Acharey Mot: Azazel

May 1, 2019 at 4:30 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

The high priest may only enter the Holy of Holies once a year, according to this week’s Torah portion, Acharey Mot (“after the death”).1  On Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), the high priest must burn incense inside the Holy of Holies and flick the blood of a bull and a goat on the ark.

drawing by Dugald Stewart Walker (1883-1937)

The bull is a sacrifice from the priests’ own herd, slaughtered to atone for anything he or his household did wrong during the past year.  The goat is one of two goats (se-irim) provided by the Israelite people.  The high priest (Aaron, in this Torah portion) gives one goat to God, burning its body and sprinkling its blood, to make atonement for all the people.2  The other goat carries away all the misdeeds the Israelites committed over the past year.

After the high priest bathes and puts on sacred linen garments,

Then he shall take the two se-irim and stand them in front of God at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  And Aaron shall place lots on the two se-irim: one lot for God and one lot for Azazel.  Then Aaron shall bring forward the sa-ir for which the lot for God came up, and he shall make it the reparation-offering.  And the sa-ir for which the lot for Azazel came up, it shall stand alive in front of God, to make atonement upon it.  And he shall send it to Azazel in the wilderness.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:7-10)

sa-ir (שָׂעִיר) = hairy male goat; long hair; rain shower.  Plural: se-irim (שְׂעִרִם) = goats, goat-demons.

Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל) pronounced Azazeil = a proper name.

The name Azazel appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible, all three in the passage above.  Commentators have suggested that it is the name of a place, the name of a fallen angel, the name of a desert demon, or a symbol of chaos.

Azazel the cliff

And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the living sa-ir, and he shall confess over it all the crimes of the Israelites and all their transgressions for all their wrongdoing, and he shall place them on the head of the sa-ir, and send it by the hand of a designated man into the wilderness.  Then the sa-ir will carry off all the crimes on itself to a cut-off land; he shall send out the sa-ir into the wilderness.  (Leviticus 16:21-22)

In the time of the second temple in Jerusalem (516 BCE to 70 CE), the goat for Azazel was led out past seven stations and pushed off a cliff.  It died on the way down, its body broken by rocks.  The Talmud, redacted circa 500 CE but including a few eyewitness accounts from the final years of the second temple, assumed Azazel was the name of the cliff.3  Rashi, writing in the 11th century CE, explained that “a cut-off land” meant a cliff.4

The Talmud offers two proposals for the etymology of the place-name Azazel.  According to the sages Azazel means “rough and hard”, because it combines azaz (עַז עַז) = “strong, strong” and eil (אֵל), one of whose meanings is “strength, power”.  (Therefore the Azazel place is full of rocks.)  But according to the school of Rabbi Yishmael, the cliff is called Azazel “because it atones for the actions of Uza and Asael.  These are the names of sons of God who sinned with daughters of men (Genesis 6:2) and thereby caused the world to sin during the generation of the Flood.” 5

Azazel the fallen angel

Fallen Angel, by Odilon Redon, 19th century

None of “the sons of God” are named in Genesis.  The school of Rabbi Yishmael probably got the names Uza and Asael from a much later story identifying the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2 with fallen angels called Watchers.  The earliest extant version of this story appears in the apocryphal Book of Enoch written in the third century BCE.  Here Shemyaza and Asael are the two chief leaders of 200 angels who descend to earth, land on Mt. Hermon (in the Golan Heights), and fornicate with human women, producing a race of giants.  Then the book focuses on the actions of Asael, now called Azazel.

And Azazel taught men to make swords, and daggers, and shields and breastplates.  And he showed them the things after these, and the art of making them: bracelets, and ornaments, and the art of making up the eyes and of beautifying the eyelids, and the most precious and choice stones, and all [kinds of] coloured dyes. And the world was changed.  And there was great impiety and much fornication, and they went astray, and all their ways became corrupt.”  (Book of Enoch, 8:1-2) 6

Thus in the Book of Enoch, the fallen angel Azazel not only fornicates with human women, but is responsible for the human evils of war and seduction.  God tells the angel Raphael to bind Azazel’s hands, throw him into darkness, and throw jagged stones on him—reminiscent of the rocks that kill the goat on Yom Kippur during the time of the second temple in Jerusalem.

In another apocryphal book, The Apocalypse of Abraham, Azazel is a fallen angel who serves as a satanic figure, tempting humans to lie and do evil deeds.  God says:  “Go, Azazel, into the untrodden parts of the earth!”7  This is reminiscent of sending the goat to Azazel in the cut-off land of the wilderness in this week’s Torah portion.

Azazel the desert demon

However, the whole concept of fallen angels was invented several centuries after the book of Leviticus was written.  There are no fallen angels in the Torah.  The Biblical Hebrew word for “angel” is the same as the word for “messenger”, malakh (מַלְאַךְ).  All angels that visit earth are simply God’s mouthpieces.

Azazel, by Colin de Plancy, 1882

Therefore some commentators concluded that the name Azazel in this week’s Torah portion refers not to any kind of angel, but to an ancient desert goat-demon.  Later in this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites:

They must not slaughter any more of their slaughterings for the se-irim they are whoring after.  This will be a decree forever for them throughout their generations.  (Leviticus 17:7)

The people have not been sacrificing goats to other goats; here se-irim must mean gods or demons in the shape of goats.

The last book of the Hebrew Bible provides one other hint of a goat-god or goat-demon cult.  When the second book of Chronicles retells the story of how King Jereboam builds two temples in the northern kingdom of Israel, it states disapprovingly that he furnished them not only with golden calves, but also with se-irim (2 Chronicles 11:15).8

There may well have been a tradition involving goat-demons in ancient Canaan.  In the 12th century CE, Rambam wrote that some Sabeans worshipped demons who took the form of goats,9  and Ibn Ezra wrote that “lunatics who see these demons experience visions of goat-like creatures”.10

Azazel the symbol of chaos

What if Azazel is neither a place nor a supernatural being, but rather a personified concept?  Let’s look again at the etymology of the word.

The Talmud’s explanation that Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל) comes azaz (עַז עַז) = “strong, strong” and eil (אֵל) = “strength, power” is far-fetched, since it requires moving the letter aleph (א).  In Biblical Hebrew, related words often use different vowel sounds, and weak letters may appear and disappear.  But a strong letter such as an aleph is never moved to a different position.

One can, however, divide Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל) into az (עז) and azal (אָזַל) = disappear, go away.  The participle form of azal is ozeil (אֺזֵל) = disappearing.  So Azazel may mean “Disappearing Goat”: eiz (עֵז) = goat, she-goat, goat hair + azal (אָזַל) = disappear, go away.

21st century translator and commentator Robert Alter used this etymology, and also wrote that the lot for God represents civilization and order, while the lot for Azazel represents wilderness and chaos.  Thus the goat who carries the misdeeds of the Israelites symbolically takes them to the chaos, the tohu and bohu, that was present in Genesis 1:2 before God began creating the universe.11

*

Whether Azazel is a symbol, a demon, a fallen angel, or a place in the wilderness near Jerusalem, the goat (sa-ir) that gets the lot Azazel becomes the goat (eiz) that goes away into a land that is cut off from humans and disappears forever.  What could be better than to have all the crimes the community committed over the past year disappear forever?

Alas, our own wrongdoing does not completely disappear.  Even after we make atonement with God through whatever means our religions offer, we still remember our guilt.  And even if we are conscientious about acknowledging our bad deeds against other people and obtain their forgiveness, our former victims sometimes remember as well.  It is hard not to slip back into guilt or resentment.

But if we remember Azazel as the Disappearing Goat, perhaps we can turn our memories of missing the mark into reminders that humans can change and make new choices.

  1. The opening sentence of this week’s portion is: “God spoke to Moses after the death of two of Aaron’s sons, who came too close in front of God and died.” This opening underlines the danger of entering the Holy of Holies without permission.  See my post Shemimi: Fire Meets Fire.
  2. See my post Acharey Mot & Shemini: So He Will Not Die.
  3. Talmud Bavli, Yoma 67b, William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org.
  4. Rashi is the acronym of 11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  5. After the mating of the “sons of God” and human women in Genesis 6:2, God sees in Genesis 6:5 “that the wickedness of humankind abounds on the earth”, and resolves to destroy everyone except Noah and his family.
  6. Translated by Miryam T. Brand, Outside the Bible, The Jewish Publication Society, 2013, p. 1370.
  7. Apocalypse of Abraham, translated by Alexander Kulik, Outside the Bible, The Jewish Publication Society, 2013, pp. 1465-1466. This apropcryphal book was originally composed in Aramaic in the first or second century CE.
  8. Jereboam, the first ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel after it secedes, builds two temples with golden calves as idols in 1 Kings 12:28-30.
  9. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon or Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:46.
  10. 12th-century Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, translated in sefaria.org/Ibn_Ezra_on_Leviticus.17.7.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en.
  11. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, pp. 612-613.

Jonah: Turning Around

September 12, 2018 at 8:31 pm | Posted in Jonah, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement”, is when Jews spend 25 hours trying to turn around and get back to God.  It is the last of ten days of teshuvah (תְּשׁוּבָה), often translated as “repentance”, though teshuvah literally means “returning, turning around’.  On Yom Kippur we acknowledge our collective as well as individual sins and misdeeds against the inner, or perhaps outer, force we call God.  And we pray for forgiveness and a new start on a more righteous life.

Jonah, National Library of the Netherlands

Late in the afternoon of Yom Kippur, Jews read one last passage from the bible.  What could be uplifting and inspiring enough to help us finally turn around and enter the gates of heaven?

The book of Jonah.

Did the ancient rabbis play a joke on us?  What is the story of this reluctant and ridiculous prophet good for besides comic relief?

The Meaning of Nineveh

The word of God happened to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying: “Kum!  Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim about it, because the perversity of their wickedness [has come] before me.”  (Jonah 1:1-2)

Kum (קוּם) = Get up!  Stand up!  Rise!  Arise!

750 BCE

Jonah son of Amittai is not a new prophet; he appears earlier in the bible as a prophet from Gat-Hachefer in the northern kingdom of Israel.1  At that time, Jonah tells King Jereboam II that God wants him to conquer some Aramean territory from Lebo-Hamat to the Dead Sea.  The king does so.

Jereboam II expanded the kingdom of Israel circa 790-750 B.C.E.  About ten years after his death, the king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Tiglath-Pileser III, began chipping away at Israel, capturing town after town and deporting its leading citizens.  In 722 B.C.E. the Assyrian king Sargon II conquered its capital, Samaria, and the northern kingdom of Israel ceased to exist.

700 BCE

Some of its residents escaped deportation by fleeing to the southern kingdom of Judah, which the Assyrian armies had reduced to a small vassal state required to send annual tribute to Assyria.

The capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire was Nineveh.2  When the book of Jonah was written down, probably in 3rd century B.C.E. Judah, any Israelite would think of “Nineveh” as an evil enemy.

Jonah’s Descent

Vayakam, Jonah, to run away to Tarshish, away from God.  Vayeired to Yafo and found a ship going to Tarshish, and he paid [his] fare, vayeired into her to go with them to Tarshish, away from God.  (Jonah 1:3)

vayakam (וַיָּקָם) = but he got up, and he rose.  (Another form of the verb kum.)

vayeired (וַיֵּרֶד) = and he went down, and he descended.  (A form of the verb yarad (יָרַד) = went down, descended.)

Jonah gets up, but then instead of heading northeast to Nineveh, he flees toward Tarshish, the westernmost city on the Mediterranean known to the ancient Israelites.

Does he think he can run away from God?  Probably not.  Jonah simply does not want to hear God’s call, either because he is afraid of prophesying in Nineveh or, as he says later, because he does not want God to forgive Nineveh for any reason.  So he gets up—and then flees inside himself, going down into denial: down to the seaport and down into the ship.  When a storm threatens to break up the ship, Jonah goes even farther down.

But Jonah yarad to the hold of the vessel, and he lay down, and he fell into a deep sleep.  (Jonah 1:5)

Unconsciousness is the only way he can escape his feelings of fear and hatred regarding Nineveh, or his guilt over disobeying God.

The captain wakes up Jonah and says:

“How are you sleeping so soundly?  Kum, call to your god!  Maybe the god will take notice of us and we will not perish.”  (Jonah 1:6)

The sailors cast lots to see whose god is responsible for the storm, and the lot falls on Jonah.  Jonah admits he is running away from his god, and asks them to throw him overboard in order to end the storm.  He would rather die than do teshuvah.  But at least he is honest, and makes an effort to save the lives of innocent bystanders.

The men rowed hard lehashiv to dry land, but they could not, because the sea was going violently about them.  (Jonah 1:13)

lehashiv (לְהָשִׁיב) = to return, to bring back or restore something.  (From the same root as teshuvah.)

Only Jonah has turned away from God; only Jonah needs to do teshuvah.  Finally the sailors give up and follow Jonah’s orders.  The prophet begins to sink—but God will not let him descend any farther.

Jonah and the Whale,
by Pieter Lastman, 1621

And God supplied a big fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.  And Jonah prayed to God, his God, from the belly of the fish.  (Jonah 2:1-2)

In the subsequent hymn Jonah even expresses thanks to God for saving his life.3  He appears to have turned around.

And God spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land.  And the word of God happened to Jonah a second time, saying: “Kum!  Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the appeal that I will be speaking to you!”  Vayakum, Jonah, and he went to Nineveh, as God had spoken.  (Jonah 2:11-3:3)

Jonah in Nineveh,
by Jakob Steinhardt, 1923

This time Jonah gets up and walks in the right direction.  But we soon learn that despite his poetic prayer inside the fish, he has not really turned around inside his mind.  He obeys God only minimally: he walks into the city, utters five words in Hebrew (“Another forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown”), and leaves with no explanation.

Hope for Ninevites

Today we do teshuvah by praying and searching our souls.  Many Jews also fast during the day of Yom Kippur.  In the Hebrew Bible people do teshuvah by fasting, wearing scratchy sackcloth, and lying in ashes.

That is exactly what the Ninevites do.  Somehow they realize at once that God wants them to repent.  They all fast and put on sackcloth, even the king, who decrees from his ash-heap:

“They shall cover themselves with sackcloth, human and beast, and they shall call out mightily to God.  And every man yashuvu from his evil ways and from the violence in his palm.  Who knows, God yashuv and have a change of heart, veshav from his wrath, and we will not perish.”  (Jonah 3:8-9)

yashuvu (יָשֻׁבוּ) = they shall turn back, turn around.  (From the same root as teshuvah.)

yashuv (יָשׁוּב) = he shall turn back, turn around.  (Also from the same root as teshuvah.)

veshav (וְשָׁב) = and he shall turn back.  (Also from the same root as teshuvah.)

And God saw their deeds, that shavu from their evil ways, and God had a change of heart over the bad thing he [intended] to do to them, and did not do it.  (Jonah 3:10)

shavu (שָׁבוּ) = they had turned away, repented.  (Also from the same root as teshuvah.)

Someone listening to the book of Jonah at a Yom Kippur service might think: If even the Ninevites could do teshuvah, then so could anyone.  And if God could forgive Nineveh, then I could forgive all those people I believe have harmed my people.

Hope for Jonah

Jonah is enraged at God’s forgiveness.  He wants retribution, not compassion, when it comes to Israel’s worst enemy.  He tells God:

“Isn’t this what I spoke of when I was in my own land?  This is why I fled to Tarshish in the first place, because I know that you are a gracious and compassionate god4 …  So now, God, please take my life from me, because better I die than I live.”  And God said: “Is your anger good?”  (Jonah 4:2-4)

With that question hanging in the air, Jonah builds himself a sukkah5 where he has a view of the city, and sits down to wait 40 days to see what happens.  God supplies a vine to give Jonah shade; the next day God makes it wither and sends a hot east wind.  This triggers Jonah’s anger and death-wish again.

The patience of God with his perverse prophet is remarkable.  God keeps giving Jonah another chance—after he runs away toward Tarshish, after he utters a single half-hearted prophecy, after he is angry with God for forgiving Nineveh, and after he is angry about the death of the vine.  God even tries to teach Jonah to stay aware when he wants to be unconscious (during the storm at sea), to realize his anger is not good, and to be compassionate toward the innocent (especially children and animals):

And God said: “You were concerned about the vine, which you did not exert yourself over …  And I, shall I not be concerned about Nineveh, the great city that has 120,000 humans in it who do not know the difference between their right and their left, and also many beasts?”  (Jonah 4:10-11)

Someone at a Yom Kippur service might think: I keep screwing up, like Jonah, but maybe God will be patient and give me another chance, too.  Maybe God will even teach me how to be less angry, more aware, and more compassionate.

Behind the humor of the story, the book of Jonah can indeed inspire listeners to complete the work of Yom Kippur, to finally do teshuvah and atone with God—whether we think of God as the ruler of the universe and creator of miracles (such as a fish a man can live inside for three days), or as a mysteriou force within us.

Anyway, a little humor near the end of a long fast can only help.

(I published some of the material in this post in September 2010.)

  1. 2 Kings 14:25. From about 930 to 722 B.C.E., Israelites lived in two kingdoms, the more prosperous northern kingdom of Israel (capital: Samaria) and the poorer southern kingdom of Judah (capital: Jerusalem).
  2. King Sargon II moved the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire from Kalhu/Nimrud to the district of Nineveh circa 710 B.C.E., when he built a new city called Dur Sharrukin (Sargon’s City) close to the old walled city of Nineveh.
  3. Jonah 2:10.
  4. Jonah actually recites the first five of the 13 attributes of God, given in Exodus 34:6-7 and repeated during Yom Kippur.
  5. Sukkah (סֻכָּה) hut, temporary shelter. It is a Jewish tradition to take meals in a sukkah during the week of Sukkot, which follows Yom Kippur.

 

Acharey Mot & Shemini: So He Will Not Die

April 25, 2018 at 8:26 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Shemini, Yom Kippur | 2 Comments

How can anyone enter the Holy of Holies and come out alive?

God spoke to Moses after the death of two of the sons of Aaron, when they drew close in front of God and they died.  And God said to Moses: “Speak to Aaron, your brother, so he shall not come at [just] any time into the holy place inside the curtain, to the front of the atonement-cover that is on the ark—so he will not die, because I appear in an anan over the atonement-cover.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:2)

anan (עָנָן) cloud (of water vapor, smoke, or anything that hangs in the air and limits vision.  Anan comes from the same root as onein, עוֹנֵן = made appear, conjured up.)

by James Tissot

Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense “close in front of God” earlier in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.  (See my post Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.)  Their souls are consumed by a divine fire.1  Only in this week’s Torah portion, Acharey Mot (“After the death”), does the Torah indicate how “close in front of God” is too close.

A curtain separates the Tent of Meeting, a portable sanctuary for God, into two rooms.  All the priests walk in and out of the larger front chamber, as they tend the incense altar, the bread table, and the menorah.  The smaller back chamber is the Holy of Holies where the ark stands.  The solid gold lid of the ark is called the atonement-cover or kaporet (כַּפֺּרֶת).  According to the Torah, God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the lid.2

Tent of Meeting. (Red lines are curtains.)

Do Nadav and Avihu go too far by bringing their unauthorized incense into the front chamber of the tent?  Or did they go farther and transgress by entering the Holy of Holies?  The commentary is divided, but the beginning of Acharey Mot implies that they walk all the way into the Holy of Holies.3

Then God says that even Aaron, the high priest, will die if he enters the back chamber at the wrong time.  When is the right time?  The ensuing instructions designate one day a year when the high priest will enter the Holy of Holies as part of a long ritual to make atonement with God.4  Identified here as “the tenth day of the seventh month”, this day came to be known as Yom Kippur.

On that day the high priest steps inside the Holy of Holies twice, and both times he sprinkles blood on the atonement-cover of the ark.  The first time the blood comes from a bull he has slaughtered to make atonement for himself and his own household.5

The second time the blood comes from a goat he has slaughtered as an atonement offering for the people.6  (It is one of two goats chosen by lot; the other goat is sent out into the wilderness to Azazel.  See my post Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles.)

But before the high priest sprinkles blood the first time, he must make a cloud of incense inside the Holy of Holies.

He shall take a pan-full of glowing charcoal embers from the side of the altar facing God, and two handfuls of finely-ground, fragrant incense, and he shall bring them through the curtain.  And he shall place the incense on the fire, in front of God.  And the anan of the incense shall conceal the atonement-cover that is over the Reminder [inside the ark], so he will not die.  Then he shall take some blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger over the surface of the atonement-cover… (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:12-14)

Apparently when Aaron first enters the Holy of Holies, no cloud covers the lid of the ark.  He has to generate a cloud from incense, on the spot.7  According to the Talmud, in the Holy of Holies inside the temple in Jerusalem the smoke from the high priest’s incense “rose straight up like a palm tree”.  Then it spread out over the ceiling and down the walls until it filled the whole room.8

The chamber remains thick with smoke when the high priest returns with the goat’s blood.  The Talmud says the smell of the incense on Yom Kippur spread out so far from the temple in Jerusalem that it made the goats in Jericho sneeze.9  (I imagine the goat led out into the wilderness for Azazel was also sneezing as it went.)

The phrase “so he will not die” is linked with an anan both at the beginning of the Torah portion and in the instructions for filling the Holy of Holies with smoke.

… so that he shall not come at [just] any time into the holy place inside the curtain, to the front of the atonement-cover … so he will not die, because I appear in an anan over the atonement-cover.

Leviticus 16:2

  And he shall place the incense on the fire, in front of God.  And the anan of the incense shall conceal the atonement-cover … so he will not die.

 Leviticus 16:13

In verse 16:2, God appears in an anan over the ark.  In verse 16:13, Aaron must generate an anan to conceal the ark.  In verse 16:2, this sight of God in an anan seems to be fatal.  In verse 16:13, a prolonged view of the ark cover seems to be fatal.

One cloud or two?

Are there two clouds, one conjured up by God and the other made by the high priest?  Classic commentary is divided on the question.10  If there is only one cloud, the anan of incense, then what would Aaron see when he first walks into the Holy of Holies?  This week’s Torah portion implies that he would see the lid of the ark and empty air above it.  Since he would remain alive long enough to fill the room with incense, the sight of the atonement-cover would be fatal only when he sprinkles blood on it.

We can assume God is in residence, to witness the atonement ritual.  The book of Exodus/Shemot tells us that no human being can see God’s “face” and live.11  Even Moses would not see God’s face when God spoke to him from above the lid of the ark.  So God’s presence above the ark must be either invisible, or clouded by God’s own anan.

From Egypt to Mount Sinai, and again from Mount Sinai to the Jordan River, God provides a pillar of cloud (by day) and fire (by night) to guide the Israelites and their fellow-travelers.12  At Mount Sinai, only Moses can enter the cloud of smoke at fire on the mountaintop, where he goes to converse with God before the tent-sanctuary is built.

But when Moses finishes assembling the sanctuary,

…the anan covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of God filled the dwelling-place.  Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting because the anan settled on it and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place.  (Exodus/Shemot 40:34-35)

kavod (כָּווֹד) = splendor, magnificence, weightiness.  (When kavod refers to God, it is usually translated as “glory” or “presence”.)

Everyone can see the cloud on top of the tent roof, just as everyone can see the pillar of cloud and fire during the Israelites’ journeys.  But even Moses cannot enter the Tent of Meeting when it is filled with the kavod of God—which might look, to human eyes, like either cloud or fire.

The cloud above the tent remains until God gives the signal to strike camp and journey on by lifting the cloud and restoring the guiding pillar of cloud and fire.  The kavod inside the tent shrinks or disappears at some point while the tent is still pitched at Mount Sinai, before Moses takes Aaron inside in the portion Shemini.

And Moses and Aaron came into the Tent of Meeting and they went out and they blessed the people.  Then the kavod of God appeared to all the people.  And fire went out from in front of God …  (Leviticus 9:23-24)

The fire consumes the offerings on the altar.  Then Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu go into the tent with their unauthorized incense, and the fire appears again and consumes them.  Yet after that, Aaron’s cousins safely enter the Tent of Meeting and carry out the two bodies.  And from then on, the priests move freely in and out of the front chamber of the tent.  Only the back chamber, the Holy of Holies, remains dangerous—probably because God might appear at any time in an anan of kavod over the ark.

If only the sight of God’s appearance in an anan is fatal, it follows that Aaron can enter the Holy of Holies safely on Yom Kippur because that is the day God will refrain from appearing in an ananat least until the room is so full of incense smoke that the high priest could not see God’s anan.

Therefore when Aaron first steps into the Holy of Holies there is no anan inside.  God is either invisible or not yet in residence.  Aaron makes a cloud of incense in order to hide the atonement-cover of the ark, so he can sprinkle blood on it without dying.  When the incense has filled the room, either God remains an invisible presence (as when God speaks to Moses in that spot), or God appears in a small anan of kavod over the ark, which Aaron cannot see through the smoke.

Inevitable Fog

I can understand why God’s kavod appears as cloud and fire.  We are finite creatures; when we try to understand the infinite, our minds cannot penetrate the mystery, and we find ourselves in a mental fog, glimpsing only transient flickers of enlightenment.  When we try to turn our experiences of God into concrete words or images, we lose their essence.

Perhaps if human beings look straight at the anan of God’s kavod for more than a moment, our minds snap.13  Our bodies remain whole, like those of Nadav and Avihu, but we lose our personal selves or souls, and what remains cannot function in the world.  This is the kind of death Aaron must avoid by entering the Holy of Holies under only two conditions:

  • when God has signaled that it is time to strike camp and move on; then Aaron and his two surviving sons take down the curtain and cover the ark with it.14
  • on Yom Kippur, the one day a year God has designated for the ritual of atonement.

The rest of the time, Aaron must stay out, so he will not accidentally see God appear in an anan.

While the incense altar in the front chamber of the Tent of Meeting is used for other purposes, the high priest creates an anan of incense inside the Holy of Holies only on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.  This is the day when we ask God for forgiveness for everything we have done wrong over the past year.  When we ask for that level of divine, inner forgiveness, it is not enough to know that God appears in a cloud.  We need to know that we cannot see ourselves clearly, either: neither our motivations nor how our actions look to others.  Like God, our own souls are manifest only in a cloud.

Yet as we grope through the fog of life, we can still try to become better people and try to serve God, whatever “God” might mean to each of us.

Even if we generate so much smoke our goats sneeze.

  1. The fire consumes them in Leviticus 10:1-2. Aaron’s cousins carry the bodies of Nadav and Avihu out of the camp, holding them by their tunics, in Leviticus 10:4-5.  Therefore the divine fire took their lives without incinerating their bodies or even burning their clothes.
  2. Exodus 25:22, Numbers 7:89.
  3. Since the divine fire passes through their tunics without charring them, it could also pass through both the inner curtain and the curtained doorway to the courtyard without damaging either curtain.
  4. Leviticus 16:29-34.
  5. Leviticus 16:6, 16:14.
  6. Leviticus 16:15.
  7. It seems clear to me that Aaron walks into the chamber carrying a pan of embers, two handfuls of ground incense (probably in a bag), and a bowl of bull’s blood (Leviticus 16:11-12). Once inside, he shall place the incense on the fire, in front of God, and the smoke conceals the atonement-cover (Leviticus 16:14).  This was also the opinion of the Pharisees during the time of the second temple in Jerusalem.  The Sadducees insisted the incense had to be smoking before the high priest entered the Holy of Holies.  They also tied a rope around the high priest’s ankle so someone could pull him out if he did die inside the Holy of Holies.
  8. Talmud Bavli, Yoma 53a.
  9. Talmud Bavli, Yoma 39b.
  10. Rashi and Maimonides wrote that Leviticus 16:2 refers to God’s cloud of kavod, so there were two clouds. Nachmanides and the Talmud Yerushalmi tractate Yoma  say that Leviticus 16:2 refers to the high priest’s cloud of incense.
  11. Exodus 33:18-23. Face (panim, פָּנִים) and kavod are used as synonyms in this passage.
  12. Exodus 13:21-22, Leviticus 40:36-37.
  13. The Talmud Bavli, Chagigah 14b, tells the story of four rabbis who entered pardes, paradise. Ben Azai looked at the divine kavod and died, Ben Zoma looked and went mad, and Elisha ben Abuyah (a.k.a. Acher) became an apostate.  Only Akiva, the greatest rabbi of that era, returned whole.
  14. When the Israelites break camp, Aaron and his two surviving sons take down the curtain in front of the Holy of Holies and cover the ark with it. Touching the uncovered ark would be fatal to the Levites who will carry it to the next campsite, but the priests are safe while they cover it. (Numbers 4:5-6, 4:15.)

Yom Kippur & Isaiah: Ending Slavery

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

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

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

We fasted; why did you not see?

          Inninu our bodies, but you did not notice!

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

God replies:

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

          and you beat all your laborers!

Hey, you fast with a lawsuit and a quarrel,

          and you strike with a wicked fist!

You cannot, with a fast like today,

          make your voice heard on high.

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

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

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

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

Is not this the fast I would choose:

          Opening the shackles of wickedness,

breaking the harness ropes of the human yoke,

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

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

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

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

Beggars, by Rembrandt

Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry,

and bringing home the homeless poor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is when you call and God answers,

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

When you banish the human yoke,

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

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

 

Nitzavim: Secret Idolatry

September 14, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Posted in Nitzavim, Yom Kippur | 1 Comment

What happens when you make a solemn promise while secretly planning to betray it?

Moses announces in last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, that as soon as the Israelites cross the Jordan they must enact a ritual in which they all say “amen” to twelve declarations. Each declaration begins “Cursed be the one who—”, but since the people say “amen” at the end of each one, they are actually making covenantal vows. (See my post Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.) Thus the whole community must vow to refrain from secretly worshiping idols, to follow six rules about treating other people ethically, to refrain from sex with beasts, to avoid three kinds of incest, and to uphold the teaching (torah) of God.1

Moses says in this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“taking a stand”) that the vows cover everyone: men, women, children, strangers who joined the Israelites leaving Egypt, and everyone’s future descendants. Then he reminds the people that they vowed to give up all gods except the one God of Israel.

Poison hemlock

What if there is among you a man or a woman or a clan or a tribe whose mind is turning this day away from God, our God, to go serve the gods of those nations?  What if there is a root bearing the fruit of rosh and la-anah? (Deuteronomy/Devarim 29:17)

rosh (רֺאשׁ) = poison—sometimes from a plant (perhaps poison hemlock, a highly toxic plant different from a hemlock tree), sometimes from snake venom.2

Wormwood in bloom

la-anah (לַעֲנָה) = wormwood (Artemisia absinthium): a plant used to add a bitter flavor to drinks. (Excess doses of wormwood cause convulsions.)

People who swear fealty to one God while secretly resolving to serve other gods are compared to roots hidden in the ground that inevitably grow into like rosh and la-anah.3 People living a lie may believe they are safe, but their deeds will result in bitterness and poison, for them and the people around them.

And it might be, when one hears the words of this curse, then one will call oneself blessed in one’s mind, saying: “All will be well with me, even though I go with the stubbornness of my mind”—with regard to sefot the drenched with the dry.  (Deuteronomy 29:18)

sefot (סְפוֹת) = sweeping away, destroying; or sweeping together, heaping up. (Either kind of sweeping is a prelude to doom in at least 17 of the 20 times a form of this verb appears in the Hebrew Bible.)

Drenched?

Again the Torah uses vivid language to bring the warning to life, though the phrase “with regard to sefot the drenched with the dry” is more ambiguous. One interpretation is that God punishes all the misdeeds of secret idolaters harshly: the inadvertent misdeeds they do out of carelessness, as if they were drunk (drenched) swept together with the deliberate misdeeds they commit because they are thirsty (dry), i.e. craving the forbidden thing.4

Another is that the clandestine idolaters (the dry) expect to live well by freeloading on the virtues of others (the drenched); they assume that if the community in general is honest and good, God will not single them out for punishment.5

One can also read the verse as a warning that when secret idolaters anger God, God is likely to sweep away everyone, the drenched along with the dry. By any interpretation, all will not be well with the idolater.

God will not be willing to forgive him. For that is when God’s nose will smoke, and [God] will be zealous against that man, and these bad results written in this book will crouch down over him, and [God] will wipe out his name from under the heavens. And [God] will separate him out from all the tribes of Israel for misfortune, according to all the oaths of the covenant in the book of this Torah. (Deuteronomy 29:19-20)

Moses then predicts two misfortunes: an increase in diseases, and devastation of the land belonging to the individual, clan, or tribe that continues worshiping idols despite the covenant with God.

Today we see an increase in devastation of land all over the world, since our air pollution is changing climates and causing bigger storms and floods and forest fires (and this is just the tip of the melting iceberg). But although many countries have laws limiting pollution somewhat, humans are barely beginning to consider a covenant requiring everyone to serve the health of our God-given planet. And there is nothing secret about the thirst for more money and power that leads people with authority to ignore pollution.

But the warning in the portion Nitzavim also applies to millions of individual vows: oaths of office, business contracts, marriage vows and promises to partners, public moral standards for authorities. All too often people deliberately violate these vows, reassuring themselves that no one will find out.

Do these secret sins lead to rosh and la-anah, poison and bitterness?

I believe the answer is yes. Human beings (apart from the rare amoral sociopath) have a built-in desire for integrity. We want family, friends, and leaders we can trust to be honest, trust to be who they appear to be. We want to be trustworthy ourselves.

And we are also thirsty for sensual delights, addictions, luxuries, power, fame, even the thrill of getting away with something.

When we discover someone has fooled us with a false front we feel outraged, then bitter. We can go into denial, but consciously or unconsciously we will abandon or otherwise punish the one who betrayed us.

The secret sinner can also go into denial, saying “All will be well with meor “It’s not really my fault” or “Just one more time”. But even before anyone uncovers the lie, the liar lives with a nagging guilt, a betrayal of the divine will within, a poison that seeps through the wall of denial.

This week’s Torah portion gives hope to all of us who pretend to be saintly, but secretly serve the “gods” we promised to avoid.  Moses says:

And you will turn back to God, your god, and you will listen to [God’s] voice as everything that I commanded you this day, you and your children, with all your mind and with all your soul. Then God, your god, will turn around your condition and have compassion on you… (Deuteronomy 30:2-3)

We can stop and do teshuvah, returning to God, turning back to the right path. One can do teshuvah at any time, but we Jews also dedicate the month before Rosh Hashanah (Elul) and the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to examining our behavior during the past year, apologizing to people we have harmed, correcting what we can, and turning back to God. This is a time to recognize and atone for the vows you have secretly broken. This is a time to repent and make honest vows to the divine within.

May we all face ourselves and the divine voice within. May we all turn around and become whole.

  1. Deuteronomy 27:11-26. Joshua 24:1-28 reports that a version of this ceremony was carried out at Shechem, the location of the two hills (Mount Gerezim and Mount Ebal) that Moses specified in Deuteronomy.
  2. Rosh (רֺאשׁ) = poison and rosh (רֺאשׁ) = head are spelled the same way, but the two words are merely homonyms.
  3. The pairing of rosh and la-anah is a Biblical idiom also used in Amos 6:11-12, Jeremiah 9:13-14 and 23:15, and Lamentations 3:19-20. In these instances, God punishes the two Israelite kingdoms for worshiping other gods by letting invading armies conquer them; metaphorically, God is feeding them la-anah and making them drink water of rosh.
  4. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yistchaki) cites Onkelos in this interpretation.
  5. “Though God may have no intention of watering him with the bounty of His blessings, he must willy-nilly enjoy them as part of the community which receives them. The phrase ‘I shall have peace’ implies therefore two things: (1) the excluding himself from the community in respect of entering into the covenant and the curses; (2) saving himself from retribution because he is part of the community. (Akedat Yizhak)” (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim, translated by Aryeh Newman, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1980, p. 306)

Haftarat Simchat Torah—Joshua: Strong and Resolute

October 19, 2016 at 12:40 pm | Posted in Joshua, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Vezot Habrakhah, Yom Kippur | 1 Comment
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The standard cycle of Torah readings ends with Moses’ death in the last Torah portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim, Vezot Habrakhah. On the holy day of Simchat Torah, most Jewish congregations read this last portion in a Torah scroll, then roll the scroll all the way back and read the beginning of Genesis/Bereishit. The accompanying haftarah (reading from the Prophets) is Joshua 1:1-18.

Have you ever tried to turn over a new leaf, and found that without a systematic process you soon slide back to your old ways?

One process for changing your life can be found in the Jewish holy days from Rosh Hashanah to Simchat Torah. I realized this year that these days are a recipe for a 23-day period of transformation.

Blowing the Shofar, from Minhagim, 1707

Blowing the Shofar,
from Minhagim, 1707

1) On the two days of Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”), we declare the beginning of a new year. And we wake up when we hear the blast of the shofar, a loud wind instrument made out of a ram’s horn.

2) On Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), having apologized to the people we have wronged and forgiven those who wronged us, we go on to confess our errors to God and forgive ourselves.

3) During the seven days of Sukkot (“Huts”), we eat, sleep, and study (as much as the weather permits) in temporary shelters whose roofs of branches let in some rain and starlight.  The new lives we are creating for ourselves are like these sukkot: fragile, not secure—but open to nature, to other people, and to the presence of the divine.

Hoshana Rabbah, by Bernard Picart c. 1733

Hoshana Rabbah,
by Bernard Picart c. 1733

4) On the seventh day, Hoshana Rabbah (“Great Supplication”), we circle the sanctuary seven times while beating willow branches on the floor to symbolically disperse the last traces of the previous year’s misdeeds.

5) On Shemini Atzeret (“Eighth Gathering”), we pray for rain so that the new seeds we have planted will grow during the winter.

6) On Simchat Torah (“Rejoicing in Torah”), we read the end of the Torah scroll (the last portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim, called Vezot Habrakhah, “And this is the blessing”). Then we roll it back to the beginning and read about the creation of the world in Genesis/Bereishit. In this way we acknowledge the blessings of the old year, close the book on our past mistakes, and launch into creating our new life.

The haftarah for Simchat Torah is the beginning of the book of Joshua, right after Moses has died. Everything must change now. Joshua, who has spent 40 years as Moses’ attendant, must quickly become the de facto king of the Israelites. The Israelites, who have spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, complaining about the food, learning the rules of their new religion from Moses, and listening to the old folks’ stories about being slaves in Egypt, must now become first a conquering army, then a people who farm, trade, and live in towns—in the unfamiliar land of Canaan.

Moses Appoints Joshua, by Henry Northrop, 1894

Moses Appoints Joshua,
by Henry Northrop, 1894

Both Joshua and the Israelites are unprepared for their new lives.

Moses anticipates this toward the end of Deuteronomy. He legitimizes Joshua as his successor by laying hands on him, and God confirms it with a pillar of cloud. Then Moses tells the Israelites:

Chizku and imetzu! Do not be afraid and do not feel dread in front of them [the Canaanites], because God, your God, is going with you Itself. It will not let go of you and It will not forsake you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:6)

chizku (חִזְקוּ) = (plural) Hold strong! Hold on! Be fortified! Be stalwart! Be strong!

imetzu (אִמְצוּ) = (plural) Be resolute! Be firm! Be strong!

Then Moses called Joshua and said to him, in the sight of all Israel: Chazak and ematz, because you yourself shall bring this people to the land that God swore to their fathers to give to them, and you yourself shall apportion it among them. (Deuteronomy 31:7)

chazak (חֲזָק) = (singular of chizku) Hold strong! (etc.)

ematz (אֱמָץ) = (singular of imetzu) Be resolute! (etc.)

After Moses dies, Joshua may have felt like running run away, but he accepts his new life. The book of Joshua begins with God speaking to Joshua.

It happened after the death of Moses, the servant of God; God spoke to Joshua, son of Nun, Moses’ attendant, saying: My servant Moses is dead. So now get up and cross this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the children of Israel. (Joshua 1:1-2)

Joshua says nothing, but I imagine him feeling fearful and doomed. He served as a general once, 40 years ago, when Amalek attacked the Israelites; but the untrained ex-slaves won the battle only when Moses raised his hands toward heaven. Joshua has never led a war of conquest or administered a country. When he was one of the scouts Moses sent to report on the land of Canaan, he could not even persuade anyone that the land was worth entering. How can he persuade the Israelites to cross the Jordan and enter it now? And how can he turn himself into a conqueror, judge, and administrator?

God tells him:

No one shall be able to stand against you, all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, I will be with you. I will not let go of you and I will not forsake you. (Joshua 1:5)

I expect it would help to know that God was on your side.  When I embark on a new phase of my life, it helps to know that I am doing the right thing. But that knowledge by itself is not enough to make me step forward.

God continues:

Chazak and ematz, because you shall apportion among this people the land that I swore to their fathers to give to them. Only chazak and ematz very much to guard and do according to all the teaching that My servant Moses commanded to you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left, so that you shall act with insight everywhere you go. … Did I not command you: chazak and ematz? You shall not be afraid and you shall not be dismayed, because God, your God, will be with you wherever you go.  (Joshua 1:6-7, 9)

Joshua proceeds to become the leader he never was before. He makes decisions based on the teachings of Moses, he conquers large parts of Canaan (with the help of two divine miracles), and he divides up the land among the tribes of Israel.

Chazak and ematz, he probably reminds himself; hold strong and be resolute! The Bible uses this particular pairing of words only at four times of major change: when Joshua replaces Moses as the leader of the Israelites (in Deuteronomy and Joshua), when Joshua encourages his officers to continue the conquest of Canaan (in Joshua), when Solomon replaces David as the king of Israel (in the first book of Chronicles), and when King Hezekiah encourages his people to defend Jerusalem against the Assyrians (in the second book of Chronicles).

In all four transitions, the people who were told to be resolute felt nervous and insecure. And all four times they succeeded in their new roles.

*

It takes a lot to turn over a new leaf, to embark on a new direction in your life. From the Jewish holy days at this time of year we learn to wake up, face what we did wrong, make amends, and let go; to live for a while in the insecure space of transition as we stay open to guidance and pray for growth; to acknowledge the blessings in our old lives before we begin creating our new lives; and, in this week’s haftarah, to proceed with an attitude that will keep us going on our new path. We must trust that we are doing God’s will or the right thing, and we must be determined to keep going regardless of anything frightening or discouraging along the way.

Chazak and ematz; hold strong and be resolute. Keep going.

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.

Yom Kippur: Broken Promises

September 28, 2015 at 8:40 am | Posted in Shelach-Lekha, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment
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Yom Kippur is the annual day for atonement: for forgiving, being forgiven, and reuniting with God. This year my congregation, P’nai Or of Portland, chose an alternative  Torah reading for the Minchah (afternoon) service, from Shelach Lekha in the Book of Numbers/Bemidbar:

God said to Moses:  How long will this people disrespect Me, and how long will they not trust Me, despite all the signs I have made in their midst?  Let me strike them with the plague and disinherit them, and I will make you a greater and mightier nation than they.  Then Moses said to God: …Please forgive the sin of this people according to the greatness of Your kindness, and as You have carried this people from Egypt until now.  And God said:  I forgive, as you have spoken.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 14:11-12, 14:19-20)

I am pleased to post this thoughtful guest commentary that Chellema Qolus delivered  on Yom Kippur 5776 (2015).

 

hands reaching

by Chellema Qolus

Our Torah reading today is from the Book of Numbers, or Bamidbar. It’s the one where twelve scouts journey to check out the holy land. Ten come back and say “Oh no! It’s full of giants and scary stuff!” Two come back and say “It’s the land of milk and honey.”

Imagine you are God. You just gave your people some wonderful land. But instead of being grateful, 10 of 12 responses are “oooh no – it’s scary!” God in this case reacts like many of us often do when we feel unappreciated—God gets mad and says to Moses “Oh these people! I’m done with them! Forget it, I’ve changed my mind – I’m not going to play with them anymore!”

This happened before – when the Israelites made the golden calf God said the same thing. And who talked God out if it? Moses. Moses does a repeat performance here. Moses says “You promised—it’ll look bad if you go back on your promise. Come on, please? Forgive your people.”

Now, how is it that the all-knowing omniscient Infinite Oneness makes an agreement, gets mad, wants to break that agreement and then is convinced to keep it? I mean, if God knows everything that’s going to happen, how does this make sense?

God is infinite. All possibilities exist. God makes light and dark, good and evil. How this plays out at this level has a lot to do with us. If we are made in the image of God, then our portrayal of God in the Torah is also a reflection of us. Our relationship with God is a participatory process. That means we have to make the case, like Moses did, that forgiveness is included in the covenant.

If you look at the stories in Torah – the golden calf, the scouts, pretty much every story, people are breaking promises or betraying trusts right, left and sideways – EVERYONE!   Even Moses literally breaks the tablets of the covenant when he comes down from the mountain and sees the people dancing around the golden calf.

Here’s the thing. We ALL break our promises. We ALL betray trusts. We ALL hurt each other whether we mean to or not. That’s the way the world is. That’s the way we are. The great Kabbalist Isaac Luria said that when the universe was first created God’s infinite light was too much for the vessels of existence to hold and they shattered. So our universe has brokenness and so do we. Or, as the ten scouts would say “There’s giants and scary stuff! Oh no!”. The two scouts would say “Our souls are pure—direct from the Infinite. In nature we see the Glory, the cosmic pattern of wholeness of The Eternal. And in our kindness with each other, our hearts are one with God.”

These two perspectives, together, fuel our hopes and fears. We get so hurt and mad sometimes because it means so much. Early in my time with this congregation, I enjoyed a wonderful service and a warm and friendly oneg meal. I was feeling so much love for everyone and it struck me – I saw the patterns, my own patterns: how much community means to me, how much I love  the people here… and how I stumble, make mistakes, am misunderstood, and how inevitably, my heart is broken. After this wonderful service where I felt so much love … I went home and cried. Because I knew—I knew my heart would break with this community. And it did—in small ways, and large ways. But one thing is different from my previous experiences of this—I’m still here. And right now, in this moment, we’re all here.

We are all the characters in the story. Sometimes, like the two scouts Caleb and Joshua, we are in tune with God’s dance and understand how everything fits together and revel in God’s glory. Sometimes, like the ten scouts, we are overwhelmed by our pain and our fears and we project and perpetuate the negative. Sometimes, like God in this story, the God-spark in us feels unappreciated and we are hurt and lash out and just want to call everything off. Sometimes, like Moses, we plead with each other and the Divine Infinite for mercy and compassion.

To call on the Infinite for forgiveness that is attuned to us, here, on this level, we must first forgive ourselves and each other. Our forgiveness is like a homing beacon for God’s forgiveness. It creates a container made from the pieces of our brokenness, made to receive God’s Shalom, God’s Wholeness.handshake

…I call to Torah everyone who wants to bring our broken pieces together, creating a container to receive the Infinite One’s forgiveness and wholeness. Shalom.

 

Nitzavim & Yom Kippur: Centripetal Force

September 9, 2015 at 9:32 pm | Posted in Nitzavim, Yom Kippur | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Moses reminds the Israelites at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“standing”), that everyone standing on the bank of the Jordan River made a covenant with God.  They will take over the land of Canaan, with God’s help, but eventually they will forsake the covenant, and God will drive them out again

When all these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse that I placed before you, vahasheivta to your heart among all the nations where God, your god, has driven you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:1) 

vahasheivta (וַהֲשֵׁבתָ) = then you will return, revert, recall.  (Vahasheivta is a form of the verb shuv (שׁוּב) = return, turn around, turn back, restore.)

Assyrian soldier drives prisoners into exile

Assyrian soldier
drives prisoners into exile

Why does Moses make such a long-term prediction? Most modern scholars date this section of Deuteronomy to the Babylonian exile, circa 598-520 B.C.E. At that time, Jews had already experienced two exiles from their land.  Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria) in 740 B.C.E. and deported many Samarians to distant parts of the Assyrian Empire. Then Babylonia conquered both Assyria and the southern kingdom of Israel (Judah), and conducted its own deportations from 605 to 588 B.C.E.

Thus “all these things” includes multiple conquests and deportations of Jews.  Jews living (and writing) during the Babylonian exile assumed that their all-powerful god had arranged the curses of subjugation and exile because too many Jews had abandoned their religion. Their own people’s misbehavior had triggered a a divine centrifugal force pulling them away from their center.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses predicts that after 150 years of deportations and exile, a centripetal force would pull them back in to the land of Israel and the presence of God.

Moses lays out five steps to a complete return. In these steps, the people and God take turns moving toward a reunion.

1)  The first step, “vahasheivta to your heart among all the nations where God, your god, has driven you,” is returning to your own heart (the seat of consciousness in Biblical Hebrew) while you still live in a foreign land. In the next verse Moses explains:

Veshavta ad God, your god; and you will listen to [God’s] voice, you and your children, just as I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul.  (Deuteronomy 30:2)

Veshavta (וְשַׁבְתָּ) = And you will return (also a form of shuv).

ad (עַד) = up to, as far as.

The people must reject the gods of the nations where they are living, and cultivate awareness of their own God by listening for the divine voice and paying full attention to it. They must go as far toward God as they can under the circumstances of their exile.

Ezra and exiles return (woodcut by Schnorr von Carolsfeld)

Ezra and exiles return to Jerusalem
(woodcut by Schnorr von Carolsfeld)

2)  Moses predicts that after they have turned their hearts back to God, God will take the second step and return the people to their former land.

God, your god, veshav your fortune and have compassion on you, veshav and gather you from among all the peoples where God, your god, has scattered you.  Even if you strayed to the end of the heavens, from there God, your god, will gather you, and from there [God] will take you back.  And God, your god, will bring you to the land that your forefathers possessed, and you will possess it, and [God] will do you good and make you more numerous than your forefathers. (Deuteronomy 30:3-5)

veshav (וְשָׁב) = will then restore, will then return (also a form of shuv).

3)  Once God has returned them to the land of Israel, the third step is for the Jews to love God.  Loving God is not easy, in this week’s Torah portion; God will have to help humans to do it.

And God, your god, will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your descendants, to love God, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you will live.  (Deuteronomy 30:6)

“So that you will live” means “so that you will thrive”—perhaps materially, or perhaps spiritually.

4)  The fourth step, Moses says, is up to the people:

And you, tashuv, and you will listen to the voice of God, and you will do all [God’s] commandments that I commanded you today. (Deuteronomy 30:8)

tashuv (תָשׁוּב) = you will return (also a form of the root verb shuv).

Once God returns the exiled Jews to their land, Moses predicts, they will become able to obey all God’s rules, as well as listening to God’s voice. Presumably, the people could have obeyed God’s ethical rules and family laws wherever they lived.  But in order to obey the agricultural laws, and in order to conduct religious worship through the system of sacrifices at the altar, they had to live in and around Jerusalem.

5)  The fifth step of return is up to God again:

And God, your god, will add to all the deeds of your hand: in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your soil, for good, because God yashuv to rejoice over you for good as [God] rejoiced over your forefathers—because you will listen to the voice of God, your god, to observe [God’s] commandments and decrees, the ones written in the book of this teaching—because tashuv to God, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 30:9)

yashuv (יָשׁוּב) = he/it will return.

Just as in the first step of return the exiled Jews, called “you”, will bring their hearts back to God, in the final step God will bring Its heart back to the people. The result of God’s rejoicing over the people will be abundant life for the humans, their animals, and their crops.

After this fifth step, both the Jews and God would have made a complete return to one another, in both attitude and practical action.  It sounds like the complete restoration of a marriage after the couple has been estranged and separated.

What if “you” in this week’s Torah portion meant anyone seeking a return from exile, a return to the center, a centripetal path?  The center you return to need not be a particular spot on the globe; it could be a spiritual place.

In the annual cycle of Torah readings, the portion Nitzavim falls either one or two weeks before Yom Kippur, the day Jews dedicate to repentance, forgiveness, teshuvah, and atonement.

teshuvah (תְּשׁוּבָה) = reply, return.  (Yes, it also comes from the root shuv.)

In the Torah and in the time of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, the method used to atone and reach teshuvah with God involved animal sacrifices and sprinkling blood in the Holy of Holies.  (See my post Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles.)  For the last two millennia, the teshuvah of Jews on Yom Kippur has been a matter of prayer, fasting, inner examination, and listening for God with all our heart and all our soul.

Although Yom Kippur is the official day of teshuvah for Jews, anyone might return, any day, to the inner divine spark—and open the way for the divine spark to return to us.

May all people who seek forgiveness, atonement, and reunion find a centripetal path to the holy center.

*

I wish all of my Jewish readers Shanah Tovah—a good new year—beginning this Sunday evening. I will be on my own centripetal path from Rosh Hashanah (the beginning of the year) through Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), Sukkot, and Simchat Torah, the night when Jews gather to roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning and read the opening of the book of Genesis/Bereishit.  After Simchat Torah (October 5 in 2105) I will dive into the book of Genesis again myself, even as my husband and I move to a new town. How could I resist writing another post on the beginning of creation?

Haftarah for Ki Tavo–Isaiah: Rise and Shine

August 19, 2013 at 11:16 am | Posted in Isaiah 2, Ki Tavo, Yom Kippur | 1 Comment
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I was an alto before I was a Jew. I first sang Handel’s “Messiah” in my high school choir. Now, 27 years after my conversion, I still enjoy Handel’s music, and I still do not take the words seriously. But when you sing words, you remember them.

This week I read the Torah portion, Ki Tavo, and then turned to the haftarah, the passage from the Prophets/Neviyim that is traditionally chanted after the Torah portion. I glanced at the first line of this week’s haftarah in Hebrew, and I immediately sang:

handel-1Arise, shine, for thy light has come! (Isaiah 60:1)

This King James Bible translation accurately captures one possible meaning of the Hebrew. But the “Messiah” uses the line for an entirely different purpose than the book of Isaiah. Handel’s friend Charles Jennens, who provided the libretto for the oratorio, was a devout Anglican who wanted to tell a story of Jesus’ life in terms of direct divine intervention in human affairs. So he cut and pasted verses from all over the King James Bible and the Common Book of Prayer to make his point.

Jennens took many lines out of context from the book of Isaiah. At the beginning of the “Messiah”, after setting the scene, he put in a line from the King James version of Isaiah: Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel: God with us.

This line is now notorious as a bad Hebrew translation. A more accurate translation would be: Behold (or Hey!), the young woman is pregnant and is giving birth to a son; may she call his name Immanu-El (with us God). (Isaiah 7:14)

There is no virgin birth in the original Hebrew, and the young woman is already pregnant. There is no indication here or in the rest of Isaiah that this line has anything to do with the birth of someone called Jesus about 700 years later.

But by using this quote from the King James Bible, Jennens established that the “Messiah” was going to be about Jesus. He proceeded with another out-of-context quote from Isaiah: O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion …say unto the cities of Judah, behold your god! (Isaiah 40:9)

Then Jennens goes directly to the verse at the beginning of this week’s haftarah. The King James translation is: Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.

Here is my own translation:

Arise! Shine! For your light ba,

And the kavod of God dawns over you. (Isaiah 60:1)

ba = come, has come, is coming

kavod = glory, honor, dazzling splendor, awesome presence

In the “Messiah”, Jennens uncharacteristically chose to follow up Isaiah 60:1 with the next two verses, Isaiah 60:2-3. A solo bass sings the King James version: For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.

Here is my translation from the Hebrew:

For hey! the darkness will cover the earth

And the gloom the peoples;

But God will dawn upon you

And Its kavod will appear over you.

And the nations will walk to your light

And kings to a gleam of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:2-3)

What is the light that either came or is coming? And who is “you”?

These three verses connect “light” with God’s glory. In the previous two chapters of Isaiah, the Israelites who live in exile in Babylonia have been groping in the darkness of ignorance, wondering how to find their god. So “light” may mean both enlightenment and God’s close approach.

The “you” (and all the verbs) in the verses above are in the feminine singular, but no female human is mentioned. “The people” and “God” (and “Jesus”!) would all take the masculine form. However, most place-names in the Torah are feminine. The subject whose light will attract the tribute of many nations is finally named in 60:14: And they will call you City of God, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

Zion (pronounced Tziyon in Hebrew) is a synonym for Jerusalem. Scholars date the second half of the book of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) to about 550-515 B.C.E., around the time when the Persian king Cyrus  gave the Jews in exile permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. The poet in Isaiah chapter 60 apparently rejoiced that Zion’s people and religion were rising again, and hoped that the religion would spread as more and more nations “saw the light”.

So in the 6th century B.C.E., the book of Isaiah saw the rebuilding of Jerusalem as the dawn of an era in which belief in the god of Israel would become universal. In the 18th century C.E., the librettist of Handel’s “Messiah” connected the dawning of God’s light with the birth of Jesus, heralding the new religion of Christianity. Meanwhile, for the last 2,000 years or so, Isaiah 60:1-22 has been the “sixth haftarah of consolation” of Jews; we read it during the sixth week after Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for the fall of the first and second temples in Jerusalem.

Can this haftarah from Isaiah, which is so hopeful about the rebuilding of the temple, still console us for the fall of both temples in Jerusalem? Personally, I am glad that for the last 2,000 years we have been seeking God through prayer instead of through animal offerings at a temple.  But I am still waiting for enlightenment to dawn over Zion.

Meanwhile, I can use a message of hope during this introspective month of Elul, when Jews are asked to prepare for Yom Kippur by reviewing the past year and acknowledging their misdeeds. As Rabbi Shoshana Dworsky pointed out, it is easy for a woman to take the first few verses of this haftarah personally, since all the language is in the feminine singular! What if the poem is addressing me, as I wonder how I will ever outgrow the shortcomings in my character that I am pondering this month?

Maybe my light is coming, and soon I will arise and shine.

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