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Shortchanging Our Children By Teaching Midrashim Literally


Red Sea splitting

Red Sea splitting
Photo Credit: Chabad.org

As part of the high school entrance interview, I often challenge incoming students with questions that contrast the p’shat of a Chumash story with its midrashic counterpart. The reaction is always the same – the student looks at me with an expression akin to that of a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck.

The other day, the student was an eager young lady named Leah. I asked her the following question: If you were able to go back in time to the moment when Paroh’s daughter saw baby Moshe in his basket, what would you see? Would you see Paroh’s daughter requesting her maidservant to fetch the basket as the pasuk tells us, or would you see her arm grow 25 feet long like Mister Fantastic and rope in the basket as the Midrash says?

I felt at that moment as if I had asked Leah to choose between her two parents at a divorce proceeding. She knew that the Torah was an authority and correct and the Midrash was an authority and correct. But her mind was telling her that both versions could not possibly be simultaneously true. Understandably, she was frozen and unable to respond.

Leah was educated in a yeshiva day school. The vast majority of children from the current yeshiva system believe all midrashim are part of the literal account of the events that occurred in the Tanach.

Fast forward to an anthropology class at Queens College. The professor is discussing ancient Egypt. He mentions a legend among the Jews about the daughter of Pharaoh stretching her arm out to retrieve baby Moses. Leah raises her hand. She says that it was a miracle and that the daughter of Paroh had her arm stretched out to save Moshe.

Suddenly, all 53 members of her class turn to her and stare. Her face turns crimson. The professor asks her, “Do you believe that actually happened?” Leah feels the temperature rising. She knows that her beliefs are under attack, and that she has been publicly put on the spot. She desperately wants to explain the Torah position in a cogent way and yet she finds that despite 15 years of yeshiva education, she is unable to do so.

What is the Torah position on midrashim?

The Rambam, in his commentary to Perek Chelek (10th chapter of Sanhedrin) says unequivocally that midrashim are not to be taken literally, but are a source of deep wisdom.

The great mikubal the Ramchal, in his Introduction to Aggadah (found in most editions of the Ein Yaakov) states that midrashim are a source of deep and abstract ideas and not to be taken literally.

The Ra’avad, in his commentary on the Mishne Torah (Hil. Teshuva ch. 3), states that taking the midrashim literally distorts ones principles of belief “mishabshos es ha’deos”).

Sadly, this is case with our children. They have been taught midrashim as fairy tales. The effects are disastrous.

I explained to Leah that the Torah’s account is what truly occurred in space and time. The Midrash is there to point to the story behind the story. In my opinion, the story of the seemingly miraculous extension of Paroh’s daughter’s arm is directing us to consider the great difficulty she must have faced saving the life of a Jewish baby.

Imagine a modern-day Paroh – a Hitler or a Stalin, or even a Saddam Hussein. How likely would it be for the daughter of such a singularly evil dictator to defy her father’s murderous intentions? The actions of Paroh’s daughter required her to go against her upbringing and the dictates of her father. This would of necessity create tremendous conflict for any young woman, but particularly for one in her position of prominence in Egyptian society.

The Written Torah’s typically spare prose seems to gloss over this conflict. But the Midrash points to it, and if used properly the story makes us stop and examine her motivations. The metaphor of her extended arm is an expression of God’s directing the actions of Paroh’s daughter. The rabbis are teaching us that her emotional shift toward feeling protective of this baby is as much of a miracle as if God had extended her arm 25 feet.

Leah felt as if a load had been removed from shoulders. At age 14, she was taught – for the first time – the relationship between the Torah and the midrashim. It is my firm belief that all teachers should only teach a Midrash if it helps students discover a deeper message.

Rabbi Simcha and Chaya Feuerman, in a Jewish Press column a couple of years ago titled “Teaching Midrashim to Children” (which is included in the Feuermans’ book Direction: Finding Your Way in Relationships, Parenting & Personal Growth), suggest using the notion of seeking a “moral of the story” for presenting the idea of a deeper meaning to midrashim to children. Here is a good example:

Consider the Midrash which contains a strange twist to the plague of Frogs.

The verse (Shemos 8:2) states: “And the frog went up and covered all of Egypt.” The text uses the singular form when referring to the frogs. Of course, the simple explanation (poshut peshat) is that in Hebrew as in many languages, an entire group or species is labeled in the singular form. However, the Midrash derives from this choice of words that actually one frog rose out of the Nile. However, each and every time an Egyptian tried to hit the frog, instead of it being squashed and killed, it split into several new frogs. Thus, as the frogs began to jump all over, and Egyptians encountered and hit them, the plague grew worse and worse. (See Rashi, Op. Cit.)

To our thinking, there is no question that any classroom of children, encouraged to ponder what the real lesson behind this Midrash is, would draw powerful insights into the nature of problems and how people get further into them. The inescapable lesson of this Midrash is that when you try to stubbornly and pig-headedly fight a problem, as the Egyptians did, instead of thinking about what has gone wrong you will end up panicking and making things far worse. The more the Egyptians fought the frogs, the worse it got. Who among us in life has not panicked and made a situation far worse instead of staying calm and using problem-solving skills?

As our children enter the 21st century and its scientific mindset, it is obligatory for all educators to ensure that our children see the Torah in its most sophisticated light.

About the Author: Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal is director of the Executive Learning Program at the Manhattan Jewish Experience (www.jewishexperience.org), a cutting-edge outreach program serving young people.


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10 Responses to “Shortchanging Our Children By Teaching Midrashim Literally”

  1. I agree with Rabbi Pinchas. There is a two sided problem though…those who are taught and believe the midrashim are literal accounts…and those who exclude all midrashim with a roll of the eyes and “that’s just medrash!” as in “that’s worthless, a waste of time, too stupid for me.”

  2. Rabbi Rosenthal that is.

  3. Gene Strong says:

    English please.

  4. Gadi D says:

    I was with him till his anthropology class example, which demonstrates why his is also a bad approach. Bowing to peer pressure or academic disdain over matters of belief is contrary to Jewish tradition. What if the professor had used kriyat yam suf as his example of a legend of the Jews and “Leah” had said the exact same thing about it being a miracle? What if her professor then asked her if she really believed that and her fellow students stared at her like they did in Rabbi Rosenthal’s anecdote?

  5. Bryan Baruch says:

    They’re turning them into little morons, like fundamentalist christians. It’s disgusting.

  6. Gadi D says:

    A better approach would be to teach the textual anchor for such midrashim along with the lessons to be learned from them, but also instill a firm foundation of faith that does not discount the possibility of the miraculous. What Leah could have said in her entrance interview when she was unfairly challenged by Rabbi Rosenthal, was that this is the subject of a debate between two tanaim and that indeed it would be interesting to see which one was right. A good teacher would have explained that this machloket exists and that we can learn lessons from both positions.

  7. Gadi D says:

    And I wonder what Rabbi Rosenthal would have done if he were in the anthropology class and was asked about the “legend” having to do with the frogs in Egypt. He discredits the midrashic version of there being one frog that kept splitting, and that’s fine. But does he not realize that the anthropology professor in his example would likely find the very concept of the plague of frogs to be no more than a folk tale as well? His approach does not give “Leah” adequate tools to defend her beliefs at all.

  8. ArtScroll’s “translation” of the Song of Songs is based on the midrash. The literal translation is on the bottom of the page in tiny type.

  9. Jesse Long says:

    Why is fundamentalist Christianity disgusting, Bryan Baruch? Furthermore, why should we even TRUST a guy like you with an avatar of Boris Badenoff, anyway?

  10. Bryan Baruch says:

    It doesn’t even merit a reply.

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