Haftarat Ki Tavo—Isaiah: The Place

For seven weeks after Tisha Be-Av (the fast day to mourn the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem), Jews read a “haftarah of consolation” from second Isaiah. This week, the sixth haftarah of consolation does not even mention consolation or comforting. Only once does it refer to mourning:

Fourth Day of Creation, Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Your sun will not set again

            And the moon will not be taken away.

For God will be your everlasting light,

And the days of your mourning will be done. (Isaiah 60:20)

 

 

The mourning will be over because all of Jerusalem’s people will return to their city-state, and all the other nations of the world will honor them, serve them, and bring them fabulous wealth.

The consolation in the sixth week’s haftarah, then, is the promise that all the suffering of the Israelites under the thumb of the Babylonians will end, and the people (or at least their descendants) will live happily ever after.

Will this happen after a certain number of years or centuries, or after a certain condition has been met? In other chapters, second Isaiah1 reminds the Israelites that they must return to God before God will return Jerusalem to them. In Isaiah 60, the prophet does not worry about any conditions.

Instead of a time frame, this prophesy is attached to a place: Jerusalem. Furthermore, Jerusalem’s future triumph is the triumph of the God of Israel, not just of the Israelites who live in God’s city.2 God elaborates:

Your gates will always be open;

            Day and night, they will not shut—

To let the wealth of nations come into her [Jerusalem],

            And their kings will be leading the processions. (Isaiah 60:11)

The Caravan, by Charles Theodore Frere, 1888

The magnificence of the Lebanon will come to you:

            Juniper, fir, and cypress together,

To beautify the makom of my holy sanctuary,

            And I will honor the makom of my feet. (Isaiah 60:13)

makom (מָקוֹם) = place, location.

God’s “footstool” is either the temple in Jerusalem, or the city itself, according to Psalms 99:5 and 132:7, Lamentations 2:1, and 1 Chronicles 28:2.3

Since the second destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the city of Jerusalem has been rebuilt, and a mosque has been erected where the temple once stood. But the prophecy by second Isaiah in the sixth haftarah of consolation has never come true. For a small minority of Jews, it remains an aspiration. For others, it is a potent symbol. For almost two thousand years, Jews have ended celebrations of Passover and Yom Kippur by shouting: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

It is a joyful shout. The idea of Jerusalem gives many people comfort.


My husband and I finally went to Jerusalem in 2020. We stayed there for three weeks, until the Covid pandemic forced us to choose between taking one of the last airplanes to the United States, or making aliyah and applying for permanent residency in Israel. We flew home.

This week I am in need of comfort and consolation for a personal reason: my mother died recently, a few days after we celebrated her 93rd birthday with her. She was in hospice, so her death was neither a surprise nor a tragedy. But I am aware of the void in my life, and my own fragility.

How could I write a new blog post the week after my mother died? According to Jewish tradition, I should stay home for seven days of mourning (shiva)3 and refrain from “labor”4 (including writing) and from reading the five books of Torah or the Prophets.5 During this time, my Jewish community should visit me so I can say a prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish, which requires ten witnesses. But I have no Jewish community where I live now, a two-hour drive away from my Jewish friends in Portland. My mother requested cremation rather than a funeral, so the first time I recited the Mourner’s Kaddish for her, I had to do it during a service on Zoom. My greatest comfort these days is the patient help and support of my husband. But I am also comforting myself by doing what I love most: reading and writing about Torah. Yes, I need to keep remembering my mother, who she was when I was growing up and who she was in old age. But I also need to keep remembering who I am.


If I were “sitting shiva” during these seven days, my Jewish friends would come to my home and recite the traditional condolence to a mourner:

Hamakom yenachem etchem betokh she-ar aveilei tziyon viyerushalayim.

May hamakom comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

hamakom (הַמָּקוֹמ) = the place.

This expression reminds mourners that they are not alone; the death of relatives and friends is part of life—even in Jerusalem, where those walking on the Temple Mount during the time of the second temple greeted mourners with the words “May the one who dwells in this house comfort you.”6

The temple was considered the dwelling-place of God. Thus God is the true source of comfort. An earlier Talmud tractate records the blessing: Blessed is the comforter of mourners.7

Thus in the words of condolence spoken during the past millennia, hamakom is as a name for God, a name that does not appear in the bible.

The idea of Jerusalem does not comfort me. But the idea of God as a makom of consolation does. Somewhere in each soul is a place of connection to the  reality before words.


  1. Chapters 1-39 of the book of Isaiah were written in the 8th century B.C.E. Chapters 40-66, sometimes called “second Isaiah” or “deuteron-Isaiah” were written after the Babylonian conquest in 587 B.C.E.
  2. The books of Exodus through Deuteronomy forecast a single nation of Israel consisting of the descendants of Jacob, a.k.a. Israel. The two books of Samuel describe the unification of much of Canaan under kings David and Solomon. In 1 Kings, the united kingdom of Israel splits into two kingdoms after Solomon’s death in the 10th century B.C.E. The northern kingdom is called Israel or Samaria, and its capital is Samaria; the southern kingdom is called Judah, and its capital is Jerusalem. When the Assyrians conquered Samaria in 722 B.C.E., many of its people fled to Judah. Biblical books written during the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century B.C.E. refer to Jerusalem as the once and future capital of the people who are again called Israelites.
  3. See my post Haftarat Ki Tavo—Isaiah: A Place for Feet. Also see Psalm 26:8, which refers to “the makom of the dwelling-place of your glory”.
  4. The seven days of formal mourning, called “sitting shiva”, begin immediately after the burial. The end of the burial is also when Jewish mourners begin saying the prayer called the  Mourner’s Kaddish, which requires ten witnesses.
  5. Semachot 5. Semachot, originally called Evel Rabati, is a late (eighth-century C.E.) Talmudic tractate.
  6. Semachot 6.
  7. Semachot 6.

 

Ki Teitzei & Kedoshim: Adultery

 

The Ten Commandments (abridged) at Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon. “Lo tinaf” is the second one on the left.

You must not murder.

            Velo tinaf.

            And you must not steal.

            And you must not testify against your fellow as a false witness. (Exodus/Shemot 20:13 and Deuteronomy/Devarim 5:17)

Velo tinaf  = You must not commit adultery. (ve-, וְ = and + lo, לֺא = not + tinaf, תִנְאָף = you shall commit adultery.)

Tinaf is a form of the verb na-af, נָאַף = violated the rule of exclusivity regarding either sexual intercourse with a human, or the worship of God.1

English uses the word “adultery” for violating a rule of sexual exclusivity, and “idolatry” for violating a rule of religious exclusivity. Biblical Hebrew uses the same word for both types of violations. The prohibition velo tinaf appears in the second half of the list of “ten commandments”, the half that covers relationships with other people. Therefore in this seventh commandment, adultery means a sexual violation.

What sexual liaisons count as adultery in the bible? Why does the bible consider adultery unethical?

Stealing a woman

For the society portrayed in the Hebrew Bible, adultery is a form of stealing. Although women and girls are depicted as individuals, most of them are the property of men. Only prostitutes own themselves.

Thus using another man’s woman for sex is a theft of his property. (Sex between two women is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.)

The penalty for this kind of theft depends on the category the woman belongs to. If she is a wife or a fiancée, her rapist or seducer must die. If she is a virgin adolescent with no marriage arranged yet, no one gets the death penalty for adultery—but her rapist or seducer must marry her.2 And if she is a slave whose owner assigned her to one man, but she was caught with another, it is not a case of true marriage or of adultery, so her seducer must merely sacrifice a ram at the temple altar.3

A wife

According to the Torah portion Kedoshim in Leviticus, the “Holiness Code”,

A man who yinaf with a man’s wife, who yinaf with his fellow’s woman, will certainly be put to death: hano-eif and hano-afet. (Leviticus 20:10)

yinaf (יִנְאַף) = he commits adultery. (Also a form of the verb na-af.)

hano-eif (הַנֺּאֵף) = adulterer (male). (From the verb na-af.)

hano-afet (הנֺּאָפֶת) = adulteress (female). (Also from the verb na-af.)4

This week’s Torah portion in Deuteronomy, Ki Teitzei, explains the adultery penalty in Kedoshim.

Joseph Flees Potifar’s Wife, by Julius Schnorr von Carlsfeld, 19th cent.

If a man is found lying with a woman [who is]a  ba-alah of a ba-al, then they shall die, also both of them: the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. And you will burn out the evil from Israel. (Deuteronomy 22:23)

ba-alah (בַּעֲלָה) = female owner or possessor, wife.

ba-al (בַּעַל) = male owner or possessor, husband, master of a craft; a Canaanite god.

Often the Torah refers to a wife as a “woman” (ishah, אִשָּׁה) and a husband as a “man” (ish, אִישׁ). But in this verse the Torah uses the words for “wife” and “husband” that indicate they are owners; they possess one another. Having sexual intercourse with another man’s wife means stealing his possession.

In the ancient society described in the Torah, a man has exclusive ownership of his wives and concubines. A married woman partly owns her husband, but she does not have exclusive ownership, since her husband is free to take other wives and to have sex with prostitutes. If an unmarried female prostitute has intercourse with a married man, it does not count as adultery and there is no penalty.

Traditional commentary interprets the words “also both of them” in the verse above to mean that the man and the married woman both get the death penalty only if they were both consenting adults. The Talmud5 says if one of them is a minor, the underage partner shall live.

And Rashi6 wrote that in “a case of unnatural intercourse from which the woman derives no gratification” only the man should die, since the woman would not have consented to such an act.

A fiancée

A man also gets the death penalty when he rapes a woman who is betrothed to someone else, even if her marriage has not yet been consummated.  (Betrothal in the Torah is the legal contract between a man and his future wife, including a bride-price paid to the woman’s father or guardian. Marriage occurs when the betrothed couple first has sexual intercourse.)

If a man seduces, rather than rapes, a woman betrothed to someone else, both of them are both put to death. Since the woman consented, she, too, is guilty of violating the contract between her father and her future husband which sets the terms for the transfer of property (the woman).

How does a judge determine whether the act was rape or mutual consent? The Torah portion Ki Teitzei explains that it depends on whether the deed happened in a town where other people could hear a cry for help, or out in a field where no one could hear.

Stoning, from a sketch by Piola Domenico, 17th cent.

If a virgin adolescent girl is betrothed to a man, and [another]a man encounters her in the town and he lies with her, then you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them with stones and they will die—the adolescent girl because she did not cry for help in the town, and the man because he overpowered the wife of his fellow. And you will burn out the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:23-24)

If the same event occurs “in the open field” only the man is executed, since the Torah gives the woman the benefit of the doubt and presumes that she cried for help, but nobody heard her.7

Stealing property, or breaking a vow?

If adultery in the bible were only about ownership, all those examples would be irrelevant in a modern world that prizes individuals and equal rights. In the west today, all adults own themselves, and no one else.8 I am grateful to live in a society in which no adult is another person’s property.  

Then if adultery is not a form of theft, is it immoral for some other reason?

This week’s Torah portion gives us a clue by addressing the question of making vows. The vows discussed in Ki Teitzei are vows to make donations to God and/or the sanctuary, not marriage vows. Nevertheless, the Torah says:

If you refrain from vowing, you will not become guilty. The utterance of your lips you must keep, and you must do as you have vowed of your own free will to God, your God, speaking with your own mouth. (Deuteronomy 23:23-24)

If we apply this principle to marriage, then a sexual liaison with a person who is married to someone else is unethical—if and only if that marriage included a mutual vow of sexual exclusivity. Violating the vow of exclusivity would be a betrayal of the marriage promise, and grounds for divorce. That is adultery. However, if the marriage happened without any promises of exclusivity, there is no vow to violate.

Personally, I am grateful for my long exclusive marriage. An “open marriage” is something I could not handle. But I respect all those who are careful about making vows—and who fulfill the promises they do make.


  1. For examples of na-af in reference to committing idolatry, see Jeremiah 3:9, 5:7, and 13:27, as well as Ezekiel 23:37.
  2. Deuteronomy 22:28-29.
  3. Leviticus 19:20-21.
  4. For more discussion of this passage, see my post Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 2.
  5. Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 66b.
  6. 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  7. Deuteronomy 22:25-27.
  8. The extent to which parents own their children is still a matter of debate.

Haftarat Shoftim—Isaiah: Drunk on Rage

How do you console people who have been vanquished?

Babylonians besiege Jerusalem, 10th-cent. French ms.

This week Jews read the Torah portion Shoftim in Deuteronomy, accompanied by the fourth “haftarah of consolation”1 from second Isaiah (chapters 40-66 of the book of Isaiah, a collection of prophecies given after the Babylonians captured Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.).

This week’s haftarah of consolation opens with God saying:

I, I am the one who comforts you.

            Who are you that you fear a mortal, who must die,

                        A human, who is like grass?

And you forget God, your maker,

            Who stretches out the heavens and establishes the earth!

And you are constantly terrified all day

            By the rage2 of the oppressor, as he prepares ruin.

But [after that] where is the rage of the oppressor? (Isaiah 51:12-13)

Nebuchadnezzar II with ziggurat, Babylonian stele, 6th cent. BCE

The oppressor of the Judahites was the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, who conquered Judah and exiled its leading citizens to Babylon. Yet the king and his generals did not necessarily feel anger toward the people of Judah; their strategic decisions for expanding the Babylonian Empire were probably cold-blooded. However, when an army is seizing one’s country through battles and sieges, it feels like a violent attack of rage.

By pointing out that all humans die, God encourages the Judahites to believe that even the Babylonian Empire and its apparent rage will pass away.

After a few verses reminding the exiles from Judah that God has sheltered them in the past and has the power to do it again, God says:

Wake up, wake up! Rise up, Jerusalem,

            Who drank from God’s hand the cup of rage;

The chalice cup of the tareilah

            You drank to the dregs. (Isaiah 51:17)

tareilah (תַרְעֵלָה) staggering, reeling, shaking uncontrollably.

Here the haftarah refers to the rage of God. Often the Hebrew Bible depicts God as smiting people in fury. After all, a lot of people are killed by war, disease, and famine; and according to the bible, God controls all those things. No wonder the bible paints God as a violent and abusive father with no anger management skills. When God has a fit of rage, the people must drink whatever God gives them. Naturally they feel terrified.

A drinking cup of the Achaemenids, who took Babylon in 539 BCE

In this week’s haftarah, the “cup of rage” might also refer to the answering rage of the Judahites, as they react to the apparent rage God by feeling their own anger at a God that has no compassion for them.

The Judahites drink the cup of rage, down to the dregs. And their own fear and rage incapacitate them. Both their bodies and their minds are tareilah, reeling and quivering, out of control.

Tareilah is a rare word in the Hebrew Bible; outside of this week’s haftarah from second Isaiah, it appears only in Psalm 60, in which the poet reminds God:

You made your people experience hardship,

          You made them drink the wine of tareilah! (Psalm 60:5)

A word related to tareilah appears in the book of Zechariah, when God says:

“Hey! I made Jerusalem a bowl of ra-al for the peoples all around, and [the ra-al] will also be for Judah, because of the siege on Jerusalem. … Her burden will certainly damage all the nations of the earth, and they will gather against her. On that day,” said God, “I will strike every horse with confusion and its rider with madness …” (Zechariah 12:2-4)

ra-al (רַעַל) = staggering, quivering; poison. (From the same root as tareilah. It occurs only two more times in the bible.3)

The book of Zechariah was written after the Babylonians were defeated by the Achaemenid Persians, but before any of the exiled Judahites returned to Jerusalem to take advantage of the Persian policy of limited self-government for provinces.4 Zechariah claims that everyone in the lands surrounding Judah has been going mad since the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. He warns that any further war against Judah will turn into chaos.

Before Zechariah, Jeremiah delivered a similar prophecy while the Babylonians were besieging Jerusalem:

The Land of Cockaigne, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1567

Thus said God, the God of Israel, to me: “Take the cup of the wine of rage from my hand, and make all the nations to which I am sending you drink it! … And you shall say to them: “Thus said God of Hosts, God of Israel: Drink and get drunk and vomit and fall down! And you will not rise up, because of the edge of the sword that I am sending among you.” (Jeremiah 25:15, 17)

In Psalm 60, Zechariah, and Jeremiah, people are completely helpless once they drink the cup of rage. Overwhelmed by their fear of God’s rage, and perhaps by their own answering rage, they stagger and shake, reel, vomit, and fall down.

Yet in Isaiah 51:17, God urges the people who have drunk the cup of rage:

Wake up, wake up! Rise up, Jerusalem,

            Who drank from God’s hand the cup of rage!”

How can they “wake up” from their tareilah?

The bible often refers to Jerusalem as a woman. But if she is a mother, she has no children who can help her get up.

There are none carefully leading [Jerusalem],

            Out of all the children she bore.

And there are none holding her hand

            Out of all the children she brought up. (Isaiah 51:18)

Soon we learn why Jerusalem has no “children” to help her up and lead her. At the end of the siege, everyone in the city who is not rounded up and marched off to Babylon lies faint with starvation, wounded by Babylonian weapons, or dead.

Your children have fainted;

            They lie at the head of every street like an antelope in a net,

Glutted with the rage of God,

            The rebuke of your God. (Isaiah 51:20)

In other words, all the people of Jerusalem are dead or incapacitated in some way, and therefore they cannot help one another to wake and rise up. In this verse the rage of God is the “rebuke” God delivers through the Babylonians in order to pay back the Judahites for worshiping other gods and failing to follow God’s ethical rules.

Does the punishment (death, incapacitation, and tareilah) fit the crime (cheating on God and cheating the poor)? Second Isaiah never questions it.

Therefore listen, please, to this, wretched one

            Who is drunk but not with wine:

Thus says your lord, God,

            Your God who conducts a lawsuit for [God’s] people:

“Hey! I have taken from your hand

            The cup of the tareilah,

            The chalice cup of my rage.

You will not drink from it again!” (Isaiah 51:21-22)

That is the ultimate consolation: that the period of incapacitation is over, and it will not return.

*

How do you comfort people who are being vanquished—by external enemies, or by enemies in their minds?

This week’s haftarah considers the case of people vanquished by enemies from outside. The unrelenting battles and sieges shatter them—both physically, through wounds and hunger, and mentally, through fear and answering rage over their plight. Thus the Judahites are also vanquished by enemies from within, emotionally overwhelmed until they are driven to madness, like the horse riders in Jeremiah.

When I reread the fourth haftarah of consolation this year, I thought of my mother, who has been suffering from tareilah for years now. A lifelong teetotaler, in old age she reels around because her balance is so poor. She often falls, and I keep expecting her to be vanquished by physical incapacitation. Yet after each hospitalization except the last she healed enough to stagger to her feet and use her walker. For all I know, she will rise up again at age 93.

My mother also staggers mentally, due to early-stage dementia. Sometimes her absence of short-term memory and subsequent confusion make her panic. She knows something is terribly wrong but she does not know what it is. Then in is my job as her daughter to hold her hand and “carefully lead her” by telling her the sad facts of her situation yet again. She calms down, so I must be comforting her, temporarily.

I hate to see my mother lie helplessly in bed “like an antelope in a net”. But I cannot take the cup of rage, or fear, away from her.

A people may live for hundreds of generations. But an individual human being is indeed “a mortal who must die”, like grass. Someday every one of us will be vanquished by incapacitation, then death.

If I said, like second Isaiah:

Therefore listen, please, to this, wretched one

            Who is drunk but not with wine—

I could not promise an end to tareilah. I could only add:

“I came back to hold your hand. Look at the flowers I brought you. Look out the window at the sky and the green trees. Wait.”

  1. We are in the middle of the seven-week period during which Jews read a “haftarah of consolation” from second Isaiah each week.
  2. Throughout this essay I translate the nouns chamah (חֲמַה) and chamat (חֲמַת) as “rage”. Other translations include “wrath” and “fury”.
  3. The two other occurrences of the root ra-al are hare-alu (הָרְעָלוּ), “they were shaken”, in Nahum 2:4; and hare-alot (הָרְעָלוֹת), which appears in a list of ornaments women wore in Psalm 60:5.
  4. King Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire, quickly captured Babylon and its empire in 539 B.C.E.

 

Haftarat Re-eih—Isaiah: Drink Up

Judah was an independent kingdom from 931 to 586 B.C.E.1

Then the Babylonians conquered the country; destroyed its capital city, Jerusalem; razed the temple of the God of Israel; and forced the leaders and skilled craftsmen of Judah into exile in Babylon.

The Judahites in Babylon began to lose faith and assimilate. The prophets known as Ezekiel and second Isaiah2 urged their people to return to worshiping their own God. Then, they prophesied, God would return them to their own land.

For seven weeks after Tisha Be-Av, the annual day of fasting to mourn both times that a foreign empire destroyed Jerusalem and its temple,3 each Torah portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim is accompanied by a “haftarah of consolation”. All seven of these haftarah readings are from second Isaiah.

This week the Torah reading Re-eih is accompanied by the third haftarah of consolation. Here God promises to rebuild Jerusalem so it will be more beautiful and more secure than before.4 Then God calls out:

Oh!5 Everyone who is thirsty, go for water!

            And who has no silver, go buy and eat!

Go buy [food] without silver,

            And wine and milk at no cost! (Isaiah 55:1)

The 8th-century prophet Amos had previously predicted:

“Hey! The time is coming,” says my lord God, “when I will send hunger into the land: not a hunger for bread, nor a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of God. They will wander from sea to sea and from the north to the east they will roam to seek the word of God, but they will not find it.” (Amos 8:11-12)

Since that first reference in the book of Amos, many Jewish sources have compared a desire for words of Torah to a thirst for water. Five tractates of the Talmud cite the line from our haftarah, “Everyone who is thirsty, go for water!” as proof that water means Torah study, and then go on to deduce something about the study of Torah.6

For example, tractate Bava Kama asks why the written text of the Torah is read out loud to the community on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The rabbis answer that in Exodus 15:22, the Israelites traveled for three days after crossing the Reed Sea, and then complained because they had not found water. Therefore the people should not go for more than three days without hearing or reading Torah, they said, citing Isaiah 55:1:

Those who interpret verses metaphorically said that water here is referring to nothing other than torah, as it is stated metaphorically, concerning those who desire wisdom: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come for water”7

torah (תּוֹרָה) = instruction; law. (This is the meaning of torah in the Hebrew Bible, derived from the verb yoreh, יוֹרֶה = instruct, teach. A homonym of yoreh means “give to drink” in Biblical Hebrew.)

By Talmudic times, torah could also mean the first five books of the bible; the entire Hebrew Bible; the laws written in the bible; and the combination of written torah (the Hebrew Bible) and oral torah (all subsequent Jewish interpretations of the bible, to the present day).

Amos warns that torah, God’s instructions, cannot be found outside the Israelite kingdoms. But second Isaiah indicates that the exiled Judahites can learn torah even in Babylon. All they need is the thirst to seek out the teachers among their own people, including prophets who could share new information from God.

Why should you weigh out silver for what is not bread,

            And the earnings of your labor for what does not satisfy?

Keep listening to me, and eat what is good,

            And you will pamper yourself by plumping up your soul.

Turn your ear and go to me,

            Listen and revive your soul.

And I will cut with you an everlasting covenant,

            The faithful loyalty [I showed] to David. (Isaiah 55:2-3)

In other words, listening to torah, the words of God, is the most valuable activity in the world (besides what you need to do for bare survival). Learning torah plumps up (literally, fattens) and revives the soul that animates your body, just as drinking and eating fatten and revive your physical body.

Fresh water, from rain, springs, or wells, is a natural (or God-given) resource, like air and sunlight.

And just as one who desires to drink should be able to drink without cost, so all who desire to learn the law should be able to learn without cost and without price … (Midrash Tanchuma)8

From the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. until the 20th-century takeover of most of the world by capitalism, the Jewish tradition was that students could learn torah (in all senses of the word) from rabbis for free. Rabbis were supported by side jobs, by their wives, or by their communities as a whole.

In Isaiah 55:1, God says everyone who is thirsty or hungry should go and “buy” milk, wine, and food, as well as water, for free.

Water, food, wine, and milk

Perhaps milk, wine, food, and water represent four kinds of torah. The written Hebrew Bible is a conglomeration of:

  • stories, from foundational myths to historical events;
  • laws for religious rituals, including offerings to God at the temple;
  • laws for ethical behavior toward other human beings; and
  • statements about the nature of God.

Milk is essential for life for all very young mammals, and stories are essential for human children to begin to make sense of the world. Stories are important in the bible, in the Talmud, and in Jewish life to the present; they go beyond mere facts to tell us about human nature and the ways of the world. These stories are as nourishing as milk.

Libation amphora, second temple

Wine appears in the bible both as a libation at the altar, and a drink at feasts to celebrate gifts from God. Wine is still part of Jewish religious rituals such as welcoming Shabbat and observing Passover, as well as individual rites of passage. Rituals help people to organize their otherwise chaotic lives, and, like the Jewish practice of saying blessings, make us aware of occasions for gratitude. Wine could represent religious rituals and blessings.

Food is essential for all life to continue; a code of ethics is essential for any human society to continue. Ethical laws are scattered throughout the Hebrew Bible, not just in the Ten Commandments. Those that appear most often are injunctions to help feed the poor and the stranger. So food might stand for the ethical injunctions in torah.

Waterfalls at Ein Gedi, Israel

That leaves water to represent the nature of God. Water is transparent; God is invisible, heard (at least inside the minds of inspired humans) but not seen. Water flows to fill any shape; the bible describes God in many different ways, as a creator and a destroyer, a dealer of strict justice and a compassionate savior. Both plants and animals need water to live and to grow; and according to the bible and later torah, all life comes from God.

*

The third haftarah of consolation ends with Isaiah 55:5, which prophecies that the Judahites will be rescued by a nation they had never heard of—which turned out to be the Persian Empire. Right after that come two verses that could console anyone who studies torah:

Inquire about God when [God] is present;

            Call when [God] is becoming near.

Let the wicked abandon their path,

            And their plans for doing harm.

Let them turn back to God, and [God] will have compassion for them;

            To our God, for [God] abundantly forgives. (Isaiah 55:6-7)

If we are thirsty to enlarge our attitude toward life, we can go for the water of an inspired teaching, including much of torah. If we recognize and abandon our selfishness and spite, we can be forgiven, if only by the still, small voice within us. And then our animating souls will plump up and revive.

  1. At times, however, the kings of Judah paid tribute to nearby empires in exchange for peace.
  2. Most of Isaiah 1-39 consists of the prophecies of Isaiah son of Amotz, who lived in Jerusalem when the Assyrians besieged it in 701 B.C.E. (but failed to capture the city). Isaiah 40-66, sometimes called “second Isaiah”, is a collection of writings dating from after the Babylonians succeeded in capturing Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E..
  3. Tisha Be-Av commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and by the Romans in 70 C.E. See my post Lamentations: Seeking Comfort.
  4. This is the simple meaning of Isaiah 54:11-17. For an alternate interpretation of this passage, see my post Haftarat Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser.
  5. The all-purpose Hebrew interjection I translate as “Oh” is hoy, הוֹי. It appears many times in the prophets, from 1 Kings to Habakuk, but nowhere else in the bible.
  6. Talmud Bavli: Avodah Zara 5b, Bava Kamma 17a and 82a, Kidduishin 30b, Sukkah 52b, and Taanit 7a.
  7. Talmud Bavli, Bava Kama 82a, William Davidson translation in sefaria.org.
  8. Midrash Tanchuma was written during the 6th-9th centuries C.E. This commentary, Vayakhel 8:1, cites Isaiah 55:1. Translation from sefaria.org.

 

Eikev: For Your Own Good

What does God really want from us?

Moses offers an answer in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev:

Bible card by Providence Lithograph Co., 1907

And now, Israel, what does God, your God, ask from you?  Nothing but to fear God, your God; to walk in all [God’s] paths; and to love [God]; and to serve God, your God, with all levavekha and with all nafshekha, to keep the commands and decrees of God that I am commanding you today for your own good. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 10:12-13)

levavekha (לְבָבְךָ) = your (singular) heart; your thoughts and feelings; your consciousness, your mind. (Leivav, לֵבָב = heart, thoughts and feelings, seat of consciousness + ־ךָ second person singular suffix.)

nafshekha (נַפְשֶׁךָ) = your (singular) throat; your appetite; the soul that animates your body; your life force. (Nefesh, נֶפֶשׁ = throat, appetite, animating soul, body, life force + ־ךָ second person singular suffix.)

Moses begins by addressing “Israel”, the whole people. But he continues by addressing each individual, using the singular suffix for “you” and “your”—just as in in last week’s Torah portion, Va-etchanan, when he says Shema Yisrael! (“Listen, Israel!”) and continues with “And you shall love God, your God, with all levavekha and all nafshekha …”1

Today we might translate the phrase “with all  levavekha and all nafshekha as “with all your mind and all your body”—your entire being.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses says God wants more than love. God wants your fear as well. And every aspect of your consciousness should be directed toward fear and love for God.

Furthermore, what goes on in your mind is not enough. You must also to do all the correct actions in the world: to walk in all [God’s] paths, … to serve God, your God, with all  levavekha and with all nafshekha[and] to keep the commands and decrees of God.

Both your mental reactions and your physical actions must become so habitual that you instinctively react in a God-oriented way no matter what happens.

Better start now! It’s for your own good!

Fear and Love

Should you fear God because God has the power to punish you, even kill you? The writers of Deuteronomy2 would probably have answered: Yes, if nothing else motivates you to follow the rules. But for centuries commentators have offered two other interpretations:

  • After you have grown up, you should not fear God’s punishment, but rather share God’s fear that you will harm your own soul by doing evil.3 If you fear what God fears, you will act for your own good—since the good of your soul is more valuable than any other pleasure or benefit.
  • The Hebrew word leyirah (לְיִרְאָה) means “to fear”, but it also means “to revere” or “to be in awe of”. The best attitude is not fear of punishment, according to 14th-century Rabbi Nisim of Gerona, but “fear of the exalted”: trembling awe at the vast majesty of God. The Talmud called it “fear of heaven”, and said: “Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except the fear of Heaven.”4

21st-century rabbi David Kasher wrote: “And at the moment that this sensation of wonder strikes us, we suddenly feel a great love for everything around us, and love for the God that has allowed us to stand in the midst of it. Where once we stood in awe, we come to fall in love. … Our capacity for wonder is something we have the power to turn on or off. It is no mere instinct. It is a choice—an attitude we adopt; an orientation we cultivate.” 5

Walking, serving, and keeping

Thus the Torah urges you to choose to open your mind to awe. Then both humility and gratitude naturally follow. Gratitude is the kind of love that inspires you to give back to the person, community, or God you are grateful to.  If you are grateful to God, you want to give back to God. But how? Moses’ answer is:

  • to walk in all God’s paths. According to Or HaChayim6, this means atoning for a string of violations of God’s rules by obeying as many commandments as possible. Alternatively, it could simply mean leading a life devoted to doing God-approved deeds.
  • to serve God. At the temple in Jerusalem, Levites served priests, and priests served God as their occupation. But all the Israelites are called upon to serve God in certain ways: by burning the appropriate sacrificial offerings in temple times, by obeying God’s orders, or by promoting God’s agenda for a more ethical and compassionate society.
  • to keep the commands and decrees of God. The simple meaning of this phrase is to obey each of the 613 rules that Moses passed down7 whenever the appropriate situation for one of them arises. But not everyone is expected to memorize them all. Before the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., people could ask priests for clarification of the rules. Since that time, people have asked rabbis for rulings on religious laws.

Each of these three categories of actions can mean either following the letter of the law, or going beyond the rules to lead a virtuous life in general.

For your own good

Why are the fear, the love, and the actions demanded by God “for your own good”?

If you define God as the omnipotent ruler of the universe, the obvious answer is that if you do what God wants you will be rewarded (perhaps with good health, rescue from an enemy, or a color TV). If you disobey God you will be punished.

We get more rewards and fewer punishments when we go along with human authorities. When we do what the boss wants, we get what we want from the boss. So it is natural to think that the same must be true for going along with a divine authority.

The book of Deuteronomy does depict God as the omnipotent ruler of the universe—more so than the previous four books of the Torah, which imply the existence of other, inferior gods. In the next verse after “for your own good” Moses says:

Hey, the heavens and the heavens of the heavens belong to God, your God; the earth and everything that is on it!  (Deuteronomy 10:14)

This statement could be taken as a threat: since everything belongs to God, you had better obey the big boss or else. Or you can look at the bright side, like Rashi, who wrote that for your own good means “that you should receive a reward for doing so.”8

Moses’ next sentence in the portion Eikev says that God is loving as well as omnipotent.

Nevertheless, God was attached to your ancestors, loving them, and [God] chose their descendants after them out of all the peoples, as it is to this day. (Deuteronomy 10:15)

Most modern Jews would hasten to add that God loves other peoples as well, and also chose them to lead holy and ethical lives. But this verse in the portion Eikev also indicates that God loves humans who are far from perfect. In the Hebrew Bible, the ancestors of the Israelites are identified as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Their wives are added to later liturgy.) The book of Genesis describes these three patriarchs as acting out of jealousy and spite as well as out of kindness and respect.

If God loves these flawed characters, then God must sometimes deviate from the strict justice of reward and punishment, and forgive transgressors.

While some people can only be induced to behave properly if they are afraid of punishment or eager for a reward, other people find comfort in the belief that God is like a loving parent, and that the purpose of God’s rules is to encourage humans to do what will improve their own lives.

Moses concludes:

So circumcise the foreskin of levavechem and do not stiffen your necks10 any more. (Deuteronomy 10:16)

levavechem (לְבַבְכֶ֑ם) = your (plural) hearts; your thoughts and feelings; your minds. (Leivav, לֵבָב = heart/hearts, thoughts and feelings, seat/seats of consciousness + ־כֶם second person plural suffix.)

Circumcision of the foreskin is part of the covenant between the Israelites and God. What does it mean to circumcise an organ that does not have a literal foreskin?

Rashi wrote that circumcising the foreskin covering your “heart”—that is, the mind—would remove whatever blocks you from receiving God’s words. 12-century rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra identified the figurative foreskin with physical lusts, which block you from taking the right attitude and actions.

According to rabbi Bachya ben Asher (1255-1340) the word foreskin here means any negative character trait that prevents you from developing to your full potential. For 15th-century rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, the foreskin represents prejudices that cause errors in your thinking. And for 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, circumcision of the heart means gaining mastery over your own thoughts and desires.

*

What does God want from you? To orient yourself toward God, in both your mind and your actions; to be open to awe, to feel humility and gratitude, and to dedicate your life to good deeds.

Why would you want to do this?

For me, the promise of reward and the threat of punishment are not motivating. I cannot believe in a God that deals out strict justice to every human being, since it is obvious that some innocent and virtuous people suffer and die young, while some heartless evil-doers get material rewards and long lives.

But I do try to cultivate feelings of awe, humility, and gratitude, and to be kind and do good deeds. I believe that the farther I walk in this direction, the happier I am with myself. So I am working on this approach to life—for my own good, and for the good of my fellow human beings. When I stop and realize how fortunate I am, despite my sorrows, I want to give back.

Perhaps what God wants from me is the same as what I want for myself—when I cut back the blockage in my leivav.

What does God want from you?  What do you want from God?

  1. See my post Va-etchanan: Extreme Love.
  2. The book of Deuteronomy is presented as one or more long speeches by Moses to the Israelites, delivered before he dies and they cross the Jordan into Canaan. Modern scholars date the bulk of Deuteronomy to the reign of King Josiah in the 7th century B.C.E. or later.
  3. g. Dov Baer Friedman, Or Ha-Emet (1899), quoted in Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, Vol. 2, ed. & translated by Arthur Green, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 2013, p. 101.
  4. Talmud Bavli attributes this saying to Rabbi Chanina in Berakhot 33b, Megillah 25a, and Niddah 16b.
  5. David Kasher, “Two Kinds of Fear: Parshat Eikev”, Parshanut, http://parshanut.com/post/176555221331/two-kinds-of-fear-parshat-eikev.
  6. 18th-century rabbi Chayim ibn Atar’s most famous book is the Torah commentary Or HaChayim.
  7. In the 12th century C.E. the Rambam, a.k.a. Moses Maimonides, identified 613 commands or mitzvot in Exodus through Deuteronomy, and Jews have stuck with that number ever since.
  8. Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki. This translation of Rashi on Deuteronomy 10:13 is from http://www.sefaria.org.
  9. Deuteronomy 30:2.
  10. See my posts: Ki Tissa: Stiff-Necked People and Eikev: Covered Heart, Stiff Neck.

 

Haftarat Va-ethchanan—Isaiah: How to Comfort Yourself

How can people find consolation after a national disaster?

Flight of the Prisoners (from Jerusalem in 586 BCE) by James J.J. Tissot, 1896

“There are none menacheim me!” wails Jerusalem, imagined as a widow, in Lamentations 1:21.

menacheim (מְנַחֵם= comforting, consoling; one who comforts or consoles. (A piel form of the verb nacham,  נָחַם, which in the nifil form means a change of heart: either regret or consolation.)

Jerusalem is crying because the Babylonian army besieged and destroyed the city and its temple in 586 B.C.E. (See last week’s post: Lamentations: Seeking Comfort.) The leading families of the kingdom of Judah and its capital were exiled to Babylon, and the rest of the Israelites of Judah became serfs to the Babylonian conquerors.

Jews customarily read the book of Lamentations on the annual fast day of Tisha Be-Av. On the following Shabbat, called Shabbat Nachamu, we read the Torah portion Va-Etchanan in the book of Deuteronomy, and its accompanying haftarah reading from second Isaiah1, which begins:

Nachamu, nachamu my people!”

            Said your God.  (Isaiah 40:1)

nachamu (נַחֲמוּ) = Comfort! Console! (A plural imperative of the verb nacham in its piel form.)

Here God is the speaker, telling someone to comfort God’s people. These people (referred to later in the haftarah as “Jerusalem” or “Zion”) include both the exiles in Babylon and those who remained in Judah.

But who should do the comforting?

Decree by Cyrus (British Museum, photo by Ferrell Jenkins)

One candidate could be King Cyrus, whose Persian Empire swallowed the Babylonian Empire in 538 B.C.E.. Cyrus did, in fact, comfort the exiles from Judah living in Babylon, since he decreed that exiles throughout his empire could return to their own lands and enjoy modified independence.

Yet in the rest of the haftarah God never mentions Cyrus or the good news that the next generation among the exiles could go home after the Persians take over.

Instead God recommends four possible attitudes the Judahites  could adopt to console themselves:

  1. that they deserved their punishment, and it is ending;
  2. that their lives and their troubles are ephemeral, impermanent; and
  3. that God moves in mysterious ways.

An unnamed prophetess is called to deliver God’s messages of possible consolation.2

1. Just deserts

The first message begins by telling the people of Judah that have been punished enough.

Speak to the heart of Jerusalem

            And call out to her

That she has completed her term of service,

            That her crime has been expiated … (Isaiah 40:2)

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God is considered responsible for the outcome of any war. When God wants the Israelites to win, they do. When God wants to punish the Israelites for worshiping other gods or behaving unethically, then their enemy wins.

Lamentations, Jeremiah, and second Isaiah all assume that God let the Babylonians capture the kingdom of Judah and destroy Jerusalem in order to punish the Israelites.

The Judahites would certainly be reassured if they believed that their sentence of punishment was now over. Many people also find comfort in the belief that there is a reason for their suffering. If God is punishing them for their own misdeeds, they have a reason that does not shake their faith in an omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent God.

However, verse 40:2 continues with a potentially faith-shaking statement.

            … That her crime has been expiated,

Since she took from the hand of God

            A double [punishment] for all her misdeeds. (Isaiah 40:2)

Why tell the people that they have endured twice as much punishment as they deserved?

Rashi3 pointed out that Isaiah 40:2 echoes Jeremiah 16:18: “I shall fully repay double for their crime and their misdeeds, because they profaned my land …”

Contemporary commentator Benjamin Sommer reasoned that if people believed that Jeremiah’s prophecy had come true, they were more likely to believe that second Isaiah’s would also come true.4

But the reference to a double punishment could also reflect a feeling among the exiles in Babylon or the serfs in the former land of Judah that they had not really sinned enough to warrant what happened to them.

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

In the book of Job, the title character suddenly loses his wealth, his health, and all his children. Three of his friends come to the ash-heap where he sits scratching his boils.

And they agreed to meet together to come to condole with him ulenachamo. (Job 2:11)

ulenachamo (וּלְנַחֲמוֹ) = and to comfort him, and to console him. (From the same root as menacheim and nachamu.)

They take turns telling Job that all his suffering is a punishment from God, and if he would only recognize what sin he had committed and apologize to God, God might heal him. These would-be comforters utterly fail to comfort their friend, because Job knows he did nothing wrong.

Unlike Job, the Judahites in this week’s haftarah know that the people as a whole have committed some misdeeds—but they believe they are being punished twice as much as they deserve. People in this position would not be comfortable with the argument that they deserved their suffering and now it is ending. Their faith that God is just would be shaken.

Perhaps that is why God tells the prophetess:

Say unto the cities of Judah:

            Behold your God! (Isaiah 40:9)5

A description of God’s power to punish and reward follows. Then God is described as a gentle, caring shepherd.6 Anyone who believes they belong to this shepherd’s flock might be comforted.

Nevertheless, the people of Judah might be hesitant to trust God to care for them tenderly so soon after God delivered them into the hands of the Babylonians.

2. Impermanence

For a second approach at consolation, God says:

“All flesh is grass

            And all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field.

Grass dries up, and flowers wither and fall

            When the breath of God has blown on them.” (Isaiah 40:6-7)

The prophetess replies:

“Truly, the people are grass!

            Grass dries up, and flowers wither and fall.

            But the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:7-8)

The impermanence of human life is also compared to grass or wildflowers in Psalm 90:5-6, Psalm 103:15, and Job 14:1-2. Pondering the ephemeral nature of human life might be depressing to people who are eager to have more deeds and experiences. But people who are helplessly suffering might be consoled by the reflection that their suffering is ephemeral and will soon disappear.

Later in the haftarah the metaphor of grass returns, along with a veiled reference to government dignitaries.7 This iteration points out that the Babylonian Empire is ephemeral too, not a permanent evil.

3. Mysterious ways

William Cowper wrote the Christian hymn that begins “God moves in a mysterious way” in 1773. His line became an adage, “God moves in mysterious ways”, reflecting the idea that even when we cannot explain events, God knows that God is doing. For all we know, Cowper had been studying the book of Job, where God finally answers by pointing out that God knows things Job could not even imagine.8

Or he was studying Isaiah 40, which says:

Who measured the waters in the hollow of his palm,

            And plumbed the skies with a handspan? (Isaiah 40:12)

No human being, obviously, but only God. Then the haftarah mocks humans who think they could understand God:

Who has plumbed the spirit of God?

            And [what] man informs [God] of his plan?

With whom did [God] consult, and who discerned 

            And taught [God] the measure of justice,

And taught [God] knowledge

            And informed [God] about the path of discernment? (Isaiah 40:13-14)

Obviously, according to this approach, God’s wisdom and justice are so far beyond human comprehension that for all we know, our suffering is necessary for some mysterious good result. We can console ourselves by trusting that the pain God inflicts on us is worthwhile.

*

A reader with a theological bent will have noticed that just deserts, impermanence, and trust in God’s mysterious ways are all theodicies: attempts to explain why an omnipotent, omniscient, and good God permits evil in the world. (See my post Psalm 73: When Good Things Happen.)

Some theologians excuse God from responsibility for war, on the grounds that wars are begun and conducted by human beings, and God gave humans free will because without it we could not make ethical choices at all. But the biblical assumption is that God permits war in order to punish peoples who have disobeyed or misbehaved.

Those whose worldview depends on a God who rewards and punishes desperately need to trust God to do the right thing. Then they could not only be comforted, but could also consider the evils of war acceptable, because

  1. the losers deserved their punishment, and ends when justice has been done; or
  2. both lives and their troubles are ephemeral, impermanent anyway; or
  3. God moves in mysterious ways and brings about the best possible world in the long run.

But what about people who believe that human beings, not God, are to blame for wars and other national disasters?

Perhaps we can find consolation in the thought that at least our suffering is not the will of God.

  1. Most of Isaiah 1-39 consists of the prophecies of Isaiah son of Amotz, who lived in Jerusalem when the Assyrians besieged it in 701 B.C.E. (but failed to capture the city). Isaiah 40-66, sometimes called “second Isaiah”, is a collection of writings dating from after the Babylonians succeeded in capturing Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.. It includes prophecies that the Babylonian exile would end and the Judahites would return to Jerusalem.
  2. In Isaiah 40:9, God addresses the one who answers the call as “mevaseret of Zion”. Mevaseret (מְבַשֶּׂרֶת) = (fem.) herald, bringer of news. (The masculine form is mevaseir, מְבַשֵּׂר.)
  3. 11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  4. Benjamin D. Sommer, “Deutero-Isaiah Reworks Past Prophecies to Comfort Israel”, thetorah.com.
  5. I used the King James translation of this couplet from Isaiah 40:9 because it is captures the meaning of the Hebrew and it is well-known from the libretto in George Friderick Handel’s oratorio “The Messiah”.
  6. Isaiah 40:11. The King James translation contains some inaccuracies, but Charles Jennens used this verse as well in his libretto for Handel’s Messiah. For more, see my post Haftarah for Ki Tavo—Isaiah: Rise and Shine.
  7. Isaiah 40:23.
  8. Job 38:1-39:4.

Lamentations: Seeking Comfort

Sorrowing Old Man, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

Mourning has fallen out of style in much of America. After someone close to you dies, you are allowed to act distraught until after the funeral, but then you are supposed to pull yourself together and assume a positive attitude. Treat that emptiness in your life with a new routine, an affirmation, an anti-depressant.

Jewish culture, however, remains more mourning-friendly. There are rituals for the first week, the first month, and the first eleven months after someone’s death. There is a specific prayer to say in the presence of other Jews on the anniversary of the death,1 and memorial services for everyone on four holidays during the year.2

All of these rituals and prayers require the presence of at least ten adults who stand or sit with the person who has been bereaved. Their witnessing presence provides some comfort and consolation; at least the survivor is not alone.

But what if there are millions of mourners observing the death of whole cities, nations, civilizations?

Once a year Jews dedicate a day to this kind of mourning: the fast day of Tisha Be-Av (the ninth day of the month of Av), which begins at sunset this Saturday.

Tisha Be-Av commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and by the Romans in 70 C.E. But it is not a day for mourning the end of temple worship and its animal sacrifices; most Jews prefer the rabbinic religion that evolved to replace it.  Our mourning on Tisha Be-Av focuses on mass destruction, death, and exile from our homes. Over the centuries Jews have attached other vast tragedies to Tisha Be-Av, including the Spanish expulsion of Jews in the 1490’s and the Nazi genocide of Jews in the 1940’s.

Mourning Day, by Jan Voerman, 1864

On Tisha Be-Av Jews around the world gather not only to fast and pray together, but to read the book of Lamentations/ Eikhah3, five long poems mourning the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.. The book begins:

Oh, how can she sit alone,

            The city [once] great with people?

            She has become like a widow.

Great among nations,

            A noblewoman among provinces,

            She has become an unpaid laborer. (Lamentations/Eikhah 1:1)4

What does it mean to be like a widow? In the male-dominated society of the ancient Israelites, a woman depended on a man for food and shelter. If she did not have a father, husband, or son to provide for her, she was in a vulnerable position. Another male relative might take her in, or she might glean fields, like Ruth. She might sell herself as a slave, resort to prostitution, or depend on charity. The book of Deuteronomy/Devarim urges people eight times to feed the fatherless child and the widow.5

In Lamentations, Jerusalem is like a widow because she has lost not only her people, but also her wealth. It was standard practice in the ancient Near East for successful invaders to make the surviving natives do unpaid labor.6

She weeps and weeps through the night;

            Her tears are on her cheek.

There are none menacheim her

            Out of all who loved her.

All her friends have been faithless to her;

            They have become like enemies to her. (Lamentations/Eikhah 1: 2)

menacheim (מְנַחֵם) = comforting, consoling; one who comforts or consoles. (A piel form of the verb nacham, נָחַם, which in the nifil form means a change of heart: either regret or consolation.)

Jerusalem’s lovers and friends in this verse are her erstwhile allies, particularly Egypt. The poet calls these allies faithless because they did not come to her aid when the Babylonian army attacked Judah and besieged its capital city.

Jerusalem weeps without consolation because the countries she expected to help her are absent. A real friend shows up and offers to help, but Jerusalem sits all alone.

Is God there? Yes, but this time God is allied with Jerusalem’s enemies. The book of Lamentations says repeatedly that God initiated the Babylonian conquest in order to punish Jerusalem for violating God’s laws.

There are none menacheim her” becomes a refrain in the first poem of Lamentations, repeated in verses 1:9 and 1:17.

In verses 1:12-16, Jerusalem speaks for herself in the first person. She describes her suffering on God’s “day of wrath”, and blames God for the defeat of her men at the hands of the Babylonian army. Then she says:

Over these things I am weeping;

            My eyes, my eyes flood with water.

Because distant from me is [any] menacheim

             Who might restore my spirit. (Lamentations 1:16)

At the end of the first poem in Lamentations, Jerusalem addresses God directly:

They heard that I myself sighed:

            “There are none menacheim me!”

All my enemies have heard of my evil fate.

            They rejoice because you yourself did it!

You brought on the day you called for.

            Then let them become like me!

Bring all their evil before yourself,

            And inflict on them

What you have inflicted on me

            For all my mutinies.

Because my groans are many

            And my heart is sick. (Lamentations 1:21-22)

Here Jerusalem realizes that even though God permitted the Babylonian army to raze God’s temple, the Babylonians sinned when they did it. So she begs God to punish her human enemies the same way God punished her.

Perhaps she believes this rough justice would console her.

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, by Rembrandt, 1630

The subject of consolation comes up once more in the book of Lamentations, in the second poem. The speaker now is the poet, who describes God’s fury and the resulting destruction, then calls Jerusalem a virgin daughter rather than a promiscuous widow.

What can I compare to you va-anachameikh,

            Virgin daughter of Zion?

For your shattering is as vast as the sea.

            Who will heal you? (Lamentations 2:13)

va-anachameikh (וַאֲנַחֲמֵךְ) = and I comfort you (with)? (Another form of the verb nacham.)

According to Rashi,7 the poet wants to console Jerusalem by telling her that something just as bad happened to another city, another people. But no sufficiently horrible example comes to mind.

The question “Who will heal you?” hangs unanswered. The Babylonians could rebuild the walls and the houses, and erect their own temple. But who will heal the people of Jerusalem?

Eikhah Rabbah, a Talmudic-era collection of commentary on Lamentations, suggests that God will. After all, God split the Reed Sea to let the Israelites pass through on dry land when they were fleeing the Egyptian army. Then God healed the breach in the water, destroying the enemy.8 Since God created miracles that helped the Israelites in the past, then someday, after God’s rage is spent, God will save them again.

In the second book of Isaiah, God declares: “I, I am the one menacheim you!” (Isaiah 51:12)

*

The book of Lamentations is only one of many biblical texts that view God as an omnipotent father with an anger management problem. Those who believe in that particular anthropomorphic version of God often blame themselves for disasters, since anything is better than accusing their father-figure God of injustice. And if they are very, very good, Daddy will forgive them and comfort them.

I believe we humans must comfort one another, if only by acknowledging one another’s losses as real.

But perhaps ultimately, comfort and consolation can only come from God—either through a fortunate change in circumstances beyond our control, or through the divine spirit that lives within us.

  1. The Mourner’s Kaddish, in Aramaic, a part of every prayer service.
  2. Yizkor services on Passover/Pesach, Shavuot, Yom Kippur, and Shemini Atzeret.
  3. Lamentations begins with the Hebrew word eikhah, which here means: “Oh, how can it be?” See my post Devarim, Isaiah, & Lamentations: Desperation.
  4. Although most of the poetry in Lamentations falls into couplets, I follow Robert Alter in dividing the first verse into triplets and retaining the order of the original Hebrew phrases. (Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: Volume 3, The Writings, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2019)
  5. Deuteronomy 14:29, 16:11, 16:14, 24:19, 24:20, 24:21, 26:12-13, 27:19.
  6. Deuteronomy 20:10-14 instructs the Israelites that if a foreign town surrenders to them immediately, they must impose forced labor on the residents. But if the town does not surrender until after the Israelites have besieged it, they must kill all the men and take the women and children as booty. The Babylonians, however, ended their siege of Jerusalem by deporting Israelite men who were skilled or educated, along with their families, to enclaves in Babylon. Their usual policy was to assign unpaid labor to any remaining residents of a conquered city.
  7. 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  8. Eikhah Rabbah 2:17, sefaria.org.

 

Matot: Protection from Commitment

Seal to sign contracts, Jerusalem, ca. 7th c. BCE

Most human beings want to make some commitments—although what we are willing to commit to depends on both our cultures and our individual psychologies. Modern Western societies tend to focus on marriages, legal contracts, and oaths of office. The Israelite culture portrayed in the Hebrew Bible also focuses on religious commitments.

According to the Torah, every family was required to tithe to support the clergy, and to make the necessary sacrificial offerings. But some Israelites committed themselves to making extra donations to both the sanctuary staff and God.1 And some abstained from certain behaviors in order to achieve greater sanctity. The most common abstentions were fasting, and living as a nazirite.

Not for nazarites

Nazirites dedicated themselves to God by adopting a more ascetic way of life for a specific period of time. They could not serve in the sanctuary, since clergy were restricted to hereditary priests and Levites. So instead, nazirites let their hair go wild and abstained from alcohol, grapes, and contact with the dead. (For more details, see my posts Naso: Distanced by Hair and Haftarat Naso: Restraining the Abstainer.)

What a person vows to abstain from for the sake of God depends on the religion. During the past millennium, monks and nuns have taken vows of abstinence from sexual intercourse and lived in separate communities as a spiritual dedication.

All men, but not all women, were free to determine their own voluntary religious commitments.

This week’s Torah portion, Matot, opens:

A man who vows a vow to God, or swears a sworn-oath le-esor isar upon his soul, he must not break2 his word; he must act according to everything that goes out from his mouth. (Numbers/Bemidbar 30:3)

le-esor (לֶאְסֺר) = to bind. (From the same root as isar.)

isar (אִסָּר) = a vow or oath binding oneself to abstain from a certain actions.

He Finds her Dead, by Gustave Dore, ca. 1880

An example of an oath that binds a man to abstain from a particular action occurs in the book of Judges. The men of Giveah, a village in the territory of Benjamin, rape a Levite’s woman to death.

Leaders and soldiers from all the other Israelite tribes meet at Mitzpah, then march against the Benjaminites. The Israelites kill them all—men, women, and children—except for 600 men of Benjamin who escape.

And the men of Israel, nishbei at Mitzpah, saying: “No man among us will give his daughter to a Benjaminite as a wife!” (Judges 21:1)

nishbei (נִשְׁבֵּע) = they had sworn an oath.

When the war is over, the victors realize that thanks to their oath, the tribe of Benjamin will disappear; the 600 survivors will die without issue. None of the men had thought that far ahead—nor asked for a wife’s opinion. Now they regret that they effectively eliminated one of the tribes of Israel. But breaking their oath is out of the question.

So they kill almost all the residents of the one village that did not send anyone to Mitzpah—everyone except the virgin maidens, who they give to the men of Benjamin. Then they tell the remaining Benjaminites to kidnap some of the unmarried women who dance in the vineyards at the festival in Shiloh. These young women are the daughters of the Israelites conquerors, but if they are kidnapped their fathers will not be forsworn.

Anything is better than breaking an oath.

Women Who Vow

Slaves could not make vows or oaths upon their souls, according to the Talmud,3 because their souls were not their own; they were not allowed to disobey their owners. The vows of minor children did not count either. But free women could bind themselves with vows—within limits.

An Israelite woman could not make a commitment about something she did not have authority over in the first place, such as her daughter’s marriage. But she could vow to donate any of her personal property to God, and she could bind herself to certain abstentions—including fasting4 and living as a nazirite.

A woman’s vow or oath to God is just as impossible to break as a man’s—unless her father or husband steps in promptly to cancel it.

And a woman, if she vows a vow to God and asrah isar in the household of her father, when she is young and single5, and her father hears her vow or her isar that asrah upon her soul, and her father is silent, then every vow and isar that asrah upon her soul will stand. (Numbers 30:4-5)

asrah (אָסְרָה) = she bound herself to. (From the same root as isar.)

An unmarried woman’s vow stands as long as her father does not contradict it.

But if her father restrains her on the day he hears of any of her vows or esareyha that asrah upon her soul, it will not stand, and God will pardon her, since he father restrained her. (Numbers 30:6)

esareyha (אֱסָרֶיהָ) = her vows or oaths binding herself to abstain from a certain behavior. (Also from the same root as isar.)

The father of an unmarried woman has only one day to annul his unmarried daughter’s vow—the day he finds out about it. If he does not do it that day, the vows stands.

After a woman marries, her husband has the right to annul any vow she made before the wedding, and any vow she makes during their marriage. But he can only do it on the day he finds out about the vow.6

The only female whose vows cannot be canceled is a free woman who was once married and now lives independently.

But a vow of a widow or a divorced woman, anything that asrah upon her soul, it will stand. (Numbers 30:10)

Protection from Foolish Vows

Given the seriousness of a vow or oath, it would be reasonable to let a close family member invalidate anyone’s impulsive commitment. Yet a mother cannot nullify a vow or oath that her unmarried son makes, however foolish it might be. And a wife cannot nullify anything that her husband vows.

The ancient Israelites assigned strict roles to men versus women, with men wielding far more independence and authority. In the 19th century C.E., European society was similarly sexist, and its assumptions underlie the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:

For a man creates his position in life independently, and if he binds himself with a vow that cannot be absolved, he introduces into his life a new element … and, since he is independent, he is able to take this individuality into account when he shapes the conditions of his life.

Not so for a woman. The moral greatness of the woman’s calling requires that she enter a position in life created by another. The woman does not build for herself her own home. She enters the home provided by the man, and she manages it, bringing happiness to the home and nurturing everything inside the home in a spirit of sanctity and orientation toward God. The woman—even more than the man—must avoid the constraint of extraordinary guidelines in her life, for they are likely to be an impediment to her in the fulfillment of her calling.7

*

If all women are fated to a life of repeated pregnancies and decades of child care, without the options of celibacy, birth control, or abortion, then it makes sense to nullify any vows they make that would interfere with these inescapable duties. For example, extended periods of fasting would be detrimental during pregnancy and nursing.

On the other hand, if all men are fated to a life of providing for large families, then they should be prevented from making vows that would interfere with their duties. For example, living as a nazirite would interfere with their ability to conduct business.

Fortunately, in much of the world today both men and women are free to decide whether to constrain themselves with the duties of raising a family, and how large the family will be (although in the United States a recent supreme court decision makes this more difficult).

Both genders now have the flexibility to determine their own commitments—to spouses (if any), to children (if any), and to religion (if any)—at least in the modern world. Nevertheless, each new vow limits our ability to take on another commitment.

May we all enjoy independence. And may we also give any new vows careful consideration, and talk them over with someone close to us before we commit!

  1. See Leviticus 27:1-8.
  2. The Hebrew word yacheil (יַחֵל) = he will desecrate, profane. I translate it as “break” to conform with standard English usage, at the risk of losing the Israelite idea that vows and oaths are literally, nut just metaphorically, sacred.
  3. Talmud Bavli, Nazir 61a.
  4. Numbers 30:14 specifically mentions mortifying the soul, which meant fasting.
  5. The Hebrew word I translate as “young and single” is ne-ureiyha (נְעֻרֶיהָ) = the time when a young woman or adolescent girl is not engaged or married.
  6. Numbers 30:7-9, 30:11-16.
  7. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bemidbar, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, p. 620-621.

 

Haftarat Pinchas—1 Kings: Passing On the Mantle

After the miracle, depression.

After the most spectacular miracle in his career, the prophet Elijah asks God for death in this week’s haftarah reading (1 Kings 18:46-19:21, which accompanies the Torah reading Pinchas).

Jezebel by John Liston Byam Shaw, 19th c.

In the first book of Kings, Ahab (Achav, אַחְסָב) king of the northern Israelite kingdom of Samaria, marries a Phoenician princess named Jezebel (Izevel, אִיזֶבֶל). As soon as she moves in she tries to change the religion of her new country. She imports prophets serving Baal and Asheirah, and orders the murder of all the prophets of Y-H-V-H, the God of Israel. But 101 of God’s prophets escape: 100 acolytes who are hidden by one of King Ahab’s officials, and one elusive traveling prophet named Elijah (Eliyahu, אֵלִיָּהוּ).

Elijah prophesies that God will punish Samaria by withholding rain until he returns and gives the word. Then he leaves Ahab’s kingdom for three years of drought. When he returns, the prophet  orders the king to arrange a contest between Y-H-V-H and the foreign gods Baal and Asheirah.

And the winner is …

Elijah and Ahab at Mt. Carmel, Zurich Bible, 1531

The prophets of the goddess Asheirah are absent from the contest on Mount Karmel. The prophets of Baal spend all morning hopping around their sacrifice and calling on their god, but they fail to make anything happen. Elijah pours water over his sacrifice, and Y-H-V-H responds to his call by sending a roaring fire that devours the slaughtered bull, the wood, the dirt, and the water in the trench around the altar.1

The Israelites who are watching enthusiastically follow Elijah’s order to seize the 450 prophets of Baal and kill them all.2

Death wish

This week’s haftarah opens as it begins to rain. When Ahab gets home and tells his Phoenician wife what happened, she sends a death threat to Elijah.

And he was afraid, and he got up and went off to save his life. And he came to Beir-sheva, which is in Judah. And he left behind his servant there. Then he himself walked a day’s journey into the wilderness, and he came and sat down under a certain broom-tree. And he asked for death. He said: “Enough! Now, God, take my life, because I am no better than my forefathers.” (1 Kings 19:3-4)

Elijah travels to Judah, the southern Israelite kingdom, in order to save his life. He would be safe in Jerusalem, the God-fearing King Yehoshafat of Judah. But instead of going there, he heads for the Negev desert. He probably leaves his servant behind in Beir-sheva because he is planning to die of dehydration in the desert and he does not want his servant to die as well.

Why is Elijah suicidal right after arranging a divine miracle, getting the Israelites to slay the prophets of Baal, and making it safely across the border into Judah? Another man might be heady with success.

One possibility is that Elijah expected the kingdom of Israel to completely return to the exclusive worship of their own God, after three years of drought and a spectacular miracle. Instead, King Ahab’s wife Jezebel retains power, and the 400 prophets of her goddess Asherah are still alive. Elijah has not achieved his goal.

Two other prophets in the Hebrew Bible beg God for death when they despair of achieving their goals. Moses asks God to kill him when the Israelites complain yet again about the food on their journey through the wilderness.3 His mission is to lead the Israelites to the land of Canaan, but they keep rebelling and whining that they want to go back to Egypt.

Jonah Preaching in Nineveh, by Jakob Steinhardt, 1923

Jonah, who prophesied after Elijah, asks God to kill him when God decides not to punish the Assyrians of Nineveh, who are enemies of Israel.4 Jonah’s mission is to go to Nineveh and proclaim that the city will be overthrown, but when he finally does, the people of Nineveh take the prophecy seriously and repent. Jonah wanted them to die, not to repent and be spared.

Like Moses and Jonah, Elijah is fed up with the prophet business. Serving as God’s mouthpiece consumes all of a person’s life, but a human being lacks God’s long-term view. No wonder both Moses and Jonah try to get out of being chosen as prophets in the first place.5

Perhaps these are the men Elijah is referring to when he says he is “no better than his forefathers”.

Close encounter

In the desert an angel of God comes twice to Elijah and saves his life with cakes and jugs of water. The second time, the angel says:

“Get up, eat, or the journey will be too much for you!” (1 Kings 19:7)

Perhaps because of this hint, or perhaps because he realizes he needs a deeper consultation with God,6 the prophet gets up and walks all the way to Mount Horev (another name for Mount Sinai).

There he came into the cave, and there he spent the night. And hey! The word of God, his God! And it said to him: “What are you here for, Elijah?” And he said: “I was absolutely zealous for God, the God of Hosts, because the Israelites abandoned your covenant! Your altars they demolished, and your prophets they slayed by the sword! And I alone remain, and they seek to take my life.” (1 Kings 19:9-10)

Elijah the zealot cannot appreciate a partial victory. He cannot accept that his fellow Israelites cooperated with Queen Jezebel, demolished God’s altars, and executed some of God’s prophets. Elijah is so outraged he forgets about (or discounts) the 100 lesser prophets that King Ahab’s court official saved. And he discounts the progress he made with the contest on the Mount Karmel, even though it inspired his people to slay the 450 prophets of Baal.

And hey! God was passing by, and a big and mighty wind was tearing off mountains of rocks in front of God; but God was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a faint sound of quietness. (I Kings 19:11-12)

The first three phenomena are similar to the dramatic divine manifestations at Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus.7 But this time God is not present in them. We can tell that Elijah recognizes God when he hears the faint, quiet sound (or still small voice), because he covers his face. He would know that when Moses stood on that same mountain, God said: “No man can see my face and live.”8

And when Elijah heard, he wrapped his face with his adaret, and he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And hey!—a  voice [came] to him, and it said: “What are you here for, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13)

adaret (אַדֶרֶת) = cloak, mantle. (From the same root as eder, אֶדֶר = magnificence, splendor.)

When Gods asks the question a second time, Elijah gives the same reply, word for word. He does not pick up on God’s hint that his true service to the divine now lies in quietness. A calm spirit is not Elijah’s forte.

Tossing the mantle

So God arranges for Elijah to be replaced by a new prophet.

Then God said to him: “Go, return the way you came, [then go on] to the wilderness [near] Damascus. You must come and anoint Chazeil as king over Aram. And you must anoint Yeihu son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And you must anoint Elisha son of Shafat from Aveil Mecholah as a prophet instead of yourself.” (1 Kings 19:15-16)

Elijah is so eager to stop being a prophet that he skips anointing new kings of Aram and Israel, and goes straight to Aveil Mecholah in the Jordan valley.

Elijah and Elisha, by Abraham Bloemaert, 1565-1651

And he went from there, and he found Elisha son of Shafat, who was plowing with twelve yokes in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. And Elijah crossed over to him and he threw his adaret to him. He [Elisha] left his oxen and he ran after Elijah … (1 Kings 19:19-20)

This is the source of the English idiom “passing on the mantle”. The word adaret is used only once in the Hebrew Bible for the garment of a king.9 Otherwise it appears as either a prophet’s outer garment or a metaphor. In this week’s haftarah Elijah’s mantle is his protection as  prophet; he uses it to hide his face when God is too close even for him.

Elijah’s improvised substitute for anointment proves to be only the beginning of the transfer of his prophetic authority. Elisha becomes Elijah’s attendant or acolyte for several years, perhaps replacing the servant whom Elijah left in Beir-sheva.

After this week’s haftarah God orders Elijah to deliver two more prophesies. He obeys, adding his own elaborations as usual. First he predicts doom (involving blood-licking dogs) for Ahab and his Phoenician wife because Jezebel arranged the murder of Nabot, who refused to sell his vineyard to the king.10

Then, three years later, Elijah tells King Achazyah, Ahab’s son and heir, that he will die of his wounds from a fall out the window.11 In this story, Elijah is described as a very hairy man with a leather belt around his waist; no adaret is evident.

The adaret reappears in the second book of Kings on the day when God is finally ready to take Elijah’s life. Elijah rolls it up and uses it to slap the Jordan River, and the waters part so he and Elisha can cross on dry land. Then the adaret falls to the ground when Elijah ascends to heaven in a whirlwind, and Elisha picks it up—this time for good.12

*

When is it time to pass on the mantle of authority?

When you are fed up with one of your roles in life, it is fine to keep an eye out for your successor. But you may have to humble yourself and continue serving until you can step down without doing harm. Perhaps, like Elijah, you must serve as a model for your future replacement for a while. Or perhaps, like a parent with a difficult child, you must accept your responsibility graciously until you are no longer needed.

The prophet business is not the only hard duty a person might face.

  1. 1 Kings 18:17-38
  2. 1 Kings 18:39-40.
  3. Numbers 11:11-15.
  4. Jonah 4:1-3.
  5. Moses in Exodus 4:1-16 when he keeps trying to talk God out of it, and Jonah in Jonah 1:1-3 when he gets on a ship to Tarshish.
  6. Commentators who proposed that Elijah went to Mount Horev in order to commune with God and elevate his soul include the Malbim (19th-century rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Wisser) and Leo L. Honor, Book of Kings 1, The Jewish Commentary for Bible Readers, New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1955, p. 271.
  7. When God comes down on top of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19:16-20, the effects include an earthquake, the blare of a horn, thunder and lightning, and fire and smoke.
  8. Exodus 33:20.
  9. The king of Nineveh takes off his adaret and puts on sackcloth in Jonah 3:6.
  10. 1 Kings 21:1-24.
  11. 2 Kings 1:2-8.
  12. 2 Kings 2:8-14.

Balak & Micah: Divine Favor

How does a community know that God is on their side?

In the Hebrew Bible, God rewards people with food, fertility, long life, and success in war. God determines the winner of a battle. If an enemy attacks a group of Israelites and wins, God is punishing the Israelites. If the Israelites attack and win, God is giving them the victory because they have found favor in God’s eyes.

Lion attacking, Persepolis, circa 5th c. BCE

Both this week’s Torah portion, Balak, and the accompanying haftarah reading, Micah 5:6-6:8, predict that when the Israelites please God, they will conquer other countries like a lion devouring its prey.

What can people do to get God on their side?

In Balak, the blessings that the prophet Bilam pronounces for the Israelites include two hints about why God is on their side. But in the haftarah, the prophet Micah directly states what God wants.

A sign of divine favor

The Israelites traveling from the Reed Sea to Mount Sinai defeat an attack of Amalekite nomads in the desert, with God’s help.1 Their next military engagement is on the southern border of Canaan, where the Israelites alienate God and are condemned to forty years in the wilderness. They march north anyway, even though Moses warns them that God is no longer on their side, and this time the Amalekites defeat them.2

After that the Israelites avoid combat until their forty-year sentence is almost completed. Then, instead of approaching Canaan from the south, they circle east and north around the kingdoms of Edom and Moab.

When they finally head toward the Jordan River and Canaan (in last week’s Torah portion, Chukat) they ask the Amorite king Sichon for permission to pass through his territory. He attacks them instead. The Israelites win and conquer all of his land, from Arnon River to the Yabok River.3

… he was Sichon, king of the Amorites, and he had made war against the first king of Moab and taken all his land from his hand, as far as the Arnon. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:26)

The next Torah portion, Balak, opens with the current king of Moab’s fear of the hordes of Israelite invaders camping across the Arnon in what used to be Moabite land. King Balak hires a Mesopotamian prophet to come and curse the Israelites, so he can defeat them. But each time the prophet Bilam prepares to do so, God makes him speak a blessing instead.4

Two of Bilam’s blessings compare the Israelites to lions. The lion was the top predator among non-human animals in the Ancient Near East, an apt metaphor for a human nation that is the top predator among the nations in the region—the nation that wins wars and cannot be conquered.

In the first of his two blessings mentioning lions, Bilam says:

Hey, a people like a lioness rises,

           And like the lion it rears up.

It does not lie down until it devours prey

            And drinks the blood of the slain. (Numbers 23:24)

Later in the portion Balak some Midianites living in Sichon’s former territory seduce many of the Israelite men into disobeying God and worshiping Baal Pe-or.5 After the apostasy has been squelched, God orders the Israelites to attack the Midianites.6 Like ravenous lions, the Israelite men kill every Midianite male and burn down all their villages.7

by Rembrandt van Rijn, 17th c.

Bilam refers to lions in another blessing when he says of the Israelite people:

It kneels, lies down like a lion

            And like a lioness, who [dares to] impose on it? (Numbers 24:9)

When the Israelites cross the Jordan River they have a reputation for conquering two Amorite kingdoms, both Sichon’s kingdom of Cheshbon and the Og’s kingdom of Bashan. In the book of Joshua, they conquer large parts of Canaan. Bilam’s blessing indicates that in the future (perhaps in the time of King Solomon) their new nation “relies on its reputation and does not fear attack even when lying down.”8

Micah makes a similar prediction in this week’s haftarah. The book of Micah begins with a denunciation of the northern Israelite kingdom, Samaria, which the Assyrian Empire had recently conquered. Micah’s prophecies for the southern kingdom of Judah alternate between catastrophe if the Judahites offend God and good fortune if they retain God’s favor. In the haftarah for Balak, Micah prophecies:

And the remainder of Jacob9 will be among the nations,

            In the midst of many peoples,

Like a lion among beasts of the forest,

            Like a young lion among flocks of sheep

That passes through and tramples

            And tears apart, and there is none to rescue them.

Your hand will be high over your adversary

            And all your enemies will be cut down. (Micah 5:7-8)        

How to earn divine favor

Bilam passes on God’s blessings for the people who already have favor in God’s eyes. In his very first blessing, he says:

Who has counted the dust of Jacob,

           Or numbered [even] a fourth of Israel?

May my soul die the death of the upright,

           And may my end be like theirs! (Numbers 23:10)

Here dust is a metaphor for fertility, as in Genesis when God promises to make Abraham’s descendants “like the dust of the earth, so that if a man is able to count the dust of the earth, he can also count your descendants”10.

This verse in Balak implies that the Israelites have been rewarded with fertility (another sign of divine favor) because they are upright. But we do not learn God thinks of them that way.

In his third blessing, Bilam says:

Mah tovu your tents, Jacob,

            And your dwellings, Israel! (Numbers 24:5)

mah tovu (נַה־טֺּווּ) = How good they are. (Mah = what, how + tovu = they are good, from the same root as tov, טוֹב = good: desirable, useful, beautiful, kind, or virtuous.)

Parshas Balak, The Jewish Voice

How are they good? All shelters are desirable and useful. Are the tents or future dwellings of the Israelites beautiful?  Probably not; the rest of the Torah waxes lyrical about nature and about the sanctuaries the Israelites build for God, but not about their personal habitations. So does Bilam mean that Israelite houses, i.e. families, are good in the ethical sense?

According to the Talmud, Bilam sees that the entrances of the tents are not aligned so that they face each other, thereby giving each family more privacy—and this makes them worthy of God’s presence.11 Subsequent commentators, including Rashi, interpreted this privacy as a form of sexual morality.

But the haftarah goes much farther than the Talmudic speculation that Bilam was referring to a narrow area of morality.

Micah, after comparing the Israelites to a lion, delivers a different prophecy in which God will destroy Judah, presumably through a foreign army, as a punishment for worshiping idols.

Then he quotes God as bringing as case against the Israelites for turning toward idols despite all the help God gave them in the past: bringing them up from Egypt; giving them Moses, Aaron, and Miriam as leaders; and making Bilam answer Balak with blessings.12

Next Micah imagines the Israelites asking what they can give God to get back into favor—thousands  of rams as burnt offerings? Streams of oil? Their own firstborn sons?13 He replies:

It was told to you, human, mah tov

            And what God is demanding from you:

Only to do justice

           And to love kindness

            And to live carefully, walking with your God. (Micah 6:8)

mah tov (מַה־טּוֹב) = what is good.

Here tov clearly means “good” in the ethical sense, and it is not limited to sexual morality. God wants us to treat other human beings with both justice and kindness. God also wants religious observance that is not ostentatious or immoral, like the sacrifices the Israelites suggest, but part of a careful, mindful life.

*

Even when we are not looking for divine favor to vanquish our enemies or give us happy lives, Micah’s statement of what God wants is a valuable guide to being morally upright. May we all learn to pay attention to where we walk, and correct our course as needed so that we treat our fellow humans with both justice and kindness.

  1. Exodus 17:8-13.
  2. Numbers 14:39-45.
  3. Numbers 21:21-25.
  4. Numbers 23:11-12, 23:25-26, 24:1, 24:10. In the Hebrew Bible a prophecy is usually a conditional prediction; it forecasts what will happen if a person or nation makes a certain choice. A blessing, such as Isaac’s blessings of his sons in Genesis 27, is an unconditional prediction.
  5. Numbers 25:1-9. See my post Balak: Being Open.
  6. Numbers 25:16-18, 31:2.
  7. Numbers 31:3-18.
  8. 18th-century Moroccan rabbi Chayim ben Mosheh ibn Attar, Or HaChayim, translated in sefaria.com.
  9. The “remainder of Jacob” probably refers to the kingdom of Judah, since the Assyrians had deported thousands of Israelites from the other Israelite kingdom, Samaria.
  10. Genesis 13:16.
  11. Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra.
  12. Micah 5:9-6:5.
  13. Micah 6:6-7.