Acharey Mot: Azazel

May 1, 2019 at 4:30 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

The high priest may only enter the Holy of Holies once a year, according to this week’s Torah portion, Acharey Mot (“after the death”).1  On Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), the high priest must burn incense inside the Holy of Holies and flick the blood of a bull and a goat on the ark.

drawing by Dugald Stewart Walker (1883-1937)

The bull is a sacrifice from the priests’ own herd, slaughtered to atone for anything he or his household did wrong during the past year.  The goat is one of two goats (se-irim) provided by the Israelite people.  The high priest (Aaron, in this Torah portion) gives one goat to God, burning its body and sprinkling its blood, to make atonement for all the people.2  The other goat carries away all the misdeeds the Israelites committed over the past year.

After the high priest bathes and puts on sacred linen garments,

Then he shall take the two se-irim and stand them in front of God at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  And Aaron shall place lots on the two se-irim: one lot for God and one lot for Azazel.  Then Aaron shall bring forward the sa-ir for which the lot for God came up, and he shall make it the reparation-offering.  And the sa-ir for which the lot for Azazel came up, it shall stand alive in front of God, to make atonement upon it.  And he shall send it to Azazel in the wilderness.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:7-10)

sa-ir (שָׂעִיר) = hairy male goat; long hair; rain shower.  Plural: se-irim (שְׂעִרִם) = goats, goat-demons.

Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל) pronounced Azazeil = a proper name.

The name Azazel appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible, all three in the passage above.  Commentators have suggested that it is the name of a place, the name of a fallen angel, the name of a desert demon, or a symbol of chaos.

Azazel the cliff

And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the living sa-ir, and he shall confess over it all the crimes of the Israelites and all their transgressions for all their wrongdoing, and he shall place them on the head of the sa-ir, and send it by the hand of a designated man into the wilderness.  Then the sa-ir will carry off all the crimes on itself to a cut-off land; he shall send out the sa-ir into the wilderness.  (Leviticus 16:21-22)

In the time of the second temple in Jerusalem (516 BCE to 70 CE), the goat for Azazel was led out past seven stations and pushed off a cliff.  It died on the way down, its body broken by rocks.  The Talmud, redacted circa 500 CE but including a few eyewitness accounts from the final years of the second temple, assumed Azazel was the name of the cliff.3  Rashi, writing in the 11th century CE, explained that “a cut-off land” meant a cliff.4

The Talmud offers two proposals for the etymology of the place-name Azazel.  According to the sages Azazel means “rough and hard”, because it combines azaz (עַז עַז) = “strong, strong” and eil (אֵל), one of whose meanings is “strength, power”.  (Therefore the Azazel place is full of rocks.)  But according to the school of Rabbi Yishmael, the cliff is called Azazel “because it atones for the actions of Uza and Asael.  These are the names of sons of God who sinned with daughters of men (Genesis 6:2) and thereby caused the world to sin during the generation of the Flood.” 5

Azazel the fallen angel

Fallen Angel, by Odilon Redon, 19th century

None of “the sons of God” are named in Genesis.  The school of Rabbi Yishmael probably got the names Uza and Asael from a much later story identifying the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2 with fallen angels called Watchers.  The earliest extant version of this story appears in the apocryphal Book of Enoch written in the third century BCE.  Here Shemyaza and Asael are the two chief leaders of 200 angels who descend to earth, land on Mt. Hermon (in the Golan Heights), and fornicate with human women, producing a race of giants.  Then the book focuses on the actions of Asael, now called Azazel.

And Azazel taught men to make swords, and daggers, and shields and breastplates.  And he showed them the things after these, and the art of making them: bracelets, and ornaments, and the art of making up the eyes and of beautifying the eyelids, and the most precious and choice stones, and all [kinds of] coloured dyes. And the world was changed.  And there was great impiety and much fornication, and they went astray, and all their ways became corrupt.”  (Book of Enoch, 8:1-2) 6

Thus in the Book of Enoch, the fallen angel Azazel not only fornicates with human women, but is responsible for the human evils of war and seduction.  God tells the angel Raphael to bind Azazel’s hands, throw him into darkness, and throw jagged stones on him—reminiscent of the rocks that kill the goat on Yom Kippur during the time of the second temple in Jerusalem.

In another apocryphal book, The Apocalypse of Abraham, Azazel is a fallen angel who serves as a satanic figure, tempting humans to lie and do evil deeds.  God says:  “Go, Azazel, into the untrodden parts of the earth!”7  This is reminiscent of sending the goat to Azazel in the cut-off land of the wilderness in this week’s Torah portion.

Azazel the desert demon

However, the whole concept of fallen angels was invented several centuries after the book of Leviticus was written.  There are no fallen angels in the Torah.  The Biblical Hebrew word for “angel” is the same as the word for “messenger”, malakh (מַלְאַךְ).  All angels that visit earth are simply God’s mouthpieces.

Azazel, by Colin de Plancy, 1882

Therefore some commentators concluded that the name Azazel in this week’s Torah portion refers not to any kind of angel, but to an ancient desert goat-demon.  Later in this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites:

They must not slaughter any more of their slaughterings for the se-irim they are whoring after.  This will be a decree forever for them throughout their generations.  (Leviticus 17:7)

The people have not been sacrificing goats to other goats; here se-irim must mean gods or demons in the shape of goats.

The last book of the Hebrew Bible provides one other hint of a goat-god or goat-demon cult.  When the second book of Chronicles retells the story of how King Jereboam builds two temples in the northern kingdom of Israel, it states disapprovingly that he furnished them not only with golden calves, but also with se-irim (2 Chronicles 11:15).8

There may well have been a tradition involving goat-demons in ancient Canaan.  In the 12th century CE, Rambam wrote that some Sabeans worshipped demons who took the form of goats,9  and Ibn Ezra wrote that “lunatics who see these demons experience visions of goat-like creatures”.10

Azazel the symbol of chaos

What if Azazel is neither a place nor a supernatural being, but rather a personified concept?  Let’s look again at the etymology of the word.

The Talmud’s explanation that Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל) comes azaz (עַז עַז) = “strong, strong” and eil (אֵל) = “strength, power” is far-fetched, since it requires moving the letter aleph (א).  In Biblical Hebrew, related words often use different vowel sounds, and weak letters may appear and disappear.  But a strong letter such as an aleph is never moved to a different position.

One can, however, divide Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל) into az (עז) and azal (אָזַל) = disappear, go away.  The participle form of azal is ozeil (אֺזֵל) = disappearing.  So Azazel may mean “Disappearing Goat”: eiz (עֵז) = goat, she-goat, goat hair + azal (אָזַל) = disappear, go away.

21st century translator and commentator Robert Alter used this etymology, and also wrote that the lot for God represents civilization and order, while the lot for Azazel represents wilderness and chaos.  Thus the goat who carries the misdeeds of the Israelites symbolically takes them to the chaos, the tohu and bohu, that was present in Genesis 1:2 before God began creating the universe.11

*

Whether Azazel is a symbol, a demon, a fallen angel, or a place in the wilderness near Jerusalem, the goat (sa-ir) that gets the lot Azazel becomes the goat (eiz) that goes away into a land that is cut off from humans and disappears forever.  What could be better than to have all the crimes the community committed over the past year disappear forever?

Alas, our own wrongdoing does not completely disappear.  Even after we make atonement with God through whatever means our religions offer, we still remember our guilt.  And even if we are conscientious about acknowledging our bad deeds against other people and obtain their forgiveness, our former victims sometimes remember as well.  It is hard not to slip back into guilt or resentment.

But if we remember Azazel as the Disappearing Goat, perhaps we can turn our memories of missing the mark into reminders that humans can change and make new choices.

  1. The opening sentence of this week’s portion is: “God spoke to Moses after the death of two of Aaron’s sons, who came too close in front of God and died.” This opening underlines the danger of entering the Holy of Holies without permission.  See my post Shemimi: Fire Meets Fire.
  2. See my post Acharey Mot & Shemini: So He Will Not Die.
  3. Talmud Bavli, Yoma 67b, William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org.
  4. Rashi is the acronym of 11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  5. After the mating of the “sons of God” and human women in Genesis 6:2, God sees in Genesis 6:5 “that the wickedness of humankind abounds on the earth”, and resolves to destroy everyone except Noah and his family.
  6. Translated by Miryam T. Brand, Outside the Bible, The Jewish Publication Society, 2013, p. 1370.
  7. Apocalypse of Abraham, translated by Alexander Kulik, Outside the Bible, The Jewish Publication Society, 2013, pp. 1465-1466. This apropcryphal book was originally composed in Aramaic in the first or second century CE.
  8. Jereboam, the first ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel after it secedes, builds two temples with golden calves as idols in 1 Kings 12:28-30.
  9. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon or Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:46.
  10. 12th-century Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, translated in sefaria.org/Ibn_Ezra_on_Leviticus.17.7.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en.
  11. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, pp. 612-613.

Acharey Mot & Shemini: So He Will Not Die

April 25, 2018 at 8:26 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Shemini, Yom Kippur | 2 Comments

How can anyone enter the Holy of Holies and come out alive?

God spoke to Moses after the death of two of the sons of Aaron, when they drew close in front of God and they died.  And God said to Moses: “Speak to Aaron, your brother, so he shall not come at [just] any time into the holy place inside the curtain, to the front of the atonement-cover that is on the ark—so he will not die, because I appear in an anan over the atonement-cover.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:2)

anan (עָנָן) cloud (of water vapor, smoke, or anything that hangs in the air and limits vision.  Anan comes from the same root as onein, עוֹנֵן = made appear, conjured up.)

by James Tissot

Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense “close in front of God” earlier in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.  (See my post Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.)  Their souls are consumed by a divine fire.1  Only in this week’s Torah portion, Acharey Mot (“After the death”), does the Torah indicate how “close in front of God” is too close.

A curtain separates the Tent of Meeting, a portable sanctuary for God, into two rooms.  All the priests walk in and out of the larger front chamber, as they tend the incense altar, the bread table, and the menorah.  The smaller back chamber is the Holy of Holies where the ark stands.  The solid gold lid of the ark is called the atonement-cover or kaporet (כַּפֺּרֶת).  According to the Torah, God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the lid.2

Tent of Meeting. (Red lines are curtains.)

Do Nadav and Avihu go too far by bringing their unauthorized incense into the front chamber of the tent?  Or did they go farther and transgress by entering the Holy of Holies?  The commentary is divided, but the beginning of Acharey Mot implies that they walk all the way into the Holy of Holies.3

Then God says that even Aaron, the high priest, will die if he enters the back chamber at the wrong time.  When is the right time?  The ensuing instructions designate one day a year when the high priest will enter the Holy of Holies as part of a long ritual to make atonement with God.4  Identified here as “the tenth day of the seventh month”, this day came to be known as Yom Kippur.

On that day the high priest steps inside the Holy of Holies twice, and both times he sprinkles blood on the atonement-cover of the ark.  The first time the blood comes from a bull he has slaughtered to make atonement for himself and his own household.5

The second time the blood comes from a goat he has slaughtered as an atonement offering for the people.6  (It is one of two goats chosen by lot; the other goat is sent out into the wilderness to Azazel.  See my post Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles.)

But before the high priest sprinkles blood the first time, he must make a cloud of incense inside the Holy of Holies.

He shall take a pan-full of glowing charcoal embers from the side of the altar facing God, and two handfuls of finely-ground, fragrant incense, and he shall bring them through the curtain.  And he shall place the incense on the fire, in front of God.  And the anan of the incense shall conceal the atonement-cover that is over the Reminder [inside the ark], so he will not die.  Then he shall take some blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger over the surface of the atonement-cover… (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:12-14)

Apparently when Aaron first enters the Holy of Holies, no cloud covers the lid of the ark.  He has to generate a cloud from incense, on the spot.7  According to the Talmud, in the Holy of Holies inside the temple in Jerusalem the smoke from the high priest’s incense “rose straight up like a palm tree”.  Then it spread out over the ceiling and down the walls until it filled the whole room.8

The chamber remains thick with smoke when the high priest returns with the goat’s blood.  The Talmud says the smell of the incense on Yom Kippur spread out so far from the temple in Jerusalem that it made the goats in Jericho sneeze.9  (I imagine the goat led out into the wilderness for Azazel was also sneezing as it went.)

The phrase “so he will not die” is linked with an anan both at the beginning of the Torah portion and in the instructions for filling the Holy of Holies with smoke.

… so that he shall not come at [just] any time into the holy place inside the curtain, to the front of the atonement-cover … so he will not die, because I appear in an anan over the atonement-cover.

Leviticus 16:2

  And he shall place the incense on the fire, in front of God.  And the anan of the incense shall conceal the atonement-cover … so he will not die.

 Leviticus 16:13

In verse 16:2, God appears in an anan over the ark.  In verse 16:13, Aaron must generate an anan to conceal the ark.  In verse 16:2, this sight of God in an anan seems to be fatal.  In verse 16:13, a prolonged view of the ark cover seems to be fatal.

One cloud or two?

Are there two clouds, one conjured up by God and the other made by the high priest?  Classic commentary is divided on the question.10  If there is only one cloud, the anan of incense, then what would Aaron see when he first walks into the Holy of Holies?  This week’s Torah portion implies that he would see the lid of the ark and empty air above it.  Since he would remain alive long enough to fill the room with incense, the sight of the atonement-cover would be fatal only when he sprinkles blood on it.

We can assume God is in residence, to witness the atonement ritual.  The book of Exodus/Shemot tells us that no human being can see God’s “face” and live.11  Even Moses would not see God’s face when God spoke to him from above the lid of the ark.  So God’s presence above the ark must be either invisible, or clouded by God’s own anan.

From Egypt to Mount Sinai, and again from Mount Sinai to the Jordan River, God provides a pillar of cloud (by day) and fire (by night) to guide the Israelites and their fellow-travelers.12  At Mount Sinai, only Moses can enter the cloud of smoke at fire on the mountaintop, where he goes to converse with God before the tent-sanctuary is built.

But when Moses finishes assembling the sanctuary,

…the anan covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of God filled the dwelling-place.  Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting because the anan settled on it and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place.  (Exodus/Shemot 40:34-35)

kavod (כָּווֹד) = splendor, magnificence, weightiness.  (When kavod refers to God, it is usually translated as “glory” or “presence”.)

Everyone can see the cloud on top of the tent roof, just as everyone can see the pillar of cloud and fire during the Israelites’ journeys.  But even Moses cannot enter the Tent of Meeting when it is filled with the kavod of God—which might look, to human eyes, like either cloud or fire.

The cloud above the tent remains until God gives the signal to strike camp and journey on by lifting the cloud and restoring the guiding pillar of cloud and fire.  The kavod inside the tent shrinks or disappears at some point while the tent is still pitched at Mount Sinai, before Moses takes Aaron inside in the portion Shemini.

And Moses and Aaron came into the Tent of Meeting and they went out and they blessed the people.  Then the kavod of God appeared to all the people.  And fire went out from in front of God …  (Leviticus 9:23-24)

The fire consumes the offerings on the altar.  Then Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu go into the tent with their unauthorized incense, and the fire appears again and consumes them.  Yet after that, Aaron’s cousins safely enter the Tent of Meeting and carry out the two bodies.  And from then on, the priests move freely in and out of the front chamber of the tent.  Only the back chamber, the Holy of Holies, remains dangerous—probably because God might appear at any time in an anan of kavod over the ark.

If only the sight of God’s appearance in an anan is fatal, it follows that Aaron can enter the Holy of Holies safely on Yom Kippur because that is the day God will refrain from appearing in an ananat least until the room is so full of incense smoke that the high priest could not see God’s anan.

Therefore when Aaron first steps into the Holy of Holies there is no anan inside.  God is either invisible or not yet in residence.  Aaron makes a cloud of incense in order to hide the atonement-cover of the ark, so he can sprinkle blood on it without dying.  When the incense has filled the room, either God remains an invisible presence (as when God speaks to Moses in that spot), or God appears in a small anan of kavod over the ark, which Aaron cannot see through the smoke.

Inevitable Fog

I can understand why God’s kavod appears as cloud and fire.  We are finite creatures; when we try to understand the infinite, our minds cannot penetrate the mystery, and we find ourselves in a mental fog, glimpsing only transient flickers of enlightenment.  When we try to turn our experiences of God into concrete words or images, we lose their essence.

Perhaps if human beings look straight at the anan of God’s kavod for more than a moment, our minds snap.13  Our bodies remain whole, like those of Nadav and Avihu, but we lose our personal selves or souls, and what remains cannot function in the world.  This is the kind of death Aaron must avoid by entering the Holy of Holies under only two conditions:

  • when God has signaled that it is time to strike camp and move on; then Aaron and his two surviving sons take down the curtain and cover the ark with it.14
  • on Yom Kippur, the one day a year God has designated for the ritual of atonement.

The rest of the time, Aaron must stay out, so he will not accidentally see God appear in an anan.

While the incense altar in the front chamber of the Tent of Meeting is used for other purposes, the high priest creates an anan of incense inside the Holy of Holies only on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.  This is the day when we ask God for forgiveness for everything we have done wrong over the past year.  When we ask for that level of divine, inner forgiveness, it is not enough to know that God appears in a cloud.  We need to know that we cannot see ourselves clearly, either: neither our motivations nor how our actions look to others.  Like God, our own souls are manifest only in a cloud.

Yet as we grope through the fog of life, we can still try to become better people and try to serve God, whatever “God” might mean to each of us.

Even if we generate so much smoke our goats sneeze.

  1. The fire consumes them in Leviticus 10:1-2. Aaron’s cousins carry the bodies of Nadav and Avihu out of the camp, holding them by their tunics, in Leviticus 10:4-5.  Therefore the divine fire took their lives without incinerating their bodies or even burning their clothes.
  2. Exodus 25:22, Numbers 7:89.
  3. Since the divine fire passes through their tunics without charring them, it could also pass through both the inner curtain and the curtained doorway to the courtyard without damaging either curtain.
  4. Leviticus 16:29-34.
  5. Leviticus 16:6, 16:14.
  6. Leviticus 16:15.
  7. It seems clear to me that Aaron walks into the chamber carrying a pan of embers, two handfuls of ground incense (probably in a bag), and a bowl of bull’s blood (Leviticus 16:11-12). Once inside, he shall place the incense on the fire, in front of God, and the smoke conceals the atonement-cover (Leviticus 16:14).  This was also the opinion of the Pharisees during the time of the second temple in Jerusalem.  The Sadducees insisted the incense had to be smoking before the high priest entered the Holy of Holies.  They also tied a rope around the high priest’s ankle so someone could pull him out if he did die inside the Holy of Holies.
  8. Talmud Bavli, Yoma 53a.
  9. Talmud Bavli, Yoma 39b.
  10. Rashi and Maimonides wrote that Leviticus 16:2 refers to God’s cloud of kavod, so there were two clouds. Nachmanides and the Talmud Yerushalmi tractate Yoma  say that Leviticus 16:2 refers to the high priest’s cloud of incense.
  11. Exodus 33:18-23. Face (panim, פָּנִים) and kavod are used as synonyms in this passage.
  12. Exodus 13:21-22, Leviticus 40:36-37.
  13. The Talmud Bavli, Chagigah 14b, tells the story of four rabbis who entered pardes, paradise. Ben Azai looked at the divine kavod and died, Ben Zoma looked and went mad, and Elisha ben Abuyah (a.k.a. Acher) became an apostate.  Only Akiva, the greatest rabbi of that era, returned whole.
  14. When the Israelites break camp, Aaron and his two surviving sons take down the curtain in front of the Holy of Holies and cover the ark with it. Touching the uncovered ark would be fatal to the Levites who will carry it to the next campsite, but the priests are safe while they cover it. (Numbers 4:5-6, 4:15.)

Re-eih & Acharey Mot: The Soul in the Blood

August 17, 2017 at 11:55 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Re-eih | 3 Comments
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Only the blood you must not eat! (Deuteronomy/Devarim 12:16)

Eight times the Torah commands people not to eat an animal’s blood: once in the book of Genesis/Bereishit when God tells Noah that humans may now eat meat; five times in Leviticus/Vayikra; and twice in Deuteronomy/Devarim.1

We learn in this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See”), that the temptation to eat blood is hard for the Israelites to resist.

Only be strong, do not eat the blood! Because the blood is the nefesh, and you must not eat the nefesh with the basar. (Deuteronomy 12:23)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = animating soul, vital force; mood, appetite, desire; individual; throat. (This word applies to both humans and other animals.)2

basar (בָּשָׂר) = flesh, meat, soft tissue.  (This word, too, applies to both humans and other animals.)

Of course there is some blood in all soft tissue. Talmudic law on slaughtering explains that the forbidden blood is the arterial blood that spurts out when the animal is killed, because the animal dies when it loses this life-blood.3 In the Torah, eating an animal’s life-blood would mean eating its soul.

We can deduce that eating an animal’s soul be a powerful act of magic. One clue appears in the portion Acharey Mot in Leviticus, when God declares that the Israelites may no longer slaughter livestock in the open field, but must now do it on the altar at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, God’s portable sanctuary.

And the priest shall sprinkle the blood on the altar of God at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and he shall make the fat go up in smoke as a soothing fragrance for God. And they must no longer slaughter their slaughter-offerings for the goat demons they go whoring after. (Leviticus/Vayikra 17:6-7)

There must have been a ritual in a Canaanite religion involving animal slaughter, blood, and goat-demons.4 Later in Leviticus, You must not eat over the blood (Leviticus 19:26) heads a list of Canaanite ritual practices to avoid. Maimonides explained that some people ate a meal sitting around a basin of blood, on the assumption that invisible spirits would join them to eat the blood.5 Summoning spirits is prohibited in the next item on the list: You must not do sorcery.

Permitted Uses of Animal Blood

Although eating blood and eating over an animal’s blood are both forbidden, animal blood is featured in two magical rituals in the Bible. In the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses instructs the Israelites in Egypt to slaughter a lamb or kid on the evening of Passover, and splash some of the blood on their doorposts and lintels as a signal to God to skip over their houses during the plague of the death of the firstborn (Exodus 12:7 and 12:21-23).

In Leviticus, someone who recovers from the skin disease tzara-at cannot enter the precincts of the sanctuary until a priest has performed a ritual that includes dipping a live bird into the blood of a slaughtered bird (Leviticus 14:1-7).

Blood for God

The blood of an animal slaughtered as an offering to God is sacred in the Torah. New priests are ordained when this blood is daubed on their right ears, thumbs, and big toes and sprinkled on their vestments (Exodus 29:19-21). The Torah portion Acharey Mot decrees that once a year, on Yom Kippur, the high priest must enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed bull and a goat on the ark itself in order to purge any spiritual impurity from human transgressions over the past year (Leviticus 16:11-15).

Every time an animal is slaughtered on the altar in front of the sanctuary, some of it must always be daubed on the horns of the altar and/or splashed on its sides. This sanctifies the blood, i.e. the nefesh, of the animal to God. But before the animal is slaughtered, the donor lays his hands on the animal’s head, symbolically transferring some of his identity to the animal. Thus when the priest splashes its blood on the altar, he is dedicating the donor’s own nefesh to God.

Because the nefesh of the basar is in the blood, and I myself give it to you on the altar to atone for your nefesh … (Leviticus 17:11)

The Torah portion Acharey Mot insists that every time people slaughter their livestock, they must bring the animals to the altar in front of the sanctuary, so the priests can dedicate each animal’s nefesh to God.

Anyone from the House of Israel who slaughters a bull or a sheep or a goat in the camp, or who slaughters it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to offer it as an offering to God in front of God’s resting-place, it will be considered blood that man has shed, and that man will be cut off from his people. (Leviticus 17:3-4)

In other words, failing to offer the animal at the altar is equated with manslaughter. After all, both a human and a sheep or cow have a nefesh.  The only difference in the Torah between humans and other red-blooded animals is the human mind. And an animal you have raised is identified with you, whether or not you lay your hands on it at the altar.

Blood to Cover Up

In Leviticus, the only animals one may slaughter without bringing them to the altar are kosher wild animals.

Anyone … who hunts a wild animal or a bird that will feed someone, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with dirt. Because the nefesh of all basar, its blood is its nefesh; and I say to the Children of Israel: The blood of all basar you must not eat … (Leviticus 17:13:14)

Although the animal’s blood cannot be dedicated to God, it must be covered—both to forestall any “eating over the blood”5 and to show respect for the animal’s nefesh.6

Traveling with the ark

The decree restricting livestock slaughtering to God’s altar is reasonable as long as all Israelites live near the sanctuary. This is no problem in the books of Leviticus and Numbers, in which everyone travels through the wilderness with the portable Tent of Meeting. But once the Israelites have spread out and settled around Canaan, there are only two ways they could meet the requirements in Leviticus:

* They could build multiple altars for God. Israelites in the books of Judges, first and second Samuel, and first and second Kings do, in fact, make animal offerings on makeshift altars in various locations, as well as at the temples at Dan and Samaria in the northern kingdom of Israel.

* Or they could kill and eat their livestock only on the three pilgrimage festivals, when everyone who is able travels to the central place of worship.7 The rest of the time they could only eat meat from kosher wild animals, which can be slaughtered anywhere.

This week’s Torah portion in Deuteronomy eliminates the option of multiple altars. The portion Re-eih insists that there must be only one holy place for God, and only one legitimate altar.

Re-eih also assumes that the Israelites are not psychologically able to restrict themselves to eating meat from cattle, sheep, or goats only three times a year. So having eliminated both ways to meet the requirements in Leviticus, the Torah portion decrees a new law:

Only wherever your nefesh is craving [meat], you shall slaughter and you shall eat basar according to the blessing that God, your God, gave to you, in all your gates; the ritually pure and the impure shall eat it the way [they eat] the gazelle and the deer. Only the blood you must not eat! On the ground you must pour it out like water. (Deuteronomy 12:15-16)

Pouring blood on the ground and covering it is more respectful that eating it, but it does not treat the animal’s nefesh as sacred the way an offering at the altar does. This is the price of the conviction in Re-eih that a) there must be only one altar for God, and b) people cannot resist eating meat.

Today the price is higher. Treating an animal’s life-blood as sacred would remind us that all life is sacred. But how many people today butcher animals following the rules of Jewish kashrut or Mulsim halal? It is hard to treat an animal’s life as sacred when you receive its meat already cut and wrapped in plastic, or already cooked on a plate.

How can we remember that every animal’s nefesh is as holy as our own?

  1. Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 3:17, 7:26, 17:12, 17:14, and 19:26; and Deuteronomy 12:16 and 12:23.
  2. For more on the concept of nefesh, see my posts
    1. Balak: Prophet and Donkey (The nefesh versus the mind)
    2. Korach: Buried Alive (The nefesh after death)
    3. Beha-alatokha & Beshallach: Stomach versus Soul (The nefesh as craving.)
    4. Toledot: To Bless Someone (The nefesh versus the conscious mind.)
    5. Bechukkotai: Sore Throat or Lively Soul (The nefesh as a throat metaphor.)
    6. Omer: Kabbalah of the Defective (The nefesh versus other kinds of souls in kabbalah)
  3. Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 16b, 22b, and Keritot 22a.
  4. The word seirim (שְׂעִירִים) usually means “hairy goats”, but it can also mean “goat demons”. Many scholars have suggested that the Yom Kippur ritual in the same Torah portion, in which one goat is sacrificed to God and the second goat is sent off to Azazel, is a concession to the worship of a goat demon. The second book of Chronicles reports disapprovingly that when the northern kingdom of Israel seceded from Judah, their first king, Jereboam, appointed for himself priests for the high shrines and for the goat demons and for the calves that he had made. (2 Chronicles 11:15) Rambam (12th century Rabbi Moses ben Maimon or Maimonides) wrote that some sects of Sabeans worshiped demons who took the form of goats (Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, 3:46).
  5. Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, 3:46, covers both eating over the blood and covering the blood with dirt instead.
  6. “The blood of wild animals and fowl is to be covered with earth out of respect for the soul, just as we are commanded to bury a human corpse out of respect for the dead person.” (Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, translated by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, New York, 1992, p. 191.)
  7. During the centuries covered by the books of Joshua through 2 Samuel, the sanctuary containing the ark was set up in Gilgal, then in Shiloh, then in Beit-El, then back to Shiloh, and finally in Jerusalem, where it remained until the Babylonians destroyed the city in 587 B.C.E. The part of Deuteronomy including the Torah portion Re-eih was probably written in the 7th century B.C.E., when King Josiah was centralizing religious worship in Jerusalem.

 

 

 

Haftarot for Yom Kippur and Ha-azinu—Isaiah, Jonah, & 2 Samuel: Atonement

October 11, 2016 at 1:33 am | Posted in Acharey Mot, Isaiah 2, Jonah, Samuel 2, Yom Kippur | 2 Comments
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In this season of Jewish holy days, we once again have three haftarot (readings from the Prophets) in one week.  On Yom Kippur we read Isaiah 57:14-58:14 and the whole book of Jonah.  Then on Saturday we read 2 Samuel 22:1-51, the haftarah for Ha-azinu, the second to last Torah portion in Deuteronomy.

The English word “atone” was first used in the 16th century as a contraction of “at one”. Atonement is the process of making amends for wrongdoing in order to restore unity—especially unity with God.

In Biblical Hebrew, the word for atonement is kippurim (כִּפֻּרִים). It comes from the verb kipper (כִּפֶּר), which means cover, appease, make amends, reconcile.

goat-for-azazelThe first Torah reading on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is a selection from the Torah portion Acharey Mot in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. The portion describes an annual ritual of atonement in which the high priest places lots on two goats. He sacrifices one goat to reunite the sanctuary with God, and places the sins of the Israelites on the head of the other goat before sending it off into the wilderness. (See my post Metzorah & Acharey Mot: Doubles.)

Today on Yom Kippur, Jews read this Torah portion about the ancient technology for atonement, but we also confess misdeeds, beg for forgiveness, and pray for atonement with the divine.

All three haftarot this week assume that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked—but if those who have been wicked repent and make amends, God welcomes them back.

First Haftarah on Yom Kippur: Isaiah 57:14-58:14

In this passage from second Isaiah, God promises to revive and heal the humble, but:

There is no shalom, said my God, for the wicked. (Isaiah 57:21)

shalom (שָׁלוֹם) = peace, safety, ease, well-being.

I believe this is true even without an all-seeing god who directly interferes in the lives of individuals. Everyone who acts immorally eventually suffers because most of the humans around them come to distrust and reject them.

People who have a moral sense and know they are doing wrong also suffer from nagging uneasiness. They can distract themselves and/or go into denial, but peaceful well-being is not an option for them. They cannot become “at one” with the still, small voice within themselves.

The haftarah from Isaiah goes on to say that fasting and bowing, sackcloth and ashes—the 6th-century B.C.E. formula for Yom Kippur—are useless for atonement unless one also frees the oppressed, feeds the hungry, shelters the poor, clothes the naked, and refrains from violence and evil speech. The way to be heard by God is to do good for your fellow human beings.

            That is when you will call and God will answer;

            You will cry for help and [God] will say: Here I am. (Isaiah 58:9)

Good deeds create atonement.

Second Haftarah on Yom Kippur: Jonah
Jonah Preaching in Nineveh, by Jakob Steinhardt, 1923

Jonah Preaching in Nineveh,
by Jakob Steinhardt, 1923

When the prophet Jonah finally submits to doing the mission God gave him, he walks into Nineveh, the capitol of the Assyria, oppressor of the Israelites, and calls out:

“Another forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the men of Nineveh believed in God, and they proclaimed a fast and they put on sackcloth, from the great to the small. And the word was told to the king of Nineveh, and he rose from his throne and he took off his robe and he put on sackcloth and he sat on the ashes. (Jonah 3:5-6)

The king issues a proclamation that all the human residents, and even the livestock, must fast, wear sackcloth, cry out to God, and repent of doing violence.

And God saw what they did, that they turned away from the evil path; and God had a change of heart about the bad thing [God] spoke about doing to them, and [God] did not do it. (Jonah 3:10)

God forgives the whole Assyrian capitol city of Nineveh even before its people do any good deeds.  It is enough for them to admit their bad behavior and sincerely intend to reform.

Repentance creates atonement.

Third Haftarah: Reading from 2 Samuel for Saturday

The haftarah for the Torah portion Ha-azinu is read on either the Saturday before Yom Kippur or the Saturday afterward, depending on that year’s Hebrew calendar.  This year it comes after Yom Kippur.

This haftarah is a psalm attributed to King David, looking back on his life. (The long poem reappears with only a few minor word changes as Psalm 18.) Most commentary praises David for attributing all his narrow escapes and military successes to God rather than to his own cleverness.

Yet after praising and thanking God for rescuing him from his enemies, David explains:

            He rescues me ki He is pleased with me.

            God treats me according to my righteousness,

            According to the cleanness of my hands He requites me.

            Ki I have kept the ways of God,

            And I have not done evil before my God.

            Ki all His laws are in front of me

            And from His decrees I do not swerve.

            And I am without blame or blemish for Him,

            And I have kept myself from wrongdoing. (2 Samuel 22:20-24)

ki (כִּי) = because, when, if.

How can David describe himself as a paragon? Earlier in the second book of Samuel, he clearly violates two of the Ten Commandments:

You shall not murder.  You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus/Shemot 20:13)

Bathsheba with a letter from King David, by Rembrandt

Bathsheba, by Rembrandt

Earlier in the second book of Samuel, David sees a beautiful woman bathing, and finds out that she is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who is one of David’s soldiers. Nevertheless, he summons her to his palace and lies down with her.

When she informs the king that she is pregnant, he sends a message to the battlefront for Uriah to come back to Jerusalem. King David urges Uriah to go home and spend the night with his wife.  But Uriah insists on sleeping with the king’s officers, so David cannot claim he got his own wife pregnant.

David sends Uriah back to the front with a letter for his general, Joab, instructing him to place Uriah in the most dangerous part of the battlefield, then fall back so Uriah will be killed.  General Joab carries out the king’s orders.

As soon as Bathsheba has finished the mourning period for Uriah, King David takes her as his eighth wife. But he has already committed both adultery and murder. The prophet Nathan tells David a parable illustrating why his actions were despicable, and informs him that God said:

Why then did you hold the word of God in contempt, doing what is evil in My eyes? (2 Samuel 12:9)

God then states the consequences: “the sword will not swerve from your household”, and someone from David’s household will lie with the king’s women.

And David said to Nathan: “I did wrong before God.”  Then Nathan said to David: “God will even let your wrongdoing pass; you will not die.  Nevertheless …the son, the one [about to be] born to you, he will die.” (2 Samuel 12:13-14)

So how can David say, in this Saturday’s haftarah: “I have not done evil before my God” and “From His decrees I do not swerve”?

Maybe David is living in a narcissist’s fantasy world, guilty of grandiosity and denial. Yet he did admit wrongdoing when Nathan pointed it out to him. Maybe David believed that God only rescues people who are perfectly good, so David painted himself that way.

But I think David knows he did wrong in the eyes of God when he took Uriah’s wife and had Uriah killed. His confession saved his own life, but he was thoroughly punished.  Bathsheba’s first son sickened and died soon after birth. Later, one of David’s older sons, Absalom, killed his half-brother Amnon, overthrew his father, and lay with his father’s concubines. In the ensuing war between father and son, Absalom was killed despite David’s orders to spare his life.

By the time King David writes the psalm comprising this Saturday’s haftarah, he probably considers that God had punished him enough for his heinous crimes, and his slate has been wiped clean. Since those terrible times, his behavior has been righteous.

When David says:

            He rescues me ki He is pleased with me. (2 Samuel 22:20)

he might mean that God rescues him when God is pleased with him, not because. And when David writes:

God treats me according to my righteousness,

            According to the cleanness of my hands He requites me. (2 Samuel 22:21)

he might mean that when he is righteous and keeps his hands clean, God rewards him, but when he fails to do the right things, God makes him suffer. He knows that God’s response varies according to his behavior, and that he was not always such a paragon. Realizing this, David says,

            I became without blame or blemish for Him,

            And I kept myself from wrongdoing. (2 Samuel 22: 24)

According to this reading, David’s message is that a human being can change. We suffer when we do evil, but we still have the ability to keep ourselves from doing wrong again.  We can still become good and righteous, without blame or blemish.

The two haftarot we read on Yom Kippur show that both good deeds and repentance create atonement with God. The haftarah for Ha-azinu this Saturday shows that even a murderer can repent and change himself into a righteous human being.  The conscientious effort to return to the right path and stay on it creates atonement.

May we all be blessed with the ability to return to oneness with God, and may we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

Haftarat Acharey Mot—Ezekiel: Abomination

May 4, 2016 at 3:54 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Ezekiel | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Acharey Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30) and the most common haftarah is Ezekiel 22:1-19.

The Torah frowns on some actions because they are ra (רַע) = bad or immoral; some because they are tamei (טָמֵא) = not pure for religious purposes; and some because they are to-eivah (תּוֹעֵבָה) = abominable, disgusting, offensive. This week’s Torah portion and haftarah reveal two different views of what should be to-eivah to the god of Israel.disgust 1

The authors of both Leviticus and Ezekiel knew that societies in the ancient Near East had different opinions on what was abominable. The first two books of the Bible, Genesis/Bereishit and Exodus/Shemot, use the word to-eivah only to describe what the Egyptians abhor: eating at the same table with Canaanites (Genesis 43:32), and the slaughter of sheep (Genesis 26:34, Exodus 8:22).

This week’s portion in Leviticus/Vayikra declares that some of the practices that Canaanites permit are off-limits to Israelites.

You must keep My decrees and My rules, and you must not do any of these to-eivot, [neither] the native-born nor the resident alien among you. Because the men who were on the land before you did all these to-eivot, and they made the land tamei. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:26-27)

to-eivot (תּוֹעֵוֹת) = plural of to-eivah.

The passage leading up to this statement lists 17 acts that are both tamei and to-eivot for Israelite men: twelve kinds of sex involving relatives, sex with a menstruating woman, sex with your comrade’s wife, giving your child to the god Molekh, sex with another male, and sex with a beast.

Two of these acts are labelled tamei within the list, perhaps to emphasize that they cause religion impurity: sex with a comrade’s wife and sex with a beast. Another act is specifically labeled to-eivah:

And you must not lie down with a male as in lying down with a woman; it is to-eivah. (Leviticus 18:22)

The book of Leviticus might have emphasized that this homosexual act was to-eivah for the ancient Israelites because it was accepted as normal among other peoples in the region, including the Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Philistines. These societies had laws against specific deeds such as father-son incest and homosexual rape, but treated sex between consenting males (and even boys) as a normal part of life.

But for the priests who wrote Leviticus, all sex between males was as abominable as raping your mother or giving your child to the foreign god Molekh.

The prophet Ezekiel was a priest deported to Babylon when Jerusalem fell, and he shared some of the opinions of the priests who wrote the book of Leviticus. But he took a broader view of what was to-eivah to the god of Israel. The haftarah from the book of Ezekiel denounces the residents of Jerusalem for recklessly committing deeds that are to-eivah. God asks Ezekiel:

And you, son of humankind, will you judge, will you judge the city of bloodshed and inform her of all her to-eivot? (Ezekiel 22:2)

Then God tells Ezekiel what to say. The first eight  to-eivot God says the citizens of Jerusalem have committed are: making idols, belittling their own parents, practicing extortion on resident aliens, oppressing widows and orphans, despising God’s holy things, profaning the sabbath, speaking slander, and eating sacrifices on mountaintops (where there were altars to other gods).

Next God mentions a few of the sex acts men are also forbidden to do in this week’s Torah portion: sex with their fathers’ wives, with menstruating women, with their comrades’ wives, with their daughters-in-law, and with their own sisters. Neither sex with other males nor sex with beasts is mentioned in this haftarah.

In the haftarah it is sex with another man’s wife that is explicitly labeled to-eivah.

And a man does a to-eivah with the wife of his comrade, and another man makes his daughter-in-law outrageously tamei, and another man rapes his sister, his father’s daughter. (Ezekiel 22:11)

The list is wrapped up with three more non-sexual to-eivot: taking bribes, charging extra interest, and damaging friends through extortion.

Ezekiel’s point may be that we should feel the same knee-jerk, visceral disgust that we feel in the face of incest and rape when we see our fellow citizens worship other gods or injure people through extortion, slander, and perversion of justice.

Can we change our gut reactions? Yes, over time. When I had my first period it seemed like an abomination, but eventually I accepted menstruation as a mere nuisance. On the other hand, when I was very young it did not bother me at all to trade my little sister a penny for a dime. After a few years I developed enough empathy so that the idea of deliberately cheating anyone seemed repulsive.

The Bible is right that we must pay attention and choose what is truly to-eivah to our god. But we can do better than the priests who wrote Leviticus. Modern commentators suggest that the incest rules in that book were designed to protect girls and women from the men living in the same household compound. Today we take the idea of protection farther by considering all acts of rape and all sex with children as to-eivah.

On the other hand, more and more of us smile when we see two men fall in love and go home together. I believe that today many people are more kind and fair than the Israelite authorities were 2,500 years ago.

Yet alas, too many individuals today still deserve Ezekiel’s denunciations in this week’s haftarah. Human beings cannot all have perfect empathy. But what if we all had a gut reaction to slander, bribery, and extortion, finding these deeds to-eivot? How would the world change?

Acharey Mot: Private Parts

April 9, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot | 1 Comment
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No man shall approach any flesh of his own flesh “to uncover nakedness”; I am God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:6).

The phrase commonly translated as “uncover nakedness” is legillot ervah in the Hebrew.

legillot (לְגִלּותֹ) = expose, uncover, reveal. (Other forms of this verb mean “to expose oneself”, and “to be taken into captivity and exile”.)

ervah (עֶרְוָה) = nakedness of the genital area

When Adam and Eve discover they are naked in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, the Torah uses the word arumim (עֲרוּמִּים) = naked; smooth; clever. The word ervah first appears in the Torah after the Flood, when Noah gets drunk and exposes himself inside his tent. One of his sons, Cham, sees his ervah, and gets cursed.

In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God instructs Moses about underwear for the priests:

And you shall make them linen underpants to cover the flesh of their ervah; from the waist to the upper thighs they shall be. (Exodus 28:42)

In this week’s Torah portion, Acharey Mot (“After the death”), the statement “No man shall approach any flesh of hisown flesh legillot ervahis followed in Leviticus 18:7-18 by a list of the females whose ervah a man may not uncover: his mother, his father’s (other) wife, his sister or half-sister, his granddaughter, his stepsister, his father’s sister, his mother’s sister, his father’s brother’s wife, his son’s wife, his brother’s wife; his own sex partner’s daughter or granddaughter; or his partner’s sister during his partner’s lifetime. (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, pointed out that the prohibition against sex with both a woman and her daughter bans a man from sex with his own daughter.)

Many of the relationships on this list would count as incest in western society today. Others would be considered odd, but not incestuous; a single man in our society is free to marry his adult step-daughter, or the wife of any blood relative after that relative is dead or divorced. The Torah is not concerned about sex with relatives of the same “flesh” in the genetic sense.

In ancient Israel, a typical household consisted of about twenty family members and their slaves living around a common courtyard. One man was the head of the household, but other members included not only his wives and children, but also female and underage relatives of his wives, his sons’ wives and children, and any other relatives who had nowhere else to live.

Medieval commentary agreed that without strict rules about physical intimacy in such a large household, sexual desires would lead to bad outcomes. 14th-century Rabbi Yosef Ibn Kaspi worried about violence between men, as they quarreled jealously over ownership of the women in their household. But 12th-century Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (called Maimonides or Rambam) pointed out that since any man in a household could have access to any of the women, the incest rules protect women (and girls) from encroachment.

This points to a more universal interpretation. One could legitimately translate the opening line of the list this way:

No one shall approach any flesh of hisown flesh to uncover private parts; I am God. (Leviticus 18:6).

The English idiom “private parts”, like the Hebrew word ervah, is a euphemism for the genital area. But “private” also means personal, restricted to the use of a particular individual, and free from unauthorized intrusion. This week’s Torah portion makes it clear that only a woman’s own husband is authorized to uncover her private parts; all other men, even if they live in the same compound, must not intrude.

The laws in Leviticus are certainly different for men than for women. They permit a man to uncover the ervah of multiple wives and concubines, as long as none of them are on the forbidden list; while a woman belongs to only one man (unless she is a prostitute).

On the other hand, these laws grant every Israelite woman and girl a physical right to privacy that no one but her husband is allowed to violate.

I think this principle can include people of all genders, and ban all types of personal encroachments, psychological as well as physical. I feel violated when someone yells or hisses insults at me. I even feel violated when someone begins by offering advice, and then pushes too far, too long, and will not take my “no, thank you” for an answer. I belong to a community in which most members are dedicated to kindness, but sometimes forget that respecting personal boundaries is also an important virtue.

There is more than one way to violate a person’s private parts. May we all come to respect each other as individuals with the right to choose for ourselves what to uncover, and what to keep private.

 

Acharey Mot & Kedoshim: The Mystery of Molekh

May 2, 2012 at 11:54 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Kedoshim | Leave a comment

Scene:  Night, in a deep valley below the wall of Jerusalem.  Pagan priests kindle a fire at the feet of a brass idol named Tofet.  The brass hands reach forward, the mouth is open wide.  A father gives his  infant child to a priest, who lays it on the hands of the idol.  The brass is burning hot.  The baby screams. The priests beat a drum to drown out the screams, so the father can bear to watch his child burn to death.

This is the lurid scene that Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) imagined when he wrote his commentary on Jeremiah 7:31, a verse that describes one of the things the people of Judah did that God objected to:

And they have built shrines for tofet which are in the valley of Ben Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire–which I did not command, and which was definitely not on My mind. 

Rashi claimed that Tofet and Molekh were two names for the same brass idol.  Actually, the meaning of the word tofet is still unknown.  Earlier rabbis guessed that it came from  the word tof = a small hand drum, and this probably led to the idea that drums were beaten during this child sacrifice.  Modern authorities speculated that tofet might come from an Aramaic word meaning “fireplaces”.

The word tofet shows up in the Hebrew Bible nine times, once in the second book of Kings and eight times in Jeremiah.  The word appears to refer sometimes to an idol, other times to a shrine just outside Jerusalem.

The word molekh first appears much earlier in the Bible, in this week’s double Torah portion, Acharey Mot (After the Death) and Kedoshim (Holiness):

And do not give your offspring to pass through for the molekh, and do not profane the name of your god; I am God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:21–Acharei Mot)

molekh = the word melekh = king, or the word malackh = to reign, but with mysteriously different vowels

The second portion for this week, Kedoshim, includes a passage describing the penalties for giving one’s offspring to the molekh:  stoning to death followed by excommunication. Neither Torah portion says how offspring were given to the molekh, and neither mentions fire as the element the children passed through.

In Leviticus/Vayikramolekh does not seem to be a proper name, since it is always ha-molekh = the molekh.  But it becomes a proper name  in its next appearance, when King Solomon succumbs to idol-worship:

Then Solomon was building shrines to Chemosh, the detestable idol of Moab, that were in front of Jerusalem; and for Molekh, the detestable idol of the people of Ammon.  (I Kings 11:7)

The next reference to molekh is embedded in a passage about how King Josiah cleansed Judah of idolatry:

He desacralized the tofet which is in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, to prevent passing a son or a daughter through fire for the molekh. (II Kings 23:10 )

This is the only verse in the Hebrew Bible that connects tofet with molekh. This is also the first time the Hebrew Bible says an infant is passed through fire for the molekh.  Here, both tofet and molekh are preceded by “the”, so they are not proper names of idols.  But the Torah does not say what they are.

The final occurrence of the word molekh is in the book of Jeremiah, 25 chapters after the verse that stimulated Rashi’s imagination.  Here, God’s speech leaves out the fire and adds the molekh:

And they built shrines to the alien god, which are in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, for passing their sons and their daughters to the molekh, which I did not command …  (Jeremiah 32:35)

So what is the molekh?

All the commentary I have read agrees that the word molekh comes from the same Hebrew root as the word melekh = king, and that the Torah sees God as the king of the whole universe. Here are four theories about the relationship between molekh and melekh:

* Non-Israelites living in Canaan called one of their gods Molekh because they used the same root for “king” in their related languages, just as various Canaanite gods were called Ba-al because they used the same root as Hebrew for “master”.

* The word molekh is a unique grammatical form, perhaps an adjective like “kingly” or “soveriegn”.

* The Masoretic scribes of the 7th-11th centuries who first added vowels to the Torah gave eight of the  words spelled m-l-kh in the Bible the same vowel sounds as the word boshet = shameful.

Older Jewish commentary assumed the word molekh referred to an alien god to whom child sacrifices were made.  Such gods did exist in the ancient world; for example, archaeologists have discovered reliefs from a Phoenician site in Spain dating to about 500 BCE which show a two-headed being with open mouths receiving offerings of children in bowls.  Stories about this god could have influenced Rashi’s vivid description of Molekh as a brass idol heated by fire.

In the 19th-century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argued that the molekh represented the malignant power of Fate, as opposed to God’s “providence”. Parents who gave their children to the molekh, according to Hirsch, confused God (who wants what is ultimately good for humankind) with Fate (a hostile power that limits human happiness).  They believed that by burning a child, they would appease Fate and their remaining family would escape future disasters.

Other commentary claims that the people of Judah thought their own God required these sacrifices. That would explain why Jeremiah repeatedly said that child sacrifice was not at all what God had in mind.

In the time of the prophets, if a father confused God with Fate (as defined by Hirsch), then he would believe there was no point in trying to increase long-term happiness for everyone in his family.  God would not let him succeed.  With a feeling of doom, he would hand over one child in the grim hope that if the family suffered now, they could get it over with and avoid future disasters.

Thank goodness we don’t think that way today!  Or do we?  I have often heard people who grew up during the Depression of the 1930’s express the attitude that if you don’t suffer now, you’ll have to suffer later. Put your nose to the grindstone, and by the time your face is flat, you can have a good retirement.  It worked for them.

Those of us who were young in the 1960’s have a sunnier outlook, but I wonder if children growing up now, during the Great Recession, will once again believe in a universe that is hostile to human happiness, and say that if you don’t suffer now, you’ll have to suffer later.

Rashi’s lurid scene of infants burning on the hands of a brass idol may be fit only for an adventure movie today.  But we still need the Torah to remind us that although bad things do happen, we are not doomed.  As God reminds us in both today’s Torah portions and in the book of Jeremiah, bowing to Fate is neither required nor desirable.  The universe is set up so that it is possible for humans to lead good and even happy lives—if we follow rules such as “You shall not steal and you shall not deny a rightful claim and you shall not lie to one another” (Leviticus 19:11), and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles

April 13, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Metzora | 3 Comments

(This blog was first posted on April 13, 2010.)

Gird your loins:  this is a double blog, covering two weeks, two double Torah portions, two birds, and two goats.

The double Torah reading for the week culminating on Shabbat April 17 (Leviticus 12:1-15:33, Tazria and Metzora) deals mostly with tzara-at, a discoloring skin disease.  The double Torah reading for the week ending on Shabbat April 24 (Leviticus 16:1-20-27, Acharey Mot and Kedoshim) covers the rituals for atonement on Yom Kippur, forbidden sexual unions, and a series of ethical and religious laws.  This year I noticed a connection between the two double Torah portions: the first week’s reading includes a mysterious ritual using two birds, and the second week’s reading includes a remarkably similar ritual using two goats.  What does this parallelism mean?

The reading for the week ending April 17 includes this passage about the ritual for making someone with the skin disease tzara-at ritually pure:

 

Let Go the Living Bird, by Paul Hardy ca. 1900

And the priest will give an order, and he will take for the one who is being ritually purified two living, ritually pure birds, and a stick of cedar, and crimson wool, and hyssop.  And the priest will give an order, and he will slaughter the first bird in a pottery vessel, over living water (water flowing from a natural source).  He will take the living bird, the stick of cedar, the crimson wool, and the hyssop, and he will dip them into the blood of the slaughtered bird, over the living water.  And he will sprinkle upon the one who is being ritually purified from tzara-at seven times; thus he will purify him, and then he will send out the living bird over the face of the open field.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:4-7, Metzora)

veshalach et-haztipor hachayah al-penei hasadeh = and send out the living bird over the face of the open field

And the reading for the week ending April 24 includes this passage, part of the annual Yom Kippur ritual for purifying the whole community:

And from the assembly of the children of Israel, he (the high priest) will take two hairy male goats for a guilt offering and one ram for an elevation offering.  He will take the two goats and stand them up before God at the opening of the Tent of Meeting.  And Aharon will place lots on the two goats, one lot for God, and one lot for Azazel.  Then Aharon will bring the goat that received the lot for God, and he will make it a guilt offering.  But the goat that received the lot for Azazel, it will be stood alive before God, for making atonement over, by sending it out to Azazel to the wilderness.  (Leviticus 16:5-10, Acharei Mot)

leshalach oto la-azazel hamidbarah = sending it out to Azazel to the wilderness

Both rituals use two animals, which must be the same species and equal in value.  In both rituals, one animal is chosen randomly to be sacrificed to God, and the other is set free at the end of the ritual, sent out away from human habitations.  In both rituals, the blood of the sacrificed animal is sprinkled seven times on the person or place to be purified.  Other rituals described in the Torah employ sacrifices of birds and goats, and sprinkling of animal blood, but only in these two places does the Torah require that one of a pair of animals is slaughtered and the other set free.

Why are these two unique purification rituals so similar, when they seem to be performed for such different purposes?

Let’s look at who or what is being purified.  In the first reading, the metzora (the person who had the disease of tzara-at) is ritually purified after a priest has declared that the affliction is over.  Since someone with tzara-at must live in isolation, in a tent away from the community, the purification ritual is necessary for the ex-metzora to move back and rejoin society.

In Torah and Talmud, a metzora is not someone who just happened to develop a disease.  The appearance of an unnaturally white patch of skin is considered a physical manifestation of a flaw in the metzora’s moral condition.   Commentators have written that since the “treatment” for tzara-at is segregation from the community, and the ritual restores the metzora to society, the moral flaw of the metzora must be some anti-social behavior, such as slander.  A skin disease is an appropriate sign of immoral behavior toward society because the skin is the boundary between one person and another.

Isolation protects the rest of the community from being infected by the metzora’s bad behavior.  It also gives the metzora time to reflect and repent.  If the skin discoloration shrinks or disappears, the priest knows that the metzora has repented and can rejoin the community safely.  But first he must perform a public ritual establishing that the ex-metzora is now acceptable and accepted back into society.

In the second reading, from Acharei Mot, the blood of the sacrificed goat is sprinkled on the curtains around the innermost chamber of the sanctuary, and on the lid of the ark in the center.  The high priest performs this ritual once a year, on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), to purify the Israelites’ focus of worship from their own cumulative ritual impurity.  This purification also atones for their misdeeds, particularly their pesha-im, their rebellions against the social order.

The implication, I think, is that while only some people are so egotistical that they pay no attention at all to the good of the community (and therefore get the mark of tzara-at on their skin), nobody is perfect.  We all rebel occasionally against the need for good social behavior.  These small misdeeds accumulate, tarnishing the purity of our focus on the holy.  So once a year, according to the Torah, two goats are brought to the high priest.  He slaughters one, and sprinkles its blood on the atonement-lid of the ark in the Holy of Holies.  He confesses the sins and misdeeds of the Israelites over the head of the other goat, and a designated man sets it free in the wilderness.   This public ritual establishes clearly that the whole community is acceptable to God once again.

The details of the two rituals are parallel, and both are performed to address immoral behavior against the community.  But why, in each case, is only one animal sacrificed, while its double is set free?

Maybe the two birds, and the two goats, represent two courses of action for human beings.  We can sacrifice our egos (while retaining the “blood”, the juiciest part, in the pottery bowl over living water) in order to be kind and cooperative; then we will be full members of society.  Or we can refuse to make any sacrifice; then we will be free—but we will also be sent away from the community, like the bird and the goat.  Even today, individuals who are not willing to sacrifice their own egotism, at least enough to avoid doing harm to other people, will be driven out of society.  If they are not kicked out of a group explicitly, they will still find themselves isolated and friendless … out in the wilderness.

And what if the freed bird or goat comes back?  Well, that’s one of the questions “the designated man” asks in my Torah monologue!

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