Parashat Kedoshim / Every Verse a Tender Sapling

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Tree planting in NaharayimCredit: Yaron Kaminsky
Yakov Z. Meyer

In Dvarim Rabbah, among a number of homilies dealing with the manner in which the Torah was transmitted through Moses to Israel, the following midrash appears: “It is written, ‘And Moses called [unto all Israel, and said unto them]’ (Deuteronomy 29:1). This verse should be connected to ‘My son, if thou wilt receive my words, and lay up my commandments with thee’ (Proverbs 2:1). What does the phrase, ‘if thou wilt receive my words’ mean? Rabbi Huna, citing Rabbi Acha, says: ‘God tells Israel: “My son, do not regard the Torah like a man who has an older daughter whose hand he wants to give in marriage to anyone he can find.” Then what does the phrase, ‘if thou wilt receive my words’ mean? If you prove yourselves worthy, you will receive my Torah’” (Dvarim Rabbah 9).

The paternal figure in this midrash is, of course, God, and the daughter is the Torah. God warns the Children of Israel not to regard the Torah that is offered to them as the “default” choice of an older daughter whose father wants to marry her off.

Rabbi Huna, citing Rabbi Acha, connects the word vayomer (“and said”) in the verse from Deuteronomy with amarai (“my words”) in the condition presented in the Book of Proverbs. “If you receive my words,” writes King Solomon, to whom Proverbs is traditionally attributed, “Then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God” (Prov. 2:5). The homilist expands the terms of the condition, explaining it as, “If you prove yourselves worthy”: Only if you are worthy, will you receive my words and will you be able to “understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.”

This midrash is a counterweight to the famous legend in which God offers the Torah to the various nations of the world. They all reject it, but when he offers it to Israel, that nation’s immediate response is “[All that the Lord hath spoken] will we do, and obey” (Exodus 24:7). Although it is the only nation that agrees to receive the Torah, says the above-mentioned midrash, Israel must not relate to it with disrespect; the “match” with the Torah will be a successful marriage only if Israel proves itself worthy of receiving the Torah.

The above midrash also appears in Vayikra Rabbah, in connection with this week’s Torah reading, but it is placed in a different context, which thus provides it with a different meaning.

In this week’s reading, Parashat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27), Israel is commanded to avoid eating the fruit of the tree during the first three years of fruit-bearing: “And when ye shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food, then ye shall count the fruit thereof as forbidden; three years shall it be as forbidden unto you; it shall not be eaten. And in the fourth year all the fruit thereof shall be holy, for giving praise unto the Lord. But in the fifth year may ye eat of the fruit thereof, that it may yield unto you more richly the increase thereof: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:23-25). In the fourth year, the fruit must be brought as a sacrificial offering to God and, only from the fifth year onward, can the fruit of the tree be consumed.

“It is written, ‘And when ye shall come into the land’; this verse should be connected to, ‘She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her’ (Prov. 3:18). Rabbi Huna, citing Rabbi Acha, says, ‘Do not regard the Torah’s words like a man who has an older daughter and wants her to become someone’s wife [lit., to join her to someone else]’” (Vayikra Rabbah 25:1).

When the Children of Israel arrive in the Promised Land and begin to plant trees there, they must wait three years before they can eat the fruit of those trees. The parable of the older daughter as it appears in Dvarim Rabbah relies on the classic identification of the father with God, the daughter with the Torah, and the prospective husband with Israel. What connection is there, however, between this homily, about God’s granting the Torah to Israel, and the commandment prohibiting the consumption of a tree’s fruit during the first four years of fruit-bearing?

The verses appearing in Vayikra Rabbah provide a new context and thus a new interpretation for the parable in Dvarim Rabbah. The tree planted in the soil of the Promised Land is the tree of life referred to in Proverbs, and the Torah must be preserved for three years and also an additional fourth year before its fruit can be enjoyed. Thus, the passage in Vayikra Rabbah reads Proverbs 2:1 – “My son, if thou wilt receive my words, and lay up my commandments with thee” – as “You must safeguard the Torah’s words until they have ripened and, only then, can you take them outside and join them to someone else.”

The parable takes on an entirely different meaning in Vayikra Rabbah, where the father of the Torah, which is embodied by the older daughter, is not God but rather a Torah scholar. The scholar is warned not to hastily remove the Torah from his home or to give “her” to the first prospective husband who comes along, but rather to hide it in his home for three years and then for an additional year. For only after these initial four years have elapsed can the scholar begin to enjoy the Torah’s fruit.

Who is the Other to whom the scholar might wish to convey the Torah immediately, despite the fact that the homilist warns the scholar to wait three years? Dvarim Rabbah speaks of “a man who has an older daughter whose hand he wants to give in marriage to anyone he can find”; in other words, the Other is someone who is prepared to receive the Torah from God.

In Vayikra Rabbah, the father of the older daughter is not God, who granted the Torah to Israel, but rather a Torah scholar, who is “a man who has an older daughter and wants her to become someone’s wife.” Although the differences between these two midrashic passages are subtle, they effectively demonstrate the homiletic technique of the sages.

In their homilies, the sages take a biblical verse and join it to yet another biblical verse – generally speaking, when both verses contain an identical or a similar word. They do so in order to explain a difficult phrase, as is the case in the passage from Dvarim Rabbah, or in order to create an allegorical interpretation, as is the case in the passage from Vayikra Rabbah.

According to that latter passage, the Torah scholar must regard every verse learned as a tender sapling that has to be cultivated carefully for several years before its scholarly fruit can be harvested; indeed, the scholar must not hastily pass on the sapling to another biblical verse. Only after the four years have passed is he finally permitted to take the verse that has been learned into the beit midrash (the academy of Jewish studies), to join it to something else (that is, to another biblical verse) and thus to create a new and unique interpretive homily.