Monday, March 14, 2011

One big frog -- did derash become peshat?

Summary: Just because Rashi lists one giant frog as derash and 'frog' as collective noun does not mean that he did not think both were historically true.

Post: Back in January of this year, Rabbi Natan Slifkin had a post about the tzfardeya and how to understand peshat in the pasuk in Vaera:
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." 
Yesterday, I had a post on the specific phrase used to bridge Rashi's two explanations --  זהו מדרשו. ופשוטו -- and suggested, with some evidence, that some of these are interpolations from other Rishonim. If so, perhaps Rashi only meant to suggest one of them, at that one suggestion could be the one monstrous frog. But see my remarks in full.

The complete Rashi is:
ותעל הצפרדע: צפרדע אחת היתה והיו מכין אותה והיא מתזת נחילים נחילים זהו מדרשו. ופשוטו יש לומר שרוץ הצפרדעים קורא לשון יחידות. וכן (להלן יד) ותהי הכנם, הרחישה דוילייר"א בלעז [רחישת כנים] ואף ותעל הצפרדע גרינוילייר"א בלעז 
Yet, even if Rashi says both, and explicitly labeled one as the derash, this does not mean that it is fantastic, ahistorical, or allegorical. That is admittedly often the modern ideas that come to mind when someone labels an explanation as derash. But, I am not convinced that this was necessarily the intent of Chazal, or even the intent of Rashi, when he labelled something as derash.

The gemara says ain mikra yotzei miydei peshuto, and it means what it means. (Not necessarily what people take it to mean.) Rashi also says ain mikra yotzei miydei peshuto, and he also has a specific meaning in mind. I present here a meaning of "ain mikra..." by which peshat does not undermine derash.

Forget for the moment peshat and derash. There is Truth; there is What Happened. This Truth can be encoded on different levels of the text. It could be explicitly stated in the Torah, in which case the historical Truth is encoded as peshat. But it could also be implicitly recorded in the Torah, by use of some textual irregularity, in which case the historical Truth is encoded as derash. And for whatever reason, many historical facts, particularly the fantastic miracles, are only hinted at by being encoded as derash.

If so, "ain mikra" is not meant to establish the peshat as the primary, and only, literal and historical narrative. Rather, while derash is absolutely True, the Biblical text read without the derash level also has to be True. In fact, many midrashim run parallel to the peshat, and don't contradict it. It is difficult to find peshat contradicting derash, though I've managed to come up with a few.

In this Rashi, the derash does NOT contradict the peshat. On a peshat level, many many frogs swarmed over Egypt. On a midrashic level, many many frogs swarmed over Egypt, but they came as a result of one initial frog who whistled for them to come, or as a result of one initial frog who was beaten. One could say that Rashi first gives us the midrash about the one frog because it is true and because it is Chazal's explanation of the pasuk; and that Rashi still recognizes that this Truth is arrived at via midrashic methods, and so explains it on a peshat level in a way compatible with the midrash.

If there is peshat, then why is there also midrash? Because we believe (at least by midrash halacha) that midrashic methods are not a fiction, and that they reveal hidden, encoded meaning in the text. In this case, yes, tzfardea denotes the collective noun, but why chose to use this singular collective noun instead of the simple plural tzfardeim? Since Torah was written with deliberateness, this irregularity is to encode the hidden meaning about just how these many many frogs came to swarm over Egypt.

And so, when every Rebbe tells over this Rashi to his students, perhaps he thinks it is peshat, or Rashi's peshat. Or perhaps he thinks it is an exciting midrash which will excite his students. Or perhaps he has a different definition of peshat, which is the modern conception of peshat as something that is literally, historically true, as opposed to something intended allegorically.

But, while I do think that some Rishonim would argue with Rashi as to what historically happened, I don't think that just because Rashi labels this midrash as a midrash, Rashi is taking a 'rationalist' position here. Unlike Ibn Ezra, I don't think Rashi feels compelled to explain miracles in the most naturalistic way possible. That is, one common rationalist position is:
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)
But that does not mean that Rashi, in labeling this as derash, is taking a rationalist position in this one instance.

Of course, all this is simply my own reading of this Rashi. Others are possible. Yet, I think my own reading is correct, which is why it is my own reading.

Meanwhile, if one does want to go the allegorical route, here is a suggestion or two.

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