Derash and Peshat: Examples

Example 1: "They (the Hebrews) came to Marah, but could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, 'What shall we drink?' -- Exodus 15:23.

Derash: "That generation of Hebrews was bitter in its deeds" (R. Levi in Exodus Rabbah).

Peshat: "R. Levi certainly did not intend this to be understood as the meaning of the verse, since the continuation "And he threw it into the waters and the waters became sweet" (ibid., 25) shows that it was the waters which had been bitter."

Reconciliation: But the concept expressed in the words of R. Levi may indeed be the simple sense of the episode. The external cause for complaint was indeed the bitterness of the water, but the deeper, truer reason was the people's own bitterness. If the waters had not been bitter, the people would surely have found another reason for complaint, as they indeed did later on. Excuses for complaining about life are not lacking even under normal living conditions, a fortiori in the desert.

Example 2: 'And he sent him (Joseph) from the Valley (emek) of Hevron (Gen. 37:14)'

Peshat Problem: And is not Hevron situated exclusively in hill-country, and you say 'from the Valley of Hevron'?

Derash: R. Aha said, 'He went to fulfill the deep (amukah) purpose which the Holy One Blessed be He imparted to the good friend (haver na 'eh; pun on Hevron) who is buried in Hevron, 'And they shall serve them and afflict them (Gen. 15:13).'

This is not, of course, the simple sense of the verse, but there is no doubt that the thought expressed in the midrash that the dispatch of Yosef, his sale, and all the adventures of Yaakov's sons until they descended to Egypt, which appear on superficial reading to be the result of accidental human actions, are but links in the divine plan to bring the Children of Israel down to Egypt. Indeed, the idea is stated explicitly by Yosef later (45:8), and is hinted at several times in the course of the story.47Hazal found support for this basic idea in the "change of expression" in this verse ("valley" for "mountain"). Anyone who considers this midrash to be a simple sense interpretation of the words "And he sent him from the Valley of Hevron" sins against biblical style, and probably attributes to Hazal thoughts which never occurred to them. On the other hand, whoever ignores the words of the midrash for the sole reason that they do not reflect the simple sense of the text, sins against himself (and his students) by deliberately overlooking an idea important to the understanding of the section and its significance.

Source: Yeshayahu Maori, The Approach of Classic Jewish Exegetes to Peshat and Derash

Example 3: "Therefore, say to the Israelite people: I am God. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and I will give it to you for a possession - I am God. . . Moshe told this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to Moshe out of their crushed spirits and difficult labor." " (Exodus 6:6-9)

Biblical problem: To what do the people fail to listen? What response might or might not be asked of them?

Midrashic solution from Midrash Ha-gadol: "This is what Moshe told the Israelites: Circumcise your foreskin, withdraw from the paganism of Egypt, purify yourselves, and accept the Torah. They said to him, do you ever find a slave who acquires for himself two masters? Behold, we are servants to Pharaoh; how can we violate his decrees? We are scared!" Thus, God's message as conveyed by Moshe called upon Benei Yisrael to abandon their idolatry and return to the belief in, and service of, the one, true God.

Yet another problem: where in this prophecy do we find any allusion to such an order? A review of God's promise transmitted to Moshe reveals that it is just that - a promise, without any accompanying demands.

Derash: The answer seemingly lies in the expression that both begins and ends this prophecy: "Ani Hashem" - I am God. Very often, the use of a term at both the introduction and conclusion of a given unit of text points to the central theme - or at least a central theme - of that unit. Applying this principle to the opening section of our parasha, "Ani Hashem" defines the primary message Moshe is to convey to the people: accept the oneness of God.

Peshat: "They did not listen to Moshe" does not mean that the people disobeyed an order. Rather, as Rashi explains, "They did not accept consolation." Just as Yaakov resisted the efforts of his children to console him after learning of Yosef's alleged death (Bereishit 37:35), so do the pressures and torment of slavery prevent Moshe's comforting words to reach the hearts of his audience. Whereas the people responded with enthusiasm to his initial address to them, as recorded in Parashat Shemot (4:31), the added hardship that resulted from Moshe's meeting with Pharaoh engendered a sense of frustration and skepticism among the people. This time, Moshe's promises of redemption meet upon deaf ears. Elsewhere is his writings (Sefer Ha-pardes; Siddur Rashi), Rashi derives from this incident a general piece of advice as to how to express consolation: one must offer encouragement with modest, realistic hopes for the future. An embittered soul cannot accept promises of glory and ecstasy; he can at best hope for an improvement of his current condition. Overwhelmed by the horrors of slavery, Benei Yisrael cannot accept Moshe's guarantee of total freedom and an independent state in their ancestral homeland. Rather than a charge and order to the people, "Ani Hashem" may reinforce the message of hope Moshe here conveys.

Example 4: "For that night I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt, I am God. And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt" (Exodus 12:12-13).

Biblical problem: As this offering has earned the title, "pesach," generally translated as "pass over," we may assume that its primary function was to ensure that God would pass over the Israelites' homes, rather than including them in the deadly plague. Somehow, the sacrificial blood saved Benei Yisrael from the destroyer. How?

Derash: as Benei Yisrael had previously disregarded the command to repent, they must now, once and for all, demonstrate their loyalty to God before realizing their freedom. They must therefore slaughter a sheep, the Egyptian deity, thereby exhibiting their resolute rejection of Egyptian paganism. The blood on the door post would thus signify the merit of their repentance which would protect them from the plague. Having themselves worshipped idols, the Hebrew slaves are themselves liable for divine punishment. They protect themselves by actively disavowing their pagan beliefs.

Peshat: Avraham Ibn Ezra, adopts such an approach (in his "peirush ha-arokh"). Commenting on 12:7, Ibn Ezra cites and rejects the view that the paschal ritual involves the public renunciation of Egyptian theology. He writes that, quite simply, the blood serves as a sign to the destroyer which would protect the Israelites inside the home. It bears no symbolic significance beyond its basic function of keeping the plague away. The Ibn Ezra does not fully explain why Benei Yisrael need protection or how the blood provides it, but the Seforno (Italy, 15th century) alludes to a possible explanation. He draws a parallel between the Exodus from Egypt and the rescue of Lot, Avraham's nephew, from the destruction of Sedom (Bereishit 19). Just as Lot had to flee the city, lest he be "destroyed by the city's iniquity" (Bereishit 19:15), so do the Israelites face the threat of death at the hands of plague in Egypt. When a plague of destruction is unleashed against a given region, even the righteous - such as Lot - are at risk; they must therefore leave the condemned area and thereby escape devastation. The paschal ritual thus serves as the means by which Benei Yisrael isolate themselves from the rest of Egypt. The blood on the door post does not reflect any spiritual rehabilitation, but rather, as the verse states, it constitutes a "sign" designating the home as "off limits" to the plague.

One may wish to raise a basic objection to this approach: if the paschal offering is necessary merely to isolate Benei Yisrael, why does God not have them leave before the plague? Would it not have been simpler for them to flee from the country before the arrival of the destroyer?

Whereas the peshat reading portrays the Exodus as an unconditional fulfillment of the Almighty's promise to the patriarchs, the Midrash focuses on the ultimate purpose it serves. God redeemed His people because they, the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, are the nation that represents Him to the rest of mankind. Just as the Almighty remains loyal to His side of the covenant, so must Benei Yisrael perpetuate the legacy of the patriarchs and demonstrate their loyalty to their religious heritage.

Source: R. David Silberberg on the Exodus