“Why did God create man?” “Because he wanted to hear a good story!”

We met with Hebrew Seminary alumni and faculty member Rabbi Shari Chen to share her passion for the stories of the Bible, as so beautifully manifest in her 2005 thesis for rabbinic ordination on the Midrashim of Our Mothers.  This is the second half of that interview.

You conclude each of your thesis chapters on the different women in Genesis with your own midrash exemplifying their faith.  How did you go about this and is the retelling of midrashim part of our Jewish tradition?

Our Talmud teaches that, Torah m’daberet b’lashon adam – Torah speaks in the language of man. There is no greater way to relate to the Torah than through midrashim.  It is asked, “Why did God create man?”  “Because he wanted to hear a good story!”  God wants us to create new midrashim to share his words with new generations in a contemporary language that they can relate to.  It was my hope in creating these new midrashim that I would be able to inspire young women to want to learn Torah and to learn more about the women we came from.  My midrashim of Eve Naamah (Noah’s wife), Eidit and our matriarchs, all based on Judaic sources, not only brings them to life but illustrates the often unsung goodness within each of them.

This summer we read the Torah portion Chukat in which Miriam dies.  Rabbi Shefa Gold, renown for her teaching of sacred, Hebrew chants, writes, “Miriam had a way with water.  She could touch the depths with her song and call forth spiritual nourishment.  No matter how difficult the journey, Miriam’s dance would bring ease and beauty to the process itself.  She carried with her the feminine wisdom that could not be written down.  Upon her death we are given a spiritual challenge: to reclaim the source of her wisdom, to discover the song in our voice and the dance in our step.”  Is there an ancient or modern midrash that can help us with this spiritual challenge?

Midrash tells us that after pharaoh’s decree that every Hebrew newborn son be cast into the Nile, it is said that Yochevet and Amram, Moses’ parents, separated so that they wouldn’t conceive any more children.  Miriam goes to her father and convinces him that he shouldn’t do what pharaoh wants, stop bearing Hebrew children.   Because of Miriam’s wisdom, Yochevet and Amram reunite and Moses is born.

Miriam’s great spiritual wisdom is also clearly illustrated in a midrash relating to the crossing of the Red Sea.  It is said that when the waters first split, the men began to argue about which tribe should have the honor of going first into the sea.  While the men are arguing, Miriam instructs the women to all take hands and enter the sea together and the sea splits into twelve distinct paths.  This is an example of how not one of us is any better than any other and that God wants us to join together to celebrate as one people, equal in the eyes of God.

When you counsel congregants, how do you use Torah text and in what ways have you found the texts to be helpful?

I often use midrashic text and stories to help congregants.  There’s a beautiful midrashic story about seeking the perfect object that will bring the wealthiest, most content person to tears, and yet brings gladness to the ones who are suffering the most.  The object, which is found after much effort, is a ring with four simple words engraved within it, “this too shall pass”.  I feel that all of us need to remember this truth at some point in our life.  When we are going through hard times there are many different midrashim that can offer us hope.  For thousands of years we have sought answers to the greatest question: why?  Why must we suffer?  Why is life sometimes so difficult?  Our inspiring and cherished midrashim help us to understand that we are not alone and that we, like our ancestors, will not only survive but we will endure guided by love and by faith.

What Midrashim collections can you recommend for us?

Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary

Chaim and Rabinitsky Bialik, Sefer Ha’agadah: The Legends that are in the Talmud and Midrash (HEBREW)

Gerald Friedlander, Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer

Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories

Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of Jews

Jill Hammer, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women

The Midrashim of Our Mothers

I recently met with faculty member Rabbi Shari Chen to share her passion for the stories of the Bible.

In 2005, you completed your thesis for rabbinic ordination on the Midrashim of Our Mothers.  What is midrash and what did you learn in your research that might inspire us to read midrashim?

The word midrash comes from the Hebrew root drash, which means to seek, study, and inquire.  Our midrashic literature seeks to help us understand the reasons behind the actions of our ancestors and in so doing brings them more fully to life for us.

I learned in my research that there are so many midrashim that can enrich our Jewish life, as well as help us relate to and connect with our heritage.  For example, many of the woman of Genesis are unnamed.  They are only referred to as eishet or “wife of”, but these women do have names and significant roles to play in our history.  Women, in a basic reading of the Torah, are often portrayed in a negative light.  The midrashim redeems them by examining the circumstances of their lives and why they did what they did.  A perfect example of this is Lot’s wife, whose name according to midrash is Eidit, meaning witness.  Eidit in the bible is portrayed as a woman whose curiosity leads to her ultimate demise because she did not obey, but instead turned back to see the destruction of the city.  This story is seen as a warning to women to do what they are told.  But through midrash we learn that the reason she looked back, was not out of curiosity, but out of motherly love.  She was searching for her two older daughters who remained in the city.

As you studied the women of the midrashim you were seeking ways to better understand and portray Genesis’ female characters to young readers.  What did you discover as you did your own translations of the Hebrew texts?

I discovered that these women were to be admired; that Eve, in particular, got bad press!  Through the midrash you realize that she was not entirely to blame for her actions in the garden.  One of my favorite midrashim regarding this says that God did not create Eve until Adam asked him to, because God knew that the first time something went wrong, Adam would blame him for creating the woman.  Which is exactly what Adam did, saying, “The woman you gave me….”

Another midrash portrays Adam as having no faith in Eve.  He told her not to touch the tree, but God never said that.  Adam thought saying that would keep her away from it, but ultimately that embellishment becomes a convincing lie for the snake, who used it to demonstrate for Eve that just as there is no dying from touching the tree, there is no dying from eating from it.  To illustrate his point, the snake pushed Eve into the tree.

If you look at the Hebrew in Genesis 3:6, when it talks about Eve giving Adam the fruit of the tree, it uses the word “she gave it to the man with her.”  Ayinmemhey with a dagesh in it.  The original Hebrew says that Adam was with Eve while the snake was deceiving her and thus Adam tacitly approved of her eating the fruit, as he did not stop her.  Most translations, by excluding the word “with her”, make it appear as though Adam came upon Eve eating the fruit and then he ate of it unknowingly, but Adam was with her the whole time.  According to most translations, Eve was responsible for the transgression, not the two of them together.