Drowning in Pshat – By Pinchas Winston
DROWNING IN PSHAT is a phrase coined years ago to describe a frustrating Jewish intellectual phenomenon: The lack of willingness of those who learn Torah to dig deeper and develop a more profound understanding of history and current events. They are so preoccupied with mastering Pshat that they literally drown in it.
What does this mean? First, there is the word Pshat. Pshat, from the Hebrew word pashut—simple, in Torah learning refers to the simplest and most basic explanation of an idea. It is the version of a concept that emerges when first exposed to it, before asking the question: What does this really mean?
For, as the Midrash points out, even the simplest of Torah ideas can be understood on many levels, as it says:
There are 70 facets of Torah. Turn it around and around, for everything is in it. (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15)
And, to access those 70 facets, explains the Arizal, one must enter something called Pardes:
There are four levels [of Torah understanding] and the roshei teivos is Pardes: Pshat, Remez, Drush, and Sod. A person needs to work hard in all of them to the best of his ability, and find a teacher who can teach them to him. If he lacks one of these four levels relative to what he could have learned then he will have to reincarnate [to compensate for what he is missing]. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Ch. 11)
The following is an example of a Torah idea learned on all four levels of Pardes. The first verse of the Torah, on a Pshat-level, traditionally is understood to simply mean:
In the beginning, God made the Heaven and the Earth. (Bereishis 1:1)
However, as Rashi immediately points out, the first word of the Torah, in Hebrew, does not translate this way, alluding to a different level of meaning:
This verse is only meant for elucidation, as the rabbis teach: For the sake of Torah, which is called “the beginning—reishis—of His way” (Mishlei 8:22), and for the sake of the Jewish people who are called “the beginning—reishis—of His increase” (Yirmiyahu 2:3), [God made the Heaven and the Earth] . . . The text does not intend to point out the order of Creation, for if it intended to teach this it would have written berishonah . . . since the word reishis, in the Torah, is in the construct state. (Rashi, Bereishis 1:1)
Hence, the usage of the Hebrew word bereishis instead of berishonah hints—Remez—to a different layer of meaning for the first verse. Rather than translate bereishis as “in the beginning,” as is traditionally done, it is understood to mean, “for the sake of reishis” God made the Heaven and the Earth, reishis referring to both the Torah and the Jewish people.
Drush, from the word lidrosh—to investigate, is trickier because it is usually not as obvious as the level of Remez, and often requires a tradition. In this case, like with respect to Remez, the focus is the first word of the Torah, Bereishis, except that it is understood differently:
He began by saying, Bara—He created—Shis—six—that is, God created the six days. (Tikunei Zohar 147b)
On the level of Drush, bereishis is divided into two words: bara, which means He created, and shis, which is Aramaic for the word six, as in the six days of Creation. Hence, the Zohar is explaining, when God pronounced the word, Bereishis, He brought into being all the six days of Creation, as Rashi explains:
All aspects of Heaven and Earth were created on the first day, but each was not put into its place until the day on which it was actually commanded. (Rashi, Bereishis 1:14)
In other words, for example, even though the sun, the moon, and the stars were not commanded into their places until the fourth day of Creation, they came into existence on the first day of Creation, like all other aspects of Heaven and Earth. And, not just the first six days of Creation, apparently, but even all 6,000 years destined to follow (Sefer Igra d’Kallah 12a). This is what Bereishis teaches on the level of Drush, making history far from random.
Sod, which means secret, like Drush, requires a tradition to give it credibility. Indeed, without tradition, the following about the word Bereishis could not be known:
Bara Shis: Over them (the sefiros of Chesed, Gevurah, Tifferes, Netzach, Hod, and Yesod) was [the sefirah] Binah, which created the six extremities [of Chesed through Yesod]. (Biur HaGRA, Safra d’Tzniusa, Ch. 1)
So much of Kabbalah is concerned with understanding the concept of a sefirah, of which there are, in general, ten. They depict different traits within existence, but they are completely spiritual, and the basis of all that exists, spiritually and physically. They are the system that God created to receive His infinite light, in order to constrict and filter it, eventually resulting in Creation, man, and free-will.
Therefore, in order for Creation to exist, the sefiros had to first exist, and Sod reveals that when God said Bereishis, He brought into existence the six sefiros that are the basis of our six millennia, Chesed through Yesod. The previous ones, Keser, Chochmah, and Binah, which are the basis of the eternal reality of Olam HaBah—the World-to-Come—had already been created.
One word, four different layers of explanation, each one more profound than the previous, and each one with important implications about life and history.
However, Pshat not only refers to a level of understanding, it also refers to a level of Torah learning. For example, the verses of the Torah, or what is commonly called Torah Sh’b’k’sav—the Written Torah—which can be read as they are written, are the level of Pshat. The concise teachings of Torah Sh’b’al Peh—the Oral Law—or the Mishnah, correspond to the level of Remez, because they are only alluded to in the Written Torah and hint to other levels of understanding.
Drush, being the level of investigation, therefore corresponds to the Talmudic teachings, since they are the result of investigating the meaning of the mishnayos and other aspects of the Oral Tradition. Sod, of course, corresponds to Kabbalah.
When learning Mikrah, another name for a verse in the Written Torah, it does not take much to make a person realize that an Oral Tradition must exist that more fully explains the meaning of the verses. This is especially so when it comes to actual laws, which most of the time cannot be understood by the information supplied by the Written Law.
The same is true when learning mishnayos, which were constructed in a way as to prompt discussion and encourage further and deeper investigation. The Talmud, which does exactly this, is massive. Yet, it itself is only a brief recording of the many discussions that have taken place over the ages to make sense of the oral teachings so that they can be applied in everyday life and become halachah.
Therefore, many great minds and leaders over the ages have written explanations of the Talmud and responsa to legal issues of their times in order to speak out what is implied by the Talmud, but not necessarily recorded there. This especially became necessary as the exile of the Jewish people deepened, religious persecution intensified, and assimilation became rampant. To preserve the integrity of Jewish law over the millennia, more and more of the Oral Law had to be written down, eventually developing into what has appropriately been called “The Sea of Talmud.”
However, to what end? What, in essence, is Torah?
Torah comes from a word that means teach. However, as the Talmud explains, it is not first and foremost a history book, and it will often sacrifice chronological accuracy to make a philosophical or legal point (Pesachim 6b). But, as Rashi explains, it is also not only a legal book, otherwise it could have begun with the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people, and not an account of Ma’aseh Bereishis—Creation (Rashi, Bereishis 1:1).
The Midrash provides an important clue for understanding what Torah should mean to us:
When God decided to make Creation, He looked into the Torah as if it were a blueprint. (Bereishis Rabbah 1:1)
If so, then why give the Torah to us? Why give the blueprint for Creation to man, something which, apparently, as the Talmud teaches, the angels argued against:
Rebi Yehoshua ben Levi also said: “When Moshe ascended on high, the ministering angels said before The Holy One, Blessed is He, ‘Master of the Universe! What business has one born of woman amongst us?’
‘He has come to receive the Torah,’ He answered them.
They said to Him, ‘That secret treasure, which has been hidden by You for 974 generations before the world was created, You want to give to flesh-and-blood! What is man, that You are mindful of him, and the son of man, that You visit him (Tehillim 8:5)? O Lord our God, how mighty is Your Name in all the earth! Who has set Your glory [the Torah] upon the Heavens! (Tehillim 8:2)?’ (Shabbos 88b)
However, if the point of Torah was only to create good soldiers, that is, of doing the mitzvos to the best of our ability and thereby earning reward in the World-to-Come, a streamlined version of Torah would have sufficed. If it was only a question of getting Pshat, of only understanding the intricacies of everyday halachah so that we can become Bnei Olam HaBah, people destined to go to the World-to-Come, then the Rambam’s Mishnah Torah, or something like it, would have been enough.
And, if it is enough, then why do we continue to suffer as a nation, in spite of our best efforts to increase our fulfillment of the mitzvos and expand our learning of the Talmud? In fact, why is it that, in spite of our level of genius and vast knowledge of Torah, we seem to underestimate the seriousness of historical events, and often fall prey to our enemies at the end of each exile?
Could it be that we are drowning in Pshat?