Shiur #14: More Hands Full

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

As we saw in the previous class, Vayikra Rabba 3:1 is a petichta which offers multiple explanations of Kohelet 4:6, “Better is a handful of quietness than both the hands full of labor and pursuit of the wind.”


The first section of the petichta, which we discussed last week, presents six different illustrations of the lesson of this verse - that one should work with one’s own natural resources, be they intellectual or financial, and not overreach to attempt to become something one is not. The focus is on what we have called the ideological aspect of midrash - explaining ideas and teaching lessons.


This next section is more interpretive in nature. It makes use of the tools of midrashic interpretation to understand the verse from Kohelet in ways that place it into the context of particular incidents in the Torah:


R. Berekhya said:

Better one footstep trodden by the Holy One, blessed be He, in Egypt, in that it is said, “For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night” (Ex. 12:12)

Than “both the hands full” of soot of the furnace [thrown] by Moses and Aharon.


For through the former there was redemption, but through the latter there was no redemption.


     In this reading, the verse in Kohelet compares two different events from the book of Shemot: God’s passing over the land of Egypt during the plague of the slaying of the first-born, and Moshe and Aharon’s throwing soot into the sky, during the plague of boils. This reading is not based on a consideration of the moral message of the Kohelet verse as in the previous section. Rather, it emerges from a midrashic consideration of the language of the verse. The phrase melo hofnayim, “both hands full,” in the Kohelet verse recalls the description of God’s command to Moshe and Aharon before the plague of boils, kechu lakhem melo hofnekhem pi’ach ha-kivshan (“Take handfuls of soot from the kiln”) (Shemot 9:8) To the midrashic mind, which always seeks to create connections between disparate verses in the Bible, this similarity in language can be no coincidence. This phrase from Kohelet is now to be understood not as referring to a universal moral lesson about overreaching, but to a particular incident in the drama of the Exodus: Moshe and Aharon’s casting up handfuls of soot in order to precipitate the plague of boils.


If this is the case, then the verse in Kohelet contrasts the events in Shemot 9 to another event which is referred to as melo kaf nachat which we have translated as “a handful of quietness.”  But to what incident in the Torah might this phrase refer? The key to the midrash’s interpretation of these words is their understanding of the word kaf.  We translated this word as meaning “handful,” which is the simple peshat of the verse. However, the word can also refer to the sole of the foot, as in the verse from Isaiah, mi-kaf regel ve-ad rosh (“From the sole of the foot unto the head”) (Isaiah 1:6). Proceeding from this premise, the phrase kaf nachat can be understood not as “a handful of quietness,” but as “resting of a foot”. It is on the basis of this interpretation that the rabbis explain this phrase as referring to the verse in Shemot describing God’s movements during the plague of the slaying of the first-born, “For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night.”  Elsewhere, the rabbis understand this verse as describing God swiftly passing through Egypt. Here, the suggestion is that God merely rested His foot in Egypt as he passed through.


In this reading of the verse from Kohelet, the two full hands of Moshe and Aharon are contrasted with the light footstep of God. The mortals’ actions bring about only the plague of boils, which did not succeed in getting Pharaoh to let the Children of Israel out of Egypt. God’s actions, on the other hand, precipitated the slaying of the first-born, which led to Pharaoh letting the people of Israel go free. In this reading, the lesson of this verse is not moral, but theological. God can accomplish more with the bottom of his foot than Moshe and Aaron together can do with both of their hands full.


The next section gives yet another theological reading of the verse:


R. Chiyya b. Abba said:

“Better is a handful of quietness” means the Sabbath;

“Than both the hands full of labor” refers to the six work days;

But it is “the desire of the spirit"; it is one's desire to do his work in these [six days].

You have proof that this is so, in that Israel are to be redeemed only by the merit of the Sabbath,

as it is said, "Through rest and repose shall you be saved” (Isa. 30:15)

     This reading focuses on the opposition between the words nachat “quietness” and amal “labor” presented in the verse. This opposition suggests the contrast between the Sabbath, the day of rest and quiet, and the weekdays, which are days of labor. The implication of the verse is that the Sabbath is superior to the weekdays. More specifically, it is through the Sabbath that the final redemption shall arrive. This section thus continues the theme of redemption from the previous one. The midrash establishes the link between the Sabbath and the final redemption by citing the verse from Isaiah: “Through rest and repose shall you be saved,” (“be-shuva va-nachat tevashe’un”).  The rabbis’ reading of this verse as referring to the Sabbath appears to emerge from the words nachat and shuva.  The word nachat appears already in the petichta verse and has already been interpreted as referring to the Sabbath. It is therefore not much of a jump to understanding it a referring to the Sabbath in the context of the Isaiah verse as well. The word shuva actually means Shabbat in the dialect of Aramaic used in the midrash.


I am not clear on the exact meaning of the phrase, “it is one's desire to do his work in these [six days].” This line is given as an interpretation of the words re’ut ru’ach, which in the rest of this petichta is understood as an empty, unachievable desire. Here it would seem that desiring to do one’s labors during the six days of the week is reasonable and even laudatory. Perhaps this line seeks to emphasize the futility of ever completing all of the work that a person needs to do. Hence, the rest of the Sabbath, which brings the redemption, is ultimately more productive than the work done the rest of the week.


The next section can be seen as a continuation of the previous one. Throughout rabbinic literature, the Sabbath is described as “a taste of the World to Come”. The contrast between the Sabbath and the days of the week thus recalls the contrast between this world and the World to Come:


R. Jacob b. Kurshai said:

“Better is a handful of quietness”; that is the World to Come.

“Than both hands full of labor”; that is this world.

But it is “the desire of the spirit”; it is the desire of the wicked to do their [wicked] deeds in this world, in retribution for which penalty is exacted from them in the World to Come.

Even as we have learnt: Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life of the World to Come;

and better is one hour of the even-tempered spirit of the World to Come than all the life of this world (Pirkei Avot 4:17).


     In this reading, the “quietness” of the first part of the verse refers to the World to Come, while the “labor” of the second part of the verse refers to life in this world. The midrash unequivocally takes the position that, in and of itself, life in this world is a fruitless endeavor. It can only have significance to the extent that behavior in the world leads to rewards in the next world. Indeed it is only evil-doers who focus their energies on this world and they are punished for their deeds in the World to Come.


In order to back up this position, the midrash cites the famous words of the mishna in Pirkei Avot. The midrash is clearly focused on the second half of the mishna: “better is one hour of the even-tempered spirit of the World to Come

than all the life of this world” This line sums up the midrash’s argument for the absolute superiority of the World to Come over this world. Further, both the midrash and mishna associate the World to Come with repose: nachat, “quietness," in the midrash and korat ru’ach, “even tempered spirit," in the mishna.


In fact, however, the mishna presents a far more nuanced and, indeed, paradoxical approach to the relationship between this world and the World to Come. Its statement consists of two potentially contradictory claims. First, the mishna declares that: “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life of the World to Come.”  This would appear to stress the potential superiority of this world over the World to Come. Repentance and good deeds in this world are seen not simply as means to gaining entry to the World to Come.  Rather, they are their own reward. The experience of doing mitzvot in this world is, in fact, superior to any reward one might receive for them in the World to Come.  It is only after it has argued for the superiority of this world that the mishna declares, “better is one hour of the even-tempered spirit of the World to Come than all the life of this world,” apparently taking the opposite position that it is indeed the World to Come that is superior. It would seem to me that the mishna here is deliberately asserting a paradox. Each world can be seen as the superior one. We should not denegrate the importance either of this world or of the World to Come. Such a position is in contrast with other schools of thought in the time of the rabbis. Some schools of thought, like that of the Sadducees, rejected outright the existence of the World to Come and focused entirely on life in this world. Others, like the Essenes, placed all of their emphasis on the World to Come, negating the value of this world. The rabbis took a middle view, affirming the importance of both this world and the World to Come. If my reading of the mishna is correct, the midrash is selectively reading the mishna in order to advocate a more one-sided view of the relationship between the two worlds.


The next reading of the petichta verse once again connects the verse to events that took place in Biblical times:


R. Isaac explained the verse as referring to the tribe of Reuben and to the tribe of Gad.

When these entered the Land, and saw how much sowing capacity and planting capacity was there,

they said: “Better is a handful of quietness” in this land, “than both hands full of labor” on the other side of the Jordan.

In the end they said:  Have we not ourselves chosen it for ourselves?’

for so it is written, “Let this land be given unto thy servants for a possession” (Num. 32:5).

This is meant by ‘The desire of the spirit’; it had been their own wish.         


     This interpretation understands the petichta verse as referring to the story of the tribes who took their inheritance on the eastern side of the Jordan. As the reader will recall, at the end of the forty years in the desert Moshe leads the children of Israel into battle against the kings Sichon and Og, whose territory was on the northeastern side of the Jordan. The tribes of Reuven and Gad (as well as half of the tribe of Menashe) see the lush pasture land in these territories and request them in lieu of inheritances in the Land of Israel proper, to the west of the Jordan. Moshe agrees to this deal under the condition that these tribes send fighters to participate in the conquest of the Land along with the other tribes. Thus far is the story told in the Bible. But the midrash adds in one more detail. When the tribes of Reuven and Gad arrive in the Land of Israel they see that the Land of Israel is even more fertile than the trans-Jordanian territories they opted for and they regret their choice. The midrash takes for granted that the Land of Israel is superior to other lands and that anyone who passes up an opportunity to gain property in the Land will surely come to regret it.


The midrash links this incident with the petichta verse from Kohelet. The handful of quietness of the verse is identified as referring to the Land of Israel and the two fistfuls of labor are identified as referring to the inheritance of Reuven and Gad on the other side of the Jordan. Like the interpretations at the beginning of the petichta, this reading has an implicit moral lesson about desire and overreaching. One should not give in to one’s desires and take the first good thing that comes. Rather, one should patiently wait and have faith that better things are to come.


This reading of the petichta verse is, in a certain sense, ironic. As we noted at the outset of last week’s class, the simple meaning of the Kohelet verse is akin to the English proverb, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” In other words, that which is readily available is more desirable than something that one needs to work for in order to secure. One would think that the tribes of Reuven and Gad actually followed this advice. They took the inheritance that was readily available in trans-Jordan over the promise of an inheritance in the as-yet-to-be conquered Land of Israel. Yet, the midrash finds fault with their decision and cites the very verse that would appear to support their decision as part of its critique. I do not know if this irony was consciously intended in this case. However, in general, my sense is that the rabbis did delight in midrashically inverting biblical verses so that they take on a meaning that is opposite to the simple understanding of the verse.


Finally, the midrash arrives at its last interpretation of the petichta verse which links the petichta verse to the Torah reading of the day:


Another interpretation:

“Better is a handful of nachat”; that is a handful of [the flour of] the free-will meal-offering (mincha) of a poor man,

“Than the two hands full of labor, and striving after the wind”; that is, the finely ground incense of spices of the congregation,

since the former carries with it expiation, while the latter does not carry with it expiation.


     This reading links the petichta verse from Kohelet to yet another verse in the Torah. The phrase melo hofnayim, “two handfuls,” recalls the verse from Vayikra (16:12):

And he shall take… two handfuls (melo hofnav)of finely ground aromatic incense and bring this behind the curtain.

This verse describes the High Priest’s activities on Yom Kippur. He takes coal and incense and brings them into the Holy of Holies. The second part of the petichta verse is thus understood as referring to this incense sacrifice.


Now that we have established that the petichta verse deals with the realm of sacrifices we can understand the midrash’s interpretation of the first half of the verse. The “handful” of the first half of the verse reminds the darshan of the kometz, the handful of flour that the priest takes from the meal offering and brings to the altar. In this reading, the petichta verse contrasts two different sacrifices. One sacrifice is brought on behalf of all of Israel by the High Priest himself in the Holy of Holies on the holiest day of the year. The other is brought by a pauper who has no resources to bring an animal sacrifice. One would think that the incense of Yom Kippur would be considered among the most sublime of sacrifices while the poor man’s meal offering would be considered a common sacrifice of little stature. However, the midrash insists that it precisely the poor man’s sacrifice which is of the greater significance. This is because it is not offered out of a need expiate sin, like the Yom Kippur incense, but rather out of the poor man’s desire to serve God. This teaches a fundamental lesson about sacrifices. The most important aspect of the sacrifice is not the size or the expense of what is offered. Rather, it is the motivation that lies behind the sacrifice that counts.  As the mishna says in Menachot (13:11), “Whether one sacrifices a little or a lot, what counts is that one’s heart is directed to heaven.”