Testifying to Divine Providence

What can you give God, when God has given abundantly to you?

Illustration from Northrop, Treasures of the Bible, 1894

Burning something is the standard method for expressing gratitude to God in the Torah.  God loves the smell of smoke, whether it comes from animal fat burning on the courtyard altar, or incense burning on the golden altar just inside the Tent of Meeting.

In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh, God tells Moses the ritual for consecrating both the courtyard altar and the new priests, a ritual that includes a lot of fat burning.1  After burning the fat parts of a bull and all of one ram, the priests to be ordained must hold up the fat parts of the “ram of ordination”, along with its right thigh and three kinds of grain products.

Then you shall take them from their hands and you shall turn them into smoke on the altar, on top of the rising offering, for a soothing fragrance before God; it is a fire-offering for God.  (Exodus 29:25)

The end of the Torah portion describes the construction of the incense altar and decrees that the high priest must burn incense on it twice a day.2  Apparently God needs a lot of soothing.

Only a few psalms and the writings of a few prophets indicate that one can also worship God through words.  See my post: Tetzavveh & Psalms 141, 51, and 40: Smoke and Prayer.

Serving God through words also has a precedent in the Joseph story in the book of Genesis.  In the chapter in my book on the portion Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and explains that they are not to blame for throwing him into a pit and selling him as a slave all those years ago, because it was all part of God’s plan to bring the whole family down to Egypt during the seven-year famine.3

He intends to reassure his older brothers, but they are not thrilled to hear that they have no free will.  Joseph kisses them and sobs on their necks, but they merely become able to speak to him.4

The author of Psalm 40, like Joseph, expresses his religious attitude by giving verbal testimony about divine providence.5  Unlike Joseph, he later becomes insecure and reminds God:

I did not conceal your righteousness in the middle of my heart;

          I spoke of your reliability and your deliverance.

          I did not conceal from a great assembly your loyal kindness and your fidelity.

You, God, you will not hold back your compassion from me;

          Your loyal kindness and your fidelity will always guard me.  (Psalm 40:11-12)

Faith in divine providence is easy in hindsight, as it was for Joseph.  But when troubles are still threatening you, you need to keep reminding yourself of your belief, like the author of Psalm 40.  And when someone else tells you not to worry about your past crime because it all worked out for the best, you may feel cheated of a chance to make amends, like Joseph’s brothers.

  1. Exodus 29:12-25.
  2. Exodus 30:1-9.
  3. Genesis 45:4-8.
  4. Genesis 45:15.
  5. We can assume the speaker is a man because he is allowed to speak to a “great assembly”, something no woman could do at that place and time.

Repost: Tetzaveh

This week’s Torah portion is Tetzaveh, which concludes God’s request for a tent sanctuary so God can dwell among the Israelites.  Tetzaveh also describes the special garments the priests will wear as they perform their roles at the sanctuary.

Approach to Western Wall, Jerusalem (photo by M.C.)

Special garments are also a feature of the book of Esther, which Jews read every year during the holiday of Purim.  In most of the world, Purim falls this year on the evening of Monday, March 9, and the day of March 10.  But in Jerusalem and ancient walled cities, we celebrate “Shushan Purim” the evening of Tuesday, March 10, and the day of March 11.  This is the first time in my life I will be able to celebrate Shushan Purim.  I plan to join a group of women reading Megillat Esther, the biblical book behind this holiday, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem!

Next year in this blog I hope to compare the costuming in the book of Esther and the Torah portion Tetzaveh.  But this year I wanted to repost my essay on the curious phrase “Tent of Meeting” which first appears in the portion Tetzaveh.  Why does God call for a tent-sanctuary that will be the place for scheduled meetings?

The question spoke to me after I visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and looked at artifacts from other ancient places where people went to meet with their gods.  So I spent some time rewriting my 2014 post.  You can find the improved version here: Tetzaveh: Meeting Room.

Standing stone from Hazor temple, 15th-13th century BCE, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

The standard floor plan for shrines and temples in the Ancient Near East had a large front room and a smaller, holier room in the back where the god was present.  This is the plan of the Tent of Meeting in the book of Exodus, which is divided into a larger front chamber where the priests tend the menorah, the bread table, and the incense altar; and a smaller back chamber, the Holy of Holies where the ark stood.

A Canaanite temple and a small shrine archaeologists discovered in Hazor, north of the Sea of Galilee/Kinneret, follow the same basic plan.  Both were built during the 15th to 13th century B.C.E.  The temple’s back chamber or Holy of Holies contained a statue of the storm god and a standing stone or massebah carved with a horned sun disk.

One of the religious innovations in the Torah is the prohibition against making or worshiping either a god statue or a standing stone.  The God of Israel must not be represented with a carved image, and the people must not worship any other gods.

From a shrine in Hazor, 15th-13th century BCE, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

The smaller shrine in Hazor from the same period had only one room, and a shallow niche in the back wall for the holiest objects.  The niche was lined with standing stones, including a central stone carved with two hands and a moon symbol.  In front of the standing stones stood a table for offerings and a statue of someone wearing the symbol of the moon god Sin.  This shrine was a place to meet the moon god.

In the second book of Samuel, which is set in the 10th century B.C.E., the temple that King Solomon builds in Jerusalem follows the same pattern as the Canaanite shrines and the Tent of Meeting described in Exodus.  The temple’s Holy of Holies contains not only the ark, but also two carved winged figures based on the two figures on the lid of the ark in the Tent of Meeting.  These pairs of winged figures are not considered idols in the Torah, perhaps because God only manifests in the empty space above the ark.  (See my post Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.)

Holy of Holies, 8th century B.C.E. shrine in Arad, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

Given the biblical history of furnishing the Holy of Holies, I was not surprised to learn that when archaeologists unearthed the 8th century B.C.E. fortress of Arad they found a shrine with a standing stone inside its Holy of Holies—even though Arad was in the kingdom of Judah, where the God of Israel was worshiped.  For the people of Arad, the standing stone meant that God was present in their shrine, their own “Tent of Meeting”.

Eight centuries later, the people of Judah were building the first synagogues even before the Romans razed the temple in Jerusalem.  These synagogues were buildings where people could encounter God through prayer and study instead of through offerings on the altar.  The Israel Museum has restored part of the interior of an early synagogue built in Susiya, near Hebron.

Susiya Synagogue, Israel Museum

Its sacred enclosed space had three niches in the back wall, which held a Torah scroll flanked by two menorahs.  It is no coincidence that a Torah scroll inside its ark is reminiscent of the stone tablets of commandments inside the ark that stood in the Tent of Meeting’s Holy of Holies.

How different is the shrine in Arad, with its standing stone, from the synagogue in Susiya, with its ark?

Today Jews still come to synagogues to encounter God through communal prayer at appointed times.  The holiest place inside a synagogue is still the ark containing the Torah scroll.

It must be human nature to want an appointed place to meet God.  Perhaps that is why I am going to the Western Wall on Shushan Purim.

Repost: Tetzavveh

This week’s Torah portion is Tetzavveh, which concludes God’s request for a tent sanctuary so God can dwell among the Israelites.  Tetzavveh also describes the special garments the priests will wear as they perform their roles at the sanctuary.

Approach to Western Wall, Jerusalem (photo by M.C.)

Special garments are also a feature of the book of Esther, which Jews read every year during the holiday of Purim.  In most of the world, Purim falls this year on the evening of Monday, March 9, and the day of March 10.  But in Jerusalem and ancient walled cities, we celebrate “Shushan Purim” the evening of Tuesday, March 10, and the day of March 11.  This is the first time in my life I will be able to celebrate Shushan Purim.  I plan to join a group of women reading Megillat Esther, the biblical book behind this holiday, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem!

Next year in this blog I hope to compare the costuming in the book of Esther and the Torah portion Tetzavveh.  But this year I wanted to repost my essay on the curious phrase “Tent of Meeting” which first appears in the portion Tetzavveh.  Why does God call for a tent-sanctuary that will be the place for scheduled meetings?

The question spoke to me after I visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and looked at artifacts from other ancient places where people went to meet with their gods.  So I spent some time rewriting my 2014 post.  You can find the improved version here: Tetzavveh: Meeting Room.

Standing stone from Hazor temple, 15th-13th century BCE, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

The standard floor plan for shrines and temples in the Ancient Near East had a large front room and a smaller, holier room in the back where the god was present.  This is the plan of the Tent of Meeting in the book of Exodus, which is divided into a larger front chamber where the priests tend the menorah, the bread table, and the incense altar; and a smaller back chamber, the Holy of Holies where the ark stood.

A Canaanite temple and a small shrine archaeologists discovered in Hazor, north of the Sea of Galilee/Kinneret, follow the same basic plan.  Both were built during the 15th to 13th century B.C.E.  The temple’s back chamber or Holy of Holies contained a statue of the storm god and a standing stone or massebah carved with a horned sun disk.

One of the religious innovations in the Torah is the prohibition against making or worshiping either a god statue or a standing stone.  The God of Israel must not be represented with a carved image, and the people must not worship any other gods.

From a shrine in Hazor, 15th-13th century BCE, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

The smaller shrine in Hazor from the same period had only one room, and a shallow niche in the back wall for the holiest objects.  The niche was lined with standing stones, including a central stone carved with two hands and a moon symbol.  In front of the standing stones stood a table for offerings and a statue of someone wearing the symbol of the moon god Sin.  This shrine was a place to meet the moon god.

In the second book of Samuel, which is set in the 10th century B.C.E., the temple that King Solomon builds in Jerusalem follows the same pattern as the Canaanite shrines and the Tent of Meeting described in Exodus.  The temple’s Holy of Holies contains not only the ark, but also two carved winged figures based on the two figures on the lid of the ark in the Tent of Meeting.  These pairs of winged figures are not considered idols in the Torah, perhaps because God only manifests in the empty space above the ark.  (See my post Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.)

Holy of Holies, 8th century B.C.E. shrine in Arad, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

Given the biblical history of furnishing the Holy of Holies, I was not surprised to learn that when archaeologists unearthed the 8th century B.C.E. fortress of Arad they found a shrine with a standing stone inside its Holy of Holies—even though Arad was in the kingdom of Judah, where the God of Israel was worshiped.  For the people of Arad, the standing stone meant that God was present in their shrine, their own “Tent of Meeting”.

Eight centuries later, the people of Judah were building the first synagogues even before the Romans razed the temple in Jerusalem.  These synagogues were buildings where people could encounter God through prayer and study instead of through offerings on the altar.  The Israel Museum has restored part of the interior of an early synagogue built in Susiya, near Hebron.

Susiya Synagogue, Israel Museum

Its sacred enclosed space had three niches in the back wall, which held a Torah scroll flanked by two menorahs.  It is no coincidence that a Torah scroll inside its ark is reminiscent of the stone tablets of commandments inside the ark that stood in the Tent of Meeting’s Holy of Holies.

How different is the shrine in Arad, with its standing stone, from the synagogue in Susiya, with its ark?

Today Jews still come to synagogues to encounter God through communal prayer at appointed times.  The holiest place inside a synagogue is still the ark containing the Torah scroll.

It must be human nature to want an appointed place to meet God.  Perhaps that is why I am going to the Western Wall on Shushan Purim.

Tetzaveh: Flower on the Forehead

Garments of High Priest

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Some of the unique items the high priest wears, such as his sky-blue robe, add to his awe-inspiring appearance.1  Others items described in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (“You shall command”), have an additional purpose; for example, the high priest wears a gem-studded choshen on his breast, and uses it to consult God with yes or no questions.2

Another item that only the high priest wears is a tzitz tied to his forehead.

And you shall make a tzitz of pure gold, and you shall engrave on it with engraving like a chotam: “Holy to God”.  You shall put it on a cord of sky-blue.  And it shall be on the turban; at the front of the turban it shall be.  (Exodus/Shemot 28:36-37)

tzitz (צִיץ) = a flower.  (Plural: either tzitz or tzitztim (צִצִּים).  From the root verb tzutz (צוּץ) = bloom.3  Another word from the same root is tzitzit (צִיצִּת) = tassel, fringe, or lock of hair.)

chotam (חֺתָם) = cylindrical seal or signet ring, carved to impress a design on damp clay that serves as the wearer’s signature.  (From the root verb chatam (חתם) = to affix a seal, to confirm, to close up securely.)

The noun tzitz appears 16 times in the Hebrew Bible.  The first three times, tzitz refers to the gold engraved object the high priest wears on his forehead.4  The word tzitz next appears when God orders a demonstration to prove who deserves authority over the Israelites.  If the leader of each of the twelve tribes leaves his wooden staff inside the tent-sanctuary overnight, God will make the staff of the winner sprout buds.  In the morning:

Hey!  The staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had budded, and it had brought forth buds, and it had bloomed tzitz, and it had produced almonds.  (Numbers/Bamidbar 17:23)

In the rest of the Hebrew Bible, a tzitz is a flower.  In King Solomon’s temple, tzitzim are carved into wood panels for ornamentation.5   In five places where the word tzitz appears, humans are compared to wildflowers that quickly wilt and die.6  When Isaiah rails against rich drunkards, he describes their heads as crowned with wilted flowers.7

But the high priest’s head is crowned with a flower made out of gold.  The Torah assumes that this object, as well as the high priesthood, will continue indefinitely, passing from one man to the next.

The gold tzitz must have a flat surface where the words “Holy to God” are engraved, as well as two small holes for attaching the blue cord, but otherwise the design is a matter of speculation.  Flavius Josephus, describing the sacred items stored in a Roman treasury after the sack of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., wrote that around the high priest’s headdress was:

Hyoscyamus albus

… a golden crown polished, of three rows, one above another; out of which arose a cup of gold, which resembled the herb which we call ‘saccharis,’ but those Greeks that are skillful in botany call it ‘hyoscyamus.’  … a flower that may seem to resemble that of the poppy.  Of this was a crown made … [it] did not cover the forehead, but it was covered with a ‘golden plate,’ which had inscribed upon it the name of God in sacred characters.8

Several centuries later the rabbis of the Talmud described the tzitz as a kind of smooth plate of gold, and its width is two fingerbreadths, and it encircles the forehead from ear to ear.”  Rabbi Eliezer ben Yosei added: “I saw it in the Caesar’s treasury in the city of Rome and Sacred to God was written on one line.”9

Whether the gold object tied to the high priest’s forehead is an engraved band with a gold flower rising up from it, or a flower-shaped gold medallion with engraving in the center, it is more than a symbol.  This week’s Torah portion continues:

And it shall be on the forehead of Aaron, and Aaron shall lift off any transgression from the holy things which the Israelites make holy, from all their holy gifts.  And it shall be on his forehead perpetually, for their acceptance before God.  (Exodus 28:38)

Just by wearing the tzitz on his forehead, the high priest compensates for any accidental ritual impurity in the people’s offerings to God at the altar.

How?  The words “Holy to God” are a double reminder.  The Israelites seeing it would remember that the whole purpose of their ritual sacrifices is to make themselves holy—i.e., to dedicate themselves to God above all other purposes.  This dedication must be their core identity; thus the words are engraved into the gold medallion the way an identity seal is carved.

The words on the tzitz also remind God to treat the people as sacred.  “Holy to God”, according to Rabbi Elie Munk, “relays a message of Divine love by proclaiming Israel as a nation consecrated to God.  Yet, it is also a reminder of Israel’s permanent duty to strive every closer to the ideal of holiness.  The Tzitz expresses both Divine love and Israel’s moral obligations.”10

*

The high priest’s tzitz could be viewed narrowly as a magical object designed to ensure conformity to God’s rules about ritual purity.  Or it could be viewed as an aesthetic object inspiring a feeling of spiritual elevation.

But Munk points out that love and moral obligations are more important than conformity or spirituality.  What good is a religious object if we are not kind and helpful to our fellow human beings?

So the built-in symbolism of the tzitz matters after all.  Gold is the most precious metal in the Torah, reserved for the most sacred items in the sanctuary.  A flower is one of God’s most beautiful creations, and also one of the most evanescent.  Yet after a flower wilts, its fruit becomes the source of seeds for new life.

The word for “God” engraved on the gold flower is the four-letter name of God, a possible permutation of the verb “to be” or “to become”.  (See my post Beshellach & Shemot: Knowing the Name.)  And the words “Holy to God” are to be carved in relief on the tzitz, like the symbol of identity carved on a chotam, a seal.  Thus the identity of God is confirmed and secured.

The flower and God’s name both remind us that our universe is always becoming.  Flowers wilt, but the spirit of God goes on creating as seeds fall and new plants bloom.

May we all walk through life as if we wear an invisible tzitz, dedicating ourselves to life despite death, to change rather than stagnation, to growth instead of destruction.  And may we all be kind to each another on the path of becoming.

(An earlier version of this post was published in February, 2011.)

  1. Exodus 28:31. The sky-blue dye is techelet; see my post Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred.)
  2. Exodus 28:30. The choshen is a stiff rectangular pocket attached with gold rings and blue cords to the front of the high priest’s tabard (eifod).  On the outside front surface, over his chest, the choshen bears twelve precious stones engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.  Inside the pocket of the choshen are the urim and tummim, used to divine God’s answers to yes/no questions.  (See Judges 20:27-28, 1 Samuel 23:9-12, 1 Samuel 30:7-8.)
  3. Out of nine occurrences of the verb tzutz in the Hebrew Bible, all but one clearly refer to budding or blooming. The questionable reference is in Song of Songs 2:9, in which the woman describes her male beloved as “This one, standing behind our wall, gazing through the windows, meitzitz through the lattices.”  Meitzitz ((מֵצִײץ is usually translated as “peering” rather than “blooming”.  But this is the poem that says the beloved woman’s teeth are “like a flock of sheep climbing up from the washing pool” and her forehead is “like a slice of pomegranate”.  (Songs 4:2-3)  Maybe her lover is “blooming” through the lattices, like an eager flowering vine.
  4. Exodus 28:36 and 39:30, Leviticus 8:9.
  5. 1 Kings 6:18, 6:29, 6:32, 6:35.
  6. Isaiah 40:6, 40:7, 40:8; Psalm 103:15; Job 14:2.
  7. Isaiah 28:1, 28:4. Tzitz also appears in Jeremiah 48:9.
  8. Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, translated by William Whiston, Baltimore, 1835, book III, chapter VII, p. 71.
  9. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 63b, in the William Davidson Talmud, Koren Noe Edition, sefaria.org/Shabbat.63a?lang=bi.
  10. Rabbi Eli Munk (20th-century), The Call of the Torah: Shemos, translated by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publictions, Ltd., Brooklyn, 2001, p. 405.

Tetzavveh: Flower on the Forehead

Garments of High Priest

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Some of the unique items the high priest wears, such as his sky-blue robe, add to his awe-inspiring appearance.1  Others items described in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“You shall command”), have an additional purpose; for example, the high priest wears a gem-studded choshen on his breast, and uses it to consult God with yes or no questions.2

Another item that only the high priest wears is a tzitz tied to his forehead.

And you shall make a tzitz of pure gold, and you shall engrave on it with engraving like a chotam: “Holy to God”.  You shall put it on a cord of sky-blue.  And it shall be on the turban; at the front of the turban it shall be.  (Exodus/Shemot 28:36-37)

tzitz (צִיץ) = a flower.  (Plural: either tzitz or tzitztim (צִצִּים).  From the root verb tzutz (צוּץ) = bloom.3  Another word from the same root is tzitzit (צִיצִּת) = tassel, fringe, or lock of hair.)

chotam (חֺתָם) = cylindrical seal or signet ring, carved to impress a design on damp clay that serves as the wearer’s signature.  (From the root verb chatam (חתם) = to affix a seal, to confirm, to close up securely.)

The noun tzitz appears 16 times in the Hebrew Bible.  The first three times, tzitz refers to the gold engraved object the high priest wears on his forehead.4  The word tzitz next appears when God orders a demonstration to prove who deserves authority over the Israelites.  If the leader of each of the twelve tribes leaves his wooden staff inside the tent-sanctuary overnight, God will make the staff of the winner sprout buds.  In the morning:

Hey!  The staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had budded, and it had brought forth buds, and it had bloomed tzitz, and it had produced almonds.  (Numbers/Bamidbar 17:23)

In the rest of the Hebrew Bible, a tzitz is a flower.  In King Solomon’s temple, tzitzim are carved into wood panels for ornamentation.5   In five places where the word tzitz appears, humans are compared to wildflowers that quickly wilt and die.6  When Isaiah rails against rich drunkards, he describes their heads as crowned with wilted flowers.7

But the high priest’s head is crowned with a flower made out of gold.  The Torah assumes that this object, as well as the high priesthood, will continue indefinitely, passing from one man to the next.

The gold tzitz must have a flat surface where the words “Holy to God” are engraved, as well as two small holes for attaching the blue cord, but otherwise the design is a matter of speculation.  Flavius Josephus, describing the sacred items stored in a Roman treasury after the sack of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., wrote that around the high priest’s headdress was:

Hyoscyamus albus

… a golden crown polished, of three rows, one above another; out of which arose a cup of gold, which resembled the herb which we call ‘saccharis,’ but those Greeks that are skillful in botany call it ‘hyoscyamus.’  … a flower that may seem to resemble that of the poppy.  Of this was a crown made … [it] did not cover the forehead, but it was covered with a ‘golden plate,’ which had inscribed upon it the name of God in sacred characters.8

Several centuries later the rabbis of the Talmud described the tzitz as a kind of smooth plate of gold, and its width is two fingerbreadths, and it encircles the forehead from ear to ear.”  Rabbi Eliezer ben Yosei added: “I saw it in the Caesar’s treasury in the city of Rome and Sacred to God was written on one line.”9

Whether the gold object tied to the high priest’s forehead is an engraved band with a gold flower rising up from it, or a flower-shaped gold medallion with engraving in the center, it is more than a symbol.  This week’s Torah portion continues:

And it shall be on the forehead of Aaron, and Aaron shall lift off any transgression from the holy things which the Israelites make holy, from all their holy gifts.  And it shall be on his forehead perpetually, for their acceptance before God.  (Exodust 28:38)

Just by wearing the tzitz on his forehead, the high priest compensates for any accidental ritual impurity in the people’s offerings to God at the altar.

How?  The words “Holy to God” are a double reminder.  The Israelites seeing it would remember that the whole purpose of their ritual sacrifices is to make themselves holy—i.e., to dedicate themselves to God above all other purposes.  This dedication must be their core identity; thus the words are engraved into the gold medallion the way an identity seal is carved.

The words on the tzitz also remind God to treat the people as sacred.  “Holy to God”, according to Rabbi Elie Munk, “relays a message of Divine love by proclaiming Israel as a nation consecrated to God.  Yet, it is also a reminder of Israel’s permanent duty to strive every closer to the ideal of holiness.  The Tzitz expresses both Divine love and Israel’s moral obligations.”10

*

The high priest’s tzitz could be viewed narrowly as a magical object designed to ensure conformity to God’s rules about ritual purity.  Or it could be viewed as an aesthetic object inspiring a feeling of spiritual elevation.

But Munk points out that love and moral obligations are more important than conformity or spirituality.  What good is a religious object if we are not kind and helpful to our fellow human beings?

So the built-in symbolism of the tzitz matters after all.  Gold is the most precious metal in the Torah, reserved for the most sacred items in the sanctuary.  A flower is one of God’s most beautiful creations, and also one of the most evanescent.  Yet after a flower wilts, its fruit becomes the source of seeds for new life.

The word for “God” engraved on the gold flower is the four-letter name of God, a possible permutation of the verb “to be” or “to become”.  (See my post Beshellach & Shemot: Knowing the Name.)  And the words “Holy to God” are to be carved in relief on the tzitz, like the symbol of identity carved on a chotam, a seal.  Thus the identity of God is confirmed and secured.

The flower and God’s name both remind us that our universe is always becoming.  Flowers wilt, but the spirit of God goes on creating as seeds fall and new plants bloom.

May we all walk through life as if we wear an invisible tzitz, dedicating ourselves to life despite death, to change rather than stagnation, to growth instead of destruction.  And may we all be kind to each another on the path of becoming.

(An earlier version of this post was published in February, 2011.)

  1. Exodus 28:31. The sky-blue dye is techelet; see my post Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred.)
  2. Exodus 28:30. The choshen is a stiff rectangular pocket attached with gold rings and blue cords to the front of the high priest’s tabard (eifod).  On the outside front surface, over his chest, the choshen bears twelve precious stones engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.  Inside the pocket of the choshen are the urim and tummim, used to divine God’s answers to yes/no questions.  (See Judges 20:27-28, 1 Samuel 23:9-12, 1 Samuel 30:7-8.)
  3. Out of nine occurrences of the verb tzutz in the Hebrew Bible, all but one clearly refer to budding or blooming. The questionable reference is in Song of Songs 2:9, in which the woman describes her male beloved as “This one, standing behind our wall, gazing through the windows, meitzitz through the lattices.”  Meitzitz ((מֵצִײץ is usually translated as “peering” rather than “blooming”.  But this is the poem that says the beloved woman’s teeth are “like a flock of sheep climbing up from the washing pool” and her forehead is “like a slice of pomegranate”.  (Songs 4:2-3)  Maybe her lover is “blooming” through the lattices, like an eager flowering vine.
  4. Exodus 28:36 and 39:30, Leviticus 8:9.
  5. 1 Kings 6:18, 6:29, 6:32, 6:35.
  6. Isaiah 40:6, 40:7, 40:8; Psalm 103:15; Job 14:2.
  7. Isaiah 28:1, 28:4. Tzitz also appears in Jeremiah 48:9.
  8. Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, translated by William Whiston, Baltimore, 1835, book III, chapter VII, p. 71.
  9. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 63b, in the William Davidson Talmud, Koren Noe Edition, sefaria.org/Shabbat.63a?lang=bi.
  10. Rabbi Eli Munk (20th-century), The Call of the Torah: Shemos, translated by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publictions, Ltd., Brooklyn, 2001, p. 405.

Terumah: Tree of Light

In February the almond trees bloom in Israel.  They are the first trees to wake up from winter dormancy, and their white flowers appear before their leaves.

Moses receives detailed instructions from God Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”), for making a tent-sanctuary and each holy item inside it.  God describes the lampstand or menorah in terms of an almond tree.

You shall make a menorah of pure gold.  Of hammered work you shall make the menorah; its seat and its shaft, its bowls, its kaftorim, and its blossoms shall be from it.  (Exodus/Shemot 25:31)

menorah (מְנֺרַה) = lampstand supporting bowls of oil with wicks.

Almond drupes

kaftor (כַּפְתֺּר), plural kaftorim (כַּפְתֺּרִים) = knobs, drupes (fruits with pits, such as peaches, plums, and almonds), capitals of columns resembling almond drupes; natives of Crete.

Since the lamp-stand is hammered out of pure gold, a fairly soft metal, it cannot be any taller than six feet. The Talmud (Menachot 28b) says it was eighteen handbreadths, just over five feet.  At that height, the high priest could easily reach the seven oil lamps on top to refill the bowls and trim and light the wicks.1

(The Arch of Titus in Rome, carved in 82 C.E., bears a relief sculpture of the sacking of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, including two soldiers carrying away a menorah somewhat shorter than they are.)

The overall shape of the menorah, according to this week’s Torah portion, is like a flat or espaliered tree with a central trunk and three branches on each side.  The branches and the central shaft all terminate in oil lamps, so there are seven lamps across the top:

And you shall make seven lamps on it … of pure gold.  (Exodus 25:37-38)

And [it shall have] six shafts going out from its sides: three shafts of the menorah on one side and three shafts of the menorah on the second side.  Three bowls meshukadim on one side, on each a kaftor and a blossom, and three bowls meshukadim on the other side, on each a kaftor and a blossom; the same way for all six of the shafts going out from the menorah.  And on [the central shaft of] the menorah, four bowls meshukadim, [each with] its kaftor and its blossom: a kaftor under a pair of branches from it and a kaftor under a pair of branches from it and a kaftor under a pair of branches from it—for the six branches going out from it.  (Exodus/Shemot 25:32-35)

meshukadim (מְשֻׁקָּדִים) = being made like almonds.  (From one of the two root verbs spelled shakad, שָׁקַד.)

Menorah model at Temple Mount Institute

Each oil lamp consists of a bowl that looks like an almond blossom sitting on top of an almond drupe.  (Unlike a peach, the fleshy part of an almond drupe is a relatively thin covering over the pit, which has an almond seed or nut inside.)  The central shaft of the menorah has the same decorative motif at each of the three junctions where shafts branch out, with the central shaft continuing up from the flower-bowl shape.  At the top of the central shaft the fourth almond flower-bowl is open and serves as the middle lamp.

Lexicons classify meshukadim as a form of the verb shakad (שָׁקַד) = made like an almond, as opposed to the identically spelled verb shakad (שָׁקַד) = watched for, was vigilant, was alert.  Another passage in the Hebrew Bible uses the identical spelling and pronunciation of the two shakad root verbs as a prophetic pun.

And the word of God happened to me, saying: “What do you see, Jeremiah?”  And I said: “A shoot of a shakeid I see.”  And God said to me: “You do well to see it.  Because I am shokeid over my word, to do it.”

shakeid (שָׁקֵד) = almond, almond tree.

shokeid (שֺׁקֵד) = being vigilant, watchful, alert.

The Hebrew Bible also describes God as watchfully attentive to the Israelites, for good or bad.2  Elsewhere in the Bible, the verb shakad that means being vigilant is used to describe people watching for chances to do evil,3 a leopard watching for humans to leave their towns and become its prey,4 and people who stay awake at night.5

*

Lamps are symbols of enlightenment, divine inspiration that casts light so we can see something more clearly.  The menorah in the sanctuary is the size of a human for practical reasons—but perhaps also because it is humankind’s job to receive and spread enlightenment.

It may be shaped like a tree in recollection of in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad in the garden of Eden.  After all, enlightenment is a spark of insight that blooms into new knowledge.

Why is the design of the menorah taken from the almond tree?  I think this is a double symbol, from the double meaning of meshukadim: “being made like almonds” and “from those who are vigilant, watchful, awake, alert”.  Almond trees flower before any other useful tree.  They wake up and bloom when it is still winter.  Similarly, enlightenment can bloom even in the winter of our souls—but only if we keep watch for it, if we stay alert to any sign of holiness.

We can be shokeid, vigilant, by serving as our own high priests, tending the lamps of our own inner menorah.  We human beings are all too liable to sink into a semi-conscious state in which we operate automatically, making habitual assumptions instead of asking ourselves questions.  Yet when we do pay close attention to our own minds, to the people we encounter, and to the teachings we receive, we create our own menorah and find our own enlightenment.

(I published an earlier version of this essay on January 30, 2011)

  1. Aaron, the first high priest, has the duty of tending the lamps.  See Exodus 30:7-8, Leviticus 24:3-4, Numbers 8:1-2.
  2. Jeremiah 31:28, Jeremiah 44:27, Daniel 9:14.
  3. Isaiah 29:20.
  4. Jeremiah 5:6.
  5. Psalm 102:8, 127:1, Job 21:32.

Tetzavveh & Psalms 141, 51, and 40: Smoke and Prayer

(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
Outdoor altar at First Temple

Two kinds of smoke please God, according to the book of Exodus:

* the smoke from burning sacrificial animals and grain products on the copper altar in front of the Tent of Meeting described in last week’s Torah portion, Terumah,1 and

* the smoke from burning incense on the gold altar inside the tent, described in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“you shall command”):

And you shall make an altar for miketar ketoret; from wood of acacias you shall make it. …And you shall plate it with pure gold …And place it in front of the curtain that is over the Ark of the Reminder, …where I will reveal myself to you. Vehiketeyr on it, Aaron, ketoret of spices …  (Exodus/Shemot 30:1-7) 

miketar (מִקְטַּר) = letting smoke rise; scenting with smoke. (A form of the verb ketar, קִטּר  = burned incense.)

ketoret  (קְטֺרֶת) = incense. (From the root verb ketar.)

vehiketeyr (וְהִקְטֵיר) = And he shall make smoke. (Another form of the verb ketar.)

In the Wilderness

The altar for burning animals and grain (which would otherwise be food for people) is outside the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites construct in the wilderness of Sinai.  The incense altar is inside, right in front of the Holy of Holies. All the Israelites worship God by bringing food offerings for the priests to burn on the outdoor altar. Only the high priest, Aaron, burns spices on the incense altar for God.

Food offerings are sent up in smoke for various reasons. Some offerings express gratitude to God, some atone for transgressing God’s rules, some mark a change in ritual status, and some observe holy days. The fragrance of the incense, however, is intended only to honor and please God.

The Israelites send columns of smoke up to God. And God sends columns of cloud and fire down to the people. When the Israelites are walking from Egypt to Mount Sinai,

God was walking in front of them in a column of cloud by day, to lead them on the way, and in a column of fire by night, to make light for them, [so they could] walk day and night.  (Exodus 13:21)

After God’s tent-dwelling is completed, the book of Exodus ends with:

For the cloud of God was over the dwelling-place by day, and there was fire in it by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel, on all their journeys.  (Exodus 40:38)

During the Babylonian Exile

Israelites continue to use the smoke from burning food and incense as their main communication with God until the Babylonians destroyed the first Israelite temple in Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E. (The Bible also mentions a few individual prayers, but does not portray Levites as singing psalms until the time of the second temple.)

The Israelites deported to Babylon were not sure what to do.  Should they continue sending up smoke to God, even without the temple, the food altar, or the incense altar?  Or should they use another approach?

Psalm 141 is a plea for God to help the psalmist avoid harmful speech and bad company. The psalm opens with a request that this prayer be considered as a substitute for making smoke.

           God, I called You. Hurry to me!

                        Listen to my voice when I call to You!

            May my prayer endure as ketoret before You,

                        Lifting up my palms2 as an evening offering.  (Psalm 141:1-2)

After the Second Temple

After the Persians conquered Babylon, some of the Israelites returned to Jerusalem and built a second temple in 516 B.C.E. They reinstituted the sacrificial system in their new temple, making both an outside altar for burning food offerings and an inside altar for incense. This type of worship continued until the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 C.E.

After the fall of the second temple, some Jews hoped for a third temple, and another return to worshiping God through smoke. The Amidah (“standing”) prayer, which is recited at morning and evening services to this day, begins with a verse from Psalm 51 about spoken prayer:

             My lord, may you open my lips,

                        And my mouth will declare Your praise.  (Psalm 51:17)

However, Psalm 51 ends:

            May You rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

                        That is when You will want slaughter-offerings of righteousness,

                        Rising-offerings and complete offerings.  (Psalm 51:20)

Similarly, in traditional prayer books the Amidah3 includes this request: “And return the service to the inner sanctum of Your house, and the fire-offerings of Israel, and their prayer, with love, accepting it with favor.”  According to this tradition, prayer is good, but prayer and smoke together are better.

Many liberal prayer books produced in the last century or so omit or reinterpret this prayer in the Amidah, so as to avoid praying for either reinstituting animal sacrifices or building a third temple.

Psalm 40, composed at least 2,000 years ago, is bolder and more direct:

            Slaughter and grain offering You do not want.

                        You dug open a pair of ears for me!

                        Rising-offerings and guilt-offerings You do not request.

            That is when I said:

                        Hey, I will bring a scroll of the book written for me.

            I want to do what You want, my God,

                        And Your teaching is inside my guts.

            I delivered the news of right behavior to a large assembly.

                        Hey! I will not eat my lips.  (Psalm 40:7-10)

The speaker in Psalm 40 insists that God does not want smoke, only words. Nothing can make this prophetic poet recant; he will not “eat his lips”.

Tomorrow

I almost envy the simplicity of the early Israelite religion, in which people and priests burn something to make a column of smoke rise up to God in the sky or “heavens”, and God sends down a column of divine smoke (described as cloud and fire) to guide the people.

Personally, I could not even imitate this process by burning incense, since I am allergic to any type of smoke.  And these days, columns of cloud and fire do not descend from the sky; we only get lightning and general precipitation.

But I do pray to God with words, for all the reasons the ancient Israelites made smoke: to express gratitude, to ask for forgiveness and self-improvement, to observe holy days, and just to honor the divine. And though I often say, or sing, the words out loud, I do not pray to a God in the sky, but to a divine source I encounter “inside my guts”, like the author of Psalm 40.

I was brought up to be an atheist; I did not begin praying until I was 32.  My life for the past 30 years has been deeper, thanks to prayer; I have become more grateful, less egotistical, and more accepting.  And, God willing, I can continue to improve.

May everyone who would benefit from a prayer practice discover a good one.

            Oh God, may you open my lips,

                        And my mouth will declare Your praise.  (Amidah and Psalm 51:17)         

1  See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home about the Tent of Meeting, and my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy about smoke from animal sacrifices.

2  The Hebrew Bible describes two postures for prayer.  Prostration—bowing until you lie face down on the ground) indicates submission and the willingness to receive any word God might send you.  Raising your hands, palms up, toward the sky (with or without kneeling) indicates a petitionary prayer, in which you are asking God for something.

King Solomon

One example is when King Solomon dedicates the first temple in Jerusalem:

As Solomon was finishing praying to God all this prayer and this supplication, he got up from in front of the altar of God, from kneeling on his knees and his palms spread toward the heavens.  (1 Kings 8:54)

3   This prayer, called the Avodah (“Service”), is number 5 in the Shabbat Amidah, and number 17 in the longer weekday Amidah.

 

Tetzaveh & Psalms 141, 51, and 40: Smoke and Prayer

(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
Outdoor altar at First Temple; artist unknown

Two kinds of smoke please God, according to the book of Exodus:

* the smoke from burning sacrificial animals and grain products on the copper altar in front of the Tent of Meeting described in last week’s Torah portion, Terumah,1 and

* the smoke from burning incense on the gold altar inside the tent, described in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (“you shall command”):

And you shall make an altar for miketar ketoret; from wood of acacias you shall make it. …And you shall plate it with pure gold …And place it in front of the curtain that is over the Ark of the Reminder, …where I will reveal myself to you. Vehiketeyr on it, Aaron, ketoret of spices …  (Exodus/Shemot 30:1-7) 

miketar (מִקְטַּר) = letting smoke rise; scenting with smoke. (A form of the verb ketar, קִטּר  = burned incense.)

ketoret  (קְטֺרֶת) = incense. (From the root verb ketar.)

vehiketeyr (וְהִקְטֵיר) = And he shall make smoke. (Another form of the verb ketar.)

In the Wilderness

The altar for burning animals and grain (which would otherwise be food for people) is outside the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites construct in the wilderness of Sinai.  The incense altar is inside, right in front of the Holy of Holies. All the Israelites worship God by bringing food offerings for the priests to burn on the outdoor altar. Only the high priest, Aaron, burns spices on the incense altar for God.

Food offerings are sent up in smoke for various reasons. Some offerings express gratitude to God, some atone for transgressing God’s rules, some mark a change in ritual status, and some observe holy days.

The fragrance of the incense, however, is intended only to honor and please God.

The Israelites send columns of smoke up to God. And God sends columns of cloud and fire down to the people. When the Israelites are walking from Egypt to Mount Sinai,

God was walking in front of them in a column of cloud by day, to lead them on the way, and in a column of fire by night, to make light for them, [so they could] walk day and night.  (Exodus 13:21)

Tabernacle in the Wilderness, by J.J. Derghi, 1866

After God’s tent-dwelling is completed, the book of Exodus ends with:

For the cloud of God was over the dwelling-place by day, and there was fire in it by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel, on all their journeys.  (Exodus 40:38)

The priests send columns of smoke up to the heavens, and God sends a column of cloud down to the sanctuary. All the Israelites see that their method of worship is working.

During the Babylonian Exile

After the Babylonians destroyed the first Israelite temple in Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E., and deported the priests and other leaders, the Israelites could no longer use the smoke from burning food and incense as their main communication with God.

The Israelites who were deported to Babylon were not sure what to do.  Should they continue sending up smoke to God, even without the temple, the food altar, or the incense altar?  Or should they use another approach?

Psalm 141 is a plea for God to help the psalmist avoid harmful speech and bad company. The psalm opens with a request that this prayer be considered as a substitute for making smoke.

God, I called You. Hurry to me!

             Listen to my voice when I call to You!

 May my prayer endure as ketoret before You,

             Lifting up my palms2 as an evening offering.  (Psalm 141:1-2)

After the Second Temple

After the Persians conquered Babylon, some of the Israelites returned to Jerusalem and built a second temple in 516 B.C.E. They reinstituted the sacrificial system in their new temple, making both an outside altar for burning food offerings and an inside altar for incense. The Bible also portrays Levites as singing psalms in the time of the second temple.

Then the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 C.E.

After the fall of the second temple, some Jews hoped for a third temple, and another return to worshiping God through smoke. The Amidah (“standing”) prayer, which is recited at morning and evening services to this day, begins with a verse from Psalm 51 about spoken prayer:

 My lord, may you open my lips,

             And my mouth will declare Your praise.  (Psalm 51:17)

However, Psalm 51 ends:

 May You rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

             That is when You will want slaughter-offerings of righteousness,

             Rising-offerings and complete offerings.  (Psalm 51:20)

Similarly, in traditional prayer books the Amidah3 includes this request: “And return the service to the inner sanctum of Your house, and the fire-offerings of Israel, and their prayer, with love, accepting it with favor.”  According to this tradition, prayer is good, but prayer and smoke together are better.

Many liberal prayer books produced in the last century or so omit or reinterpret this prayer in the Amidah, so as to avoid praying for either reinstituting animal sacrifices or building a third temple.

Psalm 40, composed at least 2,000 years ago, is bolder and more direct:

Slaughter and grain offering You do not want.

            You dug open a pair of ears for me!

Rising-offerings and guilt-offerings You do not request.

            That is when I said:

            Hey, I will bring a scroll of the book written for me.

  I want to do what You want, my God,

             And Your teaching is inside my guts.

  I delivered the news of right behavior to a large assembly.

             Hey! I will not eat my lips.  (Psalm 40:7-10)

The speaker in Psalm 40 insists that God does not want smoke, only words. Nothing can make this prophetic poet recant; he will not “eat his lips”.

Tomorrow

I almost envy the simplicity of the early Israelite religion, in which people and priests burn something to make a column of smoke rise up to God in the sky or “heavens”, and God sends down a column of divine smoke (described as cloud and fire) to guide the people.

Personally, I could not even imitate this process by burning incense, since I am allergic to particulates in any type of smoke.  And in our day, columns of cloud and fire do not descend from the sky; we only get lightning and general precipitation.

But I do pray to God with words, for all the reasons the ancient Israelites made smoke: to express gratitude, to ask for forgiveness and self-improvement, to observe holy days, and just to honor the divine. And though I often say, or sing, the words out loud, I do not pray to a God in the sky, but to a divine source I encounter “inside my guts”, like the author of Psalm 40.

I was brought up to be an atheist; I did not begin praying until I was 32.  My life for the past 30 years has been deeper, thanks to prayer; I have become more grateful, less egotistical, and more accepting.  And, God willing, I can continue to improve.

May everyone who would benefit from a prayer practice discover a good one.

Oh God, may you open my lips,

             And my mouth will declare Your praise.  (Amidah and Psalm 51:17)         

1  See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home about the Tent of Meeting, and my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy about smoke from animal sacrifices.

2  The Hebrew Bible describes two postures for prayer.  Prostration—bowing until you lie face down on the ground) indicates submission and the willingness to receive any word God might send you.  Raising your hands, palms up, toward the sky (with or without kneeling) indicates a petitionary prayer, in which you are asking God for something.

One example is when King Solomon dedicates the first temple in Jerusalem:

As Solomon was finishing praying to God all this prayer and this supplication, he got up from in front of the altar of God, from kneeling on his knees and his palms spread toward the heavens.  (1 Kings 8:54)

3   This prayer, called the Avodah (“Service”), is number 5 in the Shabbat Amidah, and number 17 in the longer weekday Amidah.

 

Haftarat Tetzavveh—Ezekiel: The Meaning of Humiliation

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 Tetzavveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10), and the haftarah is Ezekiel 43:10-27.

This week’s haftarah begins when God tells the prophet Ezekiel:

You, son of humankind, describe the House to the household of Israel, veyikalmu because of their sins, and they will measure off its plan. And if nikhlemu because of everything that they have done, make known to them the design of the House and its plan …(Ezekiel 43:10-11)

veyikalmu (וְיִכָּלְמוּ) = and they will be humiliated, embarrassed, publicly disgraced. (From the root k-l-m, כּלם, sometimes translated as “ashamed” but actually referring to public humiliation regardless of actual guilt or innocence.)

nikhlemu (נִכְלְמוּ) = they are humiliated, etc.

“The House” refers to a building for the God of Israel: Ezekiel’s vision of a new temple to replace the one that King Solomon erected and King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon razed when he destroyed Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.

Temple sizes
Temple sizes

The two clauses about being humiliated are difficult to interpret, since in the first one God predicts the Israelites will be humiliated, and in the second one God says “if they are humiliated”. According to the standards of the sixth century B.C.E., there is no question that the Israelites of Judah have been publicly humiliated by the time of this prophecy, dated to the fourteenth year after the fall of Jerusalem.

The kingdom of Judah had been a vassal state of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, paying annual tribute to King Nebuchadnezzar but managing its internal affairs as an independent country. Then King Yehoyachim of Judah rebelled, and the Babylonian army besieged his capital, Jerusalem. His son Yehoyachin (a.k.a. Jeconiah) surrendered in 597 B.C.E. and saved the city. Nebuchadnezzar deported him and about 3,000 of Jerusalem’s leading citizens—including Ezekiel—to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar installed Yehoyachin’s uncle Zedekiah as Judah’s king, and Judah resumed its status as a Babylonian vassal state.

Destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.
Destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.

The Israelites remaining in Judah still had their own king, and a temple for their own god. But eight years later Zedekiah rebelled (after making a secret treaty with Egypt), and the Babylonian army surrounded Jerusalem again. This time the siege ended in the capture of Jerusalem, the execution of Judah’s last king, and the destruction of the capital and its temple—in other words, the complete humiliation of Judah.

What caused this humiliation? One might blame Nebuchadnezzar for his determination to expand his empire, or King Zedekiah for foolishly rebelling, or even Egypt for marching toward Judah at Zedekiah’s instigation, then succumbing to the Babylonian army before they reached Jerusalem.

But in the passage above, God says twice that the humiliation of the Israelites happened because of their own sins—and God is not referring to their kings’ rebellions against Babylon.

This week’s haftarah comes in the middle of Ezekiel’s fifth and final vision. This vision begins when a divine guide wafts Ezekiel to Jerusalem and shows him around a new and larger temple, measuring everything as he goes. Then the glory of God appears, and God tells Ezekiel:

Son of humankind, [this is] the place of My throne and the place of the soles of My feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel forever. But the house of Israel must not again defile My holy name, neither they nor their kings, by their prostitution [with other gods] and with their kings’ lifeless idols in their shrines. (Ezekiel 43:7)

The sin of the Israelites is building shrines for idols and other gods—and in the worst possible place.

When they placed their thresholds next to My threshold and their doorposts beside My doorposts, [with only] the wall between Me and them, and they defiled My holy name with their taboo actions, then I consumed them in My anger. (Ezekiel 43:8)

God decided to destroy Jerusalem and its temple because of the people’s apostasy, and used the Babylonian army to do it.

Jeremiah, who was still prophesying in Jerusalem when Ezekiel prophesied in Babylon, also said that God arranged the destruction of Jerusalem, using Nebuchadnezzar as a tool. According to both prophets, God decides which army wins in every battle involving Israelites. (See my post Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.) Nebuchadnezzar did not even know the God of Israel was using him to punish the Israelites.

Today this prophetic point of view seems parochial and narrow-minded. Even if God did micro-manage every battle and siege, why should all of God’s plans be about rewarding or punishing the Israelites? What about all the other peoples in the world?

Nabu, from temple at Kalah
Nabu, from temple at Kalah

Other peoples had their own, albeit inferior, gods. For example, the chief gods of the Neo-Babylonian Empire were Nabu and Marduk. The Bible maintains that the God of Israel was more powerful than all other gods, and that God chose the Israelites to be “His” people and commanded them not to worship any other gods. The Torah often compares this exclusive relationship between the God of Israel and the Israelites to a marriage in which the Israelites let down God by failing to be monogamous.

Monotheism, the idea that there is only one god in the universe, only creeps into the Bible in a few of the many books written during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E. The book of Ezekiel, however, sticks to the older point of view that the God of Israel is the most powerful god, not the only god.  Therefore the book of Ezekiel is Judeo-centric; God interferes in the world primarily to reward or (more often) punish the Israelites.

And if nikhlemu because of everything that they have done, make known to them the design of the House and its plan——its exits and its entrances, and its entire plan, and all its decrees and all its plans and all its teachings; And write it down before their eyes so they will observe its entire plan and all its decrees, and do them. (Ezekiel 43:11)

*

For those of us who have a more monotheistic or universal idea of God, I propose a radical rereading of Ezekiel 43:11:

And if nikhlamta because of everything that you have done, discover for yourself the design of the House and its plan—

If you feel your life is unsatisfactory, even humiliating, and suspect it is because you have done something wrong, then think of your life as a temple for God’s presence.

—its exits and its entrances, and its entire plan,

Where in your life do you exit from the presence of God? Where do you enter it? What is your overall plan for living with God?

and all its decrees and all its plans and all its teachings;

What principles do you follow as if they are divine decrees? What teachings help you to approach God?

And write it down before your own eyes so you will observe its entire plan and all its decrees, and do them. (Ezekiel 43:11)

And undertake a practice, such as prayer or study, that will keep reminding you of your plan for living in God’s presence and the principles you are following. Then make it your life.

Haftarat Tetzaveh—Ezekiel: The Meaning of Humiliation

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 Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10), and the haftarah is Ezekiel 43:10-27.

This week’s haftarah begins when God tells the prophet Ezekiel:

You, son of humankind, describe the House to the household of Israel, veyikalmu because of their sins, and they will measure off its plan. And if nikhlemu because of everything that they have done, make known to them the design of the House and its plan …(Ezekiel 43:10-11)

veyikalmu (וְיִכָּלְמוּ) = and they will be humiliated, embarrassed, publicly disgraced. (From the root k-l-m, כּלם, sometimes translated as “ashamed” but actually referring to public humiliation regardless of actual guilt or innocence.)

nikhlemu (נִכְלְמוּ) = they are humiliated, etc.

“The House” refers to a building for the God of Israel: Ezekiel’s vision of a new temple to replace the one that King Solomon erected and King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon razed when he destroyed Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.

Temple sizes
Temple sizes

The two clauses about being humiliated are difficult to interpret, since in the first one God predicts the Israelites will be humiliated, and in the second one God says “if they are humiliated”. According to the standards of the sixth century B.C.E., there is no question that the Israelites of Judah have been publicly humiliated by the time of this prophecy, dated to the fourteenth year after the fall of Jerusalem.

The kingdom of Judah had been a vassal state of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, paying annual tribute to King Nebuchadnezzar but managing its internal affairs as an independent country. Then King Yehoyachim of Judah rebelled, and the Babylonian army besieged his capital, Jerusalem. His son Yehoyachin (a.k.a. Jeconiah) surrendered in 597 B.C.E. and saved the city. Nebuchadnezzar deported him and about 3,000 of Jerusalem’s leading citizens—including Ezekiel—to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar installed Yehoyachin’s uncle Zedekiah as Judah’s king, and Judah resumed its status as a Babylonian vassal state.

The Flight of the Prisoners, by James J.J. Tissot, 1886 (capture of Jerusalem in 587)

The Israelites remaining in Judah still had their own king, and a temple for their own god. But eight years later Zedekiah rebelled (after making a secret treaty with Egypt), and the Babylonian army surrounded Jerusalem again. This time the siege ended in the capture of Jerusalem, the execution of Judah’s last king, and the destruction of the capital and its temple—in other words, the complete humiliation of Judah.

What caused this humiliation? One might blame Nebuchadnezzar for his determination to expand his empire, or King Zedekiah for foolishly rebelling, or even Egypt for marching toward Judah at Zedekiah’s instigation, then succumbing to the Babylonian army before they reached Jerusalem.

But in the passage above, God says twice that the humiliation of the Israelites happened because of their own sins—and God is not referring to their kings’ rebellions against Babylon.

This week’s haftarah comes in the middle of Ezekiel’s fifth and final vision. This vision begins when a divine guide wafts Ezekiel to Jerusalem and shows him around a new and larger temple, measuring everything as he goes. Then the glory of God appears, and God tells Ezekiel:

Son of humankind, [this is] the place of My throne and the place of the soles of My feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel forever. But the house of Israel must not again defile My holy name, neither they nor their kings, by their prostitution [with other gods] and with their kings’ lifeless idols in their shrines. (Ezekiel 43:7)

The sin of the Israelites is building shrines for idols and other gods—and in the worst possible place.

When they placed their thresholds next to My threshold and their doorposts beside My doorposts, [with only] the wall between Me and them, and they defiled My holy name with their taboo actions, then I consumed them in My anger. (Ezekiel 43:8)

God decided to destroy Jerusalem and its temple because of the people’s apostasy, and used the Babylonian army to do it.

Jeremiah, who was still prophesying in Jerusalem when Ezekiel prophesied in Babylon, also said that God arranged the destruction of Jerusalem, using Nebuchadnezzar as a tool. According to both prophets, God decides which army wins in every battle involving Israelites. (See my post Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.) Nebuchadnezzar, naturally, did not know that the God of Israel was using him to punish the Israelites.

Today this prophetic point of view seems parochial and narrow-minded. Even if God did micro-manage every battle and siege, why should all of God’s plans be about rewarding or punishing the Israelites? What about all the other peoples in the world?

Nabu, from temple at Kalah
Nabu, from temple at Kalah

Other peoples had their own, albeit inferior, gods. For example, the chief gods of the Neo-Babylonian Empire were Nabu and Marduk. The Bible maintains that the God of Israel was more powerful than all other gods, and that God chose the Israelites to be “His” people and commanded them not to worship any other gods. The Torah often compares this exclusive relationship between the God of Israel and the Israelites to a marriage in which the Israelites let down God by failing to be monogamous.

Monotheism, the idea that there is only one god in the universe, only creeps into the Bible in a few of the many books written during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E. The book of Ezekiel, however, sticks to the older point of view that the God of Israel is the most powerful god, not the only god.  Therefore the book of Ezekiel is Judeo-centric; God interferes in the world primarily to reward or (more often) punish the Israelites.

And if nikhlemu because of everything that they have done, make known to them the design of the House and its plan——its exits and its entrances, and its entire plan, and all its decrees and all its plans and all its teachings; And write it down before their eyes so they will observe its entire plan and all its decrees, and do them. (Ezekiel 43:11)

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For those of us who have a more monotheistic or universal idea of God, I propose a radical rereading of Ezekiel 43:11:

And if nikhlamta because of everything that you have done, discover for yourself the design of the House and its plan—

If you feel your life is unsatisfactory, even humiliating, and suspect it is because you have done something wrong, then think of your life as a temple for God’s presence.

—its exits and its entrances, and its entire plan,

Where in your life do you exit from the presence of God? Where do you enter it? What is your overall plan for living with God?

and all its decrees and all its plans and all its teachings;

What principles do you follow as if they are divine decrees? What teachings help you to approach God?

And write it down before your own eyes so you will observe its entire plan and all its decrees, and do them. (Ezekiel 43:11)

And undertake a practice, such as prayer or study, that will keep reminding you of your plan for living in God’s presence and the principles you are following. Then make it your life.