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.

Re-eih & Acharey Mot: The Soul in the Blood

August 17, 2017 at 11:55 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Re-eih | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Only the blood you must not eat! (Deuteronomy/Devarim 12:16)

Eight times the Torah commands people not to eat an animal’s blood: once in the book of Genesis/Bereishit when God tells Noah that humans may now eat meat; five times in Leviticus/Vayikra; and twice in Deuteronomy/Devarim.1

We learn in this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See”), that the temptation to eat blood is hard for the Israelites to resist.

Only be strong, do not eat the blood! Because the blood is the nefesh, and you must not eat the nefesh with the basar. (Deuteronomy 12:23)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = animating soul, vital force; mood, appetite, desire; individual; throat. (This word applies to both humans and other animals.)2

basar (בָּשָׂר) = flesh, meat, soft tissue.  (This word also applies to both humans and other animals.)

Of course there is some blood in all soft tissue. Talmudic law on slaughtering explains that the forbidden blood is the arterial blood that spurts out when the animal is killed, because the animal dies when it loses this life-blood.3 In the Torah, eating an animal’s life-blood would mean eating its soul.

We can deduce that this would be a powerful act of magic. One clue appears in the portion Acharei Mot in Leviticus, when God commands that the Israelites may no longer slaughter livestock in the open field, but must now do it on the altar at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, God’s portable sanctuary.

And the priest shall sprinkle the blood on the altar of God at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and he shall make the fat go up in smoke as a soothing fragrance for God. And they must no longer slaughter their slaughter-offerings for the goat demons they go whoring after. (Leviticus/Vayikra 17:6-7)

There must have been a ritual in another religion involving animal slaughter, blood, and goat-demons.4 Later in Leviticus, You must not eat over the blood (Leviticus 19:26) heads a list of Canaanite ritual practices to avoid. Maimonides explained that some people ate a meal sitting around a basin of blood, on the assumption that invisible spirits would join them to eat the blood.5 Summoning spirits is prohibited in the next item on the list: You must not do sorcery.

Although eating blood and eating over an animal’s blood are both forbidden, animal blood is featured in two magical rituals in the Bible. In the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses instructs the Israelites in Egypt to slaughter a lamb or kid on the evening of Passover, and splash some of the blood on their doorposts and lintels as a signal to God to skip over their houses during the plague of the death of the firstborn (Exodus 12:7 and 12:21-23). In Leviticus, someone who recovers from the skin disease tzara-at cannot enter the precincts of the sanctuary until a priest has performed a ritual that includes dipping a live bird into the blood of a slaughtered bird (Leviticus 14:1-7).

Blood for God

The blood of an animal slaughtered as an offering to God is sacred in the Torah. New priests are ordained when this blood is daubed on their right ears, thumbs, and big toes and sprinkled on their vestments (Exodus 29:19-21). The Torah portion Acharey Mot decrees that once a year, on Yom Kippur, the high priest must enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed bull and a goat on the ark itself in order to purge any spiritual impurity from human transgressions over the past year (Leviticus 16:11-15).

Every time an animal is slaughtered on the altar in front of the sanctuary, some of it must always be daubed on the horns of the altar and/or splashed on its sides. This sanctifies the blood, i.e. the nefesh, of the animal to God. But before the animal is slaughtered, the donor lays his hands on the animal’s head, symbolically transferring some of his identity to the animal. Thus when the priest splashes its blood on the altar, he is dedicating the donor’s own nefesh to God.

Because the nefesh of the basar is in the blood, and I myself give it to you on the altar to atone for your nefesh … (Leviticus 17:11)

The Torah portion Acharey Mot insists that every time people slaughter their livestock, they must bring the animals to the altar in front of the sanctuary, so the priests can dedicate each animal’s nefesh to God.

Anyone from the House of Israel who slaughters a bull or a sheep or a goat in the camp, or who slaughters it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to offer it as an offering to God in front of God’s resting-place, it will be considered blood that man has shed, and that man will be cut off from his people. (Leviticus 17:3-4)

In other words, failing to offer the animal at the altar is equated with manslaughter. According to the Torah, the only difference in the Torah between humans and other red-blooded animals is the human mind. The nefesh is the same. And an animal you have raised is identified with you, even if you do not lay your hands on it at the altar.

Blood to Cover Up

In Leviticus, the only animals one may slaughter without bringing them to the altar are kosher wild animals.

Anyone … who hunts a wild animal or a bird that will feed someone, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with dirt. Because the nefesh of all basar, its blood is its nefesh; and I say to the Children of Israel: The blood of all basar you must not eat … (Leviticus 17:13:14)

Although the animal’s blood cannot be dedicated to God, it must be covered—both to forestall any “eating over the blood”5 and to show respect for the animal’s nefesh.6

Traveling with the ark

The decree restricting livestock slaughtering to God’s altar is reasonable as long as all Israelites live near the sanctuary. This is no problem in the books of Leviticus and Numbers, in which everyone travels through the wilderness with the portable Tent of Meeting. But once the Israelites have spread out and settled around Canaan, there are only two ways they could meet the requirements in Leviticus:

* They could build multiple altars for God. Israelites in the books of Judges, first and second Samuel, and first and second Kings do, in fact, sacrifice livestock to God on makeshift altars in various locations, as well as at the temples at Dan and Samaria in the northern kingdom of Israel, which rival the temple containing the ark in Jerusalem to the south.

* Or they could kill and eat their livestock only on the three pilgrimage festivals, when everyone who is able travels to the central place of worship.7 The rest of the time they could only eat meat from kosher wild animals, which can be slaughtered anywhere.

This week’s Torah portion in Deuteronomy eliminates the option of multiple altars. The portion Re-eih insists that there must be only one holy place for God, and only one legitimate altar.

Re-eih also assumes that the Israelites are not psychologically able to restrict themselves to eating meat from cattle, sheep, or goats only three times a year. So having eliminated both ways to meet the requirements in Leviticus, the Torah portion decrees a new law:

Only wherever your nefesh is craving [meat], you shall slaughter and you shall eat basar according to the blessing that God, your God, gave to you, in all your gates; the ritually pure and the impure shall eat it the way [they eat] the gazelle and the deer. Only the blood you must not eat! On the ground you must pour it out like water. (Deuteronomy 12:15-16)

Pouring blood on the ground and covering it is more respectful that eating it, but it does not treat the animal’s nefesh as sacred the way an offering at the altar does. This is the price of the conviction in Re-eih that a) there must be only one altar for God, and b) people cannot resist eating meat.

Today the price is higher. Treating an animal’s life-blood as sacred would remind us that all life is sacred. But how many people today butcher animals following the rules of Jewish kashrut or Mulsim halal? It is hard to treat an animal’s life as sacred when you receive its meat already cut and wrapped in a package, or already cooked on a plate.

How can we remember that every animal’s nefesh is as holy as our own?

  1. Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 3:17, 7:26, 17:12, 17:14, and 19:26; and Deuteronomy 12:16 and 12:23.
  2. For more on the concept of nefesh, see my posts
    1. Balak: Prophet and Donkey (The nefesh versus the mind)
    2. Korach: Buried Alive (The nefesh after death)
    3. Beha-alatokha & Beshallach: Stomach versus Soul (The nefesh as craving.)
    4. Toledot: To Bless Someone (The nefesh versus the conscious mind.)
    5. Bechukkotai: Sore Throat or Lively Soul (The nefesh as a throat metaphor.)
    6. Omer: Kabbalah of the Defective (The nefesh versus other kinds of souls in kabbalah)
  3. Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 16b, 22b, and Keritot 22a.
  4. The word seirim (שְׂעִירִים) usually means “hairy goats”, but it can also mean “goat demons”. Many scholars have suggested that the Yom Kippur ritual in the same Torah portion, in which one goat is sacrificed to God and the second goat is sent off to Azazel, is a concession to the worship of a goat demon. The second book of Chronicles reports disapprovingly that when the northern kingdom of Israel seceded from Judah, their first king, Jereboam, appointed for himself priests for the high shrines and for the goat demons and for the calves that he had made. (2 Chronicles 11:15) Rambam (12th century Rabbi Moses ben Maimon or Maimonides) wrote that some sects of Sabeans worshiped demons who took the form of goats (Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, 3:46).
  5. Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, 3:46, covers both eating over the blood and covering the blood with dirt instead.
  6. “The blood of wild animals and fowl is to be covered with earth out of respect for the soul, just as we are commanded to bury a human corpse out of respect for the dead person.” (Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, translated by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, New York, 1992, p. 191.)
  7. During the centuries covered by the books of Joshua through 2 Samuel, the sanctuary containing the ark was set up in Gilgal, then in Shiloh, then in Beit-El, then back to Shiloh, and finally in Jerusalem, where it remained until the Babylonians destroyed the city in 587 B.C.E. The part of Deuteronomy including the Torah portion Re-eih was probably written in the 7th century B.C.E., when King Josiah was centralizing religious worship in Jerusalem.

 

 

 

Haftarat Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser

August 30, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Posted in Hosea, Isaiah 2, Re-eih | 5 Comments
Tags: , ,
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 Re-eih (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) and the haftarah is Isaiah 54:11-55:5).

Hosea was the first prophet to compare the covenant between God and the Israelites to a marriage contract. Preaching in the 8th century B.C.E., Hosea calls the northern kingdom of Israel a prostitute who takes other lovers, i.e. worships other gods, until her own God decides to take action.

            And I will bring her to account

            Over the days of the Baals

            When she turned offerings into smoke for them

            And she adorned herself with her rings and ornaments

            And she went after her lovers

wedding cropped                         —and Me, she forgot… (Hosea 2:15)

The books of first and second Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all employ Hosea’s metaphor of Israel (or the southern kingdom of Judah, or the city of Jerusalem) as God’s cherished wife who abandons her husband and commits adultery. In this week’s haftarah from second Isaiah (written circa 540-530 B.C.E., two centuries after the first half of the book of Isaiah), Jerusalem is once again compared to a wife, with God as her husband. But this time the story is different.

The haftarah begins with God promising to give Jerusalem jewelry.

             Wretched, stormy, she has not been comforted.

            Hey! I am setting down turquoise building-stones,

            And foundations of sapphires.

            And I will make her skylights of agate

            And her gates of fire-stone,

            And her whole enclosure of jewels. (Isaiah 54:11-12)

What interests me is the reason why God intends to shower Jerusalem with jewelry. Shortly before the opening of this week’s haftarah, second Isaiah declares:

            As a wife azuvah and troubled in spirit

            God has called to you:

            “Can one reject the wife of one’s youth?”

                        —said your God. (Isaiah 54:6)

azuvah (עֲזוּבָה) = forsaken, abandoned, left behind.

This prophetic passage never calls Jerusalem unfaithful, or at fault in any way as a wife. But it answers God’s rhetorical question by making it clear that God did, in fact, reject Jerusalem.

             For a little while azavtikh,

            But with a great rachamim I will gather you in.

            In a burst of anger I hid my face from you a while,

            But with everlasting loyalty

            Richamtikh

                           —said your redeemer, God. (Isaiah 54:7-8)

azavtikh (עֲזַבתִּיךְ) = I forsook you, I abandoned you.

rachamim (רַחֲמִים) = compassion, feeling of love, mercy.

richamtikh (רִחַמְתִּיךְ) = I will feel compassion and/or love for you.

In other words, God abandoned Jerusalem and opened the door for the Babylonian army to destroy her (see my post Haftarah for Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship). According to the book of Jeremiah, God did it because Jerusalem was unfaithful and worshiped other gods. But now, in second Isaiah, God has recovered from this particular fit of temper, and is carried away with a different emotion, a compassionate love for “his” wife.

An abusive husband who beats his wife to discharge his anger, and then feels a desire to reclaim her, usually promises her that he will never do it again. In this poetic passage, God continues:

             [Like] the waters of Noah this is to me!

            I swore that the waters of Noah would not cross

            Over the earth again.

            Thus I swear

            Against becoming angry over you and against rebuking you!

            For the mountains may give way

            And the hills may totter,

            But My loyalty to you shall never give way

            And the covenant of My peace shall never change!

                        —said merachameich, God. (Isaiah 54:9-10)

merachameich (מְרַחֲמֵךְ) = your compassionate one, your one full of loving feelings.

After promising his wife he will never beat her again, what does the standard abusive husband do next? Give her jewelry, of course.

And so we step into this week’s haftarah, in which Jerusalem is wretched—in the sense of being miserable, and “stormy”—full conflicting feelings. And “she has not been comforted”—God’s declaration of everlasting love and promise never to hurt her again is not enough for her to forgive God and take “him” back.

So God promises to give Jerusalem turquoises and sapphires, agates and fire-stones, and jewels all around.

Perhaps even a lavish gift of jewelry is not enough for the battered wife this time, because God goes on in this haftarah to promise Jerusalem children who will all live in peace, and her own personal safety from oppression and ruin. God even goes so far as to say:

            Hey! Certainly no one will attack

            Without My consent.

            Whoever hurts you

             Will fall because of you. (Isaiah 54:15)

I wonder if the poet of second Isaiah was aware of the irony?

What does this thinly-disguised allegory of God as the abusive husband and Jerusalem as the battered wife mean?

In the patriarchal culture reflected in the Hebrew Bible, wives were not allowed to divorce their husbands. An actual battered wife had no recourse until Talmudic times. But members of one religion could convert to another.

Second Isaiah addresses the families that the Babylonian army deported from Jerusalem several decades before, when they razed the city. (See my post Haftarah for Eikev—Isaiah: Abandonment or Yearning?)

Now the exiles are living comfortably enough in Babylon, and they hesitate to trust their old god, who let the Babylonian army destroy Jerusalem in the first place.

Yes, the Persian king Cyrus is rapidly taking over the Babylonian empire, and Cyrus has a policy of letting native populations return to their old homes and worship their old gods. But the exiles from Jerusalem are reluctant to go. Like a battered wife, they feel safer in the foreign city of Babylon than they do at home. They are tempted to abandon God for good and assimilate.

Second Isaiah was wise enough to recognize and acknowledge the deepest fear of these exiles who assumed that God was anthropomorphic, and God’s relationship with the Israelites was like a marriage. The exiles knew that the people of Jerusalem were guilty of adultery with other gods. But I bet that subconsciously they also suspected that the husband, God, had an anger management problem and had abused Jerusalem beyond bearing.

A later passage even states that the Israelites would not have strayed if only God had kept “his” temper:

             You attacked one who would gladly be righteous

            And remember You in Your ways.

            But You, You became angry, and so we offended. (Isaiah 64:4)

Throughout the Bible, the old, anthropomorphic God gets carried away by “his” temper. This God is also portrayed as one of many gods, each in charge of its own country or ethnic group, though the God of Israel is the most powerful. This the God who acts like an abusive husband to the Israelites.

Second Isaiah switches back and forth between the old, anthropomorphic God and a new idea of God as vast, remote, and singular. In this new concept, there is only one god, who creates and runs the entire universe.

Shortly after the end of this week’s haftarah, the poet reminds us that God is not really like a human being after all:

            My thoughts are not your thoughts,

            And your ways are not my ways

                        —declares God. (Isaiah 55:8)

Elsewhere, second Isaiah insists there are no other gods, as in this bold theological statement:

             I am God and there is no other.

            The shaper of light and creator of darkness,

            The maker of peace and the creator of evil:

            I, God, do all of these. (Isaiah 45:6-7)

Today the concept of God in second Isaiah is still at odds with the popular notion of an anthropomorphic God. While the exiles in Babylon may have feared that their God was temperamental and abusive—a characterization supported by numerous Biblical passages—many religious people today believe in an anthropomorphic God who loves each individual the way a parent loves a child. Then they have to explain why their parental God kills so many young and innocent children.

I think the Jews in Babylon were more realistic about what an anthropomorphic god means. And I think second Isaiah was inspired with a far more interesting idea of what God is.

Haftarat Kedoshim—Amos: Chosen People

May 9, 2016 at 8:55 pm | Posted in Amos, Kedoshim, Re-eih | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , ,
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 Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27) and the haftarah is Amos 9:7-15.

Because God chose to rescue the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites owe God their fealty and obedience. This idea appears throughout the Hebrew Bible and Jewish liturgy, including this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim (“Holy”):

I myself am God, your god, who brought you out from the land of Egypt. And you must observe all my decrees and all my laws and do them; I am God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:36)

And you shall be holy to me, because I, God, am holy, and I separated you from the other peoples to be mine. (Leviticus 20:26)

Other peoples have their own gods. But the god that chose the Israelites as its own people is superior to all those other gods, according to the early books of the Torah.  The miracles God made in Egypt prove it.

The book of Deuteronomy, which was probably written in the mid-seventh century B.C.E., offers the Bible’s first definite statement of monotheism, the belief that there is only one god in the whole universe.

God is “the gods” in the heavens above and on the earth below; there is no other. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:39)

In this book the Israelites become the chosen people of the one and only god.

For you are a sacred people for God, your god, and God chose you to be Its am segulah out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy 14:2)

am segulah (עַם סְגֻלָּה) = a people (am) of personal possession (segulah); personally chosen people.

Yet a hundred years earlier the prophet Amos had already hinted at monotheism with his claim that the same God is in charge of all the nations on earth.  Amos was the first prophet to declare that God punishes wrong-doers in every country, not just the two kingdoms of the Israelites.

map Amos ch 1-2The book of Amos begins with dire prophecies of the downfall of every small country in the region: Aram and its capital, Damascus; the four city-states of the Philistines, from Gaza to Ekron; the Phoenician city-state of Tyre; the kingdoms of Edom, Ammon, and Moab; the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah; and the northern Israelite kingdom of Israel.

Amos says God will decree their destruction because of their various misdeeds. He does not mention the rising Assyrian Empire, which had already begun conquering or subjugating the small states to its west. But most prophets assumed that God used foreign armies to punish people.  (See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)

In the last chapter, this week’s haftarah, Amos questions the whole idea that God and the Israelites have a special relationship.

map Amos ch9 v7-8“Aren’t you like the Kushiyim to me, children of Israel?” 

—declares God.

“Didn’t I bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,

“And the Philistines from Crete,

“And Aram from Kyr?

Hey! The eyes of my master, God

Are on the sinful kingdom.

“And I will wipe it off from the face of the earth.

“However, I will certainly not wipe out the house of Jacob”

—declares God. (Amos 9:7-8)

Kushiyim (כֻשִׁיִּים) = Kushites, black-skinned people, people from Kush (a region identified with Sudan and Ethiopia). Elsewhere the Bible treats Kushites like other foreigners from distant lands, countries with which Israel and Judah had no quarrel.   

So what if God brought the Israelites out of Egypt? God also brought other peoples to new lands. In the book of Amos, God does not play favorites.  In fact, Amos predicts that God is about to wipe out the northern kingdom of Israel—though some Israelites (a.k.a. the house of Jacob) will survive, and someday their descendants will return.

(The Assyrians did capture the capital of Israel, Samaria, in 720 B.C.E., and deported much of its population. Some northern Israelites fled south to the kingdom of Judah, which also considered itself part of the house of Jacob. Judah survived as a semi-independent vassal state of Assyria until the empire was conquered by the Babylonians around 610 B.C.E.)

It is tempting to read this week’s haftarah as an early statement of universalism: “Everyone is special, everyone is chosen in a different way.” At least Amos, unlike many other books in the Hebrew Bible, avoids triumphalism: “Only we are special, only we are chosen.” But I suspect Amos’s real point is: “Who do you think you are?  You’re not so special!”

Nevertheless, the book of Amos is a good antidote to the common late biblical view that there is only one god, and God singled out the Israelites to be Its personal possession.

Today, nobody follows the religion of the ancient Israelites, with its animal sacrifices and its laws about the sub-human status of slaves, women, children, and innocent bystanders in war. The Jewish religion has become much more ethical than the Israelite religion portrayed in the Torah.

Yet many people today, Jews and non-Jews, believe that their own religion is the only right one, the only true religion—and therefore they and their co-religionists are God’s chosen people.

I pray that we all receive the divine inspiration Amos received, and realize that God is not like a biased parent or teacher, singling out one child for extra benefits. God rescues lots of people and brings them to new lands. In God’s eyes, Israelites are the same as Kushiyim.

None of us are chosen ahead of time. We must make our own choices to become holy people.

 

Pesach: The Matzah of Misery

April 17, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Re-eih | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , ,

“This is the bread of affliction,” we intone during the Passover/Pesach ritual, holding up a piece of matzah. Many Jews feel that just eating this dry unleavened cracker is an affliction—especially if they eat it for the prescribed eight days and eschew real bread, or anything else made with yeast or other leavening.

matzah001At a traditional Passover seder, we hold up the matzah and say in Aramaic: Ha lachma anya di akhalu avhatana be-ara demitzrayim!  which means: “The bread of misery that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt!” This phrase is based on one of the Torah portions we read during the week of Passover, Deuteronomy /Devarim 14:22-16:17.

You must not eat with [the meat from the animal sacrifice] anything leavened. Seven days you shall eat with it matzot, the bread of oni, because in haste you went out from the land of Egypt. Thus you shall remember the day of your going out from the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:3)

matzot (מַצּוֹת) = plural of matzah (מַצָּה) = unleavened flatbread made of flour and water only, quickly mixed and baked before any sourdough in the air can act on it.

oni (עֳנִי or עֹנִי) = misery, suffering, humiliation, plight, deprivation. (This noun comes from one of the four root verbs spelled ענה, this one meaning “to stoop down in humiliation, humility, or subjection”.)

The noun oni appears 37 times in the Hebrew Bible, although the passage above is the only one mentioning “bread of oni”. Individuals in the Bible experience oni, misery, because they are unloved, infertile, abused, or deprived of their due. The poor live in a state of oni because they are victimized by a selfish upper class. The Israelites live in oni because they have been conquered by enemy armies—or because they are abused slaves, as in the Passover story.

Kneading bowl in the Egyptian royal bakery

Kneading bowl in Egypt

Why is matzah the bread of oni? The book of Exodus claims that the enslaved Hebrews had to hurry out of Egypt before the dough in their kneading-bowls had time to rise. I find this unconvincing. (See my post Pesach: Being Unleavened, Part 2.)

I think the oni, the misery, came first, and the matzah symbolizes it. Matzah, made out of flour and water paste with nothing interesting added, not even sourdough, serves to remind us of the tedious life of slaves making bricks for Pharaoh.

Matzah, the “bread of oni”, can also remind us of times in the Bible when people live in misery and God sees their oni, stops ignoring them, and acts to improve their situation. I counted 13 occurrences of this motif, as well as additional occasions when God acts after hearing people cry out in their oni.

For example, God tells Moses at the burning bush:

I certainly see the oni of my people who are in Egypt, and I have paid attention to their cry for help in the face of their being hard-pressed, for I know their anguish. … And I have said I will lift them out from the oni of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites…to a land flowing with milk and honey. (Exodus 3:7, 3:17)

Channah in the Child's Bible 1884

Channah in the Child’s Bible 1884

Sometimes people draw God’s attention to their own oni, hoping that God will then notice it, stop ignoring them, and act. For example, Channah suffers because she is infertile and verbally abused by her husband’s other wife, who has many children.

And she vowed a vow, and she said: God of Armies, if you will really look at the oni of your female-servant, and you remember me and do not ignore me, and you give your female-servant a male child, then I will give him to God for all the days of his life… (1 Samuel 1:11)

The psalms also include pleas to God to notice the singer’s misery and act. For example,

See my oni and my misfortune

And lift off all my wrongdoing. (Psalm 25:18)

May I sing out and may I rejoice in your kindness

Because you see my oni and you know the distress of my soul. (Psalm 31:8)

See my oni and save me

Because your teaching I have not ignored. (Psalm 119:153)

matzah001

Maybe Jews began holding up matzah during the Passover ritual not just to remind themselves of times of deprivation, but also to draw God’s attention to their own oni. To make sure God gets the point, we call the matzah the “bread of oni”. If God sees our misery, pays attention to it, then maybe God will stop ignoring us and do something to improve our lives—the way God freed the slaves in Egypt.

What is your oni this year? What misery is enslaving you? Is it something that you can fix?  Or something that will lift by itself?

Or is it something that you can only be freed from by a divine intervention? If so, what would a true divine intervention be?

 

Re-eih: Releasing Your Hand

August 12, 2015 at 10:36 pm | Posted in Re-eih | Leave a comment
Tags: , , ,

by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Nevertheless, there should not be among you evyon; because God will truly bless you in the land that God, your god, is giving to you to possess as a hereditary holding—but only if you truly pay attention to the voice of God, your god, to be careful to do this entire commandment that I Myself command you today. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 15:4-5) 

Beggar, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Beggar,
by Rembrandt van Rijn

evyon (אֶבְיוֹן) = paupers, needy, destitute, those with no means to make a living.

This week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See!”) claims that the land of Canaan is fertile enough so that none of its residents need be paupers—as long as the Israelites share their wealth according to God’s instructions.

The portion gives directions for several ways to reduce poverty. First, Re-eih calls for landowners to tithe for six years out of a seven-year cycle. The tithe—a tenth of the landowner’s produce—is designated for several different purposes. A third of the annual tithe (or perhaps the whole tithe every three years) is given to the poor in the landowner’s town, specifically to landless resident aliens, orphans, and widows.

In the seventh year of the cycle, all farmland lies fallow, and whatever food grows naturally is available to everyone. This week’s Torah portion also calls  for the release of debts in the seventh year.

At the end of seven years you shall  make a shmittah. And this is the matter of the shmittah: everyone who  has  handed out a loan shamot the loan to his fellow. He  shall not press his fellow or his brother, for a shmittah has been proclaimed for the sake of God. (Deuteronomy 15:1-2)

shmittah (שְׁמִטָּה) = release;  remission of debt.

shamot (שָׁמפּט) = releases.

In other words, borrowers who are simply too poor to repay their debts on time are freed from the obligation. They are no longer dunned by their creditors or burdened by guilt.

The Torah warns people to continue to make loans to the poor, even if it is getting close to the end of the seventh year. It assumes we feel a natural sympathy for paupers, but we sometimes check that feeling with second thoughts.

When there is among you an evyon from one of your brothers within one of your gates in your land that God, your god, is giving to you, you shall not harden your heart and you shall not shut your hand to your brother the evyon. Rather, you shall truly open your hand to him, and you shall truly lend him what he lacks, so that it shall not be lacking for him. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)

At this point, the Torah has progressed from the artificial mechanisms of tithing and the release of debt every seven years to simply giving the poor in your town what they need whenever they need it.

A token donation is not enough. “…you shall truly lend him what he lacks” had been interpreted to mean  not only food, but also anything from a kind word to the tools, training, and starter loan to take up a trade.

The passage in this week’s Torah portion  concludes:

Because the evyon will not cease from the midst of the land, therefore I myself command you, saying: Truly open your hand to your brother, to your oni, and to your  evyon in your land! (Deuteronomy 15:11)

oni (עָנִי) = the poor, the wretched, the  unfortunate, the humble.

This week’s Torah portion first says “there  should not be among you evyon”, then later acknowledges that since not everyone is generous enough, “the evyon will not cease from the midst of the land”.

giving b-wToday we still have evyon, paupers who are unable to earn a living and depend entirely on charity, and oni, people who have become poor because of bad luck. If the products of our planet were distributed evenly, everyone would have enough food and shelter. But the governments of the world still are not generous enough. And individuals with means still are not generous enough.

How often have you had an impulse to give to an unfortunate person, and then hardened your heart by deciding that this person did not deserve your money?

How often have you passed a beggar without opening your hand—either because you were saving those dollars for a latte, or because the beggar looked, smelled, or behaved like someone who might be unpleasant or dangerous?

I am cultivating a practice of opening my hand and giving a dollar to every beggar I pass, regardless of the judgments that pop up in my mind. I also donate a dollar to the county food share program every  time I buy groceries at the store that handles donations. I pay dues to my congregation, which provides the space for many people (including me) to serve as the equivalent of Levites. I pay taxes, of which a small percentage goes to programs that help the poor.

Yet I pass up countless other opportunities to donate to charities and good causes. (Even as I was writing this, a canvasser knocked on my door and I did not answer.) I do not have the time, I tell myself, I do not have the money. And how can I tell whether responding to this particular appeal would do any real good?

This week’s Torah portion says to make loans and gifts to the poor within your gates, the ones whom you encounter in your own life. That sounds reasonable, since you are more likely to know “what they truly lack”.

Yet I wonder what I should give to the people I know who are too handicapped to earn a living and who are not supported by their families. I do not have enough emotional strength to act as their friend or substitute family member, which is “what they truly lack”. So I settle for giving a token—a cookie, a ride, a smile—until the person becomes too difficult  and demanding.  Then I harden my heart and close my hand.

I would rather pay extra taxes for social programs.

A passage in  the book of Proverbs that describes the virtues the eshet chayil or “woman of valor” includes this couplet:

Her palm spreads open to the poor

And her hands stretch  out to the evyon. (Proverbs 31:20)

I am not a “woman of valor”. I am not strong enough to open my hands to all the evyon within my gates. I do not understand how to be an eshet chayil.

If you have suggestions, please reply to this post!

 

Pesach:  Being Unleavened, Part 2

March 30, 2015 at 2:33 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach, Re-eih | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , ,

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

In the Hebrew Bible, Passover appears to be a conflation of three holidays:

* chag ha-aviv (“festival of the new ears of grain”), a one-day celebration of spring on the 15th of the month that called Aviv until the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E, then renamed Nissan.

lamb 2* chag ha-matzot (“festival of the unleavened bread”), a seven-day period of refraining from eating, or owning, any leavened food.  This period fell at the beginning of the barley harvest in the spring.

* pesach (“skipping over”), a one-day observance in Aviv, in which a lamb or goat kid was sacrificed, and the meat was roasted and eaten in one night.

Some modern scholars speculate that the Torah combines an ancient festival of matzot (when farmers cleared out their old grain products in preparation for the new grain) with an ancient festival of pesach (when shepherds celebrated the spring lambing by sacrificing a lamb and performing a skipping dance)—and then incorporates both spring holidays in the story of the exodus from Egypt.

Thus the special Torah reading for the first day of Passover, Exodus 12:21-51 (in the Torah portion Bo), begins with Moses’ instructions to the Israelites for the night of the tenth and final plague in Egypt: the death of the firstborn.  Each family must slaughter a lamb as a pesach offering, paint the blood on the lintel and doorposts of its home, and stay indoors all night, eating the roasted meat, while God “skips over” the marked houses and kills only the firstborn children of the Egyptians. The Torah adds that the Israelites shall continue to re-enact this ritual every spring.

Then, after describing the final plague and Pharaoh’s command that the Israelites leave at once, the Torah says:

The people picked up their dough before it could become chameitz, their kneading-troughs wrapped up in their cloaks upon their shoulders. …And the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Sukkot… And they baked the dough that they had taken from Mitzrayim in rounds of matzot, because it was not chameitz, because they were banished from Mitzrayim and they could not delay, and they had not even prepared provisions for themselves. (Exodus 12:34, 37, 39)

chameitz (חָמֵץ) = leavened bread, leavened food.

Mitzrayim (מִצְרַיִם) = Egypt.  The dual form —ayim (ַיִם) probably refers to the combined kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. The first three letters, מצר, might be related to the word meitzar (מֵצַר) = narrow strait, constriction, confinement, bondage.

Egyptian kneading trough

Egyptian kneading trough

I have always found the above explanation of the festival of matzot unconvincing.  If the normally made leavened bread in Egypt, then they would always have a jar of sourdough starter bubbling in the house.  Why not bring that jar along with a kneading-trough and flour?  The story in the book of Exodus smacks of a post-hoc, invented rationale.

Nevertheless, one of the special Torah readings for intermediate days of the week of Passover, Exodus 13:1-16 (also in the Torah portion Bo), makes the festival of matzot an essential part of the observance of Passover:

Moses said to the people: Remember this day on which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery.  For with a strong hand God brought you out from this, and you shall not eat chameitz.  Today you are leaving, in the month of Aviv… and it will happen when God brings you into the land…then you shall serve this service in this month.  Seven days you shall eat matzot, and on the seventh day [will be] a festival for God. Matzot shall be eaten these seven days, and chameitz must not be seen with you, and se-or must not be seen with you in all your borders. And you shall tell your child on that day, saying:  Because of this, God acted for me when I went out from Egypt. (Exodus 13:3-8)

se-or (שְׂאֹר) = sourdough starter; any leavening agent.

Throughout history, religions have connected their new holidays to pre-existing holidays.  Sometimes the only real connection between the new and old holiday seems to be the time of year.  Spring is certainly a good time of year to celebrate both the promise of new grain and the concept of liberation.

But the connection between the festival of matzot and the story of liberation from Egypt may be deeper than that.

In last week’s post, Tzav & Pesach: Being Unleavened, Part 1, I wrote about the symbolic meanings of matzot and chameitz proposed by Philo of Alexandria in the first century C.E. and by Rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch in the 19th century.

Philo considered how leaven makes bread rise and puff up, like an arrogant person.  He wrote that eating matzot is a reminder of our humility before God.

Hirsch wrote that chameitz is the bread of independence, and matzot the bread of dependence.  Among other arguments, he cited a verse from the special Torah reading for the eighth day of Passover, Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17 (in the Torah portion Re-eih):

Seven days you shall eat matzot, the bread of oni, because in hurried flight you went out from the land of Egypt—so that you shall remember the day of your exodus from the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:3)

oni (עֹנִי) = misery, wretchedness; a state of dependence due to poverty.

By eating matzot in remembrance of our deliverance from slavery, Hirsch argued, we acknowledge that we did not escape from poverty and oppression by our own actions, but only because of God’s actions: the ten plagues or miracles, and the warnings God communicated through Moses.  We rose to the independence represented by chameitz only because God lifted us out of Egypt.

That is as far as Hirsch went.  But I wonder:  Does leaven itself represent one aspect the divine?  What if God is the fermentation in our souls, and in the world, which leads to liberation and expansion?

During Passover we might acknowledge that without the divine spark, we would be as flat as matzah.  We could not escape from Egypt, Mitzrayim, or the constrictions in our own souls. We would be slaves to our genetic predispositions and to all the psychological complexes we have acquired during our lives.

But if the divine spark in our souls bubbles up like the se-or that bubbles up and makes bread rise, and we are inspired with an insight, then we can make different decisions. With a holy insight, we can push open some of the narrow places in our psyches, and expand into a new life of more freedom and independence.

But we cannot change from matzot into chameitz through sheer willpower. It takes a touch of leavening, and that is a gift from God.

matzah001

The festival called Chag ha-Matzot, Pesach, or in English, Passover, lasts for seven days in Israel.  By Jewish tradition, Passover lasts for eight days outside of Israel (to make sure that those who live far away will be observing Passover during all of Israel’s seven days). This year in the diaspora, Passover begins on a Friday evening and ends on a Saturday evening the following week.  That means we will study the special Torah portions for Passover—including the ones in this blog post—for two weeks.

So it will be two weeks before I return to the annual cycle of Torah portions, and post my new thoughts on Shemini, the next Torah portion in the book of Leviticus.

May all my Jewish readers have a happy Passover! And may some divine insight bubble up in everyone during this change of seasons.

Re-eih: Recipe for Joy

August 18, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Re-eih, Shavuot, Sukkot | Leave a comment
Tags: , , ,

Sometimes joy comes unexpectedly. Sometimes we plan on rejoicing, setting ourselves up for joy on a particular occasion. This week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See!”), says that three times a year, everyone should rejoice.

Universal joy is required during the three annual pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  Although the Torah gives instructions for these three festivals in the earlier books of the Torah, this portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim is the first one that mandates a pilgrimage to the central sanctuary even for Pesach.

Three times in the year all your males shall appear in the presence of God, your god, in the place that [God] will choose: on the festival of the matzot and on the festival of the shavuot and on the festival of the sukkot (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:16) 

Barley

Barley

matzot (מַצּוֹת) = unleavened bread. (This spring festival is part of Pesach or Passover.)

shavuot (שָׁבֻעוֹת) = weeks. (This summer festival occurs after counting seven weeks of the barley harvest, and includes bringing the first fruits and loaves of leavened bread to the priests at the sanctuary.)

sukkot (סֻכּוֹת) = huts, temporary shelters. (In Exodus this autumn festival is called the festival of the asif, “ingathering”, and pilgrims donate products from their threshing-floors and wine-presses. Leviticus adds the rituals of dwelling in temporary huts for seven days.)

…and they shall not appear in front of God empty-handed; each man [shall give] according to the giving-capacity of his hand, according to the blessing that God, your god, has given to you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:16-17)

Only Israelite men are required to make the three pilgrimages to the central sanctuary (which was in Shiloh for about 370 years, and Jerusalem for about 1,000 years).  But this week’s portion also encourages women, children, and slaves to go, while recognizing that the journey may not be possible for pregnant or nursing women. Each head of a household must bring the second tithe (a donation for the priests and the temple administration), and a sacrificial animal for God. But the donations must be in proportion to the family’s wealth, so nobody’s joy is dampened by having to give more than they can afford.

Pilgrimage for Sukkot

Pilgrimage for Sukkot

In the Torah’s previous instructions regarding the three festivals, rejoicing is mentioned only once, when Leviticus 23:40 says to take branches from four species of trees and rejoice for the seven days of Sukkot.

But in this week’s Torah portion, rejoicing is called for three times, once in the instructions for Shavuot and twice in the instructions for Sukkot.

(Although this Torah portion does not specifically mention rejoicing during Pesach, later passages in Ezra and Chronicles 2 mention rejoicing in Jerusalem during this festival.)

The requirement for rejoicing in the portion Re-eih includes the Levite, stranger, orphan, and widow, who were not mentioned in any of the earlier instructions on the three festivals. During Shavuot, the Torah portion says:

Rejoice in the presence of God, your god—you and your son and your daughter and your man-servant and your woman-servant, and the Levite who is within your gates, and the foreigner and the orphan and the widow … (Deuteronomy 16:11)

And during Sukkot:

Rejoice in your festival, you and your son and your daughter and your man-servant and your woman-servant, and the Levite and the foreigner and the orphan and the widow who are within your gates. Seven days you shall celebrate a festival for God, your god, in the place that [God] will choose, because God, your god, will have blessed you in all that comes to you and in all the doings of your hands, and there will be for you only joy. (16:14-15)

Feeling joy might be easy for the landowner who brings his offerings to the sanctuary, since he gives in proportion to his means, and he is celebrating that God blessed his agricultural endeavors with success.

But when the Torah addresses this landowner, it informs him that his family and his servants or slaves must also feel joy during the festivals. Furthermore, the Torah gives examples of four classes of people who are unlikely to own land or other independent means in a society built around inheritance through the male line: the Levites, whose pasture land is restricted and depend on donations; foreigners, who can lease but not inherit estates; orphans who have no fathers to provide for them; and widows, who are dependent on the mercy of relatives unless they have wealthy sons.  The Torah says that all of the disadvantaged people who live in the landowner’s town or village must also rejoice during the three festivals. Their joy becomes the landowner’s responsibility.

What can he do for them? According to the commentary of 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, he must arrange for those who cannot travel to rejoice at home.  Everyone who can travel must come with him to the central sanctuary, to experience the joy of celebrating in the national community, whose people are dedicated to one god, and to one another.

Hirsch added that these festivals are also times that God appointed to meet the people at God’s sanctuary. The awareness of God’s presence, he wrote, brings the purest joy.

In the 11th century, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that the phrase I translate above as “there will be for you only joy” means that if you bring everyone to God’s chosen place for a festival, God promises you will be happy.

I have observed this effect in my own life. Occasionally happiness lifts me when I am alone; more often it comes when I am with my beloved. But when I am singing with my congregation at services, my heart almost always rises. The only times this communal singing does not bring me joy are when someone in the group looks angry or miserable.

The unhappy people are like the poor foreigners in the Torah, alienated from the community where they live. Sometimes these “foreigners” cannot come to the place where God is; they are unable to travel spiritually. Then those of us who have greater means, like the landowners in the Torah, must make arrangements to help them rejoice in the spiritual state where they are.

Other times, the unhappy “foreigners” are able to travel, if we carry them with us. The Torah tells us not to neglect them, but to bring them to God’s place to celebrate with us.

Then “there will be only joy”. Complete joy happens only when everybody contributes, and nobody gets left out.

 

Re-eih: The Place

July 30, 2013 at 11:47 am | Posted in Re-eih | Leave a comment

The first four books of the Torah describe two kinds of encounters with God. One is having a conversation with God, or God’s “angel”. The other is going through a ritual to rededicate yourself to God. The ritual of choice was the animal sacrifice.

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob built altars for animal sacrifices in several places: Shekhem, Mount Moriyah (said to be the site of Jerusalem), Beersheva, Hebron/Chevron, Beit-El, and a spot between Beit-El and Aiy (probably the site of Shiloh). Modern scholars have established that these places were also sites for Canaanite religious ritual. Perhaps they struck people as particularly good spots for numinous experiences.

In the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses built an altar at the site of the Israelites’ first battle, in which they defeated Amalek; and his father-in-law carried out an animal sacrifice at the foot of Mount Sinai. But when Moses spent his first 40 days at the top of  Mount Sinai, God gave him lengthy instructions for building a portable sanctuary as a dwelling place (mishkan) for God, with the ark in the innermost chamber, and the altar for animal and grain offerings in the outer enclosure. This sanctuary could be dismantled, moved, and re-erected, so once the Israelites had made all the parts, they did their ritual offerings only at its altar, no matter where they were camping in the wilderness. The priests—at this point, Aaron and his sons—became necessary for all rituals.

But what would happen after the Israelites entered Canaan and settled down in scattered villages and towns? Would the head of every household build his own altar and lead his own rituals again?

The book of Deuteronomy/Devarim says no in this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See!”). The first step is to banish any possibility of worshiping the God of Israel at any Canaanite religious sites.

You must utterly obliterate every makom where the nations that you are dispossessing serve their gods: upon the mountains, the high places, and upon the hills, and under every luxuriant tree. You must break up their altars and shatter their standing-stones and burn their tree-goddesses in fire and chop down the statues of their gods; and you must obliterate their sheim from that makom. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 12:2-3)

makom = place; sacred place; religious site.

sheim = name, reputation, standing.

Moses has told the Israelites many times to destroy all the religious items of the natives when they conquer Canaan. Now he also tells them to obliterate the places themselves. No longer can a Canaanite site be used to make offerings to the God of Israel.

You must not do thus for God, your god. Rather, you must darash and come to the makom which God, your god, chooses out of all your tribes [tribal territories] to set Its sheim there, for it to dwell in. (Deuteronomy 12:4-5)

darash = seek out, inquire about.

It will be the makom that God, your god, will choose for the dwelling of Its sheim. There you shall bring everything that I command you: your elevation-offerings and your slaughter-offerings and your tithes and the donation of your hands and all your choice vow-offerings that you vow to God. And you shall rejoice before God, your god, you and your sons and your daughters and your manservants and your maidservants … (Deuteronomy 12:11-12)

God Itself will not dwell in the single chosen place, only God’s name. This abstraction distinguishes the Israelite religion from the Canaanite belief that gods can inhabit wood and stone images.

Deuteronomy never says which place God will choose. Judging by the rest of the Hebrew Bible,  the Children of Israel alternated between short periods when there was no single makom and people constructed other altars at will; and long periods when all offerings were brought to a central sanctuary where priests conducted the rituals.

For the first 14 years after the Israelites cross the Jordan in the book of Joshua, the portable sanctuary with its altar and ark stayed in Gilgal, and the Israelites were free to set up their own altars to God elsewhere. Then Joshua assembled everyone to erect the portable sanctuary at Shiloh (possibly on the site of one of Abraham’s altars), in the territory of the northern tribe of Efrayim. Over time the sanctuary acquired stone walls and wooden doors, though its roof remained a tent woven out of goat-hair.

For 369 years Shiloh was one and only place to bring offerings. Its last high priest was Eli, who died when the city fell to the Philistines in the first book of Samuel. The Philistine army captured the ark, then returned it to Israelite territory seven months later. While the ark was kept in a private house in the Israelite town of Kiryat-Ye-arim, there were national altars in Nov and Giveon, but for 57 years individuals are allowed to build their own altars as well. Individual altars were prohibited again only after King Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem and put the official altar and the ark in the same enclosure once more.

This week’s Torah portion describes the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, when everyone must travel to the central place of worship to make offerings, pay tithes, feast, and celebrate. Since the Israelites are settled all over the former land of Canaan, the journey to Shiloh or Jerusalem takes from one to several days for most people.

Re-eih gives no instructions for what a man should do in between festivals if he wants to ritually rededicate himself to God because he has done something wrong, or because he is full of gratitude and generosity, or because he just wants to be closer to God. Should he travel all the way to the temple? Or is there another way?

The modern biblical scholar James Kugel argues that Deuteronomy promotes serving God by obeying all the laws passed down by Moses, instead of by making offerings at an altar. Being conscientious about obeying all of God’s laws will naturally lead people to be loyal to God and cling to God with love.

After the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, Rabbinic Judaism substituted prayer for offerings at an altar. But they continued to emphasize the importance of following both the rules in the Torah and the additional rules determined by the rabbis in the Talmud.

Today, many Jews (including myself) pick and choose which of the rules are really important and worth following. When we want to rededicate ourselves to God, we either go through a ritual with our own congregation, or we pray passionately, hoping to make a connection. Unless we are in Jerusalem, the idea of traveling to a single holy place for all our religious rituals can seem irrelevant and outdated.

Yet the 19th-century Chassidic rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger wrote in Sefat Emet that “darash  and come to the makom” means we should seek out the places, times, and souls in which holiness is revealed. They are where we can find God, and rededicate ourselves to holiness.

I believe an important caveat to this approach is that we must not unthinkingly adopt the holy places of others. Each individual must inquire whether a place, a community, a ritual, or even a time, is truly holy enough to succeed in reconnecting them with God, rededicating themselves to God. If something is lacking, the individual must keep on seeking for the makom where God’s name dwells.

This means there are multiple holy places—but I believe individual “altars” are not enough; a human being who yearns for the divine also needs a central place of worship. A numinous spot out in the woods can be a makom for silent connection between an individual and the divine. Yet in order to sustain our dedication to God and to the path of becoming holy, we need to find a makom in a community, with set times for prayer and ritual.

It may take a long journey to get there.

Re-eih: Two Paths

August 14, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Posted in Re-eih | Leave a comment

Moses opens this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See”), by giving a choice to the Israelites camped at the Jordan River, waiting to cross over into Canaan.

See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing: that you listen to the commandments of God, your god, that I command you today. And the curse: if you do not listen to the commandments of  God, your god, and you rebel from the path that I command you today, to walk after other gods that you did not know.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:26-28)

The Torah does not say here what material results will come from God’s blessing or God’s curse. But results can be inferred, either by looking at a parallel passage in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, or by paying attention to several words in the passage above that are usually unimportant, and often mistranslated.

asher = that, which, whom

im = if

First let’s compare the warning in this week’s Torah portion with the two alternatives presented in Leviticus.  If you follow my decrees and observe my commandments and do them (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3), God says, using the plural form of “you”, then God will make it rain in the right seasons, so you will have abundant crops and eat your fill; God will grant peace in your land, keeping away both vicious beasts and swords; God will give you many offspring; and God will always be present in your midst.

But if you do not listen to me and you to do not do all these commandments (Leviticus 26:14), God continues, then God will afflict you with diseases, and crop failure, and wild beasts that kill your children and livestock, and enemies with swords who besiege you until you commit cannibalism and starve to death.

Words for blessing and curse are absent from the passage in Leviticus, but elsewhere in the Torah the word brakhah (“blessing”) implies an increase in fertility, health, and prosperity–as indicated in the list of results for following God’s decrees and commandments in Leviticus. The word for “curse” used in this week’s Torah portion, kelalah, implies diminishment in status and power, as well as disgrace and falling into a lower state of being. These conditions do seem to be graphically illustrated in the results given in Leviticus for disobeying God’s commandments.

Furthermore, obeying God’s commandments is what makes the difference in both the passage in Leviticus and the one in Deuteronomy this week. So it would be reasonable to assume that the two alternatives in Leviticus represent the results of God’s blessing and God’s curse.

Yet some Torah commentary draws a different conclusion, based on the words asher (“that”) and im (“if”).

In Leviticus, both the good result and the bad result are introduced by “if”; if you people obey God, then you will be collectively rewarded in life; if you people do not listen and do not obey every commandment, then you will be collectively punished in life. (Individual exceptions are not addressed, and as usual in the Torah, no reference is made to any reward or punishment after death.)

But this week, in Deuteronomy, the original Hebrew says:  The blessing: that you listen to the commandments of God, your god, that I command you today. (11:27)

Some English translations change the word asher (“that”) into an “if”. But two major 19th-century commentators, the mystical rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (in Sefat Emet) and the scientific grammarian rabbi Meir Leibush (a.k.a. Malbim), argued that the original sentence means the blessing is listening to and obeying God’s commandments. Virtue is its own reward, because listening to God and doing good deeds elevates and expands your soul. Sefat Emet says that the choice between the path of blessing and the path of curse lies before everyone, at all times; and the reward for choosing the right path is to advance to the next choice, the next opportunity to choose good, as you climb higher on the ladder.

This interpretation speaks to me, not only because I care about the original words in Hebrew, but also because it moves from the communal blessing implied by the Torah’s plural “you” to an inidividual, personal blessing. If you live in a community of people who make bad choices, you will inevitably suffer materially for their mistakes and misdeeds.  In a material sense, you will be cursed. Nevertheless, if you, personally, choose what is good and right, you will get the more important reward of becoming a better person.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.