Tags: fire offerings, Leviticus, torah portion
Every year, when I start to read the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, my teeth clench. The first two Torah portions (Vayikra—“And It Called”, and Tzav—“Command”) consist of rules about offerings at the altar. And most of these offerings involve bringing forward a living animal, laying a hand on its head, and then slitting its throat, sprinkling blood, butchering it, and waving around or burning various pieces.
This is difficult reading for someone who stopped eating mammals and birds 18 years ago because they are too much like human beings.
The Torah teaches that we should not offer human beings at the altar, only animals and grain. But the instructions for offering a mammal always include laying hands on the animal’s head before it is slaughtered. This act transfers the donor’s identity to the animal, so killing and offering it is like sacrificing oneself for God.
For the ancient Israelites, domesticated mammals and birds had economic value. That made them suitable gifts for God. But what use would God have for a dead animal? In the book of Leviticus, the fatty parts of the animals are burned up into smoke, which ascends to the heavens, and the scent pleases God. When the priests or the donors eat other portions of the animal, they are partaking in the holiness of the sacrifice.
I can understand the desire to present God with a gift—out of sheer gratitude for our lives in the world, or out of a desire to return to harmony with the divine after we have strayed. I am also grateful that Jews have moved beyond killing animals at an altar. But what we can give to God instead?
The portions Vayikra and Tzav lay out the procedures for six kinds of gifts to God. For all six, at least part of the gift is a fire-offering, burned on the altar. The first type of fire-offering the Torah discusses is the rising-offering.
…and the priest shall bring all of it and make it go up in smoke on the altar; it is an olah, an isheh of restful fragrance for God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:13)
olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering. (From the root alah (עלה) = go up.) In an olah the entire slaughtered animal is burned up.
isheh (אִשֵּׁה) = fire-offering. (From the word eish (אֵשׁ) = fire.)
For the ancient Israelites, fire was not just the way to cook meat and make smoke. God manifested as something that looked like fire. And Biblical Hebrew, like English, used words like “burning” and “inflamed” to indicate consuming emotions such as anger.
Today, we might make an isheh, a fire-offering, by praying, chanting, or meditating with a specific intention about passion. If our passions about spiritual matters are easily inflamed, we might imagine offering our emotionality on the altar to burn itself out. We might visualize the smoke rising and dissipating into a clear, calm sky. Then we can be at rest with the divine.
If passion seems to be lacking in our search for God, we might imagine feeding the fire on the altar through our words or breath, so that the sparks of our buried feelings can become flames and rise like smoke.
The first type of offering in Leviticus, the olah, was the only one which stayed on the altar fire all night, until it was completely burned up into smoke.
Today, if we want our souls to keep rising up toward the divine, day and night, we have to keep tending the fire of our desire to make the most of our lives. The last thing we need is a wet blanket.
I have often smothered my own fire with a wet blanket of repetitive worrying. I am training myself to notice when the dripping edge of my blanket flops down again, so I can flip it away from the embers. For me, a good intervention is to sing a prayer or chant. It’s even better if I walk around the block while I am singing. After my mood has risen higher, I can have a better conversation with myself.
Next week I will look at the other five types of fire-offerings described in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, and how we might address the impulse behind each one today—without slaughtering animals.
Tags: ark of the covenant, Exodus, God, holy of holies, holy place, King Solomon, Moses, Temple in Jerusalem, torah portion
Canaanite temples were built according to a basic three-part plan: a courtyard in front, a main hall behind it, and a small sacred chamber at the back containing a statue of the temple’s god. There were often additional rooms at the sides of the main hall for practical use by the temple’s priests and functionaries, but religious rituals happened in the courtyard, main hall, and back chamber.
During the course of the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites construct three sanctuaries. The portable Tent of Meeting that Moses assembles at the end of the book of Exodus travels with the people from Mount Sinai all the way across the Jordan River. It is erected in several locations while the Israelites are gradually conquering Canaan: Gilgal, Shiloh, Nob, Givon, and then Jerusalem. King Solomon builds the first temple in Jerusalem in the first book of Kings, and the construction of the second temple in Jerusalem begins in the book of Ezra.
All three of these sanctuaries follow the basic three-part Canaanite plan. But since the Israelites are forbidden to make an image of God, the innermost chamber at the back cannot contain a statue of their deity. So what is inside the “holy of holies”?
This week’s Torah portion, Pekudei (“Inventories”), says what Moses put into the holy of holies in the Tent of Meeting.
He took and placed the eidut in the aron, and he put the poles on the aron, and he placed the cover on top of the aron. Then he brought the aron into the dwelling-place, and he placed the curtain of screening-off, and screened off the aron of the eidut, as God had commanded Moses. (Exodus/Shemot 40:20-21)
eidut (עֵדֻת) = testimony—of a witness or of God. (The Torah often uses this word to refer to the second pair of stone tablets Moses brings down from Mount Sinai.)
aron (אֲרוֹן) = chest, coffer, coffin; ark of the covenant
What does the aron look like? In the book of Exodus, it is a gold-plated wooden box about four feet long, with carrying-poles attached to the bottom. Last week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil, describes how the master artist Betzaleil makes the lid of the aron:
Then he made a cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And he made two keruvim of gold; he made them hammered out from the two ends of the cover. One keruv from this end and one keruv from that end; from the cover he made the keruvim, from its two ends. And the keruvim were spreading wings upward, screening off with their wings over the kaporet; and their faces were toward each other, toward the cover were the faces of the keruvim. (Exodus 37:6-9)
keruv (כֱרוּב), (plural keruvim) = a hybrid beast with wings and a face. (See my earlier post: Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.)
What are the wings of the keruvim on the cover screening off? The space above the golden lid is empty—or, at least, nothing is visible there. But the Torah treats the aron as a throne for an invisible, although not inaudible, god.
Moses came into the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God]. Then he heard the voice speaking to him from above the cover that was on the aron of the eidut, from between the two keruvim; thus [God] spoke to him. (Numbers/Bemidbar 7:89)
The keruvim and the lid of the aron are a single piece of gold in the Tent of Meeting. But in the first temple, they are separate items. While the aron stays in the tent where King David put it, King Solomon’s craftsmen make two keruvim out of olive-wood overlaid with gold. Each keruv is ten cubits (about 15 feet) tall, with a ten-cubit span from wingtip to wingtip.
Then he placed the keruvim inside the House, in the innermost [chamber]. And the wings of the keruvim spread out so the wing of one keruv touched the wall, and the wing of the second keruv was touching the second wall, and in the middle of the chamber their wings touched. (1 Kings 6:27)
The haftarah reading corresponding to the Torah portion Pekudei is from the first book of Kings. It describes the ceremony after the first temple in Jerusalem is completed, starting with a procession as King Solomon and elders from all over Israel accompany the aron on its short journey from the tent in the old city to the new House of God.
The priests brought in the aron of the covenant of God to its place, to the back room of the House, to the holy of holies, to underneath the wings of the keruvim. For the keruvim were spreading wings toward the place of the aron, so the keruvim screened off the aron and its poles from above. (1 Kings 8:6-7)
In both the Tent of Meeting and the first temple, there is an empty space between the lid of the aron below and the wings of the keruvim above. God’s voice or presence is never located inside the aron, only in the space above it.
Yet inside the aron is the eidut, God’s testimony. Commentary on the Tent of Meeting agrees that the eidut means the second, unbroken, pair of stone tablets inscribed by God on Mount Sinai (also called Choreiv). Commentators disagree on whether the aron also contained the shattered tablets, and/or a scroll that Moses wrote.
The first book of Kings clarifies the contents of the aron in the time of the first temple:
There was nothing in the aron but the two tablets of stone that Moses placed there at Choreiv, when God cut a covenant with the children of Israel after they left the land of Egypt. (1 Kings 8:9)
The first temple was sacked several times, and when the Babylonian army captured Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. they razed it altogether. The keruvim and the aron were never recovered. So in the second temple, which was begun in 538 B.C.E., the holy of holies was an empty room. But priests still treated it as the locus of God’s presence.
After the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 C.E., Jews had to find God’s presence in other places. Today, many of us search for God by going inside ourselves: pondering what we have learned, questioning our feelings, meditating, sinking into ritual, praying with intention, and so on. This inner journey in search of God also has stages.
If the first stage of your search is like the courtyard of the Tent or temple, does your courtyard have an altar for animal sacrifices and a basin for washing? If you push on into the main hall, does it have any of the furnishings of the Israelite sanctuaries: a lampstand for light, or a table for bread, or an altar for incense? And if you keep searching even deeper, what do you find in your holy of holies?
Do you enshrine fundamental written principles in a gold coffer? Or do you encounter fantastical creatures? If you find both in your holy of holies, are the fantastical creatures bigger or smaller than the coffer? Or is your holy of holies an empty room?
Is God present there?
Tags: Exodus, God, Golden Calf, holy place, sefirot, Shemot, torah portion
What does it take to create something that will help people feel the presence of God?
Aaron tries to do this when he makes the Golden Calf in last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa. At first, the people are ecstatic over the idol, bowing down to it and singing and dancing. But this simple and undisciplined religious outlet does not last. When Moses returns and grinds the calf into gold dust, nobody protests. Moses stirs the gold dust into water, and they all meekly swallow it. Aaron’s creation turns out to be a failure.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”), the master craftsman Betzaleil begins making the holy objects for the new sanctuary. The completed creation is so successful that it sustains the religion of the Israelites for several centuries, until King Solomon replaces it with the temple in Jerusalem.
The key difference between Aaron and Betzaleil as creators of religious objects appears in the Torah twice, repeated word for word. In the portion Ki Tissa, God says it to Moses. In this week’s portion, Moses says it to the Israelites:
See? God has called by name Betzaleil, son of Uri, son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehudah. And [God] has filled him with ruach of God, with chokhmah, with tevunah, and with da-at, and with every craft. (Exodus/Shemot 35:30-31)
ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; spirit, motivation, overwhelming state of mind.
(Usually when the ruach of God comes over someone in the Hebrew Bible, that person speaks as a prophet or leads people into battle. Exceptions are Samson, who is gripped by a murderous rage and supernatural strength; and Betzaleil the artist, who is filled with a divine motivation to create.)
chokhmah (חָכְמָה) = wisdom; inspiration.
tevunah (תְבוּנָה) = insight, rational understanding, analytic ability.
da-at (דַעַת) = knowledge.
In later Kabbalistic writings, chokhmah and binah (another form of the word tevunah) are two of the sefirot or divine powers. (See my earlier post: Vayakheil: Seven Lamps.) **** Chokhmah is the sefirah associated with the left side of the head, i.e. the left brain that popular science now associates with non-rational, intuitive, holistic consciousness. Binah (tevunah) is the sefirah associated with the right side of the head, i.e. the right brain that we now associate with rational, logical, analytic thinking. In the Kabbalist system, da-at is the product of chokhmah combined with binah.
Aaron, although he will serve as the high priest, lacks the four qualities with which God fills Betzaleil. When the Israelites are waiting at the foot of Mount Sinai in Ki Tissa, Aaron feels no ruach of God, no divine urge to create a holy object. The people decide Moses will never return and order Aaron: Get up, make for us gods that will go before us! (Exodus 32:1). Then Aaron acts, but only to satisfy the crowd.
He has no chokhmah, no inspiration nor wisdom about what to make; he merely calls for gold earrings to melt down, since the finest idols are made of gold.
He took it from their hands and he shaped it with the engraving tool, and he made it into an image of a calf. (Exodus 32:4)
Afterward, when Aaron explains to Moses what happened, he says: I said to them, “Who has gold? Pull it off yourselves.” And they gave it to me and I threw it into the fire and out came this calf.” (Exodus 32:24)
Aaron admits that he acted without any of the insight or discrimination of tevunah, and also without any da-at, any knowledge of what would emerge from the fire.
Betzaleil, on the other hand, is born betzalmeinu—in God’s shadow or image—when it comes to creativity. (See my earlier post, Vayakheil: Shadow Power.) **** He creates under the protection of God’s shadow. God “fills” him with the qualities he already has the potential and experience to develop.
Even as Moses comes down with God’s basic design for a portable sanctuary, Betzaleil is filled with a divine desire to create it. He has the chokhmah to visualize the whole thing, and to imagine beautiful and inspiring objects—from the gold keruvim (hybrid winged beasts) on top of the ark to the design embroidered in brilliant colors on the curtain at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. He has the tevunah to analyze and understand how each part can be made well and assembled into the whole. And he has da-at, knowledge, of every craft: metal-working, jewelry, wood-working, weaving, and embroidery.
Betzaleil is so filled with chokhmah, tevunah, and da-at that he and his assistant can teach other craftsmen and craftswomen among the people.
And [God] put teaching into his heart, him and Ahaliyav son of Achisamakh of the tribe of Dan. (Exodus 35:34)
And Betzaleil and Ahaliyav and everyone wise of heart to whom God gave chokhmah and tevunah for da-at and for doing all the work for the service of the Holy, they shall do everything that God commanded. (Exodus 36:1)
The sanctuary that is completed in next week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, is the product of the grand design Moses heard from God; the divine spirit, inspiration, understanding, and know-how of the master artist, Betaleil; and the enthusiasm and wisdom of the contributors in the community. No wonder it becomes a place where people feel God’s presence.
I think that the qualities God gives Betzaleil are necessary for anyone to produce truly moving art, whether its explicit goal is religious or not. I know that when I do “creative writing”, especially of Torah monologues and fiction, both my motivation (ruach) and my inspiration (chokhmah) seem to come from a mysterious place outside myself, or perhaps from some inner place so deep my conscious mind can never penetrate it. I might as well say they come from God, the great mystery.
But the most burning motivation and inspiration leads nowhere without the application of rational insight and analysis (tevunah). My own ability in this area is a talent I was born with, a gift of God, that I have developed over many years of practice. And as in Kabbalah, I have found that the combination of left-brained inspiration (chokhmah) and right-brained analysis (binah or tevunah) does indeed result in knowledge (da-at).
The final requirement for creating art is to actually do all the labor. I am grateful that the ruach that blows through me from the unknown source I call God is strong enough to motivate me to keep on working, with enthusiasm—like the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion.
May the divine spirit be strong in all artists.
Tags: Exodus, God, Golden Calf, Moses, religion, Shemot, torah portion
After God’s revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, the people repeatedly promise to do everything God says. Then Moses and Aaron lead the elders halfway up the mountain, where they have a vision of God’s feet. (See my earlier post, Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.)
This is their high point. After this, Aaron and the Israelite leaders go downhill, both literally and figuratively. Joshua, Moses’ attendant and war-leader, stays partway up the mountain. And Moses climbs to the summit again. There he disappears into God’s cloud—or fire, from the point of view of the Israelites below. (See my earlier post, Mishpatim: Seeing the Cloud.)
Inside the cloud, Moses listens to God’s instructions for 40 days . Meanwhile, the Israelites below conclude that their prophet has died in the fire on the mountaintop and will never return. But without Moses, how can their god lead them to their promised land?
They fall back on an old and familiar solution in this week’s portion, Ki Tissa (“When you lift up”): a physical image or idol for the god to inhabit. They give Aaron their gold earrings, and get him to mold an image in the shape of a calf. On his own initiative, Aaron builds an altar and declares a festival for God the next day.
The same day that the Israelites bring animal offerings to the new altar, God hands Moses the two stone tablets written by the finger of God (Exodus/Shemot 31:18), tells him to go down the mountain, and then tells him what the Israelites have done.
Quickly they deserted the path that I commanded them! They made for themselves a cast image of a calf, and they bowed down to it and they slaughtered offerings to it, and they said: These are your gods, Israel, that brought you from the land of Egypt. (Exodus 32:8)
God offers to consume the Israelites and make Moses into a great nation instead. But Moses refuses the offer and tramps down the slope, still holding the two stone tablets on which God wrote, among other things, the commandment against making idols.
Joshua joins his mentor partway down. He has spent 40 days waiting on the mountainside, unaware of what was happening either to Moses at the top or to the Israelites at the bottom.
Then Joshua heard the sound of the people as they shouted, and he said to Moses: The sound of battle is in the camp! (Exodus 32:17)
Moses does not reply. Joshua listens carefully as they continue to descend.
And he said: Not the sound of anot of prevailing, and not the sound of anot of defeat. A sound of annot I am hearing. (Exodus 32:18)
anot (עֲנוֹת) = responding, answering; humiliating, abusing; call-and-response singing (such as kirtan or antiphony).
annot (עַנּוֹת) = (This form of the verb anot is used most often for humiliation, but it is also used in at least one other place, Isaiah 27:2, for singing.)
If there were indeed a battle in camp, Joshua would hear the winners raising their voices in war-cries, abuse, or battle-songs. He would also hear the losers raising their voices in pain, fear, or grief. Because he does not hear these sounds, he concludes that there is no battle. The camp has not been attacked by strangers. Nor has it divided into two sides fighting each other. Whatever the people are doing, nobody in the camp is objecting to it.
What sound does Joshua decide he is hearing? Here are two possible translations:
“A sound of humiliating I am hearing.” In other words, he is hearing the sound of people who have abandoned reason and conscience. Maybe sexual excess has turned into rape. Or maybe the people’s wild party is humiliating for Joshua and Moses, the only two Israelites left to stand against the worship of the Golden Calf.
“A sound of call-and-response singing I am hearing.” In other words, he is hearing a joyful celebration. Elsewhere in the Bible, people use call-and-response singing, along with dancing, to rejoice over God’s success (as Miriam does after they cross the Reed Sea), and to rejoice over David’s victories in battle.
I can imagine Joshua realizing that something happened in the camp, while Moses was gone, and now the Israelites are either holding an orgy, or singing and dancing to rejoice over—what?
The Torah returns to Moses’ point of view.
And it happened as he drew near to the camp, he saw the calf and dancing. Then Moses’ anger flared up, and he threw down from his hand the tablets, and he shattered them under the mountain. (Exodus 32:19)
Moses already knows about the Calf, so why does his anger flare up now? One frequent answer by commentators is that now he sees the people dancing. If the Israelites were worshiping the Calf in a state of doubt and anxiety, they might reject their idol as soon as they saw Moses. Instead, they are rejoicing over the Golden Calf, as if they like the old-time religion better than following Moses’ lead.
It takes the shock of the shattering tablets to yank them back into their former state of mind, when they promised to obey the god of Moses.
Joshua already knows the Israelites are singing. He can assume they are also dancing; elsewhere in the Bible call-and-response singing is usually accompanied by dancing. Now Joshua sees the Golden Calf and the smoking altar in front of it, so he knows the reason for the people’s ecstasy. He also hears the sound of stone shattering. The singing stops.
Moses grinds the Calf into gold dust, adds it to water, and makes the people drink it. He questions Aaron briefly, then stands at the gateway of the camp and shouts: Whoever is for God, to me! (Exodus 32:26)
All the men from the tribe of Levi go over to the side of Moses and Joshua. Moses orders the Levite men, in the name of God, to take their swords and go through the camp from gate to gate. The Levites kill 3,000 Israelite men. The Torah reports no casualties on the Levite side; apparently the Calf worshippers were too cowed or ashamed to fight back.
So Joshua finally does hear the battle cries of the winners, and the screams of pain and humiliation of the losers. There is no more singing of any kind in the Torah until the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.
I have always wondered if killing 3,000 Calf-worshippers was overkill. After all, everyone was shocked when Moses shattered the tablets God gave him. Everyone drank the gold dust from the Calf. What if Moses’ next move had been to start up a song, instead of a massacre?
What if he had changed the words of the call-and-response song the people were singing for the Calf? Their song is not recorded, but here are two other call-and-response songs in the Torah:
Sing to God because He is the highest;
Horse and its rider He threw into the sea! (Exodus 15:21)
Saul struck down his platoons;
And David struck down his armies! (I Samuel 21:12)
Some people need the outlet of ecstatic song and dance. Maybe another call-and-response song would have turned the hearts of the apostate ecstatics toward the God of Moses. Here is my proposal for the people who rejoiced in the Golden Calf:
“Sing to God because He is the highest;
Higher than idols and higher than gold.”
Just set it to a catchy melody, and let Miriam lead the dancing.
Tags: Exodus, God, holy place, religion, Shemot, torah portion
The term ohel mo-eid, “Tent of Meeting”, occurs 135 times in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers; twice in Deuteronomy; and eleven more times in the Bible. It first appears in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“You shall command”), in which God continues to give instructions to Moses on constructing a sanctuary and ordaining priests to serve there. The portion begins:
And you, you shall command the children of Israel, so they shall take for you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, to make the lamp go up regularly. In the ohel mo-eid, outside the curtain that is over the eidut, Aaron and his sons shall prepare it …(Exodus/Shemot 27:20-21)
ohel (אֹהֶל) = tent
mo-eid (מוֹעֵד) = appointed place for meeting with God; appointed time (usually for a religious festival)
ohel mo-eid (אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד) = Tent of Meeting (i.e. the tent appointed for meeting with God)
eidut (הָעֵדֻת) = reminder; God’s written testimony (i.e. the two stone tablets placed inside the ark)
The term ohel mo-eid refers to at least two different tents in the book of Exodus/Shemot. Before Moses and the Israelites construct the sanctuary, Moses’ own tent is the Tent of Meeting. Once the sanctuary is assembled, the term “Tent of Meeting” usually refers to the tent that contains the menorah, the bread table, the incense altar, and the Holy of Holies, a curtained enclosure for the ark. In the passage above, the menorah is to be placed inside the ohel mo-eid, in front of the curtain hiding the ark.
Only priests are supposed to enter the tent, the ohel mo-eid, when it is assembled. The unroofed courtyard in front of the ohel mo-eid will contain the altar for roasting or burning up various animal offerings. All the Israelites can enter the courtyard (or at least all the men; the Torah is silent about the women).
When Moses is told how to ordain Aaron and his sons as the first priests for the Israelites, God’s instructions emphasize the importance of rituals performed in front of the entrance of the ohel mo-eid. That is where the future priests will immerse themselves in water, and where they will press their hands against the head of the bull that Moses will slaughter to dedicate them to God.
Then you shall slaughter the bull in front of God at the entrance of the ohel mo-eid. (Exodus 29:11)
Being in front of the Tent of Meeting is equated with being in front of God—because the Tent of Meeting is the appointed place where God will meet with the high priests.
Later in the Torah portion, God’s instructions call for two lambs to be completely burned up into smoke at the altar every day, one in the morning and one at twilight;
It will be a regular rising-offering, for their generations, at the entrance of the ohel mo-eid, in front of God, where I will have an appointment with you, to speak to you there. And I will have an appointment there with the children of Israel, and it will be made holy through My glory. (Exodus 29:42-3)
Imagine having an appointed place to meet with God!
Before there is a Tent of Meeting, the men in the Torah never know where God might speak to them. God’s voice might come from a stranger who turns out to be not human after all, or in a dream, or through a burning bush. But in this week’s Torah portion, while Moses is spending 40 days at the top of Mount Sinai, he learns that God has designated the Tent of Meeting as the place where God will speak to Moses and manifest to the Israelites. God adds:
I will make holy the ohel mo-eid and the altar, and I will make holy Aaron and his sons to be priests to Me. And I will dwell amidst the children of Israel and be their god. (Exodus 29:44-45)
Yet even after the ohel mo-eid is built later in the book of Exodus, and consecrated by a dazzling and deadly display of divine fire in the book of Leviticus, the Israelites in the Torah keep on alternating between accepting and rejecting their god.
When the people can see the sanctuary in the center of their camp, with the pillar of divine cloud and fire hanging over it, and remember God’s fire consecrating the Tent of Meeting, why would they continue to complain about God, flout God’s rules, and even worship another god?
Imagine that if you wanted to find God, you could just go to the executive meeting room in the headquarters of your ethnic group. God would hold private meetings there with those few who had appointments. But God would manifest a visible presence to anyone who came to the door—something that looked like fire or cloud, but was definitely unearthly.
Would you believe God was present in the executive meeting room? Would you live in awe of the god who came to the meeting room? Would you strive to follow its rules of behavior? Or would you inquire about the gods of other ethnic groups, and wonder whether there was a more ethereal and universal god?
The Israelites in the Torah never deny that there is a god who chooses to be their god and dwell in their Tent of Meeting. They only waver in their allegiance to this god. Maybe they are not always sure this particular god is the best god for them. After all, in the book of Exodus, the god of Israel does not claim to be the only god in the world, just the most powerful one. I can imagine an Israelite longing for another god, one that is less temperamental and destructive, more patient and forgiving.
The idea that there is only one God for the whole world is implied in the creation stories at the beginning of the book of Genesis, but then it disappears from the Torah. True monotheism creeps into the Hebrew bible gradually, beginning with the book of Deuteronomy.
Today no religion would claim that their god has an executive meeting room at the religion’s headquarters. Yet in Israel, people of different religions are still fighting for ownership over sacred places. And some religions still claim that God gives direct instructions to their own equivalent of the Israelite high priest. And there are all too many religious people who believe that the “real” God is their god.
Yet I know that some people keep their own religion’s channels of connection with God, without assigning God exclusively to their own religion’s executive meeting room. I hope that someday all people will let God out of their own Tent of Meeting.
Tags: Exodus, King Solomon, Moses, Shemot, Temple in Jerusalem, torah portion
A 2,000-year-old tradition pairs every weekly Torah portion with a haftarah, a reading from the Prophets/Neviim. In this week’s Torah reading, Terumah (“Donations”), God gives Moses instructions for building a sanctuary. This week’s haftarah is a passage from the first book of Kings about how King Solomon begins building the temple in Jerusalem.
The sanctuary and the temple both contain the ark, menorah, bread table, and incense altar. Both are places where priests perform the rituals prescribed in the Torah. But there are dramatic differences between the two structures.
For one thing, the building materials dictate whether each holy structure is portable or stationary. The Torah portion Terumah specifies that the walls of the mishkan will be made out of woven pieces of cloth hung on a framework of gilded acacia planks and beams.
And you shall make the mishkan of ten panels of fabric, made of fine twisted linen, and sky-blue dye and red-violet dye and scarlet dye …(Exodus/Shemot 26:1)
mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = sanctuary, dwelling-place for God. (The word is used for the portable tent-like sanctuary created in the book of Exodus and used until the second book of Samuel.)
Next God tells Moses to make the roof out of woven goat-hair, and cover it with tanned hides. The mishkan would look like a huge tent of vividly-colored cloth, its framework resting directly on the earth. After it has been built, the Torah often calls this sanctuary the “Tent of Appointed Meeting”.
The courtyard in front of it, containing the altar for burning animal offerings, is to be enclosed by another wall of linen cloth, this one roofless. I can imagine the cloth walls of both the courtyard and the tent glowing in the sunlight, and the gold, silver, and bronze fittings gleaming. The structure would be beautiful, but also obviously portable, easy to disassemble and move to the next location.
While the mishkan is temporary, Solomon’s temple is built to last.
The king commanded, and they quarried huge stones, valuable stones, to lay the foundation of the house with hewn stones. (1 Kings 5:31)
On this foundation, the “house” is built out of more large squared stones, then paneled inside with cedar wood, and roofed with cedar planks. Additional rooms are built against the outside walls, all the way around. The temple is three stories high, with stairs and narrow latticed windows. This sanctuary could never be disassembled and moved. It is supposed to be permanent. According to the Hebrew bible, it lasted for four centuries, until the Babylonian invaders destroyed it. During that time, the central place of worship for the southern kingdom remained fixed in the capital, Jerusalem.
Another important difference between the tent and the temple is how the materials and labor to build them were obtained. The materials for the tent—textiles, hides, wood, and metals—are all gifts volunteered by the Israelites. This week’s Torah portion opens with God asking for only voluntary donations.
God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and they shall take for me a donation from every man whose heart urges him; [from him] you shall take My donation. And this is the donation that you shall take from them: gold or silver or bronze, or sky-blue or red-violet or scarlet dyes, or linen or goat hair, or hides… (Exodus/Shemot 25:1-5)
But the stone and cedar for Solomon’s temple are purchased from a foreign king, Hiram of Lebanon. This week’s haftarah opens:
God had given wisdom to Solomon, as [God] promised him; and there was peace between Hiram and Solomon, and the two of them cut a treaty. (1 Kings/Malchim 5:26)
Just before this verse, the first book of Kings describes the deal between Hiram and Solomon: Hiram will provide timber and stone for Jerusalem, and in exchange Solomon will pay Hiram in annual shipments of wheat and oil—shipments that would require a heavy tax on Israel’s farmers.
In the book of Exodus, both women and men enthusiastically volunteer to do the weaving, carpentry, and metal-working for the tent sanctuary. In the first book of Kings, Solomon imposes forced labor on the Israelite men to do the logging and quarrying.
And King Solomon raised a mas from all of Israel, and the mas was 30,000 men. He sent them to Lebanon, 10,000 a month in turns; they were in Lebanon for a month, two months at home. And Solomon loaned 70,000 burden-carriers and 80,000 stone-cutters on the mountain. (1 Kings 5:28-29)
mas (מַס) = compulsory labor, corvée labor, levy
Compulsory labor, mas, is what the pharaoh imposed on the Israelites in Egypt—the slavery that God and Moses freed them from. King Solomon gets away with his temporary mas, but later in Kings, his son Rechavam imposes an even heavier “yoke” on his people, and they revolt against him.
So while the mishkan is constructed with voluntary gifts and voluntary labor, the temple is built through agricultural taxes and forced labor.
In the Torah portion, Moses gets instructions for making a sanctuary from God Itself. In the haftarah, Solomon remembers his father David’s desire to build a temple, and after he has built a palace for himself, he starts the temple on his own initiative.
In both cases, God makes a conditional promise to dwell among the Israelites. In the Torah portion, God will stay with them if they make a place for God:
And they shall make for me a mishkan, and I will dwell in their midst. (Exodus 25:8)
But in the haftarah, God will stay with the Israelites if King Solomon follows the rules:
And the word of God came to Solomon, saying: This house that you are building—if you follow my decrees and you do my laws and you observe all my commandments, to go by them, then I will establish my word with you that I spoke to David, your father: then I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel, and I will not desert my people Israel. (1 Kings 6:12-13)
The differences between the mishkan and the temple imply two different approaches to religion. The sanctuary God describes to Moses belongs to the people; they make it voluntarily, they move it with them wherever they go, and God dwells among them because they make a holy place for God.
The temple of Solomon belongs to the king; he oppresses his own people in order to procure the materials and labor, he fixes it permanently in Jerusalem, and God dwells among his people because King Solomon obeys God’s rules.
I believe the tent-sanctuary described in the Torah portion represents the ideal approach to communal religion, in which everyone in the community contributes enthusiasm, support, or creativity; in which textual interpretations and rituals are flexible enough to move and change along with the people; and in which everyone makes a holy place for God.
Yet this ideal cannot always be realized. There are times everyone, including me, is too exhausted or too stuck to manage creative communal worship. Sometimes we just need a place to go where the rituals will be fixed and familiar, and where a trusted authority figure is taking care of everything and telling us what to do.
We need both tents and temples.
Tags: Exodus, God, Golden Calf, Moses, religion, Shemot, torah portion
When God manifests in this world, what does God look like? In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God looks like either cloud or fire. Moses first encounters God as a voice in a burning bush. As soon as the Israelites leave Egypt, God sends a guide to lead the way: a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. When God comes down on Mount Sinai to speak to all the people, … there was thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud on the mountain (Exodus/Shemot 19:16) … and all of Mount Sinai smoked with the presence of God that came down upon it in fire…(Exodus 19:18)
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”), God summons Moses back up the mountain to receive the stone tablets, the torah (“teaching”) and the mitzvah (“commandment”). As Moses climbs, the Torah describes more cloud and fire. But this time the Israelites below see Moses walking into fire, while Moses sees himself walking into cloud.
Then Moses went up the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. And the kavod of God rested on Mount Sinai; and the cloud covered it/him for six days. Then [God] called to Moses on the seventh day, from the midst of the cloud. But in the eyes of the children of Israel, the mareih of the kavod of God was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. (Exodus 24:15-17)
kavod (כָּבוֹד) = weight, impressiveness, magnificence, glory. (The kavod of God = a visible manifestation of God’s splendor.)
mareih (מַרְאֵה) = appearance, vision, apparition, mirror.
Moses is accustomed by now to living in close communication with a highly dangerous and powerful god. God has spoken to him at least 41 times already, and Moses often asks God questions and makes suggestions.
Yet he has not seen God directly. When God manifests in our world, Moses still sees only fire or cloud. The nature of God is always hidden.
This time, Moses sees the cloud. But the people at the foot of the mountain do not see God’s kavod in cloud form. They see only a mareih of God’s kavod, an apparition or mirror image of it—God’s presence as reflected in their own minds. Having lived through the ten miraculous plagues in Egypt, not to mention the parting of the Reed Sea, no wonder they view God as so powerful, dangerous, and threatening that they are afraid God’s glory will eat them up. Their own feelings make the cloud look like a “consuming fire”.
They watch their leader Moses walk right into the fire, a fire nobody could survive. And they despair.
No wonder, after they have waited for 40 long days, they demand a safer manifestation of God—in the form of a golden calf rather than a fire.
Meanwhile, Moses waits inside the cloud on the mountain for six days. He can see nothing in the fog; he does not know what God is, what reality is, or what will happen. But at least he does not see fire; he is not afraid. He waits patiently for what God will give him. And on the seventh day, God calls to him.
And Moses entered into the middle of the cloud and went up the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24:18)
The Torah has already said that Moses was in the cloud, on top of the mountain. Is this verse a repetition of that information? I think not; I think it means that after Moses hears God call him, he goes even farther into the fog of unknowing, and climbs even higher and farther away from the ordinary world.
Could you leave your “real” life so far behind, for so long? Could you face an unknown and unknowable god of terrible power and remain calm, waiting for instructions?
I doubt I could. I have always been amazed by people who seek out ecstatic mystical experiences, through drugs or through other means. I never know whether to view such people as foolhardy idiots, or advanced wisdom masters.
My own mystical experiences, all mild and momentary, have all come by accident without any mountain-climbing or cloud-entering on my part. And a mild and momentary experience is enough for me. Perhaps where others see fog, I see fire. I do not want to enter the fire, because I am afraid of getting burned. I am content to watch from a distance when seriously religious people walk into the kavod of fire—or cloud.
But unlike the people at the foot of Mount Sinai, I refuse to demand an easier god to worship. In the modern Western world, the most common versions of an easier god to worship are: a) a loving parental god who looks after you personally, or b) a theological paradox (omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, personal, and yet responsible for evil in the world). Version A is easy to worship because it is safe and feels good—rather like the golden calf to the Israelites at Sinai. Version B is easy to worship because it is an abstraction which does not require emotional engagement.
But what if we know God only as cloud or fire?
I think if the word “God” has any meaning, it must have something to do with that nagging blur at the edge of our vision, that cloud—or fire—we encounter when we move away from the outside world and deep into ourselves.
Tags: Exodus, Ten Commandments, torah portion
The Israelites and their fellow-travelers camp at Mount Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, and Moses tells them to prepare for a divine revelation. God comes down to the top of Mount Sinai with fire, smoke, lightning, thunder, and horn blasts. Then God makes ten statements, commonly called the “Ten Commandments”. First God declares Itself and tells the people not to worship other gods (or the gods of others; see my earlier post, Yitro: Not in My Face). God continues by telling them not to make or bow down to images.
The third commandment, according to the 1611 King James translation, is: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”
That is not a bad translation, although it raises the question of what it means to “take” God’s name “in vain”. Let’s look at the Hebrew words that translated as “take” and “in vain”.
You shall not nasa the name of God, your god, lashav; because God shall not leave unpunished whoever will nasa Its name lashav. (Exodus/Shemot 20:7)
nasa (נָשָׂא) = lift up, raise, carry, take on a burden, lift away a burden.
lashav (לַשָׁוְא) = for falsehood, for deceit; for emptiness, needlessly, idly.
What does it mean to “raise” God’s name? It does not mean merely raising the subject of God. Nor does it mean praising God, anywhere in the Hebrew bible.
The consensus in ancient commentary is that “raising the name of God” means invoking God’s name while swearing an oath or vow. In the Hebrew bible, lifting up one’s hand often means taking an oath. Sometimes the bible uses the verb nasa (lift up) but omits the word for “hand” when someone swears an oath.
The Talmud devotes a whole tractate to oaths, and advises against swearing oaths whenever possible. About the same time, Philo of Alexandria wrote in On the Decalogue: “For an oath is the calling of God to give his testimony concerning the matters which are in doubt; and it is a most impious thing to invoke God to be witness to a lie.” God will not bear false witness, and therefore will punish anyone who swears falsely using God’s name.
The word lashav can mean either “for falsehood” or “for emptiness”. Invoking God’s name to support a false claim, or a promise that one might not carry out, denigrates God and denies God’s power. But what if you are in the habit of sprinkling God’s name throughout your conversation? Philo and 12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra argued that this habit of invoking God for “emptiness” inevitably leads to using God’s name “for falsehood”.
Rabbis in the Talmud were so concerned about invoking God’s name for emptiness—i.e., idly or needlessly—that the mishnah (core text) of tractate Berakhot says anyone who invents trivial blessings such as “May Your mercies extend to a bird’s nest!” should be silenced.
I was alarmed when I read this, since I often say Barukh Hashem! (Bless God!) when I notice something beautiful or wonderful; and when I lead Saturday morning services, I give ad-hoc blessings to the people who have come up for the honor of the Torah reading. Should I be silenced?
I think not, because I am not using the name of God that is given in the third commandment. There, the Hebrew word I translate above as “God” is the co-called Tetragrammaton, the sacred four-letter name composed of the same letters as the various three-letter forms of the Hebrew verb that means “be”, “become”, or “happen”.
I follow the Jewish custom of avoiding any attempt to write or pronounce that particular name of God. On the other hand, I freely use synonyms such as Hashem (“the Name”), the Holy One, or the English word God, and I transliterate the common god-names Adonai and Elohim as they are pronounced in Hebrew—practices that many orthodox Jews avoid.
Maybe I do not take God’s sacred name seriously enough. The second commandment forbids making images of things that other people consider gods; the third commandment forbids misusing God’s name. In The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut wrote, “Both image and name are aspects of identity, and man must take care lest he infringe on the sanctity of God in any manner.”
I can understand commitments between human beings that are so sacred they take top priority. I also consider some ethical imperatives sacred. But I find it harder to understand the sanctity of God—perhaps because I am always wondering what the word “God”, and the Tetragrammaton, actually refer to. There are so many different definitions of God, even within the Hebrew bible! So am I entitled to use the word “God” for a definition that means something important to me? Or am I limited to one of the more common definitions that other people assume?
I hope this prayer is not lashav, “for emptiness”:
May Hashem guide me to do this work that comes from my love of Torah, this work that means so much to me, without falseness or deception. And may we all discover our own inner truths, and find ways to live by them without hurting others.
Tags: blessing, Exodus, God, Moses, prayer, torah portion
What does it mean to raise one or both hands when they are empty?
Today, the gesture for “Stop!” is holding one arm straight out from the shoulder, with the hand bent back, palm forward. If you raise one arm straight up from the shoulder instead, with the hand in line, palm forward, you are “raising your hand” for permission to speak. When an authority figure says “Hands up!” you raise both arms, palms forward, to show you are not holding a weapon.
What if you raise both arms at an angle somewhere between straight up and straight out? Whether your hands are turned up or down, it looks as though you are making a religious gesture.
In many Jewish Renewal congregations, when we stretch out both hands with our palms down, we want to transmit a blessing to someone. (This gesture is derived from the Torah’s description of leaning one’s hands on the head of a man or boy in order to transfer holiness, as Jacob does to bless his grandsons in Genesis 48, and as Moses does to commission Joshua as his successor in Numbers 27.)
When we stretch out both hands with our palms up, it means we are prepared to receive a blessing. This is also one traditional posture of supplication to God; we reach forward and up toward “heaven” with empty hands, hoping God will fill them.
In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“When he sent out”), God tells Moses to split the Reed Sea by holding the staff that summoned the ten plagues in Egypt, and stretching out his hand over the water. After the Israelites have crossed the Reed Sea and seen the Egyptian army drown,
…the people were in awe of God, vaya-amiynu in God and in Moses, his servant. (Exodus 14:31)
vaya-amiynu (וַיַּאֲמִינוּ) = and they trusted, and they had faith, and they believed, and they relied upon.
Because they have seen Moses signal the miracle by raising his arm, they believe that the god who split the Reed Sea is their god, the god of their leader Moses. So at that moment, they trust God.
The Israelites trek across the Sinai Peninsula unmolested, while God provides manna and quail for them to eat. Yet in less than three months, when they are camped only one day’s journey from Mount Sinai, the people complain to Moses that they have no water.
God instructs Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and water comes out. But Moses notes that the people did not trust God to provide for them.
And he called the name of the place Trial-and-Disputing because of the dispute of the children of Israel and because of their testing God, saying: Hayeish, God, bekirbeinu, or ayin? (Exodus/Shemot 17:7)
Hayeish (הֲיֵשׁ) = Is it there? Does it exist?
bekirbeinu (בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ) = in our midst, inside us.
ayin (אָיִן) = not there, nothing.
A traditional translation of the people’s question is: “Is God in our midst, or not?” But another valid translation would be: “Does God exist inside us, or nothing?”
Immediately after the Israelites doubt God’s presence, the people of Amalek attack them.
Then Amalek came and fought against Israel at Refidim. And Moses said to Joshua: Choose for us men and go out, fight against Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill and the staff of God will be in my hand. So Joshua did as Moses had said to him, to fight against Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Chur went up to the top of the hill. (Exodus 17:8-10)
At this point, Moses probably assumes that he and God will do their usual routine, in which Moses raises the staff and God sends a miracle. But God does not speak to him. And when the battle begins, Moses does not seem to be holding the staff.
And it happened, when Moses elevated his hand, then Israel prevailed; but when he rested his hand, then Amalek prevailed. And the hands of Moses were getting heavy, so they took a stone and they placed it under him, and he sat upon it. And Aaron and Chur held his hands, one on either side, and his hands were emunah until the sun set. (Exodus 17:11-12)
emunah (אֱמוּנָה) = steadiness, dependability, faithfulness. (From the same root as vaya-amiynu above, 14:31)
Why do the Israelites prevail when Moses’ hands are raised? Is it because God is responding to Moses’ gesture and making it happen? Or is it because their faith in God’s presence is renewed and they fight better?
Talmud tractate Rosh Hashanah 29a says: “Did the hands of Moses wage war or crush the enemy? No; the text only teaches that as long as Israel turned their thoughts above and submitted their hearts to their father in heaven, they prevailed; but otherwise they failed.” In other words, there is no magic in Moses’ hands, and God performs no miracles. When Joshua’s men prevail against Amalek, it is only because the sight of Moses’ upraised hands encourages them.
Modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote in Particulars of Rapture, p. 245: “The role of Moses’ hands is to model for the people the attraction upward that is faith.” Moses demonstrates prayer and attachment to God by raising his hands toward heaven.
Maybe that is why we raise our hands for blessing in many Jewish Renewal congregations. Words are not enough. When we see upraised hands we remember in our bodies, not just our intellects, that we want to connect with the divine.
Raising our own hands, palms up and empty, completes the ritual link. Then we can—sometimes—feel that God is bekirbeinu, inside us. Then it is easier to prevail over our own internal enemies, our own psychological Amaleks that attack us when we complain too much.
Is it the feeling of God inside us that lets us prevail? Or is it God Itself?
Regardless of the answer, I am grateful for the inner strength that comes when I become aware of a deeper meaning in the universe and inside myself. I pray—with uplifted hands—for that strength, so I can prevail over my own internal enemies. And I am grateful when my friends help to support me as I reach upward.
Tags: Exodus, midbar, Shemot, torah portion
What does Moses request from the pharaoh of Egypt?
In Moses’ first encounter with God, at the burning bush on Mount Sinai, God tells Moses that the long-term plan is to take the children of Israel out of Egypt and relocate them in Canaan. But then God says:
You and the elders of Israel shall come to the king of Egypt, and you shall say to him: God, the god of the Hebrews, manifested to us; and now, let us go, please, a journey of three days into the midbar, and we will bring animal-offerings for God, our god. (Exodus/Shemot 3:18)
midbar (מִּדְבָּר) = wilderness, uncultivated land (pasturage or desert), uninhabited land
What difference would it make if the Israelites were granted a leave of absence for a week (three days into the wilderness, perhaps a day for the ceremonies, and three days back), if they had to go back to corvée labor building brick storehouses as soon as they returned? Why not have Moses ask the pharaoh for their emancipation from forced labor in the first place?
I always used to wonder if the ulterior motive was to get all the Israelites far enough away so that they could simply continue toward Mount Sinai, instead of returning. After all, when they do finally leave Egypt, it takes them three days to get to the Sea of Reeds (a.k.a. Red Sea), where God creates the miracle that liberates them from Egypt for good.
However, God knows that the pharaoh would not grant the request for a leave of absence. So the value of this initial request on behalf of the Israelites must lie in the concepts it expresses: going into the wilderness, and serving their own god.
The pharaoh reacts to Moses’ request by giving the Israelites additional work instead of an unpaid vacation. In this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (“And I appeared”), Moses and his brother Aaron come before the pharaoh a second time, and demonstrate the miracle of the staff that turns into a snake. Pharaoh is unmoved, so God begins the series of “ten plagues”, ten miraculous devastating events.
The pharaoh ignores the first plague, in which all the water in Egypt turns into blood. The second plague, an infestation of frogs, bothers the pharaoh enough so he summons Moses and Aaron.
…and he said: Plead for me to God, so He will clear away the frogs from me and from my people; then I will send out the people, and they may slaughter an offering to God. (Exodus 8:4)
After Egypt is relieved of frogs, the pharaoh makes his heart heavy and refuses to carry out his side of the bargain. Only after the fourth plague (arov (עָרֹב) = literally “mixers”, possibly a swarm of mixed insects or wild beasts) does the pharaoh make a more genuine offer.
And Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and he said: Go! Slaughter offerings to your god in the land. (Exodus 8:21)
Moses refuses. He says they will only make offerings to God in the wilderness, not in the populated part of Egypt. His excuse is that the animal offerings God wants from the Israelites are taboo to native Egyptians.
So Pharaoh said: I, I will send you, and you shall slaughter offerings for God, your god, in the midbar—only you definitely must not go far away. Plead for me! (Exodus 8:24)
Of course, after Moses has pleaded with God to remove the plague of arov, the pharaoh hardens his heart again, and refuses to give the Israelites their leave of absence.
During the rest of the plagues, God, Moses, and the pharaoh speak only of sending out the people; the wilderness is now assumed to be their destination.
Why can the Israelites only serve their god in the wilderness, not in the settled land of Egypt? For one thing, the pharaoh is an absolute ruler. In all the inhabited parts of his country, everyone is required to serve him as if he were a god. But, as we learn later in the book of Exodus, the god of the Israelites is a “jealous” god, who requires exclusive service. One cannot serve both God and Pharaoh.
Furthermore, the wilderness seems to be where it is easiest to connect with God. In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God speaks to Hagar twice, both times when she has walked far into the midbar south of Beersheva. Jacob first encounters God in a rocky spot on his journey through the wilderness north of Beersheva, and wrestles with a divine being in an uninhabited area by the Yabok River. Moses does not encounter God until he is 80, and then he sees the burning bush on Mount Sinai, so deep in the wilderness that last week’s Torah portion says: And he led the flock behind the midbar, and he came to the mountain… (Exodus 3:1)
In my own experience, there are two kinds of divine connection. I find that when I am praying with my friends and fellow travelers on the Jewish path, the connection among all of us brings in the divine, and we serve God together. I miss these prayer services when I go too long without them.
Yet if I want a deeper connection with the divine inside me, I can only reach it in a wilderness: a place where there are no other people (even praying people or inspiring speakers) to distract me, and no other artifacts of civilization to remind me of what else I might be doing. If I see only plants, dirt, and sky, if I hear only the wind and my own breathing, then I can do a different kind of prayer, and sink down into a deep place.
In that place, I am separated from my usual enslavements. I am neither a pharaoh who demands achievement, nor an Israelite who works harder than she really can in order to achieve. The words “God” and “service” are slippery concepts, but you might say that “serving God” in this way gives me freedom. And a little freedom returns with me when I leave the wilderness and return to the world of people.
May we all find that wilderness when we need it.
(I will be traveling next week, with no opportunity to write a post on the next Torah portion, Bo. Click on these links if you want to read my previous posts on Bo: Heard-Hearted Habit, Clouds and East Wind, Serving God with Possessions, and The Dog in the Night. And watch for my post two weeks from now, on Beshallach (“And he sent”), when the Israelites leave Egypt and immediately encounter some daunting new problems.)