Bruchim ha’ba’im to Sefer Ha-Bloggadah! I am so honored to be the first poster on this wild two-year ride on which we are embarking. Before I share some thoughts on this first page of meta-aggadot, I’ll say a few words of introduction.
As we say in my adopted hometown of Jerusalem, they call me Sara Meirowitz. I am a long-time NHC participant, editor, writer, teacher and student of Jewish texts, freelance Jew worldwide. I hail from the Boston area (Cambridge specifically) and now make my home in the holy city, and I’m proud to be representing this daf yomi project on the other side of things, in partnership with my terrific havruta QueenDeb. I will be blogging on alternate Mondays (alternating with the lovely General Anna) on all topics grammatical, poetic, interconnected. I love Tanakh and aggadah and I’m thrilled to explore this treasure tome with you all!
On to today’s readings:
This first section marks an introduction to the study of aggadah and answers the unstated question: why bother? If aggadah does not give “the power to prohibit or to permit, to declare clean or to declare unclean” (1:5), what indeed is its role in our rabbinic/halakhic tradition? Several of the parables gathered in this section give their answers as to the importance of creative interpretation, and I found their juxtaposition a fascinating illumination of Bialik’s goals in gathering this collection:
* Aggadah as a key to God’s plan: as seen in the first passage of today’s reading, the nature of aggadah is intimately connected with the nature of “Him by whose word the world came into being” (1:1). The idea that God’s nature rests in homiletical stories seems theologically radical, especially when contrasted with the limitation on aggadah’s decision-making power as quoted above in para. 8. This feature of aggadot as in and of themselves holy can also be seen in their being analogized to “delights of the sons of men” (1:9) and to the fragrance of lilies (1:10). Indeed, one feature of aggadot which is praised—in contrast to halakhot—is their accessibility to all (1:11), something which I hope we’ll see in this daf yomi project.
* Aggadah as a key to understanding Torah: this seems to be one of the most common understandings of what aggadah can do—explicate a difficult passage, fill in the gap in a narrative. The superlative parables about King Solomon in the third passage epitomize the ways in which aggadah can be seen metaphorically as a goad, a path, a handle for a pot of boiling water, a bucket for a well of cold water. These explanations pair well with the understanding that aggadah’s strength lies in its comprehensibility; while it may not hold literal truth, it can lead the reader through potential obfuscations towards Torah’s truths.
* Aggadah as whetting the appetite: what one might call the “amuse-bouche” purpose of aggadah, it makes you want to read more Torah. We see this in the analogy to manna, which “draws a man’s heart [to Torah] even as water [draws the heart of a thirsty man]” (1:8). I am reminded of the poem by Billy Collins, where he says that “the trouble with poetry is/that it encourages the writing of more poetry.” Whether or not aggadah itself holds divine secrets, whether or not it can show the path towards Torah, these homiletical stories can whet the appetite for learning Torah of all sorts. I especially liked the final aggadah of this section, which I quote in its entirety: “As certain as a formal covenant is the assurance that he who studies Aggadah from a book will not soon forget it” (1:12). I am confident that our interactive project here will have this effect to an even greater extent.
As a literary sort, I have my own answer as to why Aggadah is valuable: the narrative structure of a parable can compel analysis and inquiry in a way entirely different from a straight-up midrash halakhah or talmudic discussion. Humans express deep truths through narrative art, and whether or not a story really happened has very little bearing on whether it is affective or honest. The traditional project of aggadah is a way to engage in the most deeply human of projects, to insert rabbinic meaning into the canonical text and thus re-enliven it. And by our rereading of these aggadot, inventing and reenvisioning our own interpretations, may we come to engage in all these facets of the aggadic process.