Haftarat Shelach-Lekha—Joshua: The Defector

June 27, 2016 at 6:06 pm | Posted in Joshua, Shelach-Lekha | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Shelach-Lekha (Numbers 13:1-15:41) and the haftarah is Joshua 2:1-2:24.

Spies scout out the land the Israelites will conquer in both the Torah portion and the haftarah this week. The twelve spies Moses sends in the book of Numbers do not speak to anyone in Canaan, and ten of them say the natives are fearsome giants who the Israelites could never defeat.  The results of this report are disastrous.  (See my post Shelach-Lekha: Too Late.)

City gate at Megiddo

City gate at Megiddo

When God lets the next generation of Israelites enter Canaan (after 40 years in the wilderness) their new leader, Joshua, sends two spies across the Jordan River into the nearest town, the walled city of Jericho. These spies view the Canaanites of Jericho as ordinary human beings.  They go through the city gate during the day, when strangers are allowed in for trading, and converse with at least one of the natives.

And Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two men, spies, from Shittim, saying: Go see the land and Jericho.  So they went, and they came into the house of a woman of zonah, and her name was Rachav, and they lay down there.  (Joshua 2:1)

zonah (זוֹנָה) = prostitute. From the verb zanah (זָנַָה) = have illicit intercourse, practice prostitution for profit or for a Canaanite religion, be faithless to a husband or to God.

rachav (רָחָב) = broad, wide. (The proper name Rachav appears as Rahab in many English translations.)

The story gets off to a racy start, with the men “coming into” and “lying down” in the house of a prostitute, and the sexual humor continues with more double meanings as the tale unfolds.  But in the ancient Near East the custom was for a stranger to wait in the town plaza (or rachov (רָחֹב) = open place) until someone offered him shelter (as in Judges 19:15-20).  Joshua’s spies would not want to be that conspicuous, so they go into the prostitute’s house instead.

Alas, someone observes them entering Rachav’s house, recognizes them as Israelites from the vast camp across the Jordan, and reports it to the king of Jericho.

And the king of Jericho sent to Rachav, saying: Bring out the men, the ones who came into your house, because they came to scout out the land!  (Joshua 2:3)

Rachav Helping the Two Spies, by F.R. Pickersgill, 1897

Rachav Helping the Two Spies, by F.R. Pickersgill, 1897

At this point, a loyal citizen of Jericho would produce the two spies.  But Rachav seizes the opportunity to switch her loyalty.

And the woman took the two men and she hid them. Then she said: Indeed, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from.  And the gate was going to close at dark, and the men went out.  I do not know where the men went. Chase after them quickly, because you can overtake them! But she had taken them up to the roof, and she had hidden them among the flax stalks, the ones stacked for her on the roof.  (Joshua 2:4-6)

After the king’s men are gone, Rachav follows up on her defection by climbing up to her roof and speaking to the two Israelite spies. She begins:

I know that God has given to you the land, because terror of you fell over us… (Joshua 2:9)

Everyone in Jericho heard how the God of Israel dammed the Reed Sea for the Israelites when they left Egypt, she says, and how the Israelites recently destroyed the Amorite kingdoms of Sichon and Og.

And we listened, and it melted our heart, and the will to live could not rise again in any man facing you. Because God, your god, is god in the heavens above and over the land below.  (Joshua 2:11)

Here Rachav declares her faith in the God of Israel over the local god or gods of Jericho.  Next, she asks the two spies to help her and her family defect to the Israelites.

And now swear, please, to me, by the God, because I acted chessed with you, and so you should act chessed with my father’s household. (Joshua 2:12)

chessed (חֶסֶד) = loyally, faithfully, in solidarity, in kindness.

They agree on a dead: Rachav will not tell on the two spies, and she will leave a red cord hanging from her window, so they can identify her house when the Israelites attack.  The Israelites will rescue everyone inside her house from the destruction of Jericho.

Ruins of a casemate wall: a double wall with living quarters inside

Ruins of a casemate (double) city wall. Larger walls had living quarters inside.

And she let them down by the rope through the window, for her house was in the city wall, the casemate wall, and she was living in the casemate wall.  (Joshua 2:15)

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Most commentary, from the Tamud on, views Rachav’s defection as a sincere conversion to the God of Israel. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, in her brilliant analysis in Reading the Women of the Bible (2002), interpreted Rachav’s statements “I know that God has given to you the land” and “God, your god, is god in the heavens above and over the land below” as a formal declaration of her faith in the God of Israel and conversion to Israel’s religion.

Some modern commentators also interpret Rachav’s chessed as kindness to the spies.  Tikva Frymer-Kensky translated chessed as “benevolently”.  Although she may have been moved by kindness, like the stereotypical hooker with the heart of gold, she uses her initial act of hiding the spies as a bargaining chip: in exchange for her loyalty to them, they must swear loyalty to her.

Why does a person defect to another religion and/or to another country?  What motivates someone to abandon a lifelong allegiance and commit to a new loyalty—becoming a traitor or apostate to their former people?

Some defectors do switch sides because of a passionate conviction in a matter of principle. If Rachav is one of these, maybe she is so impressed by the story of the parting of the Reed Sea that she becomes convinced that the god of Israel is the highest god, and decides she must become one of the people of Israel, even if it means betraying her people.

But some people defect, or emigrate, because their lives have become difficult in the old religion or the old country. The economy has tanked and they can no longer make a living; the sub-group they belong to is suffering from discrimination; war has come to their country and they fear for their lives.  Unlike their compatriots who blindly continue to serve their old allegiances, these defectors use intelligence and courage to seize an opportunity for radical change—in the hope that the group they are joining will provide them with a better life.

Rachav scarlet cord 2I think Rachav is this second kind of defector.

As a zonah, a prostitute, she occupies a marginal role in the society of Jericho, symbolized by her living quarters in the wall marking the edge of the city.

The word zonah comes from the verb zanah, which means both practicing prostitution and being faithless to a god.  She is willing to be faithless to her old god, and commit herself to a new one, if it seems like the best solution.

Her name, Rachav, is related to the word rachov = open place, town plaza, where strangers wait hoping someone will offer them shelter for the night. Rachav shelters the spies overnight, then asks for shelter from the coming destruction of Jericho.

She believes that the Israelites and their god will destroy Jericho for rational reasons: there are hundreds of thousands of Israelites, and they have a record of success: their God made a miracle for them at the Reed Sea, and they vanquished the larger countries ruled by Sichon and Og. Even if Jericho’s double wall withstood an onslaught of Israelites, her town would lose a siege.

Desperate to save herself and her family from death, Rachav courageously seizes the opportunity to switch sides by helping the Israelite spies, converting on the spot to their religion, and making them swear to rescue everyone in her house when the city falls.  She is an opportunist for a good cause—saving the lives of her whole family.  She is a rational defector.

And she succeeds.

And Joshua let her live, Rachav the zonah and her father’s household and everyone who was hers, and she [her clan] dwell in the midst of Israel to this day…  (Joshua 6:25)

May we all have the courage to seize the moment and abandon old allegiances when we must do so for a greater good.  And may we honor all people who courageously escape with their families from war, and commit to a new country.

Chayyei Sarah: Loss of Trust

November 4, 2015 at 2:55 pm | Posted in Chayyei Sarah | Leave a comment
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Abraham, in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, is the decisive ruler of his household of about a thousand people. He never consults or asks favors of anyone except his wife Sarah and God.

When Abraham is 137 years old, God tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac, then rescinds the order at the last second. (See my post Lekh-Lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice.)  Then his wife Sarah dies, and Abraham decides it is time for their son Isaac to marry.  He summons his head servant, Eliezer, and gives him instructions for procuring the appropriate wife—without consulting his 37-year-old son Isaac.

And I will have you swear by God, god of the heavens and god of the land, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites in whose midst I am dwelling. Because you must go to my land and to my moledet, and [there] you shall take a wife for my son, for Isaac. (Genesis/Bereishit 24:3-4)

moledet  (מוֹלֶדֶת) = kin, relatives, family of origin.map Abraham's journey

Where is Abraham’s land?  It might be the city of Ur Kasdim, where he was born and married Sarah; or the town of Charan in Aram, where he lived for decades before God called him. Or it might be the land of Canaan, where he has lived for the past 50 years or so, mostly in Hebron and Beersheba.

The word moledet clarifies that Abraham means Charan, because that is where his brother Nachor’s family still lives.

This raises a question for Eliezer. God has promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants, and since Abraham’s older son, Ishmael, has been exiled, that means Isaac’s descendants.  Yet the custom in that part of the world was for the husband to leave his parents and live near his wife’s family.

Even the Garden of Eden story alludes to this custom:

Therefore a man will leave his father and his mother, and he will cling to his wife, and they will become one flesh.  (Genesis 2:24)

Later in the book of Genesis, Isaac’s son Jacob marries two of his cousins in Charan, and remains there for 20 years.  This is the cultural norm.

Yet Eliezer suspects that Abraham does not want Isaac to move from Canaan to Charan.

And the servant said to him:  What if the woman will not consent to follow me to this land?  Should I really bring back your son to the land that you left? (Genesis 24:5)

Abraham’s reply is clear.

And Abraham said to him:  Guard yourself, lest you bring my son back there!  God, god of the heavens, Who took me from the house of my father and from the land of my moledet, and Who spoke to me and Who swore to me, saying “To your seed I will give this land”—May [God] Itself send Its angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there.  But if the woman does not consent to follow you, then you will be cleared from this oath of mine.  Only you must not bring my son back there! (Genesis 24:6-8)

Why is it so important for Isaac to marry a non-Canaanite, yet stay in the land of Canaan?  The commentary offers several suggestions, including:

1) God promised to give Canaan to Abraham’s descendants.  In order to be prepared for God’s gift, these descendants must be distinct from the Canaanites (rather than intermarried), and they must be living in Canaan, so they are attached to the land and willing to change from resident aliens to owners.

2) Even a short visit to Charan would seduce Isaac away from his father’s religion.  The early 20th-century rabbi Elie Munk cites Abraham’s “constant concern for sheltering his son from all influences able to jeopardize the purity of his religious ideas”.

Canaanite goddess, possibly from a set of terafim, 14-13th century BCE

Canaanite goddess, possibly from a set of terafim, 14-13th century BCE

Later in this week’s Torah portion, Abraham’s extended family in Charan refer to God by the same four-letter name as the God of Israel.  But in another portion, Vayeitzei, we learn that the household also keeps terafim, statues of household gods.

3) A Canaanite wife would corrupt Isaac, since Canaanites are morally degenerate.  19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch summarized this opinion by noting that although both the Canaanites and the Aramaeans of Charan worshipped the wrong gods, the Canaanites were also “morally degenerate”.

Although moral issues are not mentioned in Genesis, the book of Leviticus/Vayikra warns the Israelites about the morals of the Canaanites when God says:

…like the deeds of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you—you shall not do! (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:3)

Then God gives the Israelites a list of forbidden sexual partners, and concludes:

Do not become defiled through any of these [sexual practices], because through all of these they became defiled, the peoples that I will be driving away from before you. (Leviticus 18:24)

All three of the above explanations assume that Isaac cannot be trusted–either to pick out his own wife, or to commit himself to the land God promised.  Isaac is seen as weak and easily influenced, ready to abandon what he learned from his father.

Since Abraham does not trust Isaac, no wonder he sends Eliezer to arrange his son’s marriage and bring back the bride!

And why should Abraham trust Isaac, when he knows that Isaac has rejected him?

In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, the 37-year-old Isaac trusts his father so much that he follows him to the top of Mount Moriyah and lets the old man bind him on the altar as a sacrifice.  I can only conclude Isaac believes that Abraham heard God correctly, and that God really ordered the sacrifice.  Isaac is completely devoted to the god of Abraham and will do whatever this god requires.

14th century Icelandic manuscript, with angel and ram

14th century Icelandic manuscript, with angel and ram

Abraham lifts the blade, then hears God’s voice telling him to stop.  He stops and substitutes a ram for his son on the altar.  God talks to him some more, and then Abraham walks back down the mountain–alone. The Torah does not say where Isaac goes.

Sarah, Isaac’s mother, dies, but only Abraham shows up to bury her.  The Torah never reports father and son in the same place at the same time again.  Their mutual trust is broken. The next time we see Isaac, he is living at Beir-Lachai-Roi, some distance south of Abraham’s home at Beersheba.  Abraham’s servant brings Isaac’s bride directly to Beir-Lachai-Roi, probably because he knows Isaac would never return to his father’s home to meet her.

The Torah does not say why Isaac turns against the father he trusted.  My guess is that the interrupted sacrifice proves to Isaac that

1) Abraham does not always know what God wants, after all, and

2) his father is willing to kill him anyway.

So Isaac separates from his father.  For all Abraham knows, Isaac rejects God as well.  But Abraham still wants descendants—descendants who will be suitable to receive the gift of Canaan from God. So Abraham goes ahead and arranges his son’s marriage.

If this were a modern story, Abraham’s plot would backfire. Isaac would reject the bride Eliezer brings back from Charan, and find his own wife and his own religion.

But in the book of Genesis, Isaac falls in love with his cousin Rebecca from Charan.  He stays in Canaan, and he continues to worship the god of Abraham his whole life.  Isaac is wise enough not to let his mistrust of his father infect his relationships with other people or with God.

May we all be able, like Isaac, to distinguish between a person we cannot trust and the individuals and ideas connected with that person.

Ki Tavo: Making It Clear

September 1, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Moses commands the Israelites to paint orders from God on standing stones in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you enter”).  They are supposed to erect the stones on Mount Eyval, beside the town of Shechem.

And it shall be when you cross over the Jordan, you shall erect these stones, as I command you this day, on Mount Eyval; and you shall paint them with limewash. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 27:4)

Fragments of 8th-century B.C.E. Bilam story on limewash at Deir Alla, Jordan

Fragments of 8th-century B.C.E. Bilam story on limewash at Deir Alla, Jordan

When limewash is painted on a surface in multiple layers, the coating hardens into a thin shell of white limestone, which could last for millennia in dry conditions. (See my post Ki Tavo: Writing in Stone.) Remnants of one ancient text painted in ink on a limewashed wall still survive after 29 centuries!

And you shall write on the stones all the words of this torah, be-eir thoroughly. (Deuteronomy 27:8)

torah (תוֹרָה) = teaching. (The word torah also refers to the first five books of the Bible, to the whole Hebrew Bible, and to any teaching of Jewish law or religion.)

be-eir (בְּאֵר) = (verb) explaining, making clear, making plain.  (The noun be-eir = well, watering place.)

A simple interpretation of this line is that the letters on the limewash must be plain and easy to read. But the Talmud (Sotah 36a) asserts that the teaching was made plain by being inscribed in 70 languages, so anyone who came by could read it.  The purpose of the stones, according to the Talmud, was to teach the laws of the Torah to the native Canaanites.  This would give them a chance to renounce their own gods and adopt the laws of Israel, and thus be spared from death at the hands of the Israelite invaders.

I like the Talmud’s attempt to find a safe path for Canaanites. But it is a stretch to imagine that all the different tribes inhabiting Canaan would immediately send scribes to read and copy the writing on the stones.

Mt. Gerezim (left) before deforestation, Mount Eyval (right)

Mt. Gerezim (left) before deforestation, Mount Eyval (right)

What other purpose is there for the limewashed stones?  In this week’s Torah portion, Moses gives orders for a ritual at the city of Shechem (now Nablus).  Just east of the old town of Shechem stand two hills with a narrow valley between them. Until modern times, Mount Gezerim to the south was wooded, and Mount Eyval to the north was barren. (See my earlier blog, Vayishlakh: Mr. Shoulders.)  Moses wants the standing stones erected on Mount Eyval.  Then his ritual calls for the men of half of the twelve tribes to stand on one mountain, and half on the other.

And Moses commanded the people on that day, saying:  These will stand for blessing the people upon Mount Gerizim, when you have crossed the Jordan: Simon and Levi and Judah and Issachar and Joseph and Benjamin .  And these will stand for the cursing on Mount Eyval: Reuben, Gad, and Asher, and Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. And the Levites shall sing out, and they shall say to all the men of Israel, in an uplifted voice… (Deuteronomy 27:11-14)

The Levites are to pronounce twelve curses, and at the end of each curse all the Israelites are to say “amen”. The curses are conditional; each one begins with the formula “Accursed is the one who…” and then states a prohibition in the Torah.  The prohibitions include making an idol, treating a parent with contempt, moving a boundary marker, leading the blind astray, doing injustice to the poor, three kinds of incest, lying with a beast, two kinds of murder, and failing to perform “the words of this torah”, i.e. the more complete text on the standing stones.

The Israelites are to confirm their acceptance of the torah by saying “amen”.

Although both of the twin hills are part of the ritual, Moses calls for stones with the written torah only on Mount Eyval—the same hill where half the tribes are to stand to represent the curses.  My guess is that Mount Eyval was chosen for both purposes because it was bare, while Mount Gerizim was wooded.  A bare hill implies infertile land, which would be a curse in Biblical times.  And on the bare summit of Eyval, the white stones would be visible from a distance.

They would also be clearly visible to the men of Israel standing on both hills and saying “amen”.  Rabbi David Kasher, in his blog at parshanut.com, points out that the Israelites would internalize their commitment to the laws of the Torah more deeply by looking at the giant stones. “Words and ideas, I guess, even though they are the essence of the Torah, are somewhat elusive.  We human beings relate to reality in physical space, because that’s where we experience ourselves existing.  So objects help us concretize ideas, to bring them into reality.”

Torah scroll, dressed

Torah scroll, dressed

A similar function is served by the Torah scroll in Jewish services today.  Reading the Torah portion out loud is the purpose of the ritual.  But the reader uses a particular chant to sing out the text, because a melody reaches deeper into the heart.  The reader chants not from a book, but from a Torah scroll, written by a scribe with a quill on parchment.  And we have rituals for taking the Torah scroll out of the ark, unwrapping and unrolling it, holding it up afterward for everyone to see the writing, then rolling, dressing, and returning it to its ark.  All of these rituals make the text itself more real, more important, and more holy to us.

And you shall write on the stones all the words of this torah, be-eir thoroughly. (Deuteronomy 27:8)

be-eir (בְּאֵר) = (verb) explaining, making clear, making plain.  (The noun be-eir = well, watering place.)

Yes, the writing on the standing stones must be clear and easy to read.  But the other meaning of the verb be-eir can also be applied to Moses’ directions.  The ritual of the Levites singing out twelve prohibitions from the Torah, while the men of Israel stand on top of the two hills saying “Amen”, clarifies the purpose of the writing on the stones.  The teachings must be taken as mandatory God-given instructions for behavior.  Anyone who does not follow them is cursed; his life will go badly.

In a way, the noun be-eir also applies to part of the Torah portion.  A deep teaching is like a well, a watering-place in the desert.  If you travel through life with no guidance, acting merely according to your intuitions and feelings in the moment, your life will go badly—as if you were cursed. Human beings need instructions, words of wisdom to hold onto.  But it is easy to forget a piece of torah when you need it.  How do you internalize a teaching?  How do you drink it in?

Saying the words out loud helps.  Chanting or singing them works even better.  Conducting a whole ritual around them impresses your subconscious with their importance.

Then when we come to a decision point, the words of the torah emerge from the depths of our minds.  We still have to figure out the best way to apply them to our current situation, but at least we have something to work with.

May we all internalize the best torah to guide our decisions in our own lives!

Devarim& Va-etchannan: Enough Already

July 24, 2015 at 12:37 am | Posted in Devarim, Va-etchannan | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah, 2015

“Enough already!”  The God-character makes a remark like that three times in the first two Torah portions of Moses’ book-length speech, the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim (“Words”).

Cloud over the portable sanctuary

Cloud over the portable sanctuary

When the Israelites finish all their preparations and leave Mount Sinai in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, God does not need to say anything; the Israelites simply follow the divine cloud:

And it was in the second year, in the second month, on the 20th of the month, the cloud was lifted from over the sanctuary of the testimony, and the Children of Israel pulled out from the wilderness of Sinai for their journey.  And the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran. (Numbers 10:11-12)

But here is how Moses describes the departure in the first Torah portion of Deuteronomy:

God, our god, spoke to us at Choreiv [Sinai], saying:  “Rav-lakhem sitting still at this mountain!  Face about, pull out, and come to the highlands of the Emori and…the land of the Canaanite…” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:6-7)

rav (רַב) = abundant, plenty, huge, many, much, too much.

lakhem (לָכֶם) = for you, to you, belonging to you.  (“You” is plural in lakhem.  The singular is lakh.)

Rav-lakhem (רַב־לָכֶם) = Too much for you!  You have too much!  (Or in Yiddish-inflected English, “Enough already!”)

Not only is God giving verbal orders, instead of merely using the pre-arranged signal of the lifting cloud; God also sounds impatient and a little crabby.  God protests that the people have spent “too much” time “sitting still at this mountain”.

I can see why the Israelites might want to linger at the foot of Mount Sinai.  After the tragic episode of the Golden Calf, Moses talks God into giving the people another chance, and they spend a year at Sinai living on manna and fabricating all the components of the portable sanctuary for God. The food is sufficient, the work is pleasant, and no one bothers them, neither human nor divine. Naturally they are reluctant to change their comfortable way of life.

And naturally God, whose grand plan requires the conquest of Canaan, gets impatient with them and says, “Rav lakhem!  Too long for you!”

The people march north, but fear paralyzes them at the border of Canaan and they refuse to cross.  (See my post Shelach-Lekha: Sticking Point.)  God makes them wait in the wilderness for 38 more years, until most of the old generation has died, and then lets them try again by a different route.

God snaps Rav lakhem! a second time in the portion Devarim when the Israelites set out from Kadeish-Barnea to make their second attempt to enter the “promised land”.

Detour of Israelites

Detour of Israelites

In both Numbers and Deuteronomy, the second time that the Israelites head toward Canaan they go east first, hoping to pass through the kingdom of Edom and then continue north along the shore of the Dead Sea opposite Canaan, finally crossing over at the Jordan River.  But the king of Edom refused to let the people go through his country.

According to Numbers, Moses simply leads the Israelites south, so they can circle around Edom. Two things happen on the way:  At Mount Hor, Aaron dies and the people pause to mourn him for the traditional 30 days; and at a sea of reeds (different from the one between Egypt and Mount Sinai) they complain about the manna, so God lets poisonous snakes bite them. (See my post Chukkat: Facing the Snake). As soon as they reach the wilderness east of Edom, they head north.

The story sounds different when Moses tells it in Deuteronomy.  In this version, the people head off toward the sea of reeds south of Edom, but then they wander around the skirts of Mount Seir in Edom until God scolds them.

And we turned and we pulled out toward the wilderness on the way to the sea of reeds, as God had spoken to me, and we circled around the mountain of Seir many days.  Then God said to me, saying:  “Rav-lakhem, circling around this mountain!  Face about, northward!”  (Deuteronomy 2:1-3)

Once again God gets impatient with the Israelites for delaying.  In the book of Numbers, there is nothing safe or pleasant about the snake-infested wilderness around hostile kingdom of Edom.  The people are not lingering because they are comfortable where they are.  Of course, they also complain.  And if they linger, the only possible reason is to recover from snake-bite.

Perhaps this time, God’s Rav-lakhem means “Too much complaining from you, as you circle around this mountain!”

In next week’s Torah portion, Va-Etchannan (“And I pleaded”), God uses the phrase with a singular “you” to snap at Moses.

But God was cross with me because of you, and would not listen to me.  And God said to me:  “Rav-lakh!  Do not speak to Me again about this matter!”  (Deuteronomy 3:26)

In the book of Numbers, God declares the Moses will not enter Canaan because he says the wrong thing to the people at the Waters of Merivah.  Moses does not protest God’s ruling.

But in Deuteronomy, Moses blames the people for God’s anger at him, and says he begged God to let him cross over the Jordan after all.  God said Rav-lakh! because Moses tried to reopen a subject that should have been settled.

Both God and Moses seem irascible in the passage from Deuteronomy. I think God’s exclamation could be translated: “You’ve said too much already!”

Why is God more impatient in Deuteronomy than in Numbers?

Traditional commentary generally ignores the differences in language between Deuteronomy and Numbers.  It addresses the small but telling differences in content by explaining that in Deuteronomy, Moses selects the key events the new generation needs to know before they enter Canaan, and relates them in the way the people need to hear them.

Modern scholars point out a number of differences between the language of the two books, and conclude that they were written in different centuries.  (For example, Richard Elliott Friedman dates much of Numbers to the P source in the 6th century B.C.E., after the fall of the first temple.  He dates Deuteronomy to the reign of King Josiah a century earlier, circa 640-610.  According to this dating, God snaps Rav lakhem! and Rav lakh! in the earlier account.  In the later account, God is silent.)

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Sometimes we do need to imagine a God who reacts like an exasperated human being, a God like the one in the first two portions of Deuteronomy.  When we feel safe and comfortable where we are, the way Moses portrays the Israelites at Mount Sinai, we are likely to ignore a signal such as God’s rising cloud.  We need to hear a challenging voice saying Rav lakhem! to get us unstuck, so we will take on the next challenge.

When we get so caught up in our complaints that we forget the goal we are heading toward, like the Israelites in snake country south of Edom, we need to hear an inner voice saying Rav lakhem! to jolt our awareness back to the hidden treasure we need to find.

And when we keep trying to change what cannot be changed, the way Moses begs God to reconsider and let him go to Canaan, we need to hear an inner voice saying Rav lakh! to shut us up, so we can concentrate on making the most of the life that we do have.

The impatient God in the first two Torah portions of Deuteronomy can still serve a purpose!

Chukkat: Facing the Snake

June 26, 2015 at 2:29 pm | Posted in Chukkat | 3 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

The first time the Israelites in the wilderness complain about food, they are traveling toward Mount Sinai with all their cows, sheep, and goats. Neither meat nor milk is taboo, yet they say:

If only we had died by God’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate our fill of bread!  For you have brought us to this wilderness to kill this whole congregation by famine! (Exodus/Shemot, 16:3)

God responds by providing manna every morning. But when they leave Mount Sinai about a year later, the people complain about the manna:two onions and a garlic on a white background closeup

Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. But now our nefashot are drying up; there is nothing except the manna before our eyes! (Numbers 11:4-5)

nefashot (נְפָשׁוֹת) = plural of nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = throat, appetite; what animates the body; individual life.

The people are not hungry, merely fed up with their restricted diet. This time, God sends in a huge flock of quail that falls two cubits deep on the ground, and many people die “with the meat still between their teeth”.

This is the generation that refuses to enter Canaan, even after their scouts bring back appetizing fruits. They just want to go back to Egypt. God decrees that they must stay in the wilderness for 40 years.

Detour of Israelites

Detour of Israelites

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“Decree”), most of that generation has died, and the next generation is on its way to Canaan.  Yet when they have to take a long detour around the kingdom of Edom, they complain.

They pulled out from Mount Hor by way of a sea of reeds, to go around the land of Edom, and on the way the nefesh of the people became katzar. And the people spoke against God and against Moses:  Why bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and there is no water, and our nefesh is katzah with the unappetizing food. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:4-5)

katzar (קָצַר) = was short, was shortened.  When used with nefesh, katzar is an idiom meaning “impatient”.

katzah (קָזָה) = at an end, at its limit.  When used with nefesh, katzah is an idiom meaning “fed up”.

They sound just like their fathers—but with an important difference.

When the earlier generation gets obsessive about food, they want to go back to Egypt.  The second generation complains about the manna only when they have to take a long detour on their way to the “promised land”.  They are impatient to reach Canaan and start eating normal food in the land God that wants them to occupy and farm.

Instead of killing them with quail, God responds by letting the snakes in the wilderness bite them.

Then God let loose the burning nechashim against the people. and they bit the people, and many of the people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and they said:  We are at fault, because we spoke against God and you.  Pray to God, and he will remove the nachash from upon us! And Moses prayed on behalf of the people. (Numbers 21:6-7)

nechashim (נְחָשִׁים) = plural of nachash (נָחָשׁ) = snake.  (This word is related to the verb nachash (נָחַשׁ) = did divination, read omens.)

The new generation of Israelites has learned that Moses is their intermediary with God.  More mature than their fathers, they apologize, and ask Moses to mediate for them.

Why does God respond with snakes?  The Torah has already associated the snake (which literally travels on its belly) with food cravings and journeys. In the story of the Garden of Eden, the snake encourages the woman to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.  God decrees that the snake will go on its belly and eat dust. (Genesis/Bereishit 3:1-14) Jacob prophesies that the tribe of Dan will be “a snake upon the road”. (Genesis 49:17)

So snake bites are an appropriate punishment—but maybe God’s intent is not punishment.  Maybe God is starting to prepare the people for life in Canaan, where they will be independent, and cannot expect any more divine miracles—such as the miraculous (if monotonous) food, and the miraculous removal of snakes from their path.

Naturally, the people ask Moses to ask God to remove the snakes again.  Instead, God offers a cure for snake bite.

Nechash nichoshet

Nechash nichoshet

God said to Moses: Make yourself a saraf and put it on a pole, and all of the bitten will see it and live. So Moses made a nechash nichoshet and he put it on the pole, and if a nachash bit someone, then he would look at the nechash nichoshet and live. (21:8-9)

saraf (שָׂרָף) = a burning creature.  (From the verb saraf (שָׂרַף) = burn in a fire.  In the book of Isaiah, a saraf is a creature with six wings who lives in the visionary space around God’s throne.  In the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, a saraf seems to be a venomous snake.)

nechash nichoshet (נְחַשׁ נִחֹשֶׁת) = a snake of a copper alloy (brass or bronze); a divination of copper.

Why would looking at a copper snake on a pole cure someone of snake bite?

Many commentators argue that since Moses made the snake at God’s command, looking at it reminds snake-bite victims of God and induces a prayerful attitude.

According to 19th-century rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the copper snake is a reminder of God’s power to protect people from danger even when they are unaware of it—like the Israelites before God let loose the snakes in their path.

 

I believe looking at the copper snake means looking at the cause of your problem.  It is all too easy for humans to avoid thinking about painful issues.  If snakes start biting you, it does not help to complain, or to ignore it, or to consider it an omen for mystical divination.  The best approach is to look for reasons.

The Israelites looked and saw that they had just complained about God’s manna.  They realized God had kept the snakes away for 40 years, and they knew enough to apologize and ask Moses for help. They received a cure for snake bite.

Alternatively, they might have concluded that the burning snakes lived only along the detour around Edom, and looked forward to heading north again, out of snake country and toward the land God promised them. Either way, they would remember their purpose in life, and view the snake bites as a temporary set-back.

Is something biting you?  Do you feel as though you were burned? Then look at the symbolic snake and figure out the causes of your distress.  Is it a problem you contributed to with an unwise choice?  Is it something you had to go through at the time, but you can avoid in the future?  Is it something that cannot be cured, but that you can accept with grace as you focus on your real purpose in life?

Face your snake!

Shelach-Lekha: Mutual Distrust

June 9, 2015 at 10:08 am | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | 3 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Moses reaches the end of his rope in last week’s Torah portion, and protests to God:

Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Did I myself become pregnant with all this people, or did I myself give birth to them, that you say to me: Carry them in your bosom, like the omein carries the one who suckles, to the land that You swore to their forefathers? … I am not able to carry all this people by myself alone, because they are too heavy for me! If At must do thus to me, please kill me altogether, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and don’t let me see my badness! (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:12-15)

omein (אֹמֵן) = guardian, substitute parent. (The feminine form, omenet (אֹמֶנֶת) means a wet nurse or nanny.  Moses views himself as both omein and omenet. See my post Beha-alotkha: Moses as Wet-Nurse.)

at (אַתְּ) = you, feminine form.  (The masculine form of “you” is atah, אַתָּה.)

I think Moses’ use of the feminine form here alludes to God’s responsibility for the people. If Moses is like an omenet for the Israelites, so is God.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”), the God character reaches the end of his (or her) rope.

God said to Moses: How long will this people spurn me, and how long lo ya-aminu me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? (Numbers 14:11)

lo ya-aminu = will they not trust.  Lo (לֹא) = not. Ya-aminu (יַאֲמִינוּ) = they will believe, be convinced by, put trust in, have faith in, rely upon.

Ya-aminu comes from the same root verb, aman (אמן), as the nouns omein and omenet. An omein and an omenet must be reliable so that their young charges can believe and trust them.

Both Moses and God are reliable parental substitutes during the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai. Whenever something bad happens—the Egyptian army catching up with them at the Reed Sea, or a shortage of water or food—the people panic, afraid that their god has abandoned them.  Each time, Moses speaks to God, and God takes care of the problem.

One breach of trust is recorded in the book of Exodus/Shemot: the episode of the Golden Calf.  Moses and God take turns becoming enraged; Moses has 3,000 calf-worshiping men killed by the sword, and God strikes down many of the survivors. Moses has to talk God out of annihilating the Israelites altogether.

After that, the remaining Israelites spend a quiet year eating God’s manna and fabricating the tent sanctuary and its holy objects. God issues rules with dire penalties, but does not kill any more people—until the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, after they leave Mount Sinai.scouts with grapes 1

In this week’s Torah portion, the people reach the wilderness of Paran on the border of Canaan.  Moses sends twelve men to scout out the land, and they return 40 days later with a gigantic grape cluster as well as pomegranates and figs.  Ten of the scouts report that the human inhabitants of Canaan are also gigantic, and say:

We are not able to go up against that population, because it is stronger than we! …and all the people that we saw in its midst were men of unusual size …and we were in our own eyes like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.  (13:31-33)

The ten pessimistic scouts assume the Israelites would have to conquer Canaan by their own efforts, without any help from God.  The rest of the Israelite men—except for Moses, Aaron, and the other two scouts, Caleb and Joshua—make the same assumption. The people weep all night, complaining:

If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness, if only we had died!  And why is God bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? And our young children will be the [enemy’s] plunder.  Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?—So they said, each man to his brother: Let us pick a leader and return to Egypt! (Numbers 14:2-4)

The next morning everyone assembles.  Caleb and Joshua say:

If God is pleased with us, then [God] will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. However, do not rebel against God! And you, do not be afraid of the people of the land, because …God is with us! (14:8-9)

The trouble with this argument is that it begins: “If God is pleased with us”.  The people have every reason to think God is not pleased with them. After all, since they left Mount Sinai they have complained twice, and both times God flew into a rage and killed many of them.  Now they have just spent the night complaining about God’s plan to send them into Canaan.

Perhaps because they feel doomed anyway, the people vent their frustration on Caleb and Joshua, threatening to stone them.

Then the glory of God appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all the Children of Israel. God said to Moses: How long will this people spurn Me, and how long lo ya-aminu Me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? (14:10-11)

Apparently the God character in this story thinks that the Israelites doubt his ability to give them a miraculous victory in Canaan. In fact, the people never doubt God’s power, only God’s love.  They doubt God’s commitment to protecting them.

And they are right. In a private conversation with Moses, God once again declares he will wipe out the Israelites and start over:

I will strike with a pestilence, and I will dispossess them, and I will make you a greater and more powerful nation than they!  (Numbers 14:12)

Moses once again talks him out of it. God still kills the ten scouts who spoke against entering Canaan immediately.  And God swears that only Caleb, Joshua, and the Israelites who are currently under age 20 will enter Canaan and get a share of the land. Everyone else will die in the wilderness—gradually, over the next 38 years. The people must now spend 40 years in the wilderness before they can enter Canaan.  (This total includes the two years that have already passed since the people left Egypt.)

The next morning, some of the men confess they were wrong, and try to get back into God’s good graces by launching an assault across the border of Canaan. But God has made up his mind; he lets the Canaanites defeat them.

It is possible to argue that God does care about the Israelites—if you grant that:

1) God has so little respect for the people that “he” administers corporeal punishment without attempting to explain himself, and

2) God considers the Israelites a single entity, rather than a group of individuals.

This is not the kind of omein that medieval theologians pictured when they decided that God must be omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, and personal. Nor is it the kind of deity that anyone today would want to trust or believe in.

God said to Moses: How long will this people spurn me, and how long lo ya-aminu me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? (14:11)

I think the answer that this god deserves is: “As long as it takes for You to become as wise, just, and kind as the best human being.”

Needless to say, I do not believe in the existence of the anthropomorphic God in the first five books of the Torah, the one who has vast magical powers but very limited understanding.

But what was life like for the people who took this part of the Bible literally, and not only believed the God character in this story existed, but thought of him as a father-figure (omein), and strove to trust him?

What is life like for the people who still do so today?

Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Identity Crisis

December 11, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayeishev, Vayiggash | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

The last four Torah portions in the book of Genesis/Bereishit tell the story of Jacob’s two most dynamic sons: Joseph, who changes from a foreign slave into a viceroy of Egypt; and Judah, who changes from an amoral egotist into a man of integrity. This double post looks at Judah’s transformation in the first half of the story: the Torah portions Vayeishev and Mikeitz, and Judah’s speech at the beginning of Vayiggash.

(My next post, on later events in the portion Vayiggash, will appear two weeks from now.)

Vayeishev (“And he stayed”)

The story begins when Joseph is seventeen. He tends the flocks with his ten older brothers, who are in their twenties, and brings his father bad reports about them. Jacob dotes on Joseph, since he and baby Benjamin are the sons of his second and most beloved wife, Rachel, who died when Benjamin was born. Jacob gives Joseph a fancy tunic or coat. Then Joseph has two dreams in which his brothers are bowing down to him, and he makes the mistake of telling them. Naturally, his older brothers hate him.  As soon as they get a chance, they seize their obnoxious little brother and throw him into a pit.

Joseph's Coast Brought to Jacob, by Giovanni Andrea de Ferarri

Joseph’s Coast Brought to Jacob, by Giovanni Andrea de Ferarri

First they argue over whether to kill him. Then Judah persuades the others to sell Joseph to some slavers heading for Egypt.  The brothers dip Joseph’s fancy tunic in goat blood and bring it to Jacob, saying: This we found; hakker na, is it your son’s tunic or not? (Genesis/Bereishit 37:32)

hakker (הַכֶּר) = recognize, identify.

na (נָא) = please.

The trick works; Jacob concludes a wild beast has killed his favorite son. He goes into inconsolable mourning. And Judah suddenly moves south.

Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that Judah’s brothers blame him for selling Joseph and tricking their father, and claim that if Judah had proposed a better course of action, they would have listened to him. So Judah moves to get away from his father’s grief and his brothers’ resentment—the reminders of his own guilt.

Judah starts a new life by marrying a Canaanite woman and having three sons with her: Eir, Onan, and Shelah.

Judah took a wife for Eir, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. And Eir, the firstborn of Judah, was bad in God’s eyes, and God made him die. Then Judah said to Onan: Come into the wife of your brother and yabeim with her, and establish offspring for your brother. (Genesis/Bereishit 38:6-8)

yabeim (יַבֵּם) = impregnate the childless widow of one’s deceased brother or close male relative. (Yabeim is an imperative verb; the noun for the act is yibum, also called levirate “marriage”.)

According to the law of both Canaan and Israel, a son born from yibum receives the inheritance of the deceased man. Without a son from yibum, the inheritance goes to the man’s surviving brothers.

Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, so when coming into the wife of his brother, he wasted his seed on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And it was bad in God’s eyes, what he did, and [God] made him die, also. (Genesis/Bereishit 38:9-10)

Judah’s remaining son, Shelah, is not yet old enough to impregnate Tamar. Judah uses this as an excuse to send her back to her father’s house.

Then Judah said to Tamar, his daughter-in-law: Return as a widow to your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up. For he said [to himself]: lest he dies, also, like his brothers. And Tamar went, and she sat in her father’s house. (Genesis 37:11)

Judah has no intention of letting Shelah yabeim with Tamar. He assumes that she, not God, somehow caused of the death of Eir and Onan. Determined to protect his remaining son, Judah dooms Tamar to the disgrace of returning to her father’s house, and to the limited life of a woman who is legally forbidden to remarry, have a child, or do anything without her father-in-law’s consent.

Shelah grows up, but Judah does not send him to Tamar. Judah’s wife dies, and after he has finished mourning for her, he heads to a sheep-shearing festival in Timnah to have a good time. Tamar decides to risk her life in an attempt to win a new life.

detail by John Singer Sargent

detail by John Singer Sargent

She took off her widow’s clothing and she covered herself in a shawl and she wrapped herself, and she sat at petach eynayim, which is on the road to Timnah… And Yehudah saw her and he considered her a prostitute, for she had covered her face. (Genesis 37:14-15)

petach eynayim (פֶּתַח עֵינַיִם) = the entrance to a pair of wells; the opening of the eyes.

Prostitutes in Canaan did not cover their faces; Tamar’s face-covering merely prevents Judah from recognizing her.  He assumes she is a prostitute because she is sitting by a public road, where no woman except a prostitute would linger. She may also have wrapped herself in clothing typical for a prostitute.

At petach eynayim, Tamar’s eyes are open behind her shawl; she sees that Judah will never give her Shelah. Judah’s eyes are still closed. Not only does he fail to recognize his daughter-in-law; he cannot see his own past behavior clearly. He propositions the woman sitting by the road.

And she said: What will you give me if you come into me? And he said: I will give a goat kid from the flock. And she said: If you give an eiravon until you send it. (Genesis 37:16-17)

eiravon (עֵרָבוֹן) = guarantee, security deposit, pledge.

And he said: What is the eiravon that I shall give you? And she said: Your seal and your cord, and your staff that is in your hand. And he gave them to her, and he came into her, and she conceived. (Genesis 37:18)

453px-Babylonian_-_Cylinder_Seal_with_Three_Standing_Figures_and_Inscriptions_-_Walters_42692_-_Side_DImportant men in ancient Canaan wore seals on cords around their necks. A seal was a small (about an inch long) cylinder carved with a name or a design indicating the owner’s identity. At that time, documents were written in cuneiform on clay tablets. In order to sign a document, a man rolled his seal along one edge of the clay tablet while it was still wet.

A man’s staff was the emblem of his authority over his own household, clan, or tribe. Thus Judah hands Tamar the symbols of his personal and social identities. When he gets home, he sends his friend to find the prostitute and exchange a goat kid for the eiravon, but she cannot be found.

A few months later Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant, even though she is not allowed to have any sex outside of yibum. This flouting of society’s rules requires the man in charge of Tamar to take immediate action.  Judah might be secretly relieved that now he can order Tamar’s death, and save Shelah for good.

Judah said: Take her out and she shall be burned. Taken out she was; and she sent to her father-in-law, saying: By the man to whom these belong I am pregnant. And she said: hakker na, whose are this seal and cord and staff? Judah recognized them, and he said: She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah. (Genesis 38:25-26)

Judah is shocked into facing the truth by the sight of his own guarantee. On a literal level, these objects prove he is the father, and Tamar’s sexual encounter with him was for the sake of the yibum he had denied her. On another level, the symbols of identity make him see who he really is: not the righteous ruler of his household, but a man who circumvented the law and ruined an innocent woman’s life.

Tamar’s expression hakker na (“Recognize please” or “Identify please”) surely reminds Judah of when he and his brothers showed Joseph’s bloody tunic to their father and said hakker na. So Judah must also face his identity as the ringleader who sold his little brother and tricked his father.

Recognizing your own bad behavior is painful; staying in denial is much more comfortable. In my own life, I have reacted to the realization that I did something wrong in two different ways: Either I feel irrevocably guilty and unable to change into the person I want to be; or I forgive myself for the past but know that I can, and therefore must, behave better from now on.

Judah starts down the second path, publicly admitting his wrongdoing and vindicating Tamar. She returns to Judah’s house, and gives birth to twin sons.

Mikeitz (“In the end”)

When we next see Judah, he has rejoined his father and brothers.  There is a famine in Canaan, but Egypt has grain for sale—thanks to the advance preparations of Joseph, the Pharaoh’s new viceroy. He has risen from rags to riches due to his good attitude, management skills, and a God-given gift of dream interpretation.

Jacob sends his ten older sons to Egypt to buy grain, keeping only Benjamin at home. The loss of one of Rachel’s sons has made Jacob determined to keep the other one safe.

The ten more disposable sons of Jacob bow down to the viceroy of Egypt without recognizing him; Joseph was a teenager when they sold him, and during the last twenty years or so his face and voice have changed, he dresses like an Egyptian nobleman, and he speaks Egyptian. Joseph, however, recognizes the brothers who sold him into slavery. He accuses them of being spies, the first crime that comes into his mind. They protest that they are honest men, and all brothers. Joseph repeats his accusation, so they elaborate, saying they are twelve brothers, but one is gone and the youngest is home with their father. sack-of-grain

Joseph imprisons them for three days, keeps one of them (Simon) as a hostage, and sends the rest back to Canaan under orders to return to Egypt with their youngest brother. (See my earlier post, Mikeitz: Shock Therapy.) He also supplies them with grain, and hides the silver they paid inside their packs.

The nine brothers who return to Canaan explain the situation to Jacob, who responds: As for me, you have deprived me of children! Joseph is gone, and Simon is gone, and now Benjamin you would take! Upon me everything happens! (Genesis 42:36)

As Jacob complains that they have deprived him of children, Judah could not help but remember that for years he also deprived Tamar of children.

Jacob’s oldest son, Reuben, replies: My two sons you may kill if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will personally return him to you. (Genesis 42:37)

Jacob refuses the offer, perhaps because Reuben’s guarantee is so unappealing, and Reuben does not speak again in the Torah. The famine continues, and when the extended family has eaten the last of the grain from Egypt, Jacob tells his older sons to go back to Egypt to buy more food. Then Judah steps forward again as a leader.

The first time Judah speaks in the Torah, he arranges for the brothers to sell Joseph as a slave instead of killing him. He speaks often during the story of Tamar, giving orders, haggling with the woman he takes as a prostitute, and admitting his own wrongdoing.

Now Judah points out that the Pharaoh’s viceroy will not let them return to Egypt without their youngest brother, Benjamin. Then, after Jacob has complained, Judah takes another step down the path of transformation, saying:

Send the youth with me, and let us get up and go, so we will live and not die: we and also you and also our children!  I, personally, ervenu; from my hand you may seek him; if I do not bring him to you and set him before you, I will be guilty before you for all time. (Genesis 43:8-9)

ervenu (אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ) = I will guarantee it. (From the same root as eiravon = a guarantee.)

Earlier in the story, Tamar asked Judah for a guarantee consisting of the physical emblems of his identity as the ruler of a household. Now Judah offers his father a guarantee based solely on his own commitment to do the right thing. And Jacob accepts it.

In Egypt, Joseph treats Benjamin better than his brothers. Then he plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s pack, and has the brothers stopped on their way out. When the goblet is “discovered” in Benjamin’s pack, they all return to the viceroy’s house, and Joseph declares Benjamin must stay as his slave. This is his final test of his brothers; will they enslave Benjamin, as they once enslaved him?

Judah, the leader, speaks for his brothers. He acknowledges that they cannot defend themselves against the charge of theft, and therefore they are all slaves to the Pharaoh’s viceroy. But Joseph insists that only Benjamin will be his slave.

Vayiggash (“And he stepped forward”)

The next Torah portion opens with Judah stepping closer to the viceroy and delivering a passionate plea to let Benjamin go home with his brothers. Otherwise, he says, their father will die of grief. Judah concludes:

So now, please let your servant stay instead of the youth, as a slave to my lord, and let the youth go up with his brothers. For how could I go up to my father when the youth is not with me, and see the evil that would come upon my father? (Genesis 44:33-34)

Then Joseph finally breaks down and reveals his own identity. The whole family is reunited in Egypt.

Why did Judah volunteer to take the punishment for something he did not do?  He guaranteed he would not return to Jacob without Benjamin, and he is determined to be true to his commitment— even if it means losing his position as a free man and household ruler, losing his seal and his staff for good. And although he is not guilty of theft, he knows he is guilty of other bad deeds: selling Joseph into slavery, tricking their father into thinking Joseph is dead, and abusing his power over Tamar.

Judah chooses to be an honest and compassionate slave, rather than an independent agent who is selfish and eternally guilty. By making that choice, he also becomes a man of integrity, and an impressive ancestor for the tribe of Judah and its eponymous kingdom.

We are all born into certain identities, and assigned others by our own society. Not everyone gets a seal and a staff. But we all make moral choices, even though we do not always know we are doing it.

May we all become able to recognize ourselves and identify our own behavior, good and bad. May we become able to consciously choose our moral identities, and may we be inspired to make the right choices.

 

Chayyei Sarah: Rebecca’s Camel

November 10, 2014 at 8:47 pm | Posted in Chayyei Sarah | 2 Comments
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Camels are the key to Isaac’s marriage in this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah (“the life of Sarah”), so called because it opens with the death of Isaac’s mother, Sarah.

Isaac does not pick out his own wife.  When he turns 40—a good time for a man to marry, by Torah standards—his father, Abraham, orders his steward to find Isaac a wife.  Isaac is not present, and as far as we know, the father and son are not on speaking terms.  In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, Isaac let his father bind him on an altar as a sacrifice for God. An angelic voice stopped Abraham when his knife touched his son’s throat. After sacrificing a ram instead, Abraham left the hilltop alone.  Isaac is missing from the story for a while; he does not even appear at his mother’s funeral.  Only in this week’s portion do we learn  that he is living in a remote and isolated spot south of Beer-sheva, near Beer-lachai-Roi, “Well of the Living One Who Sees Me”. (See my earlier post, Chayyei Sarah: A Holy Place.)

Nevertheless, Abraham sends off  his steward to make a match for his missing son, stipulating only that the woman must come from his own extended family in Charan (the Aramaean town Abraham left 65 years before), and that she must be willing to move to Canaan.

The steward selects ten of Abraham’s riding camels, some treasures for his own pack, and some servants to lead the camels.  (In the world of the Hebrew Bible, the only people who ride camels or donkeys are women, children, and disabled men.)  The camels and men walk all the way to Charan.

And he made the gemalim kneel outside the city, toward the well of water, at evening time, the time when the women drawing water go out. (Genesis 24:11)

gemalim (גְמַלִּים) = dromedary (one-hump) camels. (The singular is gamal (גָּמָל). The verb from the same root, gamal (גָּמַל) = wean a child or ripen a fruit; repay someone in kind for good or evil actions.)

Egyptian petroglyph ca. 2200 B.C.E.

Egyptian petroglyph ca. 2200 B.C.E.

In the late 20th century, many scholars thought camels were not domesticated in the Middle East until after 1200 B.C.E.  Since the Abraham stories are set in circa 2000 B.C.E., they considered the camels an anachronism. This opinion is now contested.  For example, a rock carving in Upper Egypt dated to circa 2200 B.C.E. shows someone leading a camel on a rope.

In the Torah, Abraham first acquires camels in Egypt, as a gift from the pharaoh. Presumably the ten riding camels his steward takes are their descendants.

One reason the steward brings camels, as well as jewelry and fine clothing, is that camels are more impressive and expensive mounts than donkeys.  A display of wealth would help to persuade the prospective bride’s family to let her emigrate to Canaan. But the steward has another reason. After the ten camels are kneeling by the well outside Charan, the steward prays to the god of Abraham:

Let it be the young woman to whom I say: Tilt, please, your jug so I may drink; and she says: Drink, and I will even give a drink to your gemalim—you have marked her out for your servant for Isaac… (Genesis 24:14)

By asking for this particular divine sign, Abraham’s servant is asking for more than his master did. The steward wants Isaac’s wife to be generous and hospitable, even to servants and animals, and even when it involves labor on her part.

Excavated well at Gibeon

Excavated well at Gibeon

And it happened before he finished speaking: hey! Rebecca, who was born to Betueil son of Milkah wife of Nachor brother of Abraham, went out, and her jug was on her shoulder. …and she went down to the spring and she filled her jug and she went up. (Genesis 24:15-16)

Wells in Mesopotamia and Canaan at that time were dug not only deep enough to reach a natural spring or underground river, but also wide enough to accommodate stairs. Water-drawers climbed down to the bottom to fill their jugs.

When Rebecca, Abraham’s great-niece, climbs back up, Eliezer calls to her: Let me sip, please, a little water from your jug. (Genesis 24:17)

And she said: Drink, my lord; and she hurried over she lowered her jug onto her hand and she gave him a drink. She let him drink his fill, and she said: Also I will draw for your gemalim until they have drunk their fill.  And she hurried over and she poured out her jug to give them a drink, and she ran again to the well to draw for all his gemalim. (Genesis 24:18-20)

A camel drinks at least 25 gallons of water after a long journey. To water ten camels, Rebecca runs up and down the steps of the well with her jug more than 100 times!  This is the first feat of heroic strength recorded in the Torah.

The wedding negotiations are successful, and Rebecca declares she will go to Canaan. She and her female attendants mount the camels and follow Eliezer.

They travel not to Abraham, but directly to Isaac in the desert. He is walking alone across a field in the early evening, returning from the holy well.

And he raised his eyes and he saw, and hey! Gemalim were coming! (Genesis 24:63)

The travelers are not close enough for Isaac to identify anyone, but if he can see that the animals are camels, he can also see that they carry riders, not packs. I can imagine Isaac’s dismay, realizing he will have to step out of his solitude and greet these visitors.

And Rebecca raised her eyes, and she saw Isaac, vatipol the gamal. And she said to the servant: Who is that man walking in the field to meet us? (Genesis 24:64-65)

vatipol (וַתִּפֹּל) = and she fell off.

What does Rebecca see in Isaac’s face and walk that makes her fall off the camel?

Maybe she sees darkness in his soul, from having been bound on the altar by his own father.  Or maybe she sees light in his soul, from volunteering to be the sacrifice and hearing God’s voice.  Maybe she sees his innocence and preoccupation with the unworldly—something she had never seen in Charan.

Whatever she sees, this moment reveals two more of Rebecca’s qualities: her sensitive perception of people’s characters, and her awareness of the divine. All of Rebecca’s characteristics—assertiveness, generosity, strength, adventurousness, perceptiveness, and orientation toward the divine—will shape the story in next week’s portion, Toledot.

The Torah story uses camels, gemalim, both to make the match and to reveal Rebecca’s character. I suspect the text is hinting that this wedding is about the verb gamal = wean, ripen, or repay.

And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother, and he took Rivkah as his wife, and he loved her, and Isaac had a change of heart after his mother. (Genesis 24:67)

Here the Torah indicates that Rebecca weans Isaac from his attachment to his mother. Maybe he is stuck in life because of the trauma of his binding and near-sacrifice, and Rebecca completes his ripening into a mature adult. In next week’s Torah portion, Isaac emerges from his solitude and assumes the leadership of his tribe after Abraham’s death.

Rebecca might also be Isaac’s reward or repayment for his faith in Abraham and God when he let himself be bound. She is an exceptional woman (as well as young, beautiful, and a virgin), and Isaac loves her. This is the first time the Torah says a man loves his wife.

May everyone who is stuck and unable to ripen meet a “camel” to help them ride into a fuller life.  And may everyone who draws water for others, and carries them from an old home to a new one, be repaid with a good life.

 

Lekh-lekha: Cutting a Covenant

October 29, 2014 at 9:36 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Noach | 3 Comments
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The first three covenants God makes with human beings in the Torah are unconditional; God promises to do something regardless of what the other party does. First God says to Noah:

Everything on earth will perish, but I will raise up my berit with you, and you shall come into the ark… (Genesis/Bereishit 6:18)

berit (בְּרִית) = covenant, pact, treaty of alliance. (This is the source of the Yiddish word bris = covenant of circumcision.)

After the flood, God tells Noah and his descendants not to eat the blood in animal meat, and not to shed the blood of humans.  Then God declares a covenant with all future humans and animals on earth—without making it contingent on humans following the rules about blood.

And I, here I am, raising up my berit with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you—with birds, with beasts, and with everything living on the earth with you …I raise up my berit with you, and I will not cut off all flesh again by the waters of the flood, and never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth. (Genesis 9:9-11)

God makes a third, and last, unconditional covenant in this week’s Torah portion, Lekh-lekha (“Get yourself going!”).

Abraham hears God’s call at age 75, leaves his home in Aram, and travels to Canaan, where he is landless and childless (though he has a wife, a nephew, and a large number of men working for him). God promises Abraham three times that he will have a whole nation of descendants, from his own loins, and they will possess the land of Canaan.

Abraham-looks-at-starsThe third time, Abraham points out that he is still childless. God shows him the stars, and says his descendants will be just as numerous. The sight of the stars moves Abraham, and he trusts God on this. Then God repeats that Abraham will possess the land of Canaan, and Abraham questions God again:

God, my master, how will I know that I will take possession of it? (Genesis 15:8)

God responds by changing the promise into a covenant. And since words alone do not seem to be enough for Abraham any more, God does not just “raise up” or establish a covenant through words, but “cuts” a covenant in a ritual used for centuries among ancient people in the Middle East, including Akkadians, Amorites, Hittites, Assyrians, and Arameans as well as Israelites.

In this ritual, two parties ratified a pact or treaty by slaughtering one or more animals and cutting each one in half. Surviving written documents include threats that if one of the parties does not uphold the agreement, he will be cut in half like the animal.

At some point, Israelites added a step to the ritual: after an animal was cut in two, someone walked between the pieces.

…the berit that they cut before Me: the calf that they cut in two and they passed between its pieces: the officers of Judah, and the officers of Jerusalem, the court officials, and the priests, and all the people of the land, the ones who passed between the pieces of the calf …(Jeremiah 34:18-19)

In this week’s Torah portion, God requests five animals, from the five species that are used later in the Torah for burnt offerings.

Take for me a three-year-old heifer and a three-year-old she-goat and a three-year-old ram and a turtledove and a young pigeon. And he took for [God] all these, and he cut them through the middle, and set each part opposite its fellow. But the birds he did not cut. (Genesis 9-10)

The 20th-century Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz claimed that Abraham placed the two uncut birds opposite one another, completing the path between the pieces. And God grants him a vision.

And the sun had set, and darkness happened, and hey!—a smoking tanur and a torch of fire, which passed between these cut pieces. On that day, God cut with Abraham a berit, saying: To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt up to the great river, the river Euphrates. (Genesis 15:17-18)

tanur (תַנּוּר) = fire-pot, brazier, oven, furnace.

In the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, God’s presence is often described in terms of smoke and fire. But imagine a disembodied smudge-pot and a torch passing between the pieces!

When God and Abraham cut a covenant, it is God who walks between the pieces.

This is God’s last unilateral covenant in the Hebrew Bible. The next covenant between God and Abraham, at the end of this week’s Torah portion, is conditional; God will multiply Abraham’s descendants if and only if every male in Abraham’s household is circumcised.

After that, covenants between God and humans are like Biblical covenants between two humans: the party with more power promises to protect the party with less power, on the condition that the weaker party remains loyal to his superior and follows the stipulated rules. In God’s case, people must obey various laws, observe holy days, and/or refrain from worshiping other gods as a condition for God’s favor and protection.

Why does God switch to conditional covenants? I think God is frustrated by what happens right after God cuts a covenant with Abraham.  His post-menopausal wife, Sarah, gives him her slave Hagar to produce a son for him; and instead of continuing to wait for a miraculous birth, Abraham cooperates. But God seems disappointed, and makes a new covenant with Abraham. Besides requiring circumcision as a condition, God specifies that Sarah must be the mother of the son who inherits the covenant, and says: I will bless her, and also give you a son from her. (Genesis 17:16)

From then on, God apparently does not trust humans to make their own arrangements without at least a few divine rules to guide them.

Today people make many conditional contracts with each other: for rent, for employment, for services. Some people also try to bargain with God, promising to do something they think God wants in exchange for a divine favor—as if God could be bribed.

There is also a widespread unconditional covenant between human beings today:  marriage. Our wedding rituals can be elaborate (though they do not feature cutting up animals and walking between the pieces). But at the heart of the ceremony, each person promises to be with and support the other (like God promising to favor and protect someone), regardless of what happens.

Today, Jewish circumcision is more like an unconditional covenant with God.  Infant boys are dedicated to the God of Israel through circumcision with no expectation that God will grant them fertility or any special favors in return.

But can you imagine God initiating a covenant with a human being today?  Can you imagine God raising up or cutting a covenant with you?

What would it be like?  Has it already happened, in some subtle way?

 

Vezot Habrakhah: Zevulun’s Secret

September 21, 2014 at 8:38 pm | Posted in Vezot Habrakhah | Leave a comment
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This week Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the year. This Saturday is Shabbat Shuva, and the Torah portion is Ha-azinu (Use your ears). In the last few years, I have written four posts on Ha-azinu: Upright, Devious, and Struggling; The Tohu Within; Raining Insights; and Hovering. But since I will be traveling for three weeks, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur and Sukkot, this post will look at the Torah portion Vezot Habrakhah (“And this is the blessing”), the last portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim.

On Simchat Torah (October 16-17 this year) a Jewish tradition is to finish Deuteronomy and start the new annual cycle of Torah readings with the opening of Genesis/Bereishit. That first Torah portion will be the subject of my first post when I get home in a few weeks!

Zevulun

Zevulun

Zevulun’s Secret

In the last Torah portion of Deuteronomy, Moses pronounces prophecies for each of the tribes of Israel, as well as blessing all the Israelites, before he climbs Mount Nevo to die. The text of the “blessings” of the tribes that has been handed down to us is somewhat corrupted by scribal error, according to modern scholars. But it still expands Jacob’s “blessings” of the tribes near the end of Genesis/Bereishit.

Jacob pronounces blessings, or prophecies, about his twelve sons before he pulls his feet up into his bed and dies. Each prophecy is really about the tribe that will bear that son’s name. (See my earlier post, Vayechi: Fierce Brothers.) But earlier in Genesis, Jacob’s sons are characters in the story.

Half of the twelve sons are the equivalent of spear-carriers; the Torah gives them neither lines nor stage business. Unlike their eponymous tribes, the only identities these six sons have are their names—Dan, Naftali, Gad, Asher, Yissakhar, and Zevulun—and the meanings their mothers or adoptive mothers assign to their names.

The youngest spear-carrier is Zevulun, Leah’s sixth and last son. When he is born, Leah says: God gave a gift to me, a good gift; [this] time my husband yizbeleini because I bore him six sons. And she called his name Zevulun. (Genesis/Bereishit 30:20)

yisbeleini (יִזְבְּלֵנִי) = he will elevate me, he will exalt me, he will honor me. (The root of this verb, זבל, is the same as the root of the name Zevulun.)

Zevulun (זְבֻלוּן) = exalted place, place of honor.

As with all the other baby-namings in the Torah, the name indicates the parent’s state of mind. We learn nothing about the character of Leah’s sixth son from his name.

But we do learn something about Zevulun’s tribe when Jacob recites his prophetic poem about the tribes from his deathbed.  He says:  Zevulun, at the shore of the sea he will dwell; and he will be a shore for ships, and his flank will be upon Tzidon. (Genesis 49:13)

Tzidon (צִידֹן) = Sidon; one of the first Phoenician port cities on the Mediterranean Sea. (Tzidon is now the city of Sayda in Lebanon).

The second prophetic poem about the tribes, spoken by Moses in the last Torah portion of Deuteronomy, combines the tribe of Zevulun with the tribe that bears the name of Leah’s fifth son, Yissakhar (often spelled Issachar in English).

And to Zevulun he said: Rejoice, Zevulun, in your going out, and Yissakhar, in your tents. They will call peoples to the mountain; there they will slaughter slaughter-offerings of righteousness; for they will suckle on the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sand. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 33:18-20)

Canaan at Joshua's Death

Canaan at Joshua’s Death

Both poems about the tribes of Israel claim that the territory of Zevulun includes a piece of the Mediterranean coast. Jacob’s poem says Zevulun will extend as far as Tzidon, but in the book of Joshua, when the tribal territories are allocated by lot, it is Asher, Zevulun’s northern neighbor, that reaches as far as the great city of Tzidon.

The boundaries of Zevulun given in the book Joshua include many place-names we cannot identify today, and do not mention any coastline. The one identifiable place in the description of Zevulun’s land is Beit-Lechem. The coast west of Beit-Lechem of Galilee is Haifa Bay, which lies south of both Tzidon and Tzor (Sidon and Tyre ), the two major Phoenician cities at the time.  But the Phoenicians had coastal villages farther south, as far as Dor.

The coast south of Dor, from Ashdod to Gaza, was being invaded by the Plishtim (Philistines) around the time of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, which the Bible places circa 1300 B.C.E. The Plishtim migrated from Crete and other islands across the sea, and after seizing their beachheads on the coast, they fought for centuries to conquer more of Canaan.

But the Bible does not record any hostile actions by Phoenicians against Israelites. Could Zevulun have shared the Mediterranean coast with them?

I think so.  Historically, both the Israelites and the Phoenicians spoke a Canaanite dialect in the Semetic language family, and the writings of both peoples reveal roots in Canaanite culture.

In the Bible, the people of Zevulun get along with non-Israelite neighbors. Although Moses instructs the Israelites to dispossess the Canaanites and drive all the natives out of the land, the first book of Judges lists the tribes that did not do so. Zevulun is one of the tribes that lives alongside the Canaanites.

Furthermore, even Moses’ poem about the tribes predicts that Zevulun and Yissakhar will call peoples to the mountain; there they will slaughter slaughter-offerings of righteousness. (Deuteronomy 33:19) Rather than trekking all the way to Israel’s central place of worship, they invite neighboring peoples to join them in offering animal sacrifices at a local mountain in the Galilee. And even though Deuteronomy is full of warnings to worship God at only one place, the poem Moses recites at the end of his life calls the neighborly offerings on a local mountain “righteous”.

Zevulun’s reward for friendly relations with its Phoenician neighbors is a share of Phoenician wealth, which came from maritime trade, fishing, and the sale of valuable purple dye and white (milk) glass. The dye came from mollusks found on that part of the coast, and the glass was made from the high-quality sand on the shore. The commentaries agree that these Phoenician products must be the hidden treasures of the sand mentioned in Deuteronomy 33:20.

This glimpse into the ways of Zebulun is a welcome contrast with all the times the Hebrew Bible urges the Israelites to treat other peoples as enemies. The Bible often condones vicious pre-emptive wars against Canaanites, Amorites, Midianites, and assorted other peoples in the region. (For an example, see my post Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame.) Apparently God, Moses, and many of the prophets (at least as portrayed in the Bible) believe the Israelites are so easily tempted to abandon their own religion, they must commit genocide lest they learn about another attractive cult.

There is a better way to prevent people from discarding their God and their religion: make the religious practices more inspiring and more likely to touch the heart. The Torah illustrates this method in the book of Exodus, when the anxious people turn to the Golden Calf, but then turn back to God with joy and dedication when Moses gives them the chance to make a beautiful sanctuary for God.

Zevulun offers another illustration, by adopting the Phoenician way of making a livelihood, and inviting their foreign friends to join them in making offerings to God on a nearby mountain. They drop the rule about worshiping God only at the central sanctuary. But in exchange they gain peace with their neighbors—without abandoning their own god. And the Torah portion Vezot Habrakhah says their offerings are righteous.

I think the hidden treasures of the sand that Zevulun enjoys are not only milk glass and purple dye, but also the treasures that come from tolerance and goodwill.

May all people learn how to preserve their religions by offering friendship to strangers as they offer their hearts to their own gods.

 

 

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