Shiur #08: Proverbial Midrash - Vayikra Rabba 1:5-6

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

In this lecture, we will study two short petichta'ot.  These two passages are similar in that they both cite verses from Mishlei (Proverbs) as their petichta verses.  These passages are particularly good examples of the way in which the petichta verse and the parasha verse mutually interpret one another. 


Mishlei is one of the most abstract books of the Bible.  It teaches universal moral lessons, while the Torah, in contrast, is an exceedingly concrete book, relating stories about individuals and about the people of Israel and transmitting detailed laws that were commanded to Israel.  By juxtaposing a verse from Mishlei with a verse from the Torah, Chazal establish a symbiotic relationship between the two verses.  One the one hand, the Mishlei verse draws a universal lesson from the specific, historically bound verse in the Torah.  On the other hand, the Torah verse provides a concrete example of the abstract lesson from Mishlei.  The result is a teaching that is at once specific and universal, abstract and concrete.


Part I


Vayikra Rabba 1:5 opens with Proverbs 25:7.  This verse is best understood in the context of the previous verse:


6 Do not exalt yourself in the king's presence;

   Do not stand in the place of nobles.

7 For it is better to be told, "step up here,"

   Than to be degraded in the presence of the great.[*]


This verse advises the reader regarding proper conduct in the presence of those who hold power.  It is better not to push oneself forward and try to claim a position of prominence; by doing so, one risks calling too much attention to oneself.  In the end, one may be demoted to a lower position than one had before.  Rather, one should keep a low profile; from that position, one may be called to a higher position.


A - Interpreting Mishlei


The petichta begins by citing an interpretation of this verse by R. Akiva in the name of ben Azzai:


Go two or three seats lower and take your seat,

until they say to you, "Come up,"

rather than that you should go up

and they should say to you, "Go down."

Better that people say to you "come up, come up,"

and not say to you, "go down, go down."


This rabbinic proverb is essentially a restatement and explanation of the biblical one.  It explains that it is better to be called up from a low place than to be called down from a high place.  Ben Azzai's proverb expands on the biblical one, however, in one key dimension.  Mishlei gives advice specifically in a political context - it speaks of how to act before "kings" and "nobles."  Ben Azzai, on the other hand, speaks in a more general context; he speaks of taking a lower seat.  Mirkin suggests that this refers to one at a party or a shiva house, but in any case, it seems to refer to general social situations, and not only political ones.  A person should always claim less honor than is due to him.  If he is worthy, he will get the honor he deserves eventually.  However, if one is not worthy of the honor he thinks is due to him, he will ultimately be forced to cede his position and will be embarrassed.  Ben Azzai thus draws out a more universal message of necessary humility in all situations from the verse in Mishlei


The midrash next quotes a similar teaching from another great rabbi, Hillel:


And so used Hillel to say:

My self-abasement is my exaltation,

my self-exaltation is my abasement. 

What is the proof?

"He that raises himself

is to [be made to] sit down,

he that abases himself

is to be [raised so that he is] seen" (Tehillim  113:5-6).


This proverb, like so many rabbinic proverbs, is rooted in paradox.  The only way to become exalted is to be humble; self-exaltation will only lead to one being humbled and put in one's place. 


This idea is based on a creative reading of two phrases from Psalm 113, "ha-magbihi lashavet / ha-mashpili lirot."  JPS translates these verses as, "Enthroned on high, [He] sees what is below." Hillel, however, picks up on the structural tensions between these two phrases.  Ha-magbih i/ ha-mashpili  suggests a contrast between raising up and lowering down.  Furthermore, the term lashavet - to sit - suggests lowering down, whereas the act of seeing referred to in the phrase lirot is best done from a raised position.  One might therefore think that the verses should read "Ha-magbihi lirot / ha-mashpili lashavet - He raises up to see/ lowers himself down to sit." The verse, however, paradoxically correlates raising up with sitting and lowering down with seeing.  From here, Hillel learns the lesson that one can only achieve greatness through modesty.  Actively seeking out honor will only lead to losing whatever stature one had to begin with. 


B - Moshe the Modest


The midrash now moves from explicating the Mishlei verse in a general manner to establishing a relationship between the verse and some element of the Torah.  The Mishlei verse, as it has been interpreted, focuses on the quality of modesty.  The obvious choice as an exemplar of modesty in the Torah is most certainly Moshe, who is referred to as "The most modest man in the world." Moshe is the perfect illustration of the lesson of the Mishlei verse because not only was he modest, he was called to greatness in a way that no one before or since has been called.  This combination of avoiding the limelight while consistently being thrust into its glare perfectly illustrates the point made by Mishlei and Ben Azzai point about how greatness comes to those who do not seek it out:


1) You find that when the Holy One, blessed be He,

revealed Himself to Moses from the midst of the thorn-bush,

the latter hid his face from Him,

as it is said,

"And Moses hid his face, etc."  (Ex. 3:6). 

Because of this, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him,

"Come now, therefore, and I will send you unto Pharaoh" (ibid., 3: 10).

Said R. Eleazar:

The letter heh at the end of the word signifies,

"If you will not deliver them, no one else will deliver them." 


2) At the Red Sea he [i.e.  Moses] stood aside,

and the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him,

"Lift you up your rod

and stretch out your hand over the sea

and divide it" (ibid., 14:15),

as much as to say:

"If you will not divide it, no one else will divide it."


3) At Sinai, too, Moses stood aside;

said He to him, "Come up unto the Lord, you" (Ex. 24:1),

as if to say:

"If you will not come up, no one else will come up."


4) In the Tent of Meeting, he stood aside,

but the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him:

"Until when will you keep yourself low?

The hour waits but for you!"

You have proof that this is so,

for out of them all

the divine word called none but Moses,

[as it is written],



The petichta reviews four key events in Moshe's life: the encounter of the burning bush, the splitting of the Red Sea, Mount Sinai, and his entry into the Mishkan.  In each instance, the midrash states that Moshe "stood to the side;" in other words he declined to take a leadership role.  God responds by telling Moshe that if he does not do that task at hand, no one will be able to do so. 


The midrash suggests that each of these incidents followed the same pattern, illustrating how those who seek to avoid positions of prominence are precisely the people who are worthy to be called to greatness.  In fact, an examination of these biblical accounts shows that each one conforms to this model in a different way and to a differing degree.


The burning bush is clearly the paradigm on which this narrative model is based.  It is the only case in which the midrash actually provides a proof for its claim that Moshe "stood to the side," namely the verse which states that Moshe "turned his face" from God.  Of course, this action could be interpreted simply as a formal demonstration of respect and awe for God.  However, it is clear that Moshe does, indeed, attempt to step aside in this context by arguing with God that he is unworthy of the mission to which he has been assigned.


The midrash makes use of a technical midrashic proof, the ribui, to demonstrate God's insistence on sending Moshe.  It learns from the superfluous hey at the end of the word lekha (he verse could have sufficed with lekh) that God makes it clear the Moshe is the only person who is acceptable to Him as an agent of redemption.  The same lesson can be learned from the simple reading of the verses, however.  God rejects Moshe's many arguments and entreaties, and insists that Moshe choose to accept his mission. 


In the case of the splitting of the Red Sea, the midrash simply asserts the Moshe "stood to the side" without citing any prooftexts.  Indeed, the Torah does not state explicitly that Moshe sought to avoid splitting the Red Sea.  Nevertheless, God turns to Moshe and says, "Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward..." (Shemot 14:15) Moshe apparently did not understand his centrality in the events at the Red Sea.  He thought that his role was simply to pray to God and wait for a miracle.  In fact, God tells him that he must play an active role in splitting of sea by raising up his staff over it.  In this sense, Moshe can be seen as shirking his leadership duties at the Red Sea.


As far as I can tell, in the final two cases of Mt. Sinai and the Mishkan, there is no hint in the Torah that Moshe sought to avoid meeting God.  Having established the character trait of avoiding public roles in the two previous cases, the midrash assumes that Moshe must have done so in these cases as well.  Indeed, I would argue that the midrash knows this from a kal ve-chomer; Moshe's meetings with God on Mt.  Sinai and in the Tabernacle reflect the high point of career, the greatest honors that he, or any other mortal, ever received.  If Moshe sought to avoid the lesser calls to greatness at the burning bush and at the Red Sea, how much more so must he have done so when he was called to meet directly with God. 


This petichta thus comes to a close by using the parasha verse to praise Moshe's unique greatness.  It thereby completes the form of the petichta and forwards the central theme of this section of Vayikra Rabba


This petichta also establishes a dynamic relationship between the petichta verse and the parasha verse.  The petichta verse, especially as it is interpreted by Chazal, establishes a universal moral lesson that greatness come to those who avoid it.  The parasha verse is interpreted, along with a series of other passages about Moshe, as portraying Moshe both as the most modest and the most exalted individual in history.  Although it is not stated explicitly, Moshe's exalted status is in someway a result of his modesty.  The petichta verse thus helps us to formulate a general lesson from the story of Moshe, while the parasha verse presents a concrete example of the petichta verse's abstract lesson.


Part II


The next petichta opens with yet another verse from Mishlei, 20:15 The exact meaning of this verse is not clear.  Literary it translates as - "There is gold and many jewels and wise speech is a precious object." The meaning of the verse is probably best expressed by the JPS translation: "Gold is plentiful, jewels abundant, but wise speech is a precious object." In other words, relative to wisdom, gold and jewels are plentiful and of little value.  As in the previous case, the midrash here first presents an explication of the Mishlei verse:


R. Tanhuma opened [his discourse with the verse],

"There is gold and a multitude of jewels,

but the lips of knowledge are a precious vessel" (Mishlei  20:15). 

It often happens that

a man possesses gold and silver,

precious stones and pearls,

yea, all manner of delectable articles in the world,

and the goodness thereof,

yet possesses no knowledge. 

What then has he acquired?

The proverb says:

"If you possess knowledge, then what do you lack? 

If you lack knowledge, what do you possess?"


This interpretation of the verse is different and more far-reaching than the peshat I just proposed.  According to that reading, gold and jewels are presumed to be of great value.  It is only in comparison to wisdom that they seem worthless.  The midrash here proposes a new relationship between wisdom and precious objects.  Without wisdom to guide its use, material wealth is worthless.  Furthermore, as the aphorism quote by the mishna argues - wisdom is ultimately the only thing a person needs in life.  Thus, material goods are not simply less important than wisdom; neither are they dependant on wisdom for their value.  Rather, material goods are essentially worthless because the only thing of value is wisdom. 


As in the previous petichta, having presented a series of interpretation of the Mishlei verse, the midrash now places the verse into a historical context:


"There is gold"

[refers to the fact] that they [the Israelites] all brought gold as their free-will-offering for the Tabernacle. 

This is indicated by what is written,

"And this is the offering which ye shall take of them: gold, etc."  (Shemot 25:3). 

"And a multitude of rubies;"

this refers to the freewill-offering of the rulers,

as it is written,

"And the rulers brought the onyx stones, and the stones to be set, etc."  (ibid. 35:27). 

"But the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel."

Seeing that Moses' soul was sad, and that he said,

"All have brought their freewill-offerings for the Tabernacle, and I have brought nothing," the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him:

"As you live, your speaking is more acceptable to Me than all else."

[The proof of this is that out of all of them the divine world called only Moses,

[as it is written], "AND THE LORD CALLED UNTO MOSES."


In this reading, the "gold and jewels" of the verse refer to the materials brought by people and the princes of the tribes at the dedication of the Mishkan, while the "wise speech" refers to Moshe's conversations with God.  The midrash dramatizes the relationship between these two with a story.  Moshe, like most people, at first assumes gold jewels are of ultimate value.  He is therefore upset by the fact that the princes had the honor of contributing large quantities of the materials to the Mishkan, while he gave nothing.  God teaches Moshe, and the reader of the story, the lesson of the verse in Mishlei - that gold and jewels are not the most valuable things in the world.  The real purpose of the Mishkan is to be a place for God to dwell among His people and reveal Himself to his prophets.  The prince's treasures are thus secondary to God's use of the Mishkan to speak to Moshe. 


It is of interest to note that this story interprets the verse in Mishlei according to the peshat that we proposed – namely, that wisdom is more valuable that gold.  The story does not suggest that, in and of themselves, the princes donations were not of value.  Nor does it explicitly say that their value was dependant on Moshe's discussion with God.  All it says is that God values Moshe's speech more than the gifts of the princes.  This petichta can thus be seen as presenting three alternate readings of the Mishlei verse: 1) wisdom is more valuable than precious metals and stones; 2) precious metals and stones have value only if accompanied by wisdom; 3) only wisdom is of value, and ultimately all other things are inconsequential.



[*] We are following the JPS translation, which understands the final phrase in the verse, "which your eyes have seen," as belonging to the beginning of the next verse.