Sukkot & Kohelet: Rejoicing Without Justice

September 24, 2021 at 12:14 am | Posted in Ecclesiastes/Kohelet, Emor, Psalms/Tehilim, Sukkot | Leave a comment

Life on earth is the only life humans get, according the Hebrew Bible (except the second-century B.C.E. book of Daniel1).  The souls of all dead humans, good and bad, go to Sheol, an underground place of oblivion.  There is no reward or punishment for human deeds after death.

The reward for virtue in most of the Hebrew Bible is a long and healthy life with male descendants and a good reputation.  The punishment for wicked deeds is an early death, the early death of one’s children, or being forgotten.

Do not get inflamed over evildoers;

            Do not envy those who do wrong.

For quickly they will dry up like grass;

            Like green plants they will wither.  (Psalm 37:1-2)

In a little while the wicked one will be no more;

            When you look at his place, he will not be there.

But the humble will take possession of the earth

            And delight in abundant well-being.  (Psalm 37:10-11)

For the wicked will be shattered,

            But God supports the virtuous.  (Psalm 37:17)

In the Psalms, God is omnipotent and just.  If bad things happen to good people, they are temporary setbacks, and only those who have done something wrong suffer sickness and beg God for mercy.

At Yom Kippur services, Jews pray to a God who tempers justice with mercy.  Besides begging God to forgive us for our misdeeds, we chant God’s self-description to Moses in the “thirteen attributes”, including “a compassionate and gracious god, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and dependability.”2

Four days after the sun sets on Yom Kippur we begin the week of Sukkot, when the Torah commands us to “rejoice before God, your God, seven days”.3  Rejoicing seems appropriate after the work of atonement is done, the last crops have been harvested, and the grapes have been pressed for new wine.  Life is good.

But the Torah reading for Sukkot also says:

In sukkot you must dwell for seven days.  All the citizens of Israel must dwell in sukkot, so that your (future) generations will know that I made the Israelites dwell in sukkot when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 23:42-43)

Modern American sukkah

sukkot (סֻכֺּת) = temporary shelters; huts made of branches and mats to provide shade for harvesters in fields and vineyards, for travelers, or for cattle.  (The roofs of ritual sukkot must provide more shade than sun, but still let in any rain.)

So we rejoice even though our shelters are temporary, our harvest is temporary, and our lives are temporary.  During Sukkot we read the book of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet, which begins:

Haveil of havalim, said Kohelet.

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

haveil (הֲבֵל), havel (הָבֶל), or hevel (הֶבֶל) = puff of air, vapor; ephemeral, futile, fleeting.  (“Vanity” in the King James Bible.  Plural: havalim (הֲבָלִים).)

All human achievements and human lives are as temporary as puff of air.  Meanwhile the seasons go around forever, like the cycles of the sun, the winds, and the water.

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

Furthermore Kohelet observes that wisdom and foolishness, virtue and wickedness, make no difference in the fate of human beings.  Kohelet does not question God’s omnipotence, and refers to God as judging humans according to their virtue, but concludes that humans cannot change the quality or length of their lives through good deeds or religious observances.  God has predetermined everything.

And I said to myself: The virtuous and the wicked God will judge …  God sifts them out only to show them they are beasts.  Because the fate of the sons of humankind and the fate of beasts are one fate, since this one dies and that one dies.  The spirit of the human has no advantage over the beast, since everything is hevel.  They all go to one place, they all come from the dust and they all return to the dust.  (Ecclesiasters 3:17-20)

Humans die like beasts.  But does God grant virtuous humans any of the biblical rewards during their lifetimes—

—by  giving them longer lives?

I have seen everything in my days of hevelThere is a virtuous one perishing in his virtue, and there is a wicked one living long in his evil.  (Ecclesiastes 7:15)

—by giving them descendants to inherit what they built?

And I hated everything I earned from my toil that I was toiling under the sun, that I would leave it to the human who will come after me.  And who knows whether he will be wise or foolish?  But he will control everything I earned from my toil that I toiled, and that I gained by wisdom under the sun.  This, too, is havel.  (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19)

—or by giving them renown in the memories of those who follow?

There is no remembrance of the wise or of the fool.  For it is already certain that in the days to come everything will be forgotten.  (Ecclesiastes 2:16)

After examining what actually happens on earth, “under the sun”, Kohelet concludes that dispensing justice is simply not something that God does.

Then is there any point in avoiding evil?

Kohelet considers any pleasure in life an unpredictable gift from God.4  But he recommends against either drowning in despair or drowning in sensuality.  The wisest course of action is to enjoy simple physical pleasures, friendship, and love.

Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a good heart, because long ago God was favorable …  At all times let your clothes be clean and let your head be oiled.  (Ecclesiastes 9:7-8)

Friendship is also valuable.

Better are a pair than one alone, for they get good recompense for their toil.  For if they fall, one can raise his friend, but if one falls alone there is no second one to raise him.  Also if a pair lie down together they are warm, but for one alone there is no warmth.  And if one is attacked, the pair can stand against [the attacker].  (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

Succumbing to a woman who is a sexual predator leads to bitterness, not enjoyment.5  But if one happens to have a good spouse, that is another reason to rejoice.

Enjoy life with a woman whom you love all the hevel days of your life that have been given to you under the sun.  (Ecclesiastes 9:9)

*

According to Kohelet, the only good that humans can do is to appreciate the good things in their ephemeral lives.  But later Jewish tradition adds that in situations even when God is not righting wrongs, humans should do what they can to improve the world.  Kohelet notes the violent oppression that humans commit, but does not advocate taking any action to reduce it.6  Nevertheless, Kohelet says:

All that you find your hand has the power to do, do it, because there is no doing or learning or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.  (Ecclesiastes 9:10)

I believe that the best life, however fleeting, is one in which we not only enjoy the physical pleasure, friendship, and love that come our way, but also do everything within our own power to improve life for other humans, and for all living things under the sun.

  1. Daniel 12:1-3 describes the resurrection of at least some of the dead, perhaps in messianic times. (See my post Vayeilekh: The End of Days.)  Another work written in the second century B.C.E., the non-canonical Book of Enoch, describes the separation of virtuous souls from wicked souls in preparation for the resurrection of the virtuous and the torture of sinners.  Only after the first century C.E. did the writers of the Christian New Testament and the rabbis of the Talmud imagine an afterlife in which good souls are rewarded in a heaven and bad souls suffer in a hell.
  2. Exodus 34:6.
  3. Leviticus 23:40. The Torah reading for the first day of Sukkot is Leviticus/Vayikra 22:26-23:44.
  4. Ecclesiastes 3:12-14.
  5. Ecclesiastes 7:26.
  6. Ecclesiastes 4:1-3.

Psalm 130 & Yom Kippur: Waiting for Forgiveness

September 11, 2021 at 11:12 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

When we are guilty of harming another person, we can often acknowledge what we did, apologize to the person we wronged, offer to make amends, and promise not to do it again.  Then our human victim may forgive us.

But what if we have wronged God, or the divine spirit within us?  Is forgiveness even possible?

One answer is found in Psalm 130, traditionally read between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which begins this year at sunset on Wednesday.

Levites singing on the temple steps, by James J.J. Tissot

(A song of ascending steps.)

From the depths I called to you, God:

            “My lord, hear my voice!

May your ears be attentive to the voice of my plea.”

If you kept a watch over avonot, my lord Yah,

            Who could stand?

However, forgiveness is yours

            So that tivarei.

I hoped for God,

            My soul hoped,

                        And I waited for God’s word.

My soul [watches] for my lord

            More than watchmen for the morning,

                        Watching for the morning.  (Psalm 130:1-6)

avonot (עֲוֺנֺת) = wrongdoing, immoral activity, intentional sins.  (Singular avon, עָוֹן.)

tivarei (תִּוָּרֵא) = you will be feared, you will inspire awe.  (From the root yarei, יָרֵא  = was afraid of, was in awe of, was reverent of.)

The speaker (whom I will call “they”) cries out to God from the depths of mental suffering due to guilt.  How can they forgive themselves for deliberately doing something morally wrong?  Their only hope is that God will forgive them.  But at first they cannot quite believe God would grant forgiveness out of compassion.  So the speaker hypothesizes two other motivations:

1) If God held every human being accountable for every avon, nobody would be left standing, left alive.  Perhaps the speaker recalls that God swore not to destroy the world again after the Flood, even though “the inventions of the human mind are evil from youth”.4  Therefore God must look the other way sometimes.

2) Forgiveness is one of the ways God inspires awe.  Being forgiven by God seems incredible to the speaker, so amazing they would be dumbstruck and trembling.  And this is just what God wants; throughout the bible God asks to be regarded with fear and awe.  Instead of rewarding awe with forgiveness, maybe God forgives in order to earn the awe.

The last two verses of Psalm 130 switch from a guilty individual to the Israelites as a whole.  Being human, they have all transgressed in one way or another.  But when the speaker steps back from their own need for forgiveness and embraces a larger perspective, they realize that God forgives out of kindness.

Israel will wait for God

            Because with God is steadfast kindness

                        And abundant redemption.

And [God] will ransom Israel

            From all its avonot.    (Psalm 130:7-8)

Despite all the times the Israelites disobeyed God by worshiping idols, ignoring the poor, and committing injustice, God does redeem the Israelites from their captivity in Babylonia in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.  The speaker in Psalm 130 hopes that this means it is God’s nature to forgive.  They wait and watch for the morning of a new day, a new life, that God will grant them.

*

If we have not already made atonement with human beings whom we wronged or who wronged us during the past year, Jews try to do it before Yom Kippur starts.  We do not always succeed.  I have found myself apologizing to people who don’t take me seriously, and to people who don’t remember the incident that I feel guilty about.  Often the only people who ask me for forgiveness are the ones who have always been kind and respectful, while those who actually hurt me never apologize.  But I do the best I can to make amends, clearing the way to seeking atonement with God on Yom Kippur.

How do we wrong God?

drawing by Dugald Stewart Walker (1883-1937)

In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, the high priest atones for the whole community in the Torah portion Acharei Mot (which is chanted at Yom Kippur services) through a ritual involving two goats.  (See my post Acharey Mot: Azazel.)

And Aaron shall both his hands on the head of the live goat and confess upon it all the avonot of the Israelites and all their insubordinations, for all their chatot, and put them on the head of the goat.  And it shall be sent by the hand of a designated man into the wilderness.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:21)

chatot (חטֺּאת) = wrongdoing, misdeeds, lapses, unintentional offenses.  (Singular chatat, חַטָּאת or cheit, חֵטְא.  The root of the noun is the verb chata (חָטָא) = missed the mark, offended, was at fault, was guilty.)

In Leviticus, rules for purity and rituals, as well as ethical principles, are labeled as avonot and chatot.  These words for intentional and unintentional offenses are applied to everything from touching an animal that died of natural causes to hating one’s neighbor.1

But in the liturgy for Yom Kippur, we wrong God only when we succumb to evil thoughts and unethical behavior.

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

On Yom Kippur, Jews chant two confessional prayers again and again: the Ashamnu and the Al Cheit, both extant in the 9th century C.E.2   The Ashamnu (אָשַׁמְנוּ = We have become guilty), is a list of 23 immoral actions that begins with betrayal, robbery, and slander, and ends with leading others astray.  After confessing that we, as a group, have been wicked in all these ways, the prayer asks God to “make atonement for us for all our chatot, forgive us for all our avonot, and pardon us for all our insubordinations”.

The Al Cheit (עַל חֵטא = For the wrong) is a list of both immoral actions and bad attitudes (such as arrogance and recklessness) that lead to wrongdoing.  Each line begins with:

Al cheit shechatanu lefanekha (עַל חֵטא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ) = For the wrong that we have done wrong in your presence.

“Your presence” means the presence of God.  Some people think of God as the ruler of the universe; for others, God is the “still, small voice” inside.3  Either way, God notices the bad deeds and wicked thoughts we are guilty of, even when no humans do.  And our souls or psyches are affected.

After each group of six or more bad deeds or attitudes in the Al Cheit, we sing this refrain:

Ve-a’ kulam, Eloha selichot, selach lanu, machal lanu, kaper lanu! (וְעַל כֻּלָּם אֱלוֹהַּ סְלִיחוֹת סְלַח לָנוּ מְחַל לָנוּ כַּפֶּר לָנוּ) = And for all of them, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, reconcile with us!

We confess that we are guilty as a group, and we wait, like Israel in Psalm 130, for God’s forgiveness.

Yet it is impossible not to think of our individual moral failings when we spend all day praying for forgiveness.

*

How do we wrong God?

If humans are made in God’s image,5  then we wrong God both when we wrong other humans, and when we damage our own souls.  I believe we degrade our souls when we treat other people as objects, when we selfishly or carelessly hurt or neglect or endanger any of our fellow human beings.

If we are lucky, we realize what we did wrong—maybe the same year, maybe many years later.  Then we feel guilty.  We can make any amends that are possible, and we can sincerely change our ways.  Then we only need to wait until we hear the still, small voice of God releasing us from guilt.

May we all find our way to forgiveness.

  1. See Leviticus 4:2-3, 4:13, 5:1-6, 7:18, and 24:15 on transgressing ritual laws, and Leviticus 18:6-25, 19:17, and 19:20-22 on transgressing ethical laws.
  2. In the Siddur Rav Amram, compiled by Amram ben Sheshna, the Gaon of Sura.
  3. 1 Kings 19:12. When God crosses in front of the cave where the prophet Elijah is hiding, there is a windstorm, an earthquake, and a fire, but God is not in any of these things.  After the fire Elijah hears “a thin, murmuring sound” or “a soft murmuring voice”, and knows God is there.
  4. Genesis 8:21.
  5. According to Genesis 1:27 and 5:1.

Psalm 27: Not Forsaken

August 12, 2021 at 6:49 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim | 1 Comment

Shofar in “Minhagim”, Amsterdam 1707

The Hebrew month of Elul began Sunday evening.  This is the month for Jews to listen to the wake-up call of the shofar (ram’s horn), add Psalm 27 to our prayers, and identify where we went wrong during the past year.  We begin apologizing to the people we wronged, and repenting of our deeds that wronged God.

By the end of Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”) next month,1 we hope to have made amends with both human beings and the divine spirit within us.

Psalm 27:1-9, promise and plea

The custom of reading Psalm 27 every day during the month of Elul began in the mid-18th century.2  How does that psalm help us in our work of self-review and repentance?

One answer is that we are begging God for forgiveness, and Psalm 27 includes both a promise and a plea about God’s response in times of trouble.  It begins with the promise, a statement of faith that God will continue to help the poet:

God is my light and my salvation; whom would I fear?

          God is the stronghold of my life; whom should I dread?  (Psalm 27:1)

Later in the psalm, the speaker is less certain of God’s benign attention, and begs:

Listen to my voice, God, when I call!

           And by gracious to me, and answer me!  (Psalm 27:7)

Do not conceal your face from me, do not turn away from your servant in anger!

           My helper you have been.

           Don’t you cast me off, and don’t ta-azveini, God of my salvation!  (Psalm 27:9)

ta-azveini (תַּעַזְבֵנִי) = you leave me, forsake me, abandon me, give up on me, set me free.  (A form of the verb azav, עָזַב.)

Psalm 27:10, abandonment

Another answer is that Psalm 27 contains this couplet guaranteeing that God will accept anyone who sincerely repents:3

Although my father and my mother azavuni,

            God ya-asefeini.  (Psalm 27:10)

azavuni (עֲזָבוּנִי) = they have left me, forsaken me, deserted me, neglected me, set me free.  (Another form of the verb azav.)

ya-asefeini (יַאַסְפֵנִי) = will gather me in, will take me in.  (A form of the verb asaf, אָסַף.)

In other words, even if my parents kick me out, God will take me in.

The standard interpretation of this couplet is that all parents are attached to their children at first, but let them go at some point.  God, on the other hand, is always ready to bring us in and take care of us, no matter how old we are.

For 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno, parents set their children free when they reach adulthood, and after that only God helps them.  For some later commentators, parents love their children indefinitely, unless the children commit unforgivable acts; but even then, God is willing to forgive them.4  19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch rephrases Psalm 27:10 this way:  “For even if I were so depraved that my own father and mother would abandon me and leave me to my own devices, God would still take me up and believe in my ability to mend my ways.”5

This interpretation of Psalm 27:10 follows the usual psychology of an abused or neglected child.  Parents have absolute power over their children, so it would be devastating to believe that these god-like creatures were unjust, inflicting punishment for no reason.  Therefore most abused or neglected children assume that they are the “bad” ones, that they deserve what they get, and that if only they can manage to do the right things, their parents will reciprocate with protection and affection.

Of course this strategy does not work, since the parents are defective because of their own psychological problems.  So then it helps to believe that “Although my father and my mother have forsaken me, God will take me in.”  Adult children who still feel as though anything that goes wrong must be their own fault can take comfort in this view of God as the supreme parent.

I can imagine people who grew up with loving, attentive, and empathetic parents either skipping over Psalm 27:10, or interpreting it as “Even when my father and my mother have [died and] left me, God will gather me in [like a good parent].”  Perhaps they picture confessing a mistake to God, and God enfolding them in a forgiving embrace.

What about people whose parents were neither terrible nor excellent, but merely inadequate?  What about those of us with parents who provided us with meals and clothing, some signs of affection, and punishments only for actual disobedience; but who made us feel like failures?  Can we find encouragement in Psalm 27:10?

I know some people brought up by inadequate parents who think of God as an improved parent, an invisible presence who substitutes for what they missed.  I take a different approach.  I gradually learned to recognize my parents’ flaws and stop blaming myself, and I worked hard to be a better parent to my own child.  Now I think of God not as a substitute parent, but as the inner inspiration that sets me free to choose my path.

As for Psalm 27:10, I take it as a goal for ethical behavior.  If one of my fellow human beings is forsaken and deserted by others, I would like to welcome that person and offer my attention and kindness.  I cannot be a substitute for a forgiving God; after all, I am not omnipotent, so I need to avoid outcasts who would put me in danger.  But a harmless outcast might only need someone to talk to.

I regret the times this past year when I have ignored people.  I hope to become someone who listens.

  1. Yom Kippur is the 10th of Tishrei, the month after Elul in the Hebrew calendar.
  2. The recitation of Psalm 27 continues until Hoshanah Rabbah, the 21st of Tishrei. This custom was first recorded by Rabbi Ya’aokov Emden in Siddur Bet Yaakov, 1745.
  3. Rabbi Nosson Scherman, The Complete ArtScroll Machzor: Yom Kippur, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1987, p. xiv.
  4. Including Scherman (ibid); and Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, p. 93.
  5. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Tehillim, translated from German by Gertrude Hirschler, Feldheim Publishers, 2014, p. 237.

Vayikra & Vayechi: Kidneys and Faces

March 18, 2021 at 7:35 pm | Posted in Jeremiah, Psalms/Tehilim, Vayechi, Vayikra | Leave a comment

After a delay while I wrote a dialogue for Passover and addressed some family issues, I am back at work on my book on Genesis this week, considering the moral ramifications of Joseph’s version of pardoning his ten older brothers.

Joseph’s brothers make two attempts to get Joseph to forgive them for their shameful misdeed when he was seventeen and they sold him as a slave bound for Egypt.  The second attempt happens in the last Torah portion of the book of Genesis, Vayechi.

Since their first attempt failed (see my recent post Testifying to Divine Providence )1 they try a ploy that they hope will be more persuasive; they pretend that before their father, Jacob, died, he left the following message for Joseph:

“Please sa, please, the rebellion of your brothers and their guilt because of the evil they rendered to you.  And now sa, please, the rebellion of the servants of the god of your father.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 50:17)

sa (שָׂא) = lift up! pardon! forgive!  (From the root verb nasa, נָשָׂא= lifted, raised, pardoned.)

Are they asking Joseph, who is now Pharaoh’s viceroy, to pardon them, or to forgive them?  In English, pardoning means excusing someone who committed an error or offense from some of the usual practical consequences.  A United States president can pardon someone who was convicted of a crime, commuting that person’s sentence, without having to list any extenuating circumstances.  And the president’s feelings about the offender are irrelevant.

Forgiving, on the other hand, means letting go of one’s resentment against the person who committed an error or offense.

Biblical Hebrew, however, makes no distinction between pardoning and forgiving; it only distinguishes who is doing it.  Soleach (סֺלֵחַ) means “forgiving” or “pardoning”, but it is only used in the Hebrew Bible when God is forgiving or pardoning one or more human beings.

Nosei (נֺשֵׂא) has several meanings, including pardoning, and it is something either God or a human can do.  When God or a human is pardoning someone in the Hebrew Bible, the text says either nosei their head, nosei their face, or just nosei.  The reader has to figure out from context whether it is a reference to forgiving/pardoning, or to one of the other meanings of nosei (such as taking a census for nosei their head, bestowing favor for nosei their face, or lifting and carrying an object for nosei by itself).

After Jacob dies, Joseph’s older brothers worry that Joseph might decide to take revenge on them after all.  They are still carrying guilt in their kidneys.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, discusses burning the kidneys of an animal slaughtered on the altar.  Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, human kidneys are the seat of the conscience or moral sense.  (See my post on the subject by clicking here: Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys.)  For example, Psalm 16 recognizes the kidneys as the source of a guilty conscience.

          I bless God, who has advised me;

                        Even  the nights my kidneys chastised me.  (Psalm 16:7)

When your kidneys chastise you for wronging another human being, you long for your victim to lift your face in forgiveness.

  1. Genesis 45:4-8.

Testifying to Divine Providence

February 24, 2021 at 10:30 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Tetzavveh, Vayiggash | 1 Comment

What can you give God, when God has given abundantly to you?

Burning something is the standard method for expressing gratitude to God in the Torah.  God loves the smell of smoke, whether it comes from animal fat burning on the courtyard altar, or incense burning on the golden altar just inside the Tent of Meeting.  In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh, God tells Moses the ritual for consecrating both the courtyard altar and the new priests, a ritual that includes a lot of fat burning.1  After burning the fat parts of a bull and all of one ram, the priests to be ordained must hold up the fat parts of the “ram of ordination”, along with its right thigh and three kinds of grain products.

Then you shall take them from their hands and you shall turn them into smoke on the altar, on top of the rising offering, for a soothing fragrance before God; it is a fire-offering for God.  (Exodus 29:25)

The end of the Torah portion describes the construction of the incense altar and decrees that the high priest must burn incense on it twice a day.2  Apparently God needs a lot of soothing.

Only a few psalms and the writings of a few prophets indicate that one can also worship God through words.  See my post: Tetzavveh & Psalms 141, 51, and 40: Smoke and Prayer.

Serving God through words also has a precedent in the Joseph story in the book of Genesis.  In the chapter in my book on the portion Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and explains that they are not to blame for throwing him into a pit and selling him as a slave all those years ago, because it was all part of God’s plan to bring the whole family down to Egypt during the seven-year famine.3

He intends to reassure his older brothers, but they are not thrilled to hear that they have no free will.  Joseph kisses them and sobs on their necks, but they merely become able to speak to him.4

The author of Psalm 40, like Joseph, expresses his religious attitude by giving verbal testimony about divine providence.5  Unlike Joseph, he later becomes insecure and reminds God:

I did not conceal your righteousness in the middle of my heart;

          I spoke of your reliability and your deliverance.

          I did not conceal from a great assembly your loyal kindness and your fidelity.

You, God, you will not hold back your compassion from me;

          Your loyal kindness and your fidelity will always guard me.  (Psalm 40:11-12)

Faith in divine providence is easy in hindsight, as it was for Joseph.  But when troubles are still threatening you, you need to keep reminding yourself of your belief, like the author of Psalm 40.  And when someone else tells you not to worry about your past crime because it all worked out for the best, you may feel cheated of a chance to make amends, like Joseph’s brothers.

  1. Exodus 29:12-25.
  2. Exodus 30:1-9.
  3. Genesis 45:4-8.
  4. Genesis 45:15.
  5. We can assume the speaker is a man because he is allowed to speak to a “great assembly”, something no woman could do at that place and time.

Tazria & Psalms 38 & 88: Isolation of the Sick

April 3, 2019 at 2:50 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Tazria | 2 Comments

Tazria

Four men with tzara-at plunder an empty tent in 2 Kings 7:8

Instructions for diagnosing the biblical skin disease of tzara-at (צָרַעַת) fill most of this week’s Torah portion, Tazria (“She makes seed”).  The end of the portion finally says what happens to people who have tzara-at.

And the person marked with tzara-at, his clothes shall be torn and his head [of hair] shall be disheveled, and he shall cover his lips, and he shall call out: “Tamei!”  All the days that the mark is on him he shall be continually tamei.  Alone he shall dwell; outside the camp is his dwelling-place.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:45-46)

tamei (טָמֵא) = contaminated, ritually impure, unfit for worshiping God.

Jewish mourners still tear clothing

Torn clothes, wild hair, and covered lips are all signs of mourning in the Hebrew Bible.1  People afflicted with tzara-at are not dead.  But like those who mourn a family member’s death, they mourn their separation from those they love. They can no longer live together, or even come within touching distance.  Calling out “Tamei” keeps people away, since the condition of being tamei (though not the skin disease itself) is contagious.  Being tamei also prevents people with tzara-at from approaching God in the sanctuary courtyard.

Once a priest diagnoses tzara-at, the person with the disease is isolated from the camp, the community, and the service of God.  The isolation may not be permanent; next week’s Torah portion, Metzora, includes the rituals for removing the tamei status of those who have recovered from tza-arat and reintegrating them back into the community.  Later in the bible are examples of two people healed by divine intervention,2 four men who do not expect they will ever recover,3 and a king who has tzara-at until he dies.4

The Psalms never mention tzara-at, but two psalms consider the anguish of someone with a serious disease—not because of pain, but because of isolation.

Psalm 38

The bible generally assumes that disease is a punishment God inflicts when one has done the wrong thing.  The speaker in Psalm 38 declares:

          There is no sound spot in my flesh thanks to your curse,

                        There is no peace in my bones thanks to my error.

            For my crimes pass through my head

                        Like a heavy burden, too heavy for me.         

            My wounds are making a stench

                        Through my own folly.  (Psalm 38:4-6)

After complaining about a twisted body, burning guts, numbness, a violent heartbeat, and weakness, the speaker brings up another problem:

           My loving ones and my friends stand apart from my affliction;

                       Those who are close to me stand meirachok.  (Psalm 38:12)

Job, his Wife and his Friends. by William Blake, ca. 1785

meirachok (מֵרָחֺק) = at a distance, from away, staying far away.  (A form of the verb rachak, רָחַק = was distant, drifted away from, kept far away.)

In the book of Job, the afflicted person’s “comforters” cluster around to tell him his sickness is his own fault, since God only sends disease to those who have sinned.  In Psalm 38, the speaker believes the sickness is a well-deserved punishment, but the speaker’s friends stay away.

Meanwhile, the speaker’s enemies plot to take advantage of his illness, and the speaker is unable to hear or rebuke them.  The only one left to listen to an appeal is God.

           Because for you, God, I have hoped.

                        You will answer me, my master, my God.

            Because I thought: “Lest they rejoice over me

                        When my foot staggers, magnify themselves over me!”

            For I am certainly stumbling,

                        And my anguish is in front of me always.  (Psalm 38:16-17)

The psalm ends:

           Do not give up on me, God!

                        My God, do not tirechak from me!

            Hasten to my aid,

                        My master, my rescuer.  (Psalm 38:22-23)

tirechak (תִּרְחַק) = you stay distant, you keep away.  (Another form of the verb rachak.)

The speaker is isolated from friends and family, who therefore cannot provide comfort; isolated from enemies, who scheme outside the speaker’s hearing range; and isolated from God, who does not seem to be present.

Psalm 88

Psalm 88 opens with a sick person’s plea to God.    

            May my prayer come before you,

                        Stretch out your ears to my cry!

            Because my living body is sated with bad things;

                        And my life has reached the brink of death.

            I am counted among those who go into the pit.

                        I have become a strongman without strength.  (Psalm 88:3-5)

This speaker blames God—who made him sick—for isolation from friends.

           Hirechakta from me those who know me;

                       You make me abhorrent to them;

                        Imprisoned, I cannot go out.  (Psalm 88:9)

hirechakta (הִרְחַקְתָּ) = you removed to a distance, you kept (something) far away.  (Another form of the verb rachak.)

Then the sick person offers God a motivation for healing, pointing out that only the living can praise God.

           Do you do wonders for the dead?

                        Do ghosts rise and praise you?  (Psalm 88:10)

Yet the speaker remains isolated from God as well.

           Why, God, do you reject me,

                        Do you hide your face from me?  (Psalm 88:15)

The psalm ends with the pain of isolation.

          Hirechakta my loving ones and my friends from me,

                        Those who know me—[into] darkness.  (Psalm 88:19)

The worst thing about death is that it cuts off any possibility of communication, with humans or with God.5

*

Some people today have visible diseases, irregularities, or deformities, like the people with tzara-at in the bible.  Although we no longer have a law isolating them, it is human nature to stare—or to carefully avoid looking at them.  Meeting their eyes, smiling, and starting a normal conversation is harder, especially when the defect is on the face.  Doing so anyway is the only ethical approach; yet because humans are weak and easily spooked, these people still suffer isolation.

Others today have invisible diseases; I am one.  Reading Psalms 38 and 88 brings tears to my eyes.  I can pass for healthy, and engage in society and communal worship like a healthy person (except that I cannot make a living because I’d need too many sick days, and I have to pace my activities to prevent exhaustion).  I am grateful that I am not isolated from human company, and I have dear family and friends.

But with my whole heart I can speak or chant those words begging God: “Do not give up on me!  Hasten to my aid!  Why do you hide your face from me?”

I do not believe God afflicts us with physical problems as a punishment for disobedience or wrongdoing.  Sometimes, in our misery, we expand our own set of physical problems with unwise behaviors.  On the other hand, we may benefit from new scientific knowledge that repairs some of the things that go wrong in our bodies.

Nevertheless, I know that often bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people.  There is no divine justice for individuals.                        

Then why do we beg God to heal us?  Why do we fix our hope on God?                                

Who else is there?      

  1. Mourners customarily tear their clothes in Leviticus 10:6-7 and 21:10-11, leave their hair loose and disheveled in in Leviticus 10:6-7 and 21:10-11 and Ezekiel 24:17, and cover their lips in Ezekiel 24:17.
  2. The bible only records healing from tzara-at when there is divine intervention. In Numbers 12:10-15 God afflicts Miriam with tzara-at and then heals her.  In 2 Kings 5:1-11, the prophet and miracle-worker Elisha heals General Na-aman of tzara-at.
  3. 2 Kings 7:3-16. The four men with tzara-at must stay outside the city walls even when the enemy is approaching to attack the city.
  4. 2 Kings 15:5. King Azaryah lives in an isolated house while his son Yotam does the king’s business in the palace and on the battlefield.
  5. Walter Brueggemann points out in The Message of the Psalms, Augburg Publishing, Minneapolis, 1984, p. 79: “This is the voice of a dying one crying out to the only source of life. ‘The Pit’ [see Psalm 88:5] is not final judgment or a fiery place of punishment. It is only beyond the range of communion. For this speaker, communion with God is clearly everything.” I would amend this statement to say communion, with both human beings and God, is everything.

(P.S. I am transferring my domain name today.  Future posts will be e-mailed to everyone following my blog, as before.  Thank you, subscribers!)

Shemini, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, & Psalm 131: Silenced

March 27, 2019 at 2:03 pm | Posted in Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Psalms/Tehilim, Shemini | Leave a comment

Something shocking happens after the first priests, Aaron and his four sons, consecrate the new altar in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (“Eighth”).1

The Two Priests Are Destroyed, by James Tissot

Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron, each took his fire-pan and he put embers on it and he placed incense on it.  And they brought alien fire in front of God, which [God] had not commanded them [to do].  And fire went out from before God, and it devoured them, and they died in front of God.  Then Moses said to Aaron: “It is what God spoke, saying:  Through those close to me, I will be proven holy; and in the presence of all the people I will be glorified.” And Aaron, vayidom. (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:1-3)

vayidom (וַיִּדֺּם) = he was silent, he became quiet; he was motionless.  (A form of the verb damam, דָּמַם = was silent, quiet, still, motionless.2)

Why do Aaron’s two older sons bring unauthorized incense into the new tent-sanctuary?  Why did Moses tell Aaron, who has just watched his sons die, that God said, “Through those close to me, I will be proven holy”?  Why is Aaron is silent and still?

I have offered some speculations in previous blog posts.  (See Shemini: Fire Meets Fire and Shemini: Mourning in Silence.)  This year I wondered why Aaron’s silence continues beyond the initial shock of the catastrophe.  Does guilt tie his tongue?  Is he too exhausted or frightened to make a move, except to obey an order?  Or is it possible that he has a moment of enlightenment?

  • After the first shock, Aaron might be unable to move or make a noise because he is overwhelmed by guilt.  Maybe he set a bad example when he made an alien idol, the golden calf.  Maybe he should have stopped Nadav and Avihu the instant when they filled their fire-pans.  Maybe God is punishing him for doing the wrong thing.
  • After the first shock, he might remain silent at some signal from his brother Moses.  As soon as Moses has arranged for Aaron’s cousins to remove the bodies, he orders Aaron and his two surviving sons to refrain from mourning.3  Aaron obediently remains silent until a question comes up about an animal offering; then he has recovered enough to take initiative again.4
  • After the first shock, Aaron might realize that no one is safe, not even Moses’ family.  He did not survive the episode of the golden calf because he was Moses’ brother, but merely because God had another plan.  God chose all four of his sons to serve as priests, then killed two of them on their first day of service.  This is life, and anything can happen.  In a moment of non-attachment, Aaron waits quietly for whatever happens next.

All three of these attitudes can be expressed with silence, as we see in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Psalm 131.

Jeremiah and Guilt

In the book of Jeremiah, God declares through the prophet that all the people of Jerusalem will die because they are guilty of persistent wrongdoing.  At one point, Jeremiah interrupts:

Fortress on a Hill, by Augustin Hirschvogel, 1546

Why are we sitting here?

Let us gather and enter fortified towns, venidmah there.

For God, our God, hadimanu,

And has made us drink venom,

Because we offended God. (Jeremiah 8:14)

venidmah (וְנִדְּמָה) = and we will be still and wait.  (Another form of the verb damam.)

hadimanu (הֲדִמָּנוּ) = has silenced us.  (Also a form of damam.)

Jeremiah repeatedly declares that the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem will succeed because God is punishing the people for their sins.  They are guilty, so they must be silent.

Ezekiel and Obedience

Moses tells Aaron and his surviving sons that priests may not bare their heads or tear their clothing even if a close family member dies.  All the other Israelites can wail and mourn, but not the holy priests.

Mourning is also silenced in the book of Ezekiel, a prophet from a family of priests (who would be priest himself if the Babylonians had not deported him from Jerusalem).  Ezekiel reports that God told him:

Ezekiel (with head-dress), by Michelangelo

Human, I am here taking away from you by pestilence what is precious in your eyes.  And you may not beat the breast, nor wail, nor shed a tear.  Groan in dom.  You may not do mourning rites for the dead.  You shall tie on your head-dress and put your sandals on your feet, and you may not cover your lips, and you may not eat the bread of other men.  (Ezekiel 24:16-17)

dom (דֺּם) = silence.  (From the verb damam.)

Ezekiel’s wife dies that night, and he obeys God’s orders.  When the Jews in his community in Babylon ask him why he is not mourning, Ezekiel replies that this is how they should act when the temple in Jerusalem falls and the sons and daughters they left behind die by the sword.  Like priests, they must not exhibit mourning even when God lets their beloved city and their children perish.

However, they must also remember their guilt.

… you shall not beat the breast and you shall not wail.  But you shall rot in your crimes, and you shall moan, each man to his brother.  (Ezekiel 24:23)5

Psalm 131 and Acceptance

After Nadav and Avihu die, Aaron is silent and motionless, a powerless man with nothing to do but wait.

Quiet acceptance is the theme of Psalm 131, a short poem translated here in full:

A song of ascents for David.

            God, my heart is not haughty

            And my eyes are not arrogant.

            I have not gone after greatness

            Or wonders too difficult for me.

            I have found equilibrium vedomamti my soul.

            Like a weaned child on its mother,

            Like a weaned child is my soul.

            Wait, Israel, for God

            From now until forever.  (Psalm 131:1-3)

vedomamti (וְדוֹמַמְתִּי) = and I have made quiet.  (Also a form of the verb damam.)

The speaker is humble, not striving to achieve.  He or she is weaned from attachment and dependence, and has found equilibrium6 and an inner state of peace and quiet.  Such a person can wait patiently for God to manifest.

*

Does Aaron become a quiet and humble man after God devours his two older sons?  Does he reach a state of peaceful non-attachment?  Perhaps; when God says Aaron must die without entering the “promised land”, Aaron, unlike Moses, does not make a fuss.7

What would it take for your soul to become quiet and peaceful after a disaster?

  1. See my post Shemini: Prayer and Glory.
  2. Some translators distinguish between damam I, which refers to silence and stillness, damam II, which refers to quiet sobbing or murmuring, and damam III, which refers to being destroyed or perishing. I believe this distinction is unnecessary.  A word indicating silence and stillness can also indicate a noise that is barely audible, like the “still, small voice” (demamah, דְּמָנָה) of God in 1 Kings 19:12.  And every time a word with the root damam has been translated as being devastated or perishing, it appears in a poetic passage that easily accommodates a translation in terms of silencing or stopping all motion. (See Psalm 31:18 and Jeremiah 25:37, 48:2, 49:26 and 50:30, and 51:6.)
  3. Leviticus 10:5-6.
  4. Leviticus 10:16-20.
  5. The translation of וּנְמַקֺּתֶם בַּעֲוֹנֺתֵיכֶם as “and you shall rot in your crimes” comes from Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Vol. 2: Prophets, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2019.
  6. Shiviti (שִׁוִּתִי) = I have leveled, I have made even, I have equated. Therefore my translation here is “I found equilibrium”.
  7. Both men are doomed to die outside the “promised land” of Canaan in Numbers 20:12, although Moses is the one who shouts the words God finds offensive. Aaron quietly dies on Mt. Hor in Numbers 20:23-28.  Moses complains about God’s decree in Deuteronomy 3:23-6.

Vayikra & Tzav vs. Isaiah & Psalm 40: Smoke vs. Words & Deeds

March 14, 2019 at 4:41 pm | Posted in Isaiah 1, Psalms/Tehilim, Tzav, Vayikra | Leave a comment

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra gets right down to business.  The first Torah portion opens with God calling to Moses, then telling him more instructions for the Israelites—this time about conducting the rituals at the altar.

from Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

Speak to the Israelites, and you shall say to them:  Any human among you who offers an offering to God, from the livestock—from the herd or from the flock—you shall offer your offering.  If it is an olah he will offer from his herd…  (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:2)

olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering; an offering that is completely burned into smoke.  (Plural: olot (עֺלוֹת).)

A person who offers an offering of minchah to God, fine flour will be his offering …  (Leviticus 2:1)

minchah (מִנחָה) = gift of allegiance or homage; a grain-offering.

And if he offers a zevach as a thankgiving-offering …  (Leviticus 3:1)

zevach (זֶבַח) = animal slaughter as an offering on the altar.  (Plural: zivechim (זִבְחִעם).)

The text continues through this week’s Torah portion (Vayikra) and next week’s (Tzav) with instructions for a total of six kinds of offerings.  (See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.)  The last four all involve slaughtering animals, burning parts of them so God can enjoy the smell of the smoke, and eating the remaining edible parts after they have been roasted on the altar.

The primary method of serving God throughout the Hebrew Bible is turning animals into smoke, “… a fire-offering of a soothing smell for God” (Leviticus 3:5).  In the first twelve books of the bible (Genesis through 2 Kings) this method goes unquestioned.

Where does this idea come from?  The Torah does not say, but I believe the ancient Israelites assumed God wanted animal sacrifices because the other gods in the Ancient Near East were worshiped that way.1

Only when foreign empires began swallowing up the kingdoms of Israel did prophets and psalmists begin to question this approach.  The first prophet in the book of Isaiah reports:

“Why your many zivechim for me?” God says.

“I am sated with olot of rams.

And suet from fattened animals

And blood of bulls and lambs and he-goats

I do not want!”  (Isaiah 1:11)

“… And when you spread your palms

I am averting my eyes from you.

Even though you multiply [your] prayers

I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

Wash, become pure;

Remove your evil acts from in front of my eyes;

Cease doing evil!

Learn to do good!

Seek justice,

Make the oppressed happy,

Defend the orphan,

Argue the widow’s case!”  (Isaiah 1:15-17)

Here God does not totally reject animal sacrifices, but God does consider good deeds and justice a higher form of service.

Psalm 40 declares:

[God] gave my mouth a new song,

A song of praise for our God.

May the many see, and may they be awed

And may they trust in God.    (Psalm 40:4)

Zevach and minchah you do not want.

You dug open a pair of ears for me!

Olah and guilt-offering you do not request.  (Psalm 40:7)

That is when I said:

Hey, I will bring a scroll of the book written for me.

I want to do what you want, my God,

And your teaching is inside my guts.

I delivered the news of right behavior to a large assembly.

Hey! I will not eat my lips.  (Psalm 40:7-10)

The speaker in Psalm 40 maintains that God does not want smoke, only words of praise. Nothing can make this poet recant; he will not “eat his lips”.  (See my post Tetzavveh: Smoke and Pray.)

*

What does God want?  Most, but not all, of the Hebrew Bible assumes God wants offerings on the altar.  Today we assume God wants words of prayer and blessing, as well as deeds of kindness and justice.

But why should we give God what we think God wants?

Suppose you want to thank a person for saving your life.  You might speak to them, send them a card, send them flowers or a bigger gift.

Suppose you want to manipulate or appease a person who has power over you.  You might speak to them, send them a card, send them flowers or a bigger gift.

The same human impulses apply to thanking or manipulating a semi-anthropomorphic God.  In the bible, the Israelites slaughter their animals in order to give them to God, either in gratitude or in an attempt at appeasement.2

Today, do we pray and do good deeds to express gratitude?  Or to appease God?  Or to manipulate God into giving us what we want?

  1. For example, the odor of Utnapishtim’s burnt sacrifice gives the gods of Mesopotamia pleasure in Gilgamesh tablet 11, part 4. In the book of Numbers, Moabite women invited Israelites to worship Baal Pe-or with them through zivechey their god” (Numbers 25:2).  (Zivechey (זִבְחֵי) = slaughter offerings of.)  In the book of Ezekiel, God complains that Israelites are flocking to foreign altars and burning sacrifices to give idols soothing smells (Ezekiel 6:13, 16:19, and 20:28).
  2. Offerings of wholeness or thanksgiving (shelamim, שְׁלָמִים) are described in the portion Vayikra in Leviticus 3:1-16 and in the portion Tzav in Leviticus 7:11-21. Offerings to appease God after violating one of God’s rules (chataat, חַטָּאת, and asham, אָשָׁם) are described in Vayikra in Leviticus 4:1-5:22.

Vayakheil & Psalm 13: Waiting for Contentment

February 27, 2019 at 11:40 am | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Vayakheil | 1 Comment

detail of “Moses on Mt. Sinai” by Jean-Leon Gerome, ca. 1900

The Israelites are overcome with anxiety the first time Moses spends 40 days on Mount Sinai.  In last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa:

The people saw that Moses was long delayed in coming down from the mountain, and they assembled against Aaron, and they said to him: “Get up, make for us a god who will go in front of us, since this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him!”  (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)

Aaron asks them to donate their gold earrings to melt down.  They do, but Aaron does the work of making the golden calf.  Even though he says the new idol represents the God of Israel, not another god, it turns out to be a bad solution to the people’s anxiety.  Between them, Moses and God destroy thousands of Israelites and chasten the survivors.  After a while God forgives them.  (See last week’s post, Ki Tissa: Stiff-Necked People.)

Then Moses tells the Israelites what God does want them to make: a portable tent-sanctuary, where God will speak from the empty space above the ark inside the inner chamber.  In in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”), they gladly pitch in.

Every man and woman whose heart prompted them to bring anything for the work that God had commanded to do through Moses, the Israelites brought as a nedavah for God.  (Exodus 35:29)

nedavah (נְדָבָה) = spontaneous voluntary offering.

Betzaleil and Oholiav, Anton Koberger, Nuremberg Bible, 1483

Then Moses called on Betzaleil and on Ohaliav and on everyone with a skilled mind, to whom God had given a skilled mind; everyone whose heart lifted at approaching the work to do it.  (Exodus 36:2)

Moses appoints the most skilled craftsman, Betzaleil, to make the most holy objects.  But everyone with skill in weaving, sewing, metal-smithing, and woodworking gets to make some part of the new Tent of Meeting and its courtyard enclosure.  And the people with materials keep on donating them, until Moses has to tell them to stop because the artisans have more than enough.1

For the rest of the book of Exodus (five chapters), nobody complains and nobody worries.  The people are content, fulfilled by using their gifts to make something important, secure in their knowledge that God will be with them.

Yet in the book of Numbers, three days after they set out from Mount Sinai, the Israelites start complaining again—this time about the food.2  Even though both the ark and a divine cloud are leading them, even though the Levites are carrying all the pieces of the portable sanctuary, the people are discontented.  Perhaps the problem is that they no longer have anything to do but march to the border of Canaan.

The Israelite ex-slaves in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy are like children, who enjoy doing things on their own but depend on an adult to straighten out anything that goes wrong.  When they are hungry or afraid, they complain and wait for God to relieve their suffering.

The book of Psalms includes pleas by suffering individuals as well as pleas for all the Israelites.  Psalm 44 is the first of a series of psalms complaining that God is neglecting and hiding from the Israelites as a whole, letting them be defeated in battle and subjugated by enemies.  Individuals feel abandoned and ask how long God will make them wait for rescue from diseases or personal enemies in Psalms 6, 10, 13, 22, and 35.  Only Psalm 13 hints at a solution to God’s abandonment.

Psalm 13

by John Constable

How long, God, will you endlessly forget me?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I make schemes inside myself,

My heart in torment all day?

How long will my enemy loom over me?

Look!  Answer me, God, my God!

Light up my eyes, lest I sleep death!

Lest my enemy say he has prevailed over me,

My adversaries rejoice when I am made to stumble.  (Psalm 13:2-5)

The speaker has two problems:

1) God is hiding God’s face; i.e. the speaker is no longer aware of God’s presence, and so feels abandoned.

2) The enemy seems to be winning, despite the schemes the speaker devises.  In this life-and-death struggle, only God’s intervention can turn the tables.  But the speaker has already been waiting an unbearably long time for God to manifest and act.  Where is the responsible adult in charge?3

Unlike the Israelites who wait 40 days for Moses to return, only to give up and demand an idol, the speaker in Psalm 13 finds a better response.

by James Tissot

Yet I will trust in your loyal-kindness.

My heart will rejoice in your rescue.

I will sing to God,

Because [God] gamal me.  (Psalm 13:6)

gamal (גָמַל) = ripened, weaned, rewarded, made mature.

Even if God seems to have abandoned the speaker, the speaker decides not to abandon God.  A more mature approach is to sing to God while waiting for God to act.

*

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil, God makes a request, and the Israelites create beautiful items for God’s sanctuary.  As long as they are doing that work, they are content to wait for God to rejoin them.

In Psalm 13, God neither makes a request nor acts to rescue the speaker.  After waiting a long time, the speaker takes initiative and creates a song for God.  They are still waiting for God to rescue them, but at least they are mature enough to sing, which leads to a hopeful frame of mind.

I think there is a third possibility, not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.  If you are miserable and God does not tell you what to do, then act on your own initiative.  Even when you cannot figure out a scheme for improving your situation, you can make something beautiful for God.  Sing, write, paint.  Smile and speak humbly to a fellow human being.  Whenever you do something beautiful, God is inside you.

  1. Exodus 36:4-7.
  2. Numbers 10:33, 11:1-6.
  3. Breuggemann’s interpretation goes farther: “The speaker does not for a moment entertain the thought that the trouble comes from guilt or failure. It is because of Yahweh’s irresponsible absence, which is regarded as not only unfortunate, but unfaithful to covenant.” (Walter Breuggemann, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Publishing House, 1984, p. 59)

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Ezekiel & Psalm 46: Desist!

January 23, 2019 at 11:21 pm | Posted in Ezekiel, Psalms/Tehilim | 2 Comments

Desist!  And know that I am Elohim.  (Psalm 46:11)

Elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = God; gods in general.

The phrase “know that I am God” appears nine times in the book of Exodus, but it always uses God’s personal name (whose four letters approximate Y-H-V-H) instead of Elohim.  God wants Egyptians and Israelites to know the identity of the god who creates the miracles they witness.  (See my post Beshallach & Shemot: Knowing the Name.)

Ezekiel, by Michelangelo

In the book of Ezekiel, the phrase “know that I am God” appears more than 50 times using God’s personal name.  The book opens in the settlement near Babylon where the prophet Ezekiel was deported during King Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah in the 6th century BCE.   Jerusalem, the only remaining Israelite city, is still under siege.1  Its people are suffering—and it is their own fault, according to Ezekiel.  They enraged God by worshiping idols, so God sent famine, pestilence, and the Babylonian army to destroy them.  The losing side in a war, according to Ezekiel, is the side that made God angry.

Then you shall know that I am Y-H-V-H, whose decrees you did not follow, and whose laws you did not do; you did according to the laws of the nations that surrounded you.  (Ezekiel 11:12)

At least 25 times Ezekiel prophesies that the surviving Israelites will realize their guilt and “know that I am Y-H-V-H”.2

Ezekiel also declares that God will send Babylonians to conquer Ammon, Moab, Philistia, Tyre, Egypt, and Edom because none of these nations tried to help the Israelites.  Then their people, too, “shall know that I am Y-H-V-H”.3

Valley of the Dry Bones, by Gustave Dore, 1866

But eventually God will forgive the deportees from Judah, reestablish the covenant with them, and return them to Jerusalem.  Ezekiel prophesies seven times that when God stops punishing the people and repopulates Jerusalem, the Israelites “shall know that I am Y-H-V-H”.4

In the distant future, the prophet says, the vast armies of Gog from Magog and his allies will invade the hills of Israel, and God will defeat them both by creating natural disasters (earthquake, pestilence, hail) and by making Gog and his allies turn on each other.5

“Thus I shall manifest my greatness and my holiness, and make myself known in the eyes of many nations.  And they shall know that I am Y-H-V-H”.  (Ezekiel 38:3)

In Ezekiel, people recognize Y-H-V-H only after a human army is wiped out.

*

In Psalm 46 people recognize God when God puts an end to war.  The song begins:

View of Fortress on a Hill, detail, by Augustin Hirschvogel, 1546

Elohim is for us a refuge and a stronghold,

            A help in dire straits, very accessible.

Therefore we are not afraid when the earth is transformed,

            When mountains collapse into the heart of the seas,

Its waters roar and foam,

            The mountains quake in its surge.  Selah.  (Psalm 46:2-4)

Some commentators have claimed that the upheavals of earth and sea are a metaphor for the violence of warring nations expected at the end of history, i.e. the war of Gog prophesied by Ezekiel.6  Others take this first section of the song so literally that they date the psalm according to an earthquake that occurred two centuries before the time of Ezekiel.7   A third interpretation is that God is responsible for all natural disasters, from floods to earthquakes, and that God will protect devout Israelites even while God is inflicting these “acts of God” on others.8

The first part of the psalm ends with the ancient Hebrew word Selah, a musical instruction whose meaning is unknown.  The second part presents an image of joy and stability in the “city of Elohim where God dwells on earth, in contrast with the chaos around it.9  This section ends with another Selah.  Then the psalmist says:

Go perceive the marvelous acts of Y-H-V-H;

            Who puts frightful devastations on the earth,

Stopping wars to the edge of the earth,

            breaking a bow and cutting up a spear,

            flaming [war] wagons with fire.

“Desist!  And know that I am Elohim.

            “I am higher than the nations,

            “I am higher than the earth.”  (Psalm 46:9-11)

This last part of Psalm 46 may be a prediction that someday God, who initiates natural disasters, will cause humans to desist from war over the entire earth.  In other words, when all humans know that Elohim is still active in nature, we will stop fighting and have world peace.

Biblical commentators usually follow Ezekiel in assuming that world peace will happen only after the defeat of Gog from Magog and the end of history, when messianic time begins.

But I believe we cannot wait for the legendary armies of Gog.  Groups of humans from families to nations have been fighting each other not only with wars, but also by exercising their own power without pity for any other creatures, human or not.  Now we are beginning to suffer from world-wide natural disasters, otherwise known as global climate change.

Can we stop fighting and making heartless power plays?  Can we change our own human natures, and rescue whoever and whatever can be rescued all over the earth?

I pray that God will inspire even the most intransigent hearts to “Desist!  And know that I am Elohim”, the divinity in all of nature, including ourselves.

  1. The people known collectively as Israelites in the Hebrew Bible had two kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Israel with its capitol in Samaria, and the southern kingdom of Judah with its capitol in Jerusalem, until the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom circa 720 BCE. The Babylonian Empire took over the Assyrian Empire circa 605 BCE, conquered most the kingdom of Judah, and besieged Jerusalem on and off from 605 BCE until it fell in 586 BCE.  Leading Israelites from Jerusalem and Judah were deported from 597 BCE to as late as 581 BCE.
  2. Ezekiel 6:7, 6:10, 6:13, 6:14, 7:4, 7:27, 11:10, 11:12, 12:15, 12:16, 12:20, 13:9, 13:14, 13:21, 13:23, 14:8, 15:7, 20:38, 20:26, 20:44, 22:16, 23:49, 24:4, 24:27, 33:29.
  3. Ezekiel 25:5, 25:7 regarding Ammon; 25:11 regarding Moab; 5:17 regarding Philistines; 26:6 regarding Tyre; 29:6, 29:9, 29:16, 29:21, 30:8, 30:19, 30:25, 30:26, and 32:15 regarding Egypt; 35:4, 35:9, and 35:15 regarding Edom (Mt. Seir); and 36:23 regarding “the nations” in general.
  4. In Ezekiel 16:62, 20:20, 20:42, 34:27, and 36:38, God will accept the repentance of the surviving Jerusalemites who were deported to Babylon, renew the old covenant, and return them to their land. In Ezekiel 37:6 and 37:13, God will (at least metaphorically) bring the dry bones of the slain back to life.
  5. Ezekiel 38:19-22. Ezekiel adds that the Israelites will “know that I am Y-H-V-H” in 39:22 and 39:28.
  6. g. Radak (12th-13th century Rabbi David Kimchi): “At the time when the mountains quake and collapse and the waters of the sea are stirred up, that is to say—when there will be great distress and war between the kingdoms of the nations, Israel will not be afraid but instead will rejoice.  This is what is said in a metaphorical fashion…”  (Sefaria translation, www.sefaria.org/Radak_on_Psalms.46. )
  7. The earthquake mentioned in Amos 1:1 occurred circa 750 BCE. See Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, p. 162; and Arie Folger, “Understanding Psalm 46”, Jewish Bible Quarterly, http://jbq.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/411/jbq411psalm46folger.pdf.  Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) cites Numbers 16:31-32, where the earth swallows people, but the descriptions there sounds more like a sudden sinkhole than an earthquake.
  8. Folger, ibid.
  9. Psalm 46:5-7.

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