Chukkat & Ecclesiastes: Accounting for Cheshbon

July 10, 2019 at 2:26 pm | Posted in Chukkat, Ecclesiastes/Kohelet | 1 Comment

Moses asks two foreign kings to let the Israelites cross through their land in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“decree of”).  Both refuse, even though Moses promises they will stay on the road, leave fields and vineyards untouched, and pay for any water they and their livestock drink.

Route of Israelites

The king of Edom says no and sends an army to the border to bar the way.1  Apparently he does not trust the Israelites, but he prefers not to attack them.  So the Israelites circle around Edom and continue north through the unpopulated wilderness east of Moab until they reach the Arnon River.  Then Moses sends the same message to King Sichon of Cheshbon.  Sichon also refuses to let the Israelites pass through, but he attacks them at his border.  The Israelites win and conquer Sichon’s land.

And Israel took all these towns, and Israel settled in all the towns of the Amorites, in Cheshbon and in all its daughter-villages.  For Cheshbon was the town of Sichon; a king of the Amorites he was, and he had battled against the first king of Moab, and he had taken all his land from his hand as far as the Arnon.  (Numbers 21:25-26)

Cheshbon (חֶשְׁבּוֹן) =

  1. a town about 14 miles (23 km) east of where the Jordan River enters the Dead Sea.
  2. accounting, reckoning. (From the root verb chashav, חָשַׁב = evaluate, consider, calculate, think out.)

After explaining that Sichon’s land used to be northern Moab, the Torah portion Chukkat quotes part of an Amorite poem celebrating Sichon’s earlier victory, translating it into Hebrew.

Route of Israelites

Therefore the epic poem says:

            “Come to Cheshbon!  It was built

            and firmly established, the town of Sichon.

            Because fire went out from Cheshbon;

            Flame from the city of Sichon.

            It consumed Ar of Moab,

            The local gods of the high places of Arnon …  (Numbers 21:27-28)

Ironically, this week’s Torah portion shows that Cheshbon is not firmly established as the town of Sichon, since the Israelites conquer it on their way to the Jordan River.

The image of fire going out of a town is often used in the Hebrew Bible for an army going out to battle, consuming enemy soldiers.  Since the Amorites spoke a Semitic language closely related to ancient Hebrew, it is not surprising that the two peoples employed the same metaphor.

Perhaps King Sichon decides to attack the Israelite travelers because his victory against Moab has convinced him that his people are stronger than anyone else.  Look at the fortified town they built!

Cheshbon contested

If Sichon cannot hang on to Cheshbon, however firmly built, can the Israelites do any better?

They go on to conquer the Amorite kingdom north of Cheshbon, then camp on the east side of the Jordan River while Moses delivers the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim.  After Joshua leads the conquest Canaan west of the Jordan, he assigns the land east of the river, now called Gilead, to the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menashe.  Gad gets the Cheshbon area.2

Gilead changes hands twice in the book of Judges, and is attacked a third time.  In one story, King Eglon of Moab captures the territory and holds it for 18 years until the Israelite hero Ehud brings him tribute, then assassinates him and escapes to lead the charge against the army of Moab.3

In another story, the king of Ammon (or possibly Moab) 4 makes war on Gilead for 18 years.5  The territory’s new hero, Yiftach (Jepthah in English), sends the king a message explaining that the Israelites took Gilead from Amorite kings, not from Ammon (or Moab).  He adds that even if the enemy did have a claim to the land,

When Israel dwelled in Cheshbon and her daughter-villages, and in Aroer and her daughter-villages, and in all the towns that are along the Arnon, for 300 years, then why did you not recover them during this time?  (Judges 11:26)

The king sends no reply.  Yiftach captures twenty towns and villages, and Gilead remains in the hands of Israelites.6

Gilead becomes part of David’s kingdom in the second book of Samuel.  His son Solomon assigns a governor to administer “the land of Gilead: the land of Sichon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of the Bashan.”  (1 Kings 4:19)

But after King Solomon’s death, Cheshbon and the rest of Gilead secede from Judah along with the territories of the other northern tribes.  They found the northern kingdom of Israel (also called Samaria), with Jereboam as its first king.7

When Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727 BC), king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, decided to conquer Israel, he started by capturing Gilead and deporting people in the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menasheh.8  The conquest of the northern kingdom continued under the next two Assyrian kings, with Sargon II capturing the capital city of Samaria in 722 BCE.

Israelites never ruled over Cheshbon again.

Taking account

The book of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet opens with the declaration that everything is futile, because nothing a human does can make a permanent change.  The same things happen over and over again, so there is nothing new under the sun.

by Auguste Rodin, 1886

Kohelet, the narrator, explores this idea at length, analyzing the activities of humankind.

Myself, I turned [it] around in my mind to know and to scout out and seek wisdom and cheshbon.  … See, this I found, said Kohelet, one by one finding a cheshbon.  I sought further in my soul … (Ecclesiastes 7:25, 7:27)

Only see this: I found that God made humankind upright, but they themselves sought many chishbonot.  (Ecclesiastes 7:27, 7:29)

chishvonot (חִשְּׁבֺנוֹת) = plans, inventions.  (Also from the root verb chashav.)

Here Kohelet states that humans are naturally good but they invent too much.  I suspect Kohelet means inventing reasons for doing what we want.  A true cheshbon, an inner accounting and reckoning, is the means to gaining self-knowledge and wisdom, which are good for their own sake.

Everything that you find you are able to go and do, do it!  Because there is no doing nor cheshbon nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol, where you are going.  (Ecclesiastes/Kohelet 9:10)

Sheol is where the spirits of the dead go.   Ecclesiastes affirms that after death no action or thought is possible; there is no afterlife in heaven or Gehenna.  You can only acquire wisdom by conducting a personal accounting while you are alive.

*

Today the place called Cheshbon is the site of an archaeological dig in Jordan.  But many Jews follow the mussar9 practice of Cheshbon Hanefesh (“Accounting of the Soul”), keeping a daily record of good and bad deeds in order to improve one’s behavior.

Cheshbon as a practice of self-examination is lasting longer than Cheshbon as a town fortified for war.

  1. Numbers 20:14-21.
  2. Joshua 22:36-37.
  3. Judges 3:12-30.
  4. Most modern scholars argue that the negotiations between Yiftach and the attacking king in Judges 11:12-28 came from another source. This explains why the two leaders discuss what happened after King Sichon took the land from Moab, and Yiftach refers to Kemosh, the god of Moab rather than Ammon.  The compiler of Judges inserted Ammon to make the story fit the battle between the Israelites of Gilead and the Ammonite army.  (Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Vol. 2, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2019)
  5. Judges 10:5.
  6. Judges 11:29-33. Also see my post Haftarat Chukkat—Judges: A Peculiar Vow.
  7. 1 Kings 12:1-24.
  8. 2 Kings 15:29.
  9. Mussar (מוּסַר), “moral instruction”, is a system of self-improvement developed in the 19th century CE from classic ethical texts dating back to the 11th century CE.

Kohelet: Is Life Meaningless?

October 5, 2017 at 1:24 pm | Posted in Ecclesiastes/Kohelet, Sukkot | 1 Comment

Modern sukkah in Israel

During the Jewish week of Sukkot, which began on Wednesday evening, the traditional reading is the book of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet. Sukkot is called zeman simchateynu, the “time of our rejoicing”. In the Torah Sukkot celebrates the harvest of autumn fruits (grapes, figs, pomegranates, and olives), and the people live in fragile temporary shelters called sukkot. Today Jews still erect and decorate sukkot and hold rituals and meals inside them.

Modern sukkah in America

Although these huts only last for a week, we rejoice inside them. The author of the book of Kohelet (“Assembler” or “Assemblyman”1), on the other hand, would be depressed.

The famous opening of the book in the King James Bible translation includes “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

The word “vanity” here means doing something in vain, i.e. with no resulting change. Futility is is indeed one possible translation of the Hebrew word haveil.

Haveil havalim, said the Assembler.

          Haveil havalim! Everything is havel. (Kohelet 1:2)

haveil (הֲבֵל), havel (הָבֶל), hevel (הֶבֶל) = (noun) puff of air, vapor; (adjective) evanescent, futile, absurd. (Also the name of Adam and Eve’s second son, called “Abel” in English. See my post Bereishit: Fairness and Free Will.)

havalim (הֲבָלִים) = plural of haveil. In biblical Hebrew, a plural noun immediately following the same noun in the singular noun is an intensive.  Thus haveil havalim means utterly evanescent, utterly futile, or utterly absurd, though it can also be translated as “futility of futilities”.

The poetic introduction of the book of Kohelet describes how the cycles of nature never change; the sun keeps rising and setting, the wind keeps going around, water flows down to the sea and then returns to its sources.

What will happen has happened before

            and what is done has been done before.

And there is nothing new under the sun.  (Kohelet 1:9)

After the introductory poem, the writer uses an exclamation that becomes a refrain throughout the book:

Everything is hevel and herding ruach! (Kohelet 1:14)

ruach (רוּהַ) = wind; spirit; mood.

In a world of futility and absurdity, trying to achieve anything is like trying to herd the wind.

The rest of the book reports the writer’s fruitless attempts to find meaning in life despite the fact that everything in this world, “under the sun”, is hevel.  Chapter 2 points out that no matter how much you achieve, no matter how much luxury or wisdom you acquire, you still die, and whoever inherits from you also dies.

Chapter 3 starts with the famous poem beginning:

For everything there is a season

            and a time for every business under heaven:

A time to be born

            and a time to die… (Kohelet 3:1-2)

Humans also follow natural cycles, making no progress and doing nothing truly new. God has determined everything, according to Kohelet, and humans die just as beasts do.

Everything goes to one place; everything comes from the dust and returns to the dust. Who knows if the ruach of a human rises to [what is] above, and the ruach of the beast goes down [what is] below, to the earth? (Kohelet 3:20-21)

Judging by the rest of the book, the writer does not believe the spirit (ruach) of any human rises to another life after death. Death is simply an ending that usually comes before the person has had enough of life.

And life, according to Kohelet, is depressing. The author points out the inevitability of oppression, evil, envy, and folly.2 Wealth may disappear, and power is no good because every boss is at the mercy of a superior, and even the king is at the mercy of the crops of the land.3  God might grant someone every desire, along with wealth, possessions, honor, 100 children, and a long life, but that person will still die before being sated with good things; we can never live long enough.4 God makes good and bad things happen; humans have little effect.5

Here is hevel that is done on the earth: that there are righteous ones who God treats as if their deeds were like those of the wicked, and there are wicked ones who God treats as if their deeds were like those of the righteous. I say that this, too, is havel. (Kohelet 8:14)

Life is absurd, rather than meaningful, in the face of the “problem of evil” (also called the theodicy).

Sukkah roof

Kohelet also points out that wisdom is easily brought down by one foolish act6, and that we have decay to look forward to as well as death7. Yet our fragility is part of the celebration during Sukkot; every sukkah is designed to let the rain in, and every morning we stand inside and conduct a ritual to encourage the rainy season to begin.

The most the author of Kohelet can recommend is to enjoy life despite its meaninglessness:

Go eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a good heart since God has already approved your deeds. At all times let your clothes be clean, and oil not lacking on your head. Choose life with a woman whom you love, all the days of your life of hevel that God granted you under the sun, all the days of your hevel, because that is your share in life and your exertion that you exert under the sun. Everything that your hand finds to do, do with all your power, because there is no doing nor reckoning nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol [underground], where you are going. (Kohelet 9:7-9)

*

I cannot argue with Kohelet’s advice about cultivating physical pleasure, loving companionship, and zest in your work. Nor would I deny that everything decays and dies. But unlike the author of Kohelet I believe that new things do happen, and humankind is making progress in some areas, however slow and faltering. And I believe that even though life is too short and reality is absurd, life has meaning. What gives life meaning to me is the conviction that even though so much is out of our hands, we humans can, with conscious attention, change our own minds.

So what if all my thoughts and experiences vanish when my body dies? So what if the whole earth and all human achievement is lost forever when the sun explodes? What happens right now, this moment, is still meaningful if we make it so.

The book of Kohelet ends (excluding the postscript) in the same place it begins:

And the dust returns to the earth, where it was,

            and the ruach returns to God, who gave it.

Haveil havalim, said the Assembler.

            Haveil havalim! Everything is havel. (Kohelet 12:7-8)

Yes, everything is like a puff of air, evanescent and absurd—but some things still matter. And yes, as long as we live, we humans are herding ruach. But we are not always futilely trying to herd the wind. Ruach can also mean mood or spirit. Sometimes we learn how to herd our own moods, so we can rise above them. Sometimes we can even herd our own spirits, nudging our own souls to make our lives meaningful.

Then it is easy to rejoice inside the fragile, evanescent, absurd sukkot of our lives.

  1. The word kohelet ( קֹהֶלֶת) comes from the root verb kahal (קהל) = assemble. But the -et ending is a mystery; it might indicate either a female or a vocation, and it might mean a member of an assembly rather than the one who calls the assembly. See Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010, p. 337.
  2. Kohelet chapter 4.
  3. Kohelet chapter 5.
  4. Kohelet chapter 6.
  5. Kohelet chapter 7.
  6. Kohelet chapter 10.
  7. Kohelet chapter 12.

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