Vayikra Rabbah 30:12 – Identity vs. Actions

There is an oft-quoted midrash that most people are familiar with about how the four species, one of Sukkot’s most notable mitsvot, correspond to four different types of people found in the nation of Israel. This midrash is often quoted to talk about the value of diversity or how ever Jew has a place within Judaism, ideas that are important, to be sure, but ones that I think miss the power of how the midrash follows up the typology of Israelite-flora correspondences. Below is the text of the midrash and an English translation,[1] after which I will examine some of the neglected lines, without pretending to exhaust the meaning of this midrash.

דבר אחר: פרי עץ הדר, אלו ישראל. מה אתרוג זה, יש בו טעם ויש בו ריח. כך ישראל, יש בהם בני אדם, שיש בהם תורה, ויש בהם מעשים טובים. כפות תמרים, אלו ישראל. מה התמרה הזו, יש בו טעם ואין בו ריח. כך הם ישראל, יש בהם שיש בהם תורה ואין בהם מעשים טובים. וענף עץ עבות, אלו ישראל. מה הדס, יש בו ריח ואין בו טעם.כך ישראל, יש בהם שיש בהם מעשים טובים ואין בהם תורה. וערבי נחל, אלו ישראל. מה ערבה זו, אין בה טעם ואין בה ריח. כך הם ישראל, יש בהם בני אדם שאין בהם לא תורה ולא מעשים טובים. ומה הקב”ה עושה להם? לאבדן אי אפשר, אלא אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא יוקשרו כולם אגודה אחת, והן מכפרין אלו על אלו, ואם עשיתם כך אותה שעה אני מתעלה, הדא הוא דכתיב (עמוס ט): הבונה בשמים מעלותיו. ואימתי הוא מתעלה? כשהן עשויין אגודה אחת, שנאמר (שם): ואגודתו על ארץ יסדה. לפיכך משה מזהיר לישראל: ולקחתם לכם ביום הראשון:

Another explanation: “The fruit of a beautiful tree” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this citron (etrog), which has taste and has smell, so too Israel has among them people that have Torah and have good deeds. “The branches of a date palm” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this date, which has taste and has no smell, so too Israel has among them those that have Torah but do not have good deeds. “And a branch of a braided tree (a myrtle)” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this myrtle, which has smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them those that have good deeds but do not have Torah. “And brook willows” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds. And what does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said “bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those.” And if you will have done that, I will be elevated at that time. This is [the meaning of] what is written (Amos 9:6), “He Who built the upper chambers in the heavens” (indicating his elevation). And when is He elevated? When they make one grouping, as it is stated (Ibid.), “and established His grouping on the earth.” Hence Moshe warned Israel, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day.”

The majority of the text of the midrash is taken up by laying out the correspondences one after the other. After the midrash gets to the last correspondence, however, it does not simply move on.

“And brook willows” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds. And what does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said “bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those.”

Faced with a category of Jews who do not have any meritorious actions, ritual or ethical, to their name, the midrash asks what God should do with such people. It raises the possibility that they should be destroyed by way of rejecting the possibility, in favor of proposing that national unity can enable “these” to “atone for those.”

The first point of note here is that the midrash is asking what should be done with such people. The question implies that the whole description of the various types of Jews isn’t just an exercise in description, or in midrashic creativity. There is a sense that some sort of Divine judgment[2] is at work, and this group of Jews have no merit that should enable them to survive. Presumably this is working off the way Sukkot comes hot on the heels of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, traditionally understood as a time of Divine judgment and forgiveness.

What’s interesting is that it is inconceivable that God would destroy this section of the Jewish people. Given that fact, God has to then justify their survival, which he does by way prescribing national unity. This national unity does more than simply justify their survival, however; it actually atones for these Jews.[3]

This is an important turn in the midrash. Just a few lines before, these Jews had not a single merit on their side, to the point where their survival of Divine judgment had to be justified by God himself. Now they have been atoned for.[4] They are now worthy to survive in and of themselves.

This leads to a different conception of Divine judgment than what the midrash started out with. The initial standard of evaluation used by the midrash was based on people’s actions, ritual and ethical, and to receive a positive evaluation was to have performed positive ritual or ethical actions. Now, however,  the midrash is suggesting that identity is an important factor in Divine evaluation. A Jew can be deemed meritorious not by virtue of actions they have performed, but by virtue of being part of the Jewish people.

“Being part of the Jewish people” is something of an ambiguous idea. It might just mean identifying as a Jew, without any external actions attached to that. Or it might mean that you have to express this identity in some way, likely in your relationship to your Jews. However, given that the midrash says they Jews don’t have any ethical or ritual actions to their merit, it seems likely that this national unity is just a function of internal identity. We thus emerge from the typological correspondences of the midrash with a standard of evaluation where, in order to survive Divine Judgment, you have to either have performed certain actions, or simply possess the identify as a part of the Jewish nation.

This unity of national identity is articulated not just as an ideal state by which to survive judgment, but as an instruction from God to the Jews to unite in order to make sure even the most marginalized survive judgment. To paraphrase, the Jews who have acted righteously are essentially told, “You want to save the rest of the Jews? Help them feel Jewish.” Importantly, they are not told to help the other Jews perform more mitsvot or to do more good in the world. That would potentially be a solution, moving the Jews of the fourth category, the “willow Jews,” into the previous floral categories But God, according to the midrash, does not take that route; God does not turn to what we typically think of as “kiruv.” It seems to be less important to God, at least for the purposes of the present Divine judgment, that the Jews perform ritual and ethical actions than that they identify as Jewish. The next line of the midrash takes it beyond just the practical needs of the present judgment, however.

And if you will have done that, I will be elevated at that time. This is [the meaning of] what is written (Amos 9:6), “He Who built the upper chambers in the heavens” (indicating his elevation). And when is He elevated? When they make one grouping, as it is stated (Ibid.), “and established His grouping on the earth.”

The unity of the Jews leads to the elevation of God. The identifying of all of the Jews as Jewish, more even than their performance of mitsvot, leads to the elevation of God. This unity is not just a practical move in order to help the Jews survive judgment; it is a goal unto itself. It might be argued that it is the survival of the Jews in judgment that elevates God, but the midrash preempts that argument by using a verse from Amos to explicitly link God’s elevation to Israel’s unity. It is thus the very fact of the Jews’ collective existence and identity that elevates God.

This may serve as an explanation for why God cannot destroy the meritless among the Jewish people. The midrash posits an inherent connection between the elevation of God (whatever that means) and the national body of the Jewish people. So destroying Jews, even just a small part of the larger collective, goes against God’s elevation.

This also leads to a sharp conclusion: It is more important that the Jews exist as a collective group with a shared identity than that Jews should perform specific actions. While this might seem strange to some, it is well grounded in an important idea from Tanakh. This is the idea that God sometimes saves the Israelite nation for the sake of God’s name.[5] God is connected to the bodily existence of the Jewish nation (a relationship of elevation, according to our midrash) so it’s destruction is something God has an active interest in avoiding. Thus even when the Israelites are sinning, to the point where they would merit destruction, God may still avert this destruction for the sake of God’s Name. This midrash can thus be seen as extending this idea to a new and exciting conclusion: it is not just the national collective that God is interested in saving for the sake of God’s name, but also individual Jews, meritorious or not.

 

Hence Moshe warned Israel, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day.”

The midrash then funnels all of this theological momentum into the mitsvah of of the four species. The mitsvah is a reminder of the importance of Jewish identity. Regardless of the importance of what actions we do or not perform, the essential point is that we identify as part of the Jewish nation.

 

[1] Hebrew text and translation from http://www.sefaria.org/Vayikra_Rabbah.30.12?lang=bi&with=Amos&lang2=en.

[2] Judgment in this article should be understood as shorthand for judgment of the Jews specifically.

[3] Due the the midrash’s use of inherently vague pronouns, it is possible to understand the midrash is suggesting that each type of Jew atones for some lack in all the others, and perhaps even that God has to justify not destroying all of different types of Jews. I find such a reading unlikely and forced, however, but rejecting that specific reading goes beyond the scope of this article.

[4] Notably, “atonement” usually has to do with removal of actual sin rather than a lack of merit. The midrash seems to assume that people who lack merit are inherently sinful, or are for sure also sinning, or something to that effect. Examining this understanding of merit and human nature would be an intriguing topic for a different composition.

[5] I have written about this theme in this essay.

Rabbinic Readings – Yael Ziegler’s Ruth

Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy” is the fourth of Maggid Books’ new Tanakh series, Maggid Studies in Tanakh. Written by Dr. Yael Ziegler, Ruth explores the biblical book of Rut, also known as Megillat Rut, from what the author terms a “literary-theological” perspective. The book focuses primarily on three things: (1) the ways in which Megillat Rut responds to and attempts to rectify Sefer Shoftim; (2) the purpose of Megillat Rut, particularly as it relates to interpersonal ethics, kindness, and the establishment of the monarchy; (3) the way rabbinic literature expand on and respond to the biblical text of Megillat Rut. Throughout these explorations, Ruth is both unabashedly traditional and fervently academic, probably the most academic of Maggid’s Tanakh series thus far.

ziegler-ruth_final_2d_1_1Megillat Rut opens with the time-frame within which the book occurs. “And it was in the days of the judging of the judges” (Rut 1:1)[1]. Ziegler discusses the exact meaning of this extensively. She brings in a variety of midrashic opinions that attempt to narrow down exactly when in the several hundred years encompassed by the book of Shoftim the narrative of Megillat Rut is supposed to have occurred, analyzing these rabbinic texts to determine not just what textual cues they are based on but also what thematic elements they are drawing out of the biblical text. This thematic analysis combines with an extensive discussion of the book of Shoftim itself, in an attempt to determine what message about society Sefer Shoftim is trying to convey overall. Concluding that Shoftim depicts a society that is rife with alienation and anarchy,   where people are regarded as objects rather than subjects, Ziegler argues that Rut depicts the solution to, or reparation of, this society by depicting a narrative that moves from alienation to recognition, culminating in the creation of the Davidic line and, implicitly, the monarchy.

The entire purpose of Megillat Rut is to explain the lineage of the monarchy, to the provide the family tree of king David, at least according to one midrash Ziegler quotes. Another suggests that the purpose of the book is to teach about proper behavior, not in the realm of halakhah of but in the realm of interpersonal ethics. Rut, according to this midrash, should be read with an eye to acts of Ḥesed, lovingkindness, and the rewards received for those actions. Ziegler accepts both of these midrashim, arguing that Megillat Rut depicts a form of self-abnegating kindness that, while it might be too extreme for the average person in their daily lives, is absolutely necessary for a proper monarch. It is through acts of such extreme giving and openness to the Other, Ziegler argues, that Rut takes the characters, and the reader, from the leaderless period of the judges to the rising of the monarchy.

Ruth constantly quotes and references midrashim from across the entire span of rabbinic literature. Ziegler analyzes midrashim with an eye to two things, midrashic sensitivity to the biblical text and themes that the midrash is either drawing out of or introducing into the biblical text. The themes highlighted by a midrash can be used to illuminate a character or scene left somewhat sparse by the biblical text. Rabbinic texts also often identify anonymous or mysterious characters with more well-known figures, and analyzing their reasons for doing so can provide deep insights into the nuances of the biblical text. However, the plentitude of midrashim quoted in the book can also create a sense of separation from the biblical text. The reader of Ruth may occasionally feel that, while they know the relevant rabbinic literature quite well, they are somewhat unclear on, and disconnected from, the biblical text. This weakness could itself be a strength, however. The midrashic survey that constitutes much of Ziegler’s book could be an excellent introduction to midrashim more generally, guiding the reader through learning how to read and analyze midrashim.

Ruth is also in dialogue with contemporary academic commentaries on Rut. References to agreements and disagreements with scholarship show up throughout the text and footnotes of Ruth. Despite this, Ruth is not an academic text. In the introduction, subtitled “Methodology of Tanakh Study,” Ziegler explicitly steps out of academic discourse, stating a preference for reading Rut with an eye to contemporary theological relevance[2]. The introduction also gives the reader a broader historical context for Ruth, and for the “literary-theological” method employed therein, exploring the rise of literary criticism, its development within the Bible scholarship, and its adoption within traditional Jewish study of Tanakh. For this introduction alone, Ruth is a must for the Modern Orthodox reader of Tanakh, giving precious background for the tools and teachers that enrich our studying of the biblical text.

The academic engagement of the book goes beyond references and background, fundamentally shaping Ziegler’s methodology and discussion of the biblical text. Attention is paid to the literary effects of word choices and syntax. Parallels from across the entirety of Tanakh are brought to bear in interpreting the meaning of various passages. There are several excursuses on a variety of larger topics in the study of Tanakh, including type-scenes, oaths, and more. All of this is melded with a more traditional rabbinic approach, often showing how midrashim and rabbinic commentators were doing the same, or similar, things to what modern academic scholars to today.

Yael Ziegler’s Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy is an excellent study of the text of Megillat Rut, plumbing its linguistic depths, its purposes and goals, and its extensive rabbinic interpretation, all of which is conveyed in contemporary language, with clear intention that the moral and theological lessons gleaned should be applied by the reader in their own lives. It is also a great introduction to the basics of an academic, literary-critical, method of studying Tanakh. And most of all, Ruth demonstrates how the tradition and the modern, the rabbinic and the academic, can work so wonderfully together.

 

[1] Translation copied from the text used by Ziegler in “Ruth.”

[2] The irony of a methodological introduction that professes the larger book, and thus itself, not to be academic is hard to miss.