Haftarat Re-eih—Isaiah: Drink Up

Judah was an independent kingdom from 931 to 586 B.C.E.1

Then the Babylonians conquered the country; destroyed its capital city, Jerusalem; razed the temple of the God of Israel; and forced the leaders and skilled craftsmen of Judah into exile in Babylon.

The Judahites in Babylon began to lose faith and assimilate. The prophets known as Ezekiel and second Isaiah2 urged their people to return to worshiping their own God. Then, they prophesied, God would return them to their own land.

For seven weeks after Tisha Be-Av, the annual day of fasting to mourn both times that a foreign empire destroyed Jerusalem and its temple,3 each Torah portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim is accompanied by a “haftarah of consolation”. All seven of these haftarah readings are from second Isaiah.

This week the Torah reading Re-eih is accompanied by the third haftarah of consolation. Here God promises to rebuild Jerusalem so it will be more beautiful and more secure than before.4 Then God calls out:

Oh!5 Everyone who is thirsty, go for water!

            And who has no silver, go buy and eat!

Go buy [food] without silver,

            And wine and milk at no cost! (Isaiah 55:1)

The 8th-century prophet Amos had previously predicted:

“Hey! The time is coming,” says my lord God, “when I will send hunger into the land: not a hunger for bread, nor a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of God. They will wander from sea to sea and from the north to the east they will roam to seek the word of God, but they will not find it.” (Amos 8:11-12)

Since that first reference in the book of Amos, many Jewish sources have compared a desire for words of Torah to a thirst for water. Five tractates of the Talmud cite the line from our haftarah, “Everyone who is thirsty, go for water!” as proof that water means Torah study, and then go on to deduce something about the study of Torah.6

For example, tractate Bava Kama asks why the written text of the Torah is read out loud to the community on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The rabbis answer that in Exodus 15:22, the Israelites traveled for three days after crossing the Reed Sea, and then complained because they had not found water. Therefore the people should not go for more than three days without hearing or reading Torah, they said, citing Isaiah 55:1:

Those who interpret verses metaphorically said that water here is referring to nothing other than torah, as it is stated metaphorically, concerning those who desire wisdom: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come for water”7

torah (תּוֹרָה) = instruction; law. (This is the meaning of torah in the Hebrew Bible, derived from the verb yoreh, יוֹרֶה = instruct, teach. A homonym of yoreh means “give to drink” in Biblical Hebrew.)

By Talmudic times, torah could also mean the first five books of the bible; the entire Hebrew Bible; the laws written in the bible; and the combination of written torah (the Hebrew Bible) and oral torah (all subsequent Jewish interpretations of the bible, to the present day).

Amos warns that torah, God’s instructions, cannot be found outside the Israelite kingdoms. But second Isaiah indicates that the exiled Judahites can learn torah even in Babylon. All they need is the thirst to seek out the teachers among their own people, including prophets who could share new information from God.

Why should you weigh out silver for what is not bread,

            And the earnings of your labor for what does not satisfy?

Keep listening to me, and eat what is good,

            And you will pamper yourself by plumping up your soul.

Turn your ear and go to me,

            Listen and revive your soul.

And I will cut with you an everlasting covenant,

            The faithful loyalty [I showed] to David. (Isaiah 55:2-3)

In other words, listening to torah, the words of God, is the most valuable activity in the world (besides what you need to do for bare survival). Learning torah plumps up (literally, fattens) and revives the soul that animates your body, just as drinking and eating fatten and revive your physical body.

Fresh water, from rain, springs, or wells, is a natural (or God-given) resource, like air and sunlight.

And just as one who desires to drink should be able to drink without cost, so all who desire to learn the law should be able to learn without cost and without price … (Midrash Tanchuma)8

From the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. until the 20th-century takeover of most of the world by capitalism, the Jewish tradition was that students could learn torah (in all senses of the word) from rabbis for free. Rabbis were supported by side jobs, by their wives, or by their communities as a whole.

In Isaiah 55:1, God says everyone who is thirsty or hungry should go and “buy” milk, wine, and food, as well as water, for free.

Water, food, wine, and milk

Perhaps milk, wine, food, and water represent four kinds of torah. The written Hebrew Bible is a conglomeration of:

  • stories, from foundational myths to historical events;
  • laws for religious rituals, including offerings to God at the temple;
  • laws for ethical behavior toward other human beings; and
  • statements about the nature of God.

Milk is essential for life for all very young mammals, and stories are essential for human children to begin to make sense of the world. Stories are important in the bible, in the Talmud, and in Jewish life to the present; they go beyond mere facts to tell us about human nature and the ways of the world. These stories are as nourishing as milk.

Libation amphora, second temple

Wine appears in the bible both as a libation at the altar, and a drink at feasts to celebrate gifts from God. Wine is still part of Jewish religious rituals such as welcoming Shabbat and observing Passover, as well as individual rites of passage. Rituals help people to organize their otherwise chaotic lives, and, like the Jewish practice of saying blessings, make us aware of occasions for gratitude. Wine could represent religious rituals and blessings.

Food is essential for all life to continue; a code of ethics is essential for any human society to continue. Ethical laws are scattered throughout the Hebrew Bible, not just in the Ten Commandments. Those that appear most often are injunctions to help feed the poor and the stranger. So food might stand for the ethical injunctions in torah.

Waterfalls at Ein Gedi, Israel

That leaves water to represent the nature of God. Water is transparent; God is invisible, heard (at least inside the minds of inspired humans) but not seen. Water flows to fill any shape; the bible describes God in many different ways, as a creator and a destroyer, a dealer of strict justice and a compassionate savior. Both plants and animals need water to live and to grow; and according to the bible and later torah, all life comes from God.


The third haftarah of consolation ends with Isaiah 55:5, which prophecies that the Judahites will be rescued by a nation they had never heard of—which turned out to be the Persian Empire. Right after that come two verses that could console anyone who studies torah:

Inquire about God when [God] is present;

            Call when [God] is becoming near.

Let the wicked abandon their path,

            And their plans for doing harm.

Let them turn back to God, and [God] will have compassion for them;

            To our God, for [God] abundantly forgives. (Isaiah 55:6-7)

If we are thirsty to enlarge our attitude toward life, we can go for the water of an inspired teaching, including much of torah. If we recognize and abandon our selfishness and spite, we can be forgiven, if only by the still, small voice within us. And then our animating souls will plump up and revive.

  1. At times, however, the kings of Judah paid tribute to nearby empires in exchange for peace.
  2. Most of Isaiah 1-39 consists of the prophecies of Isaiah son of Amotz, who lived in Jerusalem when the Assyrians besieged it in 701 B.C.E. (but failed to capture the city). Isaiah 40-66, sometimes called “second Isaiah”, is a collection of writings dating from after the Babylonians succeeded in capturing Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E..
  3. Tisha Be-Av commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and by the Romans in 70 C.E. See my post Lamentations: Seeking Comfort.
  4. This is the simple meaning of Isaiah 54:11-17. For an alternate interpretation of this passage, see my post Haftarat Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser.
  5. The all-purpose Hebrew interjection I translate as “Oh” is hoy, הוֹי. It appears many times in the prophets, from 1 Kings to Habakuk, but nowhere else in the bible.
  6. Talmud Bavli: Avodah Zara 5b, Bava Kamma 17a and 82a, Kidduishin 30b, Sukkah 52b, and Taanit 7a.
  7. Talmud Bavli, Bava Kama 82a, William Davidson translation in sefaria.org.
  8. Midrash Tanchuma was written during the 6th-9th centuries C.E. This commentary, Vayakhel 8:1, cites Isaiah 55:1. Translation from sefaria.org.


Re-eih & Bechukotai: Two Kinds of Blessings

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Jordan River

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

See, I am setting before you today a brakhah and a kelalah. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:26)

brakhah (בְּרָכָה) = blessing.  (Plural: brakhot, בְּרָכוֹתIn the Torah humans are considered “blessed” by God when they have prosperity, good health, fertility, victory over enemies, and/or power over subordinates.)

kelalah (קִלָלָה) = curse.  (This word for “curse” implies that the curse diminishes, belittles, or demeans the recipient.)

What do the people need to do to get the brakhah instead of the kelalah?  Pay attention to God’s rules and refrain from worshiping other gods.

The brakhah: that you pay attention to the commands of God, your god, that I am commanding you today. And the kelalah: if you do not pay attention to the commands of  God, your god, and you turn away from the path that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:27-28)

Moses does not say what good things will happen if the Israelites choose the blessing, nor what bad things will happen if they choose the curse.  Instead he prescribes a ritual:

Mt. Gezerim left, Mt. Eyval right, part of Nablus today, photo by James C. Martin

And it will be when God, your God, brings you to the land that you are entering to possess, you must give the brakhah on Mount Gezirim and the kelalah on Mount Evyal.  (Deuteronomy 11:29)

He gives the location of the two hills,1 but he does not say what the people are to recite.2  Then he delivers a long list of laws about religious observance, beginning with a command to destroy the idols and shrines of the Canaanites.3 The implication is that if the Israelites obey these religious laws they will be blessed, and if they disobey they will be cursed.

Consequences of the Choice in Bechukotai

The Israelites are given a similar choice in Leviticus, in the Torah portion Bechukotai (“In my decrees”), when God declares:

If you walk in my decrees and you observe my commands and carry them out, then I will give you rains in their seasons, and the earth will give its produce and the tree of the field will give its fruit.  And threshing will overlap vintage for you, and vintage will overlap sowing. And you will eat your food until you are sated, and you will dwell in safety in your land.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3-5)

The passage continues by listing more blessings that will ensue if the Israelites obey God including the absence of dangerous wild beasts and human enemies in the land, victory in battle abroad, fertility and population increase, and the presence of God’s dwelling-place.  Although God does not use the word brakhah, all of these benefits are standard blessings except for:

I will set my dwelling-place in your midst, and I will not vomit you out.  And I will walk around in your midst, and I will be your God, and you will be my people.  (Leviticus 26:11-12)

Tent of Meeting, Collectie Nederland

The dwelling-place of God is the Tent of Meeting in Exodus through Joshua, and the temple in Jerusalem from 1 Kings on.  But the promise to walk around among the Israelites implies God will constantly be present.

After the blessings, God lists curses.

But if you do not pay attention to me and you do not follow all these commands … I for my part will do this to you: I will appoint terror over you, tuberculosis, and fever, wearing out eyes and wearing away vitality, and you will sow seed for nothing; your enemies will eat it.  I will set my face against you and you will be beaten by your enemies, and those who hate you will rule over you … (Leviticus 26:14, 16-17)

Although God does not use one of the words for “curse” here, the usual curses in the Torah also focus on sickness, famine, and subjugation to enemies.

In the portion Bechukotai God says that if, after these disasters, the Israelites still disobey God, there will be a severe drought.  If the drought is not enough to make the people obedient, God will afflict them with wild beasts that kill children and livestock, starvation, subjugation, panic, and deportation to enemy nations.4

Both the blessings and the curses in Bechukotai are introduced by the word “if” (im, אִם).  If the Israelites obey God, then they will be collectively rewarded with prosperity, fertility, safety, and God’s sanctuary.  If they do not obey God, then they will be collectively punished with starvation, sickness, danger, and exile.

These blessings and curses apply to the Israelites as a whole; the word I translate above as “you” is consistently in the plural.  Individual exceptions are not addressed.  And, as usual in the Torah, no reference is made to any reward or punishment after death.  People experience blessings and curses only during their lives.

Consequences of the Choice in Re-eih

Moses may have similar blessings and curses in mind in this week’s portion, Re-eih.  But some commentators have noticed that in Re-eih the statement about the brakhah uses the word “asher” in place of the usual word “im” (if).

The brakhah: asher you pay attention to the commands of God, your god, that I am commanding you today.  And the kelalah: im you do not pay attention to the commands of  God, your God …  (Deuteronomy 11:27-28)

asher (אֲשֶׁר) = that.

The implication might be that paying attention to God’s rules is in itself a blessing.  If so, this is a new kind of blessing, absent from the choice between blessings and curses in Bechukotai.5

An 18th-century C.E. commentary called Or HaChayim explained: “Hearkening to G’d’s commandments is perceived as a pleasurable experience by itself.  It helps the soul to feel ‘alive’ …  Whenever someone who studies Torah gains an understanding of what the Torah has in mind he experiences a physical and spiritual sense of wellbeing.  He owes G’d a debt of gratitude for affording him such pleasure.  There is no need to add that such a person cannot demand a reward from G’d for having allowed him to experience such joy.”6

19th-century commentator S.R. Hirsch reached a similar conclusion, although he interpreted the blessing as that you obey God’s rules.  “The observance of God’s commandments is in itself part of the blessing. … The spiritual and moral act of faithfully observing the Torah constitutes in itself a blessed advancement of our whole being; hence, each time we carry out a mitzvah, we bring blessing upon ourselves.”7

Perhaps just as a kelalah is a diminishment, a brakhah is an enlargement.  Those who choose to pay attention to God may be enlarged materially, with blessings of prosperity, fertility, etc.; or spiritually, with the blessing of an expansive and joyful soul.

This points to another meaning of the presence of God’s dwelling-place in the list of blessings in Bechukotai.  Regardless of whether there is a temple or not, God will be present among the people who pay attention to God’s words and live by them.  This kind of presence is indeed an enlargement.


If you live in a community of people who make bad choices, you will inevitably suffer for their mistakes and misdeeds.  In a material sense, you will be cursed.  Nevertheless if you, personally, choose to do the right thing, you will receive the blessing of becoming a better and more joyful person.8

Thus virtue becomes its own reward.

(I posted an earlier version of this essay in 2012.)

  1. Deuteronomy 11:30, near the ancient town of Shekhem. See my post Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.
  2. The formula for the recital comes later, in Deuteronomy 27:11-28:48.
  3. Deuteronomy 12:1-31.
  4. Leviticus 26:18-33, followed by: And those of you remaining, I will bring despair into your heart in the lands of your enemies. And you will pursue the sound of leaves being blown away, and you will flee as if you were fleeing from the sword, and they will fall when there are none pursuing.  And you will become lost among the nations, and the land of your enemies will eat you up.”  (Leviticus 26:36-37)  (This description could be based on the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E., with its mass deportations.)
  5. It is also absent from the Torah’s third and final list of blessings and curses, Deuteronomy 28:1-48.
  6. Rabbi Chayim ben Moshe ibn Attar, Or HaChayim, translated in sefaria.org.
  7. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Devarim, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 231 on 11:27.
  8. In some parts of the bible (which was, after all, written down by fallible humans), the God-character demands actions that are not ethical. Paying attention to the bible should include discerning which commands are divinely inspired ethical principles.

Re-eih: Eyebrows for the Dead

You are children to God, your God; you must not gash yourselves, and you must not put a karchah between your eyes for the dead.  Because you are a holy people to God, your God, and God chose you for [God’s] personal property out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 14:1-2)

karchah (קָרְחָה) = baldness; a patch of skin shaved bald.

Moses forbids two mourning practices in this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See”): gashing your skin, and shaving “between your eyes”.

By the Waters of Babylon, by Gebhard Fugel, 1920

Other mourning practices mentioned in the Hebrew Bible include wailing, tearing your clothes, wearing sackcloth around your hips, and sitting in ashes.  These are never forbidden (though priests are only allowed to do mourning rituals for their immediate family members)1.

But in the bible people also mourn by gashing, scarring, or tattooing their skin and by shaving the side of the head or beard, all prohibited in Leviticus/Vayikra 19:27-28.

Unholy shaving

Shaving the hair off some part of the head seems to have been a common way to express grief in the Ancient Near East, at least for men and possibly also for women.2  The grief might be for the death of a family member, or for the death of a whole city.  Isaiah’s prophecy about the downfall of Moab includes these lines:

          Moab wails;

               On every head is karchah,

               Every beard is shaven.  (Isaiah 15:2)

Ezekiel prophesies the doom of Tyre to the north and predicts:

          Vehikriychu for you a karchah

               And they will wrap themselves in sackcloth.

          And they will weep to you with a bitter soul

               Bitter rites of mourning.  (Ezekiel 27:31)

vehikriychu (וְהִקְרִיחוּ) = and they will shave or pluck bald.

When Jeremiah prophesies that God will send the Egyptian army to destroy the Philistine city of Gaza, he declares:

Karchah will come to Gaza.”  (Jeremiah 47:5)

That says it all; so many people in Gaza will be killed that everyone left will be in mourning, shaven partly bald.

Even in the Israelite kingdoms of Samaria and Judah, when God is about to destroy the capital city, God wants people to make bald patches on their heads.  Perhaps the God-character makes an exception to the commandments against shaving as mourning because God wants to see a dramatic reaction when “he” destroys a whole nation of Israelites.

Amos predicts God will bring down Samaria and reports that God said:

          I will change your festivals into rites of mourning

               And all your songs into dirges.

          And I will put sackcloth over every pair of hips

              And on every head karchah.  (Amos 8:10)

Isaiah complains that the Israelites of Judah forgot God during their preparation for the siege of Jerusalem.  He says:

          My lord the God of Hosts called, on that day,

               For weeping and for rites of mourning,

               And for karchah and for tying on sackcloth.  (Isaiah 22:12)

Holy shaving

Any mourning observance, including shaving your beard, the side of your face, or “between your eyes”, makes a person ritually impure and therefore unable to approach God in the sanctuary.  Mourners and anyone else exposed to death must be purified again before they can enter the courtyard of the temple or Tent of Meeting.

Leviticus explains that priests must avoid mourning rituals because their job requires being holy, and therefore ritually pure, at all times:

Yikrechu not karchah on their head, and the side of their beard they must not shave, and their flesh they must not tattoo with tattoos.  Holy they must be to their God, and they must not profane the name of their God …  (Leviticus 21:5-6)

yikrechu (יִקְרְחוּ) = they shall not make bald, they must not shave bald.  (From the same root as karchah.)

Yet other kinds of shaving are explicitly holy.  The Torah calls for Levites to shave their whole bodies when they are consecrated,3 for nazirites to shave their heads when their period of abstaining from wine and hair care is  completed,4 and for people with a skin disease to shave off all their hair when they are officially cured and rejoin the community5.

In these three examples the shaven person is ritually pure and makes an offering at the altar.

Right between the eyes

This week’s Torah portion prohibits shaving a bald spot “between your eyes”.  Where is that?

When I wrote an earlier version of this post in August 2011, I searched for other biblical references to anything between a person’s eyes.  I found only four, all referring to the placement of reminders of God’s teaching on your hand and “between your eyes”.  (Exodus 13:9 calls for a zikaron (זִכָּרוֹן), a memorial or reminder, between your eyes.  The other three references, Exodus 13:16, Deuteronomy 6:8, and Deuteronomy 11:18, call for a totafot, a word which appears only in these three sentences.)

The most well-known reference, in the Torah portion Va-etchannan, became the first paragraph of the Shema section6 of evening and morning prayers.

And these words that I command you today shall be upon your heart.  And you shall repeat them to your children, and you shall speak them when you stay in your house and when you go out on the road, and when you lie down and when you get up.  And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be totafot between your eyes.  And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.  (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)

totafot (טוֹטָפוֹת) = ornaments worn low on the forehead.

One possibility for totafot

This definition is speculative; scholars have not yet determined what totafot were.  According to the Talmud a totefet (possibly a singular form of totafot) was an ornament or sachet attached to the front edge of a woman’s hairnet, at the center of a band that went from ear to ear7—at the point where other Asian cultures imagine the third eye,

Some translators replace the word totafot with tefillin.  But a head tefillin is tied onto the top of the head, above the forehead, rather than between and just above the eyebrows.  Although totafot are located in a different place, they are supposed to be reminders of what God did or commanded, so they may have contained tiny scrolls like tefillin.

If so, the text for the totafot in Exodus would be: “With a strong hand God brought you out from Egypt”.  The two passages in Deuteronomy indicate a different text, since both are lists of reminders for obeying “these words that I command you today”.  The closest thing to a commandment preceding both lists of reminders is: “And you shall love God, your God, with all your heart and all with your soul” (Deuteronomy 6:5, 11:13)—i.e. you shall love God with your whole mind and body.

With or without a text, the purpose of wearing totafot in Exodus is to be grateful that God rescued your people from slavery in Egypt, and the purpose in Deuteronomy is to remember to love God completely.  The placement of totafot approximately between one’s eyes makes them reminders that everything one sees should be experienced from the viewpoint of appreciating and loving God.

If you shaved off part of each eyebrow, the part near the nose, your face would have a bald spot, a blank patch, right where you were supposed to place the totafot.

In this week’s Torah portion, the prohibition against shaving between the eyes for the dead is bracketed by “You are children to God” and “You are a holy people”.  God comes first.  Remembering to love God is more important than remembering a dead human being, however beloved.

Later in Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts the people to “choose life”.8  Although all humans die, and we suffer when someone we love dies, we are not supposed to give up on our own lives.  So just as we must not gash our skin in mourning, we must not disfigure the spot between the eyes where the totafot would go.

You are children to God, your God; you must not gash yourselves, and you must not put a karchah between your eyes for the dead.  Because you are a holy people to God, your God …    (Deuteronomy/Devarim 14:1-2)

May we all embrace life, even in the face of suffering and death.

  1. Leviticus 21:5.
  2. Most of the Hebrew Bible is about the world of men, and many of God’s rules are written from a male viewpoint. The closest the bible comes to describing mourning practices for women is in the rules for when a man brings home a female war captive. She must be given a month to weep for her father and mother before her owner can take her to bed.  At the beginning of the month she shall “shave her head”.  This is either a mourning ritual for women, or way to reduce the man’s lust so he can stay away for the required month.  (Deuteronomy 21:10-13).
  3. Levites shave their whole bodies in Numbers 8:11 just before they come to the sanctuary to be offered to God.
  4. Nazirites shave their heads at the end of their period of abstention in Numbers 5:18. The hair that remained uncut and untended during the period of their vow is holy, and is put on the fire of the altar along with the usual grain and animal offerings for God. The shaving is also holy, since it takes place in the sanctuary at the altar.
  5. People with the skin disease tzara-at shave all their hair, including their eyebrows, seven days after they are pronounced cured in Leviticus 14:8-9.
  6. The “Shema” is the prayer in Deuteronomy 6:4. There are several possible translations (see my post Va-etchannan: All in One) but I usually prefer “Listen, Israel: God is our god; God is one”. The “Shema section” in Jewish prayerbook begins with the Shema and continues with three paragraphs of instructions about ways to remember God’s rules (Deuteronomy 6:5-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41).  The first two include  totafot.
  7. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 57b.
  8. Deuteronomy 30:19-20.

Repost: Re-eih

One can eat meat, but not blood, according to this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See”).

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

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = animating soul, vital force; mood, appetite, desire; individual; throat.

Like humans, animals are animated by a soul that experiences moods, appetites, and desires.  The Torah locates that soul in the arterial blood.

Not only must the blood of an animal be drained and discarded before the meat can be eaten, but the animal must also be kosher.  Later in this week’s Torah portion, Moses repeats the rules for kosher animals.

And every animal that has a split hoof and has a hoof cloven into two hoof sections, [and] chews the cud among the animals that you may eat. (Deuteronomy 14:6)

Birds may also be eaten, but not birds of prey.  Fish may be eaten as long as they have fins and scales.  Any other animals, including shellfish and flying insects, are forbidden in this week’s Torah portion.

Fully observant American Jews heading to Europe would be planning out how to eat only kosher meat, they way they do at home.

I am not strict about keeping kosher.  However, I am planning to continue avoiding meat altogether.  It was hard for me to give up meat 23 years ago, but I did it.  I do not believe an animal’s nefesh is only in its arterial blood, the way the portion Re-eih implies.  I believe that eating any meat, drained of blood or not, is participating in the slaughter of an animal that, when alive, had an emotional life–moods, appetites, and desires–just like humans do.

For some people, honoring the death of the animal with a blessing, a prayer, or another ritual is enough.  Maybe they are right.  After all, everything we eat used to be alive in some sense.  The book of Genesis says God created humans to eat fruit from living trees for nourishment; modern science points out that nature made us omnivores.

Canaan dog

But I cannot watch a dog joyfully greet its roommates, or crows defend an injured member of their flock, and then go and eat meat.  I confess I make an exception for fish, which are less aware of moods and desires than birds and mammals–less like us.  (Fish also provide the B-12 and omega-3 fatty acids my omnivore body needs.)

When I get to Israel, I hope my diet will be easier than in America.  The Jewish prohibition against mixing meat and milk means, I believe, that I need only ask if a dish is “kosher dairy”.

But in Europe, I will ask in the local language whether there is any “meat” or poultry in a dish I might order.  There, as here, I will hope the waiters know what I am talking about.

To read my earlier blog post about the Torah’s version of not eating the soul of an animal, click on Re-eih & Acharey Mot: The Soul in the Blood.




Re-eih: Ownership

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?



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.)



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

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, too, 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 eating an animal’s soul be a powerful act of magic. One clue appears in the portion Acharey Mot in Leviticus, when God declares 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 a Canaanite 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.

Permitted Uses of Animal Blood

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. After all, both a human and a sheep or cow have a nefesh.  The only difference in the Torah between humans and other red-blooded animals is the human mind. And an animal you have raised is identified with you, whether or not you 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, make animal offerings on makeshift altars in various locations, as well as at the temples at Dan and Samaria in the northern kingdom of Israel.

* 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 plastic, 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

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


                           —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

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

“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)


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

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
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 that we feel a natural sympathy for paupers, but 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.

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