Song of Songs & 2 Isaiah: Love Sacred and Profane

April 24, 2019 at 9:04 pm | Posted in Hosea, Isaiah 2, Passover/Pesach, Song of Songs | Leave a comment

A single word can mean attraction, desire, passion, affection, or devotion.

In English, that word is “love”.  In Biblical Hebrew, it is ahavah (אַהֲבָה).

Song of Songs, Rothschild machzor, 15th century CE

The noun ahavah and its related verb, ahav (אָהַב), appear eighteen times in The Song of Songs/Shir Hashirim, the short biblical book that Jews traditionally read during the week of Passover/Pesach.  The first line in this series of interlocking poems sets the tone:

            Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth …  (The Song of Songs 1:2)

Soon the female speaker cries:

            Revive me with raisin cakes,

            Refresh me with quinces,

            Because I am faint with ahavah!  (Song of Songs 2:5)

The book frequently expresses erotic attraction by using metaphors from nature.  The woman’s breasts are compared to twin gazelle fawns, date clusters, grape clusters, and towers.1  In another example, the man says:

            A locked garden is my sister, my bride;

            A locked well, a sealed spring.

            Your limbs are an orchard of pomegranates

            And choice fruit …  (Song of Songs 4:12-13)

And the woman responds:

            Let my beloved come into his garden,

            And let him eat its choice fruit.  (Songs of Songs 4:16)

What is a book like this doing in the bible?  God is never mentioned in The Song of Songs.  Yet subsequent commentators, including Rashi,2 have argued that the whole book is an allegory for the love between the Israelites and God.

There is a precedent for this analogy.  In the 8th century BCE, Hosea portrayed the northern kingdom of Israel as the unfaithful wife of God.3  After him, several other biblical prophets portrayed the southern kingdom of Judah as God’s unfaithful wife, and the covenant between God and the people as a marriage contract.4  So the idea of using a human marriage as an analogy for the relationship between a people and God was well-known by the third or second century BCE, when The Song of Songs was written.  But the poetry in this book focuses on sexual love, not on the covenant of marriage.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Akiva argued for the inclusion of The Song of Songs in the biblical canon, declaring, “All eternity is not as worthwhile as the day the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all biblical books are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.”5

Song of Songs, artist unknown

Perhaps some human beings have loved God with an ahavah similar to the sensual yearning of the lovers in The Song of Songs.  Maimonides wrote: “What is the proper form of the love of God?  It is that one should love God with a great, overpowering, fierce love as if he were love-sick for a woman and dwells on this constantly … for the whole of Song [of Songs] is a parable on this theme.”6

But it is hard to imagine God loving human beings that way.  Although the Torah presents us with an anthropomorphic God who feels rage, jealousy, and compassion, the God of Israel is different from other ancient Near Eastern gods in that God does not partner with a goddess, and never engages in sex.

Then how does God love humans?  In the Hebrew Bible divine love is not individual, but collective.  God loves the people of Israel, or Judah, or Jerusalem.  God loves those who follow God’s rules.  The reader is encouraged to be like God and love concepts such as justice and compassion.

The love of God sometimes seems like immature favoritism to a modern reader.  Out of love, God destroys the rivals or enemies of the Israelites.7  When the Israelites are “unfaithful” and worship other gods, God lashes out in jealousy and destroys them, either by afflicting them with plagues or making their enemies victorious.  Neither the people nor God seem mature enough for marriage.

In other biblical passages, God’s love is more like a good parent’s devotion.

            For Israel was a boy and ohaveihu

            And from Egypt I called to my son …  (Hosea 11:1)

ohaveihu (אֺהֲבֵהוּ) = I loved him.

Similarly, the second book of Isaiah recalls a time when God was kind to the people of Judah, the southern kingdom of Israelites.

            And [God] said: “Surely they are my people,

            Children who do not betray.”

            And [God] became their rescuer.  (Isaiah 63:8)

            … In ahavah and compassion, [God] redeemed them,

            Plucked them up and carried them all the days of old.

            But they, they rebelled

            And pained [God’s] holy spirit.

            And [God] turned against them as an enemy;

            [God] made war against them.  (Isaiah 63:9-10)

Then the people of Judah yearn to come home again to an affectionate “father” who is devoted to their welfare. They recall that:

            “… You, God, are our father,

            Our redeemer of old …  (Isaiah 63:16)

*

Why do we read The Song of Songs during Passover?  The Passover seder retells the story of God taking the Israelite slaves out of Egypt.  We repeat God’s promise:

I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.  (Exodus 6:7)

This could mean taking the Israelites as a metaphorical wife; the bible sometimes uses the word “take” (lakach, לָקַה) to mean have intercourse with or marry.  But it could also mean God adopts the Israelite slaves and their fellow-travelers out of compassion, as if they are children who need special care.  Then God treats them with affection and devotion, the ahavah of a parent—at least until they reject God and worship other gods.

Is there anything in The Song of Songs to connect human sensual desire with God’s ahavah?  I found one hint.  Three times in The Song of Songs, the erotic poetry is interrupted by this verse:

            I make you swear, daughters of Jerusalem,

            By deer or by gazelles of the field:

            Do not rouse or lay bare ahavah until it pleases!  (The Song of Songs 2:7, 3:5, and 8:4)

The female speaker is warning her friends not to rush into consummating a sexual attraction; wait until the ahavah is ripe.  She does not say what a ripe love is.  A more overpowering attraction?  Or a fuller relationship with the beloved that includes tenderness, friendship, affection, and devotion, as well as carnal desire?  For human beings, physical ahavah and spiritual ahavah are often inseparable.

May each of us find ahavah in our lives, whether it is passionate desire or affectionate devotion.  And may each of us learn how to turn toward the world with an open heart and ahavah.

  1. The Song of Songs 4:5, 7:4, 7:8, 7:9, 8:10.
  2. 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  3. Hosea 2:18-22.
  4. See Jeremiah 2:2, Ezekiel 16:3-14, and Second Isaiah 54:4-10 and 62:5.
  5. Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef (50-135 CE), quoted in Mishnah Yadayim 3:5.
  6. Maimonides, a.k.a. Moses ben Maimon or Rambam (12th century CE), Mishnah Torah, I: The Book of Knowledge, 10:3, Laws Concerning Repentance.
  7. For example, see Malachi 1:2.

Yom Kippur & Isaiah: Ending Slavery

September 27, 2017 at 11:57 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, by Maurycy Goittlieb

We do it every year on Yom Kippur. This Friday at sunset, observant Jews whose health permits will begin a 26-hour fast, accompanied by communal prayer Friday evening and all day Saturday.  One of the readings on Yom Kippur is a passage from second Isaiah1 in which the Israelites ask God:

We fasted; why did you not see?

          Inninu our bodies, but you did not notice!

inninu (עִנִּינוּ) = we overpowered, we subdued, we humiliated, we oppressed. (From the root verb anah, ענה.)

God replies:

Hey, on the day of your fasting, you meet [to do] business,

          and you beat all your laborers!

Hey, you fast with a lawsuit and a quarrel,

          and you strike with a wicked fist!

You cannot, with a fast like today,

          make your voice heard on high.

Is it [only] like this, the fast I would choose:

          a day of humans annot their bodies? (Isaiah 58:3-5)

annot (עַנּוֹת) = overpowering, subduing, humiliating, oppressing. (Also from the root verb anah.)

The divine objection is that while the Israelites are annot their physical appetites by fasting, they are also annot other people. God will pay attention only to people who behave morally toward other human beings.

Is not this the fast I would choose:

          Opening the shackles of wickedness,

breaking the harness ropes of the human yoke,

          and setting free those who are crushed?  (Isaiah 58:6)

Most books of the Bible accept slavery, and issue laws ameliorating it somewhat by providing for the emancipation of Israelite slaves (by redemption2 or after six years3), by limiting who can be sold as a slave4, and by giving all slaves, Israelite and foreign, the day of Shabbat and all festival days off from work.5

But in second Isaiah, God calls for slave-owning Israelites to free all their slaves. God will not pay attention to anyone who is annot other people by owning them as slaves.

Then God implies that neglecting anyone so poor as to be without food, shelter, or clothing is another form of annot. God continues the description of the fast God would choose:

Beggars, by Rembrandt

Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry,

and bringing home the homeless poor?

When you see a naked person, you must cover him,

and not hide yourself from your fellow.  (Isaiah 58:7)

This is a tall order for getting God’s attention. If I take it literally, I at least feel relieved that I have no slaves (or even employees), I never use my fists, and I am not quarreling with or suing anyone. But I would be afraid to invite a homeless stranger into my home unless I had a lot of friends there in case of emergency.

Taken less literally, the reading from second Isaiah encourages me to continue making donations to food banks, giving spare change to beggars, and donating money and goods to charities. It also reminds me that I am happy to pay taxes for programs that assist the poor.

But maybe I could do more about “opening the shackles of wickedness” and “setting free those who are crushed”. In the United States today slavery is illegal, but there are people living here without government papers. “Illegal aliens” who have no other home are not free. Many are oppressed and harassed by their employers or by government employees. Many do not dare complain about inhumane working conditions; what if they got deported? There is no American law to free them after six years of menial and insecure labor, so that they can pursue higher education and better jobs.

Freeing the oppressed resident aliens in America is not only the right thing to do, but the religious thing to do. The Bible repeatedly warns us not to “oppress the stranger”, i.e. resident alien.6 What can ordinary citizens do to free “illegal aliens” from annot? We can keep letting our elected officials know that all shackles are wicked, and that everyone deserves freedom and equality—and therefore legal status in their own country, the country where they have lived for years.

That is when you call and God answers,

            you cry out and [God] says, Here I am:

When you banish the human yoke,

            the pointed finger, and unjust speech. (Isaiah 58:9)

  1. Modern scholars agree that chapters 1-39 of the book of Isaiah were written in the 8th century B.C.E., when the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. Chapters 40-66 are dated to either the 6th century B.C.E., during the Babylonian exile of the prominent families of Judah, or the 5th century, after the Persian Empire had swallowed the Babylonian Empire and given Jews permission to return to Jerusalem and build the second temple.
  2. Leviticus 25:35-37. See my post Mishpatim and Psalms 39 & 119: Foreigners.
  3. Deuteronomy 15:12-13. See my post Haftarat Mishpatim—Jeremiah: False Freedom.
  4. Deuteronomy 21:10-14. See my post Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 1.
  5. Exodus 23:12 for Shabbat. Similar laws are given for each festival day when it is ordered.
  6. Exodus 22:21, 23:9; Deuteronomy 24:17, 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6, 22:3; Zechariah 7:10.

 

Beshallach & Psalm 136: Miracle at Sea

February 8, 2017 at 11:17 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Isaiah 2, Psalms/Tehilim | 2 Comments
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(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

After the tenth plague, the pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go. Then he has another change of heart, and sends a brigade of charioteers after them. At nightfall the Egyptians catch up with the Israelites at the shore of the sea—the Red Sea in English, the Sea of Reeds (yam sufיַם סוּף) in the Hebrew Bible. Both parties camp for the night, with the Israelites trapped between the enemy and the water.

What happens next? The most familiar version of the story appears in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“When he sent out”).

The Passage of the Red Sea, by William Hole,

The Passage of the Red Sea,
by William B. Hole (1846-1917)

The Prose Account

Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and God made the sea move with a strong east wind all night. Vayasem the sea dry land, and the waters split. And the Israelites entered the middle of the sea on dry ground, and the waters were for them a wall on their right and on their left. (Exodus/Shemot 14:21-22)

vayasem (וַיָּשֶׂם) = and he/it placed, set, set up, put, put in.

Until I translated these verses, I had the impression that God simply splits the water down to the seabed, which becomes dry and firm enough for the Israelites to walk on. But the Torah says vayasem, as if there were no real bottom to the sea, so God has to install a strip of dry land.  (Most English translations say God “made” or “turned” the sea into dry ground—which has the same implication.)

In the cosmology of the ancient Israelites, beneath the land lies a subterranean ocean of water called the tehom (תְּהוֹם —singular) or tehomot (תְּהֺמֺת —plural). This deep water bubbles up through the earth in the form of springs. Under the ocean, it’s water all the way down, with no ocean floor.1

Pharoah Tutankhamen on a chariot, pursuing Nubians

Pharaoh Tutankhamen on a chariot, pursuing Nubians

And the Egyptians pursued, and all the horses of Pharoah, his chariots, and his horsemen entered after them into the middle of the sea. …And [God] made the wheels of their chariots swerve, and made them proceed laboriously. (Exodus 14:23, 25)

And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea settled before morning into its normal flow. And the Egyptians were fleeing from it, and God na-ar the Egyptians into the middle of the sea. And the waters turned back, and they covered the chariots and the horsemen of all the army of Pharaoh, the one coming after them into the sea; not one remained. (Exodus 14:27-28)

na-ar (נָעַר) = shook out, shook off. (The form of this verb used in verse 14:27 is vayena-eir (וַיְנָעֵר). This verb appears only 12 times in the entire Hebrew Bible.)

Safe on the other side of the sea, the Israelites are awed by God’s miracle, and moved to sing along with Moses and Miriam.

The Song of the Sea

That was when Moses sang, along with the children of Israel, this song to God… (Exodus/Shemot 15:1)

The whole “Song of the Sea” that follows is a psalm written in archaic Hebrew, possibly the oldest text in the Hebrew Bible.2 The scribe who redacted this week’s Torah portion inserted the well-known hymn without changing its archaic syntax and spellings.

The Song of the Sea does not mention God splitting the sea or the Israelites walking on dry land. Nevertheless, one early verse matches the prose account: 

from the Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain

from the Golden Haggadah,
c. 1320 Spain

         Chariots of Pharaoh and his army

                        [God] pitched into the sea,

            And the best of his captains

                        sank in the Sea of Reeds. (Exodus 15:4)

Twice the Song of the Sea says the Egyptians sank all the way down into the tehomot.

           Tehomot covered them;

           They went down into the depths like a stone. (Exodus 15:5)

           In the wind of Your nostrils the waters were dammed up.

                        They stood up like a dike [made of] waves,

                        Congealed tehomot in the heart of the sea. (Exodus 15:8)   

Ice canyon, Antarctica, 2011 photo by NASA

Ice canyon, Antarctica,
2011 photo by NASA

         You blew Your wind; the sea covered them.

                        They sank like lead in the mighty waters. (Exodus 15:10)

This description led 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno to explain that the water at the bottom of the sea became solid, and the Israelites walked across the congealed or frozen water.

Psalm 136

The Bible includes several briefer descriptions of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, all used as examples of God’s miracles on behalf of the Israelites. But the descriptions in Second Isaiah (51:9-10) and Psalms 77, 106, and 136 do not explain how the Israelites got across the water.

Psalm 136 does, however, refer to God as the one who split the sea, and like the prose account in Exodus it uses the rare word na-ar.

reed-sea-2           Who cut the Reed Sea into parts,

                        Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness.

            And let Israel pass through the middle,

                        Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness.

            Veni-eir Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds,

                        Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness. (Psalm 136:13-15)

veni-eir (וְנִעֵר) = And [God] shook off, shook out. (Another form of the verb na-ar נָעַר.)

We do not know which text first used the poetic image of God shaking off the Egyptians into the sea: Psalm 136, or one of the stories woven into the prose account in this week’s Torah portion. 3

reed-sea-3If we follow the prose account, the sea divides and a miraculous strip of earth appears over the tehomot. I can picture the earth getting soggy after the Israelites have crossed, so the chariot wheels of the Egyptians get stuck in mud. Then the bridge of earth buckles and shakes off the Egyptians, chariots, and horses into the water, before God’s second wind blows the walls of water down over them.

On the other hand, if we take the Song of the Sea as the oldest, most authoritative account, and follow Sforno’s explanation that the water congeals into a frozen roadway between dikes of ice, then I can imagine the chariot wheels skidding out of control on the slippery surface. This provides an alternate explanation of the detail in the prose account that God “made the wheels of their chariots swerve, and made them proceed laboriously”. (Exodus 14:25)  Then the ice-dikes break and the sea rushes over the Egyptians.

Either of these two pictures of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds is more vivid than most readers—and illustrators—of the Bible imagine.

Miriam's Song, 1909

Miriam’s Song, 1909

Unless you are an eye witness, it takes vivid imagery to feel the impact of a miracle. The various Biblical accounts of crossing the Sea of Reeds are designed to make the descendants of the Israelites experience the feeling of a last-minute rescue, and to give them confidence that God has always been on their side. So for centuries the Israelites rejoiced over the miracle at the sea.

Yet after the second temple in Jerusalem fell in 70 C.E., some Jews questioned this attitude. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan says God does not “rejoice in the downfall of the wicked”. He gives the crossing of the Sea of Reeds as an example, saying: “The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said: The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?” (Babylonian Talmud, Soncino translation, Megilah 10b)

I, too, feel sympathy for the Egyptian soldiers. They have no more choice about following the Pharaoh’s orders than the Israelite slaves did before Pharaoh let them go. And their orders were to round up the Israelites (shooting arrows if necessary) and bring them back for re-enslavement.

Suddenly the Egyptians find themselves in the middle of a situation they never imagined was possible.  They are chasing the Israelites across a dirt bridge over the sea, or maybe down an ice canyon. They see the ex-slaves reach the far side, but their chariot wheels are either mired in mud or skidding on ice. Then the Egyptians are shaken off the path like crumbs.  And the sea crashes down on them.

Today people still experience events they never imagined were possible. Sometimes what seems like a good miracle to one group of people is worse than a nightmare to another group.

May we all learn the humanity to refrain from singing out with joy when our opponents are dying. And may God save us all when we find ourselves trapped in a situation we never imagined was possible.

___

1 This detail supports Richard Elliott Friedman’s argument in his Commentary on the Torah (HarperCollins 2001) that although the body of water in question is called the Sea of Reeds, it is no shallow lake, but the Gulf of Suez–the western arm of the Red Sea.

2 The exodus from Egypt is set during Egypt’s 19th Dynasty, which ruled during the 13th century B.C.E. The Song of the Sea mentions the Plashet (Philistines), who did not emigrate to Canaan until about 1175 B.C.E. Thus Moses could not have known or composed the Song of the Sea, but the writer of the Song of Sea might have known the story of the exodus. According to modern scholars, the prose version of the story in Exodus is a compilation of three different stories written in Biblical Hebrew sometime after 700 B.C.E. The redactor also inserted the ancient Song of the Sea.

3 Psalm 136 cannot be reliably dated. The language is consistent with the Hebrew in the book of Exodus (excluding the archaic Song of the Sea). But it could have been written much earlier, and rewritten centuries later with updated language. Or it could even have been written during the time of the second temple, 530 B.C.E.-70 C.E.

Haftarat Lekh-Lekha—Isaiah: Seeing the Invisible

November 9, 2016 at 6:59 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Lekh Lekha | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Lekh-Lekha (Genesis 12:1-17:27), and the haftarah is Isaiah 40:27-41:16.

What do you do when you once had a relationship with God, but now God seems to be absent?

The question is painful on this anniversary of Kristallnacht.  It is especially painful for those who believe in God as a benevolent parent or guardian, an external force looking after them and ensuring that, ultimately, good people will be rewarded, innocent people will have a chance, and everything will turn out for the best.

Siloam Tunnel under Jerusalem

Siloam Tunnel under Jerusalem

Then something happens: Job is afflicted, Jerusalem is razed, the Nazis torture and kill millions of innocents, girls are raped, the day’s news threatens future darkness.  And it no longer makes sense to trust in a benevolent external God.

What do you do when God seems absent?

Many psalms address this question, and so does the second half of the book of Isaiah, written about 50 years after the Babylonian army razed Jerusalem and deported its population.  The prophet we know only as “second Isaiah” tried to persuade the Israelites that their God was still alive and strong, and would soon rescue them. This week’s haftarah from second Isaiah opens:

            Why do you say, Jacob,

            And why do you assert, Israel:

            “My path is hidden from God,

            My claim slips away from my God.” (Isaiah 40:27)

The Israelites believe that God cannot see what is happening to them, and that their covenant with the God of Israel has slipped away.  They feel invisible to God.  Second Isaiah responds:

            Do you not know?

            Surely you have heard?

            God is the god of all time,

            Creator of the ends of the earth.

            Never yiyaf and never will It grow weary.

            No one can fathom the depth of Its tevunah. (Isaiah 40: 28)

yiyaf (יִהעַף) = will he/It become faint, will tire out.

tevunah (תְּבוּנָּה) = insight, intelligence, discernment, skill.

The prophet counters that the God of Israel is the god of all time and all space, whose powers never flag and who has infinite insight. Therefore the Israelites cannot be invisible to God.

Babylonian Gods of the Dead, bronze

Babylonian gods of the dead, bronze

They feel invisible to God only because God is invisible to them.  Living in Babylon, they see no evidence of their God. The city is full of statues, reliefs, and paintings of other gods, but not the God of Israel. Their own god let the Babylonians raze the temple in Jerusalem, and let them languish in exile for decades.  Has God run out of power?

Second Isaiah says not only that God never grows faint or weary, but adds that God is:

            Notein laya-eif koach,

            And [giver] of abundant energy to those without vigor. (Isaiah 40:29)

Notein (נוֹתֵן) = Giver, giving.

laya-eif (לַיָּעֵף) = to the faint, to the tired. (From the same root as yiyaf.)

koach (כֹּחַ) = strength, endurance, power, ability to carry on.

Notein laya-eif koach = Giver of strength to the faint and tired.

Thus the prophet counters that not only is God powerful, but God is the one who gives strength and energy to human beings fainting with weariness.

Once again, second Isaiah declares that reality is the reverse of what the Israelites think.  God is not worn out; they are.

*

When I read the first line of Isaiah 40:29 in Hebrew, I recognized it from the Jewish morning blessings.  Our tradition upon arising is to bless God in gratitude for a list of blessings that come from God to us, including sight when we open our eyes, clothing, the ability to walk, and so on.

Out of the 16 morning blessings in the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, 12 are dictated by the Babylonian Talmud tractate Berachot (“Blessings”). One of the blessings that is not from the Talmud is:

Blessed are You, God, our God, Ruler of everything, hanotein laya-eif koach.

hanotein (הַנּוֹתֵן) = the one who gives, the giver.

I often pronounce this blessing with extra enthusiasm, since I have chronically low energy, yet I am determined to make the most of my life.

Although some of second Isaiah’s exhortations no longer apply today, many of us still feel invisible to whatever runs the universe, as if “My path is hidden from God”.  Many of us still feel as if we’re drowning in a sea of exhaustion. And many of us still feel doomed by the agendas of other people, or by the results (such as global warming) of past human actions.

Second Isaiah says that our God is powerful  and always with us.  I conclude that our task is to learn how to sense God within, and draw inner strength from that sense. We can fathom the depth of our own insight. Then we might discover a core of divine strength within — and maybe even enough prophetic intuition to see our own paths.

May every one of us discover our own inner God, and draw strength from that connection to rise above our inevitable wounds and dedicate ourselves to kindness and patience.  And as we keep learning more about ourselves, may we keep learning more about other people — checking our assumptions, questioning hearsay, opening our minds to understand people who may seem like enemies until we get to know them.  May God strengthen us inside so we can cooperate to make life on this fragile earth as good as is possible now for all of us.

 

Haftarat Noach—Isaiah: From Raging Flood to Free Drinks

November 3, 2016 at 10:14 am | Posted in Isaiah 2, Noach | 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). However, this week the haftarah is almost a duplicate.  This week’s Torah portion is Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32), and the haftarah is Isaiah 54:1-55:5—which includes all of haftarah for the Torah portion Re’eih, eight weeks ago.

After the flood subsides in this week’s Torah portion, God swears:

Never again to curse the earth on account of the human, since the yeitzer of the heart of the human is bad from its youth; and never again to destroy all life, as I have done.  (Genesis/Bereishit 8:21)

from a landscape by Peter Paul Rubens, ~1630

from a landscape by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1630

yeitzer (יֵצֶר) = what is shaped or formed; by extension, an impulse or a tendency. (From the root yatzar, יָצַר = shaped, formed.)

Perhaps God senses that It overreacted, wiping out not just the entire human race, but all land-based animals (except for those on Noah’s ark). God might have tried to educate humankind, or at least to issue a detailed warning and then exercise selective punishment against chronic transgressors. God warns Noah about the flood 100 years ahead of time, so God might even have given Noah instructions for acting as a teacher and prophet. But in the Torah, God only instructs Noah about how to build and fill the ark, and then releases the flood. The divine rage at human evil is unabated. (See my post: Noach: Spoiled.)

The first chapter of this week’s haftarah compares God’s covenant with the Israelites to a marriage, and God, the husband, says:

           In a flood of rage I hid My face a while from you

           But with unending loyal kindness I had compassion on you,

           —said  your redeemer, God.

           Like the days of Noah this is to me:

           As I swore that the waters of Noah would not pass over the earth again,

           So I swear against becoming angry at you and against rebuking you! (Isaiah 54:8-9)

Many a battered wife has heard a promise like that, as I pointed out when I discussed this haftarah eight weeks ago. (See my post Haftarah for Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser.)

But after God has finished promising that “he” will never, ever throw the Israelites out of the house again, or bring over foreign bullies to attack them, the haftarah abruptly takes a different turn.

Water Carrier, by Francisco Goya ~1810

Water Carrier, by
Francisco Goya ca. 1810

           Hoy! Everyone who is tzamei! Come for water!

            And if you have no silver, come, buy and eat!

            And come, with no silver and with nothing to barter, buy wine and milk! (Isaiah 55:1)

Hoy! (הוֹי) = Oy! My goodness! Alas! Oh! Oh, no! Oh, dear!

tzamei (צָמֵא) = thirsty.

Instead of a raging flood, God offers drinking water. Then God promises food, wine, and milk, all free of charge. What is this poetic largesse?

Second Isaiah is addressing the exiled Israelite families that were deported to Babylon in 597-586 B.C.E. when King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah and Jerusalem. Apparently these exiles were familiar with a passage from the book of Amos (circa 760 B.C.E.):

Hey!  Days are coming—declares God—when I will send a famine into the land: not a famine for bread nor a tzama for water, but for hearing the words of God.  And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east they shall roam, seeking the word of God, but they shall not find it. (Amos 8:11-12)

tzama (צָמָא) = thirst.  (From the same root as tzamei.)

Amos prophesied the end of the northern Israelite kingdom of Samaria (which fell to the Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.), and promised a distant future when God would reinstate the Israelites in their own lands.  Until then, he warned, people who were hungry and thirsty for the word of God would be unable to find it.

The “word of God” means either directives from God—the rules of the religion—or teaching (in Hebrew, torah, תּוֹרָה) by and about God. When the Babylonian Talmud was assembled around 500 C.E., there was already a tradition comparing torah with water. Ta’anit 7a and Bava Kama 82a in the Talmud even cite Isaiah 55:1 as proof that “water” means torah.

Second Isaiah declares that Amos’s distant future has arrived. After all, when King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.E., the Israelites became free to return to their old homelands and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Now people who were hungry and thirsty for the word of God can find it.

The haftarah picks up where Amos left off and gives further information about the word of God: it is free, and it will sustain the soul. Just as water is essential for the human body to live, the word of God is essential for the human soul to live.

by Mary Cassat, 1908

by Mary Cassat, 1908

Furthermore, according to second Isaiah, one can even get milk and wine for free.

Milk appears in the Bible as the nourishment humans receive without hard labor. Mothers nurse their infants, and the land that God promises to give the Israelites is repeatedly described as a “land flowing with milk and honey”. The luxury of milk is given out of parental love: a mother’s tenderness or God’s compassion.

            Wine makes the heart glad. (Psalm 104:15)

Although the Bible denounces excessive drinking, it calls for wine in sacraments as a sign of joy. Wine first appears in the Torah when Abraham returns victorious from a regional battle. Malki-tzedek (“King of Righteousness”) of Jerusalem brings him bread and wine and blesses him in the name of God. Later the Torah requires that people bring libation offerings of wine to the altar along with their offerings of animals and grain.

Since the word of God is compared to water, milk, and wine, Joanne Yocheved Heligman wrote in The Women’s Haftarah Commentary, focusing on “spiritual goals” will nurture us with a balance of physical sustenance (water), love (milk), and spiritual joy (wine).

I would add that spiritual work is sustaining, like water, when it involves reading, studying, and interpreting words. It is nurturing, like milk, when it involves praying and behaving ethically toward other people. And it brings joy, like wine, when we have emotional and mystical experiences—although we must avoid becoming drunk on religious experiences and spending too much time away from the practical world.

When we feel empty and long for something we might call God, are we longing for water, milk, or wine?  The Psalms identify the longing for God’s presence with thirst for water.

           Like a deer who longs for streams of water,

                 So my soul longs for You, God;

           My soul is  tzamei  for God, for the god of life.

                 When can I come in? (Psalm 42:2)

May we all discover where to find free water, and all the other nourishment we long for.

Haftarat Bereishit—Isaiah: A Reason to Exist

October 26, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Isaiah 2 | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week we read the very first Torah portion, Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8) and the haftarah is Isaiah 42:5-43:10.

In the beginning are the gods, or one god. The god(s) make the sky and the earth.  Later, the god(s) invent human beings.

That order of creation appears in most of the myths of the ancient Near East, from the Sumerians of circa 3000 B.C.E. to the Israelites of circa 530 B.C.E. But the reason why human beings were created changes.

Creation of the Human in Enuma Elish

The Sumerian creation myth was retold in Mesopotamia for thousands of years, with different names for the gods. The most complete expression of this myth that archaeologists have found so far is several copies of the Enuma Elish, a seven-tablet book in Akkadian cuneiform dating to about 1100 B.C.E.

Tiamat pursued by Marduk

Tiamat pursued by Marduk

The story begins when the two primordial gods mixed their waters together”, and the female, Tiamat, gives birth to more gods.  The gods multiply, and two factions fight against each other.  The hero-god (Marduk, in the copy from Babylon) kills Tiamat, the leader of the other faction, and creates the world out of parts of her body. Then he has a clever idea: the gods won’t have to work to get their own meals if they create humans to serve them.  The gods bind Tiamat’s favorite consort, Kingu, and an older god, Ea, makes humankind out of Kingu’s blood.

            From his blood he created mankind,

            On whom he imposed the service of the gods, and set the gods free.  (Enuma Elish, Tablet 6, lines 33-34)

Tablet Seven of Enuma Elish specifies the work the humans will do for the gods: providing lavish food offerings, taking care of their shrines, burning incense for them, and retelling their heroic stories.

Creation of the Human in Genesis 2

The first Torah portion in the Bible offers two creation myths.  It opens with an account organized into seven days, which was probably written sometime between the 9th and 6th centuries B.C.E. during the time of the first temple in Jerusalem. This account is immediately followed by a story that was probably written down earlier, in the 10th century B.C.E.

The second story begins:

On the day of God’s making the earth and the heavens, no bushes of the field existed yet on the earth, and no greens of the field had sprouted yet, because God had not made it rain upon the earth, and there was no adam to work the ground.  But fresh water ascended from the earth and watered all the surface of the ground. God vayitzer the adam out of dirt from the ground, and blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and the adam became an animated animal. (Genesis/Bereishit 2:4-7)

Hand of God, by Auguste Rodin

Hand of God,
by Auguste Rodin

adam (אָדָם) = human, humankind.

vayitzer (וַיִּיצֶר) = then he/it shaped, formed. (From the root yatzar (יָצַר) = shaped, formed, fashioned.)

In this creation myth there is only one god, and no sex. God makes the earth and the sky, but the writer does not care how. The important thing is that the earth consists of bare, moist dirt.  This is God’s raw material for making humankind, along with God’s own breath. One can imagine God as a human artist shaping a figure as if modeling clay, then blowing into its nostrils and bringing it to life.

And God took the adam and put it in the garden of Eden, to tend it and to watch over it. (Genesis 2:15)

God runs a few experiments, telling the adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge, inviting it to name animals, splitting it into male and female humans, and providing a talking snake.  Eventually God sends the two humans back into the world, which now contains rain, plants, and animals as well as dirt.

God does not create the adam to serve as a slave. Instead, the adam must watch the garden—while God is watching the adam.

Creation of the Human in Genesis 1

The redactors of the Bible placed the creation myth written during the time of the first temple at the very beginning of the book, before the earlier story about God making the adam out of dirt and breath. This story starts:

In a beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)

In this account, God is a spirit and a voice that speaks things into being. No raw materials are necessary. The account is divided into seven days, and God does not create humans until the sixth day, right after the other mammals.

Sixth Day of Creation, Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Sixth Day of Creation,
Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

And God created the adam in Its image, in the image of God It created it; male and female It created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subjugate it! And rule over fish of the sea and birds of the skies and all animals that crawl over the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

Today it is obvious that we have gone overboard in subjugating the earth and its animals. But in the Torah, before God assigns humankind that job, God says the human is made in God’s image. Perhaps humans are God’s proxies, assigned to handle the administration of the earth in place of God.

Creation of the Human in Second Isaiah

The second half of the book of Isaiah was written around 550-510 B.C.E., when King Cyrus of Persia finished conquering the Babylonian Empire. The prophet encourages the Israelite families that were deported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar’s conquering army to take advantage of King Cyrus’s policy of letting subjugated populations return to their former lands and rebuild temples for their own gods.

The exiles needed a lot of encouragement. Many of them doubted that the god of a nation that no longer existed would have the power to help them.  This week’s haftarah declares that God still has a purpose for the Israelites and will indeed redeem them.  Second Isaiah alludes to both of the creation stories in Genesis, reminding the Israelites that their god is the ultimate god, the creator of the world and all humankind, before he or she turns in a new direction.

            Thus said the god, God—

                        Creator of the heavens, stretching them out,

                        Spreader of the earth and her products,

                        Giver of breath to the people upon it,

                        And spirit to those who walk on it—   

by Waithamai

by Waithamai

           “I am God.  I summoned you with right conduct,

            And I held you firmly by your hand,

           Ve-etzarekha, and I gave you

            A covenant of a people, a light of nations.

           To open the eyes of the blind…” (Isaiah 42:5-7)

ve-etzarekha (וְאֶצָּרְךָ) = and I shaped you.  (From the root yatzar.)

Here God giving breath and spirit to all humanity, then “shapes” the children of Israel, using the same verb, yatzar, as when God shaped the adam our of dirt in Genesis 2. Second Isaiah implies that God yatzar the children of Israel in order to receive a covenant. Next the old covenant between God and the Israelites acquires a new purpose: in addition to obeying all of God’s rules, the people must now enlighten other nations.

What are the people of other nations (as well as many exiled Israelites) not seeing?

According to the haftarah, the Israelites must spread the word that God’s prophecies always come true, and the God of Israel is the only real god.

           You are My witnesses,

                        declares God,

            And My servant whom I have chosen. (Isaiah 43:10)

*

In all four creation stories from the ancient Near East, gods create the world and then add human beings.  In Enuma Elish, the purpose of humankind is to work for the gods.

In the oldest creation story in Genesis, the purpose of humankind seems to be to increase knowledge: human knowledge of the garden and of good and bad, and divine knowledge of human nature.

In the opening creation story in Genesis, the purpose of humankind is to rule over the earth and its other animals.

In second Isaiah, the purpose of the Israelites is to enlighten other peoples, ultimately leading them to convert to worshiping the God of Israel as the only real god.

Today the theory of evolution provides a logical explanation of why human beings exist, and many people consider our mental complexity an accidental side-effect of the process. In this line of thinking, humankind seems to have no purpose; the best we can do is follow Sartre and invent our own individual reasons for being.

But modern science cannot explain everything; there is room for a new concept of God, and even for the idea of a collective purpose.  What if there is a purpose for humankind in general?  What might it be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            That is when you will call and God will answer;

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

Good deeds create atonement.

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

Jonah Preaching in Nineveh,
by Jakob Steinhardt, 1923

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

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

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

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

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

Repentance creates atonement.

Third Haftarah: Reading from 2 Samuel for Saturday

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

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

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

            He rescues me ki He is pleased with me.

            God treats me according to my righteousness,

            According to the cleanness of my hands He requites me.

            Ki I have kept the ways of God,

            And I have not done evil before my God.

            Ki all His laws are in front of me

            And from His decrees I do not swerve.

            And I am without blame or blemish for Him,

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

ki (כִּי) = because, when, if.

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

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

Bathsheba with a letter from King David, by Rembrandt

Bathsheba, by Rembrandt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When David says:

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

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

God treats me according to my righteousness,

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

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

            I became without blame or blemish for Him,

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

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

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

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

Haftarat Nitzavim—Isaiah: Dressed Up

September 28, 2016 at 11:01 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Nitzavim | 2 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 Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20) and the haftarah is Isaiah 61:10-63:9).

The final haftarah before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) is the last of the seven weeks of consolation.  The reading from second Isaiah begins:

            I truly rejoice in God;

            The soul of my body shouts with joy for my God!

            For [God] has dressed me in garments of liberation:

            [God] wrapped me in a meiyl of tzedakah

            Like a bridegroom, priest-like in a glorious turban,

            And like a bride adorned with her jewelry. (Isaiah 61:10)

meiyl (מְעִיל) = formal robe worn over other garments, wrapped and tied with a sash.  (Plural:  meiylim.)

tzedakah (צְדָקָה) = righteousness, right behavior, justice.

This poetic passage is narrated by the prophet, but it implies that God is dressing every Israelite living in exile in Babylon with the same amazing garments.

Second Isaiah rejoiced because after more than 50 years of exile, the Israelites in Babylon were free.  The Persian king Cyrus finished conquering the Babylonian Empire and decreed in 535 B.C.E. that all foreign populations were now free to return to their old homelands and rebuild their own temples. According to second Isaiah (45:1), God anointed King Cyrus as God’s agent in order to liberate the Israelites.

The poet expresses this liberation in terms of clothing.  God dresses the Israelites in new garments, garments associated with priesthood and weddings.

Garments of the high priest

Garments of
the high priest

High Priest

The word meiyl appears 28 times in the Hebrew Bible.  The first ten times it refers to a robe worn exclusively by the high priest.

They shall make the garments of Aaron to sanctify him to serve as a priest to Me. And these are the garments they shall make: a breast-piece and an oracular-apron and a meiyl and a checkered tunic and a turban and a sash… (Exodus/Shemot 28:3-4)

The purpose of the unique costumes worn by the priests is to make the men holy so they can serve in the sanctuary.  In this case, the clothes do make the man.  The high priest, beginning with Aaron, wears additional garments, including a meiyl over his tunic. The high priest’s meiyl is a long rectangle of woven fabric with a nicely finished neck-hole in the middle.  It is dyed completely blue, and it has alternating gold bells and embroidered pomegranates around the bottom hem. (For more details, see my posts Tetzavveh: The Sound of Ringing, and Tetzavveh: The Clothes Make the Man.)

Prophet-Judge

In the first five books of the Bible, only the high priest wears a meiylAfter that, a meiyl is the prophet Samuel’s signature garment from childhood to death and beyond.  When he is a boy serving as an attendant at the temple in Shiloh,

…his mother made for him a little meiyl, and she brought it up for him every year when she went up with her husband to slaughter the animal sacrifice. (1 Samuel 2:19)

Samuel continues to wear a meiyl as Israel’s chief prophet and judge.  After Samuel has died, King Saul asks the witch of En-Dor to summon his ghost.

And he said to her: What do you see?  And she said: An old man rising up, and he, he is wrapped in a meiylThen Saul knew that he was Samuel… (1 Samuel 28:14)

Rulers and royalty

Although the highest service is to God, the Bible also shows rulers dedicated to serving their nations wearing meiylimKing Saul, King David, the princes of the Phoenician city-states in the book of Ezekiel, and Ezra the Scribe—who was the informal ruler of Jerusalem when the exiles began to rebuild.

The children of rulers might also wear meiylimKing Saul’s son Jonathan removes his meiyl and gives it to David as a pledge of love.  Once David is the king, he dresses his daughters in meiylim.

The only people in the Bible who wear meiylim even though they are neither rulers nor prophets nor priests appear in the book of Job.  Job tears his meiyl in grief when he hears that all his children are dead, and Job’s three friends tear their meiylim when they first see him sitting in the garbage dump, covered with boils.  Here the meiyl seems to be merely a garment indicating the status of prominent citizens.

Metaphor

Four of the meiylim in the Bible are imaginary; the image of a robe reinforces the idea of being wrapped in something.  A meiyl is used in a metaphor for being wrapped in tzedakah in Job 29:14, and for being wrapped in shame in Psalm 109:29.  God wraps Itself in a meiyl of zeal in Isaiah 59:17.  And in this week’s haftarah, God wraps the prophet and every exiled Israelite ina meiyl of tzedakah”.

Perhaps men wore meiylim to their weddings in Biblical times, but the Bible does not say.  Brides and bridegrooms did wear their most beautiful clothes and jewelry, and the haftarah compares the bridegroom’s turban to the turban of a priest. The haftarah goes on to say that the rebuilt Jerusalem will  “marry” God, and the returning Israelites will “marry” Jerusalem.  It is appropriate, then, for God to dress the new Jerusalemites as if they were priests serving God.

The divine act of wrapping the Israelites in meiylim of tzedakah also explains a statement at the end of last week’s haftarah, in which God tells Jerusalem:

            And your people, all of them tzaddikim,

            Forever they will possess the land…(Isaiah 60:21)

tzaddikim (צַדִּיקִים) = persons who are innocent, morally in the right, righteous, just. (From the same root as tzedakah.)

How could all of the people be, or become, tzaddikim? The answer in this week’s haftarah is that God is wrapping them in tzedakah by wiping the slate clean and granting everyone a fresh start, in which they are innocent and dedicated to righteous service, dressed by God in the meiyl of a high priest, a king, a bridegroom.

*

Thus in the seventh and final haftarah of consolation, God is viewed as a being who grants the Israelites total forgiveness for their past misdeeds, and lovingly wraps them in robes that consecrate them and transform them into perfectly good people.

We all drag behind us the memories of our own misdeeds. Some of us strive to become better people, serving the good and staying on the right side of morality and God. What a blessing it would be for a supernatural being to grant us complete absolution and a fresh start as a human with naturally good instincts and desires!

Yet just as the Israelites who returned to Jerusalem soon began committing new misdeeds, we, too, would stray from the right path. Our new meiylim would fade into a memory, and we would once again face the human condition, in which we are constantly given opportunities to choose our own behavior.

But after all, it is greater to choose to do the right thing than to do it unintentionally. And it is greater to do tzedakah because we have consciously developed good habits than to do it because we have no free will.

Then we can say, with second Isaiah:

            The soul of my body shouts with joy for my God!

            For [God] has dressed me in garments of liberation.

Haftarat Ki Tavo—Isaiah: A Place for Feet

September 23, 2016 at 10:11 am | Posted in Isaiah 2, Ki Tavo | 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 Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8) and the haftarah is Isaiah 60:1-22).
by Michelangelo

by Michelangelo

A popular image of God is of an old man with a beard, floating in the sky and stretching out his hand like the God that Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel. But the Hebrew Bible never mentions a beard in connection with God.  “By the hand of God” appears all over the Bible, but it is simply an idiom for “through the agency of God”.  Sometimes a deed is accomplished by the hand of a human being, sometimes by the hand of God.

In the Bible, the most common anthropomorphic image of God is of someone enveloped in robes, sitting on a throne. The face is too bright to be seen, and the hands are not mentioned. But sometimes the feet are.

The feet of God appear in this week’s haftarah, where second Isaiah encourages the exiles in Babylon to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem.  God tells Jerusalem that someday the other nations, from Sheba to the Phoenician cities of Lebanon, will bring tribute to her.

            The magnificence of the Lebanon will come to you,

            All its juniper, fir, and cypress,

            To glorify the place of My holy site;

            And the place of My raglayim I will honor.  (Isaiah 60:13)

raglayim (רַגְלַיִם) = pair of feet. (From regel, רֶגֶל = foot. Regalim, רְגָלִים = feet (more than two); times, occasions.)

The Babylonian army had burned the First Temple to the ground when it captured Jerusalem and deported its leading families to Babylon in 589-587 B.C.E.  But in 535 B.C.E., the Persian king Cyrus captured Babylon and decreed that all of its foreign populations were free to return to their former homes and worship their own gods. Some of the exiled Israelites were skeptical about going.  So in this week’s haftarah, God promises that once the Israelites build a new temple in Jerusalem, God will honor it as the place of the divine presence. Second Isaiah refers to God’s presence in terms of both God’s light and God’s raglayim.

The most stunning appearance of God’s feet is in the book of Exodus/Shemot, when 74 people climb halfway up Mount Sinai.

Then they went up, Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and 70 of the elders of Israel.  And they saw the God of Israel, and beneath his raglayim it was like a making of bricks of sapir and like an image of the sky for purity.  (Exodus/Shemot 24:9-10)

sapir (סַפִּיר) = a blue precious stone. (From the same root as safar (סָפַר) = counted up, and seifer (סֵפֶר) = scroll, document, book.)

Do the 74 Israelites actually see human-shaped feet against the bright blue sky?  Is it a shared vision in a dream state?  Or do they see something indescribable, which Exodus tries to capture with the metaphors of feet (suggestive of footsteps), sapir (suggestive of writing) and sky (which is also the word for heavens)?

Baal Preparing Thunder & Lightning

Baal Preparing
Thunder and Lightning

Four other references to God’s feet are based on descriptions of Baal the storm-god in other Canaanite religions. For example:

            And He bent down the sky and descended,

            And a thick fog was beneath his raglayim.  (Psalm 18:10)

Did the original poets who invented these descriptions believe that Baal actually had feet and stood on the clouds, or were they simply writing poetry?  What about the poets who applied those descriptions to the God of Israel?

The Bible does use raglayim for several idioms involving human beings. When a man’s foot slips or stumbles, it means he is straying from the path of righteousness. Raglayim also appears as a euphemism for genitals, and even urination. In another biblical idiom, when person A bows at the raglayim of person B, it means A submits to B’s authority.  An example occurs in this week’s haftarah immediately after the verse about God’s feet.

            And they will walk to you bowing,

            The children of your oppressors.

            And they will bow down at the soles of your raglayim,

            Everyone who used to scorn you.

            And they will call you City of God,

            Zion, Holy of Israel.  (Isaiah 60:14)

Pharaoh Tutankhamun's throne and footstool

Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s throne and footstool

 

People bow down to the ground to honor God throughout the Hebrew Bible, but they never bow to God’s feet. They do, however, bow down to God’s footstool in the Psalms.

            Let us enter His sanctuary.

            Let us bow down to His hadom-raglayim.

            Arise, God, to your resting-place,

            You and the ark of Your power!  (Psalm 132:7-8)

hadom-raglayim (הֲדֺם־רַגְלַיִם) = the stool for a pair of feet; footstool. (Used in the Bible only five times, always in reference to God).

In Psalms, Lamentations, and 2 Chronicles, God’s footstool is either the ark or the whole First Temple in Jerusalem. But in second Isaiah, the idea of God’s footstool expands along with the idea of God:

Thus said Hashem:

            The heavens are My throne

            And the earth is My hadom-raglayim.

            Where is this house that you will build for Me?

            Where is this place, my resting-place?

            All these were made by My hand,

            So all these came into being

                        —declares God.  (Isaiah 66:1-2)

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This week’s haftarah is the sixth of seven readings from second Isaiah called the seven haftarot of consolation. Each one gives us a different view of God, either by shaking up one of the traditional beliefs about a local, anthropomorphic God or by expanding on the concept of a single abstract God for the whole universe.

How can we interpret the line “And the place of My raglayim I will honor” in this haftarah?

God is addressing Jerusalem—but not the ruined houses and broken stones of the old city in the hills of Judah.  God is really addressing the people of Jerusalem, the exiles who feel ruined and broken in Babylon. Now they have a chance to go home and rebuild. Now the people can make themselves into a holy footstool, a hadom-raglayim, for God.

Then will they see God’s feet over their heads?  No. In the rest of this week’s haftarah second Isaiah describes God’s presence in terms of light, not body parts.  The haftarah begins:  Arise, shine, for your light has come.  (See my earlier post, Haftarah for Ki Tavo—Isaiah: Rise and Shine.)

After God promises to honor the temple as if God’s feet rested there, the haftarah says:

            God will be for you an everlasting light;

            And your God will be your splendor.  (Isaiah 60:19)

The presence of God is more like light than like a robed figure with feet.  And if you make yourselves a holy community, the light of God will shine through you.

Haftarat Ki Teitzei—Isaiah: Owners and Redeemers

September 13, 2016 at 10:32 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Ki Teitzei | 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 Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) and the haftarah is Isaiah 54:1-10).

            For a little while I abandoned you,

            But with great compassion I will gather you in. (Isaiah 54:7)

This week’s haftarah is a poem in which the husband is God, and the wife is the Israelites living in exile in Babylon.

I discussed the portrayal of God as a defective husband in my post Haftarah for Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser, so this week I will focus on a verse in which the poet, second Isaiah, tells the Israelites they will no longer experience public disgrace—

            Because your be-alim is your Maker;

                        “God of Tzevaot” is His name.

            And your go-eil is the Holy One of Israel;

                        “God of all the earth” He will be called. (Isaiah 54:5)

be-alim (בְּעָלִים) = plural of ba-al (בַּעַל) = owner, husband, lord, master; or a god in other Canaanite religions. (A noun related to the verb ba-al (בָּעַל) = possess, rule over, take into possession as a wife.)

tzevaot (צְבָאוֹת) = armies. (“Sabaoth” in older English translations.)

go-eil (גֺּאֵל) = (singular) redeemer, ransomer, avenger.

Ba-al

The word ba-al in this context does not mean a Canaanite god, but rather lord or husband. The eighth-century B.C.E. prophet Hosea introduced the idea of God as Israel’s husband, and it became a popular prophetic motif in the Bible. Hosea uses two words for “husband”: ba-al and ish. God tells “his” straying wife (the Israelites) that when she returns to him,

            You will call Me “my ish”,

            And no longer will you call Me “my ba-al”. (Hosea 2:18)  

sketch by Rembrandt

sketch by Rembrandt

ish (אִישׁ) = man, husband, person, someone.

The term ish puts the husband and wife on friendly and equal footing. The term ba-al makes the husband the wife’s owner and ruler.

This week’s haftarah uses the plural of majesty, calling God be-alim. The plural of majesty is appropriate for the kind of husband who owns and rules over his wife, a ba-al rather than an ish.

When second Isaiah then calls God “your Maker” (osayikh(עֺשַׂיִךְ)—also a plural of majesty), the prophet may be implying that God owns them because “he” created them in the first place.

Tzevaot

Next comes the name “God of Armies”, commonly translated as “Lord of Hosts”. The Bible uses the word tzevaot both for the armies of nations at war, and for the constellations of stars in the sky—considered as formations of God’s angelic servants. God has ultimate power over the success or failure of all armies. The time when God rejects “his wife” in the haftarah corresponds to the beginning of the Babylonian exile in 587 B.C.E., when the Babylonian army razed Jerusalem and deported its leading families to Babylon, which they were not allowed to leave.

Second Isaiah was written around the end of the exile in 538 B.C.E., when the Persian army captured Babylon and its king, Cyrus, decreed general freedom of religion and movement. The prophet’s agenda was to encourage the Israelite exiles who had been assimilating in Babylon to return to their own religion and their own former home. By using the name “God of Armies”, second Isaiah might be saying, “Do not despair! Your husband, owner, and maker also has the power to replace the army that punished you with an army that will rescue you!”

(Another reason for including the name “God of tzevaot” might be to counter the Babylonian view of stars as gods, and remind the people that the God of Israel controls the stars.)

Go-eil

A go-eil in the Bible is the kinsman whose duty is help his close relatives in one of three ways. When an impoverished relative sells himself into slavery, the nearest kinsman who can afford it is the go-eil who must buy him back. When an impoverished relative sells a field, the go-eil buys back the land to keep it in the family, and lets his relative farm it. And when a judge orders the death of a relative’s murderer, the go-eil serves as the executioner.

The Israelites in exile are like slaves because they are unable to leave Babylon, the house of their master. And they are landless because the Babylonians now rule their own former kingdom of Judah.

When second Isaiah calls God the go-eil of the Israelites, it means that God will rescue them from their captivity in Babylon and return them to the land of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem. But it also implies that God’s relationship to the Israelites is not only like that of a husband-owner, but also like that of a brother or uncle who is responsible for rescuing them.

This intimate view of God probably did comfort and inspire some of the Israelites in Babylon. I can imagine that other exiles would prefer either an abstract “God of all the earth”, or a friendlier sort of divine husband, an ish.

After all, when God’s wife and possession (the Israelites) did not obey him, her ba-al punished her by arranging for the Babylonian army to seize Jerusalem. Now, when God is in a better mood, he will be the ba-al who takes his wife back to rule over her again, and the go-eil who redeems her by executing her Babylonian enemies and arranging for the Persian army to seize Babylon. The Israelites are in the same position as the wife of a despot; they must meekly accept whatever God does, and be grateful when anything good comes their way.

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Last week, in Haftarah for Shoftim—Isaiah: A New Name, I wrote that each of the seven haftarot of consolation (the readings from second Isaiah during the seven weeks between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah) offers a different view of God. This is the fifth haftarah of consolation, and its view of God is open to several interpretations.

I think there is some truth in the idea that all human beings, not just the Israelites in Babylon, are like the wife of a despot who must meekly accept whatever our God does, and be grateful when anything good comes our way. After all, we can take actions that change our lives, but we cannot make our lives from scratch. “Whatever God does” could mean everything that is out of our hands, from the laws of physics to our genes and the world we were born into. If we do not accept reality, we doom ourselves to perpetual anger and misery.

But besides taking whatever actions we can to improve ourselves, our lives, and our world, we can also be grateful for the good that happens to come our way. I am grateful I happened to meet my beloved husband. And on another level, I am grateful for the sight of marigolds in the sunlight outside my window.

But I am also ready to say “God of all the earth” instead of thinking of God as an autocratic family member!

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