Ki Teitzei: Virtues of a Parapet

August 22, 2018 at 9:34 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei, Samuel 2 | 2 Comments

When you build a new house, then you shall make a ma-akeh for your roof; then you will not put blood-guilt on your house if the faller falls from it.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:8)

ma-akeh (מַעֲקֶה) = parapet: a low wall along the edge of a roof or another structure.

This verse appears in a compilation of practical laws in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“When you go out”).  At the most literal level, it simply requires a parapet around a roof as a safety precaution to prevent anyone from falling.  If the faller were being injured or killed the owner of the house would be liable, bearing the “blood-guilt”.

Roofs from Egypt to Babylon (as well as in other parts of the world with dry climates and mild winters) were usually flat and built to bear weight, so people could walk, sit, sleep, and work on them.  In the Ancient Near East, builders ran wooden beams or whole logs from wall to wall.  They covered the beams with framed straw or reed mats, then topped the roof with several layers of clay compacted with stone rollers.  Sometimes they added latticed rooftop structures to provide shade for people using the roof.  A parapet around the edge made the top layer more durable, as well as improving safety.

The Hebrew Bible mentions using rooftops for private conversations,1 for sleeping,2 for storage,3 and for making sacrifices at altars for other gods.4  The Talmud also mentions keeping small lambs or goat kids on one’s roof.5

Safety

A roof without a parapet is unsafe not only because a person might fall off, but also because something might fall, or get pushed, from the roof onto a person below.  When an unsavory king in the book of Judges, Avimelekh of Shechem, captures the town of Teiveitz, its residents flee to the tower in the middle of their town.

And they shut themselves inside and they went up onto the roof of the tower.  And Avimelekh came up to the tower… to set it on fire.  Then a woman sent down an upper millstone onto the head of Avimelekh, and it cracked his skull.  (Judges 9:51-53)

The Talmud (Bava Kamma 15b) extends the requirement for a parapet around a roof to all other hazards in a house, such as keeping a vicious dog or setting up an unstable ladder.  If the owner does not remove the hazard, he is liable for damages and a court can even excommunicate him.

Even if the owner is the only person who lives in the house, he must still make it safe for the benefit of guests and future residents.6

Privacy

A sufficiently high parapet also provides privacy.  According to the Talmud (Bava Batra 2b) if the roof of one house adjoins the courtyard of another house, the owner of the first house must build a parapet four cubits high,7 so he cannot look into the neighbor’s courtyard when he is using his roof.  A similar ruling is that a wall separating the courtyards of two adjacent houses should be four cubits high, so neighbors cannot see into each other’s courtyards  (Bava Batra 5a).

Even if houses are not adjacent, a higher parapet may be needed for privacy.  If two houses are on opposite sides of a public road (Bava Batra 6a), both owners are likely to build a parapet high enough to prevent anyone on the road below from seeing them; but each owner must also build one side of his front parapet high enough to block the view from the opposite roof.  Then both families will have privacy (and share the expense equally).

A story in the bible illustrates another situation in which a high parapet would have provided privacy.

Bathsheba, by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1889

It was evening time, and David rose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the king’s house.  And he saw a woman bathing, from up on the roof, and the woman was very good in appearance.  (2 Samuel 11:2)

For the sake of privacy, Bathsheba would have been bathing either on her own lower roof, or in the enclosed courtyard of her own house.  But King David’s view was not blocked by a high enough parapet.  Enamored of her naked beauty, he found out who she was and sent for her, assuming that since  her husband Uriah was away at war, he would never know.  When Bathsheba became pregnant, King David had Uriah sent home from the front, but he refused to sleep with his wife until the war was over.  So David arranged for the death of the innocent man.  None of this would have happened if King David’s parapet had been four cubits high.

Metaphor for Pride

The original injunction in this week’s Torah portion has also been interpreted allegorically, with the rooftop standing for pride.  Philo of Alexandria wrote in the first century C.E. that when people give themselves credit for intellectual and social advancement, instead of crediting God, they are likely to fall from their high positions and be destroyed.

For the most grievous of all falls is for a man to stumble and fall from the honour due to God; crowning himself rather than God, and committing domestic murder. For he who does not duly honour the living God kills his own soul …  (The Works of Philo, trans. by C.D. Yonge, “XXXIX, On Husbandry, 171”)

A Poet’s Fall, 1760

The Hassidic commentator Dov Baer Friedman interpreted Deuteronomy 22:8 by applying the metaphor of pride before a fall8 to a Torah scholar’s pride in coming up with a new interpretation.

This refers to one offering a new interpretation of Torah.  “Make a railing for your upper storey.”  If the verse were referring to a literal house, it would have said: “for its upper storey.”  As it is, the upper storey is on you, referring to the swelling of your pride at this new teaching.  Do not let your head get turned by pride!  Even though this is a bit of Torah that no ear has ever heard, it comes not from you, but from God.

            “Should somebody fall from it.”  You are all set for such a fall.9

*

Building a Mental Parapet

Pride: All of us who enjoy either personal achievement or a high position in society should build a mental parapet to prevent ourselves from falling into the self-delusion of pride.  This mental parapet might be a prayer or a reminder that our success depends on the deeds of other human beings, on the family and society we inherit, and on the genes that nature or God gave us.

Privacy:  We can also find an inner meaning of the Talmud’s extension of the law in Ki Teitzei to cover privacy.

Just as humans need privacy in our living quarters, we need privacy in our own mental lives.  You can share your physical space with close family members, and you can share your personal information, random thoughts, and emotional reactions with a trusted partner who knows you well.  But sharing these things with neighbors, friends, or strangers can cause them to feel uncomfortable, to make false assumptions about you, or to feel burdened by your apparent neediness.  It can even give false friends information they can use against us or against other people we know.

When it comes to privacy, we should to set our own boundaries, building a mental parapet so we do not reveal the wrong things, whether in response to an inappropriate question, or in a gush of good will or exhibitionism.

Those of us with flat and inhabitable roofs still need parapets to prevent people and things from falling off.  But we all need parapets when it comes to the contents of our own minds.

  1. Examples of using a roof for private conversations: Joshua 2:6, 1 Samuel 9:25-26.
  2. Examples of using a roof for sleeping: Joshua 2:6, 2 Samuel 11:2.
  3. A roof is used for storing flax in Joshua 2:6.
  4. Examples of using a roof for altars to worship other gods: 2 Kings 23:12, Jeremiah 19:13 and 32:29, Zephanaiah 1:5.
  5. Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 6b.
  6. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Devarim, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2009, p. 513.
  7. A cubit is the length of a forearm from elbow to fingertips. Four cubits would be over 6 feet, or almost 2 meters.  (Bava Batra 2b also provides rules for window and courtyard partition placements to prevent a neighbor from being able to look inside the house next door.)
  8. Proverbs 16:18.
  9. Dov Baer Friedman of Miedzyrzec, Or Torah (1804), translated by Arthur Green in Arthur Green, Speaking Torah, vol. 2, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2013, p. 124.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            That is when you will call and God will answer;

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

Good deeds create atonement.

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

Jonah Preaching in Nineveh,
by Jakob Steinhardt, 1923

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

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

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

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

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

Repentance creates atonement.

Third Haftarah: Reading from 2 Samuel for Saturday

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

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

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

            He rescues me ki He is pleased with me.

            God treats me according to my righteousness,

            According to the cleanness of my hands He requites me.

            Ki I have kept the ways of God,

            And I have not done evil before my God.

            Ki all His laws are in front of me

            And from His decrees I do not swerve.

            And I am without blame or blemish for Him,

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

ki (כִּי) = because, when, if.

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

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

Bathsheba with a letter from King David, by Rembrandt

Bathsheba, by Rembrandt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When David says:

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

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

God treats me according to my righteousness,

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

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

            I became without blame or blemish for Him,

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

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

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

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

Haftarat Shemini—2 Samuel: A Dangerous Spirit

March 31, 2016 at 10:28 pm | Posted in Samuel 2, Shemini | 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 Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) and the haftarah is 2 Samuel 6:1-7:17.

Being touched by God is a dangerous thing.

Uzza, in this week’s haftarah, walks next to the cart carrying the ark of the covenant during King David’s first attempt to move it to Jerusalem.

"The Chastisement of Uzzah" by James Tissot

“The Chastisement of Uzzah” by James Tissot

When the oxen pulling the cart stumble, Uzza instinctively reaches out and grabs at the ark—and God strikes Uzza dead.  (See my post Shemini & 2 Samuel: Separating Holiness.)

And David was angry that God had broken through, [making] a breach in Uzza. (2 Samuel 6:8)

The bible does not say whether David is angry at Uzza or at God, but he is certainly upset that he has to abort his carefully-planned procession to bring the ark to his new capital, Jerusalem. For one thing, David is still consolidating his position as Israel’s second king.

He began his career as King Saul’s loyal lieutenant, a charismatic hero in Saul’s war against the Philistines. After Saul turned against David and repeatedly tried to kill him, David fled and found refuge in Philistine territory. After Saul died, David returned and was acclaimed king of Judah, the southern part of Saul’s former kingdom, but one of Saul’s sons became king of the northern territory. Gradually David conquered that land as well, then captured the foreign stronghold of Jerusalem and made it his new capital. But not all the people of Israel supported King David. Some still viewed him as the charismatic war hero who used to lead Saul’s troops; others resented him for opposing King Saul’s son.

So King David decides to bring the ark of the covenant, the people’s most important religious object, into Jerusalem. That way his new administrative center will also be his subjects’ primary center of worship. But after God breaks through and kills Uzza, David asks: How can it come to me, the ark of God? (2 Samuel 6:9)

David's first attempt with ark, illuminated manuscript

David’s first attempt with ark, illuminated manuscript

David is also angry and afraid because he deliberately set up the transportation of the ark as an occasion of religious rejoicing.

And David and the whole house of Israel were laughing and playing before God, with every woodwind of cypress, and with lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. (2 Samuel 6:5)

At that time, there were companies of “prophets” among the Israelites who entered altered states in order to experience God. Their usual method, according to the two books of Samuel, included playing music and encouraging ecstatic dancing and speaking in tongues.

For example, after the prophet Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel, he tells him:

"Saul Prophesies with the Prophets", by James Tissot

“Saul Prophesies with the Prophets”, by James Tissot

… as you are coming into the town you shall encounter a company of neviyim coming down from the high shrine, preceded by lute and tambourine and flute and lyre, and they shall be mitnabim. (1 Samuel 10:5)

neviyim (נְבִיאִִים) = prophets. (From the root verb niba (נבּא) = raved; conveyed the word of God. The Hebrew Bible uses the word neviyim (singular navi (נָבִיא) for both those who go into an altered state in order to experience God, and those who hear God and serve as God’s interpreters. (See my post Haftarah for Ki Tissa—1 Kings: Ecstatic versus Rational Prophets.)

mitnabim (מִתְנַבְּאִים) = speaking in an altered state (including glossolalia), often with ecstatic movement. (Also from the root niba.)

Samuel continued:

Then the ruach of God will overpower you, vehitnabita with them, and you shall be transformed into another man. (1 Samuel 10:6)

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind, spirit, overpowering mood.

vehitnabita (וְהִתְנַבִּיתָ) = and you shall babble in an altered state, move in ecstasy.

A ruach of God does overpower Saul, but it does not transform him into a better man. It merely makes a breach without killing him, so a ruach can overpower him again and again. Most often Saul is seized with angry jealousy and tries to kill David.

Maybe Saul’s original personality simply could not be transformed so that his altered states were joyful, like those of the neviyim.

David, however, enters the narrative as a charismatic, brave, and clever young man who sizes things up and plans ahead. When things go wrong, he optimistically bounces back with a new scheme.

Although David is a musician, he does not act like the neviyim until it fits his plan to bring the ark to his new capital. And after his first attempt fails because of the death of Uzza, David waits three months and then tries again.

Then David went and he brought up the ark of God from the house of Oveid-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. …And David was whirling with all his might before God; and David had belted on a linen tunic. (2 Samuel 6:12, 6:14) 

King David’s tunic is an eifod (אֵפוֹד), two rectangles of material fastened together at the shoulders and belted at the waist. Elsewhere in the Bible an eifod is a ritual garment worn by the high priest over his robe and underpants. David is planning to take the role of high priest as well as king. But on this occasion, he does not wear anything under his tunic.

The ark arrives in Jerusalem (David not shown)

The ark arrives in Jerusalem (David, scantily dressed, is not shown)

David and all the household of Israel were bringing up the ark of God with shouts and with the sound of the ram’s horn. And the ark of God entered the City of David. And Mikhal, daughter of Saul, looked down from the window, and she saw the king, David, leaping and whirling before God, and she scorned him in her heart. (2 Samuel 6:16)

Mikhal is not only Saul’s daughter, but also one of David’s wives—arguably his most important wife at the time, since David’s marriage to her helps to legitimize his claim to Saul’s kingdom. She notices that while David is ecstatic leaping and whirling, the front piece of his tunic flaps around below the belt—revealing his lack of underpants.

Once the ark is ensconced in a tent in Jerusalem, King David makes animal offerings and blesses the people in the name of God, like a high priest. Then he hands out bread and cakes to everyone before going to his palace to bless his own household. Mikhal intercepts him at the door.

And Mikhal, daughter of Saul, went out to meet David and she said: How he was honored today, the king of Israel—who exposed himself today to the eyes of the slave-women of his servants as one of the worthless exposes himself! (2 Samuel 6:20)

And David said to Mikhal: Before God—who chose me instead of your father and instead of any of his household, to appoint me sovereign over the people of God, over Israel—before God I will laugh and play; and I will be dishonored even more than this, and I will be debased in my own eyes! But with the slave-women of whom you speak, with them I will be honored. (2 Samuel 6:21)

King David is claiming that he knows proper behavior according to members of the ruling class—and that nevertheless, he will behave in the way that wins the love of the common people. There are times when a king is better off dancing with a flapping tunic—as long as the dancing proves the king has been touched by God.

Religious ecstasy did not help Israel’s first king. King Saul lived in the moment, and if the spirit of God touched him, he acted, for good or for bad.

King David, on the other hand, always planned ahead. He whirled ecstatically in front of the ark because a joyful and over-the-top religious procession was part of his plan for uniting his people.

Sometimes it is good to get emotional over God. I have led Shabbat services with a sequence of songs designed to inspire and elevate people into joy, and even dancing.

But there must be a safe container for ecstasy. Samuel did not realize that Saul was not a safe container for the spirit of God.  And Mikhal did not realize that David had created a procession that would be a safe container for religious ecstasy.

May we all be blessed with intuitive knowledge of when it is good to let go, and when it is better to restrain oneself.

Lekh Lekha & Vayeira: Hints of Jerusalem

October 19, 2015 at 8:07 pm | Posted in Joshua, Lekh Lekha, Samuel 2, Vayeira | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

“Next year in Jerusalem!” is the phrase that concludes both the Passover seder and the holy day of Yom Kippur.  For more than two millennia, Jews have referred to Jerusalem as their holiest place and ultimate home.

Yet the city we call Jerusalem in English, and Yerushalayim (יְרוּשָׁלַיִם‎) in Hebrew, is a Jebusite city in the Hebrew Bible until the second book of Samuel, when King David conquers its citadel and makes it his capital.

An Egyptian vassal city

So far, the oldest reference archaeologists have found to a place in Canaan called something like Jerusalem appears on Egyptian potsherds from the 19th century BCE, where Rushalimum is one of 19 Canaanite cities.

Rushalimum = uru (city of, founded by) + shaleim (the Canaanite god of the evening star, in the Semetic language of the Jebusites).

In the Amarna letters of the 14th century B.C.E., the king of the land of Rishalimum complains to the pharaoh of Egypt about how the Egyptian soldiers treated his capital city, “Beit-Shulmani”—a Semetic name meaning “House of Shaleim”.

Shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = the Canaanite god of the evening star (in the Jebusite language); completeness, safety, peace (in Hebrew, another Semitic language).

A place called Shaleim

Abraham is blessed by the king of Shaleim in the Torah portion Lekh Lekha (“Get yourself going”).  And in this week’s portion, Vayeira (“And he saw”), Abraham almost slaughters his son as an offering on Mount Moriyah, later identified as the temple mount.  Both of these place-names hint at the future Israelite city of Jerusalem.

A blessing in the city of Shaleim concludes Abraham’s only recorded military campaign.  Five kings at southern end of the Dead Sea lose a battle against four northern kings, who then head north with the booty and all the southerners they can round up as slaves.  One of the kidnapped southerners is Abraham’s nephew Lot.

Abraham and his 318 men chase the northerners, defeat them, and head back south with all the captured people and goods.  Before they reach Abraham’s encampment in Hebron, the southern king of Sodom meets Abraham and his men in the Valley of Shaveh.

And the king of Sodom went out to meet him, after he returned from striking Kedarlaomer and the kings who were with him, in the Valley of Shaveh, which is the valley of the king.  But Malki-Tzedek, king of Shaleim, brought out bread and wine; and he was a priest to Eil Elyon.  (Genesis/Bereishit 14:17-18)

Shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = peace, safety, wholeness.

Eil Elyon (אֵל עֶלְיוֹן) = the High God.

If Shaleim is a shortened name for Jerusalem, then the Valley of Shaveh may be the level area where the Kidron Valley meets the Valley of Ben-hinnom.  Commentators have pointed out that Shaveh also means “level”.

And he blessed him and he said: “Blessed be Avram to Eil Elyon, owner of heaven and earth.  And blessed be Eil Elyon, Who delivered your enemies into your hand”.  And he gave him a tithe of everything. (Genesis 14:19)

Abraham adds the name Eil Elyon to the four-letter name of God when he swears to the King of Sodom that he will not keep any of the people or goods that he won in battle.  (See my blog post Lekh Lekha: New Names for God.)  Abraham’s use of Eil Elyon may be diplomatic, but it also implies that Malki-Tzedek and Abraham recognize the same god as supreme.

Why would Malki-Tzedek give a tithe of the booty, when he is not listed as participating in the battle?  Probably it is Abraham who gives a tithe of his booty to Malki-Tzedek, prefiguring the tithes that Israelites brought to the high priest in Jerusalem centuries later.

So the stage is set for the Jebusite city of Shaleim to become the capital and holy city of the Israelites someday. The site is associated with a name of God, with priesthood, with blessings, and with tithes.

A place called Moriyah

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, hints at the future site of the temple through a very different story.  After Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac has grown up and become a young man, God speaks to Abraham in the night.

And [God] said:  “Take, please, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and get yourself going to the land of the Moriyah.  And lead him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, [the one] which I will say to you.”  (Genesis 22:2)

Moriyah (מֹרִיָּה) = Mor of God.  Mor (מֹר) = myrrh; a shortened form of moreh (מוֹרֶה) = throwing or teaching; or a homonym for mareh (מַרְאָה) = seeing, vision, apparition, mirror.

After a three-day walk from his home in Beersheba, Abraham sees the place.  The Torah does not say how he knows this particular hilltop is the one God chooses, but he climbs up with Isaac, some firewood, a fire-box, and a knife.

Beersheba is 44 miles from Jerusalem.  If the Moriyah is one of the hills surrounding Jerusalem,  then Abraham and Isaac would have to walk 14 to 15 miles a day—a reasonable distance, especially if the two servants Abraham brings along carry the firewood, and the donkey carries Abraham, age 117.

Just as Abraham lifts his knife to kill his son at the top of the hill, another voice from God calls to him and tells him to stop.  Abraham sacrifices a ram caught by its horns in the thicket in place of Isaac.  (The Torah does not say whether it is a thicket of myrrh.)

And Abraham called the name of that place “God Yireh”, as it is said to this day:  On the mountain of God yeira-eih. (Genesis 22:14)

yireh (יִראֶה) = he sees, will see, perceive, look at, consider.

yeira-eih (יֵרֶָאֶה) = he/it will be seen, will become visible, will appear.

In this story Abraham connects the place-name Moriyah (מֹרִיָּה) with the word mareh (מַרְאָה) = seeing, appearance, vision.

The only other occurrence of the name Moriyah in the Hebrew Bible is in a book written several centuries later:

Then Solomon began to build the house of God in Jerusalem on the hill of the Moriyah, where [God] had appeared to his father David, where David had appointed the place on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.”  (2 Chronicles 3:1)

Moriyah is not mentioned in 2 Samuel, an earlier book that includes an account of Solomon building the temple.  But this retelling of the story in 2 Chronicles (written circa 400-250 C.E.) firmly identifies Moriyah as a hill in Jerusalem.

A placed called Yerushalaim

The Hebrews conquer much of Canaan in the book of Joshua, but even though Joshua executes the king of Jerusalem, he cannot conquer the city-state itself.

As for the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Yerushalaim: the children of Judah were not able to dispossess them, so the Jebusites dwell with the children of Judah in Yerushalaim to this day.  (Joshua 15:63)

Yerushalaim (יְרֽוּשָׁלַ֔םִ) = Jerusalem; yeru (יְרֽוּ) = (possibly from of yarah (יָרָה) = “he founded” or “he shot arrows”) + shaleim.1

Joshua sets up the Israelites’ portable tent-sanctuary in Shiloh, about 20 miles north of Jerusalem, and it remains there for centuries, acquiring stone walls and becoming the main temple of the Israelites.

The city-state of Jerusalem remains an independent Jebusite enclave until King David conquers its citadel and makes it his capital in the second book of Samuel.  Instead of enslaving or subjugating the native Jebusites, David integrates them into his kingdom.  He moves the ark to his new capital in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:12-17), and his son Solomon builds the first temple there.

*

The story of Abraham and Malki-Tzedek, set in Shaleim, prefigures the requirement to donate a tithe to the priests in Jerusalem, first mentioned in the book of Leviticus/VayikraShaleim is also were Malki-Tzedek blesses Abraham, as priests later blessed people.

The story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac establishes the principle of burnt offerings of animals only, which later became the central form of worship in the temple in Jerusalem.  The  name Moriyah and its folk etymology at the end of this story make this the place where humans see and are seen by God.

So Jerusalem is supposed to be a place of blessing, and a place where humans meet God.

Over the centuries, Jerusalem has occasionally lived up to the promise of its name under Malki-Tzedek, the Hebrew word shaleim = wholeness, peace, and safety.  At other times, too many of the human beings in Jerusalem have been unable to bless or to see each other—and therefore unable to truly bless or perceive the divine.

May the promises of a holy, whole, peaceful, and safe Jerusalem in Lekh Lekha and Vayeira finally come true, speedily and in our time.

  1. In Genesis Rabbah 56:10, Yerushaleim is interpreted as a combination of yir’eh, “He will see [to it],” and shaleim, the city of King Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18.

 

 

Shemini & 2 Samuel: Separating Holiness

March 16, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Posted in Samuel 2, Shemini | 2 Comments
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Aaron, who becomes the high priest on the eighth day of his ordination, hears directly from God in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (Eighth). God tells him that priests must not drink on duty, so they can perform two important jobs:

Lehavdil between hakodesh and the ordinary, and between the ritually-impure and the ritually-pure.  And to teach the children of Israel all the decrees that God spoke to them through Moses. (Leviticus 10:10-11)

lehavdil (לְהַבְדֹּיל) = to make a distinction, to separate, to segregate, to distinguish

hakodesh (הַקֹּדֶשׁ) = the holy, the sacred; everything that is dedicated to God.

In the Hebrew Bible, objects, places, and days can all be holy, if they are reserved for serving God.

The holiest object is the ark, which holds two stone tablets that God wrote on at the top of Mount Sinai. When the ark is inside the innermost chamber of the sanctuary, the holy of holies, God’s presence manifests in the empty space right above its lid. No one but Moses and the high priest may see the ark when it is inside the holy of holies.

According to the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, when the ark is transported to a new location, it is draped with three layers of coverings to protect people from seeing it. No one may touch it except for the priests carrying it by its poles. It is so holy that touching or seeing it would be almost like touching or seeing God.

The haftarah reading for this week’s Torah portion is a selection from the second book of Samuel which describes how the ark is transported to Jerusalem from the house of Avinadav, near the Philistine border. The Philistines had captured the ark in battle, then sent it back across the border. A descendant of Avinadav named Elazar was anointed as a priest to take care of the ark. By the time King David arrives, 20 years later, the men of the house of Avinadav who serve the ark are Achio and Uzza.

They mounted the ark of God on a new cart, and they carried it away from the house of Avinadav, which was on the hill. Uzza and Achio, sons of Avinadav, were guiding the new cart. (2 Samuel 6:3)

Achio walks in front of the ox-cart, and Uzza has the honor of walking beside the ark. The procession includes King David and thousands of Israelites dancing to the sound of musical instruments. Then the oxen pulling the cart stumble.

They came as far as the threshing-place of Nakhon; then Uzza reached out to the ark of God, and he grabbed at it, because the cattle let [the cart] go off by itself. And God’s anger flared up against Uzza, and struck him down there, over the heedlessness. And he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:6-7)

While Uzza is accompanying the ark, he is serving as a priest, who must make a distinction between the holy and the ordinary. His impulsive action, however well-meant, fails to distinguish between the perilously holy ark and an ordinary ox-cart load.

King David sends the ark to a nearby house, and tries a second procession to Jerusalem three months later.

David was whirling around with all his might before God; and David had belted on a linen  efod. (2 Samuel 6:14)

efod (אֵפוֹד) = a tunic or cuirass with the front and back tied together, worn by the high priest as part of his ritual costume.

David is dancing in front of the ark, but the ark is so holy that the Torah says he is dancing before God. His whirling around with all his might reminds me of the prophets who speak in ecstasy in Exodus and the two books of Samuel. Although David is wearing a priest’s efod, he acts more like a prophet filled with the spirit of God—until the ark has been placed inside the tent in Jerusalem.

Then King David soberly plays the role of high priest, performing all the rituals without a hitch.

They brought the ark of God and set it up in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David brought up rising-offerings before God, and the wholeness-offerings. And when David finished bringing up the rising-offerings and the wholeness offerings, then he blessed the people in the name of the God of Armies. (2 Samuel 6:17-18)

David treats the ark as holy in two ways: first as a prophet filled with the spirit of God, second as a high priest conducting ritual. Both responses to holiness are acceptable in the bible, at the appropriate time and place.

When King David goes home, one of his wives criticizes him for exposing his private parts while dancing. She is concerned about what people will think of him. But what occurs to me is that David is wearing the priest’s efod without underpants. The books of Exodus and Leviticus require priests to wear linen underpants while they are on duty, so they will not be exposed.

This seems like one clear failure to distinguish the holy from the ordinary. But God overlooks a few of David’s infractions earlier in the bible, and God overlooks this one as well.

The ark was lost with the fall of the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. The innermost chamber of the second temple was empty, but it was still called the holy of holies, and treated with awe and reverence. The high priest still entered it only once a year, on Yom Kippur.

Since the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., Jews have made do with objects and places of lesser holiness. Instead of an ark, we have Torah scrolls, which are unrolled for everyone to see. Instead of a sanctuary with a holy of holies, we have gravesites and the broken temple wall in Jerusalem.

The most holy things left for us are holy days: feast and fast days every year, and Shabbat every week. On Saturday nights, we make a havdallah, a separation, between the holy day of Shabbat that has ended and the ordinary days of the week to come. The havdallah blessing concludes with some of the words in God’s instructions to Aaron:

Blessed are you, God, hamavdil between hakodesh and the ordinary.

Hamavdil means “the one who makes a distinction”, and hakodesh means “the holy”. The world God created includes a distinction between the holy and the ordinary, which we must discern and act upon.

I think treating a day as holy is harder than treating an object or a place as holy. The sun sets and rises on Shabbat the way it does on any other day; the only difference is what we do. Even if we try to dedicate every moment of Shabbat to serving God, we still have to do some things in the realm of the ordinary.

Maybe we can be like King David, and serve God with enough enthusiasm to make up for serving God imperfectly.

Still, one question remains in our modern age:  What counts as serving God?

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