Song of Songs & 2 Isaiah: Love Sacred and Profane

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

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

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

Song of Songs, Rothschild machzor, 15th century CE

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

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

Soon the female speaker cries:

            Revive me with raisin cakes,

            Refresh me with quinces,

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

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

            A locked garden is my sister, my bride;

            A locked well, a sealed spring.

            Your limbs are an orchard of pomegranates

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

And the woman responds:

            Let my beloved come into his garden,

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

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

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

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

Song of Songs, artist unknown

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

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

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

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

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

            For Israel was a boy and ohaveihu

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

ohaveihu (אֺהֲבֵהוּ) = I loved him.

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

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

            Children who do not betray.”

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

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

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

            But they, they rebelled

            And pained [God’s] holy spirit.

            And [God] turned against them as an enemy;

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

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

            “… You, God, are our father,

            Our redeemer of old …  (Isaiah 63:16)

*

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

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

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

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

            I make you swear, daughters of Jerusalem,

            By deer or by gazelles of the field:

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

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

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

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

Pesach: Changing Four Sons

April 16, 2019 at 2:29 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment

The wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one who does not know how to ask.

These are the “Four Sons” in the haggadah (הַגָּדָה = The Telling), the guide to the Passover/Pesach seder.  Even haggadot that leave out many traditional sections still include the Four Sons (or in modern versions, Four Children) and label them that way.  If you go to a Pesach seder this Friday evening, you will encounter them.

Yet these four types of children have only a tenuous connection with the story of the exodus from Egypt in the Torah.  And telling that story is what Pesach is all about.

pesach (פֶּסַח) =  the animal sacrifice for Passover, the festival of Passover.  Plural: pesachim (פְּסָחִים).

The Torah prescribes what a father should say to a son on Pesach four times.  Three of these instructions are preceded by a hypothetical question from a child.

But the answers in the haggadah are different from the answers in the Torah.  By about 200 CE the Jewish community in Babylon had labeled the sons in the four passages and changed the answers to be given by their fathers.

“The Four Sons” Pesach tradition is first reported in the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael.1  Who knows, maybe even Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha was the one who invented this section in the second century CE, and it became popular after his students recorded it.  The passage begins:

Four Sons in French haggadah, 1880’s

There are four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and one who does not know how to ask.  (Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, 13:14)2

A parental answer follows for each type of son.

Is it possible to combine the four explanations for children in the Torah with the Four Sons found in the Mekhilta and all traditional haggadot?  Here is my attempt.

 

The “Wise” One

The question of the first child comes from the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim:

If your son asks you in the future, saying: “What are the terms and the decrees and the regulations that God, our God, has commanded you?”  Then you shall say to your son: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand …  And then God commanded us to do all these decrees, to be in awe of God, our God, for our own good always, to keep us alive as on this day.”  (Deuteronomy 6:20-21, 6:24)

For about 1,800 years the haggadah has applied the child’s question to the rules of the Pesach seder:

Breaking off the afikoman

What does the wise son say?  “What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that God, our God, commanded us?”  You, likewise, open to him with the Pesach rule: “Nothing should be eaten after the Pesach afikoman.”2

Later haggadot say the parent should tell the child all the rules of Pesach, including the one that nothing must be eaten after the afikoman.  Although in the Torah this child says “commanded you”, the Mekhilta rewrites his question as “commanded usin order to make the boy look better.

Answering the child’s question in the context of Deuteronomy 6:20-25 would be a bootless enterprise.  If you responded with every rule in the Torah and how it is applied, both you and the child would fall asleep long before you could finish the task.  You could limit your list to the rules of the Pesach seder, including the afikoman; but why not bring up each rule when you actually apply it during the evening?

I recommend saying: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand.  So if we are wise we obey God’s rules, in awe and gratitude, and for our own good.  Because here we are, alive today!”  (Deuteronomy 6:21-24)

 

The “Wicked” One

The question of the second child comes from the book of Exodus/Shemot:

Take for yourselves an animal from the flock for your families and slaughter the pasach.  And you shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and daub it on the lintel and the two doorposts …  And God will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and God will pasach over the entrance …  And when your children say to you: “What is this service to you?”  Then you shall say: “It is a pasach slaughter for God, who pasach the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when [God] struck the Egyptians, but preserved our households.”  (Exodus/Shemot 12:21-23, 12:26-27)

pasach (פָּסַח) = (verb) limped, skipped; (noun) an alternate spelling of pesach (פֶּסַח).

In context, the children are asking about the service of daubing blood on the outside frame of the front door, to commemorate the action in the book of Exodus.  (Although pesach animals were slaughtered annually at the temple in Jerusalem until the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE, there is no evidence to date other than this passage in Exodus that the daubing of blood around doors was ever re-enacted.)

But the Mekhilta completely changes the meaning of the children’s question:

What does the wicked son say?  “What is this service to you?”—to you, and not to him.  Because he disassociated himself from the congregation and denied the foundation, you, likewise, blunt his teeth and tell him: “Because of this [that] God did for me when I went out of Egypt.”  For me and not for you.  Had you been there, you would not have been redeemed.

The father’s reply here sounds to me as if the questioner is not “the wicked son”, but “the son whose father hates him”.

The father makes the “wicked son” look bad by correctly quoting “What is this service to you?” and leaping to the conclusion that “to you” means the boy is disassociating himself from his parents and from other Jews.

This is a prejudiced assumption.  Perhaps the child is merely expressing curiosity about a particular Pesach service and its meaning to an adult.  The service in question is what the Israelites did in Egypt the night before they were freed: slaughtering a sheep or goat and daubing its blood on the lintel and doorposts of the front door.

I recommend answering: “Thanks to that service, God “skipped over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when [God] struck the Egyptians, but preserved our houses.  (Exodus 12:27)   And that is why we call this week Passover; the Hebrew name, Pesach, means skipped over.”

 

The “Simple” One

The third child’s question appears in Exodus after the instructions to sacrifice every firstborn male animal in the herd and flock to God, in commemoration of the tenth and final plague in Egypt.  A firstborn donkey is redeemed with a sheep sacrificed in its place.  The firstborn son of each human mother is also dedicated to God.

Death of the Firstborn, haggadah by Judah Pinḥas, Germany, 1747

But every firstborn human among your sons you shall redeem.  And when your son asks you in the future, saying: “What is this?”  Then you shall say to him: “By strength of hand God brought us out from Egypt, from the house of slavery.  And when Pharaoh hardened against sending us out, then God killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of humans to the firstborn of livestock.  Therefore I am slaughtering for God every male womb-opener, but every firstborn of my sons I must redeem.”  (Exodus 13:14-15)

The Mekhilta takes the question out of context and shortens the answer:

What does the simple son say?  “What is this?”  And you shall tell him: “With a mighty hand did God take us out of Egypt from the house of bondage.”

The best answer depends on what the simple child cannot find the words to describe.  If “this” is the Pesach seder, it suffices to answer: “This is the way we tell the story of how God rescued us from slavery in Egypt.”

But what if the child has qualms about God’s tenth plague in Egypt, the death of the firstborn?  I recommend reassuring your child (or your inner child) by explaining: “That was a miracle in the story.  Moses told our ancestors to commemorate it by sacrificing the firstborn of each cow, sheep, or goat at the altar, but to redeem every firstborn son by giving something different to God instead.  (Exodus 13:15)  Today we give money in honor of the firstborn.”

 

The Speechless One

Exodus tells the father what to say to his son about the festival of matzah without including any prompting question.

Seven days you shall eat matzah, and on the seventh day will be a festival for God.  Matzah shall be eaten for seven days, and nothing leavened shall be seen with you, and no sourdough shall be seen with you, throughout all your territory.  And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: “For the sake of what God did for me in taking me out from Egypt.”  (Exodus 13:6-8)

Modern biblical scholars suspect that there was already a festival of matzah in the spring, before the first grain harvest, and the Torah absorbed the pre-existing festival into the Pesach observance.4

Nevertheless, the Torah instructs us to explain the presence of matzah and the absence of leavened food during the week of Pesach in terms of the exodus.  And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: “For the sake of what God did for me in taking me out from Egypt.”  So does the Mekhilta:

And he who does not know how to ask, you open for him, as it is written: “And you shall tell your son on that day, etc.”

Like the answers for the “wicked” child and the “simple” child, the invented “son who does not know how to ask” gets an answer that ignores the point of the corresponding passage in the Torah—in this case instructions for the festival of matzah.

I recommend telling the speechless child: “For seven days we eat matzah, and avoid any baked goods with leavening.  Why do we do this?  For the sake of what God did for me in taking me out from Egypt.  (Exodus 13:6-8)  That’s what it says in the Torah, but what do you think it means?”  In this way you may encourage your child to ask questions and generate possible answers.

*

Pesach is when we must tell the story of the exodus from Egypt in a way that engages our children and the “children” inside us.  In order to do that, we can combine the traditions with our own creativity.  The Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesachim gives examples of spur-of-the moment alternatives to traditional sections.5  But if you would like to plan some alternatives in advance, you are welcome to use this blog post as a starting point.

  1. The Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael collection of commentary on the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy written during the first through fourth centuries CE and by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, his students, and subsequent commentators and redactors. The rules and customs of Passover in the Mekhilta were probably written in the early third century CE, about the same time as Rabbi Yehudah Ha Nasi collected the mishnah of the Talmud.  The fours sons in the Mekhilta are alluded to in the Jerusalem Talmud, but not in the Babylonian Talmud.
  2. This quote and all subsequent quotes from the Mekhilta use the translation in sefaria.org/Mekhilta_d’Rabbi_Yishmael. They are all from 13:14.
  3. The afikomen is the final course or dessert of the Passover meal, consisting of half a piece of matzah separated and hidden early in the ritual.
  4. The only reason given in Exodus for observing the festival of matzah during Pesach is the sentence: “And they baked the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, flat rounds of matzah, because it had not leavened, because they were driven out from Egypt and they could not delay. They did not even make provisions for themselves.”  (Exodus 12:39)  But the Israelites have two week’s notice, and their only leaven is sourdough starter, which never runs out as long as a little is saved from each batch of bread.
  5. For example, Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 115b: “Abaye was sitting before Rabba when he was still a child. He saw that they were removing the table before him, and he said to those removing it: “We have not yet eaten, and you are taking the table away from us?”  Rabba said to him: “You have exempted us from reciting the questions of ‘Why is this night different’, as you have already asked what is special about the seder night.”  (Translation from www.sefaria.or/Pesachim 115b.)

 

Ki Tavo: A Perishing Aramean

August 29, 2018 at 8:12 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo, Passover/Pesach, Shavuot | Leave a comment

Still life by Caravaggio, 1605

Do we own land, prosper in business, or put food on the table entirely because of our own efforts?  The book of Deuteronomy/Devarim says no.  Moses tells the Israelites that they will conquer Canaan only with God’s help.  (See my post Re-eih: Ownership.)  Then they will acquire cities, houses, and farms that other people built.  (See my post Eikev, Va-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?)  After that they will build more houses, and all their enterprises will prosper, making their wealth increase.  Moses predicts they will then forget God, and think:

“My ability and the power of my hand made me this wealth.”  Then you must remember God, your God, who gives you the ability to make wealth …”  (Deuteronomy 8:11, 17-18)

Furthermore, the Israelites must not confuse taking possession of land, or inheriting it from their fathers, with actual ownership.1

Hey!  The heavens and the heavens of the heavens, the land and everything in it, belongs to God, your God.  (Deuteronomy 10:14)

*

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you come”), Moses prescribes an annual ritual to thank God for the land we pretend we own, and for the harvest we pretend comes exclusively from our own labors.

Bible card by Providence Lithograph Co., ca. 1900

You shall take some of the first of every fruit of the earth that you bring in from your land that God, your god, is giving to you.  And you shall place them in a basket and go to the place that God, your God, will choose to let [God’s] name dwell.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:2)

The place that “God will choose” is Jerusalem.2  The head of each household brings the basket to the temple. and affirms that the land on which his family grew the fruits is a gift from God.

And you shall come to whoever is the priest in those days, and you shall say to him: “I declare today to God, your God, that I came to the land that God swore to our forefathers to give to us.”  (Deuteronomy 26:3)

The priest sets the basket in front of the altar.

And you shall respond, and you shall say in front of God, your God: “Arami oveid avi.  And he went down to Egypt and he sojourned there with few men, but he became there a nation great and powerful and populous.”  (Deuteronomy 12:4-5)

Arami (אֲרַמִּי) = a male Aramean, a man from the country of Aram (roughly corresponding to present-day Syria).

oveid (אֺבֵד) = wandering lost; being ruined; perishing.  (Oveid is the kal participle of the verb avad, אָבַד, and implies that the subject is lost, ruined, or perishing.)3

avi (אָבִי) = my father, my forefather.

Who is the Arami?  The book of Genesis/Bereishit tells us that Abraham lives in the Aramean city of Charan (also called Paddan-Aram) before God tells him to go to Canaan.  Later in Genesis, Abraham’s grandson Jacob flees to Charan and lives there with his uncle Lavan for 20 years before returning to Canaan.  So we have three candidates for the Aramean in this declaration: Abraham, Lavan, or Jacob.  And only two of those, Abraham and Jacob, qualify as a forefather of the Israelites.

Rashi4 identified the Arami as Lavan and the avi as Jacob.  His interpretation, “Lavan sought to uproot everyone [all Jews] as he chased after Jacob,” requires translating Arami oveid avi as “An Aramean was ruining my forefather.”  But oveid cannot mean “ruining”, only “being ruined”.(see 3)  Furthermore, Biblical Hebrew grammar allows for an implied verb “to be” anywhere in the phrase Arami oveid avi, but not for the Arami to be the subject doing something to avi as a direct object.5  So Arami and avi must be the same person.

Rashbam6 recognized this, and identified the person as Abraham.  He associated oveid with wandering when one is exiled from one’s own land, and rephrased Arami oveid avi as “My father Abraham, an Arami was he, oveid and exiled from the land of Aram.”  Then he cited Genesis 12:1, where God tells Abraham: “Go forth from your land and from your relatives and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  If Aram is Abraham’s own land, Rashbam must have reasoned, then in Canaan he is an exile.

Calling Abraham an exile seems like a stretch to me.  Abraham hears God and decides to leave.  He brings along his wife, his nephew, the people who work for them, and the wealth he has accumulated in livestock and goods.  It sounds like a comfortable emigration.

Rashbam’s explanation also fails to account for the sentence immediately following Arami oveid avi in Deuteronomy 12:5 above.  Abraham and his household do visit Egypt, but the same group returns to Canaan after a very short sojourn there.  They may pick up a few Egyptian slaves, but Abraham’s returning household is far from being “a nation great and powerful and populous”.

That leaves Abraham’s grandson Jacob as the Arami who is the speaker’s forefather.  Jacob, a.k.a. “Israel”, moves to Egypt to join his son Joseph and brings along 66 of his descendants, not counting the wives of the adult men.7  These “children of Israel” stay in Egypt for 430 years.8  When they leave in the book of Exodus, there are “about 600,000 men on foot” along with their families and fellow travelers9—enough to count as a nation in the Ancient Near East.  The sentence following Arami oveid avi fits only Jacob.

If Jacob is the Aramean and “my forefather”, why is he called oveid?  The translation of oveid that best describes Jacob’s life at the time he emigrates to Egypt is “perishing”, since he and his extended family are suffering through a second year of famine in Canaan.  Therefore, Arami oveid avi should be translated: “A perishing Aramean was my forefather”.

A man bringing his first fruits to the temple does identify himself as an Israelite with these three words, but it would be simpler to say “Jacob is my forefather” or “Israel is my forefather”.  The clause Arami oveid avi acknowledges two other things: that his ancestors had not always lived in Canaan/Judah, and that at a critical time they were perishing in a famine.  Remembering these things, the farmer is more likely to feel grateful that God gave the Israelites land, and that the God who makes famines has provided him with agricultural abundance.

*

The recitation and ritual actions continue in this week’s Torah portion without mentioning that they are part of Shavuot, one of the three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem dictated in the Torah.  In Exodus 34:22 Shavuot is described as a celebration the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and in Numbers 28:26 Shavuot is identified as the “Day of First Fruits” (Yom Habikkurim).

But the recitation beginning Arami oveid avi has also become part of Passover/PesachIn 220 C.E., when Judah HaNasi recorded the Mishnah (the core of the Talmud), the farmer’s declaration before the priest was already included in the seder (the Passover service at home around the table).10  It still is.

Arami oveid avi is a humbling opening line.  If God could let Jacob, one of God’s favorite people, come close to perishing of hunger, any of us might be ruined.  And every human being will eventually perish from this earth.

Yes, while we are alive we must cultivate our crops.  Our own efforts are necessary, but not sufficient, for prosperity; other necessary factors are out of our hands.  The good life is a fragile and temporary blessing.

May we notice the first fruit of every blessing in our lives, and express our gratitude.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in September 2011.)

  1. The real owner of the land is also revealed in Leviticus 25:23, when God declares: “But the land must not be sold to forfeit reacquisition, because the land is Mind; for you are resident aliens with Me.” (See my post Behar: Owning Land.)
  2. Modern critical scholars agree that the earliest form of book of Deuteronomy was written no earlier than the 7th century B.C.E., after the northern kingdom of Israel had been wiped out by the Assyrians, and the only remaining Israelite kingdom was Judah, with its capital and temple at Jerusalem.
  3. The piel participle, me-abeid (מְאַבֵּד = giving up as lost, ruining, letting perish) implies that the subject is abandoning, ruining, or destroying someone else.)
  4. Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  5. In Biblical Hebrew, if avi were a definite direct object instead of a subject, it would be preceded by the word et (אֶת).
  6. Rashbam is the acronym for Rashi’s grandson, the 12th-century rabbi Shmuel ben Meir.
  7. Genesis 46:26.
  8. Exodus 12:40. (In Genesis 15:13 God predicts it will be 400 years.)
  9. Exodus 1:7, 12:37-38.
  10. Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 116a, Mishnah.

Pesach & Psalm 118: Still Singing

April 3, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Psalms/Tehilim | Leave a comment

After drinking, eating, talking, and singing our way through the Haggadah, we still have six more days of Passover/Pesach.  What do we do besides continuing our matzah diet, unleavened by any bread?

One of the 14 steps in the seder follows us all week: the Halleil (הַלֵּל = praise), consisting of Psalms 113-118.  The Levites sang these psalms in the second temple1 during the three pilgrimage festivals to Jerusalem:  Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. 2  All three festivals originated as harvest celebrations: Pesach for the first barley harvest, Shavuot for the first wheat and first fruits, and Sukkot at the end of the growing season, for all the other crops.  A harvest is a good reason to celebrate and praise God.

In my years of organizing Pesach seders and Shavuot and Sukkot services, I have been grateful that the Halleil includes Psalm 118.  Why?  Because the good lines in that psalm have inspired song and chant writers to come up with melodies.  Now, for the rest of the week of Pesach, I have the perfect excuse to keep on singing them!

Singing a verse again and again makes me ponder its meaning—which may be one reason we sing the psalms.  Here are my thoughts about some of the verses in Psalm 118:

118:1-4

Hodu l’Adonai ki tov,                         Thank God, because it is good,

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomar na Yisrael,                               Let Israel please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomru na beit Aharon,                       Let the house of Aaron please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomru na yirey Adonai,                      Let yirey God please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

yirey (יִרְאֵי) = those who are afraid of, those who are in awe of.

(Note:  In Hebrew, nouns and verbs have grammatical gender; in English they do not.  Therefore a masculine noun suffix or verb affix in Hebrew can be either masculine or neuter in English.  In this essay, I am translating references to God using “it” or “its”.)

Levites, from James Tissot, The Choristers

The first verses of Psalm 118 are scripted for call and response singing.  The choir, or choir leader, of the Levites invites three groups to respond. The first group, Israel, covers everyone present who is not a Levites or a priest.  The second group is the priests, whose hereditary office is traced back to Aaron in the Torah.  The third group is yirey God.3

It is tempting to consider the “yirey God” as the “God-fearers” of the Hellenistic period (the first through third century C.E.).  This was the name for people who had converted to worshipping the God of Israel, but did not go so far as to follow all the rules (such as circumcision).  One argument for this interpretation is that 118:4 calls for a class of people who are not “Israel”.  An argument against this interpretation is that Psalm 118 was probably written well before the first century C.E.

I can identify with the “yirey God”, despite my conversion to Judaism over 30 years ago, because I am not an ethnic Jew.  When the psalms were written, there were few apostates and few full converts; most of the people called “Israel” belonged by both birth and religion.  Today, when many people with Jewish ancestry live with no ties to the Jewish religion, and many converts are passionately engaged in that religion, I would appreciate a separate call for Jews by religion.4  We, too, can use a reminder that God’s “kindness is everlasting”.

118:14

Ozi vezimrat Yah,                               My strength vezimrat God,

          vayehi li liyshuah.                               and it became my rescue.

vezimrat (וְזִמְרָת) = and/or/but the zimrah of (a construct form of the noun zimrah).  Zimrah (זִמְרָה) = praising-song, melody, music.5

This line also appears in Exodus 15:2 in a song attributed to Moses, and is quoted in Isaiah 12:3.

English inserts the word “the” and forms of “to be” in places where Biblical Hebrew has no such connecting words.  Thus it is not always obvious, when translating from Hebrew to English, where to throw in the extra “the”, “is”, or “are”.  These grammatical differences mean there are at least two equally valid translations of Psalm 118:14:

“My own strength and song are of God!  And it [God] became my rescue!”  (Both the speaker’s strength and his song are attributed to God.  God rescues him by giving him superhuman strength and a song.)

“My own strength, and the song of God!  And it [the song of God] became my rescue!”  (The speaker has his own strength, but it is not enough to save him.  It is the song about God that rescues him—by calling in divine strength.)

When I sing verse 118:14, I imagine that singing in praise of God is giving me enough extra psychological strength to rescue me from my troubles.

118:19-20

Pitchu li shaarey tzedek                     Open to me the gates of righteousness

          Avo vam odeh Yah!                                         I will enter and praise God!

Zeh hashaar l’Adonai;                                    This is the gateway to God;

          Tzadikim yavo-u vo.                                    The righteous enter through it.

tzedek (צֶדֶק) = righteousness, what is right, what is just.

tzadikim (צַדִּיקִים) = (plural) the righteous, those who are innocent and in the right, those who act according to morality and justice.

When the Levites sang Psalm 118 in Jerusalem, the “gates of righteousness” probably referred to gates in the second temple complex.6  The pilgrimage festival may have included a ritual in which the double doors of a gate opened and the Levite choir sang while Judeans filed through.

The second temple had gates from the city into the outer courtyard (the “Court of Gentiles”); three gates from the outer courtyard into the eastern inner courtyard (the “Court of Women”) which only women and men of Israelite descent or full converts could enter; one gate from that court into the “Court of Israel” (for men only) with its view of the altar; and a curtained gate into the vestibule of the temple proper, which only priests were allowed to enter.

Was coming to the temple and worshiping the God of Israel enough to make someone righteous?  Or did stepping through the designated gate express a desire and commitment to become righteous?

The first time I sang this part of Psalm 118, I felt as if I were pretending I was already righteous and commanding the gates to open for me.  Then I realized that the request in 118:19 could also be a plea.  Now when I sing, I beg for the gates of righteous to open to me, so that I can receive whatever I need to become righteous.

Rashi7 wrote that the “gates of righteousness” were the entrances to synagogues and study halls.  I would agree that these are places where one can become more enlightened about righteousness—through an emotional channel in a synagogue service, and through an intellectual channel in a study hall.  But personal gates of righteousness may also open to us, if we ask.

*

As I sing Psalm 118, using different melodies for different sections, I think of God in terms of infinite kindness; I feel the strength of a divine source entering me as I sing to God; and I humble myself to pray for the ability to become righteous.

And all that comes before Psalm 118 reminds me to look again when I reject or feel rejected, since:

The stone the builders rejected

          Has become the cornerstone!  (118:22)

  1. Scholarly consensus is that Psalm 118 was written during the time of the “second temple” in Jerusalem. The Babylonians razed the first temple dedicated to the God of Israel in 586 B.C.E.  After the Persians conquered the Babylonians, King Cyrus decreed that exiles could return to their original lands and rebuild sites of worship.  Under Ezra and Nehemiah, returning exiles from Judah laid the foundations of a second temple on the site of the old one in Jerusalem.  The temple was completed in 516 B.C.E.
  2. The Talmud determined that only the “Half Halleil”, which abbreviates Psalms 116 and 117, should be recited during the last six days of Pesach (Arachin 10a-b).
  3. Psalm 115, earlier in the Halleil, appeals to the same three groups: Israel, the house of Aaron, and “yirey God”. In this case, the leader asks each group to trust in God, and the group responds: “Their help and their shield is he!”
  4. Converts are currently called “Jews by choice”, but I do not want to exclude people of Jewish ancestry who also choose to practice Judaism.
  5. In this verse only, zimrat is often translated as “the might of” or “the strength of” . Yet the root verb zamar, זָמַר, means “pruned” in the kal form, and “sang praises” or “made music” in the pi’el   There is only one verse in the Hebrew Bible in which zimrah or zimrat is not translated in terms of music: Genesis 43:11.  There Jacob lists six products he considers zimrat the land: four kinds of aromatic resin, fruit syrup, and almonds.  All these luxuries come from trees, and therefore could be considered “prunings”.
  6. Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century), The Hirsch Tehillim, Feldheim Publishers, Nanuet, NY, 2014, p. 968; Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, p. 417; The Koren Siddur (Nusach Sepharad), commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2012, p. 771.
  7. 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.

Pesach: Miriam the Prophetess

March 27, 2018 at 9:09 am | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Beshallach, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment

Pesach (פֶּסַח, “skipping”) means Passover.  Seder (סֵדֶר, “order”) means the dinner table ritual following the order in the Haggadah.  Haggadah (הַגָּדָה, “the telling”—a term that came into use in the 19th century) means the book of rituals, prayers, questions, four cups of wine, and stories.  The longest story, told while the second cup of wine sits on the table, is about the exodus from Egypt, up to the point when the pursuing Egyptian army drowns in the Reed Sea, and the newly-freed slaves celebrate on the far shore.

In the book of Exodus, Moses led the people in celebrating by singing a lengthy psalm.1

Miriam’s Song, 1909

Then Miriam the neviyah, the sister of Aaron, took the drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her, with drums and with circle-dances.  And Miriam chanted for them:

Sing to God, for He is high above the high;

horse and its rider He hurled into the sea.  (Exodus/Shemot 15:20-21)

neviyah (נְבִיאָה) = prophetess (the feminine form of navi (נָבִיא) = prophet).

Miriam is the first woman in the Torah to be called a neviyah.  She leads the women in singing as well as in tapping hand drums and dancing.2

Miriam is a character in three dramatic scenes in the Torah.  She is the resourceful young woman who, when the pharaoh’s daughter adopts her infant brother Moses, arranges for their own mother to be his paid wet-nurse.3  She is the leader of thousands of women in the scene above.  And later in the trek across the wilderness, she leads her brother Aaron in a joint complaint regarding Moses’ wife.  (See my post Beha-alotkha: Unnatural Skin.)  The two siblings point out that they are prophets, too:

“Has God spoken only with Moses?  Hasn’t He also spoken with us?”  And God heard.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 12:2)

by Johann Christoph Weigel, 1695

God calls Miriam, Aaron, and Moses to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and speaks to all three from the pillar of cloud—in order to tell them that Moses gets the most direct divine communication.

And [God] said: “Please listen to my words!  When there is a navi of God among you, I make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream.  Not so my servant Moses … I speak with him mouth to mouth, and in seeing, not in riddles, and he looks at the likeness of God.  (Numbers 12:6-8)

God afflicts Miriam with a temporary skin disease to underscore the point.  Nevertheless, in that scene Miriam is indeed a neviyah who hears God’s voice directly!

Miriam is mentioned in passing five times after this, including God’s speech in the book of Micah reminding the Israelites that God sent them three leaders for the exodus from Egypt: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 4

*

What is a navi or neviyah?  The Torah offers several paradigms.

  • Intercessor

The word navi first appears in the book of Genesis, when God tells King Avimelekh in a dream: “And now, return the wife of [Abraham], since he is a navi, and he can pray for you and you will live.” (Genesis 20.7)

Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, and an unnamed prophet in the first book of Kings are also prophets who have God’s ear and intercede with God to save other people.5

  • Spokesperson

The Torah introduces a second paradigm of a navi after the enslaved Israelites give up on Moses’ idea that God will liberate them.  When God tells Moses to speak to Pharaoh next, he tries to get out it, arguing that he has “uncircumcised lips”, i.e. he cannot speak well.6  But God has an answer for everything.

Then God said to Moses: “See, I place you as a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother will be your navi.”  (Exodus 7:1)

Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh, March Chagall, 1931

In other words, Aaron will act like a navi for Moses, hearing Moses speak and then passing on Moses’ words to the Egyptian court.  Obviously Moses is God’s navi, hearing God speak and passing on God’s words, though the Torah does not bother to say so until the end of Deuteronomy:  And never again in Israel rose a navi like Moses, who knew God face to face.  (Deuteronomy 34:10)

Moses and God have the longest, most frequent, and most direct conversations in the entire Hebrew Bible.  After Moses gets over his initial reluctance to speak, he fluently delivers God’s instructions, warnings, and hundreds of rules.7

Other prophets transmit God’s predictions, or warnings, about the future of kings or kingdoms if they do not change their ways.  These include all the major prophets (Isaiah through Malachi).

  • Ecstatic

The third kind of navi in the Hebrew Bible is one who goes into an altered state of consciousness characterized by an awareness of the divine and obliviousness to the world, and who does not return with any coherent message from God.  The first occurrence of this state in the Torah is when God shares some of Moses’ spirit or ruach with 70 elders.

And the spirit was upon them, vayitnabe-u, but they did not continue.  (Numbers 11:25)

Saul Before Samuel and the Prophets, by Benjamin West, 1812

vayitnabe-u (וַיּתְנַבְּאוּ) = and they acted like prophets, and they prophesied to themselves, and they spoke in ecstasy.  (From the same נבא root as navi.)

In both books of Samuel and both books of Kings, bands of prophets wander around making music, dancing, and babbling.  The bible explains the proverb “Is Saul, too, among the prophets?” first with a scene in which King Saul falls in with a band of prophets on the road and speaks in ecstasy like them, then with a scene in which not only babbles, but also strips naked.8

*

Miraim is the first of only five women called prophets in the Hebrew Bible. After her, two major prophetesses are spokespersons for God (type 2 above): Deborah, who summons a general and tells him to go to war;9 and Huldah, who authenticates a scroll as the word of God and utters two prophetic predictions.10  Two other prophetesses are mentioned only glancingly.11

Miriam is the only neviyah whom the bible reports as engaging in what might be ecstatic behavior: playing a drum, dancing, and singing on the shore of the Reed Sea.  But Miriam leads circle dances in complicated patterns that require concentration and planning.  She leads a coherent chant.  Rather than directing ecstatic worship, she is probably organizing a celebration of God as the victor in a war against the Egyptian charioteers.  Women customarily greeted soldiers returned from a victory with drumming, dancing, and singing.12

Although Miriam hears God’s voice, the Torah does not report her serving as either an intercessor or a spokesperson for God.

by Simeon Solomon, 1860

The Talmud attempts to fill the void by claiming that Miriam did pronounce a prophecy: that her mother would have a son who would save the Israelites from Egypt.  When Moses was born, according to this story, the whole house filled with light, and Miriam’s father exclaimed that his daughter’s prophecy had been fulfilled.13  This is a pleasant tale with no basis in the Torah.

A modern folk explanation is that Miriam must have had foreknowledge of the victory at the Reed Sea, and told the women to bring their drums.  Otherwise they would not have bothered to pack them, since they left their homes in Egypt in such a hurry that the dough had no time to rise in their kneading-troughs.14

This argument for Miriam’s power as a neviyah fails in the context of the larger story in Exodus.  The Israelite women were already packing all the gold, silver, jewelry, and clothing they “borrowed” from the Egyptians; they could easily add their hand drums and any their other sentimental and ritual objects.

*

Miriam may be called a neviyah because of other deeds not recorded in the bible.  Or she may simply be an exceptional person who has a close relationship with God.

A traditional Passover seder includes pouring a cup of wine for Elijah the navi.  Many a modern seder adds a ritual cup of water for Miriam the neviah.  (The water alludes to a Talmudic story that says a well of water followed the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years thanks to the merit of Miriam.15)

I lift a cup for Miriam at Passover knowing that she may not be a neviyah in the sense of being an intercessor with God, a spokesperson for God, or a religious ecstatic.  I celebrate her lifelong wise leadership, and her ability to listen to God.  May we all learn to be a little more like Miriam the neviyah.

  1. Exodus 15:1-18. See my post Beshallach & Psalm 136: Miracle at Sea.
  2. Since the two lines of Miriam’s song are the same as the first two lines of the psalm ascribed to Moses, the women might sing them as a periodic refrain during the longer psalm. Most modern scholars consider either the entire psalm, or at least Miriam’s song, to be one of the oldest poems in the Torah (based on Frank M. Cross and David N. Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1973).
  3. Exodus 2:4-8.
  4. When she dies in Numbers 20:1; in two genealogies listing her with her brothers Aaron and Moses, Numbers 26:59 and 1 Chronicles 5:29; in a warning about skin disease in Deuteronomy 24:9, and in Micah 6:3-4.
  5. Moses for the Israelite people in Exodus 32:9-14, Exodus 33:12-17, Numbers 11:1-2, and Numbers 21:6-9, and for Miriam in Numbers 12:10-15; Samuel for the Israelites in 7:5-10; Elijah to bring a dead boy back to life in 1 Kings 17:20-24; Elisha for the same reason in 2 Kings 4:8-37; an unnamed prophet for King Jereboam in 1 Kings 13:1-6.
  6. Exodus 6:12, 6:30. See my post Va-eria & Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2.
  7. The Talmud (Makkot 23b and Yevamot 47b) claims there are 613 commandments in the Torah.  It is hard to decide which rules should count, but 10th-century C.E. rabbi Saadiah ben Yosef Gaon found a way to list 613 in his Sefer Hamitzvot, and Maimonides (12th-century C.E. rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, nicknamed Rambam) came up with 613 for his book by the same name.
  8. 1 Samuel 10:10-12 and 19:18-24.
  9. Judges 4:4-16.
  10. 2 Kings 22:14-20.
  11. The unnamed wife of the first Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3) and Noadeyah, a false neviyah listed in Nehemiah 6:14.
  12. Judges 11:34, 1 Samuel 18:6-7.
  13. Talmud Bavli Megillah 14a.
  14. Exodus 12:34.
  15. Talmud Bavli Taanit 9a.

Haftarat Pesach—Ezekiel: Dry Bones

April 12, 2017 at 3:43 pm | Posted in Ezekiel, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment
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During the week of Passover/Pesach, we pause in the annual cycle of Torah readings to commemorate the story of the liberation from slavery in Egypt. The first evening of Passover (or the first and second evenings, in some traditions) is devoted to the seder, a 14-step ritual with a meal and a story that goes from the beginning of Exodus through the crossing of the Reed Sea. One of the many songs in the ritual can be translated as “We were slaves; now we are free!”

After the excitement of the seder or seders, Jews are supposed to spend the rest of the week of Passover eating matzah and eschewing all other grain products. On the Shabbat that falls during this week we get two special readings. The Torah reading comes from later in the book of Exodus, when God proclaims Its “thirteen attributes” to Moses on top of Mount Sinai.1 The haftarah reading is a vision from the book of Ezekiel.

The hand of God came over me, and it brought me out by the ruach of God and set me in the middle of the broad valley [which] was full of bones. And it swept me over them, around and around, and hey!—there were very many on the surface of the broad valley, and hey!—they were very dry.  And [God] said to me: “Son of humankind, will these bones become alive?   And I said: “My lord God, [only] You know.”  (Ezekiel 37:1-3)

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind, spirit, breath. (Plural ruchot, רוּחוֹת.)

Ezekiel uses the phrase “the hand of God came over me” to mean that God overpowered him and compelled him to enter his vision.2 After asking Ezekiel if the dry human bones can come to life, God tells his prophet what to say to the bones.

Valley of the Dry Bones
by Gustave Dore, 1866

And I prophesied as I had been commanded. And a sound happened, as I was prophesying, and hey!—a clatter!—and the bones drew close [to each other], a bone to its bone. Then I looked, and hey!—they had sinews and flesh on them, and skin spread over them. But there was no ruach in them.  (Ezekiel 37:7-8)

Next God instructs Ezekiel to bring breath—or spirit—into the bodies by saying:

Thus said my lord God: Ruach, come from the four ruchot, and blow into these slain, and they will become alive. And I prophesied as [God] commanded me. And the ruach came into them, and they became alive, and they stood up on their feet—a very, very great force.  (Ezekiel 37:9-10)

What does this vision mean? Some early commentators viewed it as a literal statement that some dead Israelites were, or would be, resurrected.3 But in the book of Ezekiel, God explains the vision as a metaphor or parable.

And [God] said to me: “Son of humankind, these bones are the whole house of Israel.  Hey! They are saying: ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished, and we are cut off’. Therefore prophesy, and you shall say to them: ‘Thus says my lord God: Hey! I, Myself, am opening your graves, and I will lift you out of your graves, My people, and I will bring you back to the soil of Israel. … And I will put My ruach inside you, and you will become alive [again], and I will put you back on your soil.  (Ezekiel 37:12, 14)

The book of Ezekiel was written in the 6th century B.C.E. during the Babylonian Exile. When the Babylonians conquered Judah, the southern kingdom of the Israelites, they deported its leading families to Babylon, including Ezekiel’s family of priests.  Ezekiel prophesied to his fellow exiles, who were inclined to despair of either returning to their old land, or building new lives among the Babylonians, who treated them as paroled prisoners.

After showing Ezekiel the vision of the dry bones coming to life, God tells Ezekiel to give new hope to “the whole house of Israel”: both the Israelites from the kingdom of Judah who have given up on their lives in Babylon, and the Israelites whom the Assyrians had deported from the northern kingdom of Israel about 150 years earlier.

It is never too late to come to life again.

*

At the beginning of Passover, we tell the story of God’s ten miracles and how God, with the prophet Moses, leads a few thousand subjugated people out of Egypt to a new land that will become their own.4 On the Shabbat during Passover, we read about God’s demonstration to Ezekiel that miracles are still possible, and God can liberate the subjugated people in Babylon and give them a new life ruling their old homeland.

May everyone today who slides toward despair receive the ruach to hold onto hope instead. May we all create new lives for ourselves, and build good countries wherever we may be.  It is not too late.

1  Exodus/Shemot 33:12-34:2.

2  Rashi (1th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), commentary on Ezekiel 37:1. In Hebrew, the phrase is hayetah (הָיְתָה) = it happened; alai (עָלַי) = over me; yad (יַד) = hand, power; of God. See also Ezekiel 1:3, 3:22, and 8:1.

3  In the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 92b, the rabbis argue about whether Ezekiel’s vision is a parable, or whether he actually resurrected some long-dead skeletons. Rabbi Yehudah bar Batyra claims to be a descendent of one of the resurrected men!

4  Unfortunately, the “promised land” in the Torah is already occupied by Canaanites. In the book of Joshua the ex-slaves from Egypt have to fight and defeat the indigenous peoples in order to take over their land. History often clashes with morality. It is a challenge today to provide liberty and justice for all the people residing in a country.

Va-eira & Bo; Psalm 78 & Psalm 105: Responding to Miracles

January 26, 2017 at 7:01 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach, Psalms/Tehilim, Va-eira | 3 Comments
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Pharaoh Merneptah subjugating Semites

Pharaoh Merneptah subjugating Semites

(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

It takes two Torah portions (Va-eira this week and Bo next week) to describe the miraculous “plagues” that force the Pharaoh to let the enslaved Israelites walk out of Egypt. Two psalms, Psalm 78 and Psalm 105, offer briefer versions of the story. And the festival of Passover/Pesach tells the story of how God rescued the Israelites from Egypt in such detail that the seder (“order”;  ritual retelling of the story) can last half the night.

In the Torah portion Va-eira, God lays out the plan to Moses:

Therefore say to the children of Israel: “I am God, and I will bring you out from under the burden of Egypt, and I will rescue you from enslavement, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your god. And you will yada that I am God, your god, who is taking you out from under the burden of Egypt. (Exodus/Shemot 6:6-7)

yada (יָדַע) = know, realize, recognize, become acquainted, come to understand through direct experience. (Yada is the root verb. The Hebrew here uses the form viyda-etem (וִידַעְתֶּם) = and you will yada.)

Why does God inflict “great acts of judgement” on Egypt? The first reason given in this week’s Torah portion is so that the Israelites will yada God.

Pharaoh Mernptah, son of Ramses II

Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramses II

The second reason is so that the Pharaoh and the Egyptians will yada God, or at least recognize God’s existence and power:

And Egypt, they will yada that I am God when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and I bring out the children of Israel from their midst. (Exodus 7:5)

(The Hebrew in this verse uses form veyade-u (וְיָדְעוּ) = and they will yada.)

How many plagues does it take before both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada God?  Anyone who has participated in a Passover seder, spilling a drop of wine for each plague, knows the answer is ten. And in the book of Exodus/Shemot God does indeed inflict ten miracles on Egypt—the first seven in Va-eira (And I appeared), and the last three in Bo (Come).

However, the ten plagues are described in two different voices. Any close reader of  Va-eira and Bo, even in translation, notices points where the narrative suddenly stops and restarts, rephrasing a bit of the story that has already been told. Scholars examining the language itself have discovered that two stories of the plagues are woven together (but not seamlessly).

Both strands have something to say about the plagues of blood, frogs, and death of the firstborn. The other seven plagues are described by one strand or the other, not both. Maybe each of the two original stories had fewer than ten plagues. Or maybe the redactor(s) who combined the two stories decided to give both descriptions of three plagues, but chose only their favorite descriptions for the other seven.

Psalms 78 and 105 report fewer than ten plagues, and the order is different than in Exodus.

plagues-table

What accounts for these differences? We cannot identify any of these accounts as the original story. At least one strand in the composite story in Exodus was probably written in the 8th century B.C.E. Psalm 78 may have been written as early as the 10th century B.C.E., soon after the first Israelite temple was built in Jerusalem. Psalm 105 could have been written any time after that, maybe before the book of Exodus, maybe as late as the period of the second temple. Probably the story of God’s miracles in Egypt was familiar to all the authors before they began to write down their own versions.

The two psalms and the composite in Exodus borrow language from each other, not only using the same words for the plagues, but sharing pieces of description. For example, Exodus describes the plague of blood this way:

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain

…and he raised the staff and he struck the water that was in the Nile before the eyes of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the waters of the Nile turned into blood. And the fish that were in the Nile died. And the Nile stank and the Egyptians were not able to drink water from the Nile, and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:20-21)

Psalm 78 focuses on the lack of drinking water:

And [God] turned into blood the Nile and its streams;

            They could not drink. (Psalm 78:34)

Psalm 105 focuses on the loss of an important food:

           [God] turned their waters into blood

                        And it made their fish die. (Psalm 105:39)

Whether the story is expanded in the book of Exodus, or contracted in a psalm, it is always offered as a decisive example of God’s miracles on behalf of the Israelites.

In the book of Exodus, the purpose of the plagues is to get both the Israelites and the Egyptians to yada God. But the Torah portion Bo also gives instructions several times for the earliest Passover rituals, which were conducted about 3,000 years ago. The purpose of these rituals is to remember the story of the exodus.

This day shall be for you for remembrance, and you shall celebrate it as a festival for God, through [all] your generations. It is a decree forever: you shall celebrate it. (Exodus 12:14)

While Exodus only calls for remembering the story of God’s miracles in Egypt, Psalms 78 and 105 tell the story in order to motivate the Israelites of Judah to action.

Psalms 78 hopes that if the Israelites remember the miracles God did for them, then they will stop backsliding, trust God, and obey God’s rules.

           What we have listened to, and we yada,

                      and our ancestors recounted to us,

           should not be concealed from their descendants,

                      to the last generation recounting

           praises of God and Its strength

                      and Its wonders that It did. (Psalm 78:3-4)

(The Hebrew in verse 3 uses form vaneida-eim (וַנֵּדָעֵם) = and we will yada.)

Why must God’s miracles be recounted to every generation?

           Then they will place their kesel in God,

                      and they will not forget the deeds of God,

                      and they will comply with Its commandments. (Psalm 78:7)

kesel (כֶּסֶל) = conviction, certitude, unwavering belief regardless of other evidence or arguments; folly, stupidity.

The section of Psalm 78 that tells about the miracles God inflicted on Egypt (78:42-51) is not designed to mention every single plague, but rather to bring the story to life in ten short verses. Psalm 78 leaves out the kinim, the shechin, and the darkness, but it adds a few details that are not in Exodus:

Plague of Hail, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747 Germany

Plague of Hail, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747 Germany

—that the action happened at Tzoan, a specific place in the Nile Delta. (78:43)

—that the arov, the mixed hordes of vermin, ate the flesh of the Egyptians. (78:45)

—that when God sent hail, Egyptian flocks were hit by lightning. (78:48)

—that the hail killed grapevines and fig trees (important crops in Canaan, but not in Egypt). (78:47)

These additional details would make the story more vivid in the listener’s imagination.

Psalm 105 is less concerned than Psalm 78 about lack of faith and commitment among the people of Judah. I believe its purpose is to whip up enthusiasm for God and the religion among the worshipers at the temple.

           Thank God, call out Its name,

                      hodiyu among the peoples Its deeds!

           Sing to [God], make music to It,

                      consider all Its wonders!

           Revel in the name of Its holiness!

                      Let the heart of those who seek God rejoice! (Psalm 105:1-3)

hodiyu (הוֹדִיעוּ) = make known, inform, announce. (A different form of the root verb yada.)

Rylands Haggadah, 14th century Spain. Left: livestock pestilence. Right: Shechin.

Rylands Haggadah, 14th century Spain. Left: livestock pestilence. Right: Shechin.

Psalm 105 then tells the story of the people who became Jews, starting with God’s covenant with Abraham and ending with the Israelites’ conquest of part of Canaan. When it describes the plagues, it omits both livestock pestilence and shechin, perhaps because the thought of rashes and boils would depress the congregation.  Or, according to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, because diseases do not seem supernatural enough to count as miracles. But Psalm 105 uses some of same vivid details as Psalm 78.

*

Do the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt achieve their purpose?

Direct experience of miracles works in Exodus; both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada—know, realize, and recognize—a powerful god acting on behalf of the Israelites. The instruction to perform a ritual to remember what happened also worked; we have been celebrating Passover for about 3,000 years.

Does the account in Psalm 78 work, leading people to kesel, an unshakeable belief in God, and to a determination to obey God’s rules? I think it would depend on the listener. Some people believe any account that is vivid (like Psalm 78’s selection of details) and comes from an accepted source (such as the temple priests, or a particular news station, or a friend’s e-mail). Other people are skeptics by nature; they examine a story to see if it is logical and how it fits with personal experience and other information. This type of person would probably need direct experience, yada, to achieve kesel and commit themselves to obeying all the rules of the religion.

What about Psalm 105? I believe that an account of past miracles can inspire both kinds of people, especially when it is poetry set to uplifting music. Even natural skeptics can get caught up in singing joyful praise, and leave the temple (or synagogue) with a better attitude toward their God and their religion. And natural believers might be moved to proselytize, following the instruction hodiyu—make known, announce!

The singing of the psalms continued as part of both Jewish and Christian prayer after the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. It continues today. But Jewish liturgy concentrates on other psalms. It quotes only one verse from Psalm 78 and fifteen from Psalm 105, none of which are verses addressing the plagues in Egypt.

However, serious-minded Jews study the story of the plagues in the Torah portions Va-eira and Bo every winter, when we reach this time in the cycle of Torah readings. And in the spring many more Jews celebrate Passover, a festival of dramatic rituals, prayers, songs, and stories about how God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

The haggadah (“the telling”), the book that provides the texts and ritual instructions, includes many quotes from our two Torah portions in Exodus. Psalms 78 and 105 are not traditionally included. In a modern American haggadah, the song “Go Down Moses” usually is.

from an Iraqi haggadah, printed in Vienna 1930

from an Iraqi haggadah, printed in Vienna 1930

Out of all the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt, I would say Passover is by far the most effective at getting Jews to remember the claim that God created miracles to rescue our people from Egypt. The ritual itself has changed and grown over the millennia, so it can speak to new generations. Even Jews who grew up in families that managed to conduct a boring seder  every year cannot help but remember the symbolic foods, the song that the youngest child must sing, the exodus story, spilling a drop of wine for each of the ten plagues, and hunting for the hidden piece of matzah.

Thus Passover still serves the purpose given in the book of Exodus: remembering the story. Whether we can go further and yada God (as in Exodus), or commit ourselves to kesel (as in Psalm 78), or be moved to joy and a desire to recommend the religion (as in Psalm 105) depends on the individual.

Personally, I have a skeptical nature, and I actively try to avoid kesel—while remaining committed to studying Torah and being a Jew in a liberal sense. But I remember the exodus story every winter when I study it in the Torah, as well as every spring when I participate in Passover. I do not yada the God of the ancient Israelites, but I do yada something I cannot describe that I call God. And when I sing psalms that have uplifting words and melodies, I am indeed moved to joy. I would recommend that to anyone!

Pesach: Isaiah and the Peaceable Kingdom

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

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

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

Crossing the Red Sea, by William Hole

Crossing the Red Sea,
by William Hole

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

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

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

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

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

A shoot will go out from the stump of Jesse

And a crown from its root will bear fruit.

And a ruach of God will rest upon him,

A ruach of wisdom and insight,

A ruach of counsel and courage,

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

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

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

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

A wolf will dwell with a young ram,

And a leopard will lie down with a goat kid,

And a calf and a young lion will pasture together,

And a little boy will be leading them.

And a heifer and a she-bear will graze

And they will let their young ones lie down together.

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

A baby will play over a viper’s hole,

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

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

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

They will do no evil nor destruction

On all My holy mountain

Because the land will be as filled with seekers of God

As the water covering the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse will be standing

As a banner for peoples.

Nations will come to him with inquiries,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Pesach: The Matzah of Misery

April 17, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Re-eih | 1 Comment
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“This is the bread of affliction,” we intone during the Passover/Pesach ritual, holding up a piece of matzah. Many Jews feel that just eating this dry unleavened cracker is an affliction—especially if they eat it for the prescribed eight days and eschew real bread, or anything else made with yeast or other leavening.

matzah001At a traditional Passover seder, we hold up the matzah and say in Aramaic: Ha lachma anya di akhalu avhatana be-ara demitzrayim!  which means: “The bread of misery that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt!” This phrase is based on one of the Torah portions we read during the week of Passover, Deuteronomy /Devarim 14:22-16:17.

You must not eat with [the meat from the animal sacrifice] anything leavened. Seven days you shall eat with it matzot, the bread of oni, because in haste you went out from the land of Egypt. Thus you shall remember the day of your going out from the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:3)

matzot (מַצּוֹת) = plural of matzah (מַצָּה) = unleavened flatbread made of flour and water only, quickly mixed and baked before any sourdough in the air can act on it.

oni (עֳנִי or עֹנִי) = misery, suffering, humiliation, plight, deprivation. (This noun comes from one of the four root verbs spelled ענה, this one meaning “to stoop down in humiliation, humility, or subjection”.)

The noun oni appears 37 times in the Hebrew Bible, although the passage above is the only one mentioning “bread of oni”. Individuals in the Bible experience oni, misery, because they are unloved, infertile, abused, or deprived of their due. The poor live in a state of oni because they are victimized by a selfish upper class. The Israelites live in oni because they have been conquered by enemy armies—or because they are abused slaves, as in the Passover story.

Kneading bowl in the Egyptian royal bakery

Kneading bowl in Egypt

Why is matzah the bread of oni? The book of Exodus claims that the enslaved Hebrews had to hurry out of Egypt before the dough in their kneading-bowls had time to rise. I find this unconvincing. (See my post Pesach: Being Unleavened, Part 2.)

I think the oni, the misery, came first, and the matzah symbolizes it. Matzah, made out of flour and water paste with nothing interesting added, not even sourdough, serves to remind us of the tedious life of slaves making bricks for Pharaoh.

Matzah, the “bread of oni”, can also remind us of times in the Bible when people live in misery and God sees their oni, stops ignoring them, and acts to improve their situation. I counted 13 occurrences of this motif, as well as additional occasions when God acts after hearing people cry out in their oni.

For example, God tells Moses at the burning bush:

I certainly see the oni of my people who are in Egypt, and I have paid attention to their cry for help in the face of their being hard-pressed, for I know their anguish. … And I have said I will lift them out from the oni of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites…to a land flowing with milk and honey. (Exodus 3:7, 3:17)

Channah in the Child's Bible 1884

Channah in the Child’s Bible 1884

Sometimes people draw God’s attention to their own oni, hoping that God will then notice it, stop ignoring them, and act. For example, Channah suffers because she is infertile and verbally abused by her husband’s other wife, who has many children.

And she vowed a vow, and she said: God of Armies, if you will really look at the oni of your female-servant, and you remember me and do not ignore me, and you give your female-servant a male child, then I will give him to God for all the days of his life… (1 Samuel 1:11)

The psalms also include pleas to God to notice the singer’s misery and act. For example,

See my oni and my misfortune

And lift off all my wrongdoing. (Psalm 25:18)

May I sing out and may I rejoice in your kindness

Because you see my oni and you know the distress of my soul. (Psalm 31:8)

See my oni and save me

Because your teaching I have not ignored. (Psalm 119:153)

matzah001

Maybe Jews began holding up matzah during the Passover ritual not just to remind themselves of times of deprivation, but also to draw God’s attention to their own oni. To make sure God gets the point, we call the matzah the “bread of oni”. If God sees our misery, pays attention to it, then maybe God will stop ignoring us and do something to improve our lives—the way God freed the slaves in Egypt.

What is your oni this year? What misery is enslaving you? Is it something that you can fix?  Or something that will lift by itself?

Or is it something that you can only be freed from by a divine intervention? If so, what would a true divine intervention be?

 

Pesach:  Being Unleavened, Part 2

March 30, 2015 at 2:33 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach, Re-eih | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

In the Hebrew Bible, Passover appears to be a conflation of three holidays:

* chag ha-aviv (“festival of the new ears of grain”), a one-day celebration of spring on the 15th of the month that called Aviv until the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E, then renamed Nissan.

lamb 2* chag ha-matzot (“festival of the unleavened bread”), a seven-day period of refraining from eating, or owning, any leavened food.  This period fell at the beginning of the barley harvest in the spring.

* pesach (“skipping over”), a one-day observance in Aviv, in which a lamb or goat kid was sacrificed, and the meat was roasted and eaten in one night.

Some modern scholars speculate that the Torah combines an ancient festival of matzot (when farmers cleared out their old grain products in preparation for the new grain) with an ancient festival of pesach (when shepherds celebrated the spring lambing by sacrificing a lamb and performing a skipping dance)—and then incorporates both spring holidays in the story of the exodus from Egypt.

Thus the special Torah reading for the first day of Passover, Exodus 12:21-51 (in the Torah portion Bo), begins with Moses’ instructions to the Israelites for the night of the tenth and final plague in Egypt: the death of the firstborn.  Each family must slaughter a lamb as a pesach offering, paint the blood on the lintel and doorposts of its home, and stay indoors all night, eating the roasted meat, while God “skips over” the marked houses and kills only the firstborn children of the Egyptians. The Torah adds that the Israelites shall continue to re-enact this ritual every spring.

Then, after describing the final plague and Pharaoh’s command that the Israelites leave at once, the Torah says:

The people picked up their dough before it could become chameitz, their kneading-troughs wrapped up in their cloaks upon their shoulders. …And the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Sukkot… And they baked the dough that they had taken from Mitzrayim in rounds of matzot, because it was not chameitz, because they were banished from Mitzrayim and they could not delay, and they had not even prepared provisions for themselves. (Exodus 12:34, 37, 39)

chameitz (חָמֵץ) = leavened bread, leavened food.

Mitzrayim (מִצְרַיִם) = Egypt.  The dual form —ayim (ַיִם) probably refers to the combined kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. The first three letters, מצר, might be related to the word meitzar (מֵצַר) = narrow strait, constriction, confinement, bondage.

Egyptian kneading trough

Egyptian kneading trough

I have always found the above explanation of the festival of matzot unconvincing.  If the normally made leavened bread in Egypt, then they would always have a jar of sourdough starter bubbling in the house.  Why not bring that jar along with a kneading-trough and flour?  The story in the book of Exodus smacks of a post-hoc, invented rationale.

Nevertheless, one of the special Torah readings for intermediate days of the week of Passover, Exodus 13:1-16 (also in the Torah portion Bo), makes the festival of matzot an essential part of the observance of Passover:

Moses said to the people: Remember this day on which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery.  For with a strong hand God brought you out from this, and you shall not eat chameitz.  Today you are leaving, in the month of Aviv… and it will happen when God brings you into the land…then you shall serve this service in this month.  Seven days you shall eat matzot, and on the seventh day [will be] a festival for God. Matzot shall be eaten these seven days, and chameitz must not be seen with you, and se-or must not be seen with you in all your borders. And you shall tell your child on that day, saying:  Because of this, God acted for me when I went out from Egypt. (Exodus 13:3-8)

se-or (שְׂאֹר) = sourdough starter; any leavening agent.

Throughout history, religions have connected their new holidays to pre-existing holidays.  Sometimes the only real connection between the new and old holiday seems to be the time of year.  Spring is certainly a good time of year to celebrate both the promise of new grain and the concept of liberation.

But the connection between the festival of matzot and the story of liberation from Egypt may be deeper than that.

In last week’s post, Tzav & Pesach: Being Unleavened, Part 1, I wrote about the symbolic meanings of matzot and chameitz proposed by Philo of Alexandria in the first century C.E. and by Rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch in the 19th century.

Philo considered how leaven makes bread rise and puff up, like an arrogant person.  He wrote that eating matzot is a reminder of our humility before God.

Hirsch wrote that chameitz is the bread of independence, and matzot the bread of dependence.  Among other arguments, he cited a verse from the special Torah reading for the eighth day of Passover, Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17 (in the Torah portion Re-eih):

Seven days you shall eat matzot, the bread of oni, because in hurried flight you went out from the land of Egypt—so that you shall remember the day of your exodus from the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:3)

oni (עֹנִי) = misery, wretchedness; a state of dependence due to poverty.

By eating matzot in remembrance of our deliverance from slavery, Hirsch argued, we acknowledge that we did not escape from poverty and oppression by our own actions, but only because of God’s actions: the ten plagues or miracles, and the warnings God communicated through Moses.  We rose to the independence represented by chameitz only because God lifted us out of Egypt.

That is as far as Hirsch went.  But I wonder:  Does leaven itself represent one aspect the divine?  What if God is the fermentation in our souls, and in the world, which leads to liberation and expansion?

During Passover we might acknowledge that without the divine spark, we would be as flat as matzah.  We could not escape from Egypt, Mitzrayim, or the constrictions in our own souls. We would be slaves to our genetic predispositions and to all the psychological complexes we have acquired during our lives.

But if the divine spark in our souls bubbles up like the se-or that bubbles up and makes bread rise, and we are inspired with an insight, then we can make different decisions. With a holy insight, we can push open some of the narrow places in our psyches, and expand into a new life of more freedom and independence.

But we cannot change from matzot into chameitz through sheer willpower. It takes a touch of leavening, and that is a gift from God.

matzah001

The festival called Chag ha-Matzot, Pesach, or in English, Passover, lasts for seven days in Israel.  By Jewish tradition, Passover lasts for eight days outside of Israel (to make sure that those who live far away will be observing Passover during all of Israel’s seven days). This year in the diaspora, Passover begins on a Friday evening and ends on a Saturday evening the following week.  That means we will study the special Torah portions for Passover—including the ones in this blog post—for two weeks.

So it will be two weeks before I return to the annual cycle of Torah portions, and post my new thoughts on Shemini, the next Torah portion in the book of Leviticus.

May all my Jewish readers have a happy Passover! And may some divine insight bubble up in everyone during this change of seasons.

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