Wednesday, January 21, 2009

One Rock, Many Sparks

This week's Torah portion begins with God speaking to Moses, but the Hebrew for "speaking" is slightly unusual. In trying to explain why the Torah uses this wording, the great commentator Rashi retells a somewhat lengthy midrash (a rabbinic story about the Torah). But after telling it, Rashi then proceeds to explain, in some detail, why this midrash can't possibly be accurate. He even goes so far as to imply that to accept this midrash, you must distort the plain meaning of the original text. For Rashi, who is usually incredibly concise*, this is a strange combination—lots of time retelling the story, followed by even more time tearing that story down. Why bother? Why not skip the entire thing?

*Back when every book was handwritten, it really paid to be concise and deliberate with your words. Kind of the exact opposite of blogging...

The reason is found in the conclusion of his comment. He says "Let the midrash be told anyway, as it says, 'Behold, my word is like fire – declares Adonai – and like a hammer that shatters rock!' (Jer 23:29) – interpreting a verse is like a hammer striking rock: it creates many sparks."

Rashi, like all the great sages, is willing to learn from any source, even one with which he disagrees. The fact that he finds the midrash to be deeply flawed doesn't make it useless. It is one of the sparks created from "striking" this verse. It remains a source of teaching and inspiration, even though he rejects it on some level.

I know I've got pluralism on the brain of late (as I've mentioned, I've been reading "You Don't Have to Be Wrong For Me to Be Right") so forgive me for being repetitive, but how much more interesting, and how much more peaceful, would our world be if we would all acknowledge that there is at least a spark of truth in most of the ideas with which we disagree? Imagine listening to someone expressing an idea completely contrary to your own beliefs, and instead of mustering all of your valid arguments against them, asking yourself "what can I learn from this person? What can I learn from their views?"

In Pirkei Avot, the rabbis ask, "who is wise?" And they answer, "one who learns from every person."

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