Jeremiah & Psalm 139: Mind Versus Conscience

Jeremiah offers an insight on human psychology in the haftarah reading that accompanies the Torah portion Bechukotai in Leviticus this week. The haftarah (Jeremiah 16:19-17:14) warms up with one of Jeremiah’s predictions that the kingdom of Judah will be lost because its people lack trust in God and persist in worshiping idols. (Jeremiah lived through the Babylonian conquest of Judah and their siege and destruction of Jerusalem.)

Jeremiah adds that the people of Judah should not expect their own military power to save them.

            Cursed is the man who trusts in humankind,

                        And makes human flesh his strength. (Jeremiah 17:5)

In other words, you cannot win a war with armies alone. Jeremiah goes on to say that only those who trust in God will flourish. (See my post Haftarat Bechukotai–Jeremiah: Trust Me.) Then he touches on another problem about trusting human beings. His two-verse gem on human psychology is rich in words that can be translated as either physical objects or psychological states. So I made three translations. The first one leaves the metaphors in the original Hebrew:

The leiv (לֵב) is more akov (עָקֺב) than anything,

                        And it is pathological; who can understand it?

I am God, who investigates a leiv,

                        Testing the kelayot (כְּלָיוֹת),

And allotting to a man according to his drachim (דְּרָכִים),

                        According to the peri (פְּרִי) of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

Next I translate the ambiguous words literally:

The heart is more a heel than anything.

                        And it is pathological; who can understand it?

I am God, who investigates a heart,

                        Testing the kidneys,

And allotting to a man according to his roads,

                        According to the fruit of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

Finally, here is a version with all the ambiguous words translated metaphorically:

The mind is more devious than anything.

                        And it is pathological; who can understand it?

I am God, who investigates a mind,

                        Examining the conscience,

And allotting to a man according to his conduct,

                        According to the result of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

Heart and Kidneys

In English, the heart is the metaphorical location of feelings, while the brain is the location of thoughts. In the Hebrew Bible, the heart is the seat of both feeling and thinking. The word for “heart” (leiv or levav) is used for the whole conscious mind—except for one mental function: our conscience. The awareness of what we ought to do is assigned to the kidneys in the bible. (See my post: Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys.) Kidneys are often paired with hearts because, according to one commentary:

“The kidneys advise the heart, and the heart decides.”1

If we are accustomed to following our “kidneys” (conscience), our decision-making is straightforward; we reject thoughts of gratifying our immoral impulses, choose the course of action God would approve of, and do it. But if we do not listen for the voice of our conscience, its advice is drowned out by conflicting desires, our “hearts” (minds) make less virtuous decisions, and we reflexively invent devious rationalizations for them.

“Who can understand it?” indicates that people cannot fully understand even their own minds, nor the minds of their fellow human beings. Only God can investigate a human’s psychology and understand everything inside, heart and kidneys.

Jeremiah: Examine me and my enemies

Biblical characters who believe they are virtuous, and their enemies are not, welcome God’s investigation of human minds. In two other poetic passages in the book of Jeremiah, the prophet urges God to examine and punish his enemies. Before this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah reports that God told him idolaters from his hometown, Anatot, were scheming to kill him in order to stop his prophesies.

            Then God let me know, and I knew.

                        That was when you let me see their deeds.

            And I was like a docile lamb who was brought to slaughter,

                        And I did not know that they had plotted plots against me …

            So God of Hosts, righteous judge,

                        Who examines kidneys (conscience) and heart (mind),

            Let me see your vengeance upon them!

                        For I bring my case to you. (Jeremiah 11:18-20)

In a passage after this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah is released from prison in Jerusalem but cannot stop speaking God’s prophecies, even though the city is full of informers. He uses similar language about these Jerusalemites:

            So God of Hosts, righteous examiner,

                        Who sees kidneys (conscience) and heart (mind),

            Let me see your vengeance upon them!

                        For I bring my case to you. (Jeremiah 20:12) 

Psalm 139: Improve my thoughts

Psalm 139 begins:

            God, you investigate me and you know me.

                        You know when I sit down or get up.

                        You see my thoughts from afar. (Psalm 139:1-2)

The psalmist marvels at everything God knows about a person, concluding:

            Knowledge is too extraordinary for me;

                        It is too high; I am not capable of it. (Psalm 139:6)

The next verse is:

            Where could I go from your spirit?

                        And where could I disappear from your presence? (Psalm 139: 7)      

The 19th-century commentator S.R. Hirsch elaborated on these two questions, filling in the context: “Where could I go to escape Your ‘spirit’ so that it might not move me, stir me, fill my heart and summon my conscience before Your judgment seat? And whither could I flee from Your ‘countenance’ where You would not see me, where Your rule would not touch me?”2

In other words, God is not an abstract omniscient deity to the psalmist; they feel God’s spirit move through their mind, move their own spirit, and summon their own conscience—which then reminds the mind of God’s judgment.

The next five verses expand on how there is no place to hide from God. The psalmist then explains:

            Because you yourself produced my kidneys (conscience);

                        You wove me together in my mother’s belly.  (Psalm 139:13)

After realizing the intimate relationship between the inner conscience and the judgement of God, the psalmist concludes by asking for God’s evaluation:

            Search me, God, and know my heart (mind);

                        Examine me and know my thoughts,

            And see if a distressing road (line of conduct) is in me;

                        Then lead me on an everlasting road (line of conduct)! (Psalm 139:23-24)

The conscience has won.


The human mind is devious, Jeremiah says in this week’s haftarah. When we become accustomed to avoiding the advice of our conscience, our excuses and self-deception become pathological. Only God can investigate a human’s psychology, see through the deception, and deal justice to evildoers.

The writer of Psalm 139 finds God’s attention to the human mind uncomfortably invasive at first, but then welcomes God’s correction through one’s innate conscience. It is better to give up transitory secret pleasures, the psalmist concludes, in order to lead a life dedicated to doing the right things.

Some people succumb to immoral impulses frequently, and deceive themselves as well as others about their motivations. As Jeremiah says, the human mind is naturally devious. But as Psalm 139 says, humans are born with a conscience.3 It is up to us to decide how much to listen to it, and how much to reject it and rationalize our decisions.


  1. Midrash Tehillim (a collection of commentary on the Psalms completed by the 11th century C.E.), Psalm 14:1 on Jeremiah 17:10.
  2. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Tehillim, translated by Gertrude Hirschler, Feldheim Publishers, Nanuet, NY, 2014 (original German edition 1882), p. 1107.
  3. Except, perhaps, for the small percentage of humans who are sociopathic or psychopathic. It is still a matter of debate whether someone with a weak or nonexistent conscience is born that way, or becomes that way through certain kinds of early childhood trauma.

Tzav & Jeremiah: Smoke vs. Altruism

(Last week’s Torah portion was actually Vayikra, the first portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. This week I am back on sync with the calendar of Torah readings.)


What gives God pleasure?

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) and its haftarah, the accompanying reading from the Prophets (Jeremiah 7:21-8:3 and 9:22-23) give two different answers. In Leviticus, God is infuriated when any Israelites violates one of God’s many rules, even inadvertently; but smoke from a burning sacrifice improves God’s mood. In Jeremiah, God is bitter and destructive because the Israelites abandoned God and worshipped other gods; and smoke does nothing to improve God’s mood. 

Pleasure in smoke

The first five books of the bible are full of people making animal sacrifices to God. The first humans in the Torah to worship God with burned offerings are Cain and Abel.1 Noah loads some extra animals on the ark, and when he burns them after the flood has receded, God’s attitude toward humankind improves.2

Noah’s Sacrifice, by James Tissot, circa 1900

Throughout Genesis and Exodus, individual men continue to thank and worship God by building altars and burning animals. The first two portions in the book of Leviticus, Vayikra and Tzav, give God’s instructions for making animal and grain offerings as part of the new cult that relies on priests.

For any type of offering, Leviticus explains, the donor who brings the animal to the altar leans a hand on its head before slaughtering it,3 thus identifying the animal as his gift to God and making sure God gives him the credit. For example, in the Torah portion Tzav, a ram is burned during the ceremony in which Moses consecrates the first priests, Aaron and his four sons.

Then [Moses] brought close the ram of the olah, and Aaron and his sons leaned their hands on the head of the ram. And he slaughtered it, and Moses sprinkled the blood on the altar all around. (Leviticus 8:18-19)

olah (עֺלָה) = offering in which the animal is completely burned. (From the root verb alah, עָלָה = rise up.)

After the altar is splashed with blood, Moses butchers the animal, and all the pieces are roasted on the fire of the altar.

When an offering is made to atone for transgressing one of God’s laws, even unintentionally, a priest removes all the fatty parts of the animal and burns them up into smoke; then he and other male priests may eat the remaining meat. The smell of the smoke soothes God’s temper and inclines God toward forgiveness. (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.) When an offering is made to thank God for well-being, the donor and his guests also get to eat some of the meat, but the fatty parts are still reserved to be burned up into smoke for God.

Humans get two benefits from an offering that is not an olah: they eat high-protein food, and God is pleased or appeased. But other offerings require that the entire animal is burned up into smoke for God. During the consecration of priests in Tzav,

… Moses turned the whole ram into smoke at the altar; it was an olah, for a soothing scent; it was a fire-offering for God, as God had commanded Moses. (Leviticus 8:21)

An olah must be offered not only on special occasions such as a consecration or a holiday, but also every day, so there is always something smoldering on the altar.

The smoke from the burning animal rises up to the sky, where God normally lives. (Hebrew uses the same word, shamayim, שָׁמַיִם, for both “sky” and “heavens”.) Then God enjoys the “soothing scent” of the smoke, and relaxes. The God-character in the Torah is hot-tempered, and needs a lot of soothing. Even part of the daily grain-offering is mixed with oil and frankincense and burned, so that its smoke will please God.4

Against burning animals

Yet the haftarah reading from the book of Jeremiah declares that the directions for animal offerings are useless.

Thus said God of Armies, God of Israel: “Add your olot onto your slaughter-sacrifice and eat the meat! Because I did not speak with your forefathers, nor command them at the time I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning matters of olah and slaughter. Rather, with this word if commanded them, saying: Heed my voice, and I will be your god, and you—you will be my people. And you must walk the entire path that I command you, so that it will be good for you.” (Jeremiah 7:21-23)

olot (עֺלוֹת) = plural of olah; offerings in which the animal is completely burned up into smoke.

Some commentators have explained Jeremiah’s outburst as sarcasm. Others have written that Jeremiah meant the wicked were assuming they could get away with their transgressions by making the appropriate guilt-offerings.5

I think Jeremiah is challenging the whole idea that the way to keep God happy is to keep making sacrifices and providing smoke for God to smell. In the chapter before this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah quotes God as saying:

“Your olot are not acceptable, and your slaughter-sacrifices do not please me.” (Jeremiah 6:20)

Pleasure in altruism

Then what does give God pleasure in the book of Jeremiah?

Shortly before this week’s haftarah begins, God says:

“For if you really make your way and your acts good; if you really do justice between a man and his fellow, if you do not oppress an immigrant, orphan, or widow, and you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place, and you do not go after other gods—to your own harm; then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your forefathers forever until forever.” (Jeremiah 7:5-7)

In other words, the only way to please God is to be fair, to help the needy, and to avoid other gods.

The end of this week’s haftarah is the following poem:

Thus said God:

            “May the wise not boast of their wisdom,

            And may the powerful not boast of their power.

            May the wealthy not boast of their wealth.

            Rather, in this may the boasting boast:

            Understanding and knowing me.

            Because I, God, do kindness,

            Justice, and altruism in the land.

            Because in these I take pleasure,”

Declared God. (Jeremiah 9:22)


Every year I approach the portions Vayikra and Tzav with dread; they are particularly unpleasant reading for someone like me who does not eat mammals and does not want to see or imagine their cut-up corpses. Nor do I like the idea of a God who normally has a hair-trigger temper, but calms right down under the influence of smoke from sacrifices.

As I write this I am sipping a cup of cocoa, because the taste of chocolate calms me down. But I disdain a concept of God that assigns the deity that much human frailty.

The God in Jeremiah is not as temperamental as the one in Leviticus. Yet this God is fixated on destroying Judah and Jerusalem in order to punish the Israelites for both serving other gods, and persisting in doing evil to other human beings. Only a thorough change in the people’s behavior will satisfy God. Only then will God let them return in peace to their ancestral land.

What would it take to please God—or to occupy our world in peace—today?


  1. Genesis 4:3-4.
  2. Genesis 8:20-21.
  3. The Hebrew in Vayikra and Tzav is veshachat (וְשָׁחַט) = and he will slaughter, with “he” referring to the one who leans a hand on the animal’s head.
  4. Leviticus 6:8.
  5. For example, Rabbi Bachya ben Asher wrote circa 1300 C.E.: “When the prophet spoke about G’d not commanding us to bring animal sacrifices he meant that the animal sacrifices were not meant to be in lieu of penitence and proper conduct on our part. This is what Samuel had already said many hundreds of years previously to King Saul (Samuel I 15,22) “heeding My commands is much preferable than to offer Me good meat-offerings.” (Translation of Rabbeinu Bachya on Leviticus 7:38 by www.sefaria.org.)

Judges, Jeremiah, and 1 Samuel: More Dancing

Warli painting of a chain dance, India

Dances called mecholot (מְחֺלוֹת) seem like an innocent way to celebrate. In this type of dancing, people form a line behind a leader, with each dancer using one hand to touch the next. The line moves in a circle, a spiral, or some other curving pattern as the dancers copy the steps of the leader. In the Hebrew Bible, the dancers chant and shake tambourines as they dance.

Song of Songs 7:1 celebrates a dancer’s beauty in a double row of mecholot. Chain dancing is cited as the opposite of mourning in Psalms 30:12, 149:3, and 150:4, and in Lamentations 5:15. And when Miriam leads the Israelite women in mecholot on the shore of the Reed Sea in Exodus 15:20-21, they are relieved and grateful to God for saving their lives.

But elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, mecholot are not as innocent as they appear.

In last week’s post, Beshalach & Ki Tisa: Dancing, we saw that when the Israelites start dancing mecholot in front of the golden calf at Mount Sinai, they think they are celebrating the return of God, but they are actually worshiping an idol.

Thanking God for the grape harvest and celebrating the return of victorious generals by dancing mecholot also turn out to be dubious activities.

Thanking God for grapes in Judges

The Dead Concubine at Giveah

A traveling Levite and his concubine spend the night in the Benjaminite town of Giveah. The men of the town rape and murder the concubine, and the Levite rallies men from all the other tribes to destroy Giveah. These men assemble at a watchtower in Benjaminite territory, and besides planning the battle, they vow in the name of God that none of them will marry their daughters to a Benjaminite. 

The war escalates. Men from throughout the territory of Benjamin join the war on Giveah’s side, but the other tribes defeat them so thoroughly that the only Benjaminite survivors are 600 men who escaped into the wilderness. All the women and children die when the attackers burned down their towns.

Then the victors regret their vow, since it means that one of the twelve tribes of Israel will die out. How can they give the 600 men of Benjamin wives, so they can rebuild their tribe?

The elders point out that it is time for the annual festival in Shiloh in which adolescent girls perform dances to thank God for the grape harvest.

And they directed the Benjaminites, saying: “Go and lie in wait in the vineyards. And you will see them, and hey!—if the daughters of Shiloh go out lachul in the mecholot, then you go out from the vineyards and seize them, each man his wife from the daughters of Shiloh, and go back to the land of Benjamin.” (Judges 21:20-21)

lachul (לָחוּל) = to go around in succession; to dance in a circle. (A form of the verb chal, the root of mecholot.)

And the Benjaminites did so, and they made wives for their number from the dancers who they took away by force… (Judges 21:23)

Who knew that chain dancing could be so dangerous for women?

The book of Judges does not say whether the girls were warned ahead of time about what was going to happen to them. But even if they were told, they had little recourse; the male head of household arranged the marriages of all the females under his control.1

Thanking God for grapes in Jeremiah

Much later in the history of the Israelites, Jeremiah delivers a divine prophecy that someday God will bring the defeated and exiled people of Israel and Judah back to their lands, and Israelite women will once again dance in the vineyards.

“I will definitely build you up again, maidens of Israel! Your tambourines will be in your hands again, and you will go out in a mechol, playing. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria … (Jeremiah 31:4-5)

Jeremiah expands the good news to include men in the dancing.

That is when the maidens will rejoice in a mechol, and young men and old ones together as one. (Jeremiah 31:13)

We do not know whether he means that men will dance with women, or that women will form their own chains, and young and old men will join together in other chains. Either way, everyone will get to dance. And the dancing God promises in the future definitely celebrates a harvest from God, not rape.

Celebrating victory in Judges

A story in the book of Judges about General Yiftach (Jepthah in English translations) shows him swearing a vow to God before he crosses the border to attack the Ammonites:

“If you definitively give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever happens to go out from the door of my house to meet me upon my safe return from the Ammonites will become God’s, and will be offered up as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30-31)

by James J.J. Tissot, ca. 1900

The Torah warns against making rash vows.2 But starting with Jacob after his ladder dream3 and continuing to the present day, believers in an anthropomorphic God often try to bargain with their deity, promising to do what they think God wants if God gives them what they want.

When Yiftach makes his rash vow, he forgets that women customarily celebrate the return of victorious soldiers with drumming, singing, and mecholot. He returns home victorious.

And hey! His daughter went out to meet him, with tambourines and with mecholot! (Judges 11:34)

Yiftach’s daughter must be accompanied by some female friends, since the word for tambourine is in the plural. But as the general’s daughter, and his only child, she would lead the chain dance. That means she would come out the door of his house first.

Yiftach tears his clothes (an act of mourning), and tells her he cannot retract his vow.

Celebrating victory in 1 Samuel

In the first book of Samuel, the dancing women have the last word. When King Saul and his general, the future king David, return triumphant from a battle against the Philistines,

… the women went out from all the towns of Israel for song and mecholot, to greet King Saul with tambourines and rejoicing … and they chanted: “Saul struck down his thousands, and David his tens of thousands!” And made Saul very angry, and this matter was bad in his eyes. And he said: “To David they gave tens of thousands, and to me they gave thousands. The only thing he lacks is the kingship!”  (1 Samuel 18:6-8)

King Saul takes out his anger on David, not on the women. After Saul makes a number of attempts on his life, David flees into Philistine territory.

… and he came to Akhish, king of Gat. And the servants of Akhish said to him: “Isn’t this David, king of the land? Isn’t he the one they chanted about in the mecholot, saying: Saul struck down his thousands, and David his tens of thousands!” (1 Samuel 21:11-12)

David pretends to be insane, scratching on the door and drooling, so the King of Gat turns him away, and he escapes.

I bet the Israelite women who sang the chant while dancing mecholot gave it a catchy tune, so no one could forget it.


Why is chain dancing—the opposite of mourning—often associated with disaster in the bible?

From my own experience, I know that the form requires attentive cooperation; you have to concentrate to make sure you keep the right space between the dancer in front of you and the dancer behind you, and also do the steps in time to the music. Collaboration, physical energy, concentration, and singing all make the experience of dancing mecholot exhilarating.

Building a tragic tale around a well-known emotional high is good storytelling. And these stories caution us not to take anything for granted. Maybe the golden calf is not such a good idea. Maybe men and women are working at cross purposes; while women are dancing, men are making rash vows or getting jealous.

Today, when men are more thoughtful, we can safely enjoy a dance of celebration.


  1. One tradition based on the betrothal of Rebecca in Genesis 24:58 gives a girl veto power over a particular match, at least if the marriage means leaving her home town. But this tradition does not seem to be in play in the book of Judges.
  2. E.g. Deuteronomy 23:21-23, Proverbs 20:25.
  3. Genesis 28:20-22.

Bechukotai & Jeremiah: Carrots and Sticks

Oranges on a Branch, by Winslow Homer 19th cent.

If you follow my decrees and you observe my commands and do them, then I will give your rains in their season, and the land will give its produce, and the trees of the field will give their fruit.  (Leviticus 26:3-4)

So God’s list of rewards begins in the Torah portion Bechukotai, the last in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, and continues with blessings of ample food, safety, victory in battle with foreigners, fertility, and so on. All of them are about material life in this world, except possibly for the last:

And I will set my mishkan among you, and my soul will not gag over you. And I will walk around among you, and I will be a god for you, and you will be my people. (Leviticus 26:11-12)

mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = dwelling-place; sanctuary built for God.

The word mishkan usually refers to a physical place of worship. But it could also refer to God dwelling in the hearts of the Israelites. Walking around and being a god could mean God’s appearances as a pillar of cloud and fire and God’s visible miracles on behalf of the Israelites. But it could also mean the presence of God that the Israelites feel in their hearts.

A list of punishments follows, beginning:

But if you reject my decrees, and if your soul gags over my laws, so that you do not do all my commands, violating my covenant, I for my part will do this to you: I will assign terror over you, the consumption and the fever … (Leviticus 26:15-16)

There are more curses than blessings, in an escalating series of material, physical disasters. Each round of curses is threatened if the people continue to disobey and reject God. The fifth and final round of curses begins with cannibalism due to starvation, and ends:

And you will perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies will consume you.  (Leviticus 26:38)

A similar list of carrots and sticks, blessings and curses, appears in Deuteronomy/Devarim 28:1-68, in the portion Ki Tavo. These all concern material life in this world.

I always read these lists grimly, since I know that life is more complicated than behaving well to get ice cream from Daddy—er, God. Bad things do happen to good people, even to obedient religious people, as the book of Job illustrates.

How can we reconcile the lists in Bechukotai with reality?

Collective instead of personal carrots

This week’s portion, Bechukotai, uses the second person plural, so one could argue that although individuals are not rewarded and punished as promised, the Israelite people as a whole are. (Judging by what happened over the centuries to the Israelites, and to the Jews after them, the people must have been extraordinarily dedicated to disobeying God.)

But this explanation falls apart in Ki Tavo, the similar portion in Deuteronomy, where the rewards and punishments are expressed in the second person singular, making them personal.

by Elisa Champin, 19th cent.

Carrots after death

Bechukotai and Ki Tavo frustrate commentators who believe that the real rewards and punishments come after death. 15th-century commentator Abravanel asked: “Why does the Torah confine its goals and rewards to material things, as mentioned in his comment, and omit spiritual perfection and the reward of the soul after death—the true and ultimate goal of man? Our enemies exploit this text and charge Israel with denying the principle of the soul’s judgement in the afterlife.”1

In fact, the idea that souls survive death did not appear in Jewish writings until the book of Daniel, written in the second century B.C.E., well after Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Before Daniel, the Hebrew Bible assumed that when the body died, the soul went to a shadowy, perhaps metaphorical, underground realm called Sheol where they were unconscious. No rewards or punishments were possible for souls after death.

Inner carrots

The two Torah portions also frustrate those who, like me, believe that doing the right thing leads to psychological rather than material rewards. Good people feel inner satisfaction; in biblical terminology, they walk with God. Bad people, on the other hand, are chronically dissatisfied.

The final blessing in Bechukotai, in which God says “I will walk around among you,” was some consolation to the 15th-century author of Akedat Yitzchak, who valued communion with God:

“Indeed, the spiritual bliss whose source is the Torah and the reward of the Divine commandments, are more than amply recorded in the frequent accounts throughout the Torah of the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) resting in our midst and in the ongoing communion with the Divine thus attained by us … How could the critics fail to perceive the intensity of the Divine communion and the spiritual wealth attained by members of our nation while still dwelling in this ephemeral world …”2

In Biblical Hebrew, as in English, the result of a course of action is sometimes called its “fruit”.3 So when I looked for metaphors among the carrots and sticks in Bechukotai, I noticed fruit trees. The first blessing with which God rewards the obedient in this week’s Torah portion includes: … the trees of the field will give their fruit. (Leviticus 26:4)

The second curse includes: … your power will be poured out in vain, and your land will not give its produce, and the trees of the land will not give their fruit. (Leviticus 26:19-20)

In Bechukotai the presence or absence of fruit seems literal.

Trees flourishing and barren also appear in the hafatarah reading from the book of Jeremiah that accompanies this Torah portion.

Cursed is the man who trusts in humankind

And makes flesh his strength;

He turns away his mind from God.

He is like a bare tree in the desert valley … (Jeremiah 17:5)

Blessed is the man who trusts in God …

He is like a tree planted by water …

In a year without rain lo yidag,

And it does not stop making fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

lo yidag (לֺא יִדְאָג) = it does not worry, it is not anxious, it does not feel dread. (Lo = not. Yidag is comes from the same root as dagah, דְּאָגָה = anxiety.)

Jeremiah takes a more sophisticated position, using fruit trees as metaphors for human beings and shifting the focus from obeying God to trusting God.4

Bechukotai’s promise that one reward for religious observance is that God will “walk around among you” may or may not mean that following God’s rules yields an inner reward. Jeremiah’s reframing, in which the reward for trusting God is a fruitful life without anxiety, comes closer to promising an inner reward. But is there a more definite biblical support for the idea that the reward for ethical behavior is inside us?

Next week I will look at the evidence in Psalm 73.

  1. 15th-century Rabbi Yitzchak Abravanel, translated by Rafael Fisch and Avner Tomaschoff, in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vaykra, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 572.
  2. 15th-century Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, Akedat Yitzchak, Sha’ar 70, translated by Rafael Fisch and Avner Tomaschoff, ibid., pp. 575-576.
  3. Especially in Psalms and Proverbs: Psalms 58:11, 92:13-14, 104:13; Proverbs 1:31, 8:18-20, 11:30, 12:14, 13:2, 18:20-21, 31:31.
  4. See my posts Haftarat Bechukotai—Jeremiah: Trust Me and Bechukotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward.

 

Behar & Jeremiah: When Someone Needs Help

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra is packed with laws for ethical human interactions, as well as rules for religious rituals.  This week Jews read a double Torah portion in Leviticus, Behar and BechukotaiBehar introduces the idea of the yoveil (“jubilee”) every 50 years, when every plot of land in the future kingdom of Israel returns to the family that originally owned it, and every Hebrew slave goes free.1  The reason given is that the real owner of all the land, and the real owner of all Israelite slaves, is God.2  Periodically things must be restored to the way God set them up.

For Israelites who have fallen into debt, the yoveil year is the last resort.  Obviously people who had to sell their land, or themselves, benefit from a clean slate every 50 years.  But the Torah portion also provides instructions for wealthier relatives to “redeem” the land or the slave by serving as the buyer.  If they cannot afford it at the time, they buy the property or person from the first buyer as soon as possible.

The redeemer gets to own the property or person until the yoveil year, but he must treat them well.3

And if your brother under you is [further] impoverished and sells himself to you, do not work him with the work of a slave.  Like a hired or live-in laborer he shall be to you, until the year of the yoveil.  (Leviticus 25:39-40)

In this context, “brother” means any male kinsman.

Similarly, the rules about redeeming a poor kinsman’s property are not just about keeping land in the extended family consisting of descendants of the family that was originally allocated the land in the time of Joshua.

If your kinsman becomes impoverished 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.

The impoverished man’s nearest go-eil is his closest relative who can afford to buy or buy back, the land.  The go-eil can keep the property and use it himself until the next yoveil year, when all lands will return to the descendants of their original owners.  But he cannot kick his poor relative off the land; the poor man and his family continue to live on the property and become tenant farmers for the new owner.

And if your brother is impoverished and comes under your hand, and you take hold of him [as if he were] at resident alien, then he must thrive with you.  Do not take interest or extra charges from him.  (Leviticus 25:35-36)

The haftarah reading from Jeremiah that accompanies the Torah portion Behar demonstrates that the law for redeeming land also requires the go-eil to look out for the kinsman whose land he has purchased.

Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch in prison, by Gustave Dore, 19th cent. CE

In the haftarah, King Zedekiah of Judah has thrown the prophet Jeremiah in prison because he kept declaring that the king should surrender before Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar’s troops.  While Jeremiah is in prison, 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.)

Sure enough, Jeremiah’s cousin Chanameil does visit him in prison with the news that he is in debt and has to sell the farm.  He is offering the land to Jeremiah first, as the law of ge-ulah requires.  Jeremiah pays his cousin in silver, solving Chanameil’s immediate problem.  He is meticulous about following his country’s legal procedures, even though he knows the whole country will eventually fall to the Babylonian army.4

A few chapters later in the book of Jeremiah, the Babylonian army temporarily lifts the siege of Jerusalem.

And it happened that the Babylonians removed the front-line troops from around Jerusalem, on account of the advancing troops of Pharaoh.  Jeremiah was leaving Jerusalem to go to the territory of Benjamin there lachalik 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 Babylonians!” (Jeremiah 37:11-13)

lachalik (לַחֲלִק) = to participate in the division or distribution of property.

There is no consensus among translators about what lachalik means in this context.5  What other reason would Jeremiah have to leave the shelter of the city, when he knows the Babylonian army will return, except to defect?  One answer is that he is concerned about the land he bought from his cousin in Anatot.  He wants to make sure the sale of his cousin’s land was carried out according to the documents he had prepared.

Jeremiah is not concerned about his ownership of the property, since God has told him the Babylonians will win and everyone will be dispossessed.  He probably wants to check up on his cousin Chanameil and make sure no outsider has kicked him off the land that he is now, technically, farming for Jeremiah.  Until the kingdom of Judah finally falls to the Babylonians, Chanameil needs to farm that land to support himself and his family.

I believe Jeremiah is acting 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 from poverty.  It is bad luck that he is intercepted at the city gate and thrown into prison, so he cannot carry out his intention.  (You can read more about this haftarah by clicking on this link to my post: Haftarat Behar—Jeremiah: The Redeemer.)

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asks in the book of Genesis.6  Jeremiah’s actions say yes, as his cousin’s go-eil he is also his cousin’s keeper.  Even after he has redeemed Chanameil’s land, Jeremiah tries to continue to look out for him.

*

The Torah portion Behar sanctions, indeed requires, helping an impoverished member of one’s extended family in a way that also benefits the one who does the good deed.  Today we can write a check to a program for reducing poverty and write it off on our taxes, or do a kindness to a member of our family or community that also burnishes our own reputation.  But I believe we should not stop there.  Like Jeremiah, we should follow up on the results of our action, as long as we are able.

Ethical behavior is not an abstraction or a punch list.  Let’s make it personal.

  1. Leviticus 25:8-16, 25:39-54.
  2. Leviticus 25:23-24, 25:55.
  3. In the world addressed by the Torah, men own all the wealth and women are treated as the property of their husbands, fathers, or masters.
  4. Jeremiah 32:9-14.
  5. Robert Alter even suggests lachalik means “to hide” here, based on an Akkadian cognate, although the word appears to be a hifil form of the kal verb chalak (חָלַק) = divided up, allotted shares. (Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Volume 2: Prophets, W. Norton & Co., 2019, p. 983)
  6. Genesis 4:9.

 

Vayikra & Vayechi: Kidneys and Faces

After a delay while I wrote a dialogue for Passover and addressed some family issues, I am back at work on my book on Genesis this week, considering the moral ramifications of Joseph’s version of pardoning his ten older brothers.

Joseph’s brothers make two attempts to get Joseph to forgive them for their shameful misdeed when he was seventeen and they sold him as a slave bound for Egypt.  The second attempt happens in the last Torah portion of the book of Genesis, Vayechi.

Since their first attempt failed (see my recent post Testifying to Divine Providence )1 they try a ploy that they hope will be more persuasive; they pretend that before their father, Jacob, died, he left the following message for Joseph:

“Please sa, please, the rebellion of your brothers and their guilt because of the evil they rendered to you.  And now sa, please, the rebellion of the servants of the god of your father.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 50:17)

sa (שָׂא) = lift up! pardon! forgive!  (From the root verb nasa, נָשָׂא= lifted, raised, pardoned.)

Are they asking Joseph, who is now Pharaoh’s viceroy, to pardon them, or to forgive them?  In English, pardoning means excusing someone who committed an error or offense from some of the usual practical consequences.  A United States president can pardon someone who was convicted of a crime, commuting that person’s sentence, without having to list any extenuating circumstances.  And the president’s feelings about the offender are irrelevant.

Forgiving, on the other hand, means letting go of one’s resentment against the person who committed an error or offense.

Biblical Hebrew, however, makes no distinction between pardoning and forgiving; it only distinguishes who is doing it.  Soleach (סֺלֵחַ) means “forgiving” or “pardoning”, but it is only used in the Hebrew Bible when God is forgiving or pardoning one or more human beings.

Nosei (נֺשֵׂא) has several meanings, including pardoning, and it is something either God or a human can do.  When God or a human is pardoning someone in the Hebrew Bible, the text says either nosei their head, nosei their face, or just nosei.  The reader has to figure out from context whether it is a reference to forgiving/pardoning, or to one of the other meanings of nosei (such as taking a census for nosei their head, bestowing favor for nosei their face, or lifting and carrying an object for nosei by itself).

After Jacob dies, Joseph’s older brothers worry that Joseph might decide to take revenge on them after all.  They are still carrying guilt in their kidneys.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, discusses burning the kidneys of an animal slaughtered on the altar.  Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, human kidneys are the seat of the conscience or moral sense.  (See my post on the subject by clicking here: Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys.)  For example, Psalm 16 recognizes the kidneys as the source of a guilty conscience.

          I bless God, who has advised me;

                        Even  the nights my kidneys chastised me.  (Psalm 16:7)

When your kidneys chastise you for wronging another human being, you long for your victim to lift your face in forgiveness.

  1. Genesis 45:4-8.

Re-eih: Eyebrows for the Dead

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

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

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

By the Waters of Babylon, by Gebhard Fugel, 1920

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

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

Unholy shaving

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

          Moab wails;

               On every head is karchah,

               Every beard is shaven.  (Isaiah 15:2)

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

          Vehikriychu for you a karchah

               And they will wrap themselves in sackcloth.

          And they will weep to you with a bitter soul

               Bitter rites of mourning.  (Ezekiel 27:31)

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

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

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

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

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

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

          I will change your festivals into rites of mourning

               And all your songs into dirges.

          And I will put sackcloth over every pair of hips

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

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

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

               For weeping and for rites of mourning,

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

Holy shaving

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right between the eyes

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

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

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

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

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

One possibility for totafot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acharey Mot & Kedoshim: Fire of the Molekh

(We are moving into a more permanent home on the Oregon coast, now that the pandemic has put a hiatus in our travels abroad.  While I am unpacking next week, you may want to read last year’s post on next week’s Torah portion, Emor: Libations.)

מלך

Offering to Molech, Bible Pictures, by Charles Foster, 1897

And you must not give any of your offspring to pass through for the molekh, and you must not profane the name of your God; I am Y-H-V-H.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:21)

molekh (מֹלֶךְ) = melekh (מֶלֶךְ) = king, spelled with the vowel marks of boshet (בֺּשֶׁת) = shame.

This command in Acharey Mot (“After the death”), one of this week’s two Torah portions, contains the first occurrence of the word molekh in the Torah—if you are reading the standard Masoretic text.  If you read a Torah scroll, which has no vowel marks, it looks the same as a command not to give your offspring to “the king” (melekh).1

The prohibition above raises two questions:

  • How does giving your offspring (children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren) to the molekh profane the name of the God of Israel?
  • What does “to pass through” mean?

Profaning the name

The usual biblical way to profane God’s name appears in this week’s second Torah portion, Kedoshim (“Holy ones”):

And you must not swear by my name for a falsehood, and profane the name of your God; I am Y-H-V-H.  (Leviticus 19:12)

Using God’s personal four-letter name to give false testimony demeans that name by treating it as merely a trick word for pulling off a wicked deed.

Perhaps giving a child to the molekh demeans a different name of God.  Psalm 47:7-8 considers God “our king” and “king of all the earth”.  Giving children to another god called “king” (מלך), one who demands an unholy deed, demeans God’s name and reputation.

Later in Kedoshim God pronounces two penalties for this serious offense:

Any man of the Israelites, or from the foreign sojourners sojourning in Israel, who gives any of his offspring to the molekh must certainly be put to death; the people of the land must pelt him with stones.  And I, I shall give my attention to that man and cut him off from among his people, because he gave one of his offspring to the molekh, intentionally making my holy ones impure and profaning my holy name.  (Leviticus 20:2-3)

Even if the people do not stone the molekh-worshipper, God will still “cut him off”2 along with

… all the whores after him from among the people who whore after the molekh.  You must make yourselves holy and you must be holy, because I, Y-H-V-H, am your God.”  (Leviticus 20:5)

Throughout the Torah the God of Israel demands both exclusive worship (being faithful to God instead of “whoring” after other gods) and adherence to God’s rules for holy behavior.

Passing through fire

King Josiah of Judah begins his campaign for exclusive worship of one God by clearing the effects of other gods out of the temple in Jerusalem: an Asherah idol, utensils for worshiping Baal and Asherah, and enclosures woven for Asherah.  Next Josiah demolishes the shrines in Judah where unauthorized worship is going on, and then:

He desecrated the burning-place which is in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, to prevent passing a son or a daughter through fire for the molekh. (2 Kings 23:10)

The second book of Chronicles describes the same practice during the time of Josiah’s grandfather, King Menashe, 3 confirms that there was an established tradition of passing children through a fire in the valley of Ben-Hinnom below Jerusalem.4

Model of Jerusalem: Valley of Ben Hinnom below Herod’s city wall, Valley of Kidron right. Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

King Josiah discourages this practice by desecrating the place where it happens.  Jeremiah, who prophesies from Josiah’s reign until after the Babylonian army destroys Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., discourages the practice by reporting that God never wanted people to do it in the first place.

And they built shrines for the burning-place in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, and which was definitely not on my mind.  (Jeremiah 7:31)

Molekh, Die Alten Judischen Heiligthumer by Johann Lund, 1711 (7 ovens from Yalkut Shimoni; bull head from unknown source)

And they built shrines for the Baal in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, for passing their sons and their daughters to the molekh, which I did not command them, and it was not on my mind to do this abomination …  (Jeremiah 32:35)

Jeremiah makes it clear that the “king” worshipped in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom is not the God of Israel.

According to modern commentator Jacob Milgrom, some Israelites might have believed that God wanted people to pass their offspring through the fire in a ritual that may or may not have burned them to death.  Alternatively, Milgrom wrote, people might have believed in two gods, the king of the heavens (God the melekh, worshiped in the temple on top of a hill in Jerusalem) and the king of the underworld (the molekh, worshiped in the valley below).5  Jeremiah 32:35 denounces both beliefs, insisting that there is only one God and God never wanted people to burn their children.

מלך

The Hebrew Bible does not say whether a child who was passed through, between, or over the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom survived the experience.  One Talmudic opinion is that the child was led along a latticework of bricks between two fires; another is that the child leaped over a small bonfire.6

On the other hand, the Talmud shortens Valley of Ben Hinnom (Gey Ben Hinnom in Hebrew) to Gehinnom elsewhere in the Talmud.  The rabbis imagine Gehinnom, where the fire for the molekh burned, as the opening to a vast underground fire where the souls of the wicked go after death.7  (The righteous go straight to the Garden of Eden.)  Burning in Gehinnom purifies the souls of the wicked, which are eventually redeemed.

I think the myth of Gehinnom is actually a return to the belief, denounced by Jeremiah, that God desired the burning of children in Ben Hinnom.  Several Talmud tractates claim that God created Gehinnom and the Garden of Eden before creating the world.8  Therefore the melekh of heaven who created all the earth, and the molekh of the underworld who burns souls and commands passing children through fire, are actually one and the same god.

So why did the Masoretes replace the word melekh with molekh in passages about passing children through fire?  It strikes me as one of many attempts to dodge the theodicy or “problem of evil”:  How can God be both all-good and the source of everything that exists, including evil?

I say forget the molekh, and wrestle directly with the problem.

  1. For centuries the Hebrew Bible was written with consonants but no vowels. When the Masoretes added vowel marks in the 6th–10th centuries C.E. they also assigned the vowels in the word boshet to seven appearances of the word for “king”, turning מֶלֶך (melekh) into מֺלֶךְ (molekh).
  2. In the Torah being “cut off”, karet, means either dying prematurely, dying without children, or dying in spiritual isolation. In the Talmud it can also mean being excluded from the World to Come (as in Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 64b).
  3. Menashe, who ruled the kingdom of Judah circa 697-643 B.C.E., is described in 2 Chronicles 33:6 as worshiping false gods and passing his own sons through the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom.  His grandson Josiah ruled circa 640–609 B.C.E.
  4. Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 64a, assumes that parents also handed over their children to priests of the molekh.
  5. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus (A Continental Commentary), Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2004, p. 199.
  6. Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 64b.
  7. See Talmud Bavli, Eiruvin 19a.  Jews did not adopt the idea that souls survive death until the second century B.C.E.  The idea of souls burning in an underground fire came from Greek and Persian sources, which Jews developed into the myth of Gehinnom (later called Gehenna) and Christians developed into the myths of Hell and Purgatory.  The Talmud was written during the third through fifth centuries C.E.
  8. Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 54a and Nedarim 39b.

 

 

 

Shemini, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, & Psalm 131: Silenced

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

In English we locate rational thoughts in our brains, emotions in our hearts, and intuitive reactions in our guts.  But we have no body part corresponding to our conscience.

Biblical Hebrew associates both thoughts and feelings with the heart.  There is no body part to represent intuitions.  But the seat of  the conscience, as well as the innermost self, 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 liver and the two kelayot and the fat that is on them, and you shall turn them into smoke on the altar.  (Exodus 29:13)

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.

kidneys

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 liver 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 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 innermost self.  For example, the father in the book of Proverbs says:

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

                        My heart 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 heart; 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, 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 to God.

The rest of us, who make it out of childhood with healthy “kidneys”, have a chance at connecting with both our innermost feelings and our conscience.  But it does not happen automatically.

In Vayikra, the owner of a sacrificial animal dedicates his innermost self, as well as his conscience, to God as the animal’s kelayot 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; and 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. The Hebrew for “liver” is kaveid (כָּבֵד).  The same word also means heavy, weighty, oppressive, impressive.  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 heart.