A Matter Of Interpretation – Parashat Va’etchanan

A MATTER OF INTERPRETATION – Parshat Va’etchanan

by Rabbi David Kasher, Kevah‘s Senior Rabbinic Educator

Midrash, the rabbinic method of interpreting the verses of the Torah, always begins with a problem in the text. Something about the way the verse is written is strange or confusing, has missing or extra words or letters, or is inconsistent with some other verse. Such verses, as the rabbis described them, are virtually calling out to us, “Darsheini – Interpret me!” Midrash, then, is first and foremost an exercise in problem-solving.

Sometimes, however, the midrashic solution itself becomes so well-known that we forget what the problem was to begin with. The classic example of this phenomenon comes from the most famous midrash of all, the legend of young Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop. This story has been so fully absorbed into Jewish collective consciousness that we rarely recall it as an attempt to grapple with a very specific textual difficulty: the abrupt beginning to Abraham’s story. Chapter Twelve of Genesis opens with the Lord suddenly calling out to Abraham (who was then called ‘Abram’), “Go forth!” But who is Abraham? Where does he come from? And why does he, of all people on earth, merit a special relationship with God? So the rabbis, building on a handful of clues in the text, construct the midrashic narrative of Abraham the teenage iconoclast. That midrash is so familiar, in fact, that many people assume it is in the text of the Torah itself. The solution has eclipsed the problem.

Another midrashic interpretation that has taken on a life of its own is the following piece from the Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael:

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