Haftarat Lekh-Lekha—Isaiah: Seeing the Invisible

November 9, 2016 at 6:59 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Lekh Lekha | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Lekh-Lekha (Genesis 12:1-17:27), and the haftarah is Isaiah 40:27-41:16.

What do you do when you once had a relationship with God, but now God seems to be absent?

The question is painful on this anniversary of Kristallnacht.  It is especially painful for those who believe in God as a benevolent parent or guardian, an external force looking after them and ensuring that, ultimately, good people will be rewarded, innocent people will have a chance, and everything will turn out for the best.

Siloam Tunnel under Jerusalem

Siloam Tunnel under Jerusalem

Then something happens: Job is afflicted, Jerusalem is razed, the Nazis torture and kill millions of innocents, girls are raped, the day’s news threatens future darkness.  And it no longer makes sense to trust in a benevolent external God.

What do you do when God seems absent?

Many psalms address this question, and so does the second half of the book of Isaiah, written about 50 years after the Babylonian army razed Jerusalem and deported its population.  The prophet we know only as “second Isaiah” tried to persuade the Israelites that their God was still alive and strong, and would soon rescue them. This week’s haftarah from second Isaiah opens:

            Why do you say, Jacob,

            And why do you assert, Israel:

            “My path is hidden from God,

            My claim slips away from my God.” (Isaiah 40:27)

The Israelites believe that God cannot see what is happening to them, and that their covenant with the God of Israel has slipped away.  They feel invisible to God.  Second Isaiah responds:

            Do you not know?

            Surely you have heard?

            God is the god of all time,

            Creator of the ends of the earth.

            Never yiyaf and never will It grow weary.

            No one can fathom the depth of Its tevunah. (Isaiah 40: 28)

yiyaf (יִהעַף) = will he/It become faint, will tire out.

tevunah (תְּבוּנָּה) = insight, intelligence, discernment, skill.

The prophet counters that the God of Israel is the god of all time and all space, whose powers never flag and who has infinite insight. Therefore the Israelites cannot be invisible to God.

Babylonian Gods of the Dead, bronze

Babylonian gods of the dead, bronze

They feel invisible to God only because God is invisible to them.  Living in Babylon, they see no evidence of their God. The city is full of statues, reliefs, and paintings of other gods, but not the God of Israel. Their own god let the Babylonians raze the temple in Jerusalem, and let them languish in exile for decades.  Has God run out of power?

Second Isaiah says not only that God never grows faint or weary, but adds that God is:

            Notein laya-eif koach,

            And [giver] of abundant energy to those without vigor. (Isaiah 40:29)

Notein (נוֹתֵן) = Giver, giving.

laya-eif (לַיָּעֵף) = to the faint, to the tired. (From the same root as yiyaf.)

koach (כֹּחַ) = strength, endurance, power, ability to carry on.

Notein laya-eif koach = Giver of strength to the faint and tired.

Thus the prophet counters that not only is God powerful, but God is the one who gives strength and energy to human beings fainting with weariness.

Once again, second Isaiah declares that reality is the reverse of what the Israelites think.  God is not worn out; they are.

*

When I read the first line of Isaiah 40:29 in Hebrew, I recognized it from the Jewish morning blessings.  Our tradition upon arising is to bless God in gratitude for a list of blessings that come from God to us, including sight when we open our eyes, clothing, the ability to walk, and so on.

Out of the 16 morning blessings in the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, 12 are dictated by the Babylonian Talmud tractate Berachot (“Blessings”). One of the blessings that is not from the Talmud is:

Blessed are You, God, our God, Ruler of everything, hanotein laya-eif koach.

hanotein (הַנּוֹתֵן) = the one who gives, the giver.

I often pronounce this blessing with extra enthusiasm, since I have chronically low energy, yet I am determined to make the most of my life.

Although some of second Isaiah’s exhortations no longer apply today, many of us still feel invisible to whatever runs the universe, as if “My path is hidden from God”.  Many of us still feel as if we’re drowning in a sea of exhaustion. And many of us still feel doomed by the agendas of other people, or by the results (such as global warming) of past human actions.

Second Isaiah says that our God is powerful  and always with us.  I conclude that our task is to learn how to sense God within, and draw inner strength from that sense. We can fathom the depth of our own insight. Then we might discover a core of divine strength within — and maybe even enough prophetic intuition to see our own paths.

May every one of us discover our own inner God, and draw strength from that connection to rise above our inevitable wounds and dedicate ourselves to kindness and patience.  And as we keep learning more about ourselves, may we keep learning more about other people — checking our assumptions, questioning hearsay, opening our minds to understand people who may seem like enemies until we get to know them.  May God strengthen us inside so we can cooperate to make life on this fragile earth as good as is possible now for all of us.

 

Haftarat Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser

August 30, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Posted in Hosea, Isaiah 2, Re-eih | 5 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Re-eih (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) and the haftarah is Isaiah 54:11-55:5).

Hosea was the first prophet to compare the covenant between God and the Israelites to a marriage contract. Preaching in the 8th century B.C.E., Hosea calls the northern kingdom of Israel a prostitute who takes other lovers, i.e. worships other gods, until her own God decides to take action.

            And I will bring her to account

            Over the days of the Baals

            When she turned offerings into smoke for them

            And she adorned herself with her rings and ornaments

            And she went after her lovers

wedding cropped                         —and Me, she forgot… (Hosea 2:15)

The books of first and second Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all employ Hosea’s metaphor of Israel (or the southern kingdom of Judah, or the city of Jerusalem) as God’s cherished wife who abandons her husband and commits adultery. In this week’s haftarah from second Isaiah (written circa 540-530 B.C.E., two centuries after the first half of the book of Isaiah), Jerusalem is once again compared to a wife, with God as her husband. But this time the story is different.

The haftarah begins with God promising to give Jerusalem jewelry.

             Wretched, stormy, she has not been comforted.

            Hey! I am setting down turquoise building-stones,

            And foundations of sapphires.

            And I will make her skylights of agate

            And her gates of fire-stone,

            And her whole enclosure of jewels. (Isaiah 54:11-12)

What interests me is the reason why God intends to shower Jerusalem with jewelry. Shortly before the opening of this week’s haftarah, second Isaiah declares:

            As a wife azuvah and troubled in spirit

            God has called to you:

            “Can one reject the wife of one’s youth?”

                        —said your God. (Isaiah 54:6)

azuvah (עֲזוּבָה) = forsaken, abandoned, left behind.

This prophetic passage never calls Jerusalem unfaithful, or at fault in any way as a wife. But it answers God’s rhetorical question by making it clear that God did, in fact, reject Jerusalem.

             For a little while azavtikh,

            But with a great rachamim I will gather you in.

            In a burst of anger I hid my face from you a while,

            But with everlasting loyalty

            Richamtikh

                           —said your redeemer, God. (Isaiah 54:7-8)

azavtikh (עֲזַבתִּיךְ) = I forsook you, I abandoned you.

rachamim (רַחֲמִים) = compassion, feeling of love, mercy.

richamtikh (רִחַמְתִּיךְ) = I will feel compassion and/or love for you.

In other words, God abandoned Jerusalem and opened the door for the Babylonian army to destroy her (see my post Haftarah for Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship). According to the book of Jeremiah, God did it because Jerusalem was unfaithful and worshiped other gods. But now, in second Isaiah, God has recovered from this particular fit of temper, and is carried away with a different emotion, a compassionate love for “his” wife.

An abusive husband who beats his wife to discharge his anger, and then feels a desire to reclaim her, usually promises her that he will never do it again. In this poetic passage, God continues:

             [Like] the waters of Noah this is to me!

            I swore that the waters of Noah would not cross

            Over the earth again.

            Thus I swear

            Against becoming angry over you and against rebuking you!

            For the mountains may give way

            And the hills may totter,

            But My loyalty to you shall never give way

            And the covenant of My peace shall never change!

                        —said merachameich, God. (Isaiah 54:9-10)

merachameich (מְרַחֲמֵךְ) = your compassionate one, your one full of loving feelings.

After promising his wife he will never beat her again, what does the standard abusive husband do next? Give her jewelry, of course.

And so we step into this week’s haftarah, in which Jerusalem is wretched—in the sense of being miserable, and “stormy”—full conflicting feelings. And “she has not been comforted”—God’s declaration of everlasting love and promise never to hurt her again is not enough for her to forgive God and take “him” back.

So God promises to give Jerusalem turquoises and sapphires, agates and fire-stones, and jewels all around.

Perhaps even a lavish gift of jewelry is not enough for the battered wife this time, because God goes on in this haftarah to promise Jerusalem children who will all live in peace, and her own personal safety from oppression and ruin. God even goes so far as to say:

            Hey! Certainly no one will attack

            Without My consent.

            Whoever hurts you

             Will fall because of you. (Isaiah 54:15)

I wonder if the poet of second Isaiah was aware of the irony?

What does this thinly-disguised allegory of God as the abusive husband and Jerusalem as the battered wife mean?

In the patriarchal culture reflected in the Hebrew Bible, wives were not allowed to divorce their husbands. An actual battered wife had no recourse until Talmudic times. But members of one religion could convert to another.

Second Isaiah addresses the families that the Babylonian army deported from Jerusalem several decades before, when they razed the city. (See my post Haftarah for Eikev—Isaiah: Abandonment or Yearning?)

Now the exiles are living comfortably enough in Babylon, and they hesitate to trust their old god, who let the Babylonian army destroy Jerusalem in the first place.

Yes, the Persian king Cyrus is rapidly taking over the Babylonian empire, and Cyrus has a policy of letting native populations return to their old homes and worship their old gods. But the exiles from Jerusalem are reluctant to go. Like a battered wife, they feel safer in the foreign city of Babylon than they do at home. They are tempted to abandon God for good and assimilate.

Second Isaiah was wise enough to recognize and acknowledge the deepest fear of these exiles who assumed that God was anthropomorphic, and God’s relationship with the Israelites was like a marriage. The exiles knew that the people of Jerusalem were guilty of adultery with other gods. But I bet that subconsciously they also suspected that the husband, God, had an anger management problem and had abused Jerusalem beyond bearing.

A later passage even states that the Israelites would not have strayed if only God had kept “his” temper:

             You attacked one who would gladly be righteous

            And remember You in Your ways.

            But You, You became angry, and so we offended. (Isaiah 64:4)

Throughout the Bible, the old, anthropomorphic God gets carried away by “his” temper. This God is also portrayed as one of many gods, each in charge of its own country or ethnic group, though the God of Israel is the most powerful. This the God who acts like an abusive husband to the Israelites.

Second Isaiah switches back and forth between the old, anthropomorphic God and a new idea of God as vast, remote, and singular. In this new concept, there is only one god, who creates and runs the entire universe.

Shortly after the end of this week’s haftarah, the poet reminds us that God is not really like a human being after all:

            My thoughts are not your thoughts,

            And your ways are not my ways

                        —declares God. (Isaiah 55:8)

Elsewhere, second Isaiah insists there are no other gods, as in this bold theological statement:

             I am God and there is no other.

            The shaper of light and creator of darkness,

            The maker of peace and the creator of evil:

            I, God, do all of these. (Isaiah 45:6-7)

Today the concept of God in second Isaiah is still at odds with the popular notion of an anthropomorphic God. While the exiles in Babylon may have feared that their God was temperamental and abusive—a characterization supported by numerous Biblical passages—many religious people today believe in an anthropomorphic God who loves each individual the way a parent loves a child. Then they have to explain why their parental God kills so many young and innocent children.

I think the Jews in Babylon were more realistic about what an anthropomorphic god means. And I think second Isaiah was inspired with a far more interesting idea of what God is.

Haftarat Va-etchannan—Isaiah: Who Is Calling?

August 18, 2016 at 3:05 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Va-etchannan | 2 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Va-Etchannan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11) and the haftarah is Isaiah 40:1-26.

Deportation from Jerusalem

Deportation from Jerusalem

Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, razed its temple, and deported all its leading citizens to Babylonia in 597-596 B.C.E. Then each family in exile faced a decision.

Should they give up on their own religion, their own identity, and assimilate? Or should they have faith that their god had the power and the desire to eventually return them to their own land?

           Nachamu, nachamu My people!

            Says your god. (Isaiah 40:1)

nachamu (נַחַמוּ) = Comfort! Reassure! (This imperative verb has the plural suffix u (וּ), meaning the speaker—God—is urging more than one person—or divine being—to reassure God’s people.)

This call for reassurance (and enlightenment) opens this week’s haftarah and what is really the second book of Isaiah.

(Isaiah 1-39, considered the first book of Isaiah, is set in the 8th century B.C.E., and warns that God will send an army against the people of Jerusalem if they do not reform. (See my post last week, Haftarah for Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship.) The rest of Isaiah, chapters 40-66, is set in the 6th century B.C.E., near the end of the Babylonian exile and shortly before the Persian emperor Cyrus II took Babylon in 539 B.C.E. , This second book of Isaiah shares a new vision of God: that God is both the protector of the Israelites and the only god in the universe, powerful beyond imagining.)

The haftarah at the beginning of the second book of Isaiah promises that God has forgiven the exiles in Babylonia and will soon gather them home.

God continues:

            Speak (dabru) to the heart of Jerusalem

            And call out (kire-u) to her

            That she has worked off her debt,

            That her wrongdoing has been accepted,

            That she has received from the hand of God

            Double the amount of all her sins. (Isaiah 40:2)

The Hebrew words for both “Speak!” and “Call out!” above also have the plural suffix u (וּ). But who is God addressing? As the poem continues, it seems that God is giving orders to two disembodied voices.

           Isaiah 40 3A kol is calling out:

           Clear (panu) in the wilderness

           A path for God!

           Level (yasheru) in the desert

           A highway for our god! (Isaiah 40:3)

kol (קוֹל) = voice; sound; speech.

            And the glory of God shall be revealed

            And all flesh shall see (ra-u) it together… (Isaiah 40:5)

Again, the verbs are in the plural, with the suffix u (וּ). The kol is not addressing a work crew; it seems to be urging multiple persons to open the minds of the Jerusalemites in Babylon, so they can experience God.

           …A[nother] kol says: Call out! (kera!)

           And he says: What shall I call out? (Isaiah 40:6)

The second kol uses the singular form, commanding one unidentified male person to call out. But “he” seems to be depressed about the transience of human life, and eight lines later, the kol recruits a second person:

            Climb up (aliy) on a high mountain,

            Mevaseret of Zion!

            Lift up (harimiy) your voice with strength,

            Mevaseret of Jerusalem!

            Lift up (harimiy), do not be afraid (tiyra-iy)!

            Say (imriy) to the cities of Judah:

            Here is your god! (Isaiah 40:9)

mevaseret (מְבַשֶֹּרֶת) = herald, bringer of news. (Mevaseret is the feminine form of mevaseir (מְבַשֵֹּר) = a (male) herald.)

The voice addresses the mevaseret using imperative verbs with a singular feminine suffix, iy (יִ), telling her to speak so as to lift the spirits and hopes of the Jewish exiles.

As Sheryl Noson-Blank points out in The Women’s Haftarah Commentary, early commentators could not imagine the mevaseret as a woman; Targum Yonatan (~50 B.C.E.) translated mevaseret into Aramaic as plural male prophets, while David Kimchi (1160-1235 C.E.) decided the mevaseret was the land of Zion herself.

The second book of Isaiah never tells us the identity of the man or the woman recruited by the kol. Maybe they are the prophet-poets who wrote the book. Or maybe they represent all inspired men and women among the exiles in Babylon.

Nor does the book clarify what the two voices are. The first statement, that the people of Jerusalem have been sufficiently punished and should now be reassured that God will redeem them, is definitely attributed to God.

But how will God’s order be achieved? The first kol says all impediments to beholding God must be cleared away. The second kol says the news must be called out by heralds, man and woman.

What are these voices that interpret God’s original thought?

*

Some commentators view the voices as members of a divine council. In other religions of the ancient Near East, the gods assembled under the chairmanship of the chief god to discuss earthly affairs. The Hebrew Bible also mentions a divine council or assembly, whose members are variously described as:

           elohim (אֱלֺֹהִים) = gods; a god with various aspects; God.

           beney ha-elohim (בְּנֵי־הָאֱלֹהִים) = offspring of the gods; offspring of God.

           kedoshim (ֹקְדֹשִׁים) = holy ones, holy places.

           ruchot (רוּחוֹת) = spirits, winds, motivating forces.

In Psalm 82 the members of God’s assembly are called simply elohim, gods.

           God takes a stand in the assembly of El,

           Among elohim he pronounces judgment. (Psalm 82:1)

El is the high god in Canaanite mythology, equated with the God of Israel in this psalm.  God/El criticizes the elohim in God’s assembly for ignorantly favoring the wicked rather than the poor in their judgments, and decrees that henceforth these lesser gods will die like human beings.

Psalm 89 calls the members of the divine assembly beney elohim (“offspring of gods” or “offspring of God”) and kedoshim (“holy ones”), but they still appear to be lesser gods:

           Because who in the sky can measure up to God,

           Can compare to God, among beney elohim?

           El is greatly dreaded in the council of kedoshim

           And held in awe above everyone around Him. (Psalm 89:7-8)

In the book of Genesis, beney ha-elohim (offspring of “the gods” or God) resemble the gods in Greek myths.

The beney ha-elohim saw that the daughters of humankind were good, and they took wives for themselves from all that they chose. …when the beney ha-elohim came into the daughters of humankind, they bore children to them, heroes that were famous forever. (Genesis 6:2, 6:4)

Many scholars consider this fragment a piece of an ancient Canaanite text that was included in Genesis as a result of clumsy editing. However, the book of Job also refers to beney ha-elohim in its first two chapters.

One day the beney ha-elohim came to stand before God, and even the satan came among them. (Job 1:6)

satan (שָׂטָן) = accuser, adversary, one who feels animosity.

The satan persuades God to test Job to find out if he serves God only because he is fortunate, and God commissions this particular “offspring of the gods” to kill Job’s children and destroy his wealth. The heavenly council meets again, and the satan persuades God to commission him to afflict Job with diseases. Then most of the book is a long discussion of the problem of how God can be omnipotent and good, yet permit evil in the world.

Is the divine council of beney ha-elohim, including God’s satan, merely an engaging way of setting up the problem by using a Canaanite mythological theme? Or do the beney ha-elohim represent different aspects of the mind of God, like the different and sometimes conflicting inclinations in each human mind?

In the first book of Kings, the prophet Mikhayehu describes his vision of a divine council whose members appear to include stars, which are often called “the army of the heavens” in the Bible.

I saw God sitting on His throne, and all the army of the heavens was standing in attendance on Him to His right and to His left. And God said: “Who will fool Ahab so he will go up and fall at Ramot of Gilad?” And this one said thus, and this one said thus. Then the ruach went and stood before God and said: “I, I will fool him.” And God said to him: “How?”  And he said: “I will go and be a ruach of falsehood in the mouth of all his prophets.” (1 Kings 22:19-22)

ruach (רוּחַ) = spirit, wind, or motivating psychological force (singular of ruchot).

One or more ruchot are also at the council meeting, advising God. Just as God commissions the satan to carry out his suggestion about testing Job, in the first book of Kings God commissions the ruach to carry out his suggestion for bringing down Ahab. Elsewhere in the Bible, God sends a ruach elohim (a spirit of God) or a ruach hakodesh (a holy spirit) to individuals to overwhelm them with a mood or inspire them to become prophets. Here, the ruach that volunteers to makes Ahab’s prophets speak falsehoods is an aspect of God.

*

Back to this week’s haftarah in second Isaiah. I think the “voices” that respond to God’s initial order to nachamu, nachamu the people of Israel are like a divine council—but it is a council consisting of different aspects of one God. As God considers how to reassure the exiled Israelites, ideas arise, each with its own kol or voice.

The unnamed man and the mevaseret hear these divine voices inside their own heads, and they must respond.

Perhaps their response is the second book of Isaiah.

Haftarat Bemidbar—Hosea: Speaking in Wilderness

June 6, 2016 at 9:25 pm | Posted in Bemidbar, Hosea | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion (Numbers 1:1-4:20) has the same name as the book it begins, Bemidbar. The haftarah is Hosea 2:1-22.

The Hebrew name of each of the first five books of the Bible is the first significant word in the first sentence of the book. This week Jews begin studying the book called “Numbers” in English, which begins:

Mount Sinai: one possible location

Mount Sinai: one possible location

God vayedabeir to Moses bemidbar of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first [day] of the second month, in the second year of their exodus from the land of Egypt. (Numbers/Bemidbar 1:1)

vayedabeir (וַיְדַבֵּר) = (and) he/it spoke.

bemidbar (בְּמִדְבָּר) = be- (בְּ) = in a + midbar (מִדְבָּר) = wilderness; uncultivated and/or uninhabited land.

Although bemidbar by itself means “in a wilderness”, when it is followed by a definite place-name, such as “Sinai”, a better translation is “in the wilderness of Sinai”. A common custom today is to call the book of Numbers Bamidbar (בַּמִדְבָּר), the word for “in the wilderness’ if it is not immediately followed by a place-name. But some commentators, myself included, prefer to take the name Bemidbar directly from the text.

A more important question is whether midbar comes from the same root as vayedabeir. The modern scholarly consensus is that there are at least two root words with the letters דבר, one that has to do with driving away or going behind, and one that has to do with speech, words, and things. Midbar comes from the first root, and could be translated as “back-country”. Vayedabeir comes from the second root, and is a form of the verb dibeir =speak.

But that does not stop a poetic prophet from using the word midbar both to indicate wilderness and to allude to a medabeir (מְדַבֵּר) = “one who speaks, speaker”.

Hosea’s prophesies were composed in the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E.. Like the later prophets, Hosea keeps warning the people of Israel to stop being unfaithful to God by worshiping other gods. Hosea compares Israel to a woman who abandons her first husband and prostitutes herself with other men. In this week’s haftarah, Hosea passes on God’s warning that Israel must stop soliciting.

drawing by Rembrandt

drawing by Rembrandt

Or else I will strip her naked,

Bare as the day of her birth,

And I will make her like the midbar

And render her like a waterless land,

And I will let her die of thirst. (Hosea 2:5)

God is threatening not merely to humiliate Israel like a women stripped naked in public, but also to turn the cultivated and inhabited land of Israel into the worst kind of wilderness: an empty desert. This is the midbar that the children of Israel feared when they crossed the wilderness with Moses, and panicked three times when there was no water: twice in the book of Exodus/Shemot, and once in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar:

There was no water for the community, and they congregated against Moses and against Aaron…and they said…Why did you bring the congregation of God to this midbar to die here, us and our livestock? (Numbers 20:2-4)

Their complaint was false on at least three counts: it was God who led the people into the wilderness; God led them from Mount Sinai straight to the border of their promised land, but they refused to cross, so it was their fault that God made them stay in the wilderness for 40 years; and finally, they had no reason to believe that God, who provided water and food throughout their wilderness journey, would fail to do so again.

Apparently the inhabitants of Israel in Hosea’s time were just as full of false beliefs. In this week’s haftarah, Israel (the unfaithful wife) says her other gods (her illicit lovers) gave her vines and fig trees; she does not recognize her crops as a gift from her own God.

God promises to turn Israel into a midbar to punish her. But then God will take her back.

Indeed, here I am, seducing her.

And I will lead her through the midbar,

Vedibarti to her heart. (Hosea 2:16)

vedibarti (וְדִבַּרְתִּי) = and I will speak. (From the same root as dibeir.)

Moses at the Burning Bush by Rembrandt

Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt

Now we see the midbar in a different light, as the place where God speaks to the Israelites. God first spoke to Moses out of the burning bush in the midbar of Sinai.

And Moses…led the flock to the back of the midbar, and he came to the mountain of the God… (Exodus/Shemot 3:1)

There God commissioned Moses to serve as God’s prophet in Egypt. After the Israelite slaves were freed, God’s pillar of cloud and fire led them back to the midbar of Sinai.

They journeyed from Refidim and they entered Midbar Sinai and they camped bamidbar, and Israel camped there in front of the mountain. And Moses went up to God… (Exodus 19:2-3)

The Israelites stayed in the midbar of Sinai for two years, while God spoke the Ten Commandments, made a covenant, and gave Moses instructions for the sanctuary and the duties of priests and the various holiday observances. That was the midbar where God was a medabeir, one who speaks.

The book of Hosea says that after God has punished Israel for being unfaithful and the land is reduced to a midbar, God will speak to Israel again—but this time, instead of repeating the rules and instructions for the religion, God will “speak to her heart”, “seducing” her to return to God.

vineyard 1The haftarah continues:

And I will give her vineyards from there,

And the valley of disturbance for a doorway of hope.

And she will answer there as in the days of her youth,

As the day she came up from the land of Egypt. (Hosea 2:17)

God will speak to Israel’s heart, and Israel will answer as in the days when the Israelites lived in the wilderness. The wild land will grow vineyards, and the wild heart will grow hope.

*

The midbar is the place of insecurity, where no wells are dug and no crops planted. But the midbar is also the place where people can hear the medabeir: God speaking.

Does God speak in your heart when you are well-clothed, well-fed, and secure? Or is that when you attribute your good fortune to other gods, such as your own cleverness or hard work?

Are you more likely to hear God speaking in your heart when you are in a place of insecurity?

Haftarat Bechukkotai—Jeremiah: Trust Me

June 2, 2016 at 10:40 am | Posted in Bechukkotai, Jeremiah | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Bechukkotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 16:19-17:14.

The God depicted in the Torah has sudden fits of anger and smites large groups of people, the innocent along with the guilty. No wonder so many people in the books of Exodus and Numbers do not trust this god to lead them safely to a new land! Yet the prophets from Moses on insist that trusting God—and following God’s rules—will be rewarded.

build houses and plant vineyards 2For example, this week’s Torah portion, Behukkotai  (“By My decrees”) opens with this divine promise:

If you go by My decrees, and My commands you observe, and you do them … Then [your] threshing will overtake [your] grape harvest, and [your] grape harvest will overtake your sowing, and you will eat your bread to satiation, and you will rest labetach in your land. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3, 5)

labetach (לָבֶטַח) = in security, with a feeling of safety. (From the root verb batach (בּטח) = trust, rely on, feel safe.)

The next verse shows that the feeling of safety will be justified:

And I will put peace in the land, and you will life down and nothing will frighten you, and I will keep bad beasts from the land, and a sword will not cross your land. (Leviticus 26:6)

This promise is never fulfilled in the Bible. Many of its books point out that the Israelites keep veering off the right path, disobeying the rules and worshiping other gods. It is their fault, not God’s, that they are never safe in their land.

In this model, God judges the people as a group; an individual, however virtuous, suffers the fate of his whole city or country. Similarly, in the book of Jeremiah God sends the Babylonians to conquer Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, because its people are acting immorally and worshiping other gods.

First Temple-2Some Jerusalemites think God will keep them safe because they have an impressive Temple stocked with priests. But the prophet Jeremiah warns:

Do not tivtechu in yourselves, in words of deception, saying: The temple of God, the temple of God, the temple of God is these [buildings]. (Jeremiah 7:4)

tivtechu (תִּבְטְחוּ) = you trust.  (Also from the root batach.)

The king of Judah and his officials think they can rely (batach) on fortifications, or stored-up wealth, or a rescue by the Egyptian army, or the words of prophets who contradict Jeremiah.

This week’s haftarah includes a poem on the futility of relying on other human beings, and the rewards of relying only on God.

Thus said God:

Cursed is the man yivtach in humankind

And makes flesh his strength;

He turns away his mind from God.

He is like a bare tree in the desert valley…

Blessed is the man yivtach in God;

And God is mivtacho.

Fruit (peaches)He is like a tree planted by water:

By a stream it sends forth its roots,

And it does not notice when summer heat comes,

And its leaves are luxuriant;

In a year without rain it does not worry,

And it does not stop making fruit. (Jeremiah 17:5-8)

yivtach (יְבְטַח) = who trusts, who relies on, who feels safe. (Also from the root batach.)

mivtacho (מִבְטַחוֹ) = what he trusts. (Also from the root batach.)

This poem (like psalms 8, 31, 52, and 56) takes a personal view of trusting God, and promises that individuals who rely on God are rewarded with long and fruitful lives—perhaps even if most of their people reject God. Since the word batach covers feelings as well as deeds, Jeremiah is promising a reward for individuals who have the right feelings about God. (See my earlier post, Bechukkotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward.)

Later in the book of Jeremiah we get an example of an individual who has the batach feeling about God. Just before the Babylonian army breaches the walls of Jerusalem, God tells Jeremiah to give a message to a Kushite servant of the king called Eved-Melekh, “servant of the king”.

bitachonGo and say to Eved-Melekh the Kushi: Thus said God of Armies, the god of Israel: … I will certainly save you, and you will not fall by the sword, and you will keep your life—because batachta in me, declares God. (Jeremiah 39:16, 18)

Kushi (כּוּשִׁי) = Kushite; a dark-skinned person from Kush, the land south of Egypt (now Ethiopia), or a descendant of a Kishite.

batachta (בָּטַחְתָּ) = you trusted, you felt safe.

In what way did the Kushi trust in God?

The year before, four officials of the king’s court in Jerusalem heard Jeremiah tell the people that God is giving the city to the Babylonian army, and whoever stays will die, but whoever defects to the Babylonians will live.

And the officials said to the king: Let this man be killed, please, because he is weakening the hands [morale] of the remaining soldiers in the city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking this way…And King Zedekiah said: Hey, he is in your hands, because the king can do nothing to oppose you. (Jeremiah 38:4-5)

The king feels as though he has to act as if he trusts his officials; he does not dare oppose them, even though he knows Jeremiah is a true prophet of God.

Then they took Jeremiah and they threw him down into the pit of Malkiyahu, son of the king, which was in the court of the guard, and they sent Jeremiah to his death. But Eved-Melekh the Kushi, a eunuch in the palace of the king, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the pit. And the king was sitting in the Gate of Benjamin. So Eved-Melekh went out from the palace of the king, and to spoke to the king, saying: My lord the king, these men have done evil in all they did to Jeremiah the prophet! They threw him down into the pit, and he will die below from starvation…

Jeremiah and Kushi and pitThe Kushi, a palace eunuch, might hesitate to speak against four powerful court officials. He might also hesitate to interrupt the king when he is dispensing justice in the city gate. But Eved-Melekh pleads for Jeremiah’s life without worrying about his own fate. And King Zedekiah seems relieved to have someone interrupt him and speak on Jeremiah’s behalf.

Then the king commanded Eved-Melekh the Kushi, saying: Take from here three men and raise Jeremiah the prophet from the pit before he dies. (Jeremiah 39:10)

Eved-Melekh saves Jeremiah’s life, and the prophet returns to the regular prison, where he gets bread and water until the Babylonian soldiers destroy Jerusalem about a year later. Then the Babylonians free Jeremiah and send him to another town in Judah. The four court officials do not take revenge on the Kushi eunuch, and we can assume that when the Babylonian general decides which Jerusalemites will die, which will be deported to Babylon, and which will be moved to another town in Judah, the Kushi is among those whose life is spared.

Eved-Melekh’s feeling of trust in God lets him do the right thing and rescue God’s prophet at the risk of his own life. This palace servant is especially remarkable because he is an immigrant from another country—who nevertheless serves the God of Israel better than Judah’s native officials and king do.

The Torah portion in Leviticus says that when all the people follow God’s rules, then God will reward them with real security, and as a result they will feel safe (labetach) in their land. But not even Moses can get all the people to follow God’s rules.

The haftarah from Jeremiah says that when individuals feel safe (yivtach) with God, then they are motivated to do good deeds, and as a result God rewards them with life and fruitfulness.

The book of Jeremiah does not say whether the eunuch Kushi becomes fruitful in some way other than having children. But God does reward him with life.

In my own life, I admit, I rarely feel safe enough to speak out in threatening situations or to oppose the plans of the powerful. But when I actually do, I feel filled with a spirit that I did not know I had, perhaps a divine spirit. And that grounded elation is its own reward, as I move forward with new courage and good deeds, fruitful and alive.

Haftarat Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies

January 12, 2016 at 4:05 pm | Posted in Bo, Ezekiel, Jeremiah | 8 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16), and the haftarah is Jeremiah 46:13-28.
The Death of the First Born by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. 1872

The Death of the First Born, by Lawrence Alma Tadema, 1872

In the book of Exodus, God inflicts ten miraculous plagues on Egypt to punish the pharaoh for refusing to let the Israelite slaves go. Pharaoh finally sets the Israelites free in this week’s Torah portion, Bo—but only after the final miracle: the death of the firstborn sons.

In this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah predicts that God will once again punish the pharaoh of Egypt for mistreating the Israelites.  This time God will not create miracles, but instead will use another empire’s army to achieve the goal.

The politics

There were three kinds of nations in the Near East during the era of 800-500 B.C.E.: superpowers that ran empires (Neo-Assyrian, Egyptian, and Neo-Babylonian); countries that were directly controlled by a superpower; and semi-independent vassal states that paid tribute to a superpower in exchange for protection against outside attacks. Being a vassal state was the best hope for a small country like Judah, the only remaining Israelite kingdom after the northern kingdom of Israel was swallowed by the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 732 B.C.E.

Judah sent tribute to Assyria for about a century, except for a brief and doomed rebellion in 705-701 B.C.E. The Neo-Assyrian Empire expanded southwest to include northern Egypt, and southeast to the Persian Gulf.

Pharaoh Psamtik I

Pharaoh Psamtik I unites Egypt

But no empire lasts forever. Psamtik, the son of one of Assyria’s puppet governors in northern Egypt, hired Greek mercenaries to drive out the Assyrian occupiers. By 654 B.C.E. he was pharaoh over a united Egypt. He went on to conquer the western half of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and by 630 B.C.E. King Josiah of Judah had become a vassal of Pharaoh Psamtik.

Next Assyria was assailed from the southeast. In 626 B.C.E. Babylon revolted under its new king, Narbopolassar. A shrunken Assyria allied itself with Egypt, and Psamtik’s son, Pharaoh Nekho II, sent his armies north to fight Narbopolassar’s son, Nebuchadnezzar II.

It was a slow march, interrupted by rebellions of vassal states along the way. King Josiah took his own army to Megiddo to challenge the Egyptians in 609 B.C.E., but the Egyptians trounced the Israelites, and Pharaoh Nekho killed Josiah.

The armies of Egypt and Babylon met in 605 B.C.E. at Carchemish, about 2,000 miles north of Jerusalem (on the present border between Turkey and Syria). The Egyptian army was crushed, and its surviving soldiers fled south.

According to Jeremiah, Egypt did not lose the battle because of any deficiency of its own; Egypt lost because the God of Israel made it happen.

Why have your strong ones been cut down?

They did not stand

Because God shoved them down. (Jeremiah 46:15)

map Neo-Babylonian Empire BAfter the battle at Carchemish, all of Egypt’s vassal states became vassals of Babylonia, and Assyria disappeared. The prophet Jeremiah repeatedly warned the new king of Judah, Yehoyakhim, to stay out of trouble and keep sending tribute to King Nebuchadnezzar.

But Yehoyakhim revolted against Babylonia in 599 B.C.E. and sent Judah’s tribute to Pharaoh Nekho II (the same pharaoh who had killed his father, Josiah).

Nebuchadnezzar retaliated by besieging Jerusalem. After a year and a half the city fell and Judah came under direct control of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel criticized Egypt for failing to send troops to defend its new vassal Judah.

Judah’s king, the prophet Ezekiel, and other leading citizens were deported to Babylon. Jeremiah stayed behind in the ruins of Jerusalem until some of his fellow countrymen took him into exile in Egypt.

The prophecy

Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied that because Egypt had failed keep its promise to help Judah, God would send an army from the north to destroy Egypt.  Both prophets said it would be King Nebuchadnezzar’s army, but in actual history, Nebuchadnezzar failed in his 568 B.C.E. attempt to conquer Egypt. The country remained independent until the Persians took it—from the north—in 526 B.C.E.

Babylonian soldiers

Babylonian soldiers

In Ezekiel’s prophecy, God would arrange for Nebuchadnezzar to devastate Egypt not just to punish it, but so that the pharaoh would know who God is. (See last week’s post, Va-eira—Ezekiel: How to Know God.)

Jeremiah’s prophecy also includes more than punishment. He uses a name for God that never appears in Ezekiel:

As I live, declares the King—YHVH [of] Tzevaot is His name—

As Tabor is among the mountains

And Carmel is by the sea,

It will come!

Prepare for yourself the gear of exile…

For Nof will become a horror,

A desolation without inhabitants.

A heifer with a beautiful mouth is Egypt;

A stinging fly from the north is coming, coming! (Jeremiah 46:18-20)

YHVH = the four-letter personal name of God, probably related to the Hebrew verb “to be”.

Tzevaot (צְבָאוֹת) = armies; companies of soldiers. (Singular tzava, צָבָא. The Bible also uses the word metaphorically for armies of stars.  See my post Bemidbar: Two Kinds of Troops.)

The god of Israel is never called YHVH [of] Tzevaot in the Bible until the first book of Samuel, which modern scholars date to 630–540 BCE—the same period as the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah uses this term 70 times!

Why does Jeremiah emphasize that YHWH, the god of existence itself, is the god of armies?

Jeremiah lived through at least 60 years of wars and reversals of fortune in the Near East, 60 years in which Judah was always a pawn, unable to take charge of its own destiny.

The common belief in the ancient Near East was that each country had its own god. When that god was happy with the people of his country, he made their army succeed. When the god was unhappy with them, their army failed.

The Bible also attributes many failures of Israelite armies to Israelite rejections of God. But why were God’s people suffering so many defeats, if their god was the most powerful?

Jeremiah was inspired to preach that the God of Israel is unlike the gods of other nations. Israel’s god, the supreme God of all existence, controls all the armies in the world. God decides which armies will win and which will lose, even when Israelites are not involved in the battle.

For Jeremiah, the prophetic insight that God rules all armies made the wars of his own lifetime meaningful. God had a master plan. Egypt would be humbled. Eventually the Babylonians would also be defeated. And in the long run, the Israelites would outlast all other peoples.

You must not fear,

My servant Jacob

—declares YHWH—

For I am with you.

For I will make an end of all the nations

Among which I have banished you,

But with you I will not make an end. (Jeremiah 46:28)

Personally, I shrink inside when I sing a prayer that includes the term YHVH Tzevaot. If God is the ruler of all armies, then God is responsible for the carnage and suffering of all wars—which are apparently necessary for God’s master plan.

If God were the Master Planner, controlling the actions of mutable human beings, surely God could come up with a better plan than this. If human beings hold ultimate responsibility for wars, then God is not the Master Planner, not the God of Armies.

Sorry, Jeremiah.

Hafarat Va-eira—Ezekiel: How to Know God

January 3, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Posted in Ezekiel, Va-eira | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Va-eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35), and the haftarah is Ezekiel 28:25-29:21.

Apparently God really wants Egypt to know who God is. The god of Israel asks the prophet Moses to tell Pharaoh “and you will know that I am God” three times in this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira. And God tells the prophet Ezekiel how God will bring down the Egyptians “and they will know that I am God” four times in this week’s haftarah.

Plague of Blood, as depicted in 14th century CE

Plague of Blood, as depicted in 14th century CE

Before God inflicts the first of ten terrible miracles on Egypt, God instructs Moses to meet Pharaoh on the shore of the Nile and warn him that the water will turn into blood.

And you shall say to him: YHVH, the god of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, ‘Let My people go and they shall serve Me in the wilderness’, but hey—you did not listen before now. Thus says YHVH: ‘By this teida that ani YHVH’. (Exodus 7:16-17)

YHVH = the Tetragrammaton or four-letter personal name of God that Jews consider most sacred. The name appears to be a form of havah  or hayah (הוה or היה) the root of the verb “to be”, “to happen”, or “to become”, but it is a form that does not fit any Hebrew verb conjugations.

teida (תֵּדַע) = you will know, experience, be acquainted with, recognize, realize, have intercourse with.

ani (אֲנִי) = I [am].

Pharaoh hardens his heart during the seven days of bloody water, claiming it is not a divine miracle, so he does not experience or recognize the god of Israel.

God’s goal of being known by Pharaoh reappears when Moses talks about the second miracle, the plague of frogs:

… so that teida that there is none like YHVH our god. (Exodus 8:6)

—and again when God tells Moses the fourth plague will be more miraculous, because the swarm will be excluded from the place where the Israelites live,

…so that teida that ani YHVH in the midst of the land. (Exodus 8:18)

It takes ten miracles or plagues before Pharaoh finally knows YHVH, and can no longer harden his heart in denial. The knowledge comes from experiencing what God can do in the world.

The haftarah for this week’s Torah portion is a passage from the book of Ezekiel, set many centuries later during the Babylonian exile after King Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Israelite nation of Judah in 597 BCE. Judah had asked Egypt to help it fight the Babylonians, and Egypt had not come to the rescue. So Ezekiel prophesies that God will restore the land to the Israelites and punish Egypt, and both peoples will “know” God.

build houses and plant vineyards…then they will dwell on their soil that I gave to My servant, to Jacob. And they will dwell on it in safety, and they will build houses and plant vineyards, and they will dwell on it in safety when I have passed judgments on all those who despise them from all around; veyad-u that ani YHVH their god. (Ezekiel 28:25-26)

veyad-u (וְיָדְעוּ) = and they will know, realize, experience, etc. (A form of the same verb as teida.)

The Israelites will once again know YHVH is their god when they have first-hand experience of this amazing reversal in fortune.

The hafatarah continues with a poem describing the future downfall of Egypt. Then Ezekiel says:

Thus said my master, YHVH: Here I am over you, Pharaoh, king of Egypt …To the beasts of the earth and to the birds of the sky I have given you for food. Veyade-u, all the inhabitants of Egypt, that ani YHVH; because you were a walking-stick of reed to the House of Israel; when their hand grasped you, you would break…(Ezekiel 29:3-6)

The implication is that because Egypt failed to support the Israelites, God will make sure all Egyptians know from experience who YHVH is.

And the land of Egypt will become a deserted place and a ruin; veyade-u that ani YHVH, because he [Pharaoh] said: The Nile is mine and I made it. (Ezekiel 29:9)

Egyptians must also realize that although their pharaoh claimed he created the Nile, really YHVH created everything. In order to accomplish this, God will reduce Egypt to the lowest of nations.

And never again will they inspire trust in the House of Israel … veyade-u that ani the lord YHVH. (Ezekiel 29:16)

Therefore, thus says my master YHVH: Here I am, giving the land of Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. And he will carry off her wealth and loot her loot and plunder her plunder, and she will be a reward for his army. …On that day… veyade-u that ani YHVH. (Ezekiel 29:19, 29:21)

In all of these cases in Exodus and Ezekiel, people are expected to realize who God is after they have experienced an unexpected disaster or triumph, a miraculous change in fortune. The experience is supposed to be so powerful that both Israelites and Egyptians will realize that only the most powerful god in the world could create such a miracle, and that this supreme god is the god of Israel.

Furthermore, both peoples will know God by the name YHVH, the four-letter name based on the verb “to be”.  Is this detail repeatedly included simply because it is the name the Israelites use for their god? Or does it carry another meaning?

In last year’s post on this Torah portion (Va-eira: The Right Name) I suggested that the idea of God as “being” or “becoming” is intellectually appealing, but too abstract for an emotional relationship with God. Now I notice that the phrase “know that I am YHVH” always occurs in the Torah and haftarah portions in the context of knowing God’s power to change fate and to create. What is most important is for the Egyptians and for the defeated and deported Israelites to realize that the god of Israel is the god of existence itself. Nothing can have power over YHVH.

I have experienced no inexplicable miracles or reversals of fortune in my own life. I do not know God in that way. I acknowledge the reality of being, that there is something rather than nothing, and I could call that God, even if it is irrelevant to the anthropomorphic god of the Bible.

But I will not. My unmiraculous life is full of meaning and my soul is full of awe, so “I know”—yadati (יָדַעְתִּי)—that there is something I might as well call God that goes beyond the fact of existence.

Teida that ani YHVH = You will know that I am Being.

Then what, or who, is the “I”?

Noach: Winds of Change

October 13, 2015 at 12:50 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Noach | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Wind changes the weather.  A persistent mood or spirit changes your behavior, driving you like the wind in a new direction.

Bibilical Hebrew has one word for both wind and spirit: ruach.

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; spirit, mood, emotional energy.

The Torah uses this word to describe both the creation of the world in the first Torah portion of Genesis/Bereishit, and its re-creation after the flood in this week’s Torah portion, Noach.

In a beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was a vacancy and a void and a darkness over the face of the deep, and the ruach of God was merachefet over the face of the waters. And God said: Light, be!  And light was. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1-2)

eagle+nestmerachefet (מְרַחֶפֶת) = fluttering, hovering tremulously. (The only other place the Bible uses the verb rachaf in this form is in Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:11, where God is compared to an eagle fluttering over its young.)

Translators disagree over whether the word ruach at the beginning of the Bible should be translated as “wind” or “spirit”.  I think the ruach of God, fluttering over the blank darkness and deep waters, is like the tender, hesitant spirit of someone about to become a parent.

The word ruach shows up again when Adam and Eve hear God’s voice in the garden “in the ruach of the day” (Genesis 3:8)   I agree with modern scholars that this means the windy time of day, which tended to be late afternoon in Israel.

The next time the Torah uses the word ruach is when God is musing about the dual nature of human beings.  God made the first human, in Genesis 2:7, out of both dirt and God’s own breath.  In other words, humans are partly animals with physical desires, and partly mental beings with spiritual desires.

And God said: My ruach will not always be judge in the human; he is also flesh…  (Genesis 6:3)

Here, ruach seems to mean God’s spirit, which shapes a human being’s character and prevailing mood.  Sometimes a person’s character controls the appetites of the flesh, but not always.

God lets these double-sided humans make their own choices for 1,556 years in the Torah, from the time God returns Adam and Eve to the world until the time when their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson Noah is 500 years old.

Then God saw that the badness of the human on earth was abundant—that the shape of every idea of his heart was only bad, all the time. And God had a change of heart about making the human on the earth, and he grieved in his heart. (Genesis 6:5-6)

God tells Noah to make an ark, because in another hundred years God is going to destroy the earth.

And hey, I Myself am bringing the deluge of water over the land to wipe out from under the heavens all flesh in which is the ruach of life.  Everything that is on the land will expire.  (Genesis 6:17)

The Torah repeats the phrase “the ruach of life” twice more in the story of Noah’s ark.  In the third occurrence it becomes clear that ruach in this phrase means moving air, a small-scale wind:

All that had the breath of the ruach of life in its nostrils, from all that were on dry land, they died.  (Genesis 7:22)

Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio

Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio

The flood wipes out all land animals, including humans, except those aboard Noah’s ark.  But God is not really starting over.  The animals and humans who emerge from the ark are the descendants of the ones God created in the beginning; they are built according to the same designs.  Human beings have the same dual nature.

Nevertheless, when God restores the earth to working order, the language in the Torah recalls the language of the original creation.

And God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark, and God made a ruach pass over the earth, and the waters abated.  The springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens were stopped up…(Genesis 8:1-2)

Once again God begins with a ruach.  But while the first ruach flutters like the tender spirit of a mother bird, this ruach sweeps across the flooded world like an eagle soaring—or a wind that brings a change of weather.

In the first creation story, God acts by speaking things into being.  In the re-creation story, God merely changes the weather, and the earth gradually dries out over the course of a year.  When God speaks, it is only to tell Noah to come out of the ark with his menagerie.

After the story of Noah, the word ruach continues to mean “wind” when the Bible talks about God. When it talks about humans, the word ruach means “spirit” or prevailing mood.

A third phenomenon is the ruach Elohim, a “spirit of God” that takes over or rests inside humans.  The ruach Elohim is a sublime wisdom in Joseph the dream-interpreter and Betzaleil the master artist, and a supernatural strength in Samson.  It is an infectious battle drive in war leaders, and a divine compulsion in mad King Saul as well as the many prophets God uses as mouthpieces.

Thus even the ruach Elohim is manifested only in human beings.

In the beginning of the Torah, God creates everything.  After the flood, the world and its humans continue on their own, and God intervenes only by blowing winds, by making plagues and occasional miracles, and by changing the spirits of a few select humans.

Today, I encounter two types of “spiritual” people.  One type often sees omens and miracles, attributing every coincidence to the hand of God rather than to the laws of probability or nature.  For this type, if a wind knocks down a tree that just misses them, God is literally in the wind and moves the tree.

The other type perceives God only through changes in their own spirits.  For this type (my type), if a wind knocks down a tree that just misses me, God is in the shaken liberation of joy after the flash of fear.  The divine is in me and moves my spirit.

Yet the Bible shows God changing the spirits of only the few.  And I know I am no prophet or war leader or master artist.

The world has always been full of silent people who are moved by a divine spirit, but never do anything famous enough to be written down in a book. After all, according to the Torah we are all made partly of God’s breath, God’s wind, God’s ruach.

 

Bereishit: In Hiding

October 8, 2015 at 7:36 pm | Posted in Bereishit | 2 Comments
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Humankind and God have been hiding from each ever since the garden of Eden.

This week the cycle of Torah readings starts over again with the first portion in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.  The first book of the bible, the first Torah portion in that book, and the first word are all Bereishit (“In a beginning”).

The first creation story describes how there was chaos and darkness, and then God created the heavens and the earth in seven days, beginning with light and ending with humankind.1

Then comes a second creation story, starting with bare earth and mist.

And God formed the adam out of dust from the adamah, and blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and the adam became an animated animal.  (Genesis/Bereishit 2:7)

adam (אָדָם) = human, humanity, humankind.

adamah (אֲדָמָה) = ground, earth, soil.  (The words adam and adamah come from the same root.  Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, once translated adam as “earthling”.)

In other words, a human is made out of two ingredients: the earth and the breath of God.  Our souls are God’s breath.  In the beginning, humankind is as close to God as an infant is to its mother.

Fig Tree

Fig Tree

God removes the adam from the earth and places it in a mythical garden of Eden, telling the adam to eat from any tree except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, …because on the day you eat from it, you must die. (Genesis 2:17)

Like an infant, the adam is immersed in its ongoing experience, unable to think for itself.  So it avoids the Tree of Knowledge.  Then God divides the adam into two people, male and female, and the situation changes.

Desire to Hide

And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating, and that it was delightful for the eyes, and the tree was desirable for understanding; and she took from its fruit and she ate, and she gave also to her man with her, and he ate.  And the eyes of the two of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves, and they made themselves loincloths. (Genesis 3:6-7)

The Tree of Knowledge gives the humans the ability to make distinctions, including the distinction between “me” and “you”, as well as between “good” and “bad”.  Now they notice they have separate bodies with different sex organs.2

detail of "Adam and Eve in Eden" by Pere Mates

Detail of “Adam and Eve in Eden” by Pere Mates

Perhaps the first humans experiment with their bodies, and discover the power of sexual passion.  What would it be like for a new person with soul of an infant and the body of an adult to have that experience?

Alarmed, the two humans make clothing to hide their sex organs from one another.  If you cannot see something, you can ignore it.

Then they heard the voice of God going around in the garden at the windy time of the day; vayitchabei, the adam and his woman, from the face of God, among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:8)

vayitchabei (וַיּתְחַבֵּא) = and they hid themselves.

When they hear God’s voice, the humans realize that they are also separate from God.  Before they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, God was just part of their undifferentiated experience.  Now they view God as a separate intelligence with a voice and a face, someone more powerful than they are.  Suddenly they are afraid.  They leap to the conclusion that if God sees them, God will know they disobeyed.

So the humans try to hide from God—among the trees of the garden God made.  Perhaps they even try to hide behind the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.  They have learned to make distinctions, but they have not yet learned logical thinking.

God called to the adam, and he said: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9)

The woman is silent, but the man answers:

“I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; va-eichavei.” (Genesis 3:10)

va-eichavei (וָאֵחָבֵא) = and I hid. (From the same root, חבא, as vayitchabei above.)

Biblical Hebrew has several verbs meaning “to hide”.  One of them, the verb חבא in its various forms, appears 34 times in the Hebrew Bible, and (except for two metaphors in the book of Job) it always describes human beings hiding.  Usually they are hiding from human enemies in order to avoid being killed.

Why does the Torah use this word for “hiding” in the garden of Eden, instead of an alternative word?  Maybe the adam suddenly views God as an enemy who wants to kill him.  After all, God said that if the adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge, he would die.

What actually happens is that humankind becomes mortal, and God returns the first two humans to the world.  Adam and Eve adapt to life on the earth, with its troublesome farming, sexual desire, and childbirth.3

Fear of Being Hidden

The next time the Torah mentions hiding, Adam and Eve’s oldest son, Cain, is afraid that God will conceal the divine “face” from him, and then he will be hidden from God.

Competing offerings in detail of print after Maarten de Vos 1583

Competing offerings, from a print after Maarten de Vos 1583

Cain, a farmer, invents the idea of giving God an offering from his vegetables as an expression of gratitude.  (See my post Vayikra: Gifts to the Giver.)  His younger brother Abel, the first shepherd, imitates him with an offering from his flock.  When God rejects Cain’s offering and accepts Abel’s, Cain is enraged and depressed.

God notices and warns him to master his evil impulse, but Cain does not reply.4  Unable to vent his rage over the injustice by killing God, Cain kills his brother Abel.  Then God informs Cain that the ground itself is cursed for him.  He will no longer be able to farm, and he will be homeless.

And Cain said to God: “My iniquity is too great to bear.  Hey, you have banished me today from the face of the adamah, and from your face esateir.  I will be homeless and aimless in the land, and anyone encountering me will kill me.” (Genesis 4:14)

esateir (אֶסָּתֵר) = I will be concealed, go unseen, be unrecognized, be hidden.

The verb סתר in its various forms is the most common word for hiding in the Bible, appearing more than 80 times.  This word is used for the concealment of individuals, information, actions, and faces.  Its most frequent use is to indicate when God conceals God’s “face” from humans, usually Israelites who have strayed from their religion.  The concealment of God’s face is a tragedy because if God does not “see” the Israelites, i.e. does not recognize them as God’s people, then God will ignore them and stop protecting them from enemies and other dangers.

After all, human beings lower their faces or look away from someone when they want to avoid communication.  We avoid people when we do not want to bother with them, when we are afraid of them, or when we have given up on a relationship.  We hide our faces from them by not meeting their eyes.

If God seems to be concealed, the Israelites worry that God has given up on them.  The first character in the Torah with this problem is Cain, who anticipates that God will give up on him because his fratricide makes him unworthy of any further contact.

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Thus the second creation story in the Torah reveals that humans have a paradoxical relationship with the divine.  God is inside us, in the sense that the souls inside our bodies are the breath of God.  Yet having tasted fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, we know we are separate and distinct from God.

When humans feel as if God can protect us like a loving parent, we are like Cain, who does not want to be concealed from God’s face.  When we feel unprotected and subject to all kinds of undesirable circumstances, including death, we are like Adam, who tries to conceal himself from God.

In fact, God does not protect us from death; both mortality and the knowledge of our own mortality are part of the human condition, as the story of the garden of Eden illustrates.  But God might protect us from despair, as the story of Cain illustrates.  God warns Cain not to give in to an evil impulse in his despair over winning God’s acceptance.  But Cain ignores God and succumbs.

Maybe God is hidden from us when we cannot recognize God.  That is when we act out of despair.  When we experience both the souls inside us and the universe in front of us as divine, we become stronger.  We can accept a world of death and injustice, and still rejoice in the gift of life.

  1. Genesis 1:1-2:3.
  2.  Later in the Torah, the most common euphemism for sexual intercourse is “uncovering the nakedness” of someone.
  3. Genesis 3:16-24.
  4. Genesis 4:5-7.

 

Nitzavim & Yom Kippur: Centripetal Force

September 9, 2015 at 9:32 pm | Posted in Nitzavim, Yom Kippur | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , ,

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.

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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?

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