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.  

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

Eikev: Rewriting Justice

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

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

Golden calf from temple of Baalat, Byblos

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

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

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

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

Earlier in his rambling narrative Moses says:

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

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

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

Adoration of the Golden Calf, by Nicolas Poussin,1634

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

 

Pesach & Vayikra: Holy Matzah

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

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

Do not eat regular bread during the week of Passover.

Why not?

First Day of Pesach

Painting doorposts with blood, History Bible, Paris, 1390

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Day of Pesach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pesach and Leviticus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repost: Ki Tissa

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Their idols are silver and gold,

     Work of human hands.

     They have a mouth but they cannot speak,

     They have eyes but they cannot see,

     They have ears but they cannot hear,

     They have a nose but they cannot smell,

     They have hands but they cannot feel,

     They have feet but they cannot walk.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ki Tissa: Stiff-Necked People

February 20, 2019 at 7:22 pm | Posted in Ki Tisa | 1 Comment

Pharaoh has a hard heart in the book of Exodus; the Israelites have hard necks.

Pharaoh Merneptah subjugates Semites

Pharaoh stubbornly refuses to let the Israelites go, ignoring both a series of miraculous disasters and the advice of his own counselors.  Every time he is tempted to change his heart (i.e. mind), it hardens again.

The Israelites escape from Egypt and slavery, but whenever something makes them anxious they turn their backs on the God who rescued them, and revert to the mentality of slaves in Egypt.  (For some examples, see my posts Ki Tissa: Making an Idol Out of Fear, Beha-alotkha & Beshallach: Stomach vs. Soul, and Shelach-Lekha: Mutual Distrust.)

During the revelation at Mount Sinai God makes it clear that idols will not be tolerated.  The “Ten Commandments” include:

Do not make yourself a carved idol or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or of what is in the land below, or of what is in the water beneath the land.  Do not bow down to them and do not serve them.  (Exodus/Shemot 20:4-5)

And God’s next set of laws repeats:

With me, you shall not make gods of silver or gods of gold; you shall not make them!  (Exodus 20:20)

Before Moses leaves to spend 40 days at the top of Mount Sinai, the Israelites swear twice that they will obey everything God said.1

But they panic in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“When you bring up”), when 40 days have passed since Moses walked into the cloud and fire on the mountaintop.  As Moses is hiking down with the two stone tablets, God tells him what the Israelites are doing:

Apis, Egyptian bull god

“They turned aside quickly from the path that I commanded them; they made for themselves a calf of cast metal, and they bowed down to it, and they slaughtered sacrifices for it, and they said: ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’”  And God said to Moses: “I see this people, and hey!  Am-keshei-oref!”.  (Exodus 32:8-9)

am-keshei-oref = a hard-necked people, a stiff-necked people.

am (עַם) = a people: the humans of a particular ethnic group, community, or location.

keshei (קְשֵׁה) = construct form of kasheh (קָשֶׁה) = hard, stiff, heavy, severe, difficult.  (From the root verb kashah (קָשָׁה) = be hard, harden.  Pharaoh’s heart is hardened (הִקְשָׁה) in Exodus 7:3 and 13:15.)

oref (עֺרֶף) = back of the neck, nape, neck.

In the bible turning one’s oref, the back of one’s neck, on somebody can mean fleeing, like the English idiom “turning tail”.2  But it can also mean rejection, like the English idiom “turning one’s back on”.3  According to the commentary of Rashi and Ibn Ezra on Exodus 32:9, stiff-necked people turn their backs on God and refuse to turn around.4  (See my post Eikev: Covered Heart, Stiff Neck.)

After telling Moses about the golden calf, God says:

“And now, leave me alone and my rage will increase against them and I will consume them.  Then I will make you into a great nation.”  (Exodus 32:10)

Moses Breaking the Tablets, by Rembrandt

But Moses does not leave God alone.  He persuades God to refrain from exterminating the Israelites.  Then he goes down and sees the calf worship with his own eyes.  Moses shatters the two stone tablets God gave him, and orders a massacre of the worst offenders.  God sends a plague to kill the rest of the guilty.  After God and Moses have both simmered down, God declares that the surviving Israelites should still go to Canaan.

“And I will send an angel in front of you, and I will drive out the Canaanites … But I will not go up in your midst, lest I consume you on the way; because you are an am-keshei-oref.”  (Exodus 33:2-3)

The people go into mourning.  They want God right there travelling along with them; the idea of an impersonal angel does not satisfy their need for security.  But the God-character predicts that accompanying these stiff-necked people would be so infuriating that God would erupt again in murderous rage.

And God said to Moses: “Say to the Israelites: ‘You are an am-keshei-oref!  [If] for one instant I went up in your midst, I would put an end to you.  So now, strip off the ornaments you are wearing, and I will figure out what I will do to you.’”  (Exodus 33:5)

A stiff-necked deity?

At this point God has rejected the Israelites and called them an am-keshei-oref  three times.  Yet the God-character’s metaphorical neck does not remain hard.  God backs off from the original threat to exterminate all the Israelites and tells Moses only the guilty will die.  Then God softens a little more and promises to drive the natives out of Canaan and to send an angel to lead the Israelites—but not to go in their midst.

Moses then pitches the Tent of Meeting outside the camp so God will not have to speak with him in the midst of the people.  When Moses walks over to the tent and goes inside, the divine pillar of cloud appears at the entrance.  Then all the people watching from the camp rise and bow down to the ground.  This probably makes a good impression on God.5

After a while Moses asks God for a personal favor.

“And now, please, if I have found favor in your eyes, please let me know your ways.  Then I will know you, so that I will continue to find favor in your eyes.  And see that this nation is your am.”  (Exodus 33:13)

God promises to reveal part of the divine nature (“my back”)6 and also to inscribe two replacement tablets.  So Moses climbs up Mount Sinai again.  God appears in a cloud and passes in front of him, announcing that God is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, full of kindness and good faith, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, and forgiving transgressions (although the guilt of parents continues to have an effect for three or four generations).7

These may be aspirational traits that the God-character has decided to adopt—especially “slow to anger”.  After hearing God’s glowing self-portrait, Moses bows to the ground.

And he said: “If, please, I have found approval in your eyes, my lord, will my lord go, please, in our midst?  Even though it is an am-keshei-oref?  And will you pardon our wrongdoing and our errors, and accept us as yours?”  (Exodus 34:9)

And the gentler, kinder God-character agrees—on the condition that the Israelites avoid making any treaties with the natives of Canaan, destroy all the natives’ religious items, avoid intermarriage, and never make another cast-metal idol of their own.8

Thus the God-character turns out to be flexible, able to reconsider and turn the divine “face” back toward the people he had rejected.

A stiff-necked people

The Israelites remain stiff-necked.  Even when they can see Canaan across the Jordan River, they still revert to their old ways and join the native Moabites in worshiping a local god.9

Nevertheless, these same Israelites wander in the wilderness for 40 years as they wait for their God to let them into Canaan.  Occasionally they stray, but most of those four decades they are remarkably patient.  Although it is hard for them to abandon their need for a physical representation of God, it is also hard for them to abandon their God altogether.  They are stubborn that way.

“They are so stubborn that, if only You will pardon them until they are immersed in Your faith, they will cling as stubbornly to that as they did to the previous one, and You will own them forever.”10

*

My own neck is literally stiff, due to an old injury, and I have to work daily to loosen the hard muscles.  I also have to work to loosen my stubborn preconceptions.  Sometimes (thank God) I realize that I’ve been unconsciously reacting to an old emotional injury.  Then I know it’s time to turn my head and consider a different path.

Stubbornness helps you to keep going when you are following the path that the divine presence within you knows is right.  Turning your neck to look at other paths helps you to find the right way to “walk with God” when you get lost.

May we all know when to be stiff-necked, and when to turn our heads.

(An earlier version of this post was published in February 2010.)

  1. Exodus 24:3 and 24:7.
  2. Turning one’s oref indicates fleeing from enemies in Exodus 23:27, Joshua 7:8 and 7:12, and Jeremiah 18:17.
  3. Jeremiah 2:27, Jeremiah 32:33, and 2 Chronicles 29:6.
  4. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) wrote “They turned the hardness of the backs of their necks toward those who reproved them, and they refused to listen.” (translation by chabad.org). Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th-century) wrote “The image is that of a man walking down the road who, if someone calls him, will not turn his head.”  (translation by Michael Carasik, The Commentator’s Bible: Exodus, The Jewish Publication Society, 2005, p. 285).
  5. Exodus 33:7-11.
  6. Exodus 33:23.
  7. Exodus 34:6-7, the source of the “Thirteen Attributes” in Jewish liturgy.
  8. Exodus 34:10-17.
  9. Numbers 25:1-3.
  10. 14th-century Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, also known as Ralbag or Gersonides, repeating a teaching by his grandfather, Rabbi Levi ha-Kohein. Translated by Carasik, p. 304.

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Vayakheil & Ki Tissa: Second Chance

March 7, 2018 at 5:37 pm | Posted in Ki Tisa, Vayakheil | Leave a comment

Moses’ first forty-day stint on Mt. Sinai results in the disaster of the golden calf, which brings out the worst in both Moses and the people.  (See last week’s post, Ki Tissa: Making an Idol Out of Fear.)  But then Moses goes back up the mountain for another forty days, and gives the people a second chance.

40 days and 40 nights

During the first forty days and forty nights, God gives Moses the plans for building a holy sanctuary, its furnishings, and the vestments and accoutrements of its priests.  Meanwhile, the people below are afraid that Moses has died in the fire on top of the mountain.  In last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, they tell Aaron, the deputy leader:

“Get up!  Make for us a god that will go in front of us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him!”  (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)

During his second forty days on the mountaintop, Moses persuades the God-character to forgive the people for making an idol (the golden calf), and to reveal more of the divine personality to him.  Meanwhile, the people below wait patiently for Moses to return.  When he does, they are afraid of what happened to him.

And Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, and hey!—the skin of his face was radiating light!  And they were afraid to come near him.  (Exodus 34:30)

But Moses calls to them, and gradually the people come close enough to listen to his report from God.

Some assembly required

At the end of Moses’ first forty days on the mountain, the people assemble themselves and confront Aaron with their demand for an idol.

Vayikaheil, the people, against Aaron, and they said to him: “Get up!  Make for us a god …” (Exodus 32:1)

vayikaheil (וַיִּקָּהֵל) = and they assembled, and they gathered together.

When Moses returns from his second forty days, the people wait until he assembles them.  This week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil, begins:

Vayakheil, Moses, the whole community of the Israelites, and he said to them: “These are the things that God commanded you to do …” (Exodus 35:1)

vayakheil (וַיַּקְהֵל) = and he assembled.  (From the same root as vayikaheil.)

Calf versus tent

Gold calf from Temple of Baalat, Byblos

The first time, the people demand an idol, a statue for God to inhabit, and Aaron makes a golden calf.  Nobody remembers God’s prohibition against worshiping idols, i.e. images or statues for gods to inhabit.

Then they said: “This is your god, Israel, the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”  (Exodus 32:4)

Aaron confirms their identification of the golden calf by declaring a festival for God, using God’s personal four-letter name.1

The second time, they make the tent-sanctuary God requested and sanctioned, confident that God will dwell in it.  Moses has time now to repeat what God said during the first forty days on the mountaintop:

“They shall make a holy place for me, and I will dwell among them. Like everything that I show you, the pattern of the dwelling-place and the pattern of all its furnishings, that is how you shall make it.”  (Exodus 25:8-9)

Donations

The first time, the people donate their gold earrings so Aaron can make them an idol.

And all the people took the gold rings that were in their ears, and they brought them to Aaron.  And he took from their hands, and he shaped [the gold] with a metal-working tool, and he made it [into] a calf.  (Exodus 32:3-4)

The second time, in the Torah portion Vayakheil, the people donate precious metals and gems, expensive dyes, linen and goat hair and leather, wood, oil, and spices—everything needed to make an elaborate portable sanctuary and its furnishings.

Then they came, every man whose heart lifted and everyone whose spirit nadevah him.  They came with the donation of God for the works of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the clothing of the holy.  And they came, the men in addition to the women, everyone nediv of heart … (Exodus 35:21-22)

nadevah (נָדְבָה) = it prompted, urged on.

nediv (נְדִיב) = willing, generous, noble.  (From the same root as nadevah.)

Moses also calls for skilled workers, male and female, to volunteer to make all the sacred objects.

And they took from in front of Moses all the donations that the Israelites had brought for the work of making (the items for) the service of the holy.  But [the people] brought to him more nedevah, morning after morning.  (Exodus/Shemot 36:3)

nedevah (נְדֶבָה) = voluntary gift, spontaneous generous offering.  (Also from the same root as nediv.)

The people donate so many materials that Moses has to tell them to stop.  Their hearts overflow with the desire to give, and the craftspeople among them are eager to donate their time and skills to make a sanctuary for the God of Moses.

From broken to whole

Moses Breaking the Tablets, by Rembrandt

The first time Moses comes down with a pair of stone tablets engraved by God, he sees the people dancing in front of the golden calf.

And it happened as he drew near the camp: he saw the calf and the circle-dances, and Moses got angry, and he hurled the tablets down from his hands and shattered them at the bottom of the mountain.  (Exodus 32:19)

But when he comes down with a second pair of engraved tablets, the stones remain whole.

*

What the people want all along is a leader to guide them, and a visible sign of God to reassure them.  They fail to get what they want the first time because, in their fear, they assume Moses is dead and they forget that their God hates idols.

The second time around the people succeed in getting what they want.  They trust Moses to return and he does, more impressive than ever.  Then they eagerly create a new and more impressive visible reminder of the presence of their invisible God.

Furthermore, they now have something they can do to please God, a project that gives their lives meaning and purpose.

All of these rewards result from the people’s change in attitude.  The second time around, they wait patiently for Moses to return from the mountaintop.  They are careful to follow God’s rules and obey God’s prophet.  Relieved that both God and Moses have forgiven them, they become eager to make their relationship with God better than ever.  This leads to an outpouring of generosity.

What causes the people’s change of heart?

After Moses smashes the first pair of tablets, he has a few thousand Israelites killed, and God strikes more of them with a plague.  After that, I suspect, the people are more terrified of Moses and God than they are of being leaderless.

But then Moses forgives them.  The next day, having recovered from his anger and fear, Moses announces that he will beg God to forgive them, and he climbs back up Mt. Sinai.2

Moses also asks God for a different vision of the divine, and the God-character shows him another side of the divine personality: the thirteen attributes of God, which include compassion, tenderness, patience, forbearance, and kindness.3  Finally, God lets the people build the sanctuary for him despite their two-day relapse into idol worship.

After a disaster or a misunderstanding, it takes compassion and kindness from leaders for their followers to respond with trust and generosity.

May we all develop these attributes.

  1. Exodus 32:5.
  2. Exodus 32:30.
  3. Exodus 34:6-7

Ki Tissa: Making an Idol Out of Fear

March 1, 2018 at 8:10 pm | Posted in Ki Tisa | 5 Comments

The Israelites give up waiting for Moses to come back down from Mount Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“When you bring up”).  Forty days before they had watched him walk into the fire at the top.1  Now they think he must have died there.

And the people saw that Moses took too long to come down from the mountain, and the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Get up!  Make for us elohim that will go in front of us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him!  (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)

elohim (אֱלוֹהִים= gods (the plural of eloha, אֱלוֹהַּ.); a god, God.

The Israelites and their fellow-travelers have run out of hope.  They are afraid they are stranded in the wilderness without their leader, without the man who spoke with God and knew what to do.  And even God’s pillar of cloud and fire, which led them from Egypt to Mount Sinai, is gone.

Out of fear, they ask Aaron to make them an idol or two.  Out of fear, he does it, and calls the golden calf by the four-letter name of the God.2  The next morning they make animal offerings to it, and feast and drink and dance and play.

Moses Breaking the Tablets, by Rembrandt

And it happened as he drew near the camp: he saw the calf and the circle-dances, and Moses got angry, and he hurled the tablets down from his hands and shattered them at the bottom of the mountain.  (Exodus 32:19)

The sound of the shattered tablets stops the revelers cold.

And he took the calf that they had made and her burned it in fire, and he ground it until it was fine powder, and he scattered it on the surface of the water and made the Israelites drink it.  (Exodus 32:20)

The people meekly obey.  Moses is in charge.

Then Moses questions Aaron about what happened.

And Moses saw that the people were out of control, because Aaron had let them get out of control …  (Exodus 32:25)

Where there is anger there is often submerged fear.  Now Moses’ fear emerges.  He does not realize that his own appearance has restored order.

And Moses stood in a gate of the camp, and he said: “Whoever is for God, to me!”  And all the sons of Levi gathered to him.  And he said to them: “Thus says God, the God of Israel:  Each man put his sword on his thigh.  Pass through and return from gate to gate of the camp, and each man kill his kinsman, and each man his neighbor, and each man his closest.”  (Exodus 32:26-27)

Did God really issue this order?  Elsewhere in the book of Exodus/Shemot, God and Moses have a conversation first, and then Moses transmits God’s instructions.  Here, God says nothing.  Perhaps Moses, like many insecure religious leaders, is claiming higher authority for his own words.

Spoiling the Egyptians,
Golden Haggadah, 1325-1349

All the Levite men have swords, even though they were slaves in Egypt.  The Torah portion Beshallach notes: And the Israelites went up armed from the land of Egypt.  (Exodus13:18)   Perhaps while the Israelite women were taking gold, silver, jewelry, and clothing from their Egyptian neighbors, the Israelite men were stealing weapons, knowing they might be attacked by either Egyptians or new enemies in the wilderness.3  Enough men were armed to wage a battle when they were attacked by Amalek.4

They did not expect to attack each other.

And the sons of Levi did as Moses spoke.  And about 3,000 men from the people fell that day.  (32:28)

Is it really necessary for Moses to order his fellow Levites to harden their hearts and kill so many people, even their own best friends and nearest relatives?

No.  Moses forgets that he is no longer the tongue-tied novice he was at the Burning Bush; that he has threatened the Pharaoh in his palace, and commanded thousands of people.  Yes, the Israelites grumbled a few times between the Reed Sea and Mount Sinai.  But they kept following him.  And during God’s revelation at Sinai, the people were so shaken they begged Moses to pass on God’s words to them while they stood at a distance.5  They were happy to trust him.

Moses does not realize that the people are relieved to have their leader back in charge.  He does not see that now he could speak to the people instead of having them killed.  He could remind them that God does not want them to worship any images; the second commandment says so.  He could say that God will not abandon them as long as they did not abandon God.

But Moses does not see it.  He acts out of fear, and 3,000 people die.

How can someone be so blind?  I think it begins with personal insecurity.  Moses tried to get out of being God’s prophet by making excuses at the burning bush.6  He did not believe he could be competent prophet and leader.

In America today, many people are living with uncertainty and a lack of confidence.  Some Americans feel insecure because the values they learned from their families, and the work they know how to do, are losing their value in our changing society.

Next, an alarming piece of news ignites personal insecurity and turns it into anger and fear. For Moses, it is seeing his people dance around an idol.  Today, it might be propaganda about immigrants, or news of a mass shooting.

Under the influence of fear, it is hard to assess the facts and draw rational conclusions.  It is hard to call for improving the rule of law, for improving society, for attending to unbalanced individuals.  But it is easy to succumb to panic and call for more weapons to defend ourselves.  And it is easy to panic and demonize the people who oppose us.

We are all afraid of something.  We do not all act of fear.  But it is hard to transcend yourself when you are too angry and fearful to see straight, like Moses when he realizes his people were out of control.

May we all be blessed with the ability to take a deep breath; with sympathy for our fellow human beings; with the humility to change our minds; and with the insight to stop the cycle of fear.

  1. Exodus 24:17-18.
  2. See my post Lekh-Lekha: New Names for God.
  3. Exodus 12:35-36.
  4. Exodus 17:8-13.
  5. Exodus 20:15-18.
  6. Exodus 3:11-4:13.

Ki Tissa & Psalms 109 & 69: Wiped Off the List

March 15, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Posted in Ki Tisa, Psalms/Tehilim, Rosh Hashanah | Leave a comment
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(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

Gold calf from Byblos

Of course God is angry about the golden calf. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below.” (Exodus/Shemot 20:4) It’s right there in the Ten Commandments. Why can’t these Israelites follow simple directions?

Moses is about to walk back down Mt. Sinai with the two stone tablets in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, when God warns him that the Israelites below have cast a golden calf and are worshiping it. (See my blog post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen.)

And God said to Moses: “I have observed this people, and hey, it is a stiff-necked people! So now let Me be, and My anger will blaze over them and I will consume them, and I will make you into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9-10)

Moses talks God out of this idea. Then he walks down the mountain, smashes the two stone tablets, and gets the Levites to kill the 3,000 worst offenders.

Moses Breaking the Tablets, by Rembrandt, 1659

The next day he climbs back up Mt. Sinai to ask God to forgive the surviving Israelites.

“And now, if you will only lift their guilt!  But if not, please mecheini from your book that you have written.” But God said to Moses:  “Whoever sinned against Me, emechenu from My book.  Now go lead the people to [the place] that I have spoken of to you.”  (Exodus 32:32-33)

mecheini (מְחֵנִי) = wipe me away, erase me. (A form of the verb machah, מָחָה = wiped out, wiped off, destroyed, blotted out.1)

emechenu (אֶמְחֶנּוּ) = I will wipe them off, I will erase them. (Another form of the verb machah.)

In other words, Moses insists that his personal fate must not be separated from that of the Israelites. If God erases them from the book, God must erase him, too.  God replies that guilty individuals will erased, but the people of Israel as a whole will continue their journey under Moses’s leadership.

When the story is retold in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God says to Moses:

“Hey! This is a stiff-necked people. Leave me alone, and I will exterminate them, and emecheh their name from under the heavens, and I will make you a nation greater than they.” (Deuteronomy 9:13-14)

emecheh (אֶמְחֶה) = I will wipe it out, I will erase it. (Another form of the verb machah.)

The Hebrew word for “name”, sheim (שֵׁם), means not only an appellation, but also someone’s reputation, standing, or renown (as in the English “making a name for herself”).

God’s book appears to be a list of names recorded at birth. Female names are not mentioned (the Bible reflects the male-centered, patriarchal society of its time), so we do not know if the list is comprehensive.

What happens when someone’s name is machah from the divine list?

One clue appears later in Deuteronomy. Lineage is important in the Bible; for a man to die without any male heirs is a terrible fate. So if a married man died without issue, his brother was obligated to impregnate the widow. If she bore a son, he would become the dead man’s heir.

And the firstborn that she bears shall be established on the name of his dead brother, and his name will not yimacheh from Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:6)

yimacheh (יִמָּחֶה) = be wiped out, be erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)

Similarly, a name is erased from God’s book if God decrees that the man will pass out of collective memory—perhaps by his own early death, or perhaps by dying without heirs to carry on his lineage.

*

Two of the psalms include pleas for God to punish enemies by erasing their names from the divine book. Psalm 109 opens with a complaint that certain people are lying about the psalmist, accusing him without cause. Verses 6-19 ask God to punish a personal enemy. These verses include separate requests for the man to be convicted of a crime, lose his job, and become impoverished while alive; for him to die before his time; for his children and his parents to suffer; and for his lineage to be exterminated.

            May no one extend kindness to him;

                        And may no one be gracious to his orphans.

            May his posterity be cut off;

                        In the next generation, may their names yimach. (Psalm 109:12-13)

yimach (יִמַּח) = be blotted out, erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)

In Psalm 69, the speaker feels as though he is drowning, and asks God to rescue him from being shamed and abused.  Then he asks God to punish all his enemies. This middle section concludes with:

            Place guilt upon their guilt,

                        and do not let them come into Your righteous deliverance.

            Yismachu from the book of life,

                        And among the righteous do not record them.  (Psalm 69:28-29)

yimachu (יִמַּחְוּ) = May they be blotted out, erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)

This passage alludes to two divine lists: a “book of life” or “book of the living” (seifer chayim, סֵפֶר חַיִּים), and a record of the righteous, which may or may not be the same scroll. When the psalmist asks for the names of his tormentors to be erased from the book of life, he may be asking God to deprive them of heirs, or he may be asking God to make them die soon.

The Hebrew Bible refers to God’s list of names as a “book of life” only in Psalm 69, which was written around 500 B.C.E.  Almost a thousand years later, the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Rosh Hashanah 16b) cited Psalm 69:29 as support for the idea that God keeps three books of names. According to this tractate, on the first day of each new year, Rosh Hashanah, God writes down the names of the righteous in one book and the names of the wicked in another.  People whose deeds are partly good and partly bad are listed in the third book until Yom Kippur, nine days later, when God decides which of these intermediate people to record in the book of the righteous and which in the book of the wicked.

What happens to the people listed in these books? The Talmud says that according to school of Shammai, those in the book of the righteous are rewarded with everlasting life, while those in the book of the wicked go to Gehinnom after death.2

But by the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, codified in the 9th century C.E.,  says simply that God writes down who will live and who will die that year; any possibility of life after death is omitted.3 Neither does the liturgy mention wiping out any names that were written earlier.

*

The image of God erasing names from a book expresses a biblical hope that people will be punished for bad deeds, either by untimely death or by the end of their lineage—equally bad fates from an ancient Israelite point of view.

Few people today believe God punishes miscreants in this way. Some folks still cling to the idea of reward or punishment after death.  I prefer the idea that virtue is its own reward, and I believe that people who enjoy being mean never get to experience the best things in life, such as true friendship and love.

Today the image of God keeping a book, or books, of names is still used in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services as a metaphor for the idea that God only knows when a person will die. The liturgy pleading to be written into this year’s “book of life” provides emotional reinforcement for the knowledge that the time of our death is unknown—and therefore it behooves us to use our present lives well.

May all human beings, whatever their past deeds and attitudes have been, wake up with new insight into the shortness of life and the value of goodness.  And may we all realize, like Moses in this week’s Torah portion, that there is no point in having our own names written in the book of life unless our fellow human beings are also listed there.

1  The Bible uses various forms of the verb machah not only for wiping away or erasing names, but also for wiping away tears, wiping a dish clean, or wiping out (killing) an entire population. God tells the Israelites to wipe out the memory of an enemy tribe called Amaleik; several Israelite leaders beg God not to wipe out, i.e. forget, someone’s good or bad deeds. When a husband accused his wife of adultery, a priest wrote a curse on a scroll, then machah it in water and made the woman drink it; the results determined her guilt or innocence (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:23-24).

2   Talmud Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 16b. There is also a Christian tradition about a “book of life” that is a divine record of who will “go to heaven” after death.

3  Prayers for God to “inscribe us in the book of life” were added to the Amidah sections of Rosh Hashanah liturgy by the Babylonian Geonim in the 9th century C.E. The “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer, an earlier addition to the liturgy, states that every year God decrees who will die, and by what means, during the coming year.

Ramban (13th century Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, known as Nachmanides) explained that the book of the righteous is the book of life, and the book of the wicked is the book of death. Everyone whose name is written in the book of life merits life until the following Rosh Hashanah, and everyone whose name is written in the book of death will die that year.

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