Haftarat Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship

August 11, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Posted in Devarim, Isaiah 1, Jeremiah | 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 Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22) and the haftarah is Isaiah 1:1-27.

Jerusalem, the strong walled city in the hills, the capital of Judah and the site of the temple of the God of Israel, fell to the Babylonian army in 587 B.C.E. On Tisha B’Av, the tenth of the month of Av, Jews remember the razing of the temple by chanting the book of Lamentations/Eykhah, which begins:

Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch by Gustave Dore

Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch
by Gustave Dore

     Eykhah!

     The city sits alone,

     Once great with people.

     She has become like a widow,

     Once great among the nations.

     A princess among the provinces,

     She has become a slave. (Lamentations 1:1)

Eykhah (אֵיכָה) = Oh, how? Alas! How could it be? (See my post Devarim: Oh, How?)

The prophet Jeremiah had been warning the people of Jerusalem to stop worshiping other gods and acting immorally (as well as warning the kings of Jerusalem to submit to the Babylonians before it was too late). But they all ignored him. So the God of Israel, the “god of armies”, according to Jeremiah, let the Babylonians destroy the city that was supposed to be the place where God’s enlightenment came into the world.

The book of Jeremiah calls Jerusalem (and by extension the Israelites) God’s bride, who made a covenant like a marriage with God—and then strayed after other gods and became a prostitute. In Lamentations, she has become a widow, utterly bereft of God.

This week’s haftarah is always read on the Saturday morning before Tisha B’Av, and it also includes the despairing cry, Eykhah!

Isaiah by Gustave Dore

Isaiah
by Gustave Dore

  Eykhah! She has become a prostitute,

     The [once] faithful city

     Filled with justice.

     Tzedek used to linger in her,

     But now—murderers. (Isaiah 1:21)

 Tzedek (צֶדֶק) = virtue, rightness, righteousness justice, good deeds.

 The haftarah, which refers to events in 701 B.C.E., also reminds us that according to the book of Isaiah, God gave the people of Judah and Jerusalem more than a century of opportunities to change their ways before finally the temple was razed.

What misdeeds does Isaiah urge the people to stop doing?

This haftarah is not about worshiping false gods, but about worshiping God falsely—by following the ritual forms without obeying God’s commandments about just behavior toward fellow human beings.

     Why do you give me so many slaughter-sacrifices?
—God says.

First temple altar     I am sated with rising-offerings of rams

     And the fat of meat-cattle

     And the blood of bulls.

     And lambs and he-goats

     I do not want

     When you come to appear before Me.

     Who asks for that from your hand?

     Do not go on trampling My courts

     Bringing oblations!

     Incense is repugnant to Me.

     New moon and sabbath

     Reading to an assembly—

     I cannot endure

     Misdeeds and ritual celebrations! (Isaiah 1:11-13)

Isaiah is especially critical of the government in Jerusalem.

     Your officials are obstinate

     And comrades of thieves,

     Every one a lover of bribes

     And a pursuer of payments.

     They do not judge the case of the orphan,

     Nor does the lawsuit of the widow come to them. (Isaiah 1:23)

Nevertheless, God offers the people a chance to reform and be saved from future wars.

     Go, please, and be set right

     —says God.

Flour Background

     [Even] if your faults are like crimson dye,

     They shall become white like the snow.

     If they are red as scarlet fabric,

     They shall become like fleece.

     If you do good and you pay attention,

     The goodness of the land you shall eat.

     But if you refuse and you are obstinate,

     You will be devoured by the sword… (Isaiah 1:18-20)

The haftarah concludes:

     Zion can be redeemed through justice,

     And those who turn back, through tzedek. (Isaiah 1:27)

*

Like Job, we know that being good is not always rewarded in this world. When we see God as an anthropomorphic judge meting out rewards and punishments, God seems to look away from saints as well as sinners.

Yet the human race as a whole could be redeemed through justice and virtue. If we all dedicated ourselves to following treaties and international laws, to being honest and fair, and to helping the needy, war would disappear.

On an individual level, at least good behavior leads to a clear conscience and the trust of others, and those result in a happier life than the lives of the murderers, thieves, bribe-takers, and heart-hardeners who ruled Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time.

And a happier life than the priests in this week’s haftarah, who spread their hands to bless he congregation even though they, too, are guilty.

     And when you spread out your palms

     I lift My eyes away from you;

     Even if you make abundant prayers

     I will not be listening;

     Your hands are filled with bloodshed. (Isaiah 1:15)

So go ahead and pray, attend services, follow rituals to approach God. But remember Isaiah’s words, and also keep your hands clean.

Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Identity Crisis

December 11, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayeishev, Vayiggash | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

The last four Torah portions in the book of Genesis/Bereishit tell the story of Jacob’s two most dynamic sons: Joseph, who changes from a foreign slave into a viceroy of Egypt; and Judah, who changes from an amoral egotist into a man of integrity. This double post looks at Judah’s transformation in the first half of the story: the Torah portions Vayeishev and Mikeitz, and Judah’s speech at the beginning of Vayiggash.

(My next post, on later events in the portion Vayiggash, will appear two weeks from now.)

Vayeishev (“And he stayed”)

The story begins when Joseph is seventeen. He tends the flocks with his ten older brothers, who are in their twenties, and brings his father bad reports about them. Jacob dotes on Joseph, since he and baby Benjamin are the sons of his second and most beloved wife, Rachel, who died when Benjamin was born. Jacob gives Joseph a fancy tunic or coat. Then Joseph has two dreams in which his brothers are bowing down to him, and he makes the mistake of telling them. Naturally, his older brothers hate him.  As soon as they get a chance, they seize their obnoxious little brother and throw him into a pit.

Joseph's Coast Brought to Jacob, by Giovanni Andrea de Ferarri

Joseph’s Coast Brought to Jacob, by Giovanni Andrea de Ferarri

First they argue over whether to kill him. Then Judah persuades the others to sell Joseph to some slavers heading for Egypt.  The brothers dip Joseph’s fancy tunic in goat blood and bring it to Jacob, saying: This we found; hakker na, is it your son’s tunic or not? (Genesis/Bereishit 37:32)

hakker (הַכֶּר) = recognize, identify.

na (נָא) = please.

The trick works; Jacob concludes a wild beast has killed his favorite son. He goes into inconsolable mourning. And Judah suddenly moves south.

Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that Judah’s brothers blame him for selling Joseph and tricking their father, and claim that if Judah had proposed a better course of action, they would have listened to him. So Judah moves to get away from his father’s grief and his brothers’ resentment—the reminders of his own guilt.

Judah starts a new life by marrying a Canaanite woman and having three sons with her: Eir, Onan, and Shelah.

Judah took a wife for Eir, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. And Eir, the firstborn of Judah, was bad in God’s eyes, and God made him die. Then Judah said to Onan: Come into the wife of your brother and yabeim with her, and establish offspring for your brother. (Genesis/Bereishit 38:6-8)

yabeim (יַבֵּם) = impregnate the childless widow of one’s deceased brother or close male relative. (Yabeim is an imperative verb; the noun for the act is yibum, also called levirate “marriage”.)

According to the law of both Canaan and Israel, a son born from yibum receives the inheritance of the deceased man. Without a son from yibum, the inheritance goes to the man’s surviving brothers.

Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, so when coming into the wife of his brother, he wasted his seed on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And it was bad in God’s eyes, what he did, and [God] made him die, also. (Genesis/Bereishit 38:9-10)

Judah’s remaining son, Shelah, is not yet old enough to impregnate Tamar. Judah uses this as an excuse to send her back to her father’s house.

Then Judah said to Tamar, his daughter-in-law: Return as a widow to your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up. For he said [to himself]: lest he dies, also, like his brothers. And Tamar went, and she sat in her father’s house. (Genesis 37:11)

Judah has no intention of letting Shelah yabeim with Tamar. He assumes that she, not God, somehow caused of the death of Eir and Onan. Determined to protect his remaining son, Judah dooms Tamar to the disgrace of returning to her father’s house, and to the limited life of a woman who is legally forbidden to remarry, have a child, or do anything without her father-in-law’s consent.

Shelah grows up, but Judah does not send him to Tamar. Judah’s wife dies, and after he has finished mourning for her, he heads to a sheep-shearing festival in Timnah to have a good time. Tamar decides to risk her life in an attempt to win a new life.

detail by John Singer Sargent

detail by John Singer Sargent

She took off her widow’s clothing and she covered herself in a shawl and she wrapped herself, and she sat at petach eynayim, which is on the road to Timnah… And Yehudah saw her and he considered her a prostitute, for she had covered her face. (Genesis 37:14-15)

petach eynayim (פֶּתַח עֵינַיִם) = the entrance to a pair of wells; the opening of the eyes.

Prostitutes in Canaan did not cover their faces; Tamar’s face-covering merely prevents Judah from recognizing her.  He assumes she is a prostitute because she is sitting by a public road, where no woman except a prostitute would linger. She may also have wrapped herself in clothing typical for a prostitute.

At petach eynayim, Tamar’s eyes are open behind her shawl; she sees that Judah will never give her Shelah. Judah’s eyes are still closed. Not only does he fail to recognize his daughter-in-law; he cannot see his own past behavior clearly. He propositions the woman sitting by the road.

And she said: What will you give me if you come into me? And he said: I will give a goat kid from the flock. And she said: If you give an eiravon until you send it. (Genesis 37:16-17)

eiravon (עֵרָבוֹן) = guarantee, security deposit, pledge.

And he said: What is the eiravon that I shall give you? And she said: Your seal and your cord, and your staff that is in your hand. And he gave them to her, and he came into her, and she conceived. (Genesis 37:18)

453px-Babylonian_-_Cylinder_Seal_with_Three_Standing_Figures_and_Inscriptions_-_Walters_42692_-_Side_DImportant men in ancient Canaan wore seals on cords around their necks. A seal was a small (about an inch long) cylinder carved with a name or a design indicating the owner’s identity. At that time, documents were written in cuneiform on clay tablets. In order to sign a document, a man rolled his seal along one edge of the clay tablet while it was still wet.

A man’s staff was the emblem of his authority over his own household, clan, or tribe. Thus Judah hands Tamar the symbols of his personal and social identities. When he gets home, he sends his friend to find the prostitute and exchange a goat kid for the eiravon, but she cannot be found.

A few months later Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant, even though she is not allowed to have any sex outside of yibum. This flouting of society’s rules requires the man in charge of Tamar to take immediate action.  Judah might be secretly relieved that now he can order Tamar’s death, and save Shelah for good.

Judah said: Take her out and she shall be burned. Taken out she was; and she sent to her father-in-law, saying: By the man to whom these belong I am pregnant. And she said: hakker na, whose are this seal and cord and staff? Judah recognized them, and he said: She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah. (Genesis 38:25-26)

Judah is shocked into facing the truth by the sight of his own guarantee. On a literal level, these objects prove he is the father, and Tamar’s sexual encounter with him was for the sake of the yibum he had denied her. On another level, the symbols of identity make him see who he really is: not the righteous ruler of his household, but a man who circumvented the law and ruined an innocent woman’s life.

Tamar’s expression hakker na (“Recognize please” or “Identify please”) surely reminds Judah of when he and his brothers showed Joseph’s bloody tunic to their father and said hakker na. So Judah must also face his identity as the ringleader who sold his little brother and tricked his father.

Recognizing your own bad behavior is painful; staying in denial is much more comfortable. In my own life, I have reacted to the realization that I did something wrong in two different ways: Either I feel irrevocably guilty and unable to change into the person I want to be; or I forgive myself for the past but know that I can, and therefore must, behave better from now on.

Judah starts down the second path, publicly admitting his wrongdoing and vindicating Tamar. She returns to Judah’s house, and gives birth to twin sons.

Mikeitz (“In the end”)

When we next see Judah, he has rejoined his father and brothers.  There is a famine in Canaan, but Egypt has grain for sale—thanks to the advance preparations of Joseph, the Pharaoh’s new viceroy. He has risen from rags to riches due to his good attitude, management skills, and a God-given gift of dream interpretation.

Jacob sends his ten older sons to Egypt to buy grain, keeping only Benjamin at home. The loss of one of Rachel’s sons has made Jacob determined to keep the other one safe.

The ten more disposable sons of Jacob bow down to the viceroy of Egypt without recognizing him; Joseph was a teenager when they sold him, and during the last twenty years or so his face and voice have changed, he dresses like an Egyptian nobleman, and he speaks Egyptian. Joseph, however, recognizes the brothers who sold him into slavery. He accuses them of being spies, the first crime that comes into his mind. They protest that they are honest men, and all brothers. Joseph repeats his accusation, so they elaborate, saying they are twelve brothers, but one is gone and the youngest is home with their father. sack-of-grain

Joseph imprisons them for three days, keeps one of them (Simon) as a hostage, and sends the rest back to Canaan under orders to return to Egypt with their youngest brother. (See my earlier post, Mikeitz: Shock Therapy.) He also supplies them with grain, and hides the silver they paid inside their packs.

The nine brothers who return to Canaan explain the situation to Jacob, who responds: As for me, you have deprived me of children! Joseph is gone, and Simon is gone, and now Benjamin you would take! Upon me everything happens! (Genesis 42:36)

As Jacob complains that they have deprived him of children, Judah could not help but remember that for years he also deprived Tamar of children.

Jacob’s oldest son, Reuben, replies: My two sons you may kill if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will personally return him to you. (Genesis 42:37)

Jacob refuses the offer, perhaps because Reuben’s guarantee is so unappealing, and Reuben does not speak again in the Torah. The famine continues, and when the extended family has eaten the last of the grain from Egypt, Jacob tells his older sons to go back to Egypt to buy more food. Then Judah steps forward again as a leader.

The first time Judah speaks in the Torah, he arranges for the brothers to sell Joseph as a slave instead of killing him. He speaks often during the story of Tamar, giving orders, haggling with the woman he takes as a prostitute, and admitting his own wrongdoing.

Now Judah points out that the Pharaoh’s viceroy will not let them return to Egypt without their youngest brother, Benjamin. Then, after Jacob has complained, Judah takes another step down the path of transformation, saying:

Send the youth with me, and let us get up and go, so we will live and not die: we and also you and also our children!  I, personally, ervenu; from my hand you may seek him; if I do not bring him to you and set him before you, I will be guilty before you for all time. (Genesis 43:8-9)

ervenu (אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ) = I will guarantee it. (From the same root as eiravon = a guarantee.)

Earlier in the story, Tamar asked Judah for a guarantee consisting of the physical emblems of his identity as the ruler of a household. Now Judah offers his father a guarantee based solely on his own commitment to do the right thing. And Jacob accepts it.

In Egypt, Joseph treats Benjamin better than his brothers. Then he plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s pack, and has the brothers stopped on their way out. When the goblet is “discovered” in Benjamin’s pack, they all return to the viceroy’s house, and Joseph declares Benjamin must stay as his slave. This is his final test of his brothers; will they enslave Benjamin, as they once enslaved him?

Judah, the leader, speaks for his brothers. He acknowledges that they cannot defend themselves against the charge of theft, and therefore they are all slaves to the Pharaoh’s viceroy. But Joseph insists that only Benjamin will be his slave.

Vayiggash (“And he stepped forward”)

The next Torah portion opens with Judah stepping closer to the viceroy and delivering a passionate plea to let Benjamin go home with his brothers. Otherwise, he says, their father will die of grief. Judah concludes:

So now, please let your servant stay instead of the youth, as a slave to my lord, and let the youth go up with his brothers. For how could I go up to my father when the youth is not with me, and see the evil that would come upon my father? (Genesis 44:33-34)

Then Joseph finally breaks down and reveals his own identity. The whole family is reunited in Egypt.

Why did Judah volunteer to take the punishment for something he did not do?  He guaranteed he would not return to Jacob without Benjamin, and he is determined to be true to his commitment— even if it means losing his position as a free man and household ruler, losing his seal and his staff for good. And although he is not guilty of theft, he knows he is guilty of other bad deeds: selling Joseph into slavery, tricking their father into thinking Joseph is dead, and abusing his power over Tamar.

Judah chooses to be an honest and compassionate slave, rather than an independent agent who is selfish and eternally guilty. By making that choice, he also becomes a man of integrity, and an impressive ancestor for the tribe of Judah and its eponymous kingdom.

We are all born into certain identities, and assigned others by our own society. Not everyone gets a seal and a staff. But we all make moral choices, even though we do not always know we are doing it.

May we all become able to recognize ourselves and identify our own behavior, good and bad. May we become able to consciously choose our moral identities, and may we be inspired to make the right choices.

 

Noach: The Soother

October 21, 2014 at 2:26 pm | Posted in Noach | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

By the end of the first Torah portion in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God regrets creating human beings, and decides to wipe them out. I offered theories about why God thought the human race was spoiled in two of my earlier blog posts: Noach: Spoiled, and  Bereishit: Inner Voices. This year, when I reread the Torah portion named after Noah—Noach in Hebrew—I wondered why such a discouraged God made one exception, and saved Noach and his immediate family from the flood.

Last week’s Torah portion ends: But Noach found favor in the eyes of God. (Genesis/Bereishit 6:8)

This week’s Torah portion, named after Noach, begins: These are the histories of Noach. Noach was a righteous man; in his generations, Noach walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)

Noach (נֹחַ) = Noah; an alternate spelling of noach נוֹחַ)), a form of the verb nuch (נוּח) = come down to rest, settle down.

The first appearance of the verb nuch in the Torah is when Noach’s ark comes to rest on Mount Ararat at the end of the flood in Genesis 8:4. This is also Noach’s turning point, when he finally begins (at the age of 600) to take some initiative: sending out the birds to test the water level, making an animal offering to God, and planting a vineyard.

Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio

Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio

Before the flood, God tells His favorite person, Noach, that people are evil and the whole world has been spoiled.  He gives Noach instructions for making a wooden ark, and says He will flood the earth and destroy all flesh—except for the few humans and animals on the ark.

(I used the pronoun “He” in case because the God character the Torah presents here is quite anthropomorphic, making sweeping generalizations and acting emotionally.)

Later in the Torah, when God tell His favorite person of the era that He is about to commit genocide, that person talks God out of it.  Abraham persuades God to refrain from burning up Sodom if there are even ten innocent people in the city. Moses persuades God to give the Israelites a second chance after they worship the Golden Calf.

But Noach is silent. After God has spoken to him, all the Torah says is: And Noach did everything that God commanded him; thus he did. (Genesis 6:22)

God tells Noach to load seven pairs of each of the ritually-pure animals on board, as well as one pair of each of the impure animals. Then He rephrases His plan, saying that He is going make a flood and wipe out everything standing on the face of the earth (Genesis 7:4).

Again, Noach is silent. The Torah repeats: And Noach did everything that God commanded him.

Both times, Noach makes no protest, but only does what God commands. So God floods the earth.

After the flood is over and Noach empties the ark, his first order of business is acting on the hint implied in God’s order to carry seven times as many of the animals that are ritually pure (according to the rules for purity laid out later, in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra).

Then Noach built an altar for God, and he took from all of the ritually-pure animals and from all of the ritually-pure birds; and rising-offerings went up [in smoke] on the altar. And God smelled the nichoach aroma, and God said to His heart:  I will not again draw back to curse the earth on account of the human, for the impulse of the human heart is bad in its youth … (Genesis/Bereishit, 8:20-21)

nichoach (נִיחֹחַ) = soothing or pleasing to a god. (The use of this word may be a play on Noach’s name, and may also imply that the god in question will be inclined to come down and rest its presence over the sacrifice.)

Noach’s action puts God in a better mood. God has another change of heart, and views the human condition more optimistically and rationally. According to classic commentary, God decides that it is only natural for children to act on their bad impulses, but adults can learn to control these impulses and be good. So God tells Himself not to overreact to human misdeeds again.

Why does the aroma of Noach’s offering soothe God?

Maybe the God character in the Torah, like other Canaanite gods, loves the smell of burning animals. This would explain why God favored Abel’s animal offering and rejected Cain’s plant offering. It would also explain why slaughtering and burning livestock was the primary method of worshiping God from the time of Genesis down to the fall of the second temple 70 BCE. God really liked that barbecue smell, so that’s what the Israelites gave Him.

On the other hand, maybe God provided Noach with excess ritually-pure animals because He remembered Cain and Abel’s spontaneous offerings, and wanted to make sure Noach had something to offer if he happened to feel spontaneous gratitude for being saved from the flood. The thick clouds of smoke from the combustion of more than 33 kinds of birds and beasts reassures God that Noach does, indeed, feel grateful. So God concludes that adults, at least, can feel and act on good impulses.

So have many commentators, from Philo of Alexandria in the first century C.E. to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in the 19th century. But I think both those commentators and the God character in the Torah still had more to learn about human psychology.

Why Noach Burned the Animals

I can imagine Noach acting purely out of fear of this God of wholesale destruction, who cares nothing about innocent children or animals. Noach might well be moved to burn as many animals as possible in the hope of forestalling the Destroyer’s next whimsy.

Another possibility is that Noach acts out of despair. When the flood begins, he had to hustle his own family and the animals he has collected into the ark, then keep everyone else out of it.  God closes the door into the ark, but perhaps Noach could still hear the cries of his own neighbors and the sobbing of frightened children.

When the flood waters sink, Noach would see not only mud and broken trees, but floating corpses. He goes ahead and sacrifices the excess ritually-pure animals because he has figured out God wants him to. There is no point in disobeying God now. He wishes he had spoken up earlier, before the earth was destroyed.  Did God leave another hint that he missed? Could he have done anything to save more people? Now it is too late, and Noach has to live with himself.

He listens to God’s speech giving instructions for living in the new world, and promising that a flood will never destroy the earth again. But I think Noach is too depressed to care.  As soon as God is done talking, Noach plants a vineyard. In the next sentence, he gets drunk.

Some commentators criticize Noach for his silent obedience. But when I reflect on my own life, I know that the number of times I spoke up in favor of justice or mercy were few in comparison with all the times I felt powerless and kept my mouth shut. When the person in authority has absolute power and does not show compassion, it is hard to risk a loss of acceptance, loss of a job, or even loss of one’s life. I can only feel sorry for Noach.

The most frightening thing about the Torah portion Noach is that the person in authority is a god, a god who gets carried away by egotistical emotions and has only a primitive sense of justice. Even today, natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions can be taken as evidence of a morally deficient god.

That’s why, when I write about these parts of the Torah, I often refer to “the God character”. The anthropomorphic character that the Torah stories refer to by various names of God is simply not the same as the creator of the universe; or the theologians’ omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being; or the essence and totality of existence; or even the mysterious unknown we sometimes sense with our non-rational minds.

Yet we can still learn from Torah stories in which the God character not only creates and tests and destroys human beings, but also learns from them. There is a God character inside each of our psyches, as well as a Noach, and an Abraham, and maybe even a Moses.

Bereishit: The Other Tree

October 15, 2014 at 8:35 am | Posted in Bereishit | Leave a comment
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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.

 

Eikev: Reward and Punishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiroshige, detail

Hiroshige, detail

The next two verses promise a reward:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Kedoshim: Hard to Love

April 21, 2014 at 8:37 am | Posted in Kedoshim | Leave a comment
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Some people are hard to love.

The word “love” in English and the word ahavah (אַהֲבָה) in Biblical Hebrew have the same wide scope, including all four of the types of love distinguished in Classical Greek: agapé (selfless devotion to the welfare of another), eros (sensual desire for and attachment to another person, or enthusiastic attachment to a pleasurable activity), philio (mutual affection and harmony between friends), and storgé (fondness for familiar people, animals, and places).  This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim (“Holiness”), commands the agapé type of love, devotion to the welfare of another—even when warm feelings do not arise naturally, and the only reward is knowing you are doing the right thing.

You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you must definitely reprove your fellow person, so you shall not carry guilt because of him. You shall not take revenge and you shall not hold a grudge against the members of your people; ve-ahavta lerei-akah kamokha; I am God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:17-18)

ve-ahavta (וְאָהַבְתָּ) = and you shall love, and you shall be loving.

lerei-akha (לְרֵעֲךָ) = to your colleague, to your fellow.

kamokha (כָּמוֹךָ) = like you, like yourself, as yourself.

The phrase ve-ahavta lerei-akha kamokha is often translated as “and you shall love your fellow as yourself”. The problem with this translation is that the word rei-akha has the prefix le-, which is the preposition “to”.  So a more literal translation is: And you shall be as loving to your fellow as you are to yourself.

In other words, you are not required to feel love for your fellow humans, only to act loving toward them. If the fellow in question is someone you are in love with (eros), or a friend (philio), or a  familiar person you have grown fond of (storgé), then it is usually easy to act loving toward them.  But what about someone you are not fond of, someone who has wronged you?

This week’s Torah portion calls for agapé (devotion to the welfare of another) for those who have wronged us.  We are forbidden to take revenge, and we we forbidden to holed a grudge.  We may not feel love for them, but we must act as if we did, and at least banish any feeling of hatred.

We must reprove them for what they did, and then, even if they neither apologize nor make amends, we must let go of our anger. On top of that, we must devote ourselves to their welfare as we do to our own welfare.

Does this mean I have to spend just as much time and energy on improving the lot of my antagonists as I do on improving my own lot? Oy, vey! My time and my energy are limited, and when it comes to improving someone’s welfare, I do not want to stint on doing good things for myself, my husband, my son, or my friends. Anyway, why should I do anything good at all for someone who wronged me?

The verse above does not necessarily mean And you shall be loving to your fellow [exactly as much as you are loving to] yourself. It could also be translated: And you shall be loving to your fellow, [who is] like yourself. Remember, says the classic commentary: you, too, are fallible, and you, too, make moral mistakes. If you can still be loving to yourself, you can be loving to your fellow the same way.

Yet sometimes this argument is not enough. Either you feel too upset about the other, or you feel too ashamed of yourself. Then what? The book of Genesis/Bereishit says we are all created in the image of God. Jewish kabbalah says we all contain divine sparks; we are all part of God. 19th-century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that since human beings are part of God and God wants us to perfect ourselves, it is our duty to devote care both to our own welfare and to the welfare of everyone else. This is how we can fulfill our duty to be loving toward God.

I would revise this argument to say that all human beings are moral agents for God. When we act lovingly, promoting what is good for every person, we are improving God (or the divine spirit, or holiness) as we improve the world. When we act hatefully, toward ourselves or toward anyone else, we are undermining God as we undermine the world. I know that “doing the right thing” myself will not help everyone I encounter, but I believe it will at least contribute to an overall improvement in the world. So I practice acting with kindness and respect for everyone, whether I feel like it or not. And the longer I do it, the more I feel like it.

So may it be for all of us.

Haftarah for Metzora –2 Kings: Insiders and Outsiders

April 1, 2014 at 12:11 am | Posted in Kings 2, Metzora | Leave a comment
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Last week’s haftarah (the reading from the Prophets that accompanies the week’s Torah portion) tells the story of Na-aman, an Aramean general whose skin disease, tzara-at, disappears when he gives up his arrogance to follow the advice of the prophet Elisha. (See my post Tazria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance.)

Although Aram and Israel are at peace when Na-aman comes to Elisha for a cure, hostilities resume later in the second book of Kings. Eventually an Aramean army besieges Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Trapped inside the city walls, the Israelites begin to run out of food. The price of food skyrockets, and two women eat a child.

Meanwhile, four men with tzara-at are living in exile outside the city walls. The Torah says that tzara-at, unlike all other skin diseases, is an affliction caused by the touch of God. The afflicted must live alone, outside the camp or town, until God removes the disease and a priest declares them ritually pure.

God may also afflict houses with tzara-at, according to this week’s Torah portion, Metzora (“Someone with tzara-at”). No one may live in a house with tzara-at in the walls.

Why does God touch people and houses with tzara-at? The book of Leviticus/Vayikra does not say, but in the Babylonian Talmud (Arachin 16a), the rabbis say tzara-at is caused by slander, and then list six other causes: bloodshed, swearing falsely, incest, arrogance, robbery, and envy. All of these bad deeds or bad attitudes not only sin against God, but also poison one’s relationships with other people. No wonder the Torah requires a metzora to stay away from the community.

In this week’s haftarah, the four men with tzara-at who live just outside the besieged city of Samaria are also starving. They come to the city gate, but they receive neither food nor a check-up from a priest to see whether they have healed and can come back inside. The haftarah picks up the story as they consider their options.

Four men were metzora-im at the entrance of the gate, and each one said to his neighbor: Why are we sitting here until we die? If we say “Let’s come into the city”, and the famine is in the city, then we will die there. But if we sit here, then we will die. So now, let’s go and surrender ourselves to the camp of Aram. If they let us live, we live; and if they put us to death, then we die. (2 Kings 7:3-4)

metzora-im (מְצֹרָעִים) = the plural of metzora  (מְצֹרָע) = someone afflicted with tzara-at.

In other words, the four men decide to defect to the Arameans on the chance that they will survive. Although most commentary criticizes the metzora-im for their disloyalty to Israel, I think they are far more ethical and less disloyal than the two Samarian women inside the city who resort to cannibalism. After all, the men do not even consider killing any Israelites in order to eat them.

So they got up in the twilight to come to the Aramaean camp. They came up to the edge of the Aramaean camp, and hey! Nobody was there! (2 Kings 7:5)

God had made the Aramean soldiers hear the sounds of an approaching army, complete with chariots and horses. Assuming that the king of Israel had hired mercenary forces, the Arameans had fled for their lives, leaving behind their horses, donkeys, and tents.

The four would-be defectors enter a tent, eat and drink their fill, then take the silver, gold, and clothing and hide it. After they have looted a second tent, it occurs to all four of them that they could rescue the starving Israelites in the city.

Then they said, each one to his neighbor: We are not doing right. Today is a day of good news, and we are delaying it. If we delay until the light of morning, we will be found guilty. So now, let’s go, and we will come to the house of the king and tell it. (2 Kings 7:9)

The men have two motivations for reporting that the enemy has fled: because it is the right thing to do, and because they do not want to be found guilty if they delay until someone on the city wall can see that the Aramean camp is deserted.

The gatekeepers of the city do not let in the metzora-im. Nevertheless, they shout out the good news, and the gatekeepers pass it on to the king’s house inside. Then the city of Samaria empties as everyone rushes through the gate to loot the deserted Aramean camp.

There is no indication of what the four men did that led God to punish them with tzara-at in the first place. By the time they appear in the haftarah, they seem fairly decent; they do not consider either using violence against anyone to get food, or taking revenge against the city that excluded them. Nor do they exhibit any of the seven causes of tzara-at listed in the Talmud, unless their looting of abandoned Aramean tents counts as robbery, a word used to mean taking forcible possession.

But what about the cannibalism that occurs inside the city just before the haftarah begins? One Samarian woman complains to the king of Israel:

That woman said to me: Give your son and we will eat him today; and my son we will eat tomorrow. And we cooked my son and we ate him. Then I said to her the next day: Give your son and we will eat him. But she hid her son! (2 Kings 6:28-29)

These two women commit five of the seven anti-social deeds on the list:

Slander: The actual idiom in the Talmud is lashon hara = the evil tongue. The woman who complains to the king is guilty of lashon hara because she points out the other woman and defames her.

Bloodshed: Obviously both women are guilty of murder.

Swearing falsely: The first woman complains that the second woman made a false vow when she promised they would eat her son the next day.

Incest: The actual idiom in the Talmud is “exposing the nakedness”. Although incest does not technically occur in the story, the first woman does expose her son’s vulnerability and violate his body.

Arrogance: Both women assume their lives are more valuable than the child’s life.

I would argue that the women inside the city deserve tzara-at more than the men outside the walls. When everyone rushes out of the city to loot the Aramean camp, it is echoes the requirement in the Torah portion Metzora that a house with tzara-at must be emptied and abandoned until its walls become pure again.

I know that I, like most human beings, feel as if some people are too awful to tolerate, and I want to exclude them from my community or my in-group—at least until they show signs of overcoming their anti-social traits. No doubt sometimes my diagnosis is correct. But I must remember that sometimes my in-group might be more at fault than the person I want to exclude. The affliction might be inside my own walls.

May we all keep the gates of our souls open to new developments, and close our gates only when we really are besieged.

Lekh-Lekha (and Bereishit): Giving Directions

October 9, 2013 at 11:02 am | Posted in Bereishit, Lekh Lekha, Noach | 2 Comments
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For me, every story in the book of Genesis/Bereishit is another fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And the God who speaks to individual people, from Adam to Jacob, is like a human teacher trying to prod people into making conscious choices and moral judgments.

Like other animals, we humans make most of our decisions automatically, out of instinct and habit. Sometimes we stop to solve a practical problem or an intellectual puzzle. But only rarely do we stop to solve a moral problem. When we do become aware of a moral issue, and of our ability to choose between good and evil actions, I think we are tasting another fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

The anthropomorphic God in Genesis often talks to Himself, debating what to do next. He also talks to human characters, asking them questions, telling them His plans, blessing and cursing them, making covenants with them, and giving them directions.

“God” tries out several methods for giving directions. In the second creation story, “God” makes a single human out of dirt and breathes life into it. After placing the human (ha-adam) in the garden of Eden, the God character gives it an instruction.

figGod tzivah the human, saying: From every tree of the garden, certainly tokheil. But from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, not tokhal; for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die. (Genesis 2:16-17)

tzivah = commanded, ordered, directed.

tokheil, tokhal = you will eat, you shall eat, you should eat, you could eat, you may eat, you can eat, you are going to eat, you must eat.

It is impossible to translate this passage literally, because biblical Hebrew has only one verb form for action that has not yet happened. Is “God” telling the human “you must not eat” from the tree of knowledge, and if you do, you will be punished with death? Or is “God” saying “you could not eat” from it without becoming mortal?  Either translation is correct.

The God character’s motivation in giving this order is also open to interpretation. Classical commentary assumes “God” wants the human to stay in the garden, in a state of moral ignorance, and therefore after the female and male humans eat the fruit, they are punished for disobeying orders. I think “God” points out the Tree of Knowledge in order to show the adam, the solo and sexless human, that it can act of its own free will, and gain knowledge. But the adam passively follows orders, and nothing changes. I can imagine the God character wondering what it will take to get the humans to make a choice and acquire a sense of good and evil, so He can remove them from Eden and place them in the real world! “God” solves the problem by splitting the human it into male and female persons, and inventing the snake to make the female human think.

The next person in the Torah to get moral training is Cain, who gets upset when God shows a preference for Abel’s offering over his. Perhaps because reverse psychology did not work well with Adam, “God” avoids anything that sounds like an order when He first addresses Cain.

Cain, by Henri Vidal, detail

Cain, by Henri Vidal, detail

 

And God said to Cain: Why are you making yourself angry, and why has your face fallen? Is it not so: if you do good, [there is] uplifting; but if you do not do good, wrongdoing waits at the door, and its desire is for you. Yet you can rule over it. (Genesis 4:6-7)

Cain does not get the hint, and in a fit of rage kills his brother Abel.

In the story of Noah, the God character tries a different approach.

God said to Noah: The end of all flesh is coming before Me, because the earth is filled with violence on account of them, and here I am, the one Who destroys the earth.  Make for yourself a floating-container of gofer wood; you shall make the floating-container compartmented, and you shall cover it inside and outside with caulking. (Genesis 6:13-14)

If what “God” wants is for Noah to obey orders, His new style works. Noah simply follows orders, and makes no independent decisions until after the flood. But commentators have wondered for millennia whether Noah’s mechanical obedience is actually what “God” wants. (See my post last week, Noach: Righteous Choices.) What if “God” is hoping that Noah will propose an alternative, the way Abraham does later when “God” announces He will destroy Sodom and Gommorah?

abraham-looks-at-starsThis week’s Torah portion, Lekh-lekha, begins with the God character’s first direction to Abraham.

God said to Abraham: Lekh-lekha, away from your land, and away from your home, and away from the house of your father, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great people, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so it will become a blessing. (Genesis 12:1-2)

Lekh = Go!

-lekha = yourself, for yourself, to yourself.

Here the God character’s order specifies what Abraham should leave behind, but gives no details about the future he is walking into. What “God” does communicate is that this move is important for Abraham, not just for God. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) interpreted Lekh-lekha as “Go for yourself”, i.e. for your own sake. The Zohar (a 13th-century kabbalistic text) interpreted it as “Go to yourself”, i.e. recreate yourself as a new individual, separate from your past.

All the promises of blessing, while non-specific, also serve to let Abraham know that going to the new land will be for his own benefit. This is the first time in the Torah that “God” promises a reward for obeying His directions.

Abraham responds to the divine direction by leaving home for good, as instructed. But he takes some initiative and prepares for his own future by bringing along his wife, nephew, servants, and livestock.

Since the voice of God does not even tell him which way to head when he leaves his father’s house in Charan, Abraham chooses to travel west into Canaan. Only after he has reached Shechem, well inside Canaan, does “God” appear to him and say: To your offspring I will give this land. (Genesis 12:7)

The God character’s method of giving partial directions, promising an eventual reward, and leaving the rest up to the human being seems to be the most successful approach so far. Abraham responds by leaving his old familiar habits behind, and making new choices.

Today, few people hear God giving them direct instructions in Biblical Hebrew. But I can imagine the God character in these stories as an inner voice from the human subconscious, struggling to be heard properly.

There are many ways for a human being to get stuck and wait passively for change, instead of looking for a good action and bravely doing it. At times in my life I have been like the adam, obeying orders without raising questions, avoiding any potential conflict. I had to reach a certain level of misery before an inner voice from God’s snake reminded me that it would not kill me to pick the fruit and liberate myself, to choose my own course and act.

At times in my life I have been like Cain, feeling as though I am at the mercy of a bad desire. Yet eventually I hear the divine hint that I can master the desire, and choose to do good.

Other times, I feel overwhelmed, drowned, by the demands of other people and by the way the world works. I want to make my own little floating container and hide in it. But my conscience nags at me, reminding me that I cannot hide in an ark without bringing my family and hordes of hungry animals with me. God wants engagement with the world.

And yes, periodically I have heard an inner call to leave my familiar but not-so-good life, and set out for an unknown destination and destiny, like Abraham. So far, responding to that voice has led to blessings.

May we all be blessed to listen to our inner “God” voice, and never lose the taste of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Bereishit: Inner Voices

September 25, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Posted in Bereishit | 4 Comments
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The first Torah portion in the first book of the Torah (both called Bereishit, “In a beginning”, in Hebrew) opens with God’s creation of the world. It closes with God’s decision to destroy the world and start over again.

Just before God makes this decision, the Torah gives us a curious story fragment:

And beney ha-elohim saw the daughters of the human, how tov they were, and they took themselves wives from whomever they chose. (Genesis 6:2)

The Nefilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, for beney ha-elohim came into the daughters of the human, and they bore children to them. They were the mighty ones from long ago, men of renown. (Genesis 6:4)

beney ha-elohim = the sons of God.

tov = good, attractive.

What does “the sons of God” mean? Some traditional commentary claims the phrase refers to superior human men, who make the mistake of marrying an inferior class of women. Other commentators say the “sons of God” are angels, angels of a lower grade than the malachim (“messengers”) that appear in the Torah in human form in order to speak as mouthpieces for God.

What strikes me is that the phrase beney ha-elohim appears only four times in the whole Hebrew Bible: twice in the passage above, and twice in the book of Job. The book of Job begins by describing how upright, good, and God-fearing Job is. Then the scene shifts to the court of God:

One day beney ha-elohim came to present themselves in front of God, and ha-satan came too, in the middle of them. And God said to ha-satan: Where do you come from? And ha-satan answered God, and said: From roving about on the earth and from going back and forth on it. (Job 1:6-7)

ha-satan = the adversary, the obstacle

God pays attention to ha-satan, and does not question any of the other “sons of God”. The Adversary doubts whether Job is genuinely good and God-fearing, and persuades God to test Job’s faithfulness. God assigns the Adversary to strike all Job’s possessions. Ha-satan eliminates Job’s wealth and all his children—for no good reason—but Job still blesses God.

Then one day beney ha-elohim came to present themselves in front of God, and ha-satan came too, in the middle of them, to present itself in front of God. And God said to ha-satan: Where do you come from this? And ha-satan answered God, and said: From roving about on the earth and from going back and forth on it. (Job 2:1-2)

Once again God only converses with ha-satan. The Adversary persuades God to test Job again, this time by afflicting his body, and God authorizes another injustice in order to find out what Job will do.

The book of Job is a theological conversation in the guise of a story about a man who lived long ago and far away. In order to set up the question of whether God is just, the story uses an allegory of God in His court, receiving His sons, the lesser gods (a scene obviously borrowed from one of the pantheistic religions in the region).

But on another level, I see both stories about beney ha-elohim as allegories for the human mind.

In the book of Job, I think God’s court represents the human mind. The decision-making ego is visited by various sub-personalities, including one that takes an adversarial role and obstructs the ego by planting doubt, then tempting the ego to abandon morality in order to find out for sure.

In the book of Genesis, the interaction between “the sons of God” and the “daughters of the human” can also represent the human mind. Like ha-satan in Job, beney ha-elohim in Genesis  visit the earth. The purpose of the visit in Job is to observe the human beings from a different perspective than God’s, and bring that perspective into the heavenly court that I think represents the human mind.

The purpose of the visit in Genesis is to marry and “come into” human women. When the book of Genesis says “for beney ha-elohim came into the daughters of the human, and they bore children to them”, we can read it as simply a description of the sons of God having sex with their wives, who then give birth to mighty and famous men. But we can also read it as a representation of subconscious aspects of the mind coming into the consciousness of human women, and inspiring them to give birth to new ideas and notions.

In the Bible divine inspiration, ruach elohim, can be good or bad; good when a prophet is moved to speak out and warn people they are doing wrong, but bad when King Saul is seized by divinely-induced madness. What if divine inspiration comes from different aspects of God, different “sons”? One aspect might give us an impulse to speak out against injustice. Another aspect (such as ha-satan in Job) might give us an impulse to commit any injustice in order to prove a point.

The “sons of God” in Genesis are apparently bad impulses, leading to bad thoughts and actions.

And God saw the abundant badness of the human on the earth, that the shape of every idea of his heart was only bad all the time. And God nicham that It had made the human on the earth, and It was heartbroken. (Genesis/Bereishit 6:5-6)

nicham = had a change of heart, reconsidered. (This verb covers at least two kinds of change of heart: regret, and consolation.)

Before the beney ha-elohim show up, the humans on earth seem like a mixed lot, more good than bad. Cain is a murderer, and his great-great-great grandson Lemekh boasts to his wives about vengeance, but the other people the Torah mentions seem innocent enough. When Enosh is born, people start invoking the four-letter name of God. One of Enosh’s descendants, Enoch (Chanokh), “walked with God”.

Only after the beney ha-elohim influence the human race does God consider the ideas of the human heart “only bad all the time”. Perhaps these “sons of God” are like ha-satan in Job. The Adversary in Job corrupts the ruling god with feelings of doubt. The sons of God in Genesis apparently introduce urges that corrupt the conscious mind of the human “daughter”, and become obstacles to good behavior.

And God said: I will wipe away the human that I created from the face of the earth, from human to beast to creeper to flyer in the sky, because I have nicham that I made them. But Noah found grace in the eyes of God. (Genesis/Bereishit 6:7-8)

In next week’s Torah portion, God decides to start the world over again with Noah and his family (as well as pairs of all the animals). This is like deciding to eliminate all those awkward feelings of beney ha-elohim, and reduce the mind to a single virtuous ego. Yet when the flood ends, God reaches the more mature conclusion that the human mind is always subject to evil, and decides to put up with it.

Today, we all hear the mental voices of divine inspiration inside our own minds. Sometimes they are Adversaries, trying to push us off the right path and make us act out of doubt or resentment or another negative urge. Sometimes they enter with enlightenment, and impregnate us with ideas that lead to good actions.

May we all learn to put up with the many shapes of our ideas, as the god in Genesis did. And may we all become more discriminating about our inner promptings than the god in Job.

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