Sinai Upside-Down: The Theological Message of a Midrash

Article excerpt

The two major lines of Jewish exegesis are peshat--the plain meaning, and derash--the homiletical interpretation. It could be said that peshat is more objective and derash more subjective, but this generalization should not be pressed too far. There is a popular notion that derash is a sort of Jewish Aesop's Fables, a collection of legendary material that provides extra drama and color; but it would be a mistake to imagine that the masters of Midrash were mere tellers of tales. In most midrashim there is a message which we can begin to uncover by asking: What idea does the midrashic text want to teach? When we ask this question we find that the Sages of the Midrash were serious philosophers who often used derash to address major problems in theology and ethics.

This paper shows how the exegesis of an ambiguous word in the Bible leads in two different directions, with the contrast between peshat and derash allowing the rabbinic Sages to read important theological content into--or out of--a seemingly innocuous verse. That verse is Exodus 19:17, which speaks about where the Israelites were when the Torah was given.

The verse reads: va-yityatzevu be-tahtit ha-har. If we try to imagine the scene, we may visualize a large crowd gathered in open country with the mountain looming in the background, apparently indicating a peshat of they stood at the foot of the mountain. Tahtit is connected with tahat, "under, below, beneath." These translations appear to be interchangeable synonyms, and are generally treated as such. (1) However, they are capable of being separated into two categories--"low/lower/lowest" and also "below/under/beneath." Because of the ambiguity of the Hebrew words, the translations of tahat and tahtit waver between "at the foot of" and "beneath." In Brown, Driver and Briggs' Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, (2) ad she'ol tahtit (Deuteronomy 32:22) is translated as to the lowest She'ol (the nether-world). The Jewish Publication Society of America 1917 translation of the Bible renders the phrase unto the depths of the nether-world; the 1962 translation gives to the base of the hills. Three times, in Ezekiel 31:14, 16, and 18, the text has eretz tahtit, meaning the nether parts of the earth according to the JPS 1917 translation, but the lowest part of the nether-world in the 1962 version, which--probably in view of the parallel bor, the pit, at the end of verse 14-sees it as a reference to She'ol, the subterranean abode of the dead. In that case tahtit is not at the base of something, but below the surface. We thus see that the translation of tahtit varies between "low" and "under."

However, when it comes to Exodus 19:17b, the 1917 JPS version translates the Hebrew as They stood at the nether part of the mount. Similarly, the 1962 version reads: They took their places at the foot of the mountain. This indicates--as we noted above--an assemblage in open country at the foot of the mountain: the camp is on terra firma, beside but close to the base of the mountain, with Mount Sinai as an impressive backdrop. This is accepted by Rashi, who writes: "In its literal meaning, (be-tahtit ha-har) signifies be-raglei ha-har, at the foot of the mountain." Similarly, Moses' recollection of the event in Deuteronomy 4:11, Va-ta'amdun tahat ha-har, is understood in both the 1917 JPS version (Ye stood under the mountain) and the 1962 version (You stood at the foot of the mountain) as having tahat refer to the base of Mount Sinai.

Rashi adds to his first, peshat-based comment, a second, contrasting derash that the people were standing not at the base of but literally beneath the mountain. This derash is linguistically possible in view of the evidence above that both tahtit and tahat can be at the foot of and beneath. However, Rashi justifies the derash not on the basis of linguistics, but on an aggadah in TB Shabbat 88a (with parallels in Avodah Zarah 2b, Mekhilta Ba-Hodesh 3, etc. …