Testifying to Divine Providence

February 24, 2021 at 10:30 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Tetzavveh, Vayiggash | 1 Comment

What can you give God, when God has given abundantly to you?

Burning something is the standard method for expressing gratitude to God in the Torah.  God loves the smell of smoke, whether it comes from animal fat burning on the courtyard altar, or incense burning on the golden altar just inside the Tent of Meeting.  In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh, God tells Moses the ritual for consecrating both the courtyard altar and the new priests, a ritual that includes a lot of fat burning.1  After burning the fat parts of a bull and all of one ram, the priests to be ordained must hold up the fat parts of the “ram of ordination”, along with its right thigh and three kinds of grain products.

Then you shall take them from their hands and you shall turn them into smoke on the altar, on top of the rising offering, for a soothing fragrance before God; it is a fire-offering for God.  (Exodus 29:25)

The end of the Torah portion describes the construction of the incense altar and decrees that the high priest must burn incense on it twice a day.2  Apparently God needs a lot of soothing.

Only a few psalms and the writings of a few prophets indicate that one can also worship God through words.  See my post: Tetzavveh & Psalms 141, 51, and 40: Smoke and Prayer.

Serving God through words also has a precedent in the Joseph story in the book of Genesis.  In the chapter in my book on the portion Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and explains that they are not to blame for throwing him into a pit and selling him as a slave all those years ago, because it was all part of God’s plan to bring the whole family down to Egypt during the seven-year famine.3

He intends to reassure his older brothers, but they are not thrilled to hear that they have no free will.  Joseph kisses them and sobs on their necks, but they merely become able to speak to him.4

The author of Psalm 40, like Joseph, expresses his religious attitude by giving verbal testimony about divine providence.5  Unlike Joseph, he later becomes insecure and reminds God:

I did not conceal your righteousness in the middle of my heart;

          I spoke of your reliability and your deliverance.

          I did not conceal from a great assembly your loyal kindness and your fidelity.

You, God, you will not hold back your compassion from me;

          Your loyal kindness and your fidelity will always guard me.  (Psalm 40:11-12)

Faith in divine providence is easy in hindsight, as it was for Joseph.  But when troubles are still threatening you, you need to keep reminding yourself of your belief, like the author of Psalm 40.  And when someone else tells you not to worry about your past crime because it all worked out for the best, you may feel cheated of a chance to make amends, like Joseph’s brothers.

  1. Exodus 29:12-25.
  2. Exodus 30:1-9.
  3. Genesis 45:4-8.
  4. Genesis 45:15.
  5. We can assume the speaker is a man because he is allowed to speak to a “great assembly”, something no woman could do at that place and time.

Vayigash & Terumah: Silver and Slavery

February 18, 2021 at 5:42 pm | Posted in Terumah, Vayiggash | Leave a comment

Egyptian silver bowl, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Silver stands for both magic and money in the Torah.

Shining silver glimmers with beauty and mystery (as long as someone polishes it). In the book of Genesis, the viceroy of Egypt’s cup made of silver, and Joseph claims to use it for divining as well as drinking.1 In the book of Exodus, the Israelites make parts of the portable sanctuary for God out of silver.2

Silver was also used as money in Egypt, Canaan, and the rest of the Ancient Near East. The first example in the Torah is when Abraham purchases the cave of Makhpeilah for 400 shekels of silver.3 At that time, a shekel was a unit of weight, not a coin.4

The first time Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt to purchase grain during the seven-year famine, each man brings a bag of silver pieces, probably molded into convenient ingots.  They use their silver to pay for the grain they bring back to Canaan, but the mysterious viceroy (actually Joseph) has their silver secretly returned to their packs, on top of the grain.5 At their first camp on the way north, one of them opens his pack.

And he said to his brothers: “Kaspi!  It’s been returned!  Hey, it’s actually in my pack!”  And their hearts left them and they trembled.  Each man said to his brother: “What is this God has done to us?”  (Genesis 42:28)

kaspi (כַּסְפִּי) = my silver.  (A form of the noun kesef, כֶּסֶף = silver.)

Spooked, the brothers are psychologically primed for further mysteries.  They return to Egypt for more grain the following year, this time bringing their youngest brother, Benjamin, as the viceroy requested. They are afraid they will be accused of stealing back their own payment, so they carefully explain what happened to the viceroy’s steward, who says their God must have done it.6

That night, Joseph has his steward repeat the trick—and this time he also has his own silver cup hidden in the mouth of Benjamin’s bag. He uses the apparent theft of the silver cup as a pretext to arrest all eleven brothers.7 Then he decrees that the rest can go home, but Benjamin must stay in Egypt as his slave.8 At this Judah, the ringleader who talked his brothers into selling Joseph as a slave 22 years before, steps forward and begs the viceroy to let him stay as the slave instead of Benjamin. Joseph now has proof that Judah and his brothers have changed, so he reveals his identity and unites the family.

Joseph brings his own family down to Egypt and promises to support them, but he continues to charge everyone else for the grain he stockpiled before the famine began.

And Joseph collected all the kesef to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan through the sale of grain, while they were buying grain.  And Joseph brought the kesef to the house of Pharaoh.  Then the kesef from the land of Egypt and from the land of Canaan ran out.  So the Egyptians came to Joseph, saying: “Bring us food!  Why should we die in front of you, because the kesef is gone?”  Then Joseph said: “Bring your livestock and I will give [grain] to you for your livestock, if the kesef is gone.” (Genesis 47:14-15)

Now Pharaoh owns all the livestock of Egypt as well as all the silver of Egypt and Canaan. The following year, the Egyptians tell the viceroy that they have nothing left to buy grain with except themselves and their land. So he acquires them as slaves under a system of serfdom. Pharaoh now owns all the land in Egypt except for the allotments of the priests, and all the farmers must give a fifth of their produce to Pharaoh.9

*

This week, as I delve into the ethics of Joseph’s enslavement of the Egyptians for the book I am writing on Genesis, I am also reading about the call for donations of silver and other precious materials in the current Torah portion, Terumah.  Here is the blog post I wrote on the subject: Terumah: Heavy Metals.

The purpose of the donations is to supply the raw materials to build a portable sanctuary for God. But how do the Israelites, ex-slaves in the wilderness of Sinai, have gold and silver to donate?

When God strikes the Egyptians with the final plague, the death of the firstborn, the Israelite slaves pack up to leave the country.

And the Israelites had done as Moses had spoken and asked the Egyptians for objects of kesef and gold, and garments.  And God had given the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they let them have what they asked for.  So they plundered Egypt.  (Exodus 12:35-36)

All the Israelites had to do was ask, according to this story, and the Egyptians eagerly handed over their money and everything else made with precious metals.  They were desperate to see the Israelites leave the country so that the God of Israel would finally stop afflicting them with plagues.

*

Silver in the Torah, like money in the world today, does not circulate evenly.  It becomes concentrated in the hands of whoever has the most power.  When Joseph is the viceroy of Egypt he has power over all the stockpiles of grain, so the all the silver in Canaan and Egypt goes into Pharaoh’s coffers, and all the farmers of Egypt are enslaved.  About 400 years later, according to the Torah, the Israelites are enslaved and the Egyptians have silver.  After the Egyptians discover that the God of Israel has the most power, they hand over their wealth so God will leave them alone.  Now the Israelite ex-slaves have gold and silver.

In a moment of panicked insecurity, the Israelites donate some of the jewelry they extorted from the Egyptians to make a golden calf, hoping that then their god will inhabit something they can see.10 Meanwhile, God tells Moses in this week’s Torah portion to have the people make a portable sanctuary for God to inhabit.11 After Moses comes down from Mount Sinai and the Israelites have been punished and redirected, they eagerly donate their plundered silver and gold to make the sanctuary.12

The silver in the sanctuary is taken out of circulation as money. The people donate their silver and other precious materials because they need to believe God is right there with them, inside the beautiful sanctuary they are building.  After all, they need to eat, just like the Egyptians and Canaanites in the book of Genesis who handed over their silver to Pharaoh’s viceroy, who controlled the grain supply. By the portion Terumah in the book of Exodus, the Israelites know that God has the power to give them manna to eat, or withhold it.  They hand over their silver and gold to God.

But this time the precious metals are not just money stored away in some strongman’s coffers.  The people can see the silver hooks holding up the cloth courtyard walls and the silver bands on its posts; the gold hooks holding up the richly colored cloths of the tent-sanctuary walls, the silver sockets securing the cross-pieces in the frame of the tent, and its gold-plated doorposts.13 These touches of shining metal add to the beauty and mystery of the enclosure, elevating the spirits of the Israelites as they worship God.

  1. Genesis 44:2-12.
  2. The walls of the sanctuary proper are cloth hung in wood frames whose sockets are silver (Exodus 26:19-25). The cloth walls of the open courtyard in front of the sanctuary hang from silver hooks, and the posts holding up the framework are banded with silver (Exodus 27:17).
  3. Genesis 23:15-16.
  4. One shekel was 8.4 grams. The oldest coins unearthed in the Israelite and Philistine region date to the late 6th century B.C.E., when the Babylonian Empire fell to the Persians.
  5. Genesis 42:25-28.
  6. Genesis 43:18-23.
  7. Genesis 44:1-9.
  8. Genesis 44:17.
  9. Genesis 47:18-24.
  10. Exodus 32:1-4.
  11. Exodus 25:8.
  12. Exodus 35:21-24.
  13. Exodus 27:17, 26:19-25, 26:36-37.

Yitro & Vayeishev: Fathers-in-Law

February 5, 2021 at 2:07 pm | Posted in Vayeishev, Yitro | Leave a comment

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days will be long on the earth that God, your God, is giving you.  (Exodus/Shemot 20:12)

This is the fifth of the Ten Commandments in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro.  You can read my blog post about it here: Yitro: The Heaviness of Honoring Parents.

The portion Yitro also gives us a portrait of an eponymous father-in-law well worth honoring.  Yitro visits his son-in-law Moses in the wilderness around Mount Sinai, where Moses he has led the Israelites and their fellow-travelers.  The two men exchange greetings, with Moses bowing to the ground to honor his father-in-law.1  Yitro, a Midianite priest, rejoices over the good things that Moses’ God has done for Moses’ people, without showing a hint of jealousy.2  Then he makes an animal offering to God, and all the elders of the Israelites join him in the ritual meal.3  Finally, Yitro observes Moses wearing himself out by serving as the only judge for all his people’s disputes, asks him the reason, and then suggests a system for delegating authority.4  He leaves his son-in-law in a better position than when he arrived.

*

As I continue to write my book on morality in Genesis, I am now wrestling with the story of a less admirable father-in-law.  Judah, who once arranged to sell his brother Joseph as a slave,5 has three sons.  He chooses Tamar as a wife for his oldest son, Eir.6  But Eir dies after the wedding.

According to the law of yibum (also called levirate marriage), a woman who is childless when her husband dies must be given a place in the household of the deceased through an arrangement in which the dead husband’s brother or nearest male relative impregnates her, and when she has a son her boy inherits her dead husband’s portion of the family wealth.  Without yibum, the widow has no rights.

Judah dutifully sends his second son in to Tamar’s bed, but he refuses to perform, and shortly dies.  Now Judah has only one son left, young Shelah, and he is afraid that Shelah will also die if he gets near Tamar.

Then Judah said to Tamar, his daughter-in-law: “Return as a widow to your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 38:11)

Tamar waits a long time in limbo, and then finally takes the yibum into her own hands.  When Judah goes to the annual sheep-shearing, he spots someone at a crossroad whom he assumes is a prostitute waiting for a customer.  It is Tamar, dressed like a prostitute and veiled so he does not recognize her.  She asks him to give her his seal, cord, and staff as a pledge until he can pay her.  When Judah sends his friend with the payment, no prostitute can be found.  A few months later, when it becomes obvious that Tamar is pregnant, Judah condemns her to death for prostitution.  After all, she was supposed to remain chaste until he arranged yibum for her again.

At the last minute, Tamar sends Judah his own seal and staff with the message:

“To the man whose these are his I am pregnant.”  And she said: “Recognize, please: whose seal and cord and staff are these?”  (Genesis 38:25)

At that moment Judah changes.  He is the first person in the Torah to admit he was wrong.

And Judah recognized, and he said: “She is more righteous than I.”  (Genesis 38:26)

He becomes an honorable father-in-law, returning Tamar to his household, where she has twin sons.  Judah also becomes an honorable man, who eventually offers himself as a slave to protect his innocent brother Benjamin.7

*

Not all parents-in-law, or all parents, are worthy of being honored.  But we can still treat them with respect, for being fellow humans and for who they might become.  The example of Judah reminds us that human beings can change.

  1. Exodus 18:7.
  2. Exodus 18:9-10.
  3. Exodus 18:12.
  4. Exodus 18:13-26.
  5. Genesis 37:26-27.
  6. Genesis 38:6.
  7. Genesis 44:32-33.

By Hand

January 27, 2021 at 6:39 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Vayeishev | Leave a comment

Hands are powerful.  Hands are personal.

by Theodore Gericault, 1824

Both modern English and biblical Hebrew use the word for “hand” (yad, יָד) in many idioms.  And sometimes an idiom in an English translation of the Hebrew bible was adopted into English just because the “Old Testament” had so many English-speaking readers.

The Israelites leave Egypt “with a high hand” in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach.  Here is the King James translation:

And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel: and the children of Israel went out with an high hand.  (Exodus 14:8)

In English we say people are “high-handed” when they act as if they have the authority to accomplish something by themselves, without consulting anyone or considering anyone else’s concerns.  When the Israelites march out of Egypt, they feel arrogant for a change.  The pharaoh who oppressed them has begged them to go, they are taking everything Pharaoh wanted them to leave behind, and they have just commandeered  gold and other valuables from their Egyptian neighbors.  They act as if they are invincible–until the Egyptian army catches up with them.

See my 2013 post on the subject here: Beshallach: High Handed.

In English we say “He was caught red-handed,” because a man at a murder scene with blood on his hands is probably the murderer.  The idiom applies to anyone caught committing a violation in front of witnesses or with obvious, incontrovertible evidence.

But if you arrange for someone to die while you are elsewhere and there is no evidence that “your hand was in it”, you might never be implicated.  Biblical Hebrew would phrase that idiom as “your hand was with” the obvious perpetrator.  For example, King David asks a woman with an imaginary story about two sons “Is the hand of Joab with you in all this?” to find out if Joab’s hand is in her ploy to make him change his mind about his son Absalom (2 Samuel 14:19).

This week I am writing the part of my book on Genesis about when Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave to caravan bound for Egypt.  Initially, most of Joseph’s ten older brothers want to kill him, then throw his body into one of the dry cisterns in the vicinity.  Reuben, the oldest brother, persuades them not to get blood on their own hands.

And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood!  Throw them into this pit that is in the wilderness, but don’t extend a hand (yad) on him,” in order to rescue him from their hand (yad) and return him to his father.  (Genesis 33:22)

In colloquial English Reuben is saying: “Don’t lay a hand on him.”   All the brothers cooperate by seizing Joseph, stripping off his fancy tunic, and throwing him into the cistern alive.  Then Reuben wanders off while the rest of Joseph’s brothers sit down for a meal and Joseph pleads for his life from the bottom of the cistern.  An Ishmaelite caravan headed for Egypt approaches, and one of the brothers, Judah, says:

What profit if we murder our brother and cover up his blood?  Let’s go and sell him to the Ishmaelites, and our hand (yad) won’t be on him; for he is our brother, our flesh.”  (Genesis 33:26-27)

What Judah does not say is that a slave sold in Egypt would probably have a short life-span.

Thus the Torah provides an example of how humans excuse their own behavior when they put someone in harm’s way or incite someone to commit a crime.  If I didn’t do it with my own hands, they think, I’m not really guilty.

In Genesis, Joseph’s brothers realize that they are guilty after all, and that guilt haunts them the rest of their lives.

 

 

Eikev: Rewriting Justice

August 5, 2020 at 6:05 pm | Posted in Eikev, Ki Tissa | Leave a comment

Over and over in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim Moses promises the Israelites prosperous lives and their own nation if they obey God’s laws, death if they do not obey.  He drives home his point with reminders of what happened to them during the 40 years since they left Egypt.

Golden calf from temple of Baalat, Byblos

Some of these recollections in Moses’ farewell speech match the stories in the books of Exodus/Shemot and Numbers/Bemidbar.  Some do not.1

Moses retells the story of the golden calf worship in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“on the heels of”).  In this version he claims that he prayed twice to change God’s mind about a death penalty: once for all the Israelites and once for Aaron, who made the calf.

Va-etpaleil to God, and I said: “My lord God, do not wipe out your people and your heritage that you ransomed by your greatness, that you rescued from Egypt by a strong hand!”  (Deuteronomy 9:26)

va-etpaleil (וָאֶתְפַּלֵּל) = And I prayed, and I interceded.  (This is the hitpael form of the verb palal, פָּלַל = sat in judgment; arbitrated.  The hitpael form is used only when a human begs God to change a divine judgement.)

Earlier in his rambling narrative Moses says:

For I was terrified in the face of the fury and the venom with which God became angry at you, [enough] to exterminate you.  And God listened to me that time, too.  And God felt angry enough at Aaron to exterminate him.  Va-etpaleil also on behalf of Aaron at that time.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 9:19-20)

An obvious reason why God might be angry at Aaron appears in the book of Exodus.  When the Israelites give up waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai, they tell Aaron:

“Get up, make us a god who will go before us!”  (Exodus 32:1)

Adoration of the Golden Calf, by Nicolas Poussin,1634

Aaron obliges by collecting the people’s gold earrings, melting them down, and making a golden calf.  He even builds an altar in front of it and declares that the next day will be a festival for God—as if the God of Israel would manifest inside or above the golden calf.

Yet he, of all people, should remember God’s second commandment, which bans the manufacture or worship of images.

After Moses returns and halts the celebration by smashing the stone tablets inscribed with God’s commandments, he asks Aaron:

“What did this people do to you that you brought upon them a great sin?”  (Exodus/Shemot 32:21)

Even as he criticizes his brother for fulfilling the people’s desire for an idol, Moses gives Aaron an excuse: he must have done wrong because the people forced him to.  What did they do to him?

Aaron waffles.  He starts by saying the people are evil, then reports that all he did was ask them to remove any gold they were wearing.

“And they gave it to me and I threw it into the fire and out came this calf!”  (Exodus 32:24)

Moses ignores Aaron’s disingenuous answer.  He orders the other Levites to kill the calf-worshippers by the sword, not sparing “… his brother or his neighbor or his close kin.”  (Exodus 32:27)  They kill 3,000 men, but they do not kill their brother Levite Aaron.  Moses does nothing to punish Aaron.  Neither does God.  Both Moses and God continue with God’s plan to elevate Aaron to the position of high priest in their new religion.

Yet Aaron violated the second commandment just as much as the calf-worshipers.

          You shall not make yourself a carved idol or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters below the earth.  (Exodus 20:4)

Aaron molded an idol in the shape of a calf, an animal on the earth below.  (Exodus 32:4)

          You shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them.  (Exodus 20:5)

Aaron built an altar in front of the golden calf and told the people to bring offerings.  (Exodus 32:5-6)

His guilt is clear.  Yet at the time, God ignores Aaron, while Moses asks one question and then lets the subject drop.

Ignoring Aaron’s violation is a disservice to the Israelites, to God, to Aaron, and to Moses.

The Israelites would conclude that Aaron escaped punishment only because of nepotism.  Now that they know God and Moses play favorites, they have an extra reason to conclude that conquering Canaan for them is not worthwhile.

God wants the Israelites to become his “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), but now the Israelites would view God as unjust, to be followed only out of fear rather than love.

Aaron would feel guilty the rest of his life.  He wears the high priest’s vestments, but he would know that inside he is unworthy.

Moses would be nagged by the memory of his own failure to bring his brother to justice, or even acknowledge that Aaron was guilty.

So 39 years later, Moses rewrites the conclusion of the golden calf fiasco.  Nobody else knows whether God was angry with Aaron, or whether Moses spoke to God about it.  So Moses tells the Israelites how it should have been instead of how it was.

In his speech on the bank of the Jordan, Moses declares:

And God felt anger against Aaron, enough to exterminate him.  Va-etpaleil also on behalf of Aaron at that time.  (Deuteronomy 9:20)

Moses’ prayer must have changed God’s mind, since Aaron survived and became the high priest.  And for Moses’ audience, this new story confirms that God is just, and also that God listens to prayer.

*

Rewriting history is rarely a virtue.  But neither is ignoring a person’s misdeeds.  As I reflect on Moses’ story in Deuteronomy, I pray that when I notice someone doing wrong, I find a safe and private way to communicate it to them.  And if I was one of the victims, and the wrongdoer apologizes and tries to remedy the situation, I pray that I will forgive them.

  1. See my post Devarim: In God We Trust?

 

Pesach & Vayikra: Holy Matzah

April 6, 2020 at 6:59 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Passover/Pesach, Vayikra | Leave a comment

We interrupt this program of Torah readings from the book of Leviticus/ Vayikra to bring you a special announcement from the book of Exodus/Shemot:

Do not eat regular bread during the week of Passover.

Why not?

First Day of Pesach

Painting doorposts with blood, History Bible, Paris, 1390

On the first day of Passover/Pesach, the Torah reading (Exodus 12:21-51) includes tenth plague in Egypt, the death of the firstborn.  Moses tells the Israelites what each household must do on that day: slaughter a sheep and paint its blood around the door, so death will pass over their house.

Night falls while the Israelites are eating their slaughtered sheep.  The firstborn child in every house without blood around the door dies.  In the middle of the night Pharaoh and the other Egyptians urge the Israelites to leave the country at once, with no conditions.  The Israelites march away in the morning, taking all their livestock; some gold and silver the Egyptians “loan” them; and some household items, including bread dough and kneading troughs.  When they camp on the first night of their journey,

They baked the dough that they had brought out from Egypt as cakes of matzot, because it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and they were unable to tarry; and also they had not made provisions for themselves.  (Exodus 12:39)

matzot (מַצּוֹת) = plural of matzah (מַצָּה) = unleavened bread; a flat “loaf” of flour and water baked before any sourdough can make it rise.

Every year we read this specious reason for eating matzah during Passover, in the haggadah (script) for the seder (ritual meal) as well as in the Torah.  And every year I sigh with impatience.

People in the ancient Near East used sourdough, not yeast, to leaven their bread.  It takes about a week to make new sourdough starter and gradually add enough flour and water to do some baking.  So for thousands of years bakers have kept sourdough starter going in their kitchens.

A family packing hurriedly to leave the country might bring dry flour and a jar of sourdough starter.  Or they might bring dough that was already rising in preparation for baking later in the day.  But who would mix some flour with water and bring the damp lump without adding any of the sourdough starter right there on the shelf?

Saying that we eat only unleavened bread during the week of Pesach because our ancestors had no time to prepare leavened bread is an explanation that some young children enjoy.  But it has never satisfied me.

Last Day of Pesach

On the last day of the week of Pesach, the Torah reading is Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17, which combines eating the slaughter offering with eating the matzah, and adds some new details to the Pesach observance.

Israelites Leave Egypt, The Golden Haggadah, 14th century Spain

Observe the month of the green grain,1 and make the Pesach offering to God, your God, because in the month of the green grain God, your God, brought you out of Egypt at night.  You shall slaughter Pesach offerings from the flock and from the herd for God, your God, in the place where God chooses to make [God’s] name dwell.  You shall not eat leaven with it.  Seven days you shall eat it with matzot, the bread of wretchedness, because in a hasty flight you went out from the land of Egypt.  On account of [eating matzot], you shall remember the day you went out from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:1-3)

Here the purpose of eating both the animal offering and the matzot for a week is to remember the exodus from Egypt.  In Deuteronomy, we must do this at the temple, with everyone else who has come for the pilgrimage.

This passage adds that matzah is the bread of wretchedness,2 a statement repeated during the Pesach seder.3  Eating matzah reminds us of our own wretchedness and our inability to rise by our own efforts when we were in Egypt.

The hard labor imposed on the Israelites enslaved in Egypt gave them “shortness of breath” (or “shortness of spirit”; both translations are legitimate) so they could not listen to Moses talking about liberation.4  They could only cry bitterly, until God created the ten miraculous disasters that finally persuaded even the Pharaoh to let them leave Egypt.

We eat matzah during Pesach to remember that any freedom we have now is due to God’s compassion for us.

In the first century C.E. Philo of Alexandria initiated an explanation for eating matzah that we still repeat at many seders today: that leavening makes bread puff up like an arrogant person.  Eating flat matzah is a reminder of our humility before God.5

Pesach and Leviticus

This year another explanation for eating matzah occurred to me.  After reading about the matzot burned on the altar in various types of offerings to God in the first two Torah portions of Leviticus/Vayikra, I noticed that whenever the people make a grain offering6 to God, it is always unleavened.

The first Torah portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra describes several  acceptable types of afternoon grain offerings.  The first is:

… wheat flour; and he shall pour oil over it and place frankincense upon it.  And he shall bring it to the sons of Aaron, the priests, and one shall scoop from it … a memorial portion on the altar, a fire-offering, a fragrant aroma for God.   (Leviticus/Vayikra 2:1-2)

The Torah then describes four ways to cook the grain before offering it to God on the altar.  The mixture of flour and oil can be baked into matzot “loaves”, or into flat wafers.  It can be fried on a griddle, or cooked as soft dough in a pot.  But it must always be sprinkled with frankincense and salt before the priest breaks off a piece and lays it on the altar to burn up into smoke.  Furthermore, the grain offering must never be allowed to rise, and it must never include fruit syrup.

Any grain offering that you offer to God you shall not make leavened, for you must not make any sourdough or any syrup go up in smoke with a fire-offering for God.  You shall offer those to God as an offering of first-fruits, but they shall not be upon the altar, nor go up as a fragrant aroma.  (Leviticus 2:11-12)

Later the Torah describes the annual offering of first-fruits (and optional fruit syrups) on the holiday of Shavuot, which also prescribes an offering of two loaves of leavened bread from each pilgrim.  These offerings are presented to the priests at the sanctuary, but no part of them is burned on the altar for God.

Grain is also part of the wholeness-offering, given to express thanks or fulfill a pledge.  Besides slaughtering an animal at the altar, the donor brings:

 loaves of matzot mixed with oil, and wafers of matzot anointed with oil, and toasted flour mixed with oil.  Along with loaves of leavened bread, he shall offering his offering with his wholeness slaughter-offering.  (Leviticus 7:11-13)

Portions of the sacrificial animal and the unleavened grain offerings are burned on the altar.  But the leavened bread is all eaten by human beings: the officiating priest and the donor and his guests.  None of it is turned into smoke for God.

This means that during the week of Passover, we eat only the kind of grain that can be offered to God.  We remember that major transformations in our lives happen only by the grace of God, but we also, in effect, share bread with God.

Why?  In the Torah portion that comes after Pesach this year, Kedoshim, God declares:

You shall be holy, because I, God, your God, am holy.  (Leviticus 19:3)

Holiness is not a feeling in the Torah; the portion Kedoshim follows up that statement with a list of holy actions to take, both ethical and ritual.  But perhaps, when we eat matzah, we might remember we are eating the bread of God.  Maybe if that makes us feel more holy, we will act in a more holy way.  We will love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18) and share our food with the hungry (Pesach Haggadah).

  1. Aviv (אָבִיב) = green ears of grain; the first month of spring, later renamed Nissan in Hebrew.
  2. The Hebrew word is oni (עָני) = wretchedness, misery, poverty.
  3. In the Haggadah, matzah is called “ha-lachma anya”, an Aramaic phrase that means “the bread of wretchedness”.
  4. Exodus 6:9.
  5. See my post Pesach: Being Unleavened, Part 2.
  6. The afternoon grain offering is the minchah (מִנחָה)= allegiance-offering; a gift to a king as a sign of homage or respect; tribute.  See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.
     

Repost: Vayakheil

March 18, 2020 at 8:34 am | Posted in Kings 1, Terumah, Vayakheil | Leave a comment

Every part of the portable tent-sanctuary that God describes in the earlier Torah portion Terumah, the Israelites make exactly as specified in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”).  Here is a link to my 2018 post on God’s description of the menorah or lampstand: Terumah: Tree of Light.  The portion Vayakheil uses an almost identical description for the menorah the artist Betzaleil makes.1

Both descriptions leave room for argument about the actual appearance of the menorah.  We know it is made in one piece out of pure hammered gold.  A central shaft rises from a base and has three branches on each side. The shafts and each of its branches ends in a bowl for oil, so there are seven lamps across the top.  But are the branches curved or straight?  Smooth or knobby?  Neither Torah portion makes these details clear.

Here is what this week’s Torah portion says about the shaft and branches:

Three bowls meshukadim on one side, on each a kaftor and a blossom, and three bowls meshukadim on the other side, on each a kaftor and a blossom; the same way for all six of the branches going out from the menorah.  And on [the central shaft of] the menorah, four bowls meshukadim, [each with] its kaftor and its blossom: a kaftor under a pair of branches from it and a kaftor under a pair of branches from it and a kaftor under a pair of branches from it—for the six branches going out from it.  (Exodus/Shemot 37:21-22)

Almond tree in Jerusalem (photo by M.C.)

meshukadim (מְשֻׁקָּדִים) = made like part of an almond tree.

kaftor (כַּפְתֺּר) = a drupe (a fruit with a pit, such as a peach, plum, or almond), a knob, a capital of a column resembling an almond drupe; a native of Crete.

We arrived in Jerusalem when the almond trees were blooming, and I took a picture of one that still had last year’s dried-up almond drupes as well as this year’s flowers.  Inside those dark fruits are almonds.

Menorah drawing by Maimonides, Commentary to the Mishneh

So the two shapes used to ornament the stems under the lamps are the flattened oval of the almond drupe, and a flower with five oval petals.  But do the branches curve?  And are there smooth tubes of gold between these decorations?

12th-century C.E. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, a.k.a. Maimonides or Rambam, drew this interpretation of the menorah’s shape in his “Commentary to the Mishneh”.  His son, Rabbi Abraham ben HaRambam, wrote that the branches of the menorah were straight lines, like his father drew, not arcs.  Rambam’s abstract geometric drawing also shows the ornaments on the branches as continuous, the top bowls for oil at different heights, and the base as a potentially sturdy slice off the top of a sphere. But obviously the line of the central shaft in the drawing is not intended to represent an actual shaft of gold that could support the structure.

A mosaic in a 5-7th century synagogue in northern Israel depicts a menorah with long smooth curved branches.  But it also shows a graceful base with thin legs that could not support the weight of the necessary gold.  (See my photo below.)

Mosaic from Bet Shean synagogue, 5-7th century C.E., Israel Museum

How much further can we go back in history for evidence?  If only there were another clue about the shape of the menorah later in the Torah!  But all we have is this:

And thus Aaron did: toward the front of the menorah Aaron brought up its lamps, as God commanded Moses.  And this was the making of the menorah: hammered-work of gold from its base to its fruit is was hammered-work; like the form that God had shown Moses, thus he made the menorah.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 8:3-4)

Then the original menorah Betzaleil made disappears from the bible.

When King Solomon builds a temple in Jerusalem to replace the portable tent-sanctuary, he replaces most of the holy items and adds more.  (See my post: Haftarat Pekudei—1 Kings: More, Bigger, Better.)  Instead of the original single menorah, he sets up ten new ones inside the middle chamber of the temple, five on each side.2  Their shapes are not described.

According to Jeremiah 52:19, these ten gold lamp-stands are among the holy objects the Babylonian army carries away when it loots and destroys Solomon’s temple in 597 B.C.E.  In 538 B.C.E. the new Persian empire lets Jews in exile in Babylonia return to Jerusalem and build a second temple.  The book of Ezra says they even get to bring back thousands of gold and silver vessels and utensils that the Babylonians had taken with them, but the only gold items the book specifically mentions by type are 30 basins and 30 bowls—no lamp-stands, no bread table, no incense altar, and no ark.3

So the second temple in Jerusalem had to be furnished with another new menorah, if only so the priests serving inside the windowless room would have light.  Its designer may have tried to follow the same instructions as Betzaleil did in this week’s Torah portion.

But this menorah, too, was replaced.  In 169 B.C.E. the soldiers of Antiochus Epiphanes looted the temple, and after the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 B.C.E.) Judas Maccabeus had new utensils made for the re-consecrated temple, everything except the irreplaceable ark.4

Herod built the Temple Mount platform and rebuilt the second temple between 25 and 10 B.C.E., while the priests continued making offerings on the altar, and carried out the rebuilding of the temple interior.  A gold menorah, bread table, and incense altar remained in the sanctuary, and the Holy of Holies behind the curtain in back remained empty.

Roman soldiers putting down a Jewish rebellion sacked and destroyed this final temple in 70 A.D.  Eleven years later a stone relief was carved on the Arch of Titus depicting soldiers carrying away the menorah and other trophies.  The real menorah was on display in a temple in Rome—until that city was sacked by Vandals in 455 C.E.  Nobody knows what happened to it after that.

Arch of Titus (photo by M.C., 2019)

For many centuries the relief on the inside of the Arch of Titus at was the oldest depiction of the second temple menorah.  Old photographs of this relief show clearly that the menorah’s branches are rounded.  Thanks to the air pollution in Rome, the menorah looked this when I saw it in December:

Commentators have questioned whether the menorah on the arch is an accurate likeness or an artist’s fantasy.  Now we have a more authoritative drawing, discovered scratched into a plaster wall in an archaeological excavation of an upper-class house on the hill right next to the Temple Mount.This house, like the three adjacent houses or mansions, had mikvot (ritual baths) in the basement indicating that it belonged to a family in the caste of priests.  Priests, and only priests, served inside the temple.  They saw the menorah; some of them lit and tended its lamps.

Menorah at Wohl Archaeological Museum, Jerusalem (photo by M.C.)

This is a drawing of the Second Temple menorah by an eyewitness who lived during the time of King Herod.  (The incised drawing to the right might be a view of the bread table.)  This menorah has a base that is either a cone or a pyramid, and curved branches.  The branches and shaft have no smooth sections; they are made with a continuous ornamentation, alternating flat round shapes like drupes with flat shapes that might even be derived from petals.

I wonder if the homeowner drew it as an object of meditation before immersion in the mikveh, or as an object of instruction for his sons.  Either way, it is our closest connection with the sacred object that once lit the temple in Jerusalem.  And that menorah was a recreation of the sacred object that Betzaleil creates in this week’s Torah portion to light up a new sanctuary for God, the creator of light.

*

I write this today on a hill in Jerusalem that is too far from the Temple Mount to walk.  It does not matter, since now everyone in Israel is ordered to stay home except to get essential groceries and medicines.  I hope no new measures to fight the Coronavirus pandemic will prevent me and my husband from flying back to Oregon in a few days.

The current situation seems dim for all the world’s people.  I pray not only for healing, but for a new cooperation among all people, bringing new light into the world.

  1. Exodus 37:17-24.
  2. 1 Kings 7:48-49.
  3. Ezra 1:7-11.
  4. 1 Maccabbes 1:21.
  5. Wohl Archaeological Museum, Ha Kara’im Street, Jerusalem.

 

Repost: Ki Tissa

March 12, 2020 at 11:56 am | Posted in Ki Tissa | Leave a comment

Bull throne for a god 12th century BCE, Samaria, bronze, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

Aaron makes the golden calf.  Moses brings down the first pair of stone tablets and sees the people ecstatically worshiping the idol.  He orders the guilty slain (except for Aaron), and the Levites kill 3,000 men.  Moses hikes back up Mount Sinai.  God reveals the attributes of the divine nature, then inscribes the second pair of stone tablets.  Moses returns to the people with a supernaturally radiant face due to his exposure to the divine.

Ki Tissa, this week’s Torah portion, is action-packed.  Out of all my earlier blog posts I chose to rework this one:  Ki Tissa: Heard But Not Seen.  It addresses the question of why God orders the Israelites to make a pair of golden keruvim for God’s sanctuary, but completely rejects the golden calf.  What makes the golden calf, but not the keruvim, an idol?

The Torah says an idol is inanimate and useless.  For example:

Goddess Anat striking, 15th-13th century BCE, Tel Dan, bronze, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

     Their idols are silver and gold,

     Work of human hands.

     They have a mouth but they cannot speak,

     They have eyes but they cannot see,

     They have ears but they cannot hear,

     They have a nose but they cannot smell,

     They have hands but they cannot feel,

     They have feet but they cannot walk.

     They cannot make a sound in their throat!   (Psalm 115:4-7)

 

Goddess in the form of a throne, Philistine 12th century BCE, Ashdod, pottery, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

The Canaanites and Israelites who used idols were probably not as unsophisticated as the psalm makes them sound.  Other writings from the Ancient Near East indicate that they did not expect the metal or pottery objects they made to see, hear, smell, feel, move, or speak.  Instead, they hoped a god would inhabit the image from time to time, or use it as a throne.  Then they could use the idol to communicate with the god behind it.  But in the Torah, idols distract people from serving the God of Israel.  So God forbids the creation or worship of idols.

Today we say people “idolize” a pop music star when they devote a lot of time to a useless fantasy.  Or they “make an idol” out of the pursuit of money when they dedicate their lives to an activity that does nothing for their souls.

I have seen some fascinating idols in Jerusalem.  I am not talking about metaphorical idols, though there are some.  I am fascinated by the artifacts that archaeologists have uncovered in the region.  I took all the photos on this post at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.  Not one of them is larger than my hand.  But they evoked gods—divine powers that ruled the aspects of life humans cannot control, such as birth and death, not to mention the weather. 

Asherah or Astarte, goddess for fertility and protection in childbirth, 8-6th century BCE, Judah, pottery, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

It must have been hard to give up these magical connections to various gods, and embrace the belief that a single intangible and invisible God is in control.

It must have been harder still, centuries later, to give up the “idols” representing the God of Israel: the Holy of Holies, the priests’ routines, the altar to turn offerings into smoke that rose to heaven.

Even today, I know people who cling to signs and omens, and people who strive perform rituals exactly the “right” way.  It is hard to give up the illusion that following the correct esoteric procedure can bring you the comfort of certain knowledge.  It is hard to embrace the mystery of the unknown.

Repost: Tetzavveh

March 5, 2020 at 4:44 pm | Posted in Tetzavveh | Leave a comment

This week’s Torah portion is Tetzavveh, which concludes God’s request for a tent sanctuary so God can dwell among the Israelites.  Tetzavveh also describes the special garments the priests will wear as they perform their roles at the sanctuary.

Approach to Western Wall, Jerusalem (photo by M.C.)

Special garments are also a feature of the book of Esther, which Jews read every year during the holiday of Purim.  In most of the world, Purim falls this year on the evening of Monday, March 9, and the day of March 10.  But in Jerusalem and ancient walled cities, we celebrate “Shushan Purim” the evening of Tuesday, March 10, and the day of March 11.  This is the first time in my life I will be able to celebrate Shushan Purim.  I plan to join a group of women reading Megillat Esther, the biblical book behind this holiday, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem!

Next year in this blog I hope to compare the costuming in the book of Esther and the Torah portion Tetzavveh.  But this year I wanted to repost my essay on the curious phrase “Tent of Meeting” which first appears in the portion Tetzavveh.  Why does God call for a tent-sanctuary that will be the place for scheduled meetings?

The question spoke to me after I visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and looked at artifacts from other ancient places where people went to meet with their gods.  So I spent some time rewriting my 2014 post.  You can find the improved version here: Tetzavveh: Meeting Room.

Standing stone from Hazor temple, 15th-13th century BCE, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

The standard floor plan for shrines and temples in the Ancient Near East had a large front room and a smaller, holier room in the back where the god was present.  This is the plan of the Tent of Meeting in the book of Exodus, which is divided into a larger front chamber where the priests tend the menorah, the bread table, and the incense altar; and a smaller back chamber, the Holy of Holies where the ark stood.

A Canaanite temple and a small shrine archaeologists discovered in Hazor, north of the Sea of Galilee/Kinneret, follow the same basic plan.  Both were built during the 15th to 13th century B.C.E.  The temple’s back chamber or Holy of Holies contained a statue of the storm god and a standing stone or massebah carved with a horned sun disk.

One of the religious innovations in the Torah is the prohibition against making or worshiping either a god statue or a standing stone.  The God of Israel must not be represented with a carved image, and the people must not worship any other gods.

From a shrine in Hazor, 15th-13th century BCE, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

The smaller shrine in Hazor from the same period had only one room, and a shallow niche in the back wall for the holiest objects.  The niche was lined with standing stones, including a central stone carved with two hands and a moon symbol.  In front of the standing stones stood a table for offerings and a statue of someone wearing the symbol of the moon god Sin.  This shrine was a place to meet the moon god.

In the second book of Samuel, which is set in the 10th century B.C.E., the temple that King Solomon builds in Jerusalem follows the same pattern as the Canaanite shrines and the Tent of Meeting described in Exodus.  The temple’s Holy of Holies contains not only the ark, but also two carved winged figures based on the two figures on the lid of the ark in the Tent of Meeting.  These pairs of winged figures are not considered idols in the Torah, perhaps because God only manifests in the empty space above the ark.  (See my post Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.)

Holy of Holies, 8th century B.C.E. shrine in Arad, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

Given the biblical history of furnishing the Holy of Holies, I was not surprised to learn that when archaeologists unearthed the 8th century B.C.E. fortress of Arad they found a shrine with a standing stone inside its Holy of Holies—even though Arad was in the kingdom of Judah, where the God of Israel was worshiped.  For the people of Arad, the standing stone meant that God was present in their shrine, their own “Tent of Meeting”.

Eight centuries later, the people of Judah were building the first synagogues even before the Romans razed the temple in Jerusalem.  These synagogues were buildings where people could encounter God through prayer and study instead of through offerings on the altar.  The Israel Museum has restored part of the interior of an early synagogue built in Susiya, near Hebron.

Susiya Synagogue, Israel Museum

Its sacred enclosed space had three niches in the back wall, which held a Torah scroll flanked by two menorahs.  It is no coincidence that a Torah scroll inside its ark is reminiscent of the stone tablets of commandments inside the ark that stood in the Tent of Meeting’s Holy of Holies.

How different is the shrine in Arad, with its standing stone, from the synagogue in Susiya, with its ark?

Today Jews still come to synagogues to encounter God through communal prayer at appointed times.  The holiest place inside a synagogue is still the ark containing the Torah scroll.

It must be human nature to want an appointed place to meet God.  Perhaps that is why I am going to the Western Wall on Shushan Purim.

Repost: Terumah

February 25, 2020 at 10:14 am | Posted in Terumah | Leave a comment

We are in Jerusalem at last—or at least we are in an apartment in a suburb on a hill overlooking a freeway.  We have not yet seen the old city.  It’s raining today, and I just added illustrations to a blog post I wrote in 2010.  You can read it here: Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.

What did the keruvim on top of the ark look like?  This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, only mentions their wings and faces, and says they must be hammered out of the same piece of solid gold as the lid.  Other descriptions in the Torah are also sparse, though Ezekiel mentions calves’ hooves and says each keruv in his vision had four faces, only one of which was human.

from Neo-Assyrian palace at Kalhu, 9th century BCE, stone (Metropolitan Art Museum collection). photo by MC

Keruvim were probably similar to the guardian figures sculpted by other cultures in the Ancient Near East: hybrid beasts featuring the legs of lions or oxen, the wings of birds, and the faces of humans.  So I used one of my own photos from the beginning of our journey, when we visited the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York City and saw a pair of guardian figures from a Neo-Assyrian king’s palace.  Here is a close-up of one of the stone sculptures.

The word keruv became “cherub” in English.  And over two millennia of Christian art, depictions of cherubs have undergone a strange metamorphosis.  Only their wings and their human faces have been retained.

One artistic approach was to infantilize cherubs, portraying them as small chubby boys or toddlers with wings too stubby for flying.  In the Renaissance they were conflated with Roman putti, chubby winged boys associated with Cupid.  The cherubs on Valentine’s Day cards are actually putti.

Titian, Madonna and Child with Saints, detail, Vatican Museums

Cherubs often appeared on painted ceilings surrounding someone rising into heaven, or trailing after God as part of a heavenly retinue.  Having lost their former roles as guardians of gates or steeds for mystical chariots, these cherubs are merely decorative.

Andrea della Robbia, San Marco Convento, Florence.  photo by MC

The alternative way to depict cherubs in Renaissance and Baroque art was to reduce them to floating faces with token wings on the side (sometimes in place of ears, sometimes below the ears), but no bodies at all.  Was this a way to erase anything corporeal, not to mention bestial, from Christian symbols associated with heaven?

Fra Bartolomeo, detail, San Marco Convento, Florence. photo by William Carpenter

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