Vayakheil+4: Not on Shabbat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Don’t move

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

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

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

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

2) Holy break

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

The Creation, by Lucas Cranach, 1534, Luther Bible

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

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

3) Ethical refreshment

The third injunction about shabbat is in the portion Mishpatim:

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

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

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

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

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

4) Be holy or die

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

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

shabtotai (שַׁבְּתֺתַי) = my shabbats.

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

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

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

This injunction in Ki Tisa continues:

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

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

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

5) No farming

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

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

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

Sheaves of grain

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

6) Light no fires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Commandments by Jekuthiel Sofer, 1768

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

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

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

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

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The Ninth Commandment

Witness stand, by Ida Libby Dengrove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tenth Commandment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You must not covet anything that belongs to another person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Seventh Commandment

Lo tinaf. (Exodus 20:13)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Eighth Commandment

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

Lo tignov. (Exodus 20:14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I proposed rephrasing the eighth commandment slightly:

You must not covertly take what rightfully belongs to another.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Fifth Commandment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sixth Commandment

The Servants of Absalom Killing Amnon, Heinrich Aldegrever, 1540

Lo tirtzach. (Exodus 20:13)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then God tells Moses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Repost: Mishpatim

February 19, 2020 at 9:12 am | Posted in Mishpatim | 2 Comments

My heart was heavy three years ago when I wrote about this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws), and its injunctions to treat foreigners and resident aliens fairly.  Mistreatment of refugees who cross into my country, the United States, was on the rise.  So was intolerance of resident aliens already living and working here.  A demagogue had got himself elected president of the U.S.A. by encouraging people to blame immigrants for their problems instead of asking for reform.

You can read my post here: Mishpatim & Psalms 39 and 119: Foreigners.

This year, although I still worry about the news from the United States, I am caught up in the experience of being a foreigner myself.  I am not exactly a geir (גֵר) = foreigner, stranger, resident alien, sojourner, immigrant, non-citizen.  I have my American passport, and eventually my husband and I will return to the country where we were born.  In case of a serious emergency, we have travel insurance and the promise of help from a U.S. consul.

Nevertheless we are strangers, and in each new country where we rent an apartment for two weeks to two months, we have to figure out how things work.  We find some people who speak enough English to answer some of our questions, but we pick up other rules for behavior by observation.

Laundry at the former Augobio Venetian palace inside Diocletian’s Roman palace, Split, Croatia

Our biggest challenge was our first country, Czechia.  That’s where we learned how to arrange our lives around laundry.  The European norm is to have a small washing machine in your apartment and hang up your clothes to dry.  In Prague you drape clothes over a drying rack.  Everywhere else we’ve been, you also have the option of pinning your wet clothing to a line strung outside a window (if you can reach the line and you know you won’t drop anything).  Either way, laundry takes a long time to dry, and must be managed carefully so your supply of wet clothing does not back up.

Czechia is also where we learned not to smile all the time, the way Americans do.  People respond better if you smile at them only when it is customary—and the customs are different in each country.

Food is also a challenge for us everywhere, thanks to the language barrier and the limitations in our diets.  At grocery stores, we go by the pictures on the packages as much as we can.  Asking our cell phones for translations of specific words can lead to humorous results.  Asking other shoppers can lead to blank stares, and asking store employees is a gamble.  One clerk might struggle through the language barrier to help us, and teach us how to pronounce a new word in the process.  Another might glare and snap something incomprehensible to us.

In all four European countries where we’ve lived so far, you weigh your own produce and the machine spits out a sticker to put on your plastic bag.  Sometimes.  And when you go through the cashier’s line, you bag your own groceries.  If you didn’t bring a bag, you buy one there.

As for restaurants, only those that cater to tourist traffic have menus with English translations.  Timing also matters.  In Croatia we learned that most folks eat their big meal of the day around 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon.  We were the first customers at a fine restaurant that opened at 1:30, and not all the dishes on the menu were available yet.

Acting like a Croatian in Split

Before and after the big, late lunch, Croatians go to a café and sip coffee over a leisurely conversation, making one cup last an hour or more.  Many coffee bars also sell alcoholic drinks, and bar food after dark, but the slow sipping is the same.  As in Italy, you pay for your coffee or your meal when you are ready to leave, not when you order it, and you have to ask for the check.

Where do you buy a city bus ticket?  Which types of business are open on Sundays?  What is the procedure at a post office?  Where do you put your trash?  The answers to these questions have been different in each city where we’ve lived.

When I reread the post I wrote in 2017 on Mishpatim and two psalms, I smiled when I reached this sentence:  “The overall theme of Psalm 119 is the longing to understand what God wants—which is like the longing of geirim to understand how things work in the strange country where they now live.”

Next week we will be in Jerusalem.  Unlike most pilgrims from America, we will not be part of a guided tour, but on our own, living in an apartment for a month.  We will be puzzling out words in modern Hebrew, which is spelled without vowel markings, so my knowledge of Biblical Hebrew will not be much help.  I have heard that Israelis are outgoing and outspoken, but I do not know how things work in their country.  Even though we are Jews, we will be geirim in Israel.

Mishpatim: On Slavery

February 1, 2019 at 11:21 am | Posted in Mishpatim | 1 Comment

The same word, avodah, means both “service” and “slavery” in Biblical Hebrew.  Just as today we consider it virtuous to serve a good cause, the ancient Israelites considered it virtuous to serve God.  But is it ever virtuous to serve a human master?  Or to be one?

Jacob and Rachel, by William Dyce

The word avodah first appears in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, after Jacob works for his uncle Lavan for seven years as his bride-price for Rachel.  When Lavan gives him Rachel’s sister Leah as a bride instead, Jacob complains.  Lavan replies that Jacob can marry Rachel in only one week, but then he owes Lavan another seven years of avodah that ta-avod with me”.  (Genesis/Bereishit 29:7)

avodah (עֲבֺדָה) = service, slavery, labor.  (From the root verb avad, עָבַד = serve, be a slave, perform rites for a god, work.)

ta-avod (תַּעֲבֺד) = you shall serve, you shall be a slave.  (A form of the verb avad.)

When Jacob agrees, he is voluntarily selling himself as a temporary slave, i.e. an indentured servant who has no rights during his term of indenture, but is free once it ends.

Another type of involuntary labor is corvée labor, when a ruler or feudal lord imposes unpaid labor on people for certain periods of time.  In Exodus/Shemot, the Pharaoh decides to impose corvée labor on the resident Israelites.

Slaves making bricks, tomb of Rekmire, c. 1450 BCE

The Egyptians, vaya-avidu the Israelites with crushing torment, and made their lives bitter with hard avodah with mortar and bricks, and with every avodah in the field, all of their crushing avodah that avdu.  (Exodus/Shemot 1:13-14)

vaya-avidu (וַיַּעֲבִדוּ) = they enslaved, they forced to work.  (Another form of the verb avad.)

avdu (עָבְדוּ) = they labored at, they slaved away at.

Yet the Torah accepts that the Israelites themselves own slaves, and it provides laws granting slaves limited rights.  These rights are more limited for foreign slaves (Canaanites as well as people whom Israelites defeat in battle and bring home as booty) than for slaves who are fellow Israelites.  Out of the first eleven laws in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”), five concern the treatment of slaves.  The first two laws set terms for Israelite slaves:

      If you acquire a Hebrew eved, six years ya-avod … (Exodus 21:2)

      And if a man sells his daughter as an amah … (Exodus 21:7)

eved (עֶבֶד), plural avadim (עֲבָדִים) = (male) slave; dependent subordinate (such as an advisor or administrator) to a ruler.  (From the root verb avad.)

ya-avod (יַעֲבֺד) = he will work for a master, be a slave, serve.  (A form of the verb avad.)

amah (אָמָה) = foreign or Israelite slave-girl; foreign slave-woman.

Three more laws in Mishpatim address the most egregious abuses of foreign slaves:

      And if a man strikes his eved or his amah with a stick and he dies … (Exodus 21:20)

      And if a man strikes the eye of his eved or his amah and destroys it … (Exodus 21:26)

      If the ox gores an eved or an amah … (Exodus 21:32)

Although the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy upgrade the laws in this week’s Torah portion and grant both foreign and Israelite slaves additional rights,1 the institution of slavery is never outlawed in the Hebrew Bible.2

Temporary slaves

There is no requirement that foreign slaves must be freed.  Unless an owner decides to release a slave in exchange for payment, the condition of slavery is permanent, and the slave is inherited by the owner’s heirs.3

But an Israelite slave is always temporary, unless he himself chooses to make his condition permanent.4

A free Israelite man who is impoverished or indebted, and has sold everything else he owns, may sell himself.  That way he and his family will have food, clothing, and shelter while he works for his master.  In addition, a court can sell a convicted thief if he does not have the means to repay the person he stole from.5

An Israelite girl becomes a slave if her father sells her while she is still a minor.  That way her father receives a payment at once in lieu of the bride-price he would normally receive when she reaches puberty and marries.

Unlike a foreign slaves, Israelite slaves must be given the option of freedom after six years, in the Jubilee year, or when their kinsmen redeem them, whichever comes first.6  Meanwhile, temporary slavery is acceptable as long as the master follows the laws, starting with the laws laid out in this week’s Torah portion.

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If you acquire a Hebrew eved, six years ya-avod, and in the seventh he shall leave free, without charge.  If he comes alone, he leaves alone.  If he is the husband of a woman, then she leaves with him.  (Exodus 21:2-3)

The slave does not have to repay his master for any expenses incurred during the period of his servitude.  And if he was married when he was sold, his master must also take in his wife and children, so they will not go homeless.7

If his master gives him a woman and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children will belong to her master, and he [the Israelite slave] will leave alone.  (Exodus 21:4)

The Israelite slave’s master can, however, use him for stud service, to breed children with a non-Israelite female slave.  These children will be permanent slaves, like their mother.8

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The Torah portion Mishpatim also lays out the terms of service for a female Israelite slave.  Even free women in ancient Israel were considered the property of their fathers, husbands, or nearest male kin, but the only Israelite female called a slave (amah) was a girl sold by her father.

And if a man sells his daughter as an amah, she shall not leave like the avadim.  If she is undesirable in the eyes of her master who had designated her for himself, he shall turn her over [arrange to have her redeemed].  He shall not exercise dominion over her to sell her to strange people, since he has broken faith with her.  (Exodus 21:7-8)

Slave-girl and Naaman’s Wife, from Rev. Hurlburt, Story of the Bible, 1904

In the Torah a man can buy a future wife or concubine, for himself or for his son, when she is still underage. Her purchase price is then considered an advance payment of the bride-price that a groom pays before he marries.  By this means impoverished fathers could sell their daughters for cash without waiting for them to come of age.

If the girl reaches puberty and her owner decides not to marry her after all, he must arrange for her family to redeem her by repaying him; he cannot sell her to anyone else.  If her owner bought her as a future wife for his son, the marriage must take place.

And if he designated her for his son, he shall treat her as is the law of daughters: if he marries another, he shall not diminish her [the former amah’s] meals, covering [clothing or honor], or right to marital intercourse.  (Exodus 21:9-10)

Once the girl marries her owner or her owner’s son, she must be treated like any wife and given food, clothing, honor, and sex, regardless of whether her husband likes another of his wives better.

In other words, the amah’s owner is obligated to make an acceptable provision for her when she comes of age. The three things the Torah considers most acceptable are marriage to the owner, marriage to the owner’s son, or a return to her original family.

And if he [the owner] does not do [any of] these three things, she shall leave without charge, without any silver.  (Exodus 21:11)

If her owner does not provide for her in any of the three preferred ways, then he must set her free like a male Israelite slave who has completed his period of service, without charging her anything.  (Non-Israelite slaves would have to pay their owners to be set free.)  Freedom was an inferior option for a young woman in ancient Israelite society, since it was hard for a single woman to make a living, but at least it was better than being sold to an outsider.

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The Torah’s laws about slavery, in this week’s Torah portion and elsewhere, provide some rights for slaves in a society where slavery is normal.  Does that mean these laws have only historical interest to us today?

Alas, no.  In the United States, for example, the conquering Europeans treated the indigenous peoples the way the conquering Israelites treated the Canaanites, refusing to grant them the same legal rights to life and liberty.  The Americans in power also enslaved people who were kidnapped from their homes in Africa, just like the Israelites enslaved foreigners captured in battle. Although Native and African Americans now have legal equity, they remain at a disadvantage due to earlier injustice and continuing prejudice.

Furthermore, throughout the United States there are still many people who are so impoverished, in terms of finances and/or knowledge, that they “sell” themselves by doing degrading, dangerous, or illegal work in order to feed themselves and their families.  Our “social safety net”  limits the level of impoverishment in some circumstances, but it is currently being reduced rather than expanded.

Those who struggle under a disadvantage should not be left alone to starve.  The Torah’s solution, temporary slavery, is essentially adoption by a wealthier family that can support the impoverished in exchange for their labor.  But with all our resources in the United States, we can do better.  Collectively, through taxes, we can and should rescue the destitute with solutions that give them basic living expenses, health care, and education. Other rich countries today are farther along this path; it is time for Americans to catch up and stop treating disadvantaged people like slaves.

  1. E.g. Deuteronomy 15:12-14 on Israelite slaves, Deuteronomy 21:10-11 on foreign female slaves (see my post Ki Teitzei: Captive Soul).
  2. The Talmud, Gittin 65a, claims that slavery was abolished when the first temple fell and there were no more Jubilee years when all Israelite slaves were freed and their family lands returned to them. But the books of Ezra and Nehemiah count 7,337 male and female slaves among the households that returned from Babylonia to Jerusalem to build the second temple (Ezra 2:65, Nehemiah 7:67).
  3. Leviticus 25:44-46.
  4. Exodus 21:5-6 in this week’s Torah portion.
  5. Exodus 22:2 in this week’s Torah portion.
  6. Male Israelite slaves are freed in the seventh year in Exodus 21:2-3; female Israelite slaves have the same right by the time of Deuteronomy 15:17. Every fiftieth year all Israelite slaves are freed and their ancestral lands are returned to them (Leviticus 25:10-28, 25:39-43).  A male slave’s kinsmen can redeem him before his term is up by paying for his remaining years (Leviticus 25:50-52), and a female slave’s kinsmen can redeem her when she reaches puberty, providing that her master or his son no longer want to marry her (Exodus 21:7-8).
  7. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), Rambam (12th-centery rabbi Moses ben Maimon), Ramban (13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman), and subsequent tradition.
  8. Rashi and Ramban on Exodus 21:4.

Mishpatim: The Immigrant

February 7, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Posted in Mishpatim | 8 Comments

Aramean Immigrants in Canaan

The first immigrant in the Bible is Abraham.

And God said to Abraham: “Go for yourself, away from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 12:10)

Abraham, his wife Sarah, his nephew Lot, and all the people who work for them leave the land of Aram forever and immigrate to Canaan, where they become neighbors, allies, and trading partners with the natives.

Just as most Americans who were born in the United States are descended from immigrants, the “native citizens” of the two Israelite kingdoms traced their descent to the immigrants Abraham and Sarah.

Israelite Immigrants in Egypt

Abraham and Sarah’s grandson Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, immigrates to Egypt with his entire family.

According to the Torah the Israelites (“the Children of Israel”) live there for 430 years1—but the Egyptians still view them as foreigners.  Two pharaohs worry that if the Israelites become too populous they might rebel and fight against Egypt.2

They finally do rebel, but without fighting.  The Israelites and some fellow-travelers walk away from slavery and out of Egypt, following Moses and God’s pillar of cloud and fire.

God’s plan is to “give” the Israelites the land of Canaan, where their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were once resident aliens.

Immigrants in Israelite Kingdoms

At Mount Sinai, after the revelation with the ten commandments, God gives the people a series of more specific laws in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”).  One law becomes a theme in the Hebrew Bible:

You may not oppress a geir, nor may you push him around3, for you yourselves were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Exodus/Shemot 22:20)

geir (גֵּר), plural geirim (גֵּרִים) = immigrant, resident alien; (or) a foreign man who has settled down in ancient Israel, has been circumcised, and observes the state religion.  (From the root verb gur, גוּר.)

As far as we know, no other country in the Ancient Near East had a law against oppressing immigrants.  From Exodus to Malachi, the Hebrew Bible tells us 13 times not to oppress, push, wrong, or exploit a geirFour of those times the bible adds that we were geirim in Egypt.4

Later in this week’s Torah portion, God elaborates:

You may not push around a geir; and you know the nefesh of a geir, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Exodus 23:9)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = soul that animates the body, state of mind, inclination, appetite.

Does knowing the state of mind of an immigrant help people to treat new immigrants fairly?

Twentieth-century scholar Nehama Leibowitz has pointed out that many people who were oppressed in the past become tyrants themselves if they come into positions of power.5  This, she wrote, is why Ramban interpreted the phrase “you were geirim in the land of Egypt” as a reminder that the Egyptian oppressors thought there was no one to help the Israelites, but God responded to their cries—and destroyed much of Egypt in the process.6  The implied warning is: When you have your own land, don’t imagine that the strangers living among you will be helpless.  God will respond to the cries of any immigrants you oppress, and then you’ll be sorry.

The bible distinguishes between a visiting foreigner, who is not expected to observe Israelite religious law, and a geir, a resident alien who has no other home.  A geir must follow the same rules as a native about holy days,7 burnt offerings to the God of Israel,8 blasphemy9, child sacrifice,10 and procedures regarding dead animals11.

Natives and geirim get equal rights as well as equal responsibilities.  Judges are forbidden to wrong a geir12, and the cities of refuge are available to a geir as well as a native who commits accidental manslaughter.13

Furthermore, employers must let the geirim who work for them take a day off every week, just like the Israelites.14  One law in the portion Mishpatim states:

Six days you shall do your jobs, but on the seventh day you shall cease, so that your ox and your donkey shall rest, and the son of your slave-woman and the geir yinafeish.  (Exodus 23:12)

yinafeish (יִנָּפֵשׁ) = he shall refresh his nefesh, recover himself, reanimate himself.  (See my post Shabbat in Yitro, Mishpatim, and Ki Tissa: Soul Recovery.)

The Gleaners,
by Jean Francois Millet

The bible considers geirim a disadvantaged group, like widows, fatherless children, and the very poor, so there are many reminders that the rest of society must help them.  Every year, land owners must leave behind gleanings for the poor, widows, orphans, and geirim.15  Every third year, they must give a tithe to feed several groups of people who do not own land, including geirim.16

Why were geirim at a disadvantage?  Modern scholars have noted that resident aliens were especially vulnerable to being cheated and taken advantage of, because unlike ordinary Israelites, they had no clan network to protect them, and unlike visiting foreigners, they could not call on their own countries for succor.17  Furthermore, they had no hereditary land in either of the two kingdoms of Israel.  They could buy land, but every fiftieth year the land reverted to the Israelite clan that originally owned it.18

When Immigrants Are Fellow-Travelers to Canaan

All the biblical laws about not oppressing geirim and making sure they have enough to eat apply to geirim who arrive after the Israelites have established their own country in the land formerly called Canaan.

But three times in the bible, when Israelites are preparing to seize the land of Canaan, the geirim who chose to travel with the Israelites are included as regular citizens of the new kingdom-to-be.

In Deuteronomy, Moses declares that all the geirim who traveled with the Israelites from Egypt will be included in the covenant with God.19  Joshua then seizes much of Canaan through war, killing or subjugating the native population (as Europeans did to the native populations in America in order to seize their land).  But when Joshua holds a covenantal ceremony for the new owners of the land, he asks the children of the geirim who traveled with the Israelites from Egypt to join the Israelites in the ritual blessing at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval.20

During the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century B.C.E., the prophet Ezekiel tells the Israelites that when they finally return to their old land, they will be allotted land-holdings along with the geirim among them.  And they will be for you as native-born citizens, along with the Children of Israel … (Ezekiel 47:22)

*

In short, the bible dictates that people from other ethnic groups who joined the Israelites in Egypt or Babylon will become citizens just like the descendants of Jacob.  People who immigrate separately to the land of Israel must receive the same rights and responsibilities as native-born citizens.  God decrees that these geirim must not be cheated or oppressed.  They have to be treated with justice and kindness, and if they are poor they must be fed the same way as the poor among the Israelites.

These laws about treating immigrants as equals were so important that they were repeated again and again in the Hebrew Bible.

If the relatively primitive culture of ancient Israel held this standard, I wonder why the United States of America cannot do the same today?

  1. Exodus 12:40.
  2. Both the first and the second pharaoh in the Exodus story enslave the Israelites by assigning them to corvee labor making bricks, building cities, and doing fieldwork (Exodus 1:8-14, 5:4-9), on the theory that if they have no free time, they cannot rebel. The first pharaoh also tries to reduce the Israelite population through infanticide (Exodus 1:15-22).
  3. The verb lachatz (לָחַץ) can mean press toward, crowd, oppress, push toward, or push around.
  4. We are told not to oppress (inah, עִנָּה) or push around (lachatz, לָחַץ) or subvert the rights of (hitah mishpat, הִטָּה מִשְׁפַּט) or exploit (ashak, עָשָׁק) a geir in Exodus 20:20 and 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 1:16, 24:14, 24:17-18, and 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6 and 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7 and 22:29; Zecharaiah 7:10, and Malachi 3:5. A reference to the Israelites being geirim in Egypt is included in Exodus 20:20 and 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, and Deuteronomy 24:17-18.  God tells native citizens to love the geir in Leviticus 19:33-34 and Deuteronomy 10:19.
  5. Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, Part II, translated by Aryeh Newman, Joint Authority of Jewish Zionist Education, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 384-6.
  6. 13th century rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, or Nachmanides.
  7. Exodus 12:19 and 12:48-49; Leviticus 16:29; Numbers 9:14; and Deuteronomy 16:11-12 and 16:14.
  8. When geirim make burnt offerings to the God of Israel, they must follow the same rules as natives in Leviticus 17:8 and 22:18, Numbers 15:14-16 (which adds “you are alike before God”), and Numbers 19:10. Geirim are also included in the community that God forgives when it unknowingly makes an error in observance (Numbers 15:16 and 15:29).
  9. Leviticus 24:16 (using God’s name in blasphemy) and Numbers 15:30 (reviling God).
  10. Geirim, like native citizens, are forbidden to offer their children to Molech (Leviticus 18:26 and 20:2).
  11. Geirim as well as natives are forbidden to eat the blood of slaughtered animals (Leviticus 17:10-13) or animal carcasses killed by predators (Leviticus 17:15).  Leviticus 24:21-22 says the law about making restitution if you kill someone else’s livestock also applies to geirim.
  12. For example, see Exodus 12:49, Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 14-16, Deuteronomy 1:16, and Jeremiah 22:3.
  13. Numbers 35:15 and Joshua 20:9.
  14. Shabbat for geirim is mandated in Exodus 20:10 (one of the Ten Commandments), Exodus 23:12 (translated above), and Numbers 5:14.
  15. Leviticus 19:10 and 23:22.
  16. Deuteronomy 14:29 and 26:11-13.
  17. James L. Kugel, The God of Old, The Free Press, New York, p. 109; and W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 582.
  18. See my post Behar: Owning Land.
  19. Deuteronomy 29:10.
  20. Joshua 8:33-35.

Mishpatim & Psalms 39 and 119: Foreigners

February 23, 2017 at 8:46 am | Posted in Mishpatim, Psalms/Tehilim | 4 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.)

Us and them.  Citizens and foreigners.  Friends and enemies.

Human nature always divides members of our species into two or more groups. But how we treat the “out” group depends on our ethical, religious, and political rules.

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”), is set at Mt. Sinai, long before the Israelites conquer part of Canaan and set up their own government. But it includes a series of laws written after the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were founded. One of the subjects these laws address is how to treat immigrants and conquered natives.

Egyptian beating a slave

Egyptian beating a slave

A geir you shall not cheat nor oppress, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt. (Exodus/Shemot 22:20)

geir (גֵר) = foreigner, stranger, resident alien, sojourner, immigrant, non-citizen.  From the root verb gar (גָּר) = sojourned, stayed with, resided with.

geirim (גֵרִים) = Plural of geir.

(The meaning of geir shifted in Jewish writings after 100 C.E., coming to mean a proselyte or convert.)

After a few more laws, the Torah portion Mishpatim adds:

And a geir you shall not oppress, for you yourselves know the feelings of the geir, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Exodus/Shemot 23:9)

Unlike foreigners who are merely visiting another country, geirim are displaced persons who cannot call on their former clan chiefs (or national governments) for protection. They are at the mercy of the country where they now live, subject to the whims of its ruler and its wealthy citizens. Unless their new host country protects them, they are subject to deportation even when they no longer have a home to return to (like resident aliens in the United States today), or to slavery (like the Israelites in Egypt at the beginning of the book of Exodus).

This week’s Torah portion gives one example of not oppressing a geir who works for you:

Six days you shall do your doings, but on the seventh day you shall stop, so that your ox and your donkey shall rest, and the son of your slave woman and the geir shall refresh their souls.  (Exodus 23:12)

Ruth (a foreigner) Gleaning, by R.F. Babcock

Ruth (a foreigner) gleaning,
by R.F. Babcock

The Hebrew Bible includes many further injunctions to treat geirim with consideration.1  In summary, if geirim are servants of Israelites, they must get the same holiday feasts and days off as native slaves or servants.  If geirim are hired laborers, they must be paid daily, like Israelite laborers.  If geirim are not attached to an Israelite household and are impoverished, they get the same rights as impoverished citizens.  Geirim are even urged to flee to the same cities of refuge if they are unjustly accused of murder.

Since the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are theocracies, treating their geirim like citizens also means the geirim must conform at least outwardly to Israelite religious life, and suffer the same punishments for transgressions.2

However, two kinds of discrimination against geirim are sanctioned in the Torah: an Israelite may not charge interest on a loan to a kinsman, but may charge interest on a loan to a geir 3; and while an Israelite can always redeem a kinsman from slavery by paying the slave’s owner, a geir has no such right.4

Nevertheless, the Bible urges the Israelites to love the geirim living in their land.5

Mt. Gezerim left, Mt. Eival right.

Mt. Gezerim left,
Mt. Eival right.

In three books of the Bible, resident geirim are even included in the covenant with God.6  One example is when Joshua enters Canaan and enacts a ritual of covenant at Mt. Eival.

All Israel—its elders, its officials, and its judges—were standing on either side of the ark, facing the priests of the Levites, carriers of the ark of the covenant of God—the geir the same as the native.  (Joshua 8:33)

(In this case, “native” (ezrach, אֶזְרָח) means someone of Israelite ancestry, since both the Israelites and their fellow travelers are newcomers to Canaan.)

Another example is when the prophet Ezekiel predicts a new covenant with God once the Israelite deportees in Babylon move back to their old land.  In this covenant, people who were once geirim become citizens of the tribes they lived with.

You shall divide up this land for yourselves among the tribes of Israel. And you shall cast [lots] for hereditary possessions, for yourselves and for the geirim who are garim among you … And the geir will be in the tribe that gar with; there you will give him his hereditary possession—declares my Master, God.  (Ezekiel 47:21-23)

garim (גָּרִים) = sojourning, staying with, residing with as foreigners.  (From the root verb gar.)

gar (גָּר) = he sojourned, stayed with, resided with.

All these rules ensuring fairness to the geirim would not have been written unless some native Israelites were mistreating resident aliens.  The Torah correctly points out that the geirim are vulnerable outsiders, just as the Israelites were once vulnerable outsiders in Egypt.

*

Psalms 39 and 119 take the idea of the geir to the next level.  If non-citizens are vulnerable in the country where they live, then perhaps humans are vulnerable before God, whose ways are mysterious.

Psalm 39 introduces a speaker who is worried about the shortness of his life.  He alludes to a scourge from God, probably an illness.  The psalm concludes:

praying           Hear my prayer, God,

                        And listen to my cry for help!

                        Do not be silent to my tears.

            For I am a geir with You,

                        A resident alien, like all my forefathers.

            Look away from me, and I will recover,

                        Before I depart and I am not.  (Psalm 39:13-14)

Like a geir, this psalmist feels vulnerable and uncertain of God’s ultimate protection.  Instead of asking God to intervene, he begs God to ignore him so he can at least enjoy the remainder of his short life.  A geir does not dare to ask for too much.

*

Psalm 119, written during the time of the second temple, is the longest in the book of Psalms.  Its 176 verses begin with letters of the alphabet from alef to tav, the equivalent of the English A to Z.  There are eight verses for each letter, and all are variations on the theme of praying to God for help in learning and understanding God’s laws.  The verses that begin with the letter gimmel (ג) open with:

           Finish maturing (גְּמֺל) Your servant!  I will live and I will observe Your word.

            Uncover (גַּל) my eyes, and I will look upon the wonders of Your teaching.

            A geir (גֵּר) I am in the land; do not hide from me Your commands.

            My soul pines away (גָּרְסָה), longing for Your laws at all times.  (Psalm 119:17-20)

The psalmist expresses the feeling of being a vulnerable outsider who does not understand what is really going on.  Anyone who seeks to serve a God who has issued hundreds of laws yet remains inscrutable feels like a geir.  The overall theme of Psalm 119 is the longing to understand what God wants—which is like the longing of geirim to understand how things work in the strange country where they now live.                    

*

I appreciate how the Torah insists we must treat non-citizens with fairness and consideration, and reminds us that we have all been geirim at some time.  Even if we have enjoyed the rights of the innermost in-group of native citizens our whole lives, we are still geirim with God.

And even within our own social circles, we get along better if we keep working to understand what our friends are really saying, how the world really looks to them.  Ultimately, each of us is a geir with every other person, as well as with God—and perhaps even with ourselves.

1  Enjoying Shabbat and holidays:  Exodus 12:19, 12:48, 20:10, 23:12; Numbers 35:15; Deuteronomy 5:14, 16:14, 26:11-13.

Receiving wages promptly:  Deuteronomy 24:14.

Receiving assistance like the native poor:  Geirim are usually listed along with widows and fatherless children as entitled to glean produce from private fields, orchards and vineyards (Leviticus 19:10, 23:22; Deuteronomy 21:20, 24:17, 24:19, 24:20; also see Ruth ch. 2); to take home a share of the tithe for the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29); and to receive just redress (Deuteronomy 24:14; Jeremiah 7:6, 22:3; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5).

Using cities of refuge: Joshua 20:9.

2  Observing the native religion:  Both citizens and geirim must fast on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29), bring their burnt offerings to the alter of the God of Israel (Leviticus 17:8-9, 22:18), refrain from eating blood (Leviticus 17:10, 17:13), obey Israelite laws about permitted sexual partners (Leviticus 18:26), avoid taking God’s name in vain (Leviticus 24:16), and refrain from worshiping idols (Leviticus 20:2; Numbers 15:26, 15:29, 15:30, 19:10; Ezekiel 14:7).

3  Paying interest:  Leviticus 25:35.

4  Lacking the right of redemption:  Leviticus 25:35-36.

5  Being loved: Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 10:18-19, 24:14.

6  Being included in the covenant: Deuteronomy 29:9-11, 31:12; Joshua 8:33, 8:35; Ezekiel 47:21-23.

 

 

 

Haftarat Mishpatim—Jeremiah: False Freedom

January 31, 2016 at 11:07 am | Posted in Jeremiah, Mishpatim | 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 Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18), and the haftarah is Jeremiah 34:8-22.

Town by town, city by city, the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar took over the land of Judah. The country could have remained a semi-independent vassal of Babylon, keeping its own temple and running its own internal affairs. But the last three kings of the Israelites had rebelled against their overlord. And each time Nebuchadnezzar’s retaliation had been more severe.

King Nebuchadnezzar

King Nebuchadnezzar

The prophet Jeremiah kept warning the kings of Judah to keep paying tribute to Babylon, but they never listened to him. Instead they flirted with Egypt. Only Jeremiah realized what was obvious to the Babylonians: that when Pharaoh Nekho lost the big battle with Nebuchadnezzar at Carchemish in 605 B.C.E., and lost all his vassal states to the new Babylonian Empire, Egypt was finished as a world power.

When King Yehoyakhim of Judah stopped paying tribute to Babylon in 597 B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem until it surrendered. When King Zedekiah stopped paying tribute eight years later, after secret negotiations with Egypt, the Babylonian army surrounded Jerusalem again.

This time Nebuchadnezzar also conquered the rest of Judah, town by town and city by city.

Trapped in Jerusalem, unable the send their slaves out to the fields to plant and harvest, the leaders of Judah were getting desperate. Soon their city would fall, and they would all be killed or, at best, deported to Babylon. Only a miracle could save them.

The god of Israel had made miracles for the Israelites before. The priests were still serving God in the temple. What more was needed? How could they win God’s favor again?

In this week’s hafatarah, it occurs to King Zedekiah that the people of Judah have been ignoring one of God’s commands:

If your brother or sister Hebrew sells himself to you, then he shall serve six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go chafshi from you. And when you let him go chafshi from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 15:12-13)

chafshi (חָפְשִׁי) = emancipated, freed. (Plural: chafshim.)

In ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah, men who could not pay their taxes or other debts sold themselves or their children as temporary slaves. After six years of service, their owners were required to set them free, and give the men a food supply and the means to make a living.

But the slave-owners of Judah had let the years pass without emancipation.

… the king, Zedekiah, cut a covenant with all the people who were in Jerusalem, to proclaim for them a dror: for each man to let go of his male slave and his female slave, the Hebrew male and the Hebrew female, chafshim, so that no one would be enslaved by his fellow Yehudi. And they heeded [the proclamation], all the officers and all the people who had entered in the covenant … they heeded and they let them go. (Jeremiah 34:8-10)

dror (דְּרוֹר) = emancipation of slaves every seventh year and every  fiftieth year.

Yehudi (יְהוּדִי) = citizen of Judah; Jew. (From Yehudah (יְהוּדָה) = the kingdom of Judah, the tribe of Judah, or the individual Judah in the book of Genesis.)

The slave-owners in Jerusalem had more than one reason to free their slaves. Besides wooing God’s favor, the general emancipation also meant that the owners no longer had to feed their slaves. And since no one could work in the fields anyway, the government could recruit the emancipated men as soldiers to help defend the city.

The siege lifted briefly when an Egyptian army marched north, perhaps intending to honor its new alliance with the king of Judah.  Most of the Babylonian army departed to take care of the Egyptian annoyance, and for a few months life in Jerusalem could return to normal.

Unfortunately, it did.

And later they turned back, and they took back the male slaves and the female slaves whom they had let go chafshim, and they subjected them to slavery [again]. Then the word of God happened to Jeremiah… (Jeremiah 34:11-12)

Jeremiah the Prophet and King Zedekiah, 1897 illustration

Jeremiah the Prophet and King Zedekiah,
1897 illustration

Through his prophet, God reminds the people in Jerusalem that Hebrews enslaved because of debt must be freed in the seventh year. God continues:

“One day you yourselves turned around and became upright in My eyes, proclaiming a dror for each man from his fellow, and you cut a covenant before Me in the house that is called by My name. But now you have profaned My name; each of you has brought back his male slave and his female slave that he had let go chafshim to follow their desire, and subordinated them to be male slaves and female slaves for you [again].

“Therefore, thus says God: [Since] you did not listen to Me proclaiming a dror, each one for his brother and each one for his fellow, here I am, proclaiming to you a dror—declares God—to the sword, to disease, and to starvation! (Jeremiah 34:15-17)

Jeremiah’s prophecy points out the hypocrisy of the ruling class. They free their slaves only when feeding them is a burden—and when they hope to wangle an extra favor out of God. But the newly-emancipated slaves have no means to feed themselves. What kind of liberty is that?

Then as soon as it looks as though the ex-slaves can once more engage in agriculture, their former owners re-enslave them, making them responsible for feeding everyone.

So God threatens to emancipate the Yehudi the same way they emancipated their slaves—by abandoning them to death. After all, no human beings can live exclusively by their own power, without the world God provides.

Nebuchadnezzar takes Jerusalem James_Tissot_Flight_of_The_PrisonersIn fact, the Babylonians returned before the slaves of Jerusalem could bring in a harvest. In 586 B.C.E. the wall around the city was breached. Nebuchadnezzar blinded King Zedekiah, killed his sons, razed the capital, and burned down the temple. Judah became merely a district of Babylonia. The remaining ruling families were deported, and Jeremiah lingered in the ruins of Jerusalem.

(See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)

In some parts of the world today, impoverished people are still kidnapped to become slaves (often for sex or war). Those of us who read blogs on the Internet, distant from the villages of Syria or Nigeria, might congratulate ourselves on never owning a slave or oppressing a debtor. But is that true?

Do we vote for political candidates who claim that everyone can succeed by their own efforts, even those who are not given the tools?  Do we find it acceptable that one accident, disease, or misinformed purchase can doom a person to poverty for life, with no second chance—not even after six years of suffering?

Do we treat our own children as slaves? Do we send them off, after the right number of years, with all the tools they need to make it on their own? Do we try to recapture and control them later?

Do we take advantage of someone over and over again, neglecting them when we do not need them?

 

Mishpatim & Ki Tissa: A Covenant in Writing

February 9, 2015 at 6:43 pm | Posted in Ki Tisa, 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.

 

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