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.)

*

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!

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.

 

 

Nitzavim: Concealed and Revealed

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

 

Ki Tavo: Carved in Stone

September 10, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo | 3 Comments
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Carve something on a stone, and set it upright as a memorial or a boundary marker.  People have been doing this all over the world for millennia.  Americans today still erect gravestones and mark historic sites with upright stones bearing text.

Anyone can read the inscribed stone or stele and learn something—about the battle that took place at that spot, or the boundary it marks, or the person who is buried there.

Code of Hammurabi, 1750 B.C.E.

Code of Hammurabi, 1750 B.C.E.

In the ancient Middle East, most steles recorded victories in battle. But the oldest stele discovered so far from that region is a stone seven and a half feet high, with the Code of Hammurabi carved into it during the 18th century B.C.E.  The 282 laws of the reigning Babylonian king are written in Akkadian.

Standing stones without any words carved into them are even older. Only oral tradition can tell subsequent generations what the stones commemorated. A stranger from another place or a later time who sees a blank monument, or a circle of tall stones, knows only that they are significant, not what they signify.

The first standing stones in the Torah are uncarved.  In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob erects four different matzeivot or standing stones, marking the sites of his dream of angels, the boundary  between his area of influence and his father-in-law Lavan’s, and his wife Rachel’s grave.

Moses erects twelve standing stones at the foot of Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus/Shemot, to represent the twelve tribes of Israel in their covenant with God.  But the only engraved stones in Exodus are the two small tablets bearing the ten commandments, and they are so sacred that they are carried inside the ark, which must never be touched or opened.

At Mount Sinai and in the wilderness, the blank stones that depend on mutable oral tradition are out in public.  But the immutable, fixed written words are hidden in a sacred place.

Moses does not call for standing stones with writing on them until this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you enter”), in the book of Deuteromy/Devarim.

Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying:  Observe the entire commandment that I command you this day.  And it shall be, on the day that you cross over the Jordan into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, you shall erect for yourself great stones, vesadeta them with the siyd. And you shall write on them all the words of this torah when you cross over, so that you may come into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as God, the god of your forefathers, has spoken to you. (Deuteronomy 27:1-3)

vesadeta (וְשַׂדְתָּ) = and you shall limewash (coat them with a paint-like mixture of lime and water).

siyd (שִׂיד) = lime, quicklime, limewash.

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.)

The people of the ancient Middle East made quicklime (calcium oxide powder) by burning bones. Adding enough water to slake the lime turns it into calcium hydroxide, which can be mixed with additional water to make limewash.  Limewash is still used to coat surfaces in order to make them smooth and white; the coating hardens into a thin shell of limestone, which may last for millennia in dry conditions. Remnants survive of a text painted in ink on a white limewashed wall in the 8th century B.C.E.

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

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

Thus the text on Moses’ limewashed stones could have been readable for many centuries. The Hebrew Bible does not specify which torah Moses wants on the stones, but it must include some or all of the laws from the written Torah we have today—the first five books of the Bible, as copied and recopied on parchment and paper. According to 12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, Moses means the 613 commandments that the Talmud (Makkot 23b) says are in the five books. Other commentary speculates that Moses is calling for the code of laws in the book of Deuteronomy (chapters 13-26), or for the whole book of Deuteronomy (which would fit on two stones the size of the one used for the Code of Hammurabi).

Until this point in the Torah, Moses passes down God’s laws by announcing them verbally to the assembly of Israelites. Only in this week’s Torah portion does Moses call for laws to be “carved in stone”—or at least painted on limestone—and set out in a public place: the top of Mount Eyval, next to the ancient town of Shekhem.

And it shall be when you cross over the Jordan, you shall erect these stones, as I command you this day, on Mount Eyval; vesadeta them with the siyd. And you shall build there an altar for God, your god … (Deuteronomy 27:4-5)

Moses continues with orders for offerings at the altar, followed by a ritual of blessings and curses to indicate acceptance of God’s law.  (See my earlier post, Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.)

On the bare summit of Mount Eyval, the stones would be visible from a distance, as shining white pillars against the sky.

Perhaps the author of this section of Deuteronomy imagined that the steles on Mount Eyval would be like the Code of Hammurabi, which many scribes over the centuries copied onto clay tablets. In the Talmud (Sotah 35b), Rabbi Yehudah imagines scribes from different Canaanite tribes visiting the stones on Mount Eyval and bringing home copies of their text.

Yet ancient scribes, including those who copied the Hebrew Bible, not only made copying errors, but also felt free to insert additional material. The steles on Mount Eyval would stand as a permanent record of the original laws of Moses, whatever amendments people made later.

From the viewpoint of the storyline within the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ desire for a permanent, immutable, and public record of the laws is understandable. He is about to die, and he believes the Israelites, with their history of backsliding, will eventually abandon God’s laws and convert to Canaanite religions. Moses’ last hope of preserving his religion is to write it down.

He writes multiple copies of “this torah” in Deuteronomy 31:9, and a book of “this torah” to be placed inside the ark in Deuteronomy 31:24-26. All of these writings appear to be on parchment scrolls. But he also wants a more permanent record, so he orders the limewashed standing stones.

From the viewpoint of modern scholarship, Deuteronomy was written much later than Numbers, probably after the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  King Josiah of Judah, the southern kingdom, wanted public support for conquering the old northern territory and reinstating the old religion the two kingdoms shared. The description of a permanent monument bearing the laws of Moses might make King Josiah’s people feel that the religion of the God of Israel should persist.

From the viewpoint of a practicing Jew today, I would say the religion could not have survived this long without additions and reinterpretations. Of the 613 mitzvot or commandments in the five books of the Torah, as compiled by Rambam (12th-century rabbi Moses Maimonides), only 271 can be observed at all today. (Many of the old laws were about sacrifices at the temple, a method of worship that ended about 2,000 years ago with the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem.)

And some of the commandments are clearly inferior to ethical customs that Jews adopted later in their history. For example, although the Torah includes highly ethical commandments (such as not to insult, embarrass, or slander people), it also contains commandments such as the requirement that a rapist must marry his victim if she is single (Deuteronomy 22:29). There was a reason for that law in Judah 2,700 years ago, but 21st-century American society has better ways of handling the situation.

If archaeologists ever discover limewashed stones with some laws of Moses written on them, I pray that we may view the laws as artifacts, not immutable rules to follow forever. Reinterpretations of both oral traditions and traditional writings are what keep a religion alive, and let it walk farther on the path of virtue.

Ki Teitzei: Forgetting to Be Selfish

September 2, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei | Leave a comment
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Last week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, told us not to cut down fruit trees when we are besieging a city. By Talmudic times, this injunction had been expanded into the principle of bal taschchit, do not destroy anything useful. (See my post Shoftim: Saving Trees.)

Some of the rules in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“When you go out”), have been similarly expanded. Here is one, nicknamed “The Forgotten Sheaf”:

If you harvest your harvest in your field, and you forget an omer in the field, you shall not turn back to take it. It shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow, so that God, your god, will bless you in everything your hands do. (Deuteronomy/Devarium 24:19)

omer (עֹמֶר) = a dry measure, roughly 2 quarts or 2 liters, used in the Torah for both manna and cut ears of grain.

The word omer is sometimes translated as “sheaf”, but the omer of manna discussed in the book of Exodus/Shemot consists of tiny white spheres the size of coriander seed.  Manna could hardly be gathered into a sheaf! Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the word omer refers to grain, and can easily be translated as a quantity of grain heads. (The sheaves in Joseph’s dream in Genesis/Bereishit are called alumim (אֲלֻמִּים), an entirely different word.)

Commentators over the centuries have agreed that the purpose of the rule about the so-called “Forgotten Sheaf” could not be to provide for the poor (epitomized by three types of people unlikely to own land or to be supported by wealthy men: resident aliens, orphans, and widows). One omer of grain might feed one person for one day. Landowners and their employees would have to be extraordinarily forgetful to accidentally leave enough grain to feed all the poor in their area.

detail from R.F. Babcock, "Ruth Gleaning"

detail from R.F. Babcock, “Ruth Gleaning”

Moreover, the Torah already requires landowners to deliberately leave behind grain, grapes, and other produce for the poor to glean.

When you harvest the harvest of your land, you shall not finish harvesting to the edge of your field, nor gather up the gleanings of your harvest.  And you shall not glean your vines nor gather up your fallen grapes in your vineyard; to the poor and to the stranger you shall leave them. (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:9-10)

The Torah portion for this week in Deuteronomy adds orchards to the fields and vineyards.

When you beat out your olive tree, you shall not strip the branches behind you; they shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow. (Deuteronomy 24:20)

If landowners are already required to leave food in their fields, vineyards, and orchards for the poor to glean, why does the Torah tell them not to go back and gather an omer they forgot about?

The 13th-century book Sefer Ha-Chinukh answers that the purpose of this commandment is to help people develop the habit of generosity. Even if you are giving to the poor as required by gleaning laws, tithes, or taxes, as you work to increase your own wealth you must still cultivate the belief that sharing wealth is more important than maximizing your own profit.

Philo of Alexandria’s commentary, written in the first century C.E., criticizes people who devote themselves exclusively to increasing their own wealth, and never notice that their gains would be impossible without the natural world God gives us.  (I would add that the gains of the money-hungry also require the labor of other people.) And in the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that the commandment not to go back for the forgotten omer is intended to clear possessiveness and greed from your thoughts.

Besides breaking the habits of possessiveness and greed, leaving the forgotten omer behind might also help someone to overcome the habits of worrying about being cheated, or thinking of everything in terms of private property.

What if a farmer left grain in the field, and nobody came by to pick it up?  Would this violate the principle of bal tashchit, “do not waste”?

This was not an issue in ancient Israel, where there were always people without land of their own  who gleaned to feed themselves.

Gleaning projects are being revived today in the United States, collecting food that would otherwise be wasted.  But we can also update the principle of the forgotten omer.  What if you are fumbling with your purse or billfold, and you accidentally drop money on the sidewalk?  If you leave it behind, the money will not go to waste; someone will pick it up. What if you forget to collect your change at the counter, or discover you left too large a tip?  Going back for your money would shrink your soul.  Leaving it for someone else gives you practice in keeping your priorities straight.

When you have forgotten to do a good deed, go back.  But when you have forgotten to be selfish, go on, and be grateful for your forgetfulness.

Shoftim: Saving Trees

August 24, 2014 at 8:31 pm | Posted in Shoftim | 1 Comment
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When you besiege a town for many days, to make war against it, to capture it, lo tashchit its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you will eat from them, so you shall not cut them down; for is a tree of the field ha-adam, to come in front of you in the siege? (Deuteronomy/Devarim 20:19)Peaches_clip_art_hight

lo tashchit (לֹא־תַשְׁחִית) =  you shall not destroy, ruin, corrupt.

ha-adam (הָאָדָם) = human (as an adjective); the human, humankind (as a noun).

The above verse from this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“judges”), assumes that it is acceptable to make war in order to capture a town belonging to a different tribe or nation. If humans from the town get in your way, you may kill them. Everyone does it.

However, the verse does challenge the idea that it is acceptable to cut down your enemy’s orchards and groves. This practice both allowed the besieging forces to vent their spleen, and ensured that even if the siege failed, the town would still suffer in the long term, deprived of both fruit and a means of livelihood. (For example, olive oil was a major export of the portion of Canaan the Israelites conquered.  Cutting down olive trees is prohibited.)

The Talmud generalizes the prohibition against cutting down fruit trees in a siege to prohibit any wasteful destruction, including tearing fabric when you are not in mourning (Kiddushin 32a), or scattering your money in anger (Shabbat 105b).

Rambam (the 12th-century commentator Moses Maimonides) wrote that the verse in this week’s Torah portion applies to any injury to a fruit tree. However, he said, the tree may be removed if it is damaging other trees, or even if its wood can be sold at a high price. The important thing is to avoid any needless destruction. He extended this idea to cover ruining edible food or demolishing a usable building.

The prohibition against waste and useless destruction came to be called bal tashchit. (Bal, like lo, means “not”.)

Many societies have rules against destroying a fellow citizen’s property. What stands out about the Jewish principle of bal taschchit is that it prohibits useless destruction of both enemy property, and your own personal property.

According to the 13th-century book Sefer Ha-Chinukh, the purpose of bal taschchit is to train us to avoid acting on evil impulses. Wicked people revel in destruction and corruption. By following the rule to eschew waste and preserve everything useful, we gradually reduce our impulses to destroy something, and develop a better attitude.

Imagine if everyone followed the rule of bal taschchit today!

Who knows, maybe the modern ethic of “reduce, re-use, recycle” is training us to disapprove of wasting the earth’s resources. Maybe the people of the world are almost ready to rally to a new call to save the world from the pollution that leads to “global climate change”—which really means ruin and hardship all over the world.

May it be so!

 

Re-eih: Recipe for Joy

August 18, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Re-eih, Shavuot, Sukkot | Leave a comment
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Sometimes joy comes unexpectedly. But sometimes we plan to rejoice on a particular occasion, acting with joy and thus inducing a feeling of joy. This week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See!”), says that three times a year, everyone should rejoice.

Universal joy is required during the three annual pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  Although the Torah gives instructions for these three festivals in the earlier books of the Torah, this portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim is the first one that mandates a pilgrimage to the central sanctuary even for Pesach.

Three times in the year all your males shall appear in the presence of God, your god, in the place that [God] will choose: on the festival of the matzot and on the festival of the shavuot and on the festival of the sukkot (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:16) 

Barley

Barley

matzot (מַצּוֹת) = unleavened bread. (This spring festival is part of Pesach or Passover.)

shavuot (שָׁבֻעוֹת) = weeks. (This summer festival occurs after counting seven weeks of the barley harvest, and includes bringing the first fruits and loaves of leavened bread to the priests at the sanctuary.)

sukkot (סֻכּוֹת) = huts, temporary shelters. (In Exodus this autumn festival is called the festival of the asif, “ingathering”, and pilgrims donate products from their threshing-floors and wine-presses. Leviticus adds the rituals of dwelling in temporary huts for seven days.)

…and they shall not appear in front of God empty-handed; each man [shall give] according to the giving-capacity of his hand, according to the blessing that God, your god, has given to you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:16-17)

Only Israelite men are required to make the three pilgrimages to the central sanctuary (which was in Shiloh for about 370 years, and Jerusalem for about 1,000 years).  But this week’s portion also encourages women, children, and slaves to go, while recognizing that the journey may not be possible for pregnant or nursing women. Each head of a household must bring the second tithe (a donation for the priests and the temple administration), and a sacrificial animal for God. But the donations must be in proportion to the family’s wealth, so nobody’s joy is dampened by having to give more than they can afford.

Pilgrimage for Sukkot

Pilgrimage for Sukkot

In the Torah’s previous instructions regarding the three festivals, rejoicing is mentioned only once, when Leviticus 23:40 says to take branches from four species of trees and rejoice for the seven days of Sukkot.

But in this week’s Torah portion, rejoicing is called for three times, once in the instructions for Shavuot and twice in the instructions for Sukkot.

(Although this Torah portion does not specifically mention rejoicing during Pesach, later passages in Ezra and Chronicles 2 mention rejoicing in Jerusalem during this festival.)

The requirement for rejoicing in the portion Re-eih includes the Levite, stranger, orphan, and widow, who were not mentioned in any of the earlier instructions on the three festivals. During Shavuot, the Torah portion says:

Rejoice in the presence of God, your god—you and your son and your daughter and your man-servant and your woman-servant, and the Levite who is within your gates, and the foreigner and the orphan and the widow … (Deuteronomy 16:11)

And during Sukkot:

Rejoice in your festival, you and your son and your daughter and your man-servant and your woman-servant, and the Levite and the foreigner and the orphan and the widow who are within your gates. Seven days you shall celebrate a festival for God, your god, in the place that [God] will choose, because God, your god, will have blessed you in all that comes to you and in all the doings of your hands, and there will be for you only joy. (16:14-15)

Feeling joy might be easy for the landowner who brings his offerings to the sanctuary, since he gives in proportion to his means, and he is celebrating that God blessed his agricultural endeavors with success.

But when the Torah addresses this landowner, it informs him that his family and his servants or slaves must also feel joy during the festivals. Furthermore, the Torah gives examples of four classes of people who are unlikely to own land or other independent means in a society built around inheritance through the male line: the Levites, whose pasture land is restricted and depend on donations; foreigners, who can lease but not inherit estates; orphans who have no fathers to provide for them; and widows, who are dependent on the mercy of relatives unless they have wealthy sons.  The Torah says that all of the disadvantaged people who live in the landowner’s town or village must also rejoice during the three festivals. Their joy becomes the landowner’s responsibility.

What can he do for them? According to the commentary of 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, he must arrange for those who cannot travel to rejoice at home.  Everyone who can travel must come with him to the central sanctuary, to experience the joy of celebrating in the national community, whose people are dedicated to one god, and to one another.

Hirsch added that these festivals are also times that God appointed to meet the people at God’s sanctuary. The awareness of God’s presence, he wrote, brings the purest joy.

In the 11th century, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that the phrase I translate above as “there will be for you only joy” means that if you bring everyone to God’s chosen place for a festival, God promises you will be happy.

I have observed this effect in my own life. Occasionally happiness lifts me when I am alone; more often it comes when I am with my beloved. But when I am singing with my congregation at services, my heart almost always rises. The only times this communal singing does not bring me joy are when someone in the group looks angry or miserable.

The unhappy people are like the poor foreigners in the Torah, alienated from the community where they live. Sometimes these “foreigners” cannot come to the place where God is; they are unable to travel spiritually. Then those of us who have greater means, like the landowners in the Torah, must make arrangements to help them rejoice in the spiritual state where they are.

Other times, the unhappy “foreigners” are able to travel, if we carry them with us. The Torah tells us not to neglect them, but to bring them to God’s place to celebrate with us.

Then “there will be only joy”. Complete joy happens only when everybody contributes, and nobody gets left out.

 

Eikev: Reward and Punishment

August 11, 2014 at 9:33 am | Posted in Eikev | 2 Comments
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The oldest section of Jewish prayer services is the Shema and the three excerpts from the Torah that follow it. These became a regular part of morning and evening services about 2,000 years ago.  The Shema itself is a single sentence: Listen, Israel: God is our god, God is one. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:4)

The prayer service continues with Deuteronomy 6:5-9, in a paragraph sometimes called “the ve-ahavta” because it begins with the word ve-ahavta (וְאָהַבְתָּ) = And you shall love. (See my post: Va-etchannan: Extreme Love.) This first paragraph after the Shema urges individuals to remember to love God at all times.

The second paragraph, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, which comes from this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“On the heels of”), offers reasons why the whole community must follow God’s rules. The third paragraph, Numbers/Bemidbar 14:37-41, calls for tassels (tzitzit) as a reminder to keep our attention on God. (See my post Shelach-Lekha: Glimpses of Blue.)

The second paragraph after the Shema is the most problematic of the three, because its reasons for obeying God’s rules consist of two if-then statements that are obviously untrue. It begins:

And it will be, if you [plural] truly heed My commandments that I am commanding to you today, to love God, your god, and to serve [God] with your whole levav and your whole being— (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:13)

levav (לֵבָב) = mind, (literally “heart”), the seat of conscious thoughts and feelings.

Are the commandments in the “if” clause the whole body of law in the Torah, or just to love God and serve God with your whole mind and body? For classic commentators, it does not matter, because the way to love and serve God is to follow all of God’s commandments in the Torah. 

Hiroshige, detail

Hiroshige, detail

The next two verses promise a reward:

—then I will give rain to your land at the right time, autumn-rain and spring-rain, and you will gather your grain and your wine and your olive oil. And I will put grasses in your field for your livestock, and you will eat and you will be sated. (Deuteronomy 11:14-15)

It is a nice promise, but we all know that obeying God’s commandments does not, in actual practice, result in beneficial weather–even in Israel. For Jews outside Israel, obeying God’s commandments does not guarantee the results of beneficial weather: a full stomach and being able to live where you are.

One explanation is that we humans are so fallible, we never manage to obey all of the pertinent commandments properly, and God will not reward us if we miss the mark on even one of them. But even the God-character in the Torah, who wipes out the innocent with the guilty, is not that unreasonable.

The if-then promise is followed by an if-then threat:

Be on guard against yourselves, because if your mind yifteh, and you turn away and serve other gods and bow down to them—then the heat of God’s anger will be against you, and it will shut up the heavens, and rain will not happen, and the land will not give its produce, and you will quickly perish from the good land that God is giving to you. (Deuteronomy 11:16-11:17)

yifteh (יִפְתֶּה) = will fool itself, will be tempted, will be naïve.

However, we know that when someone succumbs to the temptation to serve other gods—either literal or figurative—drought, death, or exile do not necessarily follow.

Some commentary points out that although the ve-ahavta paragraph of the Shema addresses “you” in the singular, this second paragraph uses “you” in the plural.  God’s covenant is with all the Israelites, collectively. The more conscientious members of the community are charged elsewhere in in the Torah with preventing idolatry and improving the behavior of the slackers.

Yet bad things still happen to whole groups of good people.

And whole groups of people who fool themselves into idolatry (such as the belief that getting rich is more important than loving your fellow as yourself) still have plenty to eat.

Jews who want to believe the promise and threat in the passage from this week’s Torah portion continue to find rationalizations. Sixty years ago some religious Jews blamed their own people’s lack of perfection for the Holocaust.

Environmentalists, extending the if-then statements in this week’s Torah portion to the whole human race, have pointed out that our wanton degradation of the world’s air, water, soil, flora, and fauna result in poisoned food, sickness, and  rising sea levels, all of which can result in starvation, death, and exile. We can certainly argue that if society as a whole does not put the welfare of our planet first, then disasters will follow. And perhaps taking care of the earth is one way to love and serve God. But it is not the only way. What about all the commandments in the Torah? What about all the other acts of kindness and right behavior we should be doing?

I believe that the two if-then statements in this excerpt from the Torah portion Eikev do not reflect literal reality, and can only be considered poetic exaggerations. Yet I also believe that loving and serving the divine does have good consequences, and letting ourselves be fooled into worshiping harmful ideologies does have bad consequences.

So I am struck by the last sentence in the excerpt from Eikev that is used as the second paragraph of the Shema. After repeating the reminders in the first paragraph to always keep “these words” in mind, the second paragraph ends:

So that your days yirbu, and the days of your children, upon the land that God vowed to your forefathers, to give to them as the days of the heavens over the earth. (Deuteronomy 11:21)

yirbu (יִרְבּוּ) = will be many, will become numerous, will increase.

“Your” and “you” in this sentence are plural.  So on a simple level, the sentence might mean “So that your people will live a long time in the land (Canaan) God promised to give your ancestors—as long as the sky is above the earth”. In other words, every individual must die, but as long as you all obey God, your people can live in Israel forever.

Maybe this promise was motivating when Deuteronomy was written (probably in the 7th century B.C.E.). But today, many Jews who choose not to emigrate to Israel need a different kind of promise.

In the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that “as the days of the heavens” means that days on earth would be like days of heaven. Following his lead, I would retranslate the sentence at the end of the excerpt this way:

“So that your days will increase in fullness and value, and so will the days of your children; and the potentials of your ancestors will be realized in you and your children; and every day on earth will be full of the divine.”

Not only is this a good reward for good behavior, but it actually works. If you keep your attention on loving and serving God—the inner divine voice, or the spirit of life, or all humanity—then your days really do improve. They may even become heavenly.

 

 

Devarim & Shelach-Lekha: A Giant Detour

July 27, 2014 at 8:44 pm | Posted in Devarim, Shelach-Lekha | 1 Comment
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The first time the Israelites reach the border of Canaan, they refuse to cross because they are afraid of giants. The second time, they delay crossing the border because of a giant.

The first time, the Israelites come from Mount Sinai directly to the southern border of the land God promised to give them. In the Torah portion Shelach-Lekha in Numbers/Bemidbar, Moses sends scouts into Canaan. The scouts return saying the land is full of giants.

And all the people that we saw in it were men of unusual size. There we saw the Nefilim—children of Anak from the Nefilim—and we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were in their eyes! (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:32-33)

Nefilim (נְפִילִים) = “fallen ones”, giants; offspring of “the gods” and human women before the Flood.

Anak = founder of the Anakim (עֲנָקִים) = “necklace people”, giants.

There are three groups of people in the Torah who are tall enough to be considered giants: the Nefilim, the Anakim, and the Refa-im. The passage above confirms that the Nefilim and Anakim are giants.

At the southern border of Canaan, the Israelites refuse to go into a promised land that is full of giants. God declares they must wait until 40 years have passed since the exodus from Egypt, and all the men of that generation have died (except for Joshua, and Caleb, the two scouts in favor of  going).

Bashan and Cheshbon

Bashan and Cheshbon

In the 39th year, in the Torah portion Chukkat in Numbers, Moses leads the Israelites around the kingdoms of Edom and Moab, and they camp on the Arnon River.  Now all that lies between them and the Jordan River, the eastern border of Canaan, is the kingdom of Cheshbon.

Moses asks Sichon, king of Cheshbon, for permission to pass through his land on the king’s highway. Sichon not only refuses, but calls up his army and goes to battle. The Israelites win, and take over Cheshbon.

Then, instead of heading straight for the Jordan River, they take a long detour to the north, all the way to Edre-ii.

Then they turned their faces and they went up the Bashan road; and Og, king of the Bashan, went out to come against them to do battle, he and all his people, at Edre-ii. And God said to Moses: Do not be afraid of him, because into your hand I have given him, and all his people, and all his land; and you shall do to him as you did to Sichon, king of the Emori, who was living in Cheshbon. So they struck him down, and his sons and all his people, until there were no survivors left, and they took possession of his land. Then the Children of Israel pulled out, and they pitched camp on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:33- 22:1)

Og (עוֹג) = a proper name. (In Biblical Hebrew, the closest word is oog (עוּג) = bake a cake. In Phoenician, og = a supernatural being who attacks grave-desecrators.)

Why do the Israelites make this gratuitous detour to conquer an extra country—a country that is not even part of the “promised land” of Canaan?

According to most traditional commentary, King Og would have come south and attacked the Israelites anyway, as soon as they conquered Cheshbon. Some commentators have claimed that Og and Sichon were allies, others that they were both hired by the Canaanites to guard the Jordan River against invaders from the east. In the Talmud, Niddah 61a says Og and Sichon were brother giants who escaped the Flood in Noah’s day. (According to one old story, baby Sichon was a stowaway in the ark, and Og rode on the roof.)

Yet when the Israelites head up the Bashan road, they do not meet Og and his army until they get all the way to the fortress of Edre-ii, King Og’s second capital. Therefore, according to the Torah itself, Og is not on his way to attack the Israelites in Cheshbon. The Israelites’ detour to the Bashan is unnecessary.

So why do they do it—with Moses’ cooperation, and God’s consent and reassurance?

When Moses retells the story in this week’s Torah portion, Devarim (“Words”), his account begins the same way as in Numbers. But then he gives us new information about King Og.

For only Og, king of the Bashan, remained from the rest of the Refa-im. Hey! His bedstead was a bedstead of iron! Is it not in Rabbah of the Ammonim? Nine cubits is its length, and four cubits its width, according to the cubit of a man. (Deuteronomy 3:11)

Refa-im  (רְפָאִים) = an ancient people of huge size; the dead.

A bed that size indicates that Og is about ten to twelve feet tall (about 300 to 370 cm)—twice as tall as an ordinary man. No wonder God tells Moses not to be afraid!

After the Nefilim and the Anakim, the third group of extra-large people in the Torah is the Refa-im. We know the Refa-im are giants not only because Og is a Refa-i, but also because of another aside in this week’s Torah portion. Moses remembers that God told him not to provoke the Ammonites on the way to the Jordan, since God reserved their land for the descendants of Lot’s son Ammon. Then Moses adds that Ammon

…is also considered the land of Refa-im; Refa-im used to live there previously … a great people, and numerous and tall as the Anakim. God exterminated them before [the Ammonim], and displaced them, so they live in their place instead. (2:10-11)

This explanation ties together the two meanings of refa-im. The refa-im are giants; and they are also extinct, by the time of Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy; the Israelites kill the last Refa-ii, King Og. The refa-im are the dead.

When the scouts reported that Canaan was full of gigantic Anakim, the Israelite men of the older generation are afraid to cross the southern border of Canaan. Now a new generation is preparing to enter Canaan across a different border, the Jordan River at the eastern edge of Canaan. These young men need to prove to themselves that unlike their fathers, they are not afraid of giants.

Fortunately, from their point of view, there is a giant ruling the country just north of Cheshbon. The chance to attack King Og is irresistible.

Many of us today are haunted by giants from the past. When Jews say “Never again”, we are thinking of Nazi giants. Individuals also remember feeling like grasshoppers in the face of those who used to have power over them: an abusive parent, a menacing teacher, the draft board, “the system”. It takes many years for us to grow and develop our own power.

Eventually, we may believe we are strong enough and brave enough to prevent anyone from seizing power over us. But our memories still haunt us. How can we be sure we are now safe from giants?

I have even caught myself wishing a giant would attack me, just so I could prove to myself that I can stand up to it!

Some of us might be tempted to attack potential giants who are minding their own business—just  to prove we have to courage to do it. It takes even greater strength to refrain, and not turn onto the Bashan road.

I pray that everyone may find not only the strength to stand up to giants, but also the greater strength to refrain from provoking them. May we wait for an actual threat before acting. And may we use our newfound power and courage with wisdom and compassion, so we do not turn anyone into a grasshopper.

 

 

Vayeilekh: The End of Days

August 27, 2013 at 11:57 pm | Posted in Daniel, Isaiah 1, Vayeilekh | 3 Comments
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Will we win the human race, or self-destruct? Will there ever be a time without war, a time without evil deeds?

And what about my own nation, religion, or people? Will we ever learn how to get it right, and become a good model for the rest of the world?

I think people’s longing for answers to these questions creates a demand for prophecies. Even if we will not live to see it, we want to know the eventual outcome.

In the Hebrew Bible, if someone makes a prediction containing the idiom be-acharit hayamim, it is probably a prophecy inspired by God. This idiom appears 15 times in the Hebrew Bible, eight times in a speech attributed to God or an angel of God, and seven times in a speech by someone we know God has been talking to: Jacob, Bilam, Moses, Isaiah, Daniel.

be-acharit = at the end, in the aftermath, as an outcome, in the future. (From achar = after, afterwards.)

hayamim = (literally) the days; (as an idiom) a long period of time, an era.

be-acharit hayamim = (literally) “at the end of days”; (as an idiom) in the distant future, as a long-term outcome.

Most of the prophecies of be-acharit hayamim are about the future of the people of Israel, and describe events that happened up to and including the building of the second temple in Jerusalem in the 5th century B.C.E. (Prophecies about neighboring kingdoms foretell events in the same time period.)

One of Moses’ prophecies about the Israelites appears in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeilekh (“And he went”):

For I know that after my death, you will indeed go to ruin, and you will turn aside from the path that I commanded you, and you will call down evil on yourselves, be-acharit hayamim; for you will do what is evil in the eyes of God, offending [God] through the doings of your hands. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:29)

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses stops on that gloomy note. But earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses says what will happen afterward. After the Israelites have reverted to idol-worship and doing evil in God’s eyes of God, other nations will defeat them, and the remaining Israelites will suffer exile. But then the exiles will seek out God again.

When you are in distress and all these things have found you, be-acharit hayamim, then you will return to God, your god, and you will listen to Its voice. (Deuteronomy 4:30)

Two other prophecies about the future of the Israelites go on to foretell the future of all humankind. One prophecy of our ultimate future appears in the book of Isaiah and is quoted in Micah; the other comprises the last three chapters of the book of Daniel. The two predictions are mutually exclusive, and neither course of events has occurred yet.

Here is Isaiah’s prophecy:

And it will happen, be-acharit hayamim, the mountain of the house of God will stand firm at the head of the mountains, and be lifted above the hills; and all the nations will be a river. And many peoples will say: “Go, let us go up to the mountain of God, to the house of the god of Jacob, and [God] will teach us Its ways.” …and they will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation, and they will not learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:2-4)

This passage in the book of Isaiah is one basis of the majority opinion in Jewish commentary that the ultimate future of the world is the “messianic era”, a time when the whole world will live in peace, under the supervision of a descendant of King David. This leader will be called the moshiach = anointed one, but unlike the Christian messiah, he will be a righteous human being who is eventually anointed as a king. The world will continue with the same natural laws; the only difference is that all human beings will behave well, and follow the same god.

The last chapter of Daniel, however, is a precursor to the Christian book of Revelation, and hints at the end of the world and natural law. Daniel has a vision and faints; then a hand shakes him, and when Daniel stands up he realizes an angel is speaking to him. The angel says:

I come to make you understand what is summoning your people be-acharit hayamim, because there is another vision for the era. (Daniel 10:14)

The angel begins by foretelling that Persia will defeat Egypt in long war, but then will be overrun by other peoples from the northeast. This will put the Israelites in dire straits, but some of them will escape to safety.

The next sentence is mysterious: And many who are sleeping in the dusty earth will be awakened: these for everlasting life, and those for everlasting abhorrent disgrace. (Daniel 12:2).

Daniel asks the angel for clarification, but the angel refuses to explain. The angel ends the book by saying: But you, go on to the keitz; then you will rest, and then you will stand up to be assigned your fate at the keitz hayamim. (Daniel 12:13)

keitz = end, limit, boundary, farthest point.

keitz hayamim=the farthest limit of time.

Daniel’s angel seems to switch from talking about future events during the course of time (be-acharit hayamim), to the end of time for this world (keitz hayamim). This is the only occurrence in the Hebrew bible of the phrase keitz hayamim.

It may also be the first written prediction of a resurrection of the dead combined with a final judgment consigning people to heaven or hell. This idea did not get much traction in Judaism, at least not until many centuries later, when Jews were living in the diaspora among medieval Christians. But it must have influenced the Christian book of Revelation.

Isaiah’s prophecy about the future of humankind is optimistic that humans can change dramatically for the good. No supernatural miracles will be required for all the peoples of the world to adopt the same god (or more importantly, the same values), and stop making war.

The final prophecy in the book of Daniel is pessimistic, It assumes that good people from the past must be resurrected in order to lead people to knowledge and righteousness, and that even then, kings will continue to make war, lie, and magnify themselves, and the wicked will continue to act wickedly. Only a supernatural final judgment will resolve the problem.

Some people still hope for a messianic age, as in Isaiah’s prophecy. Some still anticipate the apocalypse hinted at in Daniel. Even without reference to a bible, people who ponder the future of the world can be divided into two camps. Some people believe the ethical level of humanity will continue to improve, rapidly enough so we will save our polluted earth as well as ourselves. Others believe we will never get our act together in time.

I prefer to hope for the future, even as I wonder what will happen to the world while we wait for the ignorant and the selfish to become enlightened.

Meanwhile, Moses’ two prophecies about the future of the Israelites can be applied to individual enlightenment. Now more than ever we find God in a connection with our individual souls or psyches. If we replace the word for “God” with the word “soul”, and recast the sentences for the present time, here is what we learn:

After the loss of your rebbe/guru/mentor, you will turn aside from the path, and as an outcome you will call down bad consequences on yourself; for you will do what your own soul knows is wrong, and you will offend your soul through your bad deeds. (based on Deuteronomy 31:29)

And when you are in distress and all these bad consequences have happened, as the long-term outcome of straying from the path, then you will return to your inner soul, and you will listen to its voice. (based on Deuteronomy 4:30)

I pray that enough people find enlightenment inside themselves, and dedicate their lives to doing no harm, and repairing what they can repair. I am ready to beat my spear into a pruning hook!

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