Monday, March 04, 2013

'Obvious' interpretations of pesukim

In a previous post, I put forth the interesting explanation by Abarbanel, that Moshe did not tell them initially, and perhaps did not even know, that he would be up for 40 days. In a comment on that post, Hillel wrote:
R' Waxman,
From 24:14 this seems pretty evident, no? If Moshe knew it'd be 40 days, why would he give such vague instructions? The midrash seems to be playing up the fact that BNY were desperate for leadership - so much so that they couldn't even wait one more day...
He is pointing to Shemot 24:14:
יד  וְאֶל-הַזְּקֵנִים אָמַר שְׁבוּ-לָנוּ בָזֶה, עַד אֲשֶׁר-נָשׁוּב אֲלֵיכֶם; וְהִנֵּה אַהֲרֹן וְחוּר עִמָּכֶם, מִי-בַעַל דְּבָרִים יִגַּשׁ אֲלֵהֶם.14 And unto the elders he said: 'Tarry ye here for us, until we come back unto you; and, behold, Aaron and Hur are with you; whosoever hath a cause, let him come near unto them.'

That is a nice point, deducing from the vagueness of the initial instructions.

Though one could always point out that this is specifically to the zekeinim, and then interpret this pasuk not as anything to do with time, but to do with place and position -- that they had accompanied Moshe this far, and 'saw the God of Israel', but they were to go no further, and were to be in charge until the return. The specifics of the time was irrelevant to this particular instruction, and its omission need not constitute 'vagueness'.

Yet regardless, I think that the Abarbanel adds something to the peshat, even if we could have deduced it for ourselves.

A 'famous' midrash is often transformative. It colors how we look at the pesukim. It becomes unclear just what is stated by the pasuk and what is not. While we might consider some overt portion of the midrash to be midrash -- in this instance, the interpretation of boshesh ("tarried") to be ba shesh, that the sixth hour which he had appointed had arrived -- the other perhaps less overt assumptions of the midrash, that he expected to arrive on this 40th day, approximately, we might not realize are not stated explicitly by a pasuk. After all, Shemot 24:18 mentions the 40 days without extra comment, and 40 is a nice round number. And if we are not absolute bekiim in Torah, given that different parts of the narrative are stated in different places, we might not take careful stock and realize what background assumption is pasuk and what background assumption is midrashic interpretation.

Only once we realize that could we add this additional suggestion by Abarbanel, that this was not a one-time request by the bnei Yisrael on the fortieth day, but that they had been nagging Aharon about this for quite some time.

This matter of reevaluating our axioms is not just because the axioms fade into the background, to become unquestioned assumptions. There may be hashkafic resistance as well. We see the midrash state it. We see Rashi state it. If we look in a Mikraos Gedolos and no Rishon explicitly contradicts it, it becomes their unstated assumption as well. Demonstrating that a Rishon took a different approach may be just the helping hand to do so ourselves, both in case where the Rishon says it, and in other cases where no Rishon explicitly says it.

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