Nitzavim & Yom Kippur: Centripetal Force

September 9, 2015 at 9:32 pm | Posted in Nitzavim, Yom Kippur | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Moses reminds the Israelites at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“standing”), that everyone standing on the bank of the Jordan River made a covenant with God.  They will take over the land of Canaan, with God’s help, but eventually they will forsake the covenant, and God will drive them out again

When all these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse that I placed before you, vahasheivta to your heart among all the nations where God, your god, has driven you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:1) 

vahasheivta (וַהֲשֵׁבתָ) = then you will return, revert, recall.  (Vahasheivta is a form of the verb shuv (שׁוּב) = return, turn around, turn back, restore.)

Assyrian soldier drives prisoners into exile

Assyrian soldier
drives prisoners into exile

Why does Moses make such a long-term prediction? Most modern scholars date this section of Deuteronomy to the Babylonian exile, circa 598-520 B.C.E. At that time, Jews had already experienced two exiles from their land.  Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria) in 740 B.C.E. and deported many Samarians to distant parts of the Assyrian Empire. Then Babylonia conquered both Assyria and the southern kingdom of Israel (Judah), and conducted its own deportations from 605 to 588 B.C.E.

Thus “all these things” includes multiple conquests and deportations of Jews.  Jews living (and writing) during the Babylonian exile assumed that their all-powerful god had arranged the curses of subjugation and exile because too many Jews had abandoned their religion. Their own people’s misbehavior had triggered a a divine centrifugal force pulling them away from their center.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses predicts that after 150 years of deportations and exile, a centripetal force would pull them back in to the land of Israel and the presence of God.

Moses lays out five steps to a complete return. In these steps, the people and God take turns moving toward a reunion.

1)  The first step, “vahasheivta to your heart among all the nations where God, your god, has driven you,” is returning to your own heart (the seat of consciousness in Biblical Hebrew) while you still live in a foreign land. In the next verse Moses explains:

Veshavta ad God, your god; and you will listen to [God’s] voice, you and your children, just as I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul.  (Deuteronomy 30:2)

Veshavta (וְשַׁבְתָּ) = And you will return (also a form of shuv).

ad (עַד) = up to, as far as.

The people must reject the gods of the nations where they are living, and cultivate awareness of their own God by listening for the divine voice and paying full attention to it. They must go as far toward God as they can under the circumstances of their exile.

Ezra and exiles return (woodcut by Schnorr von Carolsfeld)

Ezra and exiles return to Jerusalem
(woodcut by Schnorr von Carolsfeld)

2)  Moses predicts that after they have turned their hearts back to God, God will take the second step and return the people to their former land.

God, your god, veshav your fortune and have compassion on you, veshav and gather you from among all the peoples where God, your god, has scattered you.  Even if you strayed to the end of the heavens, from there God, your god, will gather you, and from there [God] will take you back.  And God, your god, will bring you to the land that your forefathers possessed, and you will possess it, and [God] will do you good and make you more numerous than your forefathers. (Deuteronomy 30:3-5)

veshav (וְשָׁב) = will then restore, will then return (also a form of shuv).

3)  Once God has returned them to the land of Israel, the third step is for the Jews to love God.  Loving God is not easy, in this week’s Torah portion; God will have to help humans to do it.

And God, your god, will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your descendants, to love God, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you will live.  (Deuteronomy 30:6)

“So that you will live” means “so that you will thrive”—perhaps materially, or perhaps spiritually.

4)  The fourth step, Moses says, is up to the people:

And you, tashuv, and you will listen to the voice of God, and you will do all [God’s] commandments that I commanded you today. (Deuteronomy 30:8)

tashuv (תָשׁוּב) = you will return (also a form of the root verb shuv).

Once God returns the exiled Jews to their land, Moses predicts, they will become able to obey all God’s rules, as well as listening to God’s voice. Presumably, the people could have obeyed God’s ethical rules and family laws wherever they lived.  But in order to obey the agricultural laws, and in order to conduct religious worship through the system of sacrifices at the altar, they had to live in and around Jerusalem.

5)  The fifth step of return is up to God again:

And God, your god, will add to all the deeds of your hand: in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your soil, for good, because God yashuv to rejoice over you for good as [God] rejoiced over your forefathers—because you will listen to the voice of God, your god, to observe [God’s] commandments and decrees, the ones written in the book of this teaching—because tashuv to God, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 30:9)

yashuv (יָשׁוּב) = he/it will return.

Just as in the first step of return the exiled Jews, called “you”, will bring their hearts back to God, in the final step God will bring Its heart back to the people. The result of God’s rejoicing over the people will be abundant life for the humans, their animals, and their crops.

After this fifth step, both the Jews and God would have made a complete return to one another, in both attitude and practical action.  It sounds like the complete restoration of a marriage after the couple has been estranged and separated.

What if “you” in this week’s Torah portion meant anyone seeking a return from exile, a return to the center, a centripetal path?  The center you return to need not be a particular spot on the globe; it could be a spiritual place.

In the annual cycle of Torah readings, the portion Nitzavim falls either one or two weeks before Yom Kippur, the day Jews dedicate to repentance, forgiveness, teshuvah, and atonement.

teshuvah (תְּשׁוּבָה) = reply, return.  (Yes, it also comes from the root shuv.)

In the Torah and in the time of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, the method used to atone and reach teshuvah with God involved animal sacrifices and sprinkling blood in the Holy of Holies.  (See my post Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles.)  For the last two millennia, the teshuvah of Jews on Yom Kippur has been a matter of prayer, fasting, inner examination, and listening for God with all our heart and all our soul.

Although Yom Kippur is the official day of teshuvah for Jews, anyone might return, any day, to the inner divine spark—and open the way for the divine spark to return to us.

May all people who seek forgiveness, atonement, and reunion find a centripetal path to the holy center.

*

I wish all of my Jewish readers Shanah Tovah—a good new year—beginning this Sunday evening. I will be on my own centripetal path from Rosh Hashanah (the beginning of the year) through Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), Sukkot, and Simchat Torah, the night when Jews gather to roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning and read the opening of the book of Genesis/Bereishit.  After Simchat Torah (October 5 in 2105) I will dive into the book of Genesis again myself, even as my husband and I move to a new town. How could I resist writing another post on the beginning of creation?

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 & 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.

 

 

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