Is There Still Midrash Today?

Finding midrash in your local synagogue and your local movie theater

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Compare these chapters in Deuteronomy to the famous "I See the Promised Land" speech by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., given on April 3, 1968:

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not con­cerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

By ending with a stirring message about seeing the promised land from the moun­taintop, Dr. King evoked images of Moses entering the land. This midrash turned out to be prophetic, for King was assassinated the very next day.

One of the oldest collections of midrash, if not the oldest, is the Passover Haggadah. The process of midrash on the Exodus story remains alive and well in modern hag­gadot. There are literally hundreds of Haggadah interpretations, each giving its own spin on the verses from Exodus--an archaeological Haggadah, a feminist version, an Israeli version that focuses on the fulfillment of God's promise to redeem us.

Movie Midrash

Yet, the process of interpreting the Bible and of writing Midrash, especially on the Exodus theme, goes well beyond these works. In the biblical account, we are told that Moses was placed in a basket on the Nile by his mother, that Moses' sister watched as the daughter of Pharaoh came to bathe in the Nile and saw the basket. [She took Moses and raised him as her own.]...

The Bible does not tell us how Moses finds out he is a Hebrew, only that "he went out to his kinsfolk." The few details in the biblical story led to many midrashic inter­pretations, including those in the 1998 movie The Prince of Egypt. This is from the story line of The Prince of Egypt:

"That night as Moses returns to his room, he discovers that Tzipporah has escaped. Intrigued by the rebellious girl, he follows her through the Hebrew settlement of Goshen, where he comes upon his true siblings, Miriam and Aaron. Believing that Moses has returned to help them, Miriam reveals to Moses the truth about his identity, that he is the son of a Hebrew slave. Shocked and dismayed, Moses refuses to believe her and flees back to the palace. That night he has a nightmare about the slaughter of the newborn Hebrews many years ago."

The movie's authors and producers added many details to the terse biblical narra­tive. They have Tzipporah, Moses' future wife, meeting him in Egypt, where in the bib­lical account he meets her later, in Midian. The Bible does not tell us exactly how Moses found out he is a Hebrew, while in the movie, "Miriam reveals to Moses the truth about his identity, that he is the son of a Hebrew slave." These are plausible answers to ques­tions about the Exodus story. Yet, they--as well as much of the Prince of Egypt ani­mated feature--are a midrash, filling in the holes for those curious about what exactly took place....

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Gershon Schwartz was the rabbi of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, Penn., from 2000-2003. He co-authored Swimming in the Sea of Talmud: Lessons for Everyday Living.