Beyond Parshanut: Using Midrash to Enhance the Teaching of Values


Nathaniel Helfgot

Rabbi Helfgot is the Coordinator of the Jewish Studies curriculum at Ma’ayanot High School, and a faculty member at the Drisha Institute. This article appeared in Ten Da’at 11 (1998).


One of the central areas of instruction in the modern Orthodox high school is the teaching of Humash and commentaries. This area is part of the formal curriculum of Judaic studies with an average of three to four periods devoted to its study in the course of the school week. At root, of course, this study is much more than an academic pursuit. In our educational settings the students are exposed to the Torah as divine teaching. They are taught to see themselves as engaging in the enterprise ofTalmud Torah.
In the context of the teaching of Humash much use is made of material found in the texts of Torah she-Be’al Peh, the Oral Law. As Orthodox Jews we see the Written and Oral Torah as going hand in hand, both crucial for an understanding of our place in the world and our obligations to God and man. One of the central quarries of sources mined for these purposes aremidrashim, both halakhic and aggadic. This material is used either in its classical forms or through the prism of later adaptations, including their citations in the medieval commentaries. The use of this material in the classroom is multifarious and rooted in a number of different goals. In very broad, and admittedly, imprecise strokes we can outline some of the basic approaches to teaching this material as follows:

  1. The text of the Humash is often enigmatic and basic questions of interpretation and meaning arise. Today, many teachers, under the influence of the work of Nehama Leibowitz, z”l, and Meir Weiss, use the method of close reading in teaching the biblical text. In this method the reader seeks to arrive at an understanding of peshat, the plain sense of the text, by carefully noting the choice of terms, order of words, shifts in voice, presentation of characters, use of honorifics, first person or third person accounts and other literary devices. This method gives rise to many exegetical problems that are not easily resolved by internal biblical solutions. The solutions suggested in many of the midrashim are used to resolve textual and exegetical problems of the first order, which are raised either by the students themselves or by the commentaries that have been prepared by students for analysis. On this level the midrashim are used in a purely exegetical context and are seen as part of the continuum of attempts to reach the coveted goal of understanding peshat, the plain sense of the text. To that end, only thosemidrashim that fit into this category are utilized and explored. Sometimes a statement more removed from the plain sense of the text may be cited, but only for the purpose of highlighting why it most definitely is not peshat. Thus, in many of the worksheets of Nehama Leibowitz there is a often a question devoted to articulating the exegetical reasons why Rashi or Rambandid not cite midrashic solution x or y in their comments to the chapter. The use of midrashic material to resolve exegetical problems and note literary anomalies is also popular in many academic circles which share the concern for the close reading of the biblical text and an appreciation of the order, syntax and literary style used by the Torah. Teachers trained in both literary approaches as well as more traditional avenues are often comfortable in utilizing midrashic sources in this fashion. The use ofmidrash in this fashion keeps the material in the realm of exegesis, parshanut haMikra, careful not to go beyond the boundaries of that framework. Midrashic sources are rarely cited solely for their hortatory value or to enliven a lesson; they are part of the building blocks of arriving at a clear understanding of the text. In this scheme it also occurs that whole lessons may be devoted to evaluating the merits of one solution over another. Students are often asked to cite support for Rashi or Ramban from the text as the focus of the lesson. The text of the Torah, however, remains the yardstick by which one judges the “correctness” of the various suggestions put forward.
  2. On the other side of the spectrum are educators who continue to use midrashim in a more haphazard fashion. They often do not attempt to anchor this material in an exegetical framework and are content to cite the sources as is, without any further development. Sources may be cited for their moral messages or to familiarize students with famous or “key” Rabbinical statements or concepts. In addition the sources are used to expose students to Rabbinical terminology, develop textual and reading skills and highlight the importance of the oral tradition. The connection to the text of the Torah is rarely explored, neither is the historical or philosophical context in which the midrash operates examined. The midrashim are cited as sacred texts for their religious and moral inspiration. In addition they are often read literally, without delving into their symbolic meaning and message.

The Authority of Aggadah
The first point of departure of this project is an acceptance of the Geonic approach to the authority of Midrash Aggadah. This position, set out by Rav Hai Gaon and Rav Sherira Gaon, and recorded in later halakhic works such as Sefer haEshhol, was adopted by most of the medieval and modern commentators including such central figures as Maimonides, Abravanel and Rav David Tzvi Hoffman. In a word, it argues that in contrast to Midrash Halakhah which originates with the revelation at Sinai, no such claim is made by Midrash Aggadah. Representative of this approach is the following passage from the Introduction to theTalmud by Rav Shmuel haNagid which is printed at the back of the standard editions of the Vilna Shas:
Haggadah is any talmudic interpretation which does not concern commandments…and you need not learn anything but what seems reasonable. You should know that whatever Halakhah Hazal maintained regarding a commandment from Moshe Rabbeinu which he received from the Almighty may neither be added to nor subtracted from. But as regards the interpretation of verses which is framed according to individual intuition and personal opinion, one need learn from such explanations only that which seems reasonable; and as for the rest, one is not dependent on them.
The Rabbis, according to this approach, never considered Aggadah divine in nature, but rather attempted to interpret the Biblical text according to logic, ancient traditions and their understanding of the text before them. This position was one of the bases which allowed for freedom of interpretation in the narrative section of the Torah throughout the ages. This sentiment runs through the parshanut literature from the period of the early Geonim, to Rashi, Ramban and Abravanel in the middle ages up until our own era. It was a guiding principle in such disparate works as the rationalistic commentary of R.Yosef lbn Caspi (Mishneh Kesef) in the 14th century who writes: “But in matters which do not concern the commandments, I shall favor no authority and let truth take its course” (Shemot 21:7), to the mystical commentator, R. Hayim Ben Atar, who writes in his introduction to Or haHayyim : “There are times that I will interpret the text with my writer’s pen in a fashion different than the interpretations of Hazal. However I have already expressed my opinion that I am not, God forbid, arguing with the predecessors…rather permission is granted to the interpreters of Torah to cultivate the soil of the text and yield fruit (i.e. suggest original interpretations)…except in the area of Halakhah where one must follow in the path set out by our forefathers.” Similarly we find identical sentiments in the classical commentaries written in the 19th century by such rabbinical luminaries as R. Yaacov Zvi Meklenberg and R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin and a full throttled adoption of this approach in the textual and scientific commentary of R. David Tzvi Hoffman to the Torah, in the early 20th century [2].
This approach logically leads to a more critical understanding of the whole process of midrash Aggadah and its goals. In this approach one can recognize that some aggadot are didactic or polemical in nature, using the biblical narrative as their point of departure for moral and religious teaching. Lest there be some misunderstanding, it is critical here to emphasize the educational outlook that must be the bedrock of such an approach. We are directed, tell us the Geonim and Rishonim, to take every Aggadah seriously, though we are not obliged to read every one literally. The scaled back literalism or authority that we give to these sources does not in any way speak to the sense of respect and seriousness which should animate our approach to thesema’amarei Hazal. If we see ourselves as following in the footsteps of medieval and modern parshanim this point needs to be kept in mind. Trivializing the words of the Rabbis in any shape or form was not the intention of any of these exegetes. This point must be stressed in order to ensure that the spoken and unspoken messages conveyed in our classrooms embody a traditional world-outlook.
The Aggadic Continuum
The second point of departure in this paper, based on the ideas outlined above, is that midrashic comments to the Bible (and here we deal specifically with Midrash Aggadah) exist on a continuum. At one end of the line reside those midrashim that are entirely exegetical in nature. Their point of departure is the biblical text and problems that naturally arise to any careful reader of the verses. There is much material in the midrashim that fits into this category and it has been utilized by many of the commentators, both ancient and modern, in their study of peshat. Analysis of these passages in light of the methodology of close reading and the weighing of evidence is a critical part of Talmud Torah. We read texts in order to understand their primary meaning. We, however, are not the first nor the most insightful readers of these texts. The struggles and contributions of the great minds who came before us is thus essential to the endeavor.
At the other end of the spectrum reside those midrashim that are totally removed from the plain sense of the text and do not resolve any inherent problems in the verses. These midrashim often engage in creative and imaginative readings and translations of the texts before us and leave us dazzled by their ingenuity. Yet, in reading them we often feel they are working on a different plane; one far removed from the structured atmosphere of peshat with its clear rules of grammar, syntax and context.
In the middle of the continuum stands the vast majority of midrashim. This is a group that is hard to classify as exclusively belonging to one camp or the other. The material may be rooted in exegetical concerns and yet will often go beyond them to express ideas, teach lessons and address problems that the darshan would like to raise in his study of the passage.
The Present Project
This project is mainly concerned with the third and, to a lesser extent, the second type of midrashic material and its integration in the high school classroom. We rightly assume and expect that the first level of study in any serious Humash class is the attempt to ascertain the plain sense of the text. First and foremost the Humash class should be directed to a careful study of the devar Hashem and its primary meaning. Students should be trained in careful reading of the text, basic rules of grammar and the significance of local context in understanding a word, phrase or passage. In this type of learning problems of parshanutand understanding the text will arise and need to be dealt with in class. Midrashic and medieval material will be utilized in the search for a resolution of these problems. We wholeheartedly encourage that study and see it as the basis for the subsequent study represented by units presented below.
The units prepared here are designed to explore a second level of analysis: reading the biblical text through the prism ofmidrash Aggadah. The Rabbis read the Torah carefully, and often saw in its words the springboard to address the basic issues of philosophy, morality and meaning that they and their societies faced. Many of these issues were time-bound; many, however, were and are perennial in nature. It is in the midrashic reading of so many of the narratives in the Torah that these ideas, dilemmas and debates come to the fore. I believe that occasional use of this material and level of analysis has great potential for enhancing and enriching the learning and teaching of Humash as well as of basic Jewish values.
This project envisions a structure in which students devote one or two lessons every three weeks to the study of one of these units. In an average year that would result in the study of ten units, with a four year curriculum covering forty units by the end of high school. In these units, after the primary level of study has taken place, students will study midrashim that take them beyond the plain reading of the text. This study will focus on understanding what the Rabbis say, including their use of literary structure, metaphor and parable. The student will then explore how they are rereading or interpreting the text and finally what may have been the impetus, exegetical or external, for such readings. The class will explore historical and philosophical background that may help shed light on the issue that stands behind the midrashim being studied. In some instances students will be exposed to discussion of basic philosophical issues or moral dilemmas that Hazal discovered in reading various narratives in the Torah. In others, students will explore the polemical thrust of some of the aggadot that were responding to movements or ideas antithetical to Jewish values. In others, still, the historical debates that split the Jewish people will come to life. The Rabbis saw in the Biblical text a guide that yielded contemporary and immediate lessons for their generation. In many of these units students will hear strenuous debates between the rabbis, with various opinions proffered on essential questions of morality, philosophy and Hashkafah. The structured use of these texts and ideas can yield the following benefits for our students:
How HAZAL Read the Torah
1) Students will learn to appreciate how Jews, and specifically some of Hazal, read and learned Humash. As traditional Jews we look to these giants for direction in normative Jewish life. In addition, we would like to encourage our students to carefully study the themes and ideas that our forefathers saw and heard in this eternal text. Through this study we can hopefully explore some of the issues the Rabbis confronted on a philosophical, moral and historical plane and which they saw as rooted in the multi-layered richness of the Torah. As we well know, the breadth of Jewish ethics and teachings is not exhausted by the study of the norms of Halakhah, but is enriched by supplements from the other genres of Rabbinical material. It is important that we emphasize to our students that these values and ideas emerge from reading the Torah text and commenting upon it. The text is a living reality which shapes our perception and stimulates us to think and evaluate ideas, figures and, hopefully, ourselves.
To be clear about the goals, let me note that I am not advocating the study of Aggadah per se. These units are to be part of the Humash curriculum, with the focus remaining on the biblical text. We are trying to bring students into the world-view that saw and sees the Humash as allowing for multiple layers of discussion and teaching. We hope to initiate our students into the historical continuum of readers of this text; readers who saw it as Torat Hayyim, a dynamic and never ending fountain of instruction. They will hopefully enter into the historical conversation around the text of the Torah that e1iminates gaps in time and spans centuries of Jewish life and history.
Torah and Contemporary Values
2) The study of these issues as they emerge from a broad reading and expansion of the biblical narratives can be an entry point in helping students approach certain basic issues in Jewish thought and morality. Focusing on specific topics the students will confront dilemmas and issues that concerned Hazal and have not lost their relevance. The texts and learning can then become a real and dynamic center from which to address issues such as universalism and particularism, good and evil, the efficacy of prayer, power and powerlessness, personal responsibility and divine providence, relationships to non-Jews, creating an ideal political system, legitimate and illegitimate uses of violence, personal expression vs. the needs of the community and many other critical questions with which we all struggle. The discussions that emerge from this study can be another piece in our overall goal of educating thinking and feeling Jews who approach and discuss issues in life and society with the help of tradition and text.
The study of values and Jewish philosophy should not be limited to the formal class on Mahshevet Yisrael. First, in many schools such a course does not exist. Second, in the few that it does, it is often built upon a formal study of texts and topics that were of great concern to medieval thinkers but do not trouble modern man as “live” questions. One goal of these units is to take the study of mahshavah out of this more formalistic and limited context and make it part of the ongoing study of Humash as well. Where feasible, coordination with the mahshavah teacher would be desirable. This could also lead to the team- teaching of selected topics that would emphasize the continuity of sources and the notion that the Humash and Hazal are addressing the central issues of meaning.
Multiplicity of Meaning
3) In the study of these units students will come to further appreciate the multiple layered nature of studying Jewish texts such as Humash. This is a critical value that is not given enough emphasis in the curriculum. Students sometimes come away with a monolithic approach to the reading of texts. They often do not see the wealth and breadth of readings and opinions that have been incorporated within the parameters of the tradition.
As some of this study involves historical and philosophical analysis students will be exposed to approaches to learning sources that will complement the “standard” modes of reading texts. In this aspect the units here fit nicely into a modern-orthodox conception of Talmud Torah which does not, a priori, reject out of hand the methodologies and fruits of historical studies of midrash and Aggadah. The notion of using the fruits of this enterprise is not new to Orthodoxy. The German- Jewish experience and the work of Orthodox scholars and thinkers in the previous and current century certainly provides ample precedent for the successful integration of traditional and modern modes of study. Gedolei Yisrael such as Rav Azriel Hildesheimer, Rav David Tzvi Hoffman and Rav Yehiel Yaacov Weinberg, are shining examples of the productive encounter of using disparate methodologies in approaching mekorot. To a lesser extent some of the leading sages of our generation such as Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik [3], zekher tzaddikim liverakhah, have on occasion used such approaches in various writings andderashot that they delivered in public. In addition the writings of master teachers and scholars in our circles such as Nehama Leibowitz, Efrayim Urbach, Yonah Frankel, Yoel Bin Nun and others are dotted with examples similar to the ones outlined in the units below.
Prelude to Academia
4) Many of our students will later confront more radical approaches to Rabbinical texts in the academic world. We do them no favor by totally ignoring the various methodologies employed in the study of Humash and Midrash by scholars. Using them and analyzing their strengths and weaknesses in our more nurturing religious environments is a far more sound approach. Our approach demystifies them while using their fruits within the guidelines of a traditional worldview. Now, of course, a more fundamentalist approach to midrash would have no truck with any such notions, but neither we nor our students live, study, or operate exclusively with such a posture. The Orthodox high school graduate who will go on to YU or Bar-Ilan, and certainly Columbia or Penn, even after years of yeshiva study will be exposed to much of the academic methodology towards sacred texts. Exposure to some of this material in a non-threatening and natural fashion can help enrich our students’ full exposure to the experience of Talmud Torah as a search for truth. Secondly, it can help inoculate our students against some of the more pernicious aspects of these methodologies.
Interdisciplinary Study
5) In many of our units other disciplines such as history, philosophy, and literature are used in setting the background for understanding the discussion and debate. Teachers from these disciplines can be brought in to expand on these areas thus resulting in some opportunities for inter-disciplinary work. Students will be exposed to some of the interrelationships between the study of Torah and other disciplines that can help enrich our understanding of the devar HaShem.
Coordination with Adult Education
6) Students will also learn to approach sources of parshanut and midrash in a manner that parallels some of the learning that is going on in adult-education settings in their communities. Many of the parents of these very students are engaged in serious learning that incorporates discussion of historical, polemical and philosophical perspectives in approaching various Jewish texts. The gap between the world of the parents and that of the children is thus narrowed. This can, if nurtured properly, be the basis for greater interaction between students and parents in the area of Talmud Torah. Parents and students can engage in study that is mutually satisfying and helps gives the text relevance to some of the issues that all human beings confront. This can lead to serious discussions within the family about values and ethics mediated through the prism of the midrashic reading of Humash.
Coordination with the Campus
7) Finally, and this is somewhat down the road, exposure to these kinds of issues and methodologies helps narrow the gap between students learning in our circles and those educated in other camps within the Jewish people. Many students and adults in other movements engage in forms of study that in part dovetails the approaches outlined above and demonstrated below. As we well know the college campus is one of the primary crisis areas of Jewish life. The attrition rate is high and many of our best and brightest are lost to us forever. In college or beyond when our students leave the more restricted environments of the day schools, they may be able to find some common ground in learning Jewish texts seriously with other Jews who emerged from distinct backgrounds. Jews studying Torah together, and trying to understand and derive meaning in their shared learning can be a productive vehicle in ameliorating some of the sharp tensions and divisions that are now characteristic of the Jewish people. It can also be a positive force in encouraging more intensive study of mekorot by Jews of all backgrounds on the college campus.
As I made clear above, the purpose of these units is not to study midrash, in and of itself, but to integrate it into the study of Humash and commentaries. To ensure the achievement of that goal, a number of points must be emphasized:

  1. The units are to be preceded by the careful study and analysis of the biblical text in classic fashion. After the unit has been studied in this manner the other material can be introduced.
  2. The sources chosen are ones that are part of the genre of expansion of the biblical narrative. Folk sayings and aggadicmaterial found in the sources that are not connected to the biblical text such as the R. Akiva narratives, or those of the fall of Jerusalem will not be utilized. This is not a course in the study of midrash; it is an attempt to enter into the historical conversation of Jews who read the Torah in multiple layers of meaning and heard its voice resonate in approaching the existential and moral issues of the day and eternity.

Subject Matter vs. Subject Matter for Education

  1. This paper is predicated on the important distinction between the use of subject matter and the use of subject matter for education. This distinction is similar to one developed at length by Prof. Lee Shulman of Stanford University, between “content knowledge” and “pedagogic content knowledge.” As Shulman has written:

Although most teaching begins with some sort of text, and the learning of that text can be a worthy end in and of itself, we should not lose sight of the fact that the text is often a vehicle for achieving other educational purposes. The goals of education transcend the comprehension of particular texts, but may be unachievable without it.
Saying that a teacher must first comprehend both content and purposes, however, does not distinguish a teacher from non-teaching peers. We expect a math major to understand mathematics… But the key to distinguishing the knowledge base of teaching lies at the intersection of content and pedagogy, in the capacity of a teacher to transform the content knowledge he or she possesses into forms that are pedagogically powerful and yet adaptive to the variations in ability arid background presented by the students [4].
In that spirit the units presented below are based on the fruits of some of the modern studies in Midrash by scholars such as Yitzhak Heinemann, Nehama Leibowitz, Yonah Frankel, Avigdor Shinan and Efrayim Urbach. However, the study of these sources is not intended to be one in which every nuance and text is analyzed and scrutinized in the fashion and style of the academy. I have chosen to use this vast collection of material as a resource for building educational units with the hope that they will help stimulate the learning process and open up areas of thought and discussion in the classroom. I hope that in presenting this material for teachers I have done so with integrity to the sources and their meaning. The review of the units by scholars and other educators to ensure fidelity to the basic contours of the midrashic material is the best way to ensure that those boundaries have not been crossed.
Pre-Service Training

  1. The use of this material presupposes a certain type of community, school and faculty. This project is intended for a modern-Orthodox setting that first and foremost takes the teaching of Tanakh and commentaries seriously. In addition it assumes a willingness to see this study in its broadest sense as impacting on the shaping of values and the search for meaning. Teachers most likely to be comfortable with this project are those who have had some serious academic study of Jewish studies (e.g. Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School, Hebrew University or Bar Ilan University) alongside intensive learning of Tanakh in more traditional settings. However, it would seem to me that even teachers with minimal exposure to this kind of training could easily be prepared to make use of these units. The key would be for the prospective teacher to express a willingness to explore other approaches to what some midrashic sources are doing in approaching the text of theTorah.

The teachers of the Humash sections could be trained in using this material in an intensive mini-course during the summer months. Two or three major articles on the topic by Heineman, Frankel, and Leibowitz would be distributed well before the sessions. Teachers would then engage in studying the material presented below, analyzing the sources and practicing the methodology. Finally, they would be asked to prepare model units themselves and present it to their colleagues and workshop leaders for evaluation and criticism. This kind of work could be continued in a number of in-service sessions organized throughout the year for the Tanakh faculty.
In addition, it is my feeling that introducing three or four sessions of this type into the standard course on teaching Humashin the graduate program at Azrieli, Touro or the various teachers seminaries would also be productive. student-teachers would be exposed to these approaches in addition to the study of pure pedagogy or parshanut -centric teaching methodologies.
In order to demonstrate the type of material and pedagogy that I feel should become part of the curriculum below the reader will find two sample units from the larger project for perusal. They deal with passages in Bereishit and Shemot that are commonly taught in every religious high school.
Unit 1-Bereishit 17
One of the outstanding models of deep and abiding faith to the Almighty in the Torah is Avraham Avinu. He is known in our tradition as the great believer, the ma’amin, who followed the call of God to abandon his home and past for an uncertain land and future. Later, it is Abraham who is ready to sacrifice that which is most precious to him, his son Yitzhak, in obedience to the will of the creator. This same quality is evident as well in Bereishit 17 where God directs Abraham to circumcise himself and his entire household. God appears and commands Abraham, already a man of ninety-nine years old, to circumcise himself and thus enter into a covenant with the Almighty. The moment God completes his charge to him, he fulfills the divine mandate without hesitation:
And God completed speaking to him; and the Lord departed away from Abraham. Abraham then took his son Yishmael and all the children of his household…and he circumcised them on that very day as God had instructed him. And Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he circumcised his foreskin… on that very day Abraham and his son Yishmael were circumcised (GEN.17: 22-25).
Yet if we turn to the midrash here and in a number of other places in Bereishit Rabbah a different picture of Abraham’s attitude to the divine command emerges. Let us examine two short passages:
At the time that the Holy One Blessed Be He commanded Abraham to circumcise (himself and his family) he went and consulted with his three close friends (as to whether he should fulfill this duty). Said Aner to him: “You are already 100 years old and you are ready to go and afflict yourself with such a procedure?” Said Eshkol to him: “Why are you ready to go and set yourself apart amongst your enemies?” Mamrei said to him: “This is your God who stood by you and protected you from the burning furnace and hunger, and the war with kings, and now when He commands you to circumcise, will you ignore His request?” (BEREISHIT RABBAH 42:8)
Said Abraham: “If circumcision is so beloved why was it not given to Adam himself?” Said God to Abraham: “It is sufficient that I and you are in this world, and if you do not accept upon yourself the obligation of circumcision, it is sufficient for the world to have existed till this point.”… Said Abraham: “Before I became circumcised people would come by and interact with me; now that I will be circumcised will people come and join me?” Said God to him: “Abraham! It is enough, that I am your God, it is enough that I am your patron; and not only for you, but rather it is sufficient for the world that I am its God and its patron. ” (BEREISHIT RABBAH 46:3)
These passages from Bereishit Rabbah [5] are striking in that they do not seem to be addressing any exegetical problem in the text. The first verses of the section present Gods directive to Abraham and the section concludes with Abrahams dutiful fulfillment of the mitzvah. The students will immediately notice that the midrash has added two dialogues to the section. One is between Abraham and his friends outlined in the first piece. The second is between Abraham and God outlined in the second piece. In the first piece it is clear that Abraham has reservations about going through with the circumcision. This midrash does not put those reservations explicitly in his mouth. Students might be asked to first read this passage alone and suggest why an individual might struggle with the concept of circumcision or have reservations about it? Students might also be encouraged to think about the objections put in the mouth of Aner and Eshkol. Are these simply a literary device to convey the reservations that were occupying Abrahams mind at this time or do they represent the opposition of the non-Jewish world to circumcision?
The second passage is more explicit in that here Abraham challenges God about circumcision on a number of different planes. Students should be asked to clarify the difference between the two passages.
A New Perspective on Abraham: Expressing Reservations
The first point that emerges from the midrash is a new perspective on Abraham. While the Abraham of the text never wavers nor challenges the mitzvot of God (as opposed to the justice of God as in Sedom), in the midrash he does so. Given the lack of any textual basis for reservations on Abraham’s part, we must ask ourselves what did these Rabbis want to convey to us in their reading of the section on circumcision? The question to be raised is: Were the Rabbis here presenting for our consideration an alternate model of the religious individual, represented by Abraham? One model of the committed Jew is the person who accepts the commandments without hesitation, doubts or struggles. There were many people who lived with such an intense faith commitment, especially in pre-modern eras that were suffused with a religious consciousness throughout society. In our day there are still individuals who live with such faith and trust. On the other hand, in the past and especially now in the absence of revelation and explicit communication with God, we all encounter Jews, young and old, who do not live with such certainty. We ourselves are often filled with questions, dilemmas and reservations. The midrashic model presented here is of the Jew who may have philosophical, moral or practical problems with fulfilling mitzvot.
This can lead to a wonderful discussion in class about the topic: Can one be a religious Jew with doubts or questions or struggles with particular mitzvot. Does the fact that one has questions about a mitzvah, though one performs it, invalidate or diminish its significance? Is one allowed to try to understand the rationale and meaning behind mitzvot as Abraham tried to do in the opening part of the second midrash? All these issues are in the background of the two dialogues that the midrash sees as going hand in hand with the biblical story.
In the first passage in the midrash, Abraham is presented as having reservations about undergoing the process of circumcision. And yet in the end he fulfills the will of God; he remains for us Avraham Avinu. In the eyes of the Rabbis, the founder of our people was not only the model of the ma’amin be’emunah temimah par excellence, he was also the model of the Jew who struggles with kiyyum hamitzvot in his life. He is the person who examines the commandments, exploring its reasons and meanings. He is the person who constantly feels the existential need for rational decision and choice about his religious life.Avraham Avinu is, in this reading, the Jew who chooses consciously to submit himself to the will of the almighty. He makes a faith commitment that expresses itself in action and behavior after struggle and reflection.
Universalism vs. Particularism
The second passage in the midrash opens up other areas for discussion in the classroom. Abraham presents two separate arguments for his hesitations in accepting circumcision. The first relates to the issue of the selection of Am Yisrael on a philosophical level. Why is there a need for one nation to be singled out to enter into covenant with God? Cannot mankind as a whole participate in the special relationship with the Almighty? In a word, why was Torah not given to the entire world? God’s response in the midrash is a bit enigmatic but it basically affirms the notion that the covenant is particular to the Jewish people, and of course, anyone who joins that people and its destiny.
At this point it might be productive to direct discussion towards analyzing the early history of mankind as presented in the Torah. One might raise the question: what is the purpose of the first 11 chapters in Bereishit. It is possible to read the first section of the Torah as God’s attempt to set up a world in which the divine covenant with man was to be established with all of mankind. God first entered into a relationship with Adam and his descendants, directing them to observe a few basic ground rules and giving them dominion over the created world. In addition, according to tradition, mankind received a detailed code of laws and behaviors, the Noahide code. This attempt unfortunately failed as man corrupted the earth with murder and vice and the breakdown of boundaries leading to the reversal of creation.
God subsequently attempted to reconstruct the world and once again set up a covenant with all of mankind. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the flood, His will and authority were once again challenged. Thus the broad universal attempt is put on hold. While God retains a relationship with the entire world and demands adherence to a basic code from all mankind, he decides to establish a different mechanism for ushering in malkhut shaddai on this earth. God enters into a covenant with one specific nation, demanding from them allegiance to a detailed and comprehensive way of life. In the history and actions of this people, God’s name and message will be manifest and brought to the attention of mankind. This is a longer, more circuitous route that seeks to redeem mankind in the long range of history rather than the immediate here and now. In that long range of history, Am Yisrael, as a representative of the divine message in the rough and tumble reality of the “real world”, must continue to exist and bear witness while at the same time live up to the demands of the creator to be a mamlekhet kohanim ve-goy kadosh.
The famous midrash that speaks of God going to the various nations and offering the Torah fits into this model as well. On the ultimate level Torah is and should be the patrimony of the entire world. Indeed the language of that midrash speaks of God requesting the nations “to accept the Torah”. It is not imposed, but rather must be accepted. For various historical and philosophical reasons, however, the nations of the world were not ready, willing or able to adopt and accept it as their standard. It is the Jewish people, who are ready to accept and take upon themselves the task. They are the only people ready to sayna’aseh ve-nishma, to make the faith commitment to God and his demands.
This discussion is important because it defines the concept of chosenness as synonymous with mission and fulfillment of mitzvot. It does not speak of inherent worth or superiority in some more racial sense. Am Yisrael is unique in its willingness to take upon itself the burden of fulfillment of covenantal responsibilities. Am Segulah is a term that reflects demands made by God rather than His grace. This is what engenders the close relationship between God and the Jewish people. In the words of the prayer: asher kiddeshanu be-mitzvotav; the chosenness is expressed in the obligation to perform mitzvot.
The second argument of Abraham in the midrash relates to the actual practice of mitzvot, represented here most intensely by circumcision. The practice of a unique code of behavior separates the Jew from the rest of the world and creates an unbridgeable gap.
Observing the totality of Halakhah is a barrier to the full integration of the Jew into general society. Moreover, one might read the argument as stating that the mission of the Jew is paradoxically hindered by his “uniqueness” and otherness. People do not come to share with him and thus they cannot benefit from his message.
In these arguments students will hear more than an echo of the debates and struggles surrounding Jewish uniqueness in antiquity, but especially in the modern era. This is a wonderful opportunity to invite the Jewish history teacher to come and discuss, for example, Napoleon’s proposal of emancipation to the Jews of France. Students might read some of the early literature of the Reform movement in Germany or the more extreme writings of the assimilationists in Europe of the mid-1800s. The students would explore the belief amongst many in the early nineteenth century that the more Jews assimilated into general society the less anti-Semitism they would face. Students could analyze the arguments and the various factions and judge them in light of subsequent Jewish and world history. The questions can also turn to the thorny issue of inter-group dialogue and whether one should or may downplay the particularistic aspect of ones tradition in order to participate fully in the world whether as a citizen or in relating to other faith communities. Students might read excerpts from R. Soloveitchiks essay “Confrontation, as well as articles by R. Samson Raphael Hirsch or Dr. Michael Wyschograd who touch on some of these issues.
Unit 2- Shemot 2 
The second chapter of the book of Shemot describes a number of scenes from the birth, youth and young adulthood in the life of Moses. In the middle of the chapter the Torah recounts a series of incidents that occurred after he grew into manhood and sought his brothers out. We will focus here on the first episode that appears in this series:
And Moses grew into adulthood and he went out to his brothers and saw their suffering. And he saw an Egyptian striking(makkeh) a Hebrew, from his brothers. And (Moses) looked to and fro and saw that there was no man around, and he struck (va-yakh) the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.
(2: 11-12)
In this episode, Moses for the first time fully understands and empathizes with the extent of the suffering that is the lot of his fellow Jews. He sees first-hand the exploitation and distress that is the life of the slave “and he saw their suffering”. The next verse in the Torah tells us that after witnessing this general suffering, Moses encounters an Egyptian striking a Jew. Moses, checking that there are no witnesses, immediately intercedes and slays the Egyptian thereby saving the Jew from his oppressor. This passage highlights the sensitivity of Moses to the plight of his brethren and his willingness to personally step into the fray and take action. Moreover, on the literary level it foreshadows the fact that through his efforts, the Egyptians will be “smitten” (the phrases makkeh and va-yakh clearly echo the subsequent chapters in which the Egyptians experience the makkot) and the Jewish people as a whole will be saved from their oppressors.
This might be a good opportunity for the students to use a concordance. Students could be asked to check how many times words based on the root NUN, KAF; HEIH such as makkeh and va-yakh appear in the first 12 chapters of Exodus.
Personalizing the Anonymous
In this context it is interesting to note that there are a number of striking midrashim that deal with the identity and acts of the Egyptian taskmaster and the behavior of Moses. These midrashim go far beyond the plain sense of the text and once again raise questions as to what message is being developed in the reading of the episode beyond the plane of peshat. Let us look carefully at some of these passages from Midrash Rabbah to this section in the Torah:
Once an Egyptian taskmaster went to the house of one of the Israelite guards (guards who were the overseers of the slaves themselves, N.H.) and he was attracted to the wife of the Israelite who was beautiful, without blemish… Later the Egyptian returned and came upon this woman… Once the taskmaster realized that the Israelite man knew what had occurred, he put the Israelite back into slave labor and began to beat him till the point of death, and Moses gazed upon him; and through the holy spirit he saw what the taskmaster had done in the house and what he was about to do to the Israelite in the field. Moses said: “This person is certainly liable for the death penalty as it states”. And one who slays another man shall die’ (lev. 24:21).” Moreover he came upon the wife of Datan (the Israelite) and for this he is liable for death as it states: “The adulterer and adulteress shall surely die,” and this is what it states: “and he looked to and fro;” he saw what the Egyptian had done to him in the house and what he did to him in the field.
“And he saw that there was no man”- for he (the Egyptian) was liable for death…the Rabbis say he saw that there were no righteous offspring that would emerge from this man till the end of all time. Once Moses saw this he turned to the angels and asked: “Is this person liable for death?” They responded to him: “Yes”. This is the intent of what is written: “and he saw that there was no man; ” there was no one (in the heavenly court) who would find any merit on his behalf (no one could offer any defense for him).
“And he smote the Egyptian;” With what did he kill him? Rav Evyatar says he struck him with a fist… the Rabbis say he pronounced the name of God upon him and killed him as it says “Do you intend to kill me (halehargeni atah omer) as you slew the Egyptian ? ” (Ex. 2: 14 ) (SHEMOT RABBAH 1:28-9)
The students can be asked to highlight those words in the two verses which the various opinions have read out of their original context.
They might come up with a chart like this:
Verse 11: a. “striking”- ready to kill him
Verse 12: a. “saw “- through the divine spirit into the past and into the future

  1. “to and fro”- looked to what occurred in the house and in the field
  2. “saw”- in the divine spheres
  3. “is no man “-referring to the Egyptian, he was a dead man.
  4. “is no man “- no worthy offspring would come from him
  5. “is no man “- no angel ready to speak on his behalf
  6. “and he smote”- he spoke the divine name

This gives students a clear picture that these verses have been read in an intense midrashic fashion with many of the elements being taken out of their “plain sense” meaning. In addition the first midrashic passage gives us an entire biography and history to the anonymous “Israelite” and “Egyptian “. These elements are entirely absent from the biblical text and there is nary a hint of them in any subsequent verses. On one level, of course, this is part of the general midrashic attempt to give background and “color” to anonymous characters who appear in the biblical narrative. In addition this background helps us better understand the motivation of why the Egyptian decided to strike the Jew. This last point of course is a bit strained for one could argue that it is common that slaves are beaten everyday, and yet the Bible chooses to focus on the fact that on this particular day Moses saw the oppression and chose to respond. Be that as it may we clearly are standing before a series of exquisitely creative midrashim on a seemingly straightforward text.
 At this point one might leave the midrashim and return to the text with the question what would the students have done in Moses’ place. Would they have reacted as he did? Would they have been afraid or would they have hesitated? What factors would have gone through their minds before they took action? What would they have to know?
The discussion will probably give rise to various opinions as to whether Moses reacted properly or not? Lest the suggestion that Moses erred here be taken as out of bounds, it is important to highlight a number of points. First, we here are dealing with Moses at the very outset of his career, before he has even spoken to the Almighty for the first time. The Rabbis themselves speak of him in Chapter 3 as a “fresh recruit (tiron)” in describing his fear of speaking with God. Moreover; we know that the Torah does not hide the mistakes committed by even the greatest of prophets and later in his career speaks openly of the sins he committed that prevented him from entering into the promised land. Finally, and most telling in our context, we have an explicit statement in the Midrash that takes Moses to task for his actions. In the Midrash Petrirat Moshe Rabbeinu [6], which recounts traditions relating to his last days, it is reported that Moses pleaded before the Almighty that he should continue to live. After a long dialogue in which Moses attempts to show that he was greater than the Avot and thus should merit immortality, God turns to Moses and says:
“Did I in any way tell you to kill the Egyptian?” Said Moses to him: “You slew all the first-born of Egypt, and I shall die on account of one Egyptian ? ! ” Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to him: ” Can you compare yourself to me who causes death but can revive the dead? Can you in any way bring someone to life as I can ? ! ”
This passage contains a direct indictment of Moses’ action, even to the point that it is presented as the ultimate reason that Moses is not allowed to remain on this earth.
Criticizing Moses
It is interesting to note, however, that this sense is entirely absent from the biblical text. The Torah does not in any way criticize Moses’ swift reaction. In fact, if read in the context of the other stories in the passage, the Torah seems to see this episode as one of the stories that highlight Moses’ fitness for leadership [7]. Moreover, it is interesting to note that the Bible uses the same language in presenting Moses’ action as that of the Egyptian. The Egyptian is makkeh, which literally means “was striking”, but not necessarily a death blow. Moses acts and is described by the verb va-yakh (another form of the wordmakkeh), which here means “he killed him”. The Torah chooses to present Moses’ action as symmetrical-Haka’ah for Haka’ah-implying that it was the appropriate and commensurate reaction to this act. The Torah, in this scene, does not describe his act with the common Hebrew verb va- yaharog. At this point that is not the focus and the use of such language might raise the issue of Moses’ disproportionate reaction to the act he witnesses. It is only later, in the episode of the two Jews who are fighting, that this term is used. The Jew who takes exception to Moses’ intervention says to him: “Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian” halehargeini atah omer ka’asher haragta et haMitzri (verse 14). At the moment when the story actually occurs in the narrative the Torah chooses not to use that term and that is very significant [8]. (Parenthetically this method of comparison is a wonderful methodological tool that can be used in many chapters of the Torah. Students can see these points on their own by writing down how the Torah-as objective narrator-tells a story; e.g. what verbs and adjectives it uses; and compare it with how that same story is recounted by one of the characters in the same story [9])
One issue then that will immediately arise from the study of the biblical narrative and these sources is the evaluation of Moses’ act. In line with the thrust of the plain sense of the text, the midrashim from Midrash Rabbah take a totally different tack than the source quoted above. In these sources, the students will note, Moses is not presented as a young hothead who simply strikes without thinking. In the various passages cited before, we are informed both of the wickedness of the Egyptian taskmaster and the deliberative nature of Moses’ thinking. The taskmaster has raped the Israelite’s wife (a capital offense) and is an instant away from killing the Israelite slave. Moses is aware of all this and still, in one version, looks for divine sanction to kill this oppressor. The Egyptian is liable according to the laws of the Torah but Moses requests that he be judged in the heavenly court as well. No one can find any defense on his behalf, and Moses, with divine assistance, sees that no one righteous will come from this evil man. There is, in short, no redeeming element that can save him from his fate, and it is then and only then that Moses strikes the Egyptian, again with divine intervention. These midrashim clearly reflect a strong tradition to defend Moses’ course of action in this very difficult episode. Moses, in this reading took the difficult but morally appropriate action to save a Jew’ from death.
Taking this approach to the lesson the discussion would focus on the morality of Moses’ act and possibly enter into a discussion concerning the evaluation of biblical figures in general. This is a wide-ranging and important topic that comes up frequently in any serious high school classroom. This is not the place for a full blown discussion of the basic issues and the interested reader is directed to the sources cited in the notes below [10]. As a general comment, I would just say that it is crucial that we strive for balance. We should be forceful in teaching our students that we are dealing with gedolei olam, spiritual and moral giants who shape ad direct the contours of our life. At the same time, in line with the Torahs and Hazals own teachings, these were figures who remained human and were not free of error or flaw. We should not, as Mori v’Rabi Rav Aharon Lichtenstein once put it so well, turn the Avot into “ossified figures of petrified tzidkut” having no relation to the world in which we and our students live.
A Critique of Violence
There is a second avenue to pursue in the teaching of these sources which connects to general issues regarding the use of violence, especially by individuals or small groups, in fighting oppression or achieving other social or political aims. A cursory reading of the biblical story easily leads one to the conclusion that immediate violent reaction to injustice is the proper course of action. Now it is true that sometimes violence is unavoidable and the only course open to achieve the moral goal. However, there are often many situations when the issues are far from clear. The use of violence is often a tricky and problematic approach both morally and tactically. On the moral plane, the question is often whether the violence employed is justified in stopping the injustice taking place. To take an extreme example, shooting someone for taking your parking space would be viewed by all as inexcusable murder. Secondly, are all the victims of violence which is perpetrated against the oppressor guilty, or are some innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire? Thirdly, and related to these questions, are the effects that the violence has on one’s own moral fiber and continued ethical core. Entry into the world of violence is often unavoidable, but it often comes at the price of dulling religious and ethical sensitivities and carries with it the potential for overlooking the divine image that resides in each human being.
Finally, beyond the purely moral issue there is of course the tactical issue of the effectiveness and long-range results of such a policy. Let us take for example the case of the Soviet Jewry movement in the late 1960’s. There were many discussions as to what was the best course of action for individuals and groups to take in putting pressure on the Soviet government. The mainstream groups used all the tactics of the political process including private diplomacy, political advocacy, public demonstrations and economic pressure. A few individuals took it upon themselves to bomb certain sites owned and operated by the Soviet government. One such bombing led to the death of an innocent Jewish secretary. The bombers aimed for Soviet officials or sympathizers and murdered a young woman instead. Moreover, some of the moral high ground that had won the Soviet Jewry movement widespread public support was to some extent lost by this act of violence. The bombing did not visibly affect Soviet policy one wit, and may have even hardened some positions as well.
It is in this light that one may possibly approach teaching the sources on Moses’ slaying of the Egyptian. The reader of the Torah could easily come away with the impression that seeing injustice before one’s eyes, one must step in violently without a moment’s thought or consideration. The action of Moses, the greatest of all prophets, is at first blush an extremely powerful precedent for future generations of Jews who would find themselves under oppression. The temptation under similar circumstances is to take the law into one’s own hands and lash out. One might argue that the Rabbis in their statements here are attempting to limit the scope and applicability of the story for future generations. In the Rabbinical reading, we are speaking of a criminal who was on the verge of killing the Jew and who had already committed a heinous crime. Moses, in his unique position of access to the divine realm sees that no good will ever come from this person. Moreover, Moses receives divine permission to execute this man after he has been tried and found guilty. These midrashic passages turn the impulsive, emotional act into a rational, deliberative act that meets out proper justice to this criminal. In effect, we have now neutralized the potential for precedent inherent in the story and put it into its proper context. Only when one confronts an irredeemable criminal with no potential for righteous progeny can one have recourse to violence. Only one who has received divine sanction and can use the divine name at will to execute another. For the rest of us the better course is one of discretion and fighting through other, less problematic, means. Unless we have prophecy and can be sure that we ourselves are committing no evil in our use of violence, the story of Moses cannot serve us as a basis for our actions. Of course this is not the only passage in the Bible that deals with individual acts of violence (as opposed to the area of war carried out by the nation as a whole which requires its own discussion) in response to injustice. The stories of the rape of Dinah and the massacre of Shekhem, and. Pinhas’s zealotry, to name just two, also can be analyzed in the context of such a discussion. However this is beyond the scope of this unit.
Beyond the very significant lesson about the caution we need to take in the use of violence to solve problems, we also are communicating a very critical message about how we learn values. In traditional learning we cannot derive our values and attitudes from a Tanakh-exclusive perspective. As committed Jews, we read the Torah through multiple layered colored glasses; not only peshat but peshat as well as derash. While this is clear to all in the study of legal sections of the Torah, it sometimes is abandoned in the more narrative parts. We read the Torah on numerous levels and these various dimensions taken together shape our world-view and the messages we take, with us from the text. While it is critical, of course, that students develop skills in the study of peshat with its literally, grammatical and historical element, we cannot abandon the secondary and tertiary readings that are at the heart of the Rabbinical tradition.
[1] This article is an adaptation of a more lengthy curricular project prepared under the aegis of the Jerusalem Fellows during 1995-6 when I had the great privilege and good fortune to spend a sabbatical year learning and living in Jerusalem.
[2] For background on this entire section see Yonah Frankel, Darkei haAggadah u’Midrash (Jerusalem, 1991) pp. 504-525; Uricl Simon, ha-Mikra va’anahnu (Tel-Aviv, 1979) pp. 28-41.
[3] See, for example, the treatment of the last mishnah in Yoma in the last section of his magisterial essay Sacred and Profane in Gesher Vol. 1 (1966).
[4] Harvard Educational Review 57.1 (1987), 12-13.
[5] A useful tool in the preparation of these types of sources is the 10 volume vocalized edition of Midrash Rabbah with commentary by Moshe Merkin (Tel- Aviv, 1986).
[6] A late midrash of unknown origins, quite popular in the middle ages and cited authoritatively in various midrashic collections such as Yalkut shim’oni and even in “Peshat” commentaries such as Rashbam of. his comments to Numbers 12:1 (Rozin ed., printed in Torat Hayyim edition of Mikraot Gedolot).
[7] his was first pointed out to me by my good friend and colleague Rabbi David.
[8] Silber.
[9] See, further, in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot (Jerusalem, 1993), 39-41.
[10] See the excellent discussion in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereishit (Jerusalem, 1993), 239 ff. See the articles by: David Bergcr. “On the Morality of the Patriarchs in Jewish Polemics and Exegesis,” Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torahed. Shalom Carmy (Northvale, 1996), 131-146; Avishai David: “Perspectives on the Avot and Immahot,” Ten Da’at 5:2 (Spring, 1991), 24-26; Zvi Grumet: “Another Perspective on Avot and Immahot,” Ten Da’at 6: 1 (Spring, 1992), 25-27; Yitzhak Twersky: “Baderekh Hazeh Asher Anokhi Holekh,” Rinnat Yitzhak, ed. Natahniel Helfgot (New York, 1989), 69-81.