Midrash, the rabbinic method of interpreting the verses of the Torah, always begins with a problem in the text. Something about the way the verse is written is strange or confusing, has missing or extra words or letters, or is inconsistent with some other verse. Such verses, as the rabbis described them, are virtually calling out to us, “Darsheini - Interpret me!” Midrash, then, is first and foremost an exercise in problem-solving.
This week, we take a journey into the realm of Jewish epistemology. That ten-dollar word, epistemology, refers to theories of knowledge - attempts to answer the fundamental questions of how we know things and what can be known at all.
This is the basic narrative structure for Parshat Balak:
What causes a renaissance? Why do certain periods in history seem to be erupting with cultural productivity, while others are relatively quiet? Where does a golden age begin?
This week, the Angel of Death showed up twice.
Both appearances were in Rashi’s commentary, in two distinct, but related moments in the narrative that follows Korach’s rebellion. At this point, Korach and his crew have already challenged Moses and Aaron’s authority and been swallowed by the earth, as a both a punishment and a proof of the legitimacy of Moses’ connection to God. But the people are unconvinced, and declare in outrage: