It has been observed that high quality drash has become a lost art. One step away from the meaning of the actual text, some make the mistake of thinking this discipline comes with no rules at all..
Minimally, drash has to relate to a real issue in the text. As opposed to peshat, it need not answer a question that must be resolved to understand the text. But neither can it be whimsical or based on a faulty understanding of grammar, context or realia. In that sense, its starting point is not so far removed from peshat, if perhaps somewhat less rigorous. The big difference between peshat and drash is not so much in the questions asked as much as in the type of answers given. Whereas peshat has to relate to the context, drash can put forth that a textual anomaly is meant to remind us or enlighten us about a concept that is not immediately relevant to the discussion at hand. Moreover, for an interpretation to qualify as a good drash, it must present an insightful idea that is somehow enhanced by the original text.
But rather than speak in the abstract, one of the best ways to learn about drash is to observe how it is done by one its masters– R. Ephraim of Luntschitz, better known by the name of his commentary, Kli Yakar. While most of the commentators included in the Mikraot Gedolot operate primarily on the peshat level, he is one of the few more concerned with drash. (Mossad HaRav Kook’s decision to remove him in their Torat Chaim edition is hence a pity, as his inclusion provides us with access to this important aspect of Torah.)
After presenting the laws of the sin-offering, this week’s parsha adds tangential details about – among other things – what must be done with different cooking vessels that absorb flavor from the meat from an offering (kodshim). While these details are not really out of place, Kli Yakar points out that is not the only (nor even the first) place where the Torah could have mentioned the,. Since this is not a question that compels an answer, it can be – and is – passed over by the peshat-level commentator. But the darshan goes further in this regard, assuming that it is not enough for the Torah’s flow to work. Rather, any juxtaposition of items that do not have to be juxtaposed should carry significance.
Based on that assumption, Kli Yakar finds a highly cogent and meaningful connection between atonement for sin (the purpose of this sacrifice) and the law, that while some vessels in which the meat is cooked need to be broken, others only require scalding and washing. He points out that sin works in much the same way, and that different sins affect different people in different ways. While this may first seem obvious, we are often fooled by the categorization of sin into thinking that if we perform a certain sin, it is the same is as if it was performed by anyone else. After all, we atone with the same type of sacrifice (or whatever formal laws pertain to its atonement).
So here is where the laws of absorption come in – both metal and clay absorb the same sin (offering), and yet what happens to them below the surface is radically different. The reason for that difference is based on the consistency of these vessels. So too, says Kli Yakar, does the effect of sin on us depend on who we are. Are we porous, such that we identify with the sin; or are we more resistant, so that its influence is more easily exorcised?
But Kli Yakar takes this a step deeper. After identifying the nature of the relationship between the sin and ourselves, we must know what to do about it: Apparently, the formal aspect of atonement is not enough. For some, the identification with the sin is so great, that it requires breaking (in order to start over). That person’s already tenuous spiritual makeup is so thoroughly infected by the sin that he or she must begin the road to radical transformation. Such a process requires the emotional upheaval often referred to as the breaking of the heart. For others, however, doing so would be a misreading of the situation and potentially harmful. While such a person also requires expiation of the sin, it does not require radical transformation (“ke’bolao kach polto”).
While this just gets back to the centrality of self-knowledge, it provides us with an important teaching about how it relates to sin. It may not be peshat, but neither is it a flight of fancy divorced from the text. Hence we have a brief illustration of why drash is an aspect of Torah that we can neither afford to corrupt or lose!