Did Vashti have a Tail? Reflections on Teaching Midrash Aggadah in Elementary Day Schools

  • by: Penina Besdin Kraut

Originally appeared in Ten Da’at Vol. 1, No. 2, 1987

I am a teacher of Tanach, and midrash is part of my daily experience. Not that I teach midrash as a subject area, nor that I even quote midrash every time I walk into the classroom, but midrash certainly plays a central role in my understanding of Tanach and is always an integral part of any class preparation. To teach Tanach without the benefit of midrash is unthinkable; to teach midrash without some careful forethought and consideration should be equally untenable.

About a year ago, when my elder daughter was in fourth grade and my son in first, we were discussing the parsha of the week at the Shabbat table, as is our custom. My son had been marvelously well-prepared and was reciting in great detail all that he had learned in class. My daughter was fidgeting and seemed to be impatient with the lengthy review of the sidrah. She was able to contain herself for just so long, and then she suddenly burst forth “Yehuda, what are you talking about? You ‘re making up stories! That’s not in the chumash! I‘ve learned that chumash already, and what you ‘re saying is not written there.” Racheli’s indignation was legitimate, and Yehuda’s perplexity just as real, for he had been telling the story faithfully, as his teacher had told it to him, with every midrash intact!

What we have here is a vivid example of a common discrepancy in what we teach our children. On the one hand, we teach the integrity of the Torah text and the importance of every single letter as written; on the other hand, we tell our children stories from the Torah with midrashim of the Rabbis woven into the narrative so tightly that there is no distinction between the narrative itself and the insights of our Rabbis. As a result, we invite inevitable confusion. We must distinguish between what is actually written in the Torah SheBikhtav what is added by the Torah SheBa’alPeh, so that when our children go to prove their point from the Torah text, they are not taken aback to find that it simply is not there.

Another aspect of teaching midrashim in elementary school that deserves attention is the process of selection. There must be a process of choosing which midrash to teach. We cannot and do not have to share every comment of our Rabbis on a particular issue. As teachers it is always our responsibility to use educational judgment in what we teach, and I believe that this applies to midrash as well. If a midrash helps to illustrate a point within the context of the lesson I have planned, then I will by all means use it. If a midrash delineates a problem or issue around which I want to build a discussion, then I most certainly would include it. If a midrash fills in gaps in the narrative that otherwise would be incomprehensible, or if a midrash teaches a Musar Haskel which can and should be appreciated by my class, then I have a duty to bring it to their attention. But I am not required to teach every midrash just because it is there. Midrash is a tool for learning; in elementary school it is not a subject in and of itself.

Rashi, the chumash teacher par excellence, clearly supports the notion of selection in dealing with midrash. On the phrase “and they heard” in Bereshit 3:8, Rashi states:
“There are many aggadic midrashim and our Sages have already arranged them properly in Bereshit Rabba and in other midrashic anthologies. I, however, have come only (to establish) the peshat of the verse, or such aggadot as resolve the language of Scripture in its context.” [1]
The purpose of our teaching midrash may not always be the same as Rashi’s, but whatever we choose to be the focus of our lesson should be enhanced and further explained by the midrash we choose to teach. If the midrash does not complement or supplement our intended goal, then like Rashi, we should not include it in our lesson plans.

Another factor to consider when deciding whether to teach a midrash is to consider how that midrash is likely to be received by our students when we teach it, as well as how it may be reinterpreted by them a few years hence. Whenever she taught Megillat Esther, my colleague would teach the midrash that Vashti grew a tail. Unfailingly, whenever I taught Megillat Esther to graduates of her class (since Purim tends to repeat itself annually, so too does the learning of the Megillah), one of the first questions I would receive would be a reference to that midrash. In the younger grades the question would usually reflect all the excitement, incredulity, and enthusiasm of the younger child to whom the wilder the fantasy the more endearing the notion “Did Vashti really have a tail, Mrs. Kraut?” (Tell us again, won‘t you?). In the upper grades, especially those of the preteens, the question invariably would take on a different tone “Did Vashti really have a tail, Mrs. Kraut?” (Do you truly believe that? Come on, now!).

Student reaction to what we teach can not be ignored. If there is a danger that we maybe sowing seeds of cynicism, rebellion, or outright disbelief by a particular midrash, then wouldn‘t it be preferable not to teach it? I do not mean to suggest that anything difficult or uncomfortable for us in the teachings of our Rabbis ought to be avoided, but I do believe an honest evaluation should be made by the teacher if, in fact, teaching this midrash risks more than it adds. Then too, we should keep in mind that by choosing not to teach a particular midrash on the elementary school level, one does not decree that it should never, or will never, be learned. By making that choice, one simply uses educational judgment to suggest that perhaps it would be better handled at another stage of student development.

The most apparent, yet most neglected factor in selecting midrashim to use in the classroom, is the decision as to whether one understands the midrash one intends to teach. It should be quite obvious that you can ‘t teach what you don ‘t comprehend, and yet, I believe, it happens all too often to teachers when teaching midrashim. For those teachers who address midrash at its face value and regard its message in its literal sense alone, I suppose this comment bears no meaning, for as long as they know the translation of every word in the midrash, they consider that they understand it. For me, both personally and pedagogically, that is an unacceptable and impractical stance, particularly if one teaches on the junior high school level. For example, how does one tell sixth, seventh, and eighth graders that the Rabbis say that Vashti grew a tail, and leave it at that? In the human experience, do people have tails? Can one sincerely expect one’s students to accept the spontaneous growth of a tail on the Queen of Shushan? Perhaps it was a miracle, for anything is indeed possible if Hashem so decrees. Certainly true, yet blatant miracles and deviations of nature are not common experiences and would certainly have been recorded in the text to be preserved for posterity like the plagues of Egypt or the splitting of the Red Sea had they occurred even at the time of Esther. I cannot accept the position that the midrash here is filling in for us a revealed miracle not included in the text.

How then, as a teacher, do I handle this midrash concerning Vashti’s tail? I can simply decide that since I do not understand this midrash, I will not relate it to my class. To merely present a midrash in order for it to be ridiculed is counterproductive. I have too much respect for the Rabbis to present them in an outlandishly inexplicable manner, and too much concern for my precarious preteen students to put them into a position where they must choose between respect for chazal and their knowledge of what seems impossible and nonsensical within reality. If all I have to present to them is that the Rabbis say that Vashti grew a tail, then I will choose not to teach this midrash.

However, I have another alternative. If I can take this midrash and interpret the words in such a way that an inner meaning emerges which conforms to reason and reveals a hidden truth, and thereby highlights the purpose of midrash and the wisdom and insight of our Rabbis, then I will choose to teach and share this midrash with my class. As the Rambam says, “… the sages knew as clearly as we do the difference between the impossibility of the impossible and the existence of that which must exist…. [The] sages did not speak nonsense, and it is clear… that the words of the sages contain both an obvious and hidden meaning. Thus, whenever the sages spoke of things that seem impossible, they were employing the style of riddle and parable.”[2]

In this vein, I have offered the following suggested interpretation to my classes concerning the midrash of Vashti’s tail. Who has a tail? A horse, a dog, a cat, a cow… in short ,animals have tails. When Vashti was called to appear before Ahasverosh and his guests, she became so enraged that she lost all sense of reason and logical thought and grew a tail. She became as irrational as an animal, and as emotionally caught up in getting back at her attacker as any animal naturally would.

This is my own interpretation of the midrash, and I emphasize to my classes that it is only my understanding, and therefore they are free to accept or reject it, just as you the reader are free to do. What is important here is not this particular midrashic interpretation, but rather the approach to midrash which I am trying to convey. The midrash is never nonsensical, and elementary school children should never be put into a position where they are likely to draw that conclusion. The wisdom of our Rabbis is a given fact. It is our job to release that wisdom and offer suggestions to unlock the parables and allegorical language frequented by the Rabbis. If we are uncomfortable with that role in principle,[3] or if we are unable to fulfill that role when dealing with a particular midrash, then let’s acknowledge our shortcoming and admit openly to our class that we don ‘t comprehend the true intent of the midrash, or let us choose not to deal with that midrash in class at all. To simply quote the midrash, translate the words, and let the rest of the pieces fall where they may is to my mind clearly irresponsible and a disservice to our students.

*The above article is dedicated to the memory of my father. Rabbi Morris Besdin, ע”ה who taught me to love Tanach and appreciate the Midrashim.

[1] Translation taken from Nehama Leibowitz, On Teaching Tanakh (Torah Education Network, 1986), p. 39.
[2] See Rambam, “Introduction to Perek Heiek” Isadore Twersky, A Maimonides Reader (New York: Behrman House, Inc., 1972), p. 409.
[3] Ibid., pp. 401-410.