Behar: The Injustice of Wealth

May 20, 2022 at 12:44 pm | Posted in Behar, Isaiah 1 | Leave a comment

The rich get richer, and in the process they make the poor get poorer—unless the law of the land intervenes. It was true in the Ancient Near East, and it is true throughout the world today.

The wealthy in the book of Genesis owned livestock and slaves, but by the 8th century B.C.E. wealth was measured by the ownership of farmland. Rich landowners accumulated more land by buying it when poor farm-owners fell into debt—perhaps because of a drought or another circumstance beyond their control. The first part of Isaiah, written in the 8th century B.C.E.,  addresses the greed for land:

Hoy!1 Adding house to house

            They attach field to field

Until there is no space left

            And you alone are owners in the midst of the land! (Isaiah 5:8)

According to the Torah the poor can sell their farms to pay off debt, but once all their land is gone they have to become hired workers, who earn less than farmers who have their own crops to sell. If they fall into debt again, they sell themselves as slaves. The poor also sell their children as slaves when they can no longer afford to feed them.

How could a former small landowner get a second chance? How could his son get even a first chance?

Code of Hammurabi carved on an 8th century BCE stele

Law codes elsewhere in the Ancient Near East, including the Code of Hammurabi2 , accepted that there were two permanent classes of people, superiors and inferiors, and established two different sets of rules for them. But although the Hebrew Bible recognizes hereditary kings and priests, all male Israelites are subject to the same rules. And the bible rails against rich Israelites who disobey God by cheating or mistreating the poor.

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, outlines three possible solutions to the problem of social injustice due to concentrated wealth.

Do not charge interest

You must not take interest or an increase [in the repayment] from him; you shall fear your God, and let your brother live along with you. (Leviticus 25:36)

Interest is also outlawed in Exodus and Deuteronomy.3 If a debtor did not need to pay interest, the debt would be somewhat easier to repay. But then what motivation would a selfish rich man have to make a loan in the first place? According to Isaiah, debtors were often unable to repay a loan in produce or silver, so they had to turn over some or all of their land. The rich got richer by accumulating farmland.

With less farmland of their own, the poor were more likely to need another loan the following year. Thus prohibiting creditors from charging interest was not enough to solve the problem of the rich taking advantage of the poor and further impoverishing them.

Refund the Sale

Unlike property sales today, the system in the Torah is more like a lease. The buyer pays for the full use of a parcel of land and the buildings on it—knowing that at any time the original owner, or a close relative of the original owner called his “redeemer”4 can buy back the property.

The Torah portion Behar reiterates the concept that a tract of land that has been sold can and should be redeemed by the seller’s nearest kinsman.5   The buyer must accept the redeemer’s payment, pro-rated to reflect the number of years of his possession, and return the land.

If your brother becomes impoverished, and he sells some of his property, then his closest redeemer shall come to [the buyer] and redeem what his brother sold. And if a man does not have a redeemer, but his [own] resources increase and he finds enough for his redemption, then he shall reckon the years since selling it and repay the remainder to the man to whom he sold it. Then he can return to his property. (Leviticus 25:25-27)

The Torah also requires the redemption of slaves whenever possible, by paying all or part of the sales price to the buyer.6

How do the buyer and the redeemer know how much silver must change hands? This week’s Torah portion explains that the land or the slave must not be sold not in perpetuity, but only for the number of years until the next yoveil year. Therefore the original purchase price can be pro-rated.

No sales are final

Shofar made from a ram’s horn

All slaves and all landed property must be released every fifty years, God commands in this week’s Torah portion. A ram’s horn is blown to announce the start of the year when farmlands revert to their original owners or their sons, and slaves are automatically emancipated.7

And you shall make the fiftieth year holy, and you shall proclaim emancipation in the land for all its inhabitants; a yoveil it shall be for you. And you shall return, each man, to his property, and you shall return, each man, to his mishpachah. (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:10)

yoveil (יוֹבֵל) = ram’s horn; year of release; “Jubilee” in old English translations.8

mishpachah (מִשְׁפָּחָה) = extended family, clan.

Since all land reverts to the original owner or his family, the price of land is set accordingly to the number of years left before the next yoveil; a buyer pays more for a field he can use for 40 years than for a field he can use for only 10 years. And if the former owner or his redeemer buys back the land before the yoveil, he subtracts the value of the years the buyer uses the land from the purchase price, and pays only for the number of years remaining until the yoveil.

If the land is redeemed by a kinsman, then the redeemer gets to use it until the yoveil returns it to the original owner.

This week’s Torah portion assumes that people sell their farmland only out of poverty. The system of temporary property sales puts a time limit on poverty. It also reminds the Israelites that their ownership is conditional anyway, since God rescued them from Egypt and arranged for them to conquer Canaan. God is the real owner of all the land.

And you must not sell the land as a permanent right, because the land is mine, and you are immigrants and resident aliens with me. (Leviticus 25:23)

The laws in the portion Behar about interest, redemption, and the yoveil year are remedies only for Israelite men who are impoverished by the rich in Israelite kingdoms. Women are not mentioned. And Israelite men can keep any land they acquire from foreigners (through purchase or war), as well as any foreign slaves, and pass down both categories of property to their heirs.

Nevertheless, the method this week’s portion outlines for correcting the concentration of wealth is a bold plan for redressing injustice. However, there is no evidence that the laws about the yoveil year were ever implemented; then, as now, wealth means power and the powerful protect their wealth.

*

The yoveil plan would be completely unworkable today. For the ancient Israelites, the well-being of an extended family or clan was paramount, so an act of social justice could wait for a generation or two. In modern western culture, individualism and nuclear families are more important, so opportunities and privileges need to be distributed fairly on a continuous basis.

For example, modern social justice calls for immediate financial relief for an individual who acquires a major debt because of a job loss or a health catastrophe. Modern ideals also call for equal opportunities for all children, regardless of the poverty of their parents. A public education system is one part of the solution, but children must complete their education before the age when they are expected to live independently.

Emergency relief and public education are necessary but not sufficient for social justice today. Wealth in a modern capitalist system, like wealth in the ancient Israelite kingdoms, becomes so concentrated that hard-working poor people no longer have a fair chance unless further measures are implemented.

Since a yoveil year would not work well in modern society, what other ways can we redistribute wealth while being fair to the rich as well as the poor?

A true graduated income tax is a giant step. It was actually implemented for a while in mid-twentieth century America, and is currently in force in many European countries. Government programs such as Social Security and Medicare still help to save retired Americans from poverty by letting them redeem their earlier taxed earnings. Laws providing universal access to such things as utilities, roads, medical care, and police protection also help.

But instituting or maintaining any of these programs requires an idealism that rises above the natural greed of the rich. Can our larger culture achieve this idealism once more, even in the troubled United States? Can we achieve more than the reformers in Leviticus, by making our ethical ideals for society the law of the land?

  1. The Biblical Hebrew interjection Hoy (הוֹי) usually means the same as the Yiddish Oy: “Alas!” or “Oh, no!”
  2. The eight-century B.C.E. law code of Babylonian King Hammurabi.
  3. Also in Exodus 22:24 and Deuteronomy 23:20.
  4. Go-eil (גֺּאֵל) = redeemer: the kinsman responsible either for buying back an enslaved man or his land, or for avenging his relative’s murder.
  5. Jeremiah 32:7-8; Ruth 3:9-13, 4:4-6.
  6. Leviticus 25:52-53.
  7. Exodus 21:1-11 and Deuteronomy 15:12 say that anyone who buys an Israelite slave must set him free in the seventh year. The book of Leviticus seems to be unaware of this tradition.
  8. Everett Fox translated yoveil as “Homebringing”, based on cognates in Akkadian and Ugaritic and the use of a ram’s horn to call a flock of sheep home. (Everett Fox. The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Books, New York, 1983, p. 628.)
  9. Leviticus 25:44-46.

 

Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur: Our Father, Our King

September 22, 2020 at 5:43 pm | Posted in Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

A king, 15-13th cent. BCE, Hazor

Avinu malkeinu, we have missed the mark before you.

Avinu malkeinu, we have no king other than you.

avinu (אָבִינוּ) = our father.

malkeinu (מַלְכֵּנוּ) = our king.

These are the first two verses of a prayer sung from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur to ask God to forgive our misdeeds of the past year.  (The new year, 5781, began on Friday evening, and Yom Kippur will end the evening of September 28, 2020 in the secular calendar.)

The Avinu Malkeinu prayer can be traced to the Talmud, which records a story about Rabbi Akiva’s prayer during a drought.1  Akiva’s teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, prayed for rain.

Rabbi Akiva, Mantua Haggadah, 1568

And he recited twenty-four blessings, but he was not answered.  Rabbi Akiva descended before the ark after him and said: “Our Father, our King, we have no king other than You. Our Father, our King, for Your sake, have mercy on us.”  And rain immediately fell. The Sages were whispering among themselves that Rabbi Akiva was answered while his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, was not.  A Divine Voice emerged and said: “It is not because this Sage, Rabbi Akiva, is greater than that one, Rabbi Eliezer, but that this one is forgiving, and that one is not forgiving.  God responded to Rabbi Akiva’s forgiving nature in kind by sending rain.”  (Talmud Bavli, Taanit 25b, The William Davidson Talmud, www.sefaria.org)

Over the centuries more verses were added to Rabbi Akiva’s original two verses, all beginning with the words Avinu malkeinu.2

The first book of Isaiah, dated to the 8th century B.C.E., warns King Ahaz of Judah about dangers from other nations and urges him not to become a vassal of Assyria.  The prophet calls God, not King Ahaz, malkeinu:

For God is our judge

          Who issues decrees;

God is malkeinu;

          [God] rescues us.  (Isaiah 33:22)

A king here is not only a judge and a legislator, but also the one who rescues his subjects from foreign threats.

Prophet Isaiah, by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

The second book of Isaiah, dated to 540 B.C.E. or later, predicts that God will return the exiles in Babylonia to their homeland of Judah.  The prophet reminds God that the Israelites are like children waiting for their parent to rescue them:

For you are avinu.

          Even if Abraham did not know us

          And Israel did not recognize us

You, God, are avinu.

            Our redeemer from long ago is your name.  (Isaiah 63:16)

A father knows his children, and if they become slaves he redeems them.

If God is like our father and our king, then each of us is like a child or a servant to God.  In fact, the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah includes a special three-part section with the following words after each set of shofar blasts:

Today the world is born.  [God] makes all creations of all worlds stand in judgment, whether as children or as servants.  If as children, have compassion toward us like the compassion of a father for children!  And if as servants, our eyes hang on you until you pardon us and you release our verdict like a light, fear-inspiring Holy One!

What does it mean to be like a child to God?

Although children may be born with some instincts about fairness and kindness, they have a lot to learn.  When they miss the mark, or even commit serious violations, children should be guided to realize that what they did was wrong and taught to repent, apologize, and make amends.  A good human parent or mentor can do this with unflagging love for the child.

A child without help from an adult either misses out, or learns slowly through trial and error and close observation.  The bible offers some rules about morality and about how to right the wrongs we do, but these hints are easy to overlook in the flood of narrative and ancient case law.

And although God may continue to love us when, like children, we miss the mark out of ignorance or naivety in a new situation, God does not provide the kind of instruction and guidance that humans can.  Only after we have developed a mature sense of right and wrong, and a process for righting the wrongs we do, is it possible to hear the voice of God inside our own consciences.  We need good humans in our lives before we can grow up and become good humans ourselves.

What does it mean to be like a servant to God?

In an absolute monarchy, the ruler’s subjects are like servants.  Some are obedient minions of the monarchs themselves.  Others are public servants who help, advise, and make requests of the monarch as they work for the good of the kingdom.

Do we serve God by obeying as many of God’s original orders to the Israelites as we can, even if God issued them several millennia ago?  Do we take the biblical command to exterminate Canaanites as an order to exterminate Palestinians?  Do we stone women who are not virgins on their wedding day?  Do we obey other ancient rules that seem unethical by modern standards?

Or do we serve God by working for the good of God’s kingdom?  In the book of Genesis God creates the world and then lets human beings rule over it.3  Now human beings are becoming absolute rulers of the world, and we are doing it badly; pollution has led to global climate catastrophe, and intolerance has prevented us from working together for mutual aid.  We need to improve as human beings so we can rescue God’s world.

Rescue

Here is the final verse of the prayer Avinu Malkeinu:

Avinu malkeinu, be gracious to us and answer us.

          Even if we have no [good] deeds

          Treat us with charity and kindness, and rescue us.

We pray for God, our father, our king, to forgive us for our failings the previous year and rescue us from the consequences.  But as adults, we have to rescue ourselves—by doing the appropriate good deeds.

Now that I am no longer a child, I pray to the still small voice of God within for inspiration on how to recognize my misdeeds, how to make amends graciously, and how to change my approach to life so I can gradually learn to do better.

And when I think of God as a parent or a monarch, I imagine God silently praying for us wayward servants to pull ourselves together, turn around, and collectively rescue the world by doing what only human beings can do: teaching our children, restoring our planet, and treating everyone with charity and kindness.

  1. Akiva ben Yoseif, called “Rabbi Akiva” in the Talmud, lived in Judea 30-135 C.E.
  2. The total number of verses used for the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) ranges from 27 in the Yemenite tradition to 53 in the tradition of the Jews of Salonika.
  3. Genesis 1:26.

Re-eih: Eyebrows for the Dead

August 14, 2020 at 9:45 am | Posted in Amos, Ezekiel, Isaiah 1, Jeremiah, Re-eih, Va-etchannan | Leave a comment

You are children to God, your God; you must not gash yourselves, and you must not put a karchah between your eyes for the dead.  Because you are a holy people to God, your God, and God chose you for [God’s] personal property out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 14:1-2)

karchah (קָרְחָה) = baldness; a patch of skin shaved bald.

Moses forbids two mourning practices in this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See”): gashing your skin, and shaving “between your eyes”.

By the Waters of Babylon, by Gebhard Fugel, 1920

Other mourning practices mentioned in the Hebrew Bible include wailing, tearing your clothes, wearing sackcloth around your hips, and sitting in ashes.  These are never forbidden (though priests are only allowed to do mourning rituals for their immediate family members)1.

But in the bible people also mourn by gashing, scarring, or tattooing their skin and by shaving the side of the head or beard, all prohibited in Leviticus/Vayikra 19:27-28.

Unholy shaving

Shaving the hair off some part of the head seems to have been a common way to express grief in the Ancient Near East, at least for men and possibly also for women.2  The grief might be for the death of a family member, or for the death of a whole city.  Isaiah’s prophecy about the downfall of Moab includes these lines:

          Moab wails;

               On every head is karchah,

               Every beard is shaven.  (Isaiah 15:2)

Ezekiel prophesies the doom of Tyre to the north and predicts:

          Vehikriychu for you a karchah

               And they will wrap themselves in sackcloth.

          And they will weep to you with a bitter soul

               Bitter rites of mourning.  (Ezekiel 27:31)

vehikriychu (וְהִקְרִיחוּ) = and they will shave or pluck bald.

When Jeremiah prophesies that God will send the Egyptian army to destroy the Philistine city of Gaza, he declares:

Karchah will come to Gaza.”  (Jeremiah 47:5)

That says it all; so many people in Gaza will be killed that everyone left will be in mourning, shaven partly bald.

Even in the Israelite kingdoms of Samaria and Judah, when God is about to destroy the capital city, God wants people to make bald patches on their heads.  Perhaps the God-character makes an exception to the commandments against shaving as mourning because God wants to see a dramatic reaction when “he” destroys a whole nation of Israelites.

Amos predicts God will bring down Samaria and reports that God said:

          I will change your festivals into rites of mourning

               And all your songs into dirges.

          And I will put sackcloth over every pair of hips

              And on every head karchah.  (Amos 8:10)

Isaiah complains that the Israelites of Judah forgot God during their preparation for the siege of Jerusalem.  He says:

          My lord the God of Hosts called, on that day,

               For weeping and for rites of mourning,

               And for karchah and for tying on sackcloth.  (Isaiah 22:12)

Holy shaving

Any mourning observance, including shaving your beard, the side of your face, or “between your eyes”, makes a person ritually impure and therefore unable to approach God in the sanctuary.  Mourners and anyone else exposed to death must be purified again before they can enter the courtyard of the temple or Tent of Meeting.

Leviticus explains that priests must avoid mourning rituals because their job requires being holy, and therefore ritually pure, at all times:

Yikrechu not karchah on their head, and the side of their beard they must not shave, and their flesh they must not tattoo with tattoos.  Holy they must be to their God, and they must not profane the name of their God …  (Leviticus 21:5-6)

yikrechu (יִקְרְחוּ) = they shall not make bald, they must not shave bald.  (From the same root as karchah.)

Yet other kinds of shaving are explicitly holy.  The Torah calls for Levites to shave their whole bodies when they are consecrated,3 for nazirites to shave their heads when their period of abstaining from wine and hair care is  completed,4 and for people with a skin disease to shave off all their hair when they are officially cured and rejoin the community5.

In these three examples the shaven person is ritually pure and makes an offering at the altar.

Right between the eyes

This week’s Torah portion prohibits shaving a bald spot “between your eyes”.  Where is that?

When I wrote an earlier version of this post in August 2011, I searched for other biblical references to anything between a person’s eyes.  I found only four, all referring to the placement of reminders of God’s teaching on your hand and “between your eyes”.  (Exodus 13:9 calls for a zikaron (זִכָּרוֹן), a memorial or reminder, between your eyes.  The other three references, Exodus 13:16, Deuteronomy 6:8, and Deuteronomy 11:18, call for a totafot, a word which appears only in these three sentences.)

The most well-known reference, in the Torah portion Va-etchannan, became the first paragraph of the Shema section6 of evening and morning prayers.

And these words that I command you today shall be upon your heart.  And you shall repeat them to your children, and you shall speak them when you stay in your house and when you go out on the road, and when you lie down and when you get up.  And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be totafot between your eyes.  And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.  (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)

totafot (טוֹטָפוֹת) = ornaments worn low on the forehead.

One possibility for totafot

This definition is speculative; scholars have not yet determined what totafot were.  According to the Talmud a totefet (possibly a singular form of totafot) was an ornament or sachet attached to the front edge of a woman’s hairnet, at the center of a band that went from ear to ear7—at the point where other Asian cultures imagine the third eye,

Some translators replace the word totafot with tefillin.  But a head tefillin is tied onto the top of the head, above the forehead, rather than between and just above the eyebrows.  Although totafot are located in a different place, they are supposed to be reminders of what God did or commanded, so they may have contained tiny scrolls like tefillin.

If so, the text for the totafot in Exodus would be: “With a strong hand God brought you out from Egypt”.  The two passages in Deuteronomy indicate a different text, since both are lists of reminders for obeying “these words that I command you today”.  The closest thing to a commandment preceding both lists of reminders is: “And you shall love God, your God, with all your heart and all with your soul” (Deuteronomy 6:5, 11:13)—i.e. you shall love God with your whole mind and body.

With or without a text, the purpose of wearing totafot in Exodus is to be grateful that God rescued your people from slavery in Egypt, and the purpose in Deuteronomy is to remember to love God completely.  The placement of totafot approximately between one’s eyes makes them reminders that everything one sees should be experienced from the viewpoint of appreciating and loving God.

If you shaved off part of each eyebrow, the part near the nose, your face would have a bald spot, a blank patch, right where you were supposed to place the totafot.

In this week’s Torah portion, the prohibition against shaving between the eyes for the dead is bracketed by “You are children to God” and “You are a holy people”.  God comes first.  Remembering to love God is more important than remembering a dead human being, however beloved.

Later in Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts the people to “choose life”.8  Although all humans die, and we suffer when someone we love dies, we are not supposed to give up on our own lives.  So just as we must not gash our skin in mourning, we must not disfigure the spot between the eyes where the totafot would go.

You are children to God, your God; you must not gash yourselves, and you must not put a karchah between your eyes for the dead.  Because you are a holy people to God, your God …    (Deuteronomy/Devarim 14:1-2)

May we all embrace life, even in the face of suffering and death.

  1. Leviticus 21:5.
  2. Most of the Hebrew Bible is about the world of men, and many of God’s rules are written from a male viewpoint. The closest the bible comes to describing mourning practices for women is in the rules for when a man brings home a female war captive. She must be given a month to weep for her father and mother before her owner can take her to bed.  At the beginning of the month she shall “shave her head”.  This is either a mourning ritual for women, or way to reduce the man’s lust so he can stay away for the required month.  (Deuteronomy 21:10-13).
  3. Levites shave their whole bodies in Numbers 8:11 just before they come to the sanctuary to be offered to God.
  4. Nazirites shave their heads at the end of their period of abstention in Numbers 5:18. The hair that remained uncut and untended during the period of their vow is holy, and is put on the fire of the altar along with the usual grain and animal offerings for God. The shaving is also holy, since it takes place in the sanctuary at the altar.
  5. People with the skin disease tzara-at shave all their hair, including their eyebrows, seven days after they are pronounced cured in Leviticus 14:8-9.
  6. The “Shema” is the prayer in Deuteronomy 6:4. There are several possible translations (see my post Va-etchannan: All in One) but I usually prefer “Listen, Israel: God is our god; God is one”. The “Shema section” in Jewish prayerbook begins with the Shema and continues with three paragraphs of instructions about ways to remember God’s rules (Deuteronomy 6:5-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41).  The first two include  totafot.
  7. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 57b.
  8. Deuteronomy 30:19-20.

Devarim, Isaiah, & Lamentations: Desperation

July 22, 2020 at 7:48 pm | Posted in Devarim, Isaiah 1, Lamentations | 1 Comment

Eykhah (אֵיכָה) = Oh, how?  Oh, where?  Oh, how can it be?  (Ten of the nineteen occurrences of eykhah in the Hebrew Bible are in rhetorical questions that express despair or desperation.1)

The first appearance of the word eykhah in the  bible is in this week’s Torah portion, Devarim.2  Eykhah also appears in the accompanying haftarah reading from first Isaiah, and in the book of Lamentations, which we read next week during the fast of Tisha B’Av.  (In 2020 we read the Torah portion Devarim during the week ending this Saturday, July 25, and observe Tisha B’Av beginning Wednesday evening, July 29.)

Deuteronomy

Moses, by Ivan Mestrovic,1934, bronze

The book of Deuteronomy (also called Devarim in Hebrew) is a long series of speeches that Moses delivers on the bank of the Jordan before he dies and the other Israelites cross over to conquer Canaan.  Some of his speeches outline God’s laws and others relate what Moses remembers happening on the 40-year journey from Egypt.1

Moses’ first recollection begins with God telling the Israelites to leave Mount Horeb (elsewhere called Mount Sinai) and go to Canaan to take possession of the land.  Moses says:

Then I spoke to you at that time, saying: “I am not able to carry you by myself!  God, your God, has multiplied you, and here you are today like the stars of the heavens in multitude …  Eykhah can I handle by myself alone your load and your burden and your disputing?  Bring men of wisdom and discernment and knowledge from among yourselves to your tribes, and I will appoint them as your heads.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:9-10, 12-13)

Here the word eykhah begins a cry of desperation expressing Moses’ memory of how overwhelmed he was.

Isaiah

This week’s haftarah reading from first Isaiah4 rails against the immorality of the people of Jerusalem in the 8th century B.C.E.  The prophet cries out:

Isaiah, by Gustave Dore, 1866

     Eykhah she has become a prostitute,

     The [once] faithful city

     Filled with justice?

     The righteous used to linger in her,

     But now—murderers.  (Isaiah 1:21)

When Isaiah asks “Eykhah (How can it be?) she has become a prostitute, the [once] faithful city?”, it is a prophet’s cry of desperation, both exclaiming over how far the city of Jerusalem has fallen and sounding the alarm that its residents must change or else.  Isaiah can imagine a reversal of the immoral behavior of the Israelites, but he is afraid they will not cooperate until God smites the evil-doers.

Lamentations

Eykhah appears four times in the book of Lamentations, which we read next week.5  In fact, Lamentations is called Eykhah in Hebrew because that is the first word in the book.  Tisha B’Av, the day next week dedicated to remembering the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, includes fasting and reading the book of Lamentations/Eykhah.

By the Rivers of Babylon, by Gebhard Fugel, ca. 1920

This book is set in a time shortly after the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem and its first Jewish temple in 587 B.C.E.  It opens with this rhetorical question:

      Eykhah the city sits alone,

     Once teeming with people?

     She has become like a widow,

     Once great among the nations.

     A princess among the provinces,

     She has become a slave. (Lamentations 1:1)

Here the poet6 utters a cry of despair over how the city of Jerusalem has changed from an important metropolis to a hillside of ruins.  Eykhah, how can it be?

The second chapter also begins with a rhetorical question:

Eykhah God, in his wrath, concealed in a cloud

The daughter of Zion?

Cast down from heaven to earth,

The splendor of Israel?

Did not remember his footstool

On his day of wrath?  (Lamentations 2:1)

This time the word eykhah expresses the poet’s despair over the nature of God, who exalted Jerusalem with splendor and chose the city as God’s footstool or resting place—and then in a fit of anger cast it down and made it disappear.  How could God do such a thing?

*

“Oh how can it be that the city sits alone?” we read in Lamentations on the fast of Tisha B’Av.  “Oh how can God forget God’s footstool on a day of wrath?”  Now all the people of the world might ask: “Oh how can God abandon us to this pandemic, letting the innocent die along with the guilty?”

What if we ask ourselves: “How can I grow out of my belief in a god who is a parent, either loving or abusive?  How can I stop blaming God and accept what is beyond my control?  And how can I take responsibility for what is within my reach?”

Oh how can the once faithful city have become a prostitute?” Isaiah asks in this week’s haftarah reading.  Now Americans might ask: “Oh how can our once responsible national government have become devoted to stroking the ego of a megalomaniac?”

What if we ask ourselves: “How can we restore a government devoted to saving lives and helping all of its citizens?”

“Oh how can I handle by myself alone your load and your burden and your disputing?” Moses asks in this week’s Torah portion.  Now, in the Covid-19 pandemic, we might ask: “Oh how can I handle by myself taking care of the kids without a single break, without a summer program or a class or a play group?  How can I handle the dangers of going to work, or the dangers of a simple trip to the grocery store?”  The burden can indeed be too much for one person, alone.

What if those of us who are not as overwhelmed ask ourselves: “How can I help my neighbor or my friend and safely lighten their burden?”

  1. Other Hebrew words that can be translated as “how” include eykh (אֵיךְ), which begins a rhetorical question in two of its three appearances in the bible; eikhakha (אֵכָכָה), used rhetorically in all three of its appearances; ey (אֵי), which usually means “where” but is used once as a rhetorical “how”; and mah (מַה), which usually means “what” but is used twice as a rhetorical “how”. But none of these words are used as an “Oh, how could it happen?” beginning a lament.
  2. The word God calls out in Genesis 3:9 when Adam and Eve are hiding in the garden is ayekha (אַיֶּכָּה). Although this word is spelled with the same letters as eykhah, the vowel pointing indicates that the word is actually ayeh (אַיֵּה) = where, with the suffix cha (כָּה) = you. Thus ayekha means “Where are you?”
  3. Moses’ memory is not always accurate, and sometimes the way he tells the story is self-serving. See my post Devarim: In God We Trust? Deuteronomy 1:9-13 is a different version of the delegation of administrative and legal jobs than either the one in Exodus/Shemot 18:13-26 where Moses’ father-in-law Yitro advises him to delegate 70 elders, or the one in Numbers/Bemidbar 11:16 and 11:24-25 where God tells him to delegate 70 elders.  In this week’s Torah portion, Moses claims that he asked for help on his own initiative, and that he asked the people to choose their own leaders to assist him with giving orders and judging legal disputes.
  4. See my post Haftarat Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship.
  5. Lamentations 1:1, 2:1, 4:1, and 4:2.
  6. The author of Lamentations is not named in the book, but rabbinic tradition ascribes it to the prophet Jeremiah.

Vayikra & Tzav vs. Isaiah & Psalm 40: Smoke vs. Words & Deeds

March 14, 2019 at 4:41 pm | Posted in Isaiah 1, Psalms/Tehilim, Tzav, Vayikra | Leave a comment

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra gets right down to business.  The first Torah portion opens with God calling to Moses, then telling him more instructions for the Israelites—this time about conducting the rituals at the altar.

from Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

Speak to the Israelites, and you shall say to them:  Any human among you who offers an offering to God, from the livestock—from the herd or from the flock—you shall offer your offering.  If it is an olah he will offer from his herd…  (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:2)

olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering; an offering that is completely burned into smoke.  (Plural: olot (עֺלוֹת).)

A person who offers an offering of minchah to God, fine flour will be his offering …  (Leviticus 2:1)

minchah (מִנחָה) = gift of allegiance or homage; a grain-offering.

And if he offers a zevach as a thankgiving-offering …  (Leviticus 3:1)

zevach (זֶבַח) = animal slaughter as an offering on the altar.  (Plural: zivechim (זִבְחִעם).)

The text continues through this week’s Torah portion (Vayikra) and next week’s (Tzav) with instructions for a total of six kinds of offerings.  (See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.)  The last four all involve slaughtering animals, burning parts of them so God can enjoy the smell of the smoke, and eating the remaining edible parts after they have been roasted on the altar.

The primary method of serving God throughout the Hebrew Bible is turning animals into smoke, “… a fire-offering of a soothing smell for God” (Leviticus 3:5).  In the first twelve books of the bible (Genesis through 2 Kings) this method goes unquestioned.

Where does this idea come from?  The Torah does not say, but I believe the ancient Israelites assumed God wanted animal sacrifices because the other gods in the Ancient Near East were worshiped that way.1

Only when foreign empires began swallowing up the kingdoms of Israel did prophets and psalmists begin to question this approach.  The first prophet in the book of Isaiah reports:

“Why your many zivechim for me?” God says.

“I am sated with olot of rams.

And suet from fattened animals

And blood of bulls and lambs and he-goats

I do not want!”  (Isaiah 1:11)

“… And when you spread your palms

I am averting my eyes from you.

Even though you multiply [your] prayers

I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

Wash, become pure;

Remove your evil acts from in front of my eyes;

Cease doing evil!

Learn to do good!

Seek justice,

Make the oppressed happy,

Defend the orphan,

Argue the widow’s case!”  (Isaiah 1:15-17)

Here God does not totally reject animal sacrifices, but God does consider good deeds and justice a higher form of service.

Psalm 40 declares:

[God] gave my mouth a new song,

A song of praise for our God.

May the many see, and may they be awed

And may they trust in God.    (Psalm 40:4)

Zevach and minchah you do not want.

You dug open a pair of ears for me!

Olah and guilt-offering you do not request.  (Psalm 40:7)

That is when I said:

Hey, I will bring a scroll of the book written for me.

I want to do what you want, my God,

And your teaching is inside my guts.

I delivered the news of right behavior to a large assembly.

Hey! I will not eat my lips.  (Psalm 40:7-10)

The speaker in Psalm 40 maintains that God does not want smoke, only words of praise. Nothing can make this poet recant; he will not “eat his lips”.  (See my post Tetzavveh: Smoke and Pray.)

*

What does God want?  Most, but not all, of the Hebrew Bible assumes God wants offerings on the altar.  Today we assume God wants words of prayer and blessing, as well as deeds of kindness and justice.

But why should we give God what we think God wants?

Suppose you want to thank a person for saving your life.  You might speak to them, send them a card, send them flowers or a bigger gift.

Suppose you want to manipulate or appease a person who has power over you.  You might speak to them, send them a card, send them flowers or a bigger gift.

The same human impulses apply to thanking or manipulating a semi-anthropomorphic God.  In the bible, the Israelites slaughter their animals in order to give them to God, either in gratitude or in an attempt at appeasement.2

Today, do we pray and do good deeds to express gratitude?  Or to appease God?  Or to manipulate God into giving us what we want?

  1. For example, the odor of Utnapishtim’s burnt sacrifice gives the gods of Mesopotamia pleasure in Gilgamesh tablet 11, part 4. In the book of Numbers, Moabite women invited Israelites to worship Baal Pe-or with them through zivechey their god” (Numbers 25:2).  (Zivechey (זִבְחֵי) = slaughter offerings of.)  In the book of Ezekiel, God complains that Israelites are flocking to foreign altars and burning sacrifices to give idols soothing smells (Ezekiel 6:13, 16:19, and 20:28).
  2. Offerings of wholeness or thanksgiving (shelamim, שְׁלָמִים) are described in the portion Vayikra in Leviticus 3:1-16 and in the portion Tzav in Leviticus 7:11-21. Offerings to appease God after violating one of God’s rules (chataat, חַטָּאת, and asham, אָשָׁם) are described in Vayikra in Leviticus 4:1-5:22.

Mattot, Va-etchannan, & Isaiah: How to Stop a Plague, Part 3

July 27, 2017 at 8:15 pm | Posted in Isaiah 1, Mattot, Va-etchannan | 3 Comments
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from Domenichino,
“The Rebuke of Adam and Eve”, 1626

“Don’t blame me!” We say that when we feel guilty.  Even the first human beings in the Bible blame someone else when they disobey God’s instruction not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. The male human blames the female, and the female blames the snake.1

In the Book of Numbers/Bemidbar, the Israelites flagrantly disobey the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me”, after accepting an invitation from the local women (first called Moabites, then Midianites) in the land the Israelites have conquered east of the Jordan River.

And they invited the people to the slaughter-sacrifices for their god.  And the people ate, and they bowed down to their god. (Numbers 25:2)

The story told in the Torah portion Balak gives no indication that the women deceive the Israelites, no hint of a lie or a trick. (See my post Balak: False Friends.) It is the Israelites who decide to worship that god, Baal Peor.

from Sacra Parallela,
Byzantine, 9th century

God’s rage at the Israelites’ apostasy is expressed as an epidemic among the Israelites, a divine plague that even the God-character cannot control. The plague stops only when Pinchas spears an Israelite man and a Midianite woman (who is probably a priestess of Baal Peor) in the act of doing something unholy. (See my post Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1.)

The God-character rewards Pinchas for calming “His” rage in the next Torah portion, Pinchas. (See my post Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2.)

At least the God-character’s uncontrollable anger targets the Israelites, the people guilty of disobeying God’s commandment. Ironically, when the God-character is calm, ‘He” targets the Midianites, accusing them of actively tricking the Israelites.

Attack the Midianites and strike them down! –beecause they attacked you through nikheleyhem when niklu you over the matter of Peor … (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:17-18)

nikheleyhem (נִכְלֵיהֶם) = their deceit, their trickery, their cunning.

niklu (נִכְּלוּ) =they deceived, they tricked.

But Moses turns his attention to other issues. So eventually, in the Torah portion Mattot, God reminds Moses:

Nekom nikmah of the Israelites on the Midianites! Afterward you shall be gathered to your people. (Numbers 31:1)

nekom (נְקֺם) = Avenge! Take revenge! Get even!

nikmah (נִקְמַה) = [the] vengeance, revenge, payback.

And Moses finally assembles an army.

The God-character is calling for revenge, not for removing temptation. At most, the extermination of the local population prevents the Israelites from sliding back into worshiping Baal Peor. It does not stop them from straying after other Gods once they settle in Canaan.

Women of Midian Led Captive,
by James Tissot

The Israelite soldiers kill all the Midianite men and burn all their settlements. But instead of killing the Midianite women and children, the army returns with them as booty.

And Moses said to them: “You let every female live? Hey, they caused the Children of Israel, through the word of Bilam, to elevate themselves over God in the matter of Peor, so that the plague came to the community of God!” (Numbers 31:14-16)

Moses blames the Midianite women for seducing the Israelites into Baal-worship, instead of blaming the Israelites for their own actions. He also casts blame on Bilam, the prophet who uttered God’s blessings for the Israelites, then returned to his distant home on the Euphrates.2  Any foreigner is easier to blame than your own people.

Moses then orders his officers to kill all the Midianite women and the boys, exempting only the virgin girls from the genocide. (See my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.) The Torah portion Mattot illustrates how guilt over your own behavior can lead to blaming others, and even destroying them.

Yet there are other ways humans can deal with guilt and shame. In next week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan, Moses says:

Your eyes saw what God did about Baal Peor; for God, your God, exterminated from among you every man who went after Baal Peor. But you who cling to God, your God, are alive, all of you, today. (Deuteronomy 4:3-4)

Here Moses returns to the originally story, placing the blame on the Israelite men and declaring that God punished the guilty Israelites by killing them with the plague. Everyone who remained faithful to the God of Israel, he says, was not punished.

This is certainly more just than accusing the Midianites or Bilam for the deeds of the unfaithful Israelites. But I notice two moral problems:

Genocide:

The Israelites who followed the orders to massacre all the Midianites in the valley of Peor, even infants, are never considered guilty. Genocide is not a crime in the Torah. If the Israelite men felt uneasy about it, they probably excused themselves by thinking: “Don’t blame me; God made me to do it.”

Repentance:

None of the Israelites who worship Baal Peor get a chance to admit their own guilt, repent, and reform. The God-character’s angry plague wipes them out without even a trial.

Judah sets a stellar example of repentance and reform in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.3 But God neither punishes nor rewards Judah directly, though God does provide a prophecy that Judah’s descendants will someday be the rulers of Israel.4

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra provides ritual animal-offerings for those who inadvertently disobey one of God’s rules,5 but the only atonement it offers for deliberate misdeeds is the high priest’s annual ritual on Yom Kippur, which purifies the entire people of Israel.6

The first time the Bible declares that guilty individuals can repent and receive forgiveness and a second chance from God is near the beginning of the book of Isaiah.

Wash yourselves clean;

            Remove evil from upon yourselves,

            From in front of My eyes.

And stop doing evil;

            Learn to do good.

            Seek justice. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

The first prophet Isaiah then tells the Israelites to “do good and listen”7 and to “turn around”, i.e. repent8.

I suspect the world today is teeming with people haunted by shame and guilt. What can we do about our recurrent memories of betraying ourselves, betraying our God, and doing the wrong thing?

I have led a relatively blameless life, yet shame has haunted me, too. It took me years to forgive myself for insulting my best friend in first grade. I did not repeat that particular shameful act, but I betrayed my own principles in other ways during the years when I clung to my first husband, accepting his abuse and ignoring my inner ethical voice. After I finally left him, it took many more years before I could trust myself again.

May all of us learn to accept responsibility for our own transgressions, instead of blaming others. When we are ashamed of our own behavior, may we admit it and strive to do the right thing next time. And may we stop and think when anyone tells us that God wants something we know in our hearts is wrong.

(A portion of this material is from Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame”, an essay I published in August 2014.)

1  Genesis 3:12-13.

2  The king of Moab hires Bilam to curse the Israelites, but Bilam utters God’s blessings, and goes home without pay (Numbers 24:10-11, 24:25). The Torah gives no reason why Bilam would ever return to the land north of Moab. Yet the description of the Israelite war on Midian mentions that they kill the five kings of Midian—and Bilam (Numbers 31:8).

3 Judah is guilty of selling his brother Joseph as a slave (Genesis 37:26-28) and condemning his daughter-in-law Tamar to death (Genesis 38:24). He publicly admits his guilt about Tamar (Genesis 38:25-26) and rescues his brother Benjamin from slavery (Genesis 44:16-34).

4  Genesis 49:10.

5  Leviticus chapter 4.

6  Leviticus chapter 16.

7  Isaiah 1: 19

8  Isaiah 1:27.

Haftarat Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship

August 11, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Posted in Devarim, Isaiah 1, Jeremiah | 3 Comments
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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 Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22) and the haftarah is Isaiah 1:1-27.

Jerusalem, the strong walled city in the hills, the capital of Judah and the site of the temple of the God of Israel, fell to the Babylonian army in 587 B.C.E. On Tisha B’Av, the tenth of the month of Av, Jews remember the razing of the temple by chanting the book of Lamentations/Eykhah, which begins:

Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch by Gustave Dore

Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch
by Gustave Dore

     Eykhah!

     The city sits alone,

     Once great with people.

     She has become like a widow,

     Once great among the nations.

     A princess among the provinces,

     She has become a slave. (Lamentations 1:1)

Eykhah (אֵיכָה) = Oh, how? Alas! How could it be? (See my post Devarim: Oh, How?)

The prophet Jeremiah had been warning the people of Jerusalem to stop worshiping other gods and acting immorally (as well as warning the kings of Jerusalem to submit to the Babylonians before it was too late). But they all ignored him. So the God of Israel, the “god of armies”, according to Jeremiah, let the Babylonians destroy the city that was supposed to be the place where God’s enlightenment came into the world.

The book of Jeremiah calls Jerusalem (and by extension the Israelites) God’s bride, who made a covenant like a marriage with God—and then strayed after other gods and became a prostitute. In Lamentations, she has become a widow, utterly bereft of God.

This week’s haftarah is always read on the Saturday morning before Tisha B’Av, and it also includes the despairing cry, Eykhah!

Isaiah by Gustave Dore

Isaiah
by Gustave Dore

  Eykhah! She has become a prostitute,

     The [once] faithful city

     Filled with justice.

     Tzedek used to linger in her,

     But now—murderers. (Isaiah 1:21)

 Tzedek (צֶדֶק) = virtue, rightness, righteousness justice, good deeds.

 The haftarah, which refers to events in 701 B.C.E., also reminds us that according to the book of Isaiah, God gave the people of Judah and Jerusalem more than a century of opportunities to change their ways before finally the temple was razed.

What misdeeds does Isaiah urge the people to stop doing?

This haftarah is not about worshiping false gods, but about worshiping God falsely—by following the ritual forms without obeying God’s commandments about just behavior toward fellow human beings.

     Why do you give me so many slaughter-sacrifices?
—God says.

First temple altar     I am sated with rising-offerings of rams

     And the fat of meat-cattle

     And the blood of bulls.

     And lambs and he-goats

     I do not want

     When you come to appear before Me.

     Who asks for that from your hand?

     Do not go on trampling My courts

     Bringing oblations!

     Incense is repugnant to Me.

     New moon and sabbath

     Reading to an assembly—

     I cannot endure

     Misdeeds and ritual celebrations! (Isaiah 1:11-13)

Isaiah is especially critical of the government in Jerusalem.

     Your officials are obstinate

     And comrades of thieves,

     Every one a lover of bribes

     And a pursuer of payments.

     They do not judge the case of the orphan,

     Nor does the lawsuit of the widow come to them. (Isaiah 1:23)

Nevertheless, God offers the people a chance to reform and be saved from future wars.

     Go, please, and be set right

     —says God.

Flour Background

     [Even] if your faults are like crimson dye,

     They shall become white like the snow.

     If they are red as scarlet fabric,

     They shall become like fleece.

     If you do good and you pay attention,

     The goodness of the land you shall eat.

     But if you refuse and you are obstinate,

     You will be devoured by the sword… (Isaiah 1:18-20)

The haftarah concludes:

     Zion can be redeemed through justice,

     And those who turn back, through tzedek. (Isaiah 1:27)

*

Like Job, we know that being good is not always rewarded in this world. When we see God as an anthropomorphic judge meting out rewards and punishments, God seems to look away from saints as well as sinners.

Yet the human race as a whole could be redeemed through justice and virtue. If we all dedicated ourselves to following treaties and international laws, to being honest and fair, and to helping the needy, war would disappear.

On an individual level, at least good behavior leads to a clear conscience and the trust of others, and those result in a happier life than the lives of the murderers, thieves, bribe-takers, and heart-hardeners who ruled Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time.

And a happier life than the priests in this week’s haftarah, who spread their hands to bless he congregation even though they, too, are guilty.

     And when you spread out your palms

     I lift My eyes away from you;

     Even if you make abundant prayers

     I will not be listening;

     Your hands are filled with bloodshed. (Isaiah 1:15)

So go ahead and pray, attend services, follow rituals to approach God. But remember Isaiah’s words, and also keep your hands clean.

Pesach: Isaiah and the Peaceable Kingdom

April 21, 2016 at 10:16 am | Posted in Isaiah 1, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment
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(Note: I will be traveling during the week of Passover, so I’m publishing my post for April 24-30 ahead of time. This year, the eight days of Passover end on April 30, 2016.)

For the eighth day of Passover/Pesach, the special Torah reading is Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17, which includes directions for observing Passover “so that you will remember the day of your exodus from the land of Egypt all the days of your life”. (See last week’s post, Pesach: The Matzah of Misery.)

The haftarah (the accompanying reading from the Prophets) is Isaiah 10:32-12:6. It mentions Egypt only in Isaiah’s prediction that God will return the Israelites from the far-flung places where they were deported by Assyrian Empire.

Crossing the Red Sea, by William Hole

Crossing the Red Sea,
by William Hole

God will dry up the tongue of the sea of Egypt, and will wave a hand over the River [Euphrates] with the might of God’s ruach and break it into seven wadis so it can be walked over dry-shod. And it will become a highway for the remainder of God’s people who remained from Assyria, like [the highway] for Israel on the day it went up from the land of Egypt. (Isaiah 11:15-16)

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind (when blowing over water); spirit (when sweeping into a human being).

But the return of the exiled Israelites is only part of Isaiah’s grand vision in this week’s haftarah.

The prophet has been urging King Achaz of Judah to avoid taking sides in the revolt of Aram and the northern kingdom of Israel against the empire of Assyria, which had conquered the two  states during the 8th century B.C.E. Isaiah tells the king of Judah that Aram, Israel, and even Assyria will all disappear in only a few years. God has a three-part plan. First God will eliminate the vast empire of Assyria; then a great and righteous king will arise in Judah; and finally people everywhere will unite in worshiping Judah’s God.

In the ancient Near East, people believed major change came from the top down: from god to king to the people. A great king was required for a civilization to be transformed. So Isaiah prophesies:

A shoot will go out from the stump of Jesse

And a crown from its root will bear fruit.

And a ruach of God will rest upon him,

A ruach of wisdom and insight,

A ruach of counsel and courage,

A ruach of knowledge and awe of God. (Isaiah 11:1-2)

God will inspire a human king, a descendant of King David’s father Jesse, to establish a moral government. Then, Isaiah prophesies, human nature itself will change.

The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, 1826 version (William Penn's peace treaty in background)

The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, 1826 version
(William Penn’s peace treaty in background)

A wolf will dwell with a young ram,

And a leopard will lie down with a goat kid,

And a calf and a young lion will pasture together,

And a little boy will be leading them.

And a heifer and a she-bear will graze

And they will let their young ones lie down together.

And a lion, like an ox, will eat straw.

A baby will play over a viper’s hole,

And a toddler will put his hand over a snake’s lair. (Isaiah 11:6-8)

In other words, there will be no predators; all animals will be peaceful and non-violent. Judah and the other small countries in the hills of Canaan are like lambs, kids, calves, babies.  But in the future, the wolves, leopards, lions, and bears of great empires will no longer prey on them.

Not only will all peoples live together in peace, but they will all be morally upright and search out the same god.

They will do no evil nor destruction

On all My holy mountain

Because the land will be as filled with seekers of God

As the water covering the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse will be standing

As a banner for peoples.

Nations will come to him with inquiries,

And his haven will be honored.  (Isaiah 11: 9-10)

Isaiah claims that this great king from “the root of Jesse” will arise in just a few years—i.e. right after the reign of King Achaz. Achaz’s son Hezekiah was indeed one of the religious kings praised by the Bible. But after Hezekiah’s reign (~716-697 B.C.E.), people noticed that the rest of Isaiah’s prophecy was no closer to coming true; the empires of Assyria and Egypt continued to squabble over ownership of the lands between them until the Neo-Babylonian Empire became the new top predator.

We are still waiting for world peace. Christianity developed the theory that Isaiah’s righteous king was Jesus, who would return someday to straighten out the world. According to traditional Judaism, we are still waiting for the messiah—or at least for a messianic era without predators or prey.

According to the Torah, the Israelites in Egypt waited 400 years for an opportunity to escape and become a free people, serving only their god.

We have already waited over 2,400 years for Isaiah’s vision to come true. Maybe it’s time to stop praying to an all-powerful God who lives outside the world. Maybe it’s even time to stop waiting for a Moses, a king, a messiah. We need to take action ourselves.

Imagine one individual after another dedicating him-or-her-self to respecting everyone and preying on no one; to avoiding violence; and to seeking the divine in everyone and everything.

May all human beings become filled with the ruach of Isaiah’s inspiration.

 

 

 

 

Haftarat Yitro—Isaiah: Burning Angels

January 27, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Posted in Isaiah 1, Yitro | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), and the haftarah is Isaiah 6:1-7:6 & 9:5-6.

You cannot see My face, because humankind may not see Me and live. (Exodus/Shemot 33:20)

Although God cannot be seen directly, people in the Bible do experience visions of God. The Israelites see a manifestation of God in this week’s Torah portion, and Isaiah sees a manifestation of God in this week’s haftarah.

Mount Sinai

Mount Sinai

In the vision shared by everyone at Mount Sinai, God appears only as fire.

And Moses brought out the people from the camp to meet God, and they stationed themselves at the bottom of the mountain. And all of Mount Sinai smoked, because God went down upon it in fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke of the furnace, and all the mountain shuddered very much. (Exodus 19:17-18)

A shuddering, smoking mountain could be a volcano—except that in this vision, God’s fire comes down from the sky, not up from a crater. God also manifests in the book of Exodus as the fire Moses sees in the burning bush on Sinai, as the pillar of cloud and fire that leads the Israelites to Mount Sinai, and as fire and cloud on the mountain when Moses ascends to receive each pair of stone tablets.

No angels or other semi-divine creatures appear in the revelation at Mount Sinai; only fire, smoke, and various sounds.

In Isaiah’s moment of revelation, God does not appear as fire.

In the year King Uzziyahu died, I saw my Master sitting elevated on a lofty throne, and His skirts filling the heykhal. (Isaiah 6:1)

heykhal (הֵיכָל) = palace, temple; main room of the temple in Jerusalem; heavenly palace.

Isaiah beholds God wearing a robe and sitting on a throne, like a king—except that the skirts of the robe mysteriously flow out to fill the room. As the vision continues God speaks, but does not move.

However, angelic attendants surrounding God move, speak, and burn with fire.

Isaiah 6 serafSerafim are stationed above Him, each with six wings; with one pair he covers his face, and with a pair he covers his raglayim, and with a pair he flies. And one calls to another, and he says: Holy, holy holy! God of Tzevaot, Who fills all the earth with His glory! And the supports of the threshold shiver from the sound of the calling, and the house fills with smoke. (Isaiah 6:1-4)

serafim (שְׂרָפִים) = burners, burning creatures. (From the verb saraf, שָׂרַף = burn. Used in Numbers and Deuteronomy for “burning serpents”—probably poisonous snakes.)

tzevaot  (צְבָאוֹת) = armies (on earth); the stars (in the heavens).

raglayim (רַגְלָיִם) = (pair of) feet, legs; a euphemism for the penis. Singular: regel (רֶגֶל) = foot, leg; walking pace; time set for a pilgrimage-festival.

The serafim must both cover and uncover their faces and their raglayim; if these body parts were permanently covered, they would not need wings for that purpose. When and why do they conceal these parts of their anatomy?

In Leviticus Rabbah, a collection of commentary from 400-600 C.E., Rabbi Jacob ben Zadbi says the serafim cover their faces to avoid looking at God’s presence, and cover their feet so God would not have to look at such unsightly appendages. (The writer assumed that the feet of the serafim were like the feet of Ezekiel’s angelic keruvim, which resembled calves’ feet.)

Twelfth-century C.E. rabbi Moses Maimonides wrote in The Guide for the Perplexed that the description of serafim covering their body parts is symbolic. The faces of the serafim are covered to indicate that “the cause of their existence is hidden and concealed”, while their feet are covered to indicate that their actions in the universe are also hidden. The wings for flying, Maimonides adds, merely represent the speed with which the serafim move when they act.

I propose a simpler explanation. Maybe the serafim cover their faces whenever they turn toward Isaiah, so he is not exposed to the blinding light radiating from these burning creatures. If seeing God’s face means death, seeing the faces of the serafim might be almost as bad.

Moses at the burning bush

Moses at the burning bush

As for covering their raglayim, I doubt the serafim are concealing their feet.  After all, humans must have bare feet when they are in God’s presence; Moses must remove his sandals in front of the burning bush, and the priests must go barefoot inside the sanctuary. Since Isaiah’s vision is set inside a heykhal, the serafim in God’s presence probably expose their bare feet.

Although the word raglayim most often refers to feet or legs, sometimes it implies the pubic area between the legs, and there are three places in the Bible where raglayim is definitely a euphemism for the male genital organs. In Judges 3:24 and 1 Samuel 24:4 the word raglayim is combined with a verb to indicate a man urinating.  And in the part of chapter 7 of Isaiah that is left out of this week’s haftarah, the prophet says that God will use the king of Assyria as a razor to shave off the head of hair and the hair of the raglayim (JPS: public hair) and also snatch away the beard. (Isaiah 7:20)

A man’s hair, especially his beard and pubic hair, stood for virility in ancient Israelite culture. Isaiah employs a shaving metaphor to prophesy that God will use Assyria to symbolically castrate Israel’s other enemies.

Why would the serafim in Isaiah’s vision use their extra wings to cover their genitals?

The penis is a symbol of rule, dominance, and control throughout the Bible, from the oath Abraham’s servant swears on his master’s yareich (which can also mean genitals; see my post Chayyei Sarah: A Peculiar Oath) to the Persian king who approves Esther’s interruption by lifting his sharvit (scepter). But God is the ultimate ruler. It would be subversive for a male to uncover his genitals in God’s presence.

That is why this week’s Torah portion specifies that all altars for God must be built without stairs or steps.

You must not ascend on stairs to My altar; that way you would expose your nakedness upon it. (Exodus 20:23)

The Torah also requires that priests must wear linen undergarments, so their genitals will be concealed in all areas of God’s sanctuary.

So each seraf uses one pair of wings to conceal his fiery face from Isaiah, for his own protection; and one pair of wings to conceal his genitals, so Isaiah will know that God rules, not the serafim.

Nevertheless, these angels are endowed with the potential to generate independent decisions and actions. One example occurs after Isaiah expresses his anxiety about having a vision of God.

The Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall

The Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall

And I said: Woe to me! I am as good as dead, because I am a man of impure lips, and I am living in the midst of a people of impure lips, yet my eyes behold the King, God of Tzevaot! Then one of the serafim flew toward me, and in his hand was a live coal he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. And he touched it to my mouth and he said: Hey! Now that this has touched your lips, your bad deeds have gone away, and your offense is atoned for. Then I heard the voice of my Master saying: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? And I said: Here I am, send me! (Isaiah 6:5-8)

We have come a long way from the vision at Mount Sinai of God as undifferentiated fire, unaccompanied by any furniture or subsidiary creatures.

Isaiah sees God in terms of a throne and skirts, not in terms of fire. The fire exists in God’s serafim, “burning ones”, who occupy a station somewhere between humankind and God. They praise God (Holy, holy holy!) and they are privy to some of God’s plans (and who will go for us?) They protect Isaiah from the blinding brightness of their faces, and they cover their genitals to indicate that although they have some power, God is the ultimate ruler. And one seraf, hearing Isaiah’s anxiety about his unworthiness, takes action to remove his guilt. In his relief, Isaiah volunteers to be God’s prophet. Thus the seraf both furthers God’s plan and helps Isaiah rise to his calling.

The image of God as a king with a throne and a long robe has continued to be popular, from some of the writings after the fall of the first temple to some of the explanations given to children today. For me, God as fire is a better metaphor. An individual human cannot become a god.

But maybe we can aspire to be brighter, more aware of God’s presence, and more able to listen to people and address their concerns.

May all of us humans learn to act as thoughtfully as the serafim in Isaiah’s vision.

Vayeilekh: The End of Days

August 27, 2013 at 11:57 pm | Posted in Daniel, Isaiah 1, Vayeilekh | 5 Comments
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Will we win the human race, or self-destruct? Will there ever be a time without war, a time without evil deeds?

And what about my own nation, religion, or people? Will we ever learn how to get it right, and become a good model for the rest of the world?

I think people’s longing for answers to these questions creates a demand for prophecies. Even if we will not live to see it, we want to know the eventual outcome.

In the Hebrew Bible, if someone makes a prediction containing the idiom be-acharit hayamim, it is probably a prophecy inspired by God. This idiom appears 15 times in the Hebrew Bible, eight times in a speech attributed to God or an angel of God, and seven times in a speech by someone we know God has been talking to: Jacob, Bilam, Moses, Isaiah, Daniel.

be-acharit = at the end, in the aftermath, as an outcome, in the future. (From achar = after, afterwards.)

hayamim = (literally) the days; (as an idiom) a long period of time, an era.

be-acharit hayamim = (literally) “at the end of days”; (as an idiom) in the distant future, as a long-term outcome.

Most of the prophecies of be-acharit hayamim are about the future of the people of Israel, and describe events that happened up to and including the building of the second temple in Jerusalem in the 5th century B.C.E. (Prophecies about neighboring kingdoms foretell events in the same time period.)

One of Moses’ prophecies about the Israelites appears in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeilekh (“And he went”):

For I know that after my death, you will indeed go to ruin, and you will turn aside from the path that I commanded you, and you will call down evil on yourselves, be-acharit hayamim; for you will do what is evil in the eyes of God, offending [God] through the doings of your hands. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:29)

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses stops on that gloomy note. But earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses says what will happen afterward. After the Israelites have reverted to idol-worship and doing evil in God’s eyes of God, other nations will defeat them, and the remaining Israelites will suffer exile. But then the exiles will seek out God again.

When you are in distress and all these things have found you, be-acharit hayamim, then you will return to God, your god, and you will listen to Its voice. (Deuteronomy 4:30)

Two other prophecies about the future of the Israelites go on to foretell the future of all humankind. One prophecy of our ultimate future appears in the book of Isaiah and is quoted in Micah; the other comprises the last three chapters of the book of Daniel. The two predictions are mutually exclusive, and neither course of events has occurred yet.

Here is Isaiah’s prophecy:

And it will happen, be-acharit hayamim, the mountain of the house of God will stand firm at the head of the mountains, and be lifted above the hills; and all the nations will be a river. And many peoples will say: “Go, let us go up to the mountain of God, to the house of the god of Jacob, and [God] will teach us Its ways.” …and they will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation, and they will not learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:2-4)

This passage in the book of Isaiah is one basis of the majority opinion in Jewish commentary that the ultimate future of the world is the “messianic era”, a time when the whole world will live in peace, under the supervision of a descendant of King David. This leader will be called the moshiach = anointed one, but unlike the Christian messiah, he will be a righteous human being who is eventually anointed as a king. The world will continue with the same natural laws; the only difference is that all human beings will behave well, and follow the same god.

The last chapter of Daniel, however, is a precursor to the Christian book of Revelation, and hints at the end of the world and natural law. Daniel has a vision and faints; then a hand shakes him, and when Daniel stands up he realizes an angel is speaking to him. The angel says:

I come to make you understand what is summoning your people be-acharit hayamim, because there is another vision for the era. (Daniel 10:14)

The angel begins by foretelling that Persia will defeat Egypt in long war, but then will be overrun by other peoples from the northeast. This will put the Israelites in dire straits, but some of them will escape to safety.

The next sentence is mysterious: And many who are sleeping in the dusty earth will be awakened: these for everlasting life, and those for everlasting abhorrent disgrace. (Daniel 12:2).

Daniel asks the angel for clarification, but the angel refuses to explain. The angel ends the book by saying: But you, go on to the keitz; then you will rest, and then you will stand up to be assigned your fate at the keitz hayamim. (Daniel 12:13)

keitz = end, limit, boundary, farthest point.

keitz hayamim=the farthest limit of time.

Daniel’s angel seems to switch from talking about future events during the course of time (be-acharit hayamim), to the end of time for this world (keitz hayamim). This is the only occurrence in the Hebrew bible of the phrase keitz hayamim.

It may also be the first written prediction of a resurrection of the dead combined with a final judgment consigning people to heaven or hell. This idea did not get much traction in Judaism, at least not until many centuries later, when Jews were living in the diaspora among medieval Christians. But it must have influenced the Christian book of Revelation.

Isaiah’s prophecy about the future of humankind is optimistic that humans can change dramatically for the good. No supernatural miracles will be required for all the peoples of the world to adopt the same god (or more importantly, the same values), and stop making war.

The final prophecy in the book of Daniel is pessimistic, It assumes that good people from the past must be resurrected in order to lead people to knowledge and righteousness, and that even then, kings will continue to make war, lie, and magnify themselves, and the wicked will continue to act wickedly. Only a supernatural final judgment will resolve the problem.

Some people still hope for a messianic age, as in Isaiah’s prophecy. Some still anticipate the apocalypse hinted at in Daniel. Even without reference to a bible, people who ponder the future of the world can be divided into two camps. Some people believe the ethical level of humanity will continue to improve, rapidly enough so we will save our polluted earth as well as ourselves. Others believe we will never get our act together in time.

I prefer to hope for the future, even as I wonder what will happen to the world while we wait for the ignorant and the selfish to become enlightened.

Meanwhile, Moses’ two prophecies about the future of the Israelites can be applied to individual enlightenment. Now more than ever we find God in a connection with our individual souls or psyches. If we replace the word for “God” with the word “soul”, and recast the sentences for the present time, here is what we learn:

After the loss of your rebbe/guru/mentor, you will turn aside from the path, and as an outcome you will call down bad consequences on yourself; for you will do what your own soul knows is wrong, and you will offend your soul through your bad deeds. (based on Deuteronomy 31:29)

And when you are in distress and all these bad consequences have happened, as the long-term outcome of straying from the path, then you will return to your inner soul, and you will listen to its voice. (based on Deuteronomy 4:30)

I pray that enough people find enlightenment inside themselves, and dedicate their lives to doing no harm, and repairing what they can repair. I am ready to beat my spear into a pruning hook!

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