Seeing is Believing: A Chumash Class Topic Submission
I recently enjoyed the company of my friends whom I had not seen in a while. We caught up, and before sitting down to dinner at their home, two of their sons had questions concerning medrashim (allegories) learned at their yeshiva. Their children, Zach and Jonah didn't understand them, and rightfully so, as they were incorrectly taught these allegories, as "historical fact". Before I address those specific allegories, I wish to repeat the teachings of our two great leaders: King Solomon, and Maimonides' son Abraham. Throughout, I will write in a style that both student and teacher will read with greater ease.
Maimonides' son Abraham wrote an important introduction to Ein Yaakov, a collection of the stories of the Talmud. Abraham wrote that we are not to understand these stories as having taken place in reality. They are to be understood as metaphors.
King Solomon wrote a book, commonly known as "Proverbs". But the correct translation of the Hebrew title "Mishley" is "Metaphors". The book's title alone is sufficient to the average mind to indicate that the book's contents are not to be taken literally. That is the meaning of "Mishley". But King Solomon writes again in the very beginning, the purpose of his work 1:6: "To understand metaphor and poetic expression; the words of the wise [the Rabbis], and their subtle sayings". The king made it clear: his book is not literal. He also taught that the Rabbis spoke in these following styles: 1) metaphor, 2) poetic expression, and 3) subtle sayings. The king was not the first to use various modes of speech; the Rabbis too employed them as a means of prodding the minds of Torah students. When the mind must work – using analysis, deduction and induction – it strengthens, similar to a muscle. King Solomon teaches in 1:4 that such a book will "give acumen to the simpleminded, and give knowledge and analytical skills to the youth".
These three categories the king cites, 1) metaphor, 2) poetic expression, and 3) subtle sayings, comprise the Rabbis' abundant use of riddles, exaggeration, and cryptic lessons. The king himself starts his metaphors immediately (1:8,9):
(8) "Hear my son the moral instruction of your father, and do not forsake the teaching of your mother."
(9) "For they are an adornment of grace for your head (a crown), and chain ornaments for your neck (a necklace)."
Now, Zach and Jonah, your parents said they would read this to you on Shabbos. So before reading further, think about how verse 8 above can possibly create a crown and a necklace. Is that possible, that when you learn from your parents, all of a sudden, a crown suddenly appears on your head, and a necklace appears out of nowhere on your neck? Your parents teach you all the time...has this ever happened? Of course not. So what does this really mean?
You see, this very test of seeing if crowns and necklaces appear when you study, is what God wants us to use to figure out whether we are to understand Torah ideas as real facts, or a "story" that didn't really happen, but was written so we learn something deeper. Like we said, when we are forced to think, our mind grows stronger. So I am so glad that your parents have trained you to think, and not accept what you are taught, if it doesn't make sense. Maimonides and all of our great Rabbis also teach that we must not accept what doesn't make sense. Unfortunately, many teachers today were not taught this, but they were taught to accept everything as real fact. That is why this test is very good. No one can say King Solomon means something literal with two these verses.
But I want you to focus on what I am saying right now, about this test...
You don't see any crown or your head now, do you? Your parents are reading this to you, and there's also no necklace on your neck! You see, God gave each person "senses". A sense, is a part of the human body that tells us what is happening in the world. For example, God gave us eyes, because He wants us to accept that what we see, is really there. God does not want us to be fooled. He wants us all to know what is true. So when we see a red apple, we know it is red, and not green. When we feel water is cold, this is because what we see is really water; and what we feel, is really cold. God is not fooling us, and God does not want us to fool ourselves.
God wants each of us to select what is true, and reject what is false, by using our senses.
God gave only man a mind. Animals, plants and rocks cannot write poems, figure out math problems, or make new scientific discoveries. This is because these things don't have minds. God wants only man to have a mind, for the very reason that we use it in all areas. If we don't use our minds, then we go against God's wish. It is a sin, as the Torah teaches, "from a false matter, stay away". (Exod. 23:7)
But some people, even Jewish teachers, fail to use their minds, and they simply believe whatever they were taught, since they were afraid to argue with their Rebbes and teachers. Then, they teach these false ideas to their students. But that is wrong. A Rabbi once said, “Had Joshua bin-Nun said it, I would not hear it”. (Tal. Chullin, 124a) That means that he was not afraid to argue with Joshua, even though Joshua was a great leader. And Moses' brother Aaron disagreed with Moses. (Lev. 10:19,20) And Moses said he made a mistake, and Aaron was right for disagreeing. This teaches that we don't accept whatever anyone says – even Joshua. But we must think for ourselves. And as we just learned, we must think if something makes sense, even in Torah study. Just as Moses made a mistake, certainly Rebbes today make mistakes. But many times a teacher or a Rebbe is afraid to say, "I don't know", or "I was wrong". This is a sin, since they are not "staying away from something false".
So to review, the lessons so far are:
1) Use your mind in all areas.
2) Stay away from anything false.
3) Do not accept something if it makes no sense to you.
4) Do not be afraid to argue with anyone, because everyone makes mistakes, even Moses.
5) If something you learn goes against what you really see happening in the world, then what you learned is false.
Now, let's see if we can understand King Solomon. He said that your parents' teachings will create a crown and a necklace. Now, since by watching your head and your neck as you learn right now, no crown or necklace appears...there must be a deeper idea. This is where you must think. What are the clues King Solomon gives you? Well, he says Torah study will create two things, but he also says "where" they will be: on your head and neck. We know that a crown and a necklace are things that make us look important. But the king says that what will be important, has something to do with your head, and your neck. What do a head and a neck represent? You see, the king is using "head" and "neck" as a "mashal" – a metaphor. A metaphor is where one thing really means another. Like I told you Wednesday night, "I was so hungry, I could eat a horse". We said that this means I could eat a lot, like something the large size of a horse. So the horse's "size" was what I was using to express that I could eat "a lot".
The head and the neck do certain things. The head is where we think, and the neck is from where we create our voices. King Solomon's deeper lesson here, is that when your parents teach you Torah, they make your thinking more important, and also your speech, which is what you use to tell others true Torah ideas.
Now we understand the true meaning of the king's lesson. When we learn Torah from our parents, it's "like" getting a crown on our head, and a necklace on our neck. This is a metaphor that really means our thinking (head) and our speech (neck) have become more important, and have improved. The lesson is that Torah improves our thinking and our speech, making both more important, as if they both deserve to be adorned.
At Mount Sinai too, the Torah says the Jews received two "crowns", but really the word is adornment (edyo). Where could the crowns have come from? The answer is that they really didn't receive any metal crowns. But this means that since they accepted the Torah by saying "We will do, and we will listen", these two statements were their promises to "act" (do) and to "learn" (listen) to what the Torah says. And way of saying that what they said was a good thing, is by the Torah saying that they "received crowns". It is a metaphor.
So we must compare what we see in reality, to what we learn. This way, we know whether an idea is really true, or if we must search for a deeper idea. Now let's discuss your two questions.
Zach, you asked why Jacob was crying when he met Rachel at the well. Your question is not about a metaphor, since the Torah's words from Bereishis through Devarim are about real events – things that really happened. Only very few places in the Torah talk about metaphors, like the crowns, and also, when the Egyptians said the makkos (plagues) were "the finger of God." Since God is not a man, He cannot have fingers. So that really means something else. But Jacob can cry, so we understand this story as real. So why was he crying?
The Torah gives us many clues. In Genesis 28:2, Isaac commands Jacob to marry from Lavan's daughters, "the brother of his mother" Rivka. Soon thereafter (29:10) the Torah describes Rachel as the daughter of "the brother of his mother". That verse repeats "the brother of his mother" three times! God uses repetition to draw our attention to an important part of the story. The significance is that Jacob saw that God helped him keep his father's command. Jacob immediately found a daughter of Lavan, "the brother of his mother" as soon as he reached his destination. God was helping him, so Jacob cried from happiness. A tzaddik like Jacob is happiest when God helps him. And something that makes us very happy, sometimes brings a tear to our eyes. This also explains why the first thing Jacob told Rachel, was that he was related to Rachel. Jacob felt Rachel would understand the importance of the two of them becoming husband and wife, since they shared the same love of Torah. So you see, we can find clues to answer questions if we study the verses, the pasukim. That is how God wrote His Torah, with hints everywhere.
Jonah, you asked about Jacob while he was still in his mother's stomach. The medrash says when Rivka passed the place of Torah of Shame and Ever, Jacob wanted to get out. And when she passed a place of idol worship, Esav wanted to get out. You asked why Jacob wanted to get out, if he was learning Torah with an angel, while he was inside his mother. Let's first understand that.
You must know that an angel, or malach, is not something only on Earth. Whenever the Torah talks about a malach, it is talking about something that performs God's will, or does God's activities. The word malach, is the same word as "malacha", which means activity, or work. By describing something that happens through a malach, the Torah teaches that the story is what God wants to happen.
That's why Sodom and Amora were destroyed, through a "malach". The malach in that story was the power in heaven that controls fire. Like King David says, "God makes His messengers the wind; His servants blazing fire". (Tehillim, 104:4) This means that God created all the laws of nature, and many times He uses them to do something He wants. When God uses nature to perform His will, the natural law now becomes a "malach", since it does His "work".
But there two parts to a malach: 1) the results that happen on earth that we see; and 2) the part in heaven that God talks to. It's like a puppet. The puppet doesn't do anything, unless the man holding the strings moves it. So the man holding the strings is the part of the malach in heaven, and the puppet is the part of the malach on the earth. When God tells the malach in heaven to do something, he listens, and then tells the fire to destroy Sodom and Amora on Earth.
Now, the medrash that "every baby learns Torah with inside the mother" must be explained. We must look at reality to tell us if this can be so. And it cannot: a baby is too young to learn when its was just born. So it cannot be learning in the mother's stomach even earlier! This must mean something else. This medrash means that the "ability" to learn Torah starts even while we are still inside our mother. God gives every baby inside its mother, the ability to learn once it leaves. But the ability starts inside the mother, and we can describe this as a malach. We must be told this, because some people are lazy and don't want to learn, and make the excuse "I am not able to learn". This medrash teaches that "every" person is able to learn. It doesn't depend on what happens "after" we leave the mother. So babies really aren't learning with a malach inside our mother's stomach. This is a metaphor.
Another metaphor is that Jacob wanted to get out when his mother passed a Yeshiva. Reality tells us that a baby's eyes are closed while inside his mother, and also, that even if they were open, a baby cannot see or know what is outside. His mother's stomach is closed, and it is dark. So Jacob didn't know where his mother was. This medrash means that Jacob had "feelings" that would help him learn, already inside his mother..."as if"he wanted to get out to learn Torah.
Remember, just like a crown doesn't appear on our heads when we learn, a malach is not inside our mother's stomach.
Teachers and Parents: If you follow these rules, and agree with what your senses tell you is written, that our Rabbis and Prophets speak in riddles, metaphors and allegories, you will then begin to find the real meaning of their deep medrashim.
However, if you accept such stories and medrashim as literal, and teach them as fact...you damage yourself and your students. Unlike Moses, who asked the Jews to accept only their senses, "you saw no form, only a voice" (Deut. 4:12) you will reject Moses and make students accept what is impossible and never witnessed, causing them to sin against God by denying the senses God gave them. Urging students to accept unreasonable matters, you steer them closer to Christianity. For they will respond to you, "Rebbe, you taught us that impossible things can happen, that babies know what's outside and want to leave their mothers' stomachs, so I too believe that Jesus is a miracle, and he is right". You will have no response, since you rely on belief, instead of reason. Their sins, will be your fault.
I undertand far too well that many teachers were taught midrashim as literally true. But you cannot rely on ignorance to atone you when you answer to God for misleading your students. To teach Torah, you must not blindly accept what you were taught. You must use your thinking and your accurate perception of reality to determine what is fact, and what is metaphor. Certainly, we must follow Moses and King Solomon, whose words came from God. King Solomon taught that metaphor is how he, and the Rabbis spoke. Moses taught we must trust only our senses and our reason.
I suggest to teachers and Rebbes that you include these vital lessons in your Chumash classes.