Va-etchannan: Living

July 30, 2020 at 11:02 am | Posted in Va-etchannan | Leave a comment

A living god

Revelation at Mt. Sinai, artist unknown

The first time the God of Israel is called “a living god” is in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (“And I implored”).  Moses reminds the new generation of Israelites that when their parents were at Mount Sinai the revelation of God terrified them.  They begged Moses to be their intermediary because they were afraid that if they listened any longer to the voice of God they would die.  They justified their fear by adding:

“Because who, of all flesh, has heard the voice of a god chayyim speaking from the middle of the fire, as we have, vayechi?”  (Deuteronomy 5:23)

chayyim (חַיִּים) = plural of the adjective chai (חַי) = alive, living.  (As nouns, both chai and chayyim = life.  Derived from the root verb chayah, חָיָה = lived.)

vayechi (וַיֶּחִי) = and survived.  (A form of the verb chayah.)

The Israelites were not monotheists at that point; they assumed that there were other living gods who may well have spoken from the middle of a fire.  The Hebrew Bible refers to “a living god” eleven more times,1 always in reference to the God of Israel.

What is a “living god”?

When Joshua orders the priests to carry the ark to the edge of the Jordan, he tells the Israelites that God will make the river part.

“By this you will know that a god chayyim is close to you and will definitely drive out from before you the Canaanites …”  (Joshua 3:10)

The implication is that a living god can take action in the world, like a living person.  A dead god is at best an inanimate and powerless idol.

Jeremiah draws this contrast in one of many biblical passages railing against statues of gods:

          And as one they are stupid and foolish,

               [Their] foundation emptiness, a piece of wood,

         Silver hammered flat from Tarshish …

               The work of a craftsman and the hand of a smith …

          But God is truly a god;

               [God] is a god chayyim,

               And king forever.

          From his fury the earth quakes,

               And nations are not able to contain [God’s] wrath.

          Thus you shall say to them: “Gods that have not made the heavens and the earth shall perish …”  (Jeremiah 10:8-11)

Staying alive

Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, life is a characteristic not only of humans but also of all other animals (but not plants); one word for “animal” is chayyah (חַיָּה) = living creature.  God gives all of us both life and death.2

Moses warns the Israelites three times in this week’s Torah portion that they must follow God’s rules in order to keep on living.

“And now, Israel, pay attention to the decrees and to the laws that I am teaching you to do, so that ticheyu and you will enter and occupy the land that God, the God of your fathers, is giving to you.”  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:1)

ticheyu (תִּחְיוּ) = you will live, you will stay alive.  (A form of the verb chayah.)

Here Moses means that if the Israelites obey all the rules, then God will let them live and ensure that they occupy the land of Canaan; but if they do not obey the rules, God will kill them.  He gives an example of when people disobeyed one of God’s fundamental rules: exclusive worship.

Bronze Baal

“Your eyes saw … what God did in Baal Peor, that God, your God, wiped out everyone who followed [the god of] Baal Peor from your midst.  But you who stuck to God, your God, all of you are chayyim today.”  (Deuteronomy 4:3-4)

Later, Moses says the people must:

“… observe all [God’s] decrees and commandments that I order you [to follow], you and your child and the child of your child, all the days of chayyekha, so that your days will be long.”  (Deuteronomy 6:2)

chayyekha (חַיֶּיךָ) = your life, your lifespan.  (A form of the noun chayyim.)

In this context, the reward for obeying all God’s rules is not just survival, but a long life.  Still later in the portion Va-etchnnan, Moses says:

“Then God commanded us to do all these decrees, to be in awe of God, our God, for our own good always, lechayyoteinu as today.  And we will be righteous when we observe and do all these commands before God, our God, as [God] commanded us.”  (Deuteronomy 6:24-25)

lechayyoteinu (לְחַיֺּתֵנוּ) = to keep us alive.  (A form of the verb chayah.)

This time either following the rules or being in awe of God, or both, seem to result directly in both staying alive and being righteous.  God tells the Israelites what the rules are in order to help them live longer and better lives.

In Moses’ three statements connecting God’s rules with life, the words for living mean 1) not being killed, 2) having a long life, and 3) being sustained by doing the right things.

What good is life?

The Hebrew Bible assumes, realistically, that most people want to keep on living; only a few characters question whether living on is worthwhile.  Life is also desirable in the bible because it lets humans, like God, take action in the world, in “the land of the living (chayyim)”.3  There is no life after death; the animating souls of everyone who dies go down to the land of the dead, Sheol, where they lie inert, unable to do anything.

Two of the actions in the land of the living that God wants from the Israelites are to have children and to occupy Canaan.  In next week’s Torah portion, Eikev, Moses says:

All the commands that I command you today you shall observe and do, so that ticheyun and you will increase and you will enter and possess the land that God promised to your fathers.  (Deuteronomy 8:1)

ticheyun (תִּחְיוּן) = you will live.  (Another form of the verb chayah.)

Today we might value life because only the living can create things that delight us, and only the living can work on restoring this planet that we have occupied and degraded.

The Torah also assumes that God wants the praise and thanks of humans, which only the living can do.4  In the book of Isaiah, King Hezekiah writes a poem thanking God for his recovery from a grave illness.

          For Sheol does not thank you

               [nor] death praise You;

          Those who go down to the pit cannot hope

               For your faithfulness.

          Chai, chai,

               only he can thank you

               as I do today… (Isaiah 38:18-19)

Today we can still praise and thank God, though we might use different words, or stop to meditate with silent awe and joy.  We can appreciate everything in the world that humans did not make, from the sun to the ocean to life itself.

Here’s to life!  Lechayyim!

  1. References to “a living God” take the form elohim chayyim (Deuteronomy 5:23, 1 Samuel 17:26 and 17:36, Jeremiah 10:10 and 23:36) or elohim chai (2 Kings 19:4 and 16, Isaiah 37:4 and 17, Hosea 2:1) or eil chayyim (Joshua 3:10, Psalm 84:3). I am not including the name of the spring in the wilderness where an angel of God speaks to Hagar: Be-eir Lachai Ro-i (בְּאֵר לַחַי רֺאִי) = Spring of the Living One [who] Sees Me (Genesis 16:14).
  2. Deuteronomy 32:39, 1 Samuel 2:6, 2 Kings 5:7.
  3. The phrase “land of the living”/eretz chayyim occurs in Isaiah 38:11 and 53:8; Jeremiah 11:19; Ezekiel 26:20; Psalms 27:13, 52:7, 116:9,and 142:6; and Job 28:13.
  4. Also see Psalms 6:6, 42:9, 85:7, 88:11-14, 115:17.


Devarim, Isaiah, & Lamentations: Desperation

July 22, 2020 at 7:48 pm | Posted in Devarim, Isaiah 1, Lamentations | Leave a comment

Eykhah (אֵיכָה) = Oh, how?  Oh, where?  Oh, how can it be?  (Ten of the nineteen occurrences of eykhah in the Hebrew Bible are in rhetorical questions that express despair or desperation.1)

The first appearance of the word eykhah in the  bible is in this week’s Torah portion, Devarim.2  Eykhah also appears in the accompanying haftarah reading from first Isaiah, and in the book of Lamentations, which we read next week during the fast of Tisha B’Av.  (In 2020 we read the Torah portion Devarim during the week ending this Saturday, July 25, and observe Tisha B’Av beginning Wednesday evening, July 29.)


Moses, by Ivan Mestrovic,1934, bronze

The book of Deuteronomy (also called Devarim in Hebrew) is a long series of speeches that Moses delivers on the bank of the Jordan before he dies and the other Israelites cross over to conquer Canaan.  Some of his speeches outline God’s laws and others relate what Moses remembers happening on the 40-year journey from Egypt.1

Moses’ first recollection begins with God telling the Israelites to leave Mount Horeb (elsewhere called Mount Sinai) and go to Canaan to take possession of the land.  Moses says:

Then I spoke to you at that time, saying: “I am not able to carry you by myself!  God, your God, has multiplied you, and here you are today like the stars of the heavens in multitude …  Eykhah can I handle by myself alone your load and your burden and your disputing?  Bring men of wisdom and discernment and knowledge from among yourselves to your tribes, and I will appoint them as your heads.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:9-10, 12-13)

Here the word eykhah begins a cry of desperation expressing Moses’ memory of how overwhelmed he was.


This week’s haftarah reading from first Isaiah4 rails against the immorality of the people of Jerusalem in the 8th century B.C.E.  The prophet cries out:

Isaiah, by Gustave Dore, 1866

     Eykhah she has become a prostitute,

     The [once] faithful city

     Filled with justice?

     The righteous used to linger in her,

     But now—murderers.  (Isaiah 1:21)

When Isaiah asks “Eykhah (How can it be?) she has become a prostitute, the [once] faithful city?”, it is a prophet’s cry of desperation, both exclaiming over how far the city of Jerusalem has fallen and sounding the alarm that its residents must change or else.  Isaiah can imagine a reversal of the immoral behavior of the Israelites, but he is afraid they will not cooperate until God smites the evil-doers.


Eykhah appears four times in the book of Lamentations, which we read next week.5  In fact, Lamentations is called Eykhah in Hebrew because that is the first word in the book.  Tisha B’Av, the day next week dedicated to remembering the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, includes fasting and reading the book of Lamentations/Eykhah.

By the Rivers of Babylon, by Gebhard Fugel, ca. 1920

This book is set in a time shortly after the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem and its first Jewish temple in 587 B.C.E.  It opens with this rhetorical question:

      Eykhah the city sits alone,

     Once teeming with people?

     She has become like a widow,

     Once great among the nations.

     A princess among the provinces,

     She has become a slave. (Lamentations 1:1)

Here the poet6 utters a cry of despair over how the city of Jerusalem has changed from an important metropolis to a hillside of ruins.  Eykhah, how can it be?

The second chapter also begins with a rhetorical question:

Eykhah God, in his wrath, concealed in a cloud

The daughter of Zion?

Cast down from heaven to earth,

The splendor of Israel?

Did not remember his footstool

On his day of wrath?  (Lamentations 2:1)

This time the word eykhah expresses the poet’s despair over the nature of God, who exalted Jerusalem with splendor and chose the city as God’s footstool or resting place—and then in a fit of anger cast it down and made it disappear.  How could God do such a thing?


“Oh how can it be that the city sits alone?” we read in Lamentations on the fast of Tisha B’Av.  “Oh how can God forget God’s footstool on a day of wrath?”  Now all the people of the world might ask: “Oh how can God abandon us to this pandemic, letting the innocent die along with the guilty?”

What if we ask ourselves: “How can I grow out of my belief in a god who is a parent, either loving or abusive?  How can I stop blaming God and accept what is beyond my control?  And how can I take responsibility for what is within my reach?”

Oh how can the once faithful city have become a prostitute?” Isaiah asks in this week’s haftarah reading.  Now Americans might ask: “Oh how can our once responsible national government have become devoted to stroking the ego of a megalomaniac?”

What if we ask ourselves: “How can we restore a government devoted to saving lives and helping all of its citizens?”

“Oh how can I handle by myself alone your load and your burden and your disputing?” Moses asks in this week’s Torah portion.  Now, in the Covid-19 pandemic, we might ask: “Oh how can I handle by myself taking care of the kids without a single break, without a summer program or a class or a play group?  How can I handle the dangers of going to work, or the dangers of a simple trip to the grocery store?”  The burden can indeed be too much for one person, alone.

What if those of us who are not as overwhelmed ask ourselves: “How can I help my neighbor or my friend and safely lighten their burden?”

  1. Other Hebrew words that can be translated as “how” include eykh (אֵיךְ), which begins a rhetorical question in two of its three appearances in the bible; eikhakha (אֵכָכָה), used rhetorically in all three of its appearances; ey (אֵי), which usually means “where” but is used once as a rhetorical “how”; and mah (מַה), which usually means “what” but is used twice as a rhetorical “how”. But none of these words are used as an “Oh, how could it happen?” beginning a lament.
  2. The word God calls out in Genesis 3:9 when Adam and Eve are hiding in the garden is ayekha (אַיֶּכָּה). Although this word is spelled with the same letters as eykhah, the vowel pointing indicates that the word is actually ayeh (אַיֵּה) = where, with the suffix cha (כָּה) = you. Thus ayekha means “Where are you?”
  3. Moses’ memory is not always accurate, and sometimes the way he tells the story is self-serving. See my post Devarim: In God We Trust? Deuteronomy 1:9-13 is a different version of the delegation of administrative and legal jobs than either the one in Exodus/Shemot 18:13-26 where Moses’ father-in-law Yitro advises him to delegate 70 elders, or the one in Numbers/Bemidbar 11:16 and 11:24-25 where God tells him to delegate 70 elders.  In this week’s Torah portion, Moses claims that he asked for help on his own initiative, and that he asked the people to choose their own leaders to assist him with giving orders and judging legal disputes.
  4. See my post Haftarat Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship.
  5. Lamentations 1:1, 2:1, 4:1, and 4:2.
  6. The author of Lamentations is not named in the book, but rabbinic tradition ascribes it to the prophet Jeremiah.

Masey—Inner Battle

July 15, 2020 at 2:17 pm | Posted in Masey | Leave a comment

Israelites arrive at “The Acacias” across the Jordan from Jericho

And God spoke to Moses on the plain of Moab at the Jordan at Jericho, saying: “Speak to the children of Israel, and you shall say to them:  When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, vehorashtem all the inhabitants of the land from before yourselves.  And you must destroy all their carved images, and all their cast-metal images you must destroy, and all their high worship places you must demolish.  Vehorashtem of the land and you must settle down in it yourselves; I have given the land to you lareshet it.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 33:51-53)

vehorashtem (וְהוֹרַשְׁתֶּם) = and you must take possession of, inherit; dispossess, drive out.  (A form of the verb yarash.)

lareshet (לָרֶשֶׁת) = to possess.  (Another form of the verb yarash.)

This communication combines two orders: take over all the Canaanites’ land, and eliminate all their places and objects of worship.  Carrying out these orders would clear the way for the Israelites to have their own nation-state and to establish their own exclusive religion.

The anthropomorphic God presented in the books of Exodus through Numbers does talk about taking the Israelites to be “his” own people.  This God-character is willing to disregard the needs of other peoples in order to give “his” people their own land.  And naturally “he” wants theirhis people’s exclusive devotion, with no distractions from other religions.

Yet some later passages in the Hebrew Bible posit one God who creates, rules, and administers justice to all the peoples of the earth.1  This early monotheism influences our ideas today (although some people still apply a different standard of justice to people of other nations compared to those born in their own nation).

If conquering a land and driving out its inhabitants does strike us as immoral, can we find any value in the God-character’s orders above?

Jordan River

One possibility is to read it as an allegory for how some individuals can consciously change when they want to move into a new way of life:

When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan — or, when have decided to cross the watery boundary between your old life and the new —

you must dispossess all the inhabitants of the land from before yourself — you must uproot all the old, habitual beliefs in the land of your mind.

And you must destroy all their carved images — and you must keep on examining your reactions and identifying the prejudices and myths they are based on, the ones you learned from your parents and other influences; and then replace them with your new insights —

and all their cast-metal images you must destroy — and you may need to give up some old possessions too, if they entrap you —

and all their high worship places you must demolish — and you must question what you once admired and stop worshipping your old idols.

You must take possession of the land and you must settle down in it — You must take conscious responsibility for your own mental habits.

I have given the land to you to take possession of it — God has given you a mind capable of self-reflection and conscious choice.

How many people marry a second person who has the same character flaw as the first?  How many people keep losing their jobs for the same reason?  How many people keep losing their tempers?  All real change requires a change inside, and it is hard work to keep fighting to pay attention and question yourself until your old habits have been mostly driven out.  (Even then, I find, the old habits lurk in the background, and may pop up again in a time of weakness.)

May more and more human beings dedicate themselves to these inner battles for new lives.  And may outer battles of conquest among nations cease as we discard the myths that fueled them and invent peaceful resolutions.

(Based on an essay I wrote in July 2010.)

  1. The book of Deuteronomy combines monotheistic statements with the assumption that God prefers the Israelites and expects more from them. But the second half of Isaiah not only declares that there is only one god, but also points toward a more universal god in 41:3, 45:5-7, and 45:20-22.

Pinchas: The Right Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Korach: Dwelling Places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They disobey God instead.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Shelach-Lekha: Stronger

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

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

Free fish and leeks

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

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

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

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

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

Grasshopper, photo by Artsajith,Wikimedia

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

The Israelites cry in despair all night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beha-altokha: Cloud over Paran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common quail

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Are you leaning toward God or Pharaoh today?

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

Naso: Raising a Blessing

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

Hand position for Priestly Blessing

May God bless you and protect you!

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

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

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

panav (פָּנָיו) = his face, his presence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

rosh (רֺאשׁ) = head.

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

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

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

Initiating a blessing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hearing a blessing

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

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

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

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

May we all find a way to listen.


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

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


Bemidbar: Don’t Look

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bechukkotai: A Rejecting Nefesh

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

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

Pomegranates, photo by M.C.

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

The list of rewards concludes:

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

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

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

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

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

The list of punishments concludes:

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

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

Nefesh as throat

Bitter Drink by Adriaen Brouwer, 17th century

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

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

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

Nefesh as animating soul

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

Then God will continue to be alive to us.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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