Thursday, March 15, 2007

parshat Chukat: Moshe as Progenitor of Rabbi Eliezer: A midrash I take figuratively!

So I was checking out Divrei Chaim the other day and I saw him posing a question about a midrash. He writes:
The Midrash teaches that Moshe Rabeinu began learning the halachos of parah adumah with Hashem. Hashem kavyachol recited the Mishnayos b’shem omro, beginning with the first Mishna in Parah, “R’ Eliezer omeir…” that a parah refers to a cow that is 2 years old. When he heard that Mishna, Moshe was so impressed by R’ Eliezer’s statement that he said he hoped to have a son just like him. This, according to the Midrash, is why Moshe Rabeinu’s son is named Eliezer.


The Midrash seems to be highlighting some aspect specifically of the words of Rabbi Eliezer which captivated Moshe Rabeinu. Why was Moshe captivated by Rabbi Eliezer and this halacha in particular more than any other Mishna or meimra in shas???
Before turning to address his question, I'd like to point out that this is the type of midrash which thematically feels homiletic. Although there is nothing miraculous here except for Moshe hearing Hashem when ascending Har Sinai, which is in the text of the Torah, I am far more inclined to believe that this was intended homiletically than I am to believe the same about the midrash that the angel Gavriel gave Vashti a tail.

Of course, Chazal were unabashedly anachronistic in matters like this, and perhaps they did intend this literally. I am not willing to dismiss this offhand, at least on considerations like anachronicity. This might intersect with issues like Elu veElu and how all positions of everyone was said on Har Sinai. However, the homiletic nature coupled with the anachronism is somewhat persuasive to me.

First, to clarify. Some points in the initial citation were off, assuming I understand the actual midrash correctly. In the comment section, I asked for a citation, and this is the midrash that was given, from Midrash Rabba on Chukat:

ז ר' אחא בשם ר' חנינא אמר בשעה שעלה משה למרום שמע קולו של הקדוש ברוך הוא שיושב ועוסק בפרשת פרה אדומה ואומר הלכה בשם אומרה ר' אליעזר אומר עגלה בת שנתה ופרה בת שתים אמר לפניו רבון העולמים יהי רצון שיהא מחלצי אמר לו חייך שהוא מחלציך הה"ד (שמות יח) ושם האחד אליעזר שם אותו המיוחד:

To translate:

R' Acha cited Rabbi Chanina: At the time that Moshe ascended on high {to Har Sinai} he heard the voice of Hashem sitting and engaging in the topic of the Red Heifer, and saying the law in the name of he that said it: "Rabbi Eliezer says: A calf is 1 year and a cow 2." He {Moshe} said before Him {Hashem}: Master of the Universe! May it be your will that he will be from my loins. This is what is written {Shemot 18:4}:
ד וְשֵׁם הָאֶחָד, אֱלִיעֶזֶר--כִּי-אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי בְּעֶזְרִי, וַיַּצִּלֵנִי מֵחֶרֶב פַּרְעֹה. 4 and the name of the other was Eliezer: 'for the God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.'
That is, the name of that specific one {interpreting echad as hameyuchad}.

Thus, the initial account of the midrash was a bit off. Moshe does not name his son Eliezer after the Tanna, and he does not hope to have a son just like the Tanna.

Rather, he is wishing that Rabbi Eliezer will be his eventual descendant. This has nothing to do with Moshe's direct son Eliezer at all. Perhaps influencing this midrash was some genealogy of Rabbi Eliezer tracing himself to Moshe Rabbenu. I can only speculate on this score.

Now, on to the question. What specific element of Para Aduma, or of this law about Para Aduma, did Moshe find so fascinating such that he wished Rabbi Eliezer would he his descendant?

I would answer: Absolutely nothing. Rather, the idea is that he heard Hashem engaging in the laws of something, which would imply He started at the beginning of the topic. Thus, Hashem was reading Mishnayot. And for the purpose of the derasha, Rabbi Eliezer must be prominent. So in which topic is Rabbi Eliezer prominent? Masechet Para, of course. This halacha cited in the Mishna is the very first Mishna in the first perek of masechet Para! And unlike other Mishnayot where Rabbi Eliezer occurs, but there are first other words, here his name constitutes the very beginning of the Mishna. Thus, this masechta and this halacha are appropriate.

There is a further reason in that this Mishna is definitional. I elaborate on this at the end, when I discuss the lesson of the midrash.

Now that I've addressed that issue, there are two other issues I commonly address when treating a midrash. First, what is the derivation from the text, and especially what is the derivation of specific details not explicitly spelled out in the derasha. Second, if this midrash is homiletic or figurative, what tells me that, what theme is this part of, and what is the message of the midrash.

In terms of derivation of the midrash from the text, we saw much of it already. {Shemot 18:4}:
ד וְשֵׁם הָאֶחָד, אֱלִיעֶזֶר--כִּי-אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי בְּעֶזְרִי, וַיַּצִּלֵנִי מֵחֶרֶב פַּרְעֹה. 4 and the name of the other was Eliezer: 'for the God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.'
Thus, Moshe's son Eliezer is not intended, but rather someone else who is meyuchad. This is a rereading of the word echad, supported as well by the heh hayidiah implying someone known from elsewhere.

What about the detail that this person should be Moshe's descendant? Well, we are discussing Moshe's two sons on a peshat level, so an eventual descendant is within scope.

However, I think it is more than that. The derasha extends past the bolded red portion marked above, into the continuation of the pasuk. Why is this designated person Eliezer going to be a descendant? Because כִּי-אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי בְּעֶזְרִי, for Hashem will help me be his avi, his ancestor. Or the God of my forefathers will be my help. This, at any rate, takes care of the Yehi Ratzon aspect of the midrash. What about the choice of words in the midrash that he should be מחלצי, "from my loins?" To my mind, it is no accident that the next word in the pasuk is וַיַּצִּלֵנִי, perhaps even (but not necessarily) with the dagesh in the tzaddi being an assimilated chet, or else with the guttural eliding, or else with enough similarity of sound to be evocative.

Thus, we have produced many of the details of the midrash from close analysis of the text or (in the case of topic and halacha) as a matter of logic and pragmatics.

We can now turn to the final consideration, which is the message of this midrash.

I would classify this midrash as being of a kind with the famous Midrash (which I reproduce here without looking at it inside, so feel free to correct) of Moshe ascending on high and seeing Hashem attaching crowns to the letters. He asks Hashem what he is doing, and Hashem tells him that eventually, Rabbi Akiva would make derashot from those crowns. He shows Moshe Rabbi Akiva's Bet Midrash, and Rabbi Akiva gives a lecture that Moshe cannot follow, with all sorts of things Moshe does not know. Moshe is perturbed, but is comforted when Rabbi Akiva is asked for a source {update: for a certain halacha}, and he says "Halacha leMoshe miSinai!"

{How can it be halacha leMoshe miSinai if Moshe doesn't understand it? The principles are there, as are the crowns, etc.}
{Update: As pointed out in the comments below, only this last halacha is halacha lemoshe misinai. Thus at least something came from Moshe.
Still, there is the aspect that even that which Rabbi Akiva darshens was given to Moshe on Sinai in terms of the basis, by placing those crowns on the letters, etc.}

That midrash with Rabbi Akiva is clearly homiletic, and teaches a deep lesson about the nature of chiddush in Torah, about deriving from principles which exist from before even if something has not been explicitly formulated, of the relationship of chiddush to tradition, and of the authority of such derashot. We will not delve into the meaning here, but there are clearly methodological points that are being made in that midrash. Thus, the theme is homiletic. Perhaps they also intended it literally, but there is no need to say so, given the theme and the extra difficulty posed by the anachronicity.

The same is true over here with the midrash about Rabbi Eliezer, and the point being made is similar. Moshe ascends on high to receive the Torah. The Torah sheBichtav says Para Aduma. But what is the definition of a Para? So even back then, Hashem is engaging in learning Torah sheBaal Peh, in the form of the Mishna. The Mishna gives these definitions, and so Moshe knows it. It is not that Moshe received it and Rabbi Eliezer happened upon the same definition or received it via tradition. In this account, Rabbi Eliezer says it and because of that Moshe hears it, and yes! eventually perhaps it is a tradition received by Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Eliezer is master of Torah sheBaal Peh, which defines the parameters of what was in the Ketav, and without which Moshe would not know what to do. This is in line with the belief or philosophy that whatever a Talmid Chacham would suggest was given over to Moshe at Sinai.

Here, Moshe is enamored with these great definitions. He wants to be the ancestor of Rabbi Eliezer, perhaps physically but homiletically making Rabbi Eliezer his intellectual heir and putting his seal of approval on this Torah sheBichtav.


Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Nice explanation of the midrash.

mevaseretzion said...

Very nice. I enjoyed reading this post.

Anonymous said...

Josh: You missed the point of the Gemara in Menahot. Moses sees Rabbi Akiva teaching a whole bunch of laws which he derives from the Torah via midrash halakhah and Moses is astounded. Then, finally, R. Akiva teaches another law and a student asks him "Rabbi, what is your source for this law?" R. Akiva answers that this particular law is not derived via midrash halakah, but is a tradition directly deriving from Moses from Sinai. Now Moses is comforted. There is at least one law that R. Akiva does not derive from the Scriptural text via his own hermeneutical ability but gets directly from Moses.

lawrence kaplan

joshwaxman said...


and thanks. I'll look up that gemara in Menachot to see it inside.

regardless, it is an example of metahalachic comment, such that I would consider both to be figurative.

joshwaxman said...

The gemara, Menachot 29b:
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב בשעה שעלה משה למרום מצאו להקב"ה שיושב וקושר כתרים לאותיות אמר לפניו רבש"ע מי מעכב על ידך אמר לו אדם אחד יש שעתיד להיות בסוף כמה דורות ועקיבא בן יוסף שמו שעתיד לדרוש על כל קוץ וקוץ תילין תילין של הלכות אמר לפניו רבש"ע הראהו לי אמר לו חזור לאחורך הלך וישב בסוף שמונה שורות ולא היה יודע מה הן אומרים תשש כחו כיון שהגיע לדבר אחד אמרו לו תלמידיו רבי מנין לך אמר להן הלכה למשה מסיני נתיישבה דעתו חזר ובא לפני הקב"ה אמר לפניו רבונו של עולם יש לך אדם כזה ואתה נותן תורה ע"י אמר לו שתוק כך עלה במחשבה לפני אמר לפניו רבונו של עולם הראיתני תורתו הראני שכרו אמר לו חזור [לאחורך] חזר לאחוריו ראה ששוקלין בשרו במקולין אמר לפניו רבש"ע זו תורה וזו שכרה א"ל שתוק כך עלה במחשבה לפני

I see both possibilities to be read into the text. Shkoyach.

joshwaxman said...

interestingly, the text doesn't say that this one point was one that Moshe recognized.

Rashi has an interesting comment on it:
נתיישבה דעתו - של משה הואיל ומשמו אומר אע"פ שעדיין לא קיבלה.

So it is derived from Moshe.

(I would agree that I misstated the intent of the gemara. Teaches me to look at it inside first.)

joshwaxman said...

I should have said:
There is *also* the theme of it all deriving from Sinai, inherent in the idea that even at Sinai Hashem was placing the crowns on the letters.

Anonymous said...

Can somone explain the כומו

joshwaxman said...

I don't see that word anywhere above. Perhaps if you cited context - the word before and after - I'd be able to assist.
Kol Tuv,

Anonymous said...

I don't understand Hebrew but it seems to me it is mocking Rabbi Akiva. It seems to say Rabbi Akiva is explaining the tradition is such a way that not even Moshe understands it!

I don't know... that is how I see it in English. You know it was common at that time for this type of mockery.

joshwaxman said...

the standard understanding of the Rabbi Akiva story is that it is praising him, and making a meta-halachic point. It is quite likely that it comes out clearer in the Hebrew.

I did not give a phrase-by-phrase translation above, but just a summary, but such a phrase-by-phrase translation would show how much Rabbi Akiva is regarded. Thus, for example, Moshe is shown Rabbi Akiva's death, and he calls out in horror and incredulity, "this is his Torah and this is his reward?!"

menachem said...

On, Rabbi Yossi Jacobson gives an amazing class about Moshe and Yisro, trying to understand how Moshe's grandson could end up serving idols. In the Class he discusses this Midrash about Moshe wanting R' Eliezer to be his descendant.

The class can be found here.


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