Thursday, October 27, 2005

Pshat and Drash in Bereishis

פשט
A Support for Gosse?

Bereishit/Genesis 2:4
אלה תולדות השמים והארץ בהבראם
ביום עשות ה' א' ארץ ושמים
These are the generations of the heaven and the earth in their being-created, on the day God made earth and heaven.

In footnoting a midrash about this pasuq, R' Barukh Haleivi Epstein comments in his Tora Temima:
It seems that this is the reason [the midrash] took the word behibbar’am ("in their being-created") out of its פשט (straightforward) meaning — since according to the straightforward understanding of the word, it would mean that the 'generations of the heaven and the earth' were created on the same day as the heaven and the earth [themselves]. But that can't be, since the heaven and the earth were created on Day 1, and their 'generations/descendents' were created during the rest of the [First] Week!

So in other words, the straightforward [pshat] understanding of the Torah is that the 'generations of the heaven and the earth', i.e. the geological and biological history of the universe, were created with the universe itself! So Gosse could have been right! Thank G~d we have the Oral Tradition to teach us that no, in fact God did not create fossils in the ground and ice layers on Greenland 5766 years ago. Of course, with that said, ein miqra’ yotzei’ miydey pshuto — "a scriptural text never abandons its straightforward meaning," leaving room for what us Tricksterists like to call Possibly The Best Practical Joke Ever.

דרש
בראשית ברא אלהים

Bereishit. One of the most ambiguous words in the Torah. Does it mean "in the beginning" as the oldschool translations have it? "At the beginning of" as the new ones do? "With reishit" as some midrashim claim?
I prefer to read it — somewhat unpshaticly, I admit — as First Of All.

Imagínate... Imagine...

Thousands of years ago...

The First Jewish (=Israelite) Commonwealth.
The time of Chieftains, or the time of Kings.

A group of Israelite children are helping their parents in the fields, when a rumor hops, skips, and jumps through the village. The kids are all excited. Their parents are impatient.

A wandering prophet has come to town.
Maybe it's Shemu’eil. Maybe it's Elisha‘.

The adults come to the prophet for advice, blessings, and arbitration. They offer praise to YHVH, God of Israel, and then return home to their figures of Ba‘al and Asheira.

The children come to hear stories.

Prophets tell the best stories.

And so, that night, in a rocky clearing out between the fields, the children of the village gather, build a bonfire, and wait for the prophet to tell them stories. Stories of their heroes, the Chieftains; of their Ancestors; and of God.

The prophet begins to tell them of Creation, and says: "Other nations believe in many gods. They say that in the beginning, bar’u elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz — gods created the heavens and the earth. That Ba‘al, or Marduk, fought against other gods and monsters, and they built the Universe out of pieces of death."

One of the children interrupts, "My parents told me that! And lots of stories about Ba‘al, how he fought with Mot, and how he, y'know, did it with a cow..."

The children giggle. The prophet grins, too, for a second, before returning to the serious matter at hand. He takes out a scroll, shows it to the children, and reads seven words.

Bereishit. Bara’. Elohim. Eit. Hashamayim. V’eit. Ha’aretz.

And he places the scroll back into his bag, and begins reciting the text from memory, embellishing the details as he goes with the traditional legends that have not yet been committed to writing.

But he begins with Bereishit.

"Bereishit—" he says. First Of All.

"First Of All — the most important thing to remember," he continues, "the key to everything, is that bara’ — in the singular! — Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz. God — one God — created the heavens and the earth..."

13 Comments:

Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

I really like your דרש.

WRT your פשט: the Ibn `Ezrâ, in his "regular" commentary on verse 11, writes:
אמר הכתוב תדשא הארץ, ישרצו, תוצא, והנה שָׂם כח בארץ ובמים לעשות במצות השם, וזו היא התולדות. In other words, the power that the בורא put into the earth and water was itself the אלה תולדות, and (I add that) this power could have been put into them at the moment of their creation.

See my post on Ibn `Ezra and Bereishith (top post on my blog).

10/28/2005 1:21 PM  
Anonymous Habib of KiwiJewPundit said...

Interesting stuff. I think the whole issue of peshat and derash, especially in Bereshit, is hopelessly fraught. Our understanding of the text and frame of reference and vocabulary is too intertwined with rabbinical sources.

Btw, I like the trickster concept. The Polynesians worshiped a trickster deity, called Maui. He was credited with, inter alia, fishing my former home from out of the Ocean -- a geological trick of his own.

10/28/2005 1:21 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Mar:

Thanks! Very interesting Ibn ‘Ezra comment... so he's reading toledot according to the root YLD, that God gave the created objects the ability to follow commands and 'birth' other creations?

Habib:

When i was little i had a Children's Guide to Hawai'i tourism book, and it included a cartoon about Maui slowing down the Sun. There's one ROTFL-funny panel where Maui is standing on top of a volcano, having roped the Sun with a lasso, and the Sun has a frowny :-( face, sweating/crying with worry, and is saying "AWWWWWWW, LEMME GO LEMME GO LEMME GO!!!!"

:-)

10/28/2005 1:40 PM  
Anonymous Habib of KiwiJewPundit said...

Yes, a brutal story. The Maori version had pictures of Maui's demi-god brothers mercilessly beating Ra with their clubs. Enough to give a young one nightmares.
Here's a picture:
http://www.reed.co.nz/products.cfm?view=3286&catID=64

10/28/2005 2:23 PM  
Blogger Lab Rab said...

Steg,

Your "peshat" raises the interesting question of whether something can be peshutto shel mikra if it could not have been discerned by the generation that received the Torah. This could be a phenomenal example of the rashbam's peshattim hamitchadshim bechol yom.

10/30/2005 3:37 PM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

LabRab,

Why couldn't Steg's peshat have been understood by the generation of מעמד הר סיני? What, there were no competing idolatrous creation myths at that time?

10/30/2005 4:02 PM  
Blogger Lab Rab said...

Because they hadn't done archeological digs and had no evidence like dinosaur bones for the existence of prior worlds.

I'm talking about the item Steg calls "peshat," namely the interpretation of the word "behibar'eam."

10/30/2005 7:02 PM  
Blogger Lab Rab said...

To be clear, I harbor no such pretensions about drash. The function of drash is to develop from an ancient text morals that are relevant to a current listener. By contrast, *some* definitions of pshat describe it as the "original intent of the author to the original audience."

Put another way, it seems to me just as sensible, if not more so, for the Gosse vort to have been "drash" but the "Bereishit" vort to be "pshat." Which makes me wonder why Steg chose to categorize it as he did. Steg?

10/30/2005 7:26 PM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

I'm talking about the item Steg calls "peshat," namely the interpretation of the word "behibar'eam."

Oh, I see. Sorry about that. I see your kashe now. Ve-hash-she'eila bolevet shver. (Or should that be "shvera", since she'eila is feminine?)

10/30/2005 10:02 PM  
Blogger Lipman said...

shevera

10/31/2005 5:12 AM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

shevera

In the higher registers of IH, yes. But on the street, one would probably hear "shvera". No?

10/31/2005 8:54 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

LabRab:

I think it could have been discerned by the First Generation... the footnote i quoted doesn't mention the Gosse theory — its problem with the peshat is that according to its reading, the sky-and-earth were created along with all their history/descendents on one day — but we already know from Bereishit ch.1 that the history/descendents only were created/unfolded over the succeeding days of the Six Days of Creation.

I chose to categorize it the way i did because the Tora Temima footnote calls its problematic reading that the midrash it quotes comes to replace "pshat".

My creative writing thing seems drashic to me, since the "at the beginning of" understanding of bereishit makes more sense to me than my homiletical "first of all" translation.

10/31/2005 9:37 AM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

Bereishis = At the very head of things.

10/31/2005 5:00 PM  

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