Vayeilekh: The End of Days

August 27, 2013 at 11:57 pm | Posted in Daniel, Isaiah 1, Vayeilekh | 4 Comments
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Will we win the human race, or self-destruct? Will there ever be a time without war, a time without evil deeds?

And what about my own nation, religion, or people? Will we ever learn how to get it right, and become a good model for the rest of the world?

I think people’s longing for answers to these questions creates a demand for prophecies. Even if we will not live to see it, we want to know the eventual outcome.

In the Hebrew Bible, if someone makes a prediction containing the idiom be-acharit hayamim, it is probably a prophecy inspired by God. This idiom appears 15 times in the Hebrew Bible, eight times in a speech attributed to God or an angel of God, and seven times in a speech by someone we know God has been talking to: Jacob, Bilam, Moses, Isaiah, Daniel.

be-acharit = at the end, in the aftermath, as an outcome, in the future. (From achar = after, afterwards.)

hayamim = (literally) the days; (as an idiom) a long period of time, an era.

be-acharit hayamim = (literally) “at the end of days”; (as an idiom) in the distant future, as a long-term outcome.

Most of the prophecies of be-acharit hayamim are about the future of the people of Israel, and describe events that happened up to and including the building of the second temple in Jerusalem in the 5th century B.C.E. (Prophecies about neighboring kingdoms foretell events in the same time period.)

One of Moses’ prophecies about the Israelites appears in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeilekh (“And he went”):

For I know that after my death, you will indeed go to ruin, and you will turn aside from the path that I commanded you, and you will call down evil on yourselves, be-acharit hayamim; for you will do what is evil in the eyes of God, offending [God] through the doings of your hands. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:29)

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses stops on that gloomy note. But earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses says what will happen afterward. After the Israelites have reverted to idol-worship and doing evil in God’s eyes of God, other nations will defeat them, and the remaining Israelites will suffer exile. But then the exiles will seek out God again.

When you are in distress and all these things have found you, be-acharit hayamim, then you will return to God, your god, and you will listen to Its voice. (Deuteronomy 4:30)

Two other prophecies about the future of the Israelites go on to foretell the future of all humankind. One prophecy of our ultimate future appears in the book of Isaiah and is quoted in Micah; the other comprises the last three chapters of the book of Daniel. The two predictions are mutually exclusive, and neither course of events has occurred yet.

Here is Isaiah’s prophecy:

And it will happen, be-acharit hayamim, the mountain of the house of God will stand firm at the head of the mountains, and be lifted above the hills; and all the nations will be a river. And many peoples will say: “Go, let us go up to the mountain of God, to the house of the god of Jacob, and [God] will teach us Its ways.” …and they will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation, and they will not learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:2-4)

This passage in the book of Isaiah is one basis of the majority opinion in Jewish commentary that the ultimate future of the world is the “messianic era”, a time when the whole world will live in peace, under the supervision of a descendant of King David. This leader will be called the moshiach = anointed one, but unlike the Christian messiah, he will be a righteous human being who is eventually anointed as a king. The world will continue with the same natural laws; the only difference is that all human beings will behave well, and follow the same god.

The last chapter of Daniel, however, is a precursor to the Christian book of Revelation, and hints at the end of the world and natural law. Daniel has a vision and faints; then a hand shakes him, and when Daniel stands up he realizes an angel is speaking to him. The angel says:

I come to make you understand what is summoning your people be-acharit hayamim, because there is another vision for the era. (Daniel 10:14)

The angel begins by foretelling that Persia will defeat Egypt in long war, but then will be overrun by other peoples from the northeast. This will put the Israelites in dire straits, but some of them will escape to safety.

The next sentence is mysterious: And many who are sleeping in the dusty earth will be awakened: these for everlasting life, and those for everlasting abhorrent disgrace. (Daniel 12:2).

Daniel asks the angel for clarification, but the angel refuses to explain. The angel ends the book by saying: But you, go on to the keitz; then you will rest, and then you will stand up to be assigned your fate at the keitz hayamim. (Daniel 12:13)

keitz = end, limit, boundary, farthest point.

keitz hayamim=the farthest limit of time.

Daniel’s angel seems to switch from talking about future events during the course of time (be-acharit hayamim), to the end of time for this world (keitz hayamim). This is the only occurrence in the Hebrew bible of the phrase keitz hayamim.

It may also be the first written prediction of a resurrection of the dead combined with a final judgment consigning people to heaven or hell. This idea did not get much traction in Judaism, at least not until many centuries later, when Jews were living in the diaspora among medieval Christians. But it must have influenced the Christian book of Revelation.

Isaiah’s prophecy about the future of humankind is optimistic that humans can change dramatically for the good. No supernatural miracles will be required for all the peoples of the world to adopt the same god (or more importantly, the same values), and stop making war.

The final prophecy in the book of Daniel is pessimistic, It assumes that good people from the past must be resurrected in order to lead people to knowledge and righteousness, and that even then, kings will continue to make war, lie, and magnify themselves, and the wicked will continue to act wickedly. Only a supernatural final judgment will resolve the problem.

Some people still hope for a messianic age, as in Isaiah’s prophecy. Some still anticipate the apocalypse hinted at in Daniel. Even without reference to a bible, people who ponder the future of the world can be divided into two camps. Some people believe the ethical level of humanity will continue to improve, rapidly enough so we will save our polluted earth as well as ourselves. Others believe we will never get our act together in time.

I prefer to hope for the future, even as I wonder what will happen to the world while we wait for the ignorant and the selfish to become enlightened.

Meanwhile, Moses’ two prophecies about the future of the Israelites can be applied to individual enlightenment. Now more than ever we find God in a connection with our individual souls or psyches. If we replace the word for “God” with the word “soul”, and recast the sentences for the present time, here is what we learn:

After the loss of your rebbe/guru/mentor, you will turn aside from the path, and as an outcome you will call down bad consequences on yourself; for you will do what your own soul knows is wrong, and you will offend your soul through your bad deeds. (based on Deuteronomy 31:29)

And when you are in distress and all these bad consequences have happened, as the long-term outcome of straying from the path, then you will return to your inner soul, and you will listen to its voice. (based on Deuteronomy 4:30)

I pray that enough people find enlightenment inside themselves, and dedicate their lives to doing no harm, and repairing what they can repair. I am ready to beat my spear into a pruning hook!

Vayeilekh: Mixed Messages

September 20, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Posted in Vayeilekh | Leave a comment

I was pleased with myself for writing about the Torah portion Ha-Azinu early, and posting it right after Rosh Hashannah. Then I checked the Hebrew calendar, and discovered that because of when the holy days fall this year, we read Ha-Azinu next week, after Yom Kippur.  This year, the Torah portion to read between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur is Vayeilekh (“And he went”), a short piece just before the poem of Ha-Azinu.

So my posting yesterday was not on time after all; it was a week ahead of time.  It figures. I have a bad habit of rushing into the future without pausing to check out the present. Today, when I went back and looked at what I skipped over, I noticed that Vayeilekh includes two different ways of looking at the future.

Moses announces that since he is 120 years old and it is time for him to die, Joshua will lead the people across the Jordan River to take over the land of Canaan. He tells them not to be afraid, because God will be with them and ensure their success. Then God speaks to Moses.

God said to Moses:  Hey! Your days to die are drawing close; call Joshua and stand yourselves in the Tent of Meeting, and I will command him. So Moses and Joshua went and stood themselves in the Tent of Meeting. Then God appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud, and the pillar of cloud stood over the opening of the tent. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:14-15)

God often speaks to Moses without any visual effects, but this time God adds the pillar of cloud to demonstrate to both Joshua, inside the tent, and the Israelites, outside the tent, that God really is confirming the new leader.

Then God said to Moses: Hey, you will be lying with your forefathers, and these people will rise up, and they will go whoring after the foreign gods of the land that they are coming into the midst of, and they will abandon me and break my covenant that I cut with them. And My nose will be hot against them on that day, and I will abandon them, and I will hide My face from them, and they will become fodder, and many evils and constrictions will find them … (Deuteronomy 3:16-17)

Then God tells Moses to teach the people the song in Ha-Azinu, so that someday they will realize how they screwed up. After this, God tells Joshua:

Be resolute and bold, because you yourself will bring the children of Israel into the land that I have sworn to them, and I myself will be with you. (Deuteronomy 31:23)

That’s all God says to Joshua.  It’s an encouraging message, the opposite of the gloomy prediction God gives Moses.  Both men were standing in the Tent of Meeting, but since God speaks to Moses, then to Joshua, instead of to both of them together, the classic commentary assumes that neither man heard what God said to the other.

Why does God encourage Joshua, but give Moses a discouraging prediction? If Joshua, the new leader, knew that the Israelites were going to screw up, couldn’t he to do something to mitigate it?  And if Moses, who is about to die, believed the Israelites he dedicated 40 years of his life to shepherding are heading into a bright future, wouldn’t he die in peace?

I don’t think so.  In my own life, when I am about to begin a new enterprise, I need encouragement. I do not need someone to tell me the project will fail; I can easily imagine that myself. If an authority figure confirmed my fears, I might give up prematurely.

On the other hand, when I am giving up something that was important in my life, I am experienced enough to accept any unpleasant truth about it. If I did my best, most of the time, that is enough. But I am curious about what will happen next. If I found out that the project I started would eventually fail, but that later it could be revived and redeemed, I think I would be content. When it is time for me to give up on life itself (and may I live for 120 years, like Moses!)  I pray that I will be able to accept that, too.

For everything there is a season: a time to be resolute and bold, and a time to release and accept. In the Torah portion Vayeilech, God knows which time it is for Joshua, and which time it is for Moses.

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