Tags: Deuteronomy, Devarim, giants in Torah, torah portion
The first time the Israelites reach the border of Canaan, they refuse to cross because they are afraid of giants. The second time, they delay crossing the border because of a giant.
The first time, the Israelites come from Mount Sinai directly to the southern border of the land God promised to give them. In the Torah portion Shelach-Lekha in Numbers/Bemidbar, Moses sends scouts into Canaan. The scouts return saying the land is full of giants.
And all the people that we saw in it were men of unusual size. There we saw the Nefilim—children of Anak from the Nefilim—and we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were in their eyes! (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:32-33)
Nefilim (נְפִילִים) = “fallen ones”, giants; offspring of “the gods” and human women before the Flood.
Anak = founder of the Anakim (עֲנָקִים) = “necklace people”, giants.
There are three groups of people in the Torah who are tall enough to be considered giants: the Nefilim, the Anakim, and the Refa-im. The passage above confirms that the Nefilim and Anakim are giants.
At the southern border of Canaan, the Israelites refuse to go into a promised land that is full of giants. God declares they must wait until 40 years have passed since the exodus from Egypt, and all the men of that generation have died (except for Joshua, and Caleb, the two scouts in favor of going).
In the 39th year, in the Torah portion Chukkat in Numbers, Moses leads the Israelites around the kingdoms of Edom and Moab, and they camp on the Arnon River. Now all that lies between them and the Jordan River, the eastern border of Canaan, is the kingdom of Cheshbon.
Moses asks Sichon, king of Cheshbon, for permission to pass through his land on the king’s highway. Sichon not only refuses, but calls up his army and goes to battle. The Israelites win, and take over Cheshbon.
Then, instead of heading straight for the Jordan River, they take a long detour to the north, all the way to Edre-ii.
Then they turned their faces and they went up the Bashan road; and Og, king of the Bashan, went out to come against them to do battle, he and all his people, at Edre-ii. And God said to Moses: Do not be afraid of him, because into your hand I have given him, and all his people, and all his land; and you shall do to him as you did to Sichon, king of the Emori, who was living in Cheshbon. So they struck him down, and his sons and all his people, until there were no survivors left, and they took possession of his land. Then the Children of Israel pulled out, and they pitched camp on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:33- 22:1)
Og (עוֹג) = a proper name. (In Biblical Hebrew, the closest word is oog (עוּג) = bake a cake. In Phoenician, og = a supernatural being who attacks grave-desecrators.)
Why do the Israelites make this gratuitous detour to conquer an extra country—a country that is not even part of the “promised land” of Canaan?
According to most traditional commentary, King Og would have come south and attacked the Israelites anyway, as soon as they conquered Cheshbon. Some commentators have claimed that Og and Sichon were allies, others that they were both hired by the Canaanites to guard the Jordan River against invaders from the east. In the Talmud, Niddah 61a says Og and Sichon were brother giants who escaped the Flood in Noah’s day. (According to one old story, baby Sichon was a stowaway in the ark, and Og rode on the roof.)
Yet when the Israelites head up the Bashan road, they do not meet Og and his army until they get all the way to the fortress of Edre-ii, King Og’s second capital. Therefore, according to the Torah itself, Og is not on his way to attack the Israelites in Cheshbon. The Israelites’ detour to the Bashan is unnecessary.
So why do they do it—with Moses’ cooperation, and God’s consent and reassurance?
When Moses retells the story in this week’s Torah portion, Devarim (“Words”), his account begins the same way as in Numbers. But then he gives us new information about King Og.
For only Og, king of the Bashan, remained from the rest of the Refa-im. Hey! His bedstead was a bedstead of iron! Is it not in Rabbah of the Ammonim? Nine cubits is its length, and four cubits its width, according to the cubit of a man. (Deuteronomy 3:11)
Refa-im (רְפָאִים) = an ancient people of huge size; the dead.
A bed that size indicates that Og is about ten to twelve feet tall (about 300 to 370 cm)—twice as tall as an ordinary man. No wonder God tells Moses not to be afraid!
After the Nefilim and the Anakim, the third group of extra-large people in the Torah is the Refa-im. We know the Refa-im are giants not only because Og is a Refa-i, but also because of another aside in this week’s Torah portion. Moses remembers that God told him not to provoke the Ammonites on the way to the Jordan, since God reserved their land for the descendants of Lot’s son Ammon. Then Moses adds that Ammon
…is also considered the land of Refa-im; Refa-im used to live there previously … a great people, and numerous and tall as the Anakim. God exterminated them before [the Ammonim], and displaced them, so they live in their place instead. (2:10-11)
This explanation ties together the two meanings of refa-im. The refa-im are giants; and they are also extinct, by the time of Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy; the Israelites kill the last Refa-ii, King Og. The refa-im are the dead.
When the scouts reported that Canaan was full of gigantic Anakim, the Israelite men of the older generation are afraid to cross the southern border of Canaan. Now a new generation is preparing to enter Canaan across a different border, the Jordan River at the eastern edge of Canaan. These young men need to prove to themselves that unlike their fathers, they are not afraid of giants.
Fortunately, from their point of view, there is a giant ruling the country just north of Cheshbon. The chance to attack King Og is irresistible.
Many of us today are haunted by giants from the past. When Jews say “Never again”, we are thinking of Nazi giants. Individuals also remember feeling like grasshoppers in the face of those who used to have power over them: an abusive parent, a menacing teacher, the draft board, “the system”. It takes many years for us to grow and develop our own power.
Eventually, we may believe we are strong enough and brave enough to prevent anyone from seizing power over us. But our memories still haunt us. How can we be sure we are now safe from giants?
I have even caught myself wishing a giant would attack me, just so I could prove to myself that I can stand up to it!
Some of us might be tempted to attack potential giants who are minding their own business—just to prove we have to courage to do it. It takes even greater strength to refrain, and not turn onto the Bashan road.
I pray that everyone may find not only the strength to stand up to giants, but also the greater strength to refrain from provoking them. May we wait for an actual threat before acting. And may we use our newfound power and courage with wisdom and compassion, so we do not turn anyone into a grasshopper.
Tags: Canaan, holy place, religion, torah portion
The Torah does not name the pharaoh in its story about the exodus from Egypt. But some scholars guess the story is set in the 13th century B.C.E., during the reign of Rameses II. At that time the land of Canaan was a remote province of the Egyptian empire. Canaanite vassals ruled individual villages and their surrounding regions, but they reported to the Egyptian government in the provincial capital, Gaza. Egyptian garrisons were scattered around the province.
The two biggest powers then were the Egyptians and the Hittites. The capital of Egypt was in the Nile delta; the capital of Hatti was in present-day Turkey. Naturally the two empires fought over the land in between, until their kings, Rameses II and Hattusili III, made a peace treaty circa 1260 B.C.E. that froze the border. A long period of peace followed—as far as the Egyptians and Hittites were concerned. If one Canaanite vassal overthrew another, that was not their business.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are preparing to cross the Jordan River and overthrow every ruler in the province of Canaan.
God spoke to Moses, saying: Command the Children of Israel, and you shall say to them: When you enter the land of Canaan, this is the land that will fall to you as a hereditary possession: the land of Canaan by its boundaries. Your southern limit shall be from the wilderness of Tzin next to Edom … (Numbers/Bemidbar 34:1-3)
Canaan (כְּנָעַן) = a territory roughly including present-day Israel, Lebanon, and part of Syria—but not Jordan. (Probably from the Egyptian name Kanana, though it may also be related to the Hebrew verb root kana (כּנע) = humble, subdue, subjugate. Much later, in the Second Temple period, a kinani (כְּנַעֲנִי) was a merchant or tradesman rather than a Canaanite.)
God promises to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants in the book of Genesis,and to the descendants of Abraham’s grandson Jacob in the book of Exodus.
When God delineates the boundaries of the promised land in this week’s Torah portion, Masey (“Journeys”), the northern boundary is about the same as the boundary between the Egyptian and Hittite empires, as set by their treaty. Like the province of Canaan, Israel is to include the coastline from Wadi el-Arish all the way to a Mount Hor north of Byblos (now the Lebanese city of Jubayl). (This is different from the Mount Hor east of Edom where Aaron dies.)
The northern boundary goes from the Mediterranean to a point deep in present-day Syra. The eastern boundary swings around to the Sea of Kinneret and follows the Jordan River to the Dead Sea, like the eastern boundary of Canaan in the 13th century B.C.E.
The Israelites never rule the entire province. But they are so attached to Canaan as their promised land, that Moses gets upset in last week’s Torah portion (Mattot) when two and a half tribes want to settle on the east side of the Jordan River, in the land the Israelites recently captured from a pair of Amorite kings.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses makes the distinction between Canaan and the land east of the Jordan again.
And Moses commanded the Children of Israel, saying: This is the land that you will divide for hereditary property by lot, that God commanded to give to the nine tribes and the half tribe. For the tribe of the Reubenites…the tribe of the Gadites… and the half-tribe of Menashe, they have taken their hereditary possession. The two tribes and the half-tribe took their hereditary possession from across the Jordan at Jericho, eastward toward the sunrise. (Numbers 34:13-15)
Why must the land promised to the Israelites be no more nor less than the Egyptian province of Canaan?
One answer is that the Israelites are Canaanites. Some archaeologists suspect the exodus was a literary invention, and that although a small band of slaves may have run away from Egypt, the majority of ethnic Israelites lived in the hills of eastern Canaan all along. When the kingdom of Judah conquered more of Canaan during the reign of King Josiah (Yoshiyahu), 600 years later, they rewrote some of the Torah to justify their expansionism.
The Torah, on the other hand, implies that Israelites are Canaanites because an extended family of 70 (plus wives and servants) go down from Canaan to Egypt, and 430 years later in the exodus 600,000 men (plus wives and children and a multitude of like-minded Egyptians) come back up. During their four centuries in Egypt, the Israelites retain their identity and language. Returning to Canaan, therefore, is returning home.
But they do not return to rejoin their fellow Canaanites. The god of Israel orders them to conquer the current population and drive them out of their towns, so that the people and religion of Israel will rule the land. The Torah gives two kinds of justifications for taking over Canaan. One is that Canaanite religious practices are evil in God’s eyes, and therefore must be eliminated. The other is that the Israelites, as descendants of Abraham, are supposed to be a blessing to the rest of the world. Presumably part of this blessing is setting an example of a country run according to God’s laws.
Some mystical commentary claims that the promised land had to include Jerusalem. According to these mystics, the Temple Mount is also Mount Moriyah, where Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac. This is the holiest spot in the world. (Mount Sinai, which lies outside Canaan, is somehow less important!)
I think all of these explanations ignore the power of myth and legend. As an American child, I grew up reading English stories full of menhirs, dolmens, fairy circles, and henges, where magical things happened to previously ordinary people. When I visited England as an adult, it moves me to tears to see these legendary structures cropping up in the woods and in the middle of farms. This was the world of the stories I grew up with, the world my imagination lived in. Every day I spent in the English and Welsh countryside filled me with awe. I can only imagine the awe I will feel when I finally get to Israel and see the places I keep reading about in the Torah as an adult.
The ancient Israelites, whether they stayed in Canaan or migrated to Egypt and back, grew up with the legends that found their way into the book of Genesis. Imagine what it would mean to them to see Mount Moriah, the grove of Mamre, the cave of Makhpelah, Beer-sheva, or Beer-lachai-roi.
Never underestimate the power of story. It can turn a rural Egyptian province into the Promised Land.
Tags: blame, genocide, Mattot, torah portion
In the Torah portion Balak, Israelite men worship a god named Baal Pe-or by engaging in ritual sex with the local Midianite and Moabite women. God becomes enraged against Israel, punishes the Israelites with a plague, and tells Moses to impale the ringleaders among the Israelite men. (See my earlier post, Balak: Carnal Appetites.) The focus is on the men’s shameful betrayal of the God of Israel.
In the next Torah portion, Pinchas, God tells Moses to punish the Midianites:
Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them! Because they were hostile to you through their cunning, acting cunningly toward you over the matter of Pe-or… (Numbers 25:17-18)
Notice how the blame for the blasphemy is shifted from the Israelites to the Midianites. In this week’s Torah portion, Mattot (“Tribes”), God reminds Moses: Take vengeance, the vengeance of the Children of Israel from the Midianites! (Numbers 31:2)
In the Torah, making God angry often results in death. A death penalty for the Midianite women who engaged in Baal Pe-or worship with Israelite men would be consistent with other examples of justice in the Torah. But what happens is far worse.
Moses sends an army of 12,000 Israelites to attack the local Midianites. The army kills all the Midianite men, burns their settlements, and brings back the women and children as captives, along with livestock and other booty. And Moses is furious.
Moses said to them: You let every nekeivah live! Hey, they were [why] the Children of Israel, through the word of Bilam, betrayed God in the matter of Pe-or, so that a plague was among the community of God! So now, kill every male among the small children. And every woman who has known a man by lying with a male, kill her! But all the small children among the women who have not known lying with a male, keep them alive for yourselves. (Numbers 31:15-18)
nekeivah (נְקֵבָה) = female (human or any other animal); hole.
Two things about this passage raise my hackles. One is how Moses and God shift the blame from the Israelites to the Midianites. I will address that issue three weeks from now, when I write about the second Torah portion of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim: Va-etchannan.
The other problem is the genocide. This year, thanks to a question from my friend Steve Ulrich, I can no longer distance myself from the genocide the way I did in my 2011 post, Mattot: From Genocide to Gentleness.
Commentary from the Talmud through the nineteenth century tried to justify Moses’ orders with variations on the claim that Midianites—at least the Midianites living north of Moab—were somehow unable to stop subverting Israel’s morals and religion. Even if all the adult Midianites were killed, their infant boys would still grow up dedicated to bringing down the Israelites.
Classic commentary also strained to justify why Moses exempted the virgin girls among the Midianites from the death penalty. The Zohar (written in the 13th century) claimed that once a woman has lost her virginity to a man, she is under his influence. This assertion supposedly justifies both the killing of the Midianite men (who must have urged their wives to seduce Israelites), and Moses’ order to spare the virgin girls “for yourselves”. It utterly fails to explain why Moses orders the death penalty for the underage boys.
Some twentieth-century commentary pointed out that genocide was common at the dawn of the Iron Age in the Middle East, along with taking girls captive to be personal slaves. The implication is that we cannot expect a higher standard in the Torah.
None of this commentary justifies Moses’ order of genocide as far as I am concerned. In my 2011 post, I tried a different approach to the genocide in this week’s Torah portion, and interpreted it symbolically. That was an interesting exercise for me, and it let me avoid dwelling on the atrocities the Israelite army committed at Moses’ command.
But this year I want to point out two assumptions underlying Moses’ orders:
1) Proselytizing for the “wrong” religion is a crime deserving death.
2) Every member of the same tribe or race or ethnic group as the criminal deserves the same punishment, because “they” are all alike.
This second assumption is Hitler’s way of thinking.
It is also an extreme example of a common human error. Many people who feel ashamed or at a disadvantage look for someone to blame. All too often, they generalize and blame their situation on all the members of a group—such as Jews, Muslims, Democrats, Republicans, blacks, whites, unemployed single mothers, CEO’s of corporations, men, women.
Few Americans today progress from blaming all members of a group to trying to massacre them. We tend to stop at the level of hatred, bitterness, slander, and voting habits. But in other parts of the world, genocide still happens.
Apparently genocide was acceptable to whoever wrote down or redacted this part of the Torah portion Mattot—as long as the victims were not Israelites. Then classic commentators had to find excuses for Moses, because they assumed a priori that the heroes in the Torah always have good reasons for doing apparently bad things.
But we are not bound by their assumption. We must do better, and denounce genocide even when the so-called good guys do it in the Torah.
And we must never stop noticing and pointing out when someone is blaming a whole group for the misdeeds of some of its members. Even if that blamer is yourself.
Tags: 1 Kings, Elijah, God, prophecy, torah portion
When people in the Hebrew Bible see a manifestation of God, they nearly always see either fire (from the flames in the burning bush to the sparks of fire in the pillar or cloud), or something human (from Abraham’s guest to the feet on the sapphire pavement).
When they hear a manifestation of God, they usually hear words. I have found only two exceptions in the Hebrew Bible. One is in the book of Exodus, when God descends upon Mount Sinai, and all the Israelites hear (and see, perhaps through synesthesia) thunder and the sound of a shofar (a loud wind instrument made from an animal’s horn). The cracks of thunder and the increasing volume of the shofar blasts would make the sound of God unbearably loud.
The other exception is in this week’s haftarah, when the prophet Elijah hears God as what the King James translation calls “a still, small voice”.
A haftarah is the reading from the prophets that accompanies the week’s Torah portion. This week’s haftarah, from the first book of Kings, opens with the prophet Elijah running before the chariot of King Ahab.
In the scene just before, Elijah had staged a dramatic contest on Mount Carmel, where there were altars to both Baal and the God of Israel. King Ahab (who was away from his wife Jezebel at the time) summoned all the people to the mountaintop as witnesses. Elijah invited 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah to call on their gods, while he alone would call on the God of Israel. (The prophets of Asherah did not show up, but the contest proceeded anyway.) A bull was killed and laid over wood at each altar, but nobody was allowed to bring fire to burn the offerings. Elijah said:
You will call your gods by name, and I, I will call God by name. And it will be the god that answers with fire, that one is the god. And all the people answered, and they said: It is good! (1 Kings 18:14)
Elijah increased the drama by giving the prophets of Baal all day to work themselves into an ecstatic frenzy, and by pouring water all over the God of Israel’s altar. No fire ever appeared on Baal’s altar. In the evening, when water was dripping into the trench around God’s altar, Elijah called on God by name.
And the fire of God fell, and it consumed the rising-offering and the wood and the stones and the dirt, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. And all the people saw, and they fell on their faces, and they said: That god is the god! That god is the god! (1 Kings 18:38-39)
The Israelites helped Elijah kill all 450 prophets of Baal. A three-year drought ended. And Elijah ran as an honor guard before King Ahab’s chariot as they returned to the king’s nearest palace, in the fortress of Jezreel.
Haftarat Pinchas begins with this triumphal run. Then Ahab’s wife Jezebel, the real ruler of the kingdom, nixes the mass conversion and threatens to kill Elijah.
The prophet flees, lies down in the wilderness to die, then gets up again at the request of an angel and walks all the way to Mount Horev (another name for Mount Sinai). There God speaks to him—first in words, as usual.
Then the word of God [came] to him, and it said to him: Why are you here, Elijah?
And he said: I was very zealous for God, the God of Armies, because the Children of Israel had abandoned your covenant, and pulled down your altars, and killed your prophets by the sword. And only I was left, and they tried to take my life. (1 Kings 19:9-10)
Elijah is in despair because Queen Jezebel won. He forgets that the Israelites fell on their faces, shouted that the God of Israel is the only god, and killed Baal’s prophets. He either does not believe, or does not care, that the people’s feelings about God have changed. All that matters to him is that he lost the contest with Queen Jezebel for political power. Her gods, and the rest of her prophets, will remain in the kingdom of Israel whether the people support them or not.
God tells Elijah to stand up, and then gives him a wordless demonstration.
And hey! God was passing by, and a big and strong wind was tearing off mountains of rocks in front of God; but God was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, kol demamah dakkah. And when Elijah heard, he wrapped his face with his robe, and he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave; and hey!—a voice [came] to him, and it said: Why are you here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:11-13)
kol (קוֹל) = voice; sound.
demamah (דְּמָמָה) = quiet (without much movement or sound); stillness; silence.
dakkah (דַקָּה) = very thin; finely ground, powdery.
kol demamah dakkah = “a still, small voice” (King James translation); “a soft murmuring sound” (Jewish Publication Society translation); a “sound of thin silence” (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg translation); a faint sound of quietness (my translation).
Elijah hears the sound of quietness, steps out to the mouth of the cave, and covers his face. That means he knows God is in the quietness, since God told Moses no one may see God from the front.
Then God asks him the same question: Why are you here, Elijah? And Elijah gives the same reply, word for word—as if he had learned nothing. So God tells him he must anoint a young man named Elisha to be a prophet in his place.
I agree with the many commentators who concluded that Elijah is too impatient in his zeal; he wants the spectacle of fire (or, presumably, windstorm or earthquake) to turn Israel back to God all at once. He is not interested in a quiet, gradual approach. And that is why God decides to retire Elijah and try a new prophet.
But I also wonder about the three ways of hearing God: as ear-splitting blasts and booms, as spoken words, and as a faint sound of quietness.
We are only human. When we want to plan, or communicate, or understand something complicated, we turn to language. Even musicians and visual artists who are working alone must think in words when they address other aspects of their lives. Our brains automatically translate much of our experience into words and language.
Maybe one difference between a prophet and an ordinary person is that a prophet can easily translate experiences of God into words. So for them, God manifests as spoken words.
For the rest of us, our occasional numinous experiences are hard to understand, hard to put into words. A shaft of sunlight or a haunting bird call might trigger an awareness of something greater—but we struggle just to describe it. Our brains do not translate these evanescent and ineffable experiences into direct speech from God.
In the book of Exodus, God manifests to all the non-prophets at Mount Sinai as unbearably loud noise. The people are terrified, and beg for God to speak only to Moses; their prophet can then translate what God says into words spoken at a reasonable decibel level.
But in the book of Elijah, when the prophet hears God ask him a question in words—Why are you here, Elijah?—he answers defensively, stuck in a repetitive loop of his own words, his own story about himself. Any further insight from God cannot get through. So God resorts to non-verbal communication.
Elijah hears the windstorm, the earthquake, and the fire. Then he hears God in the “still, small voice,” the faint sound of quietness. But he does not understand.
Does God manifest to us, sometimes, as quietness?
Can we understand?
Tags: Baal, blessing, cursing, Mah Tovu, torah portion
Balak, the king of Moab, is afraid of the horde of Israelites camped just north of his border in this week’s Torah portion, Balak. (See my earlier post, Balak: A Question of Anxiety.)He hires the prophet Bilam to curse the Israelites so Moab’s soldiers can drive them away. Bilam warns the king that all he can do is say the words God puts in his mouth. Nevertheless, King Balakleads Bilam to three different vantage points, hoping for a curse each time. Instead, God makes Bilam pronounce three different blessings on the Israelites.
Here are the three vantage points where Balak takes Bilam to look down at the Israelite camp:
1) In the morning Balak took Bilam and he led him up to Bamot of Ba-al, and from there he saw the edge of the people. (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:41)
bamot (בָּמוֹת) = heights; high places used for Canaanite worship.
ba-al (בָּעַל) = ruled over, owned. (The noun form of this verb is also pronounced ba-al, spelled בַּעַל; it means ruler, owner, master; or the Canaanite god of weather and fertility.)
2) Then Balak said to him: Go with me, please, to another place from where you will see them. … Curse them for me from there. He took him to the Field of Tzofim, to the head of the mountain… (Numbers 23:13-14)
tzofim (צֹפִים) = lookouts, observers, watchmen.
3) Balak said to Bilam: Go, please; I will take you to a different place; perhaps it will be right in the eyes of the gods that you will curse them for me from there. And Balak took Bilam to the Head of the Pe-or,the overlook over the face of the desert. (Nuimbers 23:27-28)
pe-or (פְּעוֹר) = wide open like a mouth
In the 19th century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch identified the names of these three locations with material prosperity, foreknowledge, and sexual morality. At each place, he wrote, King Balak was hoping a corresponding weakness in the Israelite people would provide an opening for Bilam to curse them. (Hirsch on Chumash.)
First, according to Hirsch, Balak takes Bilam to a shrine of the Canaanite nature god Baal, who controls material prosperity. (For an agricultural people, prosperity does come from fertility and beneficial weather, Baal’s areas of expertise.) Balak hopes the Israelites can be cursed with poverty. But Bilam calls the Israelites a solitary people, which does not count itself among the nations… (Numbers 23:9). Hirsch argued from this that Jewish national survival, unlike that of other nations, does not depend on material prosperity, and therefore Israel remained blessed.
For his second attempt, Balak takes bilam to the Field of Tzofim. Traditional commentary interpreted the word tzofim as soothsayers—seers who used magic to provide information and advice about the future. Hirsch wrote that at the Field of Tzofim, Balak hopes the Israelites have a weak spot when it comes to magical and intellectual advice about the future. Bilam returns and says: Stand up, Balak! (Numbers 22:18) His second blessing, according to Hirsch, tells Balak that the Israelites have a much higher level of wisdom than that of soothsayers.
For his third try, King Balak takes Bilam to the vantage point of Head of the Pe-or. For Hirsch, Pe-or means the worship of sexual immorality—probably because at the end of this week’s Torah portion, many Israelite men succumb to the seductions of local women who worship Ba-al Pe-or, and one Israelite man commits the ultimate sacrilege of having intercourse with a Midianite woman in God’s own Tent of Meeting. (See my earlier post, Balak: Wide Open.)
Nevertheless, Hirsch claimed that Bilam had to bless the Israelites a third time because of their sexual morality.
According to traditional commentary, when Bilam stands on the peak called Pe-or, he has a vision of the Israelite camp, and he notices that the openings of the tents are arranged so that nobody can see into another family’s tent, and sexual modesty is preserved. This is the traditional explanation for why Bilam’s third blessing includes the following verse (one that has become a standard part of Jewish morning liturgy): How good are your tents, Jacob; your dwellings, Israel!
By citing this extrabiblical tradition, Hirsch was able to conclude that the Israelites were blessed from the vantage point of sexual morality, as well as prosperity and foreknowledge.
The remaining problem with Hirsch’s three categories is that King Balak wants the Israelites cursed so that he can attack their camp and drive them away from his northern border. While poverty, short-sightedness, and/or moral problems might bring down a culture eventually, none of these ills would operate quickly enough for Balak’s purpose.
I think Balak’s three vantage points reflect different issues: mastery over the land, awareness, and satisfaction with life. If the Israelites are cursed in any of these areas, it will be easier for the army of Moab to send them packing.
The first location, Bamot Ba-al, also means “heights of ownership and mastery”. The Israelites have just conquered the territory north of Moab, but can they master the land and its people, so as to hold it?
Bilam’s first blessing not only calls the Israelites a solitary people, which does not count itself among the nations (Numbers 23:9), but also includes the rhetorical question: Who can count the dust of Jacob? (Numbers 23:10)
I think this blessing tells Balak that unlike other nations, the Israelites know they are blessed, and do not compare their possessions with any other nation’s. If God wills it, they will remain owners of the land east of the Jordan. If not, they are still confident they will take and keep the land of Canaan, because God promised it to them. They trust in God’s mastery, rather than their own.
Next Balak takes Bilam to the Field of Tzofim. When I consider the plain meaning of tzofim, “lookouts”, I think Balak is hoping this second vantage point will result in a curse that leaves the Israelites blind to any approaching danger, and therefore easy prey.
This time, the blessing that God puts into Bilam’s mouth includes these two verses:
There is no divination in Jacob, and no magic in Israel; what God accomplishes is told to Jacob, to Israel, at that time. (Numbers 23:23)
Hey, a people like a lioness arises, and like a lion it lifts itself up. It will not lie down until it devours prey, and drinks the blood of the slain. (Numbers 23:24)
In other words, the Israelites do not need magicians to reveal their future, because God tells them what God has arranged. In addition, the Israelites are as alert and fierce as lions when it comes to battle.
I daresay King Balak gives up on his idea of a pre-emptive attack when he learns how alert and aware the Israelites are. But he is still hoping for a curse, so he takes Bilam to the third vantage point, the head of the Pe-or overlooking the desert.
The name Pe-or does foreshadow the seduction of Israelite men into worshiping Ba-al Pe-or through illicit public intercourse. But a pe-or, a wide open mouth, stands for all unrestrained desires. When your desire knows no bounds, you are always dissatisfied, and your life looks like a desert. The previous generation of Israelites complained repeatedly about the food on their journey. What if the current generation is just like them, and God is tired of their insatiable neediness? A reminder of a wide open mouth might encourage God to dictate a curse to Bilam.
Balak is foiled again, as Bilam recites a third blessing. After Bilam praises the tents and dwellings of the Israelites, he says God satisfies the people’s needs so their souls can grow like well-watered plants.
Like groves they stretch out, like gardens beside a river, like succulents God has planted, like cedars beside the water. Water pours from [God’s] buckets, and their seed is at the abundant water. (Numbers 24:6-7)
At this point, King Balak gives up on cursing the Israelites, and orders Bilam to go home.
Bilam has confirmed God’s blessing at all three of Balak’s vantage points. At the Heights of Ba-al, the Israelites are blessed with confidence in God’s mastery. At the Field of Tzofim, they are blessed with awareness. And at the Head of Pe-or, they are blessed with fulfillment of their desire to grow and flourish.
A person who has confidence, awareness, and fulfillment cannot be harmed by any curse. May we all be so blessed.
Tags: Aaron and Miriam, prophets and priests, torah portion
Miriam and Aaron both die in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“Decree”). The portion opens in the first month of the fortieth and final year the Israelites must spend in the wilderness. Miriam’s death is described in a single sentence.
The Children of Israel, the whole community, came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and the people stayed at Kadeish. And Miriam died there and she was buried there. (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:1)
kadeish (קָדֵשׁ) = being holy, being dedicated to God; a Canaanite male temple prostitute; one of two places named before the Israelites took Canaan, presumably sacred spots for non-Israelites (Kadeish in the wilderness of Paran in the southern Negev, or Kadeish in the wilderness of Tzin on the border of Edom).
The Torah says nothing further about Miriam’s death. All the Israelites observe 30-day mourning periods after the deaths of Aaron and Moses. But no official mourning period is set for Miriam.
Aaron dies later in this week’s Torah portion, after the Israelites have begun circling around Edom and Moab. (At the end of this week’s Torah portion they camp on the east bank of the Jordan River, across from Jericho.)
The Torah describes Aaron’s death in detail.
And they pulled out from Kadeish and the Children of Israel, the whole community, came to hor hahar. And God spoke to Moses and Aaron at hor hahar, on the border of the land of Edom, saying: Let Aaron be gathered to his people … Take Aaron and his son Elazar and bring them up to hor hahar. And strip off Aaron’s garments, and clothe his son Elazar. Then Aaron will be gathered, and die there. And Moses did as God commanded, and they headed up hor hahar before the eyes of the whole community. Moses stripped off Aaron’s garments, and he clothed his son Elazar. And Aaron died there, on the head of hahar. And Moses went down, and Elazar, from hor hahar. Then the whole community saw that Aaron had expired, and the whole house of Israel mourned for Aaron 30 days. (Numbers 20:22-29)
Hor hahar (הֹר הָהָר) = mountain of the mountain, hill on the hill, Hor Mountain. (Rashi—11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki—spoke for the majority of commentators when he wrote that Hor hahar looked like a small mound on top of a large mound.)
Miriam and Aaron both die near the border of Edom. The Torah calls them both prophets, and ranks them both as leaders of the Israelites along with Moses. So why is Miriam’s death described in a single verse, while Aaron’s death takes eight verses?
The books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are full of Aaron, since much of the material concerns the establishment of rituals conducted by male priests and Levites. But the Torah gives Miriam only three scenes.
In her first scene, Miriam comes forward after the pharaoh’s daughter rescues the infant Moses from the Nile. In one sentence (Shall I go and summon a nursing woman from the Hebrews, that she may suckle the child for you?) she gives the pharaoh’s daughter both the idea of adopting the baby, and the idea of hiring a Hebrew woman to nurse him. Then Miriam arranges for her own mother—and Moses’—to be the wet nurse.
Miriam’s second scene comes after the Israelites cross the Reed Sea safely and God drowns the Egyptian army. Then Miriam has another brilliant idea. It was customary, when soldiers came home from a victory, for women to greet them with dancing, drumming, and chanting. Miriam picks up her timbrel and gets the women to do the same thing to celebrate God’s victory.
The Torah calls Miriam a prophetess at this point, and confirms her status as a prophet again in her third scene. Here she speaks out against Moses regarding his wife, and gets Aaron to agree with her. God responds by saying Moses’s level of prophecy trumps Miriam and Aaron’s, and gives her a seven-day skin disease. The people wait for her to recover and rejoin them before they journey on.
Miriam’s role in the Torah is to be a prophet, not a priest. She receives divine inspiration, and inspires other people through her words and actions. I think she dies at a place that was already named holy (Kadeish) because she is intrinsically holy (kadosh). She is dedicated not only to serving God, but also to making things right for human beings.
Hor Hahar, the place where Aaron dies, has neither a holy name, like Miriam’s gravesite, nor a view of the “promised land” of Canaan, like Moses’. It is merely a mountain with an unusual shape.
Aaron is called a prophet, along with Miriam, because he does occasionally hear God’s voice giving instructions. But he lacks inspiration. He fails God and succumbs to the will of the mob when he makes the Golden Calf. He becomes the high priest only when Moses dresses him in the high priest’s garments and anoints him. After that Aaron spends his days performing rituals and keeping track of holy objects.
The most important part of Aaron’s death is when Moses removes the unique vestments he wears as the high priest, and puts them on his son and successor, Elazar. What makes someone a high priest is the breastplate with the divining gems, and the gold plate inscribed “Holy to God”. The clothes make the man.
Aaron the high priest is easily replaced by his son, through a change of clothing. But nobody replaces Miriam.
Aaron has to leave the camp and die with only Moses and Elazar as witnesses. Miriam dies in the camp, surrounded by the Children of Israel.
Yes, I admire Miriam, for her brilliance, her courage, and her dedication to her calling. And I also admire Aaron, for his dedication to the job he was assigned—serving as the people’s high priest for nearly 40 years despite his own personal failure in making the Golden Calf.
In the book of Micah, God reminds the Israelites:
I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
And from the house of slavery I redeemed you,
And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. (Micah 6:4)
It took all three leaders to get the people out of Egypt and ready to enter Canaan: Moses to work with God to create a new religion; Aaron to faithfully play his role within that religion; and Miriam to challenge people and transmit inspiration.
Every person has a different set of abilities, and a different role to play in life. Whatever our own roles are, may each of us be blessed with the whole-hearted dedication of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
Tags: almond tree, ark of the covenant, flowering staff, holy of holies, Moses, torah portion
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.)
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 17:17-18)
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.
Tags: Canaan, forgiveness, torah portion
The Israelites march to the southern border of Canaan in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”). Then Moses sends twelve men to scout out the land God promised them. The scouts return after forty days, carrying extra-large grapes, pomegranates, and figs. Ten of the scouts report to Moses and the whole assembly of Israel, saying:
We came into the land where you sent us, and indeed it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. But it is all for nothing, for the dwellers in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very big, and also we saw the offspring of the Anak there. (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:27-28)
They list other hostile peoples living in the land of Canaan, reinforcing their hint that it does not matter how fertile the land is, since the Israelites have no hope of conquering its inhabitants. Then one scout, Caleb, objects.
Caleb hushed the people toward Moses, and he said: We must certainly go up and we must certainly take possession of it, because we are certainly able to do it! But the men who had gone up with him said: We will not be able to go up against those people, because they are stronger mimenu. (Numbers 13:30-31)
mimenu (מִמֶּנּוּ) = than us; than him, than it.
In the Talmud (Sotah 35a), Rabbi Hanina bar Papa interprets mimenu as meaning “than Him”, than God—“as if even the master of the house cannot remove his furniture from it!” Other commentators interpret mimenu as “than us”, and conclude that the ten scouts did not believe God would simply remove the inhabitants from the land before the Israelites walked in. Instead, they assumed they would have to fight for every farm and city, and they despaired.
Whether the scouts give up on God or give up on the people, their next move is to exaggerate the dangers of Canaan, emphasizing that …all the people that we saw inside it were men of unusual size. (Numbers 13:32)
The Israelites despair along with the ten scouts, and sob all night.
And all the Children of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them: If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness! If only we had died! Why is God bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little children will become booty. Is it not better for us to turn back toward Egypt? (Numbers 14:2-3)
If they actually returned to Egypt, they would be punished as runaway slaves and their wives and children would be treated just like booty. But the men do not think of this, and they decide to pick a new leader and head back. Moses and Aaron fall on their faces—but this time no divine inspiration comes. (See my earlier post, Korach: Falling on Your Face.) The crowd stops only because the two dissenting scouts, Caleb and Joshua, rip their clothing—an action that is normally performed as a sign of mourning. Now that they have the Israelites’ attention, they explain why the people should go up into Canaan:
…The land that we passed through to scout out, it is very, very good land. If God favors us, then [God] will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. However, do not rebel against God! And do not be afraid of the people of the land, for they are our food, and the shade of protection has left them. God is with us; do not be afraid of them! (Numbers 14:7-9)
The people are not convinced. They are about to stone Caleb and Joshua, when the glory of God appears at the Tent of Meeting and stops them. I suspect the message that they are supposed to trust God makes them so uncomfortable they cannot bear to think about it, so they want to kill the messengers instead.
Moses persuades God to let go of anger and forgive the people, according to the greatness of your kindness (Numbers 14:19). But God swears that nobody who rebelled or ignored God will see the promised land. Only Caleb, Joshua, and the Israelites who are currently under age 20 will enter Canaan and get a share of the land. Everyone else will die in the wilderness—gradually, over a period of 40 years.
It sounds like a spiteful punishment; God gives them what they said they wanted, death in the wilderness. But I believe this apparent punishment is actually a great kindness. The adults among the Children of Israel mustered the courage to leave Egypt in the first place, and to face an unknown future following the mysterious and obviously dangerous God who inflicted the ten plagues on Egypt. But someone who can act with great courage in desperate situations, such as worsening slavery, does not necessarily have the willpower to take risks when life is pretty good.
At the time the Israelites refuse to enter Canaan, they are camped in the oasis of Kadeish-barnea, where there is enough vegetation for them and their livestock to live indefinitely, even without manna. They are not required to do any unusual labor, only to follow a set of reasonable laws and easy rituals. Why not just stay there for the rest of their lives?
The answer is that God is urging them to do something further. For Caleb and Joshua, and for Moses and his brother and sister, this urging is stronger than natural inertia and fear of the unknown. But for others, the need for security and comfort is stronger.
So God kindly lets the Israelites stay at the oasis in the wilderness, living out their lives until each one dies at age 60. God recognizes that it is too much for most of the people to summon the willpower for another big act of courage.
Each of us today faces similar turning points in our lives. Sometimes we find ourselves trapped in a desperate situation, and it still takes a lot of inner strength to escape to a new life, but finally we do it. Other times life is pretty good, but something inside keeps urging us to make a change, to step out and take a risk that frightens us. Do we do it?
Whether we pick up the challenge or not depends on how fragile or strong our souls are. In this week’s Torah portion, God says:
But my servant Caleb, because there is a different ruach with him, and he followed me fully, I shall bring him into the land… (Numbers 14:24)
ruach (רוּחַ) = wind, spirit, mood, state of mind, driving impulse, motivation, temperament.
Perhaps when we hesitate between sticking with a pretty good life and taking a chance on the inner urge for change, all we can do is pray for wisdom and the right ruach.
May God, and life, be kind both to those who do not have the ruach to change, and to those who do.
Tags: manna, meaning of life, religion, torah portion
Food cannot satisfy us, when we doubt the meaning of our lives. Yet many people divert anxiety about their futures into craving for food—both today and in the Torah.
When the Israelites and their fellow-travelers leave Egypt, they take all their herds and flocks with them. They are never forbidden to use their livestock for milk or meat, so they are in no danger of starving. Yet a month and a half after they leave Egypt, they complain about food.
The entire assembly of the Children of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness. The Children of Israel said to them: If only we had died by God’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat beside a pot of meat, when we ate bread until [we were] sated; for you brought us out to this wilderness to put to death this whole congregation by famine! (Exodus/Shemot 16:2-3, in the Torah portion Beshallach)
How could dying in Egypt with a full stomach be better than journeying with God’s protection? These are the people who choose to follow Moses and his god out of Egypt, who sing and dance after God rescues them from the Egyptian army at the Reed Sea. How could they feel so discouraged in the second month of their trek across the wilderness?
God diagnoses the problem, and solves it—temporarily—with manna.
Then God said to Moses: Here I am, raining down food from the heavens… (Exodus 16:4)
Manna satisfies the people for a while—not because they need additional food, I think, but because it reminds them daily that God loves them like a parent. They are already following the divine pillar of cloud and fire across the wilderness. Now they know that they are not wandering aimlessly; serving God gives them a purpose in life.
The Israelites forget their purpose and fail to serve God whenever they are idle or afraid during their sojourn at Mount Sinai. But they are in good spirits when they march away from the mountain in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you raise up”) in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. They head toward their promised land supplied not only with the manna God provides, and the livestock they brought up from Egypt, but also with a splendid portable sanctuary and its numinous objects, as well as a set of God-given rules and principles to live by.
Alas, after only three days of marching they lapse into complaining again. The Torah does not tell us the content of their complaint at Taverah. It merely says God hears and reacts with anger, consuming the edge of the camp with fire. Then the people switch from complaining to sobbing.
And the riff-raff that was in its midst felt strong cravings, and they sobbed, and the Children of Israel also [sobbed], and they said: Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, and the cucumbers and watermelons and leeks and onions and garlic. And now our nefesh is dried up; there is nothing except the manna for our eyes. (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4-6)
nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite, throat, animating soul, life
Why, when they are on the verge of getting their own land, do the people yearn for the food in Egypt again? Psalm 78 answers: They tested God in their hearts by asking for food for their nefesh. (Psalm 78:18)
To me, this shows that the people are not complaining about dry throats, but about dry lives. They have not lost their appetite for food, but they have lost their appetite for being God’s people.
For the survivors of the Golden calf incident, life at Mount Sinai was both pleasant and meaningful. They had the pleasure of serving God by making donations, but their donations were the treasures they took from their Egyptian neighbors, rather than anything personal. They also had the pleasure of serving God by skilled creative work, as they made the sanctuary and its holy objects.
Now, as they march north, the people are approaching the border of Canaan. They know their next service to God will be taking over a land inhabited by other people. As we learn in next week’s Torah portion, Shelach, very few Israelites believe that God will single-handedly drive out the inhabitants and leave them empty cities and farms. Instead they are anticipating war, which means many hardships and deaths.
Now the thought of serving God fills them with anxiety instead of purpose. So, as the psalm says, they sob for Egyptian food to (unconsciously) test whether God will nourish their souls.
God correctly interprets the sobbing as indicating a lack of faith, rather than a desire for tasty food. But instead of reassuring the people that their lives will be filled with meaning, God takes a punitive approach, and tells Moses:
To the people you shall say: Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow; then you will eat meat … Not for one day will you eat, nor for a couple of days, nor for five days, nor for ten days, nor for twenty days. Until a month of days, until it comes out of your nostrils and you are nauseated because of it! For you rejected God, who is in your midst … saying: Why did we leave Egypt for this? (Numbers 11:18-20)
I confess I am like the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion. My life is full of meaning and purpose right now, while my material needs are met and I spend my days drawing insights and inspirations from the Torah, and sharing my life with people I love. Yet there are empty times in my day, when I need to rest or alleviate chronic pain. At those times, anxiety about the future haunts me. What if my sense of purpose is not strong enough to carry my through old age, when I must face hardships and the deaths of people I love?
My first impulse, as these times, is to comfort myself by eating something tasty. Yet I know that if I eat too much, I will make myself sick in the long run. I would rather keep faith that God is with me, and my life will continue to be worthwhile no matter what happens. But how can I do that?
The only solution I know is to refocus and cultivate gratitude for the good life I have now. Do you have another solution to the anxiety of the Israelite? Please comment!
Tags: blessing, God, Naso, religion, torah portion
May God bless you and protect you.
May God shine its face toward you and be gracious to you.
May God lift its face toward you and grant you peace. (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:24-26)
This “Priestly Blessing” or “Threefold Blessing” moves the hearts of many Jews when it is chanted in services today. It first appears in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift up”), as God gives Moses instructions on the way the priests should bless the Israelites. After the three lines of blessing, the Torah concludes:
They shall place My name upon the Children of Israel; and I, Myself, will bless them. (Numbers 6:27)
In other words, the priests are charged with reciting the correct formula in front of the people. Then God, not the priests, will bless them. God’s blessing is triggered not by the benevolence of the priests, but by the people hearing the words.
The words sound particularly moving in Hebrew because they follow a pattern. The first sentence has three words in Hebrew, the second has five words, and the third has seven words. Chanting these lines out loud, with a pause after each sentence, produces the effect of increasing blessing.
But what do the words in the Threefold Blessing mean?
I offer one possible literal translation at the beginning of this post. A more standard translation would read “His face”, but Hebrew is a gendered language; there is no separate word for “it”. When English speakers would use the words “it” or “its”, Hebrew uses a masculine or feminine pronoun (as a prefix or suffix). While all translations from Hebrew to English refer to a house (bayit) or a hand (yad) as “it”, most translators persist in referring to God as “he”. I think this tricks some English speakers into thinking God is male. So I prefer to use “it” for everything except humans and other animals.
On the other hand, I retained the word “face” in the opening translation, even though it is an anthropomorphism. The poetic ideas of God shining its face and lifting its face deserve attention.
Ya-eir, God, its face toward you, and be gracious to you.
ya-eir (יָאֵר) = may it/he shine, may it/he illuminate.
Some commentators interpret “May God shine its face” as “May God smile”. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) handed down a tradition that the phrase means “May He show you a smiling countenance, a radiant countenance.” In English, we say people’s faces “light up” or “beam” when they express happiness. It makes sense that if God is beaming with happiness at the Israelites, God would feel inclined to be gracious and grant them favors.
Other commentators have focused on the meaning of ya-eir as “may it illuminate”, i.e. light up something so it is visible—literally or figuratively. The 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno interpreted the phrase as meaning: “May He open your eyes through the light of His countenance to see wonders from His Torah.” More generally, this part of the blessing might mean: May God enlighten you.
The third line of the Threefold blessing mentions God’s face again:
Yissa, God, its face toward you, and grant you peace.
yissa (יִשָּׂא) = may it/he lift up.
In the Hebrew Bible, lifting up your face to God means that you not ashamed or guilty. Ezra says: My God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you. (Ezra 9:6) And twice Job’s so-called comforters tell him that after he has repented for the sin they assume he committed, then he can lift up his face to God.
Rashi wrote that May God lift his countenance to you means May God suppress his anger. This opinion is supported by the story of Cain and Abel. The Torah says that when God does not welcome Cain’s offering, Cain became very hot with anger, and his face fell. (Genesis/Bereishit 4:5)
A fallen face also indicates a frown when God tells Jeremiah to reassure the northern kingdom of Israel that it is on the right track. Jeremiah is to say: Continue turning back [to me], declares God; I will not make my face fall at you, because I am kind, declares God. I do not hold on forever. (Jeremiah 3:12)
If a fallen face is an angry frown, then a lifted face might be a kind smile. Therefore this part of the Threefold Blessing might mean May God be kind to you.
Now we have the following translation:
May God bless you and protect you.
May God enlighten you and be gracious to you.
May God be kind to you and grant you peace.
If we imagine an external being called God, who bestows gifts like a good king or a loving parent, then this Threefold Blessing expresses what we want God to give us in the world. We want the universe, personified, to bless us with success; to protect us from harm; to illuminate how the rules work; to give us the things we need in life graciously, in abundance; to treat us kindly regardless of what we deserve; and to arrange for us to live in peace.
However, there is plenty of evidence that our universe does not work that way. Many people are hapless, harmed, confused, starved, judged harshly, and/or miserable. That makes the Threefold Blessing either a fantasy, or a prayer that the universe will change.
On the other hand, if we imagine an internal God, a divine spark inside each of us, then the Threefold Blessing expresses the changes we want within ourselves. We want our deepest soul to bless us with joy and contentment; to protect us from our own undesirable impulses; to enlighten us so we grow in wisdom and understanding; to make us gracious to ourselves and to other people; to teach us kindness; and to give us peace of heart and mind.
May every one of us receive these blessings.