Repost: Eikev

August 21, 2019 at 5:10 pm | Posted in Eikev | Leave a comment

I am exhausted from a week of luxury on an Alaskan cruise.  The cruise reminded me that it is easy to get too much of a good thing, to go from satisfaction to satiation to surfeit.  I am proud of myself for not taking seconds when I faced an abundance of tasty food.  But I wore myself out with a surfeit of experiences.  The concerts and shows on the ship, as well as the tours and sights at each stop, were all enjoyable and even enriching.  But now that I am home again, packing and making last-minute arrangements for a more important journey, I wish I had more energy.

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, also considers the concepts of satisfaction and surfeit.  So I brushed up my 2017 post, Eikev: No SatisfactionClick on the link to read it.

Re-eih: Ownership

August 8, 2018 at 11:14 am | Posted in Eikev, Re-eih | 2 Comments

Mine!  I own this land, these people, this enterprise!

Human beings instinctively claim things as their own—and justify their ownership.  Sometimes the reasons why we own things are ethical.  (She gave her painting to me.  I bought this house from the previous owner.)  But sometimes our justifications boil down to “Because I’m better” or “Because God gave it to us”.

Kingdoms c. 830 BCE

Why did Israelites own a significant part of Canaan (later called Palestine) from the 10th to 6th centuries BCE?  The Hebrew Bible repeats again and again that God gave the land of Canaan to the Israelites.  This “gift” is the premise behind Moses’ instructions in this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See!”).

For you will be crossing the Jordan to enter and lareshet of the land that God, your God, is giving to you, vireshtem of it and you will settle in it.  Then take care to carry out all the decrees and the laws that I am placing before you this day.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:31-32)

lareshet (לָרֶשֶׁת) = to take possession.  (A form of the verb yarash, יָרַשׁ = took possession, inherited, dispossessed.)

vireshtem (וִירְשׁתֶּם) = and you will take possession.  (Another form of the verb yarash.)

How will God give possession of Canaan to the Israelites?  And why?

 

How

When Moses gets his marching orders at the burning bush, God tells him:

I have come down to bring them [the Israelites] out from the hand of Egypt and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Emorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites.  (Exodus/Shemot 3:8)

The land of Canaan is already occupied by six nations.1  How will God transfer their land to hundreds of thousands of Israelites?

It turns out that the inhabitants of Canaan do not give, sell, or trade land to the newcomers.2  They do not conveniently decide to move elsewhere.  Instead, they are willing to fight to keep the land they planted, and the houses and cities they and their ancestors built.

In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God promises to “erase” or “drive out” the native inhabitants.3  But in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar it becomes clear that the Israelites must do the driving out.  They get a head start on military conquest before they cross the Jordan.  At God’s urging, the Israelites fight and win battles against three nations on the east side of the river: Cheshbon (the city and its territory), Bashan, and the Midianites north of Moab.  The Israelite men burn towns, kill all the men, and seize all the land.4

When the tribes of Reuven and Gad ask Moses if they can have this newly captured land instead of future allotments in Canaan, Moses agrees on the condition that their fighting men enter Canaan with the rest of the Israelites, and participate in every battle there until Canaan has been conquered.5  Everyone knows, now, that the Israelites will take Canaan through war.

The book of Deuteronomy/Devarim assumes that God will give the Israelites the land of Canaan by ensuring them victory in battle—and that the Israelites will be the aggressors.  In last week’s Torah portion, Eikev, Moses reminds his people:

Listen, Israel!  You are crossing the Jordan this day lareshet nations greater and stronger [than you].  And you shall realize this day that God, your God … will subdue them before you, vehorashtam, and you shall exterminate them quickly, as God has spoken to you.  (Deuteronomy 9:1-3)

vehorashtam (וְהוֹרַשְׁתָּם) = and you shall dispossess them.  (A form of the verb yarash.)

 

Why

Moses continues:

Not because of your righteousness or because of the uprightness of your heart shall you come lareshet their land.  God, your God, shall be morisham in front of you because these nations are wicked, and in order to carry out the word that God swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 9:5) 

morisham (מוֹרִשָׁם) = taking possession of them, dispossessing them, driving them out.  (Another  form of yarash.)

You are not so perfect that you deserve to own Canaan, Moses tells the Israelites.  God will help you to conquer it only because God made a promise to your ancestors, and because the present inhabitants of Canaan are even worse than you are.

The promise

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all hear God promise that their descendants will someday own the land of Canaan.6  The sixth time God makes this promise, it is part of a covenant: Abraham and his male descendants will be circumcised and follow God; God will give them the land of Canaan and look after them.

“And I will give to you, and to your seed after you, land from your sojourning: all the land of Canaan, as a holding forever.  And I will be their God.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 17:8)

The wickedness

Offering to Molech,
Bible Pictures, 1897

The nations of  Canaan are “wicked” because they engage in practices the God of Israel despises, according to the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.  These practices include sexual unions forbidden in Leviticus, and child sacrifice to Molech.7

In this week’s Torah portion, God tells the Israelites not only to exterminate all the inhabitants of Canaan, but also to destroy their shrines and religious objects.8

These are the decrees and the laws that you must take care to carry out in the land that God, the God of your forefathers, gave to you lerishtah all the days that you live on the earth.  You must utterly destroy all the places where the nations that you are yoreshim worshiped their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every luxuriant tree.  And you shall tear down their altars, and shatter their standing-stones, and burn their goddess-posts in the fire, and break into pieces the statues of their gods; and you shall eliminate their name from that place.  (Deuteronomy 12:1-3)

lerishtah (לְרִשְׁתָּה) = to possess it.  (A form of the verb yarash.)

yoreshim (יֺרְשִׁם) = taking possession of.  (Another form of the verb yarash.)

Ethnic cleansing is not enough, Moses says.  Even after the inhabitants of Canaan have been eliminated, some Israelites might still be tempted to adopt their religious practices.

When God, your God, cuts down the nations where you come lareshet them from before you, veyarashta them and you have settled in their land, guard yourselves lest you become ensnared [in] following them, after they have been exterminated from before you; and lest you inquire about their gods, saying: “How did these nations serve their gods?  Then I will do this too, even I.”  You must not do thus for God, your God, because everything abhorrent to God, [everything] that he hates, they do for their gods.  For they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire for their gods!  (Deuteronomuy 12:29-31)

veyarashta (וְיָרַשְׁתָּ) = and you dispossess.  (Yes, another form of yarash.)

This is the other justification in the Torah for taking over Canaan and eliminating its natives.  The inhabitants of Canaan, like the Israelites, worshipped their gods primarily through burning animal offerings on altars.  But other religious practices of the six groups of Canaanites were so awful that they did not deserve to own the land.  They did not even deserve to live.

*

The Torah speaks with many voices.  When the context is the period when Israelites own the land, the Torah urges them to treat the foreigners living among them with love and justice.9  But when the context is the period before the Israelites own the land, the Torah urges them to exterminate the foreigners who do own it.

Although modern scholars disagree on when each of the first five books of the bible was first written down, they agree that all five were written down no earlier than the 10th century BCE, when Israelites ruled one or two kingdoms in eastern Canaan.10  Perhaps those who wrote down the old stories noticed the conflict between the injunctions to treat resident aliens with fairness, and tales of the brutal conquest of non-Israelite natives.  How could they justify the aggression of their ancestors?

The solution of those early scribes was to explain that God took Canaan away from its previous inhabitants and gave it to the Israelites.  The conquest by the Israelite army merely carried out God’s will.

Today some groups still believe in a divine right to own land and the people living on it.  When there are rival claims to territory, people of different religions point to their sacred books and their ancient histories rather than working toward an ethical solution for sharing the land.

Today some individuals still believe that might makes right, and the fact that they succeeded in acquiring control over a business or a branch of government means God is on their side.

I pray that someday everyone in the world is blessed with humility.

  1. The same six peoples are mentioned as inhabiting Canaan in Exodus 23:23, 33:2, and 34:11.
  2. Abraham buys one field with a burial site in Canaan (Genesis 23:3-16), and Jacob buys a parcel of land where he is camping (Genesis 33:19), but there are no other purchases of land in Canaan in the biblical record until after the Israelites have occupied a large part of Canaan.
  3. God promises “and I will erase them” (וְהִכְחַדְתִּיו) in Exodus 23:23. God plans to drive the natives out of Canaan in Exodus 23:27-30 (through psychological means), 33:1-3, and 34:11 (as well as in Leviticus 18:24-25 and 20:23).
  4. Numbers 21:21-25, 21:33-35, 31:1-18.
  5. Numbers 32:6-27. See my post Mattot: From Confrontation to Understanding.
  6. The God character makes this promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:7, 13:15, 15:7, 15:18, and 17:8; to Isaac in Genesis 26:3; and to Jacob in Genesis 28:13-14 and 35:12.
  7. Leviticus 18:3-30.
  8. This instruction also appears in Numbers 33:52-53.
  9. Geirim (גֵּרִים) = resident aliens (in biblical Hebrew).  Geirim are included in God’s covenant in Deuteronomy 29:9-11 and 31:12, Joshua 8:33-35, and Ezekiel 47:21-23.  The same laws and rights apply to citizens and geirim in Exodus 12:19, 12:48-49, and 20:10; Leviticus 16:29, 17:8-15, 18:26, 20:2, 22:18, 24:16, and 24:22; Numbers 9:14, 15:14-16, 15:26, 15:29-30, 19:10, and 35:15; Deuteronomy 1:16, 5:14, 16:14, 24:14, and 26:11-13; Joshua 20:9; and Ezekiel 14:7.  The Israelites are warned not to oppress geirim in Exodus 22:20 and 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; and Ezekiel 22:7 and 22:29.  The Torah orders the Israelites to love geirim or treat them like brothers in Leviticus 19:33-34 and Deuteronomy 10:18-19 and 24:14.
  10. The united kingdom of Israel ascribed to kings David and Solomon in the bible dates to the mid-900’s BCE. Its existence has not yet been confirmed by archaeologists.  Hoever, there is evidence supporting the biblical claim that there were two Israelite kingdoms from the 920’s to the 720’s BCE: the northern kingdom of Israel/Samaria and the southern kingdom of Judah.

Eikev, Va-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?

August 1, 2018 at 10:02 pm | Posted in Eikev, Noach, Va-etchannan | 2 Comments

Five Kings of Midian Slain by Israel, 1728

The Israelites are camped on the east bank of the Jordan River, ready and willing to cross over and do to the native populations of Canaan what they have already done to the Amorites and Midianites east of the Jordan: burn all their towns, kill all their men, and take over all their land—with God’s explicit approval and assistance.1

I will explore the evolution of and biblical justifications for this ethnic cleansing in next week’s post, Re-eih: Ownership.  This week, let’s look at how Moses says the Israelites should act after their conquest.

In last week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan, Moses warns the Israelites not to feel entitled after they have taken everything the Canaanites own.

And it will happen when God, your God, brings you into the land that was sworn to your forefathers … cities great and good that lo vanita, and houses filled with everything good that you did not fill, stone-hewn cisterns that you did not hew out of stone, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.  And you will eat and you will be satisfied.  Guard yourself, lest you forget God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:10-12)

lo vanita you did not build.  lo (לֺא) = not + banita (בָּנִיתָ) = you built.  (A form of the verb banah, בָּנָה = built, constructed, fortified, rebuilt; built up a family.)

Once the Israelites own everything the previous inhabitants built and planted, they will have an easy head start in their new life.  But Moses does not tell the Israelites to be grateful for the labor of generations of Canaanites.  He only warns them not to forget that everything they own is a gift from God.

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, takes the idea of God’s gift farther.

Guard yourself lest you forget God, your God, and fail to guard [God’s] commandments and laws and decrees, which I, myself, am commanding you this day—lest you eat and you are satisfied, and tivneh good houses, and you dwell in them; and your herds and flocks increase, and silver and gold increases for you, and everything that is yours increases; and then your heart is arrogant and you forget God, your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  (Deuteronomy 8:11-14)

tivneh (תִּבְנֶה) = you build, fortify, build up.   (Another form of the verb banah.)

Here Moses points out that even if the Israelites do build their own houses and bring in their own livestock, wealth in the land they have conquered is not guaranteed.  What you build yourself, as well as what you take from someone else, is a gift from God.

In general, the Hebrew Bible uses the verb “create” (bara, בָּרָא) for what God does, and “build” (banah, בָּנָה) for what humans do, using materials God created.2  People in the bible build many things just to improve their lives, including houses, towns, walls, and livestock pens.  But sometimes humans build for the sake of their own self-importance, and sometimes they build to honor God.

 

Building a name

After the story of Noah and the flood, the humans on earth figure out how to make bricks and mortar them with bitumen.

Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563

And they said: “Come, nivneh for ourselves a city and a tower [with] its head in the heavens, and we will make for ourselves a name, lest we scatter over the face of all the earth.”  And God went down to look at the city and the tower than the descendants of the human banu.  (Genesis 11:4-5)

nivneh (נִבִנֶה) = let us build.

banu (בָּנוּ) = they built.

Noah’s descendants start to build a single city for the whole human population, with a tower that intrudes on God’s realm, the heavens.  They want to make a “name” or reputation for themselves.  (Since there are no other humans, perhaps that want a reputation among creatures in the heavens.)  God takes them seriously, believing that humankind is indeed capable of doing too much.  So God decides to scatter them—just what the city-builders fear most—so that they will develop different languages and become mutually incomprehensible.

And [God] scattered them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off libanot the city.  Therefore it was called by the name Bavel, because there God confused the lips of the whole earth … (Genesis 11:8)

libanot (לִבְנֺת) = building.

Bavel (בָּבֶל) = Babylon.3

City gate at Megiddo

Building a city can be problematic in the Torah.  The building of the city and tower of Bavel is portrayed as an exercise in arrogance.  In Egypt, the Israelites are forced to build two brick storage-cities for Pharaoh, Pitom and Rameses.4  Later, King Solomon embarks on building projects in the cities of Jerusalem, Megiddo, Chatzor, and Gazer, all using the forced labor of the remaining natives of Canaan.5  Building a city, palace, or fortress means that the some human beings are likely to lord it over others.

In the Torah portion Va-etchannan, Moses warns the Israelites not to feel self-important when they are living in cities and towns that the natives had already built.  After all, they could not kill or drive away those natives without God’s help.

In the Torah portion Eikev, Moses reminds the Israelites not to let their prosperity in their “promised land” make them arrogant, and not to forget that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt.

 

Building for God

Living in cities built by other people leads to egotism.  But other kinds of building are for the sake of God.

First Temple reconstruction in Bible Museum, Amsterdam

Noah builds the ark at God’s command, but after the flood has receded he builds an altar for animal sacrifices to God on his own initiative. 6  It is the first of many altars men build to worship God.  In the book of Exodus, all the Israelites, men and women, cooperate to build the portable tent-sanctuary for God.  In the first book of Kings, King Solomon enslaves native Canaanites to build his own palace and several fortresses, but he uses the same forced labor to build the first temple for God in Jerusalem.

The bible praises those who build altars and sanctuaries for God, just as it criticizes those who forget their debt to God when they build or take over cities.  But what about the overlords’ dependence on people they defeated and enslaved?  The bible considers only the Israelite point of view.  No gratitude for the labor of non-Israelites is required.

I pray that all of us today may recognize that nobody becomes wealthy without help.  Nobody builds something without the raw materials this world provides, and nobody builds something without the present or past work of other human beings.

As Moses reminds us, may we be grateful to what is not human (whether we call it God or nature) for everything we have, even the air we breathe.  And as Moses fails to remind us, may we also be grateful for the labor of other human beings—even if we consider them Canaanites.

  1. Numbers 21:21-25, 21:33-35, and 31:1-12.
  2. One exception is when God uses the side of the human protype, adam, to “build” a female counterpart (Genesis 2:22), although in Genesis 1:27 and 5:2 God “creates” female and male humans.  Psalms 69, 78, and 102 refer poetically to God as the builder of Tzion or the cities of Judah.  Another exception is when Joshua tells the Josephites to “create” farmland for themselves by clear-cutting forests in the hill-country (Joshua 17:15-18), although they will only be using materials God created, i.e. trees, fire, and dirt.
  3. The name Bavel comes from the Babylonian god Beil, but the Torah might also be alluding to the sound of foreign languages the Israelites encountered during their enforced exile in Babylonia in the 6th century BCE.
  4. Exodus 1:11.
  5. 1 Kings 9:15-20.
  6. Although both Cain and Abel make offerings to God, the first altar mentioned in the Torah is built by Noah after the flood (Genesis 8:20).

Eikev: No Satisfaction

August 9, 2017 at 8:00 pm | Posted in Eikev | 3 Comments
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If you all really heed My commandments that I am commanding you all this day, to love God, your God, and to serve [God] with all your minds and with all your bodies, then I will grant rain … and you will gather in your grain and your grapes and your olive oil, and you will eat, vesavata.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:13-15)

vesavata (וְשָׂבָעְתָּ) = and you will be satisfied.  (From the same root as saveia (שָׂבֵעַ) = satisfied, full, sated, surfeited.)

A literal reading of the conditional promise from this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“On the heels of”) would be frightening.  The promise begins with “you” in the plural, implying that all the Israelites must thoroughly love and serve God, in both thought and action.   I can imagine a subsistence farmer wondering: What if I am not completely devoted to God all the time?  What if I am pious, but my neighbor is not?  Will God let us all starve in a drought?

The next verse lowers the bar somewhat by explaining that the important thing is to avoid devotion to other gods.

Guard yourselves, lest your mind deceive itself, and you turn away and you serve other gods and bow down to them. Then the anger of God will blaze against you, and [God] will shut up the heavens and it will never rain and the ground will not grant its produce, and you will quickly be lost from upon the good land that God is giving to you.  (Deuteronomy 11:16-17)

If we all serve our own God, it will rain and we will have plenty of food.  If we serve other gods, the rain will stop and we will starve.

The promise and threat from this week’s Torah portion is part of both morning and evening Jewish prayer services to this day.  (See my post Eikev: Reward and Punishment.)

The word vesavata appears two more times in this week’s Torah portion. Moses tells the Israelites that God is bringing them to a well-watered land full of wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, olives, honey, iron, and copper—all the raw materials they could want.

And you will eat vesavata, and you shall bless God, your God, concerning the good land that [God] has given to you. (Deuteronomy 8:10)

The Talmud cites this verse as the foundation for the Jewish tradition of saying blessings both before and after meals.1  Our blessings express gratitude to God for blessing us with abundance.

But blessing God is only one requirement.  Earlier in the Torah portion Eikev Moses warns the Israelites that they must also observe all of God’s rules:

Watch out, lest you forget God, so that you do not observe [God’s] commandments and laws and decrees that I command you today; lest you eat vesavata, and you build good houses and you live in them, and your herds and your flocks increase, and your silver and gold increase, and everything you have increases—but your mind becomes haughty and you forget God, your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  (Deuteronomy 8:11-14)

Here Moses warns the Israelites to remember that God is the source of their new wealth, and to respond with gratitude (blessing God) and service (following God’s rules).

*

The words vesavata and saveia in the Hebrew Bible usually refer to eating enough or too much.  But people can also be dissatisfied, satisfied, or surfeited with shame and honor,2 with bitterness and joy,3 with long life,4 and with wealth.5

All humans need enough to eat.  All humans enjoy the luxuries of wealth.  The “American dream”, like one of the dreams in ancient Israelite society, is to get richer and richer.  But the Bible points out that riches are not ultimately satisfying.

When Deuteronomy was written, perhaps around 2,650 years ago6, the Israelites were in danger of attributing their material blessings to Canaanite or Mesopotamian fertility gods.  Today, we might mistakenly attribute an abundance of food and other material goods to our technology, or to capitalism, or to some other recent human invention that we now treat as sacred.

While we serve these “gods” we may continue to eat, but we are no longer satisfied.  Our bodies become obese from a surfeit of calories, and our houses become full of luxuries, but our minds sense that something is missing.  Our souls are empty when we lack gratitude, love, and service to our own God—whether our idea of “God” means a harmonious way of life, a beauty and purpose in the universe, or the highest ethical ideal.

Have you fallen into worshiping the god of increasing wealth?  You can still save yourself.  Practice gratitude, and look for occasions to give thanks.  Instead of waiting for love to arise, act loving, and practice feeling love for those around you.  Remember to ask yourself throughout the day: Am I about to buy something I do not need?  To take advantage of someone lower in the pecking order?  Or to do something that helps people?

What kind of satisfaction do I want?

          Whoever is in awe of God has life;

          And he will stay savea;

          He will not be called up for misfortune. (Proverbs 19:23)

  1. Berachot 48b.
  2. e.g. Habakkuk 2:16.
  3. e.g. Lamentations 3:15, Psalm 16:11.
  4. e.g. Genesis 25:8.
  5. e.g. Ecclesiastes 5:9.
  6. One theory is that most of the book of Deuteronomy was written during the reign of King Josiah of Judah, 640-609 B.C.E.  One piece of evidence for this date is found in 2 Kings 22:3-13, when the high priest Chilkiyahu gives King Josiah (Yoshiyahu) a “book of law” he has “discovered” while renovating the temple in Jerusalem.  The language of Deuteronomy supports this theory.  (Two scholars who agree on the dating of Deuteronomy, though they disagree on the dating of other strands in the Torah, are Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 2003, p. 24-26; and Israel Knohl, The Divine Symphony, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2003, p. 155.)

Haftarat Eikev—Isaiah: Abandonment or Yearning?

August 24, 2016 at 8:37 pm | Posted in Eikev, Isaiah 2, Psalms/Tehilim | 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 Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25) and the haftarah is Isaiah 49:14-51:3).

            How can we sing a song of God

            On foreign soil?

            If I forget you, Jerusalem

            May I forget my right hand. (Psalm 137:4-5)

Babylon

Babylon

Psalm 137, like this week’s haftarah, is about the Babylonian Exile. In 586 B.C.E. the Babylonian army deported the last leading families of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem. These Israelites were stuck in the capital of the Babylonian empire for 48 years, until Babylon surrendered to the Persian king Cyrus, who declared freedom of movement and freedom of religion in 538 B.C.E..

In Jewish history, which spans millennia, 48 years may not seem long.  But for individuals it was a long time to remember their old home and their old god—especially if they were born in Babylon, and had only their elders’ memories to go by.

            Why did I come and there was nobody,

            [Why] did I call and there was no answer? (Isaiah 50:2)

Usually when someone in the Hebrew Bible cries “Why have you forsaken me?” it is an Israelite addressing God. But in this week’s haftarah, God feels forsaken by the Israelites who have adjusted to life in Babylon.

In the second book of Isaiah, God is preparing to end the rule of the Babylonian empire, rescue the Israelite exiles, and return them to Jerusalem and their own land. (See last week’s post, Haftarah for Va-etchannan—Isaiah: Who Is Calling?) But it is no use unless the Israelites trust their God and want to go home.

map of BabylonImagine you were kidnapped and taken to a strange city. Your life there was comfortable, but you were not free to leave. Would you accept your new reality, adopt the customs and religion of the city, and make it your home?

That must have been the strategy of the Israelites that the Assyrian armies deported from Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, in 729-724 B.C.E.—because the Bible never mentions them again.

Or would you cling to your memories and your old religion, hoping that someday you would escape and go home?

This is the strategy that the second book of Isaiah advocates for the Israelites living in Babylon.

Reading between the lines, I imagine some Israelites moving past their trauma, falling in love with Babylonians, and assimilating. I imagine others stuck with post-traumatic stress disorder, trying hard not to remember their old lives or God or Jerusalem. And I imagine a few stubborn individuals clinging to the belief that their God was alive and well, and would someday rescue them and return them to their motherland.

But how could the believers convince their fellow Israelites to take heart and wait for God?

This week’s haftarah tries a new approach: Stop thinking about yourselves, and remember the parents you left behind!  How do they feel—your homeland, which is like a mother, and your God, who is like a father?

The haftarah begins with the land—called Zion for one of the hills in Jerusalem—crying that God has forsaken her, too.

And Zion says:

            God has abandoned me,

            And my lord has forgotten me! (Isaiah 49:14)

So far, Zion and God sound like lovers. But this is not another example of the prophetic poetry claiming that the people of Israel are straying after other gods like a wife who is unfaithful to her husband.  In this haftarah, the innocent land is Zion, and the people are Zion’s children. Zion lies in ruins after the war, empty and desolate because her destroyers (the Babylonians) stole all her children.

God reassures Zion by telling her:

            Hey! I will lift up My hand to nations

            And raise My banner to peoples,

            And they shall bring your sons on their bosoms

            And carry your daughters on their shoulders. (Isaiah 49:22)

In this poem God will arrange for foreigners (like King Cyrus) to return Zion’s children to Jerusalem. The poet or poets who wrote second Isaiah probably hoped that if discouraged exiles thought of Jerusalem as a mother missing her children and longing to have them back, their hearts might soften, and they might want to return to her.

Then, second Isaiah says, they would hear God ask:

           Why did I come and there was nobody,

            [Why] did I call and there was no answer?

            Is my hand short, too short for redemption?

            And is there no power in me to save? (Isaiah 50:2)

What if their god, their father, had not been defeated when the Babylonian army captured Jerusalem? What if God really had planned the exile to punish them, as Jeremiah kept prophesying during the siege, but now the punishment was over and God missed the Israelites? What if their father, their god, really was powerful enough to rescue them and take them home to Zion?

If both parents, God and Zion, are yearning for them, then the Israelites in Babylon might start yearning for God and Zion again.

*

Decree by Cyrus

Decree by Cyrus allowing captives in Babylon to return to their native lands

It worked. After King Cyrus issued his decree, bands of Israelites from Babylon began returning to Jerusalem, a thousand or so at a time. Under Ezra and Nehemiah they built a new, larger temple for God. The former kingdom of Judah became a Persian province administered by Jews, and the expanded, monotheistic version of their religion, founded by second Isaiah, survived.

Today, two and a half millennia later, yearning for Jerusalem is built into Jewish daily liturgy. At the end of the Passover seder in the spring and Yom Kippur services in the autumn we even sing out: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Almost half of the Jews in the world today live in the United States. We are free to emigrate to the nation of Israel, as long as we meet Israel’s requirements. Only a few do so. Are religious American Jews still exiles?

Or has God become both the mother and the father we yearn for, while Jerusalem is now a pilgrimage site?

Eikev: Not by Bread Alone

August 4, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Posted in Eikev | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

“Man does not live by bread alone” is an old-fashioned aphorism in English, indicating that human beings also have essential spiritual needs. Christian English-speakers trace it to Matthew 4:4, where Jesus quotes it to Satan. But the original source is in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“on the heels of”), when Moses warns the Israelites that when they take over Canaan, they must remember what they learned in the wilderness.

bagelAnd you shall remember the entire way that God, your god, made you walk these 40 years in the wilderness in order to anotekha, to test you, to know what was in your heart: Would you observe [God’s] commandments or not? So [God] anotekha and let you go hungry and fed you the manna, which you did not know and your fathers did not know, in order to let you know—

—that not by bread alone does ha-adam live; rather, on everything that comes out of the mouth of God ha-adam  lives. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 8:2-3)

anotekha (עַנֹּתְךָ) = humble(d) you, humiliate(d) you, impoverish you, deprive(d) you of all independence.

ha-adam (הָאָדָם) = the human, humankind.

This is a new reason for keeping the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years.  In the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, the wilderness time was prolonged from two years to forty when the people first reached the southern border of Canaan and refused to cross it.  (See my posts on the story of the scouts: Shelach-Lekha: Mutual Distrust and Shelach-Lekha: Risking vs. Wandering.)

God decided then that the people would spend an additional 38 extra years in the wilderness, until the generation that refused to cross into the “promised land” had died out.  Now, in Deuteronomy, Moses reveals another reason for the extra 38 years: so that the new generation would be tested.

God’s test had two phases. Back in the book of Exodus/Shemot, the people journeyed for a month and a half after leaving Egypt without running out of food. Then halfway between the oasis of Eylim and Mount Sinai they complained of a famine.

This seems like an odd complaint for people who are traveling with large herds of milk-producing animals. Did their cows, ewes, and nannies all dry up at once?  Was there an unrecorded rule that they could not slaughter any of their livestock for food until after God gave them the rules for animal offerings? God must have done something to the Israelites’ walking food supply, since this week’s Torah portion says God let you go hungry and fed you the manna. In Exodus,

from Maciejowski Bible, circa 1250 C.E.

from Maciejowski Bible,
circa 1250 C.E.

God said to Moses: Here I am, raining down for you bread from the heavens. And the people shall go out and gather up the day’s worth on its day, so that I can test them: Will they go by my teaching or not? (Exodus/Shemot 16:4)

Manna began appearing on the ground every sunrise, looking like tiny white seeds. Unlike any other food the Israelites had known, manna melted in the sun, and rotted when people tried to keep it overnight in their tents. They could cook and eat only one day’s portion for each person—except on the sixth day of the week. On that day only, they were able to cook or bake a double portion of manna, and follow God’s commandment to rest on the seventh day, Shabbat.

The first phase of the test was whether people would go out to gather manna on Shabbat. Some people did, hoping to hoard their extra one-day portion of cooked or baked manna. But the ground was bare on Shabbat, and they had to eat the manna they had saved.  They could never get ahead.

The manna continued the rest of the time the Israelites lived in the wilderness, but the test changed. If the first phase was to train people to observe Shabbat, the second phase focused on the people’s dependence on a food that they were powerless over.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses says twice that God anotekha: humbled you or humiliated you. Moses is addressing the adult children of slaves, who were never as independent as the free and wealthy. But at least the slaves had procured their own food. Now all the adults were as dependent on manna as an infant is on its mother’s milk.

From one point of view (particularly among men used to ruling their own households) this was a form of humiliation. From another point of view, it was a reminder of humankind’s dependence on God’s gifts. The manna tested which point of view each person would take—so they would know what was in their heart.

God humbled—or humiliated—the Israelites by making them dependent on manna, Moses says, …in order to let you know that not by bread alone does ha-adam live; rather, on everything that comes out of the mouth of God ha-adam  lives. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

In context, this statement means:

1) Humans cannot live on what we make for ourselves (such as bread); we can live only because of everything God gives us (which may include the grains, rains, and brains required to make bread—or may include some other food).

and 2) Humans depend on God not only for food, but also for everything else God calls into being to sustain us. In the book of Genesis, this “everything” includes companionship (It is not good for ha-adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18), language (and whatever ha-adam called each living creature, that was its name (Genesis 2:19)), and the ability to learn from tests.

Forty years of testing

For 40 years in the wilderness, God trained the Israelites to accept their utter dependence on God for everything in life. At the same time, God insisted that the Israelites follow all the rules Moses put into words, and punished the most egregious violations with death.

This training seems designed to make people passive and submissive.  Yet when the Israelites finally did cross the Jordan and conquer Canaan, they would need to act independently, first in war and then in agriculture and commerce. Why wasn’t God training these children of slaves to take initiative and manage their own physical needs?

I would answer that all the rebellions against God and Moses indicate that the people were neither passive nor submissive by nature. Left to their own devices, they would act, not just wait for something to happen.  In fact, when they were left to their own devices while Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai, they took the initiative and made the Golden Calf.

The lessons the Israelites really needed, both in the wilderness and in Canaan, were that no matter what they did on their own, their very lives depended on God (or nature); and that the only route to a good life was obeying God’s rules. They had to be trained to accept whatever God gave them, so that they could love and fear (or be in awe of) their god.

We face the same test today. As adults, most of us want to take care of ourselves and avoid being dependent on other people. We may not have spent 40 years in a wilderness, but when we were children, our dependence frustrated us, and we learned that humans we depended on could suddenly be absent when we needed them.

Yet we also know that we cannot do everything on our own; we are not gods.  We will always be at least partly dependent on other people. We will always be dependent on “nature”, which we can alter somewhat for better or worse, but cannot create in the first place. And even though we can often improve our lives by taking the right actions, there will always be surprises: both bad and good things will happen that we have no control over. In a sense, we are always at the mercy of God.

Not by bread alone does a human live; rather, a human lives on everything that comes from God.

The choice we can make in our hearts is whether to feel humble or humiliated; to feel grateful for what we are given, or resentful over what we are deprived of.

After I converted to Judaism 29 years ago, I discovered that I could use prayer in order to cultivate humbleness and gratitude. Life is better that way! May each one of us find a practice that will help us to accept every test and every portion of manna that comes our way.

 

Eikev: Reward and Punishment

August 11, 2014 at 9:33 am | Posted in Eikev | 2 Comments
Tags: , , ,

The oldest section of Jewish prayer services is the Shema and the three excerpts from the Torah that follow it. These became a regular part of morning and evening services about 2,000 years ago.  The Shema itself is a single sentence: Listen, Israel: God is our god, God is one. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:4)

The prayer service continues with Deuteronomy 6:5-9, in a paragraph sometimes called “the ve-ahavta” because it begins with the word ve-ahavta (וְאָהַבְתָּ) = And you shall love. (See my post: Va-etchannan: Extreme Love.) This first paragraph after the Shema urges individuals to remember to love God at all times.

The second paragraph, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, which comes from this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“On the heels of”), offers reasons why the whole community must follow God’s rules. The third paragraph, Numbers/Bemidbar 14:37-41, calls for tassels (tzitzit) as a reminder to keep our attention on God. (See my post Shelach-Lekha: Glimpses of Blue.)

The second paragraph after the Shema is the most problematic of the three, because its reasons for obeying God’s rules consist of two if-then statements that are obviously untrue. It begins:

And it will be, if you [plural] truly heed My commandments that I am commanding to you today, to love God, your god, and to serve [God] with your whole levav and your whole being— (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:13)

levav (לֵבָב) = mind, (literally “heart”), the seat of conscious thoughts and feelings.

Are the commandments in the “if” clause the whole body of law in the Torah, or just to love God and serve God with your whole mind and body? For classic commentators, it does not matter, because the way to love and serve God is to follow all of God’s commandments in the Torah. 

Hiroshige, detail

Hiroshige, detail

The next two verses promise a reward:

—then I will give rain to your land at the right time, autumn-rain and spring-rain, and you will gather your grain and your wine and your olive oil. And I will put grasses in your field for your livestock, and you will eat and you will be sated. (Deuteronomy 11:14-15)

It is a nice promise, but we all know that obeying God’s commandments does not, in actual practice, result in beneficial weather–even in Israel. For Jews outside Israel, obeying God’s commandments does not guarantee the results of beneficial weather: a full stomach and being able to live where you are.

One explanation is that we humans are so fallible, we never manage to obey all of the pertinent commandments properly, and God will not reward us if we miss the mark on even one of them. But even the God-character in the Torah, who wipes out the innocent with the guilty, is not that unreasonable.

The if-then promise is followed by an if-then threat:

Be on guard against yourselves, because if your mind yifteh, and you turn away and serve other gods and bow down to them—then the heat of God’s anger will be against you, and it will shut up the heavens, and rain will not happen, and the land will not give its produce, and you will quickly perish from the good land that God is giving to you. (Deuteronomy 11:16-11:17)

yifteh (יִפְתֶּה) = will fool itself, will be tempted, will be naïve.

However, we know that when someone succumbs to the temptation to serve other gods—either literal or figurative—drought, death, or exile do not necessarily follow.

Some commentary points out that although the ve-ahavta paragraph of the Shema addresses “you” in the singular, this second paragraph uses “you” in the plural.  God’s covenant is with all the Israelites, collectively. The more conscientious members of the community are charged elsewhere in in the Torah with preventing idolatry and improving the behavior of the slackers.

Yet bad things still happen to whole groups of good people.

And whole groups of people who fool themselves into idolatry (such as the belief that getting rich is more important than loving your fellow as yourself) still have plenty to eat.

Jews who want to believe the promise and threat in the passage from this week’s Torah portion continue to find rationalizations. Sixty years ago some religious Jews blamed their own people’s lack of perfection for the Holocaust.

Environmentalists, extending the if-then statements in this week’s Torah portion to the whole human race, have pointed out that our wanton degradation of the world’s air, water, soil, flora, and fauna result in poisoned food, sickness, and  rising sea levels, all of which can result in starvation, death, and exile. We can certainly argue that if society as a whole does not put the welfare of our planet first, then disasters will follow. And perhaps taking care of the earth is one way to love and serve God. But it is not the only way. What about all the commandments in the Torah? What about all the other acts of kindness and right behavior we should be doing?

I believe that the two if-then statements in this excerpt from the Torah portion Eikev do not reflect literal reality, and can only be considered poetic exaggerations. Yet I also believe that loving and serving the divine does have good consequences, and letting ourselves be fooled into worshiping harmful ideologies does have bad consequences.

So I am struck by the last sentence in the excerpt from Eikev that is used as the second paragraph of the Shema. After repeating the reminders in the first paragraph to always keep “these words” in mind, the second paragraph ends:

So that your days yirbu, and the days of your children, upon the land that God vowed to your forefathers, to give to them as the days of the heavens over the earth. (Deuteronomy 11:21)

yirbu (יִרְבּוּ) = will be many, will become numerous, will increase.

“Your” and “you” in this sentence are plural.  So on a simple level, the sentence might mean “So that your people will live a long time in the land (Canaan) God promised to give your ancestors—as long as the sky is above the earth”. In other words, every individual must die, but as long as you all obey God, your people can live in Israel forever.

Maybe this promise was motivating when Deuteronomy was written (probably in the 7th century B.C.E.). But today, many Jews who choose not to emigrate to Israel need a different kind of promise.

In the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that “as the days of the heavens” means that days on earth would be like days of heaven. Following his lead, I would retranslate the sentence at the end of the excerpt this way:

“So that your days will increase in fullness and value, and so will the days of your children; and the potentials of your ancestors will be realized in you and your children; and every day on earth will be full of the divine.”

Not only is this a good reward for good behavior, but it actually works. If you keep your attention on loving and serving God—the inner divine voice, or the spirit of life, or all humanity—then your days really do improve. They may even become heavenly.

 

 

Eikev: 40 Days and 40 Nights

July 26, 2013 at 8:54 am | Posted in Eikev | 2 Comments

Moses spends most of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim reminding the Israelites that for 40 years they have been rebelling against God and provoking God to anger, and urging them to change their ways when they enter the Promised Land, after Moses has died and can no longer intercede for them.

In the middle of another harangue in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“on the heels of”), Moses is seized by a visceral memory from 40 years before.

In Choreiv you provoked God, and God became furious enough to exterminate you. When I went up to the mountain to take the stone tablets of the covenant that God had cut with you, and I stayed on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights—bread  I did not eat and water I did not drink. Then God gave me the two stone tablets written by the finger of God, and on them were all the words that God had spoken with you on the mountain from the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. And it happened at the end of 40 days and 40 nights, God gave me the two stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 9:8-11)

Choreiv = dryness, drought; an alternate name for Sinai.

Moses does not mention the reams of information God gave him during those 40 days, according to the book of Exodus/Shemot: hundreds of laws, and instructions for making a portable sanctuary. What sticks in his memory—so much that he says it twice—is receiving the stone tablets after spending 40 days and 40 nights on the mountaintop with God.

The Torah often uses 40 days, and 40 years, to mean “a long time”. But the phrase 40 days and 40 nights appears in only four stories: Noah and the flood in Genesis; Moses’ two long stints on Mount Sinai in Exodus; Moses’ recollection of that time in this week’s Torah portion in Deuteronomy; and the prophet Elijah’s stay in a cave on Mount Choreiv in Kings I. If something happens for 40 days and 40 nights, it is removed from the ordinary world.

On the last night of Moses’ first 40 days and nights on the mountaintop, God gave him the tablets, then told him to hurry back down, because the Israelites have made themselves a cast-metal idol, a golden calf. In both the book of Exodus and Moses’ recollection 40 years later, God offered to wipe out those no-good Israelites and choose Moses’ descendants instead.

And God said to me: “I have seen this people, and look, it is a stiff-necked people. Leave me alone, and I will exterminate them and wipe out their name from under the heavens and make you into a greater and mightier nation than they.” (Deuteronomy 9:13-14)

In the Exodus account, Moses picked up on God’s hint and did not leave God alone. Instead, he argued that it would give God a bad reputation if God now killed the people God had personally brought out of Egypt now. Only after God relented did Moses go down the mountain.

But 40 years later, Moses does not remember arguing with God. He merely says:

And I turned and came down from the mountain, and the mountain was burning with fire, and the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands. (Deuteronomy 9:15)

His sensory impressions—the fire on the mountain, the stone tablets in his hands—come back to Moses so vividly that he misses an opportunity to remind the Israelites that he intervened for them again. He only remembers and patches it into his story later.

As Moses tells the story in this week’s Torah portion, he saw the people carousing in front of the golden calf, smashed the stone tablets, then went back up the mountain for another 40-day fast in order to appease God.

I grasped the two tablets and threw them from my two hands and shattered them before your eyes. Then I fell down before God, like the first time, 40 days and 40 nights—bread  I did not eat and water I did not drink—because of all your offense that you committed, doing what was bad in God’s eyes, angering God. (Deuteronomy 9:17-18)

Moses backtracks briefly, remembering that he ground the calf into gold dust. He does not mention all the other things he did according to Exodus before climbing the mountain again, including ordering the Levites to kill about 3,000 men who worshiped the golden calf, and asking God to either bear with the offending Israelites or erase Moses from God’s book. What matters to Moses is that he spent another 40 days and 40 nights with God on the mountaintop.

According to Exodus, during that that time Moses saw God’s back, hear God describe Itself, bargained some more, and received more laws. Then God told him to write the words of the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets, which Moses did.

In Deuteronomy, Moses does not mention any of this, not even seeing God’s back! But he repeats three times that he stayed before God on the mountain a second time for 40 days and 40 nights. And in Moses’ memory, he made an ark for the tablets, but God carved the words into the stone.

And God wrote on the tablets, like the first inscription, the Ten Commandments that God spoke to you on the mountain from the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly, and God gave them to me. Then I turned and came down from the mountain, and I put the tablets in the ark that I had made, and they were there, as God had commanded me. (Deuteronomy 10:4-5)

Moses brings up the 40 days and 40 nights one more time before he returns to preaching.

And I, I stood on the mountain, as on the first days, 40 days and 40 nights, and God listened to me this time as well, and God did not want to exterminate you. God said to me: Get up, go on the journey in front of the people… (Deuteronomy 10:10-11)

Moses’ overriding memories of 40 days and 40 nights and two stone tablets could be considered a distraction from his point that the Israelites rebelled against God even at Mount Sinai/Choreiv, and Moses kept on interceding for them. Maybe now that he is 120 years old, Moses’ mind is wandering.

Or maybe these are the two most important things in the story after all:

The basic rules for human behavior are written in stone. Even if you shatter them, they will return.

When you spend 40 days and 40 nights above the world, like Noah in his ark or Moses on the mountain, you may be so high you forget to eat and drink. But God will bring you back down to deal with life on the ground, life with other people.

Eikev: Covered Heart, Stiff Neck

August 9, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Posted in Eikev | 1 Comment

Some common Biblical Hebrew metaphors seem straightforward to English-speakers, some need only a little explanation, and others seem bizarre. The name of this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, is an easy metaphor. The word means “on the heels of”, and makes sense to English-speakers in a fairly literal translation of the first sentence of the portion:

It will happen, on the heels of your listening to these laws, that if you keep and perform them, then God, your god, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 7:12)

Later in this Torah portion, we get the following sentence:

You must circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and you must not stiffen your neck again. Because God, He is your god, the god of gods ... (Deuteronomy 10:16-17)

levav = heart; the seat of thoughts and feelings, the mind

oref = nape, neck, back of the neck

Most English speakers think that stiff-necked means stubborn, and that is certainly part of its meaning in Biblical Hebrew. But in the Torah kasheh-oref (“stiff of neck”) and related phrases have a more specific meaning.

The first time the Torah refers to a stiff neck is right after God has given Moses the two tablets of commandments on Mount Sinai.  God tells Moses that the people below have made and bowed down to a golden calf, and calls them stiff-necked— meaning that they are stubbornly reverting to the old-time religion of Egypt.

Necks are called stiff or hard 19 times in the Torah, and 18 of those references either accuse or warn descendants of the children of Israel regarding their attitude toward God.  Being stiff-necked is associated with deliberately disobeying God— by worshiping other Gods, or by refusing to listen to God, or by refusing to follow God’s laws.

The Torah also has nine references to turning one’s neck to someone. Since the word oref really means the back of the neck, it is not surprising that this Hebrew metaphor covers two English metaphors: turning your back on someone, and turning tail to flee. Perhaps stiff-necked people are those who stubbornly turn their backs on God.

The only time the Torah uses the concept of a stiff neck a different way is in Proverbs 29:1:  Reprimands make a man stiff-necked; suddenly he cracks, and there is no healing.  (If only Moses had known that, it might have been easier for him to lead the Israelites across the wilderness.)

In this week’s Torah portion, when Moses tells the people not to stiffen their necks again, he means that they must not  deliberately turn away from their own religion again.  But what does he mean when he says “You must circumcise the foreskin of your heart“?

The Hebrew word levav does mean the organ that pumps blood, but this literal meaning leaves us with a horrific image of open-heart surgery. In the Torah and Talmud, the heart is also the seat of our stream of consciousness, all our thoughts and feelings. In many Torah passages, a more accurate translation of levav would be “mind”. I usually prefer to keep the original metaphors in my translations from the Torah, but if I retranslate Deuteronomy 10:16 with the words levav (heart) and oref (back of the neck) changed into their implied meanings, here is what we get:

You must circumcise the foreskin of your mind, and you must not stubbornly reject [God] again. 

Then what does it mean to circumcise the foreskin of your mind? The 15th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno wrote that the Torah is asking us to remove the covering over our intelligence, by examining our thinking for errors that lead to false beliefs. Eliminating these errors of thought will remove the barrier between our minds and God.

The 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch proposed a harsher interpretation: our thoughts and desires are unruly, so we must gain mastery over them. Once we subordinate our hearts/minds to our real selves, we become able to subordinate ourselves to God.

Circumcision is certainly removing a covering (though what remains is rarely associated with intelligence, today). When Moses describes himself at the burning bush as someone with uncircumcised lips, he implies that an insensitive covering, literal or metaphorical, prevents him from speaking well.

I suppose circumcision can also be seen as a form of discipline; the ancient Israelites did view uncircumcised Greeks and Romans as licentious. But in the Torah, literal circumcision is primarily a sign of the covenant between the Israelites and God, the covenant first ratified by Abraham. Thus circumcisizing your heart is also a metaphor for making a covenant with God–not just with your actions, but with your inner mind.

It is hard enough to obey the rules laid down by your religion (particularly if you are an orthodox Jew facing a list of 613 commandments).  But is it even possible to cut away anything unholy from your innermost thoughts and feelings?

All too often, when we examine our own minds and judge the contents, we reprimand ourselves harshly.  Then we react to our own harshness either by rebelling against our superegos and stiffening our necks (perhaps like the man in the verse from Proverbs above); or by wrapping ourselves in suffocating layers of blame and depression, and sometimes covering that over with denial. It is as if, having peeled back the foreskin over our minds and peeked inside, we then add layer upon layer of extra skin, so we will not see our true inner minds again.

How can we uncover our hidden feelings and beliefs, and leave our minds open and able to grow? I think we need to relax our necks first. We need to be flexible, willing to turn around, to reconsider. Then, if we approach our inner selves either dispassionately or with kindness, instead of with reprimand and blame, we can choose to turn toward the good and the holy. Once we are turning toward God, instead of stubbornly turning our backs on God, then the coverings that have kept us out of a covenant with the divine might not even need to be cut. The barriers might softly fall away.

Or maybe that’s a woman’s point of view, and men need to tame their testosterone drive with a metaphorical circumcision of their hearts!  What do you think?

Va-etchannan: Extreme Love

August 1, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Posted in Eikev, Va-etchannan | 2 Comments

You shall love God, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your uttermost. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:5)

ve-ahavta = And you shall love

levavekha = your heart, your mind, your stream of consciousness

nafshekha = your soul, your vitality, your life, your appetite, your desire

me-odekha = your uttermost, your muchness, your might, your means

The verse commanding us to love God, which appears in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (“And I implored”), is also a key moment in every evening and morning Jewish prayer. For Jews serious about prayer, it can be a daunting commandment.

What does it mean to love God?  And how can we do it?

When the book of Deuteronomy was written down, perhaps in the 7th century B.C.E., the word ahavah, “love”, often meant loyalty. When treaties called for vassals to love their overlords with all their heart, they meant that the vassals must be totally loyal.

This definition of love answers the question “How can love be commanded?” Our emotions may not be under our own control, but we can freely choose, over and over again, to act with loyalty. Similarly, we can choose to be committed to someone, even when our desires pull us in another direction.

The concept of love as commitment and loyalty continued in the Talmud, which tells the story of Rabbi Akiva’s execution by the Roman government, after his conviction for teaching Torah. Akiva interpreted nafshekha as “your life”, and said at his execution that he was fulfilling the commandment to love God with all his life.

Today it is still possible to be loyal and committed to your religion, and in one sense this counts as loving God.

Ideas about the meaning of the word  ahavah, “love”,  changed over the centuries, and Torah commentary on this verse changed accordingly. Medieval thinkers saw love as an overwhelming state of mind. In the 11th century, Bachya ibn Pakuda wrote in Duties of the Heart: “What does the love of God consist of? The soul’s complete surrender of its own accord to the Creator in order to cleave to His supernal light…” In this state of mind, there would be “no place for any other thought, sending forth not even one of the limbs of its body on any other service but that drawn to be His will; loosening the tongue but to make mention of Him and praise Him out of love of Him and longing for Him.”

This kind of obsessive passion sometimes happens to a lover who is falling in love, or to a mother who is enraptured by her baby.  The condition is temporary, and does not require any deliberate choice. Can obsessive passion for God be commanded? Can we choose to enter into that state?

In the 12th century, Moshe ben Maimon, known as Maimonides or Rambam, wrote that passion for God can be prompted by deliberately paying attention to the wonders of God’s creation. “When man contemplates His works and His wonderful, great creatures and fathoms through them His inestimable and boundless wisdom, he will immediately love, and praise, and exalt, and will be seized by a keen longing passion to know Him …” (Yesodei ha-Torah).  Judging by another of his books, Maimonides thought contemplation would lead to an obsession as great as the one Pakuda described. “What is suitable love? To love God with an exceedingly great and very intense love until one’s soul is knit with the love of God and one is constantly obsessed by it. As in a state of love-sickness, in which the mind cannot be diverted from the beloved, the love is constantly obsessed by his love, lying down or rising up, eating or drinking.” (Teshuva).

The Chassidic movement among eastern European Jews in the 18th century also placed a high value on passionate attachment to God, but its rabbis emphasized the feeling of longing for union with God. The holy Chassids are described as desiring God with an intensity like the sexual desire of a young adult who has fallen in love–hard. Yet the yearning for God seems to be enough, even if the lover of God occasionally gets distracted, and even if the lover never feels as if the union with God is consummated.

Building on the Chassidic tradition, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger wrote in his 1808 work Sfaat Emet (as translated by Arthur Green): “This means one should want nothing but God. ‘With all your soul’—‘with every single soul-breath that God has created in you.’ And the meaning of ‘be-khol levavekha’ is not ‘with all your heart,’ as most people interpret it. But rather, we need to become aware that each feeling we have is only the life force that comes from God. … Even if it is hard for us to imagine fulfilling ‘with all your heart,’ we should still have that willful longing to reach it at all times. For it is through this longing that gates open in the human heart.”

Later in the 19th century, the rationalist Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained the verse this way: “All your thoughts and emotions, all your wishes and aspirations, and all your possessions shall be regarded by you only as means for attaining closeness to God, for bringing God near to you; this shall be their sole value to you.” Selfish desires, he continued, should be sacrificed for the sake of the relationship with God.

Although self-sacrifice acquired a bad reputation in the 1960’s, today many people believe that marriages are successful when both partners are willing to sacrifice selfish desires for the sake of the marriage. Can this view of love as being unselfish and giving the other person priority be applied to God?

When I say or read the commandment to love God with all my heart/mind and all my desire/life and all my uttermost means, my immediate thought is always that it’s too hard.  I just don’t have the inner means to do it–whether I define love as loyalty and commitment, as passionate obsession, as extreme longing, or as self-sacrifice.

Yet I have loved a few human beings in all of those ways. Perhaps if I believed in an anthropomorphic god, I would be able to follow the commandment to love God.  Since I do not, I am hoping that partial love of God is better than none at all.  So instead of loving God as I love a human being, I am committed to Torah and a moral life. I have established a habit of remembering to contemplate the wonders of the universe, as Maimonides recommends, and a habit of moving my feeling-soul by singing prayers. I keep longing and seeking to go farther on this journey. I am taking better care of my real needs, but I am prepared to sacrifice any apparent needs to serve a greater good. That is my all my uttermost, all I can do to love God.

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