Sunday, December 23, 2007

Shemot: Why Stretch Out Her Arm?

From's parsha in depth:
And Pharaoh's daughter... saw the box among the rushes; and she sent her maid and fetched it (Exodus 2:5)

The Hebrew word ammatah ("her maid") can also be translated "her arm." This, says the Talmud, is to teach us that "her arm was extended for many arm-lengths" (to enable her to reach the basket).

But if Moses' basket lay "many arm-lengths" beyond her reach, why did Pharaoh's daughter extend her arm in the first place? Says the Lubavitcher Rebbe: Often, we are confronted with a situation that is beyond our capacity to rectify. So we resign ourselves to inactivity, reasoning that the little we can do won't change anything anyway. Yet Pharaoh's daughter heard a child's cry and extended her arm. An unbridgeable distance lay between her and the basket, making her action seem utterly pointless. But because she did the maximum of which she was capable, G-d did the rest.
This is not just a cute pshetle, in my opinion. Rather, the Lubavitcher Rebbe's explanation here is quite possibly the pashut peshat of the midrash, and captures the theme the midrash is trying to convey with the miraculous extension. There are other slight variances in explanation which might instead be the peshat in the midrash, but this is generally a good way of thinking about midrash.


Yehuda said...

The problem is that he still posits that the arm actually extended. As Rashi points out ammatah can definitely not be translated as "her arm". Why not take this as a metaphor for Pharaoh's daughter internally "extending" herself. The seemingly unbridgeable gap was not external - to save an ivri was anathema to her household.

Of course, it might be that this opinion in the aggada was homiletics, but I don't think so. Based on the fact that it is a machloket, it seems that each opinion is trying to explain something about the story.

The Stone Chumash quotes Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk as commenting "homiletically that her example teaches us that one should never assume that a task is impossible." I am glad Artscroll prefaced the quote with "homiletically" (pretty similar to the LRebbe). I just don't think this lesson is a very good one - sometimes one should assume that a task is impossible. Additionally, sometimes it is foolish to think that "G-d will do the rest". The Chakham has to know when he should do all that he can do and when he should simply do nothing at all.

joshwaxman said...

In explaining the midrash, one has to say that it is talking about the arm. And indeed, while one might derive from what Rashi says that it definitely cannot be translated as arm, Onkelos in fact does translate it as arm.

It *can* be a mistake to read peshat concerns into a midrash in a way that compels drastic rereading of the midrash. Doing so can sometimes lead to a reading entirely at odds with the intent of the author of the midrash.

In this instance, it is a dispute in the gemara between Rav and Shmuel as to whether amata means maidservant or arm. As a dispute, they are arguing with one another, and you cannot use one reading to ask on the other reading.

Also, what I intend to post on later this week: As Shadal notes, the specific orthography of nikkud and trup is late. And many times in the gemara, there is a dispute between how Chazal vocalize and parse and how the trup and nikkud handle it. (This really would have to be a lengthy series, but I intend to present the specific portion.) And Shadal's conclusion is that in fact, many times the nikkud and trup came about not halacha leMoshe miSinai, or from the time of Ezra, but rather post-Talmudically, from the Savoraim, and misevara, intelligent analysis. As a result, he sees fit in certain places to suggest alternative nikkud or trup, or to argue on the nikkud and trup. And he brings this particular example as where Rashi is bound by the nikkud, even though elsewhere Rashi violates it.

Thus, Shadal could claim that the dispute between Rav and Shmuel was indeed a dispute as well in what the nikkud was. And indeed, if it is entirely Oral tradition until this point, there is little or no distinction between amata and ammata.

Yehuda said...

Nice point about nikkud and Onkelos. I like the approach that Rav and Sh'muel (or R. Yehuda and R. Nehemia) would have different nikkud. Regarding Onkelos, however, he does not suggest that Pharaoh's daughter's arm actually stretched out.

It should be noted that the crux of the debate in the gemara is not on whether or not her arm extended. That interpretation was offered only to explain why, if ammata means yadah, does it not say yadah. The main question is what is the difference? Why is this an important point of debate?

As for the issue of her extending arm another possibility is that Divine Providence was necessary for Pharaoh's daughter to extend herself to the degree that she did (as it would seem from the context of this statement in the gemara in Megilla 15B and B'rakhot 54B, just as Providence was needed to overcome Og's might).

By the way, I have been enjoying your blog for quite some time now. Question: where do you find the time to write so much?

joshwaxman said...

i write more than i should.

good catch on R. Yehudah and R. Nechemiah. I'm not sure why I was thinking Rav and Shmuel. I think there may be some other dispute I was thinking of...

Yehuda said...

I also remember an Aggadata where some versions have it as Rav and Sh'muel and some as R. Yehuda and R. Nechemiah.


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