By Israel Drazin
We have been offering some controversial and conventional Jewish Bible interpretations by the iconoclast Arnold B. Ehrlich (1848-1919) from his book Mikra Ki-Pheshuto (The Bible According to its Literal Meaning), the Orthodox Jewish thinker Baruch Epstein (1860-1919) from his commentary Torah Temimah (The Perfect Torah), homiletical views of Rashi (1040-1105), as well as others, such as the Talmuds, Midrashim, and Maimonides. The parenthetical statements are mine. The following are some comments on the biblical portion Beshalach (Exodus 13:17 to 17:16). They address how to read Midrashim, the implication of a Midrash that seems to teach that the majority is usually wrong, and a new way to look at the Torah that not all of its laws are ideal.
- In his work called Chelek, Maimonides states that people who take rabbinical Midrashim literally are pathetic fools. Midrashim are parables and sermons meant to be mined for lessons about proper behavior. The lesson in Midrash Mekhilta is an example. It states that Scripture’s “Pharaoh sent away the (Israelite) people” (13:17) means that he accompanied them as they left and God gave Egyptians a reward for his good behavior for the Torah mandates that Jews should not mistreat Egyptians. Thus while Pharaoh must likely never accompanied the Israelites as they left Egypt, the Midrash is teaching that we should accompany our guests for a short distance when they leave our homes.
- Rashi and most commentators translate 13:18’s “and the Israelites left Egypt chamushim, as “armed.” He explains that the Torah gives this information so that we would understand how it was possible that the Israelites were able to fight various nations while they were in the desert. The Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 6:7, relying on chamesh also meaning “five,” is more explicit: they were armed with five different kinds of weapons.
- The Midrash Mekhilta understands the word as “a fifth,” indicating that four fifths of the Israelites died in Egypt during the three days of the darkness plague because they didn’t want to leave Egypt with Moses. (It appears that the rabbis emphasized such a high number of dissenters to add proof to the idea that the majority of people are generally wrong. Why then did the rabbis decide that when rabbis dispute a law, the decision should always follow the majority? Also, why do we accept the views of the majority in democratic countries? We do so for practical reasons, although this is not the best solution, it is the best we have.)
- Ehrlich states that the word means “strong.” He writes that although the Torah is stating that the Israelites were strong yet, as the verse continues, God took them on a round-about route so that they would not have to fight the Philistines. God knew that when they would be attacked by the Philistines, they would become fearful and rush back to Egyptian slavery.
- Maimonides builds a remarkable philosophy upon this idea. He stresses in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32,that the Torah recognized that it is “impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to another; it is…impossible for him to suddenly discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed.” Maimonides was opposed to sacrifices. He felt that: “It is for this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue,” not because it is good for people to offer sacrifices or that God needs sacrifices, but the people had become so accustomed to it and saw other nations making sacrifices, so the Torah allowed it. However, as Maimonides goes on to explain, the Torah limited sacrifices dramatically, where they could be brought, when, how, and only certain animals. This concept, that many commands in the Torah were only instituted because of the weakness of human nature and were meant to cease as people improved, applies also to the laws of slavery, witchcraft, the evil son, and the captive woman, among others. Each of these laws is contrary to basic morality. But the Torah allowed the Israelites to have slaves, kill suspected witches, kill evil sons, and allowed soldier to have sex and marry women captured during wars, but only under the most restrictive procedures. The majority of Orthodox Jews rejects Maimonides’ understanding of the purpose of these commands and thinks that every Torah command is proper.
- Similarly, Ehrlich writes that the Torah states in 13:19 that Moses took Joseph’s bones with him during the exodus from Egypt for burial in Canaan. He had to do so alone because the rest of the Israelites were unable to understand what difference it made if Joseph’s bones remained buried in Egypt or were taken to Canaan. These people were so uncultured that as soon as they saw the Egyptians chasing them they begged Moses to allow them to return to Egyptian slavery.
- 3:19 also demonstrates Maimonides’ view about not reading Midrashim literally. The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 9b, states that a person is rewarded for an act in the same way that the person acted. It highlights this teaching with a Midrash that should not be taken literally: Moses respectfully took Joseph’s bones with him for burial, so God Involved Himself with Moses’ burial. Epstein comments: just as Moses who was greater than Joseph did this deed, so God who alone was greater than Moses, performed the same act for Moses.