Passover: Children of Four Worlds

April 13, 2014 at 10:19 am | Posted in Passover/Pesach | 2 Comments
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This week we pause in the yearly cycle of Torah readings to celebrate Passover/Pesach. The Passover ritual celebrates the exodus from Egypt—but not only by telling the story. The seder (“order” or agenda) that has evolved over that last 2,000 years has 13 sections of ritual plus dinner, punctuated by blessing four cups of wine.

To keep track of it all, Jews have a haggadah (“the telling”—plural haggadot), a book to work through during the long evening of ritual. But the old joke applies that wherever you have two Jews you have three opinions, so we keep writing new haggadot, retaining the basic elements but explaining them in new ways.

Some haggadot associate the four cups of wine with the four “worlds” of kabbalah, so that as we bless each cup we ascend one stage closer to God.

Assiyah (עֲשִׂיָה) = action. (From the verb asah = make, do. Assiyah is the physical world we operate in.)

Yetzirah (יְצִירָה) = formation. (From the verb yatzar = form, shape. Yetzirah includes intuitions, dreams, myth, and metaphor. Although the word yetzirah does not mean emotion, it is often associated with emotion because it is non-rational.)

Beriah (בְּרִיאָה) = creation. (From the verb bara = create. Beriah includes inventing and designing in the stage of abstract ideas.)

Atzilut (אֲצִילוּת) = emanation. (Probably from the preposition eitzel = beside, next to. The world of Atzilut is undifferentiated divine spirit.)

Human beings operate in the world of assiyah, and approach awareness of God by rising up through yetzirah and beriah toward atzilut. This is the order in which we drink the four cups of wine on Passover. The fourth cup, representing atzilut, comes at the end of the evening, when we are exhausted and uninhibited.

During the first part of the seder (covered by the first two ritual cups of wine) we build up to the story of the exodus with songs and stories based on the number four, including “the four questions” about why this night is different from all other nights, and the description of four types of children (traditionally “the four sons”).

The four children are based on four passages in the Torah which tell parents what to say when their children express curiosity about Passover:

When your son will ask you in the future, saying: What are the rules and the decrees and the laws that God, our god, commanded you? Then you shall say to your son: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:20-21)

A traditional haggadah labels this son “the wise son” because he wants to know all the rules.

And it will happen that your son says to you: What is this service to you? Then you shall say: It is an animal-offering to God, because He pasach over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, by dealing a blow to Egypt but rescuing our houses. (Exodus/Shemot 12:26)

pasach (פָּסַח) = limped, skipped. (One possible meaning of the word Pesach is “skip over”.)

Tradition labels this son “the wicked son” on the grounds that he seems uninterested in what Passover might mean to himself.

And it will happen that your son asks you, in the future, saying: What is this? Then you shall say to him: With a strong hand God brought us out from Egypt, from the house of slavery. (Exodus 13:14)

Tradition labels this son “the simple son” because his question is elementary.

The Torah has no fourth question from a son about Passover, so the early rabbis found a fourth question implied in the following verse:

And you shall tell your son that day, saying: Because God did this for me when I went out from Egypt. (Exodus 13:8)

Tradition labels this son “the son who does not know how to ask”.

In an earlier post, I suggested that the four sons could correspond to the four sons of Aaron in the Torah. (See Shemini: Four Sons.)

But we can also look at these four children in terms of the four worlds of kabbalah. Here is the “Four Children” section in the haggadah I wrote this year:


Children of the Four Worlds

 Assiyah:  One kind of child (the so-called “simple son”) asks:  “Mah zot?  What is that?”  This is the child of Assiyah, the world of doing.  Assiyah people are most interested in practical action, the physical senses, and tangible things.

Yetzirah:  Another child (the so-called “wicked son”) asks:  “What does this ritual mean to you?”  This is the child of Yetzirah,the world of intuition, dreams, and metaphors.  Yetzirah people are most interested in personal symbolic meanings. They are introspective and find more truth in the arts than in the sciences.

Beriah:  A third child (the so-called “wise son”) asks:  “What is the meaning of the statutes, laws, and rules which our God has commanded?”  This is the child of Beriah, the world of the intellect.  Beriah people love abstract thinking.

Atzilut:  The fourth kind of child (the so-called “son who does not know how to ask”) is silent.  This is the child of Atzilut, the world of divine emanation, where all forms are aspects of God.  Atzilut people seek a life of mystery, ecstasy, and divine union.

Though every human has a particular strength, all four of these worlds are aspects of being fully human. We fail if we reject one of the worlds and try to exclude it from our lives.

Pause for a few moments and consider silently:  Am I spending too much of my energy in one of the worlds—Assiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, or Atzilut?  Am I stuck in that world, that approach to life, as if it were an Egypt? Do I need to liberate myself so I can receive the blessings of a different world?


Acharey Mot: Private Parts

April 9, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot | 1 Comment
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No man shall approach any flesh of his own flesh “to uncover nakedness”; I am God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:6).

The phrase commonly translated as “uncover nakedness” is legillot ervah in the Hebrew.

legillot (לְגִלּותֹ) = expose, uncover, reveal. (Other forms of this verb mean “to expose oneself”, and “to be taken into captivity and exile”.)

ervah (עֶרְוָה) = nakedness of the genital area

When Adam and Eve discover they are naked in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, the Torah uses the word arumim (עֲרוּמִּים) = naked; smooth; clever. The word ervah first appears in the Torah after the Flood, when Noah gets drunk and exposes himself inside his tent. One of his sons, Cham, sees his ervah, and gets cursed.

In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God instructs Moses about underwear for the priests:

And you shall make them linen underpants to cover the flesh of their ervah; from the waist to the upper thighs they shall be. (Exodus 28:42)

In this week’s Torah portion, Acharey Mot (“After the death”), the statement “No man shall approach any flesh of hisown flesh legillot ervahis followed in Leviticus 18:7-18 by a list of the females whose ervah a man may not uncover: his mother, his father’s (other) wife, his sister or half-sister, his granddaughter, his stepsister, his father’s sister, his mother’s sister, his father’s brother’s wife, his son’s wife, his brother’s wife; his own sex partner’s daughter or granddaughter; or his partner’s sister during his partner’s lifetime. (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, pointed out that the prohibition against sex with both a woman and her daughter bans a man from sex with his own daughter.)

Many of the relationships on this list would count as incest in western society today. Others would be considered odd, but not incestuous; a single man in our society is free to marry his adult step-daughter, or the wife of any blood relative after that relative is dead or divorced. The Torah is not concerned about sex with relatives of the same “flesh” in the genetic sense.

In ancient Israel, a typical household consisted of about twenty family members and their slaves living around a common courtyard. One man was the head of the household, but other members included not only his wives and children, but also female and underage relatives of his wives, his sons’ wives and children, and any other relatives who had nowhere else to live.

Medieval commentary agreed that without strict rules about physical intimacy in such a large household, sexual desires would lead to bad outcomes. 14th-century Rabbi Yosef Ibn Kaspi worried about violence between men, as they quarreled jealously over ownership of the women in their household. But 12th-century Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (called Maimonides or Rambam) pointed out that since any man in a household could have access to any of the women, the incest rules protect women (and girls) from encroachment.

This points to a more universal interpretation. One could legitimately translate the opening line of the list this way:

No one shall approach any flesh of hisown flesh to uncover private parts; I am God. (Leviticus 18:6).

The English idiom “private parts”, like the Hebrew word ervah, is a euphemism for the genital area. But “private” also means personal, restricted to the use of a particular individual, and free from unauthorized intrusion. This week’s Torah portion makes it clear that only a woman’s own husband is authorized to uncover her private parts; all other men, even if they live in the same compound, must not intrude.

The laws in Leviticus are certainly different for men than for women. They permit a man to uncover the ervah of multiple wives and concubines, as long as none of them are on the forbidden list; while a woman belongs to only one man (unless she is a prostitute).

On the other hand, these laws grant every Israelite woman and girl a physical right to privacy that no one but her husband is allowed to violate.

I think this principle can include people of all genders, and ban all types of personal encroachments, psychological as well as physical. I feel violated when someone yells or hisses insults at me. I even feel violated when someone begins by offering advice, and then pushes too far, too long, and will not take my “no, thank you” for an answer. I belong to a community in which most members are dedicated to kindness, but sometimes forget that respecting personal boundaries is also an important virtue.

There is more than one way to violate a person’s private parts. May we all come to respect each other as individuals with the right to choose for ourselves what to uncover, and what to keep private.


Metzora & 2 Kings: Insiders and Outsiders

April 1, 2014 at 12:11 am | Posted in Haftarot (Prophets), Metzora | Leave a comment
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Last week’s haftarah (the reading from the Prophets that accompanies the week’s Torah portion) tells the story of Na-aman, an Aramean general whose skin disease, tzara-at, disappears when he gives up his arrogance to follow the advice of the prophet Elisha. (See my post Tazria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance.)

Although Aram and Israel are at peace when Na-aman comes to Elisha for a cure, hostilities resume later in the second book of Kings. Eventually an Aramean army besieges Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Trapped inside the city walls, the Israelites begin to run out of food. The price of food skyrockets, and two women eat a child.

Meanwhile, four men with tzara-at are living in exile outside the city walls. The Torah says that tzara-at, unlike all other skin diseases, is an affliction caused by the touch of God. The afflicted must live alone, outside the camp or town, until God removes the disease and a priest declares them ritually pure.

God may also afflict houses with tzara-at, according to this week’s Torah portion, Metzora (“Someone with tzara-at”). No one may live in a house with tzara-at in the walls.

Why does God touch people and houses with tzara-at? The book of Leviticus/Vayikra does not say, but in the Babylonian Talmud (Arachin 16a), the rabbis say tzara-at is caused by slander, and then list six other causes: bloodshed, swearing falsely, incest, arrogance, robbery, and envy. All of these bad deeds or bad attitudes not only sin against God, but also poison one’s relationships with other people. No wonder the Torah requires a metzora to stay away from the community.

In this week’s haftarah, the four men with tzara-at who live just outside the besieged city of Samaria are also starving. They come to the city gate, but they receive neither food nor a check-up from a priest to see whether they have healed and can come back inside. The haftarah picks up the story as they consider their options.

Four men were metzora-im at the entrance of the gate, and each one said to his neighbor: Why are we sitting here until we die? If we say “Let’s come into the city”, and the famine is in the city, then we will die there. But if we sit here, then we will die. So now, let’s go and surrender ourselves to the camp of Aram. If they let us live, we live; and if they put us to death, then we die. (2 Kings 7:3-4)

metzora-im (מְצֹרָעִים) = the plural of metzora  (מְצֹרָע) = someone afflicted with tzara-at.

In other words, the four men decide to defect to the Arameans on the chance that they will survive. Although most commentary criticizes the metzora-im for their disloyalty to Israel, I think they are far more ethical and less disloyal than the two Samarian women inside the city who resort to cannibalism. After all, the men do not even consider killing any Israelites in order to eat them.

So they got up in the twilight to come to the Aramaean camp. They came up to the edge of the Aramaean camp, and hey! Nobody was there! (2 Kings 7:5)

God had made the Aramean soldiers hear the sounds of an approaching army, complete with chariots and horses. Assuming that the king of Israel had hired mercenary forces, the Arameans had fled for their lives, leaving behind their horses, donkeys, and tents.

The four would-be defectors enter a tent, eat and drink their fill, then take the silver, gold, and clothing and hide it. After they have looted a second tent, it occurs to all four of them that they could rescue the starving Israelites in the city.

Then they said, each one to his neighbor: We are not doing right. Today is a day of good news, and we are delaying it. If we delay until the light of morning, we will be found guilty. So now, let’s go, and we will come to the house of the king and tell it. (2 Kings 7:9)

The men have two motivations for reporting that the enemy has fled: because it is the right thing to do, and because they do not want to be found guilty if they delay until someone on the city wall can see that the Aramean camp is deserted.

The gatekeepers of the city do not let in the metzora-im. Nevertheless, they shout out the good news, and the gatekeepers pass it on to the king’s house inside. Then the city of Samaria empties as everyone rushes through the gate to loot the deserted Aramean camp.

There is no indication of what the four men did that led God to punish them with tzara-at in the first place. By the time they appear in the haftarah, they seem fairly decent; they do not consider either using violence against anyone to get food, or taking revenge against the city that excluded them. Nor do they exhibit any of the seven causes of tzara-at listed in the Talmud, unless their looting of abandoned Aramean tents counts as robbery, a word used to mean taking forcible possession.

But what about the cannibalism that occurs inside the city just before the haftarah begins? One Samarian woman complains to the king of Israel:

That woman said to me: Give your son and we will eat him today; and my son we will eat tomorrow. And we cooked my son and we ate him. Then I said to her the next day: Give your son and we will eat him. But she hid her son! (2 Kings 6:28-29)

These two women commit five of the seven anti-social deeds on the list:

Slander: The actual idiom in the Talmud is lashon hara = the evil tongue. The woman who complains to the king is guilty of lashon hara because she points out the other woman and defames her.

Bloodshed: Obviously both women are guilty of murder.

Swearing falsely: The first woman complains that the second woman made a false vow when she promised they would eat her son the next day.

Incest: The actual idiom in the Talmud is “exposing the nakedness”. Although incest does not technically occur in the story, the first woman does expose her son’s vulnerability and violate his body.

Arrogance: Both women assume their lives are more valuable than the child’s life.

I would argue that the women inside the city deserve tzara-at more than the men outside the walls. When everyone rushes out of the city to loot the Aramean camp, it is echoes the requirement in the Torah portion Metzora that a house with tzara-at must be emptied and abandoned until its walls become pure again.

I know that I, like most human beings, feel as if some people are too awful to tolerate, and I want to exclude them from my community or my in-group—at least until they show signs of overcoming their anti-social traits. No doubt sometimes my diagnosis is correct. But I must remember that sometimes my in-group might be more at fault than the person I want to exclude. The affliction might be inside my own walls.

May we all keep the gates of our souls open to new developments, and close our gates only when we really are besieged.

Tazria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance

March 24, 2014 at 5:31 pm | Posted in Haftarot (Prophets), Tazria | 1 Comment
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There is no leprosy in the Torah. The disease that used to be translated as “leprosy”, tzara-at, is not Hansen’s Disease, but a skin condition characterized by patches of dead-white skin that look lower than the healthy skin around them. This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, gives the priests detailed instructions on identifying tzara-at, because they must declare anyone who exhibits the disease tamei, ritually impure.

Most reasons for being tamei, such as sex, menstruation, contact with a dead body, or having recently given birth (see my earlier post, Tazria: Babies Versus Religion), merely exclude the person from entering the sanctuary courtyard to worship God (until their period of being tamei is over). But people who are impure because of tzara-at are excluded not just from the place of worship, but from the whole community.

And the one who is tzarua, who has the nega: his clothes shall be torn and his hair shall hang loose, and he shall cover his lips and he shall call out ‘Tamei! Tamei!’ As long as touch [of the disease] is on him, he shall be tamei. He is tamei, so he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside of the camp. (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:45-46)

tzarua (צָרַוּע) = suffering from the skin disease tzara-at.

nega (נֶגַע) =  an affliction caused by the touch of God.

tamei (טָמֵא) = ritually impure; unclean, defiled, contaminated.

The passage above might sound like a quarantine to prevent contagion, but no other diseases are quarantined in the Torah. Unlike all other skin diseases, tzara-at is classified as a nega; God touched (naga) the person with the affliction. The one who is tzarua remains tamei until God removes the affliction and the skin becomes healthy.

Why does God touch people with tzara-at? The book of Leviticus does not say, but in the Babylonian Talmud (Arachin 16a), the rabbis list seven causes: slander, bloodshed, swearing falsely, incest, arrogance, robbery, and envy. Since all of these bad deeds or attitudes poison or violate relationships with other people, it makes sense that the Torah requires someone with tzara-at to live alone, outside the camp of the community.

Arrogance might seem like the least of the seven causes, yet it prevents you from empathizing with or even respecting others, and therefore alienates other people. I believe the haftarah reading that goes with this week’s Torah portion addresses the role of arrogance in the disease of tzara-at. The haftarah is a story from the second book of Kings about an Aramean general named Na-aman who has tzara-at. One of his household slaves mentions the miraculous cures of the Israelite prophet Elisha, and Na-aman arranges a letter of introduction. He travels to Elisha’s house with a supply of silver, gold, and clothing as payment for a cure.

So Na-aman came with his horses and his chariots, and he stood at the door of the house of Elisha. Then Elisha sent a messenger out to him, to say to him: You must bathe seven times in the Jordan, and it will make your flesh restored and ritually-pure. (2 Kings 5:9-10)

Na-aman (נַעֲמָן) =pleasant one, nice person, mensch.

Na-aman has already proved himself humble in some ways: despite his high rank, he takes advice from a slave, and he goes to a foreign country to see Elisha instead of ordering the prophet to come to him. Elisha tests Na-aman’s pride by sending a servant to give him instructions instead of coming to meet him in person, and by prescribing a cure that is simple and possibly demeaning. At first, Na-aman does not pass the test.

But Na-aman became angry, and he walked away, and he said: Hey, I said to myself that he would surely go out and stand and invoke the name of God, his god, and wave his hand toward the place, and that would exterminate the tzara-at.  Aren’t the Amnah and the Parpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Wouldn’t I become pure if I bathed in them? Then he turned around and walked away hotly. (2 Kings 5:11-12)

Na-aman can respect a miracle-working prophet. But he expects the prophet to grant him the dignity of a personal cure, not a message by proxy. He also disdains the message because he believes his own country of Aram is superior to Israel.

Then his servants came near and spoke to him, and they said: My father, if the prophet spoke to you about doing a great deed, isn’t it true that you would do it? Then how much more so when he said to you: Bathe and be pure. So he went down and he dipped in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had spoken. And his flesh was restored, like the flesh of a little boy, and he was ritually-pure. (2 Kings 5:13-14)

Na-aman must swallow his pride in order to take advice from his subordinates, and bathe in an inferior river. When he becomes humble about both his status and the status of his country, he is cured.

Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his troop, and he came and stood before him. He said: Here, please, I know that there are no gods on all the earth except in Israel. So now please take a gift of blessing from your servant. (2 Kings 5:15)

This time, Na-aman gets to stand in front of Elisha, and the prophet speaks to him in person. But when Na-aman offers his gift of silver, gold, and clothing, Elisha refuses it. I think Na-aman is impressed by Elisha’s humble attitude about cures that come from God.

He also recognizes that the god of Elisha and Israel is greater than Rimmon, the god of Aram. So he decides to convert, and worship only the god of Israel, the land he formerly disdained. Na-aman asks for some dirt to take home and use to make an altar for the god of Israel. Yet he does not plan to proudly isolate himself from his own community; he begs forgiveness in advance for continuing to support his king’s arm when his king goes into the temple of Rimmon.

Today there is no tzara-at, but the human failing of arrogance still abounds. May we all become humble enough to realize when we are acting arrogantly, and to apologize and change our ways. May we all learn to becomes mensches and nice guys, like Na-aman.

Shemini & 2 Samuel: Separating Holiness

March 16, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Posted in Haftarot (Prophets), Shemini | Leave a comment
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Aaron, who becomes the high priest on the eighth day of his ordination, hears directly from God in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (Eighth). God tells him that priests must not drink on duty, so they can perform two important jobs:

Lehavdil between hakodesh and the ordinary, and between the ritually-impure and the ritually-pure.  And to teach the children of Israel all the decrees that God spoke to them through Moses. (Leviticus 10:10-11)

lehavdil (לְהַבְדֹּיל) = to make a distinction, to separate, to segregate, to distinguish

hakodesh (הַקֹּדֶשׁ) = the holy, the sacred; everything that is dedicated to God.

In the Hebrew Bible, objects, places, and days can all be holy, if they are reserved for serving God.

The holiest object is the ark, which holds two stone tablets that God wrote on at the top of Mount Sinai. When the ark is inside the innermost chamber of the sanctuary, the holy of holies, God’s presence manifests in the empty space right above its lid. No one but Moses and the high priest may see the ark when it is inside the holy of holies.

According to the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, when the ark is transported to a new location, it is draped with three layers of coverings to protect people from seeing it. No one may touch it except for the priests carrying it by its poles. It is so holy that touching or seeing it would be almost like touching or seeing God.

The haftarah reading for this week’s Torah portion is a selection from the second book of Samuel which describes how the ark is transported to Jerusalem from the house of Avinadav, near the Philistine border. The Philistines had captured the ark in battle, then sent it back across the border. A descendant of Avinadav named Elazar was anointed as a priest to take care of the ark. By the time King David arrives, more than 40 years later, the men of the house of Avinadav are Achio and Uzza.

They mounted the ark of God on a new cart, and they carried it away from the house of Avinadav, which was on the hill. Uzza and Achio, sons of Avinadav, were guiding the new cart. (2 Samuel 6:3)

Achio walks in front of the ox-cart, and Uzza has the honor of walking beside the ark. The procession includes King David and thousands of Israelites dancing to the sound of musical instruments. Then the oxen pulling the cart stumble.

They came as far as the threshing-place of Nakhon; then Uzza reached out to the ark of God, and he grabbed at it, because the cattle let [the cart] go off by itself. And God’s anger flared up against Uzza, and struck him down there, over the heedlessness. And he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:6-7)

While Uzza is accompanying the ark, he is serving as a priest, who must make a distinction between the holy and the ordinary. His impulsive action, however well-meant, fails to distinguish between the perilously holy ark and an ordinary ox-cart load.

King David sends the ark to a nearby house, and tries a second procession to Jerusalem three months later.

David was whirling around with all his might before God; and David had belted on a linen efod. (2 Samuel 6:14)

efod (אֵפוֹד) = a tunic or cuirass with the front and back tied together, worn by the high priest as part of his ritual costume.

David is dancing in front of the ark, but the ark is so holy that the Torah says he is dancing before God. His whirling around with all his might reminds me of the prophets who speak in ecstasy in Exodus and the two books of Samuel. Although David is wearing a priest’s efod, he acts more like a prophet filled with the spirit of God—until the ark has been placed inside the tent in Jerusalem.

Then King David soberly plays the role of high priest, performing all the rituals without a hitch.

They brought the ark of God and set it up in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David brought up rising-offerings before God, and the wholeness-offerings. And when David finished bringing up the rising-offerings and the wholeness offerings, then he blessed the people in the name of the God of Armies. (2 Samuel 6:17-18)

David treats the ark as holy in two ways: first as a prophet filled with the spirit of God, second as a high priest conducting ritual. Both responses to holiness are acceptable in the bible, at the appropriate time and place.

When King David goes home, one of his wives criticizes him for exposing his private parts while dancing. She is concerned about what people will think of him. But what occurs to me is that David is wearing the priest’s efod without underpants. The books of Exodus and Leviticus require priests to wear linen underpants while they are on duty, so they will not be exposed.

This seems like one clear failure to distinguish the holy from the ordinary. But God overlooks a few of David’s infractions earlier in the bible, and God overlooks this one as well.

The ark was lost with the fall of the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. The innermost chamber of the second temple was empty, but it was still called the holy of holies, and treated with awe and reverence. The high priest still entered it only once a year, on Yom Kippur.

Since the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., Jews have made do with objects and places of lesser holiness. Instead of an ark, we have Torah scrolls, which are unrolled for everyone to see. Instead of a sanctuary with a holy of holies, we have gravesites and the broken temple wall in Jerusalem.

The most holy things left for us are holy days: feast and fast days every year, and Shabbat every week. On Saturday nights, we make a havdallah, a separation, between the holy day of Shabbat that has ended and the ordinary days of the week to come. The havdallah blessing concludes with some of the words in God’s instructions to Aaron:

Blessed are you, God, hamavdil between hakodesh and the ordinary.

Hamavdil means “the one who makes a distinction”, and hakodesh means “the holy”. The world God created includes a distinction between the holy and the ordinary, which we must discern and act upon.

I think treating a day as holy is harder than treating an object or a place as holy. The sun sets and rises on Shabbat the way it does on any other day; the only difference is what we do. Even if we try to dedicate every moment of Shabbat to serving God, we still have to do some things in the realm of the ordinary.

Maybe we can be like King David, and serve God with enough enthusiasm to make up for serving God imperfectly.

Still, one question remains in our modern age:  What counts as serving God?

Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2

March 9, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Making a fire-offering in front of the Israelite sanctuary was nothing like lighting a candle at a pretty home altar. For every type of fire-offering except the grain-based minchah, according to the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, the donor must bring an animal, lay hands on its head, then watch the priests slaughter and butcher it, sprinkle the blood, and burn all or part of it on the communal altar to generate smoke for God’s pleasure.

Killing and burning animals may have been spiritually moving to the ancient Israelites, but today we can apply their categories of offerings to a more ethical set of procedures. Last week I suggested new meanings for fire-offerings in general, as well as for the first kind of fire-offering in Leviticus, the olah or rising-offering. (See last week’s post, Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1.)

In the order of their appearance in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, the other five types of fire-offerings are:

2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering; a gift to a king as a sign of homage or respect. (Minchah offerings are made out of grain.)

A person who offers a minchah for God, he shall offer fine flour, and he shall pour oil over it and place frankincense upon it …and the priest shall make a memorial portion go up in smoke on the altar, a fire-offering of soothing fragrance for God. (Leviticus 2:1-2)

When I burn part of my toast, it only sets off the smoke alarm. But before I eat bread, or any other food, I say a blessing to give thanks for it. The blessing is my gift of allegiance to the source of all life.

3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering. (From the same root as shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = complete, safe and sound, at peace.)

If he offers it as thanks … then he shall offer from each one, out of the whole offering, a gift to God; it shall belong to the priest who sprinkles the blood of the shelamim. And if the slaughtered animal of his offering is for a pledge or a donation … (Leviticus 7:12-16)

The animals and grain products in the shelamim were divided into three portions: one to be turned into smoke for God, one for the priest to eat, and one for the donor and his guests to eat in God’s presence.

When we give thanks today, we often thank the people who helped us (even though they did not sprinkle blood). We add a tangible gift or a donation for more generous thanks. And every time we make a donation, we add to the world’s supply of generosity—which brings more wholeness and holiness into the world.

4) chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering. (From the root chata (חָטָא) = miss the mark, commit an offense against God; make amends for doing wrong.)

If one person from among the people of the land should chata unintentionally, by doing one of the commandments of God that should not be done, and he incurs guilt—if the offense that he committed becomes known to him, then he shall bring his offering … and the priest shall make reconciliation for him and he shall be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:27-31)

What can we do today when we realize, after the fact, that we did something wrong? When I inadvertently violate a practice I have set for myself (for example, when I bite into what I thought was a vegetarian omelet and discover bacon in my mouth), I rectify the error to the extent that I can, and say a short prayer for discernment. For me, that is sufficient reconciliation with the divine inside me.

But when I realize I did something that hurt another person, I have to do something harder in order to reconcile both my conscience and the person I wronged.  I have to find a calm time to talk with the person, then say what I think I did wrong and apologize. Next I give the other person a chance to say how the offense looked to them. If I need to explain anything, I try to do it humbly, without defending my ego. Then I ask what I can do to make up for what I did. If the other person says “nothing”, but still seems hurt, I make a suggestion. When we have agreed on reparations, I perform them. Only then can I be forgiven, both by the other person and by myself.

5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering. (From the root asham (אָשַׁם) = incur guilt.)

If a person offends and betrays God’s trust and lies to his fellow about a pledge, or a loan, or a theft, or fraud; or he finds a lost item and lies about it, and he swears falsely … he shall return the stolen item that he stole or the fraud that he committed or the pledge that was left with him or the lost item he found … and he shall pay back the principal and add a fifth … And he shall bring his asham to God … And the priest shall make reconciliation for him before God, and he shall be forgiven for anything that he does to become guilty. (Leviticus 5:21-26)

Today we have many reasons to pass a guilty verdict on ourselves, including the reasons listed above. The Torah says that when we become guilty, in order to be forgiven we must make reparations to the person we have wronged, and also bring an asham, a guilt-offering, to God.

I think we need an updated version of the asham in order to forgive ourselves. When you have made reparations, and you still feel guilty, what ritual can you perform to clear yourself? For some people, the answer is to give a large donation to charity, in money or labor. For others, the answer might be to conduct a ritual that includes washing with water and saying prayers borrowed from the Yom Kippur repentance liturgy.

6) milu-im (מִלֻּאִים) = ordination-offering. (From the root mala (מָלַא) = fill, fulfill.  Filling someone’s hands meant ordaining someone as a priest.)

Then [Moses] offered the second ram, the ram of milu-im, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on the head of the ram. (Leviticus 8:22)

(For more details about the ordination of the first priests, see my earlier posts: Tzav: Horns, Ears, Thumbs, and Toes and Tzav: Seven Days of Filling Up.) ***

The milu-im appears to apply only to people ordained as clergy. But if our goal is to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6), then we need to give ordination-offerings whenever our hands are filled up—whenever we receive authority to act in the public sphere.

What can we give today in return for this authority? Humble service, regular prayers that we might be worthy, and the grace to step down again at the right time.

When the ancient Israelites wanted to give God fire-offerings, offerings of the heart, they could come to the altar and follow the established rituals. They knew what to do, and probably the death, blood, and smoke made the rituals more impressive for them.

Today we have to think harder about our practices. Yet we can still give six kinds of offerings to the divine, with the fire of our hearts. We can rise higher (olah), give allegiance (minchah), cultivate wholeness through thanks and generosity (shelamim), repair mistakes (chataat), undo guilt (asham), and turn our positions of authority into holy ordinations (milu-im).

Let’s keep on giving our own offerings!  And may the whole world someday become a holy nation.

Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1

March 2, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Posted in Tzav, Vayikra | 1 Comment
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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.

Pekudei & 1 Kings: A Throne for the Divine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is God present there?

Vayakheil and Ki Tissa: How to Be a Holy Artist

February 17, 2014 at 9:39 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Vayakheil | Leave a comment
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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.

Ki Tissa: Fighting or Singing?

February 9, 2014 at 9:02 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa | 1 Comment
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After God’s revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, the people repeatedly promise to do everything God says. Then Moses and Aaron lead the elders halfway up the mountain, where they have a vision of God’s feet. (See my earlier post, Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.)

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.

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