Beha-alotkha & Metzora: Fresh Start

A new station in life calls for a ceremony—a wedding, a commencement, an inauguration, an ordination. At Mount Sinai the Israelites receive a new formal religion, and consecrate two groups of men to administer it: priests (kohanim) and Levites (levi-im).

Altar and priest, Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

The first priests to serve at the new tent-sanctuary for God undergo an eight-day ordination in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. Before then, any head of a household could build a stone altar and burn an animal offering for God. Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses all did it. But after Moses has ordained Aaron and his sons, only they can make the daily offerings at the altar, light the menorah, place bread and frankincense on the table, and burn incense on the incense altar.1

Aaron’s two older sons bring unauthorized incense into an unauthorized place on their first day of service, and God kills them.2 In the new religion, priesthood is a dangerous vocation. Aaron and his two younger sons are meticulous about following God’s rules.

The Levites replace the firstborn sons as acolytes when God reorganizes the religion at Mount Sinai. In this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha, God reminds Moses:

“For every firstborn from the Israelites is mine, from human and from beast; on the day I struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated them as mine. Now I take the Levites instead all the firstborn of the Israelites.” (Numbers 8:17-18)

Serving as a Levite could also be a hazardous job, as I wrote in last week’s post: Bemidbar & Naso: Dangerous Duty. Any close contact with the God of Israel carries grave risks.

The ordination of the Levites includes animal offerings similar to those in the ordination of the priests, but other elements of the ritual are dissimilar. One difference is that while priests are forbidden to shave any part of their bodies, the Levites must shave their entire bodies for their ordination.

“Take the Levites from among the Israelites and ritually purify them. And thus you shall do to them to make them ritually pure: sprinkle over them water of expiation3 and make a razor pass over all their flesh. And they shall clean their clothes, and they shall ritually purify themselves.”  (Numbers 8:6-7)

Shaving as disfigurement

Shaving is not an everyday activity in the Hebrew Bible. Shaving the scalp or beard is considered disfiguring, like gashing the skin; both are mourning practices indicating one’s abandonment to grief, along with tearing good clothing, wearing sackcloth, and throwing dust or ashes on one’s head.4

Priests and nazarites are expected to put their dedication to God first, so they are forbidden to engage in shaving or gashing when someone close to them dies.5 Male and female nazarites must not cut their hair at all during the term of their vow, but on the day their term ends, they shave their heads and burn their hair as an offering to God.6

Furthermore, the Torah forbids all Israelites to shave specific spots on their heads (possibly places that worshipers of other gods shaved).7

However, two groups of people must shave not just the whole head, but the whole body: those who have recovered from the skin disease tzara-at, and the Levites being ordained in this week’s Torah portion.

Shaving the metzora

A person who has tzara-at must live outside the camp, excluded from the community’s social and religious life. If the skin returns to normal, the person must undergo an elaborate ritual purification in order to return to society. The Torah portion Metzora in the book of Leviticus opens:

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “This will be the instruction for the metzora at the time of his ritual purification, when [the news] is brought to the priest.”

metzora (מְצֺרָה) = one afflicted with the skin disease tzara-at (צָרַעַת), characterized by one or more patches of scaly white skin that is depressed (tzirah, צִרְעָה) compared to the surrounding skin.

Metzora ritual, detail, by Simon Fokke, 18th cent.

If the priest pronounces the metzora healed from the disease, the ensuing ritual includes cleaning their clothes and shaving—elements that are also included in the consecration of the Levites.8

And it will be on the seventh day he shall shave all of his hair and his beard and his eyebrows; all his [body] hair he will shave. And he shall clean his clothes and wash his flesh in water, and he will be ritually pure. (Leviticus 14:9)

Only a healed metzora and the Levites inducted into sanctuary service are commanded to do full-body shaving.9 Does this imply a deeper similarity between them?

Shaving for separation

In the 20th century, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut suggested that both kinds of people are separated from the rest of the community; the metzora is separated physically until the skin condition disappears, while the Levite is separated spiritually after consecration.10 After ordering the ordination ritual for the Levites, God adds:

“And you shall separate the Levites from among the Israelites, and the Levites will be mine.” (Numbers 8:14)

Shaving for abnegation

According to the Talmud, God afflicts individuals with tzara-at to punish malicious speech and arrogance.11 One example appears in the portion Beha-alotkha after Miriam criticizes her younger brother Moses’ marriage, and adds that God speaks not only through Moses, but through her and her older brother Aaron as well.

And God’s nose burned against them, and [God] left. And the [divine] cloud withdrew from over the Tent, and hey! Miriam was a metzora [with scales] like the snow!” (Numbers 12:9-10)

In the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that both the metzora and the Levites must renounce their selfish concerns: “This is true of the Levi’im: Until now, they led merely private lives, as was their right; but from now onward they must assume the service the community… And this is also true here of the metzora: Until now, he lived only for himself—selfishly and antagonistic toward society; and this was his main sin. From now onward he must undertake the self-sacrifice of his duties toward the community. In both cases … man must cease living only for himself. Hair is intended to protect the body … Stripping a body of all hair exposes it to the effects of the outside world.”12

Shaving for transition

In the 11th-century, Rashi summarized this argument by another French rabbi, Moshe ha-Darshan: The Levites were substitutes for the firstborn, the firstborn had worshiped the golden calf, and Psalm 106:28 calls idol-worship “offerings to the dead”. Therefore the Levites had to shave their bodies like a metzora, who is also called dead—when God afflicts Miriam with tzara-at in this week’s Torah portion.

And Aaron said to Moses: “Oh, my lord, please don’t put guilt on us for our foolishness that we were guilty of! Please don’t let her be like a corpse that emerges from the womb of its mother and half its flesh [looks] eaten away!” (Numbers 12:11-12)

It does not make sense to equate the appearance of Miriam’s skin disease with the offerings of the people the Levites are replacing. Yet death and rebirth are implicit in both ceremonial shavings.

If shaving one’s head is a mourning practice, then shaving one’s whole body might be a reminder of the death of one’s old identity.

I agree with Hirsch that both the Levites and a metzora are purified and sanctified in order to rise above their self-centered concerns and step into a new role in the community. The Levite must become a servant of God, the priests, and the new religion; the ex-metzora must become an ethical and thoughtful member of society.

Shaving the entire body makes someone even more hairless than a newborn infant. The Levite and the ex-metzora must abandon their previous adult identities along with their hair, and be born into their new lives.

  1. Leviticus 8:1-9:24.
  2. See my post Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.
  3. chata-at (חַטָּאת) = guilt, wrongdoing, ritual error; expiation of wrongdoing, ritual error, or ritual impurity. Anyone who has been in contact with a human corpse is impure until sprinkled with water of chata-at (Numbers 19:1-22).
  4. Jeremiah 41:5, Micah 1:16. These mourning practices were widespread in the Ancient Near East; cf. Deuteronomy 21:12, Isaiah 15:2, Jeremiah 48:37, Ezekiel 27:31.
  5. Leviticus 21:1-6, Ezekiel 44:20, Numbers 6:5.
  6. Numbers 6:5, 6:13-18. See my post Naso: Distanced by Hair.
  7. Leviticus 19:27 bans rounding off the hair at the temples, the sideburns, or the edges of the beard. Deuteronomy 14:1 bans shaving “between the eyes”. (See my post Re-eih: Eyebrows for the Dead.)
  8. See my post Metzora: Time to Learn, Part 2.
  9. The only other reference to full-body shaving in the Hebrew Bible is in Isaiah 7:20, part of a prophecy about a sign from God rather than a command for people to obey.
  10. Gunther Plaut suggests this answer in his commentary on Numbers 8:7 in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. by Plaut, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 1075.
  11. Talmud Bavli, Arakhin 15b-16a. Several of the Talmudic rabbis cite Psalm 101:5 as their proof text.
  12. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 1, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Pub., Jerusalem, 2002, pp. 438-439.

Beha-alotkha: Miriam Looks Back

(I am writing a Torah monologue from the viewpoint of Reuben for my book on Genesis.  As Jacob’s firstborn son, he keeps trying to do the right thing and manage his eleven brothers, but he keeps getting it wrong.

So for this week’s Torah portion in the book of Numbers, Beha-alotkha, I am sharing a Torah monologue I wrote back in 2008 from the viewpoint Miriam as she tries to figure out what she did wrong.)

Miriam Looks Back (Beha-alotekha)

My God, my God, why did you do this to me?  One moment I’m Miriam the Prophetess—old, healthy, strong, respected, looked up to.  The next moment—I’m an abomination, afflicted with tzara’at, shedding scales like drifts of sand.  Unclean, unclean! —shamed and shunned, seven days outside the camp.  And I’ve only been here for one day.  I’ve got six more days to get through.

Why did you do this to me, God?  The itching is unbearable!  No, I take that back.  The itching is a temporary inconvenience, but it’s all part of God’s plan, and I accept it humbly.

Rrrr!  Look at me now!  Scaly as a snake, white as—salt.  Reminds me of Lot’s wife, when she looked back at Sodom burning, and she turned into a pillar of salt.

Because she looked back—

But I never look back.  I always look forward, because I have faith in you, God.  Whenever the men whine about the cucumbers, melons,  leeks, onions, and garlic they used to eat in Egypt, what do I do?  I invent another recipe for manna.

Women Dancing, by J.J.J. Tissot

And when we left Egypt, grabbing whatever we could, I packed my timbrel.  Because I knew we’d have a reason to celebrate.  Even when the Pharaoh’s chariots came after us, I knew sooner or later we’d be singing and dancing and praising you, God.

I bet you didn’t expect an old lady to dance like that, did you?

Hey, I was forward-looking even when I was young, before Moshe was born.  Remember when Pharaoh ordered the Egyptians to drown every Hebrew baby boy?  How my father, Amram, told the other Hebrew men to separate from their wives?  He said, it’s better not to make a baby at all, than to see him drowned in the Nile.

But I said, what about the girl babies?  I said, I had a vision about a boy who escaped.  I said, someday God’s gonna hear our groaning and rescue us.  I said, in the meantime, let’s grab as much life as we can, even under the shadow of death.  I said, I’m going ahead with my wedding, and you should tell all the married men to go back to their wives’ beds, and bring some light into the night!

And my father did just what I said.  Turned out well, didn’t it?

But now, when I try to give my little brother Moshe some advice, hhhh!  God strikes me with tzara’at, and I’m shedding scales all over the place, and everyone turns away from me because I’m unclean, and here I am stuck outside the camp, waiting out my sentence, seven days of shunning, and why did you do this to me, God?

But I’m not complaining.  I have a good attitude.  I know this is all for the best.  Somehow.


One, two, three …  Day four.  I’m halfway through my seven days outside the camp.  Halfway through this long, long week.  But I’m not complaining!

Though I still don’t know why I’m being punished for giving my brother some advice.  Listen, I know Moshe is way above my level.  I mean, the man has to wear a veil over his face!  Because he’s been exposed to so much of Your divine light, that his own face glows.  Me, I’ve just got a regular old woman’s face.  Or I used to, before You crusted it over with these white scales.

But just because You turned my little brother into the prophet of all prophets, am I supposed to treat him like a king?  Like a god?  Is that why You punished me for criticizing him on account of the Cushite woman he married?

All I did was point out that just because he talks with God all the time, it doesn’t mean he can’t go to bed with his wife once in a while.  The poor thing is shriveling up from lack of affection.  My God, you give us life, you give us desire, you give us joy like fire when two people come together.  Is it right to reject Your gifts?  Is it right for Moshe to turn away from his wife?  Isn’t that turning away from life?

So I told Moshe he should go back to her bed, just like my father and the other men of Israel went back to their wives in Egypt.  But I couldn’t tell if I was getting through to him; it’s hard to read his expression, through that veil.  And Aharon the Eloquent just stood there like a dummy.  So I kept talking.  I told Moshe, look at me and Aharon, we’re prophets, too.  But Aharon still gives Elisheva a kiss whenever he steps into their tent.  And me, I was good to my own man, right up to the day he died.

Was it so awful to say that we’re prophets, too?  We are.  You do speak to us.  You spoke to us right then, telling us to report to the Tent of Meeting.  And when we got there, we heard your voice again, from the pillar of cloud, and you said plenty.  All three of us heard you.  And then hhhh!  I’m covered with tzara’at.  Skin like scales.  Like salt.  Like death.  Me, not Aharon.  Why me?  Because I was doing the talking?

You know, God, you always did let Aharon off the hook.  Like when he made the golden calf.  You hold me to a higher standard.  Maybe it’s a compliment.  Maybe this scaly skin is actually a sign of your favor.  I just need to look at it the right way.

But I have to confess, my good attitude has been slipping, these past four days outside the camp.  I guess it’s easier to keep smiling when I have people to smile at.  Now that I’m alone, I—I’m starting to lose faith that you make everything work out for the best.

But I know it’s just a passing weakness.  I never really break down.  I can get through all seven days of tzara’at with my chin up.


I still can’t get used to this itching!  But this is the seventh day.  I just have to stick it out until sunset, and then it will be over.

I’ve got to remember to thank Moshe for begging God to heal me.  If it weren’t for him, I’d be stuck like this for the rest of my life.  Not just itching, but shamed and shunned.  Thanks to Moshe, I can come back into the camp tonight, and be myself again.

But it won’t be the same, will it?  Everyone will remember what you did to me, God.  When I walked out of the camp seven days ago, nobody would meet my eyes.  When I come back—I bet they won’t look at me the way they used to.

Could be worse.  At least I won’t have to wear a veil, like Moshe.  Only time I ever wore a veil was for my wedding.  I remember the moment when my husband lifted the veil and kissed me.

Now Moshe, he only takes off his veil to talk to God, or to tell the people what God said.  Nobody’s going to argue with a man when his face is glowing like the sun.

It’s hard to look at.  Most people take one glance at his face, then look off to the side until he’s done talking.  You can see everyone relax when he puts the veil back on.  It’s a kindness he does, covering his face so he won’t frighten anyone.

I suppose if he wanted to kiss his wife, he’d have to kiss her through the veil.  Not so easy.  And their eyes can’t meet, not really.  But if he took off his veil, she couldn’t bear to look at him at all.

I never thought of that before.  Since Moshe speaks face to face with you, God, that means he can’t speak face to face with anyone else.  Not even his wife.  Nobody ever looks him in the face.

I wonder if he feels like he’s being shunned.

I got seven days of shunning.  Moshe gets a lifetime sentence.  Poor man.  Maybe that’s why he’s so humble.

Maybe I was wrong to criticize him for being a bad husband.  His life is a lot harder than I realized.  I wonder if he ever looks back on the old days in Midian, where he was just a shepherd and a family man.  I wouldn’t blame him.

Actually, I can’t blame Lot’s wife for looking back at Sodom.  What good was it to escape, when her older daughters were dying in the fire?  Hey, maybe I shouldn’t even blame the children of Israel for looking back on our life in Egypt as if it were a good thing.  At least in Egypt there was always garlic.

To think I’ve been proud of not looking back!  How did I get to be such an old woman without ever turning my head around?

You know, even after my husband died, I didn’t let myself look back and long for him.  I thought I was so important, Miriam the Prophetess, I had to set an example.  I had to keep my chin up and my face toward the Promised Land every day, every moment.  I thought I was so righteous, I could tell everyone else how to behave, too.

Hah!  What a stiff-necked Jew I’ve been.

Blessed are you, my God, who blessed me with seven days to look back.

(by Melissa Carpenter)

Beha-altokha: Cloud over Paran

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

The Israelites wait for the signal from God before they leave Mount Sinai and head north toward Canaan.  At last God’s cloud, which has been hovering over the portable tent-sanctuary, ascends and glides off in the direction where God wants the Israelites to travel next.1

The Israelites spend the whole book of Leviticus/Vayikra at Mount Sinai, initiating the priests and the sanctuary and performing various religious rituals for the first time.  During the first two Torah portions of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, they learn how to disassemble the Tent of Meeting and its courtyard, carry the pieces safely, and march in formation by tribe.  But they do not set off until this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you bring up”):

On the twentieth of the second month of the second year, the cloud rose up from over the Mishkan of the Testimony.  The Israelites journeyed on their journey-stages from the Wilderness of Sinai.  Vayishkon, the cloud, in the Wilderness of Paran.  (Numbers 10:11-12)

mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = dwelling-place.  (From the root verb shakhan, שָׁכַן = dwell, inhabit, settle in, stay.)  The portable tent-sanctuary or “tabernacle” is made as a place for God to dwell, at least part-time, among the Israelites.2

vayishkon (וַיִּשְׁכֺּן) = and it settled, and it came to rest and dwelled.  (Also from the root verb shakhan.)

The first stage of the journey north toward Canaan lasts three days; then the cloud descends, and they camp for a month at an uninhabited spot in Paran.3  The Torah gives it two place-names: first Taveirah, then Kivrot Hata-avah.

The complaints begin after the cloud has come to a stop and the camp is set up.  The Torah does not say what the Israelites complained about; the important thing is that once they have left Mount Sinai they start whining again.

And the people were becoming complainers, and it was evil in the ears of God.  God listened, and [God’s] anger heated up and burned against them, and a fire of God ate up the edge of the camp.  Then they wailed to Moses for help, and Moses prayed to God, and the fire sank down.  And the name of that place was called Taveirah, because the fire of Hashem barah.  (Numbers 11:1-3)

Taveirah (תַּבְעֵררָה) = it burns.  (From the verb barah, בָּרעֲרָה = burned.)

But the people do not stop complaining.  They find a pretext: they do not like the food.

Then the riffraff who were among them felt a craving and they wept again, and the Israelites also wept, and said: “Who will feed us meat?”  (Numbers 11:4)

There is no lack of meat at the camp in Paran; the people brought all their livestock with them from Egypt, herds of cows and flocks of sheep and goats.4  At Mount Sinai they learned how to make wholeness-offerings, in which portions of the slaughtered animals were eaten along with  some of the bread by the priests and by the donors and their guests.5

If some of the “riffraff” among the people6 got left off the invitation lists, it might explain their complaint.  But then why do all the Israelites join in asking “Who will feed us meat?”

Perhaps their problem is not that a shortage of meat, but that they want to be fed, like children—or slaves.  Yet even though the people eat their own meat and bread, God is still providing them with the miracle of manna every morning.

We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt at no charge, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic.  And now our throats are dry.  There is nothing but the manna before our eyes!  (Numbers 11:5-6)

In other words, they miss Egypt.  They miss the food they ate in Egypt, and despise the food God gives them in the wilderness.  Egypt was where the Israelites were slaves to a government that wanted their eventual extermination.  Yet it was also their home.  The Wilderness of Paran does not feel like home, even though God is feeding them and taking care of them, even though everyone can see the cloud by day and fire by night over the mishkan, so they know their God is in residence.

The rules Moses has transmitted to them are clear; they know how to serve God instead of Pharaoh, they know what to do in terms of both cult ritual and communal life.  The divine cloud leads them on every journey, and tells them when to pitch camp and when to pull up stakes.  Life should be easy.

Common quail

But the Israelites whine so much that God gets angry and teaches them a lesson by sending flocks of quail that stack up two cubits deep on the ground.  The people gather more dead quail than they can eat.

The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when God’s anger heated up against the people and God struck a great blow against them.  And the name of that place was called Kivrot Hatavah, because there the people kavru those who were mitavim.  (Numbers 11:33-34)

Kivrot (קִבְרוֹת) = burial grounds of.  (From the same root verb as kavru, קָבְרוּ = they buried.)

Hata-avah (הַתַּאֲוָה) = the desire, appetite, craving.  (From the same root verb as mitavim, מִתְאַוִּים = feeling a craving, a longing.)

Thus the first camp in the Wilderness of Paran is named both Taveirah, after both God’s burning anger when the people began complaining again, and Kivrot Hatavah, after the burial of people who were too attached to their cravings for the former home in Egypt, the place of slavery, extermination, and comfort food.


Why did God’s cloud stop and settle for a while in the Wilderness of Paran, before the Israelites reached the border of Canaan?  Was it a test to find out if the people would revert to their old complaining ways, even after they had built the mishkan for God to dwell in?

In every human heart there is both a longing for a new life and a longing to return to the familiar and well-known.  There is courage to journey to a new land, and there is also entrenched discouragement.  Although the proportion of resilience to despair is different inside each individual, every person does get opportunities to lean one way or the other.

Are you leaning toward God or Pharaoh today?

  1. And when the cloud rose up from above the mishkan, the Israelites would pull out on each of their journeys. But if the cloud did not rise up, they would not pull out until the day it did rise. Because the cloud of God was over the mishkan by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the Israelites on all their journeys. (Exodus/Shemot 40:36-38)
  2. See my posts Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home, and Bemidbar: Two Kinds of Troops.
  3. Numbers 10:33-34.
  4. Exodus 12:38.
  5. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.
  6. The Hebrew word sometimes translated as “riffraff” is asafsuf (אֲסַפְסֻף), based on the verb asaf (אָסַף) = gather in, gather against, take in, take away.

Beha-alotkha: Facing It

One face is dark brown.  One face is white with disease.  One face radiates bright light.


circa 400 BCE, Greek

The dark face belongs to Moses’ wife in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“when you are drawing up”).

Miriam spoke, and Aaron, be-Moses on account of the Kushite wife that he had taken; for he had taken a Kushite wife.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 12:1)

be- (בְּ) = a prepositional prefix.  Like most prepositions, be- has many meanings.  In this context, be- = with, against.  (In the word beha-alotkha, be- = when.)

The ambiguity of the preposition be- has led to two interpretations of Miriam and Aaron’s complaint:

1) Miriam and Aaron speak privately with Moses on behalf of his wife, because he is not treating her properly.  What is he doing wrong?  Withholding sex from her, according to the Midrash Rabbah and later commentary.1  This interpretation provides one explanation of the next verse:

And they said: “Is it indeed only be-Moses God spoke?  Isn’t it also banu He spoke?”  (Numbers 12:2)

be- (בְּ) = In this context, the preposition be- = with, through.

banu (בָּנוּ) = with us, through us. Banu = be-(בְּ) + -anu (נוּT) = a suffix indicating a first personal plural pronoun as an object.

According to the commentary, Miriam and Aaron are saying that God speaks with them (or through them, when they serve as prophets), but they still have sex with their spouses.  Even if God speaks more often with and through Moses, that is no excuse for him to deprive his wife.

Moses and His Ethiopian Wife, by Jacob Jordaen, 1650

2) Miriam and Aaron speak publicly against Moses, complaining about his mixed marriage.

In Exodus/Shemot Moses’ wife was Tziporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest.  But this week, in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, she is only called “the Kushite”.  Kush is the land south of Egypt, noted in the bible for people with very dark skin.2

Some commentators have argued that Tziporah is “the Kushite wife”, so-called either because she had darker skin than usual for a woman in the ancient Near East, or because “kush” also means beautiful, or because there was also a land of Kushites in Arabia.3

But others wrote that Moses had two wives, Tziporah and an Ethiopian.  Josephus told one version of an extrabiblical adventure for Moses in Ethiopia, where he supposedly served as an Egyptian general in his youth, won a war, and married the defeated king’s daughter.4

Whether the wife in this week’s Torah portion is a Midianite or a Kushite, the complaint about Moses’ marriage implies racism.  Yet the first five books of the bible are only concerned about marrying outside one’s religion.5  The Torah repeatedly tells us not to cheat or oppress foreign immigrants (see my post Mishpatim: The Immigrant).  Even the book of Ezra, which requires Israelite men to separate from non-Israelite wives, describes these foreign women in terms of their religious practices.6  And the book of Ruth is an example of a virtuous mixed marriage between an Israelite and a Moabite.

Moses’ wife, Midianite or Kushite, presumably converted, like Ruth.  So Miriam and Aaron may well find her acceptable, regardless of the color of her face.


When I see people who look markedly different from me and my family, I try to catch their eye, and then smile at them.  If they smile back, we might exchange a greeting.  Then as I walk on I feel brighter—and safer.  The stranger is not a threat after all, but someone like me.

Why do so many of my fellow citizens hate the stranger, the man with “black” skin, the immigrant who speaks a different language, the woman who dresses like a Muslim?  I know the answer: because they are afraid, and it feels better to turn fear into anger.

At least it does for many people.  One advantage of being scared of everyone as a child, even of girls who looked like me, is that now timidity is an old friend.  When I grew up I made a habit of smiling at people who do look like me, as well as those who don’t, and exchanging a greetings with them, too.  Then as I walk on I feel brighter—and safer.


by Ernest Christophe, 1876

The white face belongs to Moses’ sister, Miriam.

After Miriam and Aaron speak with or against Moses, God orders the three siblings to report to the Tent of Meeting.  According to God, the problem is that Miriam and Aaron are claiming to be prophets equal to Moses.  God declares that nobody is equal to Moses, and adds:

“Why were you not afraid to speak against my servant, against Moses?”  (Numbers 12:8)

Miriam is the instigator of the complaint against Moses. and God is angry.

And the cloud moved away from over the tent, and hey!  Miriam had a skin disease like snow!  Aaron vayifein Miriam, and hey!  Skin disease!  (Numbers 12:10)

vayifein (וַיִּפֵן) = turned to face.  (From the same root as paneh, פָּנֶה = face.)


Miriam’s skin disease is tzara-at, which make skin look dead-white and depressed compared to the surrounding skin.  (See my post Tzaria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance.)  The book of Exodus decrees that anyone with that skin disease must live outside the camp until it has healed.

Aaron begs Moses to intercede with God, saying:

“Please don’t let her be like one who is dead going out from the womb of his mother, and half his flesh looks eaten!”  (Numbers 12:12)

Moses prays, and God promises that Miriam’s skin disease will last for only seven days, but she must live outside the camp in shame for those seven days.

Moses is separated from his wife indefinitely, because his whole being is engaged in being God’s prophet.  Miriam is separated from the community for seven days, because she was too self-absorbed to see that Moses is a different kind of prophet.


Like Miriam, I can become so absorbed in my own desires and my own calling that I forget other people have different desires and different callings.  I write about the Torah, but I do not embrace every aspect of Jewish tradition.  Some Jews are meticulous about halakhah, the rules for behavior in every aspect of life.  Some are absorbed in the mysticism of kabbalah.  (I have encountered the same two types among Christians.)

I do not understand these people, any more than Miriam understood her brother Moses.  Nevertheless I have been guilty of speaking against them, declaring that both approaches are irrational.  They are irrational to me.  But my mind works differently from the mind of a strictly observant Jew or the mind of a mystic, even if our faces are similar.

When I express my own truth too loudly, I am like Miriam declaring that she is a prophet, too, so she knows Moses is wrong to be celibate.

Miriam blanches when God reveals her error.  She knows she must isolate herself until she has healed.  When I realize I have forgotten that individuals are different behind their faces, I feel ashamed and I retreat for a while.


The burning face belongs to Moses himself.  He acquires radiant skin in the book of Exodus, after seeing God’s “back” on Mount Sinai.

Moses, by James Tissot

When Moses went in before God to speak with [God], he would remove the veil until after he went out; and he went out and spoke to the children of Israel what had been commanded.  And the Israelites saw the penei Moses, that the penei Moses radiated light.  Then Moses put the veil back over panav until he came to speak with [God again].  (Exodus/Shemot 34:34-35)

penei (פְּנֵי) = face of.  (From paneh, פָּנֶה = face.)

panav (פָּנָו) = his face.  (Also from paneh, פָּנֶה = face.)

When Moses passes on God’s commands, he leaves his face exposed.  His glowing skin demonstrates that he is not an ordinary prophet like Miriam or Aaron.

But when he is not speaking with God or passing on God’s instructions, Moses veils his face.  The radiance of his skin is too overwhelming for the Israelites to see as they go about their daily tasks.

I imagine that if the skin all over his body also glows, marital relations would be difficult.  Even if Moses’ wife kept her eyes shut, could they touch one another the way they used to?  This physical explanation for Moses’ celibacy does not occur to Miriam or Aaron.

Nor does it occur to them that Moses never gets time off from listening for God.  God has conversations with Moses all the time, but Miriam and Aaron are summoned when God wants to speak with them.  In this week’s Torah portion,

Suddenly God said to Moses and to Aaron and to Miriam: “Go, the three of you, to the Tent of Meeting.”  So the three of them went.  And God came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called out: “Aaron and Miriam!”  (Numbers 12:4-5)

Then God reminds them that they are ordinary prophets, not comparable with Moses.


Several friendly Muslim women in our apartment complex wear a hijab whenever they leave their apartments.  Their hair and necks are covered, but their faces are exposed, so when I meet them in the laundry room we can easily exchange smiles and greetings.

But once I passed a woman in the grocery story wearing a burka, so her face was completely covered.  She could see through the mesh panel in front of her eyes, but I could not see her eyes, and therefore I could not meet them.  I smiled in her direction, but I could discern no response.  I felt as if I were smiling at a rock draped in cloth.

The woman in the burka was more isolated than Miriam during the seven days she lived outside the camp because of her skin disease.  And her isolation was deliberate.

Is Moses that isolated when he wears his veil around the camp?  What would it be like to give up all ordinary human contact?  What would you get in exchange for losing your face?

  1. Midrash Tanchuma (a 6th to 9th-century collection of allegories and homilies) assumes in Tzav 13 that Moses stopped having sexual relations with his wife. So do Exodus Rabbah 46:13 and Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:10 (10th to 12th century collections of imaginative commentary, part of the Midrash Rabbah), and Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki).
  2. Being a Kushite indicates a genetic skin color in Jeremiah 36:14: “Can a Kushite change his skin?  Or a leopard his spots?”  It is a derogatory term in Amos 9:7, where God says challengingly: “Aren’t you like the Kushites to me, children of Israel?”
  3. E.g. Sifrei Badmidbar (a 3rd-century CE commentary on Numbers), 12:99; Midrash Tanchuma, Tzav 13; and Rashi.  Tziporah might be unusually dark-skinned because she spends her days out in the sun, like the female narrator in Song of Songs 1:5-6.
  4. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in Antiquities 2:252-253 (circa 93 CE), told one version of the Ethiopian marriage story invented by an unknown Judean sometimes between the 6th and 3rd centuries BCE.
  5. However, Deuteronomy 23:4-7 prohibits a Moabite or Edomite from converting.
  6. Ezra 9:1-2.


Beha-alotkha & Ezra: Retirement Age

This is what regards the Levites:  From the age of 25 years and above, each will enter the battalion of service for the Tent of Meeting.  And from the age of 50 years, yashuv from the battalion of service, and he shall not serve any more.  He shall attend to his brother in the Tent of Meeting, keeping his watch, but he shall not do service.  Thus you shall do for the Levites regarding their duties.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 8:24-26)

yashuv (יָשׁוּב) = he shall return, turn back, turn away, withdraw.

It sounds like a mandatory retirement age.  And retirement at 50 would be a golden dream to all the people today who must continue to toil at jobs that sap their energy instead of nourishing them.  Do the Levites really get this blessing?


This week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha, includes the consecration of the Levites as servants of God’s sanctuary, the Tent of Meeting.1  (The first priests, Aaron and his sons, are consecrated in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.2 ) Leviticus also provides lengthy job descriptions for priests, who perform all the rituals of offerings at the altar, tend the most sacred holy objects, and judge various issues about ritual purity.

While the priests perform the highest-ranking work in the religious life of the ancient Israelites, many other duties are necessary to maintain either a traveling sanctuary (in Exodus through Joshua) or a permanent temple (from 1 Kings on).  The first two Torah portions in Numbers begin assigning these duties to the three clans of Levites.  (See last week’s post, Bemidbar & Naso: Four Directions of Service.)

For each leg of the Israelites’ journey from Mount Sinai to the Jordan River, the Tent of Meeting must be disassembled, carried to the next campsite, and reassembled.  Only the priests can prepare the holiest items for travel; they wrap the ark, the lampstand, the bread table, the incense altar, and the altar for offerings in multiple coverings before turning them over to the Levites of the Kehat clan for porterage.

Tent of Meeting and its courtyard

The other two clans of Levites, Geirshon and Merari, disassemble, carry, and reassemble the tent roof, the cloth walls of both tent and courtyard, and the frameworks they are stretched over.  All of these jobs are critical, and an error may result in death.  (See my post Shemini & 2 Samuel: Separating Holiness.)  They are also jobs that require physical strength and skill.

I believe the tasks of dismantling, carrying, and erecting the pieces of the santucary are restricted to Levites old enough to be mindful, but young enough to do the labor without faltering.  Levites must retire from these duties before old age compromises their physical abilities.  So the men who do this work must be between the ages of 25 and 50—at least in the portion Beha-alotkha.

The first two portions of the book of Numbers give a different starting age for the Levites.  God requests a census of each of the three clans of Levites,

From the age of 30 years and above, up to the age of 50 years, all those who come into the battalion to do labor in the Tent of Meeting.  (Numbers 4:3, 4:23, 4:30)

According to Rashi, the strength to carry heavy objects is not fully developed until age 30.  After age 50, a man’s strength begins to diminish again.  The Talmud3 explains the different starting ages by claiming the Levites began learning these duties at age 25, and began actually performing them at 30.  I suspect the discrepancy is due to different opinions about the age at which young men can be trusted to carry out a long process with unflagging mindfulness of the sanctity of every movement.


The Levites age 50 and above still perform some duties, those that all Levites do while the Israelites are encamped and the sanctuary is in place.  What are these jobs?

The only ones mentioned in the first five books of the Torah are guarding the sanctuary to prevent any unauthorized persons from entering;4 and helping to collect tithes from the rest of the community, tithes used to support the priests, the Levites, and the poor.5

Other Levitical duties are not mentioned until books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which describe the building of the second temple in Jerusalem.

Supervising the building of a temple can apparently be done well by a wider range of Levites.  The book of Ezra says that when the exiled Israelites returned to Jerusalem from Babylon, their leaders appointed the Levites from age 20 years and above to supervise the labor of [building] the House of God.  (Ezra 3:8)

Both books list the job titles, ancestry, and numbers of men who serve at the new temple.  Priests are listed first, then Levites, then singers, then gatekeepers, then temple servants.6  Although the singers and gatekeepers are listed separately from “Levites”, the traditional interpretation is that these two groups were subdivisions of Levites.

One piece of evidence is the celebration over the completion the foundation of the second temple in the book of Ezra.

(woodcut, 1860)

…and the priests were stationed in their vestments with their trumpets, and the Levites, descendants of Asaf, with cymbals to praise God … And they [the Levites] answered with haleil and with thanks to God: “because [God]is good, because [God’s] kindness is everlasting(Ezra 3:10-11).

haleil (הַלֵּל) = songs of praise.

The same words “because [God] is good, because [God’s] kindness is everlasting” appear in Psalms 106, 118 and 136.  As far as we know, all the Psalms were sung at temple rituals, accompanied by instruments—and the musicians were Levites.

For us, as for the Levites, retirement is not ceasing to work; it is withdrawing from a job that has become difficult, and turning to work that benefits body and soul.  Yes, many retirees spend more and more time taking care of their aging and cranky bodies.  But we can also take some time to help others from a place of wisdom, and to do the work that nourishes our souls.

No doubt some of the Levites serving in the second temple got bored with locking and unlocking gates, or dreaded singing under a certain conductor, and wished they could retire at 50 like the Levites in the book of Numbers.  Lighter work is not always soul-nourishing work.

Levite singers, by James Tissot

Nevertheless, the duties of the Levites can inform our own retirements, when we finally shuv—withdraw, turn away, return from—the jobs we had to do to make a living.  In the workforce (equivalent to the “battalion” in this week’s Torah portion), we have to keep disassembling and reassembling our knowledge base, our skills, our resumes, as we meet the demands imposed by our employers or the larger society with live in.

Retired, we can exercise more of our own judgement about what to let in through our personal gates, and what to keep out.  And we can lift our own spirits toward the spirit of the divine by singing to God.

  1. Numbers 8:8-22.
  2. Leviticus 8:1-9:24.
  3. Talmud Bavli, Chullin.
  4. Numbers 18:2-6.
  5. Numbers 18:20-24; Nehemiah 12:44.
  6. Ezra 2:40-41 and 2:70; Nehemiah 7:43-45, 10:29, and 11:15-22.

Pesach: Miriam the Prophetess

Pesach (פֶּסַח, “skipping”) means Passover.  Seder (סֵדֶר, “order”) means the dinner table ritual following the order in the Haggadah.  Haggadah (הַגָּדָה, “the telling”—a term that came into use in the 19th century) means the book of rituals, prayers, questions, four cups of wine, and stories.  The longest story, told while the second cup of wine sits on the table, is about the exodus from Egypt, up to the point when the pursuing Egyptian army drowns in the Reed Sea, and the newly-freed slaves celebrate on the far shore.

In the book of Exodus, Moses led the people in celebrating by singing a lengthy psalm.1

Miriam’s Song, 1909

Then Miriam the neviyah, the sister of Aaron, took the drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her, with drums and with circle-dances.  And Miriam chanted for them:

Sing to God, for He is high above the high;

horse and its rider He hurled into the sea.  (Exodus/Shemot 15:20-21)

neviyah (נְבִיאָה) = prophetess (the feminine form of navi (נָבִיא) = prophet).

Miriam is the first woman in the Torah to be called a neviyah.  She leads the women in singing as well as in tapping hand drums and dancing.2

Miriam is a character in three dramatic scenes in the Torah.  She is the resourceful young woman who, when the pharaoh’s daughter adopts her infant brother Moses, arranges for their own mother to be his paid wet-nurse.3  She is the leader of thousands of women in the scene above.  And later in the trek across the wilderness, she leads her brother Aaron in a joint complaint regarding Moses’ wife.  (See my post Beha-alotkha: Unnatural Skin.)  The two siblings point out that they are prophets, too:

“Has God spoken only with Moses?  Hasn’t He also spoken with us?”  And God heard.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 12:2)

by Johann Christoph Weigel, 1695

God calls Miriam, Aaron, and Moses to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and speaks to all three from the pillar of cloud—in order to tell them that Moses gets the most direct divine communication.

And [God] said: “Please listen to my words!  When there is a navi of God among you, I make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream.  Not so my servant Moses … I speak with him mouth to mouth, and in seeing, not in riddles, and he looks at the likeness of God.  (Numbers 12:6-8)

God afflicts Miriam with a temporary skin disease to underscore the point.  Nevertheless, in that scene Miriam is indeed a neviyah who hears God’s voice directly!

Miriam is mentioned in passing five times after this, including God’s speech in the book of Micah reminding the Israelites that God sent them three leaders for the exodus from Egypt: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 4


What is a navi or neviyah?  The Torah offers several paradigms.

  • Intercessor

The word navi first appears in the book of Genesis, when God tells King Avimelekh in a dream: “And now, return the wife of [Abraham], since he is a navi, and he can pray for you and you will live.” (Genesis 20.7)

Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, and an unnamed prophet in the first book of Kings are also prophets who have God’s ear and intercede with God to save other people.5

  • Spokesperson

The Torah introduces a second paradigm of a navi after the enslaved Israelites give up on Moses’ idea that God will liberate them.  When God tells Moses to speak to Pharaoh next, he tries to get out it, arguing that he has “uncircumcised lips”, i.e. he cannot speak well.6  But God has an answer for everything.

Then God said to Moses: “See, I place you as a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother will be your navi.”  (Exodus 7:1)

Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh, March Chagall, 1931

In other words, Aaron will act like a navi for Moses, hearing Moses speak and then passing on Moses’ words to the Egyptian court.  Obviously Moses is God’s navi, hearing God speak and passing on God’s words, though the Torah does not bother to say so until the end of Deuteronomy:  And never again in Israel rose a navi like Moses, who knew God face to face.  (Deuteronomy 34:10)

Moses and God have the longest, most frequent, and most direct conversations in the entire Hebrew Bible.  After Moses gets over his initial reluctance to speak, he fluently delivers God’s instructions, warnings, and hundreds of rules.7

Other prophets transmit God’s predictions, or warnings, about the future of kings or kingdoms if they do not change their ways.  These include all the major prophets (Isaiah through Malachi).

  • Ecstatic

The third kind of navi in the Hebrew Bible is one who goes into an altered state of consciousness characterized by an awareness of the divine and obliviousness to the world, and who does not return with any coherent message from God.  The first occurrence of this state in the Torah is when God shares some of Moses’ spirit or ruach with 70 elders.

And the spirit was upon them, vayitnabe-u, but they did not continue.  (Numbers 11:25)

Saul Before Samuel and the Prophets, by Benjamin West, 1812

vayitnabe-u (וַיּתְנַבְּאוּ) = and they acted like prophets, and they prophesied to themselves, and they spoke in ecstasy.  (From the same נבא root as navi.)

In both books of Samuel and both books of Kings, bands of prophets wander around making music, dancing, and babbling.  The bible explains the proverb “Is Saul, too, among the prophets?” first with a scene in which King Saul falls in with a band of prophets on the road and speaks in ecstasy like them, then with a scene in which not only babbles, but also strips naked.8


Miraim is the first of only five women called prophets in the Hebrew Bible. After her, two major prophetesses are spokespersons for God (type 2 above): Deborah, who summons a general and tells him to go to war;9 and Huldah, who authenticates a scroll as the word of God and utters two prophetic predictions.10  Two other prophetesses are mentioned only glancingly.11

Miriam is the only neviyah whom the bible reports as engaging in what might be ecstatic behavior: playing a drum, dancing, and singing on the shore of the Reed Sea.  But Miriam leads circle dances in complicated patterns that require concentration and planning.  She leads a coherent chant.  Rather than directing ecstatic worship, she is probably organizing a celebration of God as the victor in a war against the Egyptian charioteers.  Women customarily greeted soldiers returned from a victory with drumming, dancing, and singing.12

Although Miriam hears God’s voice, the Torah does not report her serving as either an intercessor or a spokesperson for God.

by Simeon Solomon, 1860

The Talmud attempts to fill the void by claiming that Miriam did pronounce a prophecy: that her mother would have a son who would save the Israelites from Egypt.  When Moses was born, according to this story, the whole house filled with light, and Miriam’s father exclaimed that his daughter’s prophecy had been fulfilled.13  This is a pleasant tale with no basis in the Torah.

A modern folk explanation is that Miriam must have had foreknowledge of the victory at the Reed Sea, and told the women to bring their drums.  Otherwise they would not have bothered to pack them, since they left their homes in Egypt in such a hurry that the dough had no time to rise in their kneading-troughs.14

This argument for Miriam’s power as a neviyah fails in the context of the larger story in Exodus.  The Israelite women were already packing all the gold, silver, jewelry, and clothing they “borrowed” from the Egyptians; they could easily add their hand drums and any their other sentimental and ritual objects.


Miriam may be called a neviyah because of other deeds not recorded in the bible.  Or she may simply be an exceptional person who has a close relationship with God.

A traditional Passover seder includes pouring a cup of wine for Elijah the navi.  Many a modern seder adds a ritual cup of water for Miriam the neviah.  (The water alludes to a Talmudic story that says a well of water followed the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years thanks to the merit of Miriam.15)

I lift a cup for Miriam at Passover knowing that she may not be a neviyah in the sense of being an intercessor with God, a spokesperson for God, or a religious ecstatic.  I celebrate her lifelong wise leadership, and her ability to listen to God.  May we all learn to be a little more like Miriam the neviyah.

  1. Exodus 15:1-18. See my post Beshalach & Psalm 136: Miracle at Sea.
  2. Since the two lines of Miriam’s song are the same as the first two lines of the psalm ascribed to Moses, the women might sing them as a periodic refrain during the longer psalm. Most modern scholars consider either the entire psalm, or at least Miriam’s song, to be one of the oldest poems in the Torah (based on Frank M. Cross and David N. Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1973).
  3. Exodus 2:4-8.
  4. When she dies in Numbers 20:1; in two genealogies listing her with her brothers Aaron and Moses, Numbers 26:59 and 1 Chronicles 5:29; in a warning about skin disease in Deuteronomy 24:9, and in Micah 6:3-4.
  5. Moses for the Israelite people in Exodus 32:9-14, Exodus 33:12-17, Numbers 11:1-2, and Numbers 21:6-9, and for Miriam in Numbers 12:10-15; Samuel for the Israelites in 7:5-10; Elijah to bring a dead boy back to life in 1 Kings 17:20-24; Elisha for the same reason in 2 Kings 4:8-37; an unnamed prophet for King Jereboam in 1 Kings 13:1-6.
  6. Exodus 6:12, 6:30. See my post Va-eria & Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2.
  7. The Talmud (Makkot 23b and Yevamot 47b) claims there are 613 commandments in the Torah.  It is hard to decide which rules should count, but 10th-century C.E. rabbi Saadiah ben Yosef Gaon found a way to list 613 in his Sefer Hamitzvot, and Maimonides (12th-century C.E. rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, nicknamed Rambam) came up with 613 for his book by the same name.
  8. 1 Samuel 10:10-12 and 19:18-24.
  9. Judges 4:4-16.
  10. 2 Kings 22:14-20.
  11. The unnamed wife of the first Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3) and Noadeyah, a false neviyah listed in Nehemiah 6:14.
  12. Judges 11:34, 1 Samuel 18:6-7.
  13. Talmud Bavli Megillah 14a.
  14. Exodus 12:34.
  15. Talmud Bavli Taanit 9a.

Beha-alotkha: Father-in-Law

When the Israelites strike camp at the end of almost a year at Mount Sinai1, we discover that a Midianite named Chovav has been camping with them. This week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you bring up”), says:

And Moses said to Chovav, the son of Reueil the Midianite, the father-in-law of Moses:  “We are journeying to the place of which God said:  I will give it to you.  Go with us, and we will do good for you, because God has spoken of [doing] good for Israel.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 10:29)

Mount Sinai, by Elijah Walton,
19th century

Chovav (חֺבָב) = One who loves.  (From the verb choveiv (חֺבֵב) = loving.)

Reu-eil (רְעוּאֵל) = Friend of God. Rei-eh (רֵעֶה) = friend + Eil (אֵל) = God.

The syntax is ambiguous in the original Hebrew, as it is in the English translation.  Is Moses’ father-in-law Chovav or Reu-eil?

The name “Chovav” appears only in one other place in the Hebrew Bible:

And Chever the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, from the descendants of Chovav, the father-in-law of Moses, and he pitched his tent as far as the great tree in Tzaananim… (Judges 4:11)

This verse clearly identifies Chovav as Moses’ father-in-law.  Yet when Moses gets married in the book of Exodus/Shemot, his father-in-law seems to be Reu-eil.

The Midianite priest,
Bible Moralisee, 13th century

A priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came [to the well] and drew and filled the watering-troughs to water their father’s flock. Then the shepherds came and drove them away. And Moses stood up and saved them and watered their flock. And they came back to Reueil, their father … (Exodus/Shemot 2:16-18)

Medieval commentators and modern scholars have generated many explanations for this discrepancy.2 I believe the difference between “Reu-eil” in Exodus and “son of Reu-eil” in Numbers is a scribal error.

Both early commentators and modern scholars identify Chovav as another name for Yitro, who is called Moses’ father-in-law ten times in the book of Exodus. But if Chovav is Moses’ father-in-law, what motivates Moses to invite him to journey with the Israelites to Canaan?

Moses meets his future father-in-law when he is a young man fleeing Egypt. He stops to rest by a well in Midian territory, and comes to the aid of the seven daughters of the priest of Midian called Reu-eil. The young women tell their father what happened, and he invites Moses to dinner.

And Moses agreed to stay with the man, and he gave his daughter Tzipporah to Moses. (Exodus/
Shemot 2:21)

The purpose of the marriage seems to be to tie Moses to the family as the priest’s son-in-law. Moses shepherds for him, and gives him two grandsons. The Midianite priest apparently has no sons of his own, since they do not help with the flock.

In the next story in the book of Exodus, Moses’ father-in-law is named Yitro.

And Moses was tending the flock of Yitro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he guided the flock behind the wilderness and came to the mountain of God… (Exodus 3:1)

Yitro (יִתְרוֹ) = his yeter (יֶתֶר) = remainder, surplus. (Yitro is usually translated in English as Jethro.)

Moses has a long conversation with God at the burning bush, then asks his father-in-law for permission to go back to Egypt to see how his relatives are doing there. Yitro wisely tells him to “go in peace”.3 Moses takes his wife and children, then sends them back to Yitro before he reaches Egypt. (See my post Yitro: Degrees of Separation.)

After the exodus from Egypt, as soon as Moses and the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai, Yitro stages a family reunion.

And Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses …said to Moses: “I, your father-in-law Yitro, am coming to you, and your wife and her two sons with her.” And Moses went to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed down and he kissed him, and each man asked about his fellow’s well-being, and they entered the tent. (18:5-7)

Yitro Advises Moses,
Figures de la Bible,1728

Moses completely ignores his wife and children, but he welcomes his father-in-law. Yitro says the God of Israel is the greatest of all gods, and burns an animal offering for God.4 The next morning, Yitro tells Moses how to delegate his workload and set up a judicial system for the Israelites.

Then Moses sent off his father-in-law, and he went away to his [own] land. (Exodus 18:27)

Moses and Yitro part on good terms, but Moses does not press his father-in-law to stay. Yitro leaves Moses’s wife and sons behind.

Over the next eleven months at Mount Sinai, Moses receives the Ten Commandments (twice) as well as many more laws. He has people killed for worshiping the Golden Calf, and he supervises the creation of the portable tent-sanctuary and the holy items in it.

Finally, in this week’s Torah portion, everything is organized for the journey to the border of Canaan. Then Moses suddenly asks Chovav to come with them. Apparently his father-in-law returned to Mount Sinai for another visit; it was not a long journey from his home.

He [Chovav] said to him:  “I will not go, because I would go to my land, to my kindred.”(Numbers 10:30)

Then he [Moses] said:  “Please do not forsake us, because you know how we camp in the wilderness, and you can be eyes for us.  And if you go with us, then by that goodness with which God does for us, we will be good to you.” (Numbers 10:31-32)

Moses gives Chovav two reasons to travel with the Israelites: to help them navigate the wilderness, and to receive a share of the land that God promised to give them in Canaan.

Transporting the ark

What kind of help do the Israelites need? “You can be eyes for us” might be a request for Chovav to scout ahead for the best routes and camping places. But then the Torah says the ark itself is their scout.

And they set out from the mountain of God on a journey of three days, and the ark of the covenant of God set out in front of them on a journey of three days to scout out a resting place for them. And the cloud of God was over them by day, when they set out from the camp. (Numbers 10:33-34)

Earlier in this week’s Torah portion, we get a preview of the Israelites’ departure.

the cloud was taken up from over the Dwelling Place of the testimony, so the Israelites set out for their journeys away from the wilderness of Sinai. And the cloud stopped in the wilderness of Paran. (Numbers 10:11-12)

This cloud hovers over the Tent of Meeting when the ark is in residence.5 Now we learn that when the Israelites travel, the cloud travels with them. It may even lead them, as God’s pillar of cloud and fire did when they traveled from Egypt to Mount Sinai.

Whether the cloud or the ark is doing the scouting, the Israelites do not seem to need Chovav as a guide. Rashi6 proposed an alternate meaning of “you know how we camp in the wilderness, and you can be eyes for us”.  If anything occurs that Moses and the elders do not understand, Chovav could enlighten them. In that case, perhaps Moses begs his father-in-law to go with him because he remembers how the man enlightened him about delegating judicial authority. Since then, the incident of the Golden Calf might have made Moses even less confident that he could handle everything himself.

There is no transition between Moses’ second plea to Chovav (Numbers 10:31-32) and the announcement that the Israelites set out with guidance from the ark and the cloud (Numbers 10:33-34). The Torah does not tell us whether Chovav changes his mind and accompanies his son-in-law and the Israelites after all. I imagine he is torn between his duties as a father and a priest of Midian, and his deep affection for his son-in-law.

Yitro adopts Moses into his family when he is homeless. When Moses arrives at Mount Sinai with thousands of Israelites, his father-in-law comes, embraces him, and gives him good advice. When Moses leaves for Canaan, he begs his father-in-law to come with him.

Perhaps it is Moses who gives Yitro the name Chovav, “one who loves”. He has cherished his father-in-law’s love, and wants it to continue.

1  The Israelites and their fellow-travelers arrive at Mount Sinai in the third month after leaving Egypt (Exodus 19:1-2) and leave Mount Sinai for Canaan on the twentieth day of the second month of the second year after leaving Egypt (Numbers 10:11-12).

2  Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), Ibn Ezra (12th-century rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra), and Ramban (13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a.k.a. Nachmanides), explained that Moses’ father-in-law was called Yitro until he decided to worship only the God of Israel4, and then his name was changed to Chovav—according to Ramban3, because he “loved” God’s teaching. Reueil was actually Yitro’s father, but Tzipporah and her sisters also called their grandfather “Father”.

A common modern theory is that the story of Moses’ marriage in Exodus 2:16-21 was written by the “J” source, someone from the southern kingdom of Judah, who thought of Moses’ father-in-law as Reueil.  The other three stories in Exodus that include Moses’ father-in-law were written by the “E” source, someone from the northern kingdom of Israel, who thought of the man as Yitro. The redactor who compiled the book of Exodus from these two sources left in both names. (See Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 2003.)

3  Exodus 4:18.

4  The classic commentators cite Exodus 18:11-12 as proof of Yitro’s “conversion”. I suspect that the Midianite priest was already familiar with the God of Israel, and may have pointed out Mount Sinai to Moses, since it was in Yitro’s territory.

5  Exodus 40:36-37.

6  Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.

Haftarat Beha-alotkha—Zechariah: Not by Might

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 Beha-alotkha (Numbers 8:1-12:16) and the haftarah is Zechariah 2:14-4:7.

Zechariah by Michelangelo
Zechariah by Michelangelo

“Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the LORD of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6—King James translation)

This line from the haftarah in the book of Zechariah is famous in both Jewish and Christian circles. But what does it actually mean?

Zechariah was probably born in Babylon.  The upper classes of the kingdom of Judah, including Zechariah’s grandfather Iddo, were deported to Babylon after King Nebuchadnezzar’s army razed Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.

Only 46 years later, the Persian king Cyrus marched into Babylon and quickly seized the whole Neo-Babylonian Empire.  Cyrus declared an empire-wide policy of religious tolerance, and authorized the exiles from Judah to return to Jerusalem and build another temple to their own god.

map Persian and Babylonian EmpiresAccording to the book of Ezra, the first large group of Judahites to return to Jerusalem was led by Zerubavel, a grandson of Judah’s next-to-last king, Yehoyakhin. This group included Zechariah, grandson of the priest Iddo.

The famous line in the book of Zechariah is preceded by a vision:

And the angel who was speaking to me returned, and it roused me as a man is roused from sleep. And it said to me: What do you see?  And I said: I see—hey!—a lampstand of gold, and a bowl above its head. And seven lamps are on it, seven, and seven pipes to the lamps …And two olive trees are over it, one on the right of the bowl and one on its left. (Zechariah 4:1-3)

A gold lampstand with seven lamps is the menorah described in the book of Exodus, mentioned at the start of this week’s Torah portion, and reproduced for Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.  The rest of Zechariah’s vision is more mysterious, so he asks the angel: What are these? (Zechariah 4:4)

Instead of explaining the vision, the angel replies:

This is the word of God to Zerubavel, saying: Not by chayil and not by koach, but rather by My ruach, said the God of Tzevaot. (Zechariah 4:6)

chayil (חַיִל) = troop, small army, or military escort; courage in the face of a military threat; wealth; ability. (King James translation: “might”.)

This word refers to a military force about 100 times out of about 230 times it appears in the Hebrew Bible.

koach (כֹּחַ) = power, physical strength, energy, physical force. (King James translation: “power”.)

When the subject is God, koach = power to transform. When the subject is human, koach = physical strength or energy.

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; life-breath; prophetic inspiration; insight; mood.  (King James translation: “spirit”.)

Winds, life-breath, human prophetic inspiration, and exceptional human insight are all caused by God in the Hebrew Bible. Human moods can either arise naturally or be sent by God.

tzevaot (צְבָאוֹת) = large armies: hosts of stars or angels (metaphorically, as God’s heavenly army).  (King James translation: “hosts”.)


What does God’s message to Zerubavel, the leader of the Judahites returning from Babylon, have to do with Zechariah’s vision of the menorah and the two olive trees?

The ex-exiles laid the foundations for the Second Temple during their second year in Jerusalem. Then some of their neighbors who had stayed in the area during the Babylonian exile came to Zerubavel and said:

Let us build with you, since like you we worship your God, and we have slaughtered animals for Him since the days of Eisar-Haddon, King of Assyria, who brought us here. (Ezra 4:2)

Zerubavel rejected them, and the local people retaliated by threatening the newcomers, bribing Persian ministers to oppose the building project, and sending a damning letter to the next king after Cyrus. Their plan worked, according to the book of Ezra; construction of the temple was halted for 17 years.

King Darius I
King Darius I

In 522 B.C.E. Darius I took the throne of the Persian Empire. King Darius simplified the administration of the empire by dividing it into provinces and appointing a native of high rank to rule each district. By 520 B.C.E. he had appointed Zerubavel as governor of Yehud Medinata, a province including the core of the old kingdom of Judah.

And in 520 B.C.E. Zechariah began prophesying.

After the angel gives Zechariah the message for Zerubavel, it explains:

The hands of Zerubavel laid the foundation of this house, and his hands shall bring it to an end. Then you shall know that God of Tzevaot sent me to you. (Zechariah 4:9)

Then Zechariah asks the angel to interpret the two olive trees in his vision, the ones with pipes pouring olive oil above the menorah.

Artist's sketch of Zechariah's vision
Artist’s sketch
of Zechariah’s vision

And it said: These are the two sons of the olive oil, the ones who stand with the lord of all the earth. (Zechariah 4:14)

“Son of the olive oil” is an idiom in Biblical Hebrew for “anointed”. Traditionally, a new king or high priest was consecrated by being anointed with olive oil. In Zechariah’s vision, Governor Zerubavel and High Priest Yehoshua are the two consecrated leaders who serve God, the lord of all the earth.

Zechariah does not ask the angel for further clarification about that particular vision, but we can infer that it foretells a time when Zerubavel and Yehoshua relight the old religion by ensuring there is a new menorah in a new temple.

This message from God (as well as a prophesy by Zechariah’s fellow prophet Haggai, according to the book of Ezra) apparently encouraged Governor Zerubavel to resume construction of the temple.

This time the local population did not protest; neither troops (chayil) nor physical force (koach) were necessary.

The Second Temple was completed in only four years and dedicated in 516 B.C.E.—perhaps because God filled the master craftsmen with ruach, the same exceptional insight God granted Betzaleil, the master craftsman of the first sanctuary, in the book of Exodus.


As a message to Zerubavel, the line from this week’s haftarah is best translated as:

(You shall build the temple) not by troops (chayil) and not by physical force (koach), but rather by My divine insight (ruach), said the God of Armies (Tzevaot). (Zechariah 4:6)

Can we rescue the famous line and apply it today?

The “temple” we need now is not a building where priests sacrifice animals; it is a world-wide devotion to peaceful cooperation in order to save human lives and our planet.  Like Governor Zerubavel, we all need to shun the use of troops or any other kind of physical force—between nations and between individuals.  And when our neighbors come and say “Let us build with you,” we need to work out safe ways for everyone to contribute.

So may we all be filled with the chayil of ability, the koach of energy, and the ruach of inspiration to light our own menorah for a new way of life on earth.

Beha-alotkha and Shemot: Moses as Wet Nurse

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Moses never wanted the job.

When God spoke out of the burning bush and assigned him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses tried to get out of it.  He objected:

Moses at the Burning Bush by Rembrandt van Rijn
Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt van Rijn

Hey! Lo ya-aminu me, and they will not listen to my voice, for they will say: Your god, God, did not appear. (Exodus 4:1)

Lo ya-aminu = They will not believe, they will not trust.  Lo (לֹא) = not.  Ya-aminu (יַאֲמִינוּ) = They will believe, be convinced by, put trust in, have faith in.  (From the root aman, אמן, which is also the root of amen (אָמֵן) = a solemn statement of confirmation or acceptance.  See last week’s post, Naso: Ordeal of Trust for the first use of “Amen” in the Torah.)

God gave Moses three miraculous signs to convince the Israelites that he really did speak for God.  But Moses still tried to turn down the job. Finally God compromised by giving Moses a partner: his older brother Aaron, who had stayed in Egypt when Moses fled to Midian many decades before.

The arrangement was that God would speak to Moses, Moses would speak to Aaron, and Aaron would deal directly with the people.  Moses accepted this arrangement—maybe because he had run out of excuses.

Moses and Aaron are still together in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“when you bring up”), in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.  But their roles have changed.  The big change came while the Israelites were camped at Mount Sinai, halfway between Egypt and the “promised land’ of Canaan.  When they first arrived at Mount Sinai, the people trusted God.  Sure, they had panicked a few times when there was a shortage of water or food, but each time Moses talked to God and God fixed the problem. So when they reached Mount Sinai, the people said:

Everything that God speaks we will do!  And God said to Moses: Hey! I myself will come to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the people will listen when I speak with you, and also ya-aminu in you forever. (Exodus 19:9)

Alas, while Moses is secluded inside God’s cloud on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, the people feel abandoned and lose faith that Moses will return to them.  They ask Aaron to make a god to lead them, now that Moses has disappeared.

Gold calf, Temple of Baalat in Byblos
Gold calf, Temple of Baalat in Byblos

If Aaron were trustworthy as Moses’ co-leader, he would have reminded them that God explicitly forbade them to make gold or silver idols.  He might have redirected them toward making an acceptable offering to God.  Instead, Aaron made the Golden Calf, and the Israelites had a wild party.

When Moses returned and questioned him about it, Aaron lied about his own role—

So I said to them: Who has gold? They took it off themselves and they gave it to me, and I threw it away into the fire, and out came this calf (Exodus 32:24)

—and slandered the Israelites—

You yourself know the people, that they are bad. (Exodus 32:22)

The Midrash Rabbah on the Song of Songs, a collection of commentary from the 8th century C.E., said that the two breasts of the woman in the song symbolize Moses and Aaron, who were full of the milk of Torah. But Aaron fails as a wet-nurse when he fails to set appropriate limits for the “children” of Israel, and instead gives them their golden calf—and then denies his own responsibility for their downfall.

God and Moses between them kill thousands of the guilty, but they let Aaron live. Later they make him the high priest: the chief technician in charge of conducting rituals, looking impressive, handling holy objects, and diagnosing skin diseases.  But Moses is left as the people’s sole boss and spiritual leader.

He does his best to keep them encouraged and in line, but in this week’s Torah portion Moses finally cracks.

The people appear to be in good shape at the beginning of the book of Numbers.  They are marching from Mount Sinai to the border of Canaan in battle formation, with their portable sanctuary and all its holy objects in the middle, so they know God is with them. They have water to drink and manna to eat.

Then suddenly they are overcome with craving.

They weep and say:

Who will feed us basar? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. But now nafsheinu are drying up; there is nothing except the manna before our eyes. (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4-6)

basar (בָּשָׂר) = human flesh (skin and/or muscle); animal meat.

nafsheinu (נַפְשֵׁנוּ) = our souls, our lives, our throats, our appetites.

They are not actually hungry.  They are disgusted with God’s manna and, according to many commentators who point out the double meaning of basar, with God’s laws restricting sex partners. Perhaps they are fed up with the whole religion.  Or perhaps they have had their fill of spiritual experiences, long lists of rules, and the goal of taking over Canaan.  They get cranky. They want a break for immediate physical pleasure.

Moses heard the people weeping in their family groups, each one at the entrance of its tent, and God’s anger flared very hot; and in the eyes of Moses it was bad. And Moses said to God: Why do You do bad to your servant, and why have I not found favor in your eyes, that you put the burden of all this people on me?  Did I myself become pregnant with all this people, or did I myself give birth to them, that you say to me: Carry them in your bosom, like the omein carries the one who suckles, to the land that You swore to their forefathers? (Numbers 11:10-12)

omein (אֹמֵן) = guardian, substitute parent. (Literally, the reliable one, the dependable one; from the same root as ya-aminu and amen.)

Elsewhere in the Bible, an omein is a man in charge of bringing up a child; each of King Ahab’s underage children has an omein in the second book of Kings, and Mordecai is Esther’s omein in the book of Esther. The female form of this word, omenet, means wet-nurse or nanny.  Moses imagines himself not just as a parent to the Israelites, but as their wet-nurse, too.

Moses continues:

I am not able to carry all this people by myself alone, because they are too heavy for me! If thus You must do to me, please kill me altogether, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and don’t let me see my badness! (Numbers 11:14-15)

Moses has a hard enough time serving as the people’s sole spiritual leader and teaching them God’s directives. Being a nanny for thousands of ex-slaves is too much for him. e HeIf only they acted like mature adults, restraining their impulses and deferring immediate pleasure for the sake of higher goals!  Instead, the people are like small children—as immature as if they are still nursing. (Children in ancient Israel nursed until they were about four years old.)

Moses cannot bear to be a single mother.  He tells God he would rather die than continue to be their omein.

God tries to solve the problem by giving 70 elders some of Moses’ spirit of prophecy, so they can all help him. But in the rest of the book of Numbers, the elders prove insufficient to control the childish impulses of the Israelites. Either the elders are not mentioned, or in the case of Korach’s rebellion, they are part of the group that revolts and complains to Moses.


Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn
Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Have you ever been responsible for a small child who loses control and throws a tantrum?  Rational explanations go right over their heads; all they can think about is the physical gratification they want right now, the comfort that their parent or babysitting is denying them. Back when that child was my son, I had to fight hard to stay calm until I could calm him down.

Small children are totally dependent on their caregivers.  If they are to grow up into independent adults, rather than slaves, their omein or omenet must be totally dependable—emunah.

Yet all humans are imperfect, unable to rise successfully to every single challenge. I was not a perfect mother, but I did not give up, and now I am proud of my adult son.

Moses does not give up either, even though he did not give birth to the Israelites, nor ask for the job of being their nanny. When God lashes out at the people, Moses talks God out of God’s temper tantrum, and keeps everyone on the road to the future.

May everyone who is given responsibility for others find the fortitude to carry on.  May we all be more like Moses than Aaron.


In next week’s Torah portion, the Israelite spies return from Canaan and ten out of twelve report that the land is full of fearsome giants. Look for my next blog post about how the people weep and refuse to go—because this time they do not ya-aminu God.

Beha-alotkha & Beshalach: Stomach versus Soul

When we doubt the meaning of our lives, mere food cannot address the problem. Yet many people divert anxiety about their futures into craving for food—both today and in the Torah.

When the Israelites and their fellow-travelers leave Egypt, they take all their herds and flocks with them. They are never forbidden to use their livestock for milk or meat, so they are in no danger of starving. Yet a month and a half after they leave Egypt, they complain about food.

The entire assembly of the Children of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness.  The Children of Israel said to them: “If only we had died by God’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat beside a pot of meat, when we ate bread until [we were] sated; for you brought us out to this wilderness to put to death this whole congregation by famine!” (Exodus/Shemot 16:2-3, in the Torah portion Beshalach)

How could dying in Egypt with a full stomach be better than journeying with God’s protection? These are the people who chose to follow Moses and his god out of Egypt, who sang and danced after God rescued them from the Egyptian army at the Reed Sea. How could they feel so discouraged in the second month of their trek across the wilderness?

God diagnoses the problem, and solves it—temporarily—with manna.

Then God said to Moses: Here I am, raining down food from the heavens… (Exodus 16:4)

Manna satisfies the people for a while—not because they need additional food, I think, but because it reminds them daily that God loves them like a parent. They are already following the divine pillar of cloud and fire across the wilderness. Now they know that they are not wandering aimlessly; serving God gives them a purpose in life.

The Israelites forget their purpose and fail to serve God whenever they are idle or afraid during their sojourn at Mount Sinai. But they are in good spirits when they march away from the mountain in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you raise up”) in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. They head toward their promised land supplied not only with the manna God provides, and the livestock they brought up from Egypt, but also with a splendid portable sanctuary and its numinous objects, as well as a set of God-given rules and principles to live by.

Alas, after only three days of marching they lapse into complaining again. The Torah does not tell us the content of their complaint at Taverah. It merely says God hears and reacts with anger, consuming the edge of the camp with fire. Then the people switch from complaining to sobbing.

And the riff-raff that was in its midst felt strong cravings, and they sobbed, and the Children of Israel also [sobbed], and they said: Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, and the cucumbers and watermelons and leeks and onions and garlic. And now our nefesh is dried up; there is nothing except the manna for our eyes. (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4-6)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite, throat, animating soul, life

Why, when they are on the verge of getting their own land, do the people yearn for the food in Egypt again? Psalm 78 answers:

They tested God in their hearts by asking for food for their nefesh. (Psalm 78:18)

To me, this shows that the people are not complaining about dry throats, but about dry lives. They have not lost their appetite for food, but they have lost their appetite for being God’s people.

For the survivors of the Golden calf incident, life at Mount Sinai was both pleasant and meaningful. They had the pleasure of serving God by making donations, but their donations were the treasures they took from their Egyptian neighbors, rather than anything personal. They also had the pleasure of serving God by skilled creative work, as they made the sanctuary and its holy objects.

Now, as they march north, the people are approaching the border of Canaan. They know their next service to God will be taking over a land inhabited by other people. As we learn in next week’s Torah portion, Shelach, very few Israelites believe that God will single-handedly drive out the inhabitants and leave them empty cities and farms. Instead they are anticipating war, which means many hardships and deaths.

Now the thought of serving God fills them with anxiety instead of purpose. So, as the psalm says, they sob for Egyptian food to (unconsciously) test whether God will nourish their souls.

God correctly interprets the sobbing as indicating a lack of faith, rather than a desire for tasty food. But instead of reassuring the people that their lives will be filled with meaning, God takes a punitive approach, and tells Moses:

To the people you shall say: Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow; then you will eat meat … Not for one day will you eat, nor for a couple of days, nor for five days, nor for ten days, nor for twenty days. Until a month of days, until it comes out of your nostrils and you are nauseated because of it! For you rejected God, who is in your midst … saying: Why did we leave Egypt for this? (Numbers 11:18-20)

I confess I am like the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion. My life is full of meaning and purpose right now, while my material needs are met and I spend my days drawing insights and inspirations from the Torah, and sharing my life with people I love. Yet there are empty times in my day, when I need to rest or alleviate chronic pain. At those times, anxiety about the future haunts me. What if my sense of purpose is not strong enough to carry my through old age, when I must face hardships and the deaths of people I love?

My first impulse, as these times, is to comfort myself by eating something tasty. Yet I know that if I eat too much, I will make myself sick in the long run. I would rather keep faith that God is with me, and my life will continue to be worthwhile no matter what happens.  But how can I do that?

The only solution I know is to refocus and cultivate gratitude for the good life I have now. Do you have another solution to the anxiety of the Israelite? Please comment!