I was speaking with a friend of mine, a rabbi out in Santa Monica, doing a wrap up of our experiences of the High Holidays, when we fell upon the subject of midrash.
You may know midrash as a relatively small but important body of literature from around the sixth century into the Middle Ages, consisting of as few as thirty books, and would include Talmudic tales called Aggadah. Though their style and purpose differ, they are collections of tales largely of biblical exegesis that explore and stretch biblical stories often through folktale like style.
For the most part, we know midrash through the most common of these tales, stories that are often cited for their imagination and deeper meaning. My friend out in Santa Monica have set out to make a collection of these, kind of the fifty top midrashim.
Here are two of my favorites, retold my me but which catch the essence of the original.
This one’s perhaps the most famous of all. I’d heard it so many times in my childhood that before I knew any better, I thought it was embedded in the actual biblical text.
Abraham’s family, in the mind of the darshan (the name given to the author of a midrash), was in the idol making business. One day his father, Terach, put Abraham, perhaps a teenager, in charge of the shop while he went out to do something. While his father was out, Abraham, who had already come to the knowledge of the existence of God, picked up an ax and destroyed all of the idols in the shop save the biggest, and placed the ax and an apple next to it.
When his father returned and saw the destruction, he demanded of his son to know what had happened.
“I cannot tell a lie,” said Abraham. “When you left, I took out an apple and began to eat it. But the smallest of the statues grabbed it from me and began to eat. Then the next largest took the apple from it, and destroyed it. Then the third largest, then the fourth largest, Dad, until finally the largest took the apple from the one below it. And there you see the ax and the apple plain as day.”
His father looked to the statue and then to his son, and said, “There is no power in these. Do you take me for a fool?”
Whereupon Abraham smirked and said, “Oh Father, if only your ears can hear what your mouth is saying.”
Here’s the second.
So God tells Noah to build an ark. Noah looks around and, seeing no boards from which to construct such a thing, plants a forest. Time passes, much time, and the seeds become saplings which become trees. Noah cuts them down and cuts them into boards. Then he sets about to build an ark that’s around the length of three football field and half a football field high. All by himself. This is a very lengthy process, as you can imagine, taking many years.
All the while his neighbors come around and, seeing this odd project that Noah’s involved in, ask him what he’s doing.
He says to them, over and over again some variation on, “I’m building an ark for me and my family because God is going to send a great flood to destroy all of the sinners in the world.”
His neighbors laugh this off as some kind of craziness, and go about their business. As we know, once the ark was complete, Noah gathers his family and pairs of animals onto the boat and they are saved from the waters of the flood.
I’ve begun writing a series of stories in which the Prophet Elijah is the main character. I’m into the second one, but the first one was published in an online journal called commuterlit.com.