Mishpatim & Ki Tissa: A Covenant in Writing

February 9, 2015 at 6:43 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Mishpatim | 3 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

A covenant can be a comfort.  It’s reassuring to have a signed contract stating what you are required to do, and what the other party will do for you.  When we feel insecure about an arrangement, we say, “Can I have that in writing?”

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”) includes the first covenant in the Torah that is backed up in writing.  Yet it is broken sooner than any of the unwritten covenants in the book of Genesis/Bereishit—because one of the covenantal parties is God.

A classic covenant between two human beings is the compact between Jacob and his father-in-law, Lavan. Jacob heads back to Canaan with the family and livestock he acquired by serving Lavan for 20 years. Lavan, who does not want to lose his best employee, catches up with him on the heights of Gilead. They argue over who owns what, and then Lavan says:

So now, let us go and cut a brit, I and you… (Genesis/Bereishit 31:44)

brit (בְּרִית) = covenant, pact, treaty.

Standing stone at Gezer, Israel

Standing stone
at Gezer, Israel

The two men set up a standing-stone and a mound of stones to serve as a boundary marker, a “witness”, and a sign of their brit.  Lavan announces the terms: neither man will pass that boundary with hostile intent; and in addition, Jacob will neither mistreat Lavan’s daughters nor take any additional wives.

Then each man swears by a different name of the same God. Finally, Jacob slaughters animals, and the two chieftains and their men feast on the mountain.

Both leaders carry out the terms of their brit. Each party gives up something that might be in his self-interest (invading the other’s territory) in order to gain something that is definitely in his self-interest (safety from invasion by the other). The terms are reasonable, and the men do not want to violate a treaty made with an accepted ritual in front of three kinds of witnesses: boundary stones, other human beings, and God.

A brit with God is not so straightforward.

The first two times God declares a brit with human beings, it is really a unilateral promise, with no obligation stipulated for the humans. In the Covenant of the Rainbow, God promises not to destroy the earth with a flood again. In the Covenant of the Pieces, God promises to give Canaan to Abraham’s descendants.

God’s third brit repeats that God will give Abraham’s descendants, and adds that God will “be a god” to them and make them “nations” and “kings”. Then God says:

This is my brit, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Let every male be circumcised. You shall all be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it will be a sign of the brit between Me and you. (Genesis 17:10-11)

Circumcision is the stipulated action for humans, the ritual, and the sign of the covenant, all in one. Jews have performed their part of the brit milah (Covenant of Circumcision) for thousands of years, with or without possession of the land of Canaan, because it is an act of dedication to God—and each infant boy or adult male convert only has to go through it once.

In the book of Exodus, when the Israelites reach Mount Sinai, God proposes a new brit, one that the commentary calls the Covenant of Blood. God gives the Israelites and their fellow-travelers the Ten Commandments, followed by a list of other laws, beginning with a second injunction against making “gods” of silver or gold, and ending (in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim) with: “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. (Exodus/Shemot 23:19)

In return for obeying all these laws, God promises the people that they will never get sick, their women will be fertile and never miscarry, none of their lives will be cut short, their enemies will run away from them, and they will gradually take over not only Canaan, but all the land from the Mediterranean to the eastern wilderness and from the Euphrates in the north to the Reed Sea in the south.

This is the third time God promises to give the Israelites possession of the Promised Land.  But it is the first and only time God promises to exempt the people from natural law by making them super-human, with bodies that are invulnerable to illness, infertility, miscarriage, and even accidental death. Such a deal!

Moses makes sure this new brit is ratified with elaborate ritual, symbolic reminders, and even a written copy.

Then Moses wrote down all the words of God, and he got up early in the morning, and he built an altar at the bottom of the mountain, and twelve standing-stones for the twelve tribes of Israel.   … and they slaughtered animal-offerings of wholeness  for God … And half of the blood he sprinkled over the altar. And he took the Book of the Brit and he read it in the ears of the people, and they said: Everything that God has spoken, we will do and we will listen! Then Moses took the blood and he sprinkled it over the people, and he said: Here is the blood of the brit that God has cut with you concerning all these words! (Genesis 24:4-8)

The blood from the animal offerings is sprinkled both on the symbol of God (the altar), and on the people (or at least the elders in front). The people ratify the brit by shouting “we will do and we will listen”, indicating their willingness to obey not only these laws, but also any future laws God chooses to give them.

According to 20th-century commentator Nahum Sarna, the ritual is completed when God gives Moses an even more impressive symbolic reminder: a pair of stone tablets on which God writes the teachings and commandments.

The people violate their part of the brit only 40 days later, in the Torah portion Ki Tissa. While Moses is receiving the stone tablets on top of Mount Sinai receiving, the Israelites below lose hope that he will ever return, and revert to their old ideas of God. When Moses comes down, the people are carousing in front of the Golden Calf, in clear violation of the rule against making a god of silver or gold. So the whole elaborate brit becomes null and void, and Moses smashes the tablets.

God never makes the Israelites super-human. But Moses does persuade God to forgive them. And God declares a second, modified brit in which God commits only to driving out the peoples living in Canaan. On their side, the Israelites must obey a list of rules that begins with refraining from cutting a brit with any of the peoples they are supposed to be displacing, and ends with “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. (Exodus 34:10-26)

And God said to Moses: Write down for yourself these words, because according to these words I have cut a brit with you and with Israel. (Exodus 34:27)

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

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

The Ten Commandments are not explicitly mentioned, but most commentators assume they are included in the words Moses carves on a second pair of stone tablets.  Later the Israelites make a golden ark, following God’s instructions, and Moses places the tablets inside.

The Israelites continue to backslide on obeying God’s rules (though there is no record that they ever cook a kid in its mother’s milk).  In the book of Joshua, God does not drive their enemies away, so the Israelites conquer most of Canaan by conventional warfare. Thus the second brit between God and the Israelites is also a failure.

Yet the Torah continues to call the ark containing the stone tablets aron ha-brit, “Ark of the Covenant”, and it remains the Israelites’ most revered object until it disappears during the fall of the first temple in Jerusalem.

A contract between two humans, or a treaty between two nations, is a practical affair. The obligations of both parties are feasible and spelled out clearly. The proper ritual and witnesses help to enforce the brit.

A brit between humans and God is more like a modern marriage covenant. Both parties make lifelong promises without any practical limitations.  The ritual, witnesses, symbols, and written documents have emotional importance, but they do not prevent either party from falling short. At some point, a spouse is psychologically unable to be as loving and supportive as he or she intended. At some point, a religious human being is psychologically unable to obey every rule she or he has taken on. And God, at best, appears to operate on a non-human timeline.

Sometimes a marriage ends in divorce, and sometimes a brit with God ends in apostasy. But often, spouses pull themselves together and rededicate themselves to their marriage. And often, people seeking God rededicate themselves to the search for morality and meaning.

Each story of a brit with God remains a reminder of God’s presence. Even today, the two sets of stone tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai loom in our subconscious minds, reminding us that even if full compliance is impossible in a covenant with God, it is still worth dedicating ourselves to the call.


Vayakheil and Ki Tissa: How to Be a Holy Artist

February 17, 2014 at 9:39 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Vayakheil | Leave a comment
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What does it take to create something that will help people feel the presence of God?

Aaron tries to do this when he makes the Golden Calf in last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa. At first, the people are ecstatic over the idol, bowing down to it and singing and dancing. But this simple and undisciplined religious outlet does not last. When Moses returns and grinds the calf into gold dust, nobody protests. Moses stirs the gold dust into water, and they all meekly swallow it. Aaron’s creation turns out to be a failure.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”), the master craftsman Betzaleil begins making the holy objects for the new sanctuary. The completed creation is so successful that it sustains the religion of the Israelites for several centuries, until King Solomon replaces it with the temple in Jerusalem.

The key difference between Aaron and Betzaleil as creators of religious objects appears in the Torah twice, repeated word for word. In the portion Ki Tissa, God says it to Moses. In this week’s portion, Moses says it to the Israelites:

See? God has called by name Betzaleil, son of Uri, son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehudah. And [God] has filled him with ruach of God, with chokhmah, with tevunah, and with da-at, and with every craft. (Exodus/Shemot 35:30-31)

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; spirit, motivation, overwhelming state of mind.

(Usually when the ruach of God comes over someone in the Hebrew Bible, that person speaks as a prophet or leads people into battle. Exceptions are Samson, who is gripped by a murderous rage and supernatural strength; and Betzaleil the artist, who is filled with a divine motivation to create.)

chokhmah (חָכְמָה) = wisdom; inspiration.

tevunah (תְבוּנָה) = insight, rational understanding, analytic ability.

da-at (דַעַת) = knowledge.

In later Kabbalistic writings, chokhmah and binah (another form of the word tevunah) are two of the sefirot or divine powers.  Chokhmah is the sefirah associated with the left side of the head, i.e. the left brain that popular science now associates with non-rational, intuitive, holistic consciousness. Binah (tevunah) is the sefirah associated with the right side of the head, i.e. the right brain that we now associate with rational, logical, analytic thinking. In the Kabbalist system, da-at is the product of chokhmah combined with binah.

Aaron, although he will serve as the high priest, lacks the four qualities with which God fills Betzaleil. When the Israelites are waiting at the foot of Mount Sinai in Ki Tissa, Aaron feels no ruach of God, no divine urge to create a holy object. The people decide Moses will never return and order Aaron: Get up, make for us gods that will go before us! (Exodus 32:1). Then Aaron acts, but only to satisfy the crowd.

He has no chokhmah, no inspiration nor wisdom about what to make; he merely calls for gold earrings to melt down, since the finest idols are made of gold.

He took it from their hands and he shaped it with the engraving tool, and he made it into an image of a calf. (Exodus 32:4)

Afterward, when Aaron explains to Moses what happened, he says: I said to them, “Who has gold? Pull it off yourselves.” And they gave it to me and I threw it into the fire and out came this calf.” (Exodus 32:24)

Aaron admits that he acted without any of the insight or discrimination of tevunah, and also without any da-at, any knowledge of what would emerge from the fire.

Betzaleil, on the other hand, is born betzalmeinu—in God’s shadow or image—when it comes to creativity. (See my earlier post, Vayakheil: Shadow Power.) **** He creates under the protection of God’s shadow. God “fills” him with the qualities he already has the potential and experience to develop.

Even as Moses comes down with God’s basic design for a portable sanctuary, Betzaleil is filled with a divine desire to create it. He has the chokhmah to visualize the whole thing, and to imagine beautiful and inspiring objects—from the gold keruvim (hybrid winged beasts) on top of the ark to the design embroidered in brilliant colors on the curtain at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. He has the tevunah to analyze and understand how each part can be made well and assembled into the whole. And he has da-at, knowledge, of every craft: metal-working, jewelry, wood-working, weaving, and embroidery.

Betzaleil is so filled with chokhmah, tevunah, and da-at that he and his assistant can teach other craftsmen and craftswomen among the people.

And [God] put teaching into his heart, him and Ahaliyav son of Achisamakh of the tribe of Dan. (Exodus 35:34)

And Betzaleil and Ahaliyav and everyone wise of heart to whom God gave chokhmah and tevunah for da-at and for doing all the work for the service of the Holy, they shall do everything that God commanded. (Exodus 36:1)

The sanctuary that is completed in next week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, is the product of the grand design Moses heard from God; the divine spirit, inspiration, understanding, and know-how of the master artist, Betaleil; and the enthusiasm and wisdom of the contributors in the community. No wonder it becomes a place where people feel God’s presence.

I think that the qualities God gives Betzaleil are necessary for anyone to produce truly moving art, whether its explicit goal is religious or not. I know that when I do “creative writing”, especially of Torah monologues and fiction, both my motivation (ruach) and my inspiration (chokhmah) seem to come from a mysterious place outside myself, or perhaps from some inner place so deep my conscious mind can never penetrate it. I might as well say they come from God, the great mystery.

But the most burning motivation and inspiration leads nowhere without the application of rational insight and analysis (tevunah). My own ability in this area is a talent I was born with, a gift of God, that I have developed over many years of practice. And as in Kabbalah, I have found that the combination of left-brained inspiration (chokhmah) and right-brained analysis (binah or tevunah) does indeed result in knowledge (da-at).

The final requirement for creating art is to actually do all the labor. I am grateful that the ruach that blows through me from the unknown source I call God is strong enough to motivate me to keep on working, with enthusiasm—like the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion.

May the divine spirit be strong in all artists.

Ki Tissa: Fighting or Singing?

February 9, 2014 at 9:02 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa | 2 Comments
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After God’s revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, the people repeatedly promise to do everything God says. Then Moses and Aaron lead the elders halfway up the mountain, where they have a vision of God’s feet. (See my earlier post, Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.)

Moses on Mt. Sinai,
by Jean-Leon Gerome

This is their high point. After this, Aaron and the Israelite leaders go downhill, both literally and figuratively. Joshua, Moses’ attendant and war-leader, stays partway up the mountain. And Moses climbs to the summit again. There he disappears into God’s cloud—or fire, from the point of view of the Israelites below. (See my earlier post, Mishpatim: Seeing the Cloud.)

Inside the cloud, Moses listens to God’s instructions for 40 days . Meanwhile, the Israelites below conclude that their prophet has died in the fire on the mountaintop and will never return. And without Moses, how can their god lead them to their promised land?

Gold calf from Temple of Baalat, Byblos

They fall back on an old and familiar solution in this week’s portion, Ki Tissa (“When you bring up”): a physical image or idol for the god to inhabit. They give Aaron their gold earrings, and get him to mold an image in the shape of a calf. On his own initiative, Aaron builds an altar and declares a festival for God the next day.

The same day that the Israelites bring animal offerings to the new altar, God hands Moses the two stone tablets written by the finger of God (Exodus/Shemot 31:18), tells him to go down the mountain, and then tells him what the Israelites have done.

Quickly they deserted the path that I commanded them! They made for themselves a cast image of a calf, and they bowed down to it and they slaughtered offerings to it, and they said: These are your gods, Israel, that brought you from the land of Egypt. (Exodus 32:8)

God offers to consume the Israelites and make Moses into a great nation instead. But Moses refuses the offer and tramps down the slope, still holding the two stone tablets on which God wrote, among other things, the commandment against making idols.

Joshua joins his mentor partway down. He has spent 40 days waiting on the mountainside, unaware of what was happening either to Moses at the top or to the Israelites at the bottom.

Then Joshua heard the sound of the people as they shouted, and he said to Moses: The sound of battle is in the camp! (Exodus 32:17)

Moses does not reply. Joshua listens carefully as they continue to descend.

And he said: Not the sound of anot of prevailing, and not the sound of anot of defeat. A sound of annot I am hearing. (Exodus 32:18)

anot (עֲנוֹת) = responding, answering; humiliating, abusing; call-and-response singing (such as kirtan or antiphony).

annot (עַנּוֹת) = (This form of the verb anot is used most often for humiliation, but it is also used in at least one other place, Isaiah 27:2, for singing.)

If there were indeed a battle in camp, Joshua would hear the winners raising their voices in war-cries, abuse, or battle-songs. He would also hear the losers raising their voices in pain, fear, or grief. Because he does not hear these sounds, he concludes that there is no battle. The camp has not been attacked by strangers. Nor has it divided into two sides fighting each other. Whatever the people are doing, nobody in the camp is objecting to it.

What sound does Joshua decide he is hearing? Here are two possible translations:

“A sound of humiliation I am hearing.” In other words, he is hearing the sound of people who have abandoned reason and conscience. Maybe sexual excess has turned into rape. Or maybe the people’s wild party is humiliating for Joshua and Moses, the only two Israelites left to stand against the worship of the Golden Calf.

“A sound of call-and-response singing I am hearing.” In other words, he is hearing a joyful celebration. Elsewhere in the Bible, people use call-and-response singing, along with dancing, to rejoice over God’s success (as Miriam does after they cross the Reed Sea), and to rejoice over David’s victories in battle.

I can imagine Joshua realizing that something happened in the camp, while Moses was gone, and now the Israelites are either holding an orgy, or singing and dancing to rejoice over—what?

The Torah returns to Moses’ point of view.

Moses Breaking the Tablets, by Rembrandt

And it happened as he drew near to the camp, he saw the calf and dancing. Then Moses’ anger flared up, and he threw down from his hand the tablets, and he shattered them under the mountain. (Exodus 32:19)

Moses already knows about the Calf, so why does his anger flare up now? One frequent answer by commentators is that now he sees the people dancing. If the Israelites were worshiping the Calf in a state of doubt and anxiety, they might reject their idol as soon as they saw Moses. Instead, they are rejoicing over the Golden Calf, as if they like the old-time religion better than following Moses’ lead.

It takes the shock of the shattering tablets to yank them back into their former state of mind, when they promised to obey the god of Moses.

Joshua already knows the Israelites are singing. He can assume they are also dancing; elsewhere in the Bible call-and-response singing is usually accompanied by dancing. Now Joshua sees the Golden Calf and the smoking altar in front of it, so he knows the reason for the people’s ecstasy. He also hears the sound of stone shattering. The singing stops.

Moses grinds the Calf into gold dust, adds it to water, and makes the people drink it. He questions Aaron briefly, then stands at the gateway of the camp and shouts: Whoever is for God, to me! (Exodus 32:26)

All the men from the tribe of Levi go over to the side of Moses and Joshua. Moses orders the Levite men, in the name of God, to take their swords and go through the camp from gate to gate.  The Levites kill 3,000 Israelite men. The Torah reports no casualties on the Levite side; apparently the Calf worshippers were too cowed or ashamed to fight back.

So Joshua finally does hear the battle cries of the winners, and the screams of pain and humiliation of the losers. There is no more singing of any kind in the Torah until the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.

I have always wondered if killing 3,000 Calf-worshippers was overkill. After all, everyone was shocked when Moses shattered the tablets God gave him. Everyone drank the gold dust from the Calf. What if Moses’ next move had been to start up a song, instead of a massacre?

What if he had changed the words of the call-and-response song the people were singing for the Calf? Their song is not recorded, but here are two other call-and-response songs in the Torah:

Sing to God because He is the highest;

Horse and its rider He threw into the sea! (Exodus 15:21)

Saul struck down his platoons;

And David struck down his armies! (I Samuel 21:12)

Some people need the outlet of ecstatic song and dance. Maybe another call-and-response song would have turned the hearts of the apostate ecstatics toward the God of Moses. Here is my proposal for the people who rejoiced in the Golden Calf:

“Sing to God because He is the highest;

Higher than idols and higher than gold.”

Just set it to a catchy melody, and let Miriam lead the dancing.

Ki Tissa: Interrupted Wedding

February 27, 2013 at 11:28 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa | 1 Comment

The covenant between the people of Israel and the God of the Torah has often been compared to a wedding, perhaps ever since the prophecy of the 6th century BCE:  As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:5) According to the Torah, God and the Israelites make their covenant (a contract like a marriage) at Mount Sinai.  The Talmud tractate Kiddushin states that the three elements of a wedding are money (the dowry), a written contract (the ketubah), and intercourse. So far in the book of Exodus/Shemot, God has given the Israelites a dowry: their freedom from Egypt, plus the gold and silver that the Egyptians handed over to the Israelites in response to God’s miraculous plagues. In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“When you lift”), when Moses comes down from a 40-day meeting with God on Mount Sinai, he brings the other two elements of the wedding: a  marriage contract engraved on two stone tablets (presumably the Ten Commandments), and instructions for building a sanctuary so God will “dwell among them”.

Alas, while Moses was away, the bride was unfaithful. The Israelites, terrified that Moses would never return, got Aaron to make a golden calf to lead them. Moses returns to find the people cavorting in front of  an idol. Clearly, the Israelites do not yet have enough faith and fortitude for this marriage. So Moses quickly smashes the two stone tablets of the contract, and postpones the building of the sanctuary for cohabitation.

Before the wedding can resume, the bride must have a change of heart. So God and Moses arrange for the Israelites to see their separation from God’s presence.

And Moses, he shall take the tent and pitch it for himself outside the camp, far away from the camp, and he shall call it the Tent of  Meeting. Then it will be that anyone seeking God must go to the Tent of Meeting, which will be outside the camp. (Exodus/Shemot 33:7)

In the next two books of the Torah, we learn that anyone who contracts the skin disease tzara-at is ritually impure, and must live outside the camp until he or she is cured. Here in the portion Ki Tissa, the whole camp is ritually impure after the golden calf worship, unfit for worshiping God. Therefore the place where God can be encountered must be far away from the camp—until the whole camp is cured. Only then does the Tent of Meeting move from outside the camp to inside the new sanctuary in the heart of the camp.

During the period when God does not dwell in the camp, any individual who wants to communicate with God must go to the Tent of Meeting, which will be outside the camp. The Torah does not say whether Moses acts as an intermediary, or God answers the seekers who walk out to the Tent of Meeting directly. But the Torah does describe the experience of the people who wait in the camp while Moses goes to meet God.

Then it was, that when Moses was going out to the Tent, all the people stood up, and each one stationed himself at the petach of his tent, and they gazed after Moses until he came to the Tent. And it was, that when Moses came to the Tent, the pillar of the cloud descended, and it stood at the  petach of the Tent, and It spoke with Moses. And all the people saw the pillar of the cloud standing at the petach of the Tent, and all the people stood, and each one prostrated himself at the petach of his [own] tent. (Exodus 33:8-10)

petach  = opening, entrance, doorway

How do the people feel when they gaze after Moses, and see him speaking with the pillar of cloud ? How do they feel, knowing that they have jilted God?

The Talmud offers two different theories. In one, the people resent Moses so much, they accuse him of profiting at their expense. In the other, they admire Moses for his confidence that God will speak to him. Either way, they are painfully aware that Moses’ relationship with God is unbroken, while they are suffering through a separation. I think that their jealousy of Moses contains more longing than resentment, since they stand up respectfully when he leaves for the Tent of Meeting, and they prostrate themselves, bowing to God, when they see the pillar of cloud. These are the Israelites who survived the killings Moses and God carried out after the Golden Calf worship, presumably the ones who did not incite idol worship, but did look the other way. Now, after the death of their neighbors and the separation of God’s presence from the camp, the survivors  are humble.

The repetition of the Hebrew word petach indicates to me that this period between the destruction of the golden calf and the building of the sanctuary is is a time of openings and doorways. When Moses speaks with God at the entrance of the tent outside the camp, each Israelite stands alone in the entrance of his (and perhaps her) own tent. Each one longs for God from a distance. I can imagine an Israelite bowing down toward the distant God that he or she betrayed. A person’s tent is his dwelling-place, like his body, or his mind. Bowing to God leaves the doorway open; it makes an opening for change.

I have been feeling distant from God lately. I try to pray, since my prayers of gratitude used to make an opening for joy to enter my own “tent”. But these days, the prayers feel formulaic. I am not aware of doing anything to jilt God, but nevertheless I feel a separation. I wish I could see a Moses going out to the Tent of Meeting. Maybe the sight would inspire me. Or maybe then I’d know where to seek God.

The book of Exodus ends when the people have made everything to build a mishkan, a dwelling-place, for God, and Moses puts all the pieces together. Then God comes into the camp and dwells in their midst. In other words, the wedding resumes, and the covenant is cut or signed between the Israelites and God. Will something similar happen to each of us today, when we yearn for God? Will our longing make an opening? If we work hard to make God’s dwelling-place, will God become manifest to us?

And can we do it individually? Or do we need a whole community, a whole camp, to bring God into our midst?


Shabbat in Yitro, Mishpatim, & Ki Tissa: Soul Recovery

February 5, 2013 at 10:27 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Mishpatim, Yitro | 3 Comments

The curious verb nafash shows up only three times in the whole Hebrew Bible. The first occurrence comes in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Laws):

Six days you shall make your makings, and on the seventh day you shall shavat, in order that your ox and your donkey will rest in tranquility, and the son of your slave-woman and the resident foreigner vayinafeish. (Exodus 23:12)

shavat (שָׁבַת) = desist, cease, stop an activity. (From the same root as shabbat = day of stopping, not-doing.)

vayinafeish (וַיִּנָּפֵשׁ)vayinafash (וַיִּנָּפַשׁ) = and refreshed his/its soul, and recovered himself/itself, and re-animated himself/itself. (From the same root as nefesh = soul, the soul that animates the body, inclination, appetite.)

Hebrew has several words for “soul”; nefesh means the soul at the level that animates the body.  It also means an individual person, or an inclination or appetite. The corresponding verb nafash implies resting to recover one’s personal energy and self-direction.

This definition certainly applies to the only use of the verb nafash in the Hebrew Bible excluding the book of Exodus. In the second book of Samuel/Shmuel, King David and his men have endured a long march while Shimi, a member of Saul’s clan, walked beside them hurling insults, dirt clods, and stones. Finally they leave Shimi behind, and camp at the Jordan.

The king, and all the people who were with him, arrived exhausted; and he vayinafeish there. (2 Samuel 16:14)

King David and his men are used to marching; they are not exhausted physically, but their souls are exhausted by enduring the abuse. They rest to recover their animation and their inner selves.

The drudgery and daily misfortunes of life can wear down anyone’s soul at the nefesh level. So Mishpatim orders us to share our shabbat with  humans less fortunate than we are—including those who work for us, or who are alienated in our society—get one day a week to refresh their energy and recover their individual selves.

The Torah identifies two elements in this shabbat process:desisting from productive work, and refreshing the spirit. The desisting aspect of shabbat is emphasized in the fourth commandment:

Remember the day of the shabbat, to make it holy. Six days you shall serve and you shall do all your melakhah. But the seventh day is shabbat for God, your god; you shall not do any melakhah—you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your slave, nor your foreigner who is in your gates. Because for six days God made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and then (God) rested in tranquility on the seventh day.  Therefore God blessed the day of the shabbat and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)

melakhah (מְלָאכָה) = tasks, job, craft; creative work, productive work; project, enterprise.

The Hebrew Bible repeats this general injunction against doing creative or productive work on Shabbat many times.  It also specifically prohibits lighting a fire (Exodus 35:3), gathering food or wood (Exodus 16:23-30, Numbers 16:32-36), carrying burdens outside (Jeremiah 17:21), treading in a winepress (Nehemiah 13:15), and selling or buying food (Nehemiah 13:15-18). Apparently the Israelites needed extra reminders not to do any work related to getting food to the table.

Other activities prohibited on shabbat can be inferred, but are not actually stated in the bible. Later, the Talmud multiplied rules about what a Jew cannot do on shabbat. The 312-page Talmud tractate Shabbat discusses every finicky prohibition the rabbis of the first few centuries C.E. could imagine. Although many orthodox Jews today observe  shabbat according to strict and complex rules that evolved from the Talmud, I know that if I tried to imitate them, I would spend the whole day worrying. My anxiety and resentment would make  shabbat a day to dread, and I would look forward to the six weekdays when I could relax and refresh my soul!

Fortunately, the Torah itself offers a more attractive and interesting view of Shabbat for unorthodox people like me. Desisting from creative work is connected with recovering the soul in a passage from the upcoming portion of Exodus called Ki Tissa. (It is also part of the Shabbat liturgy.)

The children of Israel shall observe the shabbat, to make the shabbat for their generations a covenant for all time. Between Me and the children of Israel it will be a sign forever, because for six days God made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day (God) shavat and vayinafash. (Exodus 31:16-17)

I am awed by this portrayal of a god that changes through time, breathing life into the universe and then stopping to catch its breath and recover the divine soul. That is how I experience life, the universe, and everything—not as a static abstraction, but as the changing rhythmic flow of heartbeats, breaths, lifespans, seasons.

The Torah says that in order to be holy to God, we humans must add another rhythm to our lives: a seven-day cycle of work and rest, creative production and cessation. For six days we may pour out our energy and creativity into productive work, but on the seventh day we desist from creative work to re-center and re-animate our inner selves. 

But wait a minute! I used to need a day off from my bookkeeping job to recover my self. But a lot of the creative work I do now—including writing this blog—re-energizes me. When I finish writing an essay or a story, I feel joy, and a sense of purpose, and the re-centering that comes from returning to my own soul. Why should I deprive myself of creative work once a week?

One answer is that I cannot keep creating endlessly without pause. Even God, in the story of creation that opens the book of Genesis/Bereishit, divides the job into six separate days, completes each day of creation before starting the next, and then takes a break at the end. I need to finish a piece of work and then stop to pay attention to where I am and where God is. I can believe that I need not only those moments of stopping every day, but also a whole day of stoppage every week. a whole day to reconnect with myself and the holy.

Alas, I still have not developed a steady practice for spending the day of shabbat in tranquility, restoring my soul. Merely refraining from certain activities doesn’t do it for me. Joining my congregation in prayer is uplifting,  and following or leading Shabbat services does remind me of what to focus on. Yet all too often, the long drive and the personal interactions disturb my ability to focus on anything.

Nevertheless, I have not given up on establishing a shabbat practice. Any suggestions, readers?

Ki Tissa: Observing Shabbat

March 9, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa | Leave a comment

It’s Friday, I’ve had an exhausting week, and besides finally writing this blog and catching up on my work, I’m determined to clean the bathroom before sunset.

Any Jewish readers observe or try to observe Shabbat, Shabbes, the Sabbath, are smiling now.  It sounds wonderful to make one day a week a holy day of rest.  And the importance of keeping Shabbat comes up over and over again in the Torah, in the Talmud, and in the writings and talks of sages and rabbis for thousands of years, to this day.  Yet observing Shabbat can be so hard … and not just because it takes some preparation every Friday.  Even Jews committed to strict observance have to figure out how to carry out the letter of the law recorded in the Torah, which was written at a time when our lives today were unimaginable.  Jews who want to carry out the spirit of the law of Shabbat observance, in addition or instead of the letter of the law, also have a lot of figuring out to do.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (When you lift up), begins with God’s final instructions to Moses before God hands over the first pair of stone tablets popularly known as the Ten Commandments. After God finishes telling Moses how to make the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that will make God’s presence manifest,  and all the sacred objects in it, God says:

And you, you speak to the children of Israel, saying:  Nevertheless, guard my shabbatot, because that is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, in order to know that I, God, am making you holy.  (Exodus/Shemot 31:13)

shabbatot (שַׁבָּתֹת) = sabbaths, stopping-days

In other words, Shabbat is even more important than creating the sanctuary.  Every seventh day, the Israelites must stop doing the holy work God commanded, and do something different.  And after the sanctuary is built, the descendants of the Israelites, every generation, including Jews in the 21st century, must stop and do something different on Shabbat.  The Torah continues:

And you shall guard the shabbat because it is holy for you; whoever desecrates it will certainly die, for anyone who does melakhah on it, that soul shall be cut off from among its people.  (Exodus 31:14)

melakhah (מְלָאכָה) = tasks, job, crafts; creative work, productive work; project, enterprise.

What counts as melakhah?  The Hebrew bible gives six concrete examples of activities forbidden on Shabbat:  cooking manna (Exodus 16:23), lighting a fire (Exodus 35:3), gathering wood (Numbers 15:32),  carrying burdens into Jerusalem or out of your house (Jeremiah 17:21-22), treading grapes for  wine (Nehemiah 13:15), or buying and selling (Nehemiah 10:32).

From these examples, as well as from the multiple meanings of the word melakhah, and from lists of tasks necessary to build the sanctuary,  Jewish commentary from the Talmud to today extrapolates so many different arguments about what you shouldn’t do on Shabbat that my head spins.

But desisting from certain kinds of work is not all it takes to observe Shabbat.  This week’s Torah portion says that Shabbat is a sign that God is making us holy.  When we stop and rest on the seventh day, what do we do to realize that holiness?

I found two good clues in the Torah.  One comes from the book of Isaiah:

… turn back from stepping on ShabbatDoing whatever you want on My holy day/And instead call the Shabbat a delight/ The holy (day) of God an honor … (Isaiah 58:13)

Instead of stepping all over Shabbat by doing whatever you want, including melakhah, we should make Shabbat a delight and an honor to observe.

Another clue comes at the end of the warning about Shabbat in this week’s Torah portion:

Between Me and the children of Israel it is a sign forever, that for six days God made the heavens and the earth, but on the seventh day It stopped and was refreshed (shavat vayinafash).  (Exodus 31:17)

shavat (שָׁבַת) = he/it stopped, ceased, desisted. (From the same root as Shabbat)

vayinafash (וַיִּנָּפַשׁ) = and refreshed his/its soul, and recovered himself/itself, and re-animated himself/itself.

Here, God is refreshed by a day of rest.  Earlier in the book of Exodus (Mishpatim, 23:12), Israelites are required to desist from work on Shabbat so that all of their dependents (by example, the son of a maidservant) and the strangers living among them could be refreshed.

So how can I observe Shabbat in a way that will result in my being refreshed, re-animated, re-ensouled?  I confess that I am still trying to figure this out.  (For example, singing prayers with my congregation re-animates my soul, but driving an hour to where we meet—and back—wears me out.)

I do know that my spirit is brighter when I don’t have to look at a dirty bathroom.  So please excuse me now; Shabbat begins at sunset this evening, and Friday afternoon is all too short.

Ki Tissa: Out Came This Calf!

April 11, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa | 1 Comment

(This blog was first posted on February 16, 2011.)

While Moses is having a 40-day conversation with God on top of Mount Sinai, the people down below are wondering if they’ll ever see their leader again.

Thanks to his special relationship with God, Moses got them out of Egypt and as far as Mount Sinai.  He climbed up the mountain several times to communicate with God, and finally God and the people made a formal covenant.  At the end of that ritual, the 70 elders climbed halfway up Mount Sinai, met God,  and sat down to eat.  (See my post Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.)  Then Moses climbed the rest of the way up Mount Sinai.

The 70 elders came down and reported that everyone should stay at the foot of the mountain, and whoever had matters to speak about should approach Aaron or Chur (the two lieutenants who supported Moses’ arms for the victory over Amelek).  Seven days after that, the people see the glory of God like a fire on top of Mount Sinai. (See my  post Mishpatim: Seeing the Cloud.)  But Moses does not come back down.

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“when you lift up”), the people despair of ever seeing their leader again.

The people saw that Moses was taking too long to come down from the mountain, and the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Get up!   Make for us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him.”  (Exodus 32:1)

They are asking for a replacement for Moses, not a replacement for God.  They need an intermediary to “go before” them, to show them both where to walk and how to behave.  The pillar of cloud and fire that led them across the Reed Sea is gone (transmuted, perhaps, into the cloud and fire that appears at the top of Mount Sinai).  Now Moses is also gone.  So they want a new guide:   “gods”, elohim, idols.

Gold calf from Temple of Baalat, Byblos

And Aaron said to them: Strip off the gold rings that are in the ears of your women, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me. …  And he took from their hand, and he shaped it with the chisel, and he made a bull-calf of metal-work; then they said: These are your gods, Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt   (Exodus 32:2, 4)

cheret = chisel, stylus, engraving tool; an item used by an Egyptian seer or magician

Alas, when Moses descends after 40 days with the stone tablets from God, the people are having an orgy in front of a golden idol.  He flings down the tablets and shatters them.  He grinds up the calf, dumps the gold dust in water, and makes the Israelites drink it.  Then he asks Aaron: “What did these people do to you, that you brought such great guilt upon them?”  Aaron’s answer is revealing.

They said to me: Make for us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him.  And I said to them: Who has gold?  They stripped it off themselves and they gave it to me.  So I flung it into the fire, and out came this bull-calf.  (Exodus 32:23-24)

Aaron’s first sentence repeats the Torah’s earlier account word for word.  But then, instead of admitting that he personally shaped the gold into a calf, Aaron gives what sounds like a child’s lame excuse.  Why doesn’t he confess?

Classic commentary, including Vayikra Rabbah and Rashi, points out that Moses put Aaron and Chur in charge while he was up in the clouds listening to God—and Chur is never mentioned again.  Therefore, the subset of the people who wanted idols must have come to Chur first, and killed him when he refused to cooperate.  Next the gang approached Aaron.  Aaron was afraid they would kill him, too, and the Israelites would incur guilt before God for a second murder.  So he cooperated, but proceeded as slowly as possible, hoping at each step that Moses would return and stop the people before they did anything worse. When Moses did return, Aaron gave him a brief, vague answer so as not to implicate anyone else in the crime.

I have an alternate explanation:     The 40 days that Moses is on top of Mount Sinai are a surreal time for Aaron.  He is still exalted by the vision of God on a sapphire pavement that he and the elders were granted halfway up Mount Sinai.  But many people lose hope and demand idols.  Chur refuses, and Aaron is shocked by his murder.  How can the glory of God and the murder of a respected elder coexist in the same world?  And how can God use Moses as his right hand, and then (apparently) let him die on Mount Sinai with the job of transforming history unfinished?

With despair, Aaron concludes that this religion of Moses’ doesn’t work.  You can’t count on God, and you can’t control anything God does.  Magic works better.  If you do magic right, you can count on the right result.  No wonder the priests of Egypt coaxed their gods into inhabiting idols!

Numbly, Aaron offers to melt gold for the rebels and see what happens. Maybe the God of Moses will manifest again.  Or maybe there will be a sign.

When the fire cools, the amorphous mass of gold looks vaguely like a calf.  If he squints, Aaron sees the four legs, the head, the body.  The second commandment forbids him from making a metal image from scratch, but this crude calf seems to have coalesced by magic.  Someone hands Aaron a stylus, a tool taken from an Egyptian magician the night before the exodus.  Aaron discovers he can easily make the mass of gold look even more like a calf.

And Aaron’s golden calf works like magic.  The people take heart again.  When Aaron uses the four-letter name of the God of Israel to call for animal sacrifices and feasting, the people rejoice; they are confident that the golden idol will replace Moses as their intermediary with God.

Later, when Moses questions Aaron, he tells the truth:  “I flung it into the fire, and out came this bull-calf.”  It was magic.

Magical thinking is still easier for us than religion.  Maybe only a small child believes that on Passover, an invisible prophet Elijah actually drinks the wine in Elijah’s cup.  But how many adults, in a desperate moment, pray to God by promising they’ll “be good”, they’ll do anything, if only God will give them what they’re asking for? And how many of us interpret mysterious events and coincidences as “signs” that something we’re reaching for is “meant to be”, intended by God?

We just fling our gold into the fire, and out comes a calf.


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