In the Jewish tradition in which I grew up, we have midrashim (the Hebrew plural for midrash.) A midrash is a parable or narrative interpretation or an interrogative dialogue with which one explores a sacred text, usually the stories to be found in the Torah—the Five Books of Moses—or the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures.
A midrash, it should be understood, however, is not literary criticism. It is not an act of deconstruction, of rationally taking the words apart, or reducing it to some irreducible minimum. It is more an act of imagining oneself inside a sacred text, of imaginatively taking it into oneself even as one finds oneself enwrapped within it. Like a very noisy meditation, it is a way of encountering oneself in a new, previously unexplored context, while at the same time having the text take on the force of the present, even as it is rooted in the past. The text grows larger as a result, even as, if you’ve done it right, do you.
Sometimes I think that when I am contemplating my children’s adventures, I am writing midrashim. My children are the sacred texts, or at least the vessels for them. I encounter myself within them, even as I try to ensure their essence remains inviolate. Like most parents, I project my own hopes and dreams, successes and disappointments, expectations and excitement onto them. Sometimes I bring with me a healthy dose of perspective, and sometimes, well, I always urge parents to put some money into the therapy fund alongside the college one.
And then I remember that, as a living vessel of sacred texts as yet to be unfolded, each and every child is holy. Holy, not as something not to be touched, even if containing within them the spark of the transcendent, but as an ark, encompassing the wellsprings of future memories, those that will, someday, be inaccessible to me, but open to my grandchildren, or even those who come thereafter. Or perhaps we are, together, a part of one unending scroll. As you can see, even in contemplating the art of midrash, I discover that I have written one.
And sometimes, more in keeping with the tradition, I find myself writing midrashim of the more traditional variety. Or, I am tempted to say, they write me.
It is something I get to share with my children, who would be much less willing to put up with the more overtly philosophical ones. Maybe they are the literary equivalent of a hug. Here is my most recent one, which poured out one First Day at meeting, disrupting all the rest of my plans for the day, until it was sure I got it right. (It is based on a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, itself based on a Yiddish folktale, but told, shall we say, a little differently.)
So God looked down upon the Earth, and saw that it hadn’t actually turned out the way He had planned. "I must be able to do better than this," He thought, rubbing His eyes after having peered through His binoculars for too long.
But He remembered how hard He’d labored over the animals. What, had it taken Him a whole day? And He was kind of happy with them. Some were even cute and cuddly. And so He decided that while He’d destroy everything else, He’d keep the furry and feathered and etceteras, the fish could fend for themselves, and He’d give it another try. Level everything, erase it like a blackboard, and start over.
He decided He’d entrust the animals to Noah, who seemed to be mostly unemployed for the past century, and so had plenty of time on his hands.
"Noah," He said.
"Whoah," replied Noah, awakening from his half-slumber and stroking his long, scraggly beard, "What’s that?"
"Noah," God spoke with authority, "Build ye an ark."
Now Noah was already 400 and something years old, but he hadn’t heard anybody say "ye" in a very, very long time, so he figured it must be God talking because no one else he knew spoke that way.
"Yes, Lord?" Noah said, sitting up, and feeling a little tipsy from his hangover from the night before.
"I said," repeated God, now just a little annoyed, "Build ye an ark."
"What’s an ark?" asked Noah sheepishly, opening up his arms and raising his hands palms out.
"It’s a kind of boat," spake the Lord.
"Boat? Why would anyone need a boat around here? There’s not much water or anything. Just a piddling little stream. You mean like a canoe?"
"No, a big boat," said the Lord, "Big enough to put all the animals in."
"Won’t it smell?" asked Noah, expressing uncertainty about the whole venture.
"You’re going to have bigger problems than that to think about," replied God, getting a little steamy, handing him the blueprints. "Now get to work."
So Noah pondered the plans. He’d never built anything before in his life, or at least nothing particularly substantial. The blueprints called for cubits of this and that. Noah had no idea what a cubit was, but he decided to make believe he’d figure it out once he got started.
It was pretty slow going at first. The local lumberyard and hardware store never seemed to have what he needed, and everything had to be special ordered. It cost him a pretty penny.
But slowly it began to take shape, though what shape it was supposed to be Noah had no idea. When he told his curious friends that it was an ark, there was great skepticism (no one ever having heard of an ark before, and there wasn’t any body of water within 200 miles). They were all convinced it wouldn’t float.
At last, the ark was completed, and the animals all gathered to come aboard. But it sure looked awfully small.
"You’ll have to take me," said the giraffe, assuming Noah was going to have to pick and choose. "Just knock a little hole in the ceiling and I can be the lookout."
"Well, you’ll want me—I’m the largest, and have the longest trunk," said the elephant.
"I’m the fattest," said the hippopotamus, also indicating that the world would suffer a great loss without something named "hippopotamus" in it. "Besides, I have the biggest mouth."
"Not likely," said the alligator yawning, its jaws opening three cubits wide.
"I’m the king of the jungle," opined the lion, assuring himself that no place could exist for very long without a king.
"I have the best wool," said the lamb, and then, perceiving potential problems, "Just put me on the other side of the boat from the lion."
"I am closest to the earth," said the snake, not being able to figure out anything else in particular to recommend himself.
"You forgot me!" cried the earthworm.
"How many other birds can quack?" said the duck.
"I can talk like a human, and keep you company," said the parrot.
"I am the most beautiful, and have the most beautiful eyes," said the horse, batting her beautiful eyelids at Noah.
"But you only have two of them; look at these babies!" said the horsefly, with literally thousands of eyes on each side of his head.
Off to the side, Noah saw a little gray bird sitting quietly, just minding his own business. "What about you, dove?" asked Noah.
"Oh, please, none of this dove business, thank you, nothing so fancy-shmancy. I’m just a pigeon," he replied quietly, adjusting the bill of his cap. "Nothing special about me. Just a regular guy. I do what I need to get by. But if you give me a little space up in the rafters in the back, don’t worry, I won’t make any trouble."
And then Noah remembered that God hadn’t said anything about selecting which animals to take, and came to the conclusion that he was supposed to take them all.
"Even the mosquitos?" whinnied the horse, expressing a view shared by many of the others.
"Mosquitos, too," replied Noah.
And so on they went. With a little judicious planning and a lot of pushing and shoving, they all got on. It wasn’t pretty, but this was no cruise ship.
And the rains came. Forty days and 40 nights it rained. It didn’t rain cats and dogs—they were already on the boat, which, surprising even to Noah, didn’t leak at all. And the land was erased like a blackboard, and then the rain stopped. The sun came out. The boat came to rest on top of a big—well, they weren’t quite sure what it was yet. The giraffe craned his neck out the top like a periscope, but all he could see was water everywhere.
"Someone’s going to have to go out and take a look around," said Noah.
"Not I," said the giraffe, "If my legs don’t feel the ground, I just flail around. Watching a giraffe try to swim is not a pretty sight."
"Not I," said the snake, "Water gives me the creeps!"
"Limited range," said the duck, "I can paddle around this here, what did you call it—ah, yes, ark—but that’s about all you can expect out of me."
"I’m solely a jungle person," said the lion, still eyeing the lamb on the other side of the boat.
And so it went. Each of them had their reasons. And then Noah turned to the . . . pigeon.
"Well, someone’s gotta go," sighed the pigeon from up in the rafters, pulling his cap tight on his head.
"So it might as well be me." And out he went. A couple of days later he came back, bareheaded. His wings were a bit wet, and in the sun they shone iridescent, like a rainbow. He was still a pigeon, but he’d come back—changed. And in his mouth he carried an olive branch.
"Peace," he said. "Peace. Flying around out there, I got the message. It’s a big Earth. Bigger, and greener, and more beautiful than ever before. Plenty of room for all of us, if we can just figure out how to live together. Hey, if we can manage for 40 days and 40 nights on this here smelly ark, the rest should be a piece of cake, don’t you think?" And he flew off.
And Noah and the animals made their way off as well, each going his or her own way, all trying to remember that it really is possible to get along.
And from that day forth, God made a decision. When He had a message to send, He wasn’t going to entrust it to the biggest, or the strongest, or the kingliest, or the best talker, or the one with the biggest mouth. He was going to make sure to entrust His message to just a regular guy. Nobody special. No doves—nothing fancy-shmancy—just pigeons. Just like me and you.
And He was going to make sure there were plenty of pigeons in the cities, so that we could remember the rainbow sign.