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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!