Parshas Shemos: Understanding Rashi's Use Of Midrash

Rashi’s commentary on the Torah is famously Midrash-heavy. To begin to get a better understanding of how, when, and why Rashi employs Midrash to explain a posuk we shall examine herein a few examples in Parshas Shemos1. We begin with the birth of Moshe…

Moshe & The Light

Shemos 2:2:

וַתַּ֥הַר הָאִשָּׁ֖ה וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֑ן וַתֵּ֤רֶא אֹתוֹ֙ כִּי־ט֣וֹב ה֔וּא וַֽתִּצְפְּנֵ֖הוּ שְׁלֹשָׁ֥ה יְרָחִֽים

And the woman conceived, and bore a son; and she saw him that he was good, and she hid him three months.

Rashi comments as follows:

Rashi on Shemos 2:2:

כי טוב הוא. כשנלד נתמלא הבית כלו אורה

She saw that he was good: When he was born the entire house was filled with light.

While a well-known comment of Rashi this certainly is, it seems to come entirely out of left field. For starters, where does Rashi get the idea that the house was filled with light? Where does such a notion even come from? It appears as if it was pulled entirely out of thin air. Further, what instigated Rashi to even comment on this posuk in the first place? What was wrong with the simple reading of the text that prompted Rashi positing a seemingly random, and not-textually-based Midrashic explanation?

Indeed, when approaching the Biblical text in combination with a commentary it is best to ponder whether or not we would have taken issue with the things the commentators do. If Rashi had not made a comment here, would we have been bothered by anything? Or would we have kept right on reading? It seems almost certainly the latter would have been the case. And yet Rashi put pen to paper here nonetheless.

Certainly, Rashi’s comment is for good reason. Rashi was no doubt bothered by the following: If the only reason that Moshe’s mother was moved to hide him was because he was “good” in her eyes, certainly all Jewish mothers would have been doing the same thing! Every newborn child is “good” in his mother’s eyes; following this logic, every Jewish newborn should have been hidden by his respective mother! Yet, it seems that only Moshe’s mother felt a compulsion to do this. One must conclude, then, as Rashi did, that there was something specifically unique about Moshe’s birth that signaled to his mother that he should be hidden.

All of this is conveyed in the words “and she saw that he was good”. Surely, now, it cannot just mean that she liked her child; there must be something else going on here conveyed in these words.

We now have a solid understanding of why Rashi felt bothered by this posuk in the first place, but from where does the Midrash Rashi quotes get the idea that the “something else” was that the house was filled with light?

The answer is actually simple enough: The Midrash is working off the classical interpretive tool of gezeira shavah, or, somewhat dubiously commonly translated to English, “word association”. This is to say, then, that the phrase “כִּי־טוֹב” appears elsewhere in the Torah, and its context can be extrapolated to here.

Bereishis 1:4:

וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָא֖וֹר כִּי־ט֑וֹב וַיַּבְדֵּ֣ל אֱלֹהִ֔ים בֵּ֥ין הָא֖וֹר וּבֵ֥ין הַחֹֽשֶׁךְ

And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.

The fact that the term “כִּי־טוֹב” is used in Bereishis in reference to light is the basis for the Midrashic interpretation that the same phrase “כִּי־טוֹב” in reference to Moshe’s birth is also speaking about some sort of (Divine) light. Suggesting that there was some sort of supernatural light that filled the house would resolve the dilemma of what was unique about Moshe’s birth. If there was indeed some sort of heavenly sign that Moshe was special, his mother would have had a specific impetus to save him. This is what is meant, then, when the posuk here says “and she saw that he was good.”

It is now clear that the simple reading of the posuk is actually lacking, leaving us with a pretty major problem. As the purely straightforward reading of the text does not fully/aptly explain the verse, Rashi turned to Midrash, which amply fills in the gaps.

Death & Leprosy

There are surely many instances of Rashi’s use of Midrash in a manner similar to the aforementioned throughout his commentary, and here we shall examine one more such instance also found in Parshas Shemos.

Shemos 2:23:

וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן־הָעֲבֹדָה וַיִּזְעָקוּ וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִים מִן־הָעֲבֹדָה

And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel moaned from their bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God from the bondage.

This is a posuk that once again seems simple and straightforward. Before we turn to Rashi’s comment, we must once again ask ourselves if we find anything odd about the posuk. This certainly seems not to be the case; everything is straightforward. And yet Rashi surprisingly (albeit rather famously) comments as follows:

Rashi on Shemos 2:23:

וימת מלך מצרים. נצטרע והיה שוחט תינוקות ישראל ורוחץ בדמם

And the King of Egypt died: He was stricken with leprosy and he slaughtered the babies of the Israelites and bathed in their blood.

In stunning contradiction to the explicitly straightforward meaning of the verse, Rashi states that the Pharaoh did not, in fact, die, but was rather only stricken with leprosy. This comment of Rashi is so famous that we seldom stop to think about the implications of the statement. Rashi proposes an interpretation that stands in direct contrast to what the text actually says. How are we to understand this?

As with last time, we must begin our study of Rashi with an understanding of what motivated his comment in the first place. What was wrong with reading the posuk at face value that prompted the employing of a Midrash to explain it with a seemingly out-of-the-blue interpretation? Rashi is clearly bothered by the fact that the posuk states that the “Jewish people moaned” as a result of the death of Pharaoh. If indeed their oppressive ruler and dictator had just passed the expected response would have been rejoicing, not moaning! Thus, Rashi surely concluded, there must be something else going on here.

To be sure, the Gemara states as follows:

Nedarim 64b:

ארבעה חשובין כמת: עני ומצורע וסומא ומי שאין לו בנים

Four are considered as dead: the poor, the leper, the blind, and one who has no children.

Fascinatingly, the Gemara states that one who is stricken with leprosy is considered to be dead. It is this, then, that the Midrash Rashi quotes is sourced in. The problem mentioned above was what caused Rashi to go looking for an interpretation not in accordance with the literal reading of the text in the first place, and this Midrash, sourced in a Gemara, certainly would explain the oddity: The King of Egypt hadn’t died, but was rather only stricken with leprosy and was bathing in babies’ blood as an attempted cure! Surely this is deserving of the cries and moans of the enslaved Jewish people!

Heretofore, problem solved.

In fact, the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer) explains Rashi in a typically brilliant manner based on the following posuk in Koheles:

Koheles 8:8:

אֵין שִׁלְטוֹן בְּיוֹם הַמָּוֶת

…There is no power on the day of death…

The Vilna Gaon reads this to mean that on the day one dies any status of power is removed from him (or her). The day of death is the great equalizer, in other words, and even the greatest king is, on the day of his death, just as everyone else. Indeed, the Vilna Gaon breathtakingly points out that this rule applies throughout all of Tanach. Kings are never referred to as kings when the posuk relates their death. In Melachim, for instance, King David is referred to throughout the entirety of the first chapter as just that, “King David”. When the posuk in chapter 2 states that he dies, however, it refers to him only as “David” (2:1). The rule throughout all of Tanach is thus simple: When a king dies, the verse refers to him only by his name, without the title of “King”.

There is one exception, as the Vilna Gaon points out, but it actually proves the rule 2. When King Uziyahu dies the posuk does indeed refer to him as a king, but Chazal state, as now is to be expected, that he did not actually die, but was rather simply stricken with leprosy.

Thus, we are now faced with a beautifully consistent Midrashic interpretation: When a king really dies he is not referred to in the posuk as king. Hence, when a posuk does state that a king dies it is not meant to be read literally, and instead means that he was only stricken with leprosy. The posuk in Shemos refers to Pharaoh — somewhat unusually, we might add — as the “King of Egypt”, thus implying, according to this rule, that he was merely stricken with leprosy and did not, in fact, actually die. Rashi’s explanation is now clear.

A General Outlook

As is typical when studying Rashi in-depth, all sorts of questions arise in relation to his use of Midrash. Did Moshe’s house, then, actually fill up with light when he was born? Did Pharaoh really contract leprosy and bathe in children’s blood? In general, what are we to make of (Rashi’s use of) Midrashic resolutions to textual problems as opposed to solving them within the simple reading of the text as so many other commentators do?

These and others are certainly excellent questions, but are beyond the scope of this essay. For now it suffices that we have (hopefully) seen the beauty, methodology, and systematic logic to Rashi’s Midrash-heavy approach as evidenced by just these two examples in Parshas Shemos. Rashi’s commentary is so brilliantly layered, so calculated, and draws from such a vast array of sources and information, that fully understanding Rashi’s commentary alone could take a lifetime 3.

1. Much of the material for this essay is based on the phenomenal series of books by Rabbi Avigdor Bonchek entitled What’s Bothering Rashi?

2. Technically, there is actually another exception. In I Kings 22:37 it does say “and the King died…”, but it has been pointed out that the chapter never names the king to begin with, so it has no choice but to announce the anonymous death as “the king died”.

3. And indeed, many have devoted their lives to just that.

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