In a comment to my most recent post, Yehuda pointed out a general methodological difficulty with the study of Midrash and, more broadly, with the literary approach to studying Tanach. Specifically, he mentioned that it is sometimes possible to read so many nuances of meaning into the text that we lose hold of what aspects of the narratives are intended literally and what aspects are metaphoric.
For example, the symbolic significance of Shechem and Dotan in the story of Yosef and his brothers has received much attention in Rabbinic literature from antiquity to the present. But does that mean that the brothers didn't literally travel to Shechem, or relocate to Dotan? Or are we to believe that it was a huge cosmic coincidence that the brothers went to places that were associated, in one way or another, with deeper metaphysical themes?
This question is a formidable and complex one. I believe that the essential answer to it lies, ironically, in a Midrash! In Samuel I 24:13, King David declares:
As the ancient proverb (Heb. Meshal Haqadmoni) states, "From the wicked shall issue wickedness..."
Rashi, basing himself on several Rabbinic sources (ex., Mechilta on Parashat Mishpatim, Makkot 10B, etc), writes:
"The ancient proverb": This is the Torah, which is the metaphor (mashal) of He Who preceded the world (Qadmono shel Olam.)
What Rashi is suggesting is that the Torah itself is a mashal, a metaphor. The Rambam also seems to allude to this concept in the beginning of Hilchot Yesode Hatorah (1:9). In the midst of a treatment of God's incorporeality, the Rambam explains that anthropomorphisms used in the Torah are not literal:
If so [that God is not corporeal], what is the meaning of that which is written in the Torah - "beneath His feet", "written with the finger of God", "hand of Hashem", "eyes of Hashem", "ears of Hashem", and similar expressions. All of this is in accordance with the minds of human beings who only recognize material bodies; and the Torah speaks in the language of man. For example, it is written, "I will sharpen My flashing sword " - does He have a sword, or kill with a sword? Rather, it is an allegory (mashal), and it is all an allegory.
The nuance of the Rambam's language here - "it is all an allegory" - is very instructive. Strictly speaking, he should have said something like, "and everything similar to it is an allegory". But he chose his words carefully and said "it is all an allegory". The Rambam is pointing out a general concept that is as applicable to Torah wisdom as it is to all branches of knowledge.
Human beings think through the medium of the imagination. Even in our discussions of abstract ideas, we utilize metaphor and analogy constantly, often without so much as realizing it. This is built in to our language (there you go - built in, a metaphor), our scientific models, and the way we experience our environments. All is mashal - we use concrete imagery to capture abstract concepts, and this is in fact the only method by which we can really handle them (capture and handle, two more examples!). And that, indeed, it what the Torah is all about - creating a mashal, a systematic presentation of concrete material, narratives and commandments, that help us gain insight into timeless principles of theology and morality that would otherwise be beyond our grasp (grasp, a concrete metaphor for an intellectual activity - get the idea?).
But this raises a serious problem. We routinely distinguish between mashal and empirical fact, and we consider mashal less "real". So how can we relegate the entire Torah to the realm of mashal, thereby implying that it lacks "reality"? Isn't the Torah a literal record of events that occurred in the past? In order to comprehend the precise relationship of Torah to metaphor, we must clarify what exactly a mashal is.
A metaphor/allegory is, by definition, something composed of two parts - a superficial, concrete component and an underlying conceptual component. Whereas a factual account is mainly concerned with the empirical details it is meant to communicate (i.e., it operates on only one level, the concrete one) a mashal is primarily designed to convey the deeper principle it contains. The material found in a mashal is nothing more than a vehicle for the expression of this principle.
That doesn't mean that we should automatically assume that the "manifest content" of a mashal is not true in a factual sense. It might be entirely accurate in every nuance. However, unlike an historical report, which is created to convey empirical knowledge, the factual truth of the material in a mashal is not significant - it is being introduced and utilized to teach a lesson.
Again, the difference between mashal and history is not necessarily in the accuracy of the information they contain. They may both be equally accurate in all respects. The difference between them will express itself in what they emphasize, in their ultimate objectives.
In this sense, it is quite clear that the entire Torah is indeed a mashal. It is an account the sole purpose of which is to edify and enlighten us. It was not written to provide us with trivia about goings-on in the ancient world. On the contrary, it was introduced to help us achieve philosophical and ethical insight through the medium of its narratives.
The notion of mashal can explain the Torah's writing style as well. Unlike the epic poems of the Greeks, for example, the Torah dwells very little on the personal appearance of its characters or the dramatic elements of its storytelling. We are not told how long Avraham's hair was or what color Yitschaq's eyes were. We do not hear the beating of Yaaqov's heart with passion when he first encounters his beloved Rachel, nor are we privy to the romantic daydreams that must have occupied him while he toiled for seven years to win her hand in marriage. Regarding the fashion sense of the Matriarchs we shall forever be in the dark.
What's more, colorful detail is sorely lacking. The sun's rays do not bathe any valleys. Clouds do not dance across the sky. Monologues and dialogues are brief and to the point. Overall, the focus of the Torah stories is invariably on the key theme that is being explored. Very little space, if any, is devoted to the concrete elements of the tale. Even when it comes to narratives that are powerful and dramatic, such as the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai, the amount of concrete detail is still remarkably sparse.
This simplicity is a particularly striking feature of the Biblical narrative style, especially when we contrast it with what we know of other literature, ancient and modern. It is thoroughly understandable, however, if we take the view that the Torah's aim is pedagogical - its eye is on the principle, the idea, the message. Unlike other books - written, as they are, for entertainment purposes - the Torah makes every effort to avoid discussion of the trivial kinds of detail that titillate the average reader. Were the Torah to satisfy our curiosity about how Moshe Rabbenu liked his coffee in the morning, it would have had to compromise on its ultimate goal - namely, keeping us focused on what is truly important, in the world and in life. Obsession with the external features of a mashal can come only at the expense of reflecting upon its inner spiritual beauty.
The notion that the Torah is essentially mashal helps us appreciate the significance of the introductory segment of the Book of Proverbs:
Proverbs of Solomon, son of David, King of Israel. To know wisdom and discipline; to understand statements of understanding...A wise man will hear and increase in knowledge; and a man of understanding will acquire new strategies. To understand an allegory and a parable, words of the wise and their riddles.
Why is the skill of comprehending parables and allegories so essential? The Rabbis tell us that King Solomon was instrumental in bringing Israel's level of Torah study to a higher plateau. The Torah is, in essence, a mashal - a text that uses concrete examples and narratives to illustrate profound ideas. Thus, in order to accomplish his goal of drawing the Jewish people closer to the wisdom of their tradition, King Solomon had to teach them the proper way of appreciating allegories and parables, of extracting ideas from the material husk in which they are embodied. In so doing, he allowed them to gain access to the Meshal Haqadmoni, the Metaphor of the Creator Himself - our Holy Torah.