Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Usefulness of Midrash

רב יוספ אלישיב שליט''א (by wayupnorthtonowhere)

I put this together as an opening for my final Midrash research paper.  I still haven't decided if it's staying in, since it sure doesn't read like a research paper.  But it was fun...  so I'll probably leave it :)


John walks up to the podium and faces ten thousand people. He lightly taps on the microphone, making sure it’s still on, causing a loud echo to reverberate throughout the auditorium. A few people wince, others laugh but most sit in impatience waiting for this man to get on with it. They came to hear a good story, not a bumbling presenter. John proceeds to recite, word for word, the story of Sarah sending away Hagar and the angel who convinced Hagar to return.

The eyelids in the audience begin to droop. It’s been a long day and this evening recitation doesn’t help to keep people engaged. If only there were fewer “thees” and “thous” they could at least understand the story. Besides, everyone has heard this story before, why is John beating such a dead horse? Instead many people have already pulled out their blackberries and begun responding to, and sending, e-mail.

With a deep sigh John looks around the room and sees that he’s lost his audience. Many of them are openly talking with one another. As he listens he can even hear a few distant snores echoing off the auditorium walls. Slowly he walks off the stage, wondering what has come to the world today that everyone has forgotten that “the importance of Torah study [is] the foundation of Jewish life. God created the world on condition that the people of Israel would study Torah and fulfill its commandments.” Didn’t Rabbi Yehudah teach that “There are twelve hours in a day, three hours of which the Holy One, blessed be He, is occupied with the Torah” (Tractate Avoda Zara 3b)? What is wrong with these people?

David steps on stage and passes John saying, without a hint of irony, “That was a great retelling, thanks for warming them up.” He proceeds to the podium and clicks a button on his laptop. Soon the auditorium is filled with music. Many different voices sing the Lekh Lekha with a medieval hint that slowly wakes the crowd to hints of sex, fire, blood, bonfires and destruction. With another click he plays a rough mix of New Wave and Jazz themes with hints of Fiddler On the Roof as people begin to tap their feet without realizing it. Eyes begin to open and focus as David begins to grab their attention and Blackberries are pocketed.

With music continuing to play softly in the background David tells the same story John told just minutes before. He asks the audience, “How do you face the impossible?” David continues to describe the lessons of the Midrash from Genesis Rabbah 45,7 where Hagar see’s not one or two but five different angels, and how she thinks nothing of seeing what very few people ever see because she was a member of Abraham’s household, and so she was used to seeing them. David continues to share his own story about how he is often asked to find unique solutions that no one has come up with before. He is tasked to come up with the impossible solutions and make them a reality.

David then pulls out a book, Sarah by Orson Scott Card, and asks the audience, “What if Hagar was a self-absorbed woman who vied for Sarah’s position in Abraham’s household? Why is such a selfish woman given such an honor as bearing the child of nations while each one of you in this room receives nothing?” David then shows Rembrandt’s “Dismissal of Hagar” and talks about Hagar’s involvement in the ten trials of Abraham and how Rembrandt’s depiction shows this trial. David continues to bring out different sources of information about Hagar, painting a picture of a woman with the same flaws and selfishness that everyone else in the room shares.

John stands amazed at the way David both captured the audience and made the Torah apply to their lives. As David walks off the stage John just has to know where David got some of his ideas and how he was able to keep the group interested, at which point David promises to have lunch with John and talk through everything.


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