The Cycle of Life and Torah: Accepting Our Mortality
The Search for Lost Jewish Traditions
One area in which academic studies and religious commitment to the value of Talmud Torah may be easily reconciled is in the search for lost Jewish traditions. Such a search is extremely relevant in the field of aggadic midrashim, since the texts that have survived represent only a small portion of the rich literature written through centuries from the days of the Amoraim to the days of Rashi and even beyond.
Many anonymous sages took part in delivering, redacting and rephrasing midrashim and producing dozens of late Midrashic works. Some, such as Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer, demonstrate new forms and methods; others preserve the style of known Midrashim, especially in the genre of Tanchuma. “All things depends on their (guiding) stars, even the Torah Scroll in the Temple.” Thus, some midrashic works that happened to be popular in the time and place where printing was invented became well-known, while many others—which may have had the same level of religious authority or literary value—were left in manuscript forms, in forgotten anthologies or in fragments that were only later discovered in the Cairo Genizah and other European genizot.
The finding of this “new” midrashic materials may feel, at times, like a challenge to traditional thinking. The “new” midrashim may differ from traditional interpretations which are, in many cases, simply those that were accepted and collected by the two most “canonized” works: The Babylonian Talmud and Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. Nevertheless, many traditional religious people recognize the value of finding lost midrashim as an effort to save lost pearls of our Torah and appreciate how it can deepen the understanding of known traditions. Let us consider one case study.
An Example of a Lost Tale: Moshe’s Plea to Live Eternally
A relatively famous example comes from the edition of Deuteronomy Rabba published from a manuscript by Saul Lieberman. In this edition, we find an extended deliberation for the opening word of parashat va’etchanan around the pleading of Moshe. According to this midrash, Moshe begs God not only to enter into the land of Israel, but also to avoid death, to gain eternity. Moshe pours out argument after argument, and does not cease pleading. He argues for the merits of his endless devotion to the people of Israel; he makes a claim for his uniqueness as the only person to come into such intimate contact with God and to receive the Torah.
When God responds by noting the death of previous biblical protagonists, Moshe points out his advantages over them. Moshe even pleads for the mercies that Israel received (thanks to his own prayers for them!). Disappointed with Gods’ refusal to grant him eternity, Moshe approaches the heaven and earth, the sun and the moon, the mountains, the hills and the oceans and asks them to pray for him!
The text contains a very lengthy deliberation, as is common is many late midrashic collections. Some scholars consider the length of the late midrashic unit as evidence for a “deterioration” of later Midrashim, in comparison to the concise nature of earlier rabbinic works. But the length of this unit plays an important literary role: It give us a sense of an endless effort of Moshe, and of humankind as a whole, to defeat death. Further, its length–including the many arguments that God offers and Moshe rejects—highlights the importance of the one argument that finally succeeds in making Moshe change his mind and accept his fate.
God tells Moshe that he has to die to enable Joshua to take his leadership role. Moshe suggests that he can give up his leadership, without departing from this world. God agrees and sends Moshe to the study house where Joshua is now standing and teaching. But there is a twist. At that moment, the wisdom of the Torah was taken from Moshe and given to Joshua. This loss of wisdom finally makes Moshe accept death; he turns to God, saying: “Until now I asked for life, now my soul is given to you.”
The Midrash, following the biblical methods of narration, does not share with its readers the internal world of its protagonists. We do not know whether it was embarrassment, jealousy or feelings of inadequacy that made Moshe change his mind. We are only left with an astonishing realization: Moshe can die, may die, should die, even wishes to die, when he realizes that the Torah is now given to the following generation. When he no longer holds the knowledge of the Torah, he is ready to die.
A Similar Story in the Talmud: Moshe and Rabbi Akiva
This midrashic story is reminiscent a much more famous tradition, in b. Menachot 29b, which tells about Moshe being sent to Rabbi Akiva’s house of study. According to this story, when Moshe ascends to heaven to receive the Torah, he finds God still working on the text, adding crowns to the letters. God explains that this is done for the future midrashic understandings of Rabbi Akiva. Moshe then asks to see Rabbi Akiva. God sends Moshe to Akiva’s house of study, where Moshe finds that he cannot understand the Rabbi’s teaching. This bothers Moshe at first, but when he hears Rabbi Akiva say that he (Akiva) learned this from the Torah of Moses from Sinai (presumably from the crowns), Moshe feels better.
Moshe wonders out loud why the Torah was not given directly to Rabbi Akiva and God answers that this was the will of God and should not be questioned ( שתוק, כך עלה במחשבה לפני). He further asks to see Akiva’s reward, and is sent again to the future, where he witnesses the brutal murder of Akiva by the Romans. He wonders about this out loud as well and God responds in the same manner.
There are many similarities between these two stories.
- In both stories, Moshe stands in heaven in front of God (in the midrash at the time of his death, in the Talmud during the Sinai revelation).
- In both stories, Moshe is sent to the house of study of a later Jewish leader, listens to his teachings and does not understand them.
- Both stories use the gesture of sitting and/or standing to mark the tensions of honor and status involved in such situations.
- In both stories Moshe reconciles or revises his aspirations (in the midrash he is ready to die; in the Talmud he asks that the Torah would be given directly to Rabbi Akiva.)
- In both stories Moshe is bothered by death (in the midrash by his own death, in the Talmud by the cruel death of Rabbi Akiva).
How Should We Explain the Two Similar Stories
The two rabbinic stories share the same pattern to such an extent that they may reflect variants of the same story, or at least a borrowing of elements and motifs from one another. In such cases, nevertheless, it is important to continue to compare the stories for a number of reasons, which I will divide broadly into two categories.
1 – Looking for Differences
Such differences may reflect religious, conceptual and ideological disputes. In this case, the two versions may be emphasizing two different modes of authoritative Jewish library by highlighting very different examples of “successors to Moshe.” The Midrash emphasizes the importance of the whole Bible, not just the five book of Moses, by using Joshua—the protagonist of the next book—as the prototypical successor to Moses. The Babylonian Talmud, on the other hand, emphasizes the centrality of rabbinic teaching as the successor to, if not the superior of, the Torah. It is very common to find the Babylonian Talmud promoting the model of dual Torah, the Oral Torah and the Written Torah even when earlier rabbinic sources take a different path. The Menachot story exemplifies the Babylonian Talmud’s focus on the dual Torah: Rabbi Akiva represents the Oral Torah and Moshe represents the Written Torah.
2 – Looking for Similarities
Alternatively, we could take a very different track and search for an essential relation between the two texts. We can seek out deep commonalities, and thus provide a combined interpretation, in which the reading of the two stories together constitutes a mutual enrichment of insights deduced from them. In this case, such a reading involves a search for the common perspective of Moshe in both stories. In the Midrash, he asks for eternal life, because he feels that he has lived the perfect life and has reached the pinnacle of human achievement. In the Talmud, he expects to receive the Torah in a complete and perfect state; he believes that if he is the one receiving the Torah then he must be the greatest “Torah scholar” in history and will be the one who understands the work best. In other words, in both texts he believes he has reached a certain perfection and is entitled to the benefits of that perfection. Moses’ plea for eternity, for an eternal status quo (in the Midrash), is equivalent to his belief in a perfect Torah that he can fully understand and that demands no exegetical process (in the Talmud).
God’s response in the Talmud, “Silence! This is what came to my thought,” is not only a response to the question of theodicy. It is a comprehensive argument concerning the limitation of humankind. Men and women are mortal. Moshe is mortal, Akiva is mortal. The Torah cannot be perfect; it depends on its human reception. Its immortality is subject to their ability to recognize their mortality and pass it on to the next generation, to another generation.
The Death and Birth of New Interpretations
When we read the two narratives together, they offer us a model of Talmud Torah without an illusion of eternity. In that sense, we may consider them as saying something about the relevance of lost Midrashic traditions to the Study of the Torah. The search for lost Midrashic traditions reflects the depth of these stories. Like Moshe’s aspiration of immortality, the scholar digs lost sources out of their literary graveyards, trying to save them, and brings them back to life.
In a paradoxical manner, we may imagine the moment when Moshe recognizes that his knowledge of the Torah is lacking as similar to the experience many traditional people have when confronted with a lost Midrash and realizing that there is another version of the same story, or other stories the he or she never knew. Such a realization may be even be experienced by some as a moment of death. A certain way of reading our Torah, in many cases a way that accompanied us from the very beginning of our childhood is suddenly lost (נטלו מסורות is the Hebrew used by the Midrash – the traditions were taken).
Nevertheless, the death of old convictions becomes the birth of the continuity of the Torah. Moshe needs Joshua and Akiva; they are his paths to continuity. His life can continue after his death only if Akiva and Joshua will be there to bring his teachings to life, to offer their additional angle, to develop—the very teachings that Moshe cannot understand.
When confronting the richness of our tradition and the variety stories, many of which are unfamiliar to us, we are being asked to take the same mental leap that Moshe was asked to make. We cannot cleave to certain words as if they were eternal, as if they can stand alone, with no need for the following generation to research it, to examine it, to interpret it. Interpretation is a process of life and death.
In these horrible weeks in which death strikes the Land of Israel, we may take something from the prayer of Moshe, and plead for the lives of all inhabitants of the Land, Israelis and Palestinians, civilians and combatants as well. May God grant us the wisdom of life.
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August 6, 2014
September 22, 2021
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Dr. Moshe Lavee is a lecturer in Talmud and Midrash and chair of the Inter-disciplinary Centre for Genizah Research in The University of Haifa. His research expertise is in Aggadic Midrash, especially in the communities of the Genizah. Moshe runs programs for young leadership and educators (“Mashavah Techila” and “Ruach Carmel”), working to foster relationships between the academic world and the larger community.
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