Based on a verse in this week’s Torah reading (Leviticus 12:1-13:59) – “When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot” (Leviticus 13:2) – the midrashic work Vayikra Rabbah addresses a series of homilies on the most difficult word in this phrase: adam, “a man.”
What is a man who is both matter and spirit, body and soul, in whose flesh a scab can appear and in whose heart there can be sinful thoughts or the seeds of repentance? The midrash ponders this through a series of variations, in one of which the focal point is a verse from the Book of Job: “Who hath cleft a channel for the waterflood[?]” (Job 38:25).
“Do you know,” God asks Job, “who paved the channels through which the streams of water flow?” God has created a world in which the rain does not fall as a single mass of water but rather descends in the form of individual raindrops, each of which has a separate “channel.” It is a symbol of God’s greatness that, in the instance of rainfall (as in other instances), he pays attention to even the smallest detail: For example, he sees to it that each drop has its own route. In view of God’s magnificent wisdom, Job has no right to question the ways of providence.
“It is written, ‘Who hath cleft a channel for the waterflood,’ Rabbi Berachiah says: ‘There are places where a single strand of hair is called a flood. A righteous Jew came up with the following homily: “For each strand of hair, God creates a separate channel [or follicle].” The next day, as he set out to earn some money for himself and his household, his wife said to him, “Yesterday, you produced a homily in which you stated ‘For each strand of hair, God creates a separate follicle, so that each strand does not have to depend on any other strand.’ Yet now you are setting off to earn a livelihood? Sit at your desk and your well will appear without exerting yourself.” He accepted her counsel and sat down before his desk. Lo and behold, his well appeared’” (Vayikra Rabbah 15:3).
In this midrash, Rabbi Berachiah says that, in some instances, a strand of human hair is referred to in a similar manner to a flood. That etymological comment enables the righteous Jew in the rabbi’s tale to explain the biblical depiction of the raindrop created by God as an analogy for the human body. Although this explanation is far from literal, it is indeed apt because, for each human hair, God has created a separate follicle through which it emerges.
The righteous Jew sits at his desk and, basing himself on a verse from the Book of Job, creates a homily on hair; each one, he explains, has its own individual follicle. The next day, he sets out to earn a living and now the picture becomes clear to the reader, in retrospect. This righteous Jew sits at home, producing homilies, although his source of livelihood is by no means certain. Moreover, his activity runs contrary to the task of finding a source of income: When he creates homilies, he cannot find gainful employment, but if he goes out to seek a livelihood, he will have to interrupt his exegetical activity.
The righteous Jew in this tale has an audience: his wife, who listens to his words and goes one step further. Not only does she listen to his interpretation of the verse from Job – she internalizes it far more profoundly than her husband does. When he prepares to set out to seek a livelihood, she reminds him of the homily he delivered the day before and points to the gap between it and his own actions.
The wife thus interprets the commentary as an autobiographical parable on her husband’s search for a livelihood. Since God creates a follicle for each separate strand of hair, each strand does not have to set out and search far and wide for its “livelihood” or substance. Similarly, her husband need not exert himself to find sustenance for himself and his family because God has created a readily available source of income.
The righteous man is confronted by a conflict between his homily and his actions. In his exegesis, he creates the basis for an allegorical fantasy of a way of life in which no work is required and where a person’s well, or source of income, is ready at hand.
The righteous Jew does not see the connection between his ponderings and reality; perhaps he is not even aware that he has created an allegorical fantasy. His wife, however, who has listened to his homily (as in the past) and who notes the poetic depiction he creates, recognizes her husband’s fantasy. She urges him to trust it, to live in accordance with his interpretation, to be faithful to the text he creates and to take it seriously. He listens to her advice, which proves beneficial: He finds his well, his source of income.
In reality, one must search far and wide for one’s own well, or livelihood. The picture created in this midrash is a harmonious fantasy about a scholar realizing an intellectual fantasy – the fantasy of being able to engage in Torah study without having to exert oneself in earning a living.
Nor is the conclusion of the above tale presented in a realistic light. The woman tells her husband that he should sit at his desk and that his well will appear without any need for efforts on his part. She is, of course, speaking allegorically.
A more realistic ending would have been the discovery of a treasure inside the couple’s home, or the emergence of an easily accessed source of income nearby – a source of income that enables the man to produce homilies. The midrash, however, is cryptic and lacks explicit explanation. The tale’s resolution is worded in the same fashion as the parable: “He accepted her counsel and sat down before his desk. Lo and behold, his well appeared.” The reader is not informed as to the nature of the well nor as to the manner in which the husband finds it.
In this respect, the tale in question is not about the realization of one individual’s fantasy, but rather about how a person creates a fantasy and begins to live in accordance with it. Whereas the righteous Jew thinks he is explaining a verse in Job, his wife reveals to him that, in fact, he is creating a homily about himself. He now begins to use it as a prism through which to interpret the reality in which he lives – as a midrash, as it were, about his own life. In effect, it does not really matter how, precisely, he finds his well; he interprets the source of livelihood that he discovers as a well that God has placed at his disposal. Following his wife’s comment, the scholar creates an entire midrash.