Va-etchannan: All in One

by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

The most important sentence in Jewish liturgy appears in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (“and I pleaded”). Jews recite it daily in both morning and evening prayers.  We are called to say this sentence before we die, so some of us say it at any time of danger, or at bedtime (just in case). Personally, I feel better if I recite this sentence when I am sitting in an airplane that is just taking off.

If you haven’t guessed, the sentence is:

Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:4)

Shema (שְׁמַע) = Listen! Hear! Heed! Listen up, pay attention! Now hear this!

Jacob Wrestling with an Angel, by Gustave Dore, detail
Jacob Wrestling with an Angel by Gustave Dore, detail

Yisrael (יִשְׂרָאֵל) = Israel, which was the additional name given to Jacob after he wrestles with the unnamed being at the ford, and also the name of Jacob’s descendants (the twelve tribes) and those adopted into the people Israel.  Many personal names in the Bible begin or end in el (אֵל) = god.  An “is” or “of” is implied between the el and the other part of the name. Yisra  (יִשְׂרָא) = he struggles with, he persists with (from the root verb sarah = contended, strove); or upright (from the root verb yashar = was upright, level, straight ahead).

(See below for translations of Adonai, eloheynu, and echad.)

The first two words, Shema Yisrael, tell a certain group of people to pay attention to what comes next.  In Deuteronomy/Devarim, Moses uses the phrase to introduce a fundamental message about God, but it serves the same function as “Hear ye, citizens of Fredonia”, or “Attention, all passengers for Flight 613”.

The only question is which people are being addressed.  Within the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is addressing all the descendants of Jacob, i.e. Israel (including descendants of the non-Israelites who also followed Moses out of Egypt and became part of the people) who arrived at the Jordan River.

By the first century C.E., the Shema was a central part of morning and evening prayers. But only in the past half-century have some Jews have expanded the idea of Yisrael to include everyone who persists in struggling with God.

That means everyone who questions and wrestles with the concept of God, and everyone who strives to follow divine direction, should pay attention to the message: Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad.

Adonai = my lord, my master.  The Hebrew for Adonai does not appear in the actual Hebrew text of the Shema. Instead, the Torah gives the four-letter personal name of God.  In Jewish tradition over the last two millennia, the four-letter name must be treated with the utmost respect; it is never pronounced, and it is spelled out only in prayer-books and the Bible. (It may be a unique four-letter form of the Hebrew verb for “to be” or “to happen”.) When Jewish liturgy is spoken or the Bible is read out loud, a common substitute for the four-letter name is Adonai.

eloheynu (אֱלֹהֵינוּ) = our elohim. Elohim (אֱלֹהִים) = god; gods. (The Hebrew words eloheynu and elohim are in the plural form, but are usually used to refer to the single god of Israel. Three times in the Bible the Philistines say eloheynu in reference to their own god, Dagon.)

echad (אֶחָד) = one; first; single, only, unique; once; the same kind of; united, indivisible.

What does the imperative message Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad mean?

Most Biblical scholars date the book of Deuteronomy to the 7th century B.C.E., and identify it with the holy book “discovered’ in the temple during the 641-609 B.C.E. reign of King Josiah of Judah, and used to lend authority to Josiah’s agenda: expanding Judah to include part of the former northern kingdom of Israel, and eliminating the worship of any other gods in his kingdom. Although Deuteronomy recapitulates much of the history and law in the books of Exodus through Numbers, there are a number of differences.  Most (though not all) of the differences support the theory that Deuteronomy was written just before or during King Josiah’s reign.

An English translation for the Shema in the context of King Josiah’s reforms could be:  Listen up, residents of Judah and survivors of the kingdom of Israel!  Adonai is our god, only Adonai!

The idea that the primary message of the Shema is to exclude the worship of other gods continues in some English translations. Many modern works use the “JPS” translation:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. (Jewish Publication Society, 1962)

But this is not the only possible meaning of Adonai echad.  Even a book written in the 7th century B.C.E. might also declare that God is one-of-a-kind, the only god in the universe.

The book of Amos, written in the 8th century B.C.E., not only credits Adonai with the creation of the universe, but also quotes God as saying:

Like the children of Kushi-im, aren’t you mine, children of Israel? —declares Adonai.

Didn’t I bring up Israel from the land of Egypt,

And the Philistines from Kaftor, and Aram from Kyr? (Amos 9:7)

In other words, although the Kushites, Philistines, and Aramites believe they have their own separate gods, there is actually only one God for them all.

detail by John Constable
detail by John Constable

Many modern Jewish and Christian translations of the Shema into English treat Adonai echad as a statement of monotheism. For example:

Listen, Israel, God is our Lord, God is One. (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, 1981)

Listen, Israel! The Lord our God is the only true God!  (American Bible Society, 1995)

Yet there is a third way to interpret Adonai echad. The word echad is also used in Biblical Hebrew to mean united or indivisible.

A key concept in Kabbalah, presented in the earliest known book on the subject, Sefer Yetzirah (written sometime between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E.) is that the universe was (and continues to be) created through ten sefirot (divine powers or qualities). Later Kabbalist writings changed the sefirot to forces such as compassion or discipline. The various traditions of Kabbalah all emphasize that God is one and indivisible. The sefirot only appear to be separate powers; really they are aspects of the One.

This idea of the unity of everything is part of an unusual translation of the Shema by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014):

Listen you Yisrael person, Yah who is, is our God, Yah who is, is One, Unique, All there is. (quoted in Rabbi David Zaslow, Ivdu Et Hashem B’Simcha, 1997)

When I pray, in Hebrew or English, I want to know what the words mean—not just what the traditional meanings are, but what the words can say to my own heart. Sometimes the personal meaning of a prayer changes over the years for me, as I change.

Here is my own interpretation of the Shema, this summer of 2015:

Pay attention, you who persist in struggling with the idea of God: Being is our god, and Being is all there is.

What is your interpretation this year?

Devarim& Va-etchannan: Enough Already

by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah, 2015

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

Cloud over the portable sanctuary
Cloud over the portable sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detour of Israelites
Detour of Israelites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is God more impatient in Deuteronomy than in Numbers?

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Shelach-Lekha: Mutual Distrust

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

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

Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn
Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next morning everyone assembles.  Caleb and Joshua say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kedoshim: Holier than Thou

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole assembly of the Children of Israel, and say to them: Kedoshim tiheyu, for kadosh [am] I, God, your god. (Leviticus/ Vayikra 19:1-2)

kadosh (קָדוֹשׁ) = holy; set apart for religious ritual. (plural kedoshim).

tiheyu (תִּהְיוּ) = you shall become, you shall be.

This divine directive, which opens the Torah portion Kedoshim, bundles together three statements:

1) You can, and should, become holy.

2)  God, the God of Israel, is holy. (Or God will be holy.  English requires a form of the verb “to be” between “holy” and “I” in this sentence, but Hebrew omits it, so we can only guess whether God is holy, or used to be holy, or will be holy.)

3)  God’s holiness is related to human holiness.

First, what does it mean for a human being to be holy? 

A place is called “holy” in the Hebrew Bible if it is physically close to a manifestation of God. (When Moses stands in front of the Burning Bush, he is standing on holy ground.  The Holy of Holies in the sanctuary or temple is where the voice of God manifests.)

Medieval depiction of high priest
Medieval depiction of high priest

Objects (such as incense pans) and days (such as Shabbat) are holy if they are set apart for religious use. The holy status of the high priest of the Israelites is probably due to both his proximity to God’s presence in the Holy of Holies, and the dedication of his life to service in the sanctuary.

The Torah mentions two other ways human beings can become holy. One way is by always obeying God’s laws and decrees.

This day God, your god, commands you to perform these decrees and the laws, and you must observe and perform them with all your heart and with all your soul.  …  And God promised to you today you will be Its treasured people … a holy people to God, your god, as It has spoken.  (Deuteronomy 26:16-19)

Another way that a person can become holy is by always acting ethically. In Kedoshim, after telling the Israelites to become holy, God provides a list of general rules of behavior which scholars call the Holiness Code.  The opening of the Torah portion is followed by a list of general rules, most of which are about treating other people ethically, from You shall respect your mother and your father (Leviticus:19:3) to You shall love your fellow as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).

So human beings become holy if they are set apart for religious ritual, if they observe and perform all of God’s laws and decrees, or if they consistently behave according to the ethics laid out in this Torah portion.

What does it mean for the God of Israel to be holy?

The god portrayed in the Bible is not holy in any of the three ways humans become holy.  God is not set apart for religious ritual; “He” also interferes in a variety of human affairs, telling people what to do, sending plagues, and frightening armies.  God does not obey “His” own laws and decrees, since they are written so they only apply to humans.  And the God character in the Torah violates at least two of the ethical imperatives in the Holiness Code.

You shall not do injustice in judgement … (Leviticus 19:15)

The God character often makes a judgement in anger and then wipes out the innocent with the guilty.  For example, “He” floods the earth and kills every human being except for Noah’s immediate family—deliberately drowning thousands of innocent children. Another example is when God is responsible for killing all of Job’s children and afflicting him with horrible diseases—just in order to find out what Job will do.

You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall certainly reprove your fellow person and …you shall not take vengeance.  (Leviticus 19:17-18)

In other words, when someone’s behavior angers you, you must give that person an opportunity to repent, rather than lashing back in revenge.  But in the Torah, God is often keen on vengeance.  For example, in the poem at the end of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God vows:

When I whet the lightning of My sword

And my hand seizes it with judgement

I will give back vengeance to My adversary

And My hated enemy I will repay.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:41)

In later parts of the Hebrew Bible, God becomes more ethical.  A shining example is the book of Jonah, in which God rescues Jonah from drowning even though he has refused to obey God’s order to go to Nineveh, makes sure Jonah reproves the inhabitants of Nineveh so they have an opportunity to repent, withholds vengeance against them when they do repent, and reproves the refractory Jonah with a lesson in compassion.

The directive at the opening of Kedoshim is usually translated:

You shall be holy, for I, God, your god, am holy.

But maybe we should translate it this way:

You shall become holy, for I, God, your god, will become holy.

Medieval depiction of a seraph
Medieval depiction of a seraph

Another way to explain the difference between human holiness and divine holiness is to note that God in the Bible seems to be holy by definition; anything pertaining to God is, or ought to be, holy.

One of the names of God is Ha-kaddosh, “the holy one”.  In the Prophets, God’s holiness appears to refer to a numinous experience of the divine beyond our ordinary perceptions.

In the year of the death of the king Uzziyahu, I beheld my Lord sitting on a high and elevated throne, and [God’s] skirts were filling the palace.  Serafim are standing up above him, six wings, six wings to each: with a pair it covers its face and with a pair it covers its feet and with a pair it flies. And it would call, one to another, and say:  “Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh! God of hosts!  Its glory fills the earth!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)

How is God’s holiness related to human holiness?

Nevertheless, there must be some relationship between God’s holiness and human holiness, or the opening directive in Kedoshim would not instruct us to become holy because God is holy.

In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, God creates humankind “in God’s image”. Even the primeval adam, human, seems to lack most of God’s traits, but he-she can speak and name things, has the potential to make new objects, and has the potential to acquire knowledge of good and bad—like God. Before they can actually make things or distinguish between good and bad, humans have to spend time learning and thinking.

I think that humankind also has the potential to become holy like God.  The first stage is to learn how to serve the divine and how to behave ethically.  Next we must dedicate ourselves to a divine purpose and to always striving to do the right thing.  After that comes practice.  I have met a few people who had practiced for a long time, and to me they seemed to embody holiness.  I could sense it just by being in their presence—the way someone who beheld God might be moved to sing out Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh!  Holy! Holy! Holy!

 

Vayikra: Happening or Calling

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Vayikra to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1)

vayikra (וַיִּקְרא) = and he/It called, proclaimed, summoned; and he/It met.

The book of Leviticus and its first Torah portion are called Vayikra, the opening word.  In Hebrew, the word looks different here than in any other place in the Bible, because of the size of the last letter:

Vaiykra with nikkud

Early copies of the Torah had no diminutive letters.  But when the Masoretes wrote their definitive 9th-10th century versions of the Torah, they spelled 28 words with small letters, including Vayikra with a small alef, and the word has appeared that way ever since.

Torah scrolls omit the vowels that the Masoretes added to the text, but keep the Masoretic diminutive letters. So in a Torah scroll, the first word of Leviticus looks like this:

Vayikra alef

Most of the Masoretic additions to the text of the Hebrew Bible make it easier for someone to read (or chant) the Bible out loud. The nikkudim (marks above, below, and inside letters to indicate vowels and doubled consonants) clarify pronunciation. The trope (cantillation marks above and below letters) indicate which syllables to accent, and which melodic phrases to use for chanting. With both kinds of markings, the first word of Leviticus looks like this:

Vayikra with trope

There are also places where the Masoretic text gives two versions of a word, one (ketiv) in its original spelling (an actual word, but probably a scribal error), and one (kere) in a spelling that makes sense in context.

But the 28 words with diminutive letters would be spoken or chanted the same way regardless of the size of their letters.  Why did the Masoretes use small letters?

Some versions of 10th century Masoretic texts include marginal notes, and at least six of these notes on small letters say (in a rough translation of the Aramaic) “small [name of letter] to state the accepted version”. The footnotes for at least four more just say “small” (ze-ira), probably an abbreviation of the note that the letter is small to indicate the accepted version.

In other words, in the versions of the text that the Masoretes found unacceptable, the words were spelled with the controversial letters omitted.  For example, the first word of Leviticus was spelled ויקר.

In the accepted version of the text, the words were spelled with the controversial letters included.  Vayikra was spelled ויקרא. The Masoretes spelled these words according to the “accepted” version—but they made the controversial letters undersized to document that they were missing in some Torah scrolls.

Out of the 28 words with diminutive letters, seven are proper names, and ten are not even Hebrew words without the small letter. So only eleven of the words might mean something different if the diminutive letter were omitted.  And one of these is vayikra, the first word of this week’s Torah portion.

Without the alef (א) at the end, vayikra (וַיִּקְרא = and he/it called, summoned, met, encountered) would be vayiker (וַיִּקֶר = and he/it happened to, befell). The opening sentence would read: And It happened to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.

God “happens to” (וַיִּקֶר) the Mesopotamian prophet Bilam in Numbers/Bemidbar 23:3. God tells Bilam what to do, and then when it is time for him to utter a curse or blessing, God puts the words into Bilam’s mouth. It is a one-way relationship.

But the prophet Moses has a two-way relationship with God.  They have long conversations, and sometimes argue with one another.  So God wants to get Moses’ attention, God “meets” him or “calls” to him.

In an earlier post, Vayikra: A Voice is Calling, I mentioned that God “called” Moses three times, the first two times from Mount Sinai, and the third time (with the diminutive alef) from the Tent of Meeting. I cited commentary in Rashi and the Zohar that the miniature alef  indicates a restriction or muting of the call, and suggested that God switched to an “indoor voice” when the people switched to connecting with God through the vehicle of the sanctuary tent.

This year, I’d like to add that whether you encounter God in a sanctuary, or anywhere else in your life, there are two kinds of encounters. Sometimes a mystical experience just happens to you. If you are like Bilam, your mind is wired in such a way that it happens relatively often.

Moses at the Burning Bush by Rembrandt van Rijn
Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt van Rijn

The other kind of encounter begins when you merely notice the possibility of the numinous—as Moses noticed the bush that burned but was not consumed. You stop and pay attention, and try to figure out what is going on. If you are quiet enough, you may discover that the divine is calling you—as God called to Moses in the first portion of Exodus:

God saw that he had turned aside to look, vayikra to him from amidst the bush, and It said: Moses! Moses! (Exodus/Shemot 3:4)

18th-century rabbi Menahem Nahum Twersky of Chernobyl wrote in Me’or ‘Eynayim , “God the cosmic aleph is present in miniature form within each Israelite, calling us to return. These are our pangs of conscience, but we do not perceive them as God’s own call to us.” (Translated by Rabbi Arthur Green in Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, p. 250.)

Thus a conversation with the divine voice could be a much quieter affair than when God “happens” to someone.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, at the beginning of the book of Leviticus, God calls Moses with a small alef.  Then Moses realizes that completing the Tent of Meeting according to God’s specifications is not the end of his work. Even though God’s radiance has filled the sanctuary, Moses hears the divine inner voice urging him to go back into the Tent of Meeting for further instructions.

May all of us learn how to be still, pay attention, and listen for the call inside ourselves.

Va-eira: The Right Name

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Go to the king of Egypt, and tell him to declare a three-day holiday for his labor force, so they can go out into the wilderness and worship a god the king has never heard of.

Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Rameses II
Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Rameses II

This is the mission God gives Moses in the first Torah portion of Exodus/Shemot. Moses tries to get out of it, but God insists, and Moses gives in.

And afterward Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh: Thus says YHWH, god of Israel: Send out My people and they will celebrate-a-festival for Me in the wilderness. And Pharaoh said: Who is YHWH that I should listen to His voice and send out the Israelites? I do not know YHWH… (Exodus/Shemot 5:2)

YHWH = probably a form of the verb hayah (היה) = be, exist, become, occur. A variant spelling of this verb is havah or hawah (הוה). If the initial Y (י) indicates a third-person singular imperfect form, YHWH = he/it becomes, he/it exists, he/it will be.  If the four-letter word is a unique verb form, YHWH = us-was-will be; being-becoming.

(YHWH is considered the most sacred name of God, God’s four-letter personal name. I do not include the Hebrew spelling here because according to Jewish tradition, any text containing the personal name of God must be treated with respect and disposed of by special means. Furthermore, the name YHWH is not supposed to be pronounced except once a year inside the Holy of Holies—which has not existed since the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., almost 2,000 years ago.)

Since Pharaoh does not know YHWH, he refuses to give the Israelites three days off.  Instead he doubles the work of the Israelites forced to build his cities. The Israelite foremen complain to Moses, and Moses complains to God:

Since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done evil to this people, and You certainly did not rescue Your people! (Exodus 5:23)

Moses’ complaint implies that using the name of God was ineffective. But for God, everything is going according to plan.  As God tells Moses repeatedly in this week’s portion, Va-eira (“And I appeared”), God’s purpose in performing miracles in Egypt is: 1) so that the Israelites will know their own God as YHWH, and 2) so that the Egyptians will know the power of the god YHWH.

From God’s point of view, the ten miraculous “plagues” God plans to create will be all the more effective coming from a previously unknown god. God assures Moses that although it will be a long process, at its conclusion God will indeed rescue the Israelites from Egypt and bring them to Canaan.

But first God insists on being known by the right name.

And Elohim spoke to Moses, and said to him:  I am YHWH. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as Eil Shaddai, but [by] my name YHWH I was not known to them. (Exodus 6:2-3)

elohim (אֱלֹהִים) = gods (when used with a plural verb suffix); God (when used with a singular verb suffix).

eil (אֵל) = god

shaddai (שַׁדָּי) = of breasts (if it comes from shad = breast), of devastation (if it comes from shadad = devastate), of the mountain (if it comes from the Akkadian word shadu).

In the book of Genesis Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob certainly know that YHWH is one of God’s names; all three of them sometimes use that name to refer to God. So why does God claim, in this week’s Torah portion, “my name YHWH I did not make known to them”?

Most commentators explain that the three patriarchs knew God in terms of the attribute or power associated with the name Eil Shaddai, but not in terms of the power associated with the name YHWH.

In fact, the name Shaddai only appears six times in the book of Genesis, four times followed by blessings for being fruitful and multiplying (17:1, 28:3, 35:11, and 48:3). Jacob also uses that name of God to pray for rachamim (רַחֲמִים) = mercy (literally, “wombs”—43:14) and to bless Joseph with “blessings of breasts and womb” (49:25).

Although Eil Shaddai took on other meanings in later books of the Hebrew Bible, it seems safe to say that as far as the three patriarchs are concerned, Eil Shaddai is the name of the god of fertility. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all concerned with the question of fertility, and want to be founders of a people or nation.

But in the book of Exodus, the Israelites in Egypt are already fertile. (The first pharaoh worries about the rapid birth rate of the Israelites; his son, the pharoah Moses speaks to in God’s name, agrees that there are far too many Israelites.) So a different aspect of God is needed to impress both Israelites and Egyptians. And God Itself seems eager to promote a new identity.

One can deduce the divine power associated with Eil Shaddai from context, but this cannot be done with the name YHWH.  The four-letter name appears 162 times in the book of Genesis alone, in a wide variety of actions and statements by God.

Commentary on which divine aspect is represented by the name YHWH ranges from the god of miracles (12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra); to the god expressed by all ten sefirot, i.e. divine emanations (Sefer Yetzirah, a book of kabbalah possibly written in the 4th century); to the preserver of existence (16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno).

Rameses II (right) dedicating a temple to his god, Amun-Ra
Rameses II (right) dedicating a temple to his god, Amun-Ra

All three of these interpretations boil down to the idea that God is the supreme deity; if any other gods can be said to exist, they are only emanations of YHWH, the god whose name means existence itself.

In the Exodus story, God wants Egypt to know that the god of the Israelites is the most powerful god in world, far more powerful than any of Egypt’s gods. And God wants the Israelites to know that the god who is making a covenant with them is not merely a fertility god, but a god with power over everything. Once everyone knows that God is YHWH, nobody can question God’s existence or decisions.

Or so God thinks, in the first two portions of the book of Exodus.

As the story continues, we read that after each time Pharaoh admitted the superior power of the god of the Israelites, he changed his mind and behaved as if he could win the contest with YHWH.  Even after the tenth and final plague, when Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites leave Egypt, he changes his mind again and sends his army to pursue them.  He only gives up after God splits the Reed Sea for the Israelites, then drowns the Egyptian army.

The Israelites themselves keep forgetting their god’s awesome power over life and death. As they travel through the wilderness of Sinai they worry whenever they run out of water or food, when Moses does not return from the top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, and when they face enemy forces. They cannot seem to trust the god who has taken them as Its people, even when the name of that god is YHWH.

Why doesn’t the name work?

I think that the idea of God as “being” or “becoming” is intellectually appealing. And sometimes I feel grateful that this universe exists, or that everything is in the process of becoming.

But psychologically, human beings cannot have a relationship with “existence” or “becoming”; the concepts are too abstract. To be followed, or loved, or feared, or trusted, God must be named after a more human attribute.

Eil Shaddai, the god of fertility, is not a useful divine name for most people today. When we lack children, we take practical steps; otherwise, we enjoy being fruitful in our own creative endeavors. Elohim, the God who combines the powers of all gods, is an irrelevant name at a time when nearly everyone is either an atheist or a monotheist. And YHWH, the concept of being and becoming, is too abstract for a relationship.

Then what name can inspire us to strive to “know” God? I welcome your suggestions.

 

Bereishit: The Other Tree

In the first creation story in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God makes human beings in Its image, male and female, and ends the sixth “day” by deciding that everything is “very good”. The Torah does not say in what way human beings resemble God.

Then we get a second creation story. In this story (attributed by scholars to an older source), God creates a single human before inventing plants or other animals.

And God formed ha-adam of dust from ha-adamah, and [God] blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and ha-adam became a nefesh chayah. (Genesis/Bereishit 2:7)

ha-adam (הָאָדָם) = the human, humankind, the earthling.

ha-adamah (הָאֲדָמָה) = the earth, the dirt.

nefesh chayah (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה) = animated animal, living creature.

Instead of simply making humans in God’s image, as in the first creation story, God shapes a human body and breathes life into it—the same process God uses later in the story to create various birds and mammals. Then God makes a place outside the world where the archetypal human can acquire a divine trait, and thereby become an image of God, unlike other animals. Peaches_clip_art_hight

Then God planted a garden in Eiden mikedem, and It put there ha-adam that It had formed. And God made sprout from the earth every tree that was desirable in appearance and good for food, and the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.  (Genesis 2:8-9)

Eiden (עֵדֶן) = Eden; luxury, pampering, delight.

mikedem (מִקֶּדֶם) = from the east, from primeval time.

God invites the human to eat from all but one of the trees in the garden.

And God laid an order on ha-adam, saying: From every tree in the garden you may certainly eat. But from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you may not eat from it, because on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die. (Genesis 2:16-17)

What about the Tree of Life, which is also in the middle of the garden? By giving the human permission to eat from every tree except the Tree of Knowledge, God offers the human the option of eating from the Tree of Life—whose fruit, we learn later in the story, confers immortality.

When I reread the story this year, I realized that God subtly gives ha-adam a choice between the two trees.  If the archetypal human eats from the Tree of Knowledge, it will gain the divine characteristic of moral knowledge, but it will be doomed to die.  If it eats from the Tree of Life, it will gain the divine characteristic of immortality–but will it lose the ability to discover morality?

The first human being is not yet human enough to react with curiosity. It asks no questions, and apparently refrains from the fruit of both the trees in the middle of the garden. Eventually God separates the two sides of the human into two individuals, one male and one female. This does the trick; the woman is curious enough to hear the questions and arguments of the snake (another of God’s creations), including the comment:

For God knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God, knowing good and bad. (Genesis 3:5)

We already know that every tree in the garden is desirable in appearance and good for food (Genesis 2:9). The woman now notices a third way in which the Tree of Knowledge is “good”.

The woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it satisfied a craving of the eyes, and the tree was desirable for haskil, so she took some fruit and she ate; and she gave also her to her man with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:7)

haskil (הַשְׂכִּיל) = understanding, having insight.

Both humans want divine insight so much, they forget about the Tree of Life and eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. They gain a basic concept of morality, and the ability to figure out what is good and bad on their own.

The two primeval humans do not keel over dead that day.  Instead, they become mortal.  God tells them they will return to the world, where life will be hard, and eventually they will die and turn back into dust. God mentions the pain of childbirth, and the man notices that there will be birth as well as death in the world.

So ha-adam called the name of his woman Chavah, because she herself had become a mother of all life. (Genesis 3:20)

Chavah (חַוָּה) = Eve; a variant of chayah = living animal, vigorous, to bring to life.

Instead of immortality, humankind chooses moral knowledge and life in this world, which is inseparable from birth and death.

And God said: Here, the human has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, and now, lest he stretch out its hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever—! (Genesis 3:22)

This sentence raises obvious two questions. What does God mean by saying the human has become like one of us? (Next year I want to write about all the hints of multiple gods in this first Torah portion, including in the passage above.) Secondly, why can’t the humans eat from both trees? Why shouldn’t they acquire a second divine characteristic?

I think the answer is that in our universe, everything is in flux, constantly changing.  Even stars burn out.  And every living thing is born, grows, experiences pain, and dies. Life in this world is mortal.  Immortality can only apply to something outside our universe, outside time and space—like the garden of Eiden.

But our world also presents human beings with moral choices that matter. We can choose actions that increase the life and well-being of others, or actions that increase death and pain. Our ability to puzzle out good and bad depends on living in this world.

So God sent [the human] out from the garden of Eiden, to serve the earth from which it had been taken. And [God] banished the human, and It set up in front of the garden of Eiden the cherubim and the flame of the whirling sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life. (Genesis 3:23-24)

Human beings in the real world can resemble God in having moral understanding, but we cannot resemble God by living forever.

Other ancient religions told stories about how human heroes tried, but failed, to become like the gods by eating or bringing home plants that would confer immortality. The remarkable thing about the second creation story in Genesis is that humankind gets a different divine characteristic: moral insight.

The rest of the book of Genesis can be read as a story about how both humans and God begin to learn how to apply moral insight to situations in the world. For example, when Cain becomes enraged, God tries to warn him against killing his brother, but it takes the rest of the book for the humans to figure out how brothers can tolerate each other.  When God decides to wipe out Sodom, Abraham tries to teach God to judge humans individually instead of punishing the innocent with the guilty, but God does not always apply the lesson.

We are still learning how to behave ethically. As our moral insights develop, many humans have learned how to be good in ways that neither the people nor the God-character in the Torah imagined. (For example, see my earlier post, Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame.)

We can never acquire immortality in this world, but we are still tasting the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. May we all remember how precious and desirable our moral insight is, and pause to think about our moral choices.

Nitzavim: Concealed and Revealed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I would like to end the sentence this way:

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

 

Haftarat Pinchas –1 Kings: The Sound of God

When people in the Hebrew Bible see a manifestation of God, they nearly always see either fire (from the flames in the burning bush to the sparks of fire in the pillar or cloud), or something human (from Abraham’s guest to the feet on the sapphire pavement).

When they hear a manifestation of God, they usually hear words. I have found only two exceptions in the Hebrew Bible. One is in the book of Exodus, when God descends upon Mount Sinai, and all the Israelites hear (and see, perhaps through synesthesia) thunder and the sound of a shofar (a loud wind instrument made from an animal’s horn). The cracks of thunder and the increasing volume of the shofar blasts would make the sound of God unbearably loud.

Ram's Horn Shofar
Ram’s Horn Shofar

The other exception is in this week’s haftarah, when the prophet Elijah hears God as what the King James translation calls “a still, small voice”.

A haftarah is the reading from the prophets that accompanies the week’s Torah portion. This week’s haftarah, from the first book of Kings, opens with the prophet Elijah running before the chariot of King Ahab.

In the scene just before, Elijah had staged a dramatic contest on Mount Carmel, where there were altars to both Baal and the God of Israel. King Ahab (who was away from his wife Jezebel at the time) summoned all the people to the mountaintop as witnesses. Elijah invited 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah to call on their gods, while he alone would call on the God of Israel. (The prophets of Asherah did not show up, but the contest proceeded anyway.) A bull was killed and laid over wood at each altar, but nobody was allowed to bring fire to burn the offerings. Elijah said:

You will call your gods by name, and I, I will call God by name. And it will be the god that answers with fire, that one is the god. And all the people answered, and they said: It is good! (1 Kings 18:14)

Elijah increased the drama by giving the prophets of Baal all day to work themselves into an ecstatic frenzy, and by pouring water all over the God of Israel’s altar. No fire ever appeared on Baal’s altar. In the evening, when water was dripping into the trench around God’s altar, Elijah called on God by name.

And the fire of God fell, and it consumed the rising-offering and the wood and the stones and the dirt, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. And all the people saw, and they fell on their faces, and they said: That god is the god! That god is the god! (1 Kings 18:38-39)

The Israelites helped Elijah kill all 450 prophets of Baal. A three-year drought ended. And Elijah ran as an honor guard before King Ahab’s chariot as they returned to the king’s nearest palace, in the fortress of Jezreel.

Haftarat Pinchas begins with this triumphal run. Then Ahab’s wife Jezebel, the real ruler of the kingdom, nixes the mass conversion and threatens to kill Elijah.

The prophet flees, lies down in the wilderness to die, then gets up again at the request of an angel and walks all the way to Mount Horev (another name for Mount Sinai). There God speaks to him—first in words, as usual.

Then the word of God [came] to him, and it said to him:  Why are you here, Elijah?

And he said: I was very zealous for God, the God of Armies, because the Children of Israel had abandoned your covenant, and pulled down your altars, and killed your prophets by the sword. And only I was left, and they tried to take my life. (1 Kings 19:9-10)

Elijah is in despair because Queen Jezebel won. He forgets that the Israelites fell on their faces, shouted that the God of Israel is the only god, and killed Baal’s prophets. He either does not believe, or does not care, that the people’s feelings about God have changed. All that matters to him is that he lost the contest with Queen Jezebel for political power. Her gods, and the rest of her prophets, will remain in the kingdom of Israel whether the people support them or not.

God tells Elijah to stand up, and then gives him a wordless demonstration.

And hey! God was passing by, and a big and strong wind was tearing off mountains of rocks in front of God; but God was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, kol demamah dakkah. And when Elijah heard, he wrapped his face with his robe, and he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave; and hey!—a  voice [came] to him, and it said: Why are you here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:11-13)

kol (קוֹל) = voice; sound.

demamah (דְּמָמָה) = quiet (without much movement or sound); stillness; silence.

dakkah (דַקָּה) = very thin; finely ground, powdery.

kol demamah dakkah = “a still, small voice” (King James translation); “a soft murmuring sound” (Jewish Publication Society translation); a “sound of thin silence” (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg translation); a faint sound of quietness (my translation).

Elijah hears the sound of quietness, steps out to the mouth of the cave, and covers his face. That means he knows God is in the quietness, since God told Moses no one may see God from the front.

Then God asks him the same question: Why are you here, Elijah? And Elijah gives the same reply, word for word—as if he had learned nothing. So God tells him he must anoint a young man named Elisha to be a prophet in his place.

I agree with the many commentators who concluded that Elijah is too impatient in his zeal; he wants the spectacle of fire (or, presumably, windstorm or earthquake) to turn Israel back to God all at once. He is not interested in a quiet, gradual approach. And that is why God decides to retire Elijah and try a new prophet.

But I also wonder about the three ways of hearing God: as ear-splitting blasts and booms, as spoken words, and as a faint sound of quietness.

We are only human. When we want to plan, or communicate, or understand something complicated, we turn to language. Even musicians and visual artists who are working alone must think in words when they address other aspects of their lives. Our brains automatically translate much of our experience into words and language.

Maybe one difference between a prophet and an ordinary person is that a prophet can easily translate experiences of God into words. So for them, God manifests as spoken words.

For the rest of us, our occasional numinous experiences are hard to understand, hard to put into words. A shaft of sunlight or a haunting bird call might trigger an awareness of something greater—but we struggle just to describe it. Our brains do not translate these evanescent and ineffable experiences into direct speech from God.

In the book of Exodus, God manifests to all the non-prophets at Mount Sinai as unbearably loud noise. The people are terrified, and beg for God to speak only to Moses; their prophet can then translate what God says into words spoken at a reasonable decibel level.

But in the book of Elijah, when the prophet hears God ask him a question in words—Why are you here, Elijah?—he answers defensively, stuck in a repetitive loop of his own words, his own story about himself. Any further insight from God cannot get through. So God resorts to non-verbal communication.

Elijah hears the windstorm, the earthquake, and the fire. Then he hears God in the “still, small voice,” the faint sound of quietness. But he does not understand.

Does God manifest to us, sometimes, as quietness?

Can we understand?

Haftarah for Bemidbar–Hosea: An Unequal Marriage

Everyone obeys God in the opening Torah portion of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar (“in a wilderness”), as the Israelites prepare to leave Mount Sinai and head toward their promised land.

And the children of Israel did everything that God commanded Moses; thus they did.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 1:54)

The people’s compliance falls apart even before they reach the border of Canaan. But for a while, in the wilderness, Israel and God enjoy a honeymoon.

The metaphors of courtship and marriage to express the covenant between God and the Israelites is popular in later Jewish writing, but it does not show up in the Hebrew Bible until the Latter Prophets. Going by the order of the books in the Hebrew Bible, the first occurrence is in Isaiah; going by the prophets in historical order, the first occurrence is in the book of Hosea, who lived in the 8th century B.C.E.

In this week’s haftarah (the reading from the Prophets that accompanies the Torah portion), Hosea criticizes the northern kingdom of Israel for worshiping other gods. He calls the kingdom the “mother” of the Israelites, and declares that she has abandoned her legitimate “husband”, God, and become a harlot.

At first Hosea, speaking God’s words, says Israel has abused her marriage covenant so badly that she and God are now divorced.

Rebuke your mother, rebuke; for she is not my wife, and I am not her ish. (Hosea 2:4)

ish (אִישׁ) = man, husband. (Out of the two Biblical terms for “husband”, ish and ba-al, ish is the more affectionate one.)

Next God promises to inflict drought on Israel. When she turns to other gods for help, God will frustrate her.

She will pursue her lovers, but she will not catch them. She will seek them, but she will not find them. Then she will say: I will go and return to my first ish, because it was better for me then than now. (Hosea 2:9)

After Israel has this thought, God will continue to punish her for a while, destroying her vines and fig trees. Then suddenly God’s behavior toward Israel will change. God will woo Israel into a second marriage, one that will last forever.

Therefore I myself will become her seducer, and I will lead her through the wilderness, and I will speak to her heart. (Hosea 2:16)

What will lead God to become Israel’s seducer?  Is it a response to her pursuit of other gods? Or to her brief realization that she was better off with her first husband, the god of Israel—even though she does not follow up on this realization by pursuing or seeking out God?

After speaking to her heart, God says, God will give Israel good farmland again.

She will respond there as in the days of her youth, as on the day she came up from the land of Egypt. And it will be on that day—declares God—you will call me “my ish”, and you will no longer call me “my ba-al”. I will remove the names of the be-alim from her mouth, and their names will no longer be remembered. (Hosea 2:17-19)

ba-al (בַּעַל), plural be-alim (בְּעָלִים) = owner, husband, master; the West Semitic god of weather, fertility, and war. (The be-alim were different local versions of Ba-al.)

Here the book of Hosea makes two predictions via one word, ba-al. The text says both that Israel will devote herself only to God, forgetting the gods (be-alim ) who were her illicit lovers; and that Israel will think of God affectionately, as a husband who is her ish (her man), rather than her ba-al (her master).

The haftarah portion ends with a marriage formula (which has become part of the prayer for putting on tefillin):

I will betroth you to me forever, and I will betroth you to me with rightness and with lawfulness, and with loyalty and with mercy; and I will betroth you to me with faithfulness, and veyadat God. (Hosea 2:21-22)

veyadat (וְיָדַתְּ) = and you will know. (Biblical Hebrew generally uses the verb yada for knowledge from direct experience, including sexual knowledge.)

This strikes me as an amazing betrothal. In our modern world, when two human beings get engaged, we assume both parties want the marriage and are independently motivated to commit to it. But in this passage, all the commitment comes from God.

Are rightness, lawfulness, loyalty, mercy, and faithfulness the qualities God is promising to exhibit as Israel’s husband? Or are they the qualities God intends to instill in Israel so the marriage can last?

Either way, all Israel does is respond when God speaks to her heart (and gives her farmland). God does not require any prior seeking out, repentance, or reform on Israel’s part. Israel is not required to embody rightness, lawfulness, loyalty, mercy, and faithfulness on her own initiative. God will take care of everything.

And then, the text promises, you will know God.

I suspect that most of us have to search with all our selves, conscious and unconscious, in order to find God. I know my own efforts result in teasing glimpses or transient feelings, but I have never yet been able to say I “know” God.

Yet maybe for some of us, it is enough merely to wonder if we would be better off with God than we are now. Maybe God might unexpectedly speak to our hearts, or inside our hearts, whether we have made an effort or not. And then we would know God, from the inside.

May everyone who needs a personal “marriage” to God be blessed to hear God speak in their hearts, and to know God.