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.
Tags: Deuteronomy, Devarim, giants in Torah, torah portion
The first time the Israelites reach the border of Canaan, they refuse to cross because they are afraid of giants. The second time, they delay crossing the border because of a giant.
The first time, the Israelites come from Mount Sinai directly to the southern border of the land God promised to give them. In the Torah portion Shelach-Lekha in Numbers/Bemidbar, Moses sends scouts into Canaan. The scouts return saying the land is full of giants.
And all the people that we saw in it were men of unusual size. There we saw the Nefilim—children of Anak from the Nefilim—and we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were in their eyes! (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:32-33)
Nefilim (נְפִילִים) = “fallen ones”, giants; offspring of “the gods” and human women before the Flood.
Anak = founder of the Anakim (עֲנָקִים) = “necklace people”, giants.
There are three groups of people in the Torah who are tall enough to be considered giants: the Nefilim, the Anakim, and the Refa-im. The passage above confirms that the Nefilim and Anakim are giants.
At the southern border of Canaan, the Israelites refuse to go into a promised land that is full of giants. God declares they must wait until 40 years have passed since the exodus from Egypt, and all the men of that generation have died (except for Joshua, and Caleb, the two scouts in favor of going).
In the 39th year, in the Torah portion Chukkat in Numbers, Moses leads the Israelites around the kingdoms of Edom and Moab, and they camp on the Arnon River. Now all that lies between them and the Jordan River, the eastern border of Canaan, is the kingdom of Cheshbon.
Moses asks Sichon, king of Cheshbon, for permission to pass through his land on the king’s highway. Sichon not only refuses, but calls up his army and goes to battle. The Israelites win, and take over Cheshbon.
Then, instead of heading straight for the Jordan River, they take a long detour to the north, all the way to Edre-ii.
Then they turned their faces and they went up the Bashan road; and Og, king of the Bashan, went out to come against them to do battle, he and all his people, at Edre-ii. And God said to Moses: Do not be afraid of him, because into your hand I have given him, and all his people, and all his land; and you shall do to him as you did to Sichon, king of the Emori, who was living in Cheshbon. So they struck him down, and his sons and all his people, until there were no survivors left, and they took possession of his land. Then the Children of Israel pulled out, and they pitched camp on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:33- 22:1)
Og (עוֹג) = a proper name. (In Biblical Hebrew, the closest word is oog (עוּג) = bake a cake. In Phoenician, og = a supernatural being who attacks grave-desecrators.)
Why do the Israelites make this gratuitous detour to conquer an extra country—a country that is not even part of the “promised land” of Canaan?
According to most traditional commentary, King Og would have come south and attacked the Israelites anyway, as soon as they conquered Cheshbon. Some commentators have claimed that Og and Sichon were allies, others that they were both hired by the Canaanites to guard the Jordan River against invaders from the east. In the Talmud, Niddah 61a says Og and Sichon were brother giants who escaped the Flood in Noah’s day. (According to one old story, baby Sichon was a stowaway in the ark, and Og rode on the roof.)
Yet when the Israelites head up the Bashan road, they do not meet Og and his army until they get all the way to the fortress of Edre-ii, King Og’s second capital. Therefore, according to the Torah itself, Og is not on his way to attack the Israelites in Cheshbon. The Israelites’ detour to the Bashan is unnecessary.
So why do they do it—with Moses’ cooperation, and God’s consent and reassurance?
When Moses retells the story in this week’s Torah portion, Devarim (“Words”), his account begins the same way as in Numbers. But then he gives us new information about King Og.
For only Og, king of the Bashan, remained from the rest of the Refa-im. Hey! His bedstead was a bedstead of iron! Is it not in Rabbah of the Ammonim? Nine cubits is its length, and four cubits its width, according to the cubit of a man. (Deuteronomy 3:11)
Refa-im (רְפָאִים) = an ancient people of huge size; the dead.
A bed that size indicates that Og is about ten to twelve feet tall (about 300 to 370 cm)—twice as tall as an ordinary man. No wonder God tells Moses not to be afraid!
After the Nefilim and the Anakim, the third group of extra-large people in the Torah is the Refa-im. We know the Refa-im are giants not only because Og is a Refa-i, but also because of another aside in this week’s Torah portion. Moses remembers that God told him not to provoke the Ammonites on the way to the Jordan, since God reserved their land for the descendants of Lot’s son Ammon. Then Moses adds that Ammon
…is also considered the land of Refa-im; Refa-im used to live there previously … a great people, and numerous and tall as the Anakim. God exterminated them before [the Ammonim], and displaced them, so they live in their place instead. (2:10-11)
This explanation ties together the two meanings of refa-im. The refa-im are giants; and they are also extinct, by the time of Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy; the Israelites kill the last Refa-ii, King Og. The refa-im are the dead.
When the scouts reported that Canaan was full of gigantic Anakim, the Israelite men of the older generation are afraid to cross the southern border of Canaan. Now a new generation is preparing to enter Canaan across a different border, the Jordan River at the eastern edge of Canaan. These young men need to prove to themselves that unlike their fathers, they are not afraid of giants.
Fortunately, from their point of view, there is a giant ruling the country just north of Cheshbon. The chance to attack King Og is irresistible.
Many of us today are haunted by giants from the past. When Jews say “Never again”, we are thinking of Nazi giants. Individuals also remember feeling like grasshoppers in the face of those who used to have power over them: an abusive parent, a menacing teacher, the draft board, “the system”. It takes many years for us to grow and develop our own power.
Eventually, we may believe we are strong enough and brave enough to prevent anyone from seizing power over us. But our memories still haunt us. How can we be sure we are now safe from giants?
I have even caught myself wishing a giant would attack me, just so I could prove to myself that I can stand up to it!
Some of us might be tempted to attack potential giants who are minding their own business—just to prove we have to courage to do it. It takes even greater strength to refrain, and not turn onto the Bashan road.
I pray that everyone may find not only the strength to stand up to giants, but also the greater strength to refrain from provoking them. May we wait for an actual threat before acting. And may we use our newfound power and courage with wisdom and compassion, so we do not turn anyone into a grasshopper.
Tags: Canaan, holy place, religion, torah portion
The Torah does not name the pharaoh in its story about the exodus from Egypt. But some scholars guess the story is set in the 13th century B.C.E., during the reign of Rameses II. At that time the land of Canaan was a remote province of the Egyptian empire. Canaanite vassals ruled individual villages and their surrounding regions, but they reported to the Egyptian government in the provincial capital, Gaza. Egyptian garrisons were scattered around the province.
The two biggest powers then were the Egyptians and the Hittites. The capital of Egypt was in the Nile delta; the capital of Hatti was in present-day Turkey. Naturally the two empires fought over the land in between, until their kings, Rameses II and Hattusili III, made a peace treaty circa 1260 B.C.E. that froze the border. A long period of peace followed—as far as the Egyptians and Hittites were concerned. If one Canaanite vassal overthrew another, that was not their business.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are preparing to cross the Jordan River and overthrow every ruler in the province of Canaan.
God spoke to Moses, saying: Command the Children of Israel, and you shall say to them: When you enter the land of Canaan, this is the land that will fall to you as a hereditary possession: the land of Canaan by its boundaries. Your southern limit shall be from the wilderness of Tzin next to Edom … (Numbers/Bemidbar 34:1-3)
Canaan (כְּנָעַן) = a territory roughly including present-day Israel, Lebanon, and part of Syria—but not Jordan. (Probably from the Egyptian name Kanana, though it may also be related to the Hebrew verb root kana (כּנע) = humble, subdue, subjugate. Much later, in the Second Temple period, a kinani (כְּנַעֲנִי) was a merchant or tradesman rather than a Canaanite.)
God promises to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants in the book of Genesis,and to the descendants of Abraham’s grandson Jacob in the book of Exodus.
When God delineates the boundaries of the promised land in this week’s Torah portion, Masey (“Journeys”), the northern boundary is about the same as the boundary between the Egyptian and Hittite empires, as set by their treaty. Like the province of Canaan, Israel is to include the coastline from Wadi el-Arish all the way to a Mount Hor north of Byblos (now the Lebanese city of Jubayl). (This is different from the Mount Hor east of Edom where Aaron dies.)
The northern boundary goes from the Mediterranean to a point deep in present-day Syra. The eastern boundary swings around to the Sea of Kinneret and follows the Jordan River to the Dead Sea, like the eastern boundary of Canaan in the 13th century B.C.E.
The Israelites never rule the entire province. But they are so attached to Canaan as their promised land, that Moses gets upset in last week’s Torah portion (Mattot) when two and a half tribes want to settle on the east side of the Jordan River, in the land the Israelites recently captured from a pair of Amorite kings.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses makes the distinction between Canaan and the land east of the Jordan again.
And Moses commanded the Children of Israel, saying: This is the land that you will divide for hereditary property by lot, that God commanded to give to the nine tribes and the half tribe. For the tribe of the Reubenites…the tribe of the Gadites… and the half-tribe of Menashe, they have taken their hereditary possession. The two tribes and the half-tribe took their hereditary possession from across the Jordan at Jericho, eastward toward the sunrise. (Numbers 34:13-15)
Why must the land promised to the Israelites be no more nor less than the Egyptian province of Canaan?
One answer is that the Israelites are Canaanites. Some archaeologists suspect the exodus was a literary invention, and that although a small band of slaves may have run away from Egypt, the majority of ethnic Israelites lived in the hills of eastern Canaan all along. When the kingdom of Judah conquered more of Canaan during the reign of King Josiah (Yoshiyahu), 600 years later, they rewrote some of the Torah to justify their expansionism.
The Torah, on the other hand, implies that Israelites are Canaanites because an extended family of 70 (plus wives and servants) go down from Canaan to Egypt, and 430 years later in the exodus 600,000 men (plus wives and children and a multitude of like-minded Egyptians) come back up. During their four centuries in Egypt, the Israelites retain their identity and language. Returning to Canaan, therefore, is returning home.
But they do not return to rejoin their fellow Canaanites. The god of Israel orders them to conquer the current population and drive them out of their towns, so that the people and religion of Israel will rule the land. The Torah gives two kinds of justifications for taking over Canaan. One is that Canaanite religious practices are evil in God’s eyes, and therefore must be eliminated. The other is that the Israelites, as descendants of Abraham, are supposed to be a blessing to the rest of the world. Presumably part of this blessing is setting an example of a country run according to God’s laws.
Some mystical commentary claims that the promised land had to include Jerusalem. According to these mystics, the Temple Mount is also Mount Moriyah, where Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac. This is the holiest spot in the world. (Mount Sinai, which lies outside Canaan, is somehow less important!)
I think all of these explanations ignore the power of myth and legend. As an American child, I grew up reading English stories full of menhirs, dolmens, fairy circles, and henges, where magical things happened to previously ordinary people. When I visited England as an adult, it moves me to tears to see these legendary structures cropping up in the woods and in the middle of farms. This was the world of the stories I grew up with, the world my imagination lived in. Every day I spent in the English and Welsh countryside filled me with awe. I can only imagine the awe I will feel when I finally get to Israel and see the places I keep reading about in the Torah as an adult.
The ancient Israelites, whether they stayed in Canaan or migrated to Egypt and back, grew up with the legends that found their way into the book of Genesis. Imagine what it would mean to them to see Mount Moriah, the grove of Mamre, the cave of Makhpelah, Beer-sheva, or Beer-lachai-roi.
Never underestimate the power of story. It can turn a rural Egyptian province into the Promised Land.
Tags: blame, genocide, Mattot, torah portion
In the Torah portion Balak, Israelite men worship a god named Baal Pe-or by engaging in ritual sex with the local Midianite and Moabite women. God becomes enraged against Israel, punishes the Israelites with a plague, and tells Moses to impale the ringleaders among the Israelite men. (See my earlier post, Balak: Carnal Appetites.) The focus is on the men’s shameful betrayal of the God of Israel.
In the next Torah portion, Pinchas, God tells Moses to punish the Midianites:
Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them! Because they were hostile to you through their cunning, acting cunningly toward you over the matter of Pe-or… (Numbers 25:17-18)
Notice how the blame for the blasphemy is shifted from the Israelites to the Midianites. In this week’s Torah portion, Mattot (“Tribes”), God reminds Moses: Take vengeance, the vengeance of the Children of Israel from the Midianites! (Numbers 31:2)
In the Torah, making God angry often results in death. A death penalty for the Midianite women who engaged in Baal Pe-or worship with Israelite men would be consistent with other examples of justice in the Torah. But what happens is far worse.
Moses sends an army of 12,000 Israelites to attack the local Midianites. The army kills all the Midianite men, burns their settlements, and brings back the women and children as captives, along with livestock and other booty. And Moses is furious.
Moses said to them: You let every nekeivah live! Hey, they were [why] the Children of Israel, through the word of Bilam, betrayed God in the matter of Pe-or, so that a plague was among the community of God! So now, kill every male among the small children. And every woman who has known a man by lying with a male, kill her! But all the small children among the women who have not known lying with a male, keep them alive for yourselves. (Numbers 31:15-18)
nekeivah (נְקֵבָה) = female (human or any other animal); hole.
Two things about this passage raise my hackles. One is how Moses and God shift the blame from the Israelites to the Midianites. I will address that issue three weeks from now, when I write about the second Torah portion of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim: Va-etchannan.
The other problem is the genocide. This year, thanks to a question from my friend Steve Ulrich, I can no longer distance myself from the genocide the way I did in my 2011 post, Mattot: From Genocide to Gentleness.
Commentary from the Talmud through the nineteenth century tried to justify Moses’ orders with variations on the claim that Midianites—at least the Midianites living north of Moab—were somehow unable to stop subverting Israel’s morals and religion. Even if all the adult Midianites were killed, their infant boys would still grow up dedicated to bringing down the Israelites.
Classic commentary also strained to justify why Moses exempted the virgin girls among the Midianites from the death penalty. The Zohar (written in the 13th century) claimed that once a woman has lost her virginity to a man, she is under his influence. This assertion supposedly justifies both the killing of the Midianite men (who must have urged their wives to seduce Israelites), and Moses’ order to spare the virgin girls “for yourselves”. It utterly fails to explain why Moses orders the death penalty for the underage boys.
Some twentieth-century commentary pointed out that genocide was common at the dawn of the Iron Age in the Middle East, along with taking girls captive to be personal slaves. The implication is that we cannot expect a higher standard in the Torah.
None of this commentary justifies Moses’ order of genocide as far as I am concerned. In my 2011 post, I tried a different approach to the genocide in this week’s Torah portion, and interpreted it symbolically. That was an interesting exercise for me, and it let me avoid dwelling on the atrocities the Israelite army committed at Moses’ command.
But this year I want to point out two assumptions underlying Moses’ orders:
1) Proselytizing for the “wrong” religion is a crime deserving death.
2) Every member of the same tribe or race or ethnic group as the criminal deserves the same punishment, because “they” are all alike.
This second assumption is Hitler’s way of thinking.
It is also an extreme example of a common human error. Many people who feel ashamed or at a disadvantage look for someone to blame. All too often, they generalize and blame their situation on all the members of a group—such as Jews, Muslims, Democrats, Republicans, blacks, whites, unemployed single mothers, CEO’s of corporations, men, women.
Few Americans today progress from blaming all members of a group to trying to massacre them. We tend to stop at the level of hatred, bitterness, slander, and voting habits. But in other parts of the world, genocide still happens.
Apparently genocide was acceptable to whoever wrote down or redacted this part of the Torah portion Mattot—as long as the victims were not Israelites. Then classic commentators had to find excuses for Moses, because they assumed a priori that the heroes in the Torah always have good reasons for doing apparently bad things.
But we are not bound by their assumption. We must do better, and denounce genocide even when the so-called good guys do it in the Torah.
And we must never stop noticing and pointing out when someone is blaming a whole group for the misdeeds of some of its members. Even if that blamer is yourself.
Tags: 1 Kings, Elijah, God, prophecy, torah portion
When people in the Hebrew Bible see a manifestation of God, they nearly always see either fire (from the flames in the burning bush to the sparks of fire in the pillar or cloud), or something human (from Abraham’s guest to the feet on the sapphire pavement).
When they hear a manifestation of God, they usually hear words. I have found only two exceptions in the Hebrew Bible. One is in the book of Exodus, when God descends upon Mount Sinai, and all the Israelites hear (and see, perhaps through synesthesia) thunder and the sound of a shofar (a loud wind instrument made from an animal’s horn). The cracks of thunder and the increasing volume of the shofar blasts would make the sound of God unbearably loud.
The other exception is in this week’s haftarah, when the prophet Elijah hears God as what the King James translation calls “a still, small voice”.
A haftarah is the reading from the prophets that accompanies the week’s Torah portion. This week’s haftarah, from the first book of Kings, opens with the prophet Elijah running before the chariot of King Ahab.
In the scene just before, Elijah had staged a dramatic contest on Mount Carmel, where there were altars to both Baal and the God of Israel. King Ahab (who was away from his wife Jezebel at the time) summoned all the people to the mountaintop as witnesses. Elijah invited 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah to call on their gods, while he alone would call on the God of Israel. (The prophets of Asherah did not show up, but the contest proceeded anyway.) A bull was killed and laid over wood at each altar, but nobody was allowed to bring fire to burn the offerings. Elijah said:
You will call your gods by name, and I, I will call God by name. And it will be the god that answers with fire, that one is the god. And all the people answered, and they said: It is good! (1 Kings 18:14)
Elijah increased the drama by giving the prophets of Baal all day to work themselves into an ecstatic frenzy, and by pouring water all over the God of Israel’s altar. No fire ever appeared on Baal’s altar. In the evening, when water was dripping into the trench around God’s altar, Elijah called on God by name.
And the fire of God fell, and it consumed the rising-offering and the wood and the stones and the dirt, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. And all the people saw, and they fell on their faces, and they said: That god is the god! That god is the god! (1 Kings 18:38-39)
The Israelites helped Elijah kill all 450 prophets of Baal. A three-year drought ended. And Elijah ran as an honor guard before King Ahab’s chariot as they returned to the king’s nearest palace, in the fortress of Jezreel.
Haftarat Pinchas begins with this triumphal run. Then Ahab’s wife Jezebel, the real ruler of the kingdom, nixes the mass conversion and threatens to kill Elijah.
The prophet flees, lies down in the wilderness to die, then gets up again at the request of an angel and walks all the way to Mount Horev (another name for Mount Sinai). There God speaks to him—first in words, as usual.
Then the word of God [came] to him, and it said to him: Why are you here, Elijah?
And he said: I was very zealous for God, the God of Armies, because the Children of Israel had abandoned your covenant, and pulled down your altars, and killed your prophets by the sword. And only I was left, and they tried to take my life. (1 Kings 19:9-10)
Elijah is in despair because Queen Jezebel won. He forgets that the Israelites fell on their faces, shouted that the God of Israel is the only god, and killed Baal’s prophets. He either does not believe, or does not care, that the people’s feelings about God have changed. All that matters to him is that he lost the contest with Queen Jezebel for political power. Her gods, and the rest of her prophets, will remain in the kingdom of Israel whether the people support them or not.
God tells Elijah to stand up, and then gives him a wordless demonstration.
And hey! God was passing by, and a big and strong wind was tearing off mountains of rocks in front of God; but God was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, kol demamah dakkah. And when Elijah heard, he wrapped his face with his robe, and he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave; and hey!—a voice [came] to him, and it said: Why are you here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:11-13)
kol (קוֹל) = voice; sound.
demamah (דְּמָמָה) = quiet (without much movement or sound); stillness; silence.
dakkah (דַקָּה) = very thin; finely ground, powdery.
kol demamah dakkah = “a still, small voice” (King James translation); “a soft murmuring sound” (Jewish Publication Society translation); a “sound of thin silence” (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg translation); a faint sound of quietness (my translation).
Elijah hears the sound of quietness, steps out to the mouth of the cave, and covers his face. That means he knows God is in the quietness, since God told Moses no one may see God from the front.
Then God asks him the same question: Why are you here, Elijah? And Elijah gives the same reply, word for word—as if he had learned nothing. So God tells him he must anoint a young man named Elisha to be a prophet in his place.
I agree with the many commentators who concluded that Elijah is too impatient in his zeal; he wants the spectacle of fire (or, presumably, windstorm or earthquake) to turn Israel back to God all at once. He is not interested in a quiet, gradual approach. And that is why God decides to retire Elijah and try a new prophet.
But I also wonder about the three ways of hearing God: as ear-splitting blasts and booms, as spoken words, and as a faint sound of quietness.
We are only human. When we want to plan, or communicate, or understand something complicated, we turn to language. Even musicians and visual artists who are working alone must think in words when they address other aspects of their lives. Our brains automatically translate much of our experience into words and language.
Maybe one difference between a prophet and an ordinary person is that a prophet can easily translate experiences of God into words. So for them, God manifests as spoken words.
For the rest of us, our occasional numinous experiences are hard to understand, hard to put into words. A shaft of sunlight or a haunting bird call might trigger an awareness of something greater—but we struggle just to describe it. Our brains do not translate these evanescent and ineffable experiences into direct speech from God.
In the book of Exodus, God manifests to all the non-prophets at Mount Sinai as unbearably loud noise. The people are terrified, and beg for God to speak only to Moses; their prophet can then translate what God says into words spoken at a reasonable decibel level.
But in the book of Elijah, when the prophet hears God ask him a question in words—Why are you here, Elijah?—he answers defensively, stuck in a repetitive loop of his own words, his own story about himself. Any further insight from God cannot get through. So God resorts to non-verbal communication.
Elijah hears the windstorm, the earthquake, and the fire. Then he hears God in the “still, small voice,” the faint sound of quietness. But he does not understand.
Does God manifest to us, sometimes, as quietness?
Can we understand?
Tags: Baal, blessing, cursing, Mah Tovu, torah portion
Balak, the king of Moab, is afraid of the horde of Israelites camped just north of his border in this week’s Torah portion, Balak. (See my earlier post, Balak: A Question of Anxiety.)He hires the prophet Bilam to curse the Israelites so Moab’s soldiers can drive them away. Bilam warns the king that all he can do is say the words God puts in his mouth. Nevertheless, King Balakleads Bilam to three different vantage points, hoping for a curse each time. Instead, God makes Bilam pronounce three different blessings on the Israelites.
Here are the three vantage points where Balak takes Bilam to look down at the Israelite camp:
1) In the morning Balak took Bilam and he led him up to Bamot of Ba-al, and from there he saw the edge of the people. (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:41)
bamot (בָּמוֹת) = heights; high places used for Canaanite worship.
ba-al (בָּעַל) = ruled over, owned. (The noun form of this verb is also pronounced ba-al, spelled בַּעַל; it means ruler, owner, master; or the Canaanite god of weather and fertility.)
2) Then Balak said to him: Go with me, please, to another place from where you will see them. … Curse them for me from there. He took him to the Field of Tzofim, to the head of the mountain… (Numbers 23:13-14)
tzofim (צֹפִים) = lookouts, observers, watchmen.
3) Balak said to Bilam: Go, please; I will take you to a different place; perhaps it will be right in the eyes of the gods that you will curse them for me from there. And Balak took Bilam to the Head of the Pe-or,the overlook over the face of the desert. (Nuimbers 23:27-28)
pe-or (פְּעוֹר) = wide open like a mouth
In the 19th century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch identified the names of these three locations with material prosperity, foreknowledge, and sexual morality. At each place, he wrote, King Balak was hoping a corresponding weakness in the Israelite people would provide an opening for Bilam to curse them. (Hirsch on Chumash.)
First, according to Hirsch, Balak takes Bilam to a shrine of the Canaanite nature god Baal, who controls material prosperity. (For an agricultural people, prosperity does come from fertility and beneficial weather, Baal’s areas of expertise.) Balak hopes the Israelites can be cursed with poverty. But Bilam calls the Israelites a solitary people, which does not count itself among the nations… (Numbers 23:9). Hirsch argued from this that Jewish national survival, unlike that of other nations, does not depend on material prosperity, and therefore Israel remained blessed.
For his second attempt, Balak takes bilam to the Field of Tzofim. Traditional commentary interpreted the word tzofim as soothsayers—seers who used magic to provide information and advice about the future. Hirsch wrote that at the Field of Tzofim, Balak hopes the Israelites have a weak spot when it comes to magical and intellectual advice about the future. Bilam returns and says: Stand up, Balak! (Numbers 22:18) His second blessing, according to Hirsch, tells Balak that the Israelites have a much higher level of wisdom than that of soothsayers.
For his third try, King Balak takes Bilam to the vantage point of Head of the Pe-or. For Hirsch, Pe-or means the worship of sexual immorality—probably because at the end of this week’s Torah portion, many Israelite men succumb to the seductions of local women who worship Ba-al Pe-or, and one Israelite man commits the ultimate sacrilege of having intercourse with a Midianite woman in God’s own Tent of Meeting. (See my earlier post, Balak: Wide Open.)
Nevertheless, Hirsch claimed that Bilam had to bless the Israelites a third time because of their sexual morality.
According to traditional commentary, when Bilam stands on the peak called Pe-or, he has a vision of the Israelite camp, and he notices that the openings of the tents are arranged so that nobody can see into another family’s tent, and sexual modesty is preserved. This is the traditional explanation for why Bilam’s third blessing includes the following verse (one that has become a standard part of Jewish morning liturgy): How good are your tents, Jacob; your dwellings, Israel!
By citing this extrabiblical tradition, Hirsch was able to conclude that the Israelites were blessed from the vantage point of sexual morality, as well as prosperity and foreknowledge.
The remaining problem with Hirsch’s three categories is that King Balak wants the Israelites cursed so that he can attack their camp and drive them away from his northern border. While poverty, short-sightedness, and/or moral problems might bring down a culture eventually, none of these ills would operate quickly enough for Balak’s purpose.
I think Balak’s three vantage points reflect different issues: mastery over the land, awareness, and satisfaction with life. If the Israelites are cursed in any of these areas, it will be easier for the army of Moab to send them packing.
The first location, Bamot Ba-al, also means “heights of ownership and mastery”. The Israelites have just conquered the territory north of Moab, but can they master the land and its people, so as to hold it?
Bilam’s first blessing not only calls the Israelites a solitary people, which does not count itself among the nations (Numbers 23:9), but also includes the rhetorical question: Who can count the dust of Jacob? (Numbers 23:10)
I think this blessing tells Balak that unlike other nations, the Israelites know they are blessed, and do not compare their possessions with any other nation’s. If God wills it, they will remain owners of the land east of the Jordan. If not, they are still confident they will take and keep the land of Canaan, because God promised it to them. They trust in God’s mastery, rather than their own.
Next Balak takes Bilam to the Field of Tzofim. When I consider the plain meaning of tzofim, “lookouts”, I think Balak is hoping this second vantage point will result in a curse that leaves the Israelites blind to any approaching danger, and therefore easy prey.
This time, the blessing that God puts into Bilam’s mouth includes these two verses:
There is no divination in Jacob, and no magic in Israel; what God accomplishes is told to Jacob, to Israel, at that time. (Numbers 23:23)
Hey, a people like a lioness arises, and like a lion it lifts itself up. It will not lie down until it devours prey, and drinks the blood of the slain. (Numbers 23:24)
In other words, the Israelites do not need magicians to reveal their future, because God tells them what God has arranged. In addition, the Israelites are as alert and fierce as lions when it comes to battle.
I daresay King Balak gives up on his idea of a pre-emptive attack when he learns how alert and aware the Israelites are. But he is still hoping for a curse, so he takes Bilam to the third vantage point, the head of the Pe-or overlooking the desert.
The name Pe-or does foreshadow the seduction of Israelite men into worshiping Ba-al Pe-or through illicit public intercourse. But a pe-or, a wide open mouth, stands for all unrestrained desires. When your desire knows no bounds, you are always dissatisfied, and your life looks like a desert. The previous generation of Israelites complained repeatedly about the food on their journey. What if the current generation is just like them, and God is tired of their insatiable neediness? A reminder of a wide open mouth might encourage God to dictate a curse to Bilam.
Balak is foiled again, as Bilam recites a third blessing. After Bilam praises the tents and dwellings of the Israelites, he says God satisfies the people’s needs so their souls can grow like well-watered plants.
Like groves they stretch out, like gardens beside a river, like succulents God has planted, like cedars beside the water. Water pours from [God’s] buckets, and their seed is at the abundant water. (Numbers 24:6-7)
At this point, King Balak gives up on cursing the Israelites, and orders Bilam to go home.
Bilam has confirmed God’s blessing at all three of Balak’s vantage points. At the Heights of Ba-al, the Israelites are blessed with confidence in God’s mastery. At the Field of Tzofim, they are blessed with awareness. And at the Head of Pe-or, they are blessed with fulfillment of their desire to grow and flourish.
A person who has confidence, awareness, and fulfillment cannot be harmed by any curse. May we all be so blessed.
Tags: Aaron and Miriam, prophets and priests, torah portion
Miriam and Aaron both die in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“Decree”). The portion opens in the first month of the fortieth and final year the Israelites must spend in the wilderness. Miriam’s death is described in a single sentence.
The Children of Israel, the whole community, came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and the people stayed at Kadeish. And Miriam died there and she was buried there. (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:1)
kadeish (קָדֵשׁ) = being holy, being dedicated to God; a Canaanite male temple prostitute; one of two places named before the Israelites took Canaan, presumably sacred spots for non-Israelites (Kadeish in the wilderness of Paran in the southern Negev, or Kadeish in the wilderness of Tzin on the border of Edom).
The Torah says nothing further about Miriam’s death. All the Israelites observe 30-day mourning periods after the deaths of Aaron and Moses. But no official mourning period is set for Miriam.
Aaron dies later in this week’s Torah portion, after the Israelites have begun circling around Edom and Moab. (At the end of this week’s Torah portion they camp on the east bank of the Jordan River, across from Jericho.)
The Torah describes Aaron’s death in detail.
And they pulled out from Kadeish and the Children of Israel, the whole community, came to hor hahar. And God spoke to Moses and Aaron at hor hahar, on the border of the land of Edom, saying: Let Aaron be gathered to his people … Take Aaron and his son Elazar and bring them up to hor hahar. And strip off Aaron’s garments, and clothe his son Elazar. Then Aaron will be gathered, and die there. And Moses did as God commanded, and they headed up hor hahar before the eyes of the whole community. Moses stripped off Aaron’s garments, and he clothed his son Elazar. And Aaron died there, on the head of hahar. And Moses went down, and Elazar, from hor hahar. Then the whole community saw that Aaron had expired, and the whole house of Israel mourned for Aaron 30 days. (Numbers 20:22-29)
Hor hahar (הֹר הָהָר) = mountain of the mountain, hill on the hill, Hor Mountain. (Rashi—11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki—spoke for the majority of commentators when he wrote that Hor hahar looked like a small mound on top of a large mound.)
Miriam and Aaron both die near the border of Edom. The Torah calls them both prophets, and ranks them both as leaders of the Israelites along with Moses. So why is Miriam’s death described in a single verse, while Aaron’s death takes eight verses?
The books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are full of Aaron, since much of the material concerns the establishment of rituals conducted by male priests and Levites. But the Torah gives Miriam only three scenes.
In her first scene, Miriam comes forward after the pharaoh’s daughter rescues the infant Moses from the Nile. In one sentence (Shall I go and summon a nursing woman from the Hebrews, that she may suckle the child for you?) she gives the pharaoh’s daughter both the idea of adopting the baby, and the idea of hiring a Hebrew woman to nurse him. Then Miriam arranges for her own mother—and Moses’—to be the wet nurse.
Miriam’s second scene comes after the Israelites cross the Reed Sea safely and God drowns the Egyptian army. Then Miriam has another brilliant idea. It was customary, when soldiers came home from a victory, for women to greet them with dancing, drumming, and chanting. Miriam picks up her timbrel and gets the women to do the same thing to celebrate God’s victory.
The Torah calls Miriam a prophetess at this point, and confirms her status as a prophet again in her third scene. Here she speaks out against Moses regarding his wife, and gets Aaron to agree with her. God responds by saying Moses’s level of prophecy trumps Miriam and Aaron’s, and gives her a seven-day skin disease. The people wait for her to recover and rejoin them before they journey on.
Miriam’s role in the Torah is to be a prophet, not a priest. She receives divine inspiration, and inspires other people through her words and actions. I think she dies at a place that was already named holy (Kadeish) because she is intrinsically holy (kadosh). She is dedicated not only to serving God, but also to making things right for human beings.
Hor Hahar, the place where Aaron dies, has neither a holy name, like Miriam’s gravesite, nor a view of the “promised land” of Canaan, like Moses’. It is merely a mountain with an unusual shape.
Aaron is called a prophet, along with Miriam, because he does occasionally hear God’s voice giving instructions. But he lacks inspiration. He fails God and succumbs to the will of the mob when he makes the Golden Calf. He becomes the high priest only when Moses dresses him in the high priest’s garments and anoints him. After that Aaron spends his days performing rituals and keeping track of holy objects.
The most important part of Aaron’s death is when Moses removes the unique vestments he wears as the high priest, and puts them on his son and successor, Elazar. What makes someone a high priest is the breastplate with the divining gems, and the gold plate inscribed “Holy to God”. The clothes make the man.
Aaron the high priest is easily replaced by his son, through a change of clothing. But nobody replaces Miriam.
Aaron has to leave the camp and die with only Moses and Elazar as witnesses. Miriam dies in the camp, surrounded by the Children of Israel.
Yes, I admire Miriam, for her brilliance, her courage, and her dedication to her calling. And I also admire Aaron, for his dedication to the job he was assigned—serving as the people’s high priest for nearly 40 years despite his own personal failure in making the Golden Calf.
In the book of Micah, God reminds the Israelites:
I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
And from the house of slavery I redeemed you,
And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. (Micah 6:4)
It took all three leaders to get the people out of Egypt and ready to enter Canaan: Moses to work with God to create a new religion; Aaron to faithfully play his role within that religion; and Miriam to challenge people and transmit inspiration.
Every person has a different set of abilities, and a different role to play in life. Whatever our own roles are, may each of us be blessed with the whole-hearted dedication of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.