February 7, 2009
13 Shevat 5769
Whenever we read something, the way we understand it will of necessity be shaped by what we already know and who we already are. I state here what seems obvious as an introduction to the parshan (interpreter) I want to focus on – Rabbi Levi ben Gershon. Ralbag (the acronym for his name) was a philosopher and Biblical interpreter who lived in Provence (southern France) during the first half of the 14th century. His interpretations are generally known for their attempt to explain the text according to its plain meaning (pshat). He will, however, veer from this approach when the text is challenged by his rationalist philosophical outlook. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in one of the unique features of his commentaries – a list of the lessons he culls from his studies which he appends to the end of each passage.
Ralbag draws seven lessons or, as he calls them, \”toalot – benefits\” from the story of Deborah, Barak and their conquest of Sisera. The first two lessons concern the nature of miracles. Ralbag, the rationalist, sees the natural world as God\’s greatest miracle. Consequently, in Biblical stories which tend toward the supernatural, he minimizes this characteristic. In line with this, he concludes from our story: 1. that God only does miracles when they seem absolutely necessary. In our story, this means that Barak, Deborah\’s general, was expected to prepare adequately for his battle against Sisera. Since he did so, God made sure that Sisera and his army showed up at the right place at the right time; 2. God performs His miracles according to the natural order. Therefore in Ralbag\’s telling of the story, God brought Sisera\’s army to a river where many of them drowned. The remaining soldiers were led to a valley where the sun was in their eyes in order that Barak\’s troops might attack them from the hills above them.
His 3rd lesson has a modern ring. He learns from this story that a woman (in this story) can be the agent of true prophecy.
Ralbag discerns two strategic lessons from this story: 4. a person should always make strategic plans, map out one\’s aims, adhere to one\’s plans and focus on accomplishing one\’s aims. Ralbag attributes Barak\’s success in battle to this strategy; 5. A person should use his success advantageously.
He concludes his remarks with two theological/religious lessons: 6. A person should thank God when granted blessings; and 7. A person should trust the veracity of the messages of true prophets.
I might conclude that the lessons of a discerning reading like the Ralbag also has its rewards.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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