Omek Mikra: A Method for Teaching Humash

  • by: Bruce Rachlin

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, vol. 5, 1, 1990, pp. 24-26. Appears here with permission.
Our students study Humash but do they understand it? They can translate psukim but can they discern the concepts? They may read Rashi and Ramban but do they penetrate the thought processes, which resulted in their comments? In short, assuming that students have knowledge do they also have understanding? The following approach, called “Omek Mikra,” addresses these concerns. What is the premise of Omek Mikra? What is its hidush? In a word it is structure. The Humash is a series of ever expanding logical structures. Even its minutest units -its individual words are the reflection of concepts. Nothing is arbitrary. It is these concepts which have dictated the choice of a specific word, phrase, posuk division and placement of each part within the whole.1
In fact all units within the Humash – posuk,stumah, petuhah and sefer are ever expanding conceptual frameworks. The sum of the psukim within a stumah form a whole thought; the stumot within a ptuhah form a whole topic and the ptuhot within a sefer form a strand of topics woven into one theme which is the summation of that sefer. For this reason the Rambam says that Sefer Beraishit is Sefer Yetzira– the Book of Creation, for all of its threads deal with formation and shaping of world, man, intellect, purpose and Jew among a host of others.
The significance of this is that students can learn to approach the study of Humash in a structured, systematic fashion. There is a way of thinking within the Humash which will consistently unlock its meanings because it is its very structure which reveals its concepts. The understanding of Humash is organic; it flows from reasoned analysis. And, it is this structured reasoning which is at the heart of the mefarshim. Even the midrash responds not solely to eclectic inspiration but to the structural necessities of the posuk from which it springs.
And finally, it is not only the sophisticated, logically mature student who can fathom this. Children can be part of this process. Given the tools, schooled in the techniques of structured reasoning, even young students can enter a learning curve which will develop over their lives.2
The first step in this process is to divide the posuk into its logical parts. Since each posuk is a series of rationally related word structures, it is subject to structured reasoning. For example: “Vayitzer Hashem Elokin et haadam afar min haadama vayipah b’apav nishmat hayim vayehi haadam l’nefesh haya” (Ber. 2:7) becomes quite naturally:
1.vayitzer Hashem Elokim. et haadam afar min haadama
2.vayipah b’apav nishmat hayim
3.vayehi haaddam l’nefesh haya
It can be seen from this division that not only does the posuk fall into natural parts but that variations are possible.3 For example, “Vayitzer Hashem Elokim et haadam afar min haadama” might have been subdivided as:
1.vayitzer Hashem Elokim et haadam
2. afar min haadma
The next step is to analyze each logical part. This is initiated through questions which are the vehicle of this process. The key is ultimately to ask oneself “all” questions: Is this word spelled as it usually is? Is this word or phrase of common usage? Is it unusual? Is it repetitious? Is there ambiguity? Can I define what this word means? What is this word, phrase, posuk, implying? Does this correspond to my understanding and experience? It is important to examine each word and phrase in turn, systematically, comparing it to similar variations which appear. But in this process one must become naive again. One both forgets and remembers what one knows for the sake of knowing anew.
With younger students one might choose a single issue on which to focus. For example, in the posuk above a teacher might ask what issue the word afar raises .e,g. Did God really use afar? From where did this afar come? etc., and, having answered, move on to the next logical part of the posuk.
Later, as student proficiency grows, one would require students to raise a multiplicity of issues in the attempt to throughoutly analyze the logical parts. Such a hard focus on “Vayitzer Hashem Elokim et haadam afar min haadama” might be expected to yield at least the following: Why is vayitzer used rather than bara or esah? Why two yudin in vayitzer? Why Hashem and Elokim? Did God genuinely use afar? Is this what man is or has it some other meaning? Why min haadama? In contrast to what other possibilities? Or is this reference to a place? Students would also raise structural questions. For example: What is the conceptual relationship between the three parts of this posuk? What is the concept of the posuk as a whole?
How does one teach students to uncover the issues? In the beginning they must be shown the process and the issues by reasoning them out together. Students can be pushed, cajoled, flattered and told that there is something here-find it. Teachers must sensitize students to one and then another and then another type of issue, repeating the analysis at each opportunity, finally showing that these questions lead to significant answers. Students soon become sleuths. They no longer take the posuk at face value. And, when nothing is taken for granted, there is an excitement to finding the subtlest of points. It is even more gratifying to discover something that the teacher has not.4
By the time students reach high school, the teacher need no longer raise the issues. Prior to class analysis, students should divide the posuk into its logical parts and raise the problems in the posuk.
What about mefarshim? Beyond anticipating their issues how does the Omek Mikra approach interact with the study of mefarshim? Obviously, mefarshim provide answers to most of the issues one has raised in analyzing a posuk. But this is true precisely because the mefaresh was also involved in the same analysis.5
The perush at one and the same time offers insight and extends our sensitivity to structure. A useful example of this interaction is Rashi’s comment on the first psukim in parshat Kdoshim. The says, “Daber el kol adat bnei Yisrael v’amarta aleyhem k’doshim tihiyu ki kadosh Ani Hashem Elokeykhem.” Rashi comments “Melamed sheneemra parsha zo b’hakhel mipnay sherov gufey Torah t’luyin bah.” Rashi’s point ultimately is that just as historically there will be a mitzvah of hakhel– that is, teaching to the rabim– so too here we have an earlier instance of such a mitzvah due to the centrality of the mitzvot which are part of the kdoshim tihiyu stuma.6 However, consistent with our analysis of structure, we would want to ask how Hazal, quoted by Rashi, deduced this information. We would begin with the observation that this command could have been said more simply: Daber el…bnei Yisrael…kedoshim tihiyu. Thus, at least the phrase kol edat seems superfluous, and possibly v’amarta aleyhem as well.7 Hazal seem to deduce from this that there is a particular mitzvah of amirah to kol edat and this would be consistent with the nuance of edah, a group professing common commitments. Gather the people, Hazal say, for this is the heart of what I would say to them.
Thus it becomes apparent that Hazal responded both to the structure of the words and to their nuances which is of course itself a type of structure, a choice to build meaning through significant subtleties. In other words, the structure carries meaning for Hazal and that is precisely the premise of the Omek Mikra approach. The mefarshim thus act as guides to the structure and to its significance. As students reason through a perush their sensitivity to the text increases, they find answers to queries and equally significant, they begin to see themselves as part of a great historic process. They become talmidei Rashi, encompassed within the vitality of the learning tradition.8
In order to make their understanding a living process, students should be encouraged to develop their own hidush. Thus, when posing questions from the posuk, student insight should not only be solicited but required. The ability to do this cannot be left solely to intuition, but must be developed. The first step is, as discussed, through the process of analyzing the mefarshim. The next step is through a similar reasoning process using insights of teacher and students. For example, ha’myaldot el Paroh ki lo kanashim ha’Mitzriyot ha’ivriyot ki hayot hena” one would ask, why call him “Paroh” when preceding psakim refer to him as melekh Mitzrayim? The answer lies in the structure. The previous usage, melekh, reflects the perspective of the speaker Paroh himself. It is he who refers to himself as melekh Mitzrayim, a figure of absolute authority. But in our posuk it is the miyaldot who speak and they, by their actions, have shown that they will not respond to such illegitimately employed authority.
This leads us then to the next issue. Why has the Humash used such an unusual phrase as “ki lo k’nashim haMitzriyot haIvriyot?” In sensing this strangeness and posing its alternative, we sense the answer as well. The actual phrase is derogatory. It refuses to accord to the ivriyot the term of respect- nashim which is reserved for Egyptian women.
But if this is correct then we have a contradiction in the posuk itself. It is these miyaldot who have defied melekh Mitzrayim to preserve Jewish life. For what conceivable reason would they derogate the very women for whose children they have endangered themselves? Here logic suggests that they have done so for the simplest of reasons- to persuade Paroh that in fact they share this prejudice to better convince him of their ruse- ki hayot hena. And as we are alive to the structural subtleties, we can marvel at how the Humash has first conveyed to us the miyaldots’ genuine view- vatomarna hamiyaldot el Paroh– so as then to demonstrate their subtlety in manipulating Paroh‘s attitudes in furthering their ends.
Thinking can be taught. One of the single most important goals in teaching Humash is to foster a pattern of rigorous analysis and insight.
A final point. The process of Omek Mikra, is identifying the structure and nuance of the Humash, sets the stage for many wholly unexpected thematic points. These are limited only by the thoroughness and creativity of the teacher and students. However, one’s ideas, in fact, tend to be more rigorous and reliable in having to account for the many structural issues raised by Omek Hamikra.
The very process of Omek Mikra provides a means of restoring the students sense of wonder. It draws them to the text of the Humash and the mefarshim and satisfies their desire for consequential reasoning. Omek Mikra reforges an incandescent link with the sensibility and mind of mesorah. It invigorates both student and teacher and allows the learning process to flourish.
1There is an indication of this in concepts such as ayn mukdam u’m’uhar b’Torah. There is no chronological order, rather there is a logical order. Even that which appears as chronology is in fact logic. This idea allows us to understand why particular events from particular perspectives are presented in narrative portions whereas other whole periods of lives and chains of events are simply ignored. The reason is the obvious one- we all presume that the Humash is not interested in narrative, it is interested in concepts.
2It is not being suggested here that there is only one right and necessary meaning to a posuk, stumah, p’tuhah or sefer. To the contrary there are multiplicities of meanings. The genius of the Humash is that it has imbedded myriad meanings within its structural nuances. This in no way, however, dilutes the significance of its structures. What it does is create awe of the Divine intelligence which has created a multiplicity of levels and meanings within single texts, words and their relationships.
3If students want to divide a posuk in a particular fashion which seems unintuitive to the teacher, she/he needs only to ask why the student sees it in this fashion. Normally, the student is on to something which can then or later be discussed, or the student will become intuitively uncomfortable with the suggestion and drop it.
4When each word is the object of scrutiny students can sometimes feel that the process is arbitrary. If the teacher questions why this word rather than a second, students will sometimes feel, “Well it had to say something, so why not this.” In dealing with these sorts of issues it helps to indicate that we are looking for particular nuances and to point to other uses of the word to establish its nuance. It is also useful to point to halakhot which flow from particular terms as they often offer definition of nuance.
5It is crucial to remember however that each perush is responding on a particular level to a problem. It is important to show consistency in our choice of perush. In other words, we should focus on those which are pursuing a common logical strand unless we specifically want to contrast possibilities of interpretation. However, simply to study perushim for a multiplicity of comments defeats the purpose of showing the logical development of the Humash. The fact of such consistency in the mefarshim allows a teacher to show how the Humash develops a view of a particular person, moral circumstance, halakhic concept over many psukim, incidents or halakhot. This is an avenue for using Omek Mikra as an extensive approach.
6It is a fascinating challenge to Omek Mikra to show that the psukim from Vayikra 19:1 through 19:22 form one set of logically developing concepts. In fact this can be shown despite the disparate quality of the mitvot. The mefarshim are involved in this exercise. As one example see the Sforno ad loc.
7Whether v’amarta aleyhem should be considered part of the drashat Hazal is an issue beyond our scope but serves as playful provocation for those interested in parshanut.
8One may rightly feel that to this point the comments on mefarshim are much ado about nothing. Why will students want to commit themselves to these mental gymnastics any more than many do to the Gemara learning process where mental drift is legendary? This question deserves two answers.
First, certain individuals are excited by ideas per se. For them abstractions are as real as experience- to some more real. For most students, however, a different question hovers over their lessons- “So what?” What difference does this make to me? Teachers ignore “So what?” at their peril. Moreover all who ignore “So what?” impoverish the significance of the learning experience. The ultimate learning goal lies in action and perspective which leads to action: Torah as framework and focus.
Learning must therefore be applied. In the case of our Rashi, the opportunities are multitudinous. What is central to leading a good life? Isn’t sanctity a removal from real life involvement? Why is discovering this a group process? If individuals must execute these mitzvot would it not have been preferable for each to be initiated into them on his or her own? And on and on. Not every issue will be discussed or discussed specifically and directly. But the “So what?” must be kept squarely in focus and made a central part of lessons.