The Midrash and I

By Sloan, Jacob | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

The Midrash and I


Sloan, Jacob, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


Among the many (too many!) regrets that trouble me nowadays is remorse over not having followed my instincts and studied the Midrash harder than I have. After all, the Bible is always in my mind, and the Midrash begins as commentaries on individual verses of the Bible and then ranges very far indeed. The midrashim are literary as well as religious masterpieces. so how could I, who love the Bible, am essentially a literary animal, and one who has always been fascinated by speculation about faith, not have sought out the Midrash after having been introduced to it by a scholar of eminence so many years ago?

I might argue (with myself - who else cares?) that, until recently, I was preoccupied with earning a living, that my livelihood lay far outside serious Jewish scholarship (I was posted for a decade in an Asian country). That was neither the time nor the place. How could I be expected to locate even a single copy of the Talmud there? And if, by some miracle, I were to find a Talmud, how could I ever search through all of the sixty-three tractates for the poetic digressions that make up its midrashic material - parables, legends, allegories, tales, and anecdotes - interspersed among subtle, sometimes cryptic, legal argument? And then, there are the various special collections of midrashim ....

But busyness is no excuse. There have been others far busier than I who found, or made, the time to consult the Midrash. I was no busier than Blaise Pascal, whose remarkable book, Pensees, contains complete sections of "Rabbinism" with midrashim that interpret specific Biblical verses in the light of Jansenist teaching.

Take Pascal's eloquent paraphrase of a meditation by Augustine on Psalm 137:1: "By the waters of Babylon/There we sat down, yea, we wept,/When we remembered Zion." In true midrashic fashion, Pascal focuses on one word of the Hebrew original (yashavnu - "we sat down"), and then expands the text into a lyric hymn:

The rivers of Babylon flow, and fall, and carry away. O holy Sion, where everything stands firm and nothing falls! We must sit by these rivers, not under or in them, but above, not standing upright, but sitting down, so that we remain humble by sitting, and safe by remaining above, but we shall stand upright in the porches of Jerusalem. Let us see if this pleasure is firm or transitory; if it passes away it is a river of Babylon.

At the same time as he was paraphrasing this remarkable midrash of Augustine's, Pascal was originating the theory of probability, experimenting with the vacuum and atmospheric pressure, designing and superintending the construction of a calculating machine that actually worked (isn't Pascal the name of a contemporary computer language?) - even devising an omnibus transportation system for 17th century Paris!

Was I any busier than Pascal?

Or was I any busier than Francis Bacon, Pascal's English contemporary? During a period when he was successively Solicitor General, Attorney General, Privy Chancellor and, finally, Lord High Chancellor of England, Bacon managed to transcribe into his essay, "On Youth and Old Age," an authentic midrash composed by a Jewish scholar of the preceding generation:

A certain Rabbine, Upon the Text, "Your Young Men shall see visions, and your Old Men shall dreame dreams," infereth that Young Men are admitted nearer to God than Old: because Vision is a clearer Revelation than a Dreame. (The "Rabbine" is Abravanel in his commentary on Joel 2:28.)

Bacon cites Abravanel's midrash as evidence of the superiority of young men to old in matters of morality. His midrash follows the sentence: "But for the Moral Part, perhaps Youth will have the preheminence (sic), as Age hath for the Politique." This is one of Bacon's shrewd, even-handed observations that have given his Essays their deserved fame. Here he is citing the Midrash to teach us the way of the world. Age has the "preheminence" in political matters. …

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