Haftarat Vayiggash—Ezekiel: You Can’t Go Home Again

January 2, 2017 at 8:20 am | Posted in Ezekiel, Vayiggash | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets) in the Jewish tradition. This week’s Torah portion is Vayiggash (Genesis 44:18-47:27), and the haftarah is Ezekiel 37:15-28.

Cut a board into two pieces, then glue them back together. The glued board is not identical to the original board.

Ezekiel, by Michelangelo

Ezekiel, by Michelangelo

Yet Ezekiel, in this week’s haftarah, says two separate ethnic groups that once shared a religion will again become one nation.

And the speech of God happened to me, saying:  And you, son of Adam, take yourself one piece of wood and write on it “belonging to Judah and to the Children of Israel, its chaveirim”. And take another piece of wood and write on it “belonging to Joseph, the wood of Ephraim and all the household of Israel, its chaveirim”. And bring them close, one to the other, to [make] yourself one piece of wood; and it will be as one in your hand.” (Ezekiel 37:15-18)

chaveirim (חֲבֵרִים) = comrades, companions, partners. (From the root verb chavar, חָבַר = allied, joined forces.)

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob has twelve sons and acquires a second name, Israel. Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, alienates his ten older brothers. Led by Judah, the ten young men sell Joseph to a slave caravan bound for Egypt. (Jacob’s twelfth son, Benjamin, is still a baby at the time.) In this week’s Torah portion, the brothers are reunited after a final confrontation between Joseph and a reformed Judah. Their descendants become the twelve tribes of Israel—who escape from Egypt 400 years later, as one people called the “Children of Israel”.

All twelve tribes settle in Canaan, but they only become a unified nation called “Israel” under King David, according to the second book of Samuel. After the death of the next king, Solomon, the northern part of the country secedes.

circa 800 B.C.E.

circa 800 B.C.E.

The new northern kingdom calls itself Israel, since it includes the traditional lands of most of the original tribes. Its richest and most dominant tribe is Ephraim, which is the name of one of Joseph’s sons. In Ezekiel’s time the northern kingdom no longer exists, but one piece of wood represents the descendants of its people by listing Joseph, Ephraim, and the tribe’s chaveirim or companion tribes from the former kingdom.

The truncated southern kingdom calls itself Judah/Yehudah. It includes only two tribal lands: the large area of Judah and the small traditional territory of Benjamin. They, too, are Children of Israel.

For two centuries the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are uneasy neighbors—sometimes allies, sometimes enemies. What they continue to have in common is their attachment to the same God (often called “the God of Israel”)—though they disagree about the correct number of temples and how to furnish them.1

The Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 740-721 B.C.E. and deported its leading citizens, leaving only its peasants and a few puppet administrators. During several waves of deportation, some northerners escaped to Judah.map-assyrian-babylonian-deportations

The southern kingdom of Judah survived another 150 years or so by paying tribute to Assyria. Then the Neo-Babylonian Empire swallowed the Assyrian Empire and went on to conquer Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, in 601-586.  King Nebuchadnezzar’s army deported Judah’s leading citizens (including Ezekiel) to Babylon, leaving only peasants and puppet administrators.

God instructs Ezekiel to continue his performance art with the two pieces of wood until someone asks him to explain it. Then, God says, Ezekiel must answer:

Thus says my lord God:  Hey! I myself … will be making it one piece of wood. And they will be one in My hand…  (Ezekiel 37:19)

Thus says my lord God: Hey! I myself will be taking the Children of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will collect them from all around, and I will bring them to their land. And I will make them a single nation on the land, in the hills of Israel, and one king will be king for all of them. And never again will they be two nations… (Ezekiel 37:21-22)

Ezekiel can only hold the “Judah” stick and the “Joseph” stick together to make one piece of wood symbolically. But God promises to reunite the two peoples literally, making them chaveirim who are not merely allies, but a single, seamless kingdom as in the time of David. This kingdom will be a home for everyone who worships the God of Israel; one land with one king, one capital (Jerusalem), and one temple, greater than the first.

Yet in human experience, time is unidirectional. We cannot go backward; our world never returns to the way it used to be. We can only go forward, building with the material we have now. Boards cut from a tree can never become a tree again, but we might make them into a chair.

Ezekiel’s prophesy never came true. After the Persian Empire took Babylon in 539 B.C.E., some of the exiles from Judah did return to Jerusalem and build a second temple, and some of their descendants served as provincial governors of Judea. Other Judahites stayed behind, building a thriving Jewish community that eventually produced the Babylonian Talmud. Most of the exiles the Assyrians deported from Israel were assimilated and lost their identity and religion.

There never was another independent kingdom of Israel. The third “temple” in Jerusalem is a mosque. After millions of Jews were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators, the nation of Israel was created in 1948 C.E., and its population now includes almost half the Jews in the world. Almost as many Jews live in the United States. If Ezekiel were here to prophesy today, he would write “Israel” on one piece of wood and “U.S.A.” on the other.

Yet the two groups of Jews are so dissimilar that only a trickle emigrate from one nation to the other. Currently, American Jews are generally respected by their fellow Americans; Israeli Jews dominate Israel and deal with entirely different issues. I cannot imagine the two groups forming a single nation in a single land, even if there were room for all of us.

*

May all human beings, of any religion or tradition, recognize that we can’t go home again; if we try, we find that our old home has changed. Change is the nature of this world, the world of the God whose personal name is a form of the verb meaning “to become”.2

I pray that we may all move beyond Ezekiel’s vision; that we may all find new ways to help our own identities, our communities, and our religions grow, wherever we live. And may we also find new ways to work together with people who were once strangers.

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1 The opinion of Judah prevailed in the Hebrew Bible: that there should be only one temple, in Jerusalem, and the only statues allowed are the two keruvim, mythical winged creatures. (See my post Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.) The Bible criticizes the northern kingdom of Israel for maintaining temples at Dan and Beit-El as well as its capital, Samaria, and for the golden calves standing at the entrances of the temples in Beit-El and Dan (2 Kings 10:29).

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

Haftarat Mikeitz—1 Kings: No Half Measures

December 28, 2016 at 5:19 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Mikeitz | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 3:15-4:1.
Anointment of King Solomon

Anointment of King Solomon

Solomon, the young new king of Israel, has a dream just before this week’s haftarah reading. God offers him not three wishes, but one wish:

At Gibeon God appeared to Solomon in a dream in the night, and God said: “Ask, what shall I give you?”  (1 Kings 3:5)

Solomon, being already somewhat wise, does not ask for wealth. long life, or the defeat of his enemies (as God notices with approval). After mentioning his own inexperience as a leader, the new king says:

May You give Your servant an understanding mind to judge Your people, lehavin between good and bad.  For who is able to judge this impressive multitude of Your people?  (1 Kings 3:9)

lehavin (לְהָבִין) = to be able to discern, to gain insight.  (From the same root as binah, בִּינָה = insight.)

God responds:  Hey! I have done as you spoke. Hey! I gave you a mind [which is] wise and navon…  (1 Kings 3:12)

navon (נָווֹן) = perceptive, discerning.  (Also from the same root as binah.)

In the Garden of Eden, God tells Adam not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad. (See my post Giving Directions.) But in the dream at Gibeon, God grants Solomon’s wish for the ability to discern between good and bad.

The young king wakes up from his dream and returns to Jerusalem at the opening of this week’s haftarah, sacrifices at the altar, and holds a banquet.

It was then that two prostitute women came to the king and stood before him.  (1 Kings 3:16)

Solomon asked for understanding and binah in order to be a good judge for the whole multitude of Israel. His first case is a dispute between two of its most despised members: prostitutes. Normally a local elder would judge this case; a king would only serve as a court of appeals or as the judge for affairs of state.  Either the two prostitutes have already gone to a local judge, who was unable to decide on a ruling, or they simply barge in on the new king’s party and he decides to hear them out instead of throwing them out.

Since the two prostitutes are never named in this story, I will quote only their dialogue as they present their case, identifying each speaker as Woman #1 or Woman #2.

by Andrea Mantegna

by Andrea Mantegna

Woman #1:  Please, my lord, I and this woman [#2] are living in one house, and I gave birth with her in the house.  And it happened that on the third day after my giving birth, this woman [#2] also gave birth.  And we were together; there was no stranger with us in the house except me. The two of us were in the house.  (1 Kings 3:17-3:18)

So far, Woman #1 has explained that there were no witnesses to the event she is about to describe. But a discerning listener—and Solomon is now discerning—would notice that unlike other Israelite women, the two prostitutes do not live with any family members. They live alone in a shared house. Clients (including the unknown fathers of their infants) may come and go, but they have only one another for companionship and help.

Woman #1:  Then the son of this woman [#2] died at night, when she lay down on him. And she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side, while your servant [woman #1] slept. And she [woman #2] laid him in her bosom.  And her son, the dead one, she laid in my bosom. When I got up in the morning to nurse my son, hey! He was dead! Va-etbonein him in the morning, and hey! He was not my son to whom I had given birth!  (1 Kings 3:19-21)

va-etbonein (וָאֶתְבּוֹנֵן) = but I looked closely at, but I paid attention to, but I was perceptive about. (From the root binah, like the words lehavin and navon in Solomon’s dream.)

Woman #2:  No, for my son is the living one and your son is the dead one!  Yet this one [woman #1] is saying: “No, for your son is the dead one and my son is the living one.”  (1 Kings 3:22)

While Woman #1 tells a complete story, Woman #2 merely contradicts her on the key question: Who is the mother of the living infant?  Like Woman #1, she refers to her housemate and companion only as “this one” or “this woman”. The trauma of the dead baby has alienated the two women; they are no longer friends. Now they are desperate competitors for a baby to nurse and love (and eventually, if all goes well, a grown son to support them in old age).

Judgment of Solomon 14th century

The Judgment of Solomon
14th century

King Solomon summarizes the dispute, then calls for his sword. His servants place it between the king and the two women. This dramatic visual aid makes his words more believable when he says:

Cut the boy in two, and you shall give half to one and half to the other.  (1 Kings 3:24-25)

In a fairy tale, that is what the evil monster would say, prompting the two women to unite against him. But this is a wisdom tale about an insightful judge.

The Bible does not dictate what a judge should do if two people claim ownership of the same object, and there are no witnesses or other evidence. But the Mishnah (written ~200 C.E.) for the Talmud tractate Bava Metzia discusses the problem using the example of a valuable garment two people are holding onto as they speak to a judge.

Talmud Readers by Adolf Berman

Talmud Readers
by Adolf Berman

One of them says “I found it’ and the other says “I found it’. One of them says “it is all mine’ and the other says “It is all mine”. Then one shall swear that his share in it is not less than half, and the other shall swear that his share in it is not less than half, and it shall then be divided between them.  (Bava Metzia 2a, Soncino translation)

The Mishnah it is a record of “oral law”, i.e. previously unwritten legal precedents thought to date back to the time of Moses. So the above rule may well have been in use since the books of Kings were written in 6th century B.C.E., about seven centuries before the Mishnah was written.

The haftarah does not say whether both women are holding onto the baby while they stand before the king. But if so, this precedent would give King Solomon an excuse for uttering the same ruling about a disputed baby as he would about a disputed garment.

Both women believe he means it, and are shocked into revealing more about themselves.

The Judgment of Solomon by William Blake

The Judgment of Solomon
by William Blake

And the woman whose son was living said to the king—because her compassion was stirred up over her son—she said: “Please, my lord, give the living boy to her, or you will certainly kill him!” But the other one was saying: “Let him be neither mine nor hers.  Cut him!” (1 Kings 3:26)

Which woman begs the king to give the living baby to her enemy, in order to save his life—Woman #1 or Woman #2? Which woman is so fixated on winning the dispute over ownership that she no longer cares about the child? The text is not clear, though perhaps the first woman to present her case (Woman #1) is also the first woman to speak after Solomon’s shocking order.

And the king responded, and he said: “Give her the living boy, and certainly do not kill him. She is his mother!  And all Israel heard the judgment that the king had judged, and they were in awe in face of the king, because they saw that the wisdom of God was within him to do justice.  (1 Kings 3:27-28)

The bottom line is that only a woman who wants a baby to live is fit to be its mother. Anyone who would rather let a child die than lose a dispute is an unfit parent, even if she reacts that way only in a moment of temporary insanity. King Solomon proves that he can go beyond legal considerations and rule according to his God-given binah between good and bad.

I suspect the compassionate mother is Woman #1, the one who told a coherent story about what happened. She is the one who saidva-etbonein him in the morning: she paid attention to the infant, looking at him with a Solomon-like discernment. She implied that if she had recognized the dead baby as her own, she would have accepted her loss; she knows infants are not interchangeable.

Woman #2 speaks only to insist that she owns the living baby, without offering any explanation. I can imagine her making the midnight substitution in order to get the advantage for herself, without even considering whether her action is ethical. When Woman #1 demands her own child back, Woman #2 is reduced to saying: No, it’s mine!

If Woman #2 is also the woman who says “Cut him!” she lacks not only compassion, but also any knowledge of good and bad.

Nobody is good all of the time. Waking up next to a dead baby might fill any woman with grief and horror. With no one to comfort her, and breasts full of milk, Woman #2 might have switched the babies in the middle of the night without thinking it through. But when Woman #1 discovered the substitution in the morning, a woman with a heart would have apologized, cried, and handed over the living baby.  Who knows, perhaps then the two lonely prostitutes could have made peace and raised the boy together.

But when one of the two women insisted on lying, peace and friendship became impossible. The innocent woman could not bear, and would not dare, to continue living in the same house with a predatory liar. Yet she has no family or friends to help her get away and protect her and her son. She goes all the way to the king, who turns out to have the binah to see the truth.

Unfortunately, compassion and truth do not always triumph in our world. Those who have little power can still be victimized by people who never tasted fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad—people who are impaired either by their genes or their upbringing, and do not understand the moral imperative of being human.

I pray that every powerless victim may either escape or find a wise judge.  And I pray that everyone who is called upon to judge may be granted binah—and compassion.

 

Haftarot Vayeitzei & Vayishlach—Hosea: A Heart Upside Down

December 7, 2016 at 9:26 am | Posted in Hosea, Vayeitzei, Vayiggash | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), and the haftarah is Hosea 12:13-14:10. Next week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43) and the haftarah is Hosea 11:7-12:12. 1
Together, the passages from Hosea show us a God whose “heart has turned upside down”.

A punishment from God! That’s how the Bible describes almost every plague or military defeat the Israelites suffer, from the time they leave Mt. Sinai to the fall of the temple in Jerusalem. God gets a hot nose (the biblical idiom for anger) when the Israelites fail to live up to their covenant with God—by not trusting God to provide for them, by worshiping other gods, or by neglecting God’s ritual and ethical laws. Then God yells at them through a prophet, and lashes out with a deadly punishment.

Yet in the second half of Isaiah, God says the Israelites have suffered enough, and forgives them.  And in the haftarot for this week and next week, two contiguous sections the book of Hosea, God is torn between vicious anger and tender-hearted love.

Baal in bronze, from Ugarit

Baal in bronze, from Ugarit

The double passage begins with God saying:

            My people are stuck in meshuvah from me.

            Upward they are summoned—

            They do not rise at all. (Hosea 11:7)

meshuvah (מְשׁוּבָה) = backsliding, defection (to other gods), disloyalty.

The people of the northern kingdom of Israel (which Hosea also calls Efrayim, after the tribe of its first king, Jeroboam) remain trapped in their habit of worshiping Baal, even though prophets such as Hosea call for reform. When any of the people of Israel or Judah persist in worshiping idols, God usually becomes enraged and threatens destruction.  But this time, God says:

           How can I give you up, Efrayim?

            [How] can I hand you over, Israel?

            How can I put you in the position of Admah?

            [How] can I treat you like Tzevoyim?

            My heart nehapakh.

            It is altogether anxious, and I have had a change of heart. (Hosea 11:8)

nehapakh (נֶהְפַּךְ) = has turned upside down, turned around, been overturned.

Admah and Tzevoyim were villages annihilated along with their neighbors, Sodom and Gomorrah, and presumably shared their immorality. Although the northern kingdom of Israel is engaging in the Baal-worship of its neighboring kingdoms, the thought of annihilating Israel turns God’s anger into anxiety.

            I will not act on the anger of My nose.

            I will not turn to destroy Efrayim.

            Because I am a god, and not a man;

            The holy one in your midst.

            And I will not come with agitation. (Hosea 11:7-9)

The book of Hosea implies that only a human man would reject his unfaithful wife in anger.  A god, unlike a man, is able to master emotional reactions. The God of Israel chooses the path of love instead—at least for a few more verses. Then God remembers:

            Efrayim encircled Me with false denials,

            And the house of Israel with deceit… (Hosea 12:1)

            It cut a covenant with Assyria;

            Then it brought oil as tribute to Egypt. (Hosea 12:2)

The book of Hosea, like the book of Jeremiah, urges the Israelites not to become vassal states of other empires, but to remain independent and trust God to protect them. The government of the northern kingdom is deceiving itself by pretending that an alliance with a foreign empire does not affect its service to God, but only leads to wealth and power. Israel, personified as Efrayim, says:

from Croesus by Nicholas Knupfer

from “Croesus” by Nicholas Knupfer

            How rich I have become!

            I have found power for myself.

            [In] all my labor they cannot find crooked activity

            That is a sin. (Hosea 12:9)

Efrayim knows his shady dealings are crooked, but tells himself that he is good as long as he does not break the letter of the law.  However, God knows better.

            And now they add sin to sin

            And they make for themselves molten images…

            They speak to them!

            Sacrificers of humans, they kiss calves! (Hosea 13:2)

God’s nose gets hot again, and God speaks of punishing the Israelites in various terrible ways, concluding:

            By the sword they shall fall;

            Their infants shall be smashed on rocks,

            And their pregnant women shall be ripped open! (Hosea 14:1)

Then Hosea advises the Israelites to pray for forgiveness and promise never to worship idols again. (See my post Haftarot for Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuva.) Their words are enough to turn God’s heart upside down once again. God says:

            I will heal their meshuvah.

            I will love them nedavah.

            For my hot nose has turned away from them. (Hosea 14:5)

nedavah (נְדָבָה) = voluntarily, freely, as a gift, spontaneously.

A prayer and a promise are enough to change God from an angry punisher into a loving and forgiving healer. God’s love is not even contingent on the Israelites fulfilling their promise.

God predicts that the Israelites will be cured of their meshuvah, their habit of disloyalty and defection, in response to God’s freely given love.

            Efrayim [shall say]:  “What are idols to me now?”

            I Myself shall respond and I shall look at him with regard. (Hosea 14:9)

*

Parents and teachers are familiar with the conundrum God faces in these haftarot. After you have told children what they are doing wrong, and what they should do instead, do you wait for them to change their behavior before you reward them?  Or do you shower them with love first, hoping that they will then change in response to your trust in them?

I suspect the right answer is different for each child. And once in a while, when a child is testing you, you need to show that your temper has limits, and mete out an appropriate level of punishment.

In most of the Bible, God is not a wonderful parent or teacher. The anthropomorphic God has a hair-trigger temper, and “His” punishments include early and painful death for thousands of innocent people. But Hosea holds up a different model when he suggests that a god has more self-control than a man. The God of Israel need not act like a man who cannot overcome his anger against an unfaithful wife, Hosea says. God can stay calm and heal humans of their slavish devotion to idols and emperors—through love.

Today many adult humans try to meet the higher standards that Hosea set for God, behaving with self-control, good judgment, and love. It is not easy, since we seem to be made in the image of the old anthropomorphic God, full of both anger and love.

Underneath those feelings, can we come close to a more holy God?  I believe we can, if we spend enough time reflecting and turning our hearts upside down, as well as recognizing our self-deceit and denial and pushing through to deeper truths.

            You, you must return to your own god!         

            You must observe kindness and just judgments,

            And eagerly wait for your god, constantly! (Hosea 12:7)

 

1 (There is an alternate tradition of reading the book of Obadiah for next week’s haftarah, but Obadiah merely predicts the triumph of the people of Jacob (Israel) and the complete downfall of the people of Esau (Edom), without offering any reasons or any characterizations of God, Jacob, or Esau. Hosea 11:7-12:12, on the other hand, mentions Jacob wrestling with the mysterious being, a key feature of the Torah portion Vayishlach, as well as considering divine and human psychology.)
 

Haftarat Toledot—Malachi: Respectfully Yours

November 30, 2016 at 9:00 am | Posted in Malachi, Toledot | 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’s Torah portion is Toledot (Genesis 25:19-28:9), and the haftarah is Malachi 1:1-2:7.

Do religious rituals and observances matter? How important is it to get the details rigcalf-ashkleon-silverht?

The three faults that draw the most condemnation from the prophets in the Hebrew Bible are

1) worshiping other gods,

2) behaving unethically toward other people, and

3) failing to follow the rules of rituals—in that order, if one judges by the number of words devoted to each.

When the prophets criticize the Israelites for their sacrifices at the temple, they usually condemn them for going through the ritual motions while continuing to act unjustly toward the poor, orphans, and widows.

But when the prophets criticize the temple priests, they denounce them for not teaching the Israelites about God (Jeremiah 2:8), for not separating the holy from the unholy and the pure from the impure (Ezekiel 22:26 and Zephaniah 3:4), for charging fees to make religious rulings (Micah 3:11), for promoting sexual sins (Hosea 6:9), and, in this week’s haftarah, for accepting defective animals as offerings for the altar.

Second Temple, Jerusalem

Second Temple, Jerusalem

The last prophet in the Hebrew Bible is Malachi, whom most scholars date to the 5th century B.C.E., when the homeland of the Israelites has become a province in the Persian Empire, and Ezra and Nehemiah have rebuilt Jerusalem and its temple.

A pronouncement: the word of God to Israel, by the hand of Malakhi. (Malachi 1:1)

Malakhi (מַלְאָכִי) = Malachi (usual English spelling); My malakh.

malakh (מַלְאָךְ) = messenger, either human or divine.

God’s messenger delivers God’s complaint against the priests of the second temple.

“A son should honor a father, and a slave his master; but if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am masters, where is My reverence?” says the God of [Heavenly] Armies to you, the priests who are bozeh of My sheim. And you say: “How are we bozeh of Your sheim?” (Malachi 1:6)

bozeh (בּוֹזֶה) = being in contempt, slighting, disrespecting, demeaning, finding insignificant.

sheim (שֵׁם) = name, reputation.

God answers:

“Presenting on My altar degraded food, then you ask: How are we degrading you? When you say: The table of God is nibezeh. Then if you present a blind [animal] for a slaughter-sacrifice, there is nothing wrong, and if it is lame or sick, there is nothing wrong!” (Malachi 1:7-8)

nibezeh (נִבְזֶה) = insignificant, contemptible, not worthy of respect. (From the same root verb as bozeh.)

Temple altar

Temple altar

The animals are given by the people, but the priests must decide whether each animal is acceptable to burn on the altar that serves as God’s “table”. Malachi astutely diagnoses the problem with flawed offerings: although the end-product of smoke is the same, priests who accept defective animals as gifts for God are showing contempt for God’s reputation. This teaches the people that they can give God any old leftovers; they need not honor God the way they would honor a parent or a master by serving a beautifully presented dinner.

The haftarah contrasts this negligent attitude with the respect and reverence that Israelite priests used to show for their God.

A torah of emet was in his mouth

And no wickedness was found on his lips;

In peace and on level ground he walked with Me

And he turned many away from wrongdoing. (Malachi 2:6)

torah (תּוֹרַה) = instruction, direction; the sum of God’s law; a book containing God’s laws. (From the same root as yoreh (יוֹרֶה) = he will teach; and moreh (מוֹרֶה) = teacher.)

emet (אֱמֶת) =  reliability, trustworthiness, truth; reliable, trustworthy, true.

A good priest teaches the people what to do, both ritually and ethically. The priest’s actions are consistent with his teachings; he is honest, what we call being “on the level” even in English. Therefore his instructions are emet.

kohen-ordinary-garmentsBecause the lips of a priest preserve knowledge

And they seek torah from his mouth;

Because he is a malakh of the God of [Heavenly] Armies.

But you turned away from the path;

You made many stumble through the torah;

You wiped out the covenant of the Levites, said the God of Armies. (Malachi 2:7-8)

Just as the author of the book Malachi is a malakh, a messenger from God, every priest must be a responsible malakh.

The Talmud extends this requirement to everyone who teaches about God. Rabbi Yochanan says: “If the rabbi is like a messenger of the God of Armies, they should seek the law at his mouth; but if he is not, they should not seek the law at his mouth.” (Babylonian Talmud, Mo-ed Katan 17a)

Back to our original question: Do rituals matter? And how important is it to get the details right?

For the priests at the second temple in the 5th century B.C.E., it was essential. They had to carry out the letter of the law concerning animal sacrifices, particularly the requirements for unblemished animals, in order for the people to see that they took God seriously.

After the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., Judaism’s new teachers, the rabbis cited in the Talmud, focused on interpreting and extrapolating the laws in the Bible that did not require offerings at a temple. The examples they set in their personal lives were also scrutinized. If you wanted your rulings to be respected about the shape of lamps permissible on Shabbat or which slaves a master is obligated to feed, you had to follow all the rules yourself.

Today many rabbis and other teachers of the Torah, as well as many teachers of other religions, are primarily concerned with ethical behavior toward fellow human beings. The Hebrew Bible addresses ethics, but provides proof texts for contradictory opinions. For example, in one passage Moses commands genocide (see my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent).  In another, God tells Moses to tell the people: You shall not wrong a stranger, and you shall not oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (ExodusShemot 22:20)

In the face of conflicting passages, a modern Torah interpreter is responsible for finding the deepest truth and teaching it. Rabbi David Frankel wrote: “Thus, what makes Torah “true” is the sincerity and integrity with which one pursues the process of searching and interpreting.”

I am continually away of the shortcomings in my own behavior when I teach the Torah in a class, in a service, or in this blog. Not only is my idea of keeping kosher too idiosyncratic for most observant Jews, but I catch myself falling short of my own standards for kindness and justice. Are my words emet? Probably not. I can only pray that my sincere attempts to wrestle with the text and reach through to the divine spirit behind it will somehow lead to an occasional flicker of inspiration.  I may not walk with God on level ground, but I am grateful for this journey.

 

Haftarat Chayyei Sarah—1 Kings: Final Duty

November 25, 2016 at 12:44 pm | Posted in Chayyei Sarah, Joshua, Kings 1 | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Chayyei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 1:1-31.

And Abraham was old, ba bayamim, and God had blessed Abraham in everything. (Genesis/Bereishit 24:1)

King David from a 17th century Flemish painting

King David from a 17th century Flemish painting

And the king, David, was old, ba bayamim, and they covered him with [bed]clothes, but he did not feel warm. (1 Kings 1:1)

ba (בָּא) = he came; coming, coming in, arriving, entering.

bayamim (בַּיָּמִים) = in the days; at the time.

Ba bayamim is often translated as “advanced in years”; Biblical Hebrew sometimes uses “days” where English would use “years”. Ba bayamim could also be translated as “coming on in years” or literally, “arriving at the time”.

The term occurs only six times in the Hebrew Bible: once in this week’s Torah portion, once in the haftarah (above), and four times in the book of Joshua (including the variants bata bayamim (בָּאתָ בַּיָּמִים) = you have arrived at the time, and bati bayamim (בָּאתִי בַּיָּמִים) = I have arrived at the time).

Joshua's Tribal Allotments, 1759 map

Joshua’s Tribal Allotments, 1759 map

Joshua was old, ba bayamim. And God said to him: You have grown old, bata bayamim, and a lot of the land left over/remains to take possession of. (Joshua 13:1-2)

God tells Joshua he must apportion among the twelve tribes all of the land that will someday be Israel. After Joshua has accomplished this, the book repeats:

…and Joshua was old, ba bayamim. And Joshua summoned all Israel, its elders and its chiefs and its judges and its officials, and he said to them: I am old, bati bayamim. (Joshua 23:1-2)

He then makes a farewell speech urging them to serve God faithfully in order to keep the land.

Both points in the book of Joshua where ba bayamim and a variation of the phrase appear, there is a task the old leader must do before he dies. I believe this is also true when the phrase appears in reference to Abraham and David.

Abraham is old, ba bayamim, when he is in his 130’s, wealthy, and at peace with his neighbors. He is also still vigorous enough to remarry, have six more sons, and live to 175. But when he becomes ba bayamim he arranges a wife for his estranged son Isaac, whom he and God have chosen as his successor, so that his tribe’s lineage and religion can continue.

(Later, he leaves gifts to his younger six sons, and sends them away from Isaac so there will be no dispute about the inheritance.)

When King David is ba bayamim, he is 70 years old and frail. But he, too, has a final task to accomplish: he must establish which of his surviving sons will be king now that he is no longer able to rule.

There are factions behind three different candidates: Adoniyahu, David’s oldest surviving son; Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba; and possibly David himself, if he can return to health.

Following the announcement that David is old and ba bayamim, the haftarah says:

David and Abishag, by Jacob Epstein

David and Abishag, by Jacob Epstein

And they covered him with [bed]clothes, but he did not feel warm. So his avadim said to him: They will seek for my lord the king a virgin girl to stand in waiting on the king. And she will be a nurse for him, and she will lie in your bosom and make warmth for my lord the king. (1 Kings 1:1-2)

avadim (עֲבָדִים) = slaves, servants, employees, courtiers.

Some commentators claim that the king’s courtiers only want a girl to provide warmth, but in that case, why do the avadim specify that the king’s new bed-warmer must be a virgin?

Other commentary claims they want someone to stimulate David’s flagging sexual energy. If a virgin gets pregnant on the job in the closely watched king’s bedchamber, it will prove that David is still virile enough to rule. So the king’s avadim select a young woman who is both a virgin and beautiful, who can both warm him and stimulate him.

And they sought a beautiful girl through all the territory of Israel, and they found Avishag of Shunem, and they brought her to the king. And the girl was very beautiful, and she became an attendant on the king, and she waited on him. But the king did not know her intimately. (1 Kings 1:3-4)

The king’s courtiers are probably disappointed. If David’s kingship were extended, they could continue with their own positions in the palace. A new king might fire them, or worse.

And Adoniyahu, son of Chaggit [David’s fourth wife], was aggrandizing himself, saying: I will reign! And he made himself a chariot and horsemen with fifty men going before him. (1 Kings 1:5)

And he spoke with Yoav son of Tzeruyah, and with Evyatar the Priest, and they supported Adoniyahu. But Tzadok the Priest, and Benayahu son of Yehoyada, and Natan the Prophet, and Shimi the Friend, and the fighting men who were David’s, were not with Adoniyahu. (1 Kings 1:7-8)

Tzadok, Natan, and their faction prefer Solomon, Bathsheba’s son. King David himself has no idea what is going on.

King David with Avishag and Bathsheba, c. 1435

King David with Avishag and Bathsheba, c. 1435

So Natan asks Bathsheba to go to David and remind him that he once promised her Solomon would become the next king.

And Bathsheba came to the king in the inner chamber. And the king was very old, and Avishag of Shunem was waiting on the king. And Bathsheba knelt, and she bowed down to the king. And the king said: “Mah lach?”

Mah lach (מַה־לָּךְ) = What is the matter? (Literally, “What is for you?”)

These are the first words David speaks after the Bible tells us he is ba bayamim.  He is too miserable to find out what is going on in his kingdom, and too sick to be interested in sex (though he once had eight wives and ten concubines). But he rouses himself when Bathsheba comes for an audience.

She  reminds David about his promise, and tells him that Adoniyahu has made himself king behind David’s back.  Then Natan comes in, bows, and asks David why he made Adoniyahu king without telling his loyal servant Natan.

Alert at last, King David swears Solomon will be the next king, and gives instructions to make it happen. The story continues after this week’s haftarah with a scene in which the people celebrating Adoniyahu’s kingship hear another crowd blowing shofars and shouting “Long live King Solomon” at the Tent of Meeting. Solomon gets to the throne first.

David's Dying Charge to Solomon, by Ferdinand Bol, c. 1700

David’s Dying Charge to Solomon, by Ferdinand Bol, c. 1700

When King David is old and ba bayamim , he is too feeble to complete his final task on his own. His avadim get him a new concubine, while his son Adoniyahu schemes to seize the throne. King David’s succession has almost slipped out of his control when Natan and Bathsheba induce him to give orders about the next king—something he should have done before he was reduced to lying in bed shivering.

When we grow old, some of us find that we have tidied up as we went along, and nothing remains to be done. But some of us are ba bayamim, arriving at the time when we must finish a task before we die. May we all be aware of our own time and achieve what we need to.

And when the time comes, may each of us die not like David, but like Abraham.

And Abraham died at a good old age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:8)

(I dedicate this post to my mother-in-law, Mildred Carpenter, who died last week at age 96, surrounded by her family, leaving nothing undone.)

Haftarat Lekh-Lekha—Isaiah: Seeing the Invisible

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

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

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

Siloam Tunnel under Jerusalem

Siloam Tunnel under Jerusalem

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

What do you do when God seems absent?

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

            Why do you say, Jacob,

            And why do you assert, Israel:

            “My path is hidden from God,

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

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

            Do you not know?

            Surely you have heard?

            God is the god of all time,

            Creator of the ends of the earth.

            Never yiyaf and never will It grow weary.

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

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

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

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

Babylonian Gods of the Dead, bronze

Babylonian gods of the dead, bronze

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

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

            Notein laya-eif koach,

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

Notein (נוֹתֵן) = Giver, giving.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Haftarat Noach—Isaiah: From Raging Flood to Free Drinks

November 3, 2016 at 10:14 am | Posted in Isaiah 2, Noach | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). However, this week the haftarah is almost a duplicate.  This week’s Torah portion is Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32), and the haftarah is Isaiah 54:1-55:5—which includes all of haftarah for the Torah portion Re’eih, eight weeks ago.

After the flood subsides in this week’s Torah portion, God swears:

Never again to curse the earth on account of the human, since the yeitzer of the heart of the human is bad from its youth; and never again to destroy all life, as I have done.  (Genesis/Bereishit 8:21)

from a landscape by Peter Paul Rubens, ~1630

from a landscape by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1630

yeitzer (יֵצֶר) = what is shaped or formed; by extension, an impulse or a tendency. (From the root yatzar, יָצַר = shaped, formed.)

Perhaps God senses that It overreacted, wiping out not just the entire human race, but all land-based animals (except for those on Noah’s ark). God might have tried to educate humankind, or at least to issue a detailed warning and then exercise selective punishment against chronic transgressors. God warns Noah about the flood 100 years ahead of time, so God might even have given Noah instructions for acting as a teacher and prophet. But in the Torah, God only instructs Noah about how to build and fill the ark, and then releases the flood. The divine rage at human evil is unabated. (See my post: Noach: Spoiled.)

The first chapter of this week’s haftarah compares God’s covenant with the Israelites to a marriage, and God, the husband, says:

           In a flood of rage I hid My face a while from you

           But with unending loyal kindness I had compassion on you,

           —said  your redeemer, God.

           Like the days of Noah this is to me:

           As I swore that the waters of Noah would not pass over the earth again,

           So I swear against becoming angry at you and against rebuking you! (Isaiah 54:8-9)

Many a battered wife has heard a promise like that, as I pointed out when I discussed this haftarah eight weeks ago. (See my post Haftarah for Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser.)

But after God has finished promising that “he” will never, ever throw the Israelites out of the house again, or bring over foreign bullies to attack them, the haftarah abruptly takes a different turn.

Water Carrier, by Francisco Goya ~1810

Water Carrier, by
Francisco Goya ca. 1810

           Hoy! Everyone who is tzamei! Come for water!

            And if you have no silver, come, buy and eat!

            And come, with no silver and with nothing to barter, buy wine and milk! (Isaiah 55:1)

Hoy! (הוֹי) = Oy! My goodness! Alas! Oh! Oh, no! Oh, dear!

tzamei (צָמֵא) = thirsty.

Instead of a raging flood, God offers drinking water. Then God promises food, wine, and milk, all free of charge. What is this poetic largesse?

Second Isaiah is addressing the exiled Israelite families that were deported to Babylon in 597-586 B.C.E. when King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah and Jerusalem. Apparently these exiles were familiar with a passage from the book of Amos (circa 760 B.C.E.):

Hey!  Days are coming—declares God—when I will send a famine into the land: not a famine for bread nor a tzama for water, but for hearing the words of God.  And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east they shall roam, seeking the word of God, but they shall not find it. (Amos 8:11-12)

tzama (צָמָא) = thirst.  (From the same root as tzamei.)

Amos prophesied the end of the northern Israelite kingdom of Samaria (which fell to the Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.), and promised a distant future when God would reinstate the Israelites in their own lands.  Until then, he warned, people who were hungry and thirsty for the word of God would be unable to find it.

The “word of God” means either directives from God—the rules of the religion—or teaching (in Hebrew, torah, תּוֹרָה) by and about God. When the Babylonian Talmud was assembled around 500 C.E., there was already a tradition comparing torah with water. Ta’anit 7a and Bava Kama 82a in the Talmud even cite Isaiah 55:1 as proof that “water” means torah.

Second Isaiah declares that Amos’s distant future has arrived. After all, when King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.E., the Israelites became free to return to their old homelands and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Now people who were hungry and thirsty for the word of God can find it.

The haftarah picks up where Amos left off and gives further information about the word of God: it is free, and it will sustain the soul. Just as water is essential for the human body to live, the word of God is essential for the human soul to live.

by Mary Cassat, 1908

by Mary Cassat, 1908

Furthermore, according to second Isaiah, one can even get milk and wine for free.

Milk appears in the Bible as the nourishment humans receive without hard labor. Mothers nurse their infants, and the land that God promises to give the Israelites is repeatedly described as a “land flowing with milk and honey”. The luxury of milk is given out of parental love: a mother’s tenderness or God’s compassion.

            Wine makes the heart glad. (Psalm 104:15)

Although the Bible denounces excessive drinking, it calls for wine in sacraments as a sign of joy. Wine first appears in the Torah when Abraham returns victorious from a regional battle. Malki-tzedek (“King of Righteousness”) of Jerusalem brings him bread and wine and blesses him in the name of God. Later the Torah requires that people bring libation offerings of wine to the altar along with their offerings of animals and grain.

Since the word of God is compared to water, milk, and wine, Joanne Yocheved Heligman wrote in The Women’s Haftarah Commentary, focusing on “spiritual goals” will nurture us with a balance of physical sustenance (water), love (milk), and spiritual joy (wine).

I would add that spiritual work is sustaining, like water, when it involves reading, studying, and interpreting words. It is nurturing, like milk, when it involves praying and behaving ethically toward other people. And it brings joy, like wine, when we have emotional and mystical experiences—although we must avoid becoming drunk on religious experiences and spending too much time away from the practical world.

When we feel empty and long for something we might call God, are we longing for water, milk, or wine?  The Psalms identify the longing for God’s presence with thirst for water.

           Like a deer who longs for streams of water,

                 So my soul longs for You, God;

           My soul is  tzamei  for God, for the god of life.

                 When can I come in? (Psalm 42:2)

May we all discover where to find free water, and all the other nourishment we long for.

Haftarat Bereishit—Isaiah: A Reason to Exist

October 26, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Isaiah 2 | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week we read the very first Torah portion, Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8) and the haftarah is Isaiah 42:5-43:10.

In the beginning are the gods, or one god. The god(s) make the sky and the earth.  Later, the god(s) invent human beings.

That order of creation appears in most of the myths of the ancient Near East, from the Sumerians of circa 3000 B.C.E. to the Israelites of circa 530 B.C.E. But the reason why human beings were created changes.

Creation of the Human in Enuma Elish

The Sumerian creation myth was retold in Mesopotamia for thousands of years, with different names for the gods. The most complete expression of this myth that archaeologists have found so far is several copies of the Enuma Elish, a seven-tablet book in Akkadian cuneiform dating to about 1100 B.C.E.

Tiamat pursued by Marduk

Tiamat pursued by Marduk

The story begins when the two primordial gods mixed their waters together”, and the female, Tiamat, gives birth to more gods.  The gods multiply, and two factions fight against each other.  The hero-god (Marduk, in the copy from Babylon) kills Tiamat, the leader of the other faction, and creates the world out of parts of her body. Then he has a clever idea: the gods won’t have to work to get their own meals if they create humans to serve them.  The gods bind Tiamat’s favorite consort, Kingu, and an older god, Ea, makes humankind out of Kingu’s blood.

            From his blood he created mankind,

            On whom he imposed the service of the gods, and set the gods free.  (Enuma Elish, Tablet 6, lines 33-34)

Tablet Seven of Enuma Elish specifies the work the humans will do for the gods: providing lavish food offerings, taking care of their shrines, burning incense for them, and retelling their heroic stories.

Creation of the Human in Genesis 2

The first Torah portion in the Bible offers two creation myths.  It opens with an account organized into seven days, which was probably written sometime between the 9th and 6th centuries B.C.E. during the time of the first temple in Jerusalem. This account is immediately followed by a story that was probably written down earlier, in the 10th century B.C.E.

The second story begins:

On the day of God’s making the earth and the heavens, no bushes of the field existed yet on the earth, and no greens of the field had sprouted yet, because God had not made it rain upon the earth, and there was no adam to work the ground.  But fresh water ascended from the earth and watered all the surface of the ground. God vayitzer the adam out of dirt from the ground, and blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and the adam became an animated animal. (Genesis/Bereishit 2:4-7)

Hand of God, by Auguste Rodin

Hand of God,
by Auguste Rodin

adam (אָדָם) = human, humankind.

vayitzer (וַיִּיצֶר) = then he/it shaped, formed. (From the root yatzar (יָצַר) = shaped, formed, fashioned.)

In this creation myth there is only one god, and no sex. God makes the earth and the sky, but the writer does not care how. The important thing is that the earth consists of bare, moist dirt.  This is God’s raw material for making humankind, along with God’s own breath. One can imagine God as a human artist shaping a figure as if modeling clay, then blowing into its nostrils and bringing it to life.

And God took the adam and put it in the garden of Eden, to tend it and to watch over it. (Genesis 2:15)

God runs a few experiments, telling the adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge, inviting it to name animals, splitting it into male and female humans, and providing a talking snake.  Eventually God sends the two humans back into the world, which now contains rain, plants, and animals as well as dirt.

God does not create the adam to serve as a slave. Instead, the adam must watch the garden—while God is watching the adam.

Creation of the Human in Genesis 1

The redactors of the Bible placed the creation myth written during the time of the first temple at the very beginning of the book, before the earlier story about God making the adam out of dirt and breath. This story starts:

In a beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)

In this account, God is a spirit and a voice that speaks things into being. No raw materials are necessary. The account is divided into seven days, and God does not create humans until the sixth day, right after the other mammals.

Sixth Day of Creation, Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Sixth Day of Creation,
Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

And God created the adam in Its image, in the image of God It created it; male and female It created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subjugate it! And rule over fish of the sea and birds of the skies and all animals that crawl over the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

Today it is obvious that we have gone overboard in subjugating the earth and its animals. But in the Torah, before God assigns humankind that job, God says the human is made in God’s image. Perhaps humans are God’s proxies, assigned to handle the administration of the earth in place of God.

Creation of the Human in Second Isaiah

The second half of the book of Isaiah was written around 550-510 B.C.E., when King Cyrus of Persia finished conquering the Babylonian Empire. The prophet encourages the Israelite families that were deported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar’s conquering army to take advantage of King Cyrus’s policy of letting subjugated populations return to their former lands and rebuild temples for their own gods.

The exiles needed a lot of encouragement. Many of them doubted that the god of a nation that no longer existed would have the power to help them.  This week’s haftarah declares that God still has a purpose for the Israelites and will indeed redeem them.  Second Isaiah alludes to both of the creation stories in Genesis, reminding the Israelites that their god is the ultimate god, the creator of the world and all humankind, before he or she turns in a new direction.

            Thus said the god, God—

                        Creator of the heavens, stretching them out,

                        Spreader of the earth and her products,

                        Giver of breath to the people upon it,

                        And spirit to those who walk on it—   

by Waithamai

by Waithamai

           “I am God.  I summoned you with right conduct,

            And I held you firmly by your hand,

           Ve-etzarekha, and I gave you

            A covenant of a people, a light of nations.

           To open the eyes of the blind…” (Isaiah 42:5-7)

ve-etzarekha (וְאֶצָּרְךָ) = and I shaped you.  (From the root yatzar.)

Here God giving breath and spirit to all humanity, then “shapes” the children of Israel, using the same verb, yatzar, as when God shaped the adam our of dirt in Genesis 2. Second Isaiah implies that God yatzar the children of Israel in order to receive a covenant. Next the old covenant between God and the Israelites acquires a new purpose: in addition to obeying all of God’s rules, the people must now enlighten other nations.

What are the people of other nations (as well as many exiled Israelites) not seeing?

According to the haftarah, the Israelites must spread the word that God’s prophecies always come true, and the God of Israel is the only real god.

           You are My witnesses,

                        declares God,

            And My servant whom I have chosen. (Isaiah 43:10)

*

In all four creation stories from the ancient Near East, gods create the world and then add human beings.  In Enuma Elish, the purpose of humankind is to work for the gods.

In the oldest creation story in Genesis, the purpose of humankind seems to be to increase knowledge: human knowledge of the garden and of good and bad, and divine knowledge of human nature.

In the opening creation story in Genesis, the purpose of humankind is to rule over the earth and its other animals.

In second Isaiah, the purpose of the Israelites is to enlighten other peoples, ultimately leading them to convert to worshiping the God of Israel as the only real god.

Today the theory of evolution provides a logical explanation of why human beings exist, and many people consider our mental complexity an accidental side-effect of the process. In this line of thinking, humankind seems to have no purpose; the best we can do is follow Sartre and invent our own individual reasons for being.

But modern science cannot explain everything; there is room for a new concept of God, and even for the idea of a collective purpose.  What if there is a purpose for humankind in general?  What might it be?

Haftarat Simchat Torah—Joshua: Strong and Resolute

October 19, 2016 at 12:40 pm | Posted in Joshua, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Vezot Habrakhah, Yom Kippur | 1 Comment
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The standard cycle of Torah readings ends with Moses’ death in the last Torah portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim, Vezot Habrakhah. On the holy day of Simchat Torah, most Jewish congregations read this last portion in a Torah scroll, then roll the scroll all the way back and read the beginning of Genesis/Bereishit. The accompanying haftarah (reading from the Prophets) is Joshua 1:1-18.

Have you ever tried to turn over a new leaf, and found that without a systematic process you soon slide back to your old ways?

One process for changing your life can be found in the Jewish holy days from Rosh Hashanah to Simchat Torah. I realized this year that these days are a recipe for a 23-day period of transformation.

Blowing the Shofar, from Minhagim, 1707

Blowing the Shofar,
from Minhagim, 1707

1) On the two days of Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”), we declare the beginning of a new year. And we wake up when we hear the blast of the shofar, a loud wind instrument made out of a ram’s horn.

2) On Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), having apologized to the people we have wronged and forgiven those who wronged us, we go on to confess our errors to God and forgive ourselves.

3) During the seven days of Sukkot (“Huts”), we eat, sleep, and study (as much as the weather permits) in temporary shelters whose roofs of branches let in some rain and starlight.  The new lives we are creating for ourselves are like these sukkot: fragile, not secure—but open to nature, to other people, and to the presence of the divine.

Hoshana Rabbah, by Bernard Picart c. 1733

Hoshana Rabbah,
by Bernard Picart c. 1733

4) On the seventh day, Hoshana Rabbah (“Great Supplication”), we circle the sanctuary seven times while beating willow branches on the floor to symbolically disperse the last traces of the previous year’s misdeeds.

5) On Shemini Atzeret (“Eighth Gathering”), we pray for rain so that the new seeds we have planted will grow during the winter.

6) On Simchat Torah (“Rejoicing in Torah”), we read the end of the Torah scroll (the last portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim, called Vezot Habrakhah, “And this is the blessing”). Then we roll it back to the beginning and read about the creation of the world in Genesis/Bereishit. In this way we acknowledge the blessings of the old year, close the book on our past mistakes, and launch into creating our new life.

The haftarah for Simchat Torah is the beginning of the book of Joshua, right after Moses has died. Everything must change now. Joshua, who has spent 40 years as Moses’ attendant, must quickly become the de facto king of the Israelites. The Israelites, who have spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, complaining about the food, learning the rules of their new religion from Moses, and listening to the old folks’ stories about being slaves in Egypt, must now become first a conquering army, then a people who farm, trade, and live in towns—in the unfamiliar land of Canaan.

Moses Appoints Joshua, by Henry Northrop, 1894

Moses Appoints Joshua,
by Henry Northrop, 1894

Both Joshua and the Israelites are unprepared for their new lives.

Moses anticipates this toward the end of Deuteronomy. He legitimizes Joshua as his successor by laying hands on him, and God confirms it with a pillar of cloud. Then Moses tells the Israelites:

Chizku and imetzu! Do not be afraid and do not feel dread in front of them [the Canaanites], because God, your God, is going with you Itself. It will not let go of you and It will not forsake you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:6)

chizku (חִזְקוּ) = (plural) Hold strong! Hold on! Be fortified! Be stalwart! Be strong!

imetzu (אִמְצוּ) = (plural) Be resolute! Be firm! Be strong!

Then Moses called Joshua and said to him, in the sight of all Israel: Chazak and ematz, because you yourself shall bring this people to the land that God swore to their fathers to give to them, and you yourself shall apportion it among them. (Deuteronomy 31:7)

chazak (חֲזָק) = (singular of chizku) Hold strong! (etc.)

ematz (אֱמָץ) = (singular of imetzu) Be resolute! (etc.)

After Moses dies, Joshua may have felt like running run away, but he accepts his new life. The book of Joshua begins with God speaking to Joshua.

It happened after the death of Moses, the servant of God; God spoke to Joshua, son of Nun, Moses’ attendant, saying: My servant Moses is dead. So now get up and cross this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the children of Israel. (Joshua 1:1-2)

Joshua says nothing, but I imagine him feeling fearful and doomed. He served as a general once, 40 years ago, when Amalek attacked the Israelites; but the untrained ex-slaves won the battle only when Moses raised his hands toward heaven. Joshua has never led a war of conquest or administered a country. When he was one of the scouts Moses sent to report on the land of Canaan, he could not even persuade anyone that the land was worth entering. How can he persuade the Israelites to cross the Jordan and enter it now? And how can he turn himself into a conqueror, judge, and administrator?

God tells him:

No one shall be able to stand against you, all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, I will be with you. I will not let go of you and I will not forsake you. (Joshua 1:5)

I expect it would help to know that God was on your side.  When I embark on a new phase of my life, it helps to know that I am doing the right thing. But that knowledge by itself is not enough to make me step forward.

God continues:

Chazak and ematz, because you shall apportion among this people the land that I swore to their fathers to give to them. Only chazak and ematz very much to guard and do according to all the teaching that My servant Moses commanded to you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left, so that you shall act with insight everywhere you go. … Did I not command you: chazak and ematz? You shall not be afraid and you shall not be dismayed, because God, your God, will be with you wherever you go.  (Joshua 1:6-7, 9)

Joshua proceeds to become the leader he never was before. He makes decisions based on the teachings of Moses, he conquers large parts of Canaan (with the help of two divine miracles), and he divides up the land among the tribes of Israel.

Chazak and ematz, he probably reminds himself; hold strong and be resolute! The Bible uses this particular pairing of words only at four times of major change: when Joshua replaces Moses as the leader of the Israelites (in Deuteronomy and Joshua), when Joshua encourages his officers to continue the conquest of Canaan (in Joshua), when Solomon replaces David as the king of Israel (in the first book of Chronicles), and when King Hezekiah encourages his people to defend Jerusalem against the Assyrians (in the second book of Chronicles).

In all four transitions, the people who were told to be resolute felt nervous and insecure. And all four times they succeeded in their new roles.

*

It takes a lot to turn over a new leaf, to embark on a new direction in your life. From the Jewish holy days at this time of year we learn to wake up, face what we did wrong, make amends, and let go; to live for a while in the insecure space of transition as we stay open to guidance and pray for growth; to acknowledge the blessings in our old lives before we begin creating our new lives; and, in this week’s haftarah, to proceed with an attitude that will keep us going on our new path. We must trust that we are doing God’s will or the right thing, and we must be determined to keep going regardless of anything frightening or discouraging along the way.

Chazak and ematz; hold strong and be resolute. Keep going.

Haftarot for Rosh Hashanah & Shabbat Shuvah—1 Samuel & Hosea:  From Smoke to Words

October 6, 2016 at 11:36 am | Posted in Chukkat, Hosea, Rosh Hashanah, Samuel 1 | Leave a comment
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Almost 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). But the Torah portion this week is Vayeilekh (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:1-30), and it is not assigned a haftarah of its own.

Nevertheless, this week is especially rich in haftarot (plural of “haftarah”) because it includes the two days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) and Shabbat Shuvah, the “Sabbath of Return” to God—all before we dive into Yom Kippur (the “Day of Atonement”) next week.

The haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10.  The reading for the second day is Jeremiah 31:2-20.  And the haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah this Saturday is Hosea 14:2-10. Perhaps it is no accident that during this time of intense prayer from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, two of these three haftarot show that praying with words is better than slaughtering an animal and burning it up into smoke for God.

Prayer is not a dialogue with God, although persons in the Hebrew Bible from Adam to the prophet Malachi do talk with God and hear God’s responses in words—in fact in complete sentences. Sometimes prophets report what God said; other passages are like conversations between two human beings of different rank and power.

first-temple-altarPrayer is more like smoke; it rises up toward God, but God does not answer in words.

Besides having many conversations with God, Moses also prays on behalf of the Israelites when they are traveling through the wilderness south of Edom, 40 years after their exodus from Egypt.  The Israelites complain again about their diet of manna, and God sends poisonous snakes.

Then the people came to Moses and they said: We did wrong when we spoke against God and against you. Hitpalleil to God so He will clear away from us the snakes!  Vayitpalleil, Moses, on behalf of the people. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:7)

Hitpalleil (הִתְפַּלֵּל) = Pray!  (Probably from the same root as pilleil  = reassess. Prayer may be asking for a reassessment from God.)

Vayitpalleil (וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל) = And he prayed.

Here the Israelites confess their misdeed, but they do not believe they can pray to God directly, so they ask Moses, God’s prophet, to do it for them.

Temple altar

Temple altar

Smoke, not spoken prayer, is the primary way to worship God in the first seven books of the Bible. If you want to bring God your devotion, you slaughter an animal and burn up part or all of it on an altar, turning it into smoke. God appreciates the smell of the smoke.  (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.)

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra lays out five categories of offerings burned up into smoke, and each one was transformed into a type of prayer.

1) olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering, to maintain the relationship between the worshiper and God. This became liturgy, written prayers to read, recite, or sing at specific times and occasions.

2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering, to show homage or respect.  This corresponds to prayers of praise.

3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering, to thank God or to express devotion. This corresponds to prayers of thanksgiving.

4) chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering, to fix an unintentional transgression against one of God’s laws; and 5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering, to atone for an intentional wrong (after making amends with the human whom you wronged).  Instead of these two animal offerings, we have prayers of confession asking for God’s forgiveness.

(For more on these smoke offerings, see my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.)

A additional type of prayer in the Bible is the petitionary prayer, in which we ask God to do us a favor. This category includes intercessory prayer, in which a prophet or someone else who is known to be on speaking terms with God utters a petitionary prayer on behalf of a community.

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, any male head of a household can worship God by building an altar and turning an animal into smoke on it.  Gradually this right is restricted in the Hebrew Bible, until animal offerings can only be made at the temple in Jerusalem and under the supervision of priests. Meanwhile, the tradition of individual prayer expands until anyone can do it, and God will hear.

The first prayer in the Bible is an intercessory prayer.  King Avimelekh takes Sarah into his household thinking she is Abraham’s sister, not his wife.  God responds by afflicting the king and all his women with a disease.  Then in a dream, God tells Avimelekh: And now restore the wife to the husband, because he is a prophet vayitpalleil on your behalf, and you will live. But if you do no restoring, know that you will certainly die, you and all that are yours. (Genesis/Bereishit 20:7)

After the king gives Avraham his wife Sarah along with some gifts, Avraham does pray, and God removes the disease.

Intercessory prayers continue to be mentioned in the Bible, including Moses’ prayer regarding the poisonous snakes.  But not until the first book of Samuel, in the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, does someone who has never conversed with God pray for her own sake. On her own initiative, Channah, who has been childless for many years, walks up to the doorway of the temple in Shiloh and prays for a son.

Channah praying from etching by Marc Chagall

Channah praying
from etching by
Marc Chagall

And she was bitter of spirit, vatitpalleil to God, and she wept continually. And she vowed a vow, and she said: God of Armies, if You really see the wretchedness of Your maidservant and You remember me and do not forget Your maidservant, and You give to Your maidservant a seed of men, then I will give him to God for all the days of his life…  (1 Samuel 1:10-11)

vatitpalleil (וַתִּתְפַּלֵּל) = and she prayed.

God does not answer Channah in words, but she does have a son (a “seed of men”), and she brings him to the temple in Shiloh once he is weaned. There she and her husband sacrifice a bull, following the established ritual, then give him to the priest so the boy can serve as an attendant at the temple. (Channah’s son, Samuel (Shmu-eil), later becomes a prophet and a judge of Israel.)

…and they bowed down there to God.  Vatitpalleil, Channah, and she said:

            My heart rejoices in God…

            There is no holy one like God,

            Because there are none except for You. (1 Samuel 2:1-2)

Channah continues with a long psalm praising God’s power. This time her prayer is not petitionary, but a prayer of praise, like a minchah offering.

This Saturday, on Shabbat Shuvah, we read in the book of Hosea:

            Shuvah, Israel, all the way to God, your god,

            For you have stumbled, through your wrongdoing.

            Take devarim with you

            And shuvu to God.

            Say to [God]:

            May You forgive all wrongdoing

            And take the good.

            And we will make amends of the bulls

            Of our lips.  (Hosea 14:2-3)

Shuvah (שׁוּבָה) = Return! (singular, addressing Israel)

shuvu (שׁוּבוּ) =  Return! (plural, addressing the people)

devarim (דְּבָרִים) = words; events, affairs.

Hosea asks the Israelites to make amends and return to God not by slaughtering bulls and burning them on an altar for God, but through the words of their lips, praying for God to forgive them. Instead of the smoke from a chataat or an asham offering, God wants people to return and atone with spoken prayer.

*

As we approach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the haftarah from 1 Samuel reminds us of the power of individual heartfelt prayer, and the haftarah from Hosea reminds us to return—shuvah!—to God through prayer.

A priest cuts the animal’s throat, blood gushes, smoke roils up into the sky—that kind of worship was sure to have an emotional impact.  But even if someone brought the animal for an asham offering to atone for his own misdeed, or even if the high priest was killing the goat for God on Yom Kippur, people watched the show from a distance.

Channah worked harder, pulling out her own words to plead with God.  Hosea asks us to work harder, bringing our own personal words of confession to God, and returning to the holy one by praying for forgiveness.

It is possible to mouth formulaic prayers without thinking about them. But I believe it is better for our souls if we plumb our own depths, find our own words to bring to God, and do the work.

 

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