Finding Meaning Through Midrash

When we engage with biblical stories, says Rabbi Sandy Sasso, we often find insights and wisdom that help us understand our own lives. 

by Susan Tomchin

Read Rabbi Sasso's Insights on Shavuot

The Bible is one of the world’s bestselling books, with so many million copies purchased or distributed it’s impossible to even guess at the tally. 

But whether people read or understand the Bible, is a completely different matter.

“The Bible can be a window into our own lives,” says Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. “The biblical stories are meant to continue to speak to us and we are meant to have a conversation with them,” she told Jewish Woman in a phone interview. “That’s what the rabbis did when they created midrash [defined on as “the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in "gaps" found in the Torah]. They read the biblical stories and conversed with them and brought their own personal and historical situation into dialogue with the text.”

Rabbi Sasso, senior rabbi emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis, has worked avidly to show both Jews and interfaith audiences, the value of midrash. Her book, Midrash: Reading the Bible with Question Marks, initially published in 2007 and reissued as a paperback by Paraclete Press in 2013, shows us how to engage in the age old process of understanding and wrestling with the Torah’s meaning, to discover, “not just what the Bible meant but what it continues to mean.”

She takes 20 essential midrashic texts from the Bible including Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac on Mt. Moriah, the revelation at Sinai, and how Miriam encouraged her parents Amram and Yocheved to have a child despite Pharaoh’s decree that all male Hebrew babies would be killed. 

“Miriam sees what is, but also what can be. She knows the same set of facts, but she does not stop there. She envisions what can be, the possibility of a different future. Reason may counsel her to give up, but hope and imagination tell her to go on. It is she who prophesies the birth of Moses and anticipates in him a redeemer of her people.”

Sasso offers new translations, interpretations and personal reflections, and asks questions that enable us to see ourselves in the stories, thus turning the process of creating midrash into journeys of personal discovery. For example, in relation to the midrash about Miriam she asks: “When are you more like Moses’s parents, and when are you more like Miriam? When reason would tell you to give up and give in, what gives you hope?”

Known as the “storytelling rabbi” for her engaging stories at family services, Rabbi Sasso has written many, now classic, books for children including God’s Paintbrush; Adam and Eve’s New Day; What Is God’s Name? and Creation's First Light that are actually midrashim. “My publicist said, ‘Why don’t you write about midrash for adults because everybody is fascinated by this process?’ That’s how I came to write a book for adults.”

In 1974 Rabbi Sasso became the first woman to graduate as a rabbi from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary. Among her other firsts: when she and her husband Dennis Sasso married, they became the first practicing rabbinical couple and she was the first rabbi to become a mother, when her son David was born in 1976. A daughter, Debbie, followed three years later. Rabbi Sasso is now a grandmother of three.

During those early years of study she was struck by the dearth of women’s stories she encountered. “I kept reading texts that excluded a woman’s voice, her name and her story. What I yearned to do was to give voice to women and stories to women. That’s what got me interested in midrash and why I felt midrash was a way I could bring my voice to the tradition.”

When women listen to biblical text through the mouths of ancient interpreters, she says, “It’s kind of like Sarah eavesdropping outside the tent, while Abraham had a conversation with the angels.” By doing midrash, women “enter the tent and participate in the conversation.”

Today many have availed themselves of opportunities to explore ancient midrash and create their own. And the success of Anita Diamant’s novel, The Red Tent, has inspired a bevy of novels based on biblical characters, many of them women. Does Sasso consider these, as well as biblical movies, midrash?

“Midrash follows the interpretation of a particular verse and always refers back to the verse, but they have that feel.” she says. “Thought not midrash in the classical sense, they have the style of conversing with the text and giving it new meaning. There can be, in my opinion, visual midrash, as well as musical midrash and choreography, not in its classical definition, but in a broader way.”

In May 2013 Sasso retired as a congregational rabbi, and now directs the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University in Indianapolis. She led a Religion, Spiritualty and Arts seminar at the university that featured 12 artists from different disciplines including music, poetry, visual art, dance, drama, narrative and liturgical art. They studied the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, and then created art that was shared at a community exhibition.

“The art was spectacular,” Sasso says. “This was an opportunity to work with artists who were also interested in spiritual matters. For me, my art form is writing. The ability to bring different art forms together to dialogue is enriching for each art form individually.”

“One artist who did 14 paintings told me that the seminar was transformative,” she says. “He had been dealing with an issue for most of his life and this experience finally enabled him to heal.”