5 Shevat 5768
January 12, 2008
Rashi captured the rabbinic attitude toward the interpretation of Scripture in the following anomalous words: \”Therefore I say: \’Let Scripture be explained in its literal sense so that each statement fits in its proper place, but the Midrashic interpretation may also be given, if you like, as it is said: \’Is not My word like fire, said the Lord, and like a hammer which, by the force of its own blow, the rock which it strikes shatters it to pieces, sending sparks in all directions.\’\” (Rashi on Ex. 6:9) The Jewish tradition is interested both in the plain or pshat meaning of Scripture as well as the midrashic or interpretive tradition because it is our sense that God\’s words have depth and that there is more there than the surface meaning. Both senses of the text have religious significance for us and we treasure them.
Jeremiah\’s message, in this week\’s haftarah, is first of all, a message aimed at the world power which subjugated Judea in his day, Egypt. He predicts with certainty its downfall at the hands of the new rising world power, the Babylonians because of God\’s desire to punish it for its traitorous behavior to the small Judean nation: \”As I live, declared the King, whose name is Lord of Hosts, as surely as Tabor is among the mountains and Carmel is by the sea, so shall this [the Babylonian attack on the Egyptians] come to pass.\” (Verse 18)
This verse, however, had a second life in the Jewish tradition. It came to be understood as a description of the response of certain mountains to the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. In an earlier midrash, found in the Mechilta, these mountains ran to participate in that revelatory experience before they realized that the revelation was meant for the children of Israel. (See Haftarah commentary 5762.) The midrash, below, is a later version of that same midrashic idea. In this version, however, the mountains fight over the right to be the mountain on which God reveals Himself:
\”Rabbi Nathan taught: When the Holy One Blessed Be He sought to give the Torah to Israel Carmel came from Aspamea and Tabor came from Beth-Elim. As it is said in the tradition: \’As I live, said the King, whose name is the Lord of Hosts, surely like Tabor among the mountains, and like Carmel by the Sea, so shall he come\’. (Jer. 46:18) One mountain said: \’I am called Har Tabor. It is fitting that God\’s presence (the Shechina) dwell on me, since I am the highest of all the mountains and the waters of the flood [in the days of Noah] did not fall on me.\’ The other mountain responded: \’I am called Har Carmel. It is fitting that God\’s presence dwell on me, for I placed myself in the middle [of the sea] and on me [the children of Israel] passed through the sea.\’ Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: \’Both of you have already rendered yourselves unworthy of My presence through your pride.\’ The mountains answered in return: \’Are you favoring another mountain or is it that you wish to deprive us of our reward? The Holy One Blessed Be He said to them: \’Because you troubled yourselves on My behalf, I shall reward you; Behold I shall give over to Mount Tabor the deliverance of Israel in the days of Deborah and the deliverance of Israel on Mount Carmel in the days of Elijah.\’\” (Adapted from the Askenazic tradition of Midrash Tehillim 68:9 Buber ed. p. 318)
This new version of the story turns the story into a morality play from which human beings are intended to learn. God refused these mountains a role in revelation because they overplayed their role and responsibility in previous miraculous events and exhibited excessive pride. The story, as a lesson for human beings, speaks for itself.