Introduction to Reading Midrash

  • Rav Ezra Bick
Accompanying all the books of Tanakh are many works with the collected name of "midrash" (specifically, midrash aggada), a collection of homiletical comments of the Talmudic sages. These include the stories - aggadot - familiar to many from early biblical education, moralistic comments appended to the text, lessons derived from the text, applications of one text to another, and a host of other forms. There is a wide-spread prejudice against taking this literature seriously, viewing it as fanciful and without firm foundation, at best a window - and an unclear one at that! - into the mindset of the Sages, but in any event not a source for clarifying the texts on which it is based.
This course will attempt to correct that impression by taking the midrash to Sefer Bereishit, the Book of Genesis, and seeing how it illuminates the text, both as a deep commentary on it, and as a source for basic ideas in the understanding of the Sages of the relationship between Bereishit and our lives as Jews who serve God. Some of the midrashim we will see are, in fact, a form of Pshat - not simple interpretation, but genuine commentary on the text itself. Others are mining the text for material to develop the world-view of Rabbinic Judaism, or as stepping-stones for understanding other sections of Tanakh.
The language and literary form of the midrash requires special tools for deciphering its underlying meaning, since it is based on a rich use of metaphor and narrative, allusions and associative ideas, imagery and other literary devices. The use of stories and parables to convey ideas requires a not-always literal understanding of the texts, which is very different than the analysis we are accustomed to in the legal sections of learning Torah. Each week, we shall take a number of midrashim from Bereishit, and attempt to understand what they are trying to say, what vistas they open for us in understanding the texts to which they refer, and what ideas may be found within them.
We shall be utilizing the midrash called "Bereishit Rabba," which is the most common and well-known midrashic compilation  to Sefer Bereishit. The references will be to the Vilna edition, which is followed by most modern editions, although, unfortunately, not by all. I will give the references for the following week at the end of each shiur, so you will have a chance to think about the particular midrashim before each week.