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I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine

As far as I know (and I would love to be corrected) Ellul is the only Hebrew month which has Midrash on its name. The one that everybody remembers is the notarikon

אני לדודי ודודי לי

from Song of Songs 6, 3, but there are several more. That one itself is part of a set of three verses with an acrostic אלול, and the other two are Deuteronomy 30, 6:

ומל יהוה אלהיך את לבבך ואת לבב זרעך

and Esther 9,22:

משלח מנות איש לרעהו ומתנות לאבינים

so the three verses together point us to תפילה, תשובה וצדקהת: prayer, repentance and charity, and those lead us to redemption in Isaiah 59, 20:

ובא לציון גואל ולשבי פשע ביעקב.

Why do I mention all this? Not because I’ve decided to turn this into a preachy blog, nor even because I was looking for a context where I could use the word “hermeneutics” without seeming too contrived, but because I was musing about different kinds of exegesis. Of the four streams that make up the Pardes – Peshat, Remez, Drash and Sod – these are firmly in the category of Remez. That can sometimes appear as superficial wordplay (though always a lot of fun for a crossword addict like myself), and one could ask, if this is valid Midrash, why aren’t Bible Codes valid Midrash too?

I think the answer is that we judge Midrash not by how it’s done, but by how edifying the results are. Bible codes, depending on where you find them, seem to reduce the Torah either to the level of Nostradamus or to an immensely boring directory of scholars.

There are many places in the Midrash where an overenthusiastic darshan, often Rabbi Meir, gets rapped on the knuckles by his colleagues for letting himself reach a politically incorrect conclusion. For example, Shir Hashirim Rabba on Song of Songs 2, 4:

ר’ מאיר אומר אמרה כנסת ישראל הושלט בי יצר הרע כיין ואמרתי לעגל אלה אלהיך ישראל … אמר לו ר’ יהודה דייך מאיר אין דורשין שיר השירים לגנאי אלא לשבח שלא ניתן שיר השירים אלא לשבחן של ישראל.

Rabbi Meir interpreted the phrase “he led me to the house of wine” as if the community of Israel were saying “the evil inclination overpowered me like wine and I worshipped the Golden Calf as the God of Israel.” Rabbi Judah said to him “Hold it right there, Meir! We don’t interpret the Song of Songs as blame, only as praise, since the Song of Songs was only given in praise of Israel.”

Why do all translations of Midrash into English come out sounding so lame?