Question:

I bought a set of Torah and the Prophets with all the classic commentaries and I enjoy studying it very much. I am unsure, however, how to understand the vast differences of opinions concerning any particular story. Often, the opinions contradict one another.

How can I appreciate studying such commentaries when only one could be right?

Response:

This is a commonly asked question. It is predicated on the assumption that the purpose of the Torah is to tell us the history of our people, and history had to happen in a certain way.

But that isn't the purpose of the Torah. True, it is stories that fill much of the Torah. And true, these episodes literally happened in a specific manner. Nonetheless, when studying the Torah, we are meant to go past "what happened" and view the stories as a means for G‑d to convey us a message—a lesson for our lives right now.

Indeed, one needs look no further than the very translation of the word "Torah" to realize that the Torah is not a mere guide to Jewish history. Torah means "teaching"—not "history book." This is also apparent from the Torah's (seemingly strange) selective history, the occasional non-chronological order in which events are recorded, and the mysterious wording it sometimes uses to tell a story.

For, beyond the storyline, each story, verse, word, and letter in the Torah is a glimpse into a higher truth. It is the infinite wisdom of G‑d concentrated into stories the human mind can comprehend.

This truth can be observed from four primary dimensions, called pshat (simple), remez (hint), drush (seek) and sod (secret). And there are countless avenues of understanding within each of these perspectives.

Pshat is the simple interpretation of the Torah, following the smoothest, most elegant path of words and context. Remez uncovers the hints and allegoric meaning behind these words. Drush (or midrash) seeks the deeper meaning of the verse. And sod is the esoteric, mystical part of Torah, the meaning that can only be known to those who have been told. Read this article for more about these four, with examples of each of them.

When our holy commentators studied a story in the Torah, they each noticed another aspect of this truth. And so, we treasure them all.

And if you will ask, "So which one is true? Which one really happened?"—the answer, quite simply, is that all are true, all really happened.

Why is it difficult for us to swallow that? Because we believe that there is only one reality, and so only one history. The Torah, however, knows of many realities, all of them true, each of them containing a different lesson for us in this reality now. There are worlds where pshat is real—different worlds for different pshatim. Then there are worlds of remez, of drush and of sod.

For example, in our physical world, Moses may have been say, six feet tall. But in a certain world of drash, he was 10 amot—about 15 feet tall. Which one is more true? That depends: Are you looking for his height or for his stature? Are you measuring the Moses that fit into a physical body in a physical world, or are you measuring the real Moses, the soul and true character of the man–so that you will know how to relate to him and appreciate his character?

A stature of 10 amot implies that this person is complete in every way—since there are 10 aspects of the human character. That's who Moses really was—a whole and balanced person in the ultimate sense of those words. Our physical world cannot handle a human being of those proportions, and so we see the truth in a poise of compromise. But in a world that does not have our physical limitations, Moses is actually 10 amot tall.

It all has to do with what we are taking from the story, what we need to learn. And each different approach to Torah will provide another lesson, all equally valuable, all equally true.

Sources:
Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz presents and discusses the classic views concerning the study of Midrash in Shnei Luchot Habrit, Torah Shebaal Peh, 17 (Klal Hadrushim). He refers there to the idealist perspective in Torah that he presents ibid, Toldot Adam, Bayit Acharon. The concept is based upon the words of Rabbi Menachem Azaria of Fano in Assara Maamarot, Maamar Chikur Din, 3:22.