Shelach-Lekha: Deceptions and Sore Spots

June 22, 2022 at 6:52 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Shelach-Lekha | 1 Comment

How do you persuade someone to do what you want—even when you can’t make a reasonable case for it?

Two of the stories people tell in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha, are implausible when you examine them. But nevertheless the speakers succeed in getting the reaction they desire.

1) Fabrication by the Ten Scouts

The Two Reports of the Spies, 1907 bible card by Providence Lithograph Co.

Moses sends twelve men north from the wilderness of Paran to scout out the land of Canaan—the land God has promised to give to the Israelites—and report back. He also tells them to bring back some fruit from the land. They return forty days later with pomegranates, figs, and a single cluster of grapes so heavy that two of them have to bear it on a carrying frame.

All twelve scouts agree that the land is fertile and good, and “flows with milk and honey”1. Ten of them, however, are alarmed by the “strong people” and “large fortified cities” they saw—phrases that make the assembled Israelites nervous.

Caleb, one of the other two scouts, urges:

“Let us definitely go up! And we will take possession of [the land], since yakhol nukhal it!” (Numbers 13:30)

yakhol (יָכוֹל) = being capable of, having power to. (Infinitive absolute form of yakhol, יָכֺל = was capable of, had power to; held onto, won.)

nukhal (נוּכַל) = we are capable of, we have the power to do. (Imperfect form of yakhol.)

yakhol nukhal (יָכוֹל נוּכַל) = Literally: being capable we are capable of. Idiomatically: we are certainly capable of. (In Biblical Hebrew, an infinitive absolute preceding another verb from the same root indicates emphasis, such as “certainly”, “definitely”, or in older English “surely”.)

The ten scouts who are afraid to march on Canaan do not want the Israelites to believe Caleb’s assurance. So they add some new details to their story.

But the men who had gone up with him said: “Lo nukhal to go up to the people, because they are stronger than we are!” And they put forth to the Israelites a slanderous report of the land that they had scouted, saying: “The land that we traversed to scout out is a land devouring its inhabitants! And all the people who we saw in it were people of [great] size. And there we saw the Nefilim2, Anakites from the Nefilim! And in our eyes we were like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”

Lo nukhal (לֺא נוּכַל) = we are not capable, we do not have the power. (Lo, לֺא ֹ= not.)

The ten scouts simply do not believe that their people could succeed in conquering the land, with or without God’s help. Since the presence of large fortified cities is not enough to persuade the Israelites to stay put in Paran, the ten scouts invent a “slanderous report” that is clearly false—if you examine it rationally.

How could a land that produces such abundant food be “devouring its inhabitants”? Could wild animals be killing off the people? No, the land is full of large cities, and these cities are still populated. We know this because in their first account, the scouts said that there were Anakites; Amalekites living in the Negev; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites living in the hill country; and Canaanites living along the seacoast to the west and the Jordan River to the east.3

Furthermore, in the first report Anakites were only one of the groups living in Canaan. In their new story, they ten scouts say that all the people are giants—giants so big that they felt like grasshoppers in comparison.

Despite the holes in their story, the ten scouts succeed in panicking the Israelites, who weep all night and tell each other: “Give us a leader and we will return to Egypt!” (Numbers 14:4)

In the morning the twelfth scout, Joshua, stands with Caleb and both men argue that the Israelites can conquer Canaan because God is with them. But their argument comes too late. The people have already been persuaded by the tale the other ten scouts fabricated.

The Israelites do not see through the deception because their habit, whenever they encounter a problem, is to doubt God and beg to go back to Egypt, where they were enslaved but (they now believe) safe.

In the book of Exodus the Israelite slaves believe Moses the first time he tells them that God will rescue them.4 Then Pharaoh doubles their labor, and when Moses tells them that God will not only free them, but also give them the land of Canaan, they do not listen.5 Five of the ten plagues affect the Israelites as much as the Egyptians, which is not a promising sign. After they march out of Egypt, Pharaoh pursues the Israelites with an army of charioteers, and they are so frightened they do not believe God will rescue them.6

Escape over the Red Sea, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320, Spain

Their faith in God returns after the Egyptian army drowns in the Reed Sea.7 But in the wilderness the Isaelites think they are going to die when they run out of food or water, and they long for Egypt instead of trusting God to provide for them.8

The majority of Israelites are easily deceived in this week’s Torah portion because the fabrication of the ten scouts triggers their ongoing anxiety about God.

2) Fabrication by Moses

In the morning the Israelites threaten to stone Caleb and Joshua for telling them what they do not want to hear. Then the glory of God (probably the divine cloud that has led them from Egypt to the southern edge of Canaan) appears on the Tent of Meeting.9 God threatens to disown the Israelites, kill them, and make a nation out of Moses instead.

Moses does not try to reason with God. Instead he reminds God that if God kills all the Israelites, the Egyptians will hear about it and spread the news. Since God chose the Israelites to rescue and accompany, Moses says,

“… then the nations that heard of your reputation would say: Except God was not yekholet to bring this people to the land that [God] promised them, so [God] slaughtered them in the wilderness!” (Numbers 14:15)

yekholet (יְכֺלֶת) = capable enough, powerful enough. (Also from the root verb yakhol.)

Moses then asks God to pardon the people instead. God grants a limited pardon, requiring the Israelites to stay in the wilderness for forty years before they get another chance to enter Canaan.

Would the natives of Egypt and other nations really conclude that God killed the Israelites because God was not powerful enough to give them the land?  In an actual war between the Israelites and the natives of Canaan, people might assume that the conqueror’s god was stronger. But would people think that the reason God killed the Israelites before they even entered Canaan would was because God was weak?

Throughout the Ancient Near East, gods were considered mercurial and easily angered. The gods in polytheistic religions quarreled with each other, with disastrous consequences to human beings. They also lashed out at humans if they felt they were insufficiently propitiated.

If news spread that the Israelites had all died at the border, the people of other nations probably would conclude that the God of Israel was responsible. But they would attribute God’s deed to annoyance, revenge, or a change of mind, not to a lack of power.

Apparently God does not think of this. After hearing Moses’ deceptive claim, God commutes the Israelites’ sentence. Why is the God-character in Shelach-Lekha so easily persuaded?

Israelites Leave Egypt, the Golden Haggadah

Four times in the book of Exodus God says that the purpose of creating ten plagues in a row (and hardening Pharaoh’s heart whenever it wavers) is so that all the Egyptians, as well as the Israelites, will realize how powerful God is.10 Finally God lets Pharaoh beg the Israelites to leave Egypt, and they march out into the wilderness. Then God tells Moses:

“And I will strengthen Pharaoh’s heart and he will chase after you. Then I will be honored through Pharaoh and through all his army, and Egypt will know that I am God.” (Exodus 14:4)

The honor11 that God has in mind is drowning the Egyptian army in the Reed Sea. For the God-character portrayed in Exodus and Numbers, it is not enough to be the most powerful god in the world.12 All human beings must know that the God of Israel is the most powerful god. The God-character in Exodus and Numbers frets over “his” reputation.

Moses is able to mislead this God-character because he knows what the deity is touchy about.

*

Few people today believe in an anthropomorphic God that is hypersensitive and does not see through human misdirection. But all of we humans can be tricked into knee-jerk reactions by those who know our weak spots.

In these times I am angry when immoral politicians use slogans that push people’s buttons and thereby get popular support for agendas that will result in the opposite of what their voter base really wants. I am also angry when activists whose agendas I favor unskillfully use slogans that set off negative knee-jerk reactions among people who would otherwise be able to listen to a reasonable argument.

Alas, the portion Sehlach-Lekha illustrates that when a speaker fabricates a story that triggers an ingrained fear or sore spot, the listeners are highly unlikely to stop and think.

May all human beings be blessed with longer fuses, and the strength to put our feelings on hold long enough to question what we read or hear.

  1. Numbers 13:27. See my post Ki Tavo: Milk and Honey.
  2. Nefilim (נְפִילִים) = a race of demi-gods and heroes before the Flood. (Genesis 6:4)
  3. Numbers 13:29.
  4. Exodus 4:30-31.
  5. Exodus 6:6-9.
  6. Exodus (Beshallach)14:10-12.
  7. Exodus (Beshallach) 14:31.
  8. Exodus (Beshallach) 16:2-3, 17:1-4.
  9. Numbers 14:10.
  10. Exodus 7:3-5, 9:15-16, 10:1-2, 11:9.
  11. Honor or importance. The Hebrew word in Exodus (Beshallach) 14:4 is ikavdah (אִכָּבְדָה) = I will be honored, I will show my glory, I will be respected, I will be recognized as important. God repeats this sentiment in Exodus 14:17 and 14:18.
  12. Monotheism appears in the Hebrew Bible only in the first chapter of Genesis and the books of Deuteronomy and Isaiah.

 

Bemidbar & Naso: Dangerous Duty

June 8, 2022 at 9:54 pm | Posted in Bemidbar, Naso, Samuel 1, Yitro | 2 Comments

Two dangers face the Israelites as they leave Mount Sinai in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar: the risk of attack by an enemy in the wilderness, and the risk of annihilation by God.

They have already experienced both dangers. On their way from Egypt to Sinai the Amalekites attacked them, and the Israelites beat them off with the help of God.1 When they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai to hear God speak, the earth quaked—and so did the Israelites.

Mount Vesuvius in Eruption, by Jacob More, 18th cent., detail

And all the people were seeing the thunder and the flashes and the sound of the ram’s horn, and the mountain was smoking; and the people saw and they quaked and drew back and stood at a distance. And they said to Moses: “You speak to us and we will listen; but don’t let God speak to us, or else we will die!” (Exodus 20:15-16)

The Jewish day of Shavuot commemorates the revelation at Sinai, when the Israelites were terrified and God uttered the “ten commandments”. This holiday always falls the same week as the Torah reading Bemidbar, the first portion in the book of Bemidbar.

This Torah portion begins with God telling Moses to take a census of the men in all the tribes except Levi.2 The purpose of this census is to learn how many troops can be mustered in the event of a battle after the Israelites leave Mount Sinai and resume their journey to Canaan.

Israelite service

Numbering of the Israelites, by Henri F.E. Philippoteaux, 19th cent.

And all the [male] Israelites were mustered from the houses of their forefathers, from the age of twenty years and up, all who were going out in the tzava in Israel. (Numbers 1:45)

tzava (צָבָא) = army, unit of warriors, army service.

The qualifying phrase “all who were going out in the tzava” implies that the census counted only men aged 20 and over who were able to march and wield weapons.

Then God spoke to Moses saying: “However, the tribe of Levi you shall not muster, and you must not make a head count of them among the Israelites.” (Numbers 1:48-49)

In the second Torah portion of Numbers, Naso, there is a census of the three Levite clans.

And Moses and Aaron and the chieftains of the community enrolled the sons of the Kehatites by their families and by the house of their father, from the age of thirty years and over, up to the age of fifty years, all who were entering the tzava for the service of the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers 4:34-35)

The censuses of the Geirshonite and Merarite clans also count men aged 30 to 50, and also add “all who were entering the tzava for the service of the Tent of Meeting”.3

Why does the Torah call the Levites an army?

Levite service

Before telling Moses to take a separate census for the tribe of Levi, God says:

“Assign the Levites over the Sanctuary of the Testimony and over all its equipment and over everything that belongs to it. They themselves shall carry the sanctuary and all its equipment, and they shall attend it, and they shall camp around the sanctuary. And when [it is time for] the sanctuary to pull out, the Levites shall take it down; and when [it is time for] the sanctuary to be pitched, the Levites shall erect it. And any unauthorized person who comes close must be put to death.” (Numbers 1:50-51)

Thus one of the duties of the Levites is to guard the tent-sanctuary and kill any unauthorized person who persists in coming too close to the tent, or even entering it.4 That is the military aspect of their service, but it is not the most dangerous.

“And the Israelites shall encamp, each man in his camp and each man at the banner for his troop. But the Levites shall encamp around the Sanctuary of the Testimony, and then there will be no fury against the community of Israelites; and the Levites shall guard the guardianship of the Sanctuary of the Testimony.” (Numbers 1:52-53)

Whose fury? When the Torah portions Bemidbar and Naso describe the duties of the Levites whenever the people break camp, it becomes clear that the fury would come from God.

First the priests (Aaron and his two surviving sons) must go inside the tent and wrap up the most holy items before anyone else can see them, and place them on carrying frames with poles. The holiest items are the ark, lampstand (menorah), the bread table, and the gold incense altar. The priests also wrap up the gold tools used for the rituals inside the tent.5

And Aaron and his sons shall finish covering the holy items and all the holy equipment when breaking camp, and after that the Kehatites shall come in to pick them up, so they do not touch the holy objects and die. These things in the Tent of Meeting are the burdens the Kehatites. (Numbers 4:15)

Each of the three clans in the tribe of Levi is responsible for carrying some part of the tent-sanctuary. The Kehatites must carry the most holy items, while the Geirshonites and Merarites carry the outside altar and the disassembled parts of the tent and the wall around it—cloth hangings, posts, planks, bars, pegs, sockets, and cords.

No touching

Certainly Betzaleil touched the holiest items when he hammered them out of gold in the book of Exodus.6 But later in the book of Numbers, God tells Aaron that the priests must not touch them, or they will be killed.7 Somehow the priests must light the menorah, lay bread on the table, and place coals and incense into the incense altar without touching their gold surfaces. And they must wrap these items in cloths without directly touching them.

Model of ark, Jerusalem

In the first book of Samuel the ark sits for twenty years in the house of Avinadav at Kiryat Ye-arim. His son Elazar is consecrated as an ad-hoc priest to look after it.8 Then King David decides to move it to his new capital in Jerusalem. The ark is lifted up onto a new cart, and two other sons of Avinadav, Uzah and Achyo (presumably younger replacements for Elazar) walk beside it. Partway to Jerusalem,  the oxen pulling cart stumble, and Uzah puts his hand on the ark to steady it.

And God’s anger flared up against Uzah, and God struck him down there … and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:7)

Uzah’s impulse is good, but nevertheless a divine power zaps him the instant he touches the ark.

No looking

No one in the bible is harmed from carrying the ark by its two poles, but touching the ark itself is deadly. The ark takes a circuitous route to Kiryat Ye-arim in the first book of Samuel. After the Philistines capture the ark in battle they bring it to their town of Ashdod, but everyone there is stricken with a plague. They send it on to Gath, then to Ekron, each time with the same result. So they load the ark onto a cart pulled by two cows and send it back into Israelite territory. The cows stop in a field near the town of Beit Shemesh, where seventy curious Israelites look inside. God strikes down every one of them.9

Kehataties carrying ark on a bible card by Providence Lithograph Co., 1907

In the portion Bemidbar, the priests cover all the holiest items not only to prevent the Kehatites from touching them, but also to prevent these Levites from seeing them, even from the outside.

And God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: “Do not cause the staff of the families of the Kehatites to be cut down from among the Levites!  Do this for them, so they will live and not die: when they approach the Holy of Holies, Aaron and his sons shall come in and assign each individual man his service and his burden.  And they must not come inside [the tent] to look as the holy things are swallowed [by the wrappings], or they will die.”  (Numbers 4:17-20) 

In my post Bemidbar: Don’t Look I speculated that the Levites are not allowed a glimpse of the holiest items either because it might make them feel as powerful as the priests, or because it might make them treat the holy items (and therefore God) with insufficient reverence.

Transporting the wrapped-up holy things might be nerve-wracking for the Kehatites. They carry them by hand, not on carts. What if they stumble and drop something? What if one of the coverings slips off?

For the “armies” traveling north from Mount Sinai, guard duty is more dangerous than combat duty.

  1. Exodus 17:8-13.
  2. In the book of Genesis Jacob has twelve sons; Levi is his third son, and Joseph is his eleventh. In other books of the Torah eleven tribes are named after Jacob’s sons, but there is no tribe of Joseph; instead two tribes are named after Joseph’s two sons, Efrayim and Menashe. That makes thirteen tribes—but even in the Torah, the tradition is that there were twelve tribes of Israel. The solution in the first three portions of Numbers is that there are twelve tribes of Israel plus one tribe of Levi.
  3. Numbers 4:39, 4:43.
  4. See Numbers 25:6-8.
  5. Numbers 4:5-14. See my post Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred.
  6. Exodus 37:1-29.
  7. Numbers 18:3.
  8. 1 Samuel 6:21-7:2.
  9. 1 Samuel 6:10-20.

 

Pesach, Metzora, & Chukat: Blood and Oregano

April 14, 2022 at 4:00 pm | Posted in Bo, Chukat, Metzora, Passover/Pesach | 1 Comment

Jews will gather around tables all over the world this Friday evening for the Passover seder, a ritual and story about God liberating the Israelites from Egypt. One highlight is when we chant the names of the ten plagues God inflicted on Egypt. After the name of each plague, we use one finger to remove a drop from the second of our four ceremonial cups of wine.1

Death of the Firstborn, Spanish Haggadah c. 1490

The tenth and final plague is makat bechorot, death of the firstborn; God takes the life of every firstborn in every family in Egypt—except for the Israelites who mark their doors so that God skips, or passes over, them.

Before the final plague, God tells Moses that each Israelite family must slaughter a lamb or goat kid on the fourteenth day of the month.

“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel, on the houses in which they will eat it. And they shall eat the meat that night, roasted in fire, and unleavened flatbread; on bitter herbs they shall eat it.” (Exodus/Shemot 12:7-8)

After describing how the Israelites should eat standing up with their loins girded, ready to leave, God says:“… It is a Pesach for God.” (Exodus 12:11)

Pesach (פֶּסַח) = the sacrifice mandated in Exodus 12; the annual spring pilgrimage festival in the Torah; the annual observance of Passover. (From the root verb pasach, פָּסַח = limp, skip.)

“And the blood will be a sign on the houses where you are, and I will see the blood ufasachti over you, and you will not be afflicted with destruction when I strike in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:13)

ufasachti (וּפָסַחְתִּי) = and I will skip over you. (A form of the verb pasach.)

The animal blood both signals an escape from death and brings the recipient close to God—in these instructions and in two other rituals in the Torah in which the blood of  slaughtered animal is applied with branches of oregano.

1) Bo in Exodus (Pesach)

Moses adds oregano when he transmits God’s instructions to the Israelites.

Preparing for the Plague of the Firstborn, History Bible, Paris, c. 1390

“Then you shall take a bundle of eizov and you shall dip it into the blood that is in the basin, and touch some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. And you must not let anyone go out from the door of his house until morning. Upasach, God, to strike dead the Egyptians, and [God] will see the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, upasach, God, the door and not let the destruction enter your houses to strike dead [your firstborn].  (Exodus 12:21-23)

eizov (אֵזֺב) = Syrian oregano, an aromatic perennial herb. (Traditionally translated as “hyssop”, although true hyssop does not grow in the Middle East.) Eizov grows in stony ground to a height of 3-4 feet; its stems are the longest in the oregano branch of the mint family.

upasach (וּפָסַח) = and he will pass over, skip over. (Another form of the verb pasach.)

In the above passage, the first upasach means that God will pass over Egypt, and the second upasach means that God will skip over the houses whose doorframes are painted with blood.

An omniscient god would already know which houses to skip. Either the God-character in this story is not omniscient, or God includes the blood painting for its emotional impact.

Up to this point in the book of Exodus, the Israelite slaves find it hard to believe that God is on their side. But when they discover that God has killed every firstborn in every house except theirs, they are (temporarily) reassured that God is indeed rescuing them, and they march out of Egypt into freedom “with a high hand”.2

Why does Moses specify that the Israelites should use a bunch of eizov to paint the blood? The only herbs God mentioned to him were generic bitter herbs, to be eaten with the roast lamb or goat. Oregano is savory, but not bitter. Perhaps Moses is afraid that the Israelites will find it eerie to paint with blood, and he hopes to comfort them with the good smell of oregano.

2) Metzora in Leviticus

Last week’s Torah portion, Metzora, describes four steps of purification for someone who has recovered from the skin disease tzara-at. Although this disease does not seem to be contagious, the white and scaly patches of skin are a reminder of death. If the tzara-at clears up, ritual purification is necessary so that the healed person can return to the community and to God’s sanctuary. (See my post Metzora: Time to Learn, Part 2.)

Two Birds, by Simon Fokke, 18th century

The first step is a ritual requiring two wild birds.

And the priest shall slaughter one bird in an earthenware vessel [held] over living water. The live bird he shall take, along with the cedar wood and the crimson dye and the eizov, and he shall dip them and the live bird into the blood of the bird [that was] slaughtered over living water. Then he shall sprinkle it on the one being purified from tzara-at seven times and purify him. And he shall send the live bird out over the open field. (Leviticus 14:5-6)

The ancient Israelites identified blood with the life-force (nefesh, נֶפֶשׁ) in a person or animal.3 Here the priest kills one bird and catches its lifeblood in a bowl held over fresh water, which is called “living water” in the bible. The priest dips the other bird into the blood of life and sets it free. The healed person who is watching knows deep down that God has rescued them and given them new life.

The cedar and crimson dye (made from shield-louse eggs) have no apparent purpose except to emphasize the red color of the blood.

The eizov is used to sprinkle blood on the person being purified. A bunch of branches covered with soft leaves can be used to paint blood on something, and also be shaken to sprinkle blood on someone. And shaking a bunch of eizov branches would release the good smell of oregano, a reminder that life will be savory again.

3) Chukat in Numbers

A purification ritual in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar uses blood and eizov to make a transition for someone who has been exposed to a human death, so that the person can return to the right state for worshiping God with the community.

First a perfect, unblemished red cow that has never carried a yoke is slaughtered outside the camp as a chatat (חַטָּאת), an offering to compensate for an inadvertent sin or lapse. Usually someone offers a chatat after realizing they have made an error in observance that separates them from God. The chatat in this Torah portion is unique because the offering is slaughtered and burned ahead of time, so that future people who find they have become separated from the divine through exposure to human death can make a virtual chatat.

Then Elazar the high priest shall take some of her [the cow’s] blood with his finger, and he shall flick some of the blood seven times in the direction of the front of the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers/Bemidbar 19:4)

This connects the cow’s life with God’s holy place. Next, Elazar watches while someone burns the entire cow, even its blood and dung.

And the priest shall take cedar wood and eizov and crimson dye, and throw them into the middle of the burning cow. (Numbers 19:6)

The ashes of the red cow in Chukat are gathered and stored in a ritually pure place, to be used to purify the following:

1) Anyone who is inside a tent where a human dies, and anyone who enters the tent for the next seven days (Numbers 19:14).

2) Anyone who touches a human corpse (even on a battlefield), or who touches a human bone, or who touches a grave (Numbers 19:16).

Eizov (Syrian oregano)

Then some of the ashes of the burning of the chatat will be taken and mixed with living water in a vessel. Then a ritually pure man shall take eizov and dip it in the water, and he shall sprinkle it over the tent and on all the vessels and on the souls who were there; or on the one who touched the bones, or the killed person, or the person who died [of natural causes], or the grave. And the ritually pure one shall sprinkle it on the third day and on the seventh day. Vechito on the seventh day. And he shall clean his clothes and he shall wash in water, and he will be ritually pure in the evening. (Numbers 19:17-19)

vechito (וְחִטּאוֹ) = and he will become free of his lapse. (From the same root as chatat.)

Anyone exposed to death who does not go through this process is excluded or “cut off” from the community. If they were not excluded, “the holy place of God would become impure”. (Numbers 19: 20)

*

Today we have no ritual to free us from the feeling of alienation that accompanies contact with death; there has been no ash from a pure red cow for two thousand years. Neither do we have a ritual to reintegrate with the community when we recover from a disfiguring condition that isolates us as tzara-at once did.

And today very few Jews in the world observe Passover by slaughtering a lamb and painting its blood on their doorframes with bunches of giant oregano—even during the current plague of Covid. The long ritual seder developed over the past millennium and a half focuses on freedom from slavery, not on fear that God will kill us.

Nevertheless, this Passover I am going to put a sprig of oregano on my seder plate, next to the bitter herbs. Even during times when we are crushed by the bitterness of physical or psychological slavery, life has savory moments.

  1. The custom of removing drops of wine is first mentioned in a Pesach sermon written by Rabbi Eleazer of Worms (1176–1238). The idea that we do it in sympathy for the Egyptians is based on Proverbs 24:17 and first appeared in commentary by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Löw (1812-1874).
  2. Numbers 33:3.
  3. Leviticus 17:14, Deuteronomy 12:23.

Vayikra & Kedoshim: Guilty Speech

March 10, 2022 at 9:54 pm | Posted in Kedoshim, Va-etchannan, Vayikra, Yitro | Leave a comment

I thought that when the Jewish cycle of readings reached the book of Leviticus, I would be too busy moving my 92-year-old mother to write a post. I also thought there was nothing about the Ten Commandments in the book’s first Torah portion, Vayikra.

I was wrong on both counts. But next week the packing and moving begin!

The Third Commandment

The “Ten Commandments” appear both in Exodus (in the Torah portion Yitro) and Deuteronomy (in the portion Va-etchanan). The first commandment prohibits other gods, and the second prohibits idols. The third commandment reads:

You must not raise the name of Y-H-V-H, your God, for a worthless reason,1 since Y-H-V-H will not acquit anyone who raises [God’s] name for a worthless reason. (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11)

“Raising” the name of God means using God’s name in an oath, vow, or promise, according to the Talmud tractate Shevuot (“Oaths”). This tractate distinguishes two kinds of worthless oaths:

  • empty oaths that use God’s name to declare something true when it is either false or impossible;2 and
  • false oaths that use God’s name to make a promise that the speaker does not carry out.3

One Talmudic example of an empty oath is attaching God’s name to the declaration: “If I did not see a camel flying through the air!”4

Kedoshim: Any Name

Does the third commandment prohibit swearing by any of God’s names for a worthless reason, or only swearing by God’s four-letter personal name? The text is ambiguous. A command from God in the “holiness code” which appears later in the book of Leviticus in the portion Kedoshim elaborates:

Velo tishavu in my name for a falsehood; then you would profane the name of your God. (Leviticus 19:12)

velo tishavu (וְלֺא־תִשָּׁבְעוּ) = and you must not swear, vow, or pledge. (From the root verb shava.)

The author of Sifra, a commentary on Leviticus from early in the Talmudic period, wrote that the third commandment could be interpreted as forbidding a worthless use only of God’s personal name Y-H-V-H. Therefore the command in Kedoshim says “in my name” — any name that I have. 5

According to this reasoning, the Torah tells us not to profane any name of God by misusing it. Yet people who are in the habit of swearing might argue that they are not demeaning God when they say something harmless.

A deceitful vow is unethical whether the speaker swears by God or not. But is it really so bad to use one of God’s names in an empty way?

Yes, according to both this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, and the later portion Kedoshim.

Vayikra and Kedoshim: An Empty Oath

This week’s Torah portion lists the correct offerings to bring to the altar for various purposes, including two types of atonement for inadvertently disobeying God’s rules: a reparation-offering (chattat, חַטָּאת), and a guilt-offering (asham, אָשָׁם).6 The section on reparation-offerings specifically addresses a harmless or empty violation of the third commandment:

… Or a person tishava with the lips, to do evil or to do good—whatever a human [says] bishevuah—and it was hidden from him; and then he realizes that he is carrying guilt because of one of these [oaths]; then it shall be that he shall accept guilt for one of these, and he shall confess what he did wrong concerning it. (Leviticus 5:4-5)

tishava (תִשָׁבַע) = swears, vows, or pledges in God’s name. (A form of the verb shava, שׁבע = swore an oath, vowed, or pledged using God’s name.)

bishevuah (בִּשְׁבֻעָה) = in a oath or vow using God’s name. (Also from the root verb shava.)

In this case the person is guilty merely of misusing God’s name, even if the outcome is good. The text goes on to prescribe that after the person realizes what they said and confesses to using God’s name for a worthless reason, they must bring a female sheep or goat to the altar as a reparation-offering.

What needs to be repaired? Swearing a pointless or empty oath is like swearing a false oath in the portion Kedoshim; it “would profane the name of your God.” 12th-century commentator Ibn Ezra wrote:

“Now the one who is constantly swearing, although there is no need for him to do so publicly, desecrates the name of God without deriving any benefit from his act.7

This forbidden act is different from the ninth commandment, which prohibits a witness in court from affirming a falsehood. Violating the ninth commandment can harm another person. Violating the third commandment cannot harm God, but it does demean God.

Vayikra: A Compounding Oath

The section on guilt-offerings in this week’s Torah portion considers a case in which one person inadvertently takes or keeps the property of another, and then the perpetrator swears they did nothing wrong.

And it shall be when he does a misdeed and realizes his guilt, then he will restore the robbed item that he robbed, or the deposit that was deposited with him, or the lost item that he found, or anything that yishava about falsely. And he will make amends for it by its principal and a fifth of it in addition; he will give it at that time to the one whose it is, as compensation for guilt. (Leviticus 5:23-24)

yishava (יִשָּׁבַע) = he swears in God’s name. (Another form of the verb shava.)

This time the perpetrator must compensate the victim, and also bring a ram as a guilt-offering to God.

Vayikra: Forgiveness

And the priest will make atonement for him in front of God, and he will be pardoned for everything that he did to incur guilt. (Leviticus 5:26)

The third commandment says God will not acquit anyone who swears an empty or false vow in God’s name. Yet God’s instructions in Vayikra say that after making recompense and offering the appropriate animal to God, the perpetrator will be pardoned. In other words, although the person who swears falsely will not be declared innocent, that person may still be forgiven.

This week’s Torah portion sets out the requirements for forgiveness: perpetrators must realize what they did wrong, confess it, compensate their victims, and make a public offering to God.

This model for forgiveness from God can also work to get forgiveness from a human. Although some crimes seem unforgivable to us, we are generally willing to forgive people for committing lesser crimes or doing personal harm if they recognize what they did, apologize, provide whatever recompense is possible, and—if they violated a civil law—serve their sentence.

*

Although confession, apology, and forgiveness can be done all year round, Jews set aside the month of Elul (in the late summer or early fall) for searching our consciences, apologizing to our fellow humans, and accepting the apologies of others. After Elul ends, we confess our sins against God and beseech God for forgiveness on Yom Kippur.

I find that in real life, only some of the people who have harmed me apologize. I figure the others do not realize that they said anything wrong—but although I can pardon them for their ignorance, I do not fully forgive them in my heart.

This week’s Torah portion does not say what to do if someone transgresses inadvertently and does not realize it. But the portion Kedoshim, later in Leviticus, says:

You must not hate your brother in your heart; you must definitely reprove your comrade, and then  you will not carry guilt because of him. (Leviticus 19:17)

One standard interpretation of this directive is that you must alert your fellow human beings to the consequences of their bad behaviors, so they become motivated to change their ways. But perhaps it is also good to let people know what they did that hurt you, so they receive an opportunity to realize it and apologize to you.

I wonder if I will ever be both brave and thoughtful enough to provide this kind of information, gently, to someone I wish I could forgive?

  1. lashaveh (לַשָּׁוְא) = for a worthless reason; in emptiness or in falsehood. (The traditional English translation is “in vain”.)
  2. Talmud Bavli, Shevuot
  3. Talmud Bavli, Shevuot
  4. Talmud Bavli, Shevuot 29a, Mishna.
  5. Sifra is a commentary on Leviticus written in 250-350 C.E. that influenced the Talmud. This quote is from Sifra, Kedoshim, Section 2:6, translated in sefaria.org.
  6. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.
  7. Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, translated in sefaria.org.

 

Pekudei, Yitro, & Ki Tisa: Not Like Other Gods

March 2, 2022 at 1:21 pm | Posted in Ki Tisa, Pekudei, Yitro | Leave a comment

The Ten Commandments are delivered in thunder at Mount Sinai partway through the book of Exodus. As I wait to move my mother into assisted living (an example of obeying  the fifth commandment), I have been writing about how these famous directives play out in the rest of the book.

This week’s reading is the last Torah portion in Exodus, Pekudei, which confirms that the Israelites are finally on the right track about the first two commandments.  

*

Edomite goddess, 7th-6th century BCE, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

The first two of the Ten Commandments in the Torah portion Yitro both warn the Israelites not to treat their God like other gods. By the end of the book of Exodus, they have succeeded—at least temporarily.

First Commandment

I am Y-H-V-H, your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other gods al panai. (Exodus 20:2-3)

al panai (עַל פָּּנָי) = over my face, above me, in front of me, in addition to me. (Panai is the first person singular possessive of panim, פָּּנִים = face, surface, self, presence.)

First God identifies “himself” in two ways:

  • as the god of the four-letter name that riffs on the verb for being and becoming,1 and
  • as the god who brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt with ten miraculous disasters.

Then God utters one of the following commands, depending on translation:

  • You must have no other gods above me.
  • You must have no other gods in addition to me.

It is not clear whether God wants to be considered the supreme god, or the only god.2 But the existence or non-existence of other gods is not the issue; the important point is that the God called Y-H-V-H is incomparable to any other god.3

Second Commandment

Idol of Hazor storm-god, 15th-13th century BCE, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

One way that the God of the Israelites is not like any other god is Y-H-V-H’s objection to being worshiped through an idol.

You must 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. You must not bow down to them, and you must not serve them. Because I, Y-H-V-H, your God, am a jealous god … (Exodus 20:4-5)

Is God jealous of other gods? I think a better reading is that God is jealous of the privilege of manifesting only in sounds, earthquakes, and amorphous sights such as cloud and fire. Only other gods are willing to inhabit man-made idols.

A divine pillar of cloud by day and fire by night leads the Israelites from Egypt to Mount Sinai. Then in the Torah portion Ki Tisa the people panic about forty days after Moses has disappeared into the cloud or fire on top of the mountain. They tell Moses’ brother, Aaron:

“Get up! Make us a god that will go before us! Because this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him!” (Exodus 32:1)

So Aaron makes them an idol out of gold.4 The Israelites call the golden calf the god who brought them out of Egypt, and Aaron identifies it by God’s four-letter personal name, Y-H-V-H. They are not disobeying the first commandment and worshiping another god. Yet their God is furious.5

If the God of the Israelites were like other gods, Aaron’s only mistake would be making a golden calf instead of a golden bull. After all, a bull is more powerful than its juvenile offspring.

Gold calf from temple of Baalat in Byblos

Bulls represented Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Canaanite gods. And 1 Kings 12:28-29 reports that golden “calves” were placed in the sanctuaries of Beit-El and Dan in the northern Kingdom of Israel. (They were probably bulls, which the southern kingdom of Judah belittled by calling them calves.)6

Most idols in the Ancient Near East were shaped like humans, animals, or fanciful hybrids. Archaeologists have found many small enough to hold in one hand. Neither Egyptians nor Mesopotamians nor Canaanites appear to have believed that the statues or figurines were gods. What they did believe was that gods could be enticed into temporarily inhabiting their idols. A god inhabiting a statue was easier to address with promises and bribes so it would act for your benefit.

The God of the Israelites, however, refuses to inhabit an idol. God cannot be represented by the shape of any physical object in the world because God has an entirely different, transcendent, kind of being.

In the first four portions of Exodus, God manifests as a voice coming from a burning bush, and as a moving pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.7 During the revelation at Mount Sinai, God manifests as thunder and shofar blasts, earthquake tremors, and lightning, fire, cloud, and smoke.8 The visible—but intangible and unbounded—manifestation of God as cloud and fire reappears in the portion Pekudei at the end of Exodus.

*

This gives the book of Exodus a happy ending. In the portion Ki Tisa, thousands of are punished with death for worshiping the golden calf. Then Moses tells the Israelites that God wants them to make a portable tent-sanctuary so God can dwell among them.9 The people eagerly donate materials and labor.

In this week’s portion, Pekudei, Moses assembles the tent and places the ark inside. Rising from the lid of the ark are two gold winged creatures called keruvim,10 but they are not considered idols, since God will speak from the empty space between the wings of the keruvim.

And Moses completed the work. Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place. And Moses was not able to come into the Tent of Meeting because the cloud dwelled in it, and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place. (Exodus 40:33-35)

kavod (כָּבוֹד, כָּבֺד) = weight, impressiveness, magnificence, glory, honor.

The cloud covering the tent looks like the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that led the Israelites from Egypt to Mount Sinai.10  The kavod of God inside is not described.11 Nevertheless, the people can see that God is with them again.

The book of Exodus concludes with a summary the movements of the divine manifestation for the next 38 years:

Pillar of cloud over the sanctuary, Collectie Nederland

And when the cloud lifted from the dwelling-place, the Israelites pulled out on all their journeys. And if the cloud did not lift, then they did not pull out until the day it did lift. Because the cloud of God was above the dwelling-place by day, and it became fire by night, in the eyes of the whole house of Israel on all their journeys. (Exodus 40:36-38)

In other words, God’s pillar of cloud and fire returns to lead the Israelites from Mount Sinai to the land of Canaan. The people get what they need, a God who provides a visible sign to follow—without violating the second commandment.

May we all find ways to invite the divine spirit to be with us, without trying to contain and idolize that spirit through magical thinking.

  1. Also called the “tetragrammaton”. See my post Beshallach & Shemot: Knowing the Name.
  2. Jerome Segal, in his analysis of God’s psychology as presented in the Torah, wrote: “… it may be that God is happy to have the Israelites believe in multiple gods, as that makes it all the more significant that they worship only Yahweh.” (Jerome M. Segal, Joseph’s Bones, Riverhead Books/Penguin Group, New York, 2007, p. 223)
  3. 16th-century commentator Ovadiah Sforno imagined God explaining: “I cannot tolerate that someone who worships me worships also someone beside me. The reason is that there is absolutely no comparison between Me and any other phenomenon in the universe. I am therefore entitled to stand on My dignity by refusing to be compared.” (translation by http://www.sefaria.org)
  4. See my post Ki Tisa: Golden Calf, Stone Commandments.
  5. Exodus 32:4-5, 32:7-10.
  6. See Rami Arav, “The Golden Calf: Bull-El Worship”, https://www.thetorah.com/article/the-golden-calf-bull-el-worship.
  7. Exodus 32:4-5.
  8. Exodus 3:1-17, Exodus 13:20-22.
  9. Exodus 19:16-20. A shofar is a trumpet-like instrument made from the horn of a ram or goat.
  10. Exodus 35:4-38:20 (most of the Torah portion Vayakheil).
  11. See my post Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.
  12. See my post Pekudei: Cloud of Glory.

Vayakheil+4: Not on Shabbat

February 23, 2022 at 4:40 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Ki Tisa, Mishpatim, Vayakheil, Yitro | Leave a comment

“Hurry up and wait” describes a lot of life. Two weeks ago I was frantically getting ready to move my mother into assisted living. Now my effort to fulfill the Fifth Commandment and honor my mother is on hold until I get a moving date from the center—and wouldn’t you know it, she had another fall while she was alone in her house …

Talmud Readers, by Adolf Behrman, 1876-1943. What could be more absorbing?

I wish this period of waiting instead of doing labor were like the day of shabbat, the sabbath day of rest, but these days my soul is too heavy to rise to either refreshment or holiness. So this week I took my mind off my troubles by researching the commandment about shabbat. Here is a new post for this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil—and four other portions in the book of Exodus, Beshallach, Yitro, Mishpatim, and Ki Tisa, that include variations on the command to desist from labor on the seventh day.

*

The first three of the Ten Commandments order us not to underestimate God.1 The last six are ethical precepts for human relations with other humans.2 In between, the fourth commandment combines holiness and ethics. It opens:

Remember the day of the shabbat, to treat it as holy. (Exodus 20:8) 3

shabbat (שַׁבַּת) = sabbath, day of rest. (From the same root as shavat, שָׁבַת = cease, stop, desist; stop working.)

This command is followed by explanatory notes in the Torah portion Yitro. More details are added every time the observance of shabbat is commanded in the book of Exodus—from the first time, in the portion Beshallach, when the Israelites are collecting manna, to the sixth time, in this week’s portion, Vayakheil, after God has given Moses a second set of tablets with the Ten Commandments carved in stone.

1) Don’t move

Manna Raining from Heaven, Maciejowski Bible, c. 1250 C.E.

Moses first mentions shabbat in the Torah portion Beshallach, when God provides manna for the hungry Israelites to gather up from the ground six, and only six, days a week. Moses says:

“See that God has given you the shabbat. Therefore on the sixth day [God] is giving you food for two days. Everyone in his place! No one go out from his spot on the seventh day!” (Exodus 16:29—Beshallach)

This introduces shabbat as a day of rest, at least in terms of going out and gathering food.

2) Holy break

The next order regarding shabbat is the one in the Ten Commandments in Yitro. The full fourth commandment states:

The Creation, by Lucas Cranach, 1534, Luther Bible

Remember the day of the shabbat, to treat it as holy. Six days you may work and you may do all your labor. But the seventh day is a shabbat for God, your God; you must not do any labor, you or your son or your daughter, your male slave or your female slave or your livestock or your immigrant within your gates. Because in six days God made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything that is in them, and [God] took a break on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the day of the shabbat and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)

The emphasis in this commandment is on the holiness of shabbat. Since the day itself is holy, it must be set aside from mundane labor by all humans and animals in an Israelite’s household, and even by God.

3) Ethical refreshment

The third injunction about shabbat is in the portion Mishpatim:

Six days you may do your doings, but on the seventh day tishbot so that your ox and your donkey can take a break, veyinafeish, your slave and the immigrant. (Exodus 23:12)

tishbot (תּשְׁבֺּת) = you must cease, stop, stop working. (A form of the verb shavat.)

veyinafeish (וְיִנָּפֵשׁ) = and he can refresh himself, reanimate himself, catch his breath. (From the same root as nefesh, נֶפֶשׁ = throat, breath, appetite, mood, animating soul.)

This time Moses, speaking for God, gives a reason why even slaves, immigrants, and beasts must be given a day off from work on shabbat: so that draft animals can rest their muscles, and human laborers can rest their souls, becoming refreshed and revitalized.

Providing a day of rest is an ethical mandate; the moral principle of kindness calls for helping others to have a better life, and the moral principle of fairness supports giving everyone a day off when the landowner has a day off. Shabbat is the opposite of Pharaoh’s unethical subjection of the Israelite slaves to unremitting labor.4

4) Be holy or die

The fourth command about shabbat appears in the Torah portion Ki Tisa, after God finishes telling Moses what the Israelites must make to set up the sanctuary and the priests of their new religion. God warns that all of this construction must pause on the day of shabbat.

Nevertheless, you must observe shabtotai, because it is a sign between me and you for your generations, for knowledge that I, God, have made you holy. And you must observe the shabbat because it is holy for you. Whoever profanes it must definitely be put to death, because whoever does labor on it, his life will be cut off from among his people. (Exodus 31:12-14)

shabtotai (שַׁבְּתֺתַי) = my shabbats.

This order not only reiterates that shabbat is holy, but adds that observing it is a reminder that the Israelite people themselves are holy, i.e. set aside for God.

In addition, profaning shabbat by doing labor on that day is such a serious transgression that God assigns it the death penalty.

This rule about observing shabbat is the source text for the Talmud’s list of 39 categories of labor forbidden on the seventh day. The rabbis assume that since God warns that the work of building the sanctuary and fabricating the priests’ clothing must cease on shabbat, the labors involved in doing those tasks are the labors forbidden on shabbat from then on.5

This injunction in Ki Tisa continues:

The Israelites must observe the shabbat, doing the shabbat throughout their generations as a covenant forever. Between me and the Israelites it will be a sign forever, because for six days God make the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day [God] shavat vayinafash. (Exodus 31:16-17)

vayinafash (וַיִּנָּפַשׁ) = and he refreshed himself, reanimated himself, caught his breath.   (A variant of veyinafeish.)

Since the divine life of the universe pauses every seven “days” for refreshment and redirection, so must our own souls. (See my earlier post,  Mishpatim, Ki Tisa, & 2 Samuel: Soul Recovery.)

5) No farming

Shabbat comes up again later in the portion Ki Tisa when God gives Moses additional instructions for the Israelites.

Six days you may work, but on the seventh day tishbot; at plowing and at grain-cutting tishbot. (Exodus 34:21)

The book of Exodus gives no reason why agricultural labor in particular is prohibited on shabbat. One possibility is that this sentence refers to the ethical law about shabbat in Mishpatim, since landowners used draft animals (oxen and donkeys) to plow, and teams of underlings including slaves and immigrants to scythe down ripe grain.

Sheaves of grain

On the other hand, the list in the Talmud of activities prohibited on shabbat includes farming chores that eventually lead to the bread that must be displayed on the gold-plated table in the sanctuary.6 The first eleven of the 39 prohibited labors in the Talmud are sowing grain, plowing, reaping, gathering sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting the edible kernels, grinding them into flour, sifting the flour, kneading dough, and baking bread. By this interpretation, the ban on plowing and reaping on shabbat is about the holiness of the day surpassing the holiness of the sanctuary.

6) Light no fires

The sixth and final shabbat instruction in the book of Exodus occurs in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil. Again the seventh day is called holy, and doing labor on that day is punishable by death.

Six days you may do labor, but the seventh day must be holy for you, a shabbat shabbaton for God. Anyone who does labor on it must be put to death. You must not kindle a fire in any of your settlements on the day of shabbat. (Exodus 35:2-3)

shabbaton (שַׁבָּתוֹן) = most solemn shabbat, feast day of shabbat, day of absolute stopping.

Here Moses repeats God’s commands that the day of shabbat must be treated as holy and that anyone who does not desist from labor on that day must be executed.

The new information in Vayakheil is that lighting a fire is prohibited on shabbat. Before this, the only specific examples of labor forbidden on shabbat are agricultural: gathering manna, using draft animals, sowing and reaping . Now, in Vayakheil, Moses gives another example of labor: lighting a fire.

The purpose of this prohibition cannot be ethical, since lighting a fire is not in itself a heavy labor, and it benefits other humans by giving them heat, light, and a way to cook food.

Since the previous verse reminds us that the seventh day must be holy, refraining from kindling a fire must be another religious rule associated with holiness.

Kindling a fire is number 37 in the Talmud’s list of 39 labors banned on shabbat, right after extinguishing a fire. It may allude to the fire on the altar. Although burnt offerings continue during shabbat according to the Torah, the fire is not rekindled. In fact, it must never go out.7 The altar fire is holy because it is dedicated to God, and because God kindled it.8

*

Thus the book of Exodus presents the law against working on shabbat as a religious rule (guarding what is holy) three to five times.9 It presents the law as an ethical rule (promoting kindness and fairness) only twice.10

Yet when we observe the day of shabbat we can remember that it is not solely a religious requirement reminding us of holiness. We will not be put to death for doing forbidden work on shabbat, since that part of the order in this week’s Torah portion is no longer followed. But when we try to set aside mundane concerns in order to elevate our souls on the seventh day, we can also remember the ethical values in the last six commandments, which address kindness, fairness, and respect for other human beings.

And I can pray that soon I will be able to obey the fifth commandment, and treat my mother with kindness and respect by moving her into a safe place.

  1. See my upcoming post, Pekudei, Yitro, & Ki Tisa: Not Like Other Gods.
  2. See my posts Yitro, Mishpatin, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 on the last six commandments.
  3. This is the opening in Exodus. When Moses repeats the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, the fourth commandment opens: Observe the day of the shabbat and treat it as holy. (Deuteronomy 5:12)
  4. Exodus 5:1-9, 6:9.
  5. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 73a, Mishna.
  6. Exodus 25:23-30.
  7. Leviticus 6:5-6.
  8. Leviticus 9:24 for the portable sanctuary in the wilderness.
  9. Exodus 16:29, 20:8 and 11, 31:12-13 at a minimum. According to the Talmud Exodus 34:21 and 35:2-3 are also rules for religious purposes.
  10. Exodus 20:9-10, 23:12.

Ki Tisa: Golden Calf, Stone Commandments

February 16, 2022 at 2:38 pm | Posted in Ki Tisa | Leave a comment

Mount Sinai, by Elijah Walton, 19th century

The Torah gives the Ten Commandments1 top priority out of all the rules and orders God gives to the Israelites through Moses. God utters them in the Torah portion Yitro after manifesting in smoke, fire, and thunder, and Moses tells the people what God said.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, God engraves the Ten Commandments in stone.

Then [God] gave to Moses, as [God] finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the Testimony, stone tablets engraved by the finger of God. (Exodus/Shemot 31:18)

After Moses sees the people celebrating the golden calf and shatters the tablets, God gives Moses another pair. What could be more important?

Aaron and the second commandment

While God is giving Moses the first pair of stone tablets, the Israelites at the foot of the mountain are losing hope that Moses will ever come back down. After they have waited for almost forty days, they tell Moses’ brother Aaron:

“Get up! Make us a god that will go before us! Because this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him!” (Exodus 32:1)

The people desperately want an intermediary between themselves and the invisible, remote, and terrifying God that Moses says has adopted them. Moses was a visible human being, and he could tell them what God wanted, so he was a satisfactory intermediary—until   he vanished into the cloud on top of Mount Sinai.2

Now the people demand a new intermediary. They know the “god” they ask Aaron to make could not speak, like Moses, but at least it would be visible and familiar, like the idols in Egypt.

Aaron is not only Moses’ older brother, but his second-in-command. Yet God has not yet spoken directly to him, and does not do so until Leviticus 10:8-11. The Israelites turn to Aaron as their default leader, but do not expect him to replace Moses as God’s prophet.

Aaron could ask the people to wait another day for Moses to return before taking any rash action. He could remind them of God’s second commandment, which Moses told them during the revelation at Sinai:

You must not make for yourself a statue 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. You must not bow down to them, and you must not serve them … (Exodus 20:4-5)

He could frighten the people by predicting that their God would surely smite them all if they violated this commandment. But he does not.

The Adoration of the Golden Calf, by Marc Chagall, 1966

Instead, Aaron asks the people to bring him their gold earrings, and casts the gold in the shape of a calf.

And they said: “This is your God, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” And Aaron saw, and he built an altar in front of it. And Aaron made an announcement, and said: “Tomorrow is a festival for Y-H-V-H!” (Exodus 32:4-5)

Aaron uses the four-letter proper name of the God of Israel, so he is not violating the first commandment, “You must have no other gods before me.” But he is violating the second commandment, which prohibits making or worshiping an idol.

He has not had a chance to read the commandments on the stone tablets Moses is bringing down from Mount Sinai. But he has heard Moses declare them. He cannot claim ignorance as an excuse.

Moses and the sixth commandment

The next day the Israelites make burnt offerings in front of the golden calf. By the time Moses reached the bottom of Mount Sinai, they are eating, drinking, and enjoying themselves.

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law, by Gustave Dore, 19th cent.

Moses smashes God’s stone tablets.3 Then he melts down the calf, grinds the gold into powder, mixes it with water, and makes the Israelites drink it. He questions his brother Aaron, who gives a feeble excuse, and Moses lets it pass.

Then Moses saw that the people were parua, because Aaron peraoh for a non-entity … (Exodus 32:25)

parua (פָּרֻעַ) = wild, out of control.

peraoh (פְּרָעֺה) = he let [them] get out of control.

Apparently after they have watched Moses melt the calf and grind its gold into dust, some of the Israelites are wildly upset about losing their idol.

Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said: “Who is for Y-H-V-H? To me!” And all the Levite men gathered around him. And he said to them: “Thus says Y-H-V-H, the God of Israel: Every man, put his sword on his hip! Cross and return from gate to gate of the camp, and every man kill his brother and his fellow and his close relatives!” And the Levite men did as Moses spoke, and about 3,000 men of the people fell on that day. (Exodus 32:26-28)

Do the Levites violate the sixth commandment?

Lo tirtzach. (Exodus 20:13)

lo tirtzach (לֺא תִרְצָח) = you must not kill without a legal sanction. (From the verb ratzach, רָצַח.)

Other uses of the verb ratzach in the Torah indicate that this commandment only covers deliberate murder of a fellow Israelite. (See my post Yitro, Mishpatim, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1.) God does not prohibit causing accidental death, executing someone who was given the death penalty, or killing the enemy in war. But the Levites deliberately kill fellow Israelites who have not been tried in court with witnesses and sentenced to death.

If each Levite man were individually choosing a fellow Israelite to kill (presumably one who is still parua after the golden calf fiasco), then he would be violating the sixth commandment. But the Levites have to sweep through the camp and back with lightning speed before the other Israelites either escape or fight back. They do not have time to pause and identify who they are killing.

Individual Levite men make one conscious choice: Moses calls out “Who is for God? To me!” and they gather around him. After that they simply obey his orders in the name of God. If Moses had not announced that God wanted them to run through the camp killing people, the Levites would not have taken up their swords.

Bronze Age Short Sword

Moses bears the primary responsibility for the massacre. Does he merely pass on God’s orders word-for-word? Not according to Rashi,4 who wrote that Moses’ order to the Levites was based on an earlier order from God:

“Whoever offers a slaughter-sacrifice to any god except Y-H-V-H alone will be dedicated to destruction.” (Exodus 22:19).

This law in the Torah portion Mishpatim is an elaboration of the second commandment.

Moses might be applying God’s ruling in Mishpatim when he says God wants the Levite men to run through the camp killing people. Or he might be speaking impulsively in a potentially dangerous moment, based on God’s outrage over the golden calf worship, and perhaps a sense that God continues to feel outrage.

What he does not do is pronounce death penalties on about 3,000 men and ask the Levites to execute them. Moses is the chief judge for all the Israelites,5 so he certainly has the legal authority to pronounce death penalties. However, in the Torah a judge rules on individual cases, and only after hearing the testimony of witnesses concerning the accused. Moses asks only Aaron for information about his role in the golden calf fiasco. He calls no witnesses, and pronounces no individual sentences.

Moses violates the sixth commandment by ordering the men of his tribe, the Levites, to murder Israelites without the proper legal sanction. Does he at least achieve what God wants?

The primary effect of the Levites’ lightning-strike massacre would be shock and fear—which might be just what Moses intends. Fear may not be the best motivator for long-term obedience, but it does work in the short run, and Moses and God use it repeatedly in the Torah. The shattering of the stone tablets and the destruction and consumption of the golden calf are not enough to frighten all the Israelites into obedience, but the massacre by the Levites does the trick.

The next day, Moses asks God to forgive the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf. But apparently God is not fully satisfied with the results of the massacre.

And Y-H-V-H said to Moses: “Whoever has offended against me, I will wipe out from my record … and on the day of my accounting, I will bring them to account for their offenses.” And God struck a blow against the people over what they did with the calf that Aaron made. (Exodus 32:33-35)

Classic commentators6 interpreted God’s blow as a plague of disease that killed a particular group of golden calf worshippers who were still alive after the massacre by the Levites.

*

Neither Aaron nor Moses is punished for his violation of one of the Ten Commandments. Moses says in Deuteronomy 9:20 that he prayed for his brother Aaron, and God forgave him. Moses’ good relationship with God continues; in the remainder of the portion Ki Tisa, Moses asks God to resume leading the people in person (presumably as the pillar of cloud and fire) and God agrees. Then God tells Moses:

“Carve yourself two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will engrave upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.” (Exodus 34:1)

Moses climbs Mount Sinai again, carrying blank tablets, and God engraves them with the same ten commandments. Perhaps this shows that God both forgave Moses and reaffirmed that the Ten Commandments as fundamental precepts.

Or perhaps this shows that God plays favorites, approving of the death of thousands of Israelites because they worshiped an idol, but preserving the lives of his two darlings, Moses and Aaron.

  1. What we call “the Ten Commandments” in English are ten “statements” in the bible. Exodus introduces the ten with “And God spoke all these ” (Exodus 20:1) Devarim, דְּבָרִים = words, statements, things. Moses repeats them in Deuteronomy 5:6-18, then concludes: “These devarim God spoke to your whole congregation at the mountain, in a great voice from the midst of the fire and the cloud and the gloom, and … engraved them on two stone tablets.” (Deuteronomy 5:19)
  2. Exodus 24:15-18.
  3. Exodus 32:15-19.
  4. Rashi is the acronym of 11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki.
  5. Exodus 18:13-26.
  6. Including Rashi, Ibn Ezra (12th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra), and Ramban (13th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman).
  7. In Leviticus 10:1-3.

Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 3

February 3, 2022 at 10:55 pm | Posted in Mishpatim, Va-etchannan, Yitro | Leave a comment

Ten Commandments by Jekuthiel Sofer, 1768

Universal ethical principles are relevant in all places and times. While the first four of the Ten Commandments1 are religious injunctions rather than universal ethical rules, the last six are sometimes considered universal.

In my last two blog posts I discussed commandments five through eight,2 and suggested that the following versions would be more comprehensively relevant:

  1. Parents must respect their children, and children must respect their parents. (To replace “Honor your father and your mother.”)
  2. You must not kill except to prevent someone from being killed. (To replace “You must not kill-without-a-legal-sanction.”)
  3. You must not break a vow to another person without formally dissolving it first. (To replace “You must not commit adultery-between-a-man-and a married-woman.”)
  4. You must not covertly take what rightfully belongs to another. (To replace “You must not steal.”)

What about commandments nine and ten, on false testimony and coveting? Are they morally relative, guides to good behavior only within Ancient Israelite culture? Are they moral absolutes? Or do they, too, need some revision to become universal ethical precepts?

*

The Ninth Commandment

Witness stand, by Ida Libby Dengrove

Lo ta-aneh against your fellow [as] a witness to a falsehood. (Exodus/Shemot 20:13)

lo ta-aneh (ֺלֺא תַעֲנֶה) = you must not answer, testify; stoop.

Like the previous four commandments, the ninth is followed by more specific statutes in Mishpatim, last week’s Torah portion.

You must not take up an empty rumor. You shall not put in your hand with the wicked to become a malicious witness. (Exodus 23:1)

In other words, ethical witnesses in a court of law must testify only to what they have perceived with their own senses, discounting anything they have heard that might be a rumor, and ignoring what other witnesses say. (In Torah law, a person cannot be convicted without the testimony of at least two witnesses.3)

You must not follow rabim for evil, and lo ta-aneh on a legal dispute to turn aside [and] follow the majority4 to mislead. (Exodus 23:2)

Using that definition, this law specifies that a witness must not support popular sentiment against the defendant by making misleading statements.

Ibn Ezra pointed out that even a large number of witnesses can be wrong: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil. If you see many people testifying concerning something that you know nothing of, do not say to yourself all of these people cannot be lying.”5

The book of Exodus continues by warning witnesses not to give misleading testimony in order to help out the poor.6

And you must not favor the powerless in his legal dispute. (Exodus 23:3)

Kindness to the poor is an important moral value in the Torah,7 but when someone is being tried for a crime, honesty is more important.

Is honesty always the best policy? Many cultures consider a “white lie” harmless and even ethical when it is used to avoid hurting someone’s feelings and has no negative consequences. A “white lie” might include rejecting an invitation by falsely saying you are busy that night, or complimenting someone on a new haircut that you actually think is ugly.

The ninth commandment only addresses giving honest testimony as a witness. But is honesty always the best, most ethical policy when you are testifying to legal authorities? What if you live in a society that punishes the crime of shoplifting with death or the loss of a hand, and you hold the conviction that this punishment is unethical? Should you tell a falsehood?

Your society would consider it ethical to report everything you saw the shoplifter do. But if your own belief is morally better, complete honesty as a witness cannot be a universal ethical precept.

However, the ninth commandment only says: You must not testify against your fellow as a witness to a falsehood. It does not require full disclosure in a morally difficult situation, but only prohibits lying when a falsehood could result in conviction and punishment of an innocent person.

This strict interpretation of the ninth commandment is relevant in all cultures. It could even be rephrased to cover situations outside of court, and remain a universal principle:

You must not speak falsehood in order to cause harm to another.

The Tenth Commandment

The other nine commandments all forbid or require certain actions. (Commandment five, “Honor your father and your mother”, requires certain actions rather than an internal feeling of honor or respect. See my post Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1.) At first glance, the final commandment seems to be forbidding a feeling rather than an action.

Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s House, postcard by The Rose Co., 1908

Lo tachmod your fellow’s house; lo tachmod your fellow’s wife, or his male slave, or his female slave, or his bull, or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your fellow. (Exodus 20:14)

lo tachmod (לֺא תַחְמֺד) = you must not covet, crave, desire to possess. (From the root verb chamad, חָמַד = desired and tried to acquire, coveted, craved.)

Although many of the other commandments are elaborated by statutes given in the Torah portion Mishpatim, no laws in Mishpatim refer to coveting or craving.8

Another way to determine the meaning of the tenth commandment is to look at how the verb chamad is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.9 In ten of the twenty occurrences of the verb chamad, it is connected with taking possession of the thing coveted. Therefore some commentary has interpreted the tenth commandment as prohibiting robbery, under the assumption that coveting inevitably leads to an attempt to steal by force.10

The repetition of the tenth commandment in the book of Deuteronomy is worded slightly differently, putting another man’s wife first, and using a synonym to prohibit an unhealthy desire for any other possessions:

And lo tachmod your fellow’s wife, and lo titaveh your fellow’s house, his field, or his male slave, or his female slave or his bull, or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your fellow. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 5:18)

lo titaveh (לֺא תִתְאַוֶּה) = you must not crave. (A form of the verb aveh, אוּה = craved, longed for.)

Why does Deuteronomy use the verb chamad only for coveting someone else’s wife, and the verb aveh for everything else? The Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael claims that craving leads to coveting, and coveting leads to robbing.11 Certainly the verb aveh indicates a visceral desire; out of the 27 times it appears in the Hebrew Bible, thirteen are about craving a particular food or drink.12

But why does the tenth commandment prohibit coveting rather than the action that follows it, the attempt to take by force? I suspect that the Torah is distinguishing between taking a fellow Israelite’s possessions when one is obsessed with desire, from taking foreigners’ possessions when one is authorized to do so in war. The Torah is full of commands to the Israelites to strip the Canaanites of all their possessions as they conquer the land. Other rules in the Torah discuss the correct ways of taking booty in battles with other countries. This is not the kind of robbing the Torah would include in the Ten Commandments.

Those who covet what belongs to others also harm themselves; envious obsession does not make for a happy life.  But is it possible to legislate feelings?

Yes, according to 11th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra. He wrote that just as a man does not desire to sleep with his mother, although she be beautiful, because he has been trained from his childhood to know that she is prohibited to him,” sensible people may notice that certain people or things owned by others are desirable, but they dismiss any covetous thoughts about possessions that are obviously off-limits.13

The remaining question is why the tenth commandment prohibits a feeling, when the other nine commandments prohibit or require an action.

While classic commentary claims that the tenth commandment really prohibits the act of robbery, I would argue that this final commandment caps the Decalogue by implying that obsessive thoughts about illegal deeds can lead to everything the Torah considers evil, from worshiping other gods (Commandment 1) to murder (6), adultery (7), and theft (8). Failing to honor one’s parents(5) could be the result of nursing resentment against them for their own bad deeds, and giving false testimony (9) could be the result of a consuming desire for popularity in the crowd that is accusing the defendant.

Therefore an appropriate update of the tenth commandment could be simply:

You must not covet anything that belongs to another person.

An alternative that encompasses a wider range of negative obsessions is:

You must not dwell on desires that would cause harm to others.

  1. The “Ten Commandments” is the popular English designation for the ten precepts God utters at Mount Sinai, listed in both Exodus 20:2-14 (in the Torah portion Yitro) and Deuteronomy 5:6-18 (in Va-etchanan).
  2. See Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1 and Part 2.
  3. At least two witnesses are required for conviction in a legal case according to Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15.
  4. Many English verstions of Exodus 23:2 including the standard JPS (Jewish Publication Society) translation, interpret the word rabim (רַבִּים) as the wealthy, even though its usual meaning is “the many”. But the Talmud, Rashi, and at least two careful modern translations interpret rabim as the many or the majority.4 Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 59b, Chullin 11a, Sanhedrin 2a. Rashi on 23:2. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 448. Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Books, New York, 1983, p. 383.
  5. 17th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, translated in sefaria.org.
  6. Exodus 23:6-8 instructs judges not to bend the truth to help or harm the poor, as well as to reject bribes—presumably from the wealthy. Also see Leviticus 19:15.
  7. g. Exodus 22:20-26 in the Torah portion Mishpatim, which also reiterates the commandment against favoring the poor in a legal case (Exodus 23:3).
  8. The laws in Mishpatim on theft (Exodus 21:37-22:3 and 22:6-8) are more closely related to the eighth commandment, “You must not steal”, and are covered in my post Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 2.
  9. See Leonard Greenspoon, “Do Not Covet: Is It a Feeling or an Action?”, https://www.thetorah.com/article/do-not-covet-is-it-a-feeling-or-an-action.
  10. The proof text given in Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:14:1-3 (2nd-3rd century C.E.) and other early commentaries is Micah 2:1-2. This line of reasoning considers the eighth commandment, “You must not steal”, a prohibition against kidnapping a man who is not the property of anyone else. (E.g. Sanhedrin 86a).
  11. Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:14:1-3, from sefaria.org.
  12. Numbers 11:4, 11:34, and 34:10; Deuteronomy 12:20 and 14:26; 1 Samuel 2:16; 2 Samuel 23:15 and 1 Chronicles 11:17; Micah 7:1; Psalm 106:13-14; Proverbs 23:3 and 23:6.
  13. Translation of Ibn Ezra in sefaria.org.

Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 2

January 27, 2022 at 9:20 pm | Posted in Mishpatim, Va-etchannan, Yitro | Leave a comment

Are the last six of the Ten Commandments universal ethical precepts, good for all places and times? Or are they morally relative, guides only to correct behavior within the ancient Israelite culture?

Last week’s post1 examined commandments five (honoring parents) and six (no killing). This week, Part 2 will assess commandments seven (no adultery) and eight (no stealing). Check in next week for the last two commandments, on false testimony and coveting.

*

The Seventh Commandment

Lo tinaf. (Exodus 20:13)

lo tinaf (לֺא תִנְאָף) = you must not commit adultery. (From the verb na-af, נַאַף = committed adultery between a man and a married or engaged woman.)

Bathsheba, by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1889. (King David, the peeping tom at the upper left, commits adultery with her.)

Adultery in the Hebrew bible is consensual sexual intercourse between a married or engaged woman and a man who is not her husband or fiancé. This type of liaison was such a serious transgression in Ancient Israel that the Torah prescribes the death penalty for both partners.

And a man who yinaf with a man’s wife, who yinaf with the wife of his fellow, he shall definitely be put to death, the no-eif and the no-afet. (Leviticus 20:10)

yinaf (יִנְאַף) = he commits adultery. (Another conjugation of the verb na-af.)

no-eif (נֺאֵף) = the male adulterer. (From the root verb na-af.)

no-afet (נֺאָפֶת) = the female adulterer. (From the root verb na-af.)

Yet it is not wrong in the Torah for a married man to have sex with a woman other than his wife, as long as she is single and not living with her father—i.e. if she is a prostitute, or perhaps an independent widow. It is also acceptable for a man to have a second wife, a concubine, or a female slave acquired for sexual purposes.

A woman, however, can belong to only one man.

Most women in the Torah who are not slaves are the property of their fathers or their husbands. Therefore when a man commits adultery he is, in effect, stealing another man’s property.

What if a man has sex with a virgin who still belongs to her father? The law for this specific case is given in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”), and it applies whether the man is married or unmarried:

And if a man persuades a virgin who is not engaged, and lies down with her, he must give her a marriage contract to be his wife. [But] if her father definitely refuses to give her to him, he must weigh out the same amount of silver as in the marriage contract for virgins. (Exodus 22:15-16)

Either way, the seducer’s payment goes to the virgin’s father, since she is her father’s property.

When a society grants women equal rights and autonomy, so they are no longer property, the Hebrew Bible’s reason for condemning adultery vanishes. Does that mean it is not immoral in Western society today for a married person to have sex outside the marriage?

In that case, adultery is unethical for a different reason. When people of any gender commit themselves to fidelity in marriage, they make a vow in front of witnesses. This is a promise and a binding contract. It is unethical to violate the terms of a contract while it is still in force. Only after divorce proceedings have been filed to end that type of marriage can a person add a sexual partner without committing an immoral deed.

The seventh commandment would be universally relevant if it were phrased this way:

You must not break a vow to another person without formally dissolving it first.

This version would cover not only exclusive marriage vows but all formal vows, including employment agreements and other legal contracts. The Torah also considers vows sacred obligations whether they are made to God or to other humans.2

The Eighth Commandment

After the commandment prohibiting the theft of a man’s wife or fiancée comes a commandment prohibiting other kinds of theft.

Lo tignov. (Exodus 20:14)

lo tignov (לֺא תִגְנֺב) = you must not steal, you must not covertly take what rightfully belongs to another. (From the verb ganav, גָּנַב = stole.)

Pickpocket detail from The Fortune Teller, by Georges de La Tour, ca. 1630

The eighth commandment covers kidnapping a man or boy,3 as well as stealing livestock, silver, or other goods. This week’s portion, Mishpatim, gives the penalties for several kinds of stealing.

Vegoneiv a man and sells him, and [the man] is found in his possession, he shall definitely be put to death. If a man yignov a bull or a lamb and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay compensation with five cattle to replace the bull, or four sheep to replace the lamb. (Exodus 21:16-17)

vegoneiv (וְגֹנֵב) = and one who steals. (From the same root as ganav.)

yignov (יִגְנֺב) = he steals. (Another form of the verb ganav.)

A thief must also pay compensation for stealing an animal and keeping it:

If hagenavah is found alive in his possession, from a bull to a donkey to a lamb, he must pay compensation for double [the value]. (Exodus 22:3)

hagenavah (הַגְּנֵבָה) = the stolen item. (From the root verb ganav.)

In other words, someone who “steals” or kidnaps a male human being gets the death penalty;4 but someone who steals livestock (or an inanimate object) must pay the owner compensation worth significantly more than the stolen item.

Anyone but a sociopath would consider kidnapping a human worse than stealing an animal or object. And all human cultures consider it unethical to steal what really belongs to another. But cultures differ on what can be rightfully owned by an individual, and what is owned in common by the social group or the state.

When Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote “Property is theft!”,5 he expressed his opposition to private ownership of land. Karl Marx opposed the private ownership of both land and the means of production.6 Socialism approves of individual ownership of land and businesses up to a point, but reserves ownership of the largest and most indispensable industries and utilities for the state. Capitalism, which is becoming the dominant economic culture in the world, supports individual and corporate ownership of almost everything except human beings, accepting state ownership only in areas that serve the interests of corporations.

Theft certainly covers one individual stealing from another. But is it theft when a corporation or a government entity legally takes something from an individual? Who rightfully owns what?

Another issue is that stealing, goneiv (גֺּוֵב), implies taking what belongs to another by stealth, covertly. Appropriating something that belongs to another overtly, by force, is robbing, gozeil (גּוֹזֵל) in Biblical Hebrew.

I proposed rephrasing the eighth commandment slightly:

You must not covertly take what rightfully belongs to another.

We form our own opinions about what rightfully belongs to the state, to a corporation, or to an individual, and judge the morality of a particular covert appropriation of something accordingly. However, the legality of the particular appropriation is determined by the state.

  1. Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1.
  2. g. Numbers 30:2-10.
  3. A woman “steals” (vatignov) an underage boy and hides him in 2 Kings 11:2.
  4. One girl is kidnapped in the Hebrew Bible in order to be seduced (Genesis 34:1-4). Women and girls are also seized as booty in war.
  5. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Qu’est-ce que la propriété? ou, Recherches sur le principe du droit et du gouvernement, Paris, 1840.
  6. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. III, Verlag von Otto Meisner, Publisher, 1867.

 

Yitro, Mishpatim, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1

January 18, 2022 at 8:25 pm | Posted in Masey, Mishpatim, Shoftim, Va-etchannan, Yitro | 3 Comments

Moses on south frieze of Supreme Court building, by Adolph Weinman

The “Ten Commandments”1 are fundamental precepts, good for all time, right? Well, maybe.

The first four of the ten commandments (which appear in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, in the book of Exodus, and again in Va-etchanan in the book of Deuteronomy) are religious injunctions. They prohibit having other gods,2 making or worshiping idols, swearing falsely in the name of God,3 and working on the holy seventh day of the week, Shabbat. These four commandments are hardly universal precepts, since they do not apply to people with other religions (including atheism).

The next six commandments, however, are about ethics, i.e. the right way to treat other people:

  1. Honor your father and your mother …
  2. You must not kill.
  3. You must not commit adultery.
  4. You must not steal.
  5. You must not testify falsely.
  6. You must not covet …

Not all of these commandments are easy to interpret outside the context of the social customs of the Ancient Near East.  Does that mean they are morally relative, guides only to correct behavior within the ancient Israelite culture? Or are they nevertheless moral absolutes, still relevant today?

This week’s post examines commandments five and six. Next week, Part 2 will assess commandments seven and eight. The week after that, Part 3 will explore the last two commandments.

*

The Fifth Commandment

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

kabeid (כַּבֵּד) = honor, treat as important. (From the same root as the adjective kabeid, כַּבֵּד = heavy, weighty, impressive, oppressive, dull, hard.)

According to traditional commentary, if you honor your parents, your children will honor you.4 That means your adult children will make sure you are well fed and housed when you can no longer manage on your own, and therefore you will indeed live longer. (No wonder having children is a top priority in the Torah!)5

Maimonides wrote that in addition to making sure our parents have food, clothing, and shelter, we must be indulgent with them if they have dementia. When adult children can no long bear the strain of tending such a parent, they may hire others to take care of them.6

Honoring one’s parents goes beyond providing for their physical needs in the Torah. Next week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, assigns the death penalty to the crime of hitting parents, or even speaking ill of them.

And one who strikes his father or his mother shall certainly be put to death. (Exodus 21:15)

And mekaleil his father or his mother shall certainly be put to death. (Exodus 21:17)

mekaleil (מְקַלֵּל) = one who belittles, one who curses.

There is no penalty in the Hebrew bible for a parent hitting or belittling a child. Hitting children in order to discipline them is considered a good deed in the book of Proverbs.7 Elsewhere parents are required to teach their children certain laws and traditions from the Torah,8 but the bible is silent about child abuse or neglect.9

This silence reflects the culture of the Ancient Near East, in which underage children were the property of their fathers and had no rights of their own. In other cultures, child abuse and neglect are considered criminal, and the ethical standard is for parents to treat their children with kindness and respect them as individuals, while still teaching them acceptable behavior in their society.

The fifth commandment implies that we should treat our parents with respect whether they deserve it or not.10 This may be a worthy aspiration, but when parents have seriously abused or neglected children while they were growing up, honoring and taking care of these bad parents could make the lives of their adult children unbearable.

I believe the fifth commandment should not be a universal ethical rule as it stands. I would amend it this way:

Parents must respect their children, and children must respect their parents.

The Sixth Commandment

The Servants of Absalom Killing Amnon, Heinrich Aldegrever, 1540

Lo tirtzach. (Exodus 20:13)

lo tirtzach (לֺא תִרְצָח) = you must not kill without a legal sanction. (From the verb ratzach, רָצַח.)

This commandment is sometimes translated into English as “You shall not kill” and sometimes as “You shall not murder”. Does the Torah distinguish between accidental manslaughter and deliberate murder?

The death penalty is prescribed only for pre-meditated murder in next week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim.

One who strikes down a man so that he dies, he [the one who struck] shall certainly be put to death. [However, if it was] one who did not stalk him, but God let [the one who died] fall by his hand, I will appoint a place for you where he can flee. But if someone plots against his fellow to kill him with cunning, from [even] my altar you shall take him to die. (Exodus 21:12-14)

More specifics are given in the Torah portion Masey in the book of Numbers, which also uses a form of the same verb as in the sixth commandment: ratzach.11 Here God orders the Israelites to set aside six cities of refuge once they have conquered Canaan.

… cities of refuge they shall be for you, and a rotzeiach who struck down a life inadvertently will flee there.” (Numbers 35:11)

rotzeiach (רֺצֵַח) = someone who commits either  premeditated murder or involuntary manslaughter. (The participle form of the verb ratzach).

Then God tells Moses:

But if one struck with an iron implement and [the victim] died, he is a rotzeiach and the rotzeiach must certainly be put to death. … Or [if] in enmity he struck him with his hand and [the victim] died, he shall certainly be put to death. (Numbers 35:16, 35:21)

Someone who kills accidentally can live in exile; someone who kills deliberately (either out of hatred or by using an implement well-known to cause death) gets the death penalty. The executioner, in that case, is the “redeemer of bloodshed”, a designated avenger from the family of the deceased victim. The commandment against killing does not apply to the avenger.

Nor does it apply to soldiers who kill enemies in battle. The Torah never criticizes the Israelites for starting a war, regardless of the reason. Moses only rules (in the Torah portion Shoftim in Deuteronomy) that when the Israelites attack a town outside Canaan merely in order to expand their territory or get some booty, they must first offer the option of “peaceful” surrender.

And if [the town] answers you with peace and opens itself to you, then all the people found inside it will be yours for forced labor, and they must serve you. But if it does not make peace with you, and does battle, and you besiege it, and God places it in your hand, then you shall put all its males to the edge of the sword. However, the women and the little ones and the livestock and everything that is in the town, all its plunder you shall plunder for yourself … However, in the towns of these peoples [Canaanites] which God, your God, is giving you as a hereditary possession, you shall not let a soul live. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 20:11-16)

These two approaches to conquest were considered ethical in the Ancient Near East. But today, an increasing number of people believe that even when a killing is legal, it may not be ethical.

Many people would agree with the commandment lo tirtzach, you must not kill without a legal sanction. But standards have changed for when it should be legal to kill someone. The death penalty is now banned in a majority of countries in the world, and is controversial in the United States.

War, on the other hand, is still an option for every nation. But some acts during war are now considered war crimes, and there is more interest in minimizing the deaths of non-combatants. Most people condone killing in self-defense, whether it is killing an individual who is about to kill you, or fighting a nation that has attacked yours. But is initiating a war justified if the purpose is to defend the citizens of an allied nation, or to defend a principle such as democracy?

A basic moral rule must be brief and express an ethical ideal, even if there are gray and cloudy areas in its application. The sixth commandment, which merely says “You must not ratzach” (You must not kill without a legal sanction) meets this requirement as it stands.

But I believe that too many types of killing have been legal, in both ancient Israelite and modern Western societies. An ethical ideal, in my opinion, would be more restricted. So I would like to propose this amended sixth commandment:

You must not kill except to prevent someone from being killed.

*

Next week I will address what the seventh and eighth commandments mean when they prohibit adultery and theft—then and now.

  1. Exodus 20:1 introduces what we call “the Ten Commandments” in English with “And God spoke all these devarim”. Devarim, דְּבָרִים = words, statements, things. In Deuteronomy, Moses calls the ten “commandments” the devar of God; devar is the singular of devarim.
  2. See my 2011 post Yitro: Not in My Face.
  3. See my 2014 post Yitro: The Power of the Name.
  4. E.g. the Book of Sirach, 3:1-16 (second century B.C.E.)
  5. In first-world countries today, the whole society pays various taxes to take care of its aged population through various taxes. Yet when old people can no longer manage certain tasks themselves, their adult children are still expected to meet some obligations.
  6. Maimonides (12th-century Moses ben Maimon or “Rambam”), Mishneh Torah, book 14, treatise 3, chapter 6:10, as quoted in Edward Hoffman, The Wisdom of Maimonides, Trumpeter, Boston, 2008, p. 114-115.
  7. Proverbs 13:24, 19:18, 22:15, 29:15.
  8. E.g. Exodus 13:8; Deuteronomy 6:6-7 and 11:19.
  9. One father, Jepthah/Yiptach, vows that if God gives him success in battle he will offer to God whatever comes out of his house first when he returns. He is dismayed when his daughter runs out to greet him. But this father is portrayed as foolish, not abusive. He immediately grants her request for a two-month postponement so she can “cry over her virginity”. The cautionary tale ends without clarifying whether Yiptach’s daughter was slaughtered at the altar or given to the local sanctuary. (Judges 11:30-35)
  10. See my 2015 post Yitro: The Heaviness of Honoring Parents. The Book of Sirach adds: Help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives; Even if he is lacking in understanding, show forbearance …”
  11. For more on the words ratzach and rotzeiach, see Marty Lockshin, “Does the Torah Differentiate between Murder and Killing?”, thetorah.com.

 

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.