6/05/2005

An Alternative Reading of a Well-Known Midrash

Hashem gave us a present; Do you know what it was?
He gave us the Torah, and we must keep its laws
He asked some other nations, “Do you want this gift of Mine?”
They said, “No thank You, for Torah there’s no time”
The to B’nai Yisrael, Hashem did go
they said, “Na’aseh Ve-nishma” ‘cuz we love Hashem so!



The above lyrics are a contemporary paraphrase of a well-known story that appears numerous times in Rabbinic literature (including Sifri, beginning of Ve-zot Ha-Bracha, Mekhilta, BT AZ 2b, Eichah Rabbah 3, Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer ch. 41, etc.). The basic theme of this Midrash is that Hashem offered the Torah to nations other than Israel, who rejected it based on its contents. I’d like to address several points of this Midrash and then offer an alternative explanation based upon the writings of R’ Tzadok of Lublin and in light of the history of psychoanalysis. I felt it appropriate before Shavu'ot, and it's a favorite of mine.

First, the questions:

  • Depending on the version of the story, God offers the Torah to Edom and Ishmael, or to Edom, Ishmael, and Ammon/Moab. If it were only Edom and Ishmael, it could be relegated to textual considerations (i.e., the mention Se’ir and Paran in Devarim 33:2); the inclusion of Ammon and Moab in the Sifri – which is one of the oldest versions and the most fully developed in its literary structure and quality – suggests that the nations to whom the Torah was ostensibly offered is a specific list. Though there’s an ‘et cetera’ in which God offers the Torah to ‘all of the other nations’, these three are singled out. In the PDRE version, it’s offered to the rest of the world through Ishmael.
  • In response to the nations’ query “What’s written in it?”, God always responds with one of the Ten Commandments. It’s almost suggesting that a willingness to accept the Ten Commandments equals a willingness to accept the Torah; but why should that be the case?
  • Each of the commandments listed – adultery, murder, and theft – is included in the Seven Noahide Laws as well! Those nations were required to observe those laws regardless, and can’t possibly be the basis for their opting out of the Torah.
  • The final question, which always must be asked, is: given that this story DIDN’T REALLY HAPPEN, what were Chaza”l trying to communicate with it? What lesson is it suggesting? That non-Jews are simply incapable of observing the Torah? That they’re so irretrievably prone to sin that acceptance of the Torah would, for them, be futile? Can’t people change? Don’t humans have free choice to overcome challenges?

The way R’ Tzadok understands this Midrash (which he addresses in numerous places; it’s really part of his bread n’ butter), the central issue is not the ability of other nations to practice according to the rules that the Torah sets forth; rather, it’s about the Torah’s basic relevance to their national culture. The defining characteristic of Israel is the drive to do right by God, to commune with Him; thus, Torah is a concrete expression of Israel’s collective will, and it’s natural for Israel to carry forward whatever the Torah may demand. For other nations, other impulses drive their basic national character. As such, the precepts of the Torah would become a straight-jacket on national character.

In other words (this is my understanding of R’ Tzadok), the Torah is our Constitution – not just a set of laws, but a full expression of our national will. It’s not supposed to be experienced as a set of perfunctory laws, rather as an intuitive expression of the very core of our being. Granted, the absence of an autonomous Jewish culture has made it tough for, oh, 2000 years or so. But the will to do what’s right in God’s eyes hasn’t been replaced on the national level.

The three nations to whom the Torah is ‘proposed’ are all ‘cousins’, members of the Abraham’s family who, to some degree or another, are understood by Chaza”l as having had some connection to Israel. They’re all ‘could-have-been’s.

I’d take this in a slightly different direction. Psychoanalysis has posited that beneath all of the conscious choices that people make lies an unconscious will or impulse that essentially drives all of human behavior. This model, invented by Freud, is essentially an application of Schopenhauer’s theory of blind will and, especially, of Nietzche’s critique of rationalism and insistence that brute will is the true source for what ‘ought’ to be done. Freud understood that core to be the libido, or sex drive. His student, Adler, contended that the will to power was the prime unconscious motive for all of human behavior. Frankl felt that it was the desire to lead a meaningful existence. The common denominator is that each felt that whatever lies at the core of the human psyche is unalterable and that any attempt to deny or repress it would only create problems.

R’ Tzadok (who has many similarities to Nietzsche, ve-acamo”l) might be acknowledging different psychoanalytic models and even suggesting that they may be culturally constructed. For some, let’s call them Moabites, the libido is indeed the central impulse in their lives. For them, “Thou shall not engage in illicit sexual unions” undermines their very existence. As the Midrash explains, their very foundation, their very essence, is rooted in ni’uf. For others (what the Midrash calls ‘Edomites’) the need to subdue and control fellow human beings, the will to power, of which murder is the highest expression, “Thou shall not murder” is a straight-jacket. For others still, the accumulation of wealth or gross materialism is the all-encompassing drive. In the Midrash, they’re represented by Ishmael, for whom the prohibition against theft precludes from accepting the Torah. The fourth group, driven toward realization of the Divine within, is Israel.

I can actually buy this – that if sex, money, or power occupies the center of your existence, willy-nilly, the Torah is not for you. The use of the Aseret Hadibrot makes a lot of sense – these mitzvoth are the broad categories. Ramban likens them to the basic mitzvoth that one would teach a potential convert. When offering the Torah, it’s the basic constitutional principles that are either accepted or rejected, not the details.
The chiddush of this approach is that it accepts alternative psychoanalytic models, and, if the implications within R’ Tzadok are correct, actually posits that the psyche is itself a cultural construct. One is not ‘born’ with an all-consuming libido or drive to control or greed. The prevailing national culture is what determines, more than anything else, what really makes us tick. I gives all people what I would call ‘deep choice’ – the psychic model may be culturally determined, but it may be possible for a small group to resist even within that culture, or it may be possible – not easy, but possible, to go as far as to reconstruct that psychic core. More often than not, however, a shuffling of values toward a greater Torah orientation is grafted onto the foreign foundation of the prevailing culture. This perpetuates the sense that the Torah doesn’t address our every concern – that the application of Torah to life sometimes feels strained – a sense which we call Golus.

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