Post: In parashat Bamidbar, we read the following pasuk and Rashi:
|18. and they assembled all the congregation on the first day of the second month, and they declared their pedigrees according to their families according to their fathers' houses; according to the number of names, a head count of every male from twenty years old and upward.||יח. וְאֵת כָּל הָעֵדָה הִקְהִילוּ בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי וַיִּתְיַלְדוּ עַל מִשְׁפְּחֹתָם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם:|
|and they declared their pedigrees according to their families: They brought the records of their pedigrees and witnesses of their birth claims, so that each one should trace his genealogy to a tribe.||ויתילדו על משפחתם: הביאו ספרי יחוסיהם ועידי חזקת (לידתם) [לידת] כל אחד ואחד, להתייחס על השבט:|
As I may discuss in another post, both Ibn Ezra and Ramban take issue with this explanation. Judaica Press (above) gives no source for this Rashi, so it seems as if Rashi came up with this idea himself, rather than citing from a midrash.
Reference to this idea can indeed be found in a midrashic source, but that Midrash is Yalkut Shimoni, which is post-Rashi. Yalkut Shimoni cites midrashim from Chazal, but also from Geonim and Rishonim, into the 12th century. It probably was writtem in the early 13th century. As such, a midrashic author might have expanded on the idea in Rashi, and Yalkut Shimoni cited that. That Yalkut Shimoni reads as follows:
Thus, when the other nations saw Israel receive the Torah, they complained. In what merit do they deserve this? Hashem told them to bring their own documents of lineage. Read it all.
What is the import of bringing documents of lineage? It is not the idea of racial, national purity. Rather, it is the idea of maintaining purity in their sexual behavior. Thus, the citation from the pasuk in Shir Hashirim,
Despite it appearing in Yalkut Shimoni, and thus being a midrash, one should not jump to state that it is Chazal, that is, from the Tannaim or Amoraim. As noted above, it could well be from a later source than Chazal. (If someone has seen it in an earlier source, please let me know.) Also, before trying to discover new meaning, one should probably read the Yalkut Shimoni inside to see what meaning it itself contains, and if one's suggestion can be supported by the words of the midrash.
But the midrash, in abbreviated form, is well-known, and that can spark all sorts of reinterpretations as to its meaning.
Here are some examples. From the Sichos in English website, an online book called Vedibarta Bam. This reading is actually pretty good:
Thus, rather than a national record of proper sexual conduct, sefer yuchsin becomes a symbol for a link to the past, and of their parents behavior in performing the sheva mitzvos. Actually, I think in this instance, this reading is rather spot-on. The author, quite possibly, is just being circumspect in his language, and sheva mitzvos is a stand in for a particular one of those 7 Noachide Commandments, namely that of adultery. (The biological vs. foster son is a strange divergence, though.)
Here is one from the Weekly Dvar:
I would have to see Rabbi Zweig's words inside. But the suggestion seems to be that having such sefer yuchsin is a prerequisite for learning about their ancestors, and such a knowledge is needed to giving the present generation expectations to strive for. This can also work out with the midrash, if we think about it for a while, in terms of the "honorable standards". I'd have to see the words inside to know for certain. But there is little need for such explanation, as to why a book of lineage is a prerequisite. The midrash itself informs us. Further, it seems pretty similar to the next example.
Another example, from Peninim Al HaTorah:
Firstly, this is asserting that Yalkut Shimoni = Chazal, which is by no means certain. Furthermore, the assumption here is that the sefer yuchsin needs to be specifically to Avraham Avinu, such that the fact that the Bnei Esav could produce such documents is problematic.
But the point of the midrash is not the tracing to Avraham, or to Yitzchak. It is rather a mark of not committing adultery or other sexual impropriety, such that each person could assert positively his father and his mother, all the way back. There were no shtukis, asufis, etc. There were no mamzerim. If you look at the convoluted lineage of Esav, together with the midrashim on it, a picture emerges of extreme levels of incest. Producing such sifrei yuchsin would not suffice for Hashem's requirement.
So the question was not a question. And the answer, that it is a matter of familial bond with one's ancestors, and carrying on in their ways, is not in accordance with the explanation given explicitly in the midrash.
Another example, from Contemporary Halachic Problems, by Rabbi Bleich:
This is given as an attempt to identify specifically with Avraham Avinu, as Jewish lineage. I don't think that the midrash really supports such a reading.
Another example:Why is a nation’s ability to trace its lineage a prerequisite to receiving the Torah? Aren’t good character and understanding far more important than knowing who was your great great grandfather?...
Israel has proven to be a worthy guardian of the Torah. Not only have we preserved an unbroken chain of transmission but each generation endeavors to ensure that all future generations will protect the Torah.
Again, specifically tracing back to the Avos. This really does not seem to be the intent of the Yalkut.
And another example:
Now, all this is not to say that this reinterpretation of the midrash is wrong. It might not reflect the intent of the Yalkut -- almost certainly not, but this does not mean that the idea is bad. Rather, it is simply, unwittingly, a different midrash, of extremely late construction. And this is OK so long as we don't end up attributing this idea to Chazal, or to whomever the author of this midrash was.
At the giving of the Torah, the envious nations wanted to know why they could not be the recipients of the Torah. Hashem responded by demanding that they produce a letter ofyichus(privileged ancestry). The Yalkut Shimoni asks why yichus would figure as a requisite for learning Torah - should not a desire and willingness to learn suffice? The Ramban posits that belief in the Torah is only sustainable when earlier generations transmit their knowledge and traditions to later generations.
Our elders validate the true meaning of acceptance of the Torah by illustrating their own reverence and adherence to the belief system. A nation whose children regard themselves as being more perceptive and intelligent than their forebears lacks that laudable lineage essential to receiving the Torah.