Vayakheil: Shadow Power

March 8, 2013 at 8:35 am | Posted in Bereishit, Vayakheil | 1 Comment

God spoke to Moses, saying: See? I have called by name Betzaleil son of Uri son of Chur of the tribe of Yehudah. And I have filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom and with insight and with knowledge, and with every craft. (Exodus/Shemot 31:1-3)

Moses said to the children of Israel: See? God has called by name Betzaleil son of Uri son of Chur of the tribe of Yehudah. And he has filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, with insight, and with knowledge, and with every craft. (Exodus 35:30-31)

Betzaleil (בְּצַלְאֵל) = In the shadow of God.           b- (=in, at, by, with) + tzeil (=shadow, shade) + eil (= god)

In the Torah portions of the last few weeks, God told Moses everything that should be included in a portable sanctuary the Israelites would make for God. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (And he assembled), Moses passes on the lists to the Israelites, and points out (See?) that God has chosen Betzaleil to be in charge of creating all the items properly. Everyone can see that God has filled Betzaleil with a divine spirit or inspiration, so it is easy to believe God has singled him our or “called him by name”–a name that is oddly appropriate for his mission.

What does it mean to be, or to create, in the shadow of God? Today we use the word “shadow” as a metaphor for so many things. For example, being in someone’s shadow means going unnoticed. The shadow side of a person or institution is the unacknowledged, unconscious, or repressed side. Shadowing someone is following their every move.

But in the Hebrew Bible, the meanings of the word “shadow” are more limited. The word tzeil appears 48 times, and 40 of those references are either literal (such as the shadow of a tree or a sundial) or a metaphor for shelter and protection. The first time the word appears is in Lot’s speech to the men of Sodom, begging them not to molest his two angelic visitors:

Here please, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Please let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them whatever is good in your eyes. Only don’t do a thing to these men, because they came into the shadow of my roof. (Genesis/Bereishit 19:8)

Here “the shadow of my roof” means “under my protection”. Once Lot has offered the visitors the hospitality of his house, he feels honor-bound to protect them from the mob.

Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, some people are under the “shadow” or protection of a government, and the luckiest people are in the “shadow” of God’s hand or wings.

In the shadow of Your wings I seek refuge. (Psalm 57:2)

Those of us who live in more moderate climates might not think of a shadow as a protection or a shelter, but in the deserts of the Middle East a shadow meant shade from the burning sun.

The other eight occurrences of the word tzeil, shadow, are all connected with a person’s lifespan. When that days of your life are like a shadow, it means they are brief and fleeting.

Humankind is like a puff of air; his days are like a passing shadow. (Psalm 144:4)

Both of these metaphors can be applied to the master craftsman Betzaleil. Since he is human, his life is short compared to God’s. By extension, his creations, however dazzling and holy, are a mere shadow of God’s creation of the universe.

On the other hand, Betzaleil is in the shadow of God, so God protects and shelters him as well as naming him. His inspiration for designing all the holy objects comes from the spirit of God, and therefore everything will come out right.

A literal shadow is like a silhouette; you see the outline of the original, but none of the details or colors. This kind of shadow fits the Hebrew word tzelem, which is sometimes translated as “shadow”, but more often translated as “image”. The word tzelem, which may well be related to the word tzeil, appears in the first account of God’s creation of the universe:

And God said: Let us make humankind betzalmeinu, in our likeness, and they will rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the beasts, and over all the land, and over all creepers that creep on the land. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:26)

betzalmeinu (בְּצַלְמֵנוּ) = in our image

Humans are shadows of God in the sense that we are like silhouettes of the divine. As two-dimensional images, our power, both to rule and to create, is limited yet still extensive. We cannot rule over the laws of nature, but we have a lot of control over this earth and its creatures. (We can even change the earth’s climate.) We cannot create a universe, but we can recombine existing elements to create new things within our universe. When we humans are at our best, when we are inspired to create, like Betzaleil, we shadow or imitate the divine. Only God can make a tree, but some poems are also inspiring.

So, I imagine, was the entire work of art of the portable sanctuary, and later of the temple.  It inspired the children of Israel to keep returning to their God, over the centuries, and it kept their religion alive until it could metamorphose and survive without a temple.

When God calls us by name, either to rule or to create, we are given a heavy responsibility. We humans have more power than we think, for good and for ill. May we use it wisely.

Bereishit: A First-Rate Beginning

October 11, 2012 at 12:58 am | Posted in Bereishit | Leave a comment

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1, King James Version)

I used to find flaws in the King James translation of the first line of the Bible: Bereishit bara Elohim eit hashamayim ve-eit ha-aretz. Consider the first word, a compound of

be- = a prefix meaning “in”, “with”, “at”, “by”, or another preposition, depending on context and idiomatic usage

+ reishit = beginning, first, first-rate, best

I knew that “in the” was ba, not be. So I preferred modern translations of bereishit as “In a beginning”. But this year, I checked all the other places where the word reishit appears in the Hebrew bible, and I discovered that reishit itself often implies a definite article (i.e. “the”). So the King James version’s In the beginning is accurate after all.

The second Hebrew word is bara, “created”. Before I learned Biblical Hebrew grammar, I made the translation mistake the Talmud warns against (Megillah 9a) and wondered if bereishit bara Elohim means that “In-a-beginning” created God. Then I found out that the subject follows the verb in Hebrew, so the correct translation of bara Elohim is “God created”, not “created God”.

What about the word Elohim? It is a plural noun, used in the Torah for both God and for other peoples’ gods. But the book of Genesis/Bereishit would hardly say that other peoples’ gods created the heavens and the earth!

The word translated in the King James version as “the heavens”, hashamayim, is either plural or double, not singular. So I would translate it as “the heavens”. But that is nit-picking.

When I began researching this blog, I still hoped I could come up with a more interesting, yet accurate, translation. Over the years I have enjoyed reading alternate translations, especially when they lead to intriguing ideas about the nature of God.

For example, here is one of 19th-century Rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch’s translations: From the very beginning God created the heaven and the earth. I notice that this version implies not only that God (Elohim) is the original, and perhaps the only, creator, but also that creating the heavens and the earth is an ongoing process.

For another example, here is Rabbi David Cooper’s 20th-century translation in God Is a VerbWith a beginning, [It] created God (Elohim), the heavens and the earth. Cooper explained that in kabbalah, the ein sof (“without end”) precedes Nothingness, and out of Nothingness comes Beginningness. From Beginningness comes Elohim, the plural name of God, and then plural creation follows, starting with the heavens and the earth. The first part of this amazing progression occured before the first word of the Torah. The word bereishit catches the kabbalistic progression at the stage of Beginningness.

Yet the 17th-century King James translation, prosaic as it seems, is closer to the original Hebrew. So then I wondered if I could invent an interesting alternate translation by using one of the other meanings of reishit.

The word reishit appears in the Hebrew bible 50 times. It is used most often (23 times) to indicate one kind of offering to the temple: an offering of the first or the finest sample of an agricultural product–usually fruit or grain, but sometimes bread, oil, or livestock. Another common use of the word (10 times) is to indicate that something else is first-rate: a person, a group of people, a father’s vigor, a land’s fertility, a fig’s flavor.

If the reishit part of the first word in the Bible meant “first-rate”, the first sentence could be translated: With the best, God created the heaven and the earth. We would learn that our universe is first-rate (or at least the best of all possible worlds), and that God also created other, inferior universes!

But this is stretching too far, when the Hebrew bible uses reishit to mean “the beginning” 17 more times after the opening Bereishit. Twelve of these occurrences refer to the beginning of something that unfolds over a period of time: a year, an episode in someone’s life, a king’s reign, a person’s lifetime, a kingdom’s duration. Two more occurrences refer to the beginning of a process of divine creation: the book of Job claims the behemoth was the beginning of God’s creation of animals, while the book of Proverbs claims wisdom was the beginning of God’s creation of the world. The word reishit is also used three  times for a more abstract beginning, as in Psalm 111:10 (The beginning of wisdom is awe of God).

The compound word bereishit shows up four times in the book of Jeremiah. All four times, bereishit merely gives the approximate date of a prophecy, by placing it “in the beginning of the reign of” a certain king. So the bereishit in the first sentence of the Torah must also be the beginning of something that unfolds over time, like a king’s reign. But this beginning came before everything. It is the beginning of time as we know it (one new thing after another), or the beginning of being.

Maybe Elohim, the god of plurals, means God the Creator, the God of Time, and the God of Endless Beginnings. Then what came before the beginning of time and creation, before Elohim? If the answer is God, this is a god we cannot even imagine. The Ein Sof (“Without End”) of kabbalah is, by definition, inconceivable. As the Zohar says, “No thought can grasp You at all.” Yet Elohim, the God that we can think about, points back at the Ein Sof, the inconceivable God  that began Rabbi David Cooper’s kabbalistic progression.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” is more profound than I thought.

Vayikra: Gifts to the Giver

March 23, 2012 at 9:58 am | Posted in Bereishit, Passover/Pesach, Shavuot, Vayikra | 1 Comment

Imagine you own nothing.  You are homeless, penniless, hungry.  Then someone gives you a farm with good soil, crops in the ground, and seeds.  All you have to do is work the farm and trade your harvest for everything else you need. The farm still belongs to your benefactor, but he or she lends it to you rent-free for your lifetime, and you can even pass it on to your children.

As soon as begin to feel secure, you are moved to thank the farm’s actual owner.  So you send your benefactor a nice selection of its produce.  Maybe you also include a loaf baked from the wheat you have grown.  It’s the best you can do to express your gratitude, and perhaps your humility.

This is how I imagine ancient peoples felt when they made sacrifices to their gods.  They knew their lives depended on the gifts of rain, sun, and soil, as well as the plants and animals that were already in the world before humans came along.  People wanted to recognize this by making a formal expression of humble gratitude, a gift to pay homage.  But how could they deliver their gift?  Some cultures made idols for their gods to inhabit, and set their gifts in front of the idols.  But the ancient Israelites shunned idols.  Until they built the sanctuary for God to dwell in, the only address they knew for God was “the heavens”.  So they built altars, laid offerings on them, and burned them, sending the smoke up to the sky.  It was the best they could do.

The first offering to God in the Torah is Cain’s.

And it happened, at the end of a period of time, that Cain brought from the fruit of the ground a minchah for God.  And Abel, he also brought, from the firstborns of his his flock and from their fat …  (Genesis/Bereishit 4:3-4)

minchah = gift to a superior, homage, tribute, offering to a god

The Torah does not say whether Cain and Abel built altars and burned their offerings.  But it is clear that the first offering to God is Cain’s minchah, consisting of the fruits of his harvest.  Abel follows his brother’s lead by offering animals from his flock to God, and the Torah also calls this offering a minchah.

The rest of the offerings mentioned in the first two books of the Torah, Genesis/Bereishit and Exodus/Shemot, all appear to be animals, and none of them is called a minchah. That word is used again a few times in Genesis, but only for gifts from one human to another.  Jacob gives a minchah to his estranged brother Esau to butter him up, and Joseph’s brothers bring a minchah to him when he is the viceroy of Egypt, for the same purpose.  The Torah uses other Hebrew words for animal offerings.  The standard procedure in Genesis, starting with Noah, seems to be building an altar out of stones, laying firewood on it, slaughtering the animal, and burning it.

In the book of Exodus, the instructions for offerings to inaugurate the sanctuary include the word minchah three times, and all three refer to an offering that is neither an animal sacrifice nor a libation.  Are we returning to Cain’s vegetable offering?  The first Torah portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra answers with a technical definition of the proper types of minchah:

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

The Torah then describes four ways the minchah can be cooked before it is offered.  The mixture of flour and oil can be baked into loaves of unleavened bread, or into flat bread wafers.  It can be fried on a griddle, or cooked as soft dough in a pot.  But it must always be sprinkled with frankincense, and then salt, before a piece of it is burned up into smoke. Furthermore, the bread of the minchah must never be left to rise, and it must never include fruit syrup:

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

Later the Torah describes the annual offering of first-fruits on Shavuot, which also includes an offering of two loaves of leavened bread from each pilgrim.  These offerings are presented to the priests at the sanctuary, but no part of them is burned on the altar.

Why does a minchah have to be unleavened and unsweetened, while offerings for Shavuot, the Day of First-Fruits, include both leaven and fruit syrup?

There may be a connection between the observance of Passover, when no leaven may be eaten, and the observance of Shavuot exactly seven weeks later, when the bread brought to the priests must be allowed to rise.  Yet the Torah describes Passover as a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, and Shavuot as a harvest festival.  (Shavuot was not associated with the revelation at Mount Sinai until much later, after the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E.)

I believe the key difference is that a portion of every offering of unleavened, unsweetened bread is burned on the altar to make smoke for God, while leaven and syrup are given to the priests with a ritual recitation instead of burning.  (See my blog “Ki Tavo:  The Perishing Aramean”.)

Plain flour and oil, whether cooked or not, represents basic subsistence.  This makes an unleavened flour or matzah offering an expression of humility and gratitude that God makes life possible at all.  Sourdough loaves and fruit syrups are examples of foods that go beyond basic subsistence, providing the luxury of pleasant tastes. As offerings, these foods express gratitude for a richness of life beyond what is strictly necessary to survive.

The offering of gratitude for the bare fact of life is turned into smoke.  Perhaps the smoke is not only a metaphorical fragrance for God to enjoy, but also a sign of the evanescence of life.  We are lucky to have life at all — and all too soon, we fade away.  But we are grateful for every moment of life.

The offering of gratitude for luxuries and extras is not turned into smoke.  It is a way of rejoicing that the early harvest is going well, that life is going well, with surpluses to enjoy.  We can rejoice out of the fullness of our hearts, without any grim reminders of death.  But we only indulge in this kind of gratitude once a year, as spring turns to summer.  The rest of the year, we still need the reminder of the smoke.


Toledot & Vayishlach: Seeing Red

November 24, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Toledot, Vayishlach | 2 Comments

The book of Genesis/Bereishit explores a series of conflicts between brothers, and one between sisters.  Two of these conflicts feature an especially hot-blooded, emotional brother, and both of these use various permutations of the word adom, “red”.

After Cain kills Abel, God tells Cain:

The voice of the blood of your brother is crying out from the ground!  (Genesis/Bereishit 4:10)
dam = blood
adamah = ground, dirt, earth

Both Hebrew words come from the same root as adam (“human”, also the name of the father of Cain and Abel, whom God makes out of dirt in Chapter 2).  To be human is, among other things, to be red.  Dam, “blood”, is obviously red.  And traditional commentary explains that uncultivated earth (at least in the world described by the Torah) is red clay.

This week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“histories”), tells the story of the twins Esau and Jacob, from their conception to age 40, when Jacob flees because Esau is threatening to kill him.

And her days of pregnancy were completed, and hey!  twins were in her womb.  And the first one went out, red all over like a fur robe of hair, and they called his name Esau.  And after that his brother went out, and his hand held onto the heel of Esau, so he called his name Jacob … (Genesis 25:24-26)

admoni = reddish

eisav = Esau; do it, get it done

ya-akov = Jacob; he heels, he follows, he is cunning

Even at birth, Esau is red.  (The text is not clear about whether he has ruddy skin and is covered with hair, or whether his fur-like hair is reddish.  Either way, he is born red, like blood, and hairy, like a wild man.)

Since Esau is born a moment before Jacob, he counts as the firstborn son.  In the world of the Torah, when the patriarch of an extended family dies, his firstborn son inherits  a double portion of his father’s possessions, and also becomes the family’s priest or intercessor with God.  Yet in this story, when Esau grows up and becomes a hunter, he does not care about the role of the firstborn.  Jacob, who stays in the tents, cares very much.

Jacob stewed a stew, and Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted.  And Esau said to Jacob:  “Please, let me gulp down some of the red– this red– because I am exhausted.”

Therefore he called his name Edom.

And Jacob said:  “Hand over, as of today, your right as firstborn to me”.

And Esau said:  “Hey, I am going toward death, so what is this to me, a firstborn right?”

And Jacob said:  “Swear to me, as of today!”  And he swore to him, and he handed over his firstborn right to Jacob.  And as for Jacob, he gave to Esau bread and a stew of lentils.  And he ate and he drank and he got up and he went.  Thus he belittled the right of the firstborn.  (Genesis 25:29-34)

Edom = a people who later lived east of the Jordan valley, supposedly descended from Esau.  (The Hebrew word comes from the same root as adom = red.)

On a literal level, this story amuses me, because I often make stew from red lentils, and it always comes out a golden color.  Other kinds of cooked lentils are dark brown or green-brown—but never red.  Did someone who never cooked write down this story, and get the detail about lentils wrong?  I prefer to assume that Jacob is so clever, he adds an ingredient to his stew that will make even lentils look red enough to attract Esau’s attention.

Esau sees food, and the color red.  He does not notice the lentils.  He cannot even find the word for stew.  The 19th-century commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that the color red delights Esau because it reminds him of the blood on an animal when his arrow hits it.

The 20th-century psychologist Helen Luke wrote that red is the color of instinct, impulse, and emotion.  She added that Esau, who is controlled by the color red, is in danger of losing all civilizing tendencies and becoming evil.  Jacob, his opposite, is in danger of repressing or denying all instinct and emotion, and becoming evil.  I conclude that neither the man of blood-red violence nor the bloodless schemer is a good candidate for the spiritual role of the firstborn, the one who speaks with and makes offerings to God.

I think Jacob sees the world as black and white, divided between losers and winners.  Since he sees the firstborn as the winner in the family, he applies his intelligence to acquiring that role.  He suppresses any emotional impulses in order to carry out first his own scheme for taking his brother’s birthright, then his mother’s scheme for stealing his brother’s blessing.  Jacob may not savor his food as much as Esau, but he knows how to plan ahead.

Esau sees only red.  Carried away by one emotion after another during the Torah portion of Toledot, he carries out his impulses and lives for the moment.  In the passage translated above, he gives away his birthright to appease one day’s feelings of hunger and despair.  Later in the Torah portion, he weeps like a child when he finds out Jacob has stolen the blessing their father intended for Esau.  Then he becomes so angry he threatens to kill Jacob as soon as their father dies.

Jacob flees from him, and in a distant town he meets his match in his cold, calculating uncle Lavan—whose name means “white” in Hebrew.  Yet some color also comes into Jacob’s black-and-white life, as he impulsively falls in love with Lavan’s daughter Rachel.  Gradually he succeeds in becoming the leader of his own clan, through a combination of sensitivity to others’ emotions and rational long-term planning.

Meanwhile, Esau leaves home and learns how to be a leader.  When he hears that his twin and nemesis is coming his way (in the Torah portion Vayishlach), he plans ahead by bringing 400 men to meet Jacob on the road.  But he retains his emotional instincts, and when he sees Jacob bow to him, he runs over and embraces his brother.  The two older and wiser men pull off a peaceful reunion.

We all have some of Jacob’s black-and-white rationalism and some of Esau’s red emotionalism.  We can only be whole human beings when those two sides embrace.

Furthermore, in order turn our whole personality toward peace rather than toward evil, we must learn from the evolution of both brothers.  Jacob learns to use his black-and-white intellect to lay plans for the good of everyone, instead of for just his own advantage.  And Esau learns to move beyond seeing red as the blood shed in killing, and see red as the blood of life, shared with other humans.

If we can widen our vision enough, through both our intellects and our emotions, we will recognize that all human beings share the same blood; we are descendants of Adam, the red one.  Then we will all truly deserve the right of the firstborn to speak with God.

Bereishit & Noach: All Flesh

October 27, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Noach | Leave a comment

Light and dark, good and bad, heaven and earth, spirit and matter—the narratives as well as the religious laws in the Torah often speak in terms of contrasts.  In this universe of contrasting pairs, humans are a unique combination of the heavenly and the earthly.  This concept of humankind begins in the second chapter of Genesis:

And God formed the adam out of dirt from the adamah, and blew into its nostrils the soul of life, and the adam became a living being.  (Genesis/Bereishit 2:7)

adam = human, humankind

adamah = ground, soil

Humans are a combination of dirt and God’s breath—a vivid way of saying we are a combination of body and soul (in the English idiom), or basar (flesh) and ruach (spirit) in the biblical Hebrew idiom.

basar = flesh; muscle; all the soft tissue of a human or other animal, the part that can decay, be eaten, or be burned up; all mortal creatures

ruach = wind; spirit; temperament; divine movement or impulse

The word ruach appears right at the beginning of the Torah, at the beginning of the first creation story:

…and darkness was over the face of the deep, and the ruach of God was hovering over the face of the waters.  (Genesis/Bereishit 1:2)

The word basar (flesh) first appears when God divides the primordial human into two sides, and refashions them into two independent creatures:

Then God cast the human into a supernal sleep, and took one of its side, and closed the basar.  And God built the side that It took from the human into a woman, and It brought her to the human.  And the human said:  This time, it is bone from my bone, and basar from my basar; this one will be called woman, because this one was taken from man. (Genesis/Bereishit 2:21-23)

Eleven generations and about a thousand years later, God observes that the human combination of flesh and spirit has led to a lot of bad thoughts and actions.

And God saw that the badness of the human on the earth was great, and all the tendencies of its inner considerings were only bad, every day.  (Genesis 6:5)

How were they so bad?  The next Torah portion, Noach (a resting place, serenity; as a proper name, “Noah”) gives us only a hint.

God looked at the earth, and hey! it had become spoiled, because all basar had spoiled its ways upon the earth.  So God said to Noah:  “An end of all basar is coming, because they have filled the earth with outrage; so here I am, about to spoil the earth.”  (Genesis 6:12-6:13)

shicheit = spoil, corrupt, damage, ruin, bring down

When God warns Noah about the flood, God predicts the end of  “all flesh”.  But when God proceeds to flood the earth, the Torah describes the end of the ruach  of humans and the other land animals.

Everything that had the soul of the ruach of life from God’s nostrils, out of all that was on dry land, died.  …and God wiped them away from the earth, and kept safe only Noah and those with him in the ark.  (Genesis 7:22-23)

Apparently the “badness”, or evil, does not lie exclusively in either the flesh (“dirt” or inanimate matter that God brought to life) or the spirit (ruach, wind, God’s own movement within our inner selves).  The badness may be in a spoiled relationship between flesh and spirit.

Medieval Jewish commentators said the problem was sexual immorality (one of their favorite topics).  The 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained that a righteous person refrains from sexual immorality by subordinating the physical, sensual drives of the flesh to the divine will of God’s spirit.  If, on the other hand, the spirit is subordinate to the flesh, then a person’s thoughts and actions will tend toward immorality, and be “spoiled”.

Jews have little or no monastic tradition, and even medieval rabbis carefully distinguished between morally desirable sex and immoral sex.  Today some of us might draw the line in a different place, but we still draw a line, and expect a decent human being to have enough self-control to refrain from immoral sexual acts.

And sex is not the only area in life where humans experience a conflict between the flesh and the spirit.  For example, sometimes we crave food or drugs that we know will have bad results for ourselves and other humans who depend upon us; if our flesh is not subordinate to our spirit, we act on our cravings.  Sometimes we have trouble giving up a material comfort our “flesh” is attached to, for the sake of a higher good.

It’s easy to condemn other people for not trying hard enough, when their spirit loses the struggle with an undesirable desire of the flesh.  But when I look deeper, I see people who find dieting manageable condemning those who try to diet without success; people who already have sexual self-control condemning those who succumb to temptation; people who can afford to buy hybrid electric cars condemning those who drive old gas-guzzlers.

In the Torah, God condemns and wipes out the whole human race except for Noah and his immediate family, and throws in millions of animals for good measure.  After the flood subsides, Noah sacrifices the excess animals that God included in the ark at the last minute, in Chapter 7.  By building an altar and completely burning up their flesh, Noah demonstrates that he values God more than animals, spirit more than flesh.

And God smelled the soothing fragrance, and God said to Its heart:  I will not again denigrate the ground (adamah) on account of the human (adam), for the tendencies of the inner human are bad from its youth; so I will not again strike down everything that lives, as I have done.  (Genesis, 8:21)

So God decides to continue the experiment, continue with these strange combinations of physical flesh and divine spirit that we call adam, humankind.  God pulls back from condemnation because of the mere scent of a better relationship between flesh and spirit.

If God can do it in the Torah, maybe we can do it here on earth.  We humans all have bad tendencies, because we are all hybrid creatures of flesh and spirit.  My most troublesome bad tendency may be different from yours.  But I pray that I will notice what is good in you, and in myself ; that I will refrain from the impulse to condemn; and that I will become a humane human.

Bereishit: Fairness & Free Will

March 13, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Posted in Bereishit | 2 Comments

(This blog was first posted on September 26, 2010.)

And God said to Cain:  Why did you heat up, and why did your face fall?  Isn’t it true that if you do good, there is uplifting?  And if you do not do good, sin is lying like a beast at the door, and its hunger is for you.  But you, you can rule over it.  (Genesis/Bereishit 4:6-7)

chatat = sin, moral violation, missing the mark, going off track, fault, guilt

Yes, God gives Cain a warning, and he kills his brother anyway.

The first time I read the story of Cain and Abel in Hebrew, I saw it in a new light.  Cain’s name in Hebrew is kayin, which means “spear”, and may or may not be related to the word kanah, “acquire”.  But Abel’s name in Hebrew is hevel—the same word that is translated as “vanity” in the King James version of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet.  A hevel is a puff of air, a vapor, something transitory and insignificant; it can also be translated as “emptiness” or “futility”.

Somebody named Abel might well be a virtuous shepherd who brings a superior sacrifice to God.  But somebody named Futility?  Or Puff?  I don’t think so.

Puff’s insubstantiality is underscored by the description of the births of Adam and Eve’s first two sons.  First the Torah says: She conceived and she gave birth to Cain, and she said: I have created a man with God.  Then it says:  And she added to the birthing his brother, Puff.  Clearly Cain is the important character.  Puff is merely a foil for Cain’s drama.

Cain is the one who gets the idea of bringing an offering to God, and since he works the soil like his father Adam, he brings a sacrifice from the fruit of the ground.  Puff then imitates Cain, and brings a sacrifice from the firstborns of his flock and from their fat.

God pays attention to Puff’s offering, and ignores Cain’s.  (The Torah does not say how God demonstrated this attention, but somehow Cain could tell.  Medieval commentary said that fire from heaven devoured Puff’s animals, but left Cain’s fruits and vegetables untouched.)

Then Cain gets upset; in the metaphor of the Torah, he becomes hot, and his face falls.  I remember how upset my own son used to get when he was small and something unfair happened.

Is God’s action unfair?  Traditional commentary argues that Puff’s sacrifice is superior to Cain’s, so he deserves God’s favor.  But I don’t buy it.  It’s true that later in the Torah, firstborn animals and fat are especially appropriate for sacrifices, so Puff gave God the best he had.  But the text says nothing about the quality of Cain’s gifts; he might have offered the best he had, too.  And given that at this point God still expects humans to be vegetarians, it seems odd that God would prefer the sacrifice of animals.

I think God’s action is deliberately unfair, and its purpose is to give Cain a test or  challenge.  God then gives Cain a strong hint with the warning translated above.  Never mind whether life is fair, God implies.  The important thing is to do good yourself, regardless.  If you do, you’ll be uplifted.  But if you succumb to the animal impulse to do evil, you’ll be eaten up by it.  Believe me, you have the ability to overrule that impulse.  So here’s your chance to prove yourself.

Alas, Cain fails the test and kills his brother.

Traditional commentary claims this is the second time a human fails one of God’s tests, the first time being in the garden of Eden.  But I think that when God creates the adam (which means “human” or “humankind”) out of dirt and the divine breath, this new creature is incomplete, not entirely human yet.  God transfers the proto-human into an otherworldly place in which all the animals subsist on fruit.  Judging by God’s “curses” on man, woman, and serpent, the garden of Eden has no weeds, thorns, pain, birth, or death; it’s not part of the real world we know.

The whole point of Eden seems to be to expose the adam to the Tree of Knowledge.  God points out the tree to the creature by saying: From all the trees of the garden you may certainly eat; but from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you may not eat, because once you eat from it you will certainly die.

When the adam doesn’t do anything about this prohibition, God divides it into two beings, male and female counterparts.  This does the trick; the female human accepts the challenge, and both of them eat from the Tree of Knowledge.  Now they are truly human: they exercise free will, they have a moral sense that other animals lack, and they are mortal.  Now God can take them out of Eden and return them to the real world to get the history of humanity going.

But apparently humanity needs another nudge from God.  The knowledge of good and bad that Adam and Eve acquired in Eden is still nascent and primitive.  A real test is needed to show humanity what free will and good and evil really mean.  So God sets it up, with Puff as the foil for Cain.  Cain has a good impulse, wanting to show his gratitude for the produce of the earth, and gives some to God.  God responds with unfairness, injustice.  Cain has a primitive intuition of good and evil, and gets upset when life isn’t fair.  And God tells Cain to get over it, and use his free will, his ability to override his impulses and make deliberate choices, his ability to act according to a higher morality.  This is the first real test of a human being.

Cain flunks the test.  And to this day, human beings keep on flunking the test.  We lash out at unfairness, we take revenge, and we murder our brothers, our fellow human beings.

But some of us grow up.  Some of us hear an echo of God’s message to Cain, and override our angry impulses, and choose to behave with more virtue.  It’s not easy at first, but gradually we can develop a habit of choosing good over evil, of keeping the hungry beast at the door at bay.  We can make the beast lie outside, instead of letting it come in and take over.

Is humanity making any progress on this hard path?  Examples of atrocities are still all too easy to find.  But I believe that more and more people are recognizing them as atrocious.  The world is still full of Cains.  But maybe, in some future century, if humanity lasts long enough, we will all finally be able to hear God’s warning to Cain, and rule over our emotional reactions to unfairness, and dedicate ourselves to choosing good, no matter what.

May it happen soon.

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