The Burning House: A Reading of Bereishit Rabbah 39:1

I’ve started a weekly Midrash Rabbah shiur in Modiin. I chose that subject because I’ve never really learned Midrash as a separate study, only as an auxiliary to something else. We tend to think of the classic collections of Midrashim as gold mines for drasha material, and not as exegetical works in and of themselves. I’ve read some books and articles in preparation for giving the shiur, but actually wanted to simply learn it straight and to see how it goes. I plan to start podcasting the shiur at some point, when I get all of the logistics figured out. In the meantime, here’s my reading of a fairly well-known Midrash from the beginning of Lech Lecha. My reading of it is not allegorical, as opposed to most of my Talmudic readings. Rather, it is an attempt to decode the exegetical and intertextual concerns which generated its composition.

ויאמר ה' אל אברם לך לך מארצך וגו'
ר' יצחק פתח:
(תהלים מה) שמעי בת וראי והטי אזנך ושכחי עמך ובית אביך
אמר רבי יצחק:
משל לאחד
, שהיה עובר ממקום למקום וראה בירה אחת דולקת.
אמר: תאמר שהבירה זו בלא מנהיג?!
הציץ עליו בעל הבירה. אמר לו: אני הוא בעל הבירה.
כך, לפי שהיה אבינו אברהם אומר: תאמר שהעולם הזה בלא מנהיג?!
הציץ עליו הקב"ה ואמר לו: אני הוא בעל העולם.

שם) ויתאו המלך יפיך כי הוא אדוניך.
ויתאו המלך יפיך, ליפותיך בעולם.
והשתחוי לו, הוי, ויאמר ה' אל אברם:

God spoke to Avraham: Go you from your land ….

R. Yitzchak began:

“Listen, O daughter, and look, and incline your ear; and forget you nation and your father's house” (Tehillim 45:11)

R. Yitzchak said:

This may be compared to one who was traveling from place to place, and he saw a burning mansion. He said: Is it possible that this mansion is without someone responsible? The owner of the mansion looked out at him and said: I am the owner of the mansion.

So, too, our father Avraham said: Is it possible that the world is without someone responsible? God looked out at him and said: I am the master of the world. (Midrash Rabba 39,1)

So the king shall desire your beauty, for he is your lord… (Ibid 12)

So the king shall desire your beauty – to beautify you in the world.

…and bow to him – that is, “and God spoke to Avraham”.

This midrash is also (I found out afterward) the subject of a shiur by mv”r Rav Ezra Bick. As usual, his shiur is brilliant, but he takes the gold mine approach. He does not pay attention to the midrash as a literary-exegetical construction, and even elides the intertextual components.

As is typical of Midrashic collections, the Sages read seemingly metaphoric or allegorical descriptions found in the Ketuvim as pertaining directly to earlier narrative elements of the TaNaKh. In this example, the Psalm in question praises a king (ostensibly and earthly one – “therefore God has anointed you – 45:8). It includes a recommendation for a young woman who wins the king’s favor to abandon her home and follow the king (45:11-13).

The appearance of those verses about abandoning one’s nation and father’s home, however, invokes God’s commandment to Avraham – “go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house”. By reading these two verses in connection with each other (i.e., intertextually), it open up numerous exegetical possibilities for both original contexts. The Psalm is now read in connection with Avraham (indeed, a few paragraphs later, another reading identifies Avraham with the king in the Psalm), and a wholly new dimension is injected into the Lech Lecha narrative.

Firstly, in light of the verses from Tehillim, our narrative takes on a romantic dimension. God’s commandment to Avraham is read as the summons that a king issues to his potential bride, and thus, for the maiden, everything else in the whole world is eclipsed.

It also adds a narrative dimension, as the Midrash reads the beginning of Tehillim 45:11 as part of Avraham’s “back story”. This closes a glaring narrative gap, as the Torah tells us nothing about why Avraham was chosen. The first part of the verse reads: “Listen, O daughter, and look, and incline your ear…” The Midrash understands this as meaning that in order for the daughter (Avraham) to be able to abandon her home in favor of the king’s palace, she must be alert to the possibility of the summons – listening, looking, and inclining her ear.

In Bereishit, no mention is made of the back story (the listening and looking), and in Tehillim, no direct mention is made of the actually summons. The Midrash fuses these two elements together by means of a mashal – a narrative rubric within which we can assimilate the exegesis offered by R. Yitzchak. The mashal tells a two-part story: the wanderer who looks around and asks questions (corresponding to the “listening and looking” verse) and the subsequent call from the owner of the mansion (“and God said to Avraham…”).

Regarding the content of the mashal itself, this opens a window into how Chaza”l understood Avraham’s prehistory. One could argue (similar to Rambam Hil. AZ 1:3) that the mashal represents some type of argument from design: just as the mansion must have been constructed, so, too, the world must have been planned and built. This reading would understand “bira doleket” as a “well-lit mansion”. Rav Bick understands that it is a moral question: where is the owner of this mansion that he lets it burn? Where is the Master of the World who lets evil triumph?

I would suggest that the Midrash sees Avraham as confused and conflicted: a mansion is aflame. On one hand, the mansion did not build itself. Its very existence indicates a designer and builder. On the other hand, the master of the house seems willing to neglect it and allow it to be destroyed. The dissonance created by this juxtaposition, by Avraham’s outrage at God’s willingness to let His well-designed world go to pot, also opens the door for Avraham to be addressed by God.

The final segment of the midrash continues the exegesis of the verses in Tehillim as signifying the Avraham narrative. It addresses a problematic idea – the indication that God “desired” Avraham’s “beauty” – and rereads it as God’s desire to make Avraham’s beauty visible in the world. The last line simply re-correlates the verses in Tehillim with those of Bereishit, as is common in midrashim.

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