By the end of the first Torah portion in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God regrets creating human beings, and decides to wipe them out. I offered theories about why God thought the human race was spoiled in two of my earlier blog posts: Noach: Spoiled, and Bereishit: Inner Voices. This year, when I reread the Torah portion named after Noah—Noach in Hebrew—I wondered why such a discouraged God made one exception, and saved Noach and his immediate family from the flood.
Last week’s Torah portion ends: But Noach found favor in the eyes of God. (Genesis/Bereishit 6:8)
This week’s Torah portion, named after Noach, begins: These are the histories of Noach. Noach was a righteous man; in his generations, Noach walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)
Noach (נֹחַ) = Noah; an alternate spelling of noach נוֹחַ)), a form of the verb nuch (נוּח) = come down to rest, settle down.
The first appearance of the verb nuch in the Torah is when Noach’s ark comes to rest on Mount Ararat at the end of the flood in Genesis 8:4. This is also Noach’s turning point, when he finally begins (at the age of 600) to take some initiative: sending out the birds to test the water level, making an animal offering to God, and planting a vineyard.
Before the flood, God tells His favorite person, Noach, that people are evil and the whole world has been spoiled. He gives Noach instructions for making a wooden ark, and says He will flood the earth and destroy all flesh—except for the few humans and animals on the ark.
(I used the pronoun “He” in case because the God character the Torah presents here is quite anthropomorphic, making sweeping generalizations and acting emotionally.)
Later in the Torah, when God tell His favorite person of the era that He is about to commit genocide, that person talks God out of it. Abraham persuades God to refrain from burning up Sodom if there are even ten innocent people in the city. Moses persuades God to give the Israelites a second chance after they worship the Golden Calf.
But Noach is silent. After God has spoken to him, all the Torah says is: And Noach did everything that God commanded him; thus he did. (Genesis 6:22)
God tells Noach to load seven pairs of each of the ritually-pure animals on board, as well as one pair of each of the impure animals. Then He rephrases His plan, saying that He is going make a flood and wipe out everything standing on the face of the earth (Genesis 7:4).
Again, Noach is silent. The Torah repeats: And Noach did everything that God commanded him.
Both times, Noach makes no protest, but only does what God commands. So God floods the earth.
After the flood is over and Noach empties the ark, his first order of business is acting on the hint implied in God’s order to carry seven times as many of the animals that are ritually pure (according to the rules for purity laid out later, in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra).
Then Noach built an altar for God, and he took from all of the ritually-pure animals and from all of the ritually-pure birds; and rising-offerings went up [in smoke] on the altar. And God smelled the nichoach aroma, and God said to His heart: I will not again draw back to curse the earth on account of the human, for the impulse of the human heart is bad in its youth … (Genesis/Bereishit, 8:20-21)
nichoach (נִיחֹחַ) = soothing or pleasing to a god. (The use of this word may be a play on Noach’s name, and may also imply that the god in question will be inclined to come down and rest its presence over the sacrifice.)
Noach’s action puts God in a better mood. God has another change of heart, and views the human condition more optimistically and rationally. According to classic commentary, God decides that it is only natural for children to act on their bad impulses, but adults can learn to control these impulses and be good. So God tells Himself not to overreact to human misdeeds again.
Why does the aroma of Noach’s offering soothe God?
Maybe the God character in the Torah, like other Canaanite gods, loves the smell of burning animals. This would explain why God favored Abel’s animal offering and rejected Cain’s plant offering. It would also explain why slaughtering and burning livestock was the primary method of worshiping God from the time of Genesis down to the fall of the second temple 70 BCE. God really liked that barbecue smell, so that’s what the Israelites gave Him.
On the other hand, maybe God provided Noach with excess ritually-pure animals because He remembered Cain and Abel’s spontaneous offerings, and wanted to make sure Noach had something to offer if he happened to feel spontaneous gratitude for being saved from the flood. The thick clouds of smoke from the combustion of more than 33 kinds of birds and beasts reassures God that Noach does, indeed, feel grateful. So God concludes that adults, at least, can feel and act on good impulses.
So have many commentators, from Philo of Alexandria in the first century C.E. to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in the 19th century. But I think both those commentators and the God character in the Torah still had more to learn about human psychology.
Why Noach Burned the Animals
I can imagine Noach acting purely out of fear of this God of wholesale destruction, who cares nothing about innocent children or animals. Noach might well be moved to burn as many animals as possible in the hope of forestalling the Destroyer’s next whimsy.
Another possibility is that Noach acts out of despair. When the flood begins, he had to hustle his own family and the animals he has collected into the ark, then keep everyone else out of it. God closes the door into the ark, but perhaps Noach could still hear the cries of his own neighbors and the sobbing of frightened children.
When the flood waters sink, Noach would see not only mud and broken trees, but floating corpses. He goes ahead and sacrifices the excess ritually-pure animals because he has figured out God wants him to. There is no point in disobeying God now. He wishes he had spoken up earlier, before the earth was destroyed. Did God leave another hint that he missed? Could he have done anything to save more people? Now it is too late, and Noach has to live with himself.
He listens to God’s speech giving instructions for living in the new world, and promising that a flood will never destroy the earth again. But I think Noach is too depressed to care. As soon as God is done talking, Noach plants a vineyard. In the next sentence, he gets drunk.
Some commentators criticize Noach for his silent obedience. But when I reflect on my own life, I know that the number of times I spoke up in favor of justice or mercy were few in comparison with all the times I felt powerless and kept my mouth shut. When the person in authority has absolute power and does not show compassion, it is hard to risk a loss of acceptance, loss of a job, or even loss of one’s life. I can only feel sorry for Noach.
The most frightening thing about the Torah portion Noach is that the person in authority is a god, a god who gets carried away by egotistical emotions and has only a primitive sense of justice. Even today, natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions can be taken as evidence of a morally deficient god.
That’s why, when I write about these parts of the Torah, I often refer to “the God character”. The anthropomorphic character that the Torah stories refer to by various names of God is simply not the same as the creator of the universe; or the theologians’ omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being; or the essence and totality of existence; or even the mysterious unknown we sometimes sense with our non-rational minds.
Yet we can still learn from Torah stories in which the God character not only creates and tests and destroys human beings, but also learns from them. There is a God character inside each of our psyches, as well as a Noach, and an Abraham, and maybe even a Moses.
Tags: Bereishit, free will, Genesis, God, good and evil, torah portion, Tree of Knowledge, Tree of Life
In the first creation story in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God makes human beings in Its image, male and female, and ends the sixth “day” by deciding that everything is “very good”. The Torah does not say in what way human beings resemble God.
Then we get a second creation story. In this story (attributed by scholars to an older source), God creates a single human before inventing plants or other animals.
And God formed ha-adam of dust from ha-adamah, and [God] blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and ha-adam became a nefesh chayah. (Genesis/Bereishit 2:7)
ha-adam (הָאָדָם) = the human, humankind, the earthling.
ha-adamah (הָאֲדָמָה) = the earth, the dirt.
nefesh chayah (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה) = animated animal, living creature.
Instead of simply making humans in God’s image, as in the first creation story, God shapes a human body and breathes life into it—the same process God uses later in the story to create various birds and mammals. Then God makes a place outside the world where the archetypal human can acquire a divine trait, and thereby become an image of God, unlike other animals.
Then God planted a garden in Eiden mikedem, and It put there ha-adam that It had formed. And God made sprout from the earth every tree that was desirable in appearance and good for food, and the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. (Genesis 2:8-9)
Eiden (עֵדֶן) = Eden; luxury, pampering, delight.
mikedem (מִקֶּדֶם) = from the east, from primeval time.
God invites the human to eat from all but one of the trees in the garden.
And God laid an order on ha-adam, saying: From every tree in the garden you may certainly eat. But from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you may not eat from it, because on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die. (Genesis 2:16-17)
What about the Tree of Life, which is also in the middle of the garden? By giving the human permission to eat from every tree except the Tree of Knowledge, God offers the human the option of eating from the Tree of Life—whose fruit, we learn later in the story, confers immortality.
When I reread the story this year, I realized that God subtly gives ha-adam a choice between the two trees. If the archetypal human eats from the Tree of Knowledge, it will gain the divine characteristic of moral knowledge, but it will be doomed to die. If it eats from the Tree of Life, if will gain the divine characteristic of immortality, but will it lose the ability to discover morality?
The first human being is not yet human enough to react with curiosity. It asks no questions, and apparently refrains from the fruit of both the trees in the middle of the garden. Eventually God separates the two sides of the human into two individuals, one male and one female. This does the trick; the woman is curious enough to hear the questions and arguments of the snake (another of God’s creations), including the comment:
For God knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God, knowing good and bad. (Genesis 3:5)
We already know that every tree in the garden is desirable in appearance and good for food (Genesis 2:9). The woman now notices a third way in which the Tree of Knowledge is “good”.
The woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it satisfied a craving of the eyes, and the tree was desirable for haskil, so she took some fruit and she ate; and she gave also her to her man with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:7)
haskil (הַשְׂכִּיל) = understanding, having insight.
Both humans want divine insight so much, they forget about the Tree of Life and eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. They gain a basic concept of morality, and the ability to figure out what is good and bad on their own.
The two primeval humans do not keel over dead that day. Instead, God tells them they will return to the world, where life will be hard, and eventually they will die and turn back into dust. God mentions the pain of childbirth, and the man notices that there will be birth as well as death in the world.
So ha-adam called the name of his woman Chavah, because she herself had become a mother of all life. (Genesis 3:20)
Chavah (חַוָּה) = Eve; a variant of chayah = living animal, vigorous, to bring to life.
Instead of immortality, humankind chooses moral knowledge and life in this world, which is inseparable from birth and death.
And God said: Here, the human has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, and now, lest he stretch out its hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever—! (Genesis 3:22)
This sentence raises obvious two questions. What does God mean by saying the human has become like one of us? (Next year I want to write about all the hints of multiple gods in this first Torah portion, including in the passage above.) Secondly, why can’t the humans eat from both trees? Why shouldn’t they acquire a second divine characteristic?
I think the answer is that in our universe, everything is in flux, constantly changing. Even stars burn out. And every living thing is born, grows, experiences pain, and dies. Life in this world is mortal. Immortality can only apply to something outside our universe, outside time and space—like the garden of Eiden.
But our world also presents human beings with moral choices that matter. We can choose actions that increase the life and well-being of others, or actions that increase death and pain. Our ability to puzzle out good and bad depends on living in this world.
So God sent [the human] out from the garden of Eiden, to serve the earth from which it had been taken. And [God] banished the human, and It set up in front of the garden of Eiden the cherubim and the flame of the whirling sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life. (Genesis 3:23-24)
Human beings in the real world can resemble God in having moral understanding, but we cannot resemble God by living forever.
Other ancient religions told stories about how human heroes tried, but failed, to become like the gods by eating or bringing home plants that would confer immortality. The remarkable thing about the second creation story in Genesis is that humankind gets a different divine characteristic: moral insight.
The rest of the book of Genesis can be read as a story about how both humans and God begin to learn how to apply moral insight to situations in the world. For example, when Cain becomes enraged, God tries to warn him against killing his brother, but it takes the rest of the book for the humans to figure out how brothers can tolerate each other. When God decides to wipe out Sodom, Abraham tries to teach God to judge humans individually instead of punishing the innocent with the guilty, but God does not always apply the lesson.
We are still learning how to behave ethically. As our moral insights develop, many humans have learned how to be good in ways that neither the people nor the God-character in the Torah imagined. (For example, see my earlier post, Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame.)
We can never acquire immortality in this world, but we are still tasting the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. May we all remember how precious and desirable our moral insight is, and pause to think about our moral choices.
Tags: Canaan, Deuteronomy, Genesis, Phoenicians, religion, torah portion, Zevulun
This week Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the year. This Saturday is Shabbat Shuva, and the Torah portion is Ha-azinu (Use your ears). In the last few years, I have written four posts on Ha-azinu: Upright, Devious, and Struggling; The Tohu Within; Raining Insights; and Hovering. But since I will be traveling for three weeks, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur and Sukkot, this post will look at the Torah portion Vezot Habrakhah (“And this is the blessing”), the last portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim.
On Simchat Torah (October 16-17 this year) a Jewish tradition is to finish Deuteronomy and start the new annual cycle of Torah readings with the opening of Genesis/Bereishit. That first Torah portion will be the subject of my first post when I get home in a few weeks!
In the last Torah portion of Deuteronomy, Moses pronounces prophecies for each of the tribes of Israel, as well as blessing all the Israelites, before he climbs Mount Nevo to die. The text of the “blessings” of the tribes that has been handed down to us is somewhat corrupted by scribal error, according to modern scholars. But it still expands Jacob’s “blessings” of the tribes near the end of Genesis/Bereishit.
Jacob pronounces blessings, or prophecies, about his twelve sons before he pulls his feet up into his bed and dies. Each prophecy is really about the tribe that will bear that son’s name. (See my earlier post, Vayechi: Fierce Brothers.) But earlier in Genesis, Jacob’s sons are characters in the story.
Half of the twelve sons are the equivalent of spear-carriers; the Torah gives them neither lines nor stage business. Unlike their eponymous tribes, the only identities these six sons have are their names—Dan, Naftali, Gad, Asher, Yissakhar, and Zevulun—and the meanings their mothers or adoptive mothers assign to their names.
The youngest spear-carrier is Zevulun, Leah’s sixth and last son. When he is born, Leah says: God gave a gift to me, a good gift; [this] time my husband yizbeleini because I bore him six sons. And she called his name Zevulun. (Genesis/Bereishit 30:20)
yisbeleini (יִזְבְּלֵנִי) = he will elevate me, he will exalt me, he will honor me. (The root of this verb, זבל, is the same as the root of the name Zevulun.)
Zevulun (זְבֻלוּן) = exalted place, place of honor.
As with all the other baby-namings in the Torah, the name indicates the parent’s state of mind. We learn nothing about the character of Leah’s sixth son from his name.
But we do learn something about Zevulun’s tribe when Jacob recites his prophetic poem about the tribes from his deathbed. He says: Zevulun, at the shore of the sea he will dwell; and he will be a shore for ships, and his flank will be upon Tzidon. (Genesis 49:13)
Tzidon (צִידֹן) = Sidon; one of the first Phoenician port cities on the Mediterranean Sea. (Tzidon is now the city of Sayda in Lebanon).
The second prophetic poem about the tribes, spoken by Moses in the last Torah portion of Deuteronomy, combines the tribe of Zevulun with the tribe that bears the name of Leah’s fifth son, Yissakhar (often spelled Issachar in English).
And to Zevulun he said: Rejoice, Zevulun, in your going out, and Yissakhar, in your tents. They will call peoples to the mountain; there they will slaughter slaughter-offerings of righteousness; for they will suckle on the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sand. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 33:18-20)
Both poems about the tribes of Israel claim that the territory of Zevulun includes a piece of the Mediterranean coast. Jacob’s poem says Zevulun will extend as far as Tzidon, but in the book of Joshua, when the tribal territories are allocated by lot, it is Asher, Zevulun’s northern neighbor, that reaches as far as the great city of Tzidon.
The boundaries of Zevulun given in the book Joshua include many place-names we cannot identify today, and do not mention any coastline. The one identifiable place in the description of Zevulun’s land is Beit-Lechem. The coast west of Beit-Lechem of Galilee is Haifa Bay, which lies south of both Tzidon and Tzor (Sidon and Tyre ), the two major Phoenician cities at the time. But the Phoenicians had coastal villages farther south, as far as Dor.
The coast south of Dor, from Ashdod to Gaza, was being invaded by the Plishtim (Philistines) around the time of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, which the Bible places circa 1300 B.C.E. The Plishtim migrated from Crete and other islands across the sea, and after seizing their beachheads on the coast, they fought for centuries to conquer more of Canaan.
But the Bible does not record any hostile actions by Phoenicians against Israelites. Could Zevulun have shared the Mediterranean coast with them?
I think so. Historically, both the Israelites and the Phoenicians spoke a Canaanite dialect in the Semetic language family, and the writings of both peoples reveal roots in Canaanite culture.
In the Bible, the people of Zevulun get along with non-Israelite neighbors. Although Moses instructs the Israelites to dispossess the Canaanites and drive all the natives out of the land, the first book of Judges lists the tribes that did not do so. Zevulun is one of the tribes that lives alongside the Canaanites.
Furthermore, even Moses’ poem about the tribes predicts that Zevulun and Yissakhar will call peoples to the mountain; there they will slaughter slaughter-offerings of righteousness. (Deuteronomy 33:19) Rather than trekking all the way to Israel’s central place of worship, they invite neighboring peoples to join them in offering animal sacrifices at a local mountain in the Galilee. And even though Deuteronomy is full of warnings to worship God at only one place, the poem Moses recites at the end of his life calls the neighborly offerings on a local mountain “righteous”.
Zevulun’s reward for friendly relations with its Phoenician neighbors is a share of Phoenician wealth, which came from maritime trade, fishing, and the sale of valuable purple dye and white (milk) glass. The dye came from mollusks found on that part of the coast, and the glass was made from the high-quality sand on the shore. The commentaries agree that these Phoenician products must be the hidden treasures of the sand mentioned in Deuteronomy 33:20.
This glimpse into the ways of Zebulun is a welcome contrast with all the times the Hebrew Bible urges the Israelites to treat other peoples as enemies. The Bible often condones vicious pre-emptive wars against Canaanites, Amorites, Midianites, and assorted other peoples in the region. (For an example, see my post Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame.) Apparently God, Moses, and many of the prophets (at least as portrayed in the Bible) believe the Israelites are so easily tempted to abandon their own religion, they must commit genocide lest they learn about another attractive cult.
There is a better way to prevent people from discarding their God and their religion: make the religious practices more inspiring and more likely to touch the heart. The Torah illustrates this method in the book of Exodus, when the anxious people turn to the Golden Calf, but then turn back to God with joy and dedication when Moses gives them the chance to make a beautiful sanctuary for God.
Zevulun offers another illustration, by adopting the Phoenician way of making a livelihood, and inviting their foreign friends to join them in making offerings to God on a nearby mountain. They drop the rule about worshiping God only at the central sanctuary. But in exchange they gain peace with their neighbors—without abandoning their own god. And the Torah portion Vezot Habrakhah says their offerings are righteous.
I think the hidden treasures of the sand that Zevulun enjoys are not only milk glass and purple dye, but also the treasures that come from tolerance and goodwill.
May all people learn how to preserve their religions by offering friendship to strangers as they offer their hearts to their own gods.
Tags: Canaan, Deuteronomy, God, mysticism, religion, torah portion
Hanistarot is for God, our god, and haniglot is for us and for our children forever, to do all the words of this Torah. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 29:18)
hanistarot (הַנִּסְתָּרֹת) = what is hidden, concealed, secret.
haniglot (הַנִּגְלֹת) = what is revealed, uncovered, exposed.
In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“taking a stand”), the sentence above is wedged in between two predictions. The first is that the Israelites will worship other gods and then God will destroy their land and exile them. The second is that eventually the Israelites will return to God and God will return them to the land.
Does the sentence about what is concealed and revealed have anything to do with Moses’ predictions? Since the sentence follows Moses’ prediction that the Israelites will commit the “sin” of worshiping other gods, some commentary assumes this sentence is about sins. According to Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), it means that if a sin is committed so secretly that nobody could discover it, then God is responsible for punishing the individual offender. But if a sin is committed openly, it is up to the community to punish the offender; “and if we do not execute judgment upon these, then the whole community will be punished” by God.
Other commentators relate the sentence about the concealed and the revealed to the next passage, where Moses predicts that the exiled Israelites will return to God, and then God will gather them all back to the land of Canaan. In this case, what is concealed is the length of the exile. The future is always hidden from human beings. What is revealed is what we should do in the meantime: all the words of this Torah. In other words, we and our descendants must strive to obey the 613 rules in the Torah as much as we can. (See last week’s post, Ki Tavo: Writing in Stone.)
A third strand of commentary, starting in the Talmud, interprets “what is secret (hanistarot) is for God” as a warning to individuals against pursuing arcane mystical knowledge. “What is revealed (haniglot)” is the Torah, which is good for us to study.
In the Babylonian Talmud (written by rabbis living under Persian rule in the first few centuries C.E.) the tractate Chaggigah mentions rabbis who taught about Ezekiel’s mystical vision of the chariot. Then it points out the dangers of pursuing arcane knowledge by offering a story about four great Torah scholars who entered a pardeis.
Pardeis (פַּרְדֵּס), often translated as “paradise”, is a Persian word for an orchard or an enclosed garden. Chaggigah 14b uses a pardeis as an image of the “upper worlds” of heaven, a realm of spiritual truth divorced from the physical world.
The four famous scholars who enter the pardeis in this story are Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, the “other” (Elisha ben Avuya), and Rabbi Akiva, their senior. Ben Azzai glimpses the divine presence, abandons his body, and dies. Ben Zoma glimpses the divine presence, suffers from a consuming a surfeit of “honey”, and loses his mind. Elisha ben Avuya, the “other”, glimpses the divine presence, but sees a duality: God versus an angel (Metatron) who is sitting and recording the merits of Israel. The Talmud says Elisha “chopped down the shoots” of saplings, i.e. became a heretic who separated God (the root) from the angel (the shoot). Only Rabbi Akiva comes out of the pardeis safely.
When the scholars are entering the pardeis, Akiva warns them that they will see pure marble stones that appear to be water, but they must not say “water, water”. Perhaps Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, and Elisha ben Avuya were unable to distinguish between polished marble and water—that is, between two key points in mystical understanding of the divine—and the result was death, madness, or heresy. Hanistarot, what is secret, belongs to God, and very few can perceive one of God’s secrets and remain whole.
In the 12th century B.C.E., Rambam (Moses Maimonides) wrote that the hidden secret (hanistarot) in the sentence from this week’s Torah portion is Kabbalah, and the revealed wisdom (haniglot) is the Torah. Those who learn Kabbalah must still take care to observe the rules of the Torah in the world of physical action.
Today I encounter people who are so fascinated by mysticism that they ignore the Rambam’s advice, and spend all their energy pursuing an “oh, wow!” state of mind. Sometimes I get the impression that anything arcane and mysterious attracts these people, as long as it is non-logical and only tenuously related to the world we live in. These ungrounded mystics seem to assume they can transcend the rules in the Torah and rise above their own psychological (soul) issues. They appear to be more concerned with feeling love, than with thinking about what actions might be loving.
I also encounter people who want to “do all the words of this Torah”, but prefer specific rules about physical actions over admonitions to change their heart and soul. If they are Jews, they may be strict about keeping kosher, but not so thorough about loving their fellows as themselves. Examining their own psyches in order to love other people is too much for them.
In between these two types are the people who cautiously mine mystical claims for insight without trying to enter pardeis. They are enthusiastic about how religion can be applied to ethics and personal insight. Figuring out how to love one’s fellow as oneself, for example, is more important to them than either feeling ecstatic or following all the rules.
I want to belong to that third group. I want to investigate my own soul and stay grounded in my life here on earth. I want to borrow an occasional idea from Kabbalah without getting lost in it, and I want to use the Torah’s concrete rules as guidelines for behavior, to be reinterpreted if following the letter of the law gets in the way of following its spirit.
So I can subscribe to first part of the sentence from this week’s Torah portion:
Hanistarot [what is hidden] is for God, our god, and haniglot [what is revealed] is for us and for our children …
But I would like to end the sentence this way:
… to study all the words of this Torah, and apply them thoughtfully to our lives.
Tags: Deuteronomy, limewash, Moses, religion, standing stones, torah portion
Carve something on a stone, and set it upright as a memorial or a boundary marker. People have been doing this all over the world for millennia. Americans today still erect gravestones and mark historic sites with upright stones bearing text.
Anyone can read the inscribed stone or stele and learn something—about the battle that took place at that spot, or the boundary it marks, or the person who is buried there.
In the ancient Middle East, most steles recorded victories in battle. But the oldest stele discovered so far from that region is a stone seven and a half feet high, with the Code of Hammurabi carved into it during the 18th century B.C.E. The 282 laws of the reigning Babylonian king are written in Akkadian.
Standing stones without any words carved into them are even older. Only oral tradition can tell subsequent generations what the stones commemorated. A stranger from another place or a later time who sees a blank monument, or a circle of tall stones, knows only that they are significant, not what they signify.
The first standing stones in the Torah are uncarved. In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob erects four different matzeivot or standing stones, marking the sites of his dream of angels, the boundary between his area of influence and his father-in-law Lavan’s, and his wife Rachel’s grave.
Moses erects twelve standing stones at the foot of Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus/Shemot, to represent the twelve tribes of Israel in their covenant with God. But the only inscribed stones in Exodus are the two small tablets bearing the ten commandments, and they are so sacred that they are carried inside the ark, which must never be touched or opened.
At Mount Sinai and in the wilderness, the blank stones that depend on mutable oral tradition are out in public. But the immutable, fixed written words are hidden in a sacred place.
Moses does not call for standing stones with writing on them until this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you enter”), in the book of Deuteromy/Devarim.
Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying: Observe the entire commandment that I command you this day. And it shall be, on the day that you cross over the Jordan into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, you shall erect for yourself great stones, vesadeta them with the siyd. And you shall write on them all the words of this torah when you cross over, so that you may come into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as God, the god of your forefathers, has spoken to you. (Deuteronomy 27:1-3)
vesadeta (וְשַׂדְתָּ) = and you shall limewash (coat them with a paint-like mixture of lime and water).
siyd (שִׂיד) = lime, quicklime, limewash.
torah (תוֹרָה) = teaching. (The word torah also refers to the first five books of the Bible, to the whole Hebrew Bible, and to any teaching of Jewish law or religion.)
The people of the ancient Middle East made quicklime (calcium oxide powder) by burning bones. Adding enough water to slake the lime turns it into calcium hydroxide, which can be mixed with additional water to make limewash. Limewash is still used to coat surfaces in order to make them smooth and white; the coating hardens into a thin shell of limestone, which may last for millennia in dry conditions. Remnants survive of a text painted in ink on a white limewashed wall in the 8th century B.C.E.
Thus the text on Moses’ limewashed stones could have been readable for many centuries. The Hebrew Bible does not specify which torah Moses wants on the stones, but it must include some or all of the laws from the written Torah we have today—the first five books of the Bible, as copied and recopied on parchment and paper. According to 12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, Moses means the 613 commandments that the Talmud (Makkot 23b) says are in the five books. Other commentary speculates that Moses is calling for the code of laws in the book of Deuteronomy (chapters 13-26), or for the whole book of Deuteronomy (which would fit on two stones the size of the one used for the Code of Hammurabi).
Until this point in the Torah, Moses passes down God’s laws by announcing them verbally to the assembly of Israelites. Only in this week’s Torah portion does Moses call for laws to be “carved in stone”—or at least painted on limestone—and set out in a public place: the top of Mount Eyval, next to the ancient town of Shekhem.
And it shall be when you cross over the Jordan, you shall erect these stones, as I command you this day, on Mount Eyval; vesadeta them with the siyd. And you shall build there an altar for God, your god … (Deuteronomy 27:4-5)
Moses continues with orders for offerings at the altar, followed by a ritual of blessings and curses to indicate acceptance of God’s law. (See my earlier post, Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.)
On the bare summit of Mount Eyval, the stones would be visible from a distance, as shining white pillars against the sky.
Perhaps the author of this section of Deuteronomy imagined that the steles on Mount Eyval would be like the Code of Hammurabi, which many scribes over the centuries copied onto clay tablets. In the Talmud (Sotah 35b), Rabbi Yehudah imagines scribes from different Canaanite tribes visiting the stones on Mount Eyval and bringing home copies of their text.
Yet ancient scribes, including those who copied the Hebrew Bible, not only made copying errors, but also felt free to insert additional material. The steles on Mount Eyval would stand as a permanent record of the original laws of Moses, whatever amendments people made later.
From the viewpoint of the storyline within the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ desire for a permanent, immutable, and public record of the laws is understandable. He is about to die, and he believes the Israelites, with their history of backsliding, will eventually abandon God’s laws and convert to Canaanite religions. Moses’ last hope of preserving his religion is to write it down.
He writes multiple copies of “this torah” in Deuteronomy 31:9, and a book of “this torah” to be placed inside the ark in Deuteronomy 31:24-26. All of these writings appear to be on parchment scrolls. But he also wants a more permanent record, so he orders the limewashed standing stones.
From the viewpoint of modern scholarship, Deuteronomy was written much later than Numbers, probably after the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. King Josiah of Judah, the southern kingdom, wanted public support for conquering the old northern territory and reinstating the old religion the two kingdoms shared. The description of a permanent monument bearing the laws of Moses might make King Josiah’s people feel that the religion of the God of Israel should persist.
From the viewpoint of a practicing Jew today, I would say the religion could not have survived this long without additions and reinterpretations. Of the 613 mitzvot or commandments in the five books of the Torah, as compiled by Rambam (12th-century rabbi Moses Maimonides), only 271 can be observed at all today. (Many of the old laws were about sacrifices at the temple, a method of worship that ended about 2,000 years ago with the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem.)
And some of the commandments are clearly inferior to ethical customs that Jews adopted later in their history. For example, although the Torah includes highly ethical commandments (such as not to insult, embarrass, or slander people), it also contains commandments such as the requirement that a rapist must marry his victim if she is single (Deuteronomy 22:29). There was a reason for that law in Judah 2,700 years ago, but 21st-century American society has better ways of handling the situation.
If archaeologists ever discover limewashed stones with some laws of Moses written on them, I pray that we may view the laws as artefacts, not immutable rules to follow forever. Reinterpretations of both oral traditions and traditional writings are what keep a religion alive, and let it walk farther on the path of virtue.
Tags: Deuteronomy, gleaning, omer, torah portion
Last week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, told us not to cut down fruit trees when we are besieging a city. By Talmudic times, this injunction had been expanded into the principle of bal taschchit, do not destroy anything useful. (See my post Shoftim: Saving Trees.)
Some of the rules in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“When you go out”), have been similarly expanded. Here is one, nicknamed “The Forgotten Sheaf”:
If you harvest your harvest in your field, and you forget an omer in the field, you shall not turn back to take it. It shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow, so that God, your god, will bless you in everything your hands do. (Deuteronomy/Devarium 24:19)
omer (עֹמֶר) = a dry measure, roughly 2 quarts or 2 liters, used in the Torah for both manna and cut ears of grain.
The word omer is sometimes translated as “sheaf”, but the omer of manna discussed in the book of Exodus/Shemot consists of tiny white spheres the size of coriander seed. Manna could hardly be gathered into a sheaf! Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the word omer refers to grain, and can easily be translated as a quantity of grain heads. (The sheaves in Joseph’s dream in Genesis/Bereishit are called alumim (אֲלֻמִּים), an entirely different word.)
Commentators over the centuries have agreed that the purpose of the rule about the so-called “Forgotten Sheaf” could not be to provide for the poor (epitomized by three types of people unlikely to own land or to be supported by wealthy men: resident aliens, orphans, and widows). One omer of grain might feed one person for one day. Landowners and their employees would have to be extraordinarily forgetful to accidentally leave enough grain to feed all the poor in their area.
Moreover, the Torah already requires landowners to deliberately leave behind grain, grapes, and other produce for the poor to glean.
When you harvest the harvest of your land, you shall not finish harvesting to the edge of your field, nor gather up the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vines nor gather up your fallen grapes in your vineyard; to the poor and to the stranger you shall leave them. (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:9-10)
The Torah portion for this week in Deuteronomy adds orchards to the fields and vineyards.
When you beat out your olive tree, you shall not strip the branches behind you; they shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow. (Deuteronomy 24:20)
If landowners are already required to leave food in their fields, vineyards, and orchards for the poor to glean, why does the Torah tell them not to go back and gather an omer they forgot about?
The 13th-century book Sefer Ha-Chinukh answers that the purpose of this commandment is to help people develop the habit of generosity. Even if you are giving to the poor as required by gleaning laws, tithes, or taxes, as you work to increase your own wealth you must still cultivate the belief that sharing wealth is more important than maximizing your own profit.
Philo of Alexandria’s commentary, written in the first century C.E., criticizes people who devote themselves exclusively to increasing their own wealth, and never notice that their gains would be impossible without the natural world God gives us. (I would add that the gains of the money-hungry also require the labor of other people.) And in the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that the commandment not to go back for the forgotten omer is intended to clear possessiveness and greed from your thoughts.
Besides breaking the habits of possessiveness and greed, leaving the forgotten omer behind might also help someone to overcome the habits of worrying about being cheated, or thinking of everything in terms of private property.
What if a farmer left grain in the field, and nobody came by to pick it up? Would this violate the principle of bal tashchit, “do not waste”?
This was not an issue in ancient Israel, where there were always people without land of their own who gleaned to feed themselves.
Gleaning projects are being revived today in the United States, collecting food that would otherwise be wasted. But we can also update the principle of the forgotten omer. What if you are fumbling with your purse or billfold, and you accidentally drop money on the sidewalk? If you leave it behind, the money will not go to waste; someone will pick it up. What if you forget to collect your change at the counter, or discover you left too large a tip? Going back for your money would shrink your soul. Leaving it for someone else gives you practice in keeping your priorities straight.
When you have forgotten to do a good deed, go back. But when you have forgotten to be selfish, go on, and be grateful for your forgetfulness.
Tags: bal tashchit, Deuteronomy, torah portion
When you besiege a town for many days, to make war against it, to capture it, lo tashchit its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you will eat from them, so you shall not cut them down; for is a tree of the field ha-adam, to come in front of you in the siege? (Deuteronomy/Devarim 20:19)
lo tashchit (לֹא־תַשְׁחִית) = you shall not destroy, ruin, corrupt.
ha-adam (הָאָדָם) = human (as an adjective); the human, humankind (as a noun).
The above verse from this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“judges”), assumes that it is acceptable to make war in order to capture a town belonging to a different tribe or nation. If humans from the town get in your way, you may kill them. Everyone does it.
However, the verse does challenge the idea that it is acceptable to cut down your enemy’s orchards and groves. This practice both allowed the besieging forces to vent their spleen, and ensured that even if the siege failed, the town would still suffer in the long term, deprived of both fruit and a means of livelihood. (For example, olive oil was a major export of the portion of Canaan the Israelites conquered.)
The Talmud generalizes the prohibition against cutting down fruit trees in a siege to cover any wasteful destruction, including tearing fabric when you are not in mourning (Kiddushin 32a), or scattering your money in anger (Shabbat 105b).
Rambam (the 12th-century commentator Moses Maimonides) wrote that the verse in this week’s Torah portion applies to any injury to a fruit tree. However, he said, the tree may be removed if it is damaging other trees, or even if its wood can be sold at a high price. The important thing is to avoid any needless destruction. He extended this idea to cover ruining edible food or demolishing a usable building.
The prohibition against waste and useless destruction came to be called bal tashchit. (Bal, like lo, means “not”.)
Many societies have rules against destroying a fellow citizen’s property. What stands out about the Jewish principle of bal taschchit is that it prohibits useless destruction of both enemy property, and your own personal property.
According to the 13th-century book Sefer Ha-Chinukh, the purpose of bal taschchit is to train us to avoid acting on evil impulses. Wicked people revel in destruction and corruption. By following the rule to eschew waste and preserve everything useful, we gradually reduce our impulses to destroy something, and develop a better attitude.
Imagine if everyone followed the rule of bal taschchit today!
Who knows, maybe the modern ethic of “reduce, re-use, recycle” is training us to disapprove of wasting the earth’s resources. Maybe the people of the world are almost ready to rally to a new call to save the world from the pollution that leads to “global climate change”—which really means ruin and hardship all over the world.
May it be so!
Tags: Deuteronomy, pilgrimage festivals, rejoicing, torah portion
Sometimes joy comes unexpectedly. Sometimes we plan on rejoicing, setting ourselves up for joy on a particular occasion. This week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See!”), says that three times a year, everyone should rejoice.
Universal joy is required during the three annual pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Although the Torah gives instructions for these three festivals in the earlier books of the Torah, this portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim is the first one that mandates a pilgrimage to the central sanctuary even for Pesach.
Three times in the year all your males shall appear in the presence of God, your god, in the place that [God] will choose: on the festival of the matzot and on the festival of the shavuot and on the festival of the sukkot … (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:16)
matzot (מַצּוֹת) = unleavened bread. (This spring festival is part of Pesach or Passover.)
shavuot (שָׁבֻעוֹת) = weeks. (This summer festival occurs after counting seven weeks of the barley harvest, and includes bringing the first fruits and loaves of leavened bread to the priests at the sanctuary.)
sukkot (סֻכּוֹת) = huts, temporary shelters. (In Exodus this autumn festival is called the festival of the asif, “ingathering”, and pilgrims donate products from their threshing-floors and wine-presses. Leviticus adds the rituals of dwelling in temporary huts for seven days.)
…and they shall not appear in front of God empty-handed; each man [shall give] according to the giving-capacity of his hand, according to the blessing that God, your god, has given to you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:16-17)
Only Israelite men are required to make the three pilgrimages to the central sanctuary (which was in Shiloh for about 370 years, and Jerusalem for about 1,000 years). But this week’s portion also encourages women, children, and slaves to go, while recognizing that the journey may not be possible for pregnant or nursing women. Each head of a household must bring the second tithe (a donation for the priests and the temple administration), and a sacrificial animal for God. But the donations must be in proportion to the family’s wealth, so nobody’s joy is dampened by having to give more than they can afford.
In the Torah’s previous instructions regarding the three festivals, rejoicing is mentioned only once, when Leviticus 23:40 says to take branches from four species of trees and rejoice for the seven days of Sukkot.
But in this week’s Torah portion, rejoicing is called for three times, once in the instructions for Shavuot and twice in the instructions for Sukkot.
(Although this Torah portion does not specifically mention rejoicing during Pesach, later passages in Ezra and Chronicles 2 mention rejoicing in Jerusalem during this festival.)
The requirement for rejoicing in the portion Re-eih includes the Levite, stranger, orphan, and widow, who were not mentioned in any of the earlier instructions on the three festivals. During Shavuot, the Torah portion says:
Rejoice in the presence of God, your god—you and your son and your daughter and your man-servant and your woman-servant, and the Levite who is within your gates, and the foreigner and the orphan and the widow … (Deuteronomy 16:11)
And during Sukkot:
Rejoice in your festival, you and your son and your daughter and your man-servant and your woman-servant, and the Levite and the foreigner and the orphan and the widow who are within your gates. Seven days you shall celebrate a festival for God, your god, in the place that [God] will choose, because God, your god, will have blessed you in all that comes to you and in all the doings of your hands, and there will be for you only joy. (16:14-15)
Feeling joy might be easy for the landowner who brings his offerings to the sanctuary, since he gives in proportion to his means, and he is celebrating that God blessed his agricultural endeavors with success.
But when the Torah addresses this landowner, it informs him that his family and his servants or slaves must also feel joy during the festivals. Furthermore, the Torah gives examples of four classes of people who are unlikely to own land or other independent means in a society built around inheritance through the male line: the Levites, whose pasture land is restricted and depend on donations; foreigners, who can lease but not inherit estates; orphans who have no fathers to provide for them; and widows, who are dependent on the mercy of relatives unless they have wealthy sons. The Torah says that all of the disadvantaged people who live in the landowner’s town or village must also rejoice during the three festivals. Their joy becomes the landowner’s responsibility.
What can he do for them? According to the commentary of 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, he must arrange for those who cannot travel to rejoice at home. Everyone who can travel must come with him to the central sanctuary, to experience the joy of celebrating in the national community, whose people are dedicated to one god, and to one another.
Hirsch added that these festivals are also times that God appointed to meet the people at God’s sanctuary. The awareness of God’s presence, he wrote, brings the purest joy.
In the 11th century, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that the phrase I translate above as “there will be for you only joy” means that if you bring everyone to God’s chosen place for a festival, God promises you will be happy.
I have observed this effect in my own life. Occasionally happiness lifts me when I am alone; more often it comes when I am with my beloved. But when I am singing with my congregation at services, my heart almost always rises. The only times this communal singing does not bring me joy are when someone in the group looks angry or miserable.
The unhappy people are like the poor foreigners in the Torah, alienated from the community where they live. Sometimes these “foreigners” cannot come to the place where God is; they are unable to travel spiritually. Then those of us who have greater means, like the landowners in the Torah, must make arrangements to help them rejoice in the spiritual state where they are.
Other times, the unhappy “foreigners” are able to travel, if we carry them with us. The Torah tells us not to neglect them, but to bring them to God’s place to celebrate with us.
Then “there will be only joy”. Complete joy happens only when everybody contributes, and nobody gets left out.
Tags: Deuteronomy, good and evil, Shema section, torah portion
The oldest section of Jewish prayer services is the Shema and the three excerpts from the Torah that follow it. These became a regular part of morning and evening services about 2,000 years ago. The Shema itself is a single sentence: Listen, Israel: God is our god, God is one. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:4)
The prayer service continues with Deuteronomy 6:5-9, in a paragraph sometimes called “the ve-ahavta” because it begins with the word ve-ahavta (וְאָהַבְתָּ) = And you shall love. (See my post: Va-etchannan: Extreme Love.) This first paragraph after the Shema urges individuals to remember to love God at all times.
The second paragraph, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, which comes from this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“On the heels of”), offers reasons why the whole community must follow God’s rules. The third paragraph, Numbers/Bemidbar 14:37-41, calls for tassels (tzitzit) as a reminder to keep our attention on God. (See my post Shelach-Lekha: Glimpses of Blue.)
The paragraph excerpted from this week’s Torah portion is the most problematic of the three, because its reasons for obeying God’s rules consist of two if-then statements that are obviously untrue. It begins:
And it will be, if you [plural] truly heed My commandments that I am commanding to you today, to love God, your god, and to serve [God] with your whole levav and your whole being— (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:13)
levav (לֵבָב) = mind, (literally “heart”), the seat of conscious thoughts and feelings.
Are the commandments in the “if” clause the whole body of law in the Torah, or just to love God and serve God with your whole mind and body? For classic commentators, it does not matter, because the way to love and serve God is to follow all of God’s commandments in the Torah.
The next two verses promise a reward:
—then I will give rain to your land at the right time, autumn-rain and spring-rain, and you will gather your grain and your wine and your olive oil. And I will put grasses in your field for your livestock, and you will eat and you will be sated. (Deuteronomy 11:14-15)
It is a nice promise, but we all know that obeying God’s commandments does not, in actual practice, result in beneficial weather in Israel. For Jews outside Israel, obeying God’s commandments does not guarantee the results of beneficial weather: a full stomach and being able to live where you are.
One explanation is that we humans are so fallible, we never manage to obey all of the pertinent commandments properly, and God will not reward us if we miss the mark on even one of them. But even the God-character in the Torah, who wipes out the innocent with the guilty, is not that unreasonable.
The if-then promise is followed by an if-then threat:
Be on guard against yourselves, because if your mind yifteh, and you turn away and serve other gods and bow down to them—then the heat of God’s anger will be against you, and it will shut up the heavens, and rain will not happen, and the land will not give its produce, and you will quickly perish from the good land that God is giving to you. (Deuteronomy 11:16-11:17)
yifteh (יִפְתֶּה) = will fool itself, will be tempted, will be naïve.
However, when someone succumbs to the temptation to serve other gods—either literal or figurative—drought, death, or exile do not necessarily follow.
Some commentary points out that although the ve-ahavta paragraph of the Shema addresses “you” in the singular, this second paragraph uses “you” in the plural. God’s covenant is with all the Israelites, collectively. The more conscientious members of the community are charged elsewhere in in the Torah with preventing idolatry and improving the behavior of the slackers.
Yet bad things still happen to whole groups of good people.
And whole groups of people who fool themselves into idolatry (such as the belief that getting rich is more important than loving your fellow as yourself) still have plenty to eat.
Jews who want to believe the promise and threat in the passage from this week’s Torah portion continue to find rationalizations. Sixty years ago some religious Jews blamed their own people’s lack of perfection for the Holocaust.
Environmentalists, extending the if-then statements in this week’s Torah portion to the whole human race, have pointed out that our wanton degradation of the world’s air, water, soil, flora, and fauna result in poisoned food, sickness, and rising sea levels, all of which can result in starvation, death, and exile. We can certainly argue that if society as a whole does not put the welfare of our planet first, then disasters will follow. And perhaps taking care of the earth is one way to love and serve God. But it is not the only way. What about all the commandments in the Torah? What about all the other acts of kindness and right behavior we should be doing?
I believe that the two if-then statements in this excerpt from the Torah portion Eikev do not reflect literal reality, and can only be considered poetic exaggerations. Yet I also believe that loving and serving the divine does have good consequences, and letting ourselves be fooled into worshiping harmful ideologies does have bad consequences.
So I am struck by the last sentence in the excerpt from Eikev that is used as the second paragraph of the Shema. After repeating the reminders in the first paragraph to always keep “these words” in mind, the second paragraph ends:
So that your days yirbu, and the days of your children, upon the land that God vowed to your forefathers, to give to them as the days of the heavens over the earth. (Deuteronomy 11:21)
yirbu (יִרְבּוּ) = will be many, will become numerous, will increase.
“Your” and “you” in this sentence are plural. So on a simple level, the sentence might mean “So that your people will live a long time in the land (Canaan) God promised to give your ancestors—as long as the sky is above the earth”. In other words, every individual must die, but as long as you all obey God, your people can live in Israel forever.
Maybe this promise was motivating when Deuteronomy was written (probably in the 7th century B.C.E.). But today, many Jews who choose not to emigrate to Israel need a different kind of promise.
In the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that “as the days of the heavens” means that days on earth would be like days of heaven. Following his lead, I would retranslate the sentence at the end of the excerpt this way:
“So that your days will increase in fullness and value, and so will the days of your children; and the potentials of your ancestors will be realized in you and your children; and every day on earth will be full of the divine.”
Not only is this a good reward for good behavior, but it actually works. If you keep your attention on loving and serving God—the inner divine voice, or the spirit of life, or all humanity—then your days really do improve. They may even become heavenly.
Tags: blame, Deuteronomy, genocide, revenge, shame, torah portion, va-etchanan
The Hebrew Bible is haunted by shame over how a large number of Israelite men betrayed their God and their laws when they worshipped Baal Pe-or through ritual sex. Shame over their own behavior drives the Israelites to commit atrocities before they finally accept responsibility and turn their shame into a life lesson.
I have led a blameless life by comparison, yet shame has haunted me, too. It took me years to forgive myself for betraying my best friend in first grade, caving in to peer pressure and saying she was “a big baby”. I did not repeat that particular shameful act, but I betrayed my own principles in other ways when I was clinging to my first husband, ignoring the shouts of my inner ethical voice. It took many more years, after my divorce, before I could trust myself again.
I imagine the world is teeming with people who walk around haunted by shame. What can we do about those recurrent memories of betraying ourselves, betraying our gods, and doing the wrong thing?
The Torah offers two different responses to the shame of Baal Pe-or. The Torah portion Mattot in the book of Numbers/Deuteronomy provides a negative example. (See my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.) This week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (“And I implored”) provides a more positive example.
Here is the original shameful deed of the Israelites concerning Baal Pe-or (“the god of the wide-open mouth”):
Israel settled among the acacias, and the people began liznot with the daughters of Moab. They [women of Moab and Midian] invited the people to the sacrificial-slaughter-feasts of their gods, and the people ate, and they bowed down to their gods. And Israel yoked itself to Baal Pe-or; and God became enraged against Israel. (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1-3)
liznot (לִזְנוֹת) = to have illicit intercourse; to engage in cult prostitution as a form of religious observance. (Some ancient Middle Eastern religions employed this method to stimulate the gods to bring fertility to the land.)
As the Torah portion Balak continues, God’s rage is expressed in a plague. God tells Moses to stop the plague by impaling all the Israelites who are ringleaders in liznot. Moses begins to make arrangements, but then an Israelite man and a Midianite woman go right inside God’s Tent of Meeting to have intercourse. Pinchas, son of Elazar the high priest, runs in and runs a spear through the couple. The plague is checked, with 24,000 dead. (See my earlier post, Balak: Carnal Appetites.)
Here God is punishing the Israelites. But 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 shifts from the Israelites to the Midianites. Yet the Midianites may have acted in good faith.
The land where people worship Baal-Peor is north of the Arnon River and east of the Jordan. Its residents are Moabite farmers and Midianite semi-nomads. But its king, when the Israelites reach the border, is an Emorite who recently conquered northern Moab. The Israelites ask King Sichon for permission to pass through his land on their way to Canaan. But the king refuses and attacks them. The Israelites win the battle, conquering his territory.
To the local residents, one foreign ruler might be the same as another. For all we know, the Moabites and Midianites living in the conquered territory are trying to be helpful, by teaching the Israelite men how to do the right religious rituals so that their local god will keep the land fertile. The original story in Balak (above) would support that interpretation.
But in the next two Torah portions, the God-character tells Moses that the Midianites are cunning and hostile. (The Moabites are forgotten.) Moses puts together an army of 12,000 armed men to attack the Midianites.
This reminds me of people today who feel ashamed of betraying their own principles in order to have fun with the local crowd—but instead of acknowledging their own guilt, they react by blaming others.
Moses’ army kills every Midianite man, including their five kings. The Israelites also kill the Petorite prophet Bilam, who somehow happens to be on the scene instead of at his home on the Euphrates.
And the Children of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their young children, and the plundered all their cattle and all their property and all their wealth. (Numbers 31:9)
Moses is furious, and says: You let every woman live? Hey, they were [the reason 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 assembly of God! (Numbers 31:15-16)
Then he orders them to kill all the women and the boys, exempting only the virgin girls from the genocide.
Once you turn shame into blame, it is hard to stop.
Moses and the God-character blame not only the Midianite women who taught the Israelite men liznot, but all the Midianite men, and even their infant sons. The Torah even manages to blame Bilam, who is neither a Midianite nor a Baal-worshiper.
In the Torah portion Balak, Bilam is a prophet from the east who accepts pay for blessing and cursing people, but speaks only the words that God—the God of the four-letter name, which is the God of Israel—puts in his mouth. The King of Moab hires him to curse the Israelites, but Bilam utters God’s blessings, and goes home without pay. He leaves well before any of the Israelites begin liznot for Baal Pe-or.
Now suddenly, in the Torah portion Mattot, Bilam is back among the Midianites of Pe-or. Moses even says that the Midianite women tempted the Israelite men “through the word of Bilam”, as if Bilam instigated the whole affair! In fact, none of the Israelites are aware of Bilam’s blessings earlier in the Torah; the only way Moses would know of the event is if God told him off-stage, so to speak.
Bilam is a non-Israelite who hears God’s voice and speaks for God just as if he were a “true” prophet, a prophet of Israel. But to whomever wrote down or redacted this section of the portion Mattot, a foreign prophet was unacceptable. Ergo, Bilam must have been guilty of more than just wanting money.
The Torah portion Mattot illustrates (perhaps unintentionally) how shame over your own behavior can lead to blaming others, and even to destroying them.
But there are other ways humans can deal with shame. In this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan, Moses is urging the Israelites to follow all of God’s decrees, and he gives this argument:
Your eyes saw what God did about Baal Pe-or; for God, your god, exterminated every man who went after Baal Pe-or from your midst. But you hadeveikim God, your god, are alive, all of you, today. (Deuteronomy 4:3-4)
hadeveikim (הַדְּבֵקִים) = who cling to, who stick with, who keep close to, who are attached to
Here Moses returns to the originally story, placing the blame on the Israelite men. God punished the guilty Israelites through the plague. Everyone who stuck to their principles and to God was not punished. This view is just, but not merciful. Shame is attached only to the actual sinners, but nobody gets a second chance.
In the book of Joshua, the Israelites who settled in the territory east of the Jordan do get a second chance. These tribes build an altar, and the Israelites on the west side, in Canaan proper, suspect them of apostasy. They are ready to declare war against their brothers, but first they send a delegation led by Pinchas, who is now the high priest. Pinchas asks the eastern tribes:
Is the sin of Pe-or a small thing to us? We have not purified ourselves from it to this day, and it will be the stumbling-stone among the assembly of God. And you, you would turn away today from following God! (Joshua 22:17-18)
The tribes east of the Jordan explain that they have no intention of turning away from God, and volunteer to get rid of their altar. By bringing up the shame of Baal Pe-or worship, Pinchas not only acknowledges the Israelites’ past guilt, but gives the eastern tribes a chance to change course.
May all of us human beings learn to accept responsibility for our own transgressions, instead of blaming others. May we admit it when we are ashamed of their own behavior. And may we give both ourselves and our supposed enemies a chance to do the right thing next time.