Midrash, Rashbam

Rashbam: Master of Midrash (Behaalotcha)

I am an unabashed fan of midrash. Each midrash is a mini-puzzle, provoking questions about the text of Torah, about the human condition, and about the spiritual values of attention and imagination. Midrash pays close attention to the biblical text, but in interpreting it often prizes leaps of imagination over grounded and rational understanding.

Rashbam, on the other hand, is known as a champion of peshat, the “plain-sense” approach to interpretation. If they were characters in college, midrash probably would be majoring in poetry and drama, while peshat would be pursuing forensics science, interested only in what the evidence can reveal, nothing more and nothing less.

Rashbam, testifying in the court of commentary, often derides the fanciful midrash as irrelevant to the actual meaning of Torah. While I have a lot of respect for his integrity, this has occasionally dimmed my delight in learning from him. So it was a great joy to discover in his commentary on this week’s Torah portion that he also enjoyed midrash, even if rarely approves of it in his particularly focused approach.

Martin Lockshin, my modern guide to Rashbam, writes: “Rashbam was not an anti-midrash crusader, interested only in peshat. His contemporaries saw him as an authority concerning midrashic method and asked him to explain difficult midrashim to them. His reputation as an expert on the meaning of midrash seems to have spread widely; even when he was visiting Paris, people asked his to explain a troubling text in the Sifre [a midrashic collection on Numbers].

Here is Rashbam’s lengthy explanation of this particular midrash, as translated by Martin Lockshin.

Numbers 11:35 THE PEOPLE TRAVELED FROM KIBROTH-HATTAAVAH TO HAZEROTH [AND THEY WERE IN HAZEROTH]: According to the plain meaning of Scripture, [the doubling here,] “the people traveled from Kibroth-Hattaavah to Hazeroth and they were in Hazeroth,” means that they were delayed [in Hazeroth] “until Miriam was readmitted” (Numbers 12:15). That is the reason for the lengthier forumlation here, “and they were in Hazeroth.”

The midrash aggadah in the Sifre, at the end of this Torah portion [which is connected to verse 12:16] says:

“Then the people traveled from Hazeroth and encamped in the wilderness of Paran.” But are there two places named Hazeroth that they traveled from the first and encamped at the second and then they traveled from the second and encamped at the first? (Sifre to Numbers 12:16)

My teachers were not sure how to explain this text. I was asked about it in Paris and I explained it in a sermon.

The midrash derived this idea [that the text implies more than one arrival at Hazeroth[ from the beginning of the section [i.e. from our verse], “the people traveled from Kibroth-hattaavah to Hazeroth and they were in Hazeroth.” On this verse the Sire wrote: “This was when Miriam was smitten with tzara’at (‘leprosy’).” The Sifre ultimately returned to and completed this theme when it dealt with the last verse of this section – “‘Then the people traveled from Hazeroth…’ But are there two places named Hazeroth…?”

A midrashic explanation of our verse is offered [by Sifre] because the verse does not say “the people traveled from Kibroth-hattaavah and they encamped at Hazeroth.” That is the way most of the travels and the encampments of the Israelites are described: “they traveled [from X] and they encamped [at Y].” Rather the wording “the people traveled from Kibroth-hattaavah to Hazeroth” [without saying “and they encamped at Hazeroth”] implies that the people [reached Hazeroth and did not stop; they] also traveled beyond Hazeroth. But after that [it says] “and they were in Hazeroth.” [That means] that they did an about-face while they were in Hazeroth.

[In other words, our verse tells us that the events of chapter 12 took place as the Israelites were leaving Hazeroth,] when the first three-tribe unit had already traveled beyond Hazeroth. [At that point,] when the Tabernacle had not yet been dismantled [and the Levites had, accordingly, not yet begun traveling,] Moses and Aaron and Miriam were still [in Hazeroth,] in the camp of the Levites. [That is when] God called to them suddenly (12:4) and Miriam was stricken with tzara’at (12:10). Then they [i.e. the lead tribes who had already left Hazeroth] returned to Hazeroth. After seven days, Miriam was cured of her leprosy. [At that point the text says (12:16),] “After that the people traveled from Hazeroth and encamped in the wilderness of Paran.”

This Rashbam rabbit-hole is not for the faint of heart. He and the midrash are addressing the problem of why Numbers 11:35 repeats that the Israelites arrived at Hazeroth. The language used is different than most of the other biblical reports on the journey segments, which tend to say they went from X and encamped at Y. Something unusual happened here. As the Israelite camp started to move, with the first three tribes advancing ahead, but before the middle section with the Levites set out, the story in Numbers 12 of Miriam and Aaron questioning Moses’ leadership occurs. Miriam has to stay outside of the camp for seven days, and so those first three tribes return back to Hazeroth.

If there’s one takeaway from reading Torah and midrashic commentary, it is that there is always more to the story than you think. An oddity in the language can reveal depth and nuance to the human drama unfolding on the page.

For more of my writing on midrash, check out these posts and my other website, MoreMidrash.

For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.