Elie's Expositions

A bereaved father blogging for catharsis... and for distraction. Accordingly, you'll see a diverse set of topics and posts here, from the affecting to the analytical to the absurd. Something for everyone, but all, at the core, meeting a personal need.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Miracles Out of Nowhere

"It's so simple, right before your eyes
If you'll only look through this disguise
It's always here, it's always there
It's just love, and miracles out of nowhere"
- Kansas, "Miracles Out Of Nowhere"

There's been a big debate going on for the past few days in Dov Bear. Of course big debates are quite commonplace in that particular blog, and, to be honest, I nearly always avoid participation, as I find the general tone taken by both author and contributors far too uncompromising and ruthless for my tastes. But in this case the post was discussing one of my hot button topics: the age of Rivkah (Rebecca) when she was chosen as wife for Yitzchak (Isaac), as narrated in this week's parshah of Chayei Sarah.

According to the midrash which they seem to teach in every yeshiva ketana I've ever encountered, Rivkah was all of three years old when these events took place. Aside from the blatant issue of propriety this raises - discussed to death in the DB post linked above - it is obvious that the young woman depicted in this narrative is far older than toddlerhood, whether from the standpoint of her words, her actions, or - perhaps especially - her discerning judgment.

Ah, but some will reply, Rivkah was no ordinary tot, she was a supernatural three-year-old who could lift huge buckets of water, talk like an adult, sort through intricate social amenities, etc. In other words, if we are asked to believe that Rivkah was chronologically three at this time, we have to assume that a huge miracle took place, a miracle that is nowhere implied or even hinted at in the text.

And this is where my main issue lies. I believe that the world was created to run by a set of rules, with open miracles [nissim nigluim in Talmudic parlance] taking place only when absolutely necessary. Our universe is not, and never was, a haphazard place, full of "miracles out of nowhere". Thus, if a midrashic marvel is not specified in the written Torah as such, I try to understand it as a parable or moral lesson, but not in a literal sense. And in fact even those miracles that are explicitly documented should be explained as much as possible as extensions to the universe's natural laws, or exceptions to those laws that were built-in from the beginning, as is said of the ten miracles listed in Avos 5:8. This view is supported by numerous statements of chazal.

Given this, plus the support in several other sources for Rivkah being fourteen or older at this time (see here for details), how do I understand the "age three" midrash, brought down by Rashi in our parshah? After all, as the famous quote says, midrashim need not always be taken literally, but they must always be taken seriously. And Rashi is hardly a meforash to be easily dismissed.

Well, Rashi himself provides a clue, in his famous comment on the very first verse of this same parshah! In explaining the Torah's breakdown of Sarah's age into three separate components of 100, 20, and 7, Rashi states that this shows her virtue and beauty remained constant throughout her life stages - i.e., she was a sinless at 100 as at 20. Similarly, the description of Rivkah as a three-year-old could be understood as telling us that she maintained the innocence and sweetness of a young child even as she matured into the charming and sophisticated young lady we meet in this parshah.

Which, as us parents of teenagers well know, is surely quite miraculous enough!

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At 11/15/06, 5:40 PM, Anonymous Ariella said...

See this issue discussed in parshablog. But about your point on miracles having to be pointed out explicitly -- that is a point of debate between Ibn Ezra and the meforshim who follow the midrash on Yocheved, Moshe's mother, having been born between the walls as Yaakov and his children and grandchidren entered Egypt. By that account, she was 130 when Moshe was born (not much younger when Aharon and Miriam were born.) Ibn Ezra makes the point that this would constitute a greater miracle than Sarah's conception at 90. But there are answers. See the Ramban. According the Ramban's argument, the Torah does not have to highlight every miracle. Also Rashi identifies a couple of miracles only alluded to by the Torah text in the course of Eliezer going to get Rifka.
There are far more troublesome chronologies to point to if ou wish to make this type of argument. I brought up a problematic chronology about Sarah's father; I checked out sources on that one. Those guys quoted in the Gemara were not oblivious, you know.

At 11/15/06, 7:14 PM, Blogger Elie said...

Ayelet: Thanks for the comments - I'll have to check out that Parshablog post.

I know this question is a general machlokes between meforshim, with Ibn Ezra and Ramban on opposite sides. I'll admit my own hashkafa is very much in line with the former; it was very fundamental in my upbringing.

There are many other midrashim in the same category as the one I discussed, but this one has always been the one that bothered me the most, especially since it is taught to small children, an educational approach I strongly diasgree with.

At 11/16/06, 1:10 AM, Blogger Ezzie said...

What's weird to me is that the 3-yr. old pshat has always seemed so simple, if you avoid the "supernatural" stuff.

What did she do? She fed Eliezer, fed the camels, took some jewelery, and went inside. I could see a 3-year old doing all of these - if anything, more easily than a young adult. A 3-year old might find joy in going back and forth, back and forth to feed the animals. She'd likely like jewelery. (Ah, so what was so special...?) That she was such a good-hearted person. Her natural tendency, even as a 3-year old, was to give and give. It wasn't because of any hashkafic perspective, but because it was so natural to her - which is exactly why Avraham sent Eliezer to get her. He knew this approach should come naturally to a great person.

At 11/16/06, 3:11 PM, Blogger Elie said...

Ezzie: I see your point. The discussion in parsha blog makes some strong points along those lines. I concede that Rivkah actually being three could be explained somewhat plausibly, but I still just can't get a sense of a three-year-old from pshat in the pesukim. Especially in terms of her incredibly intricate weighing of halacha and social amenities, that chazal describe in her response regarding the camels.

And I do think that it's a good insight to use Rashi's explantion of Sarah's age breakdown, as a model to explain Rivkah's "age three" in a similar fashion.

At 11/17/06, 8:25 AM, Blogger Soccer Dad said...

Thanks for the link to ParshaBlog. That's a blog I have on my blogroll but don't check out nearly enough.

At 11/17/06, 9:29 AM, Blogger joshwaxman said...

As I mention at the end of my post, I actually agree with the other commentators against Rashi that she is older than 3, and that from certain dramatic elements of the story.

However, I would say that what motivates Rashi here are the peshat concerns of the constraints apparently imposed by various pesukim, and so Rashi *intended* this as a matter of peshat, and not as allegory.

I think Rashi would much prefer that one simply argue with him and say "Rashi is incorrect" as opposed to allegorizing his words, because declaring something allegory is the simplest way to defang that which one disagrees with without having to argue and see the motivating background. As mevaseretzion tried pointing out in the comment section at DovBear, one *can* just say that one disagrees with Rashi. It is the reluctance to say this that leads to allegorizing when no allegory was intended.

And I can allegorize anything plausibly, given enough time, as I've argued in the past. That one *can* come up with allegory doesn't demonstrate that it was intended as allegory.

Also, my sense is that Rashi would probably sooner declare the "incredibly intricate weighing of halacha and social amenities, that chazal describe in her response regarding the camels" as homiletics, rather than declare his reckoning of years to be so.

One can still see important themes developed in Rashi's approach. As I put forth last year in a post on Rivkah's age:

"On the level of message, we see early on the idea of God's hand in arranging the match. Yiztchak survives the ordeal, and God blesses Avraham that He will ensure that his seed multiply (see two psukim earlier, 22:17). And here Yitzchak's destined mate is waiting for him, having just been born. This foreshadows the Divine Hand in arranging the match that we see later, when Avraham's servant (Eliezer or not Eliezer) travels to Charan."

Kol Tuv,

At 11/17/06, 12:06 PM, Blogger Elie said...

Josh: All good points. I guess to be more explicit I am saying that by my looking for a allegorical understanding of the midrash, I am in fact disagreeing with, rather than re-interpreting, Rashi's understaning of such. The wording in my post was (intentionally) somewhat ambiguous on that count.

At 11/19/06, 12:10 AM, Blogger Kylopod said...

In the debate over acceptance of "miracles," there is a distinction that many people fail to make.

The problem with accepting a lot of these midrashim at face value--for example, the one that says Moshe was about 18 feet tall or something--is not simply that they strain credulity, but even more that they just seem rather silly.

I mean, there are miracles, and then there are miracles. Take the splitting of the Yam Suf. Whether you attempt to explain it as a natural occurrence or not, it is still a wondrous event by any standard. In other words, traditional miracles like this make us go "Wow!" But these weird midrashic stories don't make us go, "Wow!" Rather, they make us go, "Huh?" These are "miracles" that seem to be believed more out of desperation than anything else.

At 11/26/06, 1:14 AM, Blogger joshwaxman said...

I've posted quite a bit about taking midrashim literally vs. figuratively, (do a Google search on midrashic literalism and parsha.blogspot) and what I try to point out in general is:

1) sometimes we do not understand the basic translation of the midrash and thus assume that something is silly.
This was my response to an article I took to task for labelling a midrash stating that Esther had green skin (like a Martian!) as figurative and gave an allegorical explanation for it, when the midrash was simply saying that she had a sallow complexion. And to another one that mistook a midrash to say that there were 180 billion Jews in Egypt.

2) Just because we can come up with an allegorical explanation for something does not mean that that specific, or for that matter any, allegorical explanation was intended.

3) What may seem impossible and silly to us may in fact be perfectly possible and serious to Chazal, since the intellectual and social inputs to us are far different than the ones to Chazal. For example, Greek mythology of giants towering 14-15 feet exist, and they may have found mammoth or dinosaur bones, and explained these as giants. Just because we think it is silly does not mean that they did so. Attempts to use our perspective in evaluating whether Chazal meant it seriously or not appear to stem from a belief that religiously, if Chazal believed something we must as well. Which is not necessarily the case, nor is it the most intellectually straightforward approach. A better approach is to see what clues the text, and other texts from Chazal, give us. And Chazal may well have believed in giants, as is clear from some of the texts I get into there.

Here are some related parshablog posts. The first one has a discussion about giants.

Kol Tuv,


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