wants to know the pashut pshat of anything in Torah, he looks at Rashi. Rashi is and always will be the first step one takes, after the translation itself.

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  3. Many of the super-commentaries on Rashi explain how even Rashi's seemingly drash answers are actually to answer pshat questions. (Look at the Gur Aryeh, Mizrachi, etc)

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  4. "No doubt many people are drawn to the more fantastic, supernatural version, and the "boring" explanation is forgotten. Perhaps there is even a conscious desire to make the plagues as supernatural as possible and thus to make the miracles even greater."

    "In contrast to this is the rationalist approach. "

    Shall we say, then, that R' Yossi haGlili, R' Eliezer, and R' Akiva weren't rationalists? They say that the Mitzrim were hit with 50 plagues at the Splitting of the Sea. No, 200! No, 250!

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  5. Unfortunately many people treat Rashi as peshat.

    In the last few years, I intentionally have almost never looked at a Rashi in an effort to rediscover G-d's Bible, unfiltered.

    I find the text of the Chumash itself absolutely fascinating!

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  6. Pliny, the point is that for a rationalist, a greater miracle does not need to mean a more supernatural miracle.

    I'm not saying that any of those tana'im subscribed to medieval rationalism, but that's not the point.

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  7. The following link is slightly related:
    zootorah.blogspot.com/2009/01/frogs-and-crocs.html

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  8. They say that the Mitzrim were hit with 50 plagues at the Splitting of the Sea. No, 200! No, 250!


    So how do we pasken? I think none of them meant it literally. These are divrei chachomim vechdosom.

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  9. Again, I need help. Can someone please explain to me how makkas dam, or a staff turning into a snake, or a staff swallowing other staffs, or makkas bchoros can be a natural phenomenon?

    Tnx

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  10. Rafi, I think the point is the point that I made, not the one that you're making (which, as it stands, I have no problem with).

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  11. Carol asks: "The first born dying can be a natural children's plague? Can someone please explain this to me? Tnx."

    Ahh, well, the TV show, "Exodus Decoded" gives a perfectly plausible explanation of this selective dying.

    OK, actually, they attempted to explain this, but I was totally unconvinced. It was something about the firstborn having the privilege of eating first, and the top of the pile of food was infected with some disease-causing element, but not anywhere else in the pile. Yeah, that's a stretch, isn't it!

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  12. I may have given the wrong explanation, or an alternative explanation of the producers. They also say:

    "The firstborn of Egyptian households slept in a place of honor in their houses. They were placed each night on a small bed that was extremely low to the ground while the other family members slept either on the roof or in wagons outside the home. This would explain why only the firstborn died since the gas would only kill whatever was low to the ground. For an example of this, Jacobovici points to the disaster at Lake Nyos in Cameroon, Africa."

    I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you, if you're interested.

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  13. I am not asking about a TV show. I am asking about the words of the leading thinker of MO. Anyone has a substantive explanation? Anybody cares?

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  14. D. Lerner:
    The point Natan made was that even Rashi didn't consider the explanation of a big frog breaking up into a bunch of little frogs to be the pshat.

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  15. Hey, maybe the frog was THIS type of frog, whose babies pop out of the top-side of the frog:

    http://www.sideshowsito.com/2008/03/23/a-frog-that-gives-birth-through-its-back/

    Just a crazy thought.

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  16. Interestingly, I spoke about this Rashi at a family Simcha this past Shabbos. I also mentioned the gemara in Sanhedrin 67b where Rabi Akiva says something similar only to be rather sharply rebuked by Rabi Elazar ben Azaria who proceeds to offer what could be thought of as a more "rationalist" explanation.

    For additional insight see what the Maharsha and the Chasam Sofer have to say as to what R' Elazar ben Azeariah found so objectionable about R' Akiva's explanation.

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  17. On the Pshat side, the singular form of הַצְּפַרְדֵּעַ in 8:4 is matched by the singular form of הֶעָרֹב in 8:17.

    Another question Junior could have asked, and perhaps did: if וַיָּמָת, כֹּל מִקְנֵה מִצְרָיִם; וּמִמִּקְנֵה בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא-מֵת אֶחָד in 9:6, how are they back in 9:19 וְעַתָּה, שְׁלַח הָעֵז אֶת-מִקְנְךָ, וְאֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר לְךָ, בַּשָּׂדֶה: כָּל-הָאָדָם וְהַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר-יִמָּצֵא בַשָּׂדֶה, וְלֹא יֵאָסֵף הַבַּיְתָה--וְיָרַד עֲלֵהֶם הַבָּרָד, וָמֵתוּ

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  18. Rabbi Slifkin,

    Are there any Torah(as opposed to academic) articles explaining how the makkot were "natural" and not supernatural?

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  19. Note that in the common parlance there is such a thing as "a peshat" rather than "peshat." Unconcsiously or otherwise, many people don't even make a distinction between the simple meaning, or a good candidate for the simple meaning, and any sort of explanation at all.

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  20. There are a good number of Rashis with the structure seen in this particular comment: that of "X, zehu midrasho, u'pshuto Y," or vice versa. Frankly, I've always been (and still am) a bit mystified by what Rashi's intent is when he uses this lashon.

    In this particular case, though, Rashi precedes his explanation of the pshat with "yesh lomar," which to me indicates that Rashi doesn't find the pashut pshat (i.e. the pshat uninformed by midrash) to be fully satisfying.

    That being, said, I also am often frustrated by the lack of distinction between mikra and midrash in the way chumash is taught to children (and, at times, even to adults). Great article.

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  21. Dr. Lerner:

    Rashi quite often gives over drash, NOT pshat. He is dutifully giving over the chazal's and the midrashim to explain the verses - specifically not telling pshat in most cases. He's not considered a "pashtan" like other authorities.

    This was famously the main criticism of Rashbam (Rashi's grandson) on his grandfather's Chumash commentary - that it focused to much on drash and not even on pshat.

    You must have been misinformed about Rashi's role.

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  22. Phil said:
    "I may have given the wrong explanation, or an alternative explanation of the producers. They also say:

    "The firstborn of Egyptian households slept in a place of honor in their houses. They were placed each night on a small bed that was extremely low to the ground while the other family members slept either on the roof or in wagons outside the home. This would explain why only the firstborn died since the gas would only kill whatever was low to the ground. For an example of this, Jacobovici points to the disaster at Lake Nyos in Cameroon, Africa."

    I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you, if you're interested."



    Why is that not believable?
    He even points to an example of a disaster where this actually occurred. That's pretty believable to me. More believable than, "Well, the text says it, so there." (Not that I don't believe the text anyway, I just don't understand your logic or condescension on this point)

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  23. A while back, I tried addressing what might be the allegorical meaning of these competing midrashim (hitting the frog vs. the whistling frog).

    Despite recognizing the plausible allegorical meaning, I am not so sure that Chazal (as opposed to Rashi) did not mean this literally.

    kol tuv,
    josh

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  24. 'derash should never be taught as peshat!'

    Agree, and I share your frustration with kids being taught derash as peshat and historical reality. Emes.

    However, what would it feel like for the Junior to say by the Shabbos table. 'Miracles? That's being in the right place at the right time! Moshe Rabbeinu didn't really turn the waters of Mitzraim into blood at Hashem's command. He just was there at the right time and place.'

    Am I the only one who is having a problem?

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  25. Why is that not believable?

    How does this account for bchor shifcha? Did they also sleep in places of honor?

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  26. IIRC it was noted that many if not all of the makot were explainable as the result of volcanic activity and there may have been a volcanic eruption in the region at that time.

    Also, an explanation of the splitting of the sea: http://www2.ucar.edu/news/parting-waters-computer-modeling-applies-physics-red-sea-escape-route

    Additionally, the recording of the events in the Torah may not be completely accurate historically (just noting that the Torah is not primarily a historical document).

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  27. It is worth observing the pshat of the mikra accepts a degree of magic on the part of the chartumim. This can be explained in rationalist terms through drash. But, that some degree of miracle can be achieved by specialist practitioners (“chartumim”) indicates a degree of manipulation of nature beyond the scope that Rav Soloveitchik explains in the paragraphs you quote. Thoughts?

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  28. Haven't got time to write much, but in brief:

    Carol - "Dam" does not always mean blood.

    Re. the chartumim - already some of the medieval parshanim say that it was illusions.

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  29. Domim - tartei masma, but what other meanings are there?

    Rav Saadia says hartumimim used deceptive tricks.

    No problem, I'll wait till you have time.

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  30. "Additionally, the recording of the events in the Torah may not be completely accurate historically"

    Yet another example of kefira. What is the recording? Like some scribes were recording events as they happened? Apikorsis! WHO recorded it? God, that's who. And to my recollection, He doesn't make mistakes.

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  31. Is miraculousness (in the sense of the plagues) observer-relative? Observer-independent? Any sources on this?

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  32. "Re. the chartumim - already some of the medieval parshanim say that it was illusions."

    I am familiar with Ibn Ezra's drash on 7:11, but this is not pshat. And even he, a rationalist, explains that Chachamim are "chachmai ha'mazalot" (and, yes, I understand the danger of anachronism).

    But, it is my fault for being too indirect. I was hinting at a broader point about pshat vs. drash, which is that a lot of what "95% of Orthodox Jews" think is pshat isn't.

    In recent parshiyot, there are some very difficult passages that are generally ignored, brushed away or layered with drash. I have been making it a point to re-read parshat ha’shavua at home on Shabbat in Robert Alter’s philologically-oriented translation, together with my mikraot gedolot, really concentrating on the pshat. Hafoch ba, ve’hafoch ba!

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  33. see Hakitah volume 4

    http://hakirah.org/Vol%204%20Schweka.pdf

    for a discussion on the Tzfardea and Rashi.

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  34. I previously noted:

    "On the Pshat side, the singular form of הַצְּפַרְדֵּעַ in 8:4 is matched by the singular form of הֶעָרֹב in 8:17."

    Also note וְהַדָּגָה in 7:18 which Ibn Ezra picks up on explaining "shem min kollel le'chol shoretz ba'mayim". I.e. a genus name in the singular.

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  35. Moshe F. - Reply to Carol - Part IJanuary 3, 2011 at 5:09 AM

    Carol asked for help with makkas dam, a staff turning into a snake, a staff swallowing other staffs, and makkas bchoros, how they could be natural phenomena.

    I also am not aware of any cogent, rational explanations of all these “miracles” by standard Rabbinical sources. In my humble opinion, however, regarding "dam," "blood," there can be many explanations as to how it occurred through natural, though unusual circumstances.

    First of all, in the Scripture itself (not Midrashim) it seems this means simply that the water became full of "death" (i.e., "blood" in this context simply means "death"), and as we see, Shmos 7:21 says that the plague consisted of the fish dying and contaminating the water.

    It could also be, as some meforshim explain, that the water turned red, the color of blood, either due to some contamination upstream or from something in the atmosphere, since the word "dam" is also used to indicate only a red-colored liquid, as in Breishis 48:11 ("he will wash his garments in wine and his robe in the blood of grapes").

    See Abarbanel on Shmos 7 (near top of p. 83 in the standard edition), for one manner of understanding the natural chain of events that produced all the rest of the plagues.

    You also might want to check out Worlds in Collision by Immanuel Velikovsky, as to how the plagues may have been caused by the very unusual close encounter of the earth with a comet, which also helps explain some of the other phenomena including the pillar of fire and smoke, the splitting of the sea, the manna and other "miracles." You don't have to accept everything he says in order to benefit from some of his ideas. For the plague of the firstborn he says there was a powerful earthquake that collapsed many of the stone houses where the firstborn/chosen lived, so that “there was no house where there was no death” (whereas the Jews who lived in homes made of simpler materials like straw and reeds were not affected). It has already been established that often when Scripture says “all,” as in this case “all firstborn,” it may be only an exaggeration.

    One could also speculate that the Egyptians may have held some special ceremony for the firstborns, even in an attempt to protect themselves from Moshe's threat, in which they ingested some potion they thought might protect them, for example gold dust, which really was a deadly poison that subsequently sickened and killed them.

    [Part II will follow]

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  36. Moshe F. - Reply to Carol - Part IJanuary 3, 2011 at 5:13 AM

    I also am not aware of any cogent, rational explanations of all these “miracles” by standard Rabbinical sources. In my humble opinion, however, regarding "dam," "blood," there can be many explanations as to how it occurred through natural, though unusual circumstances.

    First of all, in the Scripture itself (not Midrashim) it seems this means simply that the water became full of "death" (i.e., "blood" in this context simply means "death"), and as we see, Shmos 7:21 says that the plague consisted of the fish dying and contaminating the water.

    It could also be, as some meforshim explain, that the water turned red, the color of blood, either due to some contamination upstream or from something in the atmosphere, since the word "dam" is also used to indicate only a red-colored liquid, as in Breishis 48:11 ("he will wash his garments in wine and his robe in the blood of grapes").

    See Abarbanel on Shmos 7 (near top of p. 83 in the standard edition), for one manner of understanding the natural chain of events that produced all the rest of the plagues.

    [Part II will follow]

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  37. Moshe F. - Reply to Carol - Part IIJanuary 3, 2011 at 5:17 AM

    You also might want to check out Worlds in Collision by Immanuel Velikovsky, as to how the plagues may have been caused by the very unusual close encounter of the earth with a comet, which also helps explain some of the other phenomena including the pillar of fire and smoke, the splitting of the sea, the manna and other "miracles." You don't have to accept everything he says in order to benefit from some of his ideas.

    For the plague of the firstborn he says there was a powerful earthquake that collapsed many of the stone houses where the firstborn/chosen lived, so that “there was no house where there was no death” (whereas the Jews who lived in homes made of simpler materials like straw and reeds were not affected).

    It also can be established that often when Scripture says “all,” as in this case “all firstborn,” it may be only an exaggeration.

    One could also speculate that the Egyptians may have held some special ceremony for the firstborns, even in an attempt to protect themselves from Moshe's threat, in which they ingested some potion they thought might protect them, for example gold dust, which really was a deadly poison that subsequently sickened and killed them.

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  38. Moshe F. - Reply to Carol - Part IIIJanuary 3, 2011 at 5:19 AM

    Regarding Moshe's staff turning into a snake, it is possible to interpret that the signs as related as occurring at the burning bush actually took place only as a vision in Moshe's mind – similar to the burning bush itself, which even according to a Midrash, the "fire" in the bush was only visible to Moshe, and the other shepherds who were with him saw nothing unusual, meaning, it did not really happen that way in this physical world, but only in Moshe's prophetic vision.

    As for performing the staff-turns-to-snake trick before the Jews and before Pharaoh, the rational explanation could be that immediately when Moshe, or Aaron, threw down the staff, a fearful serpent just happened to jump out and appear near that spot (similar to when Moshe hit the rock, and just happened to break through to a source of water near the surface of the rock).

    As for the magicians performing a similar feat, there are many meforshim who say it was done by slight of hand or diverting attention – not by means of any real sorcery or magic, which as the Rambam clearly states does not exist, but – just like magicians' tricks that are performed today.

    Regarding Moshe's staff "swallowing" the staffs of the magicians, it could be that the serpent that appeared when Moshe/Aaron threw their staff really did swallow up the serpents who the magicians caused to appear (though obviously the idea of Moshe’s "staff" literally swallowing the magicians’ "staffs" is an exaggeration).

    It could also be that in this context "swallowing" merely is an expression that means only that Moshe/Aaron's staff "out-performed" the staff-tricks of the magicians (see Abarbanel p. 58, explaining that this is how the Rambam might have understood it).

    Hope this is useful. Anyone with better explanations or other sources please share you knowledge with the rest of us.

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  39. Moshe F. - CorrectionJanuary 3, 2011 at 5:52 AM

    I wrote:

    See Abarbanel on Shmos 7 (near top of p. 83 in the standard edition), for one manner of understanding the natural chain of events that produced all the rest of the plagues.

    --- Correction: that should have been p. 63. Here is a link:

    http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14386&hilite=4e4020b7-bd0c-4b8b-8fd6-08bd6d415187&st=%D7%95%D7%99%D7%90%D7%9E%D7%9F+%D7%94%D7%A2%D7%9D&pgnum=62

    For the Abarbanel explaining "swallowing" according to Rambam, see:

    http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14386&st=%D7%95%D7%99%D7%90%D7%9E%D7%9F+%D7%94%D7%A2%D7%9D&pgnum=57&hilite=4e4020b7-bd0c-4b8b-8fd6-08bd6d415187

    האמנם מפני שהיות
    ענין נס משה פעל אלהי עמד שעות הדבה
    בהיותו תנין ולא היו כן מטות החרטומים
    כי לא עמדה התחבולה ההוא בהרף עין
    ושעל זה נאמר ויבלע מטה אהרן את מטותם
    כלומר שבאותו נסיון בלע אותם והשחיתם
    ולא נשאר שמה לפני פרעה מכל המטות כי
    אס מסה אהרן בלבד.

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  40. What I want to know is how you, Natan Slifkin, as an ostensibly Orthodox Rabbi, can tolerate the nonsensical heretical views espoused by some of these commentators. I'm not even referring to the ones quoting sources like the Rambam, I'm talking about non-Jewish or non-Torah sources. Who the heck is Robert Alter? Who is Velikovsky? Do you really need to entertain the ideas of kofrim and ovdei avoda zarah to make your points that not everything is literal? Is this what you learned in yeshiva? Your smicha should be retracted if this is how you give over Torah.

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  41. Moshe F -- your mention of Velikovsky illustrates how belief in rationalism in mikra can be as fantastical as belief in magic in mikra.

    Which takes us back to the point that much of what people would like to believe is pshat, ia also drash.

    A good example is the issue I raised earlier (5:19pm) of the seemingly resurrected Egyptian מִקְנֵה.

    And don't even get me started on the pshat of 4:24-26, speaking of "Dam"...

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  42. However, for the Jews the water didn't turn to blood. What's the explanation?

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  43. Similarly the frogs only struck the Egyptians but not the Jews. What natural explanation can be advanced for this phenomenon?

    Also shchin and darkness didn't affect the Jews.

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  44. Is miraculousness (in the sense of the plagues) observer-relative? Observer-independent? Any sources on this?

    My baalasbatishe svorah is that they were meant to affect people so must be observer-relative.

    All waters of Egypt turning into blood and becoming unsuitable for humans unless they were Jews is observer-related. No?

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  45. Carol -- are you sure the Jews were not affected by the 1st 3 plagues? The Mikra is silent.

    It is only starting with Arov, that we are told that Eretz Goshen is spared (8:18). And only with Dever that Mikne Yisrael is separated.

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  46. I also have been frustrated by this tendency to confuse pshat with derush, and agree there are many pernicious effects of this "scrambling" of different levels of understanding.

    In the last four years or so, my Judaism has definitely undergone a major overhaul, incorporating many elements of rationalism-- especially in my halachic approach.

    Yet some of the comments here express very well why I can never be comfortable with the rationalist camp. While rationalism in proper bounds in necessary in a quest for truth, I have met too many in the rationalist camp who seem to me to basically be closet agnostics who are secretly waiting for someone to conclusively prove to them that the Torah is not true so as to put them out of their misery.

    Many in a the rationalist camp seem to have a real taavah to prove that something is the product of a natural progression of events. While this sometimes feeds a certain attitude of gaavah and contempt I myself fell into, there is a problem in that pushing rationalism past its proper bounds tends to make one so prone to skepticism and questioning that relating to God in a simple, direct, and sincere way is very difficult. In other words, often the de facto result is a contempt and blockage of sponteneous, sincere, heartfelt expressions of religiosity (only fools and children do THOSE things).

    This, among other reasons, is why I consider myself a Jew who appreciates thinking rationally in understanding hazal and Torah, and have a great appreciation for peshat (and not, to get back to the subject of this post, mixing up peshat and derush), and yet will never feel at home in the rationalist camp.

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  47. Moshe F. - See Ibn EzraJanuary 3, 2011 at 7:53 AM

    Carol,

    The idea that none of the plagues affected the Jews is so ingrained in us by the yeshivos, based on all the Midrashim (drasha, not pshat), that we do not even realize how distorted our perspectives have become.

    See Ibn Ezra on Shmos 7:24, "Many say that the water in the hand an Egyptian was like blood and it was purified in the hand of an Israelite. If that were so, then why is this wonder not mentioned in the Torah? In my opinion the plagues of blood, 'tzfardaim,' and lice was inclusive of the Egyptians and the Hebrews... (similarly) there was no distinction by 'shechin' and locusts..."

    Regarding the plague of darkness, there are commentaries who explain that the Jews were not effected because they lived in Goshen, and the cloud that caused the severe darkness did not extend there.

    It could also be explained that the "ohr" (light) that the Jews had in this context really means "joy," i.e., that they were happy in the belief and knowledge that their redemption was imminent, even if they too had to endure darkness for the period of the plague.

    Either way, Torah only says that the Jews had "light" (or "joy") "in THEIR dwellings," there is nothing in the Pshat of the verses that even hints that the Jews had light in the houses of the Egyptians (as it says in Midrashim, that then they went into the houses of their Egyptian masters and saw the locations of all their valuables).

    I'd like to elaborate about another DROSHA, that the Jews were given "light" during the plague of darkness in order to be able to bury the millions of Jews who died then, without this being noticed by the Egyptians -- which clearly is NOT PSHAT -- however a discussion of that would take us off topic; perhaps it could be addressed in a separate blog.

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  48. Fine, but Ibn Ezra agrees that orov, dever and borod didn't affect the Jews. Why? If it's because they were in Goshen, why did the rest of the makkos affect them?

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  49. Moshe F. - Re: Mention of VelikovskyJanuary 3, 2011 at 8:35 AM

    Both "UberMentch" and "IH" seem to be quite put off by my mention of Immanuel Velikovsky (even though they they strongly disagree with one another about the merits of Robert Alter).

    UberMentch's comments I don't think are deserving of any reply.

    To IH though, please explain how my "mention of Velikovsky illustrates how belief in rationalism in mikra can be as fantastical as belief in magic in mikra" - especially as I stated "You don't have to accept everything he says in order to benefit from some of his ideas."

    It seems as though you have some kind of irrational and fanatical rejection of all ideas developed by Velekovsky. I feel sorry for you.

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  50. I wonder whether the concept of ein mikra yotzeh mipshuto is taken to an irrational extreme. Every retelling of an event is really no more than a narrative of the perception of whoever is retelling and was there. It does not necessarily tell us what really happened just what was observed by a specific person and his perception. The Torah is a teacher as the name implies. It tells us about an event from its perspective
    - HKBH's perspective as told to Moshe - (note as "told to Moshe" who although he was there tells it as dictated to him by HKBH)- with the goal to teach us something. I suggest that Peshuto shel mikra is to decipher that message and not necessarily finding a rational explanation for an event reported from a certain perspective. That quest is impossible as we do not have all the facts just the ones reported.

    I think that taking the above into consideration will relieve much of the frustration that come through in the comments above. This will also explain why Rashi always brings in Midrasho in his pirush. It also clarifies Rashbam's exchange with his grandfather and Rashi's response that he would redo his pirush by coming closer to pshat relying less on the midrash for the underlying message.

    Just food for thought.

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  51. (A partial repetition of my earlier post)

    "No doubt many people are drawn to the more fantastic, supernatural version, and the "boring" explanation is forgotten. Perhaps there is even a conscious desire to make the plagues as supernatural as possible and thus to make the miracles even greater."

    "In contrast to this is the rationalist approach. "

    If this is a criticism of the non-rationalist approach, then is it also a criticism of R' Yossi haGlili, R' Eliezer, and R' Akiva? Recall what they said as written in the Haggadah.

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  52. For those not familiar with Robert Alter (or Avivah Zornberg), try: http://www.jewishbookweek.com/2007/240207.php.

    Re: Velikovsky, this quote from Wikipedia: "Velikovsky's ideas have been almost entirely rejected by mainstream academia (often vociferously so) and his work is generally regarded as erroneous in all its detailed conclusions. Moreover, scholars view his unorthodox methodology (for example, using comparative mythology to derive scenarios in celestial mechanics) as an unacceptable way to arrive at conclusions. The late Stephen Jay Gould offered a synopsis of the mainstream response to Velikovsky, writing, "Velikovsky is neither crank nor charlatan — although, to state my opinion and to quote one of my colleagues, he is at least gloriously wrong ... Velikovsky would rebuild the science of celestial mechanics to save the literal accuracy of ancient legends.""

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  53. In case the URL is too long and gets scrambled, the Alter reference is:
    http://tinyurl.com/35ecj4m

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  54. one of my biggest painful pet peeves, and also one of my challenges as a teacher of young children.

    1. i was the kid who was always bothered by drashes fantasmagorical stories, and who got the message of being different, if not an apikores for not believing them. do we not realize what teaching in this way does to some children? and the distorted perceptions it gives all chidren?

    2. i always wondered why we tax children's emunah by always presenting torah in a way that is hard to believe. much later i came to discover how much of chazal is hard to believe...still a challenge.

    3. today, most adults i speak to (here in boro park) think of these things as pshat. what's more, they build elaborate shabbos table 'divrei torah' on their pshaticulous premises. ie...iiiiiiiiif the individual frog rose out of the yeor and was beaten by a stick made from the tree that refused to make itself a fruit, how long was vashti's tail? it must mean that the moon complained about the sun bein hashmoshos....i'm not joking. what's more, this is done in a totally 'rational' manner.

    4. btw.what is the point of this specific fairy tale? why did the drashenizers say this to begin with? are they saying that when we try to beat down our individual challenges they multiply? what?

    was va'taal ha singular tzefardea such a difficult linguistic problem? was the creation of these types of resolutions simply the sudoku of the day? (as it is now see 3.)

    5. i'm curious how others deal with this issue with young children today.

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  55. Micha

    >Many in a the rationalist camp seem to have a real taavah to prove that something is the product of a natural progression of events. While this sometimes feeds a certain attitude of gaavah and contempt I myself fell into, there is a problem in that pushing rationalism past its proper bounds tends to make one so prone to skepticism and questioning that relating to God in a simple, direct, and sincere way is very difficult. In other words, often the de facto result is a contempt and blockage of sponteneous, sincere, heartfelt expressions of religiosity (only fools and children do THOSE things).

    This is a valid critique, and yet often through no fault of the so-called rationalist they are incapable of thinking otherwise. At the very least some sympathy is warranted, and not only contempt. Yet it is very difficult to get a sympathetic nod from Orthodox rabbis of perceived great stature. I suppose the need for some sort of validation from the authorities of an authority-based religion is an emotional one on the part of rationalists, but I'm sure even rationalists have emotions!

    If to a certain degree it is valuable to have non-rationalists whisper (or shout) in the ear that your very thinking is heresy, or at least dancing with heresy, I submit that it is equally valuable for rationalists to whisper into the ears of non-rationalists that they're on a slippery slope to Frankism, because, halalu religious enthusiasts and ve-halalu religious enthusiasts.

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  56. Seeker: I'll tell you how we deal with the children. We tell them to pay attention to their rebbeim and don't ask stupid questions. And eventually they believe it and we're happy. Those who don't, go off the derech, and we daven for them. Tough luck, we can't save everyone.

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  57. At this tender age, it's not a good idea for me to dispute their teachers.

    Rabbi, respectfully, you're doing them a disservice and setting them up for a fall later on. I assume you do it because you feel it's to their (and your) advantage to remain in the community, and, if you're going to do that, they have to attend certain schools. I'd ask you to reconsider, for their sakes.

    The comment prior to this one, posted by The Wizard, is telling (whether or not he's being sarcastic): And eventually they believe it and we're happy. Those who don't, go off the derech, and we daven for them. Tough luck, we can't save everyone.

    This is the insular, defensive, self-protective attitude of Orthodoxy today. Is this really what you want for them?

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  58. AkSeeker: I teach Rambam's Torah, to think for themselves and I try to put things in their correct perspective.

    Bringing up children in Boro Park is very trying and dai lemeivin.

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  59. Everywhere it says "hatzfardiim" except the one pasuk where it says "hatzfardea". I'm having a hard time with the pshat that it's talking about "the frog species" in that one particular pasuk, yet everywhere else it uses the simpler "frogs". So despite my tendencies to go with the rationalist approach in general, I find the medrash quite compelling here. Am I missing something?

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  60. Micha, your critique of the rationalist chevra seems a bit too facile. While it is true that a critical approach to Jewish studies can lead to cynicism, a non-critical approach, on the other hand, can result in a merely superficial adoption of community beliefs and practices. We have much evidence of both extremes in the blogworld. In fact, the extremes would be expected to take on more prominence as the Jewish world becomes increasingly polarized. It seems to me, however, that thought is a good thing even if it may lead to some erroneous conclusions.

    It can also be said that thinking people tend to be individualists while 'non-thinkers' are groupies. Now, the non-thinkers tend to be frum conformists, but those who consider themselves rationalists may also be conformists of a different, i.e., skeptical - if not cynical, stripe. Hence, grouping thinkers into some camp is probably unwise.

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  61. I submit that it is equally valuable for rationalists to whisper into the ears of non-rationalists that they're on a slippery slope to Frankism

    Agree, it's our duty. When I hear a drosha she'll doifi that Avos kept the Torah or that a giant frog exploded into myriads of frogs, my usual starting line is 'Ofcourse you understand that it never really happened...' And I find that quite a few people like the message.

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  62. I had not seen these snippets quoted from RYBS’ writing (I generally find his philosophical essays not only difficult but unappealing and so have avoided many of them. Indeed I find growing opportunities to avoid them as his posthumous publication rate seems to exceed his production allei admos) and am surprised at this seeming negation of the unnatural from the miraculous. Though as a maimonidean he may be reflecting his perspective in the rambam who, along with his tendency to consign unnatural miraculous stories to never-happened dreams, articulated the notion that nature continues unchanged. But it seems to me that shemesh b’givon dome, elsiha stories, and some of the exodus related descriptions; staffs eating snakes , mayyim to dom and what not seem at a simple p’shot level to be examples of the bible relating unnatural miracles.

    Re velikovsky, the wiki quote seems quite artfully crafted. It is at the detailed level of his explanations of physical mechanisms supposedly underlying far too many specifics, including folk tales and legends from around the world whose historicity he credulously credits, that were/are rejected as fantastical. But that should not obscure the more basic point that he deserves much credit for presciently anticipating the sea change in scientific perspectives concerning the history of the earth, that today recognizes that infinitesimally slow geological processes - the only change recognized by the scientific orthodoxy of his 1950s era – were also punctuated by a series of sudden catastrophic changes that changed topography, sea cover, and/or climate in a precipitous manner.

    Velikovsky – or rather retrospectives on “velikovsky affair” was also the subject of much analysis by sociologists who used it as a case study of the scientific community’s organized response to challenge by an “outsider”. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Organized boycotts (of publishers), lies and distortions by respected scientific authority figures, behind the scenes manipulations etc etc. reminds one of the scientists behaving badly in this year’s climategate scandal, where challenges to orthodoxy are met by scientists with the same fear and loathing displayed by ostensibly less sophisticated social groupings such as the Taliban.

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  63. Moshe F. - Note about VelikovskyJanuary 4, 2011 at 2:14 AM

    Just to reply one more time about Velikovsky - it is not surprising that most evaluations of Velikovshy's work are negative. Quoting from a more positive website: "Reviews and criticisms of Velikovsky's work have tended to be inaccurate, inconclusive or just plainly wrong. Velikovsky did make mistakes, but his key proposal, that in historical times mankind witnessed global catastrophes of cosmic origin, endures with increasing numbers of organizations and people investigating his work."

    You may not be aware of it, but Rabbi Slifkin, in his book "Sacred Monsters: Mysterious and Mythical Creatures of Scripture, Talmud and Midrash," in Chapter 7, writes of Velikovsky, that although "Velikovsky is regarded by the overwhelming majority of scientists as nothing more than a crank, but some of [his] theories are worthy of discussion. He took great interest in synchronizing Biblical events with science..." Rabbi Slifkin goes on to analyze Velikovshy's "intriguing ideas" about the shamir.

    My approach is similar, that Velikovsky, though far from perfect, certainly presented many intriguing ideas that are indeed very worthy of serious consideration.

    While I have no intention to champion Velikovsky's work, I will give another example in response to Rabbi Slifkin's latest blog about the "hail," "Great Icy Balls of Fire."

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  64. Poshuter Yid - Please obey the rules. Only use one name for your comments and stick with that name (wizard, ubermentch etc etc - it is insulting to the readers, while you think you are 'pulling a fast one' on them...you're not).

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  65. Re Velikovsky

    IH - the Wikipedia quote you cited is certainly entertaining (who doesn't like a stephen j gould quote?), but Not One thing about it precludes Velikovsky from identifying correctly a pshat-level explanation of Chumash.

    The level of disrespect for Velikovsky as a human being is astounding. No one can just "hand-wave him away" because some of his science was disputed, his opponents labeled him a "crank," and because some of his scientific conclusions were called (and likely were) "gloriously wrong" by great scientists like Gould. That doesn't turn him into a martian-man with alchemy potions and kabala/palm readings who sold used cars and exorcised dybuks.

    In fact, read carefully, Gould specifically said he was NOT a charlatan or crank.

    What is really ironic, is that the greatest scientific fault of Velikovsky being described in the comments here is that he believed in the credibility of ancient mythical stories. Well, we also believe in the accuracy of at least one of those.

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  66. Binyamin GoldsteinJanuary 5, 2011 at 11:41 AM

    Seeker, Wizard, and Cipher:
    I agree with R' Slifkin that the ideas (no matter how irrational and foolish) that children bring home from school should not be stamped out or "corrected by parents (although I am not sure if he agrees with my reason). I think of myself as a rational Torah-Observant Jew (I am majoring in Bible at YU and intend to go for a PhD). However, I think that if I was exposed as a child to the ideas that I now take for granted, such as the lack of complete textual integrity of the Torah in select cases (and very frequently in נ"ך) and the parallels and borrowing between ANE idolatrous cultures and that of our ancestors (cf. Y. Avishur's great book on Ugaritic material in Tanakh, עיונים בשירת המזמורים העברית והאוגריתית), I most probably would not have turned out religious. Belief in what adults might consider stupid mythology is important in a child's development. A very good book that discusses this concept (among others) is "Stages of Faith" by James Fowler. The problem is NOT that our children have these ideas when they are children, but that they do not grow out of them as part of their spiritual and mental development.

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  67. When Rashi says "u'midrasho" this does not mean that this explanation is less likely to have occured than one labaled "peshat". What Rashi could mean is that the event described in the midrash did happen and the resulting swarm of frogs is also referred to in the singular.

    What is interesting to note is that the whole parsha refers to tzefardim in the plural exept for the description of the tzefardaya coming up from the nile. This lends itself to the explanation of the midrash.

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  68. Binyamin GoldsteinJanuary 5, 2011 at 12:27 PM

    R' Slifkin, Carol, Moshe:
    דם is used to mean "red", but rarely. We find in 2 Kings 3:22 "כב וַיַּשְׁכִּימוּ בַבֹּקֶר וְהַשֶּׁמֶשׁ זָרְחָה עַל-הַמָּיִם וַיִּרְאוּ מוֹאָב מִנֶּגֶד אֶת-הַמַּיִם אֲדֻמִּים כַּדָּם", but it is expressly "כדם". The only place (I believe) where the word is used (without a preformative) meaning red is Yoel 3:4 "הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ יֵהָפֵךְ לְחֹשֶׁךְ וְהַיָּרֵחַ לְדָם לִפְנֵי בּוֹא יוֹם יְהוָה הַגָּדוֹל וְהַנּוֹרָא". Moshe, the example of דם ענבים is itself very interesting. The Ugaritic poetic term for wine is "dm (șm" (דם עצים). However, I think that the particular case of grape-blood is not good for comparison with the makkah of דם, as the term is metaphorically imagining the grape bleeding, and is not only based on the color. Regardless, Yoel 3:4 is sufficient to demonstrate that the word CAN simply mean "red".

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  69. However, I think that if I was exposed as a child to the ideas that I now take for granted... I most probably would not have turned out religious.

    Binymain, I'd submit that most people would be better off.

    How many of your fellow students at YU would be willing to acknowledge "the lack of complete textual integrity of the Torah in select cases... and the parallels and borrowing between ANE idolatrous cultures and that of our ancestors"? How many would call you kofer merely for suggesting it?

    I know you won't agree, but I don't want to argue about it. I understand this is a site for frum people (which I am not).

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  70. Binyamin GoldsteinJanuary 5, 2011 at 9:24 PM

    Cipher-
    It could be that I am living surrounded by sycophants (although I strongly doubt that), but whenever I suggest a Biblical emendation around friends at YU or even Ner Israel (you heard me!) they are surprisingly receptive, or at least non-combative (this could be because I have gotten into arguments with them about these topics in the past and have trounced them). I've only been demonized a few times ;)
    I don't mean to portray becoming irreligious in a bad light, but the goal of most parents is to raise their children frum. Maybe I was a bit unclear in my comment. I think that children should be taught the simple, mythological stories until they are old enough to consciously absorb concepts like: something can be partially true, there is such a thing as paraphrasing (ie dialogue recorded by the Torah...), etc. etc. This age is probably between 12 and 16 for most people. Then, I feel that schools should teach them the rational approach (which would be a problem, because very few rabbeim in yeshivos and schools believe or even know this approach). In any case, I agree that most people would be "better off" if they learned the rational understanding of Judiasm, but think that it is difficult for children to assimilate complex ideas and not jump to conclusions. I am not saying that children would not understand the rational explanation. But they might take it too far (there is always a line). The only (or main) difference between Spinoza and Crescas was that Spinoza was willing to take his philosophic conclusions (which in many cases were the same as Crescas') to their logical extreme (see M. Waxman's synopsis of Crescas' Philosophical system). Now, you might say, that doesn't lend much credence to your approach! I don't think it affects the rational approach's integrity, some might disagree.
    On your last point, just because you are not frum doesn't mean that the blog was not intended for you (I hope). I'm not going all evangelical on you, but I think that the more secular Jews and Gentiles visit this blog the better off religious Jews will be, as R' Slifkin's blog shows that rational, level-headed Judaism is still alive.

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  71. this could be because I have gotten into arguments with them about these topics in the past and have trounced them

    Yes, but there you go. You had to argue about it.

    Of course, my perspective is a non-religious one (I'm not involved even in a liberal denomination), but I'm aware of some of the stuff kids get told today in all but the most liberal Modern Orthodox schools, and I have to think it would be better for them not to be religious at all (not that it's the only alternative) than to be subjected to it.

    I don't see a problem with telling children, "Some people believe this, some believe that. No one really knows, but this is what we believe." I think it's a healthier approach. Children naturally want to imitate their parents and other authority figures.

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  72. Regardless, Yoel 3:4 is sufficient to demonstrate that the word CAN simply mean "red".

    Terrific! We have a posuk where dam is used poetically to mean red. Let’s read our parsha assuming that dam means red i.e. the color of dam. This explanation is quite plausible because we could start wondering whose blood did the water turn into? Now we have a geshmaker pshat that the water became poisonous and turned to the color of blood. No living creature could drink the water, all fish died. I like this explanation. Thanks.


    The question remains why did the Almighty turn the water into the color of blood? This is an extra miracle because the water could have been as poisonous being its usual color. Why? Israel Eldad, one of the leaders of LEHI says a good machshova. The reason is to teach us that Geulat Israel comes through war, struggle and, yes, blood!

    Cipher, he wasn't frum in a traditional sense but shaarei drush were not closed to him. Feel free to post.

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  73. So what is the purpose of the drasha? Do you believe the drasha happened or not?
    Did Rashi think that this is actually how the plague occurred?

    Other related questions:
    How did Rashi become the most prominent commentary on the Torah? Of course he was a great Talmid Chacham, but how did he take number one spot? The same goes for Rashi's peirush on Shas, although the perush on Shas isn't viewed to be as holy as his perish al haTorah, it is still the perush printed on the inside of every daf.

    In next week's sidra we have "vechamushim aloo bnei yisrael me'eretz mitzrayim". The second explanation Rashi gives is that only 1 in 5 Jews left Egypt and the rest died in the plague of darkness. There are so many questions on this that are really bothering me:
    1) 4/5 died - this is much worse than makat bechorot?
    2) other opinions say 1/50 or 1/500 left Egypt. This means about 150(0) million people died (since 3 million people received the Torah).
    3) Rashi says in this week's parsha (Bo) that the sinners died in the plague of darkness so that the Egyptians wouldn't notice. I'm sure they would notice 80% of the Jews disappearing.
    4) Didn't the Jews mourn these millions of deaths?
    5) Why doesn't the Torah tell us about all these deaths explicitly? (this is the weakest of all the questions but still a strong question)
    R Shimon Shkop asks these questions (or similar questions) and says that it's like Cayin killing Hevel which was like killing billions of future people. I don't think this is how Rashi understood the Midrash though.

    Any responses to my questions would be greatly appreciated.

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  74. In response to Carol: "Why? God would have been instrumental in a natural children’s plague. "

    This is true. God may have been the cause had that happened, but many would not have seen God as being the cause. Sometimes people die. Plagues happen. The fact that makat bechorot happened when it did makes it clear that it was Hashem that brought this plague upon the first borns.

    The same goes for kriyat yam suf. It might be possible for the sea to split naturally. It's clearly a miracle when it splits just when you need it do and goes back to how it was just when you need it to.

    Don't forget however, however much we rationalise the miracles in Egypt, there were clearly tremendous miracles occurring.

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  75. >>>> How did Rashi become the most prominent commentary on the Torah?

    Likely explanation …

    1. He was the first of his kind. (i.e. comprehensive, simple and easy to understand)
    2. Popularity contest. He “democratized” study of the Khumash. This allowed the common joe to learn without necessarily having to resort to a teacher.
    This de-mystified the Torah to and brought it closer to many. And this made him popular and well known (and respected).


    Although, what i always wondered: did Rashi actually believe all those non-sensical medroshim (literally) that he reported?.

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  76. >>>>
    1) 4/5 died - this is much worse than makat bechorot?
    2) other opinions say 1/50 or 1/500 left Egypt. This means about 150(0) million people died (since 3 million people received the Torah).
    3) Rashi says in this week's parsha (Bo) that the sinners died in the plague of darkness so that the Egyptians wouldn't notice. I'm sure they would notice 80% of the Jews disappearing. <<<<<<<

    Not wanting to, God forbid, believe that the sages that spoke these absurd words could possibly have been so foolish as to believe them, my chavrusa in yeshiva days and I spent many a session trying to conjure up reasonable scenarios as to what they really meant. More often then not, it was hopeless. (and yes we did study the Maharal’s approach)

    However, this one was easy. The suggestion was: not that they really died, but that they deserved to die. And the various figures given were simply an argument among the sages on how few merited to be redeemed (e.g. some held as little as 1 in 500). The proof to this interpretation that the overwhelming majority of the Israelites did not deserve geulah was borne out later as they repeatedly sinned in the desert and in fact reading Tanackh, I doubt that at any time were the majority of the Jews properly shomrei Torah.

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  77. elemir, just to add to your explanation the posuk says 'chamushim alu bnei Israel mimizraim' - loshon 'aliah' as opposed to a yeziah implies an uplifted state. This loshon becomes the focus of the midrash and hence the drash al derech raisi bnei aliah umuatim hem.

    elle, what really happened is immatirial because the midrash comes to teach us wisdom and ethics and not historical facts. I think that almost none of the events described by midrashim reflect historical reality.

    Makkas Bchoros affected Egyptians, slaves and animals - all at once. So far I have not heard a naturalist explanation of this miracles. I am listening.

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  78. >How did Rashi become the most prominent commentary on the Torah? Of course he was a great Talmid Chacham, but how did he take number one spot? The same goes for Rashi's peirush on Shas, although the perush on Shas isn't viewed to be as holy as his perish al haTorah, it is still the perush printed on the inside of every daf.

    1. He was the rabbinic luminary in Ashkenaz at a pivotal moment in its history, the greatest heir to his predecessors, and progenitor of the most prominent rabbis to follow, the Baalei ha-Tosafos.

    2. His perush simplifies the complex. Instead of complicated swatting back and forth, difficulties, he cuts to the chase. And his language is simple and sweet.

    3. It eschews neither grammar nor midrash. There are people who incline to one or the other, but the greater number wanted both.

    4. It was a good idea and it was early - and in Hebrew. The Sepharadim didn't comment in a similar way until after him, and their explanations were always in Arabic, except for Menachem (whom Rashi used).

    5. His own personality comes forth, and it is apparently modest, pious and pleasant.

    I think some combination of these five suffice to explain why it wasn't just another commentary. And once it became greatly esteemed that fed itself. Bear in mind that it wasn't only Jews who appreciated Rashi. He was accorded great respect as a peshat commentator by Christian scholars, who were apparently fully able to see past the midrash that they saw as even more absurd than you do.

    In our own time I think Rashi's linguistic and pshat aspects are generally ignored by most Jews who think of Chumash-Rashi as an indivisible unit, and this gives rise to anti-Rashi sentiment.

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  79. Re. R. Slifkin's excerpts from R. Soloveitchik

    It is my impression that R. Soloveitchik's position is reflected in his "קול דודי דופק [PDF]". I'm thinking, e.g., of subheading (ד) on p. 17 (PDF p. 15/45). I think it was Dr. Lawrence Kaplan who drew attention to this many years ago, possibly in his Revisionism and the Rav, but my memory is hazy.

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  80. A postscript to my previous comment:

    I am skeptical that R. Soloveitchik's language at that point, "הקב"ה הכביד את לב-ישמעאל ...", was chosen indifferently.

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  81. Elie-

    See R' Shimon Schwab's sefer Me'ain beis hashoevah how he explains the 4/5 who died during choshech.

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  82. Menachem - thank you. This is actually where I first read the question. When I wrote that I read it in R Shimon Shkop's writings, it meant R Shimon Shwab.

    The problem with all the explanations given is that I understand that you can read the Midrash in different ways, but I don't think this is how Rashi read the midrash.
    I don't think R Shwab was trying to explain Rashi (I could be wrong. I haven't seen the sefer for a year).
    Carol doesn't think the midrash is teaching us history but rather ethics and morals which is fair enough.
    elemir gives his answer but again I highly doubt that it is what Rashi is saying.

    According to Rashi it seems that he understood the midrash literally and 4/5 died.
    I don't understand how the Egyptians wouldn't have noticed all these people dieing, even if it happened during the makat hachoshech, but okay..

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  83. elie,

    i have to agree with your view of rashi.
    after reading the hundreds of "rashis" without ever seeing any qualification about the medrashim, one must conclude that rashi took medrash literally. and the question that has troubled for the longest time...is how could such a brilliant mind believe such nonsense.

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  84. there's no need to call it nonsense

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  85. elemir, you need to read "Strange Histories: The Trial of the Pig, the Walking Dead, and Other Matters of Fact from the Medieval and Renaissance Worlds" by Darren Oldridge pronto.

    http://www.amazon.com/Strange-Histories-Walking-Medieval-Renaissance/dp/0415288606

    We have to learn to understand why our own thought processes are the results of centuries of formation and discovery, and not take our own apparently clear thinking for granted. Similarly, when the entire world believed in, say, vampires they weren't all nuts. Everything you take for granted is based on many factors: you know what ancient Egyptians looked like because in the 19th and 20th centuries archaeologists excavated Egypt and published images of their findings. A thousand years ago you wouldn't have known, and since you wouldn't have seen any archaeological artifacts altogether you may well have not realized that people dressed differently thousands of years earlier. You know there are no mermaids. But you've seen many high quality images of marine mammals all your life. Rashi didn't. Etc.

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  86. Thank you S. for the suggestion…i’ve added it to my reading list.

    >>>> there's no need to call it nonsense

    I apologize if i appeared offensive. But what would you call it. and, what do you think went on in Rashi mind when he read the medrash that says 360,000,000 (male) israelites were killed during the plague of darkness. Or another Rashi in Melochim that claims that King Solomon had such vast stables that accommodated 160,000,000 horses or many other such “incredible” stories.

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  87. You know how many people there are on earth. Rashi had no way of knowing that. You've absorbed much information about demographics, what's involved in supporting a population, food, etc. Perhaps you even have some sophisticated understanding of these things. Rashi could not have known any of that. This knowledge and the means of knowing it was painfully accumulated in processes lasting many centuries. I don't know why not knowing any of these things numbers like 360 million should have been considered nonsense by Rashi. He would not have even known how many Jews were alive in his own time - no one on earth did. Finally, many true things are pretty amazing. If you didn't know they're real, wouldn't you think a platypus is a myth?

    That's why I recommended that book.

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  88. >>>> Rashi could not have known any of that.

    OK, but I am truly having trouble understanding how Rashi, who we attribute super intelligence to, (or better, as i was taught in cheder that “we” believe that Rashi wrote with Ruakh hakodesh, whatever that means), could not fathom the consequences of saying that a strip of land housed a billion people in it. Are you saying he did not understand what a billion means?

    As an aside, I also think the whole concept of “niskatna hadorot” is not very credible either.

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  89. There were 600,000 men at Matan Torah. That means that if 4/5 died, the male Jewish population was 3 million before the deaths.
    That's not a crazy number. The population of Egypt today is 83 million.

    Rashi didn't say 49/50 died or 499/500 died. How did Rashi understand those opinions in the Midrash? I don't know and I don't know if he ever wrote what he thought about those opinions. I do know that he didn't bring those numbers down in his commentary on the Torah.

    With regards to whether Rashi was a genius or not. Undoubtedly he was. I'm guessing you haven't finished Shas and I'm guessing you couldn't write a commentary on all of Tanach.
    Furthermore Rashi did all this without Rashi to help him out.

    The Jews are clearly the cleverest people in the world. How did that happen? God blessed us? We've been learning Gemara for the past 2000 years? It's in the genes? However you want to explain it, your explanation would have to respect the Torah scholars of the past and present for being absolute geniuses. And Rashi was chosen to be number one by thousands of Talmidei Chachamim.

    I believe we rightfully attribute super intelligence to Rashi and other Rishonim and Achronim. Anyone that's ever been in serious learning appreciates this, whether or not one thinks he has an unanswerable kashya on Rashi.

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  90. >OK, but I am truly having trouble understanding how Rashi, who we attribute super intelligence to, (or better, as i was taught in cheder that “we” believe that Rashi wrote with Ruakh hakodesh, whatever that means), could not fathom the consequences of saying that a strip of land housed a billion people in it. Are you saying he did not understand what a billion means?

    No, I'm saying that he didn't understand what is necessary to support a given population. If you understand it yourself it's only because of the rise of the scientific process, statistics, demographics, etc. And how was he to know how big Egypt is? Scientific map making didn't exist in his time. Besides, what a land can support is a bit of a fluid concept. As techniques for food production and distribution improves, land can support more people, and so forth. I really don't see why anyone who lived a thousand years ago was supposed to know anything about ancient Egypt, or demographics. Do you think one thousand years ago there was any reliable way to estimate how many people there were on earth? In Eurasia-Africa they didn't even know about North and South America or Australia. The world was waiting to be discovered and its secrets were barely even beginning to be uncovered.

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  91. I fully concur that Rashi was brilliant. But my point is that Rashi and all our great sages in his time and certainly much earlier were certainly not infallible and limited to their much lesser knowledge of the physical world.

    >>> The Jews are clearly the cleverest people in the world

    I think you have to, sadly, say “were” not are. We (the “religious” portion of the Jewish nation) have lost that title ages ago. Of course, it depends on one’s definition of “clever”, but limiting one’s “cleverness” to being superior in studying Gemorrah, does not make for being the cleverest people in the world.

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  92. My last comment:
    Listen to the first 12 minutes of R Shalom Rosner's shiur: http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/731388/Rabbi_Shalom_Rosner/Beshalach#

    He speaks about 3 different explanations of v'chamushim alu vnei yisrael mei'eretz mitzrayim and also deals with the questions we asked.

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