Friday, December 19, 2008

What Was In The Empty Pit?

On Friday night, I like to learn with my 4 year old son. We usually learn through a Mishna or two in an illustrated Mishnayot Shabbos, and/or go through that week's or next week's parsha. I want to give him a bekius in parsha and midrashim, so that he has this as a background. And so usually we sit down on an easy chair together with a Mikraos Gedolos, and I tell him the story in English, embellishing from midrashim and meforshim along the way.

While I think that knowledge of midrashim and the famous interpretations is important, I also try to show occasions where there is machlokes, and try to explain why there is machlokes on these particular points, to try to get him to know, from an early age, the distinction between the Biblical text and midrash and commentary; and also to start thinking about the implications and possible connotations of the text.

For example, when learning through parshat Vayishlach, I first told him the end of Vayeitzei, where they met the encapment of malachim, which most understand as angels. Then, when starting Vayishlach, I told him that Yaakov sent malachim to Esav. I explained how malachim means messengers, including human messengers, and that angels are called malachim because they are messengers from Hashem. So then I asked him which type of malach he thought Yaakov sent. (I explained that Rashi said that it meant angels, just like the angels immediately prior, and that Ralbag said that it meant humans.) After a bit of rumination, his determination was that he thought it meant angels. (The specific conclusions are not really important, so much as thinking about the text.)

Last week, we went through much of Vayishlach and Vayeshev (including some age-appropriate glossing over specific details within the story of Yehuda and Tamar). When I got to the brothers casting Yosef in the pit, I told him that "the pit was empty, and there was no water." I added that "there was no water in it, but there were snakes and scorpions in it." My wife chimed in, "some people say that there were snakes and scorpions in it." So I stopped, and explained to him that all that the Chumash says is that the pit was empty, and there was no water in it. But if it already told us that it was empty, why say that there was no water in it? So some people sat that there must have been something else in it, even though there was no water. (Or another way of thinking about it, it was empty only of water.) And so (separate from the Biblical text) they say that there were snakes and scorpions in it*.

He thought about it for a bit and then said, "but Abba, the man with the multi-colored coat was in it!" So that is his explanation of the textual anomaly. There was no water in the pit -- Yosef was in the pit!

Whether or not this works as midrash, it is a nice explanation of the textual anomaly.
* It is a separate exercise as to why the pasuk would go out of its way to say this, on a peshat level, with an answer or two already springing to mind -- the point was that there was no water, such that the brothers were not casting Yosef in there to drown. But not everything needs to be touched on at once.


Anonymous said...

Isn't it because it's a mixture of sources?

joshwaxman said...

Isn't *what* because it is a mixture of sources? (When you write so short, it is difficult to guess what you mean.)

Do you mean that one should apply the Documentary Hypothesis to the repetition of phrases in "vehabor rek, ain bo mayim?" Surely not, and I would be surprised at any scholar, even a source-critical scholar, who tried to divide these two phrases which are dependent upon one another. How is "Ain bo mayim to be understood" in its "original" source absent a referent for "bo"? This is just Biblical style, and the repetition in this case is entirely expected.


Yehuda said...

Here is a pedagogical question: why not skip the specific midrashic interpretation entirely and only direct his attention to the nuance of text that leads to it? In this case, you could ask your son why he thinks the Torah mentions that the pit was empty and that it had no water in it. If he catches on to the fact that the brothers' cruelty is being emphasized then great and if not move on.

joshwaxman said...

that would indeed be another good way of doing it. And I may incorporate that as will. Thanks for the suggestion.

At the same time, I do want him to have a breadth of knowledge of midrashim, so I want to be able to mention, each year incrementally, some of the famous and not so famous midrashim, eventually giving him The Midrash Says to read, and then taking it from there.

Regardless, he is going to hear midrashim and peirushim from his teachers - already in pre-K, he was told about Yaakov just plucking up the stone with no difficulty, about Rivkah's age of 3, about how the water was so, so deep but that it came up miraculously for Rivkah, etc.. So it can help to develop this distinction between midrashim and the actual text, and that midrashim can be seen from the actual text. This has already paid off, as I'll elaborate bli neder in a subsequent post, about dinosaurs.


Rav Aaron Leibowitz said...

Just a thought - I believe the driver of that midrash is the fact that a bor does not mean a pit, rather a cistern, as opposed to a Be'er which is a well. Therefore "VhaBor Reik" means ein bo mayim, by definition. The extra words become even more irresistible to the darshan. I much appreciated your educational approach.

joshwaxman said...

thanks. nice point. that may indeed be what was in mind, further than just the duplication.

on the other hand, even Chazal sometimes regarded a Bor as having water in it. e.g. Eruvin 18a:
אפי' תימא ר"ע באר מים חיים דפסיקא ליה לא שנא דרבים ול"ש דיחיד קתני בור מכונסין דלא פסיקא ליה
but the water is in it, just mechunasin. And indeed, a cistern *is* a receptacle of water. The distinction might be that it is produced by mere digging, as opposed to with masonry (see Bava Batra 64a for a comparison do דות), or of living waters vs. gathered waters.

But of course, in other contexts, it could simply mean a pit, without water. So besides for the duplication, the midrashist might have selected a specific definition from the set, and then argued that by definition there should have been no water in there.


Anonymous said...

For some reason I have a totally different "pashut pshat" of these verses and I would like anyone's thoughts about why I'm wrong.

1. The brothers threw him into the pit to let him die. "There was no water" is not extraneous - here's why: most people know (certainly they did) that you can live for a long time without food, but only a couple days without water. If you told me only that they threw him into an empty cistern, I might think there was some negligible water there left over from the rainy season. If so, he could survive a long time and his ordeal, while scary, would not be terrifying. However, if they through him into a totally dry pit with no escape route, that would be utterly terrifying to the average person, a certain death in a day or two. Terrifying.

2. When the brothers sat down to eat, there is no indication that they were anywhere near the pit. They may have been a mile or more away, it seems to me.

3. Although Yehuda suggests selling him to the Ishmaelim, the next verse clearly states that the Midianim pulled him out of the pit and sold him into slavery.

4. This pshat (similar to Hizkuni) would explain Reuvain's actions - he went to save Yosef - but where was he in the meantime? Presumably with his brothers eating lunch (ie, not near the pit).

joshwaxman said...

thanks. that is indeed an interesting (and impressive) way of looking at it.

at the moment, I would not come up with any thoughts about why it is "wrong." It has an internal consistency. But then again, so do other explanations of the irregularities, and many commentators have come up with explanations of it, on a pashut pshat level.



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