Repost: Beshallach & the History of Split

February 5, 2020 at 1:54 pm | Posted in Beshallach | Leave a comment

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

The Israelites march out of Egypt beyad ramah, “with a high hand”, in this week’s Torah portion, Beshellach.  (To read my 2013 essay on that rare phrase in the Torah, you can click here: Beshallach: High-Handed.)

Beyad ramah, like the English idiom “high-handed”, means arrogantly doing something without consulting or collaborating with others.  In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelite slaves march out of Egypt fearlessly, even arrogantly, taking their Egyptian neighbors’ jewelry with them.

Three days later at the Reed Sea, they see the Egyptian army behind them and they feel powerless once more.  Forty years later in Canaan, they kill, plunder, and conquer the native population in a way that could be considered high-handed.  After that a few Jewish kings act arrogantly in the Torah, but the Israelites as a people rarely have the opportunity.  Both Israelite kingdoms are small and eventually swallowed up by their powerful neighbors.

For almost two millennia, from the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. to the founding of the nation-state of Israel in 1948, Jerusalem and its surrounding province were subservient to the government of one larger empire after another.  Jews who emigrated to other countries were only rarely considered peers of the majority group; discrimination ranged from being charged an extra tax to being murdered by mobs.  An individual Jew could be high-handed in his own sphere, but a group of Jews could not pull it off until the twentieth century.

When I started working on volunteer committees I learned that if I just did something without consulting everyone who might be involved, I was being high-handed.  I remembered how I had hated being treated unfairly and without respect when I was younger, and I learned how to collaborate better.

Can whole groups of people live together with mutual respect?

Sometimes, in some places, Jews have been one respected group living in harmony with other groups.  Over the last two millennia, this was often the case in Split, Croatia, the city where I am living this winter.

A Short Illustrated History of Jews in Split

(all photos by Melissa Carpenter)

In the first century B.C.E. the Romans acquired both Syria (which included Jerusalem) and Dalmatia (which included Split).  Julius Caesar set an example by granting Jews an exemption from Roman religious practices and permission to follow their own customs.  In Jerusalem and the district of Judea, Jews protested in 66 C.E. against Roman taxes and soldiers, and the Roman governor responded by plundering the treasury of the temple.  During the war that ensued, the Romans razed the temple.

Menorah from Salona, 4th century C.E.,  Split Archaeological Museum

Meanwhile in Dalmatia, Jews came with the Romans and settled along the coast.  Jewish artifacts from as early as the third century C.E. have been found in both Split and the Roman city of Solana across the bay.

Emperor Diocletian, who built his retirement palace in Split around 300 C.E., persecuted and executed local Christians, but left Jews free to observe their own religion.

5-branch menorah carved on wall stone in cellar 17E, Diocletian’s Palace, Split

The Roman Empire was collapsing when Slavs and Avars invaded Dalmatia in the 6th century and seized the city of Salona north of Split.  Both Jews and Christians fled across the bay and built stone houses inside the shell of Diocletian’s palace.  Archaeologists have yet to determine whether the menorahs carved into buildings stones in the cellars of the palace date from this time or an earlier century.

In the 1490’s Spain and Portugal expelled their Jews.  Some ports on the Adriatic Sea refused to accept these refugees, but Split made room for them, and these Sefardic Jews settled in the northwest quarter of Diocletian’s former palace.  Eventually that became the Jewish neighborhood of Split.

Jewish Cemetery on Marjan Hill

Split and the rest of the Dalmatian coast north of Dubrovnik were part of the Venetian Republic from 1420 to 1796.  In the 16th century one of the Jewish immigrants from Portugal, Daniel Rodriga, persuaded the Venetian government to turn Split into a major port by adding a lazaretto with warehouses and a quarantine building.  The doge in Venice agreed and put Rodriga in charge of building the lazaretto in 1572.  Rodriga got permission from local authorities to establish a Jewish cemetery on the slope of nearby Marjan Hill in 1573.

“Jewish Tower”

Split boomed thanks to Rodriga’s lazaretto, and in the 17th century the Venetians built a defensive wall with bastions to protect their valuable port from the Ottomans, who had captured the other side of the bay. When Ottomans attacked Split in 1657, the Venetian wall was still under construction.  The local Jews were trusted with the defense of Diocletian’s northwest tower.  The Ottomans were unable to penetrate the city center inside the palace, and townspeople started calling that tower Zidovska Kula, “Jewish Tower”.

At first the Venetian ruling class was remarkably tolerant of Jews compared to the Christians in other countries, and the Jews of Split were free to follow any trades they chose.  The only restriction imposed on them was that they could not own property; they had to rent, but they could buy long-term leases.  And although Venice itself established a ghetto in 1516, Jews in Split could lease houses wherever they wanted.  Most, but not all, chose to live in the old Jewish neighborhood.

This harmony between Christians and Jews lasted until the 18th century.  Then in 1738 the Venetian rulers of Split started requiring Jews to wear special hats.  In 1778 they ruled that Jews could no longer employ Christians, and created a Jewish ghetto by putting gates in seven of the stone archways over the narrow streets of Diocletian’s old palace.  The gates were placed so the ghetto included the buildings where most of the Jews already lived.  Jews had to be inside the gates from midnight to sunrise.

When Napoleon captured Split in 1806, all restrictions on Jews were eliminated.  But then the Dalmatian coast fell to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which did not grant Jews complete equality and freedom until 1867.

At the end of World War I,  Dalmatia became part of the new kingdom of Yugoslavia, which was conquered by the Axis powers during World War II.  In 1941 Germany installed a puppet government for inland Croatia called the Ustase, which shared the Nazi attitude toward Jews.  Meanwhile Italy annexed most of the Dalmatian coast, and the people of Split organized armed resistance against the Italian fascist occupiers.  The Jews of Split arranged for Jewish refugees from inland to escape through the port.

Although Italy refused to deport or murder Jews, in 1942 a mob including Italian soldiers attacked the Split synagogue and the people inside, and looted 60 Jewish homes. The following year Italy surrendered to the Allies, and Germany took over, assigning the Dalmatian coast to inland Croatia’s Ustase government.  Dedicated to exterminating Croatian Jews and Muslim Serbs, the Ustase created their own concentration camps.

Fort Gripe, Split (now a maritime museum)

In Split the Ustase found a new use for the barracks at Fort Gripe, which had been built by the Austrians on the north side of a Venetian fort, and occupied by Mussolini’s soldiers for two years.  In 1943 the barracks were converted into a prison for the remaining Jews of Split.  Two Split doctors, Andrija Poklepovic and Mihovil Silobrcic, managed to rescue some of those Jews by transferring them to a hospital and then claiming they were quarantined because of disease.

The rest of the Jews imprisoned in Split were deported to two Ustase camps, Sajmiste and Jasenovac, where they were all murdered.  About 150 of the 284 Jews living in Split in 1940 survived until liberation in 1945.

Croatia and its Dalmatian coastline were part of Tito’s Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from the end of the war to 1991, and due to the country’s official atheism, no rabbis were allowed.  The first president of the independent nation of Croatia, Franjo Tudman, was known for his anti-Semitic slurs, and appointed former members of the Ustase to government posts.

Under the new Croatian constitution following Tudman’s departure from office, Jews are one of twelve “autonomous national minorities”, and elect a special representative to the Croatian parliament.  The only anti-Semitic incidents I could uncover in the 21st century were the chanting of Ustase slogans, particularly at soccer matches, and the carving of a swastika into the turf of the soccer field in Split in 2015, which resulted in a 100,000 euro fine.

Today the Jewish population of Split is small; about 100 families belong to the Jewish community, which restored the old 16th-century synagogue in 1996 and meets there regularly.

So does Split count as a place where the Jews are respected and live in harmony with other groups?  Not always, but more often than most places over the last 2,000 years.

(My thanks to Ivica Profaca, to “Albert” at the synagogue, and to the world’s biggest library, the Internet.)

 

Bo: To Serve Somebody

January 29, 2020 at 9:51 am | Posted in Beshallach, Bo | Leave a comment

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.  (Bob Dylan)

The pharaoh of Egypt is an absolute ruler in the book of Exodus/Shemot.  His word is law, and everyone in the country must serve him almost as if he were a god.  There is no conflict between serving the pharaoh and serving Egyptian gods.  But the God of Israel is a “jealous” god, who requires exclusive service.1  One cannot serve both God and Pharaoh.

When Moses and Aaron first speak to the pharaoh, they only request a leave of absence for the Israelites so they can make a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer animal sacrifices to God, Y-H-V-H.2  The implication is that then they will return to the corvée labor the pharaoh has imposed on them.  But the ruler of Egypt refuses, sensing that there is a deeper issue.

And Pharaoh said: “Who is Y-H-V-H that I should listen to his voice [saying] to send out Israel?  I do not know Y-H-V-H, and neither will I send out Israel.”  (Exodus/Shemot 5:2)

He increases the workload of the Israelites instead.  A demonstration miracle turning a staff into a snake does not change his mind.3  Following God’s order, Moses now warns the pharaoh about the first “plague” or miraculous disaster, which will turn the Nile into blood, and tells him that God said:

“Send out my people so ya-avduni in the wilderness!”  (Exodus 6:16)4

yavduni (יַבְדֻנִי) = they will serve me.  (A form of the root verb avad, עָבַד = work for someone, serve as a slave, employee, or attendant.)

Plague of Frogs, Golden Hagaddah,  1320-1330 CE

The pharaoh does not change his mind.  After the second plague, frogs, the pharaoh says he will let the Israelites go, then hardens his heart and refuses as soon as God has ended the disaster.  After the fourth plague, mixed vermin, the pharaoh offers to let the Israelites sacrifice to their god inside the land of Egypt, but Moses insists on the three-day journey into the wilderness.5  Again, the pharaoh agrees at first, but then refuses as soon as God removes the vermin.

During the seventh plague, hail, the pharaoh actually admits to Moses and Aaron that he is morally inferior to their god, Y-H-W-H:

“I am guilty this time.  Y-H-W-H is the righteous one, and I and my people are the wicked ones.  Pray to Y-H-W-H and enough from being thunder and hail, and I will send you out, and you will not continue to stand [against me].”  (Exodus 9:28)

Moses agrees to do so, though he adds:

“But you and your avadim, I know that you still do not fear Y-H-V-H, God.”  (Exodus 9:30)

avadim (עַבָדִים) = servants, courtiers, slaves.  (Plural of the noun eved, עֶבֶד, from the root verb avad.)

Moses is right; once the hail and thunder have ceased, the pharaoh hardens his heart again and refuses to let the Israelites go.

This week’s Torah portion, Bo (“Come!”) begins when Moses announces the eighth plague, locusts.

And Moses came, and Aaron, to the pharaoh, and they said to him: “Thus says Y-H-V-H, the god of the Hebrews: How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?  Send out my people, so ya-avduni!”

In effect, Moses and Aaron admit that the contest is about who is superior, God or the pharaoh.

And the avadim of the pharaoh said to him: “How long will this be a stumbling block for us?  Send out the people and ya-avdu Y-H-V-H, their god!  Don’t you know yet that Egypt is destroyed?”  (Exodus 10:7)

ya-avdu (יַעַבדוּ) = they will serve.  (Another form of the verb avad.)

The pharaoh calls back Moses and Aaron and says:

“Go, ivdu Y-H-V-H, your god!  Who and who are going?”

ivdu (עִבְדוּ) = serve!  (An imperative of the verb avad.)

Plague of Darkness, Spanish, 1490 CE

Moses says all the people will go, including the children and even the flocks and herds.  The pharaoh replies that only the men may go.  So the plague proceeds.  After every green plant in Egypt has been consumed by the locust swarms, the pharaoh admits his guilt.  Yet his heart is unmoved when Moses describes the ninth plague, darkness, in which blindness strikes everyone in Egypt except the Israelites.

After three days of darkness the pharaoh offers to let even the children go, as long as the Israelites leave their livestock behind.  Moses refuses, saying they need their flocks and herds to serve God.

“Because we will take from them la-avod Y-H-V-H, our god, and we will not know with what na-avod Y-H-V-H until we arrive there.”  (Exodus 10:26)

la-avod (לַעֲבֹד) = to serve.

na-avod (נַעֲבֹד) = we will serve.

Moses knows that God intends to take the Israelites out of Egypt and give them a new land.  Is he making up an excuse so that when the people leave for good they can take their animals with them?  Does the pharaoh ask them to leave their livestock behind because that it just what he suspects?  The pharaoh threatens to kill Moses if he ever sees his face again.

Then Moses gets angry, and tells the pharaoh about the tenth and final plague, the death of the firstborn.5  When it comes, the pharaoh and all the Egyptians practically push the Israelites out of the country.  But the pharaoh, accustomed to hardening his heart, changes his mind after they have left.  He sends an army to capture them.

Plague of the Firstborn, Spanish, 1490 CE

In next week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, the Israelites believe they are trapped between the Egyptian army and the Reed Sea.

And they said to Moses: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you take us to die in the wilderness?  What is this you have done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?  Isn’t this the thing that we spoke to you [about] in Egypt, saying: Leave us, vena-avdah the Egyptians, because it is better for us avod the Egyptians than dying in the wilderness!”  (Exodus 14:11-12)

vena-avdah (וְנַעֲבְדָה) = and we will serve.

avod (עֲבֹד) = serving.

The Israelites would rather serve the reality they know, however grim, than serve the invisible source of the ten miraculous disasters.  God is an intangible idea that they are unable to trust.

*

I do not blame them.  Human beings are naturally suspicious of change and skeptical about new ideas.  We might experiment in small ways, but laying one’s life on the line is heroic and unusual—unless the boss orders it and everyone else is doing it, as in a war.  Given a choice between certain slavery and risking death, many of us would choose slavery and hope that things would improve in the future even if we take no action.

Yet when we read a story like the one in the book of Exodus, most of us root for the Israelites to stop serving the pharaoh and throw in their lot with God.  After all, serving God does not usually mean dying.  Only once in a while.

You’re gonna have to serve somebody.  What if the choice is between going along with an immoral status quo or rebelling against it?  What do you choose?

  1. This jealousy appears even in the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:2-6.
  2. See my post Beshallach & Shemot: Knowing the Name on the sacred four-letter name of God, which I transliterate here as Y-H-V-H.
  3. Exodus 7:8-13.
  4. See my post Va-eira & Shemot: Request for Wilderness.
  5. Exodus 8:21-28.
  6. Exodus chapter 11.

 

Beshallach & Shemot: Knowing the Name

January 16, 2019 at 11:17 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Shemot | 5 Comments

Six weeks after they leave Egypt, the Israelites grumble that they are starving, and they would rather have died in Egypt with full stomachs.1

Manna rains from heaven, Maciejowski Bible, circa 1250 CE

So in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“When he sent away”), God promises to provide bread and meat in the form of manna and quail every day.

Y-H-V-H spoke to Moses, saying: “I have heard the grumblings of the Israelites.  Speak to them, saying: In the evenings you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be sated with bread.  And you shall know that I am Y-H-V-H, your Elohim.”  (Exodus/Shemot 16:11-12)

Y-H-V-H (yud-heh-vav-heh) = the “tetragrammaton”, God’s most holy and personal name.  (In Jewish tradition this name may no longer be pronounced, and can only be spelled in Hebrew in sacred texts.  When prayers are said aloud, the tetragrammaton is read as “Adonai”)

Elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = God; gods in general.

Being God’s personal name, the tetragrammaton is not a reference to God’s status as a god, or even as a lord, master, or ruler.  The common English written translation of Y-H-V-H as “LORD” can be deceptive.  So can the Jewish practice of saying Adonai for Y-H-V-H in prayers, since Adonai literally means “my lords”.  When God says that people “shall know that I am Y-H-V-H, God wants them to know that the god they are thinking about is the one named Y-H-V-H.

But surely the Israelites know by now that the name of their god is Y-H-V-H.

The book of Genesis/Bereishit calls God by several different names, including Y-H-V-H.  (See my post Lekh-Lekha: New Names for God.)  But the personal name of God becomes more important in the book of Exodus/Shemot.  In the first Torah portion (also called Shemot), God chooses Moses as a prophet at the burning bush, and Moses asks for God’s proper name:

Hey, I come to the Israelites and I say to them: “The Elohim of your forefathers sent me to you”.  And they say to me: “What is his name?”  What shall I say to them?  (Exodus 3:13)

First the voice from the burning bush replies:

… Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “Ehyeh sent me to you.”  (Exodus 3:14)

Ehyeh (אֶהְיֶה) = I am, I will be, I become, I will become.  (A form of the verb hayah (הָיָה) = be, become, happen.)

In the next verse, God amends the answer.

… Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “Y-H-V-H, the Elohim of your forefathers, the Elohim of Abraham, the Elohim of Isaac, and the Elohim of Jacob, sent me to you.” …  (Exodus 3:15)

The name Y-H-V-H may also be a form of the verb hayah, which also appears as havah.2  Biblical Hebrew lexicons list no hifil (causative) form of either root.  But if there were a hifil form, one conjugation would use the letters Y-H-V-H and would mean “He/it brings into being.”3

Thus the first name God gives to Moses might mean “I become” and the second name might mean “He makes [things] become”.  God decides to stick with the second name, Y-H-V-H.

… This is my name forever; this is how I shall be remembered forever.  (Exodus 3:15)

Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh, by Marc Chagall, 1931

But the name is unfamiliar to the Pharaoh of Egypt when Moses and Aaron first ask him to grant the Hebrew slaves a leave of absence.

Pharaoh said: “Who is Y-H-V-H that I should listen to his voice to send away Israel?  I do not know Y-H-V-H.”  (Exodus 5:2)

After that, God wants someone to “know that I am Y-H-V-H nine times in the book of Exodus/Shemot.4  Five times God declares that the Pharaoh or the Egyptians will “know that I am Y-H-V-H once God has performed a miracle that damages Egypt.5

And four times in Exodus, God declares the Israelites will “know that I am Y-H-V-H”: after God has brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 6:7), mocked the Egyptians with miracles (Exodus 10:2), given them manna and meat in the wilderness (Exodus 16:12), and dwelled among the Israelites after they have made a sanctuary (Exodus 29:46).

After the book of Exodus, the Israelites and their fellow-travelers sometimes disobey or rebel against God, but at least they know the name of the god who has adopted them.  The statement that somebody “shall know that I am Y-H-V-H does not appear again until the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, when Moses reminds the Israelites that God took care of them in the wilderness, giving them water, manna, and quail, and ensuring they would not need to spend time on making clothes.

I led you across for 40 years across the wilderness; your clothes did not wear out upon you, and your sandals did not wear out upon your feet.  You ate no bread and drank no wine or liquor—so that you would know that I am Y-H-V-H, your Elohim.  (Deuteronomy 29:4-5)

*

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, circa 1320

In short, people shall know that God is Y-H-V-H when they witness or remember miracles.  The miracles might be as benign as the provision of manna in this week’s Torah portion, or as devastating as turning the whole Nile River into blood.

If Y-H-V-H means “He brings into being”, then a miracle demonstrates that even though the natural world was created long ago, the god of miracles can still bring major new events into being.

And if Y-H-V-H has a different meaning?  Some modern scholars have suggested that the four-letter name may derive from a more ancient god-name used by nomads living in an area south of the Dead Sea called “the land of Yehwa”.6  Three of the most ancient poems in the bible refer to Y-H-V-H as coming to Israel from an earlier home in the south: the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 33:2), the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:4, part of this week’s haftarah reading), and the Song of Habbakuk (Habbakuk 3:1-3).

If the name Y-H-V-H came from the name “Yehwa”, what did “Yehwa” mean?  It might be related to the later Arabic word hawaya = love, passion.7  And if Y-H-V-H means “He is passionate”, then a miracle demonstrates that this god is deeply emotional about human beings at the collective level, and does extraordinary things to arrange their fates.  In Exodus the God of passion makes the Egyptians suffer and helps the Israelites—except when they enrage him by worshiping the golden calf, and he kills 3,000 of them with a plague.  Y-H-V-H also gets furious over some Israelite actions in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, and kills many thousands more.  (See my posts Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1 and 1 Samuel: How to Stop a Plague, Part 4.)

Today most people do not believe in miracles, and those who do often apply the word “miracle” to events that do not defy the laws of nature and could just as well happen by coincidence.  They might be awed by the pseudo-miracles they notice, and they might consider God responsible.  But their concept of God is different from the God in Exodus: either more abstract, or milder and kinder.

What would it be like today to believe that God is Y-H-V-H, “He brings into being” or “He is passionate”?

  1. Exodus 16:2-3.
  2. This verb is most often conjugated from the root hayah (היה), but occasionally the bible uses a conjugation of the synonymous root havah (הוה)—for example, in the imperative in Genesis 27:29, Isaiah 16:4, and Job 37:6.
  3. The verb spelled with the letters Y-H-V-H would be the third person singular imperfect hifil.  A more elegant but slightly less literal translation is: “He who brings things into being”.  Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2004, p. 321-322, footnote on Exodus 3:14.
  4. In addition to these nine times, God also wants the Israelites to know that there is none like Y-H-V-H in Exodus 8:6, 9:14, and 18:11; to know that Y-H-V-H owns the earth in Exodus 9:29; to know that Y-H-V-H distinguishes between Egyptians and Israelites in Exodus 11:7; and to know that Y-H-V-H sanctifies them with Shabbat in Exodus 31:13.
  5. The miracles are bringing the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 7:5), turning the Nile and all the surface water in Egypt into blood (Exodus 7:17), releasing swarms of mixed vermin (Exodus 8:18), and eliminating Pharaoh’s army (Exodus 14:4 and 14:18).
  6. The “land of Yehwa” appears in a 14th-century BCE Egyptian list discovered in Amunhotep III’s Soleb Nubian temple.  Israel Knohl, “YHWH: The Original Arabic Meaning of the Name”, www.thetorah.com, 01/01/2019, .  Also see Richard Elliott Friedman, The Exodus, HarperCollins, 2017, pp. 122-123.
  7. Knohl, ibid.

Pesach: Miriam the Prophetess

March 27, 2018 at 9:09 am | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Beshallach, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment

Pesach (פֶּסַח, “skipping”) means Passover.  Seder (סֵדֶר, “order”) means the dinner table ritual following the order in the Haggadah.  Haggadah (הַגָּדָה, “the telling”—a term that came into use in the 19th century) means the book of rituals, prayers, questions, four cups of wine, and stories.  The longest story, told while the second cup of wine sits on the table, is about the exodus from Egypt, up to the point when the pursuing Egyptian army drowns in the Reed Sea, and the newly-freed slaves celebrate on the far shore.

In the book of Exodus, Moses led the people in celebrating by singing a lengthy psalm.1

Miriam’s Song, 1909

Then Miriam the neviyah, the sister of Aaron, took the drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her, with drums and with circle-dances.  And Miriam chanted for them:

Sing to God, for He is high above the high;

horse and its rider He hurled into the sea.  (Exodus/Shemot 15:20-21)

neviyah (נְבִיאָה) = prophetess (the feminine form of navi (נָבִיא) = prophet).

Miriam is the first woman in the Torah to be called a neviyah.  She leads the women in singing as well as in tapping hand drums and dancing.2

Miriam is a character in three dramatic scenes in the Torah.  She is the resourceful young woman who, when the pharaoh’s daughter adopts her infant brother Moses, arranges for their own mother to be his paid wet-nurse.3  She is the leader of thousands of women in the scene above.  And later in the trek across the wilderness, she leads her brother Aaron in a joint complaint regarding Moses’ wife.  (See my post Beha-alotkha: Unnatural Skin.)  The two siblings point out that they are prophets, too:

“Has God spoken only with Moses?  Hasn’t He also spoken with us?”  And God heard.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 12:2)

by Johann Christoph Weigel, 1695

God calls Miriam, Aaron, and Moses to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and speaks to all three from the pillar of cloud—in order to tell them that Moses gets the most direct divine communication.

And [God] said: “Please listen to my words!  When there is a navi of God among you, I make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream.  Not so my servant Moses … I speak with him mouth to mouth, and in seeing, not in riddles, and he looks at the likeness of God.  (Numbers 12:6-8)

God afflicts Miriam with a temporary skin disease to underscore the point.  Nevertheless, in that scene Miriam is indeed a neviyah who hears God’s voice directly!

Miriam is mentioned in passing five times after this, including God’s speech in the book of Micah reminding the Israelites that God sent them three leaders for the exodus from Egypt: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 4

*

What is a navi or neviyah?  The Torah offers several paradigms.

  • Intercessor

The word navi first appears in the book of Genesis, when God tells King Avimelekh in a dream: “And now, return the wife of [Abraham], since he is a navi, and he can pray for you and you will live.” (Genesis 20.7)

Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, and an unnamed prophet in the first book of Kings are also prophets who have God’s ear and intercede with God to save other people.5

  • Spokesperson

The Torah introduces a second paradigm of a navi after the enslaved Israelites give up on Moses’ idea that God will liberate them.  When God tells Moses to speak to Pharaoh next, he tries to get out it, arguing that he has “uncircumcised lips”, i.e. he cannot speak well.6  But God has an answer for everything.

Then God said to Moses: “See, I place you as a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother will be your navi.”  (Exodus 7:1)

Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh, March Chagall, 1931

In other words, Aaron will act like a navi for Moses, hearing Moses speak and then passing on Moses’ words to the Egyptian court.  Obviously Moses is God’s navi, hearing God speak and passing on God’s words, though the Torah does not bother to say so until the end of Deuteronomy:  And never again in Israel rose a navi like Moses, who knew God face to face.  (Deuteronomy 34:10)

Moses and God have the longest, most frequent, and most direct conversations in the entire Hebrew Bible.  After Moses gets over his initial reluctance to speak, he fluently delivers God’s instructions, warnings, and hundreds of rules.7

Other prophets transmit God’s predictions, or warnings, about the future of kings or kingdoms if they do not change their ways.  These include all the major prophets (Isaiah through Malachi).

  • Ecstatic

The third kind of navi in the Hebrew Bible is one who goes into an altered state of consciousness characterized by an awareness of the divine and obliviousness to the world, and who does not return with any coherent message from God.  The first occurrence of this state in the Torah is when God shares some of Moses’ spirit or ruach with 70 elders.

And the spirit was upon them, vayitnabe-u, but they did not continue.  (Numbers 11:25)

Saul Before Samuel and the Prophets, by Benjamin West, 1812

vayitnabe-u (וַיּתְנַבְּאוּ) = and they acted like prophets, and they prophesied to themselves, and they spoke in ecstasy.  (From the same נבא root as navi.)

In both books of Samuel and both books of Kings, bands of prophets wander around making music, dancing, and babbling.  The bible explains the proverb “Is Saul, too, among the prophets?” first with a scene in which King Saul falls in with a band of prophets on the road and speaks in ecstasy like them, then with a scene in which not only babbles, but also strips naked.8

*

Miraim is the first of only five women called prophets in the Hebrew Bible. After her, two major prophetesses are spokespersons for God (type 2 above): Deborah, who summons a general and tells him to go to war;9 and Huldah, who authenticates a scroll as the word of God and utters two prophetic predictions.10  Two other prophetesses are mentioned only glancingly.11

Miriam is the only neviyah whom the bible reports as engaging in what might be ecstatic behavior: playing a drum, dancing, and singing on the shore of the Reed Sea.  But Miriam leads circle dances in complicated patterns that require concentration and planning.  She leads a coherent chant.  Rather than directing ecstatic worship, she is probably organizing a celebration of God as the victor in a war against the Egyptian charioteers.  Women customarily greeted soldiers returned from a victory with drumming, dancing, and singing.12

Although Miriam hears God’s voice, the Torah does not report her serving as either an intercessor or a spokesperson for God.

by Simeon Solomon, 1860

The Talmud attempts to fill the void by claiming that Miriam did pronounce a prophecy: that her mother would have a son who would save the Israelites from Egypt.  When Moses was born, according to this story, the whole house filled with light, and Miriam’s father exclaimed that his daughter’s prophecy had been fulfilled.13  This is a pleasant tale with no basis in the Torah.

A modern folk explanation is that Miriam must have had foreknowledge of the victory at the Reed Sea, and told the women to bring their drums.  Otherwise they would not have bothered to pack them, since they left their homes in Egypt in such a hurry that the dough had no time to rise in their kneading-troughs.14

This argument for Miriam’s power as a neviyah fails in the context of the larger story in Exodus.  The Israelite women were already packing all the gold, silver, jewelry, and clothing they “borrowed” from the Egyptians; they could easily add their hand drums and any their other sentimental and ritual objects.

*

Miriam may be called a neviyah because of other deeds not recorded in the bible.  Or she may simply be an exceptional person who has a close relationship with God.

A traditional Passover seder includes pouring a cup of wine for Elijah the navi.  Many a modern seder adds a ritual cup of water for Miriam the neviah.  (The water alludes to a Talmudic story that says a well of water followed the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years thanks to the merit of Miriam.15)

I lift a cup for Miriam at Passover knowing that she may not be a neviyah in the sense of being an intercessor with God, a spokesperson for God, or a religious ecstatic.  I celebrate her lifelong wise leadership, and her ability to listen to God.  May we all learn to be a little more like Miriam the neviyah.

  1. Exodus 15:1-18. See my post Beshallach & Psalm 136: Miracle at Sea.
  2. Since the two lines of Miriam’s song are the same as the first two lines of the psalm ascribed to Moses, the women might sing them as a periodic refrain during the longer psalm. Most modern scholars consider either the entire psalm, or at least Miriam’s song, to be one of the oldest poems in the Torah (based on Frank M. Cross and David N. Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1973).
  3. Exodus 2:4-8.
  4. When she dies in Numbers 20:1; in two genealogies listing her with her brothers Aaron and Moses, Numbers 26:59 and 1 Chronicles 5:29; in a warning about skin disease in Deuteronomy 24:9, and in Micah 6:3-4.
  5. Moses for the Israelite people in Exodus 32:9-14, Exodus 33:12-17, Numbers 11:1-2, and Numbers 21:6-9, and for Miriam in Numbers 12:10-15; Samuel for the Israelites in 7:5-10; Elijah to bring a dead boy back to life in 1 Kings 17:20-24; Elisha for the same reason in 2 Kings 4:8-37; an unnamed prophet for King Jereboam in 1 Kings 13:1-6.
  6. Exodus 6:12, 6:30. See my post Va-eria & Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2.
  7. The Talmud (Makkot 23b and Yevamot 47b) claims there are 613 commandments in the Torah.  It is hard to decide which rules should count, but 10th-century C.E. rabbi Saadiah ben Yosef Gaon found a way to list 613 in his Sefer Hamitzvot, and Maimonides (12th-century C.E. rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, nicknamed Rambam) came up with 613 for his book by the same name.
  8. 1 Samuel 10:10-12 and 19:18-24.
  9. Judges 4:4-16.
  10. 2 Kings 22:14-20.
  11. The unnamed wife of the first Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3) and Noadeyah, a false neviyah listed in Nehemiah 6:14.
  12. Judges 11:34, 1 Samuel 18:6-7.
  13. Talmud Bavli Megillah 14a.
  14. Exodus 12:34.
  15. Talmud Bavli Taanit 9a.

Beshallach: See, Fear, Trust, Sing

January 24, 2018 at 7:34 pm | Posted in Beshallach | Leave a comment

by Bernardino Luini, 1481-1532

The Reed Sea splits.  The Israelites and their fellow travelers cross on dry land.  The chariots pursue them.  The sea returns and drowns the Egyptian army.

After the miracle at the Reed Sea in this week’s Torah portion, Beshellach (“When sending away”), the consciousness of the Israelites changes in four steps.  They perceive God’s power1, they feel fear and awe, and they give up their reservations (at least for a while) and trust in God and Moses. Then Moses begins to sing, and everyone joins in.

Vayareh, the Israelites, the great power that God used against the Egyptians; vayiyre-u, the people, of God; vaya-aminu in God and in Moses, God’s servant.  That was when yashir, Moses and the Israelites, this song in honor of God.  (Exodus 14:31, 15:1)

vayareh (וַיַּרְא) = and they saw, perceived, looked at, recognized, acknowledged, considered. (A form of the root verb ra-ah, רָאָה.)

vayiyre-u (וַיִּירְאוּ) = and they felt fear, fear and awe, awe and reverence.  (A form of the root verb yarei, יָרֵא.)

vaya-aminu (וַיַּאֲמִינוּ) = and they believed, trusted, relied upon.  (Probably from the same root as amen, אָמֵן.)

yashir (יָשִׁיר) = he sang.

Vayareh

Vayareh the great power that God used against the Egyptians …

The Israelites have already witnessed the ten miraculous plagues in Egypt.  Why do they only now see God’s power?

I think they have been reluctant even to acknowledge God’s plan for taking them out of Egypt because they know they are doomed if it does not work.  After all, the first time Moses asked Pharaoh to give them three days off to worship God, Pharaoh only increased their workload.2

The first two plagues proved that either Moses or his God had strong magic; but Pharaoh’s magicians could also turn water into blood and make frogs overrun houses.  The next six plagues, from lice to locusts, could be explained as large-scale natural disasters; only the quick succession of afflictions betrayed a supernatural power at work.  The last two plagues, three days of total darkness and the overnight death of the firstborn, were too unnatural to mean anything but the power of a god.  But was the God of Moses their savior, or just a god of destruction?

After the Israelites and their fellow-travelers march out of Egypt, they are accompanied by a miraculous pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.3  But it is still hard for them to believe that any god is working for them and against Pharaoh.  Everyone in Egypt knows that the pharaoh is not only a king, but the son of all the Egyptian gods.4  Their whole lives, he has had absolute power over them.  How can they think of Pharaoh any other way?

When they find out that his army has pursued them into the wilderness, they are full of fear (although they do not lose their dark humor).

And Pharaoh came close, and the Israelites raised their eyes, and hey!  The Egyptians were pulling out after them!  Vayiyre-u very much, and the Israelites cried out to God.  And they said to Moses: “Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?”  (Exodus 14:11)

They are trapped, camped between that army and the Reed Sea.  They cry to God for help, but they expect Pharaoh’s army to win.  It always has.

During the night God splits the sea and the Israelites cross on dry land, with God’s pillar of fire as a rearguard between them and the Egyptians.  The Pharaoh’s charioteers follow across the sea bed, but the chariot wheels get stuck in the mud.  At dawn God makes the water return, and the Israelites watch the Egyptian army drown.

The world changes.  I imagine the Israelites trembling with shock.  Now their hearts crack open and they finally see the great power of God.

Vayiyre-u

Vayiyre-u of God

After seeing that God really has drowned the Egyptian army and rescued them from slavery, the Israelites stop being afraid of Pharaoh, and start being afraid of God.

When the Egyptian army drowns, the Israelites see and believe that their world has changed.  Amazed, they can now believe that God is liberating them from Egypt altogether.  But they do not fall in love with this God who changes the status quo by sending plagues and killing people.  Instead, they feel fear and awe.

Va-aminu

Vaya-aminu in God and in Moses, God’s servant

Only after the Israelites fear God more than Pharaoh do they put their trust in God and Moses.  (At least until the next serious setback, when they run out of food in the wilderness of Sin.)5

They did not believe or trust or rely upon God when they marched out of Egypt; Pharaoh had kicked them out.  They followed Moses because they had to follow somebody.  When the pillar of cloud and fire appeared, they followed that.  Why not?  They had nothing to lose.

When they walk across the bed of the Reed Sea during the last shift of the night, they do not believe that they will get safely to the other side.  But the enemy is right behind them; why not go forward?

Only after God destroys the Egyptian army does the Israelite attitude changes from “I’m doomed anyway, I’ll take the risk” to “I am committed to this God.”  This trust and commitment comes from awe and amazement at being saved—but also from fear of such a powerful God.

Yashir

That was when yashir, Moses and the Israelites, this song in honor of God.  (Exodus 15:1)

Critical scholars agree that the psalm following this introduction is in an older Hebrew than the rest of the story.  The details of the story in Beshallach and the psalm they sing do not quite match.  (See my post Beshallach & Psalm 136: Miracle at Sea.)  But why should we expect Moses to invent a new song on the fly?  When people are overwhelmed with emotion and feel moved to sing, they sing the most appropriate song they know.

Everyone sings, and all the women drum and dance to celebrate God’s victory.6  This is the first singing in the Torah.

*

What if you felt oppressed and hopeless your whole life?  What if you could not believe anything could change?  What if suddenly your old life ended, and you had to cope with an entirely new situation?  Could you see and believe in the change?  Would you feel afraid?  Could you turn your fear into wonder (Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “radical amazement”)?  Could you make a commitment to the new reality?  And would the emotion welling over inside you come pouring out in song?

(An earlier version of this essay was published in January 2010.)

  1. In this post, I have consistently translated the word yad (יַָד) as “power”. In Biblical Hebrew, yad means “hand” literally, and “power” metaphorically.
  2. Exodus 5:1-21.
  3. Exodus 13:21-22.
  4. See Jan Assmann, “Pharaoh’s Divine Role in Maintaining Ma’at (Order)”, www.thetorah.com.
  5. Exodus 16:1-3.
  6. Exodus 15:20.

Yitro & Psalms 29, 82, & 97: Greater Than Other Gods

February 16, 2017 at 5:08 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Psalms/Tehilim, Yitro | 3 Comments
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Miriam's Song, 1909

Miriam’s Song, 1909

(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

The “Song of the Sea”, a psalm in last week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, includes the verse:

           Who is like You among the eilim, Y-h-w-h?

                        Who is like You, glorious in holiness,

                        Awesome, praiseworthy, doing wonders! (Exodus 15:11)

Y-h-w-h (י־ה־ו־ה) = God’s personal four-letter name.  (Many English translations substitute “LORD” for this name, even though it is spelled using letters from several forms of the Hebrew verb “to be”, rather than from the Hebrew noun for “lord”.)1

eilim (אֵלִם) = plural of eil (אֵל) = a god. (In some Canaanite religions, Eil was the founding god of the pantheon.  In the Torah, Eil is another name for Y-h-w-h, but eilim always means multiple other gods.)

The Song of the Sea assumes that other gods exist, and rejoices that the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h, is more powerful than any of them.  This verse is included in the daily Jewish liturgy, morning and evening.  When Jews sing “Mi chamokha” (“Who is like You?”) we do not always remember that we are comparing our God with other gods.

Yitro advises Moses in Figures de la Bible, 1728

Yitro Advises Moses, by James J.J. Tissot

Yitro and the First Commandment

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Midianite priest Yitro travels to Mount Sinai to meet his son-in-law Moses shortly after God and Moses have brought the Israelites out of Egypt.

And Yitro said: “Blessed be Y-h-w-h, Who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh…  Now I know that Y-h-w-h is greater than all the elohim…” (Exodus/Shemot 18:11)

elohim (אֱלֺהִים) = gods, a god, God.  (Grammatically elohim is the plural of eloha, a rarely used word for a god.  The Torah uses the word elohim to refer to both multiple gods, as with eilim, and to a single god.  Sometimes elohim refers to a single foreign god2, but more often the word refers to the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h.)

Does Yitro believe in the existence of multiple gods only because he is a Midianite?  No; many passages in the Bible that were originally written before the destruction of the first temple in 587 B.C.E. share this belief.  Even the first of the “Ten Commandments” in this week’s Torah portion does not require monotheism, but only a henotheistic religion in which Y-h-w-h is the best god and the only one the people are allowed to worship:

I am Y-h-w-h, your elohim, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of servitude.  You shall have no other elohim over and above My presence. (Exodus/Shemot 20:2-3)

(For other translations of this commandment, see my post Yitro: Not in My Face.)

Y-h-w-h does not say that there are no other gods, but only that the Israelites must not serve them.

A number of psalms3 are similarly henotheistic in the original Hebrew (though some translators strain to make them sound as monotheistic as later Biblical writings.)  These psalms treat other gods as real, but emphasize that they are weak and worthless compared with Y-h-w-h, the God of Israel.  Here are three examples:

Psalm 29

Psalm 29 is probably the oldest of the henotheistic psalms.  Its opening addresses the “children” or dependents of other gods:

           Assign to Y-h-w-h, children of eilim,

                        Assign to Y-h-w-h magnificence and might!

            Assign to Y-h-w-h the magnificence of [God’s] name,

                      Bow down to Y-h-w-h of holy beauty!

           The voice of Y-h-w-h is over the waters;

                      The eil of magnificence is thundering.  (Psalm 29:1-3)

“Children of eilim” might mean those dependent on other gods, i.e. their human worshipers.  Or, according to Ibn Ezra4 in his commentary on Exodus 15:11 (above), “children of eilim” refers to the stars, which were considered divine.

Baal preparing lightning, bronze

Baal preparing lightning

Psalm 29 goes on to describe the voice of Y-h-w-h as shattering cedars, making the mountains of Lebanon dance, kindling fire, shaking the wilderness, and startling deer into giving birth—all images related to thunderstorms and earthquakes.  Canaanite poems describe the god Baal as the weather god who speaks in thunder and makes lightning and earthquakes, but this Israelite poem says that God does all that.

In Canaanite literature the god Baal conquers the waters of chaos, builds a palace on a mountaintop, and becomes king over all the other gods except his father, Eil.

Psalm 29 gives God a palace and a throne:

          And in [God’s] palace everyone says: Magnificent!

                    Y-h-w-h sat enthroned for the flood,

                    And Y-h-w-h sits enthroned as king forever.  (Exodus 29:10)

The purpose of Psalm 29 may have been to replace Baal-worship among the Israelites with the worship of Y-h-w-h, and to persuade them that all the other eilim are less powerful than Y-h-w-h.  These inferior gods acclaim and bow down to Y-h-w-h in God’s palace.

Psalm 82

In Canaanite writings from Ugarit, the father god Eil periodically convenes an assembly of the gods, each of whom has its own sphere of power.  After receiving advice from the other gods, Eil makes the major decisions about the world.5

Psalm 82 takes the idea a divine assembly in a different direction.

The Council of Gods, sketch by Peter Paul Rubens

The Council of Gods, sketch by Peter Paul Rubens

Elohim takes a stand in the assembly of Eil,

           Among elohim he pronounces judgment. (Psalm 82:1)

In the first line, “Elohim” refers to Y-h-w-h; in the second line “elohim” refers to all the assembled gods.  “Eil” in the first line might be either Y-h-w-h or the Canaanite father god.

Y-h-w-h then accuses the other gods of unjust rulings that favor the wicked and fail to rescue the poor.  But the other gods don’t get it.

            They neither know nor understand,

                      They walk around in darkness;

                      Causing all the foundations of the earth to totter.  (Psalm 82:5)

Without true divine justice, the whole human world is threatened.  So Y-h-w-h gets rid of the ignorant lesser gods, commenting:

           I used to say to myself: You are elohim,

                      And children of the Most High, all of you.

           Nevertheless, you will die like humans,

                      And you will fall like one of the princes.  (Psalm 82:6-7)

Psalm 82 might be an explanation of why the wicked are not always punished: inferior gods have been acting as their judges.

On the other hand, this psalm might be a story exhorting the Israelites to abandon other gods because those gods are wicked, stupid, and no longer immortal.  Only Y-h-w-h is worth worshiping, because only Y-h-w-h administers true justice and lives forever.

Psalm 97

           The heavens told of [God’s] true justice;

                        All the peoples saw [God’s] magnificence.

            Every worshiper of a carved idol is shamed,

                        Those who boast of the elilim.

Sumerian annunaki (gods from the sky)

Sumerian annunaki (gods from the sky)

             All elohim bowed down to [God]! (Psalm 97:6-7)

elilim (אֱלִילִים) = worthless gods, nonentities, not-gods, insignificant gods.

“The heavens” in verse 6 probably refers not to the sky, but to the gods (including stars) who dwell in the heavens.  Since even the other gods bow down to Y-h-w-h and acknowledge God’s justice, anyone silly enough to worship these insignificant gods should be ashamed.

*

It took many centuries for the Israelites to stop worshiping the old gods. People would declare their allegiance to Y-h-w-h, and then slide back into worshiping some other god, a god that “everyone” knew was especially effective at dealing with their current problem.  The Bible repeatedly shows Moses and other prophets scolding the Israelites for straying after other gods, but the scoldings must have been ineffective, since the people kept on backsliding.

It was hard for the Israelites to stick to henotheism, in which their God was supreme and the others were not worth worshiping.  How could they manage the radical idea of monotheism, which the Torah first introduced in Deuteronomy 4:35?  How long did it take, after the second Isaiah preached monotheism during the Babylonian exile, before most Israelites believed there was only one god in the universe?

1  I usually translate the four-letter name as “God”, but in this post it is important to distinguish Y-h-w-h from elohim. I insert hyphens because according to Jewish tradition, God’s personal name must not be spelled correctly in writings that are neither biblical nor liturgical. For many Jews this applies even to spelling the name with Roman letters.

The Hebrew for “lord” or “master” is adon (אָדוֹן). When Jews read out loud in religious services, we often substitute adonai  (“my lords”) for the four-letter name of God.

2 The Bible uses “elohim” as a singular noun for the gods Baal, Baal-berit, Baal-zebub, Dagon, Kemosh, Milkom, and Nisrach; the goddesses Astarte and Ashtoret; and the golden calf.

3  Psalms 29, 82, 86, 89, 95, 96, 97, 135, and 136 all assume the existence of other gods.

4  Ibn Ezra was the 12th-century Spanish theologian Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra.

5  A divine assembly also appears in the book of Job and in Psalms 82 and 89.

Beshallach & Psalm 136: Miracle at Sea

February 8, 2017 at 11:17 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Isaiah 2, Psalms/Tehilim | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , ,
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

After the tenth plague, the pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go. Then he has another change of heart, and sends a brigade of charioteers after them. At nightfall the Egyptians catch up with the Israelites at the shore of the sea—the Red Sea in English, the Sea of Reeds (yam sufיַם סוּף) in the Hebrew Bible. Both parties camp for the night, with the Israelites trapped between the enemy and the water.

What happens next? The most familiar version of the story appears in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“When he sent out”).

The Passage of the Red Sea, by William Hole,

The Passage of the Red Sea,
by William B. Hole (1846-1917)

The Prose Account

Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and God made the sea move with a strong east wind all night. Vayasem the sea dry land, and the waters split. And the Israelites entered the middle of the sea on dry ground, and the waters were for them a wall on their right and on their left. (Exodus/Shemot 14:21-22)

vayasem (וַיָּשֶׂם) = and he/it placed, set, set up, put, put in.

Until I translated these verses, I had the impression that God simply splits the water down to the seabed, which becomes dry and firm enough for the Israelites to walk on. But the Torah says vayasem, as if there were no real bottom to the sea, so God has to install a strip of dry land.  (Most English translations say God “made” or “turned” the sea into dry ground—which has the same implication.)

In the cosmology of the ancient Israelites, beneath the land lies a subterranean ocean of water called the tehom (תְּהוֹם —singular) or tehomot (תְּהֺמֺת —plural). This deep water bubbles up through the earth in the form of springs. Under the ocean, it’s water all the way down, with no ocean floor.1

Pharoah Tutankhamen on a chariot, pursuing Nubians

Pharaoh Tutankhamen on a chariot, pursuing Nubians

And the Egyptians pursued, and all the horses of Pharoah, his chariots, and his horsemen entered after them into the middle of the sea. …And [God] made the wheels of their chariots swerve, and made them proceed laboriously. (Exodus 14:23, 25)

And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea settled before morning into its normal flow. And the Egyptians were fleeing from it, and God na-ar the Egyptians into the middle of the sea. And the waters turned back, and they covered the chariots and the horsemen of all the army of Pharaoh, the one coming after them into the sea; not one remained. (Exodus 14:27-28)

na-ar (נָעַר) = shook out, shook off. (The form of this verb used in verse 14:27 is vayena-eir (וַיְנָעֵר). This verb appears only 12 times in the entire Hebrew Bible.)

Safe on the other side of the sea, the Israelites are awed by God’s miracle, and moved to sing along with Moses and Miriam.

The Song of the Sea

That was when Moses sang, along with the children of Israel, this song to God… (Exodus/Shemot 15:1)

The whole “Song of the Sea” that follows is a psalm written in archaic Hebrew, possibly the oldest text in the Hebrew Bible.2 The scribe who redacted this week’s Torah portion inserted the well-known hymn without changing its archaic syntax and spellings.

The Song of the Sea does not mention God splitting the sea or the Israelites walking on dry land. Nevertheless, one early verse matches the prose account: 

from the Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain

from the Golden Haggadah,
c. 1320 Spain

         Chariots of Pharaoh and his army

                        [God] pitched into the sea,

            And the best of his captains

                        sank in the Sea of Reeds. (Exodus 15:4)

Twice the Song of the Sea says the Egyptians sank all the way down into the tehomot.

           Tehomot covered them;

           They went down into the depths like a stone. (Exodus 15:5)

           In the wind of Your nostrils the waters were dammed up.

                        They stood up like a dike [made of] waves,

                        Congealed tehomot in the heart of the sea. (Exodus 15:8)   

Ice canyon, Antarctica, 2011 photo by NASA

Ice canyon, Antarctica,
2011 photo by NASA

         You blew Your wind; the sea covered them.

                        They sank like lead in the mighty waters. (Exodus 15:10)

This description led 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno to explain that the water at the bottom of the sea became solid, and the Israelites walked across the congealed or frozen water.

Psalm 136

The Bible includes several briefer descriptions of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, all used as examples of God’s miracles on behalf of the Israelites. But the descriptions in Second Isaiah (51:9-10) and Psalms 77, 106, and 136 do not explain how the Israelites got across the water.

Psalm 136 does, however, refer to God as the one who split the sea, and like the prose account in Exodus it uses the rare word na-ar.

reed-sea-2           Who cut the Reed Sea into parts,

                        Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness.

            And let Israel pass through the middle,

                        Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness.

            Veni-eir Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds,

                        Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness. (Psalm 136:13-15)

veni-eir (וְנִעֵר) = And [God] shook off, shook out. (Another form of the verb na-ar נָעַר.)

We do not know which text first used the poetic image of God shaking off the Egyptians into the sea: Psalm 136, or one of the stories woven into the prose account in this week’s Torah portion. 3

reed-sea-3If we follow the prose account, the sea divides and a miraculous strip of earth appears over the tehomot. I can picture the earth getting soggy after the Israelites have crossed, so the chariot wheels of the Egyptians get stuck in mud. Then the bridge of earth buckles and shakes off the Egyptians, chariots, and horses into the water, before God’s second wind blows the walls of water down over them.

On the other hand, if we take the Song of the Sea as the oldest, most authoritative account, and follow Sforno’s explanation that the water congeals into a frozen roadway between dikes of ice, then I can imagine the chariot wheels skidding out of control on the slippery surface. This provides an alternate explanation of the detail in the prose account that God “made the wheels of their chariots swerve, and made them proceed laboriously”. (Exodus 14:25)  Then the ice-dikes break and the sea rushes over the Egyptians.

Either of these two pictures of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds is more vivid than most readers—and illustrators—of the Bible imagine.

Miriam's Song, 1909

Miriam’s Song, 1909

Unless you are an eye witness, it takes vivid imagery to feel the impact of a miracle. The various Biblical accounts of crossing the Sea of Reeds are designed to make the descendants of the Israelites experience the feeling of a last-minute rescue, and to give them confidence that God has always been on their side. So for centuries the Israelites rejoiced over the miracle at the sea.

Yet after the second temple in Jerusalem fell in 70 C.E., some Jews questioned this attitude. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan says God does not “rejoice in the downfall of the wicked”. He gives the crossing of the Sea of Reeds as an example, saying: “The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said: The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?” (Babylonian Talmud, Soncino translation, Megilah 10b)

I, too, feel sympathy for the Egyptian soldiers. They have no more choice about following the Pharaoh’s orders than the Israelite slaves did before Pharaoh let them go. And their orders were to round up the Israelites (shooting arrows if necessary) and bring them back for re-enslavement.

Suddenly the Egyptians find themselves in the middle of a situation they never imagined was possible.  They are chasing the Israelites across a dirt bridge over the sea, or maybe down an ice canyon. They see the ex-slaves reach the far side, but their chariot wheels are either mired in mud or skidding on ice. Then the Egyptians are shaken off the path like crumbs.  And the sea crashes down on them.

Today people still experience events they never imagined were possible. Sometimes what seems like a good miracle to one group of people is worse than a nightmare to another group.

May we all learn the humanity to refrain from singing out with joy when our opponents are dying. And may God save us all when we find ourselves trapped in a situation we never imagined was possible.

___

1 This detail supports Richard Elliott Friedman’s argument in his Commentary on the Torah (HarperCollins 2001) that although the body of water in question is called the Sea of Reeds, it is no shallow lake, but the Gulf of Suez–the western arm of the Red Sea.

2 The exodus from Egypt is set during Egypt’s 19th Dynasty, which ruled during the 13th century B.C.E. The Song of the Sea mentions the Plashet (Philistines), who did not emigrate to Canaan until about 1175 B.C.E. Thus Moses could not have known or composed the Song of the Sea, but the writer of the Song of Sea might have known the story of the exodus. According to modern scholars, the prose version of the story in Exodus is a compilation of three different stories written in Biblical Hebrew sometime after 700 B.C.E. The redactor also inserted the ancient Song of the Sea.

3 Psalm 136 cannot be reliably dated. The language is consistent with the Hebrew in the book of Exodus (excluding the archaic Song of the Sea). But it could have been written much earlier, and rewritten centuries later with updated language. Or it could even have been written during the time of the second temple, 530 B.C.E.-70 C.E.

Haftarat Beshallach—Judges: Overlooking the Underdog

January 17, 2016 at 11:10 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Judges | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Beshallach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), and the haftarah is Judges 4:4-5:31.

The underdog triumphs in many biblical stories. Jacob, the beardless weakling, outsmarts his strong, hairy brother Esau. Joseph rules over the older brothers who once enslaved him. The boy David kills the giant Goliath.

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“when he sent out”), the Israelite slaves leave Egypt as free people while Pharaoh’s army drowns behind them. In the haftarah from the book of Judges, two Israelite women triumph over the Canaanite general Sisera and his army.

How do you defeat an enemy stronger than you?  In the Hebrew Bible, two effective ways are by receiving and using inside information from God, like Moses; and by taking action on your own initiative with intelligence, courage, and guile, like Jacob and Joseph.

The haftarah from Judges tells the story of two women, the ultimate underdogs in the patriarchal society of the ancient Israelites, triumphing over Israel’s enemies through both methods. Devorah the prophet gets her people to act on God’s promise to help them defeat the army of their Canaanite overlord, and Jael/Yael the Kenite acts on her own initiative and kills the enemy’s general.

War chariots, ivory plaque from Megiddo

War chariots, ivory plaque from Megiddo

When this week’s haftarah begins, the Israelites are scattered tribes who have been ruled by the chief king of Canaan, Yavin, for twenty years. They are oppressed by King Yavin’s general, Sisera, who commands a force that includes 900 chariots, the most fearsome war technology of the time.

Still, instead of relying on the Canaanite king’s dubious justice, the Israelites go to their own judges, including one outstanding judge.

Devorah was a woman, a prophet, a woman of lapidot; she was a shoftah of Israel at that time. (Judges/Shoftim 4:4)

Devorah (דְבוֹרָה) = “Deborah” in English; honey bee. (From the same root as doveir  = speaker, and divrah  = legal case.)

lapidot (לַפִּידוֹת) = a feminine plural form of the masculine noun lapid = torchlight, torch, flash of light. (Some translations consider lapidot a place-name or the name of Devorah’s husband.)

shoftah (שֹׁפְטָה) = the feminine form of shofet = judge; a man who decides legal cases and resolves disputes.

The bible emphasizes that Devorah is a woman; all the other judges in the bible were men. Moreover, she is a prophet, a woman of flashes of light. Even her name is significant: she is a speaker, both for justice and for God.

Date palm tree

Date palm tree

And she was the one who sat under the Date-Palm of Devorah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hills of Efrayim. And the children of Israel went up to her for the law. (Judges 4:5)

Unlike the judges of villages, Devorah serves as the authority for a wider area, and holds her own law court in a sacred place. In ancient Israel, many holy places were indicated by trees or groves with names, such as the Oak of Weeping (Genesis 35:8), the Grove of Teaching (Genesis 12:6), or the Grove of Mamre (Genesis 13:18). Devorah’s own presence is what makes this particular palm tree the marker of a holy site.

And she sent and summoned Barak, son of Avinoam, from Kedesh in Naftali. And she said to him: Did not God, the god of Israel, command: “Go!—and draw up your position on Mount Tabor, and you shall take with you ten thousand men from Naftali and Zevulun. Then I will draw up to you, to the wadi of Kishon, the commander of the army of Yavin, Sisera, and his charioteers, and his infantry; and I will give them into your hand.” (Judges 4:6-7)

If Barak musters troops from the two Israelite tribes of Naftali and Zevulun and marches them up Mount Tabor, God will arrange for the defeat of the enemy’s army. But Barak is afraid.

And Barak said to her: If you go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go. (Judges 4:8)

Devorah agrees to go with him, but prophesies that Barak will get no glory from the battle, because

into the hand  of a woman God will deliver Sisera. (Judges 4:9)

Deborah, by Gustave Dore

Deborah, by Gustave Dore

Devorah walks with Barak both to Kedesh to inspire the men to volunteer for the ad hoc army, and to the top of Mount Tabor to announce when the men should charge down. God panics Sisera’s army (through a flash flood in the wadi, according to the accompanying poem) and the Israelite foot soldiers kill every enemy soldier except General Sisera.

Devorah is supremely successful as the instigator of the battle because she is God’s prophet. Receiving divine communication and cooperating with God both inspires people to trust her and results in a successful campaign—even though she is a woman, who would normally be powerless.

Sisera gets down from his chariot in the middle of the battle and flees on foot. Where can he find refuge? He heads for the nearby camp of Chever the Kenite, a vassal of King Yavin.

Sisera fled on foot to the tent of Yael, wife of Chever the Kenite … (Judges 4:17)

Study of Jael, by Carlo Maratta

Study of Jael, by Carlo Maratta

Yael (יָעֵל) = a variant of ya-al (יָעַל) = he will ascend, he will climb, he will mount for mating.

Normally, a fugitive would go to the tent of the man who heads the household or encampment, the only person who can take the role of host and decide to shelter the unexpected guest.  In that culture, a woman’s tent was her private domain that no man outside her immediate family would dare to enter. Why does Sisera enter Yael’s tent instead of heading straight for her husband’s tent?

One line of commentary claims that Sisera’s motivation was to rape Yael, and then claim Chever’s household as his own. By taking ownership of a chieftain’s women, a man signaled that he was the new chieftain. Later in the Bible, King David’s son Absalom shows Israel that he is the new king by having sexual intercourse with the concubines King David leaves behind in Jerusalem. Sisera might plausibly decide he would rather be the head of a camp of Kenites than a disgraced ex-general.

But I think Sisera is on his way to Chever’s tent when Yael appears and suggests a different plan.

And Yael went out to meet Sisera, and she said to him: Surah, my lord, surah eilai, do not fear. Vayasar to her, to her tent, and she concealed him with the curtain. (Judges 4:18)

surah (סוּרָה) = turn aside, go away, desert, avoid.

eilai (אֵלַי) = to me.

vayasar (וַיָּסַר) = and he turned aside, went away, deserted, avoided.

Normally a woman would warn an intruder who slipped past the sentries around her husband’s camp to get away from her. But since Yael says surah eilai, she must be saying either “turn aside to me” or “desert to me” (knowing that Sisera has already deserted his own army).

Yael is a quick thinker with a cool head. She may view Sisera as an enemy; the Kenites are usually allies with the Israelites in the Bible, and Chever might have sworn vassalage to King Yavin because he had no alternative. But now Yavin’s army no longer exists, and the time is ripe for change.  Sizing up the situation, Yael steps out of her tent and tempts Sisera with an ambiguous sentence.

And he falls for it. Suddenly he imagines he can take Chever’s wife, and then take over his whole household. He steps inside her tent, and she lets the curtain fall behind him. He asks for water, and she brings him a yogurt drink and puts covers over him. He orders her to stand at the entrance of the tent and tell anyone who comes that there is no one inside. Then, secure in his belief that she is his and they will eventually seal the deal with sex, Sisera falls asleep.

Jael and Sisera, by Jan de Bray

Jael and Sisera, by Jan de Bray

Then Yael, wife of Chever, took a tent peg and took the hammer in her hand, and she came to him quietly, and she drove the peg into his temple, and she hammered it into the ground. And he was fast asleep, exhausted, and he died. (Judges 4:21)

Deborah’s prophesy is fulfilled; Sisera dies by the hand of a woman.

Yael acts on her own initiative, taking advantage of the situation and employing her sharp wits and her ability to deceive without actually lying. The text does not say whether Sisera carries a weapon on his body, but he is a career soldier, and under ordinary circumstances could overpower (and rape) any woman in his path.  Yael courageously uses guile, the weapon of the underdog, to overpower and “rape” him with her tent peg.

*

Never assume you can take advantage of an underdog who has always held a rank beneath your own. People who have been slaves for hundreds of years might turn out to have God on their side, and defeat you, as in this week’s Torah portion from Exodus. And women who have been ordered around by men for hundreds of years might turn out to be prophets and judges, like Devorah, or extraordinary executioners, like Yael.

Never overlook the underdog.

 

Beshallach: Singing

January 28, 2015 at 6:35 pm | Posted in Beshallach | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Singing appears for the first time in the Torah as something missing.  In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob works as an indentured servant for his uncle and father-in-law, Lavan, for twenty years.  Then while Lavan is out of town, Jacob flees with his own wives, children, servants, herds, and flocks.  Lavan catches up with Jacob on the road and says:

Why did you hide and run away? And you robbed me and you did not tell me—and I would have sent you off with gladness, and with shirim, with tambourine, and with lyre. (Genesis 31:27)

shirim (שִׁרִים) = songs.  (Singular: shirah, שִׁירָה)

Although I think Lavan is lying, this first reference to song does tell us that musical celebrations of departure were customary in ancient Aram.

The first singing that does happen in the Torah is in this week’s portion, Beshallach (“When he sent out”).  God splits the Reed Sea, the Israelites cross over on the damp sea-bottom, the Egyptian army pursues them, and the wheels of their chariots get stuck in the mud.  As soon as all the Israelites and their fellow-travelers are safe on the other side, God makes the waters return and drown all the Egyptians.  The Israelites see the dead bodies of the soldiers on the shore, and start to sing.

"Moses Crossing the Red Sea", Dura Europas Synagogue, 245 C.E.

“Moses Crossing the Red Sea”, Dura Europas Synagogue, 245 C.E.

This is when Moses yashir, along with the children of Israel, this shirah to Y-H-V-H; and they said, saying:

Ashirah to Y-H-V-H, for He rises up in triumph;

horse and its rider He threw into the sea!  (Exodus/Shemot 15:1)

yashir (יָשִׁיר) = he sings.

ashirah (אָשִׁירָה) = I sing, I will sing, let me sing.

(I am using “He” to translate the pronoun prefixes and suffixes in the “Song of the Sea’, since later lines in this hymn picture God as a “man of war”, i.e., warrior.  For the name of God indicated by Y-H-V-H, see my blog post Va-eira: The Right Name.)

The hymn continues:

My strength and zimrat Yah, it is my salvation;

 this is my god, and I extol Him;

the god of my father, and I exalt Him. (Exodus 15:2)

God is man of war; Y-H-V-H is His name. (Exodus 15:3)

zimrat (זִמְרָת) = the song of, the melody of, the praising-song of.

Yah (יָהּ) = a name for God, possibly an abbreviation of Y-H-V-H.

Since God has single-handedly defeated and killed the enemy, the Israelites sing a hymn celebrating God as the ultimate warrior.

(The Song of the Sea continues for 16 more verses, using a more archaic Hebrew than the text surrounding it. Modern scholars agree that whoever compiled and wrote down the first version of the book of Exodus, some time after 900 B.C.E., inserted a much older hymn here and attributed it to Moses.)

At the end of the “Song of the Sea”, the women sing and dance. Miriams-Song 1909

And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her, with tambourines and with circle-dances. And Miriam ta-an to them:

            Shiru to Y-H-V-H, for He rises up in triumph;

horse and its rider He threw into the sea!  (Exodus 15:20-21)

ta-an (תַּעַן) = she sang call-and-response; she answered, she responded (from the root anah, ענה).

Shiru (שִׁירוּ) = Sing!

Miriam appears to be leading singing, dancing, and percussion at the same time!

The next time the Torah reports singing is in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, when it inserts a short archaic song in honor of a well of water into a list of places the Israelites traveled through.

This is when Israel yashir this shirah:

Rise up, well! Enu for it!

The well that captains dug,

That donors of the people excavated,

With a scepter, with their walking stick. (Numbers 21:17-18)

Enu (עֱנוּ) = let us sing call-and-response (also from the root anah, ענה).

The only other reference to singing in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible precedes a long hymn inserted into the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim. To introduce this song, God tells Moses:

And now, write for yourselves this shirah, and teach it to the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, so that this shirah will be a witness for me against the children of Israel. (Deuteronomy 31:19)

Although the hymn inserted at this point does praise God, it also criticizes the people for backsliding, and warns them about God’s vengeance.  The overall message is that the Israelites do not appreciate everything God has done for them, and they had better behave, or else. The purpose of the song, according to the Torah, is to make this message easy to remember.

King David is the first professional musician named in the Bible. In the second book of Samuel, he composes and sings not only another hymn praising God, but also the first two dirges in the Bible, one for Saul and Jonathan, and one for Avner. Both dirges are introduced by a new verb, va-yekonein (וַיְקֹנֵן) = and he sung a lamentation.

Besides songs of celebration and lamentation, the Bible contains many references to hymns addressed to God; and all 150 psalms are the lyrics of hymns.  There are psalms of praise and of thanksgiving.  The majority of the psalms plead with God: to reward those who worship God and do good, and punish the wicked; to rescue God’s followers from poverty or enemies; to grant us long life and to kill our enemies; to teach us how to do good; and—a plea that moves me today—to stop being silent and remote, to answer and prove that our God exists.

 

"The Concert Singer", by Thomas Eakins, 1892

“The Concert Singer”, by Thomas Eakins, 1892

I remember that when I was I small child, I sang spontaneously whenever and happiness came over me, making up melodies and nonsense words as I went along.  When I was in elementary school, I learned a variety of songs, and sang both to entertain myself, and to have fun with other people.  I was singing when it was the custom, and when I wanted to celebrate—like the singers in the first part of the Hebrew Bible.

I admit that as a young teenager, I sang “Ding, dong, the witch is dead” when I was consumed with frustration over someone who seemed to be my enemy.  I did not know that many psalms also begged God to kill the singer’s enemies.

After that, I learned that when I was feeling down, singing sad songs lifted my spirits.  I had discovered the equivalent of the Biblical dirge.  When I needed to vent my romantic frustrations and thwarted physical desires, singing certain popular songs gave my feelings an outlet.

When I was over 30, and searching for God, none of the popular songs I once loved met my needs.  Then I stumbled upon a Jewish Renewal congregation, P’nai Or of Portland, that supplied me with all the songs I wanted.  Finally, I could sing to express the yearning of my soul for both a good direction in life and a connection with the divine.  And many of those songs and chants come from the book of psalms.

Recently, I was singing a chant by Rabbi Shefa Gold using two lines that appear in the Song of the Sea in today’s Torah portion, and are so evocative the Torah repeats them in Isaiah and Psalms:

Ozi ve-zimrat Yah, vayehi li liyshuah (עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה). Or in English:

My strength and the praising-song of Yah, it is my salvation. (Exodus 15:2, Isaiah 12:3, Psalm 118:14)

At this stage of my life, what saves my spirit is my own strength (which is a divine gift), combined with the ability to sing my own songs (both literally and figuratively) in praise of Yah, of the divine as I know it.

May we all be blessed with such music in our lives.

 

Beha-alotkha & Beshallach: Stomach versus Soul

June 5, 2014 at 11:49 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Beshallach | 2 Comments
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Food cannot satisfy us, when we doubt the meaning of our lives. Yet many people divert anxiety about their futures into craving for food—both today and in the Torah.

When the Israelites and their fellow-travelers leave Egypt, they take all their herds and flocks with them. They are never forbidden to use their livestock for milk or meat, so they are in no danger of starving. Yet a month and a half after they leave Egypt, they complain about food.

The entire assembly of the Children of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness.  The Children of Israel said to them: If only we had died by God’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat beside a pot of meat, when we ate bread until [we were] sated; for you brought us out to this wilderness to put to death this whole congregation by famine! (Exodus/Shemot 16:2-3, in the Torah portion Beshallach)

How could dying in Egypt with a full stomach be better than journeying with God’s protection? These are the people who choose to follow Moses and his god out of Egypt, who sing and dance after God rescues them from the Egyptian army at the Reed Sea. How could they feel so discouraged in the second month of their trek across the wilderness?

God diagnoses the problem, and solves it—temporarily—with manna.

Then God said to Moses: Here I am, raining down food from the heavens… (Exodus 16:4)

Manna satisfies the people for a while—not because they need additional food, I think, but because it reminds them daily that God loves them like a parent. They are already following the divine pillar of cloud and fire across the wilderness. Now they know that they are not wandering aimlessly; serving God gives them a purpose in life.

The Israelites forget their purpose and fail to serve God whenever they are idle or afraid during their sojourn at Mount Sinai. But they are in good spirits when they march away from the mountain in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you raise up”) in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. They head toward their promised land supplied not only with the manna God provides, and the livestock they brought up from Egypt, but also with a splendid portable sanctuary and its numinous objects, as well as a set of God-given rules and principles to live by.

Alas, after only three days of marching they lapse into complaining again. The Torah does not tell us the content of their complaint at Taverah. It merely says God hears and reacts with anger, consuming the edge of the camp with fire. Then the people switch from complaining to sobbing.

And the riff-raff that was in its midst felt strong cravings, and they sobbed, and the Children of Israel also [sobbed], and they said: Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, and the cucumbers and watermelons and leeks and onions and garlic. And now our nefesh is dried up; there is nothing except the manna for our eyes. (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4-6)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite, throat, animating soul, life

Why, when they are on the verge of getting their own land, do the people yearn for the food in Egypt again? Psalm 78 answers:

They tested God in their hearts by asking for food for their nefesh. (Psalm 78:18)

To me, this shows that the people are not complaining about dry throats, but about dry lives. They have not lost their appetite for food, but they have lost their appetite for being God’s people.

For the survivors of the Golden calf incident, life at Mount Sinai was both pleasant and meaningful. They had the pleasure of serving God by making donations, but their donations were the treasures they took from their Egyptian neighbors, rather than anything personal. They also had the pleasure of serving God by skilled creative work, as they made the sanctuary and its holy objects.

Now, as they march north, the people are approaching the border of Canaan. They know their next service to God will be taking over a land inhabited by other people. As we learn in next week’s Torah portion, Shelach, very few Israelites believe that God will single-handedly drive out the inhabitants and leave them empty cities and farms. Instead they are anticipating war, which means many hardships and deaths.

Now the thought of serving God fills them with anxiety instead of purpose. So, as the psalm says, they sob for Egyptian food to (unconsciously) test whether God will nourish their souls.

God correctly interprets the sobbing as indicating a lack of faith, rather than a desire for tasty food. But instead of reassuring the people that their lives will be filled with meaning, God takes a punitive approach, and tells Moses:

To the people you shall say: Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow; then you will eat meat … Not for one day will you eat, nor for a couple of days, nor for five days, nor for ten days, nor for twenty days. Until a month of days, until it comes out of your nostrils and you are nauseated because of it! For you rejected God, who is in your midst … saying: Why did we leave Egypt for this? (Numbers 11:18-20)

I confess I am like the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion. My life is full of meaning and purpose right now, while my material needs are met and I spend my days drawing insights and inspirations from the Torah, and sharing my life with people I love. Yet there are empty times in my day, when I need to rest or alleviate chronic pain. At those times, anxiety about the future haunts me. What if my sense of purpose is not strong enough to carry my through old age, when I must face hardships and the deaths of people I love?

My first impulse, as these times, is to comfort myself by eating something tasty. Yet I know that if I eat too much, I will make myself sick in the long run. I would rather keep faith that God is with me, and my life will continue to be worthwhile no matter what happens.  But how can I do that?

The only solution I know is to refocus and cultivate gratitude for the good life I have now. Do you have another solution to the anxiety of the Israelite? Please comment!

 

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