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 (“taking a stand”), 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.

Ki Teitzei: Too Many Vows

August 28, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

When did you last make a vow or swear an oath?  In our society, we often sign contracts and promise to do things; but a solemn, witnessed vow is usually reserved for a wedding, an oath of office, or (in some religions) an initiation into a religious order.  Nevertheless, when we violate solemn promises we have made to ourselves, we find ourselves in the same position as ancient Israelites who failed to fulfill their vows.

One warning about vows appears in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“when you go out”):

When you vow a vow to God, your god, you shall not delay in fulfilling it, because God, your god, will certainly call you to account, and there will be guilt in you. But if you refrain from vowing, there will not be guilt in you. You must guard what comes out of your lips; and you must make any voluntary gift that you spoke with your mouth, as you have vowed to God, your god. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 23:22-24)

The majority of vows mentioned in the Hebrew bible are vows to give something to God. People vow to offer an animal at the altar, or to give money to the Temple treasury, just because they want to do something extra for their religion. Both this week’s Torah portion and a similar passage in Ecclesiastes/Kohelet state that when you vow to make a gift to God, you must fulfill it with minimum delay, or you will be guilty of wrongdoing. Someone today would be guilty of similar wrongdoing if they promised to donate extra money to their congregation, but then took years to get around to it.

Another type of vow is the vow of self-denial. The most common vow of self-denial in the Torah is the vow to be a nazir, someone who abstains from haircuts and from wine (or anything else made with grapes) for a fixed period of time. (See my post Naso: Distanced by Hair.)

But like us, Israelites and Jews thousands of years ago made individual vows of self-denial, which are mentioned in the Hebrew bible and discussed in detail in the Talmud tractate Nedarim (“Vows”).  In modern American the most common individual vow of self-denial is probably to abstain from certain foods.  Two thousand years ago this was also a possible vow, but vows to refrain from sex with your spouse get more coverage in the Talmud.

Carrying out your vow without delay is also a requirement for vows of of self-denial. The book of Numbers/Bemidbar says: If someone vows a vow to God or swears an oath to abstain an abstention for himself, he shall not desecrate his word; according to anything that goes out of his mouth he must do. (Numbers 30:3)

Making a vow before God seems to be a common human impulse.  Yet both Deuteronomy and Ecclesiastes, as well as the Talmud, emphasize that it is better to simply do what you intend without making a vow.

What is so bad about making vows? The Torah and the Talmud discourage vowing because the consequences are terrible if you do not fulfill your vow. All too often, people make vows and then fail to live up to them because of circumstances they did not anticipate.  Some people are simply stymied by bad luck. But others are carried away by their emotions at the time of the vow, and rashly promise more than they can realistically deliver. Some people make vows they regret the next morning.

Traditional commentary points out that people tend to find excuses to justify their failure to deliver on a vow, and comfort themselves with the thought that at least they meant well. This is a form of self-delusion that leads some people to substitute making vows for actually doing the right thing. Thus people who makes rash vows end up behaving less ethically.  They also suffer because other people stop believing what they say.

I have also noticed another reaction to the failure to fulfill a rash vow. I know people who made solemn promises to themselves to increase their Jewish religious observance–not just by adding one daily blessing or one small restriction, but by taking on a full day of orthodox Shabbat observance every week, or by switching from a diet of bacon cheeseburgers to keeping kosher so strictly that they can no longer eat out. And when they failed to fulfill their rash vows, they did not excuse themselves on the grounds of good intentions.  Instead, they gave up on their religion–an easy thing to do, in our modern society. And that, too, can be bad for the soul.

I agree with the Torah and Talmud that it is better to guard your lips and stop yourself from making vows. But if you need to make a vow, consider it carefully, over a period of time, to make sure it is something reasonable that you can fulfill.

But what if you have made a vow you cannot, or no longer want to, fulfill?  In Talmudic times, people called upon rabbis to annul their ill-considered vows of self-denial. Jews today have Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement.  If we break our vows to other people, we can only make things right by going through a process of atonement with those individuals. But if we have failed to carry out our vows to ourselves, or to God, then we can atone in our communal prayers on Yom Kippur.

The holy day begins with the singing of “Kol Nidrei”, which means “All vows” in Aramaic. The Kol Nidrei prayer began as a way to absolve Jews from vows of conversion to another religion, since so many Jews had to pretend to convert to Christianity in order to save their lives. Now it serves as a heartfelt introduction to the day when we can release ourselves from guilt over the personal vows before God that we now wish we had not made.

This week is the second week of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur. The Jewish tradition is to spend this month examining ourselves, apologizing and atoning for the wrongs we have done to other people, and recognizing where we have failed the God inside each of us.

This month of Elul, may we all catch up on the good deeds we promised to do but never got around to; may we find ways to clear ourselves and start fresh with every person we have wronged; may we recognize and accept our failures to fulfill our personal vows; and may we figure out ways to improve ourselves gently, without making any rash vows.

Tzav: Who Gets the Skin?

March 29, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Posted in Tzav, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

When I read all the gory details of the animal sacrifices in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, I have to work hard to imagine how all that slaughtering, butchering, and throwing blood around could bring anyone closer to God. I believe that when we kill our fellow mammals we should mourn, not celebrate; and I view the slaughter as something we need to atone for, not as a means of atonement.  Thank God we switched to worship through prayer about 2,000 years ago!

It would be easy for me to dismiss the earlier technology as an artifact of an ancient culture.  I could simply address the issues of the present day, and campaign for treating all mammals more humanely, killing them only out of practical necessity, and reforming our diets. But I have dedicated myself to Torah study, and that means I must search for deeper meaning in the text, even the descriptions of animal offerings.

When I reread this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (Command), I noticed that the three basic motivations for offering an animal at the altar correspond to three instructions for what to do with the animal’s skin.

Although the book of Leviticus/Vayikra classifies offerings with five different names, covering at least a dozen different situations, they boil down to three reasons for bringing an animal to the altar:  to express individual gratitude or devotion to God; to atone for individual guilt; and to atone for the whole community and/or its religious leaders.

When a man brought an animal offering to express gratitude or devotion (in the Torah only men bring animals to the altar), after the butchery, burning, and feasting, he got to keep the animal’s skin, which had value because it could be tanned to make leather.

We learn in the Torah portion Tzav that when an individual brought an animal offering to be relieved of guilt over a lapse, a wicked thought, a sin of omission, or an unintentional wrong against God, the priest who performed the atonement got to keep the hide.

As for the priest who brings near a man’s rising-offering, the skin of the rising-offering that the man brought to the priest will become his.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 7:8)

or = skin (either human or animal)

When a priest brought an animal offering to make atonement for himself or for the entire community, the skin was burned on the ash-heap outside the camp where the ashes from the altar were taken.  Moses does this in this week’s Torah portion during the ordination of Aaron and his four sons as the first priests of the Israelites, so they can begin their new offices with a clean slate.

And the bull and its skin and its flesh and its intestinal contents he burned in the ash-heap outside the camp, as God had commanded Moses.  (Leviticus 8:17)

The three ways of disposing of the slaughtered animal’s skin make sense on a practical level.  Someone who wanted to draw closer to God out of a devotional impulse, or gratitude for good fortune, should be allowed to keep any part of the animal not used in the ritual.  Why should he suffer any extra economic loss?

However, someone who was guilty of missing the mark in his relationship with God needed to experience a loss, to give up something in exchange for being freed of his guilt.  The priest got the skin because his service enabled the guilty man’s atonement.  (Priests were not paid salaries, or given land to farm, so they received compensation in the form of meat, skins, and bread from various offerings.)

If a priest erred in his holy service, or if the whole community missed the mark (because the priests did not guide them properly), then it makes practical sense that the priest should get no economic benefit from the sacrificial animal’s skin.  Burning the hide adds dramatic impact to this most serious kind of ritual offering.

I can also see symbolic meaning in the three ways of handling the skins.  In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God clothes Adam and Eve in skins before sending them out into the world. Skin is like a garment.  It separates and protects an individual from the rest of the world.  And skin, like a garment, also signals the individual’s public identity and role in the world.

Perhaps the skin of an animal offering represents the skin of the man who brings it.  The Torah mandates that the man who brings an animal  to the altar must lean his hands on its head before it is slaughtered.  This gesture apparently connects the human with the animal, so the offering counts as his.

When someone brought an offering of gratitude or devotion, he was already in a good standing with God; the offering expressed his feelings and brought him even closer to the divine.  His public identity did not need to change.  Therefore he could keep the animal skin.

When someone brought an offering out of guilt, he had stumbled in his service to God.  In order to atone and return to good standing, he needed to recognize, in his heart, that his position in the community and his connection with God must not be taken for granted.  I think he gave the animal skin to the officiating priest as an act of humility.

Why was the skin burned when a priest brought an offering to atone for his own guilt, or for the guilt of the whole community?  The Torah requires burning the skin outside the camp when a priest is ordained, when a priest discovers that he or the whole community has committed a lapse in service to God, and once a year on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement for everyone.

The priests of the Israelites, like all religious leaders today, and everyone else who guides people on the level of their souls, have to be meticulous in their service.  If they violate someone’s trust; if they treat other humans without respect; if they preach one thing and do another; if they become so enamored of their role, so dazzled by their own garments, that they fail to examine their inner selves; then their guilt is so great they must burn their animal skins.  That means they must leave their sanctuary and leave the community where they did wrong, going “outside the camp”, and give up their public roles, their animal skins.

What if the animal offering atones for the whole community, like the goat offered to God on Yom Kippur?  Modern Jews do not cast lots on goats on Yom Kippur, but we do spend the day praying.  Our prayers for atonement are in the plural: we have become guilty, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have slandered, and so on.  No one is isolated; we are all responsible for one another.  We share the good and the bad.  We are our brothers’ keepers.  And our membership in the human community is intrinsic to our connection with the divine.

Therefore, when we want to come closer to God, we must all abandon the garments of our public roles.  Burn those animal skins, and let the smoke rise up to the heavens!

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