June 5, 2008
Shavuot 5768: Midrash love
The last thing I think about is whimsy and romance.
Yet, over the past few weeks, as part of the B'nai David-Judea Congregation, I have indulged in a poetic and literary aspect of Torah that has moved me in an unusual way.
It's called the midrash.
Midrash is a mysterious part of the rabbinical literature. It comes in many forms, but the major idea is to seek a better understanding of scripture through stories, homilies, parables, poetry, word play and so on.
Midrash is an integral part of the haggadah tradition of Jewish learning, which emphasizes narrative and philosophical commentaries, rather than strict talmudic and legal analysis.
In the yeshiva world, midrash and haggadah are the granolas of Torah learning -- not taken as seriously as the meat and potatoes of Talmud. They're seen as being too wishy-washy, too flaky and open to wide interpretation. The law is grounded, the midrash and haggadah are "out there."
Well, a few weeks ago, I stumbled on a piece of "out there" midrash that has moved me to no end. Last Shabbat, I brought this midrash to B'nai David's monthly "Nosh 'n Drosh" class and shared it with a small group of shul members. Here's the gist of the midrash (Song of Songs Rabbah):
A husband and a wife go to a well-known rabbi to get a divorce. They have been married for 10 years and do not have any children. Since they observe Jewish law, the man must marry another woman to fulfill the commandment to be fruitful and multiply.
The rabbi sends the couple away and tells them to make a "holiday" for one night. Since they were united in celebration, he explains, they must separate the same way.
The couple follows the rabbi's instructions. During their private celebration, the husband, now a little inebriated and in a festive mood, tells his wife that she can have anything she wants from the house and bring it to her father's house.
While he is sleeping, she orders the servants to pick him up and transport him in his bed to her father's house.
He awakes at midnight and says: "My beloved, where am I?"
She says to him: "In my father's house."
He says: "What am I doing in your father's house?"
She says: "Is that not what you said to me last night, 'Anything you desire in my house, take it and go to your father's house'? There is nothing I desire more in the world than you."
They went back to the rabbi and he prayed over them and they had children.
The more I reflected on this midrash, the more it moved me. The couple was so obsessed with their obligation to "be fruitful and multiply" that they forgot how much they loved each other. The rabbi (in the actual midrash, it is the famous Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar), by sending them away for a one-night "holiday" -- even though the law called for a divorce -- liberated them just enough from their obligations that they could rekindle and rediscover their love for each other.
The rabbi could have given them a blessing for children at the beginning, but he wanted to test their love. He knew how important it was for children to have parents who love each other. When he saw how much the husband and wife wanted to be together, he saw they were worthy of the blessing.
For me, the midrash also spoke to a romantic notion of purity in relationships: The idea that "I want to be with you because I want to be with you."
We don't need to create something to want to be with each other.
I could have gone to any number of Torah classes on love and relationships and not absorbed as much spiritual nourishment as I did from this one little midrash. The quirky love story drew me in. It disarmed me. It didn't preach to me or tell me what to do. It worked on my imagination and made it take off.
Even more, it made me marvel at our tradition.
How remarkable that a religion that is literally inundated with laws and codes of behavior can find the time for literature and parable?
How extraordinary that the same rabbis who pontificated endlessly in the Talmud on the minutiae of this law or that law, would find the mental and emotional space to explore the poetic and philosophical unknown?
When comparing the world of law (halacha) to the midrashic world of stories and philosophy (haggadah), the great Jewish poet Haim Bialik wrote: "Halacha wears a frown, aggadah a smile. The one is pedantic, severe, unbending -- all justice; the other is accommodating, lenient, pliable -- all mercy. The one is concerned with the shell, with the body, with actions; the other with the kernel, with the soul, with intentions. On one side there is petrified observance, duty, subjection; on the other perpetual rejuvenation, liberty, free volition."
Lest you think Bialik favored one over the other, he concludes: "Halacha and aggadah are two things which are really one, two sides of a single shield. Aggadah is the plaintive voice of the heart's yearning as it wings its way to its haven; halacha is the resting place, where for a moment the yearning is satisfied and stilled."
Some days, the voice of the heart's yearning is the one we hear the loudest.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.