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How does Midrash relate to the Text?

Author: Esther Ehrman, Nisan 5771/April 2011

An example: Esther Rabba Chapter 5

Midrash is usually classified as either Midrash Halacha or Midrash Aggada, where the former discusses an aspect of mitzvot, commandments, while the latter looks for a drash, a meaning that may not be immediately apparent. A subdivision of Midrash Aggada is homiletic; it seeks to convey a moral message, a teaching that is Jewish because it is learnt from sources in the Tenach (Bible). The text that it is discussing is seen as a springboard for 'divrei Torah'. There is a relevance to the text as a whole rather than to a specific word or phrase.

Thus, the word 'wine' in a sentence of the first Chapter of the Book of Esther leads the Midrash Rabba to devote the next two and half pages, half of its chapter, to showing just how harmful wine can be. The topic is very relevant to the whole Book of Esther; there are drinking parties given by King Ahasuerus, Queen Vashti, Esther; all are essential to the dynamic of the story. However, the Midrash hardly seems to relate to the text it is ostensibly commenting (it formally refers to it, as Midrash frequently does, at the end of the discussion).

Midrash Esther Rabba, chapter 5 is commenting on Esther Ch1, v.10-12:

"On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he ordered ... the seven chamberlains who attended the king, to bring queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown... But queen Vashti refused... "

The commentary quotes a line from Proverbs 23, "Do not look upon wine that is reddening..." (v.29) and gives an extended explanation of the next five verses in the Book of Proverbs that describe the many bad things that happen to people who 'linger over wine': We are told how one man sold all his belongings in order to buy wine; we have a delightful story where the sons of an alcoholic, fearing that their inheritance will all be 'drunk', dump the father in a cemetary; it so happens that wine merchants pass there and leave their barrels, so that the father wakes to find himself next to a ready supply of wine;when the sons return, three days later, they find their father drinking happily; they acknowledge that his supply of wine was heaven sent and agree to take turns in providing him with his daily need – honouring parents takes precedence, even if it means a personal loss of their inheritance. The story does fully fit the anti-alcoholism line, except that it does entail the loss of inheritance!

The Midrash completes the suject by listing a number of examples where wine 'caused a separation', such as between life and death (the sons of Aaron, Vashti) a ruler and his kingdom (Belshazzar) a father and hid descendants (Noach who curses his son).

The Midrash then moves on to comments on the opening of Chapter 2 of Esther. Once Ahasuerus is sober, he remembers "Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her" (Esther 2,1). The Midrash is not comfortable that Vashti had been put to death (this is not in the text, but it is so according to Midrash). Her refusal to appear, naked (again the text had not stated that) was, in a sense, praiseworthy. So Vashti has to be shown to have deserved death. The Midrash had, earlier, stated that Vashti made the Jewish maidens work on the Sabbath, naked! Now we are told she prevented Ahasuerus from rebuilding the Temple that her grandfather, Nebuchadnezar had destroyed. "that which my ancestors destroyed, you want to rebuild?" This leads the Midrash well into the topic of anti-Semitism and we are told of a Jew and a non-Jew who share a dwelling. If the non-Jew touches the cooking pot of the Jew, the latter does does not see that that makes the pot impure (tamei); if the Jew touches the pot of the non-Jew, the latter does see his pot as impure, even though he has no problem eating from it if it has creeping creatures in it!

The last section of this chapter of Esther Rabba is devoted to an interesting analysis of a stylistic device that allows the reader to 'decode' a Biblical text. The Midrash takes as its starting point the juxtaposition of two verses in the Book of Esther. Ahasuerus agrees to the suggestion that young maidens should be brought before him , so that he can pick one "to be queen instead of Vashti. This advice pleased the king and he followed it. There was a Jewish man in Shushan, the capital, and his name was Mordechai..."(Esther 2, 4-5). The problem here is finding a new queen. The person who will solve the problem is Mordechai – and he is mentioned in the next verse. The Midrash then gives a whole series of such instances in the Tenach, where there is a problem to be solved and the next verse mentions, as if by chance, the name of the one who will solve the problem. Thus, "G-d saw the Children of Israel and G-d knew" (Ex.2, 25), followed by the verse "Moses was shepherding" (ibid 3,1) or, when the Israelites were afraid of the Philistine Goliath, "they were terrified and greatly afraid" (1 Samuel, 17, 11), followed by "David was the son of a certain Ephratite" (ibid v.12) .

In all three topics, wine, anti-Semitism and the example of Biblical decoding, the Midrash has taken a wording from the original Book of Esther as a launching pad for a lesson to be learnt, but the lesson, although implicit in the original text, is one that is valid because is is supported by numerous other instances in the Bible. Wine is a major feature in the Book of Esther; it is not its major theme; neither is anti-Semitism. We need to be made aware of both in an authoritative way. The authority is the Tenach and the teaching is therefore a Jewish teaching.