Devarim& Va-etchannan: Enough Already

July 24, 2015 at 12:37 am | Posted in Devarim, Va-etchannan | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah, 2015

“Enough already!”  The God-character makes a remark like that three times in the first two Torah portions of Moses’ book-length speech, the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim (“Words”).

Cloud over the portable sanctuary

Cloud over the portable sanctuary

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

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

But here is how Moses describes the departure in the first Torah portion of Deuteronomy:

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

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

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

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

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

I can see why the Israelites might want to linger at the foot of Mount Sinai.  After the tragic episode of the Golden Calf, Moses talks God into giving the people another chance, and they spend a year at Sinai living on manna and fabricating all the components of the portable sanctuary for God. The food is sufficient, the work is pleasant, and no one bothers them, neither human nor divine. Naturally they are reluctant to change their comfortable way of life.

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

The people march north, but fear paralyzes them at the border of Canaan and they refuse to cross.  (See my post Shelach-Lekha: Sticking Point.)  God makes them wait in the wilderness for 38 more years, until most of the old generation has died, and then lets them try again by a different route.

God snaps Rav lakhem! a second time in the portion Devarim when the Israelites set out from Kadeish-Barnea to make their second attempt to enter the “promised land”.

Detour of Israelites

Detour of Israelites

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

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

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

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

Once again God gets impatient with the Israelites for delaying.  In the book of Numbers, there is nothing safe or pleasant about the snake-infested wilderness around hostile kingdom of Edom.  The people are not lingering because they are comfortable where they are.  Of course, they also complain.  And if they linger, the only possible reason is to recover from snake-bite.

Perhaps this time, God’s Rav-lakhem means “Too much complaining from you, as you circle around this mountain!”

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

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

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

But in Deuteronomy, Moses blames the people for God’s anger at him, and says he begged God to let him cross over the Jordan after all.  God said Rav-lakh! because Moses tried to reopen a subject that should have been settled.

Both God and Moses seem irascible in the passage from Deuteronomy. I think God’s exclamation could be translated: “You’ve said too much already!”

Why is God more impatient in Deuteronomy than in Numbers?

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

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

*

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

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

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

The impatient God in the first two Torah portions of Deuteronomy can still serve a purpose!

Va-etchannan: No Other

July 16, 2013 at 11:16 pm | Posted in Va-etchannan | Leave a comment

The god of Israel is the highest and strongest of all the gods in the first four books of the Torah—but other, inferior gods also appear to exist. In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God tells Moses and Aaron: I will pass over the land of Egypt on that night, and I sill strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt, from human to beast; and I will make judgments against all the gods of Egypt. (Exodus 12:12)

After they have crossed the Red Sea, Moses and the Israelites sing: Who is like You among the gods? (Exodus 15:11). The second of the Ten Commandments says: You shall not have other gods in front of me. (Exodus 20:3) God also says that when the Israelites conquer Canaan, they must drive out the natives, because otherwise they would end up serving their gods. God tells Moses: You shall not cut a covenant with them or with their gods. (Exodus 23:32). It all sounds as if the gods of other people are not mere fantasies.

In the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy/Devarim, Moses continues to warn his people not to serve other gods, but only after he has made it clear that no other gods actually exist. This week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan  (“And I implored”), may contain the first written statement of monotheism, the belief that there is one and only one god.

This statement occurs, twice, in Moses’ speech to reassure the Israelites that God will not abandon them. In this context, he identifies which god he is talking about:

Elohim who created humankind on the earth, and from one end of the heavens to the other end… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:32)

elohim = gods; God. The word elohim is the plural of eloah = god, a variant of the more common word for a god, el. The Torah uses the word elohim with a singular verb to refer to God, and with a plural verb to refer to multiple other gods.

Next Moses says the creator of the universe is also the god who revealed itself to the Israelites.

Has a people heard the voice of Elohim speaking from the midst of the fire, as you yourselves heard, and lived? Or has Elohim nissah coming and taking for himself a nation from within a nation, …with great awe, like all that Y-H-V-H your Elohim did for you in Egypt before your eyes? (Deuteronomy 4:33-34)

nissah = tried, tested, experimented with.

Y-H-V-H = The four Hebrew letters י and  ה and ו and ה, called the Tetragrammaton, are the personal name of God in the Torah. These four letters are also used for various conjugations of the Hebrew verb hayah = be, become, happen, occur.

Then comes Moses’ first monotheistic statement, eyn od (“there is no other”).

You yourself have been shown in order to know that Y-H-V-H Itself is the elohim; there is no other besides It alone. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:35)

Next Moses says why God, the creator, intervened in the usual order of creation and made miracles for the Israelites:

From the heavens It let you hear Its voice, leyasrekha; and on earth It let you see Its great fire, and you heard Its words from the midst of the fire. And because It loved your forefathers, It chose in their place their descendants after them, and brought you out from Egypt with Its presence, with great power. (Deuteronomy 4:36-37)

leyasrekha = to reprove you, to discipline you, to train you.

God made miracles in Egypt out of love for the forefathers of the children of Israel, and made miracles on the fire at Mount Sinai in order to train the children of Israel.

Moses repeats his statement of monotheism in order to urge the Israelites to believe it.

And you shall know today, and you shall take it into your heart, that Y-H-V-H is the elohim, in the heavens above and on the earth below; there is no other. (Deuteronomy 4:39)

According to Moses, we know that there is only one God because the people who joined the exodus from Egypt saw the miracles and heard the voice at Mount Sinai. Those people were shown direct evidence. Yet in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking 40 years after the exodus. Many of the Israelites he is addressing were born after the miracles in Egypt, after the revelation at Sinai. They themselves were not shown anything; they have to go by what their elders have told them.

Anyone who reads the book of Deuteronomy is in the same position. Why should we believe that there is one and only one god?

Some people believe it because their elders (parents, teachers, culture) told them, just like the Israelites in Deuteronomy. And some believe it because it says so in the Torah. They assume that the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy report everyone’s direct experience of God literally, without exaggeration or metaphor.

Some people believe it because they have had their own mystical experiences, which they interpret as manifestations of a single, universal god.

Some people believe it because they find one of the many logical arguments for the existence of God compelling (despite all the counter-arguments philosophers have made over the centuries).

And some people do not believe it. The number of polytheists has dwindled, as world religions have redefined lesser gods as manifestations or aspects of a single god. But many people are atheists, unable to believe God is real according to any of the usual definitions of God. For example, when I examine the standard medieval theologian’s definition of God as an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent, and personal being, I always conclude that such a god is impossible. According to that definition of God, I am an atheist.

Yet when I use the word “God”, or a Hebrew name for God, I am referring to something I believe is real. I am still fumbling toward my own definition of what I mean by “God”.

The book of Deuteronomy contains no explicit definition of God, but this week’s Torah portion does offer several clues. In the verses I translate above, Moses describes God as:

* the creator of humankind, and the creator of all the heavens (and therefore the universe).

* a creator of miracles, e.g. isolated events violating the usual ongoing order of the universe.

* a god whose personal name is based on the verb meaning “be, become, happen”.

* a speaker.

* an experimenter.

* a trainer.

* a lover.

This list appears to describe two different kinds of god. One is the abstract, unimaginable creator of the cosmos, who continues to create new events. Existence itself is this god’s name.

The other kind of god is more understandable, because it has some human traits. It tests and experiments with humans, like a scientist. It speaks to human beings, trains them, and loves them, like a parent. It is more powerful than any king, but this god resembles a human king more than an abstract generator of the cosmos.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses says Y-H-V-H and the Elohim are one; but he also assumes that the Cosmogenerator and the Invisible (but not inaudible) King are one.

Can you think of a way to reconcile the two notions of God, a reason why the two kinds of god are one? Do you find either version of God compelling?

Va-etchannan: Extreme Love

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

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

ve-ahavta = And you shall love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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