Is owning land like owning a bowl or a blanket? Do human beings have the right to buy and sell land, inherit it, give it away, use it any way they like, destroy it?
This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“on a mountain”), lays out rules for land ownership in ancient Israel and Judah. The first rule is about farmland:
The seventh year will be a time of the most restful rest for the land, a time of rest for God. You shall not sow your field and you shall not prune your vineyard. (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:4)
Every seventh year, the Torah explains, everyone can eat what grows wild on your land:
It shall be … for yourself and for your male servant and for your female servant and for your hired laborer and for your toshav, the geirim with you; and for your cattle and for the wild beasts that are in your land; all may come to it to eat. (Leviticus 25:6-7)
toshav (תּוֹשָׁב) = resident alien, foreigner living in a citizen’s household. Plural = toshavim (תּוֹשָׁבִים).
geir (גֵּר) = resident alien, immigrant; non-citizen who moved from another land. Plural = geirim (גֵּירִים).
The implication is that although you own the land, you only own its produce six years out of seven. Every seventh year you must let it lie fallow,1 giving the land a year of rest (shabbat, שַׁבָּת), just as every seventh day you give everyone in your household a day of rest (shabbat, שַׁבָּת). During your land’s year of rest, whatever it produces is ownerless, and can be eaten by anyone, even wild animals. Additionally, landowners may neither sell nor hoard the produce during that year; like everyone else, they may pick up only what they can eat.
The next rule in the Torah portion Behar lays out what happens to land every 50th year. After the 49th year (which is a year of rest for the land, as above), all the land gets an additional year of rest, and during that year ownership of each parcel of land reverts to the family that owned it 50 years before—the descendants of the family that owned that land 50 years before that, and so on, all the way back to the original assignment of land in the book of Joshua.2
In this year of the yoveil, each of you shall return to his holding. (Leviticus 25:13)
yoveil (יוֹבֵל) = ram, ram’s horn, shofar; year of blowing the ram’s horn. (English “jubilee”.)
That means a plot of land may not be sold in the sense we sell land today. Instead, someone pays up-front to lease the land for however many years are left before the next yoveil. During those years, he3 may plant and harvest as he likes—but then he has to return the land.
According to the count of years since the yoveil, you shall purchase it from your fellow; … since he is selling you the number of harvests. (Leviticus 25:15, 16.)
Does that mean that the only true owners are the “original” families that were given land when the Israelites conquered Canaan, and get the same lands back every 50 years? No. The Torah says that all land belongs to God.
You may not forfeit the right to reacquire the land, because the land is Mine; for you are geirim and toshavim with Me. (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:23)
God is the true landowner of the land; even the Israelites who inherit land, or get it back in a yoveil year, are resident aliens from God’s point of view.
If everyone who “owns” land is actually borrowing it from God, everyone must obey God’s rules about the use of the land. Besides letting the ground rest every seven years, they must leave some of the harvest in the field for poor people and geirim to glean.4
In modern nations today, our own governments can seize private land by eminent domain, often (depending on the nation) compensating the owners for their loss. In general, people can buy, sell, inherit, and give away land, but there are limits—set by government rather than God—on how they can use the land. We have zoning laws, laws protecting wetlands, laws requiring large developers to set aside some land for public parks or green spaces.
But we could do better, if our governments were truly dedicated to the public good. For example, we could have laws banning the use, on farms and on homeowners’ lawns, of any pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers that poison the environment. We could have laws severely limiting carbon dioxide emissions, and all forms of air and water pollution.
After all, does anyone have the right to degrade our God-given earth?
All human beings are merely temporary residents, geirimandtoshavim, on God’s land. We live here on sufferance. We depend on nature, which some people call God’s creation—because it certainly isn’t ours. If only we could remember that we are all gleaners, harvesting our food from land that does not really belong to us!
We need to wake up and hear the ram’s horn!
(An earlier version of this essay was published in May 2010.)
1 The seventh year is called the year of shmittah(שְׁמִטָּה), “release”, in Deuteronomy 15:1-14, where it is described as the year for remission of debts and the freeing of Hebrew slaves.
2 Joshua 13:8-33 confirms Moses’ assignment of land east of the Jordan River to the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe, divided by their clans. Joshua 15:1-17:18 confirms the assignment of land the tribes of Judah, Efrayim, and the other half of Menashe have already taken by conquest west of the Jordan, divided by their clans. Joshua 18:1-19:48 describes the assignment of land by lottery (which was presumed to be the will of God) to the remaining seven tribes and their clans. (The Levites, who serve at the temple instead of farming, are given land only in towns, with small attached pastures.) In the next few books of the Bible, the tribes do not conquer all of these assigned lands, and the tribe of Dan moves to another area.
3 Society in the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah was patriarchal, giving the male head of household authority over everyone else. According to current scholarship, the book of Leviticus was written sometime after the Assyrian Empire captured the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C.E., but the patriarchal system continued in Judah. Women could inherit land only when their fathers died without a son, as in Numbers 27:1-11, and even then strings were attached (Numbers 36:2-12).
In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, the word moom is used only for physical blemishes in humans or sacrificial animals. Moom appears 20 times in the Hebrew Bible, but only three of those instances refer to a character flaw, rather than a physical flaw.1
This week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”) lays out rules for priests, including this statement that no priest with a moom may serve at the altar. As in other ancient Near Eastern religions, there are many offerings in which select parts of the animals are burned up into smoke for God, while the remaining meat is roasted and eaten by the priests and their households (including their wives, children, and slaves). Priesthood is hereditary; any adult son of a priest gets his share of the food, even if he cannot officiate because he has a moom.
He may eat the food of his god, from the holiest and from the holy [offerings]. However, he may not come behind the curtain [into the Tent of Meeting] and he may not approach the altar, because there is a moom in him… (Leviticus 21:22-23)
After giving a few more rules about eating from offerings, the Torah portion states that the animals brought to the altar must also be unblemished.
Anyone from the house of Israel or from the resident alien in Israel who offers their offering … from the herd or from the flock, it must be flawless to be accepted; no moom may be in it. (Leviticus 22:19, 21)
This week’s portion helpfully provides both a list of disqualifying blemishes for priests (Leviticus 21:18-20), and a list of disqualifying moomim for sacrificial animals (Leviticus 22:22-24).2
Why must both the priests who make the offerings and the animals that are offered must be physically flawless? Rashi3, citing the book of Malachi4, answered that it would be disrespectful to offer God a defective gift or use a defective emissary.
Maimonides5, citing the Talmud6, wrote that people were more likely to think of the temple with awe and reverence if its officiating priests were not only dressed in beautiful garments, but also looked like perfect physical specimens.
Other commentators, including S.R. Hirsch, claimed that the physical perfection of the officiating priests was necessary to symbolize their psychological perfection.7 A man with a moom would be a symbol of a broken and incomplete life; the Israelites were supposed to offer God their whole, complete selves through the rituals at the altar.
We no longer give the lives of our animals to God to express our devotion or gratitude; instead we give God our prayers and blessings. And for almost two millennia8 Jews have not used priests as intermediaries; although we have clergy, any adult can lead a group in prayer9. Physical flaws do not matter in prayer, only the state of one’s heart or mind.10
Do the Levitical lists of unacceptable moomim for priests have any relevance today?
Some psychological, rather than physical, flaws can harden our hearts and impede the act of praying. Does the Torah’s list of moomim that disqualify priests from ritual service address this problem?
Let’s look again at the list of moomim in priests. Some of the words carry more than one meaning. Some come from the same three-letter root as other Hebrew words. And many concrete words are used metaphorically in Biblical Hebrew, as in English.
This yields an alternate translation of verses 21:18-20:
Because anyone who has a moom must not present an offering: anyone who is stirred up, or has been skipped over, or split off from ordinary life, or stretched (too far); (Leviticus 21:18)
Or anyone who is having a breakdown and is unable to walk forward or act; (21:19)
Or who hunches over (with insecurity), or who is stingy, or who has clouded vision, or who has problems that fester and don’t heal, or whose libido is crushed or crushes others. (21:20)
We all have some psychological “flaws” or limitations. And like priests with moomim, we can all absorb some nourishment from praying and blessing. But it is a bad idea to lead prayer, or to offer spiritual insights to others, when one is in the grip of a psychological moom on the list above. Only after you have understood and repaired (or at least set aside) your own moom can you step forward to lead with an open heart.
(An earlier version of this essay was published in April 2010.)
1 Deuteronomy 32:5, Proverbs 9:7, and Job 11:14-15.
2 There were disagreements about what some of the Hebrew words meant even when Talmudic rabbis discussed them in the third century C.E. My translations follow modern translations in William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1988; Robert Alter, The Five Book of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004; and The Jewish Publication Society translation of 1999.
3 Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), commentary on Leviticus.
4When you bring up a blind one for sacrificial slaughter, there is nothing wrong? And when you bring up a lame or a sick one, there is nothing wrong? Offer it, please, to your governor! Will he accept you or favor you? (Malachi 1:8)
5 Maimonides (12th-century rabbi Moses ben Maimon), The Guide for the Perplexed, Chapter 45.
6 The Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 43b, states that hereditary priests were also disqualified from serving at the altar if their heads were too square or too bald in the back.
7 Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th-century rabbi), The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra—Part 2, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, p. 723.
8 Since the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
9 However, many Orthodox Jewish congregations still prohibit women from leading parts of the service. The other branches (denominations) of Judaism accept women both as lay leaders and as rabbis and cantors.
10 Texts emphasizing the importance of kavvanah (intention, direction) in prayer go back to the Talmud (about 300-500 C.E.). Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 30b says one should not stand up to pray except in a sincere and serious frame of mind; Berakhot 31a adds that when a man prays, he should direct his heart to heaven.
The Torah portion named Kedoshim (“holy” in the plural) begins:
And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the whole community of the Children of Israel, and you shall say to them: Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I, God, your God.” (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:1-2)
kedoshim (קְדֺשִׁים) = plural of kadosh.
kadosh (קָדוֹשׁ) = (As an adjective:) holy, sacred; set apart for religious use; dedicated to God. (As a noun:) something that is holy. (Kodesh, קֺדֶשׁ, has a similar meaning, and is also used in the Torah both as an adjective and as a noun.)
An object (such as a priest’s vestments, a tool for the altar, an animal offering) is kadosh in the Hebrew Bible when it is for religious use only. A place is (such as Mount Sinai, the temple, Jerusalem) is kadosh when God is present there, either manifesting as a fire or a voice, or simply known to dwell there. (See my posts Chayyei Sarah: A Holy Place and Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.) The day of Shabbat is kadosh because it is dedicated to abstaining from ordinary activities in order to spend time in contemplation or worship of God.
God’s reputation is also called kadosh. Later in the Torah portion Kedoshim, God warns that anyone who gives a child to the Molekh, an alien idol, profanes the reputation of God’s kodesh.1
A priest is kadosh because he is formally dedicated to God and leads a different life from non-priests. He must serve God at the temple and instruct the people on ritual matters; and he depends on the whole community for support, owning no farmland of his own.
But what does it mean for God to be kadosh? And what does it mean for human beings who are not priests to be kedoshim?
Here are the three passages in the Hebrew Bible in which God orders people to be kedoshim because God is kadosh:
Holiness as ritual purity
The first two times God declares that the Israelites shall be kedoshim because God is kadosh happen in the Torah portion Shemini, earlier in the book of Leviticus. Right after a list of which animals are and are not kosher for eating, the Torah says:
Because I, God, am your god, vehitkadishtem, and you will be kedoshim, because kadosh am I; and you shall you shall not make yourselves impure through any of the tiny teeming animals swarming over the earth. Because I am God, the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your god; and you shall be kedoshim because kadosh am I. This is the teaching of the land-animals and the flying-animals, and for all living beings teeming in the water and for all swarming animals on the earth: to distinguish between the impure and the pure, and between the edible living things and the living things that you may not eat. (Leviticus 11:44-47)
vehitkadishtem(וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם) = you shall make yourselveskedoshim, you shall consecrate yourselves.
Animals that the Israelites are forbidden to eat cause temporary ritual impurity in any person or thing that touches their dead carcasses. The mammals and birds that are acceptable sacrificial offerings to God (cattle, sheep, goats, and two kinds of birds) are all from the kosher list.
The Torah includes many other laws about ritual observance. Transgressing one of these laws means being less obedient to God, and therefore no longer kadosh—until one has made atonement with the appropriate sacrifice.
The Torah portion Kedoshim reinforces this idea two-thirds of the way through its list of rules:
Vehitkadishtem, and you will be kedoshim, because I, God, am your god. And you shall observe My decrees and do them. I, God, am mekadishkhem. (Leviticus 20:7-8)
mekadishkhem(מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם) = the one who makes youkedoshim, the one who consecrates you, the one who transfers holiness to you.
For a human, in other words, being kadosh is a condition like ritual purity. People who follow all the rules of the Israelite religion are kedoshim—because God puts them in a kadosh state. Maybe for God, being kadosh means being mekadishkhem.
Holiness as moral virtue
The Torah portion Kedoshim begins with “Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I” (Leviticus 19:2). Right before this divine direction, in the previous portion, Acharey Mot, is a list of forbidden sexual partners.2 Right after it is a list of 20 commandments, starting with “Everyone shall revere his mother and his father” and concluding with “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. While two or three of these commandments are about religious ritual3, the rest lay out ethical standards for human interactions.
For the last millennium, many commentators have concluded that God is asking us to become kedoshim by behaving ethically toward other people. In the 11th century C.E. three great rabbis, Rashi in France4, Maimonides in Egypt5, and Bachya ibn Pakudah in Spain6, all responded to Kedoshim by writing that human beings become kedoshim by exercising self-restraint over their passions and appetites, especially their sexual appetites. Besides avoiding the immoral deeds specifically mentioned in Acharey Mot and Kedoshim, humans must fully dedicate themselves to holiness by acting moderately and responsibly even when they are doing what is permitted.
More recently, Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz has pointed out: “Bringing a korban [an offering to the altar] every once in a while is simple. But to fulfill all the various major and minor requirements listed in Parashat Kedoshim every day is quite another story. Not for naught does the Torah say, ‘Everyone shall revere his mother and his father’ (Lev. 19:3). Anyone who has any experience in this knows how difficult it is. It is something that we are faced with every day, and it can be especially challenging when one’s father and mother are themselves not exceptionally holy people.
“This struggle is the fundamental struggle for holiness. Parashat Kedoshim presents a long list of minor requirements, none of which is extraordinary on its own, but each one recurs day after day. The very requirement to maintain this routine without succumbing to jadedness and despair—that itself creates the highest levels of holiness.”7
For a human, in other words, being kadosh means continuously striving to act ethically in the world. Most commentators who argue for this meaning of kadosh assume that God is kadosh because God is morally perfect, and we become kedoshim to the extent that we imitate God.
Yet the anthropomorphic God portrayed in much of the Torah often seems to act immorally. The “God” in the first five books of the Torah or Bible frequently bursts into anger and kills thousands of people without discriminating between the truly evil ringleaders (if any) and those who are merely weak or imperfect, or happen to be part of a wrong-doer’s family.
However, in the book of Exodus God claims to be compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, kind, truthful, and forgiving.8 Some people claim that what looks to us like God’s bad behavior, both in the Torah and when bad things happen to good people today, is really part of God’s larger plan for ultimate justice and mercy for everyone. We humans can’t see the big picture, but this is the best of all possible worlds, and God is kodesh after all.
Holiness as exclusive possession
Sometimes the Torah calls the Israelites kadosh because they are set apart by God, and God is kadosh through the distinction of being the only god the Israelites worship.9 This concept of holiness as segregation appears near the end of this week’s Torah portion.
And you shall be kedoshim for Me, because kadosh am I, God, and I have separated you from the [other] peoples to be Mine. (Leviticus 20:26)
The exclusivity of this arrangement between God and the Israelites leads to rules that discriminate against non-Israelites. For example, in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, Moses warns the people that when they conquer their “promised land’ in Canaan and defeat the seven tribes already living there, they must not make any treaties with these tribes; they must not intermarry with them; and they must destroy all their religious items.
For you are a kadosh people to God, your god; God, your god, chose you to belong to It as a treasured possession, out of all the peoples on the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 7:6)
Sifra, a collection of commentary on Leviticus that was probably compiled in the third century C.E., rephrases God’s direction at the beginning of the Torah portion Kedoshim this way: “As I, God, am set apart, so you must be set apart.” The same condition of being “set apart”—from other peoples or from other gods—defines how both the Israelite people and God are kadosh.
All of the passages in the Torah that include some version of “Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I” concern activities in the physical world: obeying or decreeing ritual rules; behaving ethically; and excluding other people and other gods. None of these passages mention spiritual transcendence.
Later in the Hebrew Bible, the prophets sometimes use the word kadosh to indicate that God is an awesome and overpowering mystery.10 In the 16th century C.E., the Maharal of Prague wrote that a person or act is kadosh when it is transcendent in its essence—like God.11 And in the 18th century, Hassidic rabbis defined holiness as an intense and continuous attachment and devotion to God. This deep mental connection let God’s holiness flow into a person.12
But in the book of Leviticus, kadosh describes something in the physical world: an object, a place, a day, a priest—or an ordinary Israelite’s actions in the world, or God’s actions in the world.
What it means to say God’s actions are kadosh depends on how you define “God”—and that determines what human beings do to become kadosh.
The “God” of ritual purity
Some people think of “God” as the anthropomorphic biblical character who makes all the rules. They strive to follow whatever rules their current human leaders have selected from the Bible in a literal way, eschewing symbolism. (It would be impossible to follow all the rules in the Bible; some contradict each other, and some cannot be performed in the modern world.)
To the extent that literal-minded religious people achieve this, they consider themselves holy. But all too often this definition of God leads people to denounce those who they believe are not following their chosen biblical rules.
The “God” of moral virtue
Some people think of “God” not as an anthropomorphic being, but as a theological abstraction of perfection: omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. Others think of “God” as the force of goodness in the world. Either way, “God” is perfectly virtuous by definition, and the bible should not always be taken literally.
When people think of “God” as an ethical ideal (from the original 13 attributes to modern variations on “God is love”), and they try to become holy, they strive to act with more forethought or kindness or compassion toward others—thus imitating their God.
The “God” of exclusive possession
Some Jews consider themselves the “chosen people”, descendants of the Israelites with whom “God” has a special and exclusive relationship in the Hebrew Bible. Some Christians consider themselves the “chosen people”, with whom “God” made a new covenant in the Christian Bible.
Defining God in terms of the in-group usually results in disparaging the out-group. People imitate the “God” who singles out one “chosen people” by discriminating against all other groups of people, who they assume are inferior and/or threatening.
If you want to become kadosh, be careful how you think about God!
1 Leviticus 20:3. The Torah portion does not say whether sacrificing a child to the alien god Molekh profanes God’s reputation for separating the Israelites from people with other religions, or God’s reputation for the ethical act of banning child sacrifice.
2 Leviticus 18:1-30.
3 Seventeen of the twenty commandments in 19:3-18 are definitely about behavior toward other people, i.e. ethics. The other three are:
* Observe Shabbat. (Leviticus 19:5)
* Do not worship idols. (19:4)
* Eat a wholeness-offering (שְׁלָמִים) in the first two days. (19:5-8) This appears to be an instruction about ritual, but some commentators point out that the wholeness-offering is the only offering in which some of the roasted meat and grain is shared with guests. In order to make sure this large offering is eaten in two days, the person making the offering must invite multiple guests, so this commandment may also address the ethical virtue of generosity.
4 Rashi (Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), commentary on Leviticus 19:2.
5 Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), Guide for the Perplexed.
6 Rabbi Bachya ben Yosef ibn Pakudah, Kad HaKemach.
7 Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015, p 250.
8 This is a summary of the “13 attributes” God proclaims to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. However, 34:7 ends by saying that God punishes not only wrongdoers, but their children and children’s children, to the fourth generation.
9 God is called kedosh Israel, “the holy one of Israel”, twelve times in the first book of Isaiah and fourteen times in the second book of Isaiah, as well as in 2 Kings 19:22; Jeremiah 50:29 and 51:5; Ezekiel 39:7; and Psalms 71:22, 78:41, and 89:19.
10 One example is a vision of the first Isaiah: In the year of the death of the king Uzziyahu, I beheld my lord sitting on a high and elevated throne, and [God’s] skirts were filling the palace. Serafim were standing over [God], six wings, six wings to each … And they would call, one to another, and say: “Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh! God of hosts! [God’s] glory fills the earth!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)
11 Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Betzaleil, a.k.a. the Maharal of Prague, Tiferet Yisrael 37.
12 Arthur Green, Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2013, pp. 292, 295.
Priests spend most of their working hours, according to the Torah, on three kinds of tasks: maintaining God’s dwelling-place, whether tent or temple; processing the offerings made there; and ritually purifying people who have become ritually impure.
There are many ways a person might become ritually impure, and therefore excluded from communal worship—or even from the whole community—until the situation is rectified. This week’s double Torah portion, Tazria and Metzora, goes into great detail about one: the disease called tzara-at.
If a human has on the skin of their flesh a swelling, or scales, or a white patch, and it becomes a mark of tzara-at on the skin of their flesh, then they shall be brought to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons, the priests. (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:2)
tzara-at (צָרָעַת) = a disfiguring disease of human skin, characterized by patchy white discoloration; something causing patchy red or green discoloration in fabric, leather, or wall-plaster.
Priests are not healers, but they do diagnose the presence or absence of that one disease. Tzara-at was previously mistranslated as “leprosy”, but the descriptions in Leviticus/Vayikra show that human tzara-at is a relatively harmless skin disease, perhaps a form of leukoderma. Sometimes it heals by itself. When the disease is present, the human being must be quarantined from the rest of the community. When the tzara-at is cured, the priests conduct a ritual for re-entry.
The quarantine also applies when a priest finds tzara-at in fabric, leather, or the plastered walls of a house.
God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving to you for property, and I put a mark of tzara-at in a bayit on the land you possess, then the one who has the house shall come and inform the priest, saying: Something like a mark has become visible to me in the bayit. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:33-35)
bayit (בַּיִת) = house, building, home; household (consisting of family and servants living together).
Then the priest shall give an order, and they shall clear out the bayit before the priest comes to look at the mark, so nothing in the bayit will become ritually impure. After that the priest will come to look at the bayit. And he will see the mark, and hey! the mark is sunken into the walls of the bayit, yerakrakot or adamdamot, and appears deep in the wall! (Leviticus 14:36-37)
yerakrakot (יְרַקְרַקּוֹת) = thin greens.1
adamdamot(אֲדַמְדַּמוֹת) = blood reds.2
In that case, the priest must quarantine the house for seven days. If the green or red patches have spread when he returns, the discolored portion of the wall has to be dismantled and its stones must be carried off to the dump. The plaster over the rest of the walls in the house must be scraped off and taken to the dump. Then the house owner has to rebuild the missing section of wall and re-plaster the whole interior. (Leviticus 14:37-42)
If discoloration reappears in the house, and a priest confirms that it is tzara-at again, the entire house has to be torn down and the rubble taken to a dump outside the city. (Leviticus 14:43-45)
Black mold is common the damp climate of western Oregon; I’ve been fighting it for the past twenty years. In some buildings the only permanent solution includes stripping the walls down to the studs, not to mention removing all the grout from bathroom tile. I have not encountered red or green mold, but I know these molds still plague some buildings. Ritual impurity is not an issue for us, but when I scrub my walls or my tile and still see black stains, I feel as if our living quarters are contaminated.
At least the tzara-at contaminates only our walls, not our marriage. But in the Torah portion Metzora, tzara-at of a bayit can also be interpreted as a contamination of the family unit. The Torah often uses the word bayit to mean a household or family rather than a physical house. And the word tzara-at appears to come from the same root (צרע) as the word tzirah(צִרְעָה) = dread or despair sent by God, causing people to flee.3
So we could translate the Torah’s introduction to tzara-at in the bayit this way:
God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving to you for property, and I put a mark of despair in a household in your land, then the head of the household shall come and inform the priest, saying: Something like a mark has become visible to me in my household. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:33-35)
In other words, the head of the household notices that someone in his family is stricken with despair. He (in ancient Israel, the head was always a man) could pretend everything is fine, and keep the problem behind closed doors. But then the despair might spread. Servants or members of his family might even run away. And those who stayed would be ritually impure, unable to mingle with the rest of the community.
So instead of pretending everything is fine at home, the patriarch should inform a priest. He and his family must clear out all the baggage they can. Then the priest comes in to observe whether the household looks normal.
If he sees signs of yerakrakot, “thin greens”, perhaps the family is too repressed, so its members cannnot grow and flourish like healthy green plants. If he sees signs of adamdamot, “blood reds”, perhaps someone is not respecting the Biblical rule that “the blood is the life”: there may be an invasion of personal space and inner life, or even psychological bloodshed.
Both colors of tzara-at sink deep into the household, causing tzirah—depression, dread, or despair. So the priest must separate the members of the household from one another for seven days. If this vacation does not help, the only solution is to start tearing down and replacing some of the family dynamics. And if even that does not work, the household must be disbanded.
Male heads of households in the Torah do not invite interference, but in the case of tzara-at they are required to ask for interference by experts. Adults in our own time also tend to think of the families they have made as their own business, and try to ignore signs of distress.
But if the problem is bad enough, a household cannot continue in its old ways without every member becoming contaminated by despair. The family needs help from an expert. And if that does not work, separation is necessary. People must suffer through divorce or the estrangement of children. Individuals who choose to stay together must build new households or new relationships.
May everyone become able to diagnose tzara-at of the family with the skill of a Biblical priest, and may everyone become able to make major changes.
(An earlier version of this essay was published in April 2010.)
1Yarak(יָרָק) = green plant, vegetable. Rak (רַק) = thin, slight.
2Adom (אָדֺם) = red. Dam(דָּם) = blood.
3 12th-century rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra suggested that the word tzirah must be related to the word tzara-at, since it has the same root letters, and concluded that tzirah was a disease. His opinion is reflected in the most recent (1985) translation of the Bible by the Jewish Publication Society, in which “the tzirah” is translated as “a plague”. Another tradition, followed by the King James Bible, translates the word tzirah(צִרְעָה) as “hornet”, but some modern scholars dispute this. Robert Alter uses the traditional translation “hornet”, but proposes that tzirah actually means a supernatural agent called “smasher”. (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, footnotes on pp. 453 and 919; Robert Alter, Ancient Israel, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2013, footnote p. 100.) Everett Fox translates tzirah as “Despair” with a capital D the first time it appears in his The Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, New York, 1983, p. 389), but inexplicably reverts to “hornet” the second time (ibid., p. 887).
Tzirah appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible, always with the prefix meaning “the” (הַצִּרְעָה):
…and I will panic all the people who you come among … And I will send the tzirah before you, and it will drive out the Hivvite and the Canaanite and the Hittite away from you. (Exodus 23:27-28)
And also God, your God, will send the tzirah against them, until those who remain and those who hide from you perish. (Deuteronomy 7:20)
And I sent the tzirahbefore you, and it drove them away from you, the two Amorite kings—not your sword nor your bow. (Joshua 24:12)
In context, tzirah appears to be an overwhelming dread, sent by God, that induces people to abandon their land and flee.
For seven days after Moses consecrates Aaron and his sons as priests, they sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The Torah portion Shemini (“Eighth”) opens on the eighth day, when the new priests are ready to make their first offerings on the altar: two different offerings for the high priest Aaron, and four different offerings for the people.1 Moses explains:
Because today God will appear to you. (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:4)
After the animals and the grain have been assembled, and the rest of the Israelites are standing in front of the altar, Moses gives further instructions, saying:
This is the thing that God commanded you must do; then the kavod of God will appear to you. (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:6)
kavod (כָּבוֹד) = weight, importance, impressiveness, magnificence; a glorious manifestation (often translated as “glory”).
The Israelites have already witnessed a long string of miracles in Egypt, culminating in the splitting of the Reed Sea. They have followed the kavod of God, in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire, from Egypt to Mount Sinai. On the day of the revelation they experienced God’s kavod as lightning and smoke on the mountain itself, along with thunder and blasts of a shofar.2
Yet once miracles stop, it is hard to keep faith. When Moses stayed on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, and no pillar of cloud and fire reappeared near the camp, the Israelites felt abandoned. Who would lead them to a new home?
In desperation, the men asked Aaron for an idol, then worshiped the golden calf he made.3 Moses returned to them, but God’s cloud and fire did not. The Israelites were so anxious to see the kavod of God again that when Moses called for donations to make a dwelling-place for God, they donated more than enough treasure and labor.4 The dwelling-place, the new Tent of Meeting, is completed at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot.
Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place. (Exodus/Shemot 40:34)
For the cloud of God was over the dwelling-place by day, and fire was in it at night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, on all their journeys. (Exodus 40:38)
Presumably the cloud is resting over the Tent of Meeting on the day the new priests make their first offerings at the altar. So why do the Israelites need another view of God’s kavod?
Perhaps God, or Moses, knows that the Israelites are still insecure. The survivors of the Golden Calf incident have committed their work and treasure to God, and they are ready to follow the new version of God-worship Moses has laid out, in which priests are intermediaries. But they need divine confirmation that Aaron and his sons really are God’s chosen priests. After all, it was Aaron who made the Golden Calf—choosing to pacify the people rather than sticking to God’s commandment against idols. Could they trust him to serve only God from now on—and keep the Israelites in God’s favor?
While all the people watch, Aaron and his sons carry out the required procedures for the six offerings at the altar.
Then Aaron raised his hands toward the people and he blessed them … (Leviticus 9:22)
The Torah doesn’t say what Aaron’s blessing is, but the Talmud assumes that it must be the blessing prescribed for priests in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar5 (and still used in Jewish liturgy today):
“May God bless you and guard you; May God illuminate Its face for you and be gracious to you; may God lift Its face to you and place peace over you.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:22-27)
After this blessing, one might expect the kavod of God to appear as promised. It does not.
19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, claimed that God delays the divine manifestation on purpose so as to prevent any belief that animal offerings make God’s glory appear by magic.6 The kavod appears when God wants it to appear.
Then Moses came, and Aaron, into the Tent of Meeting. Then they went out and they blessed the people … (Leviticus 9:23)
What is this second blessing? According to the Sifra, a 4th-century collection of commentary on the book of Leviticus, Moses says: “May it be God’s will to cause His Presence to rest upon the work of your hands! May God, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold and bless you, as He promised you!”
And the people respond with a verse that appears in Psalm 90:
May the comfort of God, our God, be upon us, and may the work of our hands be an enduring foundation for us. (Psalm 90:17) 7
Moses’ blessing is a prayer that God will indeed dwell in the new Tent of Meeting that the Israelite people made. The people’s response, in this context, is a prayer that the work they did with their own hands will result in both divine comfort and an enduring commitment to serving God.
The children of Israel are moved to commit themselves further to God when Moses and Aaron, their human leaders, come out of God’s dwelling-place and bless them. After this commitment,
… and the kavod of God appeared to all the people. Fire went out from the presence of God, and it devoured the rising-offering and the fatty animal-parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and they shouted with joy and they fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:23-24)
At that sign of God’s acceptance, the people shout with joy—and relief.
A blessing from another person can seem like a useless exercise. After all, a human being has no power to make the blessing come true. We can only express the hope that God will make it happen.
And today, the sudden appearance of fire means an emergency, not divine acceptance.
Yet I remember when I received blessings from Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, and I felt a transfer of good will and even a sense of kavod. This feeling made a psychological difference to me, changing my attitude toward life and toward the divine.
I find I can be committed to an abstract principle, but not comforted by it. Comfort and joy come more naturally when the abstraction is connected with a human being, someone whose warm feelings are palpable. Maybe a blessing in itself can be a manifestation of God.
Bless someone today. It might make a difference.
(An earlier version of this essay was posted on March 20, 2010.)
1 First the new high priest, Aaron, makes a reparation-offering (חַטָּאת) and a rising-offering (עֺלָה) for himself. Then he makes a reparation-offering, a rising-offering, a grain offering (מִנְחָה), and a wholeness-offering (שְׁלָמִים) for the people. For an explanation of these four types of offerings, see my posts Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.
2Shofar(שׁוֹפָר) = a ram’s horn modified for blowing as a wind instrument.
5 The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 38a, assuming that Aaron’s first blessing of the people in Leviticus 9:22 is the same as the blessing God commands all priests to give in Numbers 6:22-23, argues that therefore the “priestly blessing” in Numbers 6:24-26 must be pronounced with the hands raised. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) and the majority of medieval commentators agreed that Aaron spoke the “priestly blessing”.
6 Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Vayikra Part 1, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 289-290.
7Sifra, quoted by W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 804.
The Israelites complete the tent that will serve as a portable temple at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot. Moses consecrates the altar and the priests who will perform all the required rituals in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, the second portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.
Moses assembles the whole community outside the entrance of the new Tent of Meeting. In front of everyone he washes his brother Aaron and Aaron’s four sons, then dresses them in the white, gold, red, purple, and blue ritual garments described in the book of Exodus/Shemot.1
The ceremony continues with the ritual slaughter of a bull and three rams, offerings of animal parts and three kinds of flat cakes, and the application of anointing oil and blood from the slaughtered animals in various locations and combinations. (See my post Tzav: Oil and Blood.) After the gorgeous new ceremonial garments are spotted all over with oil and blood they are holy—dedicated to God. So are Aaron and his sons, but they are not yet priests.
Moses leaves them with a supply of boiled meat (from the second ram) and leftover grain products (from the grain offering), and gives them strict instructions:
You must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day of melot the days of your milu-im; because in seven days yemallei your yad. (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:33)
melot (מְלֺאת) = filling up, being full, fulfilling, completing. (A form of the verb mala, מָלַא = filled, was full.)
milu-im (מִילֻּאִים) = ordination; setting for a jewel to fill. (From the root mala.)
yemallei (יְמַלֵּא) = it will fill up. (Another form of the verb mala.)
yad (יַד) = hand; power, ability.
malayad (מָלַא יַד) = Literally: filled the hand. Idiomatically: ordained.2
According to God’s instructions to Moses in the book of Exodus, one part of the ritual will be repeated each day during this seven-day period: the slaughter of a bull and consecration of the altar with its blood.3 But Aaron and his sons will simply sit in the tent entrance in their spattered garments, gradually eating their portions of the meat and grain offerings that they had shared with God.
God commanded to do what was done today, to atone for you. And you must sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven days, and you must watch over the watch of God, so you will not die; for so I was commanded. (Leviticus 8:34-35)
The Torah does not say whether the long ritual served as a general atonement and spiritual purification, or whether it atones for Aaron’s sin of making the golden calf back in the book of Exodus.4
Nor does it say what Aaron and his sons must watch over or guard for seven days. Many commentators have written that they spend the seven days meditating on the rules of holiness and ritual purity for serving God.5
Another viewpoint is that they are mourning, because they have a premonition that at least one of them will die on the eighth day, when they first serve God as official priests.6 But when Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, in next week’s Torah portion, it comes as a shock to everyone.
The Torah also quotes Moses as telling Aaron and his sons that they must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days because “it will fill up (yemallei) your ability (yad)”. Maybe it takes seven days in the entrance to God’s dwelling-place to fill up with sufficient holy awe to be able to conduct the business of holiness.
What strikes me is that Aaron and his sons are neither born nor trained to be priests. They get their new positions without any previous job experience.
Up to this point, Aaron has not been the sort of man who wears a gold medallion on his forehead saying “Holy to God”. It’s clear in the book of Exodus that God only calls Aaron in because Moses makes so many objections to the job God gives him at the burning bush.7 To his credit, Aaron greets his long-lost brother without jealousy, and willingly serves as Moses’ sidekick. When the Israelites are attacked by Amalek on the way to Mount Sinai, Aaron literally supports Moses’ arm and helps him save the day.8 But when Moses climbs Mount Sinai and does not return for 40 days, and the people panic and ask for idols, Aaron makes the golden calf.
Now Aaron is promoted from Moses’ unreliable assistant to High Priest. Aaron will officiate over the ritual offerings in the sanctuary. Aaron will light the menorah. Aaron will be in charge of God’s dwelling place.
Aaron’s four sons are also getting major promotions. They have not done anything of distinction, though they would be treated with the respect simply because they are Aaron’s sons.9 Now they are being ordained as priests. They will be the only people besides Moses and Aaron and Moses who are allowed to enter the Tent of Meeting, the only people allowed to handle the holiest objects inside it. Only they will turn the offerings of their people into smoke that ascends to God.
For seven days Aaron and his sons sit inside the sanctuary, in the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Perhaps they face out, gazing at the bronze altar and the wash-basin in the sunlit courtyard. Perhaps they face in, gazing at the golden menorah, incense altar, and bread table under the tent roof, not to mention the curtain screening off the ark itself. For seven days they sit there, without distractions, realizing they will spend the rest of their lives dedicated to holy service.
I doubt they are doing anticipatory mourning for the coming deaths of Nadav and Avihu. But they may be mourning for their old way of life, which has ended forever. At the end of seven days, they will be the servants of God’s dwelling-place, who must act as God’s representatives every waking minute.
Their new lives as priests are imposed on them. They do not apply for the job. They do not even hear God call them, the way prophets in the Hebrew Bible are called into service. Moses simply tells them what God told him do. It might seem like a great honor to them, or it might seem as arbitrary as an accident.
At least they are granted seven days to sit at the entrance of their new lives, experiencing the grief, fear, awe, and whatever else comes along, letting the transformation sink in.
We don’t have a Moses to set aside seven days for us when we face a sudden major change in life. But we have the example in this week’s Torah portion. May everyone who can take time on the threshold between an old life and a new one receive the inspiration to sit and reflect. And whenever our lives change, may God fill up our ability to meet the new challenge.
(An earlier version of this essay was posted in March 2010.)
2 The source of this idiom is not known, but it may be related to the elevation offering, the tenufah(תְּנוּפָה), in which priests lay the meat or grain cakes to be offered on their palms and either hold them out, raise them, or wave them toward God before burning them. A tenufah was part of the ordination ceremony for Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 8:26-28).
5 e.g. 13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman (a.k.a. Ramban, Nachmanides), paraphrased in Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1992, p. 71; 19th-century rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 1, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 277.
6Midrash Tanchuma, a collection of commentary from the 5th through 8th centuries C.E., paraphrased in Munk, p. 72. Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, consumed by a fire from God (Leviticus 10:1-2); and Moses forbids Aaron and his two surviving sons to engage in mourning for them (Leviticus 10:6-7). The seven days sitting at the tent entrance are compared to the initial seven-day mourning period of shivah, but “sitting shivah” is a later Jewish custom.
9 Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, are treated as if they are elders when they walk partway up Mount Sinai with the 70 regular elders, Moses, and Aaron to behold a vision of God’s feet (Exodus 24:1, 9-11).
There are only four times in the Bible when Gods “calls” to Moses before speaking to him, and all four happen at Mount Sinai. God calls from the burning bush1 for their first introduction; from the top of Mount Sinai when the ex-slaves from Egypt first arrive2; and from the top of the mountain again (when it is smoking and thundering) to give Moses more instructions before the revelation known as the “Ten Commandments”3.
The fourth time, God calls to Moses from within the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites have constructed at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Vayikra to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them… (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1-2)
vayikra(וַיִּקְרָא) = and he/It called (by name).
This divine call opens the book of Leviticus/Vayikra and this week’s Torah portion, which is also named Vayikra. Why does God call to Moses before giving him a new set of instructions?
One answer is that God always called Moses before speaking to him, as an expression of affection or courtesy, but the Torah does not always mention it.4
Another explanation points out that at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses assembles the new Tent of Meeting for the first time, and the presence of God moves from the top of Mount Sinai into the tent.
Then Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud dwelled in it, and the magnificence of God filled the Dwelling-Place. (Exodus 40:35)
Moses is not willing to try entering again until God calls to him from inside the tent. When he hears this call, he realizes that his job is not finished; he must continue to serve as an intermediary between God and the Israelites.5 The only difference is that now he will hear God’s voice from the empty space above the ark in the back chamber of the tent, the Holy of Holies.6 To facilitate this, the cloud moves and hovers above the tent.
A unique feature of the word vayikra at the beginning of Leviticus is that in every Torah scroll, the letter aleph (א) at the end of the word is written smaller than the other letters.
Six words in the first five books of the Bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy, the contents of a Torah scroll) have been written with one letter smaller than the others ever since the 7th century C.E.7 No one knows the historic reason for these miniature letters, but symbolic interpretations have been proposed for each one.
The Zohar explains the small א in vayikra as indicating a restriction in God’s summons. Earlier in the Torah, God calls to Moses in full majesty from out of fire: first from the burning bush, then from the fire at the top of Mount Sinai. Now God calls from the Tent of Meeting, from inside the Holy of Holies.8
The idea of restriction is reinforced by the fact that in the first sentence of Leviticus, the Torah says He/It called to Moses, instead of God called to Moses; the name of God is only used in the second clause, when God speaks to Moses and gives him instructions. Moses hears the initial call when he is standing outside the Tent of Meeting. Then he goes inside to receive God’s new instructions.
From that point on, although Moses occasionally prostrates himself on the ground to get a quick word of divine advice, God usually speaks to him from the empty space above the ark in the Holy of Holies.
What does it mean that God now speaks with an indoor voice instead of an outdoor voice? I think this change is related to a change in the Israelites’ relationship with God. In the book of Exodus, God only speaks to the people once, on the day of revelation, and the people at the foot of Mount Sinai experience thunder, lightning, heavy cloud, the blare of a horn, smoke and fire, and earthquake.9
The experience is too devastating for the people, and they beg Moses to be a go-between for them.10 Moses does so, trotting up and down Mount Sinai, speaking with God at the top and the people at the bottom. The ex-slaves from Egypt remain passive. Even when they are afraid Moses has died, and they want an idol to replace him as their leader, they ask Moses’ brother Aaron to make it; they wouldn’t dare make a golden calf by themselves.
But when Moses passes on God’s instructions for making a dwelling-place for God, everyone with a willing heart donates materials, and everyone with a wise heart helps with the craftsmanship. (See my post Vayakheil: Will My Cup Run Over?) In the book of Leviticus, Moses passes on God’s instructions for when and how the people should serve God by bringing their offerings, both animal and vegetable, to the altar. Aaron and his four sons get new jobs as priests conducting sacred rituals, and at every stop on the journey through the wilderness, each tribe has a designated camping spot in relation to the Tent of Meeting.
Everyone is involved in serving God. But only Moses and Aaron (the high priest) hear God’s voice; only they are permitted to enter the Holy of Holies.
Today we still see a difference between the organized religion of a congregation, and a lone person hearing God’s voice on a mountain-top. People still have individual mystical experiences, usually when they are alone and confronted with a sight or sound that inspires awe. Those experiences are precious. But they are not sufficient for leading a good or holy life. After all, does anyone today get explicit instructions from God whenever he or she needs them? Is anyone today like Moses?
When we yearn for a moral compass or a way to walk with (or at least toward) God, we need help from other people. We need a community of fellow-seekers, wise teachers to advise us, books to study, prayers to chant, rituals to perform. We need our own equivalent of the Tent of Meeting.
If we do build a dwelling-place for God, in the right way for our own community in our own time, then we, too, can draw closer to God. We may not hear God’s voice, but we can all feel that God is calling, and God’s presence rests in our midst.
(An earlier version of this essay was posted on March 6, 2010.)
1And God saw that he had turned aside to look, vayikra to him, God, from the middle of the bush, and said: Moses! Moses! (Exodus 3:4).
2And they journeyed on from Refidim, and they entered the wilderness of Sinai, and they camped in the wilderness; and Israel camped there in front of the mountain. And Moses went up to God. Vayikra to him, God, from the mountain, saying: Thus you shall say to the House of Jacob… (Exodus 19:2-3)
3And God came down onto Mount Sinai, vayikra Moses, God did, to the top of the mountain. And Moses went up. (Exodus 19:20)
4 Rashi (12th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) on Torat Kohanim (Leviticus), after Sifra, ed. by Rav Chiyya of the Babylonian Talmud. Also see Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar, 14:21.
5 “Moses needed constant goading because he was a humble person who instinctively withdrew from the attention and the honors that go with leadership.” (Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1992, p. 2)
6And when Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God], then he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the lid that was on the Ark of the Testimony, from between the two keruvim; and [God] spoke to him. (Numbers 7:89)
7 During the 7th to 10th centuries C.E., rabbis arrived at a single, authoritative Biblical text derived from various copies written in consonants only. The Masoretes added diacritical marks to the text to indicate vowels, cantillation, and grammar. They also added marginal notes, and made some letters abnormal in size or position. The small letters (zeira) were among the earliest changes by the Masoretes. These six miniscule letters appear in Genesis 2:4 (ה in behibaram = when being created), Genesis 23:2 (כּ in velivkotah = and to wail for her), Genesis 27:46 (ק in katzeti = I am disgusted), Leviticus 1:1 (א in vayikra), Leviticus 6:2 (מ in mokdah = fire-place), and Numbers 25:11 (י in the name Pinchas).
8 Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, p. 3, paraphrasing the Zohar, a multi-volume kabbalistic commentary by Moshe deLeon, 13th century.
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
Where does God live?
The “heavens” are the primary residence of many gods, including the God of Israel in the Hebrew Bible. In Canaanite and Babylonian religions, the gods inhabit both the heavens and any number of statues on earth. The God of Israel flatly rejects idols, but still wants a second home on earth. In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”), Moses is receiving instructions from God on top of Mount Sinai. God tells him:
They shall make aholy placefor me, veshakhanti among them. Like everything that I show you, the pattern of themishkanand the pattern of all its furnishings, that is how you shall make it. (Exodus/Shemot 25:8-9)
veshakhanti (וְשָׁכַנְתִּי) = and I will dwell, and I will stay. (A form of the root verb shakhan(שָׁכַן) = stay, settle, dwell, inhabit. This is the first occurrence in the Bible of the verb shakhan.)
mishkan(מִשְׁכָּן) = dwelling-place, home. (Also from the root verb shakhan. This is also the first occurrence in the Bible of the noun mishkan.)
Moses stays on top of Mount Sinai so long—40 days and 40 nights—that in the Torah portion Ki Tissa the Israelites at the foot of the mountain despair of seeing him again. So they make a golden calf in the hope that God will inhabit it.1 God refuses the golden statue and threatens to destroy all the Israelites except Moses and his direct descendants. Moses refuses God’s offer, and God settles for sending a plague.2
After the surviving Israelites have built an elaborate portable tent-sanctuary according to God’s instructions, God descends on it in a pillar of cloud.3 In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the ark in this mishkan’s innermost chamber.
Throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers the only mishkan for God is the portable tent-sanctuary. In the first book of Samuel a temple in Shiloh houses the ark, and God speaks to Samuel there.4
King Solomon builds a temple of stone and wood in Jerusalem for God to inhabit. (See my post Terumah & 1 Kings: Tent vs. Temple.) This temple lasts until the Babylonian army razes it in 587 B.C.E., along with most of the city.
Psalm 74 argues that this act was not merely a political conquest by the expanding Babylonian empire, but an attempt to eradicate the worship of God by destroying God’s home on earth. The psalmist, like most prophets writing after the fall of the first temple, probably believed God arranged the fall of Jerusalem in order to punish the Israelites for worshiping idols. Now that the punishment is complete, the psalmist is waiting for God to rescue the deported Israelites (and punish the Babylonians).
Why, God, do You endlessly reject us?
Your anger smokes at the flock You tended.
Remember Your community You acquired long ago!
You redeemed the tribe of your possession.
Mount Zion is where shakhanta. (Psalm 74:1-2)
shakhanta(שָׁכַנְתָּ) = you dwelled, you lived. (Another form of the verb shakhan.)
The psalm then describes how the Babylonian army replaced all the emblems of the Israelite religion in the temple with their own emblems, hacked up the carved ornamentation, and burned the wooden parts of the building down to the ground.
They set Your holy place on fire;
They profaned the ground inside the mishkan of Your name. (Psalm 74:7)
Given this disrespect, and given that the Israelites are the people God adopted and brought to Jerusalem in the first place, Psalm 74 asks why God is taking so long to restore God’s own mishkan, city, and people.
Why do you draw back Your right hand,
Holding it in Your bosom? (Psalm 74:11)
The psalm then points out that God created the world and the day and night, then did great deeds without a mishkan on earth. Lack of power is not holding God back. And the Israelites, particularly the poor and needy, belong to God.
Look to the covenant! (Psalm 74:20)
If God would only pay attention, the psalm implies, God would honor Its covenant, restore the Israelites to Jerusalem, and cause a new mishkan to be built there to facilitate worship.
Do not let the miserable turn back disgraced.
Let the poor and the needy praise Your name! (Psalm 74:21)
In Psalm 74, the mishkan of God is also the mishkan of the people. They need their own home, and they need to have a home for God in their midst. Then, instead of suffering miserably, the needy can praise God and rejoice.
Many Jews still want a home where we are free to praise God, to practice our own religion without fear or discrimination.
Half of the Jews in the world live in the nation of Israel, founded in 1948 as a homeland where Jews could escape the genocide, as well as less drastic forms of discrimination, inflicted on them in Europe. Yet over the next 69 years, the Jewish and Muslim residents of Israel have been attacked both by neighboring countries and by each other.
Most of the Jews living outside Israel today are American citizens. Discrimination against Jews in the United States has fallen over the past sixty years, and many of us view America as our real home, where we can participate in the life of our country and remain free to practice our own religion. God has many second homes among religious American Jews; every synagogue is a divine mishkan, and each of us can make a mishkan for God to dwell in our own hearts.
Yet in the past year, discrimination against ethnic and religious groups has become more socially acceptable in the United States. Psalm 74 suddenly seems more relevant.
I pray that the divine spirit blooms in all of our hearts. May we quickly reverse this dangerous trend. And may all people, everywhere, find a safe home.
Do not let the miserable turn back disgraced!
1 Exodus 32:1-5.
2 Exodus 32:35: Then God struck the people over what they had done with the calf that Aaron made.
3 Exodus 40:33-34: When Moses completed the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the magnificence of God filled the mishkan.
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
Us and them. Citizens and foreigners. Friends and enemies.
Human nature always divides members of our species into two or more groups. But how we treat the “out” group depends on our ethical, religious, and political rules.
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”), is set at Mt. Sinai, long before the Israelites conquer part of Canaan and set up their own government. But it includes a series of laws written after the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were founded. One of the subjects these laws address is how to treat immigrants and conquered natives.
A geir you shall not cheat nor oppress, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt. (Exodus/Shemot 22:20)
geir (גֵר) = foreigner, stranger, resident alien, sojourner, immigrant, non-citizen. From the root verb gar (גָּר) = sojourned, stayed with, resided with.
geirim (גֵרִים) = Plural of geir.
(The meaning of geir shifted in Jewish writings after 100 C.E., coming to mean a proselyte or convert.)
After a few more laws, the Torah portion Mishpatim adds:
And a geir you shall not oppress, for you yourselves know the feelings of the geir, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt. (Exodus/Shemot 23:9)
Unlike foreigners who are merely visiting another country, geirim are displaced persons who cannot call on their former clan chiefs (or national governments) for protection. They are at the mercy of the country where they now live, subject to the whims of its ruler and its wealthy citizens. Unless their new host country protects them, they are subject to deportation even when they no longer have a home to return to (like resident aliens in the United States today), or to slavery (like the Israelites in Egypt at the beginning of the book of Exodus).
This week’s Torah portion gives one example of not oppressing a geir who works for you:
Six days you shall do your doings, but on the seventh day you shall stop, so that your ox and your donkey shall rest, and the son of your slave woman and the geir shall refresh their souls. (Exodus 23:12)
The Hebrew Bible includes many further injunctions to treat geirim with consideration.1 In summary, if geirim are servants of Israelites, they must get the same holiday feasts and days off as native slaves or servants. If geirim are hired laborers, they must be paid daily, like Israelite laborers. If geirim are not attached to an Israelite household and are impoverished, they get the same rights as impoverished citizens. Geirim are even urged to flee to the same cities of refuge if they are unjustly accused of murder.
Since the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are theocracies, treating their geirim like citizens also means the geirim must conform at least outwardly to Israelite religious life, and suffer the same punishments for transgressions.2
However, two kinds of discrimination against geirim are sanctioned in the Torah: an Israelite may not charge interest on a loan to a kinsman, but may charge interest on a loan to a geir 3; and while an Israelite can always redeem a kinsman from slavery by paying the slave’s owner, a geir has no such right.4
Nevertheless, the Bible urges the Israelites to love the geirim living in their land.5
In three books of the Bible, resident geirim are even included in the covenant with God.6 One example is when Joshua enters Canaan and enacts a ritual of covenant at Mt. Eival.
All Israel—its elders, its officials, and its judges—were standing on either side of the ark, facing the priests of the Levites, carriers of the ark of the covenant of God—the geir the same as the native. (Joshua 8:33)
(In this case, “native” (ezrach, אֶזְרָח) means someone of Israelite ancestry, since both the Israelites and their fellow travelers are newcomers to Canaan.)
Another example is when the prophet Ezekiel predicts a new covenant with God once the Israelite deportees in Babylon move back to their old land. In this covenant, people who were once geirim become citizens of the tribes they lived with.
You shall divide up this land for yourselves among the tribes of Israel. And you shall cast [lots] for hereditary possessions, for yourselves and for the geirim who are garim among you … And the geir will be in the tribe that gar with; there you will give him his hereditary possession—declares my Master, God. (Ezekiel 47:21-23)
garim (גָּרִים) = sojourning, staying with, residing with as foreigners. (From the root verb gar.)
gar (גָּר) = he sojourned, stayed with, resided with.
All these rules ensuring fairness to the geirim would not have been written unless some native Israelites were mistreating resident aliens. The Torah correctly points out that the geirim are vulnerable outsiders, just as the Israelites were once vulnerable outsiders in Egypt.
Psalms 39 and 119 take the idea of the geir to the next level. If non-citizens are vulnerable in the country where they live, then perhaps humans are vulnerable before God, whose ways are mysterious.
Psalm 39 introduces a speaker who is worried about the shortness of his life. He alludes to a scourge from God, probably an illness. The psalm concludes:
Hear my prayer, God,
And listen to my cry for help!
Do not be silent to my tears.
For I am a geir with You,
A resident alien, like all my forefathers.
Look away from me, and I will recover,
Before I depart and I am not. (Psalm 39:13-14)
Like a geir, this psalmist feels vulnerable and uncertain of God’s ultimate protection. Instead of asking God to intervene, he begs God to ignore him so he can at least enjoy the remainder of his short life. A geir does not dare to ask for too much.
Psalm 119, written during the time of the second temple, is the longest in the book of Psalms. Its 176 verses begin with letters of the alphabet from alef to tav, the equivalent of the English A to Z. There are eight verses for each letter, and all are variations on the theme of praying to God for help in learning and understanding God’s laws. The verses that begin with the letter gimmel (ג) open with:
Finish maturing (גְּמֺל) Your servant! I will live and I will observe Your word.
Uncover (גַּל) my eyes, and I will look upon the wonders of Your teaching.
A geir(גֵּר) I am in the land; do not hide from me Your commands.
My soul pines away (גָּרְסָה), longing for Your laws at all times. (Psalm 119:17-20)
The psalmist expresses the feeling of being a vulnerable outsider who does not understand what is really going on. Anyone who seeks to serve a God who has issued hundreds of laws yet remains inscrutable feels like a geir. The overall theme of Psalm 119 is the longing to understand what God wants—which is like the longing of geirim to understand how things work in the strange country where they now live.
I appreciate how the Torah insists we must treat non-citizens with fairness and consideration, and reminds us that we have all been geirim at some time. Even if we have enjoyed the rights of the innermost in-group of native citizens our whole lives, we are still geirim with God.
And even within our own social circles, we get along better if we keep working to understand what our friends are really saying, how the world really looks to them. Ultimately, each of us is a geir with every other person, as well as with God—and perhaps even with ourselves.
Receiving assistance like the native poor: Geirim are usually listed along with widows and fatherless children as entitled to glean produce from private fields, orchards and vineyards (Leviticus 19:10, 23:22; Deuteronomy 21:20, 24:17, 24:19, 24:20; also see Ruth ch. 2); to take home a share of the tithe for the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29); and to receive just redress (Deuteronomy 24:14; Jeremiah 7:6, 22:3; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5).
Using cities of refuge: Joshua 20:9.
2 Observing the native religion: Both citizens and geirim must fast on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29), bring their burnt offerings to the alter of the God of Israel (Leviticus 17:8-9, 22:18), refrain from eating blood (Leviticus 17:10, 17:13), obey Israelite laws about permitted sexual partners (Leviticus 18:26), avoid taking God’s name in vain (Leviticus 24:16), and refrain from worshiping idols (Leviticus 20:2; Numbers 15:26, 15:29, 15:30, 19:10; Ezekiel 14:7).
3 Paying interest: Leviticus 25:35.
4 Lacking the right of redemption: Leviticus 25:35-36.
5 Being loved: Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 10:18-19, 24:14.
6 Being included in the covenant: Deuteronomy 29:9-11, 31:12; Joshua 8:33, 8:35; Ezekiel 47:21-23.
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
After the tenth plague, the pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go. Then he has another change of heart, and sends a brigade of charioteers after them. At nightfall the Egyptians catch up with the Israelites at the shore of the sea—the Red Sea in English, the Sea of Reeds (yam suf—יַם סוּף) in the Hebrew Bible. Both parties camp for the night, with the Israelites trapped between the enemy and the water.
What happens next? The most familiar version of the story appears in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach (“When he sent out”).
The Prose Account
Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and God made the sea move with a strong east wind all night. Vayasem the sea dry land, and the waters split. And the Israelites entered the middle of the sea on dry ground, and the waters were for them a wall on their right and on their left. (Exodus/Shemot 14:21-22)
vayasem (וַיָּשֶׂם) = and he/it placed, set, set up, put, put in.
Until I translated these verses, I had the impression that God simply splits the water down to the seabed, which becomes dry and firm enough for the Israelites to walk on. But the Torah says vayasem, as if there were no real bottom to the sea, so God has to install a strip of dry land. (Most English translations say God “made” or “turned” the sea into dry ground—which has the same implication.)
In the cosmology of the ancient Israelites, beneath the land lies a subterranean ocean of water called the tehom (תְּהוֹם —singular) or tehomot (תְּהֺמֺת —plural). This deep water bubbles up through the earth in the form of springs. Under the ocean, it’s water all the way down, with no ocean floor.1
And the Egyptians pursued, and all the horses of Pharoah, his chariots, and his horsemen entered after them into the middle of the sea. …And [God] made the wheels of their chariots swerve, and made them proceed laboriously. (Exodus 14:23, 25)
And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea settled before morning into its normal flow. And the Egyptians were fleeing from it, and God na-ar the Egyptians into the middle of the sea. And the waters turned back, and they covered the chariots and the horsemen of all the army of Pharaoh, the one coming after them into the sea; not one remained. (Exodus 14:27-28)
na-ar(נָעַר) = shook out, shook off. (The form of this verb used in verse 14:27 is vayena-eir (וַיְנָעֵר). This verb appears only 12 times in the entire Hebrew Bible.)
Safe on the other side of the sea, the Israelites are awed by God’s miracle, and moved to sing along with Moses and Miriam.
The Song of the Sea
That was when Mosessang, along with the children of Israel, thissongto God… (Exodus/Shemot 15:1)
The whole “Song of the Sea” that follows is a psalm written in archaic Hebrew, one of the two oldest texts in the Hebrew Bible.2 (The other is the Song of Deborah, Judge 5:1-31.) The scribe who redacted this week’s Torah portion inserted the well-known hymn without changing its archaic syntax and spellings.
The Song of the Sea does not mention God splitting the sea or the Israelites walking on dry land. Nevertheless, one early verse matches the prose account:
Chariots of Pharaoh and his army
[God] pitched into the sea,
And the best of his captains
sank in the Sea of Reeds. (Exodus 15:4)
Twice the Song of the Sea says the Egyptians sank all the way down into the tehomot.
Tehomot covered them;
They went down into the depths like a stone. (Exodus 15:5)
In the wind of Your nostrils the waters were dammed up.
They stood up like a dike [made of] waves,
Congealed tehomot in the heart of the sea. (Exodus 15:8)
You blew Your wind; the sea covered them.
They sank like lead in the mighty waters. (Exodus 15:10)
This description led 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno to explain that the water at the bottom of the sea became solid, and the Israelites walked across the congealed or frozen water.
The Bible includes several briefer descriptions of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, all used as examples of God’s miracles on behalf of the Israelites. But the descriptions in Second Isaiah (51:9-10) and Psalms 77, 106, and 136 do not explain how the Israelites got across the water.
Psalm 136 does, however, refer to God as the one who split the sea, and like the prose account in Exodus it uses the rare word na-ar.
Who cut the Reed Sea into parts,
Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness.
And let Israel pass through the middle,
Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness.
Veni-eir Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds,
Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness. (Psalm 136:13-15)
veni-eir(וְנִעֵר) = And [God] shook off, shook out. (Another form of the verb na-ar—נָעַר.)
We do not know which text first used the poetic image of God shaking off the Egyptians into the sea: Psalm 136, or one of the stories woven into the prose account in this week’s Torah portion. 3
If we follow the prose account, the sea divides and a miraculous strip of earth appears over the tehomot. I can picture the earth getting soggy after the Israelites have crossed, so the chariot wheels of the Egyptians get stuck in mud. Then the bridge of earth buckles and shakes off the Egyptians, chariots, and horses into the water, before God’s second wind blows the walls of water down over them.
On the other hand, if we take the Song of the Sea as the oldest, most authoritative account, and follow Sforno’s explanation that the water congeals into a frozen roadway between dikes of ice, then I can imagine the chariot wheels skidding out of control on the slippery surface. This provides an alternate explanation of the detail in the prose account that God “made the wheels of their chariots swerve, and made them proceed laboriously”. (Exodus 14:25) Then the ice-dikes break and the sea rushes over the Egyptians.
Either of these two pictures of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds is more vivid than most readers—and illustrators—of the Bible imagine.
Unless you are an eye witness, it takes vivid imagery to feel the impact of a miracle. The various Biblical accounts of crossing the Sea of Reeds are designed to make the descendants of the Israelites experience the feeling of a last-minute rescue, and to give them confidence that God has always been on their side. So for centuries the Israelites rejoiced over the miracle at the sea.
Yet after the second temple in Jerusalem fell in 70 C.E., some Jews questioned this attitude. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan says God does not “rejoice in the downfall of the wicked”. He gives the crossing of the Sea of Reeds as an example, saying: “The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said: The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?” (Babylonian Talmud, Soncino translation, Megilah 10b)
I, too, feel sympathy for the Egyptian soldiers. They have no more choice about following the Pharaoh’s orders than the Israelite slaves did before Pharaoh let them go. And their orders were to round up the Israelites (shooting arrows if necessary) and bring them back for re-enslavement.
Suddenly the Egyptians find themselves in the middle of a situation they never imagined was possible. They are chasing the Israelites across a dirt bridge over the sea, or maybe down an ice canyon. They see the ex-slaves reach the far side, but their chariot wheels are either mired in mud or skidding on ice. Then the Egyptians are shaken off the path like crumbs. And the sea crashes down on them.
Today people still experience events they never imagined were possible. Sometimes what seems like a good miracle to one group of people is worse than a nightmare to another group.
May we all learn the humanity to refrain from singing out with joy when our opponents are dying. And may God save us all when we find ourselves trapped in a situation we never imagined was possible.
1 This detail supports Richard Elliott Friedman’s argument in his Commentary on the Torah (HarperCollins 2001) that although the body of water in question is called the Sea of Reeds, it is no shallow lake, but the Gulf of Suez–the western arm of the Red Sea.
2 The exodus from Egypt is set during Egypt’s 19th Dynasty, which ruled during the 13th century B.C.E. The Song of the Sea mentions the Plashet (Philistines), who did not emigrate to Canaan until about 1175 B.C.E. Thus Moses could not have known or composed the Song of the Sea, but the writer of the Song of Sea might have known the story of the exodus. According to modern scholars, the prose version of the story in Exodus is a compilation of three different stories written in Biblical Hebrew sometime after 700 B.C.E. The redactor also inserted the ancient Song of the Sea.
3 Psalm 136 cannot be reliably dated. The language is consistent with the Hebrew in the book of Exodus (excluding the archaic Song of the Sea). But it could have been written much earlier, and rewritten centuries later with updated language. Or it could even have been written during the time of the second temple, 530 B.C.E.-70 C.E.