Nitzavim: Concealed and Revealed

September 15, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Posted in Nitzavim | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , ,

Hanistarot is for God, our god; and haniglot is for us and for our children forever to do all the words of this Torah. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 29:18)

hanistarot (הַנִּסְתָּרֹת) = what is hidden, concealed, secret.

haniglot (הַנִּגְלֹת) = what is revealed, uncovered, exposed.

In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“taking a stand”), the sentence above is wedged in between two predictions. The first is that the Israelites will worship other gods and then God will destroy their land and exile them. The second is that eventually the Israelites will return to God and God will return them to the land.

Does the sentence about what is concealed and revealed have anything to do with Moses’ two predictions?  Since the sentence follows Moses’ prediction that the Israelites will commit the “sin” of worshiping other gods, some commentary assumes the hanistarot/haniglot statement is about sins. According to Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), it means that if a sin is committed so secretly that nobody could discover it, then God is responsible for punishing the individual offender. But if a sin is committed openly, it is up to the community to punish the offender; “and if we do not execute judgment upon these, then the whole community will be punished” by God.

Other commentators relate the hanistarot/haniglot statement to the sentence that follows it, where Moses predicts that the exiled Israelites will return to God, and then God will gather them all back to the land of Canaan. In this case, what is concealed is the length of the exile. The future is always hidden from human beings. What is revealed is what we should do in the meantime: all the words of this Torah.  In other words, we and our descendants must strive to obey the 613 rules in the Torah as much as we can. (See last week’s post, Ki Tavo: Writing in Stone.)

A pardeis at Shiraz (modeled after a garden of King Cyrus of Persia)

A pardeis at Shiraz (modeled after a garden of King Cyrus of Persia)

A third strand of commentary, starting in the Talmud, interprets “what is secret (hanistarot) is for God” as a warning to individuals against pursuing arcane mystical knowledge.  “What is revealed (haniglot)” is the Torah, which is good for us to study.

In the Babylonian Talmud (written by rabbis living under Persian rule in the first few centuries C.E.) the tractate Chaggigah mentions rabbis who taught about Ezekiel’s mystical vision of the chariot. Then it points out the dangers of pursuing arcane knowledge by offering a story about four great Torah scholars who entered a pardeis.

Pardeis (פַּרְדֵּס), often translated as “paradise”, is a Persian word for an orchard or an enclosed garden. Chaggigah 14b uses a pardeis as an image of the “upper worlds” of heaven, a realm of spiritual truth divorced from the physical world.

The four famous scholars who enter the pardeis in this story are Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, the “other” (Elisha ben Avuya), and Rabbi Akiva, their senior. Ben Azzai glimpses the divine presence, abandons his body, and dies. Ben Zoma glimpses the divine presence, suffers from a consuming a surfeit of “honey”, and loses his mind. Elisha ben Avuya, the “other”, glimpses the divine presence, but sees a duality: God versus an angel (Metatron) who is sitting and recording the merits of Israel. The Talmud says Elisha “chopped down the shoots” of saplings, i.e. became a heretic who separated God (the root) from the angel (the shoot). Only Rabbi Akiva comes out of the pardeis safely.

When the scholars are entering the pardeis, Akiva warns them that they will see pure marble stones that appear to be water, but they must not say “water, water”. Perhaps Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, and Elisha ben Avuya were unable to distinguish between polished marble and water—that is, between two key points in mystical understanding of the divine—and the result was death, madness, or heresy.  Hanistarot, what is secret, belongs to God, and very few can perceive one of God’s secrets and remain whole.

In the 12th century B.C.E., Rambam (Moses Maimonides) wrote that the hidden secret (hanistarot) in the sentence from this week’s Torah portion is Kabbalah, and the revealed wisdom (haniglot) is the Torah.  Those who learn Kabbalah must still take care to observe the rules of the Torah in the world of physical action.

Today I encounter people who are so fascinated by mysticism that they ignore the Rambam’s advice, and spend all their energy pursuing an “oh, wow!” state of mind. Sometimes I get the impression that anything arcane and mysterious attracts these people, as long as it is non-logical and only tenuously related to the world we live in. These ungrounded mystics seem to assume they can transcend the rules in the Torah and rise above their own psychological (soul) issues.  They appear to be more concerned with feeling love, than with thinking about what actions might be loving.

I also encounter people who want to “do all the words of this Torah”, but prefer specific rules about physical actions over admonitions to change their heart and soul.  If they are Jews, they may be strict about keeping kosher, but not so thorough about loving their fellows as themselves. Examining their own psyches in order to love other people is too much for them.

In between these two types are the people who cautiously mine mystical claims for insight without trying to enter pardeis.  They are enthusiastic about how religion can be applied to ethics and personal insight. Figuring out how to love one’s fellow as oneself, for example, is more important to them than either feeling ecstatic or following all the rules.

I want to belong to that third group. I want to investigate my own soul and stay grounded in my life here on earth. I want to borrow an occasional idea from Kabbalah without getting lost in it, and I want to use the Torah’s concrete rules as guidelines for behavior, to be reinterpreted if following the letter of the law gets in the way of following its spirit.

So I can subscribe to first part of the sentence from this week’s Torah portion:

Hanistarot [what is hidden] is for God, our god, and haniglot [what is revealed] is for us and for our children …

But I would like to end the sentence this way:

to study all the words of this Torah, and apply them thoughtfully to our lives.

 

Masey: Magic of an Egyptian Province

July 20, 2014 at 10:17 am | Posted in Masey | 2 Comments
Tags: , , ,

The Torah does not name the pharaoh in its story about the exodus from Egypt. But some scholars guess the story is set in the 13th century B.C.E., during the reign of Rameses II. At that time the land of Canaan was a remote province of the Egyptian empire. Canaanite vassals ruled individual villages and their surrounding regions, but they reported to the Egyptian government in the provincial capital, Gaza. Egyptian garrisons were scattered around the province.

The two biggest powers then were the Egyptians and the Hittites. The capital of Egypt was in the Nile delta; the capital of Hatti was in present-day Turkey. Naturally the two empires fought over the land in between, until their kings, Rameses II and Hattusili III, made a peace treaty circa 1260 B.C.E. that froze the border. A long period of peace followed—as far as the Egyptians and Hittites were concerned. If one Canaanite vassal overthrew another, that was not their business.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are preparing to cross the Jordan River and overthrow every ruler in the province of Canaan.

God spoke to Moses, saying: Command the Children of Israel, and you shall say to them: When you enter the land of Canaan, this is the land that will fall to you as a hereditary possession: the land of Canaan by its boundaries. Your southern limit shall be from the wilderness of Tzin next to Edom … (Numbers/Bemidbar 34:1-3) 

"Canaan" in Egyptian heiroglyphs, Merneptah Stele

“Canaan” in Egyptian heiroglyphs, Merneptah Stele

Canaan (כְּנָעַן) = a territory roughly including present-day Israel, Lebanon, and part of Syria—but not Jordan. (Probably from the Egyptian name Kanana, though it may also be related to the Hebrew verb root kana (כּנע) = humble, subdue, subjugate. Much later, in the Second Temple period, a kinani (כְּנַעֲנִי) was a merchant or tradesman rather than a Canaanite.)

God promises to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants in the book of Genesis,and to the descendants of Abraham’s grandson Jacob in the book of Exodus.

When God delineates the boundaries of the promised land in this week’s Torah portion, Masey (“Journeys”), the northern boundary is about the same as the boundary between the Egyptian and Hittite empires, as set by their treaty. Like the province of Canaan, Israel is to include the coastline from Wadi el-Arish all the way to a Mount Hor north of Byblos (now the Lebanese city of Jubayl). (This is different from the Mount Hor east of Edom where Aaron dies.)

Canaan in Numbers 34

Canaan in Numbers 34

The northern boundary goes from the Mediterranean to a point deep in present-day Syra. The eastern boundary swings around to the Sea of Kinneret and follows the Jordan River to the Dead Sea, like the eastern boundary of Canaan in the 13th century B.C.E.

The Israelites never rule the entire province. But they are so attached to Canaan as their promised land, that Moses gets upset in last week’s Torah portion (Mattot) when two and a half tribes want to settle on the east side of the Jordan River, in the land the Israelites recently captured from a pair of Amorite kings.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses makes the distinction between Canaan and the land east of the Jordan again.

And Moses commanded the Children of Israel, saying: This is the land that you will divide for hereditary property by lot, that God commanded to give to the nine tribes and the half tribe. For the tribe of the Reubenites…the tribe of the Gadites… and the half-tribe of Menashe, they have taken their hereditary possession. The two tribes and the half-tribe took their hereditary possession from across the Jordan at Jericho, eastward toward the sunrise. (Numbers 34:13-15)

Why must the land promised to the Israelites be no more nor less than the Egyptian province of Canaan?

One answer is that the Israelites are Canaanites. Some archaeologists suspect the exodus was a literary invention, and that although a small band of slaves may have run away from Egypt, the majority of ethnic Israelites lived in the hills of eastern Canaan all along. When the kingdom of Judah conquered more of Canaan during the reign of King Josiah (Yoshiyahu), 600 years later, they rewrote some of the Torah to justify their expansionism.

The Torah, on the other hand, implies that Israelites are Canaanites because an extended family of 70 (plus wives and servants) go down from Canaan to Egypt, and 430 years later in the exodus 600,000 men (plus wives and children and a multitude of like-minded Egyptians) come back up. During their four centuries in Egypt, the Israelites retain their identity and language. Returning to Canaan, therefore, is returning home.

But they do not return to rejoin their fellow Canaanites. The god of Israel orders them to conquer the current population and drive them out of their towns, so that the people and religion of Israel will rule the land. The Torah gives two kinds of justifications for taking over Canaan. One is that Canaanite religious practices are evil in God’s eyes, and therefore must be eliminated. The other is that the Israelites, as descendants of Abraham, are supposed to be a blessing to the rest of the world. Presumably part of this blessing is setting an example of a country run according to God’s laws.

Some mystical commentary claims that the promised land had to include Jerusalem. According to these mystics, the Temple Mount is also Mount Moriyah, where Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac. This is the holiest spot in the world. (Mount Sinai, which lies outside Canaan, is somehow less important!)

I think all of these explanations ignore the power of myth and legend. As an American child, I grew up reading English stories full of menhirs, dolmens, fairy circles, and henges, where magical things happened to previously ordinary people. When I visited England as an adult, it moves me to tears to see these legendary structures cropping up in the woods and in the middle of farms. This was the world of the stories I grew up with, the world my imagination lived in. Every day I spent in the English and Welsh countryside filled me with awe. I can only imagine the awe I will feel when I finally get to Israel and see the places I keep reading about in the Torah as an adult.

The ancient Israelites, whether they stayed in Canaan or migrated to Egypt and back, grew up with the legends that found their way into the book of Genesis. Imagine what it would mean to them to see Mount Moriah, the grove of Mamre, the cave of Makhpelah, Beeir-sheva, or Beeir-lachai-roi.

Never underestimate the power of story. It can turn a rural Egyptian province into the Promised Land.

Shelach-Lekha: Courage and Kindness

June 11, 2014 at 8:37 pm | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | Leave a comment
Tags: , ,

The Israelites march to the southern border of Canaan in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”). Then Moses sends twelve men to scout out the land God promised them. The scouts return after forty days, carrying extra-large grapes, pomegranates, and figs.  Ten of the scouts report to Moses and the whole assembly of Israel, saying:

We came into the land where you sent us, and indeed it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. But it is all for nothing, for the dwellers in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very big, and also we saw the offspring of the Anak there. (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:27-28)

They list other hostile peoples living in the land of Canaan, reinforcing their hint that it does not matter how fertile the land is, since the Israelites have no hope of conquering its inhabitants.  Then one scout, Caleb, objects.

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, than it.

In the Talmud (Sotah 35a), Rabbi Hanina bar Papa interprets mimenu as meaning “than Him”, than God—“as if even the master of the house cannot remove his furniture from it!”  Other commentators interpret mimenu as “than us”, and conclude that the ten scouts did not believe God would simply remove the inhabitants from the land before the Israelites walked in. Instead, they assumed they would have to fight for every farm and city, and they despaired.

Whether the scouts give up on God or give up on the people, their next move is to exaggerate the dangers of Canaan, emphasizing that …all the people that we saw inside it were men of unusual size. (Numbers 13:32)

The Israelites despair along with the ten scouts, and sob all night.

And all the Children of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them: If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness! If only we had died! Why is God bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little children will become booty. Is it not better for us to turn back toward Egypt? (Numbers 14:2-3)

If they actually returned to Egypt, they would be punished as runaway slaves and their wives and children would be treated just like booty.  But the men do not think of this, and they decide to pick a new leader and head back. Moses and Aaron fall on their faces—but this time no divine inspiration comes. (See my earlier post, Korach: Falling on Your Face.) The crowd stops only because the two dissenting scouts, Caleb and Joshua, rip their clothing—an action that is normally performed as a sign of mourning. Now that they have the Israelites’ attention, they explain why the people should go up into Canaan:

The land that we passed through to scout out, it is very, very good land. If God favors us, then [God] will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. However, do not rebel against God! And do not be afraid of the people of the land, for they are our food, and the shade of protection has left them. God is with us; do not be afraid of them! (Numbers 14:7-9)

The people are not convinced.  They are about to stone Caleb and Joshua, when the glory of God appears at the Tent of Meeting and stops them. I suspect the message that they are supposed to trust God makes them so uncomfortable they cannot bear to think about it, so they want to kill the messengers instead.

Moses persuades God to let go of anger and forgive the people, according to the greatness of your kindness (Numbers 14:19). But God swears that nobody who rebelled or ignored God will see the promised land. 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 a period of 40 years.

It sounds like a spiteful punishment; God gives them what they said they wanted, death in the wilderness.  But I believe this apparent punishment is actually a great kindness.  The adults among the Children of Israel mustered the courage to leave Egypt in the first place, and to face an unknown future following the mysterious and obviously dangerous God who inflicted the ten plagues on Egypt. But someone who can act with great courage in desperate situations, such as worsening slavery, does not necessarily have the willpower to take risks when life is pretty good.

At the time the Israelites refuse to enter Canaan, they are camped in the oasis of Kadeish-barnea, where there is enough vegetation for them and their livestock to live indefinitely, even without manna. They are not required to do any unusual labor, only to follow a set of reasonable laws and easy rituals. Why not just stay there for the rest of their lives?

The answer is that God is urging them to do something further. For Caleb and Joshua, and for Moses and his brother and sister, this urging is stronger than natural inertia and fear of the unknown.  But for others, the need for security and comfort is stronger.

So God kindly lets the Israelites stay at the oasis in the wilderness, living out their lives until each one dies at age 60. God recognizes that it is too much for most of the people to summon the willpower for another big act of courage.

Each of us today faces similar turning points in our lives. Sometimes we find ourselves trapped in a desperate situation, and it still takes a lot of inner strength to escape to a new life, but finally we do it. Other times life is pretty good, but something inside keeps urging us to make a change, to step out and take a risk that frightens us. Do we do it?

Whether we pick up the challenge or not depends on how fragile or strong our souls are. In this week’s Torah portion, God says:

But my servant Caleb, because there is a different ruach with him, and he followed me fully, I shall bring him into the land… (Numbers 14:24)

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind, spirit, mood, state of mind, driving impulse, motivation, temperament.

Perhaps when we hesitate between sticking with a pretty good life and taking a chance on the inner urge for change, all we can do is pray for wisdom and the right ruach.

May God, and life, be kind both to those who do not have the ruach to change, and to those who do.

« Previous Page

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.