Devarim: In God We Trust?

July 19, 2018 at 2:28 pm | Posted in Chukkat, Devarim, Shelach-Lekha | 2 Comments

Jordan River

Why does Moses die on the wrong side of the Jordan River, where he can see but not enter God’s “promised land”?

The Torah offers two conflicting reasons—and a hidden clue.

Moses blames the fathers of the Israelites he is addressing in this week’s Torah portion, Devarim (“Words”—the first portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim).  He retells the story of the scouts who toured Canaan in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, 38 years before.  When ten out of the twelve returning scouts reported that the land was full of giants and well-fortified cities, the frightened Israelites refused to cross the border.1

Who told them to trust God?

Someone argued with them.  In the book of Numbers, Moses and Aaron fell on their faces but said nothing.  It was Caleb and Joshua, the two scouts who gave the minority report in favor of crossing the border, who reminded the people that God would fight for them.2  (See my post Shelach-Lekha: Too Late.)  But in this week’s Torah portion, Moses claims he was the one who argued with the Israelites.

And I said to you: “You should not be terrified of them, and you should not be overawed by them.  God, your God who walks before you, [God] will fight for you, like everything that [God] did for you in Egypt, before your eyes, and in the wilderness …  Yet in this matter you have no ma-aminim in God, your God.” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:29-32)

ma-aminim (מַאֲמִינִים) = relying upon, trusting, having faith; reliance upon, trust, faith.  (A participle from the same root as ne-eman (נֶאֱמַן) = trustworthy, reliable; and amen (אָמֵן).)

Moses might be excused for misremembering who told the Israelites they should trust God to help them.  He is, after all, 120 years old.3  The difference between the two stories of the scouts can also be explained by the theory that Numbers and Deuteronomy were written by different authors, in different centuries.4

Israelites march from southern to eastern border of Canaan

The result is the same in both accounts: despite hearing someone argue that they can rely on God to help them, the Israelites refuse to cross the border.  Then God decides the people must wait until 40 years after their exodus from Egypt before they get another chance to enter Canaan.  By that time, God says, all the men over 20 (i.e. the generation that refused to enter Canaan) will be dead—except for the two optimistic scouts, Caleb and Joshua.

But what about Moses and Aaron?  In the original story of the scouts, while Caleb and Joshua tell the people to trust God, they fall on their faces, waiting to hear God’s orders.  Surely they do not deserve the same fate as the rebellious Israelites.  And God’s first reaction implies that Moses will be spared.

And God said to Moses: “How long will this community treat me disrespectfully, and how long lo ya-aminu in me, despite all the signs that I have made in their midst?  I will strike them dead with the pestilence and disown them, and I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they!”  (Numbers 14:11-12)

lo ya-aminu (יַאֲמִינוּ) = will they not have faith?   lo = not + ya-aminu = they will have faith in,  trust, rely upon.  (Also from the same root as ne-eman and amen.)

At this point, God wants Moses to populate Canaan.  Moses talks God out of killing everyone but him, and God settles on the 40-year plan.

Both Numbers and Deuteronomy note that the first time the Israelites approach the border of Canaan, from Kadeish-Barnea to the south, there is a lack of faith or trust.  The men who refuse to cross do not believe God is ne-eman (reliable); when God gives an order, they do not say amen.

In both Numbers and Deuteronomy, God decrees that Moses and Aaron will also die without entering Canaan.  But the two books give different reasons for this decree.

Numbers: The talk at the rock

Moses Striking the Rock,
by James Tissot

The people set off from Kadeish-Barnea after Miriam’s death, and the first place they camp has no water.  God tells Moses and Aaron to take their staff and speak to the rock, and it will yield water.  They assemble the Israelites in front of the rock.  Then Moses says:

“Listen up, mutineers!  Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” (Numbers 20:10)

Moses makes it sound as if he and Aaron can get water from rock with no help from God.  Then he hits the rock with the staff, instead of speaking to it.  And water gushes out.  Aaron stands by, doing nothing to correct his brother Moses.  (See my post Chukkat: The Price of Silence.)

But God said to Moses and to Aaron: “Because lo he-emantam on me, [you were not] treating me as holy in the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”  (Numbers 20:12)

lo he-emantam (הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם) = you did not rely.   lo = not + he-emantam = you had faith, trusted, relied upon.  (Also from the same root as ne-eman and amen.)

The Israelites continue traveling east through the wilderness, and God says:

Let Aaron be gathered to his people, since he may not enter the land that I have given to the Israelites, because you [plural] mutinied against my word concerning the water… (Numbers 20:24)

Aaron dies on top of Mt. Hor, and his son Elazar takes over as high priest.5  Moses continues to lead the Israelites all the way to the Jordan River, but he knows he, too, will die without crossing it.

Deuteronomy: The blame is the same

The book of Deuteronomy mentions the episode of the water-bearing rock only near the end, when God tells Moses to climb Mount Nevo, where he will die, just as Aaron died on Mount Hor—

—because you both betrayed me in the midst of the Israelites at the water of Meribat-Kadeish in the wilderness of Tzin, because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the Israelites.  (Deuteronomy 32:51)

But in this week’s portion, Moses tells a different story.  He says God decreed that Caleb, Joshua, and everyone who was a child at the time would live to enter Canaan, but “these men of this bad generation” would die before the 40 years were up (Deuteronomy 1:35-39).

Also God felt angry against me on your account, saying: “Even you shall not enter there!”  (Deuteronomy 1:37)

When Moses says “on your account” he does not distinguish between the new generation of Israelites listening to his speech and the old, bad generation.  His book-length speech in Deuteronomy does not mention that the new generation did anything to offend God; but in Numbers, when the Israelites first camp on the east bank of the Jordan, they worship the local god, Ba-al Peor.  (See my post Balak: Carnal Appetites.)  Instead of reaffirming their reliance on God, the new adults act as if God is not enough for them.  Like their fathers, they fail when it comes to ma-aminim in God.

Moses implies that their failure to rely on God is the reason why God will not let him cross into Canaan before he dies.  Ramban6 wrote that Moses wanted to demonstrate that the whole community is responsible for and suffers from any lack of faith in God.  As the leader of all the Israelites, Moses had the most responsibility.

*

This week’s Torah portion, Devarim, implies that God decreed Moses’ death on the east bank of the Jordan because Moses had failed to instill enough ma-aminim in the Israelites by the time they reached the southern border of Canaan.

In the book of Numbers, God decreed Moses’ death on the east bank because he failed to instill enough ma-aminim in the Israelites when he neglected to give God credit for the water gushing from the rock.

The timing is different in these two explanations of God’s decree, but the underlying cause is the same.  And the Torah gives us the clue by repeatedly using the same verb when someone fails to rely on God.

At the burning bush, God chose Moses because no one else could serve as God’s prophet before Pharaoh and also hold the Israelites together no matter how long it took to get them to Canaan.  For more than 40 years, Moses devoted his whole strength to the nearly impossible job of transforming a huge and motley collection of ex-slaves and camp followers into a single people dedicated to a new religion.  When Moses addresses the survivors in Deuteronomy, they are finally unified, optimistic, and ready to cross into their promised land.7

But can they keep their faith in God?  Can they trust God, who over the years delivered punishments as well as miraculous rescues?  Can they rely upon their God, and no other?

Can any of us?

(An earlier version of this essay was published in July 2010.)

  1. Numbers 13:1-14:4. At that time the Israelites are camped on the southern border of Canaan, near Kadeish-Barnea.
  2. Numbers 14:5-10.
  3. Though when Moses does die at the end of Deuteronomy, the Torah says “…his eye had not clouded and his vigor had not waned.” (Deuteronomy 34:7)
  4. Modern scholars examine differences in vocabulary, syntax, and style to assign parts of the Torah to different (unknown) authors writing in different eras. Although they disagree about many details, most agree that the first 11 chapters of Deuteronomy were written during the reign of King Josiah of Judah in the 7th century B.C.E.  The story of the scouts in the book of Numbers appears to be a composite of several texts written during different centuries.
  5. Numbers 20:22-29. Aaron is older than his 120-year-old brother Moses, but the Torah insists that he dies in the wilderness because of disobedience, not old age.
  6. 13th-century Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, also called Nachmanides as well as the acronym RaMBaN.
  7. The Israelites cross the Jordan River, the northeastern border of Canaan, in Joshua 3:1-17.

Haftarat Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship

August 11, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Posted in Devarim, Isaiah 1, Jeremiah | 2 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22) and the haftarah is Isaiah 1:1-27.

Jerusalem, the strong walled city in the hills, the capital of Judah and the site of the temple of the God of Israel, fell to the Babylonian army in 587 B.C.E. On Tisha B’Av, the tenth of the month of Av, Jews remember the razing of the temple by chanting the book of Lamentations/Eykhah, which begins:

Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch by Gustave Dore

Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch
by Gustave Dore

     Eykhah!

     The city sits alone,

     Once great with people.

     She has become like a widow,

     Once great among the nations.

     A princess among the provinces,

     She has become a slave. (Lamentations 1:1)

Eykhah (אֵיכָה) = Oh, how? Alas! How could it be? (See my post Devarim: Oh, How?)

The prophet Jeremiah had been warning the people of Jerusalem to stop worshiping other gods and acting immorally (as well as warning the kings of Jerusalem to submit to the Babylonians before it was too late). But they all ignored him. So the God of Israel, the “god of armies”, according to Jeremiah, let the Babylonians destroy the city that was supposed to be the place where God’s enlightenment came into the world.

The book of Jeremiah calls Jerusalem (and by extension the Israelites) God’s bride, who made a covenant like a marriage with God—and then strayed after other gods and became a prostitute. In Lamentations, she has become a widow, utterly bereft of God.

This week’s haftarah is always read on the Saturday morning before Tisha B’Av, and it also includes the despairing cry, Eykhah!

Isaiah by Gustave Dore

Isaiah
by Gustave Dore

  Eykhah! She has become a prostitute,

     The [once] faithful city

     Filled with justice.

     Tzedek used to linger in her,

     But now—murderers. (Isaiah 1:21)

 Tzedek (צֶדֶק) = virtue, rightness, righteousness justice, good deeds.

 The haftarah, which refers to events in 701 B.C.E., also reminds us that according to the book of Isaiah, God gave the people of Judah and Jerusalem more than a century of opportunities to change their ways before finally the temple was razed.

What misdeeds does Isaiah urge the people to stop doing?

This haftarah is not about worshiping false gods, but about worshiping God falsely—by following the ritual forms without obeying God’s commandments about just behavior toward fellow human beings.

     Why do you give me so many slaughter-sacrifices?
—God says.

First temple altar     I am sated with rising-offerings of rams

     And the fat of meat-cattle

     And the blood of bulls.

     And lambs and he-goats

     I do not want

     When you come to appear before Me.

     Who asks for that from your hand?

     Do not go on trampling My courts

     Bringing oblations!

     Incense is repugnant to Me.

     New moon and sabbath

     Reading to an assembly—

     I cannot endure

     Misdeeds and ritual celebrations! (Isaiah 1:11-13)

Isaiah is especially critical of the government in Jerusalem.

     Your officials are obstinate

     And comrades of thieves,

     Every one a lover of bribes

     And a pursuer of payments.

     They do not judge the case of the orphan,

     Nor does the lawsuit of the widow come to them. (Isaiah 1:23)

Nevertheless, God offers the people a chance to reform and be saved from future wars.

     Go, please, and be set right

     —says God.

Flour Background

     [Even] if your faults are like crimson dye,

     They shall become white like the snow.

     If they are red as scarlet fabric,

     They shall become like fleece.

     If you do good and you pay attention,

     The goodness of the land you shall eat.

     But if you refuse and you are obstinate,

     You will be devoured by the sword… (Isaiah 1:18-20)

The haftarah concludes:

     Zion can be redeemed through justice,

     And those who turn back, through tzedek. (Isaiah 1:27)

*

Like Job, we know that being good is not always rewarded in this world. When we see God as an anthropomorphic judge meting out rewards and punishments, God seems to look away from saints as well as sinners.

Yet the human race as a whole could be redeemed through justice and virtue. If we all dedicated ourselves to following treaties and international laws, to being honest and fair, and to helping the needy, war would disappear.

On an individual level, at least good behavior leads to a clear conscience and the trust of others, and those result in a happier life than the lives of the murderers, thieves, bribe-takers, and heart-hardeners who ruled Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time.

And a happier life than the priests in this week’s haftarah, who spread their hands to bless he congregation even though they, too, are guilty.

     And when you spread out your palms

     I lift My eyes away from you;

     Even if you make abundant prayers

     I will not be listening;

     Your hands are filled with bloodshed. (Isaiah 1:15)

So go ahead and pray, attend services, follow rituals to approach God. But remember Isaiah’s words, and also keep your hands clean.

Devarim: Enough Already

July 24, 2015 at 12:37 am | Posted in Devarim, Va-etchannan | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

When Moses begins his book-length speech, God sounds different.  I notice it every year when I read the first Torah portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim (“Words”).

Cloud over the portable sanctuary

Cloud over the portable sanctuary

For example, when the Israelites finish all their preparations and leave Mount Sinai in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, God does not need to say anything; the Israelites simply follow the divine cloud:

And it was in the second year, in the second month, on the 20th of the month, the cloud was lifted from over the sanctuary of the testimony, and the Children of Israel pulled out from the wilderness of Sinai for their journey.  And the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran. (Numbers 10:11-12)

Here is how Moses describes the departure in Deuteronomy:

God, our god, spoke to us at Choreiv [Sinai], saying:  Rav-lakhem sitting still at this mountain!  Face about, pull out, and come to the highlands of the Emori and…the land of the Canaanite… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:6-7)

rav (רַב) = abundant, plenty, huge, many, much, too much.

lakhem (לָכֶם) = for you, to you, belonging to you.  (“You” is plural in lakhem.  The singular is lakh.)

Rav-lakhem (רַב־לָכֶם) = Too much for you!  You have too much!  (Or in Yiddish-inflected English, “Enough already!”)

Not only is God giving verbal orders, instead of merely using the pre-arranged signal of the lifting cloud; God also sounds impatient and a little crabby.  God protests that the people have spent “too much” time “sitting still at this mountain”.

I can see why the Israelites might want to linger at the foot of Mount Sinai.  When they first arrive in the book of Exodus/Shemot, they make the Golden Calf instead of trusting that Moses will return from the mountaintop with God’s instructions.  Thousands are killed as a result, first by Moses’ Levite tribe and then by a plague from God.  Moses talks God into giving the people another chance, and they spend a year at Sinai living on manna and fabricating all the components of the portable sanctuary for God. The food is sufficient, the work is pleasant, and no one bothers them, neither human nor divine. Naturally they are reluctant to change their comfortable way of life.

And naturally God, whose grand plan requires the conquest of Canaan, gets impatient with them and says, “Rav lakhem!  Too long for you!”

God snaps Rav lakhem! again later in Moses’s story, when the Israelites set out from Kadeish-Barnea to make their second attempt to enter the “promised land”. (The first one fails when fear paralyzes the people and they refuse to cross the southern border of Canaan in the desert.  God makes them wait in the wilderness for 38 years, until most of the old generation has died, and then lets them try again by a different route.)

Detour of Israelites

Detour of Israelites

In both Numbers and Deuteronomy, the second time that the Israelites head toward Canaan they go east first, hoping to pass through the kingdom of Edom and then continue north along the shore of the Dead Sea opposite Canaan, finally crossing over at the Jordan River.  But the king of Edom refused to let the people go through his country.

According to Numbers, Moses simply leads the Israelites south, so they can circle around Edom. Two things happen on the way:  At Mount Hor, Aaron dies and the people pause to mourn him for the traditional 30 days; and at a sea of reeds (different from the one between Egypt and Mount Sinai) they complain about the manna, so God lets poisonous snakes bite them. (See my post Chukkat: Facing the Snake). As soon as they reach the wilderness east of Edom, they head north.

The story sounds different when Moses tells it in Deuteronomy.  In this version, the people head toward the sea of reeds south of Edom, but they wander around the skirts of Mount Seir in Edom until God scolds them.

And we turned and we pulled out toward the wilderness on the way to the sea of reeds, as God had spoken to me, and we circled around the mountain of Seir many days.  Then God said to me, saying:  Rav-lakhem, circling around this mountain!  Face about, tzafonah!  (Deuteronomy 2:1-3)

tzafonah (צָפֹנָה) = northward. (From the root verb tzafan, צָפַן = hid; stored treasure.)

Once again God gets impatient with the Israelites for delaying.  But there is nothing safe or pleasant about the snake-infested wilderness around hostile kingdom of Edom.  The people are not lingering because they are comfortable where they are.  The only possible reason for delay is so that they can complain (and then recover from snake-bite).

Perhaps this time, God’s Rav-lakhem means “Too much complaining from you, as you circle around this mountain!”  Instead of grumbling and insulting God’s manna, they should turn and face the tzafan, the treasure God has stored up for them in the part of Canaan to their north.

In next week’s Torah portion, Va-Etchannan, God uses the phrase with a singular “you” to snap at Moses.

But God was cross with me because of you, and would not listen to me.  And God said to me:  Rav-lakh!  Do not speak to Me again about this matter!  (Deuteronomy 3:26)

In the book of Numbers, God declares the Moses will not enter Canaan because he says the wrong thing to the people at the Waters of Merivah; and Moses does not protest God’s ruling.

But in Deuteronomy, Moses blames the people for God’s anger at him, and says he begged God to let him cross over the Jordan after all.  God said Rav-lakh! because Moses tried to reopen a subject that should have been settled. Both God and Moses seem irascible in the passage from Deuteronomy. I think God’s exclamation could be translated: “You’ve said too much already!”

Why is God more impatient in Deuteronomy than in Numbers?

Modern scholars point out a number of differences between the language of the two books, and conclude that they were written in different centuries.  (For example, Richard Elliott Friedman dates much of Numbers to the P source in the 6th century B.C.E., after the fall of the first temple.  He dates Deuteronomy to the reign of King Josiah a century earlier, circa 640-610.  According to this dating, God snaps Rav lakhem! and Rav lakh! in the earlier account.  In the later account, God is silent.)

Traditional commentary generally ignores the differences in language between Deuteronomy and Numbers.  It addresses the small but telling differences in content by explaining that in Deuteronomy Moses selected the key events the new generation needed to know before they entered Canaan, and related them the way the people needed to hear them.

Sometimes we do need a god who reacts like an exasperated human being, a god like the one in the first two portions of Deuteronomy.  When we feel safe and comfortable where we are, the way Moses portrays the Israelites at Mount Sinai, we are likely to ignore a signal like a rising cloud.  We need to hear a divine voice saying Rav lakhem! to get us unstuck, so we will take on the next challenge.

When we get so caught up in our complaints that we forget the goal we are heading toward, like the Israelites in snake country south of Edom, we need to hear a divine voice saying Rav lakhem! to jolt our awareness back to the hidden treasure we need to find.

And when we keep trying to change what cannot be changed, the way Moses begs God to reconsider and let him go to Canaan, we need to hear a divine voice saying Rav lakh! to shut us up, so we can concentrate on making the most of the life that we do have.

The impatient God in the beginning of Deuteronomy can still serve a purpose!

Devarim & Shelach-Lekha: A Giant Detour

July 27, 2014 at 8:44 pm | Posted in Devarim, Shelach-Lekha | 1 Comment
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The first time the Israelites reach the border of Canaan, they refuse to cross because they are afraid of giants. The second time, they delay crossing the border because of a giant.

The first time, the Israelites come from Mount Sinai directly to the southern border of the land God promised to give them. In the Torah portion Shelach-Lekha in Numbers/Bemidbar, Moses sends scouts into Canaan. The scouts return saying the land is full of giants.

And all the people that we saw in it were men of unusual size. There we saw the Nefilim—children of Anak from the Nefilim—and we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were in their eyes! (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:32-33)

Nefilim (נְפִילִים) = “fallen ones”, giants; offspring of “the gods” and human women before the Flood.

Anak = founder of the Anakim (עֲנָקִים) = “necklace people”, giants.

There are three groups of people in the Torah who are tall enough to be considered giants: the Nefilim, the Anakim, and the Refa-im. The passage above confirms that the Nefilim and Anakim are giants.

At the southern border of Canaan, the Israelites refuse to go into a promised land that is full of giants. God declares they must wait until 40 years have passed since the exodus from Egypt, and all the men of that generation have died (except for Joshua, and Caleb, the two scouts in favor of  going).

Bashan and Cheshbon

Bashan and Cheshbon

In the 39th year, in the Torah portion Chukkat in Numbers, Moses leads the Israelites around the kingdoms of Edom and Moab, and they camp on the Arnon River.  Now all that lies between them and the Jordan River, the eastern border of Canaan, is the kingdom of Cheshbon.

Moses asks Sichon, king of Cheshbon, for permission to pass through his land on the king’s highway. Sichon not only refuses, but calls up his army and goes to battle. The Israelites win, and take over Cheshbon.

Then, instead of heading straight for the Jordan River, they take a long detour to the north, all the way to Edre-ii.

Then they turned their faces and they went up the Bashan road; and Og, king of the Bashan, went out to come against them to do battle, he and all his people, at Edre-ii. And God said to Moses: Do not be afraid of him, because into your hand I have given him, and all his people, and all his land; and you shall do to him as you did to Sichon, king of the Emori, who was living in Cheshbon. So they struck him down, and his sons and all his people, until there were no survivors left, and they took possession of his land. Then the Children of Israel pulled out, and they pitched camp on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:33- 22:1)

Og (עוֹג) = a proper name. (In Biblical Hebrew, the closest word is oog (עוּג) = bake a cake. In Phoenician, og = a supernatural being who attacks grave-desecrators.)

Why do the Israelites make this gratuitous detour to conquer an extra country—a country that is not even part of the “promised land” of Canaan?

According to most traditional commentary, King Og would have come south and attacked the Israelites anyway, as soon as they conquered Cheshbon. Some commentators have claimed that Og and Sichon were allies, others that they were both hired by the Canaanites to guard the Jordan River against invaders from the east. In the Talmud, Niddah 61a says Og and Sichon were brother giants who escaped the Flood in Noah’s day. (According to one old story, baby Sichon was a stowaway in the ark, and Og rode on the roof.)

Yet when the Israelites head up the Bashan road, they do not meet Og and his army until they get all the way to the fortress of Edre-ii, King Og’s second capital. Therefore, according to the Torah itself, Og is not on his way to attack the Israelites in Cheshbon. The Israelites’ detour to the Bashan is unnecessary.

So why do they do it—with Moses’ cooperation, and God’s consent and reassurance?

When Moses retells the story in this week’s Torah portion, Devarim (“Words”), his account begins the same way as in Numbers. But then he gives us new information about King Og.

For only Og, king of the Bashan, remained from the rest of the Refa-im. Hey! His bedstead was a bedstead of iron! Is it not in Rabbah of the Ammonim? Nine cubits is its length, and four cubits its width, according to the cubit of a man. (Deuteronomy 3:11)

Refa-im  (רְפָאִים) = an ancient people of huge size; the dead.

A bed that size indicates that Og is about ten to twelve feet tall (about 300 to 370 cm)—twice as tall as an ordinary man. No wonder God tells Moses not to be afraid!

After the Nefilim and the Anakim, the third group of extra-large people in the Torah is the Refa-im. We know the Refa-im are giants not only because Og is a Refa-i, but also because of another aside in this week’s Torah portion. Moses remembers that God told him not to provoke the Ammonites on the way to the Jordan, since God reserved their land for the descendants of Lot’s son Ammon. Then Moses adds that Ammon

…is also considered the land of Refa-im; Refa-im used to live there previously … a great people, and numerous and tall as the Anakim. God exterminated them before [the Ammonim], and displaced them, so they live in their place instead. (2:10-11)

This explanation ties together the two meanings of refa-im. The refa-im are giants; and they are also extinct, by the time of Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy; the Israelites kill the last Refa-ii, King Og. The refa-im are the dead.

When the scouts reported that Canaan was full of gigantic Anakim, the Israelite men of the older generation are afraid to cross the southern border of Canaan. Now a new generation is preparing to enter Canaan across a different border, the Jordan River at the eastern edge of Canaan. These young men need to prove to themselves that unlike their fathers, they are not afraid of giants.

Fortunately, from their point of view, there is a giant ruling the country just north of Cheshbon. The chance to attack King Og is irresistible.

Many of us today are haunted by giants from the past. When Jews say “Never again”, we are thinking of Nazi giants. Individuals also remember feeling like grasshoppers in the face of those who used to have power over them: an abusive parent, a menacing teacher, the draft board, “the system”. It takes many years for us to grow and develop our own power.

Eventually, we may believe we are strong enough and brave enough to prevent anyone from seizing power over us. But our memories still haunt us. How can we be sure we are now safe from giants?

I have even caught myself wishing a giant would attack me, just so I could prove to myself that I can stand up to it!

Some of us might be tempted to attack potential giants who are minding their own business—just  to prove we have to courage to do it. It takes even greater strength to refrain, and not turn onto the Bashan road.

I pray that everyone may find not only the strength to stand up to giants, but also the greater strength to refrain from provoking them. May we wait for an actual threat before acting. And may we use our newfound power and courage with wisdom and compassion, so we do not turn anyone into a grasshopper.

 

 

Haftarah for Devarim –Isaiah: Ignoring the Divine

July 8, 2013 at 10:29 pm | Posted in Devarim, Isaiah 1 | 2 Comments

Every weekly Torah portion is paired with a haftarah (“what emerges”), a passage from Prophets/Neviim. For nearly 2,000 years, in traditional Saturday Torah services, the chanting of the haftarah follows the chanting of the Torah portion. This week, Jews read the first Torah portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, which is also called Devarim (“Words”). The haftarah this week is Isaiah 1:1-27. Both the Torah portion and the haftarah contain the word eykhah, which means “how” as in “Oh, how could this happen?” This is also the opening word of the book of Lamentations, which we read on Tisha Be-Av, the fast day shortly after this Shabbat. (See my earlier blog post, Devarim: Oh, How.)

All three readings accuse the Israelites of rebellion against God. But Isaiah offers the most hope for change. The Shabbat before Tisha Be-Av is called Shabbat Chazon (Sabbath of Vision) because the book of Isaiah begins with the word chazon (vision or revelation).

The vision of Yeshayahu, son of Amotz, who had vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem … (Isaiah 1:1)

The Hebrew for Isaiah is Yeshayahu, which means “Rescue of God”. Again and again, even as Isaiah points out how despicably the children of Israel are behaving, he promises that eventually God will rescue them.

After the opening sentence, which also dates Isaiah’s prophecies by listing the names of the kings of Judah during his time, Isaiah’s first poem begins:

Listen, heavens, and use [your] ears, earth;

Because God has spoken:

I brought up children, and I made them high,

And they? They rebel against me.

An ox knows his koneh,

And a donkey the feeding-trough of his ba-al.

Israel does not know;

My people do not hitbonan. (Isaiah 1:2-4)

koneh = owner, buyer; creator.

ba-al = master, ruler; local god.

hitbonan = consider. (From the same root as binah = understanding, analysis.)

In these verses, the ox is the most knowledgeable because it recognizes its owner. Next comes the donkey, which recognizes the place where its owner provides nourishment. Last come the Israelites, who do not even recognize that someone is giving them nourishment.

The reverse order applies to the role of God. God, who creates all creatures, is only the creator (an earlier meaning of koneh) as far as the ox is concerned. God is the ba-al, the local god, of the donkey. But when it comes to the children of Israel, God is also like a parent, bringing them up, making them high (superior), and considering them “My people”.

Does this mean that the more God does for someone, the less that creature recognizes God? Not necessarily. The tragedy in these opening verses is that God elevates human beings in general by endowing us with both the intelligence to consider, analyze, and understand, and the desire to distinguish between good and bad. The Israelites, like any people, have the God-given ability to figure out that God is their creator, sustainer, and parent. They also have the ability to feel gratitude, and to choose good behavior. Yet they do not take the trouble to stop and consider any of this.

Isaiah views this willful ignorance not as laziness, but as deliberate denial: They rebel against me. Furthermore, in Isaiah’s view, those who turn their backs on God also turn their backs on ethical behavior. He calls them People heavy with crooked deeds. (Isaiah 1:4)

Willful ignorance is not bliss. Isaiah mourns how much the Israelites have suffered at the hands of the Assyrians, whose attack on the two Israelite kingdoms began around 740 B.C.E. The Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom, and besieged but did not capture Jerusalem, the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah. Isaiah, like most of the prophets, assumes that if the Israelites had been upright and ethical, God would not have permitted the Assyrians to defeat them and burn their cities. Isaiah calls God the God of Armies, including Assyrian armies. He uses God’s complete destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to remind his audience that God destroys immoral peoples.

If the God of Armies had not left us a few survivors,

We would be like Sodom,

We would resemble Gomorrah. (Isaiah 1:9)

Nevertheless, the surviving Israelites are not doomed. They still have the ability to change, and God still wants them to turn back from evil. Isaiah reports God saying:

Give up doing evil!

Learn to do good!

Seek out the rule of law.

Step on the oppressor.

Get justice for the orphan.

Defend the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

God assures the people that they can, indeed, be redeemed from their immorality, if they pay attention and obey God. Then Isaiah mourns over how far the people of Jerusalem have fallen, beginning with the line: Eykha (Oh, how) has it become a prostitute, [this] faithful city? (Isaiah 1:21)

Nevertheless, at the end of the haftarah, Isaiah says that if the surviving Israelites in Judah (also called Zion) learn to do good, then God will save them.

Zion will be redeemed through lawful justice,

And those who turn back, through righteousness. (Isaiah 1:27)

Isaiah’s poetry calls for the repentance of the people of Judah. But does it address any people today?

Certainly human beings are still endowed with the intelligence to figure out that we did not create ourselves, nor the world that supports us. We might also notice that our elaborate intelligence and our ethical intuitions are extraordinary gifts. Yet like the Israelites of the 8th century B.C.E., we often do not take the trouble to stop and consider.

Someone who does stop and consider today might conclude that human abilities are merely an accidental result of evolution, and have nothing to do with anything that might be called God. For atheists, Isaiah’s claim that turning away from God means turning away from moral behavior makes no sense. When I was an atheist myself, I still felt gratitude for the world and humanity, and I believed that the human condition came with its own ethical imperatives.

Someone with a traditional Jewish or Christian background who stopped to consider might conclude that God is sufficiently anthropomorphic to prefer some types of human behavior over others. Such a person might analyze the Bible as well as the world, and conclude that God prescribes moral behavior such as honoring parents and protecting orphans, and proscribes immoral behavior such as cheating, adultery, and murder. Someone who believes in a somewhat anthropomorphic God, but takes the Bible with a grain of salt, might conclude that God desires whatever human behavior promotes harmony, cooperation, and mutual respect.

What if someone who is neither an atheist nor a believer in a semi-anthropomorphic God stops to consider? My intellectual analysis deduces that God is the condition of “becoming” implied by the four-letter name of God (sometimes written in Roman letters as YHVH) based on the Hebrew verb for “to be” or “to become”. Another part of my mind concludes that the word “God” covers various mysterious forces in the world. I believe God is evolving along with the universe, and our human attitudes and actions affect God’s evolution. If we become more ethical, the forces of God become more ethical.

Does this mean that eventually God will not let the army of one country devastate another country? Maybe so—if God works through the human psyche.

The lesson I draw from the Isaiah’s opening poem is that if we learn to do good as individuals, the whole world will improve. And the first step toward learning to do good is to stop and consider that our existence depends on forces outside our control; and therefore we owe gratitude to other human beings, to the whole universe, and—yes—to God.

Devarim: What are these words?

July 26, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Posted in Devarim | Leave a comment

Moses dedicates the last days of his life to a long speech: the book of Deuteronomy/ Devarim (“Words”).  He tells the Israelites their history since they left Mount Sinai, and he repeats the laws and decrees God gave them during their 40 years in the wilderness. The Israelites are camped on the east bank of the Jordan River, right across from the “promised land” of Canaan.

The book begins:

These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the wilderness, on the desert plain opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan and Chatzerot and Di-Zahav. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:1)

Suf = reeds, water weeds; coming to an end

Paran = place of tree-branches, of beautifying with boughs

Tofel = probably an alternate spelling of tafeil = whitewash, whitewashing

Lavan = white; the name of Rebecca’s brother and Jacob’s uncle and father-in-law in the book of Genesis/Bereishit

Chatzerot = courtyards

Di-Zahav = enough gold

At first glance, the opening sentence seems to be giving coordinates for an actual geographic location.  Yet the place-names are all either invented, or located far away from the east bank of the Jordan. Why are they mentioned here?

Commentary as early as Targum Onkelos, from the first century C.E., found an alternate meaning in the list of supposed place-names. According to Onkelos, the list is a reminder of the times the Israelites made God angry during their wanderings in the wilderness. A few centuries later, the Talmud agreed, and it became the traditional interpretation of the verse.

Which offenses do the six place-names refer to? In other parts of the Torah, the word Suf is a place-name only in the combination Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds (known in the English tradition as the Red Sea).  This is the sea the Israelites crossed to escape from the Egyptian army; it lay between Egypt and the Sinai peninsula, far away from the Jordan. When the Israelites came to the Red Sea, they asked Moses why God had brought them there to die; weren’t there enough graves in Egypt?

Paran was an unpopulated area just south of the Negev desert, south of the border of Canaan at the time.  The Israelites were camped there when Moses sent twelve men to scout out the “promised land” to the north, and ten of the twelve who reported back said that the Israelites could never win a battle against the residents of the land. The people rebelled against entering Canaan. According to classic commentary, Moses mentions Paran at the start of his speech in Deuteronomy to remind the surviving children of Israel that their fathers’ lack of trust in God doomed the people to wander in the wilderness for another 38 years. Now that they have another chance to cross into Canaan, albeit from a different border, they had better not repeat the earlier generation’s mistake!

No location named Tofel is mentioned anywhere in the Jewish bible, except in this single sentence. With a shift in vowels,  the word is tafeil, whitewashing or plastering over. First-century commentaries consider tafeil a metaphor for slander, and explain that the Israelites slandered the manna–which is described as  white, lavan, in Exodus/Shemot 31.

Chatzerot (Courtyards) was the name of the place the Israelites went right after Kivrot Hata-avah, the camp where they complained that they wanted meat instead of manna, and God sent quail–along with a plague (Numbers 11:35). In Chatzerot, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses on account of his wife, and God punished Miriam.

The last place in the list is  Di-Zahav, a variant of dai zahav, which means “enough gold”. Classic commentary pointed out that the Israelites brought so much gold out of Egypt, they could use it to make the golden calf at Mount Sinai. (Fortunately, they still had enough gold left over to make the furnishings for God’s sanctuary.)

Maybe the place-names in the first verse of Deuteronomy are indeed reminders of how the earlier generation of Israelites irritated God. Moses might begin his long speech with these reminders in the hope that the new generation would not repeat their parents’ mistakes. He knows he will die on the east side of the Jordan, so he will not be able to shepherd them.

On the other hand, in the original Hebrew there were no capital letters, no consistent way to indicate a word was a proper name.  The letter nun, pronounce like our letter N, was only occasionally added to an ordinary word to make it a place-name. So the first sentence of Deuteronomy could be legitimately translated with all of the so-called place-names as common nouns or verbs:

These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the wilderness, on the desert plain opposite coming to an end between beautifying and  whitewashing, and then whiteness and courtyards and enough gold(Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:1)

As Deuteronomy opens, Moses’ journey with the Israelites is coming to an end. Their end is on the opposite bank of the Jordan; his end is on the eastern side, where he will die. Should he give his people a glowing picture of Canaan, formerly described as the land of milk and honey, in order to increase their desire to cross over? Or would beautifying what lies ahead of them really be whitewashing it, covering up the hard reality that they will have to fight battles for the land?  Should he describe the land as full of white milk, and courtyards, and gold?

No, Moses decides; it is better if the Israelites do not expect to walk into a life of luxury.  Canaan is good land, but the people should not conquer it merely for the sake of its beauty, its food supply, its cities, its riches. They should conquer Canaan because God told them to.

And so after Moses hints at the beauty of the land across the Jordan, he begins his lengthy account of how the people  angered God on their journey, and how God helped them to seize the land on the east bank of the Jordan anyway, and how they must nevertheless go on.

Devarim: Oh, How?

August 3, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Posted in Devarim | 2 Comments

We’ve journeyed with the children of Israel (and the assorted folks who left Egypt with them) all the way to the Jordan River.  Right across the Jordan lies the promised land of Canaan.  And God has already told Moses he will die without crossing over.

So now we begin the fifth book of the Torah, called Deuteronomy (“Second Law” in Latin and Greek) or Devarim (“Words” or “Things” in Hebrew).  The book consists of a long series of speeches that Moses delivers to the Israelites on the bank of the Jordan.  Moses reviews the history of the people, from the revelation at Mt. Sinai 40 years before, through all their adventures as they journeyed through the wilderness, to their arrival at the Jordan River.  In the process, he also restates many of the laws and divine decrees.  And his account differs here and there from the account in Exodus/Shemot, Leviticus/Vayikra, and Numbers/Bemidbar—partly because Moses is addressing a new generation, and partly because he remembers events in a different emotional context.

(See last year’s blog on the first Torah portion of Deuteronomy, “Devarim:  Blame”.)

In this week’s Torah portion, also called Devarim, Moses says he was working too hard as the people’s only judge and legislator.  He does not mention that his father-in-law, Yitro, advised him to appoint subordinate judges from among the elders.  (Probably he omits any mention of Yitro on purpose, since Yitro was a Midianite, and Midianites in general are out of favor after the business with Baal-Peor.)

Instead, Moses pretends he asked the people, on his own initiative, for a subdivision of labor.

Oh, how can I bear, all by myself, your load and your burden and your disputing?  Bring in for yourselves men for your tribes who are wise and insightful and knowing, and I will appoint them as your heads.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:12-13)

eykhah = Oh how?  Where?  (The word usually begins a rhetorical question that is a lament.  It is stronger than eykh, a more ordinary word for “how”.)

The word eykhah appears only once before this in the Torah, when Adam and Eve have eaten fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and they try to hide from God among the trees of the garden.  God calls out:  “Ayekhah?”—a variant spelling, usually translated as “Where are you?”  But it could also be translated as “How are you?” or even “Oh, how could you?”

But Moses says “eykhah”  five times in the book of Deuteronomy.  I think he’s at the end of his rope.  These people were not easy to lead; for the last 40 years, they’ve been complaining and bickering and challenging Moses’ authority and turning away to other gods.  Now, at the age of 120, Moses has finally herded them all to the edge of the promised land.  And he’s about to die.  He tries to deliver his final message to the people calmly and firmly, but his frustration and exhaustion and near-despair show through.  One of the giveaways is the word  “eykhah”.

Often in the Torah, Eykhah is the cry of someone pushed to the edge of despair.  Isaiah asks rhetorically:  Oh, how has the faithful city become a prostitute? (1:21)   The book of Lamentations is called Eykhah in Hebrew because it begins:  Oh, how can the city that was so full of people be sitting alone?  (1:1)  The poet (possibly the prophet Jeremiah) breaks out with an eykhah several more times:

Oh, how could God shame the daughter of Zion in His wrath?  (2:2)  Oh, how can gold be so dull, the good shining gold?  The sacred gems are poured out at every street corner.  The precious children of Zion are worth pure gold.  Oh, how can they be reckoned like clay storage-jars made by the hands of a potter?  (4:1-2)

I’ve felt that incredulity about what happens in the world.  Oh, how could things have become so bad?  Oh, how could the people in power have made such terrible decisions?  Oh, how can anyone treat valuable human beings like dirt?

I’ve also felt exhausted and close to despair, like Moses, over the job of leading people whose agendas don’t match my mission.  Oh, how can they keep hurting each others’ feelings, and thinking only about themselves, and expecting me to handle everything?  Momentarily I forget the joys and the revelations of my journey as a Jewish lay leader, and I want to cry, Eykhah!

But then I think of  new way to delegate, and people volunteer.  Or one of my fellow lay leaders says something that touches my heart.  Or an insight comes to me that makes it all meaningful.

May each of our eykhah moments be mitigated by an aha! moment.  May we all remember to look for the good as well as the bad.  And may every Jew who reads Lamentations/Eykhah next week on Tisha B’Av move from despair to mourning to comfort to joy.

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