Is Scripture Great Literature?

The Light of Purim

As we know, the Torah consists of both plain and exegetical meaning (known as Peshat and Derash respectively). What is tough to figure out is when each of these is being used. Since we are accustomed to learning Chazal, it is easy to fall into the trap of ignoring “Peshuto shel Mikra”. Some even come close to denying the Torah holds a simple meaning at all!

An ultimate result of such a perception is agreeing with Yeshayahu Leibowitz who once claimed: “Tanach is second-rate literature (or worse); its sole purpose is religious”. I agree that its purpose is religious, but I don’t agree scripture is without literary merit.

In fact, the Torah has all the literary features (both modern and ancient) of a good read. Inference, humor, metaphor, pun, sarcasm, irony, (maybe even repetition, cf. Ibn Ezra Exodus 34:4) and the like all coexist in the Tanach. Derash often depends on them.

The topic deserves a discussion of its own, and I cannot do it justice here. I would, however, like to point out one such example relevant to the Megillah we will read on the upcoming Purim.

Megillas Esther 8:16 says —

ליהודים היתה אורה ושמחה וששן ויקר

“The Jews enjoyed light and gladness and joy and honor”.

So what do Chazal say? Megillah 16b (cf. too Yalkut Shimoni 8: 1059) —

ליהודים היתה אורה ושמחה וששון ויקר, אמר רב יהודה, אורה זו תורה כו’ שמחה זה יום טוב כו’ ששון זו מילה כו’ ויקר אלו תפלין.

“The Jews enjoyed light and gladness and joy and honor”. Rabbi Yehuda said: “Light” refers to Torah, “gladness” refers to Yom Tov, “joy” is Milah, and “honor” implies Tefillin.

Many tend to believe “Orah” means only spiritual light (as per the aforementioned Chazal on this being an allusion to Torah). In truth, the verse is a psychological description as well.

No number of textual difficulties can fully demolish the verbatim translation. This tells us our verse is more than a list of A,B,C, etc. But does the reader sense that when reading the translations and commentaries available? I think not. Refer to “Ta’ama Dekra” by Rabbi Chaim Kanievski as well.

Here is another novel example of light being applied in the figurative sense.

In Genesis 19:15 discussing the angels with Lot in Sodom we read —

וכמו השחר עלה ויאיצו המלאכים בלוט לאמר קום קח את אשתך ואת שתי בנתיך הנמצאת פן תספה בעון העיר

The literal translation is: “And the sun seemed to come up when the angels etc.”

Of course, the simple connotation is “when the sun came up”, and Chazal (Pesachim 93b) say so too.

ArtScroll translates: And just as dawn was breaking, the angels urged Lot on saying: “Get up – take your wife and your two daughters who are present, lest you be swept away because of the sin of the city!”

The peculiar wording is seemingly insignificant. Taking the literary nature of scripture into account, however, another layer of meaning is evident.

You see, beforehand, concerning Chevron, we read (18:1) —

וירא אליו יהוה באלני ממרא והוא ישב בפתח האהל כחם היום

G-d appeared to him in the plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of day.

Immediately subsequent to our verse, regarding Tzoar, it says (19:23) —

השמש יצא על הארץ ולוט בא צערה

The sun rose upon the earth and Lot arrived at Tzoar.

Chevron, and even Tzoar, can be described using terms such as “day” and “sun”, while Sodom cannot. Sodom is truly a “Land Where the Sun Never Rises”. No “golden sunup in the sky” is to be found. This is because Sodom was a cruel and evil place, as explained earlier in the text.

Likewise, we find in Job (30:28) —

קדר הלכתי בלא חמה קמתי בקהל אשוע

I walked mourning without the sun; I rose and cried in the congregation.

Similarly in Eichah (Lamentations) 3:2 —

אותי נהג וילך חשך ולא אור

He led me and made me walk in darkness and not light.

The object lesson is clear. Translations and commentators (and teachers) would do well to both learn and teach scripture this way.

P.S. I later found the following in Rashbam Genesis 37:2 –

ישכילו ויבינו אוהבי שכל מה שלימדונו רבותינו כי אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו. אף כי עיקרה של תורה באה ללמדנו ולהודיענו ברמיזת הפשט וההגדות וההלכות והדינין ועל ידי אריכות הלשון ועל ידי שלשים ושתים מידות של ר’ אליעזר בנו של ר’ יוסי הגלילי וע”י שלש עשרה מידות של ר’ ישמעאל והראשונים מתוך חסידותם נתעסקו לנטות אחרי הדרשות שהן עיקר ומתוך כך לא הורגלו בעומק פשוטו של מקרא. ולפי שאמרו חכמים אל תרבו בניכם בהגיון. וגם אמרו העוסק במקרא מדה ואינה מדה העוסק בתלמוד אין לך מדה גדולה מזו ומתוך כך לא הורגלו כל כך בפשוטן של מקראות וכדאמרינן במסכת שבת הוינא בר תמני סרי שנין וגרסינן כולה תלמודא ולא הוה ידענא דאין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו. וגם כו’.

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