Parashat Shelach Lecha 5779

Rabbi Janet Burden, 21 June 2019

Explaining PARDES

The acronym for our rabbinic sages’ four-layered approach to textual exegesis is PARDES, Pey-Resh-Dalet-Samech, meaning ‘orchard.’ Each letter stands for a different path for discovering – or I would say creating – meaning. I’d like to use the account of the scouts who go to spy out the land to explore the use of PARDES.

Let’s start with Pey, the level of p’shat, which means the straightforward meaning of the passage. A p’shat interpretation does not mean a literal reading! It would be perfectly reasonable, for example, to assume that b’nei ha-anak, a phrase that translates ‘the children of the giant,’ is a poetic phrase to describe some pretty formidable inhabitants, who are not actually the offspring of some strange cross-breeding between angels and humankind. A good p’shat interpretation could focus on Caleb and Joshua’s response to what they saw, in contrast to the remaining ten scouts. This form of interpretation is open to anyone who is willing to take the time to do a close reading of a scriptural passage and to analyse it as one would analyse a poem or any other form of literature.

Resh stands for remez, or clue. This is the world of allegorical meaning. The allegorical method of interpretation is to take the incident recounted in our text and extrapolate from it, exploring core truths about human nature. I could focus on the power of fear to distort our perceptions of threat, seeing giants where there are none. As we mark Refugee Week, I might talk about the fact that the public grossly overestimates the number of asylum seekers in this country and assumes that all of them are freeloading unskilled workers. I could point out to you that the actual number of applications for asylum represents a tiny fraction of our population – and many of these have university degrees or professional qualifications. We have less to fear than we think.

Dalet stands for d’rash, from the same root as our word midrash. This is the type of interpretation favoured in most classical rabbinic sources. It is, perhaps, the most interesting method of commentary so far, as it is most unlike modern approaches to text. What characterises a d’rash approach is the notion that every line in the Torah must have a deep meaning, because it came directly from God. Progressive Jews don’t believe this, but I will say that the application of this methodology has led to the creation of meaning in places where it would otherwise be absent. Let me give an example.

Do you remember the rather odd comment in the text that Hebron had been built seven years before Zo-an in Egypt? If you don’t, don’t worry – it was one of those phrases that our modern patterns of thinking screen out as irrelevant to the context. A practitioner of modern Biblical criticism will tell you that this phrase was a later addition by a biblical editor. But of course, the early rabbinic sages couldn’t simply dismiss these stray comments; they had to make something meaningful out of them. This is their comment on ‘Now Hebron was built seven years before Zo-an in Egypt.’ (Numbers 13:22):

    “This serves to acquaint you with the excellence of the Land of Israel and teaches that the most inferior ground in that land is far superior to the best of Egypt. For when the sons of Noah came out of the ark and took possession of the world after the Flood, they first built towns, not in the best but in the worst parts of the Land of Israel. Now Zo-an of Egypt had the best soil in the land of Egypt, and Hebron preceded it by seven years.”

And, of course, this is entirely in keeping with the p’shat understanding that Israel is indeed a fruitful place. The fact that it is so much better than Egypt is a classic tribal move to shape the positive view of us and our land by negating others and their land. This is not part of the original Torah text, but ideas like this insinuate themselves into a traditional reading of the text through midrash. Sometimes midrashic interpretations are insightful and beautiful – sometimes they are less so. Either way, it is important to recognise their power. Collections of midrashim are available in English to anyone who wishes to use them: it doesn’t take a rabbi to bring them into a sermon.

The final level is sod, meaning secret. This is the level of mystical interpretation, or sometimes of personal revelation. Great insights are claimed on this level in terms of cosmic understanding, and indeed there are many beautiful teachings in the Zohar and other Jewish mystical books. But where there is power, there is also danger, as social anthropologist Mary Douglas commented. The Jewish mystical tradition makes much of the holy nature of the land of Israel and the connection between it and heaven. I find this deeply problematic. Moreover, running through the mystical tradition rather like a crimson thread in a tapestry is the notion that the value of a Jewish soul is greater than that of a non-Jew. Both of these assertions – the holiness of the land and the superiority of Jewish souls – have spawned a truly ungodly political movement, and not just among the settlers, in Israel. And as for ‘personal revelation,’ I have always been deeply sceptical and would argue that any mystical interpretation needs to be grounded in a clear ethical and moral framework that curbs any questionable tendencies.

These four methods for responding to a Torah text are tools for creating meaning for yourself, and for sharing ideas with others. Like all tools, they can be used for good or ill. Use them wisely!

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