Va-eira: The Right Name

January 12, 2015 at 10:42 pm | Posted in Va-eira | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

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

Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Rameses II

Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Rameses II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

eil (אֵל) = god

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why doesn’t the name work?

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

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

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

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

 

Shemot: Choosing Life

January 4, 2015 at 12:22 pm | Posted in Nitzavim, Shemot | 3 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

At the end of his life, Moses says:

…life and death I place before you, blessing and curse; and you must choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring: le-ahavah God, your god; lishmoa Its voice; and ledavkah It… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:19-20)

le-ahavah (לְאַהַוָה) = to love, by loving.

lishmoa (לִשְׁמֹעַ) = to listen, by listening.

ledavkah (לְדָוְחָה) = to be attached to, to stick with, to be faithful to; by sticking with, etc.

At the beginning of his life, in the first Torah portion of the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses survives only because the women in the story choose life—by loving, listening, and being attached.

The character who wants to restrict life is Pharaoh, a xenophobe. He is frightened by the large number of Israelites living in Egypt (called “Hebrews” or ivrit in this Torah portion, from the Egyptian word habiru). This unnamed king of Egypt says:

…it may be if a war happens, then they will even be added to our enemies and wage war against us, and go up from the land. (Exodus/Shemot 1:10)

Goshen and the new cities of Ramses and Pitom

Nile delta circa 1250 B.C.E., with the capital, Tanis, and the new cities of Ramses and Pitom

Pharaoh fears that the Hebrews will either stay in Egypt and fight against the Egyptians, or leave Egypt and deprive the land of workers. His solution to this double anxiety is to reduce the population of Hebrews gradually. First he drafts large numbers of them into forced labor building the new cities of Pitom and Ramses (which were actually built in the Nile delta, in the Goshen region, during the reign of Rameses II). But so many Hebrew men survive and have relations with their wives, the population of Hebrews continues to increase.

Pharaoh’s next ploy is to order the midwives of the Hebrews to kill all the boys as they are born, but let the girls live. At that time, more than 3,000 years ago, only men would go to battle, and only men would lead their families to another country. Women would do whatever their masters or husbands ordered. Pharaoh is thinking ahead, assuming that a future surplus of Hebrew women is no threat, since they would all become slaves or wives of native Egyptians. All he wants to do is reduce or even eliminate the future population of Hebrew men.

But the midwives feared God, and they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they kept the boys alive. Then the midwives said to Pharaoh: Because the Hebrews are not like Egyptian women, for [they are] lively animals; hey!—before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth. (Exodus 1:17-18)

In biblical Hebrew, to “fear God” is an idiom meaning to act righteously or ethically. The Hebrew midwives save lives, instead of following orders, because it us the right thing to do. They are listening—not to Pharaoh, but to the God of good deeds.

Then Pharaoh commanded his entire people, saying: Every son that is born, you shall throw him into the Nile. But every daughter you shall keep alive. (Exodus 1:22)

The Torah does not say how many baby boys are drowned, but we can tell that this command is also ineffective at reducing the number of Hebrew men; many years later, after that Pharaoh (probably Rameses II) has died and been replaced by a new Pharaoh (probably his son Merneptah), the new Pharaoh says: Hey, the people are numerous now in the land! (Exodus 5:5)

During the period when the previous Pharaoh was encouraging Egyptians to drown Hebrew male infants, a man and woman from the tribe of Levi have a son. (Later in the Torah, their names are given as Amram and Yokheved.)

And the woman conceived, and she gave birth to a son. And she saw him, ki tov hu, and she hid him for three months. (Exodus 2:2)

ki tov hu (כִּי־טוֹב הוּא) = that he was good.

Commentators have puzzled over whether the mother saw that her baby was exceptionally healthy, or beautiful, or placid and quiet, or good in some other sense. Both the Talmud (in Sotah 12a) and the Midrash Rabbah (in Shemot Rabbah 1:20) report the opinion of the Sages (i.e. authoritative rabbinic commentators from about 200 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.) that when Moses was born, the whole house was flooded with light. Their proof text is in the first chapter of Genesis/Bereishit, where God creates light.

And God said: Light will be! And light was. And God saw the light, ki tov. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:3-4)

What I can imagine is that when the mother sees her new baby, her heart is flooded with light. Just as God creates light, and sees that it is good, a human experiences creation as good.  When I “create” a story, it feels as if I only shaping a story that comes to me from some unknown place, and when I have finished writing it down, I feel elated, knowing that something good has happened. Similarly, when I was pregnant, I felt as if I were a container for a mysterious process, and when my son was born, I felt elated, knowing that something good had happened.

Moses’ mother hides him to preserve his life because she sees the goodness of creation; in other words, she appreciates God the Creator. She loves her son, and she loves God. As a mother, she also attaches herself to her son until she can no longer protect him.

Then she was not able to hide him anymore, so she took for him an ark of papyrus, and asphalted it with asphalt and pitch, and she place the child in it, and she placed it in the reeds at the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself meirachok, to know what would be done to him. (Exodus 2:3-4)

meirachok (מֵרָחֹק) = at a distance, long ago, mysteriously.

In context, Moses’ older sister Miriam obviously stands at a distance from the riverbank. But the Torah’s choice of words hints that Miriam has a connection with mysteries.  When we see her as an adult, the Torah calls her a prophet.

Miriam stands by, ready to intervene and make whatever happens to her baby brother the best possible outcome. This is a different kind of attachment than a mother’s attachment to her baby. Miriam the prophet is faithful to a vision of the future that she wants to help realize.

Meritamun, one of Rameses II's daughters

Meritamun, one of Rameses II’s daughters

Then the daughter of Pharaoh went down to wash in the river, and her serving-women walked on the riverbank; and she saw the ark among the reeds, and she sent her slave-woman, and she took it. And she opened it, and she saw the child, and hey!—the boy was sobbing. And she felt compassion over him, and she said: This is one of the children of the Hebrews! (Exodus 2:5-6)

Pharaoh’s daughter decides to disobey her father’s command and save the life of the baby because she listens to him sobbing, and her heart is moved by compassion. This is another kind of love, the instinctive and generous love for a living being who needs help. It leads to another attachment, as she decides to protect the child by adopting him as her own.

Miriam emerges and offers to find a woman to nurse the infant. If Pharaoh’s daughter can see that the baby in the ark is a Hebrew, she can certainly see that Miriam is also a Hebrew, and she may suspect that the girl is offering to fetch the baby’s own birth mother. A jealous woman would not agree to this, but Pharaoh’s daughter has so much compassion that it includes the baby’s family. When Miriam returns with her mother, Pharaoh’s daughter says: Carry away this child and nurse him for me, and I myself will give [you] your wages. (Exodus 2:9)

Pharaoh’s daughter not only gives the baby to his natural mother until he is weaned, but even pays her, so the whole family will thrive. Then Moses’ mother proves to be as righteous as the midwives at the beginning of the story, because when her son is old enough, she duly returns him to his adoptive mother.

Thus Moses grows up as a prince of Egypt, and launches on a long life that results in the liberation of thousands of slaves. They leave Egypt (as Pharaoh feared) and walk into a new life.

All the women in this story—the midwives, Moses’ first mother, his sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter—choose life by disobeying the fearful Pharaoh, and keeping a child alive. They are motivated by all three ways of choosing life that Moses describes near the end of his own life, 120 years later: loving, listening, and faithful attachment.

May we all be blessed with open hearts so that we can do the same.

Ki Tavo: Carved in Stone

September 10, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo | 3 Comments
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Carve something on a stone, and set it upright as a memorial or a boundary marker.  People have been doing this all over the world for millennia.  Americans today still erect gravestones and mark historic sites with upright stones bearing text.

Anyone can read the inscribed stone or stele and learn something—about the battle that took place at that spot, or the boundary it marks, or the person who is buried there.

Code of Hammurabi, 1750 B.C.E.

Code of Hammurabi, 1750 B.C.E.

In the ancient Middle East, most steles recorded victories in battle. But the oldest stele discovered so far from that region is a stone seven and a half feet high, with the Code of Hammurabi carved into it during the 18th century B.C.E.  The 282 laws of the reigning Babylonian king are written in Akkadian.

Standing stones without any words carved into them are even older. Only oral tradition can tell subsequent generations what the stones commemorated. A stranger from another place or a later time who sees a blank monument, or a circle of tall stones, knows only that they are significant, not what they signify.

The first standing stones in the Torah are uncarved.  In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob erects four different matzeivot or standing stones, marking the sites of his dream of angels, the boundary  between his area of influence and his father-in-law Lavan’s, and his wife Rachel’s grave.

Moses erects twelve standing stones at the foot of Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus/Shemot, to represent the twelve tribes of Israel in their covenant with God.  But the only engraved stones in Exodus are the two small tablets bearing the ten commandments, and they are so sacred that they are carried inside the ark, which must never be touched or opened.

At Mount Sinai and in the wilderness, the blank stones that depend on mutable oral tradition are out in public.  But the immutable, fixed written words are hidden in a sacred place.

Moses does not call for standing stones with writing on them until this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you enter”), in the book of Deuteromy/Devarim.

Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying:  Observe the entire commandment that I command you this day.  And it shall be, on the day that you cross over the Jordan into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, you shall erect for yourself great stones, vesadeta them with the siyd. And you shall write on them all the words of this torah when you cross over, so that you may come into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as God, the god of your forefathers, has spoken to you. (Deuteronomy 27:1-3)

vesadeta (וְשַׂדְתָּ) = and you shall limewash (coat them with a paint-like mixture of lime and water).

siyd (שִׂיד) = lime, quicklime, limewash.

torah (תוֹרָה) = teaching. (The word torah also refers to the first five books of the Bible, to the whole Hebrew Bible, and to any teaching of Jewish law or religion.)

The people of the ancient Middle East made quicklime (calcium oxide powder) by burning bones. Adding enough water to slake the lime turns it into calcium hydroxide, which can be mixed with additional water to make limewash.  Limewash is still used to coat surfaces in order to make them smooth and white; the coating hardens into a thin shell of limestone, which may last for millennia in dry conditions. Remnants survive of a text painted in ink on a white limewashed wall in the 8th century B.C.E.

Fragments of 8th-century B.C.E. Balaam story on limewash at Deir Alla, Jordan

Fragments of 8th-century B.C.E. Balaam story on limewash at Deir Alla, Jordan

Thus the text on Moses’ limewashed stones could have been readable for many centuries. The Hebrew Bible does not specify which torah Moses wants on the stones, but it must include some or all of the laws from the written Torah we have today—the first five books of the Bible, as copied and recopied on parchment and paper. According to 12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, Moses means the 613 commandments that the Talmud (Makkot 23b) says are in the five books. Other commentary speculates that Moses is calling for the code of laws in the book of Deuteronomy (chapters 13-26), or for the whole book of Deuteronomy (which would fit on two stones the size of the one used for the Code of Hammurabi).

Until this point in the Torah, Moses passes down God’s laws by announcing them verbally to the assembly of Israelites. Only in this week’s Torah portion does Moses call for laws to be “carved in stone”—or at least painted on limestone—and set out in a public place: the top of Mount Eyval, next to the ancient town of Shekhem.

And it shall be when you cross over the Jordan, you shall erect these stones, as I command you this day, on Mount Eyval; vesadeta them with the siyd. And you shall build there an altar for God, your god … (Deuteronomy 27:4-5)

Moses continues with orders for offerings at the altar, followed by a ritual of blessings and curses to indicate acceptance of God’s law.  (See my earlier post, Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.)

On the bare summit of Mount Eyval, the stones would be visible from a distance, as shining white pillars against the sky.

Perhaps the author of this section of Deuteronomy imagined that the steles on Mount Eyval would be like the Code of Hammurabi, which many scribes over the centuries copied onto clay tablets. In the Talmud (Sotah 35b), Rabbi Yehudah imagines scribes from different Canaanite tribes visiting the stones on Mount Eyval and bringing home copies of their text.

Yet ancient scribes, including those who copied the Hebrew Bible, not only made copying errors, but also felt free to insert additional material. The steles on Mount Eyval would stand as a permanent record of the original laws of Moses, whatever amendments people made later.

From the viewpoint of the storyline within the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ desire for a permanent, immutable, and public record of the laws is understandable. He is about to die, and he believes the Israelites, with their history of backsliding, will eventually abandon God’s laws and convert to Canaanite religions. Moses’ last hope of preserving his religion is to write it down.

He writes multiple copies of “this torah” in Deuteronomy 31:9, and a book of “this torah” to be placed inside the ark in Deuteronomy 31:24-26. All of these writings appear to be on parchment scrolls. But he also wants a more permanent record, so he orders the limewashed standing stones.

From the viewpoint of modern scholarship, Deuteronomy was written much later than Numbers, probably after the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  King Josiah of Judah, the southern kingdom, wanted public support for conquering the old northern territory and reinstating the old religion the two kingdoms shared. The description of a permanent monument bearing the laws of Moses might make King Josiah’s people feel that the religion of the God of Israel should persist.

From the viewpoint of a practicing Jew today, I would say the religion could not have survived this long without additions and reinterpretations. Of the 613 mitzvot or commandments in the five books of the Torah, as compiled by Rambam (12th-century rabbi Moses Maimonides), only 271 can be observed at all today. (Many of the old laws were about sacrifices at the temple, a method of worship that ended about 2,000 years ago with the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem.)

And some of the commandments are clearly inferior to ethical customs that Jews adopted later in their history. For example, although the Torah includes highly ethical commandments (such as not to insult, embarrass, or slander people), it also contains commandments such as the requirement that a rapist must marry his victim if she is single (Deuteronomy 22:29). There was a reason for that law in Judah 2,700 years ago, but 21st-century American society has better ways of handling the situation.

If archaeologists ever discover limewashed stones with some laws of Moses written on them, I pray that we may view the laws as artifacts, not immutable rules to follow forever. Reinterpretations of both oral traditions and traditional writings are what keep a religion alive, and let it walk farther on the path of virtue.

Korach: Early and Late Bloomers

June 17, 2014 at 4:47 pm | Posted in Korach | 3 Comments
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When people do the wrong thing in the Torah, God gets angry and kills a bunch of them. This happens over and over again in the books of Exodus and Numbers. We see the same pattern today when parents (standing in for God) overreact to children’s mistakes and lash out at them. And it happens when individuals do something they regret and then cut themselves down.

Does this approach lead to reform and improvement? Rarely. Does the Torah offer a better approach?

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach (“bald”), a Levite named Korach, his 250 followers, and two leaders from the tribe of Reuben, all rebel at once. Their common goal is to depose the leader Moses and high priest Aaron, and take over their jobs. The God-character in the Torah takes this rebellion personally, since God chose Moses and Aaron.  Rebelling against their God-given authority is tantamount to rebelling against God.

First God responds the usual way, with overkill. The ground opens and swallows not only the two Reubenites and Korach, but also everyone in their families who did not run away. Fire pours out from God’s sanctuary and kills Korach’s 250 followers who wanted to be priests. The next day, the Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for all the deaths, and God sends with a plague that kills 14,700 more people. (See my earlier post, Korach: Saying No, Saying Yes.)

At this point, everyone even slightly involved in the attempted coup has suffered one of three kinds of horrible deaths.  The surviving Israelites become meek and passive for a while, but fear rarely motivates inner change. Later in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, a number of Israelite men disobey God again, by worshiping Ba-al Pe-or.

However, the Torah portion Korach also provides a counter-example. After all the killing, the God character responds to the attempted coup with a more positive teaching.

God tells Moses to take a staff  from the chieftain of each of the twelve tribes of Israel.

You shall carve each man’s name upon his matteh. And you shall carve the name of Aaron upon the matteh of Levi, because there is one matteh for the head of each forefather’s house. Then lay them in the Tent of Meeting before ha-eidut, where I meet with you. And it will happen that the man whom I choose, his matteh will blossom. (Numbers/Bemidbar 17:16-20)

matteh (מַטֶּה) (plural mattot) = staff, branch, tribe.

ha-eidut (הָעֵדוּת) = the “testimony” of God inside the ark. (Either the stone tablets God inscribed on Mount Sinai, or a parchment scroll on which Moses wrote down the first part of the Torah, or both.)

The ark with the testimony of God resides inside the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Tent of Meeting. God manifests in the empty space above the ark—as a voice for Moses, and as the source of the fiery glory that the Israelites see emanating from the sanctuary tent. Any miracles happening in the Holy of Holies would be a direct expression of God’s will.

The next day, when Moses came into the Tent of the Testimony, hey!—the matteh of Aaron, for the house of Levi, had blossomed. It brought forth blossoms, and it sprouted sprouts, and it ripened shekeidim. Then Moses brought out all the mattot from in front of God, to all the Children of Israel. And they saw, and each man took his staff. (Numbers 17:22-24)

shekeidim (שְׁקֵדִים) = almonds. (The root verb, shakad, means vigilant, alert, attentive.)

Almond Tree

Almond Tree

There is no question that God chooses Aaron as the high priest, and the tribe of Levi to conduct the religious service at the sanctuary.

The almond flowers and fruits also carry extra symbolism. The gold menorah (lampstand) inside the sanctuary is designed so that its seven branches and various decorative elements look an almond tree, complete with flowers and drupes (fruits containing almonds in their pits). (See my earlier post, Terumah: Waking Up.)  Lamps are symbols of enlightenment. Almond trees are the first to bloom, are called attentive and alert. Thus the tribe of Levi, and especially Aaron and his fellow priests, will be the first and the most vigilant servants of God.

What the other tribal leaders do not notice at the time is that their tribes have also been consecrated for service. The matteh that is both Aaron’s staff and the tribe of Levi becomes an early-blooming tree.  The implication is that the other eleven staffs/tribes could bloom later. They, too, have spent the night in the Holy of Holies, in front of the ark.  They, too, are confirmed as important to God. And when the 40 years in the wilderness end, and the Israelites cross the Jordan into Canaan, every tribe does its job and obeys God’s orders—as transmitted by Joshua, from the tribe of Efrayim.

Alas, in this week’s Torah portion the Israelites overlook the positive symbolism of the twelve staffs. Right after viewing the staffs, they wail: We perish, we are lost, all of us are lost. Everyone who comes close, who comes close to the sanctuary of God dies. Will we ever be done with perishing? (Numbers 17:27-28)

Maybe they are too traumatized by all of God’s death sentences to notice a gentler message. But we can be more alert. What if parents who feel frustrated by their children’s mistakes consider them late bloomers?  Instead of cutting them down, these parents might correct the children firmly but gently, and take care to nourish them until they finally bud.

What if when we get upset at our own mistakes, we remind ourselves that we are late bloomers? It is frustrating to be a bare branch—or staff—when we want to be full of flowers and fruit. But as long as we are alive and growing, we can learn better behavior. And we can learn to serve the divine with our own souls, in our own way.

May all late-bloomers be so blessed.

 

 

Pekudei & 1 Kings: A Throne for the Divine

February 25, 2014 at 10:15 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Pekudei | 4 Comments
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Canaanite temples were built according to a basic three-part plan: a courtyard in front, a main hall behind it, and a small temple 2sacred chamber at the back containing a statue of the temple’s god. There were often additional rooms at the sides of the main hall for practical use by the temple’s priests and functionaries, but religious rituals happened in the courtyard, main hall, and back chamber.

During the course of the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites construct three sanctuaries. The portable Tent of Meeting that Moses assembles at the end of the book of Exodus travels with the people from Mount Sinai all the way across the Jordan River. It is erected in several locations while the Israelites are gradually conquering Canaan: Gilgal, Shiloh, Nob, Givon, and then Jerusalem. King Solomon builds the first temple in Jerusalem in the first book of Kings, and the construction of the second temple in Jerusalem begins in the book of Ezra.

All three of these sanctuaries follow the basic three-part Canaanite plan. But since the Israelites are forbidden to make an image of God, the innermost chamber at the back cannot contain a statue of their deity. So what is inside the “holy of holies”?

This week’s Torah portion, Pekudei (“Inventories”), says what Moses put into the holy of holies in the Tent of Meeting.

He took and placed the eidut in the aron, and he put the poles on the aron, and he placed the cover on top of the aron. Then he brought the aron into the dwelling-place, and he placed the curtain of screening-off, and screened off the aron of the eidut, as God had commanded Moses.  (Exodus/Shemot 40:20-21)

eidut (עֵדֻת) = testimony—of a witness or of God. (The Torah often uses this word to refer to the second pair of stone tablets Moses brings down from Mount Sinai.)

aron (אֲרוֹן)  = chest, coffer, coffin; ark of the covenant

What does the aron look like? In the book of Exodus, it is a gold-plated wooden box about four feet long, with carrying-poles attached to the bottom. Last week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil, describes how the master artist Betzaleil makes the lid of the aron:

Then he made a cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And he made two keruvim of gold; he made them hammered out from the two ends of the cover. One keruv from this end and one keruv from that end; from the cover he made the keruvim, from its two ends. And the keruvim were spreading wings upward, screening off with their wings over the kaporet; and their faces were toward each other, toward the cover were the faces of the keruvim. (Exodus 37:6-9)

keruv (כֱרוּב), (plural keruvim)  = a hybrid beast with wings and a face. (See my earlier post: Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.)

What are the wings of the keruvim on the cover screening off? The space above the golden lid is empty—or, at least, nothing is visible there. But the Torah treats the aron as a throne for an invisible, although not inaudible, god.

Moses came into the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God]. Then he heard the voice speaking to him from above the cover that was on the aron of the eidut, from between the two keruvim; thus [God] spoke to him. (Numbers/Bemidbar 7:89)

The keruvim and the lid of the aron are a single piece of gold in the Tent of Meeting. But in the first temple, they are separate items. While the aron stays in the tent where King David put it, King Solomon’s craftsmen make two keruvim out of olive-wood overlaid with gold. Each keruv is ten cubits (about 15 feet) tall, with a ten-cubit span from wingtip to wingtip.

Then he placed the keruvim inside the House, in the innermost [chamber]. And the wings of the keruvim spread out so the wing of one keruv touched the wall, and the wing of the second keruv was touching the second wall, and in the middle of the chamber their wings touched. (1 Kings 6:27)

The haftarah reading corresponding to the Torah portion Pekudei is from the first book of Kings. It describes the ceremony after the first temple in Jerusalem is completed, starting with a procession as King Solomon and elders from all over Israel accompany the aron on its short journey from the tent in the old city to the new House of God.

The priests brought in the aron of the covenant of God to its place, to the back room of the House, to the holy of holies, to underneath the wings of the keruvim. For the keruvim were spreading wings toward the place of the aron, so the keruvim screened off the aron and its poles from above. (1 Kings 8:6-7)

In both the Tent of Meeting and the first temple, there is an empty space between the lid of the aron below and the wings of the keruvim above. God’s voice or presence is never located inside the aron, only in the space above it.

Yet inside the aron is the eidut, God’s testimony. Commentary on the Tent of Meeting agrees that the eidut means the second, unbroken, pair of stone tablets inscribed by God on Mount Sinai (also called Choreiv). Commentators disagree on whether the aron also contained the shattered tablets, and/or a scroll that Moses wrote.

The first book of Kings clarifies the contents of the aron in the time of the first temple:

There was nothing in the aron but the two tablets of stone that Moses placed there at Choreiv, when God cut a covenant with the children of Israel after they left the land of Egypt. (1 Kings 8:9)

The first temple was sacked several times, and when the Babylonian army captured Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. they razed it altogether. The keruvim and the aron were never recovered. So in the second temple, which was begun in 538 B.C.E., the holy of holies was an empty room. But priests still treated it as the locus of God’s presence.

After the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 C.E., Jews had to find God’s presence in other places. Today, many of us search for God by going inside ourselves: pondering what we have learned, questioning our feelings, meditating, sinking into ritual, praying with intention, and so on. This inner journey in search of God also has stages.

If the first stage of your search is like the courtyard of the Tent or temple, does your courtyard have an altar for animal sacrifices and a basin for washing? If you push on into the main hall, does it have any of the furnishings of the Israelite sanctuaries: a lampstand for light, or a table for bread, or an altar for incense? And if you keep searching even deeper, what do you find in your holy of holies?

Do you enshrine fundamental written principles in a gold coffer? Or do you encounter fantastical creatures? If you find both in your holy of holies, are the fantastical creatures bigger or smaller than the coffer? Or is your holy of holies an empty room?

Is God present there?

Ki Tissa: Fighting or Singing?

February 9, 2014 at 9:02 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa | 2 Comments
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After God’s revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, the people repeatedly promise to do everything God says. Then Moses and Aaron lead the elders halfway up the mountain, where they have a vision of God’s feet. (See my earlier post, Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.)

Moses on Mt. Sinai,
by Jean-Leon Gerome

This is their high point. After this, Aaron and the Israelite leaders go downhill, both literally and figuratively. Joshua, Moses’ attendant and war-leader, stays partway up the mountain. And Moses climbs to the summit again. There he disappears into God’s cloud—or fire, from the point of view of the Israelites below. (See my earlier post, Mishpatim: Seeing the Cloud.)

Inside the cloud, Moses listens to God’s instructions for 40 days . Meanwhile, the Israelites below conclude that their prophet has died in the fire on the mountaintop and will never return. And without Moses, how can their god lead them to their promised land?

Gold calf from Temple of Baalat, Byblos

They fall back on an old and familiar solution in this week’s portion, Ki Tissa (“When you bring up”): a physical image or idol for the god to inhabit. They give Aaron their gold earrings, and get him to mold an image in the shape of a calf. On his own initiative, Aaron builds an altar and declares a festival for God the next day.

The same day that the Israelites bring animal offerings to the new altar, God hands Moses the two stone tablets written by the finger of God (Exodus/Shemot 31:18), tells him to go down the mountain, and then tells him what the Israelites have done.

Quickly they deserted the path that I commanded them! They made for themselves a cast image of a calf, and they bowed down to it and they slaughtered offerings to it, and they said: These are your gods, Israel, that brought you from the land of Egypt. (Exodus 32:8)

God offers to consume the Israelites and make Moses into a great nation instead. But Moses refuses the offer and tramps down the slope, still holding the two stone tablets on which God wrote, among other things, the commandment against making idols.

Joshua joins his mentor partway down. He has spent 40 days waiting on the mountainside, unaware of what was happening either to Moses at the top or to the Israelites at the bottom.

Then Joshua heard the sound of the people as they shouted, and he said to Moses: The sound of battle is in the camp! (Exodus 32:17)

Moses does not reply. Joshua listens carefully as they continue to descend.

And he said: Not the sound of anot of prevailing, and not the sound of anot of defeat. A sound of annot I am hearing. (Exodus 32:18)

anot (עֲנוֹת) = responding, answering; humiliating, abusing; call-and-response singing (such as kirtan or antiphony).

annot (עַנּוֹת) = (This form of the verb anot is used most often for humiliation, but it is also used in at least one other place, Isaiah 27:2, for singing.)

If there were indeed a battle in camp, Joshua would hear the winners raising their voices in war-cries, abuse, or battle-songs. He would also hear the losers raising their voices in pain, fear, or grief. Because he does not hear these sounds, he concludes that there is no battle. The camp has not been attacked by strangers. Nor has it divided into two sides fighting each other. Whatever the people are doing, nobody in the camp is objecting to it.

What sound does Joshua decide he is hearing? Here are two possible translations:

“A sound of humiliation I am hearing.” In other words, he is hearing the sound of people who have abandoned reason and conscience. Maybe sexual excess has turned into rape. Or maybe the people’s wild party is humiliating for Joshua and Moses, the only two Israelites left to stand against the worship of the Golden Calf.

“A sound of call-and-response singing I am hearing.” In other words, he is hearing a joyful celebration. Elsewhere in the Bible, people use call-and-response singing, along with dancing, to rejoice over God’s success (as Miriam does after they cross the Reed Sea), and to rejoice over David’s victories in battle.

I can imagine Joshua realizing that something happened in the camp, while Moses was gone, and now the Israelites are either holding an orgy, or singing and dancing to rejoice over—what?

The Torah returns to Moses’ point of view.

Moses Breaking the Tablets, by Rembrandt

And it happened as he drew near to the camp, he saw the calf and dancing. Then Moses’ anger flared up, and he threw down from his hand the tablets, and he shattered them under the mountain. (Exodus 32:19)

Moses already knows about the Calf, so why does his anger flare up now? One frequent answer by commentators is that now he sees the people dancing. If the Israelites were worshiping the Calf in a state of doubt and anxiety, they might reject their idol as soon as they saw Moses. Instead, they are rejoicing over the Golden Calf, as if they like the old-time religion better than following Moses’ lead.

It takes the shock of the shattering tablets to yank them back into their former state of mind, when they promised to obey the god of Moses.

Joshua already knows the Israelites are singing. He can assume they are also dancing; elsewhere in the Bible call-and-response singing is usually accompanied by dancing. Now Joshua sees the Golden Calf and the smoking altar in front of it, so he knows the reason for the people’s ecstasy. He also hears the sound of stone shattering. The singing stops.

Moses grinds the Calf into gold dust, adds it to water, and makes the people drink it. He questions Aaron briefly, then stands at the gateway of the camp and shouts: Whoever is for God, to me! (Exodus 32:26)

All the men from the tribe of Levi go over to the side of Moses and Joshua. Moses orders the Levite men, in the name of God, to take their swords and go through the camp from gate to gate.  The Levites kill 3,000 Israelite men. The Torah reports no casualties on the Levite side; apparently the Calf worshippers were too cowed or ashamed to fight back.

So Joshua finally does hear the battle cries of the winners, and the screams of pain and humiliation of the losers. There is no more singing of any kind in the Torah until the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.

I have always wondered if killing 3,000 Calf-worshippers was overkill. After all, everyone was shocked when Moses shattered the tablets God gave him. Everyone drank the gold dust from the Calf. What if Moses’ next move had been to start up a song, instead of a massacre?

What if he had changed the words of the call-and-response song the people were singing for the Calf? Their song is not recorded, but here are two other call-and-response songs in the Torah:

Sing to God because He is the highest;

Horse and its rider He threw into the sea! (Exodus 15:21)

Saul struck down his platoons;

And David struck down his armies! (I Samuel 21:12)

Some people need the outlet of ecstatic song and dance. Maybe another call-and-response song would have turned the hearts of the apostate ecstatics toward the God of Moses. Here is my proposal for the people who rejoiced in the Golden Calf:

“Sing to God because He is the highest;

Higher than idols and higher than gold.”

Just set it to a catchy melody, and let Miriam lead the dancing.

Terumah & 1 Kings: Tent versus Temple

January 26, 2014 at 6:55 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Terumah | 1 Comment
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A 2,000-year-old tradition pairs every weekly Torah portion with a haftarah, a reading from the Prophets/Neviim. In this week’s Torah reading, Terumah (“Donations”), God gives Moses instructions for building a sanctuary. This week’s haftarah is a passage from the first book of Kings about how King Solomon begins building the temple in Jerusalem.

The sanctuary and the temple both contain the ark, menorah, bread table, and incense altar. Both are places where priests perform the rituals prescribed in the Torah. But there are dramatic differences between the two structures.

For one thing, the building materials dictate whether each holy structure is portable or stationary. The Torah portion Terumah specifies that the walls of the mishkan will be made out of woven pieces of cloth hung on a framework of gilded acacia planks and beams.

And you shall make the mishkan of ten panels of fabric, made of fine twisted linen, and sky-blue dye and red-violet dye and scarlet dye …(Exodus/Shemot 26:1)

mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = sanctuary, dwelling-place for God. (The word is used for the portable tent-like sanctuary created in the book of Exodus and used until the second book of Samuel.)

Next God tells Moses to make the roof out of woven goat-hair, and cover it with tanned hides. The mishkan would look like a huge tent of vividly-colored cloth, its framework resting directly on the earth. After it has been built, the Torah often calls this sanctuary the “Tent of Appointed Meeting”.

The courtyard in front of it, containing the altar for burning animal offerings, is to be enclosed by another wall of linen cloth, this one roofless. I can imagine the cloth walls of both the courtyard and the tent glowing in the sunlight, and the gold, silver, and bronze fittings gleaming. The structure would be beautiful, but also obviously portable, easy to disassemble and move to the next location.

While the mishkan is temporary, Solomon’s temple is built to last.

The king commanded, and they quarried huge stones, valuable stones, to lay the foundation of the house with hewn stones. (1 Kings 5:31)

On this foundation, the “house” is built out of more large squared stones, then paneled inside with cedar wood, and roofed with cedar planks. Additional rooms are built against the outside walls, all the way around. The temple is three stories high, with stairs and narrow latticed windows. This sanctuary could never be disassembled and moved. It is supposed to be permanent. According to the Hebrew bible, it lasted for four centuries, until the Babylonian invaders destroyed it. During that time, the central place of worship for the southern kingdom remained fixed in the capital, Jerusalem.

Another important difference between the tent and the temple is how the materials and labor to build them were obtained. The materials for the tenttextiles, hides, wood, and metals—are all gifts volunteered by the Israelites. This week’s Torah portion opens with God asking for only voluntary donations.

God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and they shall take for me a donation from every man whose heart urges him; [from him] you shall take My donation. And this is the donation that you shall take from them: gold or silver or bronze, or sky-blue or red-violet or scarlet dyes, or linen or goat hair, or hides… (Exodus/Shemot 25:1-5)

But the stone and cedar for Solomon’s temple are purchased from a foreign king, Hiram of Lebanon. This week’s haftarah opens:

God had given wisdom to Solomon, as [God] promised him; and there was peace between Hiram and Solomon, and the two of them cut a treaty. (1 Kings/Malchim 5:26)

Just before this verse, the first book of Kings describes the deal between Hiram and Solomon: Hiram will provide timber and stone for Jerusalem, and in exchange Solomon will pay Hiram in annual shipments of wheat and oil—shipments that would require a heavy tax on Israel’s farmers.

In the book of Exodus, both women and men enthusiastically volunteer to do the weaving, carpentry, and metal-working for the tent sanctuary. In the first book of Kings, Solomon imposes forced labor on the Israelite men to do the logging and quarrying.

And King Solomon raised a mas from all of Israel, and the mas was 30,000 men. He sent them to Lebanon, 10,000 a month in turns; they were in Lebanon for a month, two months at home. And Solomon loaned 70,000 burden-carriers and 80,000 stone-cutters on the mountain. (1 Kings 5:28-29)

mas (מַס) = compulsory labor, corvée labor, levy

Compulsory labor, mas, is what the pharaoh imposed on the Israelites in Egypt—the slavery that God and Moses freed them from. King Solomon gets away with his temporary mas, but later in Kings, his son Rechavam imposes an even heavier “yoke” on his people, and they revolt against him.

So while the mishkan is constructed with voluntary gifts and voluntary labor, the temple is built through agricultural taxes and forced labor.

In the Torah portion, Moses gets instructions for making a sanctuary from God Itself. In the haftarah, Solomon remembers his father David’s desire to build a temple, and after he has built a palace for himself, he starts the temple on his own initiative.

In both cases, God makes a conditional promise to dwell among the Israelites. In the Torah portion, God will stay with them if they make a place for God:

And they shall make for me a holy place, and I will dwell in their midst. (Exodus 25:8)

But in the haftarah, God will stay with the Israelites if King Solomon follows the rules:

And the word of God came to Solomon, saying: This house that you are building—if you follow my decrees and you do my laws and you observe all my commandments, to go by them, then I will establish my word with you that I spoke to David, your father: then I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel, and I will not desert my people Israel. (1 Kings 6:12-13)

The differences between the mishkan and the temple imply two different approaches to religion. The sanctuary God describes to Moses belongs to the people; they make it voluntarily, they move it with them wherever they go, and God dwells among them because they make a holy place for God.

The temple of Solomon belongs to the king; he oppresses his own people in order to procure the materials and labor, he fixes it permanently in Jerusalem, and God dwells among his people because King Solomon obeys God’s rules.

I believe the tent-sanctuary described in the Torah portion represents the ideal approach to communal religion, in which everyone in the community contributes enthusiasm, support, or creativity; in which textual interpretations and rituals are flexible enough to move and change along with the people; and in which everyone makes a holy place for God.

Yet this ideal cannot always be realized. There are times everyone, including me, is too exhausted or too stuck to manage creative communal worship. Sometimes we just need a place to go where the rituals will be fixed and familiar, and where a trusted authority figure is taking care of everything and telling us what to do.

We need both tents and temples.

Mishpatim: Seeing the Cloud

January 20, 2014 at 3:40 pm | Posted in Mishpatim | 4 Comments
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When God manifests in this world, what does God look like? In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God looks like either cloud or fire. Moses first encounters God as a voice in a burning bush. As soon as the Israelites leave Egypt, God sends a guide to lead the way: a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. When God comes down on Mount Sinai to speak to all the people, … there was thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud on the mountain (Exodus/Shemot 19:16) … and all of Mount Sinai smoked with the presence of God that came down upon it in fire…(Exodus 19:18)

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”), God summons Moses back up the mountain to receive the stone tablets, the torah (“teaching”) and the mitzvah (“commandment”). As Moses climbs, the Torah describes more cloud and fire. But this time the Israelites below see Moses walking into fire, while Moses sees himself walking into cloud.

Then Moses went up the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. And the kavod of God rested on Mount Sinai; and the cloud covered it/him for six days. Then [God] called to Moses on the seventh day, from the midst of the cloud. But in the eyes of the children of Israel, the mareih of the kavod of God was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. (Exodus 24:15-17)

kavod (כָּבוֹד) = weight, impressiveness, magnificence, glory. (The kavod of God = a visible manifestation of God’s splendor.)

mareih (מַרְאֵה) = appearance, vision, apparition, mirror.

Moses is accustomed by now to living in close communication with a highly dangerous and powerful god. God has spoken to him at least 41 times already, and Moses often asks God questions and makes suggestions.

Yet he has not seen God directly. When God manifests in our world, Moses still sees only fire or  cloud. The nature of God is always hidden.

This time, Moses sees the cloud. But the people at the foot of the mountain do not see God’s kavod in cloud form. They see only a mareih of God’s kavod, an apparition or mirror image of it—God’s presence as reflected in their own minds. Having lived through the ten miraculous plagues in Egypt, not to mention the parting of the Reed Sea, no wonder they view God as so powerful, dangerous, and threatening that they are afraid God’s glory will eat them up. Their own feelings make the cloud look like a “consuming fire”.

They watch their leader Moses walk right into the fire, a fire nobody could survive. And they despair.

No wonder, after they have waited for 40 long days, they demand a safer manifestation of God—in the form of a golden calf rather than a fire.

Meanwhile, Moses waits inside the cloud on the mountain for six days. He can see nothing in the fog; he does not know what God is, what reality is, or what will happen. But at least he does not see fire; he is not afraid. He waits patiently for what God will give him. And on the seventh day, God calls to him.

And Moses entered into the middle of the cloud and went up the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24:18)

The Torah has already said that Moses was in the cloud, on top of the mountain. Is this verse a repetition of that information? I think not; I think it means that after Moses hears God call him, he goes even farther into the fog of unknowing, and climbs even higher and farther away from the ordinary world.

Could you leave your “real” life so far behind, for so long? Could you face an unknown and unknowable god of terrible power and remain calm, waiting for instructions?

I doubt I could. I have always been amazed by people who seek out ecstatic mystical experiences, through drugs or through other means. I never know whether to view such people as foolhardy idiots, or advanced wisdom masters.

My own mystical experiences, all mild and momentary, have all come by accident without any mountain-climbing or cloud-entering on my part. And a mild and momentary experience is enough for me. Perhaps where others see fog, I see fire. I do not want to enter the fire, because I am afraid of getting burned. I am content to watch from a distance when seriously religious people walk into the kavod of fire—or cloud.

But unlike the people at the foot of Mount Sinai, I refuse to demand an easier god to worship. In the modern Western world, the most common versions of an easier god to worship are: a) a loving parental god who looks after you personally, or b) a theological paradox (omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, personal, and yet responsible for evil in the world).  Version A is easy to worship because it is safe and feels good—rather like the golden calf to the Israelites at Sinai. Version B is easy to worship because it is an abstraction which does not require emotional engagement.

But what if we know God only as cloud or fire?

I think if the word “God” has any meaning, it must have something to do with that nagging blur at the edge of our vision, that cloud—or fire—we encounter when we move away from the outside world and deep into ourselves.

Beshallach: Hands Up

January 6, 2014 at 7:27 pm | Posted in Beshallach | 2 Comments
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What does it mean to raise one or both hands when they are empty?

Today, the gesture for “Stop!” is holding one arm straight out from the shoulder, with the hand bent back, palm forward.

If you raise one arm straight up into the air, you are “raising your hand” for permission to speak.

When an authority figure says “Hands up!” you raise both arms, palms forward, to show you are not holding a weapon.

What if you raise both arms at an angle somewhere between straight up and straight out? Whether your hands are turned up or down, it looks as though you are making a religious gesture.

In many Jewish Renewal congregations, when we stretch out both hands with our palms down, we want to transmit a blessing to someone.  (This gesture is derived from the Torah’s description of leaning one’s hands on the head of a man or boy in order to transfer holiness, as Jacob does to bless his grandsons in Genesis 48, and as Moses does to commission Joshua as his successor in Numbers 27.)

When we stretch out both hands with our palms up, it means we are prepared to receive a blessing. This is also one traditional posture of supplication to God; we reach forward and up toward “heaven” with empty hands, hoping God will fill them.

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“When he sent out”), God tells Moses to split the Reed Sea by holding the staff that summoned the ten plagues in Egypt, and stretching out his hand over the water. After the Israelites have crossed the Reed Sea and seen the Egyptian army drown,

…the people were in awe of God, vaya-amiynu in God and in Moses, his servant. (Exodus 14:31)

vaya-amiynu (וַיַּאֲמִינוּ) = and they trusted, and they had faith, and they believed, and they relied upon.

Because they have seen Moses signal the miracle by raising his arm, they believe that the god who split the Reed Sea is their god, the god of their leader Moses. So at that moment, they trust God.

The Israelites trek across the Sinai Peninsula unmolested, while God provides manna and quail for them to eat. Yet in less than three months, when they are camped only one day’s journey from Mount Sinai, the people complain to Moses that they have no water.

God instructs Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and water comes out.  But Moses notes that the people did not trust God to provide for them.

And he called the name of the place Trial-and-Disputing because of the dispute of the children of Israel and because of their testing God, saying: Hayeish, God, bekirbeinu, or ayin? (Exodus/Shemot 17:7)

Hayeish (הֲיֵשׁ) = Is it there? Does it exist?

bekirbeinu (בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ) = in our midst, inside us.

ayin (אָיִן) = not there, nothing.

A traditional translation of the people’s question is: “Is God in our midst, or not?” But another valid translation would be: “Does God exist inside us, or nothing?”

Immediately after the Israelites doubt God’s presence, the people of Amalek attack them.

Then Amalek came and fought against Israel at Refidim. And Moses said to Joshua: Choose for us men and go out, fight against Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill and the staff of God will be in my hand. So Joshua did as Moses had said to him, to fight against Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Chur went up to the top of the hill. (Exodus 17:8-10)

At this point, Moses probably assumes that he and God will do their usual routine, in which Moses raises the staff and God sends a miracle. But God does not speak to him. And when the battle begins, Moses does not seem to be holding the staff.

And it happened, when Moses elevated his hand, then Israel prevailed; but when he rested his hand, then Amalek prevailed. And the hands of Moses were getting heavy, so they took a stone and they placed it under him, and he sat upon it. And Aaron and Chur held his hands, one on either side, and his hands were emunah until the sun set. (Exodus 17:11-12)

emunah (אֱמוּנָה)  = steadiness, dependability, faithfulness. (From the same root as vaya-amiynu above, 14:31)

Why do the Israelites prevail when Moses’ hands are raised? Is it because God is responding to Moses’ gesture and making it happen? Or is it because their faith in God’s presence is renewed and they fight better?

Talmud tractate Rosh Hashanah 29a says: “Did the hands of Moses wage war or crush the enemy? No; the text only teaches that as long as Israel turned their thoughts above and submitted their hearts to their father in heaven, they prevailed; but otherwise they failed.” In other words, there is no magic in Moses’ hands, and God performs no miracles. When Joshua’s men prevail against Amalek, it is only because the sight of Moses’ upraised hands encourages them.

Modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote in Particulars of Rapture, p. 245: “The role of Moses’ hands is to model for the people the attraction upward that is faith.”  Moses demonstrates prayer and attachment to God by raising his hands toward heaven.

Maybe that is why we raise our hands for blessing in many Jewish Renewal congregations. Words are not enough. When we see upraised hands we remember in our bodies, not just our intellects, that we want to connect with the divine.

Raising our own hands, palms up and empty, completes the ritual link. Then we can—sometimes—feel that God is bekirbeinu, inside us. Then it is easier to prevail over our own internal enemies, our own psychological Amaleks that attack us when we complain too much.

Is it the feeling of God inside us that lets us prevail? Or is it God Itself?

Regardless of the answer, I am grateful for the inner strength that comes when I become aware of a deeper meaning in the universe and inside myself. I pray—with uplifted hands—for that strength, so I can prevail over my own internal enemies. And I am grateful when my friends help to support me as I reach upward.

Shemot: Hebrews vs. Children of Israel

December 18, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Posted in Shemot | 1 Comment
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Both the book of Exodus and its first Torah portion are called Shemot (“Names”) after a key word in the first sentence.  But that sentence also includes the two names of Jacob and all his descendants:

Jacob and his Family Go to Egypt, by Jean Bondol, 14th century CE

And these are the names of the Children of Yisra-eil who came to Egypt with Ya-akov, each man and his household. (Exodus/Shemot 1:1)

shemot (שְׁמוֹת) = names.

Yisra-eil (יִשְׂרָאֵל) = Israel (in English).  Yisra (ישׂר) is derived from either yisar (יִּשַׂר) = he strives, contends, struggles; or yasor (יָשֹׂר) = he rules, directs.  Eil (אֵל) = god, God.

(Jacob earned the name Yisra-eil after wrestling with a mysterious being.1  The possible meanings of Yisra-eil have spurred a lot of commentary.  Likely translations are “He struggles with God”, “God strives”, or “God rules”. Calling Jacob’s descendants the children of Israel, instead of the children of Jacob, focuses on their active and sometimes insecure relationship with their god.)

Ya-akov (יַעֲקֹב) = Jacob (in English); he grabs the heel (from the verb akav, (עָקַב) = came from behind, grabbed by the heel, supplanted, circumvented, held back).

(Jacob’s father, Isaac son of Abraham, named him Ya-akov when he was born, because he emerged holding the heel of his twin brother Esau.2)

The second sentence in Exodus lists the names of eleven of Jacob’s twelve sons.  Joseph is already a viceroy of Egypt when his extended family moves down.  He invited them to resettle in the Goshen area so he could guarantee they would have food during the seven-year famine.

Over the next few centuries or generations the descendants of Jacob multiply, and a new dynasty takes over Egypt.3

And a new king rose over Egypt who did not know [about] Joseph.  And he said to his people: “Hey! The people of the children of Yisra-eil are more numerous and more mighty than we are!  … What if a war happens, and they even join our enemies and wage war against us, or they go up out of the land?” (Exodus/Shemot 1:8-10)

Here the pharaoh is superficially respectful, referring to the children of Israel by their own name for themselves.  Perhaps at this point most Egyptians had nothing against their Israelite neighbors.

Having identified a potential problem, Pharaoh assigns the Israelites to corvée labor (forced and unpaid labor on a state project).  They must build storage cities in the eastern delta of the Nile, near the Goshen region where they live.  This move establishes their lower-class status, and puts them under close supervision so they cannot defend themselves against any future injustice.

Pharaoh and Midwives, The Golden Haggadah, 14th century CE

The pharaoh’s next move is to order the midwives to kill all the Israelites’ newborn sons.  At this point, Pharaoh calls the Israelite women “Hebrews”.

And he said: When you deliver the ivriyot, and you look at the pair of stones [the birthing seat], if it is a son, then you shall kill him.  But if it is a daughter, then she shall live. (Exodus 2:16)

ivriyot (עִבְרִיּוֹת) = Hebrew women; the feminine plural of ivri (עִבְרִי) = a Hebrew person.  (From the root verb avar, עבר = passed through, passed by, crossed over.  Ivri is an imperative form of this verb.)

The word ivri is etymologically related to the Egyptian word ‘apiru and the Mesopotamian word habiru (as well as the English word “Hebrew”).  Several thousand years ago, the countries surrounding Canaan used the term to mean any Semitic immigrants on the fringes of society.  Surviving ancient texts refer to Hebrews as nomadic herders, temporary laborers, mercenaries, or outlaws.  They are not permanent residents.

Yet when the book of Exodus opens, the children of Israel have been living in Egypt for somewhere between two generations and 350 years.Although they belong to a distinct ethnic group, they have a long-established place in Egyptian society.

Nevertheless, the pharaoh switches from calling them “children of Israel” to calling them “Hebrews”.  This change in language signals that they are aliens who do not really belong in Egypt.  Given the usual meaning of the Egyptian word ‘apiru, the pharaoh also implies that the Israelites are low-class migrant workers and potential outlaws.  His racial slur probably makes the idea of killing the newborn males more palatable to ordinary Egyptians.

Yet the midwives do not carry out the pharaoh’s hate crime; they come up with an excuse for letting the baby boys live.  Although the pharaoh does not punish them, he remains determined to eliminate the “Hebrews” by attrition, letting the old ones work until they die without a new generation to replace them.  His next move is to incite the whole native Egyptian population to commit a form of genocide.

Pharaoh gave orders to all his people, saying: “Every son that is born, you shall throw away into the Great River; but every daughter, you shall let live.” (Exodus/Shemot 1:22)

Why does the pharaoh want to kill only the newborn boys, and not the girls?  In the ancient world of the Torah, men carry the identity of a tribe or nation; women become members of their husbands’ tribes when they marry.  If the only young Israelites were female, they would merely become wives, prostitutes, or servants to native Egyptians.

I would add that adolescent boys and young men are always seen as the most dangerous members of an out-group.

The children of Israel are already subject to corvée labor with no fixed endpoint—in practice, a kind of slavery.  Now they are also helpless against any Egyptians who decide to drown their male children.

Moses from the River, detail from Dura Europos, 244 CE

Only a hero and some miracles can reverse the situation.  The miracles will come from God; the hero is born among the Israelites in Egypt.  His mother hides him for three months before putting him inside a waterproof papyrus box and floating it among the reeds on the bank of the Nile.  When the pharaoh’s daughter finds the  box and sees a baby boy inside, she says:

This is one of the children of the ivrim!”  (Exodus 2:6)

ivrim (עִבְרִים) = Hebrews; the male or all-purpose plural of ivri.

Thus the infant whom she adopts and names Moses begins life identified as an ivri, a nomad, immigrant, outsider.  Eighty years later, Moses leads the ivrim out of Egypt and toward Canaan, the land where ivrim originally came from, the land where they can live as children of Yisra-eil.

Once the Israelites leave Egypt, the Torah rarely calls them ivrim.  References to “Hebrew” people appear only in rules regarding Israelites who have sold themselves as slaves, and in conversations with non-Israelites.

The Israelite occupation of Canaan was not permanent.  The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., and it took 2,534 years before the land became an independent nation of Israel again, rather than a province of a larger country.  During much of that time Jews in Palestine and in the diaspora were treated like ivrim, unsavory migrants.

*

No group of people is permanent.  Identifying some residents of a country as natives, and others as migrants, outsiders, ivrim, is only a way for demagogues to stir up enough fear and hatred to get what they want.

None of us are natives, if you look back far enough in history.  None of us have an exclusive claim to a patch of land.  All of us are temporary residents—in our countries, and on this earth.  We are all ivrim.

Our challenge is to recognize that everything is temporary, and dedicate our short lives to becoming true children of yisra-el by wrestling with God and changing the fate of the earth.

  1. Genesis 32:25-29.
  2. Genesis 25:26.
  3. Neither the Torah nor the classic commentary are consistent about how much time passed between the immigration to Egypt of Jacob and family, and the imposition of corvée labor by the first pharaoh alarmed by the strength and numbers of his descendants.  According to Exodus 12:14, the Israelites were in Egypt a total of 430 years, making the time between their arrival and their initial enslavement no more than 340 years.  In Genesis 15:13-14 God says the Israelites will be in Egypt for 400 years, bringing that time down to no more than 310 years, which  Genesis 15:16 considers four generations.  Yet according to Exodus 6:16-20, Moses’ grandfather Kehat came down with Jacob, so there were only two generations.
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