A favorite from 6 years ago. I hope you enjoy it a second time around. And don’t dig any deeper to understand why I’m repeating it, as that’s sort of the whole point of this musing anyway. Sometimes that cigar is just a cigar. – Adrian (5771)
Random Musings Before Shabbat-Noakh 5771 (Redux 5765)
A P’shat in the Dark
I hope you’ll all forgive the awful pun in the title of this musing.
(In Hebrew, P’shat means “plain” or “simple.” In terms of Torah study, it refers to the plain meaning of the text. In traditional Torah study, we refer to the acronym PARDES, which means garden, and is an acronym standing for P’shat the plain meaning of the text; Remez, meaning hint, refers to the implied, the allegorical or metaphorical meaning of the text; D’rash, meaning inquire, interpret, explain–these are interpretations derived from the text but no explicitly present; Sod- meaning secret-in which we find the mystical meaning of the text.)
Anyway, this week I was very struck by the simple meanings of the text in parashat Noach. In particular, I thought about all of the aggadah, midrash, storytelling which often accompanies the stories of Noah, and of the Migdal Bavli (tower of Babel.) Entire full length books, films cartoons, etc. have been made depicting these stories.
Yet what appears in the text is relatively short and lacks many of the things we usually associate with these stories. For example, it never says that G”d struck down the tower, only that in response to what they were doing, confounded their language and scattered the people. Yet who can imagine a telling of the story devoid of the image of man’s prideful tower being knocked down by the Divine?
What about the flooding waters? How often do you see things depicted as the text describes it (in keeping with the ancient worldview of mayim-shamayim – the waters below, and the waters above, i.e. the sky) that the “fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open” (Gen 7:11.) We usually see lots of rain and water, but I can’t recall once seeing the fountains of the deep bursting forth, nor the firmament that kept the waters above broken open.
Though not unusual in written accounts, time is quite compressed as well, with months reduced to single sentences.
Now the Torah practically screams for elucidation, for “aerie persiflage” to flesh out the plain, simple narratives. It has become part of our tradition, with PaRDeS, to seek the meanings beneath the surface.
However, we ignore the plain meanings at our peril. Seeking to interpret, to find deeper, hidden meanings, to fill in the gaps, explain the apparent contradictions, omissions, etc. is a worthy enterprise. Just dressing the text up to make it more interesting–the value of that I’m not so sure of (although, as an educator, I recognize that we sometimes have to liven up the dull stories.)
Still, I wonder if we are missing something by spending most of our time on Remez, Drash and Sod? If, as Torah herself tells us, she is not too difficult to understand. Yet we live in an era when people seeking to fill empty spiritual voids in their lives bypass the basics and head straight for the Kabbalah Center, or delve into Talmud before really knowing Torah. In our rush to dress up the empty places in our lives, might we be overlooking all that we can derive from the simple, plain meanings of the words of Torah?
True, there is lots in Torah that does not appear easy to understand at first attempt. Yet, before delving deeper into the garden of remez, drash and sod, maybe we ought to spend a little more time trying to figure out things at the surface level.
Sometimes, when we simply say “the plain meaning doesn’t make any sense” or “the plain meaning offends me and my modern sensibilities” we may be treading down a dangerous and slippery path. The steps from exegesis (drawing out meaning from the text) and eisegesis (inferring meaning into the text) are not so far.
So, next time you come across some plain Torah that doesn’t seem to make sense, don’t be so quick to delve deeper for meaning. Try a “p’shat in the dark” and see if you can hit the target. The light is always there in the Torah–and it isn’t always hidden. Maybe if you just change your angle of view, the shadow will disappear and the text will be illuminated for you in plain, simple fashion.
So go ahead, take a p’shat at it!
©2010, 2004 by Adrian A. Durlester