Martin Lockshin, a pre-eminent scholar of Rashbam, writes in his introduction to Rashbam’s commentary on Exodus:
“Rashbam, like a modern university reader of a text, searched out and found meanings in the Bible that were often prosaic and not particularly uplifting or relevant to the lives of his contemporaries. His primary purpose (unlike the purpose of most religious Jews and Christians who have written or who write today about the Bible) was not to make the Bible speak to his generation. Rather, his purpose was to let the Bible speak, as much as possible, with its own voice.”
I love how Dr. Lockshin gently pokes fun at himself and academic Torah study – “prosaic and not particularly uplifting or relevant.” This raises for me the question of what it means for us to study Torah. What are we hoping to accomplish? What “rules of the game” are fair, and what tactics are out of bounds? Can we bridge the gap between our era and the time of the Torah? Between our context and Rashbam’s time and place in 12th century France?
These are bigger questions than I can answer in this particular blog post, but it’s worth sharing one of my core assumptions in studying Torah and her interpreters. Torah means teaching or instruction, and it does contain wisdom for us. If I don’t immediately see it, that does not indicate failure, only a need for patience and a different strategy of reading. What I love about the depth and variety of interpreters, ranging from the creative approaches of midrash to the strictly close reading of Rashbam, is that I get unstuck from holding too tightly to one particular strategy. There are seventy faces of Torah, as the teaching goes; there is more than one way to uncover truth, beauty, and wisdom in our central text.
With regard to Rashbam, in particular, I take Dr. Lockshin’s statement as a challenge. Rashbam himself mentions from time to time the omek peshuto shel mikra, the profound plain meaning. Literally it translates to “the depth of the surface meaning,” which is a bit paradoxical but points to the helpful or meaningful message that I hope to draw out in each post on Rashbam’s commentary (no matter how prosaic the comment).
Luckily, this week in Parshat Shemot we have a pretty interesting comment on Exodus 1:7. The verse describes the Israelites’ population growth in Egypt after Joseph and his generation die:
“But the Israelites were fertile (paru) and prolific (vayishr’tzu); they multiplied (vayirbu) and increased (vaya’tzmu) very greatly (bimeod meod), so that the land was filled (vatimalei) with them.”
These six Hebrew terms seem somewhat redundant. If the point was that they grew in number, it could have said so once and gotten the message across. The midrashic tradition suggests that because six terms are used here, we are to understand that the Israelite women all gave birth to sextuplets. Rashbam rejects this connection between sentence structure and sextuplets, but he does have to account for the expansive language and the text’s later description of remarkable population growth. He sees the different terms in Ex. 1:7 as indicating normal births, but abnormal success rates at the different stages of childbirth and child-rearing. Here’s his interpretation (translation adapted from Martin Lockshin):
“Fertile (paru) – with regard to conception.
Prolific (vayishr’tzu) – in birth, that the womb did not abort. Small creatures are generally referred to as sheretz, things that crawl on the ground.
Multiplied (vayirbu) – means that they grew. The small ones grew up; they did not die young.
Increased (vaya’tzmu) – means that they did not die when they became adults. Rather they lived long and became so very very (meod meod) strong that the land was filled (vatimalei) with them.”
Rashbam successfully makes each term relevant rather than redundant by assigning them to the various stages, from conception to birth, from childhood to adulthood, with each stage being miraculously successful across the whole Israelite population. This is how the population grew so quickly.
What omek, depth, can we draw out from this comment? First, every step matters.
Miracles don’t always mean strange occurrences, but can refer to a lack of things going wrong. Knowing that we rarely have control over every aspect of our endeavors, what steps in your practices, projects, and relationships could benefit from attention right now? What small changes might you make that could result in outsized success?
Second, sometimes verses that seem over-the-top or confusing might end up providing a pathway when reading closely. Our minds naturally work to distinguish, prioritize, and categorize information. What happens if you assume that one sentence (whether of Torah, or poetry, or a sequence of billboards on the way to work) contains sacred guidance? What message do you discern? What do you learn about what you are hoping to see, fearing to see, or naturally inclined to see?
For more on Rashbam, you can read my introductory post here.