Pinchas: The Right Spirit

July 8, 2020 at 9:49 pm | Posted in Pinchas | Leave a comment

Moses knows he will die before the Israelites cross the Jordan into Canaan.  In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, he asks God who will replace him as their leader.

Nobody can replace Moses as a prophet; nobody else is capable of having such frequent, direct, long, and personal conversations with God.  Yet someone must replace him as the administrative and military head of the people as they take over the “promised land”.  Moses’ own two sons dropped out of the Torah early in the book of Exodus/Shemot; presumably they either returned to their Midianite grandfather’s home, or accompanied the Israelites for 40 years without doing anything worth mentioning.  Moses’ nephews Eleazar and Itamar are priests, assisted only by Eleazar’s son Pinchas, to whom God grants priesthood at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion.1

So Moses spoke to God, saying: “May God, the God of the ruchot of all flesh, appoint a man over the community who will go out before them and who will come in before them, and who will lead them out and who will bring them in, so the community will not be like a flock without a shepherd”. (Numbers/Bemidbar 27:15-17)

ruchot (רוּחֺת) = plural of ruach (רוּחַ) = spirit, wind, mood, driving impulse.

The phrase “the God of the ruchot of all flesh” is unusual; it occurs only twice in the whole Torah.  The other appearance is earlier in the book of Numbers, when Korach leads a revolt against the authority of Moses and Aaron.  At one point he gathers the whole community against them at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.

And God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: “Stand apart from this community, and I will consume them in an instant!”  But they fell on their faces and said: “God, the God of the ruchot of all flesh!  Is it that one man sins, and You become angry at the whole community? (Numbers 16:20-22)

The Death of Korach, Datan, and Abiram, by Gustave Dore

Taking their point, God amends the order to standing apart from the three ringleaders of the rebellion, Korach, Datan, and Aviram.  Moses and Aaron take the extra step of warning all the other people to move away from the tents of the three rebels.  The earth swallows them, but not the people standing at a distance.  God also destroys Korach’s followers, the 250 Levites who are deliberately usurping the priestly role of offering incense.2

By using the phrase “the God of the ruchot of all flesh”, Moses and Aaron remind God that God knows the moods and desires of every individual, and therefore should distinguish between the motivation of Korach, Datan, Aviram, and the 250 Levites, who talk about justice but want personal power, and the motivation of the rest of the Israelites, who do not understand what is going on and just want to stay alive.

Moses uses the phrase “the God of the ruchot of all flesh” again in the Torah portion Pinchas, when he asks God to appoint someone to take over his position as the leader or ruler of the Israelites.  Once again, Moses might be reminding God that God knows the inner spirits of all human beings.  He wants God to choose a new leader with the right personality and motivations for the job.

Obviously Moses’ successor should not be driven by the desire for personal power, like the rebels in the portion Korach.  But what other qualities should this man3 have?

Rashi4 explained Moses’ use of “the God of the ruchot of all flesh” by writing that Moses also said: “Master of the World! The character of each individual is revealed to you, and no two are alike.  Appoint a leader who can tolerate each individual according to his character.’’

The leader of the Israelites must be able to discern each person’s ruach or inner spirit, and adjust accordingly.  He cannot succeed by simply following all the laws God gave to Moses; he must be able to interpret the laws and make new decisions that take into account the natures of different individuals in various situations.5

After Moses asks “the God of the ruchot of all flesh” to appoint the new leader, God picks the obvious choice: Joshua, who has been Moses’ attendant for 40 years in the wilderness, who led the first battle against Amalek,6 and who stood with Caleb in favor of trusting God to help the Israelites conquer Canaan instead of heading back to Egypt.7

Moses Appoints Joshua, from Henry Northrop, Treasures of the Bible, 1894

Then God said to Moses: “Take for yourself Joshua, son of Nun, a man who has ruach in him, and lay your hand upon him.” (Numbers 27:18)

What does God mean by saying Joshua has ruach in him?  Elsewhere in the Torah, the ruach of a human being might be an emotional compulsion such as jealousy,8 or a “ruach Elohim” (spirit of God), an ability bestowed by God such as the wisdom of a craftsman or the gift of prophecy9.

But sometimes the Torah refers to a person’s ruach without a qualifier.   Before this week’s Torah portion, “The ruach of Jacob came alive” when he realized his son Joseph was alive and well after all.10  The Israelite slaves cannot hear Moses’ good news because they suffer “from shortness of ruach and from hard servitude.11

In these two cases, ruach appears to mean a zest for life.  So perhaps in this week’s Torah portion God says Joshua is “a man who has ruach in himbecause he has enough psychic energy to do the job of both leading an extensive military campaign and administering justice among his people.  If Joshua can also discern the ruchot of all the individuals he must lead, all the better.

Joshua is not another Moses; but his ruach, as well as his experience, make him the best candidate to lead the people after Moses dies.


Democracy was not invented until 508 B.C.E. in Athens, long after the time of the exodus or the time when the story of the exodus was recorded.  For the ancient Israelites, as for other cultures around the world, leaders or kings were usually replaced by their children or by a general in a coup.  Occasionally the old king would appoint a new king, in a process parallel to Moses’ laying hands on Joshua.  Everyone claimed the right to kingship came from their people’s god.

In democratic nations today we face a different challenge when it comes to replacing our leaders.  Most, though not all, candidates for highest office have a zest for power.  Do they also have a zest for life?  More importantly, do they have the ability to discern the characters of different persons, and consider their individual needs and desires?  Can they extrapolate and address the needs of citizens in a different social class from their own, people they have never met?

  1. Numbers 25:12-13.
  2. Numbers 16:35.
  3. Moses assumes that although a woman such as Miriam might lead other women, men will only follow a male leader. This is the attitude of the ancient Israelites throughout the Torah. Even the female prophet and judge Devorah, who is the actual leader during the battle against the Canaanite general Sisera, gets Barak to be her front man in Judges 4:6-10.
  4. Rashi is the acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, who wrote extensive commentary in the 11th century in France.
  5. In Numbers 27:21, God tells Moses that Joshua must also ask the high priest, Eleazar, to use the umim to divine God’s decisions about when to go out to or withdraw from battles.
  6. Exodus 17:8-13.
  7. Numbers 14:1-9.
  8. I.e. Numbers 5:14, 5:30.
  9. I.e. Exodus 28:3 and 31:3 (Betzaleil), Numbers 11:17-29 (70 elders), and Numbers 24:2 (Bilaam).
  10. Genesis 45:27.
  11. Exodus 6:9.

Korach: Dwelling Places

June 23, 2020 at 12:53 pm | Posted in Korach | Leave a comment

Two rebellions against the status quo coincide in this week’s Torah portion, Korach.  Korach leads 250 fellow Levites in a rebellion against the authority of the high priest, Aaron—Korach’s first cousin.  Apparently simultaneously, two Reubenite chieftains, Datan and Aviram, revolt against the leadership of Moses.1

They assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and they said: “[You take] too much upon yourselves!  For the whole community is holy and God is in their midst.  So why do you raise yourselves over the community of God?” (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:3)

It sounds like an argument for equal rights, but it turns out that Korach and his 250 men only want the Levites to have equal rights with Aaron, the high priest.  Datan and Aviram want to replace Moses as the political leader of the Israelites, not join him in a government by consensus or democracy.

Moses addresses Korach and the Levites first, telling them to test their argument by bringing incense to the tent-sanctuary in the morning.  Aaron will do the same, and God will reveal who is holy enough to serve as a priest.  Moses adds:

“Is it too little for you that the God of Israel distinguishes you from the community of Israel to let you come close to [God], to serve the service of the mishkan of God, and to stand before the community as [its] attendants?  [God] brought you close, and all your Levite brothers with you.  And now you seek the priesthood as well?”  (Numbers 16:9-10)

mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = dwelling-place; current abode or residence.  (From the root verb shakhan, שָׁכַן = dwell, inhabit, settle in, stay.)

Next the story switches briefly to the rebellion of Datan and Aviram against Moses.  Moses sends for the two Reuvenite chieftains, but they refuse to come at his summons.

We return to the Levite rebellion the next morning, when everyone comes to God’s mishkan, the Tent of Meeting, to watch the contest between the high priest Aaron and the 250 Levites.   No sooner have they gathered than the Torah portion puts the Levites on hold and returns to the revolt of Datan and Aviram.  And where is Korach, the spokesman and leader for the Levites?  This time the redactor who assembled the story lumps Korach together with the two chieftains from the tribe of Reuven.

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the community, saying: Go up away from around the mishkan of Korach, Datan, and Aviram!”  (Numbers 16:23-24)

Until this point the Torah has only used the word mishkan for the tent-sanctuary that the Israelites construct as a dwelling-place for God.  But now God is referring to a mishkan of three human beings.

The three men and their families do not live together; they camp in separate spots to the south of God’s mishkan, which is always erected in the center of the Israelite camp.  So why does God speak of “the mishkan of Korach, Datan, and Aviram” instead of using the word mishkanot (מִשְׁכָּנוֹת), the plural for mishkan?

Perhaps the implication is that even though the rebels have two different goals (Korach argues that all Levites should be priests, while Datan and Aviram argue that someone from the tribe of Reuven should lead the Israelites instead of Moses), they are metaphorically under the same tent.  They are all rebelling against the leadership structure that God decreed at Mount Sinai.2

The three rebel leaders refuse to accept that structure any longer.  God refuses to change it.  So Moses warns the Israelites to stand back and keep their distance, because God is about to take action.

And they went up from around the mishkan of Korach, Data, and Aviram, from all around it.  And Datan and Aviram went out and stationed themselves at the entrance of their tents, along with their wives and the children and the little ones.  And Moses said: “By this you will know that God sent me to do all these deeds, that it was not in my mind.”  (Numbers 16:27)

In other words, it was all God’s idea to make Aaron the high priest and Moses the prophet and chief administrator of the Israelites.  The rebels are actually revolting against God, and they will be destroyed by a divine miracle.

The Death of Korach, Datan, and Aviram, by Gustave Dore

Then the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households and all the humans who belonged to Korach [and Datan and Aviram] and all their possessions.  And they and all who were theirs went down alive to Sheol, and the earth closed over them and they were lost from the assembly.  Then all the Israelites surrounding them fled at the sound of them, for they thought: “Lest the earth swallow us!”  And fire went out from God and consumed the 250 men who had approached with the incense.  (Numbers 16:32-35)

The Israelites survive because they obey the order to stand back from the physical area south of God’s tent-sanctuary.  But they do not grasp the idea that standing back from the homes of the three rebel leaders might also meant standing back from their beliefs—especially their belief that their own desires for more power were more important than preserving the government God had set up.  The people do not understand that if they follow God’s rules, they have nothing to fear.  So they foolishly side with the rebels that God has just wiped out.

And the whole community of Israel grumbled the next day against Moses and against Aaron, saying: “You yourselves brought death on God’s people!”  (Numbers 17:6)

The whole community still believes what the three rebel leaders claimed before the earth swallowed them: that Moses and Aaron are hogging all the power and running the show—even instigating God’s miracles.  This is an insult God will not tolerate.  God tells Moses and Aaron to go stand at a distance from all the other Israelites so God can annihilate everyone except his two favorites.

They disobey God instead.

Then Moses said to Aaron: “Take the censer and place fire from the altar on it, and put on incense, and walk over in a hurry to the community and atone for them!  Because fury has gone forth from God’s presence; the plague has begun!”  Aaron took it, as Moses had spoken, and he ran into the midst of the assembly … and he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was checked.  (Numbers 17:11-13)

By that time it should be obvious to the surviving Israelites that God has the ultimate power, that Moses and Aaron are bravely defending the Israelites, and that the only reasonable course of action is to unite behind them.

But the Israelites said to Moses, saying: “We perish, we are lost, all of us are lost!  Everyone who comes close, who comes close to the sanctuary of God dies!  Will we ever be done with perishing?”  (Numbers 17:27-28)

They are panicking, too terrified by God’s power to learn the lesson.


In this first year of the Covid pandemic, we have seen both sheer panic and calls for a paradigm shift in how we operate as a community, both globally and in each country.  We cannot stop all the deaths from the virus, but we could check the “plague” if we all abandon the tents of rebel leaders who are more interested in personal power than in saving lives.  We could recognize that we humans are, indeed, all vulnerable—and decide that all lives matter, whether the danger comes from disease, pollution, or prejudice.  Just as Moses and Aaron work to save lives, we could choose the good side in every conflict: the side that cares about the health and well-being of every human being, rather than the side that only considers their own power or wealth.

Today we cannot stand aside from other people’s disasters and hope to survive intact.  Because today the whole planet is one mishkan, our only one.

  1. The opening of the Torah portion is confusing, with all three rebel leaders appearing at once before Moses and Aaron (along with a third Reuvenite, On, who is never mentioned again), along with 250 men who are described for the only time in the story as tribal chieftains rather than Levites. Modern biblical scholars explain that one or more redactors of the Torah stitched two different rebellion stories into one another, and the seams show.
  2. When the Israelites leave Mount Sinai, they are well-organized for their next task, occupying the land of Canaan. They march and camp in formation, like an army (Numbers 10:11-28). They conduct formal religious rituals at a tent-sanctuary guarded and transported by Levites under the supervision the priests, Aaron and his sons (Numbers 8:5-22).  And they have an administrative system consisting of 70 elders under the supervision of one head of government, Moses (Numbers 11:13-25).

But in last week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha, the men refuse to cross the border, and God decrees that nobody of them will enter Canaan until 40 years have passed (Numbers 14:20-35).  The people spend most of those years living in safety at the oasis of Kadesh-Barnea in the wilderness south of Canaan.  Yet they camp in the same military formation, practice the same religion, and are governed by the same administration as when they set out to conquer Canaan.

Shelach-Lekha: Stronger

June 17, 2020 at 11:32 am | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | Leave a comment

The Israelites start whining that they want to go back to Egypt only a few days after they leave Mount Sinai in last week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha.1

Free fish and leeks

Then the riffraff who were among them felt a craving and they wept again, and the Israelites also wept, and said: “Who will feed us meat?  We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt at no charge, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic.  And now our throats are dry.  There is nothing but the manna before our eyes!  (Numbers 11:4-6)

In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”), they camp at Kadesh-Barnea on the border between the Wilderness of Paran and Canaan.  Moses sends twelve men to scout out the land God promised them, and they return after forty days with mixed reviews.  All twelve scouts agree that Canaan is indeed a land “flowing with milk and honey”, and they bring back samples of the gigantic fruit.  But only two of the scouts, Caleb and Joshua, are in favor of continuing with God’s plan to capture the country.

Caleb hushed the people toward Moses, and he said: “We must certainly go up and we must certainly take possession of it, because we are certainly able to do it!  But the men who had gone up with him said: We will not be able to go up against those people, because they are stronger mimenu.”  (Numbers 13:30-31)

mimenu (מִמֶּנּוּ) = than us; than him/it (i.e. God).

Do the ten frightened scouts mean that the people already living in Canaan are stronger than the Israelites, or stronger than their God?  Either way, the scouts go among the Israelites and exaggerate.

Grasshopper, photo by Artsajith,Wikimedia

“And there we saw the giants, the Anakites from the giants, and we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were in their eyes!”  (Numbers 13:33)

The Israelites cry in despair all night.

And they said, each man to his brother, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 14:4)

Once again they think they would be better off in Egypt, the land where they were enslaved and the pharaoh tried to kill all their newborn sons.

Both Moses and God lose their tempers; after all, God rescued them from Egypt using Moses as a prophet, and God has fed them manna the whole trip.

Near the end of the Torah portion Shelach-Lekha, God decrees that the people must not enter Canaan until 40 years have passed since their exodus from Egypt.  By that time, the  generation of slaves will have died in the wilderness.  Then only Caleb, Joshua, and the Israelites who are currently under age 20 will cross the border and get a share of the land.

Is the 40-year delay a terrible punishment?  Or an act of mercy?

Click on this link to read my 2014 blog post answering this question:  Shelach-Lekha: Courage and Kindness.

And may we all remember not to make judgments about who is strong and who is weak, who is actually cowardly and who merely resists change.

  1. See my post Beha-alotkha: Cloud over Paran.

Beha-altokha: Cloud over Paran

June 11, 2020 at 9:59 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha | 2 Comments

Tabernacle in the Wilderness, by J.J. Derghi, 1866

The Israelites wait for the signal from God before they leave Mount Sinai and head north toward Canaan.  At last God’s cloud, which has been hovering over the portable tent-sanctuary, ascends and glides off in the direction where God wants the Israelites to travel next.1

The Israelites spend the whole book of Leviticus/Vayikra at Mount Sinai, initiating the priests and the sanctuary and performing various religious rituals for the first time.  During the first two Torah portions of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, they learn how to disassemble the Tent of Meeting and its courtyard, carry the pieces safely, and march in formation by tribe.  But they do not set off until this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you bring up”):

On the twentieth of the second month of the second year, the cloud rose up from over the Mishkan of the Testimony.  The Israelites journeyed on their journey-stages from the Wilderness of Sinai.  Vayishkon, the cloud, in the Wilderness of Paran.  (Numbers 10:11-12)

mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = dwelling-place.  (From the root verb shakhan, שָׁכַן = dwell, inhabit, settle in, stay.)  The portable tent-sanctuary or “tabernacle” is made as a place for God to dwell, at least part-time, among the Israelites.2

vayishkon (וַיִּשְׁכֺּן) = and it settled, and it came to rest and dwelled.  (Also from the root verb shakhan.)

The first stage of the journey north toward Canaan lasts three days; then the cloud descends, and they camp for a month at an uninhabited spot in Paran.3  The Torah gives it two place-names: first Taveirah, then Kivrot Hata-avah.

The complaints begin after the cloud has come to a stop and the camp is set up.  The Torah does not say what the Israelites complained about; the important thing is that once they have left Mount Sinai they start whining again.

And the people were becoming complainers, and it was evil in the ears of God.  God listened, and [God’s] anger heated up and burned against them, and a fire of God ate up the edge of the camp.  Then they wailed to Moses for help, and Moses prayed to God, and the fire sank down.  And the name of that place was called Taveirah, because the fire of Hashem barah.  (Numbers 11:1-3)

Taveirah (תַּבְעֵררָה) = it burns.  (From the verb barah, בָּרעֲרָה = burned.)

But the people do not stop complaining.  They find a pretext: they do not like the food.

Then the riffraff who were among them felt a craving and they wept again, and the Israelites also wept, and said: “Who will feed us meat?”  (Numbers 11:4)

There is no lack of meat at the camp in Paran; the people brought all their livestock with them from Egypt, herds of cows and flocks of sheep and goats.4  At Mount Sinai they learned how to make wholeness-offerings, in which portions of the slaughtered animals were eaten along with  some of the bread by the priests and by the donors and their guests.5

If some of the “riffraff” among the people6 got left off the invitation lists, it might explain their complaint.  But then why do all the Israelites join in asking “Who will feed us meat?”

Perhaps their problem is not that a shortage of meat, but that they want to be fed, like children—or slaves.  Yet even though the people eat their own meat and bread, God is still providing them with the miracle of manna every morning.

We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt at no charge, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic.  And now our throats are dry.  There is nothing but the manna before our eyes!  (Numbers 11:5-6)

In other words, they miss Egypt.  They miss the food they ate in Egypt, and despise the food God gives them in the wilderness.  Egypt was where the Israelites were slaves to a government that wanted their eventual extermination.  Yet it was also their home.  The Wilderness of Paran does not feel like home, even though God is feeding them and taking care of them, even though everyone can see the cloud by day and fire by night over the mishkan, so they know their God is in residence.

The rules Moses has transmitted to them are clear; they know how to serve God instead of Pharaoh, they know what to do in terms of both cult ritual and communal life.  The divine cloud leads them on every journey, and tells them when to pitch camp and when to pull up stakes.  Life should be easy.

Common quail

But the Israelites whine so much that God gets angry and teaches them a lesson by sending flocks of quail that stack up two cubits deep on the ground.  The people gather more dead quail than they can eat.

The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when God’s anger heated up against the people and God struck a great blow against them.  And the name of that place was called Kivrot Hatavah, because there the people kavru those who were mitavim.  (Numbers 11:33-34)

Kivrot (קִבְרוֹת) = burial grounds of.  (From the same root verb as kavru, קָבְרוּ = they buried.)

Hata-avah (הַתַּאֲוָה) = the desire, appetite, craving.  (From the same root verb as mitavim, מִתְאַוִּים = feeling a craving, a longing.)

Thus the first camp in the Wilderness of Paran is named both Taveirah, after both God’s burning anger when the people began complaining again, and Kivrot Hatavah, after the burial of people who were too attached to their cravings for the former home in Egypt, the place of slavery, extermination, and comfort food.


Why did God’s cloud stop and settle for a while in the Wilderness of Paran, before the Israelites reached the border of Canaan?  Was it a test to find out if the people would revert to their old complaining ways, even after they had built the mishkan for God to dwell in?

In every human heart there is both a longing for a new life and a longing to return to the familiar and well-known.  There is courage to journey to a new land, and there is also entrenched discouragement.  Although the proportion of resilience to despair is different inside each individual, every person does get opportunities to lean one way or the other.

Are you leaning toward God or Pharaoh today?

  1. And when the cloud rose up from above the mishkan, the Israelites would pull out on each of their journeys. But if the cloud did not rise up, they would not pull out until the day it did rise. Because the cloud of God was over the mishkan by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the Israelites on all their journeys. (Exodus/Shemot 40:36-38)
  2. See my posts Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home, and Bemidbar: Two Kinds of Troops.
  3. Numbers 10:33-34.
  4. Exodus 12:38.
  5. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.
  6. The Hebrew word sometimes translated as “riffraff” is asafsuf (אֲסַפְסֻף), based on the verb asaf (אָסַף) = gather in, gather against, take in, take away.

Naso: Raising a Blessing

June 4, 2020 at 2:17 am | Posted in Naso | Leave a comment

Hand position for Priestly Blessing

May God bless you and protect you!

May God shine the light of panav toward you and be compassionate to you!

May God yissa panav to you and grant you peace!  (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:24-26)

yissa (יִשָֹּא) = he will lift, raise; may he lift, raise.  (Imperfect form of the verb nasa = lift, raise.)

panav (פָּנָיו) = his face, his presence.

yissa panav = may he lift his face.  When God is the subject, this is an idiom meaning “May [God] be benevolent.”

This “Priestly Blessing” or “Threefold Blessing” is chanted at peak moments in Jewish services to this day.  (The first sentence has three words in Hebrew, the second has five words, and the third has seven words.  Chanting these lines out loud, with a pause or melodic phrase after each sentence, produces the effect of increasing blessing.)

The Threefold Blessing comes directly from this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift up”).  The portion opens with God’s instructions to Moses for taking a census of the men between 30 and 50 in the Gershonite clan of the tribe of Levi and assigning them their duties.

Numbering of the Israelites, by Henri Felix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, 19th century

And God spoke to Moses, saying:  “Naso et rosh of the sons of Gershon also, by their ancestral houses and by their clans, from the age of 30 years up to the age of 50 years you will count them…  (Numbers 6:21-23)

naso (נָשֹא) = Lift!  Raise up!  (Imperative form of the verb nasa.)

rosh (רֺאשׁ) = head.

naso et rosh = Lift the head!  (An idiom meaning either “take a census” or “pardon”.)

You lift someone else’s head when you are taking a head count, or when you are pardoning that person.  You lift your own head, raising your face, when you acknowledge someone’s presence.  God lifts God’s face in order to face people with benevolence—like humans raising their heads to smile at someone.1

The idiom of lifting someone else’s head, which is used merely for counting at the start of the portion Naso, is later transformed into the idiom of lifting one’s own face, which God does to bless people with benign attention.

Initiating a blessing

The climax of this week’s Torah portion, in my opinion, is when God instructs Moses on the way the priests should bless the Israelites as a whole.

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, ‘Thus you shall bless the Children of Israel.  Say to them: May God bless you and protect you!  May God shine the light of panav toward you and be compassionate to you!  May God yissa panav to you and grant you peace!’”  (Numbers 6:23-26)

After giving the three sentences of blessing, God concludes with this instruction:

Place my name upon the Children of Israel, and I myself will bless them. (Numbers 6:27)

In other words, the priests must recite the correct three-line formula in front of the people.  Then God, not the priests, will bless them.  God’s blessing is triggered not by the wishes of the priests, but by the words that the people hear, the three sentences that include the personal name of God.

If we imagine an external being called God, who bestows gifts like a good king or a loving parent, then the Threefold Blessing expresses what we want God to give us in the world. We want the universe, personified, to bless us with success; to protect us from harm; to shine with kindness toward us; to treat us with compassion; to give us benign attention; and to arrange for us to live in peace.

Traditional Jewish blessings, like the Threefold Blessing, follow the form “May God bless you with—”, perhaps because we know that even a parent blessing a child cannot actually make any of these good things happen.  Only God can do that—if God is a semi-anthropomorphic being who runs the universe.

Hearing a blessing

There is plenty of evidence that blessing in our universe does not work that way. Many people are hapless, damaged, confused, starved, or punished too harshly. That makes the Threefold Blessing either a fantasy, or a prayer that the whole universe will change.

But maybe there is a deeper truth in the instructions in this week’s Torah portion about how the priests can initiate God’s blessings.  Maybe something happens when the people who need blessing hear God’s name in the blessing formula.

The prophet Elijah learns that God is not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in a soft murmur—a “still, small voice” in the King James translation.2  If we want to be blessed with a life in which God seems to be smiling at us and easing our way, then we must learn to hear the small voice of God inside us.

“May God bless you with—” is also a way to say “Listen for God and the blessing of—”.

May we all find a way to listen.


Last week, when other Jews were celebrating Shavuot and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, I could only imitate the mountain, shaking uncontrollably.  This week, fortunately, I have a smaller set of (non-Covid) symptoms, less frightening than an earthquake, less painful than fire.  I continue to get medical tests and to hope for a fuller diagnosis and further improvement.  But I also notice that every time I lie down (which is often) I feel grateful for my life, for the bed underneath me, for my own thoughts, and for the soft murmur deep inside me that sometimes releases a word in a still, small voice.  God is blessing me.

  1. In a similar idiom, people’s faces “fall” (nafal, נָפַל) when they lower their heads in anger at whomever they are facing. When God does not welcome Cain’s offering, Cain became very hot with anger, and his face fell. (Genesis 4:5)  This idiom can also apply to God’s face.  God tells the prophet Jeremiah to say: Continue turning back [to me], declares God; I will not make my face fall at you, because I am kind, declares God.  (Jeremiah 3:12)
  2. 1 Kings 19:11-13.


Bemidbar: Don’t Look

May 20, 2020 at 9:34 pm | Posted in Bemidbar | Leave a comment

Idol of a bull for a god to ride, 12th century BCE, Samaria, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

At Mount Sinai the Israelites experience God, lose hope and make the Golden Calf, reform and make the portable sanctuary for God, and learn how to practice their religion.  After a year and a month, they are ready when the book of Numbers/Bemidbar begins, to dismantle the sanctuary and journey north to Canaan.

On the way, how will they safely carry the sacred items in the sanctuary’s Tent of Meeting from one campsite to the next?

This week’s Torah portion, also called Bemidbar (“In the wilderness of”), is not concerned about the safety of the safety of the ark, the table, the menorah, or the incense altar on the road.  It is concerned about the safety of the Levites who will carry the holy items.

Aaron shall enter, and his sons, when the camp is going to pull out, and they shall take down the dividing curtain and kisu the ark of testimony.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 4:5)

kisu (כִּסּוּ) = they shall cover.  (A form of the verb kasah, כָּסָה = covered, covered over, clothed, concealed.)

The Torah describes how many layers of what materials the priests will use to cover the gold ark, bread table, menorah, and incense altar that normally stand inside the Tent of Meeting, which only priests may enter.  (See my post Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred.)  The word for “cover” in this passage is always the verb kasah.

And Aaron and his sons shall finish lekhasot the Holy and all the implements of the Holy when the camp is going to pull out, and after that the Kohatites shall come in to carry [them], but they shall not touch the Holy or they will die.  (Numbers 4:15)

lekhasot (לְכַסֺּת) = to cover, covering.  (Another form of the verb kasah.)

Israel enters the land of promise.
Bible Card by the Providence Lithograph Company, 1907.

One reason to wrap up the holy items is so that the Levites cannot touch them; unauthorized contact results in death.1   The Levites from the Kohat tribe are only authorized to touch the carrying poles for each furnishing.

They are also endangered if they see any part of the Holy as it is being wrapped.  The Torah uses a different term for wrapping or covering to describe this unauthorized view.

And God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: “Do not cause the tribe of the families of the Kohatites to be cut down from among the Levites!  Do this for them, and they will live and not die: when they approach the Holy of Holies, Aaron and his sons shall come in and assign each individual man his service and his burden.  And they shall not come in to look as the Holy [are] bala, or they will die.”  (Numbers 4:17-20)

bala (בָּלַע) = swallowed down, devoured, engulfed.

Where did that menacing image come from?  Do the holy items suddenly look as if they are being devoured by their own wrappings?


Job, by Ivan Mestrovic, 1943 (photo by M.C.)

Usually when the verb bala appears in the Torah it means either “destroyed” in general, or  specifically “swallowed”.  One exception is when Job complains that God is persecuting him.

“Will you not look away from me, leave me alone, until I bala my own spit?”  (Job 7:19)

Here Job uses a form of bala to mean “swallow” in an idiom for a moment or instant—the brief time it takes to swallow spit.

Taking off from this idiom, some translators conclude that bala in our Torah portion at the beginning of the book of Numbers does not mean “swallowed”, but rather “the time it takes to swallow”.  Here is a version by Everett Fox2:

But they are not to enter and see (even) for-a-moment (the dismantling of) the Holy-Shrine, lest they die. (Numbers 4:20)

Perhaps the Levites must not see the holy items for even as long as it takes to swallow.  Or perhaps the Levites must not see the holy items as small objects being swallowed or engulfed by their coverings.

Why not?

Pride.  A tantalizing glimpse of something normally out-of-bounds could lead a Levite porter to steal another chance to look at part of holy item.  He might feel powerful, familiar with the most holy, almost like a priest.  Yet peeking under the wrapping, for example, would result automatically in the Levite’s death.

Disenchantment.  On the other hand, seeing one of the holy items being wrapped as if it were any other physical object might lead a Levite to treat it with less reverence, which is also a bad idea.  The Levite might even start thinking of God as a mere physical object.

These same arguments might apply to the priests wrapping the holy items.  When the Tent of Meeting is set up and in operation, all of the priests get to see the bread table, menorah, and incense altar.  But the ark stands behind a dividing curtain in the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest may go, once a year.

Yet this week’s Torah portion implies that lesser priests are allowed to see the ark every time they dismantle and reassemble the sanctuary.  Perhaps the priests cover the ark with the specified layers of cloths without actually looking at it (or touching it directly).  I think the Torah assumes they have the willpower to do this.

But the Kohatites waiting to receive the covered-up ark might not be able to resist peeking—unless the priests assigned them tasks that would keep them busy from the time the curtains came down until the ark was covered.  After all, when you are faced with a deadly temptation, it is easier to redirect your mind if you stay busy.

Maybe if Adam and Eve had been given the job of weeding around the Tree of Knowledge in the garden of Eden, they could have resisted the temptation to taste its fruit.

What tempts you?  Hot fudge?  The body of a person who is off-limits for you?  Personal power?

What is it like to be tempted by divine power?  To crave something beyond awe in the face of the mystery?  To want to touch something beyond reason, something so alien to normal human thinking that contact with it could destroy you?

  1. See my post Shemini & 2 Samuel: Segregating the Holy.
  2. Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Books, New York, 1983, p. 673.

(Based on an essay I published in 2011.  When I had a good day this week, I rewrote it.)

Bechukkotai: A Rejecting Nefesh

May 15, 2020 at 3:22 am | Posted in Bechukkotai | Leave a comment

Reward and punishment sound simple at the end of the book of Leviticus/ Vayikra.   If you obey all my rules, God says in the last Torah portion, Bechukkotai (“by my decrees”), then I will give you ample food, peace, and descendants.  If you reject any of my rules, then I will reject you, and punish you for several pages.

Pomegranates, photo by M.C.

If you go by my decrees and you observe my commands and perform them, then I will give the rains in their season, and I will give the land her produce, and the tree of the field will give its fruit.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3-4)

The list of rewards concludes:

And I will put my dwelling-place among you, and my nefesh will not reject you.  I will walk around in your midst, and I will be your god, and you will be my people.  (Leviticus/ Vayikra 26:11-12)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite, throat; animating soul (what makes humans and animals alive).

The promise of God living among the people and being their god is the culmination of the rewards that result from keeping the covenant with God.

The list of results from not going by God’s decrees begins:

But if you do not listen to me, and you do not do all these commands, and if your nefesh loathes my laws, preventing you from doing any of my commands, making you break out of my covenant—[then] I will even do this to you: I will appoint panic over you, consumption, and fever, using up the eyes and wearing out the nefesh.  And you will sow your seeds in vain, and your enemies will eat them.  (Leviticus 26:14-16)

The list of punishments concludes:

You will be lost in the nations, and the land of your enemies will consume you.  And those who remain will rot away in their depravity in the lands of their enemies, and even in the depravity of their forefathers remaining in them.  Then they will confess their depravity and the depravity of their fathers, that they walked against me with hostility.  When I have been hostile to them and have brought them into the land of their enemies, that is when their uncircumcised heart will humble itself, and that is when they will gain appeasement for their depravity.  (Leviticus 26:38-41)

Only then, after they have fully recognized and admitted their horrible deeds, baring their hearts, will God  renew the covenant with the remaining Israelites and bring them back to their former land.

Nefesh as throat

Bitter Drink by Adriaen Brouwer, 17th century

Suppose we translate nefesh as the throat, the location of the appetite for physical food.  Robert Alter took this tack when he translated “my nefesh will not reject you” as  “I shall not loathe you”, and explained that a literal translation would be “my throat will not expel you”, i.e. I will not retch in disgust over you.1  Similarly, “if your nefesh rejects my laws” means “if you retch in disgust over my laws”.

Continuing to translate nefesh as “throat”,  “the fever of using up the eyes and wearing out the nefeshbecomes “inflamed eyes and sore throat”.  These could be either disease symptoms, or a description of a person who has been crying for a long time.

The advantage of viewing nefesh as “throat” is the emotional impact of imagining God retching with disgust, and imagining ourselves sobbing in anguish.  How can we remain hostile to a God who is so emotionally involved that God finds our bad behavior nauseating?  How can we live with the suffering of our own nefesh?

Nefesh as animating soul

On the other hand, suppose we translate nefesh as the animating soul that gives the body life and desires.  Then “my nefesh will not reject you” assigns a different anthropomorphic metaphor to God.  It means that if we follow God’s decrees, God will desire to make a home with us and walk around in our midst—to be close to us.  (See my translation of Leviticus 26:11-12 above.)

Then God will continue to be alive to us.

If humans suffer from “the fever of using up the eyes and wearing away the nefesh their alienation from God is making them feel more and more dead inside.

The bottom line in this covenant between God and the Israelites  is that if you want to be alive to God and desire God, you must also be aware of and desire all of God’s decrees, laws, and commandments.  If you reject the divine rules that you don’t like, you lose your connection with God.


This tells me I’d be a lousy Israelite.  There are many rules in the Torah that stick in my throat, rules that I have no appetite for, that my soul is dead to.  For example, the technology of animal sacrifice obviously worked for most ancient Israelites, at least until the time of the prophet Isaiah.  But all the rules about animal sacrifices disgust me.  Jewish authorities point out that without a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, Jews have no place to make animal sacrifices, so we don’t have to follow the rules about them.  But this rational explanation does not comfort me.  My most visceral soul, my nefesh, still feels outrage at the very thought of killing animals in order to draw closer to God.

Does this mean I can never walk with God?  I hope not.  After all, the rabbis of 2,000 years ago, as quoted in the Talmud, “interpreted” many of the rules in the Torah until they came out quite different.  Also, rabbis since Talmudic times have made their judgments by using the same general standards, but applying them differently according the particulars of each case.

Today, we cannot help but pick and choose which specific rules to follow.  But we can still apply the same general moral standards to each particular situation.

Suppose you are fair with other people—except when you cannot resist cheating them.  Or kind to others—except when you does not feel like it.  Then your inner vision fails, and your nefesh becomes flimsy.  As it says in Leviticus, the spirit of God will no longer walk or find a home with such a person.

May we all be blessed with the strength and wisdom we need to keep working on ethical behavior.  May each of us develop an appetite (nefesh) for goodness, and sow seeds of kindness everywhere.  Then we will be rewarded with a harvest of aliveness (nefesh), and holiness will dwell with us wherever we walk.

(For the past week I have suffered from nausea, lightheadedness, and other odd physical symptoms.  I do not believe the cause is hostility toward God, and I hope to get a medical diagnosis soon.  Meanwhile, my ability to write has slowed down, so please bear with me this month.) 

  1. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, p. 661.

Acharey Mot & Kedoshim: Fire of the Molekh

April 29, 2020 at 5:47 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Jeremiah, Kedoshim, Kings 2 | Leave a comment

(We are moving into a more permanent home on the Oregon coast, now that the pandemic has put a hiatus in our travels abroad.  While I am unpacking next week, you may want to read last year’s post on next week’s Torah portion, Emor: Libations.)


Offering to Molech, Bible Pictures, by Charles Foster, 1897

And you must not give any of your offspring to pass through for the molekh, and you must not profane the name of your God; I am Y-H-V-H.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:21)

molekh (מֹלֶךְ) = melekh (מֶלֶךְ) = king, spelled with the vowel marks of boshet (בֺּשֶׁת) = shame.

This command in Acharey Mot (“After the death”), one of this week’s two Torah portions, contains the first occurrence of the word molekh in the Torah—if you are reading the standard Masoretic text.  If you read a Torah scroll, which has no vowel marks, it looks the same as a command not to give your offspring to “the king” (melekh).1

The prohibition above raises two questions:

  • How does giving your offspring (children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren) to the molekh profane the name of the God of Israel?
  • What does “to pass through” mean?

Profaning the name

The usual biblical way to profane God’s name appears in this week’s second Torah portion, Kedoshim (“Holy ones”):

And you must not swear by my name for a falsehood, and profane the name of your God; I am Y-H-V-H.  (Leviticus 19:12)

Using God’s personal four-letter name to give false testimony demeans that name by treating it as merely a trick word for pulling off a wicked deed.

Perhaps giving a child to the molekh demeans a different name of God.  Psalm 47:7-8 considers God “our king” and “king of all the earth”.  Giving children to another god called “king” (מלך), one who demands an unholy deed, demeans God’s name and reputation.

Later in Kedoshim God pronounces two penalties for this serious offense:

Any man of the Israelites, or from the foreign sojourners sojourning in Israel, who gives any of his offspring to the molekh must certainly be put to death; the people of the land must pelt him with stones.  And I, I shall give my attention to that man and cut him off from among his people, because he gave one of his offspring to the molekh, intentionally making my holy ones impure and profaning my holy name.  (Leviticus 20:2-3)

Even if the people do not stone the molekh-worshipper, God will still “cut him off”2 along with

… all the whores after him from among the people who whore after the molekh.  You must make yourselves holy and you must be holy, because I, Y-H-V-H, am your God.”  (Leviticus 20:5)

Throughout the Torah the God of Israel demands both exclusive worship (being faithful to God instead of “whoring” after other gods) and adherence to God’s rules for holy behavior.

Passing through fire

King Josiah of Judah begins his campaign for exclusive worship of one God by clearing the effects of other gods out of the temple in Jerusalem: an Asherah idol, utensils for worshiping Baal and Asherah, and enclosures woven for Asherah.  Next Josiah demolishes the shrines in Judah where unauthorized worship is going on, and then:

He desecrated the burning-place which is in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, to prevent passing a son or a daughter through fire for the molekh. (2 Kings 23:10)

The second book of Chronicles describes the same practice during the time of Josiah’s grandfather, King Menashe, 3 confirms that there was an established tradition of passing children through a fire in the valley of Ben-Hinnom below Jerusalem.4

Model of Jerusalem: Valley of Ben Hinnom below Herod’s city wall, Valley of Kidron right. Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

King Josiah discourages this practice by desecrating the place where it happens.  Jeremiah, who prophesies from Josiah’s reign until after the Babylonian army destroys Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., discourages the practice by reporting that God never wanted people to do it in the first place.

And they built shrines for the burning-place in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, and which was definitely not on my mind.  (Jeremiah 7:31)

Molekh, Die Alten Judischen Heiligthumer by Johann Lund, 1711 (7 ovens from Yalkut Shimoni; bull head from unknown source)

And they built shrines for the Baal in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, for passing their sons and their daughters to the molekh, which I did not command them, and it was not on my mind to do this abomination …  (Jeremiah 32:35)

Jeremiah makes it clear that the “king” worshipped in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom is not the God of Israel.

According to modern commentator Jacob Milgrom, some Israelites might have believed that God wanted people to pass their offspring through the fire in a ritual that may or may not have burned them to death.  Alternatively, Milgrom wrote, people might have believed in two gods, the king of the heavens (God the melekh, worshiped in the temple on top of a hill in Jerusalem) and the king of the underworld (the molekh, worshiped in the valley below).5  Jeremiah 32:35 denounces both beliefs, insisting that there is only one God and God never wanted people to burn their children.


The Hebrew Bible does not say whether a child who was passed through, between, or over the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom survived the experience.  One Talmudic opinion is that the child was led along a latticework of bricks between two fires; another is that the child leaped over a small bonfire.6

On the other hand, the Talmud shortens Valley of Ben Hinnom (Gey Ben Hinnom in Hebrew) to Gehinnom elsewhere in the Talmud.  The rabbis imagine Gehinnom, where the fire for the molekh burned, as the opening to a vast underground fire where the souls of the wicked go after death.7  (The righteous go straight to the Garden of Eden.)  Burning in Gehinnom purifies the souls of the wicked, which are eventually redeemed.

I think the myth of Gehinnom is actually a return to the belief, denounced by Jeremiah, that God desired the burning of children in Ben Hinnom.  Several Talmud tractates claim that God created Gehinnom and the Garden of Eden before creating the world.8  Therefore the melekh of heaven who created all the earth, and the molekh of the underworld who burns souls and commands passing children through fire, are actually one and the same god.

So why did the Masoretes replace the word melekh with molekh in passages about passing children through fire?  It strikes me as one of many attempts to dodge the theodicy or “problem of evil”:  How can God be both all-good and the source of everything that exists, including evil?

I say forget the molekh, and wrestle directly with the problem.

  1. For centuries the Hebrew Bible was written with consonants but no vowels. When the Masoretes added vowel marks in the 6th–10th centuries C.E. they also assigned the vowels in the word boshet to seven appearances of the word for “king”, turning מֶלֶך (melekh) into מֺלֶךְ (molekh).
  2. In the Torah being “cut off”, karet, means either dying prematurely, dying without children, or dying in spiritual isolation. In the Talmud it can also mean being excluded from the World to Come (as in Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 64b).
  3. Menashe, who ruled the kingdom of Judah circa 697-643 B.C.E., is described in 2 Chronicles 33:6 as worshiping false gods and passing his own sons through the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom.  His grandson Josiah ruled circa 640–609 B.C.E.
  4. Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 64a, assumes that parents also handed over their children to priests of the molekh.
  5. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus (A Continental Commentary), Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2004, p. 199.
  6. Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 64b.
  7. See Talmud Bavli, Eiruvin 19a.  Jews did not adopt the idea that souls survive death until the second century B.C.E.  The idea of souls burning in an underground fire came from Greek and Persian sources, which Jews developed into the myth of Gehinnom (later called Gehenna) and Christians developed into the myths of Hell and Purgatory.  The Talmud was written during the third through fifth centuries C.E.
  8. Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 54a and Nedarim 39b.




Tazria: Interim Isolation

April 22, 2020 at 12:53 pm | Posted in Metzora, Tazria | Leave a comment

Childbirth, menstruation, and death called for apotropaic magic in most Ancient Near East cultures.  The Torah addresses these disturbing events with social distancing and ritual purification.

Four men with tzara-at in 2 Kings 7:8

This week Jews read a double Torah portion: Tazria (“she makes seed”) and Metzora (someone with the skin disease tzara-at).  Both portions are about physical conditions that make people ritually impure and the procedures for purifying them.  The most space is devoted to a skin disease that makes people so ritually impure that they are excluded from their camp or town, and must pitch their tents outside its boundaries until a priest pronounces them cured.  (See my post last year, Tazria & Psalms 38 & 88: Isolation of the Sick.)  But this week’s two portions also consider the ritual impurity of childbirth and menstruation, during which a woman can remain in her home, in a room set aside for her.

Tazria begins:

If a woman makes seed [conceives] and gives birth to a male, then she is temeiah for seven days: in the same way as in the days of her menstrual indisposition titema. (Leviticus/Vayikra 12:2)

temeiah (טְמֵאָה) (feminine); tamei (טָמֵא) (masculine) = ritually impure.

titema (תִּטְמָא) = she becomes temeiah.

Near the end of Metzora, we read:

And if a woman is discharging blood … seven days she shall be in her menstrual separation, and whoever touches her yitema until evening.  And whatever she lies on during her menstrual separation yitema, and whatever she sits on yitema.  (Leviticus 15:19-20)

yitema (יִטְמָה) = he/it becomes tamei.

Ruins of mikveh for immersion in priest’s home, Wohl Museum, Jerusalem (photo by M.C.)

Any person or object that touches a menstruating woman must be immersed in water that day, and then becomes ritually pure again in the evening.1  The same rule applies to a man with an unhealthy genital discharge, and a woman with a discharge other than her monthly period.2

A human being who is tamei/temeiah is also forbidden to “touch the holy” by entering the precincts of the sanctuary or by eating any of the meat and bread from a wholeness-offering.3  A tamei/temeiah person in a priest’s household may not eat any of the food given to the priest.4

Seven days tamei and 33 days after = 40

The Torah portion Tazria assumes that if a woman gives birth to a son, her post-partum bleeding lasts for seven days.  During that week she is temeiah, and anyone or anything that touches her becomes tamei until immersion and sunset.

And on the eighth day, the flesh of his [her son’s] foreskin shall be circumcised.  Then for 33 days she shall stay in the bloodshed of taharah; she shall not touch anything holy, and she shall not come into the holy place, until the days of her taharah are completed. (Leviticus/Vayikra 12:3-4)

taharah (טָהֳרָה) = ritual purification process; ready for ritual purification.

titehar (תִּטְהָר) = she becomes tehorah.

tehorah (טְהוֹרָה) (feminine); tahor (טָהוֹר) (masculine) = ritually pure.

During the 33-day interim period of “purification bloodshed”, the mother of the son may still have some vaginal discharge, but she is considered tehorah only to the extent that a person or object that touches her does not become tamei.  This would make it easier for her to receive visitors, and she could move around the house freely.  The only things she cannot do during those 33 days are to approach the holy sanctuary or eat holy food.

What is the purpose of the 33-day interim period?  A simple answer is that although the Torah is strict about abnormal vaginal discharges, it mercifully lessens the requirements for a woman who is experiencing the last traces of post-partum seepage.

by Mary Cassat

Modern commentators give a psychological reason for the 33-day interim period.  Expanding on a hint by 16th-century Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, 20th-century Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz wrote: “Although she is physically ready and ritually clean, mentally she is not yet geared to concentrate on the holy.  Since the sacred demands kavanah, intent, she must wait until her thoughts are sufficiently predisposed to focus on the non-physical, namely, the spiritual and the holy.”5

I can remember my own single-minded absorption in my son when he was a newborn.

I believe that Israelite women would also have needed time to recover from fear of death.  Without modern medicine, the mother or the infant often died shortly after childbirth.  If both mother and son were healthy 40 days after the birth, it would be easier for the relieved mother to focus on other things.

Fourteen days tamei and 66 days after = 80

The post-partum time periods in Leviticus are longer when the woman has a daughter.

And if she gives birth to a female, then she shall be temeiah for a pair of weeks, in the same way as in her menstruation.  And she shall stay 66 days over the bloodshed of taharah.  (Leviticus 12:5)

The Talmud’s explanation of why the woman is temeiah twice as long for the birth of a daughter as for a son assumes that most women in labor swear they will never have sex again.6  It takes seven days for a woman who bore a son to repent of her oath, but fourteen days for a woman who bore a daughter to repent.  Why?  One theory in the Talmud is that her labor pains are twice as bad for a daughter, because:

Just as a male engages in intercourse facing downward, so too, it is born while facing down. And that one, a female fetus, emerges in the manner in which it engages in intercourse, i.e., facing upward. (Niddah 31a)7

This assumes that a couple uses the “missionary position”, and that only and all female infants are born face up.  Obviously the rabbis did not ask any mothers or midwives about it.  I can, however, attest that the final stage of delivery is especially long and painful when the baby emerges face up—like my son.

The Talmud gives a second theory, based on the assumption that everyone wants a boy more than a girl:

Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai answered them: When a woman gives birth to a male, over which everyone is happy, she regrets her oath that she will never again engage in intercourse with her husband, already seven days after giving birth. By contrast, after giving birth to a female, over which everyone is unhappy, she regrets her oath only fourteen days after giving birth.  (Niddah 31b)

Neither the Torah nor the Talmud says why the interim period of taharah is 33 days for a son but 66 days for a daughter.

by Mary Cassat

In the 19th century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained it in terms of which parent would be the infant’s role model.  The circumcision of a boy, he wrote, marks the beginning of the father’s duty to prepare his son to be an observant Jewish man.  The mother no longer has full responsibility for her son, so her interim period is just 33 days, enough time to recover.  For a daughter, the mother’s interim period is twice as long to “impress upon the mother the full solemnity and magnitude of her task—to be an example and role model for the Jewish woman of the future.  …  With sons, the crucial part of their education comes from the father, as the sons see in him a model for their own future male role.  With daughters, however, the mother is both a role model and a molder of character.”8

Gender roles in the 19th century were strictly defined, just as they were when the Torah and Talmud were written.

Rigid gender roles still exist in some cultures today, but much of the world has adopted a more fluid approach.  Modern liberal Jews recognize this when we hold a naming ceremony for a female baby on her eighth day, corresponding to a male infant’s circumcision; or a bat mitzvah for a pubescent girl because she is able, today, to take on the same adult religious responsibilities as a boy.

Now some congregations are also recognizing people whose gender is not simply male or female.  The Talmud rules that a woman who gives birth to an infant of indeterminate gender follows the same count as a woman who gives birth to twins who are a girl and a boy: her initial period of being temeiah lasts 14 days, as in the birth of a daughter, but her interim period of taharah lasts 33 days, as in the birth of a son.9


Many countries now require employers to offer parental leave when a child is born or adopted.  I think we should also offer parental leave from social expectations.  After all, during a baby’s first few months the parents are usually exhausted from getting up during the night for feedings and diaper changes.  They should not be expected to give their full attention to anything else.

Whether the primary care-giver of a fragile new human being should get a total of 40 or 80 days away from normal religious and social responsibilities depends on factors other than the gender of the infant!

  1. Intercourse with a menstruating woman is forbidden in Leviticus 18:19, and the penalty assigned in Leviticus 20:18 is that both partners are “cut off”, exiled from their community. Since the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem, strictly observant women have been sleeping separately from their husbands and abstaining from sexual intercourse during their periods and for seven to ten days afterward, then ending the period of abstinence with immersion in a ritual bath, a mikveh.
  2. Leviticus 15:2-11, 15:25-27.
  3. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2 on how a shelamim or wholeness-offering was divided.
  4. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), following the Talmud, Yevamot 75a.
  5. Obadiah Sforno: Commentary on the Torah, trans. and footnotes by Raphael Pelcovitz, ArtScroll Mesorah Publications, 1993, footnote by Pelcovitz p. 539 on 12:8.
  6. The William Davidson Talmud,, Niddah 31b.
  7. All quotes from the Talmud in this essay are from The William Davidson Talmud,
  8. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Pentateuch, Vol. 3, Leviticus, translated by Isaac Levy, Judaica Press, Ltd., 1976, p. 380.
  9. The William Davidson Talmud,, Niddah 28a.

Shemini & 2 Samuel: Segregating the Holy

April 15, 2020 at 9:09 am | Posted in Samuel 1, Samuel 2, Shemini | 2 Comments

The Two Priests Are Destroyed, by James Tissot

Aaron and his four sons have just finished their eight days of ordination in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (“Eighth”).  Then the two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense into the Tent of Meeting, and the fire of God consumes them.  (See my post Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.)  After their bodies are dragged out,

Then God spoke to Aaron, saying: “Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons with you, when coming into the Tent of Meeting, and you shall not die.  [This is] a decree forever for your generations: to havdil between the holy and the ordinary, and between the ritually-impure and the ritually-pure; and to instruct the children of Israel on all the decrees that God spoke to them through Moses.” (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:10-11)

havdil (הַבְדֹּיל) = make a distinction, separate, segregate, distinguish.

The new priests already know they must officiate at the altar; tend the menorah, bread table, and incense altar inside the Tent of Meeting; and guard the ark in the curtained-off Holy of Holies in back.  Now God says they must distinguish between the holy and the ordinary and keep them separate; and teach God’s decrees to the Israelites.  (Since a priest would need a clear head to perform both duties, many commentators connect these duties with God’s injunction against drinking on the job.)  Although Nadav and Avihu did not disobey a specific decree, they made a serious error when they brought unauthorized incense into the holy Tent of Meeting, perhaps into the Holy of Holies.  A priest must not violate a holy space.

What does it mean to distinguish and segregate the holy from the ordinary?


In the Hebrew Bible, holiness is not a feeling.  The holy (hakodesh, הַקֹּדֶשׁ) means whatever is dedicated to God.  Objects, places, and days are all holy if they are reserved for serving God.

Levites carry draped ark

The holiest object is the ark, which holds two stone tablets that God gave Moses on top of Mount Sinai.  When the ark is inside the innermost chamber of the sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, God’s presence manifests in the empty space right above its lid.  No one but Moses and the high priest may see the ark inside the Holy of Holies.  When the tent-sanctuary is dismantled and Levites transport the ark to the Israelites’ next camp, priests drape three layers of coverings over it to protect people from seeing it.  No one may touch it except for the Levites carrying its poles.1

The haftarah reading accompanying this week’s Torah portion is a selection from the second book of Samuel which describes how King David transports the ark from a private house near the border of Philistia to his new capital in Jerusalem.2  In this story, as in Shemini, someone serving as a priest fails to differentiate between the holy and the ordinary.

The ark resides in a private house near the border because 20 years earlier, in the first book of Samuel, two priests who had a reputation for being derelict in their duties took the ark out of the sanctuary in Shiloh and into battle, where the Philistines captured it.3  After the enemy brought it home, their idol of Dagon fell over and broke, and the Philistines were plagued by mice and hemorrhoids.  They sent the ark back across the border into Israelite territory, where the people of Beit-Shemesh rejoiced and make animals offerings on the spot.  But then 70 men looked into the ark and died.4   Frightened, the remaining men of Beit-Shemesh sent the ark to the house of Avinadav in Kiryat-Yarim, where it remained for 20 years.5

In the haftarah reading from the second book of Samuel, King David decides to transport the ark to Jerusalem.

They mounted the ark of God on a new cart, and they carried it away from the house of Avinadav, which was on the hill.  Uzza and Achio, descendants of Avinadav, were guiding the new cart.  (2 Samuel 6:3)

Elazar, Avinidav’s “consecrated son”, had served as the first priest to guard the ark.6  But after 20 years there is a new generation of guardians.  Achio walks in front of the ox-cart, and Uzza has the honor of walking beside the ark.  The procession includes King David and thousands of Israelites dancing to the sound of musical instruments.  Then the oxen pulling the cart stumble.

The Chastisement of Uzza, by James Tissot

They came as far as the threshing-place of Nakhon; then Uzza reached out to the ark of God and grabbed at it, because the cattle had let [the cart] go off by itself.  And God’s anger flared up against Uzza, and [God] struck him down there, over the heedless error.  And he died there beside the ark of God.  (2 Samuel 6:6-7)

While Uzza is accompanying the ark, he is serving as a priest, who must havdil the holy and the ordinary”.  His impulsive action, however well-meant, fails to distinguish between the perilously holy ark and an ordinary ox-cart load.

King David sends the ark to a nearby house, and tries again three months later.  This time the ark reaches the tent the king has prepared.  As the procession crosses the City of David in Jerusalem,

David was whirling around with all his might before God; and David had belted on a linen efod. (2 Samuel 6:14)

efod (אֵפוֹד) = a tunic or cuirass with the front and back tied together, worn by the high priest as part of his ritual costume.

David is dancing in front of the ark, but the ark is so holy that the Torah says he is dancing before God.  His whirling around with all his might” reminds me of the prophets who speak in ecstasy in Exodus and the two books of Samuel.  Although David is wearing a priest’s efod, he acts more like a prophet filled with the spirit of God—until the ark has been placed inside the tent in Jerusalem.

Then King David soberly plays the role of high priest, performing all the rituals without a hitch.

They brought the ark of God and set it up in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David brought up rising-offerings before God, and the wholeness-offerings.  And when David finished bringing up the rising-offerings and the wholeness offerings, then he blessed the people in the name of the God of Armies.  (2 Samuel 6:17-18)

David treats the ark as holy in two ways: first as a prophet filled with the spirit of God, second as a high priest conducting ritual.  Both responses to holiness are acceptable in the bible, at the appropriate time and place.


The ark was lost with the fall of the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.  The innermost chamber of the second temple was empty, but it was still called the Holy of Holies, and treated with awe and reverence.  The high priest still entered it only once a year, on Yom Kippur.

Since the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., Jews have made do with objects and places of lesser holiness.  Instead of an ark, we have Torah scrolls, which are unrolled for everyone to see.  Instead of a sanctuary with a Holy of Holies, we have the foundation wall of the place where the temple once stood in Jerusalem.

But Jews still have the holy days set out in the Torah: our annual feast and fast days, and Shabbat every week.  On Friday night we light candles and say blessings to distinguish the new seventh day, and on Saturday night we make a havdallah, a separation, between the holy day of Shabbat that has ended and the ordinary days of the week to come.  The havdallah blessing concludes with words from God’s instructions to Aaron:

Blessed are you, God, [who] hamavdil between the holy and the ordinary.

I find treating a day as holy is harder than treating an object or a place as holy.  The sun sets and rises on Shabbat the way it does on any other day; the only difference is in what we do that day.  And even if we try to dedicate every moment to serving God on a Shabbat or on an annual holy day, and avoid any activity that counts as labor, we still have to spend some of our time getting dressed, eating, and so forth, just as on an ordinary day.

And Jews who fail to observe Shabbat properly are not struck dead.

Segregating the holy from the ordinary is critically important in the bible, where God is present as the threat of magical annihilation.  Today, treating Torah scrolls and other religious objects with reverence, and setting aside certain days for special prayers and actions, serve the purpose of helping humans to approach the whole idea of God with awe and love.

Is that enough?  Perhaps today we can serve God more by bringing the holy into the ordinary, by bringing awe and love into more places and more times.

  1. Numbers 4:4-5, 4:15, 4:20.
  2. The haftarah begins with 2 Samuel 6:1. It ends somewhere between 2 Samuel 6:19 and 7:17, depending on whether the community follows the Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Misrachi, or Italian tradition.
  3. 1 Samuel 2:12-17, 4:3-11.
  4. And [God’s] hand was on the people of Beit Shemesh, because they looked into the ark of God, and [God’s] hand [struck down] 70 men of Beit Shemesh, 50,000 men. And the people mourned because God had struck a great blow against the people. (1 Samuel 6:19).  Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) wrote that this passage means each of the 70 men that God smote was the equal of 50,000.
  5. 1 Samuel 7:1-2.
  6. 1 Samuel 7:1.


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