Chukkat & Ecclesiastes: Accounting for Cheshbon

July 10, 2019 at 2:26 pm | Posted in Chukkat, Ecclesiastes/Kohelet | 1 Comment

Moses asks two foreign kings to let the Israelites cross through their land in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“decree of”).  Both refuse, even though Moses promises they will stay on the road, leave fields and vineyards untouched, and pay for any water they and their livestock drink.

Route of Israelites

The king of Edom says no and sends an army to the border to bar the way.1  Apparently he does not trust the Israelites, but he prefers not to attack them.  So the Israelites circle around Edom and continue north through the unpopulated wilderness east of Moab until they reach the Arnon River.  Then Moses sends the same message to King Sichon of Cheshbon.  Sichon also refuses to let the Israelites pass through, but he attacks them at his border.  The Israelites win and conquer Sichon’s land.

And Israel took all these towns, and Israel settled in all the towns of the Amorites, in Cheshbon and in all its daughter-villages.  For Cheshbon was the town of Sichon; a king of the Amorites he was, and he had battled against the first king of Moab, and he had taken all his land from his hand as far as the Arnon.  (Numbers 21:25-26)

Cheshbon (חֶשְׁבּוֹן) =

  1. a town about 14 miles (23 km) east of where the Jordan River enters the Dead Sea.
  2. accounting, reckoning. (From the root verb chashav, חָשַׁב = evaluate, consider, calculate, think out.)

After explaining that Sichon’s land used to be northern Moab, the Torah portion Chukkat quotes part of an Amorite poem celebrating Sichon’s earlier victory, translating it into Hebrew.

Route of Israelites

Therefore the epic poem says:

            “Come to Cheshbon!  It was built

            and firmly established, the town of Sichon.

            Because fire went out from Cheshbon;

            Flame from the city of Sichon.

            It consumed Ar of Moab,

            The local gods of the high places of Arnon …  (Numbers 21:27-28)

Ironically, this week’s Torah portion shows that Cheshbon is not firmly established as the town of Sichon, since the Israelites conquer it on their way to the Jordan River.

The image of fire going out of a town is often used in the Hebrew Bible for an army going out to battle, consuming enemy soldiers.  Since the Amorites spoke a Semitic language closely related to ancient Hebrew, it is not surprising that the two peoples employed the same metaphor.

Perhaps King Sichon decides to attack the Israelite travelers because his victory against Moab has convinced him that his people are stronger than anyone else.  Look at the fortified town they built!

Cheshbon contested

If Sichon cannot hang on to Cheshbon, however firmly built, can the Israelites do any better?

They go on to conquer the Amorite kingdom north of Cheshbon, then camp on the east side of the Jordan River while Moses delivers the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim.  After Joshua leads the conquest Canaan west of the Jordan, he assigns the land east of the river, now called Gilead, to the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menashe.  Gad gets the Cheshbon area.2

Gilead changes hands twice in the book of Judges, and is attacked a third time.  In one story, King Eglon of Moab captures the territory and holds it for 18 years until the Israelite hero Ehud brings him tribute, then assassinates him and escapes to lead the charge against the army of Moab.3

In another story, the king of Ammon (or possibly Moab) 4 makes war on Gilead for 18 years.5  The territory’s new hero, Yiftach (Jepthah in English), sends the king a message explaining that the Israelites took Gilead from Amorite kings, not from Ammon (or Moab).  He adds that even if the enemy did have a claim to the land,

When Israel dwelled in Cheshbon and her daughter-villages, and in Aroer and her daughter-villages, and in all the towns that are along the Arnon, for 300 years, then why did you not recover them during this time?  (Judges 11:26)

The king sends no reply.  Yiftach captures twenty towns and villages, and Gilead remains in the hands of Israelites.6

Gilead becomes part of David’s kingdom in the second book of Samuel.  His son Solomon assigns a governor to administer “the land of Gilead: the land of Sichon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of the Bashan.”  (1 Kings 4:19)

But after King Solomon’s death, Cheshbon and the rest of Gilead secede from Judah along with the territories of the other northern tribes.  They found the northern kingdom of Israel (also called Samaria), with Jereboam as its first king.7

When Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727 BC), king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, decided to conquer Israel, he started by capturing Gilead and deporting people in the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menasheh.8  The conquest of the northern kingdom continued under the next two Assyrian kings, with Sargon II capturing the capital city of Samaria in 722 BCE.

Israelites never ruled over Cheshbon again.

Taking account

The book of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet opens with the declaration that everything is futile, because nothing a human does can make a permanent change.  The same things happen over and over again, so there is nothing new under the sun.

by Auguste Rodin, 1886

Kohelet, the narrator, explores this idea at length, analyzing the activities of humankind.

Myself, I turned [it] around in my mind to know and to scout out and seek wisdom and cheshbon.  … See, this I found, said Kohelet, one by one finding a cheshbon.  I sought further in my soul … (Ecclesiastes 7:25, 7:27)

Only see this: I found that God made humankind upright, but they themselves sought many chishbonot.  (Ecclesiastes 7:27, 7:29)

chishvonot (חִשְּׁבֺנוֹת) = plans, inventions.  (Also from the root verb chashav.)

Here Kohelet states that humans are naturally good but they invent too much.  I suspect Kohelet means inventing reasons for doing what we want.  A true cheshbon, an inner accounting and reckoning, is the means to gaining self-knowledge and wisdom, which are good for their own sake.

Everything that you find you are able to go and do, do it!  Because there is no doing nor cheshbon nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol, where you are going.  (Ecclesiastes/Kohelet 9:10)

Sheol is where the spirits of the dead go.   Ecclesiastes affirms that after death no action or thought is possible; there is no afterlife in heaven or Gehenna.  You can only acquire wisdom by conducting a personal accounting while you are alive.

*

Today the place called Cheshbon is the site of an archaeological dig in Jordan.  But many Jews follow the mussar9 practice of Cheshbon Hanefesh (“Accounting of the Soul”), keeping a daily record of good and bad deeds in order to improve one’s behavior.

Cheshbon as a practice of self-examination is lasting longer than Cheshbon as a town fortified for war.

  1. Numbers 20:14-21.
  2. Joshua 22:36-37.
  3. Judges 3:12-30.
  4. Most modern scholars argue that the negotiations between Yiftach and the attacking king in Judges 11:12-28 came from another source. This explains why the two leaders discuss what happened after King Sichon took the land from Moab, and Yiftach refers to Kemosh, the god of Moab rather than Ammon.  The compiler of Judges inserted Ammon to make the story fit the battle between the Israelites of Gilead and the Ammonite army.  (Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Vol. 2, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2019)
  5. Judges 10:5.
  6. Judges 11:29-33. Also see my post Haftarat Chukkat—Judges: A Peculiar Vow.
  7. 1 Kings 12:1-24.
  8. 2 Kings 15:29.
  9. Mussar (מוּסַר), “moral instruction”, is a system of self-improvement developed in the 19th century CE from classic ethical texts dating back to the 11th century CE.

Devarim: In God We Trust?

July 19, 2018 at 2:28 pm | Posted in Chukkat, Devarim, Shelach-Lekha | 2 Comments

Jordan River

Why does Moses die on the wrong side of the Jordan River, where he can see but not enter God’s “promised land”?

The Torah offers two conflicting reasons—and a hidden clue.

Moses blames the fathers of the Israelites he is addressing in this week’s Torah portion, Devarim (“Words”—the first portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim).  He retells the story of the scouts who toured Canaan in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, 38 years before.  When ten out of the twelve returning scouts reported that the land was full of giants and well-fortified cities, the frightened Israelites refused to cross the border.1

Who told them to trust God?

Someone argued with them.  In the book of Numbers, Moses and Aaron fell on their faces but said nothing.  It was Caleb and Joshua, the two scouts who gave the minority report in favor of crossing the border, who reminded the people that God would fight for them.2  (See my post Shelach-Lekha: Too Late.)  But in this week’s Torah portion, Moses claims he was the one who argued with the Israelites.

And I said to you: “You should not be terrified of them, and you should not be overawed by them.  God, your God who walks before you, [God] will fight for you, like everything that [God] did for you in Egypt, before your eyes, and in the wilderness …  Yet in this matter you have no ma-aminim in God, your God.” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:29-32)

ma-aminim (מַאֲמִינִים) = relying upon, trusting, having faith; reliance upon, trust, faith.  (A participle from the same root as ne-eman (נֶאֱמַן) = trustworthy, reliable; and amen (אָמֵן).)

Moses might be excused for misremembering who told the Israelites they should trust God to help them.  He is, after all, 120 years old.3  The difference between the two stories of the scouts can also be explained by the theory that Numbers and Deuteronomy were written by different authors, in different centuries.4

Israelites march from southern to eastern border of Canaan

The result is the same in both accounts: despite hearing someone argue that they can rely on God to help them, the Israelites refuse to cross the border.  Then God decides the people must wait until 40 years after their exodus from Egypt before they get another chance to enter Canaan.  By that time, God says, all the men over 20 (i.e. the generation that refused to enter Canaan) will be dead—except for the two optimistic scouts, Caleb and Joshua.

But what about Moses and Aaron?  In the original story of the scouts, while Caleb and Joshua tell the people to trust God, they fall on their faces, waiting to hear God’s orders.  Surely they do not deserve the same fate as the rebellious Israelites.  And God’s first reaction implies that Moses will be spared.

And God said to Moses: “How long will this community treat me disrespectfully, and how long lo ya-aminu in me, despite all the signs that I have made in their midst?  I will strike them dead with the pestilence and disown them, and I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they!”  (Numbers 14:11-12)

lo ya-aminu (יַאֲמִינוּ) = will they not have faith?   lo = not + ya-aminu = they will have faith in,  trust, rely upon.  (Also from the same root as ne-eman and amen.)

At this point, God wants Moses to populate Canaan.  Moses talks God out of killing everyone but him, and God settles on the 40-year plan.

Both Numbers and Deuteronomy note that the first time the Israelites approach the border of Canaan, from Kadeish-Barnea to the south, there is a lack of faith or trust.  The men who refuse to cross do not believe God is ne-eman (reliable); when God gives an order, they do not say amen.

In both Numbers and Deuteronomy, God decrees that Moses and Aaron will also die without entering Canaan.  But the two books give different reasons for this decree.

Numbers: The talk at the rock

Moses Striking the Rock,
by James Tissot

The people set off from Kadeish-Barnea after Miriam’s death, and the first place they camp has no water.  God tells Moses and Aaron to take their staff and speak to the rock, and it will yield water.  They assemble the Israelites in front of the rock.  Then Moses says:

“Listen up, mutineers!  Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” (Numbers 20:10)

Moses makes it sound as if he and Aaron can get water from rock with no help from God.  Then he hits the rock with the staff, instead of speaking to it.  And water gushes out.  Aaron stands by, doing nothing to correct his brother Moses.  (See my post Chukkat: The Price of Silence.)

But God said to Moses and to Aaron: “Because lo he-emantam on me, [you were not] treating me as holy in the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”  (Numbers 20:12)

lo he-emantam (הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם) = you did not rely.   lo = not + he-emantam = you had faith, trusted, relied upon.  (Also from the same root as ne-eman and amen.)

The Israelites continue traveling east through the wilderness, and God says:

Let Aaron be gathered to his people, since he may not enter the land that I have given to the Israelites, because you [plural] mutinied against my word concerning the water… (Numbers 20:24)

Aaron dies on top of Mt. Hor, and his son Elazar takes over as high priest.5  Moses continues to lead the Israelites all the way to the Jordan River, but he knows he, too, will die without crossing it.

Deuteronomy: The blame is the same

The book of Deuteronomy mentions the episode of the water-bearing rock only near the end, when God tells Moses to climb Mount Nevo, where he will die, just as Aaron died on Mount Hor—

—because you both betrayed me in the midst of the Israelites at the water of Meribat-Kadeish in the wilderness of Tzin, because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the Israelites.  (Deuteronomy 32:51)

But in this week’s portion, Moses tells a different story.  He says God decreed that Caleb, Joshua, and everyone who was a child at the time would live to enter Canaan, but “these men of this bad generation” would die before the 40 years were up (Deuteronomy 1:35-39).

Also God felt angry against me on your account, saying: “Even you shall not enter there!”  (Deuteronomy 1:37)

When Moses says “on your account” he does not distinguish between the new generation of Israelites listening to his speech and the old, bad generation.  His book-length speech in Deuteronomy does not mention that the new generation did anything to offend God; but in Numbers, when the Israelites first camp on the east bank of the Jordan, they worship the local god, Ba-al Peor.  (See my post Balak: Carnal Appetites.)  Instead of reaffirming their reliance on God, the new adults act as if God is not enough for them.  Like their fathers, they fail when it comes to ma-aminim in God.

Moses implies that their failure to rely on God is the reason why God will not let him cross into Canaan before he dies.  Ramban6 wrote that Moses wanted to demonstrate that the whole community is responsible for and suffers from any lack of faith in God.  As the leader of all the Israelites, Moses had the most responsibility.

*

This week’s Torah portion, Devarim, implies that God decreed Moses’ death on the east bank of the Jordan because Moses had failed to instill enough ma-aminim in the Israelites by the time they reached the southern border of Canaan.

In the book of Numbers, God decreed Moses’ death on the east bank because he failed to instill enough ma-aminim in the Israelites when he neglected to give God credit for the water gushing from the rock.

The timing is different in these two explanations of God’s decree, but the underlying cause is the same.  And the Torah gives us the clue by repeatedly using the same verb when someone fails to rely on God.

At the burning bush, God chose Moses because no one else could serve as God’s prophet before Pharaoh and also hold the Israelites together no matter how long it took to get them to Canaan.  For more than 40 years, Moses devoted his whole strength to the nearly impossible job of transforming a huge and motley collection of ex-slaves and camp followers into a single people dedicated to a new religion.  When Moses addresses the survivors in Deuteronomy, they are finally unified, optimistic, and ready to cross into their promised land.7

But can they keep their faith in God?  Can they trust God, who over the years delivered punishments as well as miraculous rescues?  Can they rely upon their God, and no other?

Can any of us?

(An earlier version of this essay was published in July 2010.)

  1. Numbers 13:1-14:4. At that time the Israelites are camped on the southern border of Canaan, near Kadeish-Barnea.
  2. Numbers 14:5-10.
  3. Though when Moses does die at the end of Deuteronomy, the Torah says “…his eye had not clouded and his vigor had not waned.” (Deuteronomy 34:7)
  4. Modern scholars examine differences in vocabulary, syntax, and style to assign parts of the Torah to different (unknown) authors writing in different eras. Although they disagree about many details, most agree that the first 11 chapters of Deuteronomy were written during the reign of King Josiah of Judah in the 7th century B.C.E.  The story of the scouts in the book of Numbers appears to be a composite of several texts written during different centuries.
  5. Numbers 20:22-29. Aaron is older than his 120-year-old brother Moses, but the Torah insists that he dies in the wilderness because of disobedience, not old age.
  6. 13th-century Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, also called Nachmanides as well as the acronym RaMBaN.
  7. The Israelites cross the Jordan River, the northeastern border of Canaan, in Joshua 3:1-17.

Chukkat: Death and the Red Cow, Part 2

June 27, 2018 at 8:23 pm | Posted in Chukkat | 1 Comment

Life-blood.  Dead ash.  Living water.  These three elements are necessary for the ritual that brings someone back into the community after encountering a human corpse.  (See Chukkat: Death and the Red Cow, Part 1.)

Deathbed, by Gustav Klimt

The one who touches any dead human being shall be tamei [for] seven days.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 19:11)

If a human being dies in a tent, everyone who comes into the tent and everyone who is [already] in the tent shall be tamei [for] seven days.  (Numbers 19:14)

tamei (טָמֵא) = contaminated, ritually impure, in an unfit state for approaching God, not tahor.

tahor (טָהוֹר) = uncontaminated, ritually pure, in the correct state for approaching God, not tamei.

Anyone who is tamei is forbidden to enter the courtyard around the sanctuary, where the Israelites make offerings to God.  For a minor cause of tumah (טֻמְאָה, the state of being tamei), such as a seminal emission, one need only wash and wait until sunset to become tahor again.1  But if the tumah is due to exposure to a dead human body, the tamei person must be sprinkled with a specific mixture of ash and water on the third and seventh days after the exposure.

Then he shall clean his clothing and wash in water, and he shall be tahor at sunset.  (Numbers 19:19)

At that point he or she can rejoin the community in worship.2  Meanwhile, the man who does the sprinkling becomes tamei by that very act.

And the one who sprinkles … he shall clean his clothing … and whoever touches the water … shall be tamei until sunset.  (Numbers 19:21)

What is this liquid that makes the tamei tahor and the tahor tamei?

From blood to ash to water

The process for making the ash that goes into the sprinkling water begins with the color of blood:

“Speak to the Israelites, and they shall bring to you a cow [that is] perfectly adumah, that has no blemish, that has not had a yoke upon her.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 19:2)

adumah (אֲדֻמָּה) = red-brown, blood-colored.  (feminine of adom, אַדֺם.  From the same root as dam, דָּם = blood; adam,אָדָם  = humankind; and adamah,אֲדָמָה  = earth, dirt, ground.)

The blood of an animal slaughtered at the altar is sacred, reserved for splashing on the altar or inside the sanctuary.  But the blood of any other animal still belongs to God, because blood is its  life.  “The blood of any flesh you shall not eat, because the life of all flesh is its blood.”  (Leviticus 17:14)3  Thus the blood-red cow is the color of life.

And you shall give her [the cow] to Elazar the priest, and he shall take her outside the camp and [a man] shall slaughter her in front of him.  And Elazar the priest shall take some of her blood with his finger and flick some of her blood toward the front of the Tent of Meeting seven times.  (Numbers 19:3-4)

We do not know the original purpose of flicking the blood toward the tent-sanctuary.  At the very least, the gesture emphasizes the connection between life and God.

Then [the man] shall burn the cow before his eyes; he shall burn her hide and her flesh and her blood over her intestinal contents.  And the priest shall take cedar wood and oregano and crimson yarn, and throw them down on the burning cow.  (Numbers 19:3-6)

The rest of the cow’s blood is burned along with the whole cow, the reddish wood of an evergreen tree, some yarn dyed bright red with shield-louse eggs—and oregano.

The oregano (a tall Syrian variety, origanum maru, traditionally but inaccurately translated as “hyssop”) is an aromatic herb used elsewhere in the Torah for ritual splashing and sprinkling with blood.4  All three of the items tossed on the burning cow are associated with blood, and therefore with life.

And a tahor man shall gather the afar of the cow and save them outside the camp in a tahor place.  (Numbers 19:9)

afar (עָפָר) = ash, dust.

Afar is a symbol of both birth and death.  God shapes the first human out of afar from the adamah (dust from the earth) and breathes life into it.5  Later, God tells Adam:

Afar you are, and to afar you will return.  (Genesis 3:19)

Thus the ash from the red cow signifies the border between life and non-existence, the border crossed by both birth and death.

When a person has become tamei by touching or being under the same roof as a dead human body, some of the ash from the ritual burning of a red cow is stirred into a vessel of “living water” or “water of life” (מַיִם חַיִּים): water from a naturally flowing source.6  This mixture is  sprinkled on the tamei person.

Thus the antidote for exposure to death follows a progression from the life-blood of the red cow (enhanced by other items evoking blood), to the ash of its death, to the living water.

From tahor to tamei to tahor

Humans who make or use the ash of the red cow also go through a three-stage progression in the Torah portion Chukkat.  They must be tahor to begin their work.  They become tamei during the work, and then return to a tahor state.

After the red cow has burned down to ash,

Then the priest shall clean his clothing and wash his flesh in water, and afterward he may come into the camp; but the priest will be tamei until sunset.  And the one burning her shall clean his clothing in water and wash his flesh in water, and he shall be tamei until sunset.  And a tahor man shall gather the ash of the cow and save it outside the camp in a tahor place …  And the gatherer of the ash of the cow shall clean his clothing, and he shall be tamei until sunset.   (Numbers/Bemidbar 19:7-8)

All three men must wash and wait until sunset before they are tahor again.

The Torah warns priests to be meticulous about avoiding tumah as much as possible, even if it means staying away from their own family members who die.7  After all, they must serve God both in the courtyard and inside the sanctuary, and all tamei persons are prohibited from entering the area.

Nevertheless, at least one, and possibly three, priests8 must become tamei until sunset on the day they burn the red cow—so that those who come close to the dead can become tahor again.

Similarly, the man who sprinkles the mixture of the ash and living water makes someone exposed to a dead human tahor again, but he becomes tamei just by touching the mixture.9

Chukkat hints that people who are exposed to the dead become tamei, unfit for communal worship, because they are in an altered state of consciousness.  (See Death and the Red Cow, Part 1, for my own experience.)  Perhaps sprinkling them with the mixture of ash and living water helps them to integrate their experiences of death and life.  After seven days, including two sprinklings, they might reach a tahor state of mind.

Then why does everyone involved in the creation or application of the red cow’s ash become tamei?   I suspect the ash is so spiritually powerful (or that what it represents is so psychologically powerful) that exposure to it causes a lesser version of the altered state of consciousness in someone exposed to a human corpse.  The ash-makers and the sprinkler need not be sprinkled or wait for seven days themselves, but they must still do some ritual washing and take the rest of the day off before they are once more in the correct frame of mind to engage in the ordinary religious life of the Israelites.

*

Today when we are in an altered state because we have witnessed death, we have a few mourning rituals to help us.  But although Jewish tradition calls for “sitting shiva” at home for seven days after the burial, we have nothing as dramatic as the ritual with the ashes of the red cow to snap us back into a state in which we are psychologically ready to participate in life with our community.  We can only wait for the shadow of death to slowly pass by.

May we be patient with ourselves, and with others, while we wait.

  1. Leviticus 15:16-18.
  2. Contamination through touch, and washing to eliminate the contamination, remind modern readers of the germ theory of disease, which was first proposed in the 16th century C.E. and generally accepted by the end of the 19th The ancient Israelites, however, were only concerned about an abstract state of fitness for worshiping God.  They considered physical diseases either mysteries, or punishments inflicted by God, which could be avoided only through prayer, not through quarantine or washing.
  3. Later in the Torah, the people are given permission to slaughter and eat kosher livestock in their villages if God’s altar is too far away. Moses urges the Israelites: “Only be strong, so as not to eat the blood, because the blood is the life…”  (Deuteronomy 12:23)
  4. The Israelites use this oregano (eizov, אֵזוֹב) to paint blood on the doorposts and lintels of their houses in Exodus 12:22, so the plague of the death of the firstborn would pass over them. Priests sprinkle blood using oregano branches in Leviticus 14:1-7 and 14:49-52 in order to convert both people and houses stricken with the disease of tzara-at from tamei to tahor.
  5. Genesis 2:7.
  6. Numbers 19:17. “Living water” includes water from a spring, a river, or a well; it excludes salt water or water from a cistern.
  7. Leviticus 21:1-4, 21:11.
  8. Leviticus 22:1-9.
  9. Numbers 19:21, translated above.

Chukkat: Death and the Red Cow, Part 1

June 21, 2018 at 3:56 pm | Posted in Chukkat | 3 Comments

This is the chukkah of the teaching that God has commanded, saying: “Speak to the Israelites, and they shall bring to you a cow [that is] perfectly red, that has no blemish, that has not had a yoke upon her.”  (Numbers 19:2)

chukkah (חֻקַּה) = decree, edict, prescription, obligation.  (Also chok, חֺק.)

This week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“chukkah of”), opens by prescribing a unique ritual for those who have touched a human corpse, uncovered a grave, or been under the same roof as a corpse.  The essential ingredient for this ritual is ash saved from burning a perfect red cow that has never been yoked.  (See next week’s post, Chukkat: Death and the Red Cow, Part 2, for the details about how, where, and with what the cow is slaughtered and burned.)

The red cow’s ash is mixed into water whenever it is needed to decontaminate someone who has been exposed to a dead human body.

One who touches a corpse of any human being shall be tamei for seven days.  He must compensate for himself on the third day and the seventh day; [then] he shall be tahor.  If he does not compensate for himself on the third day and the seventh day, he shall not become tahor. (Numbers 19:11-12)

tamei (טָמֵא) = ritually impure, in an unfit state for approaching God; not pure, contaminated.

tahor (טָהוֹר) = ritually pure, in the correct state for approaching God; pure, clean, uncontaminated.

Until tamei people have become tahor, they are prohibited from entering the courtyard around the sanctuary, and thus excluded from the religious life of the community.1

People who are tamei because they touched something else tamei, or had a genital discharge,  can become tahor by washing in water and/or waiting until evening.  A longer waiting period is required for a woman tamei because of childbirth, and an extra ritual is required for a person who has recovered from a skin disease.2  But people who are tamei because of a human corpse can only become tahor through the unique ritual described in the Torah portion Chukkat.

And they shall take for the tamei [person] some ash from the burning of the compensation-offering, and [a man] shall place it in living water in a vessel.  (Numbers 19:17)

A small amount of ash saved from the burning of the red cow is mixed into “living water”—water collected from a naturally flowing source rather than a well or cistern—and sprinkled on the tamei person. The same ritual is required whether someone stumbles upon an old unknown grave, or sits by the bedside of a dying family member.

Why is the mixture of red cow ash and living water the antidote to touching or being under the same roof as a human corpse?

An Inexplicable Decree

By the 12th century C.E., some rabbis were citing the ritual of the red cow as a prime example of a God-given law that humans cannot understand rationally, but must merely accept.3

“Rabbi Yosei son of Rabbi Chanina said: ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: To you I am revealing the reason for the cow, but for others it is a chukkah…’” (Numbers Rabbah 19:6)

Allegory

Gold calf from Byblos

Other rabbis, including Rashi and Bachya ben Asher4, explained the chukkah of the red cow with a parable:  Just as a mother cleans up after her son makes a mess, the red cow corrects the sin of the golden calf.  Moses burned the golden calf, ground it into powder, added water, and made the Israelites drink it5—in order to purify them after they had defiled themselves by worshiping an idol, according to Rashi.  Similarly, the red cow is burned down to ash, water is added, and Israelites are sprinkled with it—in order to be purified after they have become defiled by proximity to a human corpse.

Rashi added that the cow must be red because sin is described as red.6  Its perfection is “an allusion to the Israelites, who were perfect, but became blemished. Let this come and atone for them so that they regain their perfection.”  The absence of a yoke reminds us that the Israelites cast off the yoke of Heaven.  The priest supervising the burning of the red cow is Elazar, not Aaron, because Aaron made the golden calf.

Psychology

On a psychological level, the ritual of the red cow’s ash might carry another meaning.

What happens when you watch a human being die?  I remember my father’s death at age 87, in the nursing facility where he went after the hospital could do no more for him.  One day he no longer spoke, no longer opened his eyes—but when I held his hand and talked to him, he smiled.  The next morning he did not respond, and his breath rasped.  When I came back that afternoon, there was no breath.  His body looked the same, and when I touched his face it was still warm.  But my father was gone.

I had to go through all the business that must be done when someone dies.  I spoke calmly with my stepmother, my sister, my husband, and the employees at the nursing facility, exchanging information and making practical plans.  I returned to the motel and ate and recited prayers and slept and woke up and went through another day.  And all the time I was conscious of myself as a single point in a dim and vast universe.  I was in an altered state.

I did not feel more distant from God; if anything, I was more in awe of the divine mystery.  But I did feel distant from ordinary human company.  I finally understood the Jewish custom of “sitting shiva”, not leaving the house for seven days after a close family member dies.  I wished I could seclude myself.  When I got home and I was finally able to go to a service and say kaddish for my father, I slipped out quietly afterward because I could not bear to enter a room full of chattering friends eager to express their sympathy.  I was unfit to join my community in the courtyard.  Gradually I became tahor again, through the passage of time.

According to the Torah, we must not stay in the altered state of immediate knowledge of death.  To become whole and tahor human beings, we must integrate life and death.

In next week’s post, Chukkat: Death and the Red Cow, Part 2, I will consider how other details in the red cow ritual describe how human consciousness can change as we focus on life, then on death, and finally on integrating the two states of mind.

  1. Numbers 19:13.
  2. Leviticus 12:1-5 addresses becoming tahor after childbirth. Leviticus 14:1-7 describes the ritual for a human to become tahor after recovery from the skin disease tzara-at.
  3. Also see Numbers Rabbah 19:8; Maimonides (12th-century rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), Mishneh Torah, Trespass 8; Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, Torah Commentary, first published in 1492; and Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Bamidbar, translated by E.S. Maser, Mesorah Publications, 1993, p. 220-222.
  4. Rashi is the acronym for the French 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki. Rabbi Bachya ben Asher wrote circa 1300 C.E. in Spain.
  5. Exodus 32:20.
  6. If your sins are like crimson, they can turn white as snow … (Isaiah 1:18)

 

Chukkat: The Price of Silence

June 28, 2017 at 1:20 pm | Posted in Chukkat | 1 Comment
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Miriam dies while the Israelites are camped in the wilderness of Tzin in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (Law). Then the people complain, once again, that Moses brought them from Egypt into the wilderness only so they and their livestock would die of hunger and thirst.1 Moses and Aaron both throw themselves on their faces. (See last week’s post, Korach: Face Down.)

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Take the staff and assemble the community, you and your brother Aaron. Vedibartem to the rock, before their eyes, and it will give its water.  Vehotzeita for them water from the rock, vehishkita the community and their livestock.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:7-8)

vedibartem (וְדִבַּרְתֶּם) = and you (plural) shall speak (i.e. both Moses and Aaron shall speak).

vehotzeita (וְהוֹצֵאתָ) = and you (singular) shall bring forth (i.e. Moses shall bring forth).

vehishkita (וְהִשְׁקִיתָ) = and you (singular) shall provide drink to.

Moses Strikes the Rock,
by James Tissot

God apparently wants Moses and Aaron to use the staff only to assemble the community, not to trigger the miracle—unlike 39 years before, when God told Moses to bring water from a rock by striking it with his staff. 2

Once the people are assembled, (both) Moses and Aaron are supposed to speak to the rock. As a result, Moses (alone) will bring forth water. Did a careless scribe mix up the plural and singular verb suffixes? Or is God making a deliberate distinction between what both brothers should do and what only Moses is responsible for?

And Moses took the staff from in front of God, as [God] had commanded him. (Numbers 20:9)

Only Moses takes the staff “from in front of God”, i.e. out of the Tent of Meeting.  This is the staff with Aaron’s name written on it. In the previous Torah portion, Korach, the leader of each tribe lends his staff to Moses, who writes the leader’s name on it. 3  Moses leaves the twelve staffs in the Tent of Meeting overnight (Numbers 17:17-21). In the morning, Aaron’s staff has bloomed and produced almonds, proving that God has chosen him (Numbers 17:22-23). (See my post Korach: Early and Late Bloomers.)

Moses returns the unaltered staffs to the tribe leaders, but follows God’s instructions to put Aaron’s staff back in the Tent as a sign for the “children of mutineers”—the next generation. (Numbers 17:25). Showing the complainers this staff would remind them that God gave authority to the tribe of Levi, whose leaders are Aaron and Moses.

And Moses and Aaron assembled the assembly in front of the rock, and he said to them: “Listen up, mutineers!  Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” (Numbers 20:10)

Moses brings out the staff, but both Moses and Aaron assemble the Israelites, as instructed. Next both Moses and Aaron are supposed to speak to the rock. Instead, Moses speaks to the Israelites. Losing his patience, he implies that he and Aaron have the power to bring water out of the rock. He does not mention God.

Moses Striking the Rock,
by Marc Chagall

And Moses raised his hand and he struck the rock twice with his staff.  And abundant water came forth, and the community and their livestock drank. (Numbers 20:11)

Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses hits it with the staff—just as he did at another waterless camp 39 years earlier, following God’s directions.4  Now God has changed the directions, but Moses does what worked last time. The Torah now says it is his staff.

Why does the miracle occur anyway? Maybe the staff retains some power from its miraculous blossoming in the Torah portion Korach. 12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra suggested that Moses has become able to do small miracles by himself. Or maybe God is covering for Moses, so the people will continue to follow him.

But will the people follow Moses because he is God’s prophet, or because they believe he has power of his own? Even though God let the miracle proceed, God is not amused.

And God said to Moses and to Aaron: “Because lo he-emantem in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Israelites, therefore lo taviyu this assembly to the land that I have given to them.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:12)

lo he-emantem (לֺא הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם) = you (plural) did not believe, have faith, put trust.

lo taviyu (לֺא תָבִיאוּ) = you (plural) shall not lead.

Only Moses hits the rock, yet God accuses both men of failing to trust God and therefore failing to increase the Israelites’ awe of God. So God decrees the same punishment for both Moses and Aaron.

Commentators have generated many different reasons why God decides to punish Moses. (David Kasher presented 18 of them in his ParshaNut post on Chukkat in 2015.)  But why does God also punish Aaron?

Here is what we know about Aaron’s actions during this episode:

1) When the Israelites complain, both Moses and Aaron throw themselves on their faces. Although God addresses Moses, commentators assume that Aaron also heard God’s instructions.

2) After Moses brings the staff with Aaron’s name on it out of the Tent of Meeting, both Moses and Aaron assemble the people in front of the rock, as instructed.

3) Aaron stands by silently as Moses says: “Listen up, mutineers!  Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Unlike Moses, Aaron does not lose his temper. He does not say that he and Moses will make a miracle. On the other hand, he fails to mention God’s name after Moses omits it.

4) Aaron watches silently while Moses strikes the rock twice with Aaron’s staff. He does not try to stop Moses. He does not speak to the rock himself, even though God asked him, as well as Moses, to do so.

Apparently God blames him for his silence and inaction.  God refrained from punishing Aaron after he made the Golden Calf 5, but now God punishes him for doing nothing.

God announces Aaron’s immanent death later in this week’s Torah portion:

God said to Moses and to Aaron at Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom: “Aaron will be gathered to his people [here]; for he will not come into the land that I have given to the Israelites, because meritem My word concerning the water at Merivah.”  (Numbers 20:23-24)

meritem (מְרִיתֶם) = you (plural) mutinied against, rebelled against. (A form of the word that Moses called the Israelites: morim, מֺרִים = mutineers, rebels.)

Moses mutinies through his speech to the Israelites and through his action in hitting the rock.  Aaron mutinies through silence and inaction.

Who can blame Aaron for letting the great prophet Moses take the lead, as usual, and making no effort to correct him?

God can, and does.

In my own life, I often wonder when to speak up and when to be silent. Writing a letter to your congressman is not like sitting next to a person in authority who is doing the wrong thing—perhaps while holding a staff with your name on it.  This Torah portion demonstrates that if you know what is right, then you must speak up, or you are equally guilty.

But how and when to speak is seldom clear.

May all of us be blessed with the ability to know when the situation is so urgent and important we must speak immediately, in public; when it is better to wait and speak in private or at another time; and when it is better to be silent.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in June, 2010.)

1  When the Israelites camp at Refidim, between the Reed Sea and Mount Sinai, they complain that there is no water, and that Moses brought them from Egypt into the wilderness only so they and their livestock would die of thirst (Exodus/Shemot 17:1-3).

2 At Refidim, when the Israelites complain about the lack of water, God tells Moses to hit a rock, using “your staff with which you struck the Nile” (Exodus 17:5). This is also the staff God uses to perform a demonstration miracle at the burning bush (Exodus 4:2-4), and both Moses and Aaron use to trigger God’s miracles in Egypt (Exodus 7:9-10:13) and the parting of the Reed Sea (Exodus 14:16).

After everyone drinks the water from the rock at Refidim, the people name the spot Massah-u-Merivah, “Trial and Strife” (Exodus 17:7). In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, God identifies the new spot where Moses hits the rock as Merivah, “strife” (Numbers 20:13, 20:24).

3  After Refidim (Exodus 17:5), no staff is mentioned until the Torah portion Korach. The Torah does not say whether Aaron’s staff in the portion Korach is the same as the staff both brothers used in the book of Exodus.

4  Exodus 17:6.

5  Exodus 32:1-6.

 

Korach: Face Down

June 21, 2017 at 11:29 am | Posted in Chukkat, Korach, Shelach-Lekha | 5 Comments
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Moses falls on his face three times in this week’s Torah portion, Korach—and each time, he does it on purpose.

The Torah portion begins with a Levite named Korach challenging his cousins Moses and Aaron. Standing with him are three rebels from the tribe of Reuben and 250 prestigious men (described first as chieftains, then as Levites for the rest of the story).

And they assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and they said to them: “You have too much! Because all the congregation, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves over the assembly of God?” Moses listened. Vayipol on his face. (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:3-4)

Vayipol (ו־יּפֺּל) = Then he fell (by accident or on purpose), then he threw himself down.

Why does Moses suddenly drop to the ground, face down?

*

Bowing to Hamaan

The Hebrew Bible refers to prostration in two ways: nofeil al panav (נֺפֵל עַל פָּנָיו, falling on one’s face) and mishtachaveh (מִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה, bowing low). Mishtachaveh could be to anything from a deep standing bow, to kneeling and putting one’s forehead to the floor, to stretching out full length. It is a formal and deliberate act in the Torah, signifying deference, obeisance, or worship. Extrabiblical sources confirm that mishtachaveh was required before kings and other persons of authority in ancient Egyptian and Persian courts. In the Bible, Joseph’s brothers bow down to Joseph when he is an Egyptian viceroy,1 and when Hamaan is the Persian viceroy all the king’s employees except Mordecai bow down to him.2

Falling on one’s face, or throwing oneself down onto one’s face, is a more dramatic prostration. People fall on their faces 27 times in Hebrew Bible3:

—7 times before another person, as an expression of submission4,

—11 times before a manifestation of God, from being overcome with awe5, and

—9 times in order to initiate communication with God.6

Only Abraham, Joshua, Ezekiel (twice), and Moses (once by himself and four times with Aaron) are brave enough to initiate communication with God. They want God to speak to them directly and answer their question and/or tell them what to do next. To grab God’s attention, they have to do something more dramatic than a formal prostration.

Moses first falls on his face in last week’s portion, Shelach-Lekha. The Israelites have been weeping all night in despair of taking over Canaan, and they decide to choose a new leader and go back to Egypt. In the morning,

Vayipol, Moses and Aaron, on their faces in front of the whole assembly of the community of Israelites. (Numbers 14:5)

Stoning, from a sketch by Piola Domenico, 17th century

Some commentators7 propose that Moses and Aaron are prostrating themselves to the Israelites as a silent gesture pleading for them to change their minds. I cannot agree. Moses may be humble, but nowhere else in the bible does someone in authority bow down or fall on his face to someone under his own supervision. It is Joshua and Caleb who use a silent gesture to plead with the Israelites, tearing their clothes as mourners do. Then Joshua and Caleb try verbal persuasion, while Moses and Aaron remain silent. I believe Moses and Aaron fling themselves down and wait for God to respond. God finally manifests just in time to stop the Israelites from stoning Joshua and Caleb.

*

Moses gets a faster response when he throws himself on his face at the opening of this week’s Torah portion. Although God’s words are not recorded, God apparently tells Moses what to do about Korach’s challenge, because Moses then tells Korach and his men there will be a divine test.

“Do this: Take for yourselves fire-pans, Korach and all his company. And you shall place embers in them, and put incense on them, in front of God tomorrow. And the man who, God chooses, he is the holy one.” (Numbers 16:6-7)

The next morning, when Korach and his 250 Levites arrive at the Tent of Meeting with their fire-pans and incense, God tells Moses and Aaron to stand at a safe distance while God annihilates the challengers. This time Moses and Aaron fall on their faces in order to get God to listen to them.

Vayiplu [Moses and Aaron] on their faces, and they said: “God, God of the spirits of all flesh, one man is guilty, and you rage against the whole community? (Numbers 16:22)

Vayiplu (וַיִּפְּלוּ) = and they fell, and they threw themselves down. (Another form of the verb nafal, נָפַל.)

The action suddenly shifts to where three ringleaders—the Ruevenites Datan and Aviram, and the Levite Korach—are standing defiantly at the entrances of their own tents. God instructs Moses to tell everyone to stand back from the three tents. Then God makes the earth swallow the tents, the three ringleaders, and their families.

In a thoroughly edited story8, the reader might now expect God to respond to Moses and Aaron’s plea by pardoning the 250 Levites who had stood with Korach. Instead, the action hops back to the story of the Levite rebellion:

And fire went out from God and it consumed the 250 men offering the incense. (Numbers 16:35)

The next day all the Israelites protest against Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the death of 253 people.

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Get up away from the midst of this community, and I will consume them in an instant.”  Vayiplu on their faces.  Then Moses said to Aaron: “Take the incense pan and place fire on it from the altar, and put in incense, and go quickly to the community and atone for them, because the rage has gone out from before God.  The affliction has begun.”  (Numbers 17:9-11)

Instead of following God’s order and running away, Moses and Aaron throw themselves down on their faces. This time they catch God in the middle of slaughtering the Israelites with a fast-acting disease. But Moses finds out how to stop the epidemic, and Aaron’s incense does the trick. If they had not fallen on their faces, perhaps God would have wiped out everyone.

Moses and Aaron fall on their faces one more time, in next week’s Torah portion, Chukkat. The Israelites are complaining that there is no water to drink.

And Moses and Aaron moved from facing the assembly to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, vayiplu on their faces, and the glory of God appeared. (Numbers 20:6)

They get God’s attention, and God gives Moses instructions for getting water from a rock.

*

Thus Moses throws himself down on his face both to ask God for instructions, and to persuade God to do something different.  Falling on his face gets God’s attention and indicates humility before God. But it also means dropping his own pride and external identity—losing face, in a way. This helps Moses to reopen communication with God.

Today worshipers in many religions use gestures of humility in prayer such as bowing or kneeling, and some even perform prostrations.  But these gestures fall short of the passionate abandon of flinging oneself face-down.

Would falling on our faces help us to get answers from God?

(An earlier version of this essay was published in June 2010.)

1  Genesis 42:6, 43:26, 43:28.

2  Esther 3:2.

3  There are also two occasions when an idol of the Philistine god Dagon falls on its face. The Philisties of Ashdod capture the ark of the God of Israel and put it in their temple of Dagon. For two mornings in a row, when they enter the temple, they discover: Hey! Dagon nofeil (נֺפֵל = is fallen) to his face to the ground before the ark of God! (1 Samuel 5:3, 5:4).

4  People fall on their faces to express submission to David in 1 Samuel 17:49 and 25:23; and 2 Samuel 9:6, 14:22, and 14:33.  The lesser prophet Ovadiah falls on his face before Elijah in surprise and obeisance in 1 Kings 18:7.  Ruth falls on her face before her benefactor Boaz in Ruth 2:10.

5  People fall on their faces before a manifestation of God as a vision (Ezekiel 1:28, 3:23, 43:3, and 44:4; Daniel 8:17; and 1 Chronicles 21:16), a supernatural fire (Leviticus 9:24, I Kings 18:39), or a man who turns out to be an angel (Joshua 5:14, Judges 13:20). In 2 Chronicles 20:18, the people throw themselves on their faces before God after someone utters an unexpected prophecy.

6  Abraham only falls on his face before God once; the result is that God speaks again and gives him further information (Genesis 17:3). Joshua and the elders of Israel fall face down in front of the ark in order to get God to speak to them (Joshua 7:10). Twice, in his visions, Ezekiel throws himself on his face before speaking to God (Ezekiel 9:8, 11:13).

7  E.g. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 750, and Ramban (the acronym for 13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a.k.a. Nachmanides).

8  The text provides two different responses from God because this Torah portion combines two original stories: one about a rebellion by two or three leaders in the tribe of Reuben, and one about a challenge from Korach on behalf of all Levites, who take care of the Tent of Meeting but are excluded from serving as priests.

 

Haftarot for Rosh Hashanah & Shabbat Shuvah—1 Samuel & Hosea:  From Smoke to Words

October 6, 2016 at 11:36 am | Posted in Chukkat, Hosea, Rosh Hashanah, Samuel 1 | Leave a comment
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Almost 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). But the Torah portion this week is Vayeilekh (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:1-30), and it is not assigned a haftarah of its own.

Nevertheless, this week is especially rich in haftarot (plural of “haftarah”) because it includes the two days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) and Shabbat Shuvah, the “Sabbath of Return” to God—all before we dive into Yom Kippur (the “Day of Atonement”) next week.

The haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10.  The reading for the second day is Jeremiah 31:2-20.  And the haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah this Saturday is Hosea 14:2-10. Perhaps it is no accident that during this time of intense prayer from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, two of these three haftarot show that praying with words is better than slaughtering an animal and burning it up into smoke for God.

Prayer is not a dialogue with God, although persons in the Hebrew Bible from Adam to the prophet Malachi do talk with God and hear God’s responses in words—in fact in complete sentences. Sometimes prophets report what God said; other passages are like conversations between two human beings of different rank and power.

first-temple-altarPrayer is more like smoke; it rises up toward God, but God does not answer in words.

Besides having many conversations with God, Moses also prays on behalf of the Israelites when they are traveling through the wilderness south of Edom, 40 years after their exodus from Egypt.  The Israelites complain again about their diet of manna, and God sends poisonous snakes.

Then the people came to Moses and they said: We did wrong when we spoke against God and against you. Hitpalleil to God so He will clear away from us the snakes!  Vayitpalleil, Moses, on behalf of the people. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:7)

Hitpalleil (הִתְפַּלֵּל) = Pray!  (Probably from the same root as pilleil  = reassess. Prayer may be asking for a reassessment from God.)

Vayitpalleil (וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל) = And he prayed.

Here the Israelites confess their misdeed, but they do not believe they can pray to God directly, so they ask Moses, God’s prophet, to do it for them.

Temple altar

Temple altar

Smoke, not spoken prayer, is the primary way to worship God in the first seven books of the Bible. If you want to bring God your devotion, you slaughter an animal and burn up part or all of it on an altar, turning it into smoke. God appreciates the smell of the smoke.  (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.)

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra lays out five categories of offerings burned up into smoke, and each one was transformed into a type of prayer.

1) olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering, to maintain the relationship between the worshiper and God. This became liturgy, written prayers to read, recite, or sing at specific times and occasions.

2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering, to show homage or respect.  This corresponds to prayers of praise.

3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering, to thank God or to express devotion. This corresponds to prayers of thanksgiving.

4) chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering, to fix an unintentional transgression against one of God’s laws; and 5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering, to atone for an intentional wrong (after making amends with the human whom you wronged).  Instead of these two animal offerings, we have prayers of confession asking for God’s forgiveness.

(For more on these smoke offerings, see my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.)

A additional type of prayer in the Bible is the petitionary prayer, in which we ask God to do us a favor. This category includes intercessory prayer, in which a prophet or someone else who is known to be on speaking terms with God utters a petitionary prayer on behalf of a community.

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, any male head of a household can worship God by building an altar and turning an animal into smoke on it.  Gradually this right is restricted in the Hebrew Bible, until animal offerings can only be made at the temple in Jerusalem and under the supervision of priests. Meanwhile, the tradition of individual prayer expands until anyone can do it, and God will hear.

The first prayer in the Bible is an intercessory prayer.  King Avimelekh takes Sarah into his household thinking she is Abraham’s sister, not his wife.  God responds by afflicting the king and all his women with a disease.  Then in a dream, God tells Avimelekh: And now restore the wife to the husband, because he is a prophet vayitpalleil on your behalf, and you will live. But if you do no restoring, know that you will certainly die, you and all that are yours. (Genesis/Bereishit 20:7)

After the king gives Avraham his wife Sarah along with some gifts, Avraham does pray, and God removes the disease.

Intercessory prayers continue to be mentioned in the Bible, including Moses’ prayer regarding the poisonous snakes.  But not until the first book of Samuel, in the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, does someone who has never conversed with God pray for her own sake. On her own initiative, Channah, who has been childless for many years, walks up to the doorway of the temple in Shiloh and prays for a son.

Channah praying from etching by Marc Chagall

Channah praying
from etching by
Marc Chagall

And she was bitter of spirit, vatitpalleil to God, and she wept continually. And she vowed a vow, and she said: God of Armies, if You really see the wretchedness of Your maidservant and You remember me and do not forget Your maidservant, and You give to Your maidservant a seed of men, then I will give him to God for all the days of his life…  (1 Samuel 1:10-11)

vatitpalleil (וַתִּתְפַּלֵּל) = and she prayed.

God does not answer Channah in words, but she does have a son (a “seed of men”), and she brings him to the temple in Shiloh once he is weaned. There she and her husband sacrifice a bull, following the established ritual, then give him to the priest so the boy can serve as an attendant at the temple. (Channah’s son, Samuel (Shmu-eil), later becomes a prophet and a judge of Israel.)

…and they bowed down there to God.  Vatitpalleil, Channah, and she said:

            My heart rejoices in God…

            There is no holy one like God,

            Because there are none except for You. (1 Samuel 2:1-2)

Channah continues with a long psalm praising God’s power. This time her prayer is not petitionary, but a prayer of praise, like a minchah offering.

This Saturday, on Shabbat Shuvah, we read in the book of Hosea:

            Shuvah, Israel, all the way to God, your god,

            For you have stumbled, through your wrongdoing.

            Take devarim with you

            And shuvu to God.

            Say to [God]:

            May You forgive all wrongdoing

            And take the good.

            And we will make amends of the bulls

            Of our lips.  (Hosea 14:2-3)

Shuvah (שׁוּבָה) = Return! (singular, addressing Israel)

shuvu (שׁוּבוּ) =  Return! (plural, addressing the people)

devarim (דְּבָרִים) = words; events, affairs.

Hosea asks the Israelites to make amends and return to God not by slaughtering bulls and burning them on an altar for God, but through the words of their lips, praying for God to forgive them. Instead of the smoke from a chataat or an asham offering, God wants people to return and atone with spoken prayer.

*

As we approach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the haftarah from 1 Samuel reminds us of the power of individual heartfelt prayer, and the haftarah from Hosea reminds us to return—shuvah!—to God through prayer.

A priest cuts the animal’s throat, blood gushes, smoke roils up into the sky—that kind of worship was sure to have an emotional impact.  But even if someone brought the animal for an asham offering to atone for his own misdeed, or even if the high priest was killing the goat for God on Yom Kippur, people watched the show from a distance.

Channah worked harder, pulling out her own words to plead with God.  Hosea asks us to work harder, bringing our own personal words of confession to God, and returning to the holy one by praying for forgiveness.

It is possible to mouth formulaic prayers without thinking about them. But I believe it is better for our souls if we plumb our own depths, find our own words to bring to God, and do the work.

 

Haftarat Chukkat—Judges: A Peculiar Vow

July 12, 2016 at 11:45 am | Posted in Chukkat, Judges | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Chukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1) and the haftarah is Judges 11:1-33.
Yiftach by Guillaume Rouille

Yiftach
by Guillaume Rouille

Why would a man who is clear-headed, cool, and careful with words suddenly make a vow that threatens his only child?

The haftarah from Judges introduces Yiftach as a man who is an outcast through no fault of his own.

Yiftach of Gilad was a capable warrior, and he was the son of a prostitute, and he was begotten by Gilad. Then the wife of Gilad bore him sons, and the sons of his wife grew up and they drove out Yiftach. They said to him: “You shall not inherit in our father’s household, because you are the son of another woman.” So Yiftach fled from his brothers, and he settled in the land of Tov, and men without means gathered around Yiftach and went out with him. (Judges 11:1-3)

Yiftach (יִפְתָּח) = he opened.  “Jephthah” in English translations.

Grassland in Gilad (now in west Jordan)

Grassland in west Gilad
(now in Jordan)

Gilad (גִּלְעָד) = “Gilead”, the region east of the Jordan River, settled by the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menashe in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar because it was good for cattle. Yiftach’s father is probably called “Gilad” because he is the chief or de facto king of the region; the Bible often refers to a king by the name of his country.

The oldest son of a chief does not automatically become the next chief, but all of a man’s sons are entitled to a share of his property.  As a capable warrior, Yiftach could attack his half-brothers when they refuse to share with him. But he is too sensible to take this risk. Instead he accepts that he has been deprived of both his home and any of his father’s herds, and he flees to a remote part of east Gilad.

There he leads a band of landless men who “go out”—probably to raid villages for spoils, a common occupation in the ancient Near East.

Later, the Ammonites to the south attack the Giladites and capture some of their towns.  Since Gilad has no war leader, a delegation of elders travels to Tov and asks Yiftach to take the job.  He refuses on the grounds that he was disinherited and driven away. So the elders make him a better offer.

“You shall go with us and you shall battle against the Ammonites and you shall become our chief, for all the inhabitants of Gilad.” (Judges 11:8)

Yiftach, clever and careful, rephrases their offer to mean that he will be the permanent chief of Gilad, even after the Ammonites are defeated:

“If you are bringing me back to battle against the Ammonites, and God gives them up to me, it is I who will be your chief.” (Judges 11:9)

The elders agree, but as an extra precaution Yiftach repeats his words in front of God at the nearest high place, the mitzpah or lookout post of Gilad.

We can assume he brings his raiders with him and recruits and trains more soldiers.  But his next recorded move is to send a message to the king of the Ammonites:

Gilad at the end of the book of Numbers

Gilad (Menasheh, Gad, and Reuben) at the end of the book of Numbers

“What is between me and you, that you come to me to make war on my land?” (Judges 11:12)

Yiftach addresses the Ammonite ruler as one king to another, as if it were a personal quarrel.  The king of the Ammonites replies that the Israelites took his ancestral land, between the Arnon and Yabok rivers east of the Jordan, when they came up from Egypt centuries ago.  Yiftach replies by explaining that Amorites captured that land before the Israelites arrived, so the Ammonites have no legitimate grudge against the Israelites of Gilad.  This time, the Ammonite king sends no return message.

Up to this point Yiftach has acted cautiously and reasonably. Then something happens to him.

And a ruach of God came over Yiftach.  And he passed through the Gilad and Menasheh, and he passed the lookout of Gilad, and from the lookout of Gilad he passed ahead to the Ammonites. (Judges 11:29)

ruach (רוּחַ) when immediately followed by a name of God = prophetic inspiration or ecstasy; charisma; mood, motivating force, prevailing attitude.

The book of Judges tells of two war leaders before Yiftach who were overcome by a ruach of God: Othniel and Gideon, both of whom were motivated to go to war.  After Yiftach, whenever Samson is overcome by the ruach of God he has a burst of superhuman strength and commits an impulsive act of violence. In the first book of Samuel, King Saul is overcome both by a ruach of prophetic ecstasy and by a ruach that plunges him into foul and suspicious moods—and both kinds of ruach come from God.

What kind of ruach of God comes over Yiftach? The first effect of the divine ruach is that he gathers his troops and goes to fight the Ammonites. But the ruach may have a second effect; immediately after the sentence quoted above, the haftarah continues:

And Yiftach vowed a vow to God, and he said: “If You definitely give the Ammonites into my hand, then it will be the one that goes out from my door of my house to meet me at my safe return from the Ammonites—[that one] will belong to God, veha-alitehu [as] an olah.” (Judges 11:30-31)

veha-alitehu (וְהאעֲלִיתְהוּ) = and I will make him/it go up. (From the root verb alah (עלה) = go up. The –hu ending can mean either a male human or an animal.)

olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering. (Also from the root alah (עלה) = go up.) In an olah an entire slaughtered animal offering is burned up into smoke.

Camel in Egyptian petroglyph

Camel in Egyptian petroglyph

This is not the vow of someone who is thinking clearly. After all, he does not know who or what will come out the door of his house.  The Midrash Rabbah for Leviticus/Vayikra imagines God wondering if Yiftach would offer up a non-kosher animal unsuitable for altar sacrifice, such as a camel, donkey, or dog, if it happened to come out the door first.

Yiftach, who is so well-versed in Israelite history, would know that human beings are also unacceptable as offerings on God’s altar. Yet his vow implies that not only will he give God ownership of the person or animal that comes out of his house, but that he will do so by burning up the man or animal in an olah offering.

Perhaps Yiftach is still under the influence of the ruach of God, and not thinking clearly.

I found three other if-then vows in the Bible, and all three are more practical about the object of the vow. Jacob vows that if God keeps him safe until he returns to his father’s house, then he will give a tithe of all his property to God (Genesis 29:20-22).  Hannah vows that if God gives her a son, she will give him to God as a lifelong servant—a nazir, priest, and/or prophet. (1 Samuel 1:11)  In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites …vowed a vow to God and said: If You definitely give this people into my hand, then I will devote their towns to utter destruction for God. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:2)

In each case, God fulfills the request, and the person who makes the vow gives what he or she promised to God.  God also fulfills the request in this week’s haftarah:

And Yiftach passed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and God gave them into his hand. …twenty towns … a very great blow. And the Ammonites were subdued before the Israelites. (Judges 11:32-33)

So when Yiftach gets home, he must fulfill his unconsidered vow.

daughter of Yiftach 3bThis is where the haftarah ends, but the story continues in the book of Judges:

And Yiftach came to the lookout post, to his house, and hey!—his daughter was going out to meet him, with tambourines and with dancing.  And she was an only child; he had no other son or daughter. (Judges 11:34)

Yiftach’s response shows that he has recovered from the ruach of God that gave him battle fever and led to his muddled vow.

As he saw her, he tore his clothes [in mourning] and he said: Ah! My daughter, I have certainly been knocked down to my knees! And you, you have become okherai. And I, I opened up my mouth to God, and I am not able to turn back. (Judges 11:35)

okherai (עֹכְרָי) = one who cuts me off from social life, one who makes trouble for me.

When Yiftach’s father died, his brothers cut off from his old life and subjected him to troubles.  Now he blames his daughter for doing it again. He also blames himself for making the vow in the first place.

*

I know some people today who seek ecstatic experiences, who want to be overcome by the ruach of God.  And I know people who are driven by a mission they consider sacred, one that has taken over their lives and muddled their thinking, as if they had been overcome by a ruach of God.

As for myself, I would rather keep my head clear and think before I speak.  I would rather be like Yiftach before the ruach hit him.

What about you?

*

(Look for next week’s post (Haftarah for Balak) for an exploration of how Yiftach fulfills his vow, what actually happens to Yiftach’s daughter, and how this story informs next week’s haftarah from the book of Micah.)

Chukkat: Facing the Snake

June 26, 2015 at 2:29 pm | Posted in Chukkat | 3 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

The first time the Israelites in the wilderness complain about food, they are traveling toward Mount Sinai with all their cows, sheep, and goats. Neither meat nor milk is taboo, yet they say:

If only we had died by God’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate our fill of bread!  For you have brought us to this wilderness to kill this whole congregation by famine! (Exodus/Shemot, 16:3)

God responds by providing manna every morning. But when they leave Mount Sinai about a year later, the people complain about the manna:two onions and a garlic on a white background closeup

Who will feed us meat? 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 our nefashot are drying up; there is nothing except the manna before our eyes! (Numbers 11:4-5)

nefashot (נְפָשׁוֹת) = plural of nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = throat, appetite; what animates the body; individual life.

The people are not hungry, merely fed up with their restricted diet. This time, God sends in a huge flock of quail that falls two cubits deep on the ground, and many people die “with the meat still between their teeth”.

This is the generation that refuses to enter Canaan, even after their scouts bring back appetizing fruits. They just want to go back to Egypt. God decrees that they must stay in the wilderness for 40 years.

Detour of Israelites

Detour of Israelites

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“Decree”), most of that generation has died, and the next generation is on its way to Canaan.  Yet when they have to take a long detour around the kingdom of Edom, they complain.

They pulled out from Mount Hor by way of a sea of reeds, to go around the land of Edom, and on the way the nefesh of the people became katzar. And the people spoke against God and against Moses:  Why bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and there is no water, and our nefesh is katzah with the unappetizing food. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:4-5)

katzar (קָצַר) = was short, was shortened.  When used with nefesh, katzar is an idiom meaning “impatient”.

katzah (קָזָה) = at an end, at its limit.  When used with nefesh, katzah is an idiom meaning “fed up”.

They sound just like their fathers—but with an important difference.

When the earlier generation gets obsessive about food, they want to go back to Egypt.  The second generation complains about the manna only when they have to take a long detour on their way to the “promised land”.  They are impatient to reach Canaan and start eating normal food in the land God that wants them to occupy and farm.

Instead of killing them with quail, God responds by letting the snakes in the wilderness bite them.

Then God let loose the burning nechashim against the people. and they bit the people, and many of the people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and they said:  We are at fault, because we spoke against God and you.  Pray to God, and he will remove the nachash from upon us! And Moses prayed on behalf of the people. (Numbers 21:6-7)

nechashim (נְחָשִׁים) = plural of nachash (נָחָשׁ) = snake.  (This word is related to the verb nachash (נָחַשׁ) = did divination, read omens.)

The new generation of Israelites has learned that Moses is their intermediary with God.  More mature than their fathers, they apologize, and ask Moses to mediate for them.

Why does God respond with snakes?  The Torah has already associated the snake (which literally travels on its belly) with food cravings and journeys. In the story of the Garden of Eden, the snake encourages the woman to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.  God decrees that the snake will go on its belly and eat dust. (Genesis/Bereishit 3:1-14) Jacob prophesies that the tribe of Dan will be “a snake upon the road”. (Genesis 49:17)

So snake bites are an appropriate punishment—but maybe God’s intent is not punishment.  Maybe God is starting to prepare the people for life in Canaan, where they will be independent, and cannot expect any more divine miracles—such as the miraculous (if monotonous) food, and the miraculous removal of snakes from their path.

Naturally, the people ask Moses to ask God to remove the snakes again.  Instead, God offers a cure for snake bite.

Nechash nichoshet

Nechash nichoshet

God said to Moses: Make yourself a saraf and put it on a pole, and all of the bitten will see it and live. So Moses made a nechash nichoshet and he put it on the pole, and if a nachash bit someone, then he would look at the nechash nichoshet and live. (21:8-9)

saraf (שָׂרָף) = a burning creature.  (From the verb saraf (שָׂרַף) = burn in a fire.  In the book of Isaiah, a saraf is a creature with six wings who lives in the visionary space around God’s throne.  In the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, a saraf seems to be a venomous snake.)

nechash nichoshet (נְחַשׁ נִחֹשֶׁת) = a snake of a copper alloy (brass or bronze); a divination of copper.

Why would looking at a copper snake on a pole cure someone of snake bite?

Many commentators argue that since Moses made the snake at God’s command, looking at it reminds snake-bite victims of God and induces a prayerful attitude.

According to 19th-century rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the copper snake is a reminder of God’s power to protect people from danger even when they are unaware of it—like the Israelites before God let loose the snakes in their path.

 

I believe looking at the copper snake means looking at the cause of your problem.  It is all too easy for humans to avoid thinking about painful issues.  If snakes start biting you, it does not help to complain, or to ignore it, or to consider it an omen for mystical divination.  The best approach is to look for reasons.

The Israelites looked and saw that they had just complained about God’s manna.  They realized God had kept the snakes away for 40 years, and they knew enough to apologize and ask Moses for help. They received a cure for snake bite.

Alternatively, they might have concluded that the burning snakes lived only along the detour around Edom, and looked forward to heading north again, out of snake country and toward the land God promised them. Either way, they would remember their purpose in life, and view the snake bites as a temporary set-back.

Is something biting you?  Do you feel as though you were burned? Then look at the symbolic snake and figure out the causes of your distress.  Is it a problem you contributed to with an unwise choice?  Is it something you had to go through at the time, but you can avoid in the future?  Is it something that cannot be cured, but that you can accept with grace as you focus on your real purpose in life?

Face your snake!

Chukkat: Two Lives, Two Deaths

June 22, 2014 at 11:44 pm | Posted in Chukkat, Micah | 3 Comments
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Miriam and Aaron both die in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“Decree”). The portion opens in the first month of the fortieth and final year the Israelites must spend in the wilderness. Miriam’s death is described in a single sentence.

The Children of Israel, the whole community, came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and the people stayed at Kadeish. And Miriam died there and she was buried there. (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:1)

kadeish (קָדֵשׁ) =  being holy, being dedicated to God; a Canaanite male temple prostitute; one of two places named before the Israelites took Canaan, presumably sacred spots for non-Israelites (Kadeish in the wilderness of Paran in the southern Negev, or Kadeish in the wilderness of Tzin on the border of Edom).

Canaan and its Neighbors

Canaan and its Neighbors

The Torah says nothing further about Miriam’s death. All the Israelites observe 30-day mourning periods after the deaths of Aaron and Moses. But no official mourning period is set for Miriam.

Aaron dies later in this week’s Torah portion, after the Israelites have begun circling around Edom and Moab. (At the end of this week’s Torah portion they camp on the east bank of the Jordan River, across from Jericho.)

The Torah describes Aaron’s death in detail.

And they pulled out from Kadeish and the Children of Israel, the whole community, came to hor hahar. And God spoke to Moses and Aaron at hor hahar, on the border of the land of Edom, saying: Let Aaron be gathered to his people … Take Aaron and his son Elazar and bring them up to hor hahar. And strip off Aaron’s garments, and clothe his son Elazar. Then Aaron will be gathered, and die there. And Moses did as God commanded, and they headed  up hor hahar before the eyes of the whole community. Moses stripped off Aaron’s garments, and he clothed his son Elazar. And Aaron died there, on the head of hahar. And Moses went down, and Elazar, from hor hahar. Then the whole community saw that Aaron had expired, and the whole house of Israel mourned for Aaron 30 days. (Numbers 20:22-29)

Hor hahar (הֹר הָהָר) = mountain of the mountain, hill on the hill, Hor Mountain. (Rashi—11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki—spoke for the majority of commentators when he wrote that Hor hahar looked like a small mound on top of a large mound.)

Miriam and Aaron both die near the border of Edom. The Torah calls them both prophets, and ranks them both as leaders of the Israelites along with Moses. So why is Miriam’s death described in a single verse, while Aaron’s death takes eight verses?

The books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are full of Aaron, since much of the material concerns the establishment of rituals conducted by male priests and Levites. But the Torah gives Miriam only three scenes.

In her first scene, Miriam comes forward after the pharaoh’s daughter rescues the infant Moses from the Nile. In one sentence (Shall I go and summon a nursing woman from the Hebrews, that she may suckle the child for you?) she gives the pharaoh’s daughter both the idea of adopting the baby, and the idea of hiring a Hebrew woman to nurse him. Then Miriam arranges for her own mother—and Moses’—to be the wet nurse.

Miriam’s second scene comes after the Israelites cross the Reed Sea safely and God drowns the Egyptian army. Then Miriam has another brilliant idea. It was customary, when soldiers came home from a victory, for women to greet them with dancing, drumming, and chanting. Miriam picks up her timbrel and gets the women to do the same thing to celebrate God’s victory.

The Torah calls Miriam a prophetess at this point, and confirms her status as a prophet again in her third scene. Here she speaks out against Moses regarding his wife, and gets Aaron to agree with her. God responds by saying Moses’s level of prophecy trumps Miriam and Aaron’s, and gives her a seven-day skin disease. The people wait for her to recover and rejoin them before they journey on.

Miriam’s role in the Torah is to be a prophet, not a priest. She receives divine inspiration, and inspires other people through her words and actions. I think she dies at a place that was already named holy (Kadeish) because she is intrinsically holy (kadosh). She is dedicated not only to serving God, but also to making things right for human beings.

Hor Hahar, the place where Aaron dies, has neither a holy name, like Miriam’s gravesite, nor a view of the “promised land” of Canaan, like Moses’. It is merely a mountain with an unusual shape.

Aaron is called a prophet, along with Miriam, because he does occasionally hear God’s voice giving instructions. But he lacks inspiration. He fails God and succumbs to the will of the mob when he makes the Golden Calf. He becomes the high priest only when Moses dresses him in the high priest’s garments and anoints him.  After that Aaron spends his days performing rituals and keeping track of holy objects.

The most important part of Aaron’s death is when Moses removes the unique vestments he wears as the high priest, and puts them on his son and successor, Elazar.  What makes someone a high priest is the breastplate with the divining gems, and the gold plate inscribed “Holy to God”. The clothes make the man.

Aaron the high priest is easily replaced by his son, through a change of clothing.  But nobody replaces Miriam.

Aaron has to leave the camp and die with only Moses and Elazar as witnesses. Miriam dies in the camp, surrounded by the Children of Israel.

Yes, I admire Miriam, for her brilliance, her courage, and her dedication to her calling. And I also admire Aaron, for his dedication to the job he was assigned—serving as the people’s high priest for nearly 40 years despite his own personal failure in making the Golden Calf.

In the book of Micah, God reminds the Israelites:

I brought you up from the land of Egypt,

And from the house of slavery I redeemed you,

And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. (Micah 6:4)

It took all three leaders to get the people out of Egypt and ready to enter Canaan: Moses to work with God to create a new religion; Aaron to faithfully play his role within that religion; and Miriam to challenge people and transmit inspiration.

Every person has a different set of abilities, and a different role to play in life.  Whatever our own roles are, may each of us be blessed with the whole-hearted dedication of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

 

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