Eikev: Rewriting Justice

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

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

Golden calf from temple of Baalat, Byblos

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

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

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

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

Earlier in his rambling narrative Moses says:

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

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

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

Adoration of the Golden Calf, by Nicolas Poussin,1634

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

 

Pesach & Vayikra: Holy Matzah

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

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

Do not eat regular bread during the week of Passover.

Why not?

First Day of Pesach

Painting doorposts with blood, History Bible, Paris, 1390

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Day of Pesach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pesach and Leviticus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repost: Ki Tissa

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Their idols are silver and gold,

     Work of human hands.

     They have a mouth but they cannot speak,

     They have eyes but they cannot see,

     They have ears but they cannot hear,

     They have a nose but they cannot smell,

     They have hands but they cannot feel,

     They have feet but they cannot walk.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ki Tissa: Stiff-Necked People

February 20, 2019 at 7:22 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa | 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 Tissa, 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 glowed!  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 Tissa | 4 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 Tissa, 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.

Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home

March 1, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Psalms/Tehilim, Terumah | 6 Comments
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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.)
David Addresses God, P. Comestor Bible Historiale

David Addresses God, Petrus Comestor Bible Historiale, 1372

Where does God live?

The “heavens” are the primary residence of many gods, including the God of Israel in the Hebrew Bible.  In Canaanite and Babylonian religions, the gods inhabit both the heavens and any number of statues on earth.  The God of Israel flatly rejects idols, but still wants a second home on earth.  In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”), Moses is receiving instructions from God on top of Mount Sinai.  God tells him:

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

veshakhanti (וְשָׁכַנְתִּי) = and I will dwell, and I will stay.   (A form of the root verb shakhan (שָׁכַן) = stay, settle, dwell, inhabit.  This is the first occurrence in the Bible of the verb shakhan.)

mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) =  dwelling-place, home.  (Also from the root verb shakhan. This is also the first occurrence in the Bible of the noun mishkan.)

Gold calf from the temple of Baalat in Byblos

Gold calf from the temple of Baalat in Byblos

Moses stays on top of Mount Sinai so long—40 days and 40 nights—that in the Torah portion Ki Tissa the Israelites at the foot of the mountain despair of seeing him again.  So they make a golden calf in the hope that God will inhabit it.1 God refuses the golden statue and threatens to destroy all the Israelites except Moses and his direct descendants.  Moses refuses God’s offer, and God settles for sending a plague.2

Cloud descends on the mishkan

Cloud on the mishkan

After the surviving Israelites have built an elaborate portable tent-sanctuary according to God’s instructions, God descends on it in a pillar of cloud.3  In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the ark in this mishkan’s innermost chamber.

Throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers the only mishkan for God is the portable tent-sanctuary. In the first book of Samuel a temple in Shiloh houses the ark, and God speaks to Samuel there.4

King Solomon builds a temple of stone and wood in Jerusalem for God to inhabit.  (See my post Terumah & 1 Kings: Tent vs. Temple.)  This temple lasts until the Babylonian army razes it in 587 B.C.E., along with most of the city.

Psalm 74 argues that this act was not merely a political conquest by the expanding Babylonian empire, but an attempt to eradicate the worship of God by destroying God’s home on earth. The psalmist, like most prophets writing after the fall of the first temple, probably believed God arranged the fall of Jerusalem in order to punish the Israelites for worshiping idols. Now that the punishment is complete, the psalmist is waiting for God to rescue the deported Israelites (and punish the Babylonians).

            Why, God, do You endlessly reject us?

                        Your anger smokes at the flock You tended.

            Remember Your community You acquired long ago!

                        You redeemed the tribe of your possession.

                        Mount Zion is where shakhanta.  (Psalm 74:1-2)

shakhanta  (שָׁכַנְתָּ) = you dwelled, you lived. (Another form of the verb shakhan.)

History repeats itself: Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, by David Roberts, 1850 (history repeats itself)

History repeats itself:
Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, by David Roberts, 1850

The psalm then describes how the Babylonian army replaced all the emblems of the Israelite religion in the temple with their own emblems, hacked up the carved ornamentation, and burned the wooden parts of the building down to the ground.

            They set Your holy place on fire;

            They profaned the ground inside the mishkan of Your name.  (Psalm 74:7)

Given this disrespect, and given that the Israelites are the people God adopted and brought to Jerusalem in the first place, Psalm 74 asks why God is taking so long to restore God’s own mishkan, city, and people.

            Why do you draw back Your right hand,

                        Holding it in Your bosom?  (Psalm 74:11)

The psalm then points out that God created the world and the day and night, then did great deeds without a mishkan on earth. Lack of power is not holding God back.  And the Israelites, particularly the poor and needy, belong to God.

           Look to the covenant!  (Psalm 74:20)

If God would only pay attention, the psalm implies, God would honor Its covenant, restore the Israelites to Jerusalem, and cause a new mishkan to be built there to facilitate worship.

           Do not let the miserable turn back disgraced.

                        Let the poor and the needy praise Your name!  (Psalm 74:21)

In Psalm 74, the mishkan of God is also the mishkan of the people. They need their own home, and they need to have a home for God in their midst.  Then, instead of suffering miserably, the needy can praise God and rejoice.

*

Many Jews still want a home where we are free to praise God, to practice our own religion without fear or discrimination.

Half of the Jews in the world live in the nation of Israel, founded in 1948 as a homeland where Jews could escape the genocide, as well as less drastic forms of discrimination, inflicted on them in Europe. Yet over the next 69 years, the Jewish and Muslim residents of Israel have been attacked both by neighboring countries and by each other.

Most of the Jews living outside Israel today are American citizens. Discrimination against Jews in the United States has fallen over the past sixty years, and many of us view America as our real home, where we can participate in the life of our country and remain free to practice our own religion. God has many second homes among religious American Jews; every synagogue is a divine mishkan, and each of us can make a mishkan for God to dwell in our own hearts.

Yet in the past year, discrimination against ethnic and religious groups has become more socially acceptable in the United States.  Psalm 74 suddenly seems more relevant.

I pray that the divine spirit blooms in all of our hearts.  May we quickly reverse this dangerous trend.  And may all people, everywhere, find a safe home.

           Do not let the miserable turn back disgraced!

1  Exodus 32:1-5.

2  Exodus 32:35:  Then God struck the people over what they had done with the calf that Aaron made.

3  Exodus 40:33-34:  When Moses completed the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the magnificence of God filled the mishkan.

4  1 Samuel 3:1-10.

Haftarat Ki Tissa—1 Kings: Ecstatic versus Rational Prophets

February 24, 2016 at 10:21 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Kings 1 | 1 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 Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11-34:31), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 18:1-39.

And Elijah said to the people: I am the only navi left for God, and the neviyim of the Baal are 450 men. (1 Kings 18:22)

navi (נָבִיא) = prophet. (From the root verb niba (נבּא) = raved; conveyed the word of God.)

neviyim (נְבִיאִִים) = plural of navi.

The Hebrew Bible uses the word navi for two kinds of people: those who go into an altered state in order to experience God, and those who hear God whether they want to or not.

Moses by Ivan Kramskoy, 1861

Moses by Ivan Kramskoy, 1861

In the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses is the prophet who hears God directly, whenever God wants to speak to him. When God first speaks to him at the burning bush, Moses tries to turn down God’s mission, but later he gets used to passing on God’s words to Pharaoh and the Israelites. God also uses Moses to signal miracles, both by words and by raising his staff or his hand.  He is a full-service prophet, but he never goes into a prophetic ecstasy.

The book of Numbers/Bemidbar gives us an example of a non-Israelite prophet who does not rave in ecstasy, but hears and must obey God’s commands. First Bilam hears God’s words in dreams, but by the end of his story God is channeling poetic prophecies to him directly. (See my post Balak: Three Places to Be Blessed.)

There are also bands of Israelite prophets who go into an altered state and speak in ecstasy, but do not hear or convey God’s commands. In one episode in the first book of Samuel, King Saul sends messengers to seize David, whom the prophet Samuel has anointed behind Saul’s back.

And they saw a group of the neviyim nibim, and Samuel standing stationed over them. And the spirit of God came over the messengers of Saul, vayitnabu, even they. And they told Saul, and he sent other messengers, vayitnabu, even they. Then Saul sent a third group of messengers, vayitnabu, even they. (1 Samuel 19:20-21)

nibim (נִבְּאִים) = speaking in ecstasy; raving.

vayitnabu (וַיִּתְנַבְּאוּ) = and they spoke in prophetic ecstasy; and they raved as if insane.

Next Saul goes himself in search of David.

And he walked there, to Nayot in Ramah, and the spirit of God came over him, even him, and he continued walking, vayitnabei until he entered Nayot in Ramah. Then he stripped off his clothes, even he, vayitnabei, even he, in front of Samuel, and he fell naked… (1 Samuel 19:23-24)

vayitnabei (וַיִּתְנַבֵּא) = and he spoke in prophetic ecstasy; and he raved.

The two kinds of neviyim could be easily distinguished; one kind quietly listens to God’s words and then speaks and acts like a rational person, while the other kind is overcome by God’s spirit and speaks and acts like a madman.

*

In this week’s haftarah Elijah is a navi in the tradition of Moses: he hears God while he is in his normal consciousness, he tells God’s words to other people, and he serves as a conduit for God’s miracles. He also thinks up a plan to achieve God’s ends.

The 450 prophets of Baal, on the other hand, are neviyim who induce an altered state of prophetic ecstasy in themselves.

Bronze figure of Baal holding thunder and lightning

Bronze figure of Baal holding thunder and lightning

 

At this time, the northern kingdom of Israel is ruled by King Ahab, who welcomes the worship of the Canaanite gods Asherah (a mother goddess) and Baal (a god of weather, especially lightning and rain). Ahab’s wife Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon, supports hundreds of prophets who serve these two gods, but wants to exterminate all the prophets of the God of Israel.

Since Israel under King Ahab views Baal as the god in charge of weather, Elijah warns Ahab that it will not rain again until he, the servant of God, says so. Then Elijah flees and hides east of the Jordan while Israel suffers three years of drought.

This week’s haftarah begins:

And it was much later, and the word of God happened to Elijah in the third year, saying: Go, appear to Ahab; then I will send rain over the face of the earth. (1 Kings 18:1)

When Elijah confronts King Ahab again, he requests a contest.

Now send, gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 neviyim of the Baal and the 400 neviyim of the Asherah who eat at the table of Jezebel. (1 Kings 18:19)

Instead of killing Elijah on the spot, the king arranges a contest between God and Baal. (The neviyim of the goddess Asherah drop out of the story at this point.) Ahab probably expects Elijah and the God of Israel to lose. After all, God will have only one prophet, Elijah; Baal will have 450. On Mount Carmel God’s altar is in ruins; Baal’s altar is in good repair. The winning side will be the one whose god who answers with fire; lightning is one of Baal’s specialties.

Once everyone has gathered at Mount Carmel, Elijah says:

How long will you keep hopping back and forth between two crutches? If God is the god, follow Him; but if it is the Baal, follow him!  And the people did not answer a word. (1 Kings 18:21)fire

So the contest begins.  Each side gets its altar, a bull to butcher, and a stack of wood. When each sacrifice is prepared, the prophets will call on their gods.  The Israelites agree that the god who answers by setting the wood on fire will be their god henceforth.

Elijah lets the neviyim of Baal go first.

…and they called in the name of the Baal, saying: Answer us! But there was no voice and there was no answer. Then they hopped around on the altar that was prepared. And at noon Elijah mocked them, and said:  Call in a louder voice! After all, he is a god. Maybe he is chatting, or maybe he is preoccupied, or maybe he is on the road. Maybe he is sleeping, and he will wake up.

And they called in a louder voice, and they cut themselves with daggers and with lances, as is their custom, and blood poured out over them. And noon passed, vayitnabu, until the time of the afternoon offering, but no one answered and no one paid attention. (1 Kings 18:26-29)

The neviyim of Baal did everything they could to work themselves into a prophetic ecstasy, but their speech sounded like insane raving—especially in light of Elijah’s mockery and the lack of response from Baal.

Then Elijah repaired the altar for the God of Israel, laid out his bull offering on the wood, and had twelve jugs of water poured over it, so everyone would see that no ordinary fire could burn there. Then he said:

Elijah and Ahab at Mt. Carmel, Zurich Bible

Elijah and Ahab at Mt. Carmel, Zurich Bible

God, god of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, today may it be known that You are elohim in Israel and I am Your servant, and at Your word I did all these things. Answer me, God, answer me, and this people will know that You, God, are the god… And the fire of God fell, and it ate up the rising-offering and the wood and the stones and the dirt, and it licked up the water in the trench. And all the people saw, and they fell on their faces and said: God, He is the elohim! God, He is the elohim! (1 Kings 18:36-39)

Later that day, it finally rains.

And the winner is … not only the God of Israel, but also his rational navi.

Does this mean the bible prefers non-ecstatic prophets?  Not quite. The bands of raving Israelite neviyim are not criticized in either the book of Numbers or the first book of Samuel. There is nothing wrong with entering an altered state in order to experience God’s presence.

But experiencing God’s presence is different from hearing God’s words. A navi like Moses or Elijah hears God whether he wants to or not, and must keep his head in order to act on God’s words, whether he is passing on divine information, signaling a miracle, or, in this week’s haftarah, elaborating on a hint from God (Go, appear to Ahab; then I will send rain over the face of the earth) in order to make the right things happen.

May all of us who engage in religion remember that experiencing God in an altered state, or even in an especially good worship service, is not the same as serving God. To truly serve God, we must listen for the divine word or inspiration during our everyday lives, and think carefully before we act.

Ki Tissa: Heard But Not Seen

March 2, 2015 at 6:01 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa | 4 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah  (first posted 2015, revised 2020)

For 40 days at the top of Mount Sinai, Moses listens to God’s instructions on making a sanctuary and preparing priests for the new religion.  The last details are given in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“When you bring up”).  Then we learn that the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai have given up and believe Moses is never coming back.

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.

Moses is gone, and God’s pillar of cloud and fire, which led them from Egypt to Mount Sinai, has disappeared.  Who or what can lead them through the wilderness now?  When the Israelites ask Aaron to make them elohim, they are asking for an idol, an image of a god that carries some divine power or magic.

Gold calf, Temple of Baalat in Byblos

Gold calf from Temple of Baalat, Byblos

Aaron said to them: “Pull off the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” And all the people pulled off the gold rings in their ears, and they brought them to Aaron.  He took [the gold] from their hand, and he shaped it in the mold, and he made it a calf of cast metal …  (Exodus 32:2-4)

Maybe Aaron forgot that in the Ten Commandments God had ordered: “You shall not make yourself a sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth.  You shall not bow down to them nor serve them …  (Exodus 20:4-5)

The people at the foot of Mount Sinai immediately identify the gold calf Aaron makes with the god who made miracles in Egypt and led them out of slavery with a pillar of cloud and fire.

… and they said: “This is your elohim, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”  And Aaron saw, and he built an altar in front of it; and Aaron called out, and said: “A festival for God tomorrow!”  (Exodus 32:4-5)

Aaron uses God’s four-letter proper name, so at least he is not encouraging the people to worship any other god.  But he continues to behave as if God does not mind being worshiped through an idol.  The next day people bring offerings to burn in front of the golden calf and eat the remainder of the meat in a celebratory feast—the standard way to serve a god at that time.

By the end of this week’s Torah portion, the golden calf has been destroyed and its worshipers killed (though Aaron is excused).  But later in the Bible, King Jereboam calls for two gold calves.

The united kingdom of David and Solomon falls apart in the first book of Kings/Melachim when Solomon’s son Reheboam overworks and overtaxes the people.  Jereboam leads the revolt and secession of the north, and becomes the first ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel.  Jerusalem remains the capital of the southern part of the land, the kingdom of Judah.

King Jereboam consolidates his reign by means of two golden calves.

And the king took counsel and he made two gold calves, and he said to them: “Going up to Jerusalem is too much for you.  Here are your gods, Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.”  And he placed one in Beit El and the other he gave to Dan.  (1 Kings 12:28-29)

The temples at Beit El (a central location) and Dan (far to the north) become the new centers of worship for the northern kingdom.  Although the ten northern tribes worship the God of Israel, the Bible denounces King Jereboam’s action.

And this thing was wrong.  But the people went into the presence of even the one in Dan.  (1 Kings 12:30)

Moses and Joshua Bowing before the Ark, by James Tissot, c. 1900

Yet this does not mean all sculptures are bad.  The temple in Jerusalem has its own sculpted images: the two gold-plated keruvim, hybrid winged creatures erected on either side of the ark by King Solomon, in imitation of the two keruvim that God tells Moses to hammer out of the gold lid of the ark in Exodus 25:18-20.1

Why would God find the keruvim acceptable, but not the golden calves?

 

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Baal Hadad on bull throne, stele from Arslan Tash

Location, not throne

Modern commentator Robert Alter wrote that the Golden Calf was not intended to be inhabited by a deity, but rather to serve as the throne for a god—just  as Canaanite deities were often shown sitting or standing on a bull or calf.2

The ark with its keruvim is not a throne.  Later in the Bible, God acquires the title “Who Sits Above the Keruvim”.3  But the book of Exodus makes it clear that God manifests as a voice coming from the empty space between the keruvim.When God is enthroned above keruvim in the book of Ezekiel, the glory of God is hovering above the four-faced creatures next to the wheels with eyes in the prophet’s vision—quite different from the two keruvim framing the lid of the ark.

Imaginary, not actual

A sculpture of a calf falls into the category of “a sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below” which God forbids in the Ten Commandments.  But the keruvim do not represent any known animal on earth. Are they acceptable because they are mythical?  Or did the people in the Ancient Near East consider this hybrid guardian figures representations of angels in the heavens?

Commanded, not volunteered

In his book Kuzari, 12th-century commentator Judah Halevi argued that images were psychologically necessary for people in that era.  Until they reached Mount Sinai, the Israelites followed a visible pillar of cloud and fire.  After the pillar disappeared, they waited for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai with some other visible item.  Only after they concluded Moses would never return did they make an unauthorized image.5

The difference between the keruvim and the Golden Calf, according to Halevi and subsequent commentary by Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel, is that God ordered the keruvim.  God does not want people to use any items for worship that God has not authorized.

Heard, not seen

I think the underlying reason why golden calves are idols but keruvim are acceptable is while a number of people hear God’s voice in the Torah, nobody sees God’s form.  God’s glory (kavod, כָּבוֹד) appears as cloud or fire, not a physical creature.6  Even the pillar of cloud and fire that leads the people through the wilderness is called God’s messenger.  In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, God tells Moses:

You will not be able to see My face, because humankind may not see Me and live. (Exodus 33:20)

Only God’s creations can be seen, not God.  But God’s voice is heard by all the people in the revelation at Mount Sinai.  And throughout the Bible, God speaks to individual human beings.

The people in the Torah portion Ki Tissa err in expecting God to manifest as a visible shape, sitting astride the golden calf or standing on its back.  They want the reassurance of something they can see.  But God only manifests as a voice; God wants people to listen for divine direction.

In the Torah, God does not manifest on the solid and visible Golden Calf; God speaks from an invisible empty space between and above the keruvim.

Maybe God still speaks to us from out of nowhere—if we make empty spaces in our lives, and listen.

  1. See my post Terumah:  Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.
  2. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. W. Norton & Company, 2008, p. 494.
  3. Isaiah 37:16.
  4. Exodus 25:22.
  5. Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Shemos, Mesorah Publications Ltd., 1994, p. 443-444.
  6. The only exception is when 74 selected people see God’s “feet” on a sapphire pavement after they have hiked halfway up Mount Sinai.  (Exodus 24:9-11)
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