Shemini, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, & Psalm 131: Silenced

March 27, 2019 at 2:03 pm | Posted in Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Psalms/Tehilim, Shemini | Leave a comment

Something shocking happens after the first priests, Aaron and his four sons, consecrate the new altar in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (“Eighth”).1

The Two Priests Are Destroyed, by James Tissot

Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron, each took his fire-pan and he put embers on it and he placed incense on it.  And they brought alien fire in front of God, which [God] had not commanded them [to do].  And fire went out from before God, and it devoured them, and they died in front of God.  Then Moses said to Aaron: “It is what God spoke, saying:  Through those close to me, I will be proven holy; and in the presence of all the people I will be glorified.” And Aaron, vayidom. (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:1-3)

vayidom (וַיִּדֺּם) = he was silent, he became quiet; he was motionless.  (A form of the verb damam, דָּמַם = was silent, quiet, still, motionless.2)

Why do Aaron’s two older sons bring unauthorized incense into the new tent-sanctuary?  Why did Moses tell Aaron, who has just watched his sons die, that God said, “Through those close to me, I will be proven holy”?  Why is Aaron is silent and still?

I have offered some speculations in previous blog posts.  (See Shemini: Fire Meets Fire and Shemini: Mourning in Silence.)  This year I wondered why Aaron’s silence continues beyond the initial shock of the catastrophe.  Does guilt tie his tongue?  Is he too exhausted or frightened to make a move, except to obey an order?  Or is it possible that he has a moment of enlightenment?

  • After the first shock, Aaron might be unable to move or make a noise because he is overwhelmed by guilt.  Maybe he set a bad example when he made an alien idol, the golden calf.  Maybe he should have stopped Nadav and Avihu the instant when they filled their fire-pans.  Maybe God is punishing him for doing the wrong thing.
  • After the first shock, he might remain silent at some signal from his brother Moses.  As soon as Moses has arranged for Aaron’s cousins to remove the bodies, he orders Aaron and his two surviving sons to refrain from mourning.3  Aaron obediently remains silent until a question comes up about an animal offering; then he has recovered enough to take initiative again.4
  • After the first shock, Aaron might realize that no one is safe, not even Moses’ family.  He did not survive the episode of the golden calf because he was Moses’ brother, but merely because God had another plan.  God chose all four of his sons to serve as priests, then killed two of them on their first day of service.  This is life, and anything can happen.  In a moment of non-attachment, Aaron waits quietly for whatever happens next.

All three of these attitudes can be expressed with silence, as we see in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Psalm 131.

Jeremiah and Guilt

In the book of Jeremiah, God declares through the prophet that all the people of Jerusalem will die because they are guilty of persistent wrongdoing.  At one point, Jeremiah interrupts:

Fortress on a Hill, by Augustin Hirschvogel, 1546

Why are we sitting here?

Let us gather and enter fortified towns, venidmah there.

For God, our God, hadimanu,

And has made us drink venom,

Because we offended God. (Jeremiah 8:14)

venidmah (וְנִדְּמָה) = and we will be still and wait.  (Another form of the verb damam.)

hadimanu (הֲדִמָּנוּ) = has silenced us.  (Also a form of damam.)

Jeremiah repeatedly declares that the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem will succeed because God is punishing the people for their sins.  They are guilty, so they must be silent.

Ezekiel and Obedience

Moses tells Aaron and his surviving sons that priests may not bare their heads or tear their clothing even if a close family member dies.  All the other Israelites can wail and mourn, but not the holy priests.

Mourning is also silenced in the book of Ezekiel, a prophet from a family of priests (who would be priest himself if the Babylonians had not deported him from Jerusalem).  Ezekiel reports that God told him:

Ezekiel (with head-dress), by Michelangelo

Human, I am here taking away from you by pestilence what is precious in your eyes.  And you may not beat the breast, nor wail, nor shed a tear.  Groan in dom.  You may not do mourning rites for the dead.  You shall tie on your head-dress and put your sandals on your feet, and you may not cover your lips, and you may not eat the bread of other men.  (Ezekiel 24:16-17)

dom (דֺּם) = silence.  (From the verb damam.)

Ezekiel’s wife dies that night, and he obeys God’s orders.  When the Jews in his community in Babylon ask him why he is not mourning, Ezekiel replies that this is how they should act when the temple in Jerusalem falls and the sons and daughters they left behind die by the sword.  Like priests, they must not exhibit mourning even when God lets their beloved city and their children perish.

However, they must also remember their guilt.

… you shall not beat the breast and you shall not wail.  But you shall rot in your crimes, and you shall moan, each man to his brother.  (Ezekiel 24:23)5

Psalm 131 and Acceptance

After Nadav and Avihu die, Aaron is silent and motionless, a powerless man with nothing to do but wait.

Quiet acceptance is the theme of Psalm 131, a short poem translated here in full:

A song of ascents for David.

            God, my heart is not haughty

            And my eyes are not arrogant.

            I have not gone after greatness

            Or wonders too difficult for me.

            I have found equilibrium vedomamti my soul.

            Like a weaned child on its mother,

            Like a weaned child is my soul.

            Wait, Israel, for God

            From now until forever.  (Psalm 131:1-3)

vedomamti (וְדוֹמַמְתִּי) = and I have made quiet.  (Also a form of the verb damam.)

The speaker is humble, not striving to achieve.  He or she is weaned from attachment and dependence, and has found equilibrium6 and an inner state of peace and quiet.  Such a person can wait patiently for God to manifest.

*

Does Aaron become a quiet and humble man after God devours his two older sons?  Does he reach a state of peaceful non-attachment?  Perhaps; when God says Aaron must die without entering the “promised land”, Aaron, unlike Moses, does not make a fuss.7

What would it take for your soul to become quiet and peaceful after a disaster?

  1. See my post Shemini: Prayer and Glory.
  2. Some translators distinguish between damam I, which refers to silence and stillness, damam II, which refers to quiet sobbing or murmuring, and damam III, which refers to being destroyed or perishing. I believe this distinction is unnecessary.  A word indicating silence and stillness can also indicate a noise that is barely audible, like the “still, small voice” (demamah, דְּמָנָה) of God in 1 Kings 19:12.  And every time a word with the root damam has been translated as being devastated or perishing, it appears in a poetic passage that easily accommodates a translation in terms of silencing or stopping all motion. (See Psalm 31:18 and Jeremiah 25:37, 48:2, 49:26 and 50:30, and 51:6.)
  3. Leviticus 10:5-6.
  4. Leviticus 10:16-20.
  5. The translation of וּנְמַקֺּתֶם בַּעֲוֹנֺתֵיכֶם as “and you shall rot in your crimes” comes from Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Vol. 2: Prophets, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2019.
  6. Shiviti (שִׁוִּתִי) = I have leveled, I have made even, I have equated. Therefore my translation here is “I found equilibrium”.
  7. Both men are doomed to die outside the “promised land” of Canaan in Numbers 20:12, although Moses is the one who shouts the words God finds offensive. Aaron quietly dies on Mt. Hor in Numbers 20:23-28.  Moses complains about God’s decree in Deuteronomy 3:23-6.

Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys

March 15, 2018 at 8:07 pm | Posted in Jeremiah, Vayikra | 1 Comment

In English we speak of rational thinking as using our brains, of feelings emotions in our hearts, and of reacting intuitively as having gut feelings.  But no body part corresponds to our conscience, or to our inner self.  And no colloquial metaphor uses our kidneys.

Biblical Hebrew associates the whole conscious mind, rational and emotional, with the heart (leiv, לֵב or leivav לֵבָב).  There is neither a separate word nor a body part for intuitions.  But the seat of both the inner self and the conscience is in the kidneys (kelayot, כְּלָיֺת or kilyot כִּליוֹת).

Kidneys are first mentioned in the Torah in the book of Exodus/Shemot, when God gives Moses instructions for ordaining priests.  The first animal offering prescribed is a bull.

And you shall take all the fat that covers the innards and the extra lobe on the kaveid and the two kelayot and the fat that is on them, and you shall turn them into smoke on the altar.  (Exodus 29:13)

kaveid (כָּבֵד) = liver; heavy, weighty, oppressive, impressive, important.

The first eleven verses that refer to kidneys are all part of prescriptions for making animal offerings to God.1  For most types of offerings2 the fattiest parts, including the abdominal organs, are completely burned up into smoke.  Other parts of the animal are reserved for other purposes: meat for human consumption, blood for splashing on altars and curtains, and hides either for leather or for burning outside the camp.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra (“And he called”)3, describes specific organs burned up along with the belly fat in two types of offerings:

  • the shelamim (שְׁלָמִים = wholeness offering) of a community member who wants to thank God or give a voluntary donation.
  • the asham (אָשָׁם = guilt offering) of a priest who unwittingly caused the people to disobey one of God’s rules.

And [the priest] shall offer, from the slaughtered animal of the shelamim, a fire-offering to God: the belly fat and the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails; and the two kelayot and the fat that is on them, which is on the sinews; and the extra lobe on the kaveid over the kelayot which he removes.  And the sons of Aaron shall turn them into smoke at the altar … a fire-offering, a soothing scent for God.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 3:3-5)

The same organs are singled out for burning up into smoke when a priest offers a bull as an asham.4

Priests with ordination offering

When the instructions for removing and burning these organs were recorded,5 they were literal instructions for the priests serving at the temple in Jerusalem.  Before each animal is slaughtered, its owner must lay a hand on the animal’s head, a magic or symbolic act transferring some of the owner’s spirit or identity.6  Then when the animal is offered to God, the owner is offering part of himself to God.7

The meaty parts of the animal are lifted toward God, roasted rather than completely burned, and then eaten by the priests and their families and/or the owners and their guests.  Thus the animal’s owner shares his muscles, representing his actions in the world, with God.  He will continue to act so as to take care of himself, his family, and his community, but now he dedicates himself to doing so in alignment with God’s laws.

The organs from a shelamim or an asham that are completely burned could correspond symbolically with what the owner is surrendering entirely to God.  The extra lobe of the kaveid, the liver8 might represent excess self-importance; by surrendering it, the owner humbles himself.

What part of the owner is being offered with the kelayot. the kidneys?

*

The kidneys appear as metaphor in poems elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.  Sometimes kidneys refer to a person’s deepest self.  For example, the father in the book of Proverbs says:

            My son, if wisdom [is in] your leiv,

                        My leiv will rejoice in me.

           And my kilyot will exult,

                        When your lips are speaking upright things.                                                 (Proverbs 23:15-16)

The father predicts that if he observes his son thinking and speaking wisely, he will be happy both at the level of his conscious mind and at the level of his deepest feelings.

In some biblical poems, the kidneys represent a person’s conscience or moral sense.  For example, Psalm 16 implies that the voice of one’s conscience is the voice of God:

          I bless God, who has advised me;

                        Even [during] the nights my kelayot have chastised me.                        (Psalm 16:7)

And Jeremiah asks God:

Why does the way of the wicked succeed?

                        All the treacherous enjoy peace and quiet!

            You planted them, and they also took root;

                        They went and made fruit.

            You are close in their mouths,

                        But remote from their kilyot.

            Yet you, God, you know me, you see me.

                        And you have tested my leiv; it is with you.  (Jeremiah 12:1-3)

In other words, the wicked talk about God easily, but they have no access to divine warnings from their consciences.  Therefore they calmly continue to produce evil results.  Jeremiah, on the other hand, is dedicated to God with all his thoughts and feelings; his heart (mind) is in harmony with his kidneys (conscience).9

*

In the 6th century B.C.E. and earlier, astute Israelites and those who recorded their words understood the human conscience.  Jeremiah expected people with a weak conscience to be treacherous and violate God’s laws.  Today we identify sociopaths (or people with “anti-social personality disorders”) as those who have little or no conscience, who lack empathy or any deep feelings, and who casually disregard rules.  They are “the wicked” of the bible who have no communication with their shriveled kidneys, and therefore are unable to surrender their conscience or their feelings to God.

For the rest of us, who make it out of childhood with healthy kidneys, our minds have a chance at connecting with both our deepest feelings and our conscience.  But it does not happen automatically.

In Vayikra, the owner of a sacrificial animal brings his deepest self, as well as his conscience, to God as the kelayot of the animal are turned into smoke.  It is the ultimate act of trust in God.

Today we know that it is wise to check one’s own conscience before following what anyone else says God wants.  Some people find the voice of God in their own deepest selves and their own moral sense.

I pray that we all find our own ways to express thanksgiving and become more generous, like the shelamim donor; to pay attention and notice when we have inadvertently done something wrong, like the asham offerer; to cultivate empathy without selfishness; and to enlarge our own conscience so that we hear the divine voice of love rather than fear or hatred.

  1. Exodus 29:13, 29:22; Leviticus 3:4, 3:10, 3:15, 4:9, 7:4, 8:16, 8:25, 9:10, 9:19.
  2. In an olah (עֺלָה), a rising offering, the entire animal is turned into smoke rising up to God.
  3. The first Torah portion in each of the five books has the same name as the book, which is the first significant word to appear. In this case, both the book and its first portion are called Vayikra, the Hebrew word that opens the book of Leviticus.
  4. Leviticus 4:8-10.
  5. Modern scholars agree that Leviticus 1:1-8:36, comprising the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, were written by the “P” source. Although they disagree on the century in which P passages were written, scholars in the late 20th and early 21st centuries C.E. have all dated the P source to sometime when the first Israelite temple stood in Jerusalem, i.e. between the 10th century B.C.E. and the temple’s destruction in 588 B.C.E.
  6. Samakh (סָמַךְ) = he leaned or lay (a hand or hands) on. When Moses lays his hands on Joshua, he transfers some of his authority and spirit to his successor as the leader of the Israelites (Numbers 27:18-23, Deuteronomy 34:9).  When the Levites are ordained, the Israelites lay hands on them to make them the people’s substitutes for service in the sanctuary (Numbers 8:10).  The word samakh is also used for the ritual before an animal sacrifice.  The word smikha (סְמִיכָה), from the root samakh, refers to the ordination of rabbis and other Jewish religious functionaries to this day.
  7. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra Part 1, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem & New York, 2002, p. 16-17.
  8. Cattle, sheep, and goats have an extra lobe of the liver not found in humans. In Hebrew this lobe is the yoteret (יֺתֶרֶת), from the same root as yeter (יֶתֶר) = remainder, excess, what is left over.
  9. Kelayot also appear in Jeremiah 11:20, 17:10, and 20:12 as a different part of the mind from the leiv.

Haftarat Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship

August 11, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Posted in Devarim, Isaiah 1, Jeremiah | 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 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.

Haftarat Mattot—Jeremiah: Doomed to a Calling

August 3, 2016 at 9:11 pm | Posted in Jeremiah, Mattot | 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 Mattot (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 1:1-2:3.

Jeremiah discovers his calling in this week’s haftarah:

The word of God happened to me, saying:

     Before I enclosed you in the womb, I knew you.

     And before you went out from the womb, I consecrated you;

     A navi to the nations I appointed you. (Jeremiah 1:4-5)

navi (נָבְיא) = prophet. (Plural = neviyim (נְבִיאִים).)

There are two kinds of neviyim in the Bible: those who have ecstatic experiences of the divine but do not speak for God; and those who serve as mouthpieces or translators for God, giving God’s messages to other people. Jeremiah is the second kind of navi, like Moses, Bilam, Samuel, Natan, Elijah, Elisha, Jonah, Joel, Amos, Hosea, the first Isaiah, Micah, and Nahum before him.

Jeremiah is an adolescent when he hears God tell him he is a navi.

And I said:

     Ahahh! My master, God!

     Hey! I do not know how to speak,

     Because I am a youth. (Jeremiah 1:6)

Ahahh (אֲהָהּ) = a cry of alarm, like “oh no!” or “alas!”

Jeremiah does not want the job.

While Moses tried to get out of being God’s prophet by claiming his speech and his tongue were heavy, Jeremiah protests that he would be a poor speaker because he is too young.

Perhaps he is wise for his age and knows speaking out effectively against what others are doing requires insights that come from experience. Of course, that wisdom would actually make him more qualified!

More importantly, God consecrated him as a navi before he was born. The language in these poetic verses reflects an observation that we explain today through genetics: human beings are born with genes for certain talents and dispositions, which change from potential to actual in the right environment. Skills can be developed through education and practice, but you can become a stellar dancer only if you were born with certain physical traits, a stellar mathematician only if you were born with certain mental traits, a stellar prophet only if you were born with—what?

My guess is that a competent navi must be born with both the kind of intelligence needed by translators and eloquent speakers, and an unusual spiritual sensitivity.  Jeremiah must have had a way with words as a child, and he must have experienced glimpses or echoes of a reality behind our mundane reality.

People enjoy using their talents. So why is Jeremiah horrified at news that he must serve as a navi?

The haftarah opens by stating that Jeremiah began prophesying in the 13th year of the reign of Josiah, king of Judah, which scholars date to the 620’s B.C.E. Two neviyim are already active in Jerusalem at that time: Zephaniah (who has his own book) and Huldah (who is mentioned only when she utters a prophecy for King Josiah five years after Jeremiah’s call, in 2 Kings 22).

King Josiah began his reign at the age of eight, and while he was growing up, Zephaniah was predicting a day of reckoning when God would wipe out Jerusalem, Judah, and most of the world for injustice and idol worship, while giving refuge to a small number of survivors.

When Jeremiah is called to prophesy, Josiah is 21 and has not yet begun his campaign of wiping out the images, shrines, and priests of other gods. The kingdom of Judah is still full of polytheists worshipping Baal, Ashtoret, Molekh, Khemosh, Milkom, and various astral deities. Furthermore, the political situation in the region is shifting. The Assyrian Empire, which had earlier swallowed up the northern kingdom of Israel and made Judah its vassal state, is weakening. Wars are brewing between powers bigger than the little state of Judah. It would be all too easy for a sensitive person to imagine God using foreign armies to punish and destroy the Israelites.

Jeremiah probably expects that the speeches he must make as a navi will be at least as grim and unwelcome as Zephaniah’s. If Jeremiah hopes that at least his private life will continue as before, that hope probably dies when he hears God’s response to his attempt to excuse himself on the grounds of youth.

prophet 1And God said to me:

     Do not say “I am a youth”

     Because anywhere I send you, you will go,

     And anything I command you, you will speak.

     Do not be afraid in front of them,

     Because I will be with you to rescue you –declares God. (Jeremiah 1:7-8)

Theoretically Jeremiah could refuse the call, but God already knows Jeremiah will obey—and that he will need rescuing from “them”, people who have not yet been named. In case Jeremiah did not get the hint, later in this haftarah God says:

     And they will attack you

     But they will not vanquish you

     Because I will be with you—declares God—to rescue you. (Jeremiah 1:19)

How reassuring!

prophet 2Jeremiah rants against dishonesty, injustice, and the worship of other gods until King Josiah is killed in 609 B.C.E. During the reigns of the next four kings of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon vanquishes the old Assyrian empire and his army conquers Judah, putting Jerusalem under siege in 589 B.C.E.

Jeremiah blames idol-worship for the Babylonian attack, and advises each successive king of Judah (Yeho-achaz, Yehoyakim, Yehoyakin, and Tzidkiyahu) to surrender and make Judah a vassal of the new Babylonian empire. He knows it is the only way to save lives and preserve Jerusalem and its temple.

Despite all of Jeremiah’s prophesies, the people do not repent, and none of the kings submit to Babylon.  The Jerusalem faction that opposes surrender flogs, imprisons, and attempts to murder Jeremiah, so he will stop interfering with their power over the king.

prophet 3When the Babylonians finally do raze Jerusalem and its temple, and kill or take captive most of its leading citizens, all Jeremiah can do is save the lives of a few people who helped him. He spends the rest of his own life in exile in Egypt, prophesying about other countries whose kings do not listen to him.

Maybe Jeremiah glimpses his own future when God first calls him to serve as a navi. That future would make anyone cry Ahahh!

*

When I was young, I was one of many Americans who believed that if you discovered your true calling and did it, you would be successful and happy. The 1970’s and 80’s were the era of “Do your own thing” and “Follow your bliss”.

Gradually I realized that even when you pursue work you have a talent for and are passionate about, the world does not always rearrange itself to give you a clear path. Some individuals are lucky; I believe my father was born to be an engineer, and he had a profitable and satisfying career in that field. Some are unlucky, and pursue what speaks to their innermost heart only to end up broke and miserable. In some countries, those who pursue the work of a prophet speaking out against the government end up imprisoned (like Jeremiah) or killed (a fate he narrowly escaped).

And some people never try to pursue their calling, either because what they were born to do is something society expects from them anyway, or because they run away from the first intimation that they might have a calling.

What if you realized, with deep inner clarity, that you were called to devote your life to work that would lead to frustration and failure like Jeremiah’s?

Haftarat Bechukkotai—Jeremiah: Trust Me

June 2, 2016 at 10:40 am | Posted in Bechukkotai, Jeremiah | 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 Bechukkotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 16:19-17:14.

The God depicted in the Torah has sudden fits of anger and smites large groups of people, the innocent along with the guilty. No wonder so many people in the books of Exodus and Numbers do not trust this god to lead them safely to a new land! Yet the prophets from Moses on insist that trusting God—and following God’s rules—will be rewarded.

build houses and plant vineyards 2For example, this week’s Torah portion, Behukkotai  (“By My decrees”) opens with this divine promise:

If you go by My decrees, and My commands you observe, and you do them … Then [your] threshing will overtake [your] grape harvest, and [your] grape harvest will overtake your sowing, and you will eat your bread to satiation, and you will rest labetach in your land. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3, 5)

labetach (לָבֶטַח) = in security, with a feeling of safety. (From the root verb batach (בּטח) = trust, rely on, feel safe.)

The next verse shows that the feeling of safety will be justified:

And I will put peace in the land, and you will life down and nothing will frighten you, and I will keep bad beasts from the land, and a sword will not cross your land. (Leviticus 26:6)

This promise is never fulfilled in the Bible. Many of its books point out that the Israelites keep veering off the right path, disobeying the rules and worshiping other gods. It is their fault, not God’s, that they are never safe in their land.

In this model, God judges the people as a group; an individual, however virtuous, suffers the fate of his whole city or country. Similarly, in the book of Jeremiah God sends the Babylonians to conquer Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, because its people are acting immorally and worshiping other gods.

First Temple-2Some Jerusalemites think God will keep them safe because they have an impressive Temple stocked with priests. But the prophet Jeremiah warns:

Do not tivtechu in yourselves, in words of deception, saying: The temple of God, the temple of God, the temple of God is these [buildings]. (Jeremiah 7:4)

tivtechu (תִּבְטְחוּ) = you trust.  (Also from the root batach.)

The king of Judah and his officials think they can rely (batach) on fortifications, or stored-up wealth, or a rescue by the Egyptian army, or the words of prophets who contradict Jeremiah.

This week’s haftarah includes a poem on the futility of relying on other human beings, and the rewards of relying only on God.

Thus said God:

Cursed is the man yivtach in humankind

And makes flesh his strength;

He turns away his mind from God.

He is like a bare tree in the desert valley…

Blessed is the man yivtach in God;

And God is mivtacho.

Fruit (peaches)He is like a tree planted by water:

By a stream it sends forth its roots,

And it does not notice when summer heat comes,

And its leaves are luxuriant;

In a year without rain it does not worry,

And it does not stop making fruit. (Jeremiah 17:5-8)

yivtach (יְבְטַח) = who trusts, who relies on, who feels safe. (Also from the root batach.)

mivtacho (מִבְטַחוֹ) = what he trusts. (Also from the root batach.)

This poem (like psalms 8, 31, 52, and 56) takes a personal view of trusting God, and promises that individuals who rely on God are rewarded with long and fruitful lives—perhaps even if most of their people reject God. Since the word batach covers feelings as well as deeds, Jeremiah is promising a reward for individuals who have the right feelings about God. (See my earlier post, Bechukkotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward.)

Later in the book of Jeremiah we get an example of an individual who has the batach feeling about God. Just before the Babylonian army breaches the walls of Jerusalem, God tells Jeremiah to give a message to a Kushite servant of the king called Eved-Melekh, “servant of the king”.

bitachonGo and say to Eved-Melekh the Kushi: Thus said God of Armies, the god of Israel: … I will certainly save you, and you will not fall by the sword, and you will keep your life—because batachta in me, declares God. (Jeremiah 39:16, 18)

Kushi (כּוּשִׁי) = Kushite; a dark-skinned person from Kush, the land south of Egypt (now Ethiopia), or a descendant of a Kishite.

batachta (בָּטַחְתָּ) = you trusted, you felt safe.

In what way did the Kushi trust in God?

The year before, four officials of the king’s court in Jerusalem heard Jeremiah tell the people that God is giving the city to the Babylonian army, and whoever stays will die, but whoever defects to the Babylonians will live.

And the officials said to the king: Let this man be killed, please, because he is weakening the hands [morale] of the remaining soldiers in the city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking this way…And King Zedekiah said: Hey, he is in your hands, because the king can do nothing to oppose you. (Jeremiah 38:4-5)

The king feels as though he has to act as if he trusts his officials; he does not dare oppose them, even though he knows Jeremiah is a true prophet of God.

Then they took Jeremiah and they threw him down into the pit of Malkiyahu, son of the king, which was in the court of the guard, and they sent Jeremiah to his death. But Eved-Melekh the Kushi, a eunuch in the palace of the king, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the pit. And the king was sitting in the Gate of Benjamin. So Eved-Melekh went out from the palace of the king, and to spoke to the king, saying: My lord the king, these men have done evil in all they did to Jeremiah the prophet! They threw him down into the pit, and he will die below from starvation…

Jeremiah and Kushi and pitThe Kushi, a palace eunuch, might hesitate to speak against four powerful court officials. He might also hesitate to interrupt the king when he is dispensing justice in the city gate. But Eved-Melekh pleads for Jeremiah’s life without worrying about his own fate. And King Zedekiah seems relieved to have someone interrupt him and speak on Jeremiah’s behalf.

Then the king commanded Eved-Melekh the Kushi, saying: Take from here three men and raise Jeremiah the prophet from the pit before he dies. (Jeremiah 39:10)

Eved-Melekh saves Jeremiah’s life, and the prophet returns to the regular prison, where he gets bread and water until the Babylonian soldiers destroy Jerusalem about a year later. Then the Babylonians free Jeremiah and send him to another town in Judah. The four court officials do not take revenge on the Kushi eunuch, and we can assume that when the Babylonian general decides which Jerusalemites will die, which will be deported to Babylon, and which will be moved to another town in Judah, the Kushi is among those whose life is spared.

Eved-Melekh’s feeling of trust in God lets him do the right thing and rescue God’s prophet at the risk of his own life. This palace servant is especially remarkable because he is an immigrant from another country—who nevertheless serves the God of Israel better than Judah’s native officials and king do.

The Torah portion in Leviticus says that when all the people follow God’s rules, then God will reward them with real security, and as a result they will feel safe (labetach) in their land. But not even Moses can get all the people to follow God’s rules.

The haftarah from Jeremiah says that when individuals feel safe (yivtach) with God, then they are motivated to do good deeds, and as a result God rewards them with life and fruitfulness.

The book of Jeremiah does not say whether the eunuch Kushi becomes fruitful in some way other than having children. But God does reward him with life.

In my own life, I admit, I rarely feel safe enough to speak out in threatening situations or to oppose the plans of the powerful. But when I actually do, I feel filled with a spirit that I did not know I had, perhaps a divine spirit. And that grounded elation is its own reward, as I move forward with new courage and good deeds, fruitful and alive.

Haftarat Behar—Jeremiah: The Redeemer

May 23, 2016 at 2:49 pm | Posted in Behar, Jeremiah | 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 Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 32:6-27.

Prophets during the period of the kingdoms of Israel (931-722 B.C.E.) and Judah (931-586 B.C.E.) had more than one way to deliver God’s messages. They could preach to the king or to the people, in either poetry or prose. They could do performance art, acting out a message with props. Or they could do an apparently ordinary action that carried a symbolic meaning about God and country.

Jeremiah’s ordinary deed in this week’s haftarah, purchasing a field in his hometown from his cousin, carries a double meaning.

The grounds for the purchase are laid out in this week’s Torah portion, Behar:

Beggar, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Beggar, by Rembrandt van Rijn

If your kinsman becomes poor and must sell part of his property, then his nearest go-eil shall come and ga-al what his kinsman is selling. (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:25)

go-eil (גֹּאֵל) = redeemer; deliverer.

ga-al (גָּאַל) = redeem; prevent purchase by an outsider, buy back from an outsider, deliver from the hands of an enemy.

In other words, land must be kept within the extended family if possible. (And if not, God’s law requires that every 50 years will be a yovel or jubilee and all lands will return to the descendants of their original owners.) If someone needs to sell land, the nearest kinsman has the first right to buy it. If no kinsmen step forward to buy the land, and it is sold outside the clan, then when a kinsman has the means he is expected to step forward and buy it back. He does not have to return the land to the original seller (at least not until the next yovel year); the important point is to keep the land in the family.

These laws about land ownership would have seemed moot while Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonian army in 588-586 B.C.E. From all the accounts in the Bible, it became increasingly obvious that the Babylonians would win, and King Nebuchadnezzar would annex the whole kingdom of Judah to his own empire. Then his administration would decide who owned the land; the old property rights of the Israelites in Judah would be irrelevant.

Jeremiah speaks to King Zedekiah, 1897 illustration

Jeremiah speaks to King Zedekiah, 1897 illustration

Jeremiah spends most of the siege in prison in Jerusalem. The prophet keeps saying that rebelling against Babylon is futile, and the king of Judah should surrender before the city falls to Nebuchadnezzar’s troops. This is not a popular message with either King Zedekiah of Judah or his officials, especially since Jeremiah speaks in God’s name. Since Jeremiah is the son of Hilkiah, the late High Priest, people are likely to believe him. So the prophet is thrown in prison at least three times in the book of Jeremiah.

While Jeremiah is in prison at the beginning of this week’s haftarah, God tells him:

Hey! Chanameil, son of your uncle Shulam, will come to you saying: Buy yourself my field that is in Anatot, because yours is the duty of the ge-ulah to buy it. (Jeremiah 32:7)

ge-ulah (גְּאֻלָּה) = right of redemption; responsibility to redeem. (From the same root as ga-al.)

And Chanameil, the son of my uncle, came to me, as God had spoken, to the court of the guards. And he said to me: Buy, please, my field that is in Anatot, which is in the land of Benjamin, because the right of possession is yours and the ge-ulah is yours. Then I knew it was indeed the word of God. And I bought the field away from Chanameil, the son of my uncle, that was in Anatot. And I weighed out for him the silver, seven shekels and ten in silver. And I wrote in a document, and I sealed it and I designated witnesses… (Jeremiah 32:8-10)

Jeremiah describes all the details of the transaction, showing that it was done according to the letter of the law. Then God adds an instruction.

Thus said God of Armies, the god of Israel: Take these documents with this document of purchase, the sealed one and this uncovered one, and put them in a jar of pottery so that they will last a long time. For thus said God of Armies, the god of Israel: They will buy houses and fields and vineyards in this land again. (Jeremiah 32:14-15)

Preserving the documents of sale in a pottery jar indicates that after a long time, the Israelites will return and own their land again.

Then Jeremiah asks why God told him to redeem land in Judah when the kingdom was about to fall to the Babylonians anyway.

And the word of God happened to Jeremiah, saying: Hey! I am God, the god of all flesh. Is anything too wondrous for me? (Jeremiah 32:26-27)

Jerusalem, 587 B.C.E.

Jerusalem, 587 B.C.E.

God then declares that Jerusalem will be burned to the ground as part of God’s plan to use the Babylonians to punish the Israelites for their idolatry. But eventually God will bring the Israelites back to their land. In other words, God will be the go-eil for the Israelites.

Thus Jeremiah’s purchase of his cousin’s land prefigures God’s redemption of the Israelites.

At first I wondered if Jeremiah’s cousin Chanameil was merely acting out of divine inspiration to set up the symbolic story by asking Jeremiah to be his go-eil. But then I read another episode in the book of Jeremiah, a few chapters later, when the Babylonian (Kasdim) army temporarily lifts the siege.

And it happened that the Kasdim removed the front-line troops around Jerusalem on account of the [advancing] front-line troops of Pharaoh. And Jeremiah was going out of Jerusalem to go to the territory of Benjamin to apportion land there among the people. And he was at the gate of Benjamin, and there the commander of the guard …arrested Jeremiah the prophet, saying: You are defecting to the Kasdim! (Jeremiah 37:11-13)

Jeremiah winds up in prison again. But it is striking that his first idea, when the siege is temporarily lifted, is to walk back to his hometown, Anatot in the territory of Benjamin, and make sure the sale of his cousin’s land was carried out according to the documents he prepared.

I suspect Chanameil really was poor, and needed the price of his land in silver to survive. By selling the land to his first cousin Jeremiah, he could use the silver and still continue to farm the land—as best he could during the siege of Jerusalem a few miles to the north.

When there is a break in the siege, Jeremiah tries to go south to check up on his cousin and make sure no outsider has kicked his cousin off the land that he is now, technically, farming for Jeremiah. Even though he knows that the Babylonians will soon return, Jeremiah acts in the spirit, not just the letter, of the law in the Torah portion Behar. He is his cousin’s go-eil, and as long as possible he will strive to redeem him.

Jeremiah knows his world is falling apart. He knows the siege will resume in a few months, Jerusalem will burn to the ground, and the whole kingdom of Judah will fall to its enemies. Yet he risks his own limited freedom in an attempt to make sure his cousin is all right—knowing that both he and his cousin are likely to be killed or deported later that year.

The sale of the land in Anatot is a symbolic act God uses to tell people that although they are doomed, there is hope for the next generation. And the sale is a practical step Jeremiah takes to help someone in the present.

Whether the doom we see advancing on the world is war or global warming, may we all be like Jeremiah and remember that each individual and each day counts. Stage your symbolic protests for the sake of the big picture.  But be responsible and kind to another human, right here, right now.

Haftarot for Vayikra & Tzav—Isaiah & Jeremiah: Useless Gods

March 23, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Jeremiah, Tzav, Vayikra | 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). Last week the Torah portion was Vayikra (Leviticus 1.1-5:26) and the haftarah was Isaiah 43:21-44:23. This week the Torah portion is Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 7:21-8:3 and 9:22-23.

The first two Torah portions in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra consist entirely of instructions for making offerings on the altar: what each type of offering is for, what kind of animal or grain should be brought, and how the priests should process them. In Leviticus, this is the primary way to worship God, so the instruction manual is important.

The two accompanying haftarah readings both declare that offerings on God’s altar are meaningless when people are also making and worshiping idols.

The children of Judah have done what is bad in My eyes, declares God. They have set their abominable idols in the House with My name on it, defiling it. And they have built shrines of the Tofet in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, for burning their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command and which did not arise in my mind. (Jeremiah 7:30-31)

Tofet in "Bible Pictures", 1897

Tofet in “Bible Pictures”, 1897

Jeremiah decries the placement of statues of other gods right in God’s temple (“house”) in Jerusalem, as well as the practice of Tofet-worship in the valley below.  The haftarah from Isaiah points out that a craftsman might burn part of a log to burn for heat and cooking, and carve another part of the log into a statue to which he bows down and prays.

Yotzeir of an idol—

All of them are emptiness;

And what they crave

Cannot be useful.  (Isaiah 44:9)

yotzeir (יֹצֵר) = one who shapes, forms, fashions.

Other gods and the statues that represent them are empty, useless. God is the yotzeir of real humans; but a human is a yotzeir of false gods.

Jeremiah agrees that worshiping other gods is useless. In a prophecy that follows this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah says:

And the towns of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem will go to the gods for whom they sent up offerings in smoke, and call for help. But they [these gods] will certainly not rescue them at the time of their adversity. (Jeremiah 11:12)

The haftarah in Isaiah goes a step further, and declares other gods simply do not exist.

Thus said God, king of Israel

And its redeemer, God of Armies:

I am first and I am last

And except for Me there are no gods. (Isaiah 44:6)

The haftarot in Jeremiah and Isaiah agree that God punished the people of Judah for making and worshipping other so-called gods by sending in the Babylonian army to conquer the land and destroy Jerusalem and its temple. (See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)

Does that leave any hope for the future? Jeremiah, who witnessed the siege of Jerusalem in 589-587 B.C.E., predicts only more disaster.

Vulture on Assyrian relief carving in Kalhu

Vulture on Assyrian relief carving in Kalhu

And the carcasses of these people will be food for the birds of the sky and for beasts of the earth, and there will be no tomorrow. (Jeremiah 7:33)

And death will be preferable over life for all the remainder of those remaining from this wicked family, in all the places where I will push them… (Jeremiah 8:3)

But chapters 40-66 of the book of Isaiah were written at least 50 years later, after the Babylonian empire had been replaced by the Persians. Although the Jews did not get an independent kingdom again, the new Persian emperors granted them religious freedom and let those who wished go back to Jerusalem and build a second temple for their god.

The haftarah from Isaiah interprets this Persian policy as God’s intervention. After criticizing the Israelites for their idolatry, the haftarah says:

I have wiped away like a mist your rebellion

And like a cloud your transgressions.

Return to Me, for I have reclaimed You. (Isaiah 44:22)

How can they return? What should they do that is more important than making offerings at a rebuilt altar?

This week’s haftarah from Jeremiah says they should follow God’s directions for the right way to behave in the world.

Heed My voice, and I will be your god and you will be My people; but you must walk on the entire path that I command you, so that it will go well for you. (Jeremiah 7:23)

Last week’s haftarah from Isaiah says they should praise God to the rest of the world.

This people yatzarti for Myself:

My praise they should report! (Isaiah 43:21)

yatzarti (יָזַרְתִּי) = I formed, I shaped, I fashioned. (From the same verb as yotzeir above.)

Instead of forming statues of empty, useless gods, the people should report what the real God is.

But the Israelites of Judah turned deaf (according to Jeremiah) and mute (according to Isaiah) where God was concerned.

*

We still make idols, 2,600 years later, and we still worship “gods” that are ultimately useless. Some people pursue power as if it were the source of life—until their careers or families crash and they discover they live in a spiritual exile. Others dedicate themselves to accumulating or spending money—until a disaster reveals how they devoted so much time and energy to something so transient. We do not need an anthropomorphic god to send an army against us; serving the false gods we create carries its own intrinsic punishment, preventing us from leading full and meaningful lives.

A Jeremiah can point out that the wrong path leads to a bitter death. Sometimes this is the slap in the face we need to wake up.

But an Isaiah can give us hope for a second chance, however late in life. If we return to God—if we return of a life of appreciating reality (one form of praising God), appreciating one another, remembering we are only human, and rejoicing when we come home to our better selves—then the divine spirit will wipe away our former false worship like a mist, like a cloud. We can change, and true meaning can return to our lives.

Haftarat Mishpatim—Jeremiah: False Freedom

January 31, 2016 at 11:07 am | Posted in Jeremiah, Mishpatim | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18), and the haftarah is Jeremiah 34:8-22.

Town by town, city by city, the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar took over the land of Judah. The country could have remained a semi-independent vassal of Babylon, keeping its own temple and running its own internal affairs. But the last three kings of the Israelites had rebelled against their overlord. And each time Nebuchadnezzar’s retaliation had been more severe.

King Nebuchadnezzar

King Nebuchadnezzar

The prophet Jeremiah kept warning the kings of Judah to keep paying tribute to Babylon, but they never listened to him. Instead they flirted with Egypt. Only Jeremiah realized what was obvious to the Babylonians: that when Pharaoh Nekho lost the big battle with Nebuchadnezzar at Carchemish in 605 B.C.E., and lost all his vassal states to the new Babylonian Empire, Egypt was finished as a world power.

When King Yehoyakhim of Judah stopped paying tribute to Babylon in 597 B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem until it surrendered. When King Zedekiah stopped paying tribute eight years later, after secret negotiations with Egypt, the Babylonian army surrounded Jerusalem again.

This time Nebuchadnezzar also conquered the rest of Judah, town by town and city by city.

Trapped in Jerusalem, unable the send their slaves out to the fields to plant and harvest, the leaders of Judah were getting desperate. Soon their city would fall, and they would all be killed or, at best, deported to Babylon. Only a miracle could save them.

The god of Israel had made miracles for the Israelites before. The priests were still serving God in the temple. What more was needed? How could they win God’s favor again?

In this week’s hafatarah, it occurs to King Zedekiah that the people of Judah have been ignoring one of God’s commands:

If your brother or sister Hebrew sells himself to you, then he shall serve six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go chafshi from you. And when you let him go chafshi from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 15:12-13)

chafshi (חָפְשִׁי) = emancipated, freed. (Plural: chafshim.)

In ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah, men who could not pay their taxes or other debts sold themselves or their children as temporary slaves. After six years of service, their owners were required to set them free, and give the men a food supply and the means to make a living.

But the slave-owners of Judah had let the years pass without emancipation.

… the king, Zedekiah, cut a covenant with all the people who were in Jerusalem, to proclaim for them a dror: for each man to let go of his male slave and his female slave, the Hebrew male and the Hebrew female, chafshim, so that no one would be enslaved by his fellow Yehudi. And they heeded [the proclamation], all the officers and all the people who had entered in the covenant … they heeded and they let them go. (Jeremiah 34:8-10)

dror (דְּרוֹר) = emancipation of slaves every seventh year and every  fiftieth year.

Yehudi (יְהוּדִי) = citizen of Judah; Jew. (From Yehudah (יְהוּדָה) = the kingdom of Judah, the tribe of Judah, or the individual Judah in the book of Genesis.)

The slave-owners in Jerusalem had more than one reason to free their slaves. Besides wooing God’s favor, the general emancipation also meant that the owners no longer had to feed their slaves. And since no one could work in the fields anyway, the government could recruit the emancipated men as soldiers to help defend the city.

The siege lifted briefly when an Egyptian army marched north, perhaps intending to honor its new alliance with the king of Judah.  Most of the Babylonian army departed to take care of the Egyptian annoyance, and for a few months life in Jerusalem could return to normal.

Unfortunately, it did.

And later they turned back, and they took back the male slaves and the female slaves whom they had let go chafshim, and they subjected them to slavery [again]. Then the word of God happened to Jeremiah… (Jeremiah 34:11-12)

Jeremiah the Prophet and King Zedekiah, 1897 illustration

Jeremiah the Prophet and King Zedekiah,
1897 illustration

Through his prophet, God reminds the people in Jerusalem that Hebrews enslaved because of debt must be freed in the seventh year. God continues:

“One day you yourselves turned around and became upright in My eyes, proclaiming a dror for each man from his fellow, and you cut a covenant before Me in the house that is called by My name. But now you have profaned My name; each of you has brought back his male slave and his female slave that he had let go chafshim to follow their desire, and subordinated them to be male slaves and female slaves for you [again].

“Therefore, thus says God: [Since] you did not listen to Me proclaiming a dror, each one for his brother and each one for his fellow, here I am, proclaiming to you a dror—declares God—to the sword, to disease, and to starvation! (Jeremiah 34:15-17)

Jeremiah’s prophecy points out the hypocrisy of the ruling class. They free their slaves only when feeding them is a burden—and when they hope to wangle an extra favor out of God. But the newly-emancipated slaves have no means to feed themselves. What kind of liberty is that?

Then as soon as it looks as though the ex-slaves can once more engage in agriculture, their former owners re-enslave them, making them responsible for feeding everyone.

So God threatens to emancipate the Yehudi the same way they emancipated their slaves—by abandoning them to death. After all, no human beings can live exclusively by their own power, without the world God provides.

Nebuchadnezzar takes Jerusalem James_Tissot_Flight_of_The_PrisonersIn fact, the Babylonians returned before the slaves of Jerusalem could bring in a harvest. In 586 B.C.E. the wall around the city was breached. Nebuchadnezzar blinded King Zedekiah, killed his sons, razed the capital, and burned down the temple. Judah became merely a district of Babylonia. The remaining ruling families were deported, and Jeremiah lingered in the ruins of Jerusalem.

(See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)

In some parts of the world today, impoverished people are still kidnapped to become slaves (often for sex or war). Those of us who read blogs on the Internet, distant from the villages of Syria or Nigeria, might congratulate ourselves on never owning a slave or oppressing a debtor. But is that true?

Do we vote for political candidates who claim that everyone can succeed by their own efforts, even those who are not given the tools?  Do we find it acceptable that one accident, disease, or misinformed purchase can doom a person to poverty for life, with no second chance—not even after six years of suffering?

Do we treat our own children as slaves? Do we send them off, after the right number of years, with all the tools they need to make it on their own? Do we try to recapture and control them later?

Do we take advantage of someone over and over again, neglecting them when we do not need them?

 

Haftarat Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies

January 12, 2016 at 4:05 pm | Posted in Bo, Ezekiel, Jeremiah | 7 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 Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16), and the haftarah is Jeremiah 46:13-28.
The Death of the First Born by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. 1872

The Death of the First Born, by Lawrence Alma Tadema, 1872

In the book of Exodus, God inflicts ten miraculous plagues on Egypt to punish the pharaoh for refusing to let the Israelite slaves go. Pharaoh finally sets the Israelites free in this week’s Torah portion, Bo—but only after the final miracle: the death of the firstborn sons.

In this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah predicts that God will once again punish the pharaoh of Egypt for mistreating the Israelites.  This time God will not create miracles, but instead will use another empire’s army to achieve the goal.

The politics

There were three kinds of nations in the Near East during the era of 800-500 B.C.E.: superpowers that ran empires (Neo-Assyrian, Egyptian, and Neo-Babylonian); countries that were directly controlled by a superpower; and semi-independent vassal states that paid tribute to a superpower in exchange for protection against outside attacks. Being a vassal state was the best hope for a small country like Judah, the only remaining Israelite kingdom after the northern kingdom of Israel was swallowed by the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 732 B.C.E.

Judah sent tribute to Assyria for about a century, except for a brief and doomed rebellion in 705-701 B.C.E. The Neo-Assyrian Empire expanded southwest to include northern Egypt, and southeast to the Persian Gulf.

Pharaoh Psamtik I

Pharaoh Psamtik I unites Egypt

But no empire lasts forever. Psamtik, the son of one of Assyria’s puppet governors in northern Egypt, hired Greek mercenaries to drive out the Assyrian occupiers. By 654 B.C.E. he was pharaoh over a united Egypt. He went on to conquer the western half of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and by 630 B.C.E. King Josiah of Judah had become a vassal of Pharaoh Psamtik.

Next Assyria was assailed from the southeast. In 626 B.C.E. Babylon revolted under its new king, Narbopolassar. A shrunken Assyria allied itself with Egypt, and Psamtik’s son, Pharaoh Nekho II, sent his armies north to fight Narbopolassar’s son, Nebuchadnezzar II.

It was a slow march, interrupted by rebellions of vassal states along the way. King Josiah took his own army to Megiddo to challenge the Egyptians in 609 B.C.E., but the Egyptians trounced the Israelites, and Pharaoh Nekho killed Josiah.

The armies of Egypt and Babylon met in 605 B.C.E. at Carchemish, about 2,000 miles north of Jerusalem (on the present border between Turkey and Syria). The Egyptian army was crushed, and its surviving soldiers fled south.

According to Jeremiah, Egypt did not lose the battle because of any deficiency of its own; Egypt lost because the God of Israel made it happen.

Why have your strong ones been cut down?

They did not stand

Because God shoved them down. (Jeremiah 46:15)

map Neo-Babylonian Empire BAfter the battle at Carchemish, all of Egypt’s vassal states became vassals of Babylonia, and Assyria disappeared. The prophet Jeremiah repeatedly warned the new king of Judah, Yehoyakhim, to stay out of trouble and keep sending tribute to King Nebuchadnezzar.

But Yehoyakhim revolted against Babylonia in 599 B.C.E. and sent Judah’s tribute to Pharaoh Nekho II (the same pharaoh who had killed his father, Josiah).

Nebuchadnezzar retaliated by besieging Jerusalem. After a year and a half the city fell and Judah came under direct control of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel criticized Egypt for failing to send troops to defend its new vassal Judah.

Judah’s king, the prophet Ezekiel, and other leading citizens were deported to Babylon. Jeremiah stayed behind in the ruins of Jerusalem until some of his fellow countrymen took him into exile in Egypt.

The prophecy

Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied that because Egypt had failed keep its promise to help Judah, God would send an army from the north to destroy Egypt.  Both prophets said it would be King Nebuchadnezzar’s army, but in actual history, Nebuchadnezzar failed in his 568 B.C.E. attempt to conquer Egypt. The country remained independent until the Persians took it—from the north—in 526 B.C.E.

Babylonian soldiers

Babylonian soldiers

In Ezekiel’s prophecy, God would arrange for Nebuchadnezzar to devastate Egypt not just to punish it, but so that the pharaoh would know who God is. (See last week’s post, Va-eira—Ezekiel: How to Know God.)

Jeremiah’s prophecy also includes more than punishment. He uses a name for God that never appears in Ezekiel:

As I live, declares the King—YHVH [of] Tzevaot is His name—

As Tabor is among the mountains

And Carmel is by the sea,

It will come!

Prepare for yourself the gear of exile…

For Nof will become a horror,

A desolation without inhabitants.

A heifer with a beautiful mouth is Egypt;

A stinging fly from the north is coming, coming! (Jeremiah 46:18-20)

YHVH = the four-letter personal name of God, probably related to the Hebrew verb “to be”.

Tzevaot (צְבָאוֹת) = armies; companies of soldiers. (The Bible also uses the word metaphorically for armies of angels and armies of stars.)

The god of Israel is never called YHVH [of] Tzevaot in the Bible until the first book of Samuel, which modern scholars date to 630–540 BCE—the same period as the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah uses this term 70 times!

Why does Jeremiah emphasize that YHWH, the god of existence itself, is the god of armies?

Jeremiah lived through at least 60 years of wars and reversals of fortune in the Near East, 60 years in which Judah was always a pawn, unable to take charge of its own destiny.

The common belief in the ancient Near East was that each country had its own god. When that god was happy with the people of his country, he made their army succeed. When the god was unhappy with them, their army failed.

The Bible also attributes many failures of Israelite armies to Israelite rejections of God. But why were God’s people suffering so many defeats, if their god was the most powerful?

Jeremiah was inspired to preach that the God of Israel is unlike the gods of other nations. Israel’s god, the supreme God of all existence, controls all the armies in the world. God decides which armies will win and which will lose, even when Israelites are not involved in the battle.

For Jeremiah, the prophetic insight that God rules all armies made the wars of his own lifetime meaningful. God had a master plan. Egypt would be humbled. Eventually the Babylonians would also be defeated. And in the long run, the Israelites would outlast all other peoples.

You must not fear,

My servant Jacob

—declares YHWH—

For I am with you.

For I will make an end of all the nations

Among which I have banished you,

But with you I will not make an end. (Jeremiah 46:28)

Personally, I shrink inside when I sing a prayer that includes the term YHVH Tzevaot. If God is the ruler of all armies, then God is responsible for the carnage and suffering of all wars—which are apparently necessary for God’s master plan.

If God were the Master Planner, controlling the actions of mutable human beings, surely God could come up with a better plan than this. If human beings hold ultimate responsibility for wars, then God is not the Master Planner, not the God of Armies.

Sorry, Jeremiah.

Bechukotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward

May 11, 2014 at 7:14 pm | Posted in Bechukkotai, Jeremiah | 1 Comment
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If you follow all the rules, you will be rewarded; if you do not, you will be punished.

This makes sense when the boss is human. But this week’s Torah portion, Bechukkotai (“by my decrees”), claims that the same formula applies when the boss is God.

If you go by my decrees and observe my commands and do them, I will give you rains in their season, and the earth will give its produce, and the trees of the field will give their fruit. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3-4)

The Torah lists other rewards that God promises, including abundant food, peace and security, victory over enemies, and fertility.

But if you do not heed me and you do not do all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and if your nafshot gag on my laws, [so you are] no longer doing all my commands, voiding my covenant, then I on my part will do this to you: I will appoint panic over you, the consumptive sickness and the fever, using up the eyes and wearing out the nefesh. And you will sow seed in vain, and your enemies will eat it. (Leviticus 26:14-16)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ), plural nafshot  = throat, appetite, embodied soul. (See my previous post: Bechukkotai: Sore Throat or Lively Soul.)

God adds many other punishments for rejecting the rules, including fear, wild beasts, attacking armies, pestilence, famine, and cannibalism. Cities will be ruined, and the Israelites will be scattered in exile.

The problem with this promise of material rewards for following God’s rules, and physical punishments for rejecting God’s rules, is that the world does not work that way. Bad things do happen to good people, as the book of Job points out.

The haftarah reading from the Prophets that always accompanies the Torah portion Bechukkotai takes the reward and punishment formula to a different level. Most scholars agree that this reading from the book of Jeremiah (16:19-17:14) is a collection of seven separate poems. The third poem, Jeremiah 17:5-8, does not talk about obeying God’s decrees and laws; instead, it considers a person’s inner feelings about God.

Thus says God:

Cursed is the man who yivtach in humankind,

And makes flesh his strength,

And whose leiv turns away from God.

He is like a juniper in the desert

That does not notice any good coming.

He dwells in a stone-field in the wilderness,

A salt-plain that is not inhabited. (Jeremiah/Yermiyahu 17:5-6)

yivtach (יִבְטַח) = trusts, feels safe, is confident.

leiv (לֵב) = heart; inner self, the seat of thoughts and feelings; attention, inclination.

Here, the curse falls on those whose thoughts and feelings reject God. They become bitter atheists, trusting only human power. Their punishment is that they become depressed and unable to see anything good; their souls become undernourished, deficient in the water of life; and they feel abandoned.

The blessing comes to those who maintain their attachment to God.

Blessed is the man who yivtach in God;

God will happen from his trust. (Jeremiah 17:7)

Perhaps Jeremiah is saying that God happens to people when they trust in God. The poem goes on to describe the man who trusts in God:

He is like a tree planted beside water

That sends out its roots beside a stream,

And does not notice any heat coming.

Upon it are fresh green leaves,

And in a year of drought it is not worried;

It does not stop bearing fruit. (Jeremiah 17:8)

Those who depend on God rather than humans for their sense of security are rewarded, Jeremiah says. They do not worry about anything bad approaching, because their souls are nourished by a water of life that never runs out. Therefore, their efforts and projects continue to bear fruit.

Jeremiah’s poem can be read as stating a psychological truth: trusting in God nourishes your heart and mind; abandoning all hope of God leads to sterile depression. Even if following God’s rules in your actions in the world does not necessarily bring a worldly reward, there are still rewards and punishments for your attitude toward God—and they are internal.

Is Jeremiah’s claim true for us today?

My first impulse is to say no. I know some happy atheists who believe that humans are basically good, despite the evil some people do, and there is hope for a better world. They find satisfaction in the company of other human beings, and they do productive work.

I also know some religious people who claim that they trust God and know that God will make everything will work out for the best—but they say it with either the glazed smile of self-hypnosis, or an edge of desperation.

On the other hand, now that I am 60 years old, I am beginning to taste the pleasures of acceptance. I no longer speculate on whether humans are destroying the world; I no longer assume the people I love will still be with me in my old age. Neither do I place my trust in the anthropomorphic God described in the Torah, since I cannot believe in a god who makes plans and decisions like a human being.

But I think that sometimes God happens to me. I see or hear something beautiful, and my heart lifts, and I am filled with joy and gratitude—and a sense of security, if not trust, in being part of the big picture. In a year of trouble I still worry—but not as much as I used to.  Perhaps I finally have a few roots in the stream of the divine.

May God happen to everyone who needs it.  And may all our souls be nourished, so we can continue to produce fruit.

 

 

 

 

 

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