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

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.

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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

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.

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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—as 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.

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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?

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(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

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.

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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.

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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

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.

 

Chukkat: Passing Through

Kings are often synonymous with their countries in the Bible. For example, in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“Decree”), the king of Edom is simply called “Edom”, and when he refuses to give the Israelite permission to pass through his country, he says: You shall not pass through me. (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:18)

We all have rules about other people entering our personal space. Whether our personal space is an inch or an arm-length away from our bodies, we only want people we are intimate with to enter that zone. When anyone else, however benign, comes too close, it feels like an invasion.

In the Torah, the king of Edom acts as though his personal space covers his entire country. After all, he is Edom. He gives no reason for refusing permission for the Israelites to pass through him, and there is no obvious political reason. Although the Israelites have  601,730 fighting men, they are planning to conquer Canaan, not Edom.

Moses sent messengers from Kadeish to the king of Edom: Thus says your brother Israel: “You know all the hardships that have found us. Our forefathers went down to Egypt, and we dwelled in Egypt many years, and the Egyptians were bad to us and to our forefathers. And we cried out for help to God, and God listened to our voice, and sent a messenger and brought us out from Egypt. And hey! We are in Kadeish, a town at the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through a field nor a vineyard, nor will we drink water from a well. On the king’s road we will go; we will not turn aside to the right or the left, until we have passed through beyond your territory.” (Numbers 20:14-17)

Kadeish = making holy.

Edom = a large Semitic kingdom south of the Dead Sea, including the mountain range of Seir; a variant of the word adom = red.

According to Genesis/Bereishit, Edom was Esau’s nickname, and became the name of the country he founded. Esau was the brother of Jacob, who became known as Israel. When Moses calls Edom and Israel brothers, he reminds the king that the Israelites are not only fellow Semites, but family. Edom should treat Israel like a brother, feeling empathy for its abuse at the hands of Egypt, and recognizing that God is on the Israelites’ side. By sending his message from Kadeish, rather than any other town on the border, Moses might even be hinting that Israel and Edom are both holy.

His request could hardly be more polite and humble. He does not want to disturb Edom; his goal is to get the Israelites into Canaan, the land God promised them.

The first time the Israelites reached the border of Canaan, 38 years before, they refused to cross it, because they did not trust God to help them take the land.  (See my blog post Shelach-Lekha: Too Late.) God sentenced them to spend a total of 40 years in the wilderness, while the mistrustful generation died off. In this week’s Torah portion, the people have served their time, and the 120-year-old Moses takes responsibility for getting the next generation to Canaan, even though he knows he will die before they cross over.

This time, God does not tell Moses where the Israelites should cross. Nor does Moses ask God. On his own, Moses decides to avoid the southern border and lead his people around the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, so they can enter Canaan from the northeast, across the Jordan River. The first part of this route crosses the kingdom of Edom, which lies south of the Dead Sea.

But Edom said to him: You shall not pass through me, lest I go out with the sword to oppose you. (Numbers 20:18)

Then the children of Israel said to him: We will go up on the high path, and if we drink your water, I myself or my livestock, then I will give their price. Only nothing will happen. On foot I will pass through it. (Numbers 20:19)

The change from plural to singular in Moses’s second request implies that he identifies with the children of Israel in the way a king identifies with his country. Moses gives up on the convenient road through the farmland of Edom, and asks permission to take the high path over the Seir mountains. Perhaps he thinks the king would find this road less threatening because it does not pass near the Edom’s capitol.  Moses also gives the king of Edom a financial incentive by offering to pay for water. But Edom still feels as if his personal space is threatened.

And he said: You shall not pass through! And Edom went out to oppose him, with a serious fighting-people and a strong hand. And Edom refused to let Israel pass through his territory, and Israel turned away from him. (Numbers 20:20-21)

Moses accepts that the king of Edom does not consider the children of Israel close enough relatives to welcome them into his personal space. Instead of fighting about it, he makes his disgruntled people march over a much longer route. They circle all the way around Edom, going south almost as far as the Gulf of Aqaba, before finally heading north again toward the Jordan River and Canaan.

When do you let someone “pass through” your personal space, coming uncomfortably close before leaving again? When do you insist on passing through someone else’s personal space?

These questions are easy in some settings, such as a medical office, or an elevator in which all the passengers come from the same culture. It can be harder to decide whether to let someone in through your front door. And I often find myself puzzled by the question of whether to hug someone when we say hello or goodbye. I watch my friends and acquaintances to see if they are stepping forward with their hands rising, or keeping their distance.  To be polite, I need to match them—and they need to match me.

I feel invaded when I get a greeting-hug from a stranger, or an acquaintance I don’t like.  I don’t want to let them pass through my personal space. Unfortunately, a few of the people I want to keep at arm’s length are my relatives, and American culture assumes that relatives are intimate.

I can empathize with the king of Edom refusing passage to Israel, even though the Israelites and Edomites have the same great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. To Edom, these people from Egypt are strangers.

And I admire Moses for respecting the king of Edom, and turning away after the king rejects his second polite request. Civilized life requires good boundaries for everyone.

Yet the Israelites are on their way to Canaan, which they conquer by the sword in the book of Joshua. If the old generation had trusted God and crossed the southern border of Canaan when God told them to, 38 years before, would God have arranged for the Canaanites to surrender without bloodshed?  Maybe when the Israelites try again, they have to invade Canaan with battles and sieges because they no longer have God’s full support. Yet they do not give up on the land God promised them, 40 years before. After all, if 601,730 of them are men over 20, the whole population must number at least two million. Two million people need a land. And God promised their parents the land of Canaan.

So in the book of Joshua, the Israelites cross into the personal space of the Canaanite peoples, and insist on staying. Their desperation for a homeland leads to war.

In a just world, every family would have its own home, and every people would have its own country, uncontested. In a just world, every border would be clear, and it would be easy for people to respect each other’s boundaries. But we do not live in a just world. God is not fixing the world for us, so our responsibility is to fix the world for each other. I know I can have only a small effect on the world, but it does make a difference if I treat other humans with respect.

May we all learn to respect boundaries, to compromise without giving up our journey, and to seek peace, like Moses.