Shiur #07: One Verse, Three Great Men: Vayikra Rabba 1:4

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

This section of Vayikra Rabba 1 presents another variation on the petichta form:


R. Avin, in the name of R. Berekhya the Elder, opened [his discourse with the verse]:

Then You spoke in vision to Your goodly ones [and said: ‘I have laid help upon one that is mighty, I have exalted one chosen out of the people’] (Ps. 89:20). 


R. Avin uses Psalms 89:20 as his petichta verse. In context, this verse refers to the prophecies that God sent to His prophets Samuel and Natan about David’s selection as King of Israel.   The very next verse reads, “I have found David, My servant; anointed him with My sacred oil.”


R. Avin, however, takes the midrashic license of ignoring the context of the verse.  This gives him the freedom to interpret the entire verse three times, each time as referring to a different Biblical figure: Avraham, David and Moshe. The three interpretations are parallel in form. Each breaks the verse down into the same four parts, which are understood as referring to different attributes of the Biblical figure. He is: 1) a prophet or seer, 2) a chasid (pious individual), 3) a gibbor (great warrior), and 4) chosen by God.  Avraham, David and Moshe are each shown to have all four of these characteristics. This midrash adopts a single template for three of the Bible’s greatest heroes resulting in a homogenization of Biblical personalities. While Avraham, David and Moshe are very different figures, here they are portrayed as having the same four salient characteristics.  Yet, as we shall see, the midrash ultimately uses this framework to call attention to Moshe’s unique status. The petichta thus continues do develop the central theme of the first parasha of Vayikra Rabba: the greatness of Moshe.


I Avraham

  1. Then You spoke in vision to Your goodly ones

This speaks of Avraham, with whom He communicated by way of both word and vision.  This is indicated by what is written, After these things the word of the Lord came to Abraham in a vision, saying (Gen. 15:1).


2) To Your goodly ones (chasidekha)

[This alludes likewise to Avraham, of whom it is said], You will show faithfulness to Jacob, mercy [or goodness, chesed] to Avraham (Mikha 7: 20).


3) And said: I have laid help upon one that is mighty

[This also refers to Avraham], for he slew four kings in one night, as it is written,

And he divided himself against them by night … and smote them (Gen. 14:15). 

Said R. Isaac: Is there any man that pursues after the slain, seeing that it is written, And he smote them, and pursued them unto Chova (ib.)? Rather, this indicates that the Holy One, blessed by He pursued, and Avraham smote.


4) I have exalted one chosen out of the people

This is Avraham, who was chosen of the Holy One, blessed be He, even as it is said, You are the Lord God, who did choose Avraham (Nech. 9:7).


R. Avin first interprets the verse as referring to Avraham. We explained the verse according to its peshat as referring to two subjects, the “faithful ones,” who received a prophecy regarding a “warrior” and “chosen one.” The Midrash understands “faithful ones,” as referring to the same person as the “warrior” and “chosen one.” In this case, all of the elements of the verse refer to Avraham.


The Midrash first deals with the opening of the verse: “Then You spoke in vision (chazon) to Your goodly ones….” From these lines we learn that the individual in question received prophecy from God, or more specifically, a form of prophecy known as “chazon,” a vision.  Establishing that Avraham was a prophet is hardly difficult, as the Torah describes God’s speaking to Avraham many times. However, there is only a single verse that connects Avraham to a chazon. While Bereishit 15:1, which introduces the Berit Bein Habetarim, does not use the term chazon, it does use the closely related term machazeh.


Next, the midrash must demonstrate that Avraham was among God’s Chasidim, “faithful ones.” Avraham’s faithfulness to God is demonstrated throughout the Torah’s account. However, the Torah never uses the specific word “chesed” in its descriptions of Avraham.. In order to find a prooftext to connect Avraham to chesed, we must look beyond the Torah to the book of Mikha, which explicitly attributes chesed to Avraham.


The following part of the verse describes its subject as a warrior, gibbor, who was aided by God. By and large, we do not associate Avraham with military prowess the way we associate him with prophecy and faithfulness. There is, however, one story in the Torah in which Avraham does make war with divine assistance. That is the story of his battle with the four kings. This episode clearly fits the bill as portraying Avraham as a mighty warrior who is aided by God. The midrash needs a specific verse that explicitly proves its point, but nowhere does the Torah say outright that Avraham’s victory was made possible with divine help. This can only be seen through a midrashic reading of Bereishit 14:15. The Midrash picks up on the apparent incongruity of Abraham first “smiting” his enemies and only then “chasing” them. Does not one normally first chase a person and only then smite them? The midrash learns from here that the one who did the “smiting” could not be the same as the one who did the “chasing.” According to the midrash God Himself chased the kings and their armies until they were in a position that Avraham could easily smite them.  This midrash perfectly explains the part of the petichta verse that says that God aided the warrior.


I have quoted this last line from Margoliot’s edition. This is the way the line appears in all of the manuscripts in our possession. The printed editions however read, “the Holy One, blessed by He, smote, and Abraham pursued.” This is a good example of the importance of checking a critical edition with readings from manuscripts. As we have seen, the manuscript reading clearly makes more sense. The purpose of the midrash here is to show how God helped Avraham, not how Avraham helped God. Why then was the text changed in the printed editions? Probably some copyist or editor did not like the idea that God was playing second fiddle to Avraham. Indeed, in this account God appears something like a hunting dog, chasing the prey into Avraham’s sword. He therefore “corrected” the text, giving God the central role of actually killing the enemies, while Avraham takes the role of the hunting dog. The printed editions thus call attention to a potential theological problem in the original text.


Finally, the last segment of the verse refers to its subject as ”one chosen out of the people.”  The notion that Avraham was chosen by God is central to the Torah’s entire portrayal of Avraham. However, the Torah never explicitly says, “Avraham was chosen by God.” Once again the midrash must go far afield to find an appropriate prooftext. This time we go all the way to the book of Nechemya, which states outright that God chose Avraham.


II David


Another interpretation:

1) Then You spoke in vision to Your goodly ones

This speaks of David with whom He communicated by both word and vision.  This is indicated by what is said, According to all these words, and according to all this vision, so did Natan speak unto David (II Sam. 7:17).


2) To Your goodly ones (chasidekha)

[This means David, who said], Keep my soul, for I am steadfast (chasid) (Ps. 86:2).


3) And said: I have laid help upon one that is mighty

R. Abba b. Kahana said: Thirteen battles did David wage.  The Rabbis said eighteen; and they do not differ.  He who said thirteen [thought of those David waged] on Israel's behalf, and he who said eighteen thought of five he waged for his own benefit and of thirteen on behalf of Israel.


4) I have exalted one chosen out of the people

refers to David, of whom it is said, He chose David also His servant (Ps. 78:70).


The midrash’s second interpretation is that the petichta verse is referring to David. As we have already noted, this reading is in line with the simple peshat of the verse.


The first section of the verse already poses a challenge for the interpreter. We have seen that the Midrash chose to understand this phrase as meaning that the subject of the verse was a prophet and a seer. This worked well for Avraham, whose had numerous prophetic encounters with God, one of which is even described as a vision, machazeh. But David was not a prophet. Nevertheless the midrash states confidently, “This speaks of David with whom He communicated by both word and vision.” How can this be? The midrash cannot come up with a prooftext to prove that David was a prophet. Rather, the prooftext argues that while David was not a prophet, he did receive revelations that were delivered to him by prophets. This is indeed the simple reading of “'Then You spoke in vision to Your goodly ones,” which, as we said, refers to prophecies about David, not to David.


The next section of the midrash establishes that David is in fact among the Chasidim mentioned in the verse. It is worth noting that while the prooftext cited from Psalms is the only other verse in the Bible that refers to David as a chasid, there are some half-dozen places in the Bible in which David is associated with chesed. This identification is not simple exegetical exercise but somehow points to an essential feature of King David. We will develop this theme further when we discuss Moshe and chesed.


The Midrash now comes to the section of the petichta verse that identifies its subject as a warrior who was helped by God. In the case of Avraham, the midrash had to resort to a single verse regarding a single incident in order to establish that Avraham was, in fact, a divinely aided warrior. When it comes to David, there is no need to go searching for a prooftext. David’s entire career, from his fight with Goliath to his final war with the Philistines (II Sam. 21:17) was a series of battles in which David vanquished his enemies with divine help. No single prooftext could do justice to David’s prowess as a warrior. Instead of citing a verse, the midrash cites a rabbinic discussion about the number of wars that David actually fought. Whatever the number, all agree that David was involved in a large number of conflicts throughout his career.


The midrash rounds off this interpretation by citing a prooftext to prove that David was in fact chosen by God. Once again, this is something that is attested to throughout Tanakh.


III Moshe


Another interpretation:

 1) Then You spoke in vision to Your goodly ones

speaks of Moses, with whom He communicated by both word and vision, even as it is said, With him do I speak mouth to mouth in a vision, and not in dark speeches (Num. 7:8).


 2) To Thy goodly ones (chasidekha)

[refers to Moses], since he was of the tribe of Levi, of which it is said, Your Tummin and Your Urim be with Your holy one (chasidekha) (Deut. 33:8). 


3) And said: I have laid help upon one that is mighty

This is in accordance with what R. Tanhum b. Chanilai said: Normally a burden heavy for one is light for two, a burden heavy for two is light for four; can then a burden hard for sixty myriads be easy for one?  All Israel stood before Mount Sinai and said, If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, then we shall die (Deut. 5:22), while Moses heard the very sound of the divine speech, and yet remained alive.  You have proof that this is so, for out of all of them the divine speech called only unto Moses, as it is said,



4) I have exalted one chosen out of the people

 [refers to Moses, as it is said], Had not Moses his chosen, etc. (Ps. 106:22).


The midrash now begins its final iteration in which the petichta verse is interpreted as applying to Moshe.  Moshe was the father of all prophets and there is no shortage of potential prooftexts on this matter. The midrash probably cites the verse from Bemidbar because it mentions that God spoke to Moshe in a vision and that Moshe “saw” God. This correlates with the petichta verse’s reference to a chazon - which similarly suggests revelation with a visual component.


The Midrash has more trouble with the next part of the verse - chasidekha. There are no verses in the Torah that call Moshe a chasid or associate him with chesed.  The Midrash thus needs to cite a verse that associates the entire tribe of Levi, and by extension Moshe, with chesed.  I do not think it is a coincidence that the midrash readily finds verses to establish that Avraham and David were chasidim but cannot do so for Moshe. Chesed in Tanakh means more than “piety.” It refers to a special relationship of commitment between two individuals. Avraham and David both had such a special relationship with God. God singled them and their descendants out for a covenantal relationship. In contrast, Moshe, for all of his greatness, had no unique covenantal relationship with God. Rather, he always acted in the name of and on behalf of the people of Israel. Moshe’s descendants had no special status.  Moshe therefore cannot be considered a chasid.  The midrash must reach for a verse about the tribe of Levi which really refers specifically to Aharon the High Priest. Aharon and his descendants, like David and his line, have a special relationship with God that sets them apart from the rest of the nation of Israel.


The Midrash now comes to the part of the verse that describes its subject as a victorious warrior. Moshe did not spend most of his career on the battle field. However, the Torah does describe several wars that Moshe was involved in at the end of his life, notably against Sichon and Og. The Midrash could easily have quoted a verse about these battles in order to prove that Moshe, like David and Avraham fought battles with divine assistance.


However, the Midrash takes another tack. It cites a mashal - a parable - that we saw in the first petichta of Vayikra Rabba. It focuses on the fact that only Moshe was able to withstand God’s voice, while the entire Jewish people were unable to listen to it. This is compared to a person who can lift a heavy load that even six hundred thousand people cannot lift together.


Unlike, Avraham and David, Moshe was not a gibbor in the traditional sense of a mighty warrior. Moshe’s strength was spiritual, or metaphysical in nature.  He is only metaphorically compared to a person of great physical strength. This represents the key turning point in the petichta. Until now, the midrash has essentially used uniform criteria for evaluating great Biblical figures. Men as different as Avraham, David and Moshe are all described using the same categories. Avraham may not have spent most of his career fighting holy wars, but the midrash finds the one verse which describes him smiting his enemies with divine assistance. David may not have been a prophet, but the midrash links him to prophecy through the prophets that served him. Moshe may not be called a chasid in the Bible, but the midrash connects him to chesed though his membership in the tribe of Levi. The upshot would seem to be that Biblical heroes are all more or less the same: prophets and warriors, pious and chosen. Now however, the midrash breaks this mold by suggesting that Moshe’s gevura - his great strength - was qualitatively different than that of his peers. Moshe’s ability to directly converse with God, already referred to in this petichta, sets him apart from all other mortals, even Avraham and David. Once again we have returned to the theme of the unique greatness of Moshe Rabbeinu.


This mashal also has the function of bringing us to the parasha verse. The mention of Moshe being able to hear God’s voice segues into the first verse of the book of Vayikra, in which God calls out to Moshe. By the conventions of the petichta, the passage should end here. However, the midrash goes on for another line. It still needs to interpret the last section of the petichta verse with reference to Moshe. This is done with great efficiency. The Midrash simply cites the section of the petichta verse, which declares the subject of the verse to be chosen by God, and then cites a verse from Psalms which refers to Moshe as God’s chosen one.


Why does R. Avin violate the most basic rule of the petichta? I believe that this passage needs to be viewed not as a flawed petichta but rather as a hybrid form. On the one hand R. Avin sets out to compose a petichta. However, he also is trying to conform with another format, the three-fold interpretation of the verse. This second format strengthens the petichta form by giving it symmetry and thematic consistency. Ultimately, however, the two formats cannot be reconciled. R. Avin cannot both end on the parasha verse and complete his three-fold reading of the petichta verse. He chooses to take liberties with the exacting requirements of the petichta, in order to complete his three-fold exegesis.


In light of this, I find it very unlikely that this passage was delivered in a synagogue as a petichta. In such a setting, one could probably not get away with going on beyond the parasha verse. Rather, this is what is know as a literary petichta, which was composed as part of study in the beit midrash, not for delivery to a congregation. Such circumstances would have allowed more freedom for the darshan to deviate from the conventions of the petichta