Random Acts of Aggadah

“Take heed of the heavens” (Deut 32.1). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: Say to them, to Israel: Gaze at the heavens, which I created to serve you. Have they perhaps changed their ways? Does the orb of the sun perchance not rise out of the east and light up the entire world, all of it? The fact is: the sun rejoices in its commission to do My will, for Scripture says, “The sun . . . is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run his course” (Ps 19.6).

“And let the earth be heard” (Deut 32.1). Gaze at the earth, which I created to serve you. Has it perhaps changed its ways? Have you perchance sown seed and it has not sprouted? Or have you sown wheat and it brought forth barley? Or did the heifer perhaps say, “I will not plow,” “I will not thresh”? Or did the ass say, “I will bear no burden,” “I will not move”?

Likewise, the sea. “I . . . have placed the sand for the bound of the sea (Jer 5.22). Has it perhaps changed its ways and, rising, flooded the world?

Is this not a matter to be argued a fortiori? The heavens, the earth, and the sea were created to receive neither reward nor penalty. If they earn merit, they receive no reward; if they go astray, they are subjected to no penalty. They need not be concerned about their sons and daughters. Yet they have not changed their ways. You—who receive reward when you earn merit and receive punishment when you sin, who are concerned about your sons and daughters—how much more and more by far should you not change your ways.

The Book of Legends 7.492
(a translation by William Braude of the classic Sefer ha-Aggadah, edited by Hayim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravnitzky)


  1. See, Phil, this is one of the Rabbinic tricks, playing with alternate niqqudim/vowel pointing to extract other meanings. Usually, if the text is unpointed, you won’t recognize the change until you get to the midrash itself, in the first case above, “Gaze at the heavens.” This disambiguates the reading of the Scriptural quotation, as pointed otherwise than it’s generally read. That is, clarifying, though it’s the Masoretic consonantal text used, the Masoretic niqqudim are optional, broadly speaking. Remember, these texts all long antedate the Masoretic annotation, so this kind of play is rife. It’s one of the more fascinating (and occasionally maddening, if one isn’t paying attention!) aspects of the Rabbinic literature.

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