Midrash, derived from the root darash, "to seek out" or "to inquire," is a term used in rabbinic literature for the interpretive study of the Bible. The word is used in two related senses: first, to refer to the results of that interpretive exegesis; and, second, to describe the literary compilations in which the original interpretations, many of them first delivered and transmitted orally, were eventually collected.These essays on Exodus make extensive use of some of these midrashic collections, notably Midrash Rabbah and Midrash Tanchuma. In addition, Rashi, the great French eleventh-century commentator on the Torah, includes in his text a significant selection of midrashic interpretations; often, I refer to Rashi's versions, where they offer interesting nuances on the original sources. Since Rashi's commentary has been absorbed into the bloodstream of Jewish culture, his midrashic material has become a kind of "second nature" in the traditional reading of the biblical text. Before turning to a more personal view of the nature of midrashic reading, some technical observations are in order. These essays are based on the literary and liturgical device of "Parshat ha-Shavua," or "the Parsha": the Bible is read in Synagogue in weekly sections, so as to be completed in yearly cycles. Each Parsha is titled after a significant opening word. This device constitutes a way of living Jewish time; each week is saturated, as it were, with the material of that particular biblical season. One thinks, one studies, one lives the Parsha. If one is a teacher, this process is intensified. It is as a result of years of teaching the Bible in this form that I have come to articulate the ideas in this book.
In my approach, the biblical text is not allowed to stand alone, but has its boundaries blurred by later commentaries and by a persistent intertextuality that makes it impossible to imagine that meaning is somehow transparently present in the isolated text. Such an approach represents perhaps the greatest difficulty for the modern readers. It continues, in a sense, the rabbinic mode of reading, where "the rabbis imagined themselves a part of the whole, participating in Torah rather than operating on it at an analytical distance.... [I]t follows that the words of interpretation cannot be isolated in any rigorously analytical way from the words of Torah itself." Elliot Wolfson articulates this reading practice: "the base text of revelation is thought to comprise within itself layers of interpretation, and the works of interpretation on the biblical canon are considered revelatory in nature."