In the smallest of comments by Ibn Ezra emerges an absolutely fundamental point in our approach to learning Tanach, as well as our overall approach to Judaism.
One of the more curious elements required in the building of the Mishkan are the atzei shitim. A precise translations eludes us, but the words are best rendered as “dense wood/trees.” The rather glaring issue is how the Jewish people came to find such trees in the desert. Where could they have possibly gotten a whole bunch of trees wandering around in a barren wasteland?
Indeed, Rashi is bothered by this very issue1. He proposes a solution: Yaakov, way back when, had the (Divine) foresight to know that his children would require such trees in the future, and so he brought some saplings down to Egypt with him, planted them in Goshen, and commanded his sons to take them with them when they would one day leave.
Ibn Ezra Has Some Problems
While the idea of Yaakov “planting the seeds” for the ultimate redemption is touchingly romantic and poetic, Ibn Ezra2 has a series of problems with this as a historical explanation for how the Jewish people came into possession of the atzei shitim.
Even though Rashi’s explanation is technically possible, it seems unfounded based on the text itself. Where is there any such mention of Yaakov doing such a thing? Further, the entire concept seems quite unlikely. It would have been quite an effort to have dragged such trees through the whole desert, especially considering that no one yet knew what they would be used for or why they were doing it. This would have made for a particularly strange first encounter with God. Even more difficult: What did the Jewish people answer to the Egyptians when they asked them why they were taking along a whole forest of trees for what they claimed was only a three day trip?
Based on all these problems (and a few more), Ibn Ezra suggests that Rashi’s explanation is not pshat in the story, nor what historically actually occurred. The easiest way to read the text, explains Ibn Ezra, would be that the Jewish people simply found the trees in the desert after all. There must have been certain oases in which such trees could be found. The premise that finding such trees in the desert is impossible is faulty; it’s quite possible! After all, the Jewish people found date tress at Marah that were able to feed the entire nation. Thus, according to Ibn Ezra, it is not difficult at all — and actually simpler than Rashi’s explanation — to propose a similar situation here.
As is typical of their respective methodologies, Rashi is okay quoting a mostly textually unfounded Midrash while Ibn Ezra is most certainly not.
A Different Path
What is most remarkable about Ibn Ezra’s comment, though, is how he actually addresses Rashi’s explanation:
Now, I do not know whether [Rashi’s explanation] is a received tradition from our forefathers, for if from Egypt it came, we too shall rely on their words. However, if [Rashi’s explanation] is merely based on [his own] logic, then we shall pursue a different path.
If Rashi is recording some sort of tradition, states Ibn Ezra, then this trumps all else. Despite his personal intellectual hang-ups with such an explanation, they fall away in the face of a received tradition. If, however, Rashi’s explanation is merely based on his own speculation, then Ibn Ezra is primed to argue it into oblivion.
Rav Moshe Benovitz points out that this little argument between Rashi and Ibn Ezra is representative of the two overarching commitments to Judaism that are required.
Our own intellect is to be used in the service of God. We are not meant to be blind robots. We were gifted with an intellect and are meant to use it. At the same time, however, we are also meant to be deferential to the mesorah. Tradition is a massive component in our religion, and, as Ibn Ezra points out, there are times in which we must put aside our own intellectual hangups and defer to tradition.
As with most everything, a balance is required. Even with supreme confidence in our intellectual abilities and personal wisdom, there is also such a thing as deference to tradition, humility, and the recognition that Judaism did not begin with us and our personal issues. There is a long-standing history and tradition that matters, and that we should deeply concern ourselves with.
We must strive, as Jews, to combine both of these elements. We must work with our own intellectual capabilities and prowess, but at the same time have this tempered and reigned in by tradition, deference, and humility in the face of authority.
As Ibn Ezra writes: If something is an opinion, and logically reasoned, one can argue with it from here until tomorrow. If something is tradition, however, it is our duty to bow to it in humility, even when we do not fully understand it.