Masey: Stages of a Journey

July 31, 2019 at 9:03 pm | Posted in Exodus/Shemot, Masey | 1 Comment

Caravan, by James Tissot ca. 1900

The last Torah portion in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar begins:

These are the masey the Israelites when they departed from the land of Egypt in their troops by the power of Moses and Aaron.  Moses wrote down their departures for maseyhem at the word of God.  And these were the maseyhem for their departures:  (Numbers/Bemidbar 33:1-2)

masey (מַסְעֵי) = stages of the journey of.  (A form of the noun massa (מַסַּע) = breaking camp, travelling on, journeying, stage of a journey.  Derived from the root verb nasa (נָסַע) = pulled out, started out, uprooted.)

maseyhem (מַסְעֵיהֶם) = their stages of travel, their journeys.  (Another form of the noun massa.)

The Torah then lists 42 locations, from Ramses, the city where the Israelites assembled to leave Egypt, to the bank of the Jordan River, where the book of Numbers ends.  In the list are a few geographical notes to help locate the campsites, and three references to events that occurred on the way.

Which three events?

  1. At Rameses

Vayisu from Ramses on the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month.  On the day after Passover the Israelites departed with a high hand, before the eyes of all the Egyptians.  The Egyptians were burying those that God had struck down, every firstborn; and against their gods God had done justice.  (Numbers 33:3-4)

vayisu (וַיִּסְעוּ) = and they pulled out.  (A form of the verb nasa.)

The extra information about the first location, the Egyptian city of Ramses, is that the Israelites left the morning after the night of the tenth and final plague God inflicted on the Egyptians, the death of their firstborn;1 that the Egyptians no longer tried to stop them; and that their God was stronger than the Gods of the Egyptians.  Therefore the Israelites left proudly and openly, confident that God was on their side.

  1. At Refidim

Vayisu from Alush and they camped at Refidim, and there was no water for the people to drink.  (Numbers 33:14)

This sentence refers to a story in the book of Exodus/Shemot that begins:

Moses Strikes the Rock,
by James Tissot

Vayisu, the whole community of Israelites, from the wilderness of Sin for maseyhem at the word of God.  And they camped at Refidim and there was no water for the people to drink.  And they argued with Moses, and they said: “Give us water so we can drink!”  And Moses said to them: “Why do you argue with me?  Why do you test God?”  (Exodus 17:1-2)

At the end of the story, the Torah reports that the Israelites said:

“Is God among us or not?”  (Exodus 17:7)

Eleven times during their travels from Egypt to the Jordan River the Israelites complain about the conditions and reveal their lack of trust in God, Moses, or both.2  But this week’s Torah portion picks out only the time at Refidim, when  God tells Moses to address the problem by striking a rock with his staff, and water comes out.

Why pick this complaint over any of the other ten times3 the Israelites test the leadership of either God or Moses?  Why not include the time when Moses strikes the rock but fails to give God credit for the water?4  Or the confrontation at the Reed Sea?5  Or the complaint about food that led to God sending daily manna?6  Or the demand for the golden calf?7  Or the refusal to cross into Canaan at its southern border, which led to another 38 years in the wilderness?8

  1. At Hor

Vayisu from Kadeish and they camped at Hor the Mountain, at the edge of the land of Edom.  And Aaron the priest went up to Hor the Mountain at the word of God, and he died there in the 40th year of the exodus of the Israelites from the land of Egypt, on the fifth month, on the first of the month.  And Aaron was 123 years old when he died at Hor the Mountain.  And the Canaanite, the king of Arad who lived in the Negev in the land of Canaan, heard of the coming of the Israelites.  (Numbers 33:37-40)

Both of Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron, die on the journey.  Both are leaders of the people, but only Aaron’s death is mentioned in the list.  It might be sexism, or it might be because his death establishes the succession of high priests.  Aaron’s oldest surviving son, Elazar, climbs the mountain with his father and Moses, and Aaron dies after Moses has removed his vestments and dressed Elazar in them.9

But why does the Torah portion Masey also mention the king of Arad?  In a brief story earlier in Numbers, this king hears of the approaching Israelites, attacks them, and takes some captives.

Then the Israelites vowed a vow to God and said: “If you actually give this people into our hands, then we will dedicate their towns to destruction.”  And God listened to the voice of the Israelites and gave [them] the Canaanites …  (Numbers 21:2-3)

They were testing God again, but not complaining.  In the Torah, dedicating something captured in battle to destruction means dedicating the whole battle to God instead of keeping some booty for personal benefit.  Perhaps the Torah mentions the king of Arad here to show that the Israelites are not always rebellious; once in a while they dedicate everything to God.

Not at Mount Sinai

Why does the Torah pick these three events, and no others—not even what happened at Mount Sinai?  The Torah portion merely says:

Vayisu from Refidim and they camped in the wilderness of Sinai.  Vayisu from the wilderness of Sinai and they camped at Kivrot Hata-avah.  (Numbers 33:15-16)

Yet at Mount Sinai the Israelites experience the presence of God in a revelation full of smoke, fire, thunder, and earthquake.10  God gives them the Ten Commandments, first in a voice only Moses can bear to hear, then engraved on  pair of stone tablets, twice.11  At Mount Sinai the Israelites believe Moses will never return from the mountaintop, and worship Golden Calf.12  At Mount Sinai the Israelites make covenants with God, verbal and sacrificial, and their elders see God’s feet.13  At Mount Sinai they craft a portable tent-sanctuary so God will dwell among them.14

During their year in the wilderness at Mount Sinai, the attitude of the Israelites toward God swings between terror and total devotion, with a side-trip into ecstatic idol-worship.

The three events mentioned in this week’s list, however, focus on the attitude of the Israelites toward God when they are on their journey, not pausing in ecstasy.  At Ramses the Israelites who leave with Moses are confident that God can and will protect them.  At Refidim they doubt that God is with them.  At Hor they accept their high priest’s successor (a sign that they will also accept Moses’ successor), and they rededicate themselves to God.

No Itinerary

Vayisu from the hills of the Avarim and they camped in the deserts of Moab, by the Jordan at Jericho.  (Numbers 33:48)

The list ends where the Israelites are waiting to cross the river into Canaan, their “promised land”.

An itinerary is a planned route for a journey, listing locations and transportation between them in the order one has determined.   But Moses’ list in Masey covers only the locations the Israelites have already camped at.  It follows their route in the past, not the future.  The added comments on three events mark their attitudes toward God in the past, but do not predict their attitudes toward God in the future.

When the Israelites travel, they cannot even predict where their next campsite will be.  For each stage of their journey, they follow the God’s pillar of cloud and fire to their next stopping place.15

*

I am preparing now to go on a journey through Europe to Israel, crossing two seas to get to the same land the Israelites in the Torah reached by crossing the Jordan River.  My husband and I have been longing to take this trip since the turn of the century, and now we can finally do it.

We have made an itinerary.  We are paying for our reservations for the first three months, and making tentative plans in case we can extend our trip to nine months.  But even when you have pre-paid for airfare and lodging, things happen along the way; you do not really know where you will find yourself.  The definitive list is the one you make at the end of your travels.

***

What will happen to this blog while we are moving our things into storage, then moving ourselves from country to country?

This is the last new blog post I will have time to write for months.  Knowing that makes me wistful.  But every week I plan to look at the posts I have written on that week’s Torah portion over the last eight years, and choose one of my favorites.

Then I will e-mail the link to you, my readers.  From time to time I will add my photos of old synagogues and other relevant sites in Europe and Israel.  I will keep you posted on the masey of Melissa and Will Carpenter!

  1. Exodus 12:1-32. Exodus 12:37 begins: Vayisu, the Israelites, from Ramses …
  2. I am not counting the times in the book of Numbers when only a small subset of Israelites complained: Miriam and Aaron in Numbers 12:1-2, 250 Levites in 16:1-11, two Reuvenites in 16:12-5, and Moses and Aaron in Numbers 20:10-12.
  3. The other ten times are Exodus 14:10, Exodus 15:23-24, Exodus 16:2-3, Exodus 32:1-10, Numbers 11:1-2, Numbers 11:4-20, Numbers 14:1-4, Numbers 17:6-15, Numbers 20:2-5, and Numbers 21:4-7.
  4. Numbers 20:2-13.
  5. Exodus 14:10-12.
  6. Exodus 16:1-4.
  7. Exodus 32:1-10.
  8. Numbers 14:1-4.
  9. Numbers 20:22-29.
  10. Exodus 19:16-20, 20:15-18.
  11. Exodus 20:1-18, 31:18, 32:15-19, 34:1-4, and 34:27-28.
  12. See my post Ki Tissa: Making an Idol Out of Fear.
  13. Exodus 19:1-9, 24:3-13. See my posts Mishpatim & Ki Tissa: A Covenant in Writing, and Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.
  14. See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.
  15. Exodus 13:20-22 and 40:36-38.

 

Pinchas: New Moon

July 24, 2019 at 12:16 pm | Posted in Kings 2, Pinchas, Samuel 1 | 1 Comment

The moon waxes to a full, bright circle; then it wanes until it disappears.  In the Hebrew calendar the new moon is not the invisible one, but the first thin curved line to appear the blue daytime sky.  It sets just after the sun sets, and the first day of a month begins.

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra prescribes offerings at the altar for annual holidays, for Shabbat every week, and for morning and evening every day.  But the new moon is not singled out for its own monthly celebration until the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.

And on your days of rejoicing, and at your appointed times, and on the beginnings of chadesheykhem, you shall blow trumpets over your rising-offering and over your slaughter-sacrifices of your wholeness offerings.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 10:10)

chadesheykhem (חָדְשֵׁיכֶם) = your months.  (A form of the noun chodesh, חֺדֶשׁ = month, new moon.  From the root verb chadash, חָדַשׁ = renew.)

New moon at the altar

What offerings are prescribed for the new moon?  We find out in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas.

And at the beginnings of chadesheykhem you shall offer a rising-offering for God: two bulls of the herd, and one ram, and seven yearling lambs, unblemished.  (Numbers 28:11)

(I refer to an olah (עֺלָה) as a “rising-offering” because the Hebrew word comes from the verb alah (עָלָה) = rose, ascended, went up.  What rises in an olah is smoke, when the animal is completely burned up for God.)1

Each animal is burned with its own measure of fine flour mixed with oil,

…a rising-offering of soothing scent, a fire-offering for God.  And their libations2 shall be wine, half a hin for a bull, and a third of a hin for the ram, and a quarter of a hin for a lamb.  This is the rising-offering of chodesh in chadesho for the chakeshey the year.  And one hairy goat for a guilt-release offering3 for God …  (Numbers 28:14)

chadesho (חַדְשׁוֹ) = its renewal.  (From the root verb chadash.)

chadeshey (חָדְשֵׁי) = months of, new moons of.  (Another form of chodesh.)

What we learn about the observance of the new moon in the book of Numbers is that there must be a rising-offering on the altar with a specific combination of animals, grain products, and wine; and that a trumpet is blown when the offering takes place.

New moon at the table

When King Saul becomes insanely jealous of his young general David, he orders David killed.  David talks with Jonathan, his best friend and Saul’s son and heir.

And David said to Jonathan: “Hey, chodesh is tomorrow and I should definitely sit with the king to eat.  But let me go, and I will hide in the countryside until the third evening.”  (1 Samuel 10:5)

Jonathan urges his beloved friend to flee, and the two young men work out the logistics.

This passage is famous for Jonathan’s declaration of love and allegiance to David.  But it also shows that at the time of King Saul (around the 11th century BCE) the observance of the new moon included an obligatory feast at the king’s table for his officers.

New moon with a prophet

The woman of Shunem makes a room on the rooftop of her house where the prophet Elisha can stay whenever he visits the town.  When her son dies suddenly, she lays him on Elisha’s bed, then goes out and asks her husband for a servant and a donkey so she can hurry to Elisha.

But he said: “Why are you going to him today?  It is not chodesh and not Shabbat.”  And she said: “Peace!”  And she saddled the donkey …  (2 Kings 4:23-24)

The woman tells no one that the boy has died, and she talks Elisha into coming back at once with her.  The prophet miraculously brings her son back to life.

This story indicates that during the reign of King Yehoram of the northern kingdom of Israel (9th century BCE), travelling prophets conducted ceremonies for their followers on the sabbath every week, and on the new moon every month.

New moon outdoors

After the Roman army destroyed the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, it was never rebuilt as a Jewish temple, and animal offerings gradually ceased for Jews.4  The old method of worship was replaced by prayers and good deeds.

Only a few centuries after the fall of the second temple, Jews were going outside to look at the moon during the week when it grew from a new moon to a half moon, and reciting a blessing.  The Talmud says that blessing the new month at the proper time is like greeting the face of the divine presence (Shekhinah), so one should say the blessing while standing.  The full blessing, according to the Talmud, is:

Blessed are you God, our God, king of the universe, who by his word created the heavens, and by the breath of his mouth all their hosts.  He set for them a law and a time, that they should not deviate from their task.  And they are joyous and glad to perform the will of their owner; they are workers of truth whose work is truth.  And to the moon he said that it should renew itself as a crown of beauty for those he carried from the womb, as they are destined to be renewed like it, and to praise their Creator for the name of his glorious kingdom.  Blessed are you, God, who renews the months.  ((Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 42a)5

This formal prayer (in Aramaic) praises God for the creation of an orderly universe including the moon, the monthly renewal of moonlight, and an undefined renewal of human beings.  The focus is on the heavenly bodies, personified.

New moon in the synagogue

For centuries, Jewish congregations were led outside once a month to look at the moon and recite the blessing above.  This communal blessing happened right after the havadalah ceremony concluded the Shabbat that fell during those seven days.

But as more and more Jews went home after morning Shabbat services instead of staying with their rabbi all day through havdalah, a new custom arose to observe the new moon.

Now the morning Shabbat services before each new moon include an extra section of prayer and blessing in the Torah service.  First the congregation chants the following prayer (in Hebrew):

May it be your will God, our God and God of our forefathers, shetechadeish for us this chodesh for goodness and for blessing.  And may it give to us a long life, a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of right livelihood, a life of bodily health, a life full of awe of heaven and fear of wrongdoing, a life without shame or disgrace, a life of wealth and honor, a life of love of Torah and awe of heaven, a life of fulfillment by God of all desires of our heart for the good.  Amen, selah!

shetechadeish (שֶׁתְּחַדֵּשׁ) = to renew.  (A form of the verb chadash in “Prayerbook Hebrew”.)

The focus here is on blessings for humans.  In a traditional Jewish prayerbook, prayers that ask God for blessings tend to be thorough.

Next the service leader holds the Torah scroll and announces which day the new moon will appear in the coming week, saying a shorter prayer before and after the announcement.6

If the new moon is scheduled to appear at the end of Shabbat, the traditional service adds a reading of the scene between David and Jonathan mentioned above.7

New moon in women’s circles

A more recent practice is for a circle of Jewish women to gather on the evening of the new moon, the first day of each Hebrew month, to conduct their own rituals.  These have not been codified, but rosh chodesh (“beginning of a month”) groups are increasingly popular in America.

*

Celebrating the new moon follows the same trajectory as many other Jewish observances in history.  In the Torah, the new moon is an occasion for a special offering at the altar, presided over by priests.  After temple worship was replaced by communal prayers, rabbis developed different ways of celebrating the new moon, starting with a concrete act (saying a blessing outside while looking at the moon) and changing to a more abstract prayer in the synagogue.  Finally, in the last half-century, liberal Jews have been developing their own innovative celebrations.

But is it still worthwhile to devote time and energy to thanking God for each new moon?

The gravity of the moon still creates the tides in our world.  The changing moon still strikes many human beings as beautiful and awe-inspiring.  Thanking God for the moon helps us to remember that like everything else in nature, it is a gift; we did not make it.

And in Hebrew the new moon, chodesh, also signals renewal, chadash.  Something new is possible for all human beings, every month and every minute, from birth to death.  We are never as stuck as we think.

  1. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1.
  2. See my post Emor: Libations.
  3. Here chataat (חַטָּאת) means an offering to remove guilt for a misdeed.
  4. Samaritans, descendants of the Israelites in the northern kingdom of Samaria, still sacrifice sheep on Mount Gezirim for Passover.
  5. sefaria.org , translation from Aramaic by William Davidson.
  6. After that, the congregation anywhere outside of Israel recites another blessing.
  7. 1 Samuel 20:18-42.

Balak: Being Open

July 17, 2019 at 8:41 pm | Posted in Balak | Leave a comment

At last, after 40 years in the wilderness, a large company of ex-slaves from Egypt camp on the east bank of the Jordan River, right across from their “promised land” of Canaan.  They have just conquered two small kingdoms of Amorites,1 which proves that God is on their side.  And when the Mesopotamian prophet Bilam tries to curse them in this week’s Torah portion, Balak, God keeps putting words of blessing in his mouth instead.2  The Israelites expect to cross into Canaan with the help of their God.

Then they get invitations from their neighbors, the Midianite Moabites3 living near their campsite.  These tribes are inhabitants of the area that used to belong to the Amorite king of Cheshbon until the Israelites defeated him and took over.

Moab Leads Israel into Sin, by Gerard Hoet, 1728

Israel settled at The Acacias, and the people began to commit forbidden intercourse with the young women of Moab.  They invited the people to slaughter offerings to their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.  Israel yoked itself to the local god of Peor, and God became hot with anger against Israel.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1-3)

Peor (פְּעוֹר) = a place name meaning Wide Opening.  (From the root verb pa-ar, פָּעַר = open wide.)

The verb pa-ar occurs only four times in the Hebrew Bible, all in reference to mouths opening wide.  Sheol (death) opens its mouth wide and the living fall down into it,4 a psalmist opens his mouth wide as he pants for God’s commandments,5 Job’s tormentors open their mouths wide against him,6 and Job remembers when men came to him for wise advice and their mouths opened wide to receive it like rainfall.7

One traditional interpretation of the name Peor is that the Midianite Moabites living near the Israelite campsite were afraid of the horde of conquerors, so they came up with a scheme for integrating the two communities on a friendly basis.  The Moabites would display their daughters to the Israelite men.  These young women would then invite the men to a banquet that included meat from animal sacrifices to Baal Peor, the local god of Peor.  The Israelites would eat, drink, and have intercourse with the Moabite women.8

This outcome would not be ideal from the Moabite point of view; fathers in the Ancient Near East preferred to sell their daughters as brides.  But at least if their scheme works, the Moabites might escape being killed or enslaved.

The Israelite men are already familiar with eating meat from animal sacrifices; in their own wholeness-offerings (shelamim) some animal parts are burned up into smoke for God, and some of the meat was reserved for the priests and the donors and their guests to eat.9  It is not surprising that Midianites across the river from Canaan worship their gods in a similar way—or that Moses’ own father-in-law was a Midianite priest in another place, southwest of Edom.

Opening their mouths to eat and drink, the Israelite men become open not just to friendship and sex with Moabites, but to their religion as well.  They forget that the God of Israel is a jealous god, who becomes “hot with anger” when they do anything that could be interpreted as worshiping an additional god.  As usual, the God-character expresses anger by starting an epidemic.  Then God tells Moses how to stop it:

Assyrian impalements

“Take all the leaders of the people and impale them before God, across from the sun; then the anger of God will turn away from Israel.”  (Numbers 25:4)

Impaling a man kills him by making an unnatural opening in his body.  “Across from the sun” is an idiom for doing something in the open, in public.

But Moses said to the judges of Israel: “Each man, kill the men yoked to Baal-Peor.”  (Numbers 25:5)

Instead of following God’s directions, Moses orders the execution of the men who actually participated in the sacrificial feasts for the god of Peor.  Before any of the judges can take action, something else happens.

The Zeal of Pinchas, Alba Bible, 1430

But hey!  An Israelite man came up, and he brought to his kinsmen a Midianite woman, in plain sight of Moses and all the community of the children of Israel!  And they were weeping at the petach of the Tent of Meeting.  And Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw; and he rose from the middle of the community and took a spear in his hand.  And he came in after the man of Israel to the enclosure, and he pierced the two of them, the man of Israel and the woman, into her “inner enclosure”, and the epidemic was halted.  (Numbers 25:6-8)

petach (פֶּתַח) = opening, entrance, doorway.

The Israelite man and the Midianite woman (identified later as Zimri, a chief of the tribe of Shimon, and Kozbi, a daughter of a Midianite chief)10 may be engaging in ritual sex for the purpose of ending the epidemic.11

The impalement of only two people, by spear, proves sufficient to calm God’s anger—perhaps because they are skewered right at the spot where an illicit entry is happening.  The epidemic comes to a halt.

*

This story is full of openings: the name of the local god, Peor/Wide Opening; the social opening of the invitation from the Midianite Moabites; the daughters of the Midianites opening their bodies to foreign men; the Israelite men opening their mouths to eat the sacrificial meat; the threat of impalement; the petach/opening to God’s Tent of Meeting; and the deadly opening Pinchas’s spear makes in the coupling couple.

The invitation from the Moabites seems to me like a peace offering, an ethical alternative to war.  Knowing the nature of the God of Israel, the Israelites who respond to this social opening are foolish to accept the meat (and sex) without checking its religious significance.  They succumb to their animal desires without thinking, but they could have thought it through and offered a counter-proposal to the Moabites for peaceful social relations without religious transgression.

The petach of the Tent of Meeting is an essential part of the portable sanctuary for the God of Israel.  The fact that the Israelites assemble in front of the petach of the tent in times of distress indicates the spiritual solidarity of the community.

The tent-sanctuary is not open for entry by anyone who has not been initiated into the service of God, so the Levites, including Pinchas, are charged with guarding its petach so no unauthorized persons enter.    Both Zimri, an Israelite from another tribe, and Kozbi, a non-Israelite, are forbidden to enter.

The God-character in this week’s Torah portion reacts as if any opening between the Israelites and the Moabites is bad, and the only solution is extermination.  First the God-character demands the execution of the Israelite bosses (or at least one ringleader).  Then in next week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, “he” orders the Israelites to go to war against the Midianites.12  When they do, they kill every Midianite man in the area, and take the women and children captive.  But Moses reminds them to kill all the Midianite women, too: every woman who “has known a man”.13  The whole project of friendly relations between the Midianites and the Israelites must be destroyed.

*

The Israelites in the Torah, like all peoples in the Ancient Near East, and like the governments of most nations today, resort to the wholesale killing of war when they cannot think of another way to resolve a difference between peoples or deal with the fear of foreigners.  Many stories in the bible portray the God-character as no better than human beings at peaceful co-existence.

Today I hear calls for eliminating people designated as foreigners, through by war, deportation, or building a wall on the border.  I also hear calls for being open to other people and celebrating our differences.

I believe there is a time to open and a time to close, but never a good time to kill.  Opening to friendships between people belonging to different groups is good.  Adopting another group’s religion, ethics, or way of life may be good only if one thinks it through and does it consciously, with one’s true self.  Being open to the possibility of God is good—but only if your idea of “God” is morally good.

Being open in a good way takes a lot of thinking.

  1. Cheshbon and Bashan. See last week’s post, Chukkat & Ecclesiastes: Accounting for Cheshbon.
  2. The Mesopotamian prophet Bilam. See my post Balak: A Question of Anxiety.
  3. See my post Balak, Pinchas, and Mattot: How Moabites Became Midianites on why the Torah refers to the local inhabitants as both Moabites and Midianites.
  4. Isaiah 5:14.
  5. Psalm 119:131.
  6. Job 16:10.
  7. Job 29:23.
  8. See Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 106a; Numbers Rabbah 20:23; and Sefer HaYashar, Numbers 7.  A different line of commentary is that people worshipped Baal Peor, the god of Peor, by baring their buttocks and opening their anuses to relieve themselves.  (Sifrei Bamidbar 131; Rashi, the acronym for the 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.)
  9. See my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire-Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.
  10. Numbers 25:14-15.
  11. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, Schocken Books, New York, 2002, p. 221.
  12. Numbers 25:16-18.
  13. Numbers 31:2-18. See my post Mattot, Va-etchannan, & Isaiah: How to Stop a Plague, Part 3.

 

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.

Korach: Bald Demands

July 2, 2019 at 5:20 pm | Posted in Korach | Leave a comment

Two rebellions against Moses and Aaron are featured in this week’s Torah portion, Korach: one by leaders from the tribe of Reuven,1 and one by 250 Levites and their leader, Korach.  The Torah introduces him as:

Korach, son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi …  (Numbers/ Bemidbar 16:1)

Is it Moses (naturally bald) or Korach (shaven bald)?
(from Charles Foster Bible Pictures, 1873)

Korach (קֺרַח) = shaven bald; icy.  (Korach may be derived from the verb karach, קָרַח = shave oneself bald, or from the noun kerach, קֶרַח = ice, frost.)

After introducing both factions that are jealous of Moses’ authority, the Torah turns first to the Levites.

They gathered against Moses and against Aaron, and they said to them: “You have too much for yourselves!  Because all the assembly, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst; so why do you elevate yourselves over the congregation of God?”  (Numbers 16:3)

Korach is arguing that all the Israelites are holy, i.e. set aside for God.  So why should they take orders from Moses and Aaron?  He sees holiness as a legal right which God conferred on the children of Israel back at Mount Sinai.  But here is what God actually said:

“You will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation …” (Exodus 19:6)

“You will be holy because I am holy …”  (Leviticus 19:2)

God did not say that the people were already holy; God predicted that they would someday become holy.  And both predictions were accompanied by rules for behavior to achieve holiness.  Holiness is a calling and a goal in the bible, not an entitlement.

Furthermore, Moses has already delegated many of his leadership roles.  He turned over administration and justice to 70 elders.2  He turned over religious rituals and offerings to the priests (Aaron and his sons).3  And he delegated most of the disassembly and reassembly of the portable sanctuary to the tribe of Levi.4   Moses’ only remaining job is to serve as God’s mouthpiece, passing on all the rules for behavior that will bring the people closer to holiness.  This is a duty he cannot delegate, since God continues to choose Moses as the only spokesperson.

But Korach and the Levites he represents want to be priests like Aaron and his sons.  They may also want to be prophets like Moses.

And Moses listened, and he fell on his face.  (Numbers 16:4)

God speaks to him while he is prostrate.5  Then Moses says to Korach:

“In the morning God will make known who is his, and who is the holy one, and who he will draw near to him.  And [God] will choose for himself the one he will draw near to him.  Do this: Take fire-pans for yourselves, Korach and all his assembly, and place fire in them and put incense on them in front of God tomorrow.  And the man whom God chooses will be the holy one.  [You want] too much for yourselves, sons of Levi!  …  [Already God] has drawn you close, and all your brother sons of Levi with you; so do you also seek the priesthood?”  (Numbers 16:5-7, 16:10)6

Moses discerns that Korach and the 250 Levites are really asking for priesthood for themselves, not power-sharing for everyone.  He also points out that he cannot make a decision for or against Korach and his men.  The decision is up to God.

*

Korach’s name reveals several motivations for demanding “too much”.

Lineage

Instead of last names, biblical characters identify themselves by their lineage.  Korach is “son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi”.  Yitzhar (יִצְהָר) might mean “he is overhead”, which happens to be the position Korach desires.  His grandfather is Kehat, who is also the grandfather of Moses and Aaron.7

Korach may well envy his first cousin Aaron.  The descendants of Kehat are responsible for transporting the holiest objects in the sanctuary, even the ark itself—but only after the priests, Aaron and his sons, have covered them with multiple wrappings.  Only Aaron and his sons are allowed to see them uncovered.8

An ordinary Israelite might prefer not to risk death by looking at the most dangerous objects in the sanctuary.  But Korach is already carrying them, and he believes he is as holy as Aaron.  Why should he be denied a glimpse of the ark?

Baldness

We can find more clues in Korach’s first name.  Korach means either the one who has shaven himself bald, or the icy one.

Shaving part of the head was a mourning ritual in Canaan,9 although the Torah forbids it.10  Israelites are supposed to shave their heads in the Torah only as part of a purification ritual, done for one of three reasons:

1)  To re-enter the community and its religious life after recovery from a skin disease called tzara-at.11   According to the Talmud, the first reason why God struck people with tzara-at was to punish them for evil speech.12  Perhaps Korach had whispered against Moses and Aaron earlier, and only recently recovered and shaved his head.

2) To officially end a man or woman’s term as a nazir.13  A nazir vows to let their hair grow wild and abstain from all wine and grapes for a certain period.  Korach might have taken the vow of a nazir to prove his own holiness, then found that being a nazir was not enough for him.

3)  As part of the ritual of consecration for both priests and Levites, when they commence their service in the sanctuary.   All the adult Levite men were shaven and consecrated in the wilderness of Sinai so their service could begin.14  At the time of Korach’s revolt, the people have moved to the wilderness of Paran, and the Levites’ hair has had time to grow out.  Maybe Korach shaved a second time to demonstrate that he expects to be consecrated as a priest!

*

Korach’s delusions of equality with Moses and Aaron are expressed by his name.  He shares their lineage, and his given name implies that he shaves his head to achieve extra holiness.

If the Israelites had a different mission, if all they needed to do was settle down and accumulate material wealth, Korach’s demands would be more reasonable.  Why not give every Levite—or even every Israelite—an equal role in the rituals that bind the community together?

But the Israelites have a higher calling; they are supposed to dedicate their whole selves to doing what God expects.  This mission requires leaders who are willing to fall on their faces to hear God’s voice; leaders who become more holy by following God’s rules; leaders who know that only God has real power.  Leaders with humility.

I believe the whole world needs humble leaders, now more than ever.

  1. See my post Korach: Buried Alive.
  2. Exodus 18:13-26 and Numbers 11:14.
  3. Leviticus 8:1-9:24.
  4. Numbers 3:5-36, 4:1-49.
  5. See my post Korach: Face Down.
  6. My translation of Numbers 16:5-7 and 16:10 uses third person masculine pronouns for God, following the original Hebrew, because a gender-neutral translation would be complicated.
  7. The father of Moses and Aaron is Amram, who is listed as a son of Kehat in Exodus 6:18-20.
  8. See my post Bemidbar: Don’t Look.
  9. See Isaiah 3:24, 15:2, and 22:12; Jeremiah 16:6, 47:5, and 48:37; and Ezekiel 7:18 and 27:31.
  10. Shaving for mourning is forbidden in Leviticus 21:5 and Deuteronomy 14:1, but God seems to encourage it in Amos 8:10 and Micah 1:16.
  11. Leviticus 14:8-9.
  12. Talmud Bavli, Arachin 16a.
  13. Numbers 6:18.
  14. Numbers 8:7.

Shelach-Lekha: Sticking Point

June 27, 2019 at 11:32 am | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | 2 Comments

The Israelites are camped in the Wilderness of Paran.  Canaan, the land God chose for them, lies just over the ridge.  Moses gets God’s permission to send twelve scouts into Canaan to gather information in Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”), this week’s Torah portion.1

They return with giant fruits, including a grape cluster so big it takes two men to carry.

And they brought back word to them and to the whole assembly, and they showed them the fruits of the land.  And they gave an account, and they said: “We came into the land where you sent us, and indeed it flows with milk and devash, and this is its fruit.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:26-27)

devash (דְבַשׁ) = honey, syrup.  (The bible uses the same word for honey from bees and syrup from dates or figs.)

Dripping fig

Moses has been calling Canaan a land flowing with milk and devash all along.2  Now the scouts confirm it.  The Talmud explains the phrase by claiming that when Rami bar Yechezkeil went to the village of Benei-berek he saw goats dripping milk from their udders as they grazed under fig trees dripping syrup.3  Both kinds of dripping indicate a land of abundance.

But in this week’s Torah portion, a fertile land is not enough.

“However, the people dwelling in the land are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very big, and also we saw the offspring of the giant Anak there.”  (Numbers 13:28)

Alarmed, the Israelites start grumbling against their leader, Moses.  This is what ten of the twelve scouts want, since they themselves are afraid to try conquering an armed and fortified land.  But Caleb, one of the two scouts who are in favor of carrying out God’s plan, hushes the people and says:

“We should definitely go up, and we will get possession of [the land], for we can definitely conquer it.”  (Numbers 13:30)

Caleb forgets to mention the reason for his confidence: God’s backing.

The men who had gone up with him said: “We cannot overcome [those] people, since they are stronger than us.”  Then they brought out slander of the land that they had scouted to the Israelites, saying “The land that we crossed and scouted is a land that is eating up those who live in it!  And all the people that we saw in it were men of unusual size!  … and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we would look to them.”  (Numbers 13:30-33)

Obviously the land is not eating up the people who currently live in it, since they are growing extra-large fruits and can afford to build fortified cities—and the land itself is flowing with milk and devash.

Arthur Rackham illustration for Gulliver’s Travels

Next the ten pessimistic scouts, who at first reported seeing some very large men, say that every man in Canaan is gigantic.

The Israelites are too upset to notice that these claims are merely slander.  They cry out loud all night, and tell each other that they would rather have died in Egypt than come all this way only to be defeated by the Canaanites.

When they assemble again, they are ready to stone Moses and Aaron.  The two optimistic spies, Caleb and Joshua, pull themselves together and remind the people:

“If God is pleased with us, then [God] will bring us to that land and give it to us, a land that is flowing with milk and devash.  Only do not rebel against God, and do not be afraid of the people of the land, because they will be our dinner.  Their protection has deserted them, but God is with us.  Do not be afraid!”  (Numbers 14:8-9)

This Caleb and Joshua emphasize that the land is sweet, worth conquering, and that God is protecting them.

Then the whole assembly said to pelt them with stones.  But the glory of God appeared at the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites.  And God said to Moses: “How long will this people reject me?  And how long will they have no faith in me, with all the signs that I have made in their midst?”  (Numbers 14:10-11)

Moses talks God out of killing all the Israelites and starting over again.  But God does decree that the people will not be allowed to enter Canaan until all the men age 20 and over have died, except for Caleb and Joshua.

*

What is wrong with these people?  Don’t they remember how God drowned a whole army of Egyptians to save them at the Reed Sea?  Are they so used to seeing the glory of God appear in a pillar of cloud and fire that they don’t take it seriously anymore?  Why don’t they believe God will deliver the land of Canaan to them, as promised?

Ethical objections are not an issue; the bible does not consider the morality of starting an unprovoked war against Canaan’s inhabitants and subjugating everyone they do not kill.  So why do the people refuse to cross over into Canaan?

One explanation is that the Israelites remember all the times God smote them, as well as the times God saved them.  In the book of Exodus, after the Levites kill 3,000 men who they suspect of worshiping the golden calf, God afflicts many of the survivors with a plague.4

Quail in the Wilderness, by Caspar Luyken

Shortly after they leave Mount Sinai, the people complain about the food and whine that they are tired of manna.  God blankets the ground with quail, then kills everyone who starts to eat the birds.5

How can the Israelites count on a God who keeps killing them?  Even if they are careful not to rebel by making another golden calf or complaining about the manna, they are bound to make some other error, and then they will find themselves facing the Canaanites without God’s protection.

I think this is a reasonable fear.  Yet if they reject God and do not march ahead into Canaan, what will happen to them?  If God lets them return to Egypt, they will face execution or enslavement.  Surely it would be better to risk death or enslavement in Canaan, where there is a chance that God will aid them and they can settle down in a land of milk and devash.

It is hard to grow up and take on a new life, a life in which we are responsible for something we do not know yet how to do.  When we are children, someone else feeds us and guides us and takes care of our needs.  When the Israelites are slaves in Egypt, their parent-figure is the Pharaoh.

Then they are adopted and rescued by God.  The Israelites develop an adolescent relationship with God, grumbling and rebelling occasionally as they look forward to the promised land, the way teenagers look forward to adulthood.

Suddenly it is time to leave home and make our own place in a world of strangers—giants we cannot hope to compete with.  The promised land of adulthood is both exciting and frightening.

Most people take a deep breath, take the risk, and cross over the ridge into Canaan.

But life takes more than one deep breath.  As an adult, I keep facing another ridge to climb, another new land to enter.  I never know whether I am strong enough to do the next thing that I have never done before.  I never know whether inspiration or luck will be on my side.

Yet when the new land is important, and there is no good alternative, the best you can do is to cross that ridge whether you have faith in God or not.  Otherwise, you will be stuck in the wilderness until you die.  And if you survive to get a second chance at crossing over, you should take it.

May each of us be blessed with the courage to go forward, and may our rewards be sweeter than devash.

  1. See the first part of my post Shelah-Lekha: Reminder for more details.
  2. Exodus 3:8, 3:17, 13:5, and 33:3; Leviticus 20:24.
  3. Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 111b.
  4. Exodus 32:28, 32:35
  5. Numbers 11:4-6, 11:31-34.

 

Beha-alotkha: Facing It

June 20, 2019 at 12:55 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha | Leave a comment

One face is dark brown.  One face is white with disease.  One face radiates bright light.

Dark

circa 400 BCE, Greek

The dark face belongs to Moses’ wife in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“when you are drawing up”).

Miriam spoke, and Aaron, be-Moses on account of the Kushite wife that he had taken; for he had taken a Kushite wife.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 12:1)

be- (בְּ) = a prepositional prefix.  Like most prepositions, be- has many meanings.  In this context, be- = with, against.  (In the word beha-alotkha, be- = when.)

The ambiguity of the preposition be- has led to two interpretations of Miriam and Aaron’s complaint:

1) Miriam and Aaron speak privately with Moses on behalf of his wife, because he is not treating her properly.  What is he doing wrong?  Withholding sex from her, according to the Midrash Rabbah and later commentary.1  This interpretation provides one explanation of the next verse:

And they said: “Is it indeed only be-Moses God spoke?  Isn’t it also banu He spoke?”  (Numbers 12:2)

be- (בְּ) = In this context, the preposition be- = with, through.

banu (בָּנוּ) = with us, through us. Banu = be-(בְּ) + -anu (נוּT) = a suffix indicating a first personal plural pronoun as an object.

According to the commentary, Miriam and Aaron are saying that God speaks with them (or through them, when they serve as prophets), but they still have sex with their spouses.  Even if God speaks more often with and through Moses, that is no excuse for him to deprive his wife.

Moses and His Ethiopian Wife, by Jacob Jordaen, 1650

2) Miriam and Aaron speak publicly against Moses, complaining about his mixed marriage.

In Exodus/Shemot Moses’ wife was Tziporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest.  But this week, in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, she is only called “the Kushite”.  Kush is the land south of Egypt, noted in the bible for people with very dark skin.2

Some commentators have argued that Tziporah is “the Kushite wife”, so-called either because she had darker skin than usual for a woman in the ancient Near East, or because “kush” also means beautiful, or because there was also a land of Kushites in Arabia.3

But others wrote that Moses had two wives, Tziporah and an Ethiopian.  Josephus told one version of an extrabiblical adventure for Moses in Ethiopia, where he supposedly served as an Egyptian general in his youth, won a war, and married the defeated king’s daughter.4

Whether the wife in this week’s Torah portion is a Midianite or a Kushite, the complaint about Moses’ marriage implies racism.  Yet the first five books of the bible are only concerned about marrying outside one’s religion.5  The Torah repeatedly tells us not to cheat or oppress foreign immigrants (see my post Mishpatim: The Immigrant).  Even the book of Ezra, which requires Israelite men to separate from non-Israelite wives, describes these foreign women in terms of their religious practices.6  And the book of Ruth is an example of a virtuous mixed marriage between an Israelite and a Moabite.

Moses’ wife, Midianite or Kushite, presumably converted, like Ruth.  So Miriam and Aaron may well find her acceptable, regardless of the color of her face.

*

When I see people who look markedly different from me and my family, I try to catch their eye, and then smile at them.  If they smile back, we might exchange a greeting.  Then as I walk on I feel brighter—and safer.  The stranger is not a threat after all, but someone like me.

Why do so many of my fellow citizens hate the stranger, the man with “black” skin, the immigrant who speaks a different language, the woman who dresses like a Muslim?  I know the answer: because they are afraid, and it feels better to turn fear into anger.

At least it does for many people.  One advantage of being scared of everyone as a child, even girls who looked like me, is that now timidity is an old friend.  When I grew up I made a habit of smiling at people who do look like me, as well as those who don’t, and exchanging a greetings with them, too.  Then as I walk on I feel brighter—and safer.

White

by Ernest Christophe, 1876

The white face belongs to Moses’ sister, Miriam.

After Miriam and Aaron speak with or against Moses, God orders the three siblings to report to the Tent of Meeting.  According to God, the problem is that Miriam and Aaron are claiming to be prophets equal to Moses.  God declares that nobody is equal to Moses, and adds:

“Why were you not afraid to speak be- my servant, be-Moses?”  (Numbers 12:8)

In this context, the preposition be- means “against”.  God is angry, and Miriam is the instigator of the complaint.

And the cloud moved away from over the tent, and hey!  Miriam had a skin disease like snow!  Aaron vayifein Miriam, and hey!  Skin disease!  (Numbers 12:10)

vayifein (וַיִּפֵן) = turned to face.  (From the same root as paneh, פָּנֶה = face.)

Leucoderma

Miriam’s skin disease is tzara-at, which make skin look dead-white and depressed compared to the surrounding skin.  (See my post Tzaria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance.)  The book of Exodus decrees that anyone with that skin disease must live outside the camp until it has healed.

Aaron begs Moses to intercede with God, saying:

“Please don’t let her be like one who is dead going out from the womb of his mother, and half his flesh looks eaten.”  (Numbers 12:12)

Moses prays, and God promises that Miriam’s skin disease will last for only seven days, but she must live outside the camp in shame for those seven days.

Moses is separated from his wife indefinitely, because his whole being is engaged in being God’s prophet.  Miriam is separated from the community for seven days, because she was too self-absorbed to see that Moses is a different kind of prophet.

*

Like Miriam, I can become so absorbed in my own desires and my own calling that I forget other people have different desires and different callings.  I write about the Torah, but I do not embrace every aspect of Jewish tradition.  Some Jews are meticulous about halakhah, the rules for behavior in every aspect of life.  Some are absorbed in the mysticism of kabbalah.  (I have encountered the same two types among Christians.)

I do not understand these people, any more than Miriam understood her brother Moses.  Nevertheless I have been guilty of speaking against them, declaring that both approaches are irrational.  They are irrational to me.  But my mind works differently from the mind of a strictly observant Jew or the mind of a mystic, even if our faces are similar.

When I express my own truth too loudly, I am like Miriam declaring that she is a prophet, too, so she knows Moses is wrong to be celibate.

Miriam blanches when God reveals her error.  She knows she must isolate herself until she has healed.  When I realize I have forgotten that individuals are different behind their faces, I feel ashamed and I retreat for a while.

Bright

The burning face belongs to Moses himself.  He acquires radiant skin in the book of Exodus, after seeing God’s “back” on Mount Sinai.

Moses, by James Tissot

When Moses went in before God to speak with [God], he would remove the veil until after he went out; and he went out and spoke to the children of Israel what had been commanded.  And the Israelites saw the penei Moses, that the penei Moses radiated light.  Then Moses put the veil back over panav until he came to speak with [God again].  (Exodus/Shemot 34:34-35)

penei (פְּנֵי) = face of.  (From paneh, פָּנֶה = face.)

panav (פָּנָו) = his face.  (Also from paneh, פָּנֶה = face.)

When Moses passes on God’s commands, he leaves his face exposed.  His glowing skin demonstrates that he is not an ordinary prophet like Miriam or Aaron.

But when he is not speaking with God or passing on God’s instructions, Moses veils his face.  The radiance of his skin is too overwhelming for the Israelites to see as they go about their daily tasks.

I imagine that if the skin all over his body also glows, marital relations would be difficult.  Even if Moses’ wife kept her eyes shut, could they touch one another the way they used to?  This physical explanation for Moses’ celibacy does not occur to Miriam or Aaron.

Nor does it occur to them that Moses never gets time off from listening for God.  God has conversations with Moses all the time, but Miriam and Aaron are summoned when God wants to speak with them.  In this week’s Torah portion,

Suddenly God said to Moses and to Aaron and to Miriam: “Go, the three of you, to the Tent of Meeting.”  So the three of them went.  And God came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called out: “Aaron and Miriam!”  (Numbers 12:4-5)

Then God reminds them that they are ordinary prophets, not comparable with Moses.

*

Several friendly Muslim women in our apartment complex wear a hijab whenever they leave their apartments.  Their hair and necks are covered, but their faces are exposed, so when I meet them in the laundry room we can easily exchange smiles and greetings.

But once I passed a woman in the grocery story wearing a burka, so her face was completely covered.  She could see through the mesh panel in front of her eyes, but I could not see her eyes, and therefore I could not meet them.  I smiled in her direction, but I could discern no response.  I felt as if I were smiling at a rock draped in cloth.

The woman in the burka was more isolated than Miriam during the seven days she lived outside the camp because of her skin disease.  And her isolation was deliberate.

Is Moses that isolated when he wears his veil around the camp?  What would it be like to give up all ordinary human contact?  What would you get in exchange for losing your face?

  1. Midrash Tanchuma (a 6th to 9th-century collection of allegories and homilies) assumes in Tzav 13 that Moses stopped having sexual relations with his wife. So do Exodus Rabbah 46:13 and Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:10 (10th to 12th century collections of imaginative commentary, part of the Midrash Rabbah), and Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki).
  2. Being a Kushite indicates a genetic skin color in Jeremiah 36:14: “Can a Kushite change his skin?  Or a leopard his spots?”  It is a derogatory term in Amos 9:7, where God says challengingly: “Aren’t you like the Kushites to me, children of Israel?”
  3. E.g. Sifrei Badmidbar (a 3rd-century CE commentary on Numbers), 12:99; Midrash Tanchuma, Tzav 13; and Rashi.  Tziporah might be unusually dark-skinned because she spends her days out in the sun, like the female narrator in Song of Songs 1:5-6.
  4. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in Antiquities 2:252-253 (circa 93 CE), told one version of the Ethiopian marriage story invented by an unknown Judean sometimes between the 6th and 3rd centuries BCE.
  5. However, Deuteronomy 23:4-7 prohibits a Moabite or Edomite from converting.
  6. Ezra 9:1-2.

 

Haftarat Naso—Judges: Spot the Angel

June 11, 2019 at 9:47 pm | Posted in Judges, Naso | Leave a comment

Abraham bows
to a malakh, detail by J..J. Tissot

Would you recognize an angel if you saw one?

The Hebrew Bible usually calls an angel a malakh (מַלְאַךְ = messenger) of God.  A messenger of God appears to a human being and delivers its message, then disappears again.  Frequently the angel looks like a man at first, though occasionally it looks unnatural from the beginning, like the burning bush Moses sees,1 or it is only a disembodied voice.2

(Angels with wings appear to Isaiah, but they are called serafim, and each has six wings.)

A malakh of God drives the action in the beginning of the story of Samson in the book of Judges, which is the haftarah reading accompanying this week’s Torah portion, Naso.3  The story introduces a man from the tribe of Dan named Manoach.  He and his wife are childless.

A malakh of God appeared to the woman, and he said to her: “Hey, please! You are childless and you have not given birth, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son. So now guard yourself, please, and don’t you drink wine or alcohol, and don’t you eat anything ritually impure.  Because here you are, pregnant, and you will give birth to a son.  And a razor must not go over his head, because the boy will be a nazir of God from the womb.  And he will begin to rescue Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” (Judges 13:3-5)

Samson and Delilah,
by Gustave Dore, detail

nazir (נָזִיר) = someone consecrated to God through abstaining from wine, haircuts, and mourning.  (From the root verb nazar, נזר = dedicate to a god; exercise abstention.)

Becoming a nazir is a choice, according to this week’s Torah portion.  Only an adult man or woman may make the vow to live as a nazir for a period of time.4  Yet in the haftarah, neither Samson nor his mother gets to choose whether or not to make a vow.

After the annunciation, the woman whose status has suddenly changed from childless to pregnant goes into the house.5

The woman came in, and she said to her husband, saying: “A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like the appearance of a malakh of the God, very awesome.  And I did not ask him where he was from, and he did not tell me his name.”  (Judges 13:6)

Why is the woman outside, where men traditionally worked, while Manoach is inside the house, where women worked?

The woman tells Manoach that the angel looked like a man, but more awesome.  She knows an angel when she sees one, and she knows enough not to ask the kind of personal questions you would ask a human traveler, such as where he came from or what his name is.

She continues:

“And he said to me: “Here you are, pregnant!  And you will give birth to a son.  And you, don’t you drink wine or strong drink, and don’t you eat anything ritually impure, because the boy will be a nazir of God from the womb until the day he dies.”  (Judges 13:7)

It does not occur to Manoach that anyone else might have impregnated his wife, or that she might have actually seen an angel.  Furthermore, although she says what the angel told her to do while she is pregnant, Manoach does not take her word for it.

Then Manoach pleaded with God, and he said: “If you please, my lord, the man of the God whom you sent, please may he come again to us, and teach us what we should do for the boy who will be born.”  And the God heard the voice of Manoach.  And the malakh of the God again came to the woman—”  (Judges 13:8-9)

The malakh of God does not appear to Manoach.  So his wife runs home and tells her husband what she saw.

And Manoach got up and followed his wife, and he came to the man and he said to him: “Are you the man who spoke to the woman?”  And he said: “I am.”  (Judges 13:11)

Manoach does not refer to his wife by her name, or even as “my wife”, but merely calls her “the woman”.

I remember the sexism in the United States in the early 1960’s, when it was common for men to refer to their spouses as “the wife” or “the little woman”.  I was surprised, as a child, to hear my father refer to my mother that way when he was chatting with a fellow man.  The traditional male role in the 1960’s also included working outside the home, as it did in Canaan in the 11th century BCE.

Manoach asks the malakh of God what they should do about the boy.  The angel replies:

“From everything I said to the woman she must guard herself: she must not eat from anything that goes out from a grapevine, and she must not drink wine or strong drink, and she must not eat anything ritually impure.  Everything that I commanded her, she must observe.”  (Judges 13:13-14)

Manoach did not believe his wife, but now that he has confirmation from a strange man, he is satisfied.  However, he still does not believe his wife’s assessment that the man is really an angel.

And Manoach said to the malakh of God: “Let us detain [you], please, and we will prepare a goat-kid for you.”  But the malakh of God said to Manoach: “If you detain me, I cannot eat your food, and if you prepare a rising-offering, offer it up to God.”  Because Manoach did not know that he was a malakh of God.  (Judges 13:15)

Manoach still does not grasp the situation.  But he is eager to find some way to be polite to the man who has promised his wife a son.

Sacrifice of Manoah, by Eustache Le Sueur, 1640-1650

And Manoach said to the malakh of God: “Who—  Your name?  Because when your word comes [true], then we can honor you.”  And the messenger of God said to him: “Why do you ask for my name?  It is a mystery!”  (Judges 13:17-18)

Manoach prepares a goat-kid and a grain-offering for God, and lights a fire to roast them.

And the flame was climbing from upon the altar toward the heavens, and the malakh of God went up in a flame from the altar.  And Manoach and his wife saw, and they fell on their faces to the ground.  And the malakh of God did not appear again to Manoach or to his wife.  That was when Manoach knew that he was a malakh of God.  (Judges 13:20-21)

*

Why does it take so long for Manoach to realize the visitor was an angel, when his wife notices something numinous about the “man” right away?

Part of the reason must be for comic effect.  But I think Manoach’s inability to recognize what is in front of him is also related to his sexism.

The bible portrays society in ancient Israel realistically, so its laws assume that men own all the land, and women are dependent on their men: their fathers before marriage, their husbands during marriage, and their sons after they are widowed.  But the bible does not portray women as interchangeable or stupid or unworthy of being listened to.  (In Genesis 21:12, God even tells Abraham: “Everything that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice.”  And he obeys his wife.)

Maybe if a man cannot listen to his wife, he has trouble listening to a malakh of God.  Maybe if he cannot see his wife as a human being who might do something surprising, he cannot see someone who looks superficially like a man as someone who might really be an angel.  This applies not just to men, but to women and all humans who classify people into categories instead of being curious about them as individuals.

Would you recognize an angel if you saw one?

  1. Exodus 3:2-3, which is also an example of how an angel’s voice becomes God’s voice.
  2. e. the angel who speaks to Abraham in Genesis 22:11-16.
  3. Every week of the year is assigned its own Torah portion (from the first five books of the bible, the Torah) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the Prophets). The haftarah for Naso is Judges 13:2-13:25.
  4. See my post Naso: Distanced by Hair.
  5. For arguments in favor of the angel doing the impregnating, see Marc Zvi Brettler, “Who Was Samson’s Real Father?”, thetorah.com.

Bemidbar: Two Kinds of Troops

June 5, 2019 at 5:43 pm | Posted in Bemidbar | 1 Comment

Battle with the Amalekites, by J. Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860

The Israelite ex-slaves won their first battle, but it was a close call.  The tribe of Amalek attacked them in the wilderness between Egypt and Mt. Sinai, in the book of Exodus/Shemot.  Moses asked his aide, Joshua, to choose some men to fight back.  They eventually defeated the Amalekites only because Moses was sitting on a hill above, holding up the staff of God with the the help of two men.1  It was an ad-hoc battle; none of the Israelite men had been organized or prepared.

But when the Israelites leave Mt. Sinai in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, over a year later, they are heading for the southern border of Canaan, only an 11-day march away.2  And this time they expect to be the ones doing the attacking, as they began the process of conquering the “promised land”—with God’s help.

The first Torah portion in the book of Numbers, also called Bemidbar (“in the wilderness of”)3 describes the organization of the Israelites into formations for marching and camping.  God tells Moses:

“Take a head-count of the whole congregation of the sons of Israel by their clans, by their ancestral houses, by counting the names of every male, head by head.  From age 20 years and above, everyone going out in the tzava of Israel, you shall enroll them for their tzava, you and Aaron.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 1:2-3)

tzava (צָבָא) = army, troop; military service.  (This noun was later extended to include any community of people engaged in organized service for a specific purpose.  But in the bible from Genesis through Malachi, it always refers either to human military troops, or to God’s organization of the stars or divine forces.4)

“Everyone going into the tzava” turns out to be all the adult men of every tribe except Levi.  As Moses and his committee count the adult men in each tribe, the Torah introduces the total with:

every male from the age of 20 years and above, everyone going out in the tzava: those enrolled from the tribe of …5

This week’s Torah portion lists twelve tribes going out in the tzava; it splits the tribe of Joseph into two tribes, named after his two sons Efrayim and Menasheh.  That makes Levi the thirteenth tribe of Israelites.

However, the tribe of Levi you shall not enroll, and you shall not count their heads among the sons of Israel.  (Numbers 1:49)

Are the Levite men excused from military service?  Not quite.  Instead of being assigned to battalions, they are assigned to guard duty.

Enroll the Levites over the Dwelling-Place of the Testimony, and over all the equipment that belongs to it.  They shall carry the Dwelling-Place and all its equipment, and they themselves shall attend to it, and they shall camp surrounding the Dwelling-Place.  (Numbers 1:50)

The “Dwelling-Place” (mishkan, מִשְׁכַּן )  is God’s part-time residence, also called the Tent of Meeting since Moses receives the instructions from God there.  This tent contains the most sacred objects: the ark, the menorah, the bread table, and the incense altar.  The priests must wrap these sacred objects when it is time to move, since even Levites may not see them.

from Collectie Nederland

The Levites actually camp outside the walls of the courtyard around the tent, to make sure that no one from the other tribes gets too close at the wrong time.

When pulling out, the Levites shall take down the Dwelling-Place, and when setting up camp, the Levites shall erect it.  But an unauthorized person who comes close shall be put to death.  (Numbers 1:51)

The Torah portion Bemidbar does not say who is responsible for putting an interloper to death.    The Talmud suggests that the death would be “at the hand of Heaven”,6 but the only example in the Torah of a mysterious death of a trespasser is in Leviticus/Vayikra, when two newly ordained priests, Nadav and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense all the way into the Holy of Holies at the back of the tent.7

from Sacra Parallela, 9th century Byzantine

Then are the Levites themselves responsible for putting an interloper to death?  Perhaps.  Later in the book of Numbers, some Midianite women of Moab entice Israelite men into worshiping their local god.  The God of Israel is enraged and punishes the Israelites the usual way, with an indiscriminate plague.  Then a Shimonite man and a Midianite woman enter the Tent of Meeting to fornicate, and a Levite named Pinchas runs in and skewers them.  Levites are supposed to serve in the courtyard around the tent, not inside the tent itself.  But the epidemic abruptly ends, and God rewards Pinchas with priesthood.8

This episode correlates with the next instruction in this week’s Torah portion:

And the Israelites shall camp, each man in his camp, and each man in his division, for their tzava.  But the Levites shall camp surrounding the Dwelling-Place of the Testimony, so that the rage of God will not fall on the congregation of the Israelites; and the Levites shall guard the custody of the Dwelling Place of the Testimony.  (Numbers 1:52-53)

If an unauthorized person got too close to God’s Dwelling-Place, or even entered it, God’s anger would be triggered, and that would trigger an epidemic.  Although the God-character in the Torah wants the Israelites to take over Canaan, this character has an anger management problem.  (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.)  Therefore the Levites get their own military service: guarding the Dwelling-Place of God, who is a loose cannon.

The Israelite men from the other twelve tribes are enrolled in the army from age 20 and over.  But the Levite men are enrolled from the ages of 30 to 50.9

Take a head-count of the sons of Kehat among the sons of Levi, by their clans, by their ancestral houses, from age 30 years and above up to 50 years, everyone who comes for tzava, to do tasks at the Tent of Meeting.  (Numbers 4:2-3)

The Kehatites are assigned the duty of carrying the sacred objects from inside the Dwelling Place from one campsite to the next.  Next week’s Torah portion, Naso, assigns porterage duties to the other two branches of the Levite tribe.  Each list of duties begins the same way as the first.

The traditional interpretation is that age limit of 30 to 50 years applied only to Levite porterage duties, and after age 50 these men still guarded the gates, as well as singing, collecting tithes, and instructing younger Levites.10  Rashi11 explained that while a 20-year-old is strong enough to fight, the strength to carry heavy objects is not fully developed until age 30.  After age 50, a man’s strength begins to diminish again.

But the Torah says three times that Levites age 30 to 50 comprise “everyone who comes for tzava, to do tasks at the Tent of Meeting.”  Since tzava means military service, this must refer to the task of guard duty at the Tent of Meeting.

Soldiers in an army must use weapons, obey commands, and distinguish whether their targets are members of the designated enemy.  The maturity and strength of a 20-year-old are sufficient.

Guards of God’s Dwelling Place would also carry weapons and be able to distinguish between insiders and interlopers.  In addition, they would need the ability to calibrate their warnings and actions to fit various situations, and to sense when the threat is urgent enough to risk an intervention that might be out of bounds, like Pinchas’ skewering.  No wonder this week’s portion set the lower limit at 30.

Then why is the upper limit age 50?  Was the Torah concerned about premature senility?

I doubt it.  What I have noticed in my own life is that many, though not all, people become less strict in their fifties or sixties.  We learn to accept the things that go wrong, and we forgive more easily.  We are better than ever at reasoning with potential trespassers, but less likely to shoot them.  We grow into a type of maturity that does not suit the severity of the religious rules in this part of the bible.

That is why I would make a poor guard for any strictly designated holy space, and a poor guardian of received religious tradition.  Yet I keep studying Torah and I keep writing this blog.  It is a calling.  I interpret the angry, immature God-character who often appears in the Torah as a reflection of limitations in the humans who struggled to turn divine inspiration into stories and a code of rules.  But I also seek out the inspirations behind the text, and the God behind the God-character.

I am glad I am disqualified, on several counts, from being enrolled in the military service of Levites.

  1. Exodus 17:8-13.
  2. Deuteronomy 1:2. In Numbers 13:25-14:35, God dooms the Israelites to spend another 38 years in the wilderness before they cross into Canaan at a different border.
  3. Each weekly reading in the first five books of the bible is named after an important word in its first sentence (codified by Moses ben Maimon, a.k.a. Rambam or Maimonides, in the 12th century CE.) The name of the first portion in the book is also the name of the book.  The book of Numbers/Bemidbar begins:  Then God spoke to Moses bemidbar Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting …  Since bemidbar (“in the wilderness of”) is the construct form of the word bamidbar (“in the wilderness”), both Bemidbar and Bamidbar are used to name the book and the portion.
  4. Examples of God’s tzava are Genesis 2:1, in which tzava refers to stars, and Exodus 7:4, in which tzava refers to God’s power to make miracles. See my post Haftarat Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies on the name of God that includes the word Tzevaot, צְבָאוֹת, the plural of tzava.
  5. Numbers 1:20-21 (Reuven), 1:22-23 (Shimon), 1:24-25 (Gad), 1:26-27 (Judah), 1:28-29 (Yissakhar), 1:30-31 (Zevulun), 1:32-33 (Efrayim), 1:34-35 (Menasheh), 1:36-67 (Binyamin), 1:38-39 (Dan), 1:40-41 (Asheir), and 1:42-43 (Naftali).
  6. Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 84a.
  7. See my post Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.
  8. Numbers 25:6-15. See my post Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1.
  9. Levites are counted twice in this Torah portion. First all male Levites at least one month old are counted, and then declared official substitutes at the sanctuary for all non-Levite firstborn sons.  (Numbers 3:14-16, 3:39-51.)  The second count is for Levite men age 30-50 to engage in porterage duty.
  10. See my post Beha-alotkha & Ezra: Retirement Age.
  11. Rashi is the acronym of 11th-century rabbi and commentator Shlomoh Yitzchaki.

Bechukkotai: Why Obey?

May 29, 2019 at 1:35 pm | Posted in Bechukkotai | Leave a comment

Why should the Israelites obey God’s rules?  The last Torah portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, Bechukotai (“By my decrees”), answers the question with a carrot and a stick.

The carrot is that if they do obey, God will reward them with abundant produce from their crops; no attacks by wild beasts; either peace, or victory if they choose to go to war; and God’s presence in their midst.1

The stick is much longer.

But if you do not heed me and you do not do all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and if your soul is nauseated by my laws, so that you are not doing all my commands, voiding my covenant; then I on my part will do this to you: (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:14-16)

The first punishments God threatens are disease and raids by neighboring countries.  If the Israelites continue disobeying and gagging on God’s rules, the second round of punishments will be drought and crop failure.

Then the Torah changes the unacceptable attitude from nausea to either perverse opposition or disbelief.  God introduces the third round of punishments with:

And if you walk keri with me, and you are not willing to heed me, then I will go on striking at you …  (Leviticus 26:21)

keri (קֶרִי) = in perverse opposition; only by chance.

The word keri occurs only seven times in the Hebrew Bible, all seven in the Torah portion Bechukkotai.  Most older translations use the English word “contrary”, but some commentators posit that keri comes from the verb karah (קָרָה) = befell unexpectedly, happened by chance.2

Lion attack, Persepolis

When people in the Torah “walk with God”, they are following God’s rules and desires.  In this week’s Torah portion, when the Israelites walk in opposition to God, as if what happens to them comes only by chance and not by God’s will, then they will suffer.   In the third round of threats, God promises that wild beasts will kill their children and their cattle, and their roads will become empty.

The fourth round of threats begins:

And if these do not make you accept my discipline, and you walk keri with me, then I, even I, will walk by keri with you, and I will strike you …  (Leviticus 26:23-24)

Now God promises to oppose the Israelites and/or treat them as irrelevant to God’s will.  At this point God will let the enemies of the Israelites besiege their cities.  Everyone who crowds inside the city walls for shelter will be afflicted with disease and starve for lack of bread.

The fifth and final round of punishments also uses the word keri.

And if despite this you do not heed me, and you go with me by keri, then I will walk with you with a fury of keri, and I will punish you …  (Leviticus 26:27-28)

This time the starving Israelites will eat their own children, while God stands by.  God will destroy their hilltop shrines (because worshiping other gods is one of the ways the Israelites keep breaking God’s commandments).  Then their enemies will destroy their cities, the land will be desolated, and the people will be scattered in other countries.3

Assyrian & Babylonian Deportations

Modern scholars estimate that the list of blessings and punishments in this week’s Torah portion, like much of the book of Leviticus, was written sometime after the war of 589-587 BCE, when the Babylonian army finished conquering the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah, besieged and destroyed Jerusalem, and deported most of its upper classes and craftsmen.  (The northern kingdom of Israel had already been swallowed up by the Assyrian Empire a century and a half before.)  So the five levels of punishment had already happened when God’s speech was written.

By framing history as God’s prediction (or threat) at Mt. Sinai, the Torah drives home the idea that the downfall of the Israelites of Judah was their own fault.  God warned them, but they continued to walk keri with God, so of course they suffered the ultimate punishments.

Guilt is more effective than fear

The Torah portion Bechukkotai also shows that escalating punishments do not work.  The only effects of experiencing the helplessness of being without God’s protection are misery and excessive fear.

And I will bring the remainder of you faint-hearted into the lands of your enemies.  The sound of blowing leaves will pursue them, and they will flee as if fleeing from the sword, and they will fall although nobody is pursuing.  (Leviticus 26:36)

The image of running away from blowing leaves (commonly translated into English as “a driven leaf”) emphasizes that the deported Israelites live in a state of continuous anxiety.

Then you will become lost among the nations, and the land of your enemies will eat you up.  (Leviticus 26:38)

Being lost and eaten up may refer to death, or it may refer to assimilation.  Either way, there would be no more Israelites.  Nevertheless, God expects some of the exiles to feel not only faint-hearted, but also guilty.4  Once they recognize their guilt, there is hope for them.

Then they must confess their guilt and the guilt of their forefathers in failing to do their duty; that they were undutiful to me, and also that they walked by keri with me.  Indeed, I myself will walk by keri with them and I will bring them into the land of their enemies; perhaps that is when their uncircumcised heart will become humbled, perhaps that is when they will make amends for their wrongdoing. (Leviticus 26:40-41)

When the diminishing Israelites do confess and repent, they “circumcise” their hearts, making them open and sensitive to God’s word.  At that point God promises to remember the covenant with their ancestors Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, and with the people God rescued from Egypt.5  The implication is that then God will rescue the remaining Israelites from Babylon and bring them back to their former land.

Why do the Israelites disobey and oppose their God?

Here are my favorite theories:

  1. When people stop studying God’s rules, they no longer understand them, so they don’t bother to obey them. They justify their disobedience by deciding they are superior to those who blindly obey stupid laws. Only someone who understands the reasons for divine laws can obey them with love.6
  2. When bad things happen, it is human nature to blame someone else and avoid introspection. We might blame other people, or we might blame God. Since we do not change our own behavior, nothing changes in the world. 7
  3. When we are taught only in terms of physical reward and punishment, we develop an unhealthy relationship with the authority figure. Either we mindlessly do anything to win the authority figure’s approval, or we live in continual fear, or we come to despise the authority figure and rebel against the rules.

What changes their minds about God?

Fear leads to temporary obedience, and reward and punishment work on a simple level with non-human animals and small children.  But as humans learn to think, we make their own judgments about right and wrong.  In this week’s Torah portion, people return to obeying and trusting God only when they come to believe they did something wrong, and feel guilty about it.  Then they want to make amends.

The very act of making amends by returning to their religion gives the Israelites meaning and purpose in their lives.  They can once again feel God’s presence in their midst.

*

I know I will never be a wholly observant Jew.  Jewish halakhah, the “way to walk”, is a corpus of religious laws refined over the centuries from the Talmud’s discussions of the laws in the Torah.  Some of these laws remain meaningless to me even when I study them.  Therefore (since I do not belong to a tight orthodox community where strict observance is at least good manners) I do not bother to observe those particular rules.

But I work hard to do the morally right thing, and whenever I realize I have failed, I feel guilty, and I do what I can to atone.  I find that virtue really is its own reward, bringing me courage and calmness even in adverse physical circumstances.  I also persist in noticing all creation with awe and wonder, which leads to gratitude and the feeling that life is meaningful.  Because I work on obeying moral principles and maintaining an attitude of awe and gratitude, I believe I am serving God with joy, not walking with God by keri.

May each of us find meaning in life.  And may we treat one another with mutual respect, so we can avoid the dead end of an authority figure commanding obedience—or else.

  1. See my post Bechukkotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward.
  2. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that keri means unintentionally; going with God unintentionally is a form of rejection (Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 2, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2000, p. 951). 21st-century scholar Robert Alter translated keri as “encounter (against)” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 663).  The Chabad translation is “happenstance” in  www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/9927.
  3. Leviticus 26:16-33.
  4. Leviticus 26:39.
  5. Leviticus 26:42, 26:45.
  6. Based on Hirsch, ibid., pp. 944-945; and Or Torah (Dov Baer Friedman of Miedzyrzec, 1804), translation by Arthur Green, in Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 2013, p. 310-311.
  7. Based on Adin Even-Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Maggid Books, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015, p. 271.
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