One Friday evening on Parshat Noach, our rabbi got up to speak. He chose to discuss the episode of the Tower of Bavel. He began by saying that he had read those nine verses so many times yet only this year had he finally understood it, i.e. God had previously declared that humanity should “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Yet the people of Shinar built the tower “so that they will not be scattered across the face of the earth” (ibid 11:4). They tried to thwart God’s will.
Unfortunately, my rabbi did not deal with the more obvious question he posed, how through his many years dedicated to scholarship, he missed such a blatant point. I decided to tell him why (after the service, of course).
The answer begins with my children’s Bible education. Every Friday night I discuss the parshat hashavua with them. I usually find it frustrating. Did my children (the oldest is 8) really have to be told that the Tower of Bavel was built in order to plug a hole in the sky to stop another flood? Did they really need to be told that Yitschak went willingly to the Akeida or that Sarah died after Satan told her that Avraham was about to or even had already sacrificed him? Was it so vital to the story that that they had to be told that Rivka was three years old when she married Yitzchak? Was it so essential to the storyline that they needed to be told that Pharaoh’s daughter’s arm expanded rapidly in length when she reached into the Nile to pick up baby Moshe? Was it so indispensable to the plot that they had to be told that there was only one frog and that each time the Egyptians hit it, it split up into many frogs? Etc.
Is the Chumash so boring that our teachers are forced to resort to midrash to “spice it up” or is it that they enjoy ridiculing it, so that the stories sound more like fairy tales rather than serious religious inquiry? Or perhaps, even more frighteningly, do they not really know how to teach Chumash?
While some Midrashim are cute, such as Avraham’s experiences in his father’s idol shop, most damage our ability (even as adults) to look at the text impartially (some even damage our respect for the text – but that’s another story!!).
My rabbi, whose scholarship and breadth of knowledge I respect, couldn’t see the obvious because whenever he read the story he couldn’t get out of his head the image of Nimrod climbing up a tall tower with an outstretched sword ready to ascend the heavens and engage God in combat.
I have no desire to mock Midrash. As someone who studied it in university, I really do appreciate its beauty and depth, but we must never forget that a Midrash is what it claims to be: “drash” and not “pshat”. Before we even begin to teach our children “drash” let’s first try to teach them “pshat”.