Thursday, November 11, 2004

Toldot #3: Towards a theory of drash

from the meta-midrashic department
In an earlier post, I noted that Chazal's interpretation of וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ as each one running toward the other to kill him, they were taking the root of וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ to be רץ, to run, and rereading בְּקִרְבָּהּ as בִּקְרָבָא, the Aramaic word for war. Thus, they ran towards each other (while still in the womb) to wage war.

Is this a good translation of the phrase וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ? Let us focus on the word בְּקִרְבָּהּ. A simple translation of the word would be "within her." Why? בְּקִרְבָּהּ is a Hebrew word, in a Hebrew Biblical text, and in Hebrew, בְּקִרְבָּהּ means "within her" - that is, within the womb. The dot in the shows that the final heh is pronounced, so it is a genitive marker, denoting possession.

Conversely, the word בִּקְרָבָא is a common Aramaic word, meaning "in (the) war." The ending ג ָא
is the way we mark the definiteness of a noun in Aramaic (that is, the word "the"), though in some incarnations of Aramaic (e.g. in Targum or Babylonian Talmud) it can be present without marking the noun to which it is attached as definite. Also, in some dialects the heh alternates with the aleph in this role (often in Galilean Aramaic), since after all both are matres lectiones and therefore not actually pronounced.

However, we would assume that the pasuk would be in Hebrew, not Aramaic. True, certain Biblical books contain large portions of Aramaic (e.g. Daniel), and even in the Torah, and specifically in Bereishit, we find Aramaic words or else Aramaicisms. In Bereishit we would find them in proximity to someone who is an Aramean, such as Lavan. But here, we would have no reason have an Aramaic word.

We might point out that the root קרב that actually often occurs in Hebrew meaning war. For example, in Tehillim 144:1, we have:
לְדָוִד: בָּרוּךְ ה, צוּרִי-- הַמְלַמֵּד יָדַי לַקְרָב;אֶצְבְּעוֹתַי, לַמִּלְחָמָה.
[A Psalm] of David. Blessed be the LORD my Rock, who traineth my hands for war, {N}and my fingers for battle;

Even so, the fact is that we have a tradition of the pronunciation of this word in this pasuk, and that pronunciation has a vowel pattern which differs from בִּקְרָבָא and has a consonant at the end (a heh) which is pronounced. Further, the vowel pattern of בִּקְרָבָא is clearly Aramaic and cannot be Hebrew. {On the other hand, we might say they read the word as is there were no heh - as בִּקְרָב.} Chazal share this tradition with us that the word is pronounced בְּקִרְבָּהּ, and therefore the literal translation of the word cannot truly be other than "within her."

I do not doubt for a minute that Chazal in fact read the word as בְּקִרְבָּהּ when they read the Torah, and understood it to mean "within her."

However, this is all on a literal level, what it commonly called peshat, or the simple, straightforward meaning of the text.

Chazal also regard the text as pregnant with meaning, with intra-Biblical narrative allusions and word play that conveys a deeper meaning. This is commonly called derash, or investigation/interpretation.

Quite often, the two layers of understand of the Biblical text are closely linked. That is, on the literal level there are reasons to explain the verse a certain way, and this can very well be the translation of the verse. However, issues arise with this explanation, or additional confirmation of this explanation is wanted to show that the specific interpretation from among several possibilities is true.

Consider וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ. Clearly it means that the children were doing something inside of her. Perhaps they were moving about vigorously, kicking her from within. (Indeed, one has each of the twins, Yaakov and Esav, kicking their mother Rivka, in order to get out - Yaakov when she passed a house of Torah study, and Esav when she passed a house of idol-worship.) Alternatively, they were struggling with each other inside of her. This interpretation - struggling - is the one offered by JPS, and which I cited in the original post as the standard interpretation of the verse. This interpretation, and its alternative of moving about, would be on the level of peshat.

The idea that they struggled with each other in the womb makes a lot of sense from within the narrative context of the story. After all, we read in the Torah that Rivka didn't know what the excessive pain was from and went to inquire of Hashem. She was told a prophecy that there were two nations to emerge from her womb who would struggle with each other. In the continuation of the story, there is a rivalry between the two brothers. Yaakov gets Esav to sell him his birthright, and then Yaakov takes Esav's blessings. In the blessings, Yitzchak talks about the rivalry between the two nations. Esav wants to kill Yaakov for taking the blessings and Yaakov flees. Later, on his return home from Charan, Yaakov struggles with the angel representing Esav's nation. And historically, and something referred to in Torah, we see how Esav's descendant nation, Amalek, fights with the Israelites. So, the struggle between the two brothers even within the womb makes sense from a narrative, and therefore peshat, approach.

I think the statement of Chazal which says that Esav and Yaakov ran at each other to kill each other in the womb of course understood that this was not the peshat level of the pasuk. Rather, of the two peshat possibilities, "struggle" and "moving wildly about," they chose "struggle" as the meaning of וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ. They did not think that the word meant "run" on a peshat level. Similarly, I think they knew full well that on what we would call a peshat level, the word בְּקִרְבָּהּ was pronounced exactly as that - בְּקִרְבָּהּ - and that it meant "within her." After all, they assume this fighting happened within her womb.

Rather, what I meant by explaining the basis of Chazal in the midrash was as follows. Having chose "struggle in the womb" rather than "thrash about wildly" as the explanation of וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ, Chazal wanted a midrash, on the level of derash, to reinforce that.

While peshat, as a literal reading, would take the word as Hebrew, Chazal believe that there is an additional, or several addition, encoded meanings in the word. Aramaic was spoken in Biblical times, and even if it were not (or if, say, the midrash were to explain a Biblical word based on a Late Latin homonym), Hashem who encoded the Torah would know about the word and its eventual meaning. Thus, the plain text could hint at this deeper meaning.

That is what I claim is happening when Chazal say they ran (רץ) at each other to kill each other (in war = בִּקְרָבָא). This is not the peshat meaning of the words, but it reinforces the interpretation of וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ as a struggle between the two fetuses.

I further claim that there is almost always a linguistic cause, or basis, for the midrash and for the details of the midrash. Here there were several reasons to choose "struggle" on a narrative and peshat level. And I was promoting the idea that Chazal would not just say they ran at each other to kill each other with no basis, but there must be some basis for the detail "to kill." In this instance, it was that בְּקִרְבָּהּ, when only examining the consonantal text as it appears in the Torah scroll could be read as the Aramaic בִּקְרָבָא, meaning "in battle."

There was a similar idea in my second Toldot post, about the near miss between Esav and Yaakov. I expressed the narrative reasons why it seems to be that they missed each other and Esav did not see Yaakov. There was a narrative tension that they really just missed each other, by seconds. There is the additional desire to say that Yaakov was still leaving when Esav was coming in. This would be an extension of this idea of how closely they missed each other. Further, a hyper-literal reading of the pasuk would be that Yaakov was still in the midst of leaving when Esav came in. (Whether this would be classified as peshat or more likely derash I will omit.) The alternative would be that he had scarcely left and thus Yaakov left a few moments earlier.

The midrash takes all of this information as input. It also knows that at the end of the pasuk, on what we would call the peshat level, וְעֵשָׂו אָחִיו בָּא מִצֵּידוֹ means that "Esav his brother came from his hunting." After all, they know the tradition about the pattern of nikud that has the word mitz:eido as opposed to mitz:id:o. They see the yud corresponding to the chirik maleh. Still, an addition layer of interpretation, or derash, can serve to reinforce and bolster the meaning of the verse on the peshat level. That is, Esav is now coming from the other side of the tent, or from the same side of the tent but just to the side of Yaakov. The plain text carries this additional encoded message, and it even resolves some of the problems they originally had with saying Yaakov exit and Esav's entrance were at the same time.

1 comment:

Joe in Australia said...

The use of Aramaic in this midrash is very appropriate, so much so that I feel that you may not be able to generalise it to other midrashim. Don't forget that we are talking about Rivkah's womb, and Rivkah was the sister of whom? Lavan the Aramaean. So it's very reasonable to use a bit of Aramaic in this context.

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