Tags: Bereishit, Genesis, God of Abraham, torah portion, wife/sister
And it happened, as he approached coming into Egypt, [Abraham] said to Sarah, his wife: Hey, please—I know that you are a beautiful-looking woman. And it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, then they will say: This is his wife. And they will kill me, but you they will keep alive. Say, please, you are my sister, so that it will go well for me for your sake, and I will stay alive on account of you. (Genesis/Bereishit 12:11-13)
One way to get rich, in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, is to take your wife to another country and pretend she is your sister. Since she is beautiful, the king takes her, and gives you a generous bride-price for her. (A king can always afford another wife.) God afflicts the king and his household with an unmentionable disease, and the king finds out that his new acquisition is married to another man. (Polygamy is fine in Biblical times, but polyandry is out of the question.) The king complains, but he returns your wife/sister, and lets you keep his gifts. You walk away with a clear profit.
This story appears three times in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, beginning with the translation above in the Torah portion Lekh-lekha. In this first story, the trickster husband is Abraham, and the king of Egypt takes his wife Sarah. The second time, in Vayeira, Abraham pulls the same trick on the king of Gerar. The third and last time, in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“lineages”), Abraham’s son Isaac plays the trick, pretending to the king of Gerar that his wife Rebecca is his sister.
What are these sordid stories doing in the Torah?
Traditional commentators take the wife/sister stories at face value, concluding that the people of of Egypt and Gerar were indeed immoral, so Abraham and Isaac were justified in passing off their wives as their unmarried sisters. They believe that someone who would kill a husband to take a woman would leave a brother alone, and even pay him a bride-price. They conclude that Sarah and Rebecca were beautiful and virtuous, and all three times God protected them from being molested by a king.
At the time of the second story Sarah is 89 years old, but traditional commentary does not blink. Before Abraham takes his 89-year-old wife to Gerar, three angels announce that in a year she will have a son. (See my earlier post, Vayeira: Laughing in Disbelief.) In the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metziah 87a), Rav Hisda explains that after the annunciation, Sarah’s worn and wrinkled skin is rejuvenated, and her beauty returns.
The traditional approach attempts to explain away inconsistencies in the wife/sister stories, but it offers no insight on why these stories are in the Torah.
This year, thanks to Reading the Lines (2002) by Pamela Tamarkin Reis, I noticed the stories’ broad humor. People listening to these stories would have rooted for each husband who tricks a king and walks away rich. They would have laughed when a king took a new wife and then could not get it up. On top of that, Reis wrote, the king paid a lot for a new wife, and then she turned out to be “no spring chicken”!
Suddenly it struck me that when the three wife/sister stories are taken together, without the narratives in between, they make a classic oral tale. As a storyteller myself, I spotted all the elements of a good folk tale.
The theme of the tale is one of the old standards: a poor man tricks rich man into giving him wealth. Folk tales love reversals, and the underdog is always the hero.
Another reversal is that in the ancient world you were supposed to give tribute to a king. But in this tale, the kings give tribute to husbands.
Expecting a young virgin and discovering you have married an old woman is another reversal. If I were telling the three-part wife/sister tale, the royal officers in Egypt and Gerar would only glimpse Sarah and see her beautiful figure. She would enter each king’s house wearing the customary veil. (For example, Rebecca puts on a veil before she meets her fiance Isaac, and Leah wears a veil at her wedding to Jacob.) Then when the king removes his bride’s veil—surprise! He sees an old woman!
Another common feature of folk tales is that the men never learn. Here, Abraham manages to escape Egypt with his wife and Pharaoh’s gifts. Then 25 years later, when God has promised Sarah a miraculous birth, Abraham casually goes to Gerar and tries the same trick. It never occurs to him that after Sarah’s son is born, someone might wonder whether he is really the father.
In most classic stories, the main action happens three times, each time with a different twist. In the three-part wife/sister tale, Abraham’s behavior is understandable the first time. There is a famine in Canaan, so he goes to Egypt. He notices men looking at Sarah’s figure, and he begs her to go along with his deception. She is 65, but she might be a young-looking 65.
Pharaoh only finds out Sarah is Abraham’s wife when God afflicts him and his household with disease. This upsets him, so he summons Abraham and complains:
Why did you say ‘She is my sister’ so I took her as mine for a wife? Hey now, take your wife and go! (Genesis 12:19)
The Torah never says that Pharaoh leaves Sarah untouched. It does say that he has Sarah and Abraham escorted out of the country—though they get to keep the bride-price.
In the second wife/sister story there is no famine, and Abraham has no excuse for moving to Gerar. He is supposed to be encouraging Sarah to return to his bed, so that he can give her the baby God promised, but he decides to repeat the wife/sister trick instead. He does not even speak to his wife before he tells the men of Gerar that she is his sister.
And Abraham said of Sarah, his wife: She is my sister. And Avimelekh, king of Gerar, sent vayikach Sarah. (Genesis 20:2)
vayikach (וַָיִּקַּח) = and he took; and he took as a wife.
I can imagine Abraham cheerfully waving goodbye, anticipating the bride-price. The action in the king’s house is funnier the second time, since Sarah is now 89, and God afflicts the king and his household with impotence.
God tells the king in a dream that he will die because Sarah is already married.
But Avimelekh had not come close to her, and he said … With purity of my heart and with nikyon kapai I did this! … (Genesis 20:4-5)
nikyon kapai (נִקְיֹן כַּפַּי) = innocence of my palms (i.e. clean hands).
God agrees about the pure heart, but points out that the “clean hands” are due to God-given impotence. Now only Abraham’s prayers can save him from death. I can imagine Avimelekh waking up and thinking “What did I do to deserve this?”
The next morning, he gives Abraham livestock and slaves, gives Sarah silver as a token of her chastity, and returns Sarah to Abraham. As in most folk tales, even though the hapless hero never learns, he still wins.
The third round
The wife/sister deception in this week’s Torah portion takes the tale in a new direction. Now the underdog hero is Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah. There is another famine in Canaan, and Isaac takes own wife, Rebecca, to Gerar, where the current king is also called Avimelekh.
Isaac settled in Gerar. And the men of the place asked about his wife, and he said: She is my sister—because he was afraid to say ‘my wife’, ‘lest the men of the place kill me over Rebecca, because she is good-looking’. (Genesis 26:6-7)
This time the king of Gerar does not immediately take Rebecca into his house, but waits and watches. After a while Isaac gets tired of treating Rebecca like a sister.
And it happened because the days were long for him; and Avimelekh …looked down from the window, and he saw—hey! Isaac was fooling around with Rebecca, his wife! (Genesis 26:6-8)
The king summons Isaac and scolds him for lying. And Avimelekh said: What is this you have done to us? One of the people almost lay down with your wife! Then you would have brought guilt upon us! (Genesis 26:10)
This king declares a death penalty for anyone who touches Isaac and Rebecca, and although he does not shower Isaac with gifts, he does let Isaac plant crops in the land of Gerar, and Isaac gets rich anyway.
What fascinates me about this three-part folktale is that although the husband never learns, the king does. The king of Egypt may well have “taken” Sarah all the way, but when he finds out she is Abraham’s wife he expresses no regret, and he expels Abraham and Sarah from his country. In the second story, the king of Gerar cares more about the purity of his own intentions than the Pharaoh did, and after discovering the truth he is careful to exonerate Sarah. The king in the third story wants his actions as well as his intentions to be beyond reproach, so he observes Isaac and Rebecca a long time to determine whether they really are brother and sister.
Now I think the wife/sister episodes teach a great lesson through their humor: that someone who seems to be a villain may not be so bad after all, and that anyone, even a foreign king, can learn and grow and improve.
Tags: Bereishit, camels, Canaan, Genesis, torah portion
Camels are the key to Isaac’s marriage in this week’s Torah portion (Chayyei Sarah, “the life of Sarah”, so called because it opens with the death of Isaac’s mother, Sarah).
Isaac does not pick out his own wife. In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, he let his father, Abraham, bind him on an altar as a sacrifice for God. An angelic voice stopped Abraham when his knife touched his son’s throat. After sacrificing a ram instead, Abraham left by himself. Isaac was missing from the story for a while; he did not even appear at his mother’s funeral. We learn in this week’s portion that he is living in a remote and isolated spot south of Beeir-sheva, near Beer-lachai-Roi, “Well of the Living One Who Sees Me”. (See my earlier post, Chayyei Sarah: A Holy Place.)
But when Isaac turns 40—a good time for a man to marry, by Torah standards—Abraham orders his steward to find Isaac a wife, stipulating only that the woman must come from his own extended family in Charan (the Aramaean town Abraham left 65 years before), and that she must be willing to move to Canaan.
The steward selects ten of Abraham’s riding camels, some treasures for his own pack, and some servants to lead the camels. (In the world of the Hebrew Bible, the only people who ride camels or donkeys are women, children, and disabled men.) The camels and men walk all the way to Charan.
And he made the gemalim kneel outside the city, toward the well of water, at evening time, the time when the women drawing water go out. (Genesis 24:11)
gemalim (גְמַלִּים) = dromedary (one-hump) camels. (The singular is gamal (גָּמָל). The verb from the same root, gamal (גָּמַל) = wean a child or ripen a fruit; repay someone in kind for good or evil actions.)
In the late 20th century, many scholars thought camels were not domesticated in the Middle East until after 1200 B.C.E. Since the Abraham stories are set in circa 2000 B.C.E., they considered the camels an anachronism. This opinion is now contested. For example, a rock carving in Upper Egypt dated to circa 2200 B.C.E. shows someone leading a camel on a rope.
In the Torah, Abraham first acquires camels in Egypt, as a gift from the pharaoh. Presumably the ten riding camels his steward takes are their descendants.
One reason the steward brings camels, as well as jewelry and fine clothing, is that camels are more impressive and expensive mounts than donkeys. A display of wealth would help to persuade the prospective bride’s family to let her emigrate to Canaan. But the steward has another reason. After the ten camels are kneeling by the well outside Charan, the steward prays to the god of Abraham:
Let it be the young woman to whom I say: Tilt, please, your jug so I may drink; and she says: Drink, and I will even give a drink to your camels—you have marked her out for your servant for Isaac… (Genesis 24:14)
By asking for this particular divine sign, Abraham’s servant is asking for more than his master did. The steward wants Isaac’s wife to be generous and hospitable, even to servants and animals, and even when it involves labor on her part.
And it happened before he finished speaking: hey! Rebecca, who was born to Betueil son of Milkah wife of Nachor brother of Abraham, went out, and her jug was on her shoulder. …and she went down to the spring and she filled her jug and she went up. (Genesis 24:15-16)
Wells in Mesopotamia and Canaan at that time were dug not only deep enough to reach a natural spring or underground river, but also wide enough to accommodate stairs. Water-drawers climbed down to the bottom to fill their jugs.
When Rebecca, Abraham’s great-niece, climbs back up, Eliezer calls to her: Let me sip, please, a little water from your jug. (Genesis 24:17)
And she said: Drink, my lord; and she hurried over she lowered her jug onto her hand and she gave him a drink. She let him drink his fill, and she said: Also I will draw for your camels until they have drunk their fill. And she hurried over and she poured out her jug to give them a drink, and she ran again to the well to draw for all his camels. (Genesis 24:18-20)
A camel drinks at least 25 gallons of water after a long journey. To water ten camels, Rebecca runs up and down the steps of the well with her jug more than 100 times! This is the first feat of heroic strength recorded in the Torah.
The wedding negotiations are successful, and Rebecca declares she will go to Canaan. She and her female attendants mount the camels and follow Eliezer.
They travel not to Abraham, but directly to Isaac in the desert. He is walking alone across a field in the early evening, returning from the holy well.
And he raised his eyes and he saw, and hey! Camels were coming! (Genesis 24:63)
The travelers are not close enough for Isaac to identify anyone, but if he can see that the animals are camels, he can also see that they carry riders, not packs. I can imagine Isaac’s dismay, realizing he will have to step out of his solitude and greet these visitors.
And Rebecca raised her eyes, and she saw Isaac, vatipol the camel. And she said to the servant: Who is that man walking in the field to meet us? (Genesis 24:64-65)
vatipol (וַתִּפֹּל) = and she fell off.
What does Rebecca see in Isaac’s face and walk that makes her fall off the camel?
Maybe she sees darkness in his soul, from having been bound on the altar by his own father. Or maybe she sees light in his soul, from volunteering to be the sacrifice and hearing God’s voice. Maybe she sees his innocence and preoccupation with the unworldly—something she had never seen in Charan.
Whatever she sees, this moment reveals two more of Rebecca’s qualities: her sensitive perception of people’s characters, and her awareness of the divine. All of Rebecca’s characteristics—assertiveness, generosity, strength, adventurousness, perceptiveness, and orientation toward the divine—will shape the story in next week’s portion, Toledot.
The Torah story uses camels, gemalim, both to make the match and to reveal Rebecca’s character. I suspect the text is hinting that this wedding is about the verb gamal = wean, ripen, or repay.
And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother, and he took Rivkah as his wife, and he loved her, and Isaac had a change of heart after his mother. (Genesis 24:67)
Here the Torah indicates that Rebecca weans Isaac from his attachment to his mother. Maybe he is stuck in life because of the trauma of his binding and near-sacrifice, and Rebecca completes his ripening into a mature adult. In next week’s Torah portion, Isaac emerges from his solitude and assumes the leadership of his tribe after Abraham’s death.
Rebecca might also be Isaac’s reward or repayment for his faith in Abraham and God when he let himself be bound. She is an exceptional woman (as well as young, beautiful, and a virgin), and Isaac loves her. This is the first time the Torah says a man loves his wife.
May everyone who is stuck and unable to ripen meet a “camel” to help them ride into a fuller life. And may everyone who draws water for others, and carries them from an old home to a new one, be repaid with a good life.
Tags: Bereishit, birth of Isaac, Genesis, laughter, miracles, torah portion
Humans laugh when we encounter a mismatch—when two things appear together that we would never expect to see in the same context. We laugh in fun at the surprise of humor, in joy when get unexpected good fortune, in incredulity when a mismatch is too great to believe, and in mockery at a mismatch in a person we resent.
In the Torah, humor is offered without a laugh track; it is up to the reader to recognize jokes and funny situations. But characters in the Bible do laugh with joy, with incredulity, and in mockery. The first laugh in the Torah is Abraham’s, when God tells him (at the end of last week’s Torah portion, Lekh-lekha) that his wife Sarah will have a baby at age 90.
And Abraham fell on his face vayitzchak, and he said in his heart: Will he be born to a 100-year-old man, and will 90-year-old Sarah give birth? (Genesis/Bereishit 17.17)
vayitzchak (וַיִּצְחָק) = and he laughed
Abraham’s question shows he is laughing out of incredulity, not joy. At this point in the story, God has promised Abraham five times that his descendants will possess the land of Canaan. Abraham has assumed these descendants will come from Ishmael, his son through the slave Hagar. Now he learns that he must make a covenant in which he circumcises all the males in his household, and in return God gives Canaan to his descendants through his wife Sarah.
Obviously Abraham and Sarah are incapable of having a baby at their ages; it would require a miracle. Abraham laughs in his heart and questions whether God will make the required miracle. But when God repeats his promise, Abraham overcomes his skepticism and goes ahead with the circumcisions.
Abraham’s laugh opens the way for several kinds of laughter in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And he saw”). The next laugh is Sarah’s. Three visitors ask Abraham where Sarah is, and when Abraham says she is in the tent behind them, they know she can hear them. Then one of the visitors says: I will definitely return to you at the next season and hey! Your wife Sarah will have a son. (Genesis 18:10)
Apparently Abraham has not mentioned God’s latest promise to his wife, because these words surprise her.
And Sarah, tzachakah inside herself, saying: After being used up, will I have sexual pleasure? And my husband is old! (Genesis 18:12)
tzachakah (צָחֲקָה) = she laughed.
What kind of laugh is this—incredulous or joyful? Biblical commentary is divided. I offered several interpretations in my earlier post, Vayeira: She Laughs. This year, I find I agree with 16th-century Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, who wrote that Sarah assumes the speaker is a prophet giving a blessing, not a divine messenger giving the word of God. Even with a prophet’s blessing, Sarah thinks, they are simply too old to have a child. Only a direct command of God could achieve that miracle.
I would add that Sarah’s inner laughter is also bitter because she misses the sexual pleasure that used to come with attempting to get pregnant. Both a child and sex are beyond her reach, she thinks, and this prophet who believes he is blessing her might as well be mocking her.
She does not know that God hears her inner laughter.
Then God said to Abraham: Why is it that Sarah laughed, saying: Is it really true, I will give birth, when I have become old? Is a thing too extraordinary for God? At the appointed time I will return to you, at the next season, and Sarah will have a son. And Sarah denied it, saying: I did not laugh; for she was afraid. But he said: No, for you did laugh. (Genesis 18:13-15)
(All the verbs for laughing in the above passage are variations of tzachakah = she laughed, with different pronoun suffixes.)
When Sarah hears God’s words to Abraham, she realizes God really is speaking through the visitor. Then she is afraid she has insulted God. God insists that she remember she laughed in skepticism over God’s ability to make a miracle.
A different form of the Hebrew word for laughter appears next, when Lot tries to convince his sons-in-law that God is about to destroy the town of Sodom.
Lot went out and he spoke to his sons-in-law who had married his daughters, and he said: Get up and go out from this place, because God is destroying the city! But he was like a metzacheik in the eyes of his sons-in-law. (Genesis 19:14)
metzacheik (מְצַחֵק) = someone who causes laughter; a joker, a jester, a fool; the act of joking, playing, or amusing oneself.
Like Abraham and Sarah, Lot’s sons-in-law cannot believe God is about to make a miracle. But both Abraham and Sarah are able to keep listening until they recognize that God really is going to change the natural order of things. Lot’s sons-in-law refuse to listen—even though the miracle will kill them in the morning.
After Abraham sees Sodom being obliterated, he moves his household south and settles near Gerar. There Sarah gives birth at age 90, and Abraham follows God’s earlier instructions and names the boy Isaac, or Yitzchak (יִצְחָק) = he laughs, he will laugh.
And Sarah said: God has made tzechok for me; everyone who hears, yitzachak for me. (Genesis 21:6)
tzechok (צְחֹק) = laughter.
yitzachak (יִצֲחַק) = he will joke, play, amuse himself.
Sarah might well laugh with joy now over her miraculous good fortune. Instead, she is self-conscious about how ridiculous she looks, a 90-year-old woman nursing an infant. She expects that when other people hear the news, they will joke about her.
After Isaac is weaned, Sarah sees Ishmael metzacheik = joking, playing, or amusing himself. This is the same word the Torah uses in regard to Lot’s sons-in-law in Sodom.
Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she [Hagar] had born to Abraham, metzacheik. And she said to Abraham: Drive out this slave-woman with her son, because the son of this slave-woman shall not inherit along with my son, with Isaac! (Genesis 21:9-10)
Commentators disagree on what Ishmael is doing. One interpretation is that Ishmael is metzacheik by playing the role of Isaac, Yitzchak, the son who will inherit. Ramban (13th-century Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman Girondi, a.k.a. Nachmanides) went further when he wrote that Ishmael is mocking Isaac by claiming Isaac is actually the son of the king of Gerar, who only pretended he had not touched Sarah when he held her captive in the previous chapter.
Ishmael has to believe that Sarah give birth, because he saw her pregnant and then nursing. But he has trouble believing that he was been supplanted as Abraham’s heir. When Isaac was born, Ishmael was 14 years old. For his whole life, his father had loved him and trained him to inherit the leadership of the tribe. How could the ridiculous birth of a baby to a 90-year-old woman change everything?
I think Ishmael is metzacheik, making mockery, because of his incredulity over what has happened.
Later in the Bible, characters laugh and amuse themselves in pure mean-spirited mockery. And on one occasion, Isaac/Yitzchak laughs with joy as he plays with his beloved wife Rebecca. But in this week’s Torah portion, laughter always comes from incredulity.
Incredulity is natural when you are faced with a mismatch that violates your whole life experience—and affects you personally. Your first reaction is likely to be a laugh. But what do you do next?
Lot’s sons-in-law and Ishmael refuse to accept the new reality, and their laughter turns into jeering. Do you, too, get stuck fighting back against an incredible change in your world?
Abraham and Sarah laugh, but they keep listening to God, and they accept the transformation of their world. What do you do after you laugh? Do you listen to the voice of your own soul, and accept your new reality?
Tags: Bereishit, Canaan, covenant, Genesis, God of Abraham, torah portion
The first three covenants God makes with human beings in the Torah are unconditional; God promises to do something regardless of what the other party does. First God says to Noah:
Everything on earth will perish, but I will raise up my berit with you, and you shall come into the ark… (Genesis/Bereishit 6:18)
berit (בְּרִית) = covenant, pact, treaty of alliance. (This is the source of the Yiddish word bris = covenant of circumcision.)
After the flood, God tells Noah and his descendants not to eat the blood in animal meat, and not to shed the blood of humans. Then God declares a covenant with all future humans and animals on earth—without making it contingent on humans following the rules about blood.
And I, here I am, raising up my berit with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you—with birds, with beasts, and with everything living on the earth with you …I raise up my berit with you, and I will not cut off all flesh again by the waters of the flood, and never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth. (Genesis 9:9-11)
God makes a third, and last, unconditional covenant in this week’s Torah portion, Lekh-lekha (“Get yourself going!”).
Abraham hears God’s call at age 75, leaves his home in Aram, and travels to Canaan, where he is landless and childless (though he has a wife, a nephew, and a large number of men working for him). God promises Abraham three times that he will have a whole nation of descendants, from his own loins, and they will possess the land of Canaan.
The third time, Abraham points out that he is still childless. God shows him the stars, and says his descendants will be just as numerous. The sight of the stars moves Abraham, and he trusts God on this. Then God repeats that Abraham will possess the land of Canaan, and Abraham questions God again:
God, my master, how will I know that I will take possession of it? (Genesis 15:8)
God responds by changing the promise into a covenant. And since words alone do not seem to be enough for Abraham any more, God does not just “raise up” or establish a covenant through words, but “cuts” a covenant in a ritual used for centuries among ancient people in the Middle East, including Akkadians, Amorites, Hittites, Assyrians, and Arameans as well as Israelites.
In this ritual, two parties ratified a pact or treaty by slaughtering one or more animals and cutting each one in half. Surviving written documents include threats that if one of the parties does not uphold the agreement, he will be cut in half like the animal.
At some point, Israelites added a step to the ritual: after an animal was cut in two, someone walked between the pieces.
…the berit that they cut before Me: the calf that they cut in two and they passed between its pieces: the officers of Judah, and the officers of Jerusalem, the court officials, and the priests, and all the people of the land, the ones who passed between the pieces of the calf …(Jeremiah 34:18-19)
In this week’s Torah portion, God requests five animals, from the five species that are used later in the Torah for burnt offerings.
Take for me a three-year-old heifer and a three-year-old she-goat and a three-year-old ram and a turtledove and a young pigeon. And he took for [God] all these, and he cut them through the middle, and set each part opposite its fellow. But the birds he did not cut. (Genesis 9-10)
The 20th-century Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz claimed that Abraham placed the two uncut birds opposite one another, completing the path between the pieces. And God grants him a vision.
And the sun had set, and darkness happened, and hey!—a smoking tanur and a torch of fire, which passed between these cut pieces. On that day, God cut with Abraham a berit, saying: To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt up to the great river, the river Euphrates. (Genesis 15:17-18)
tanur (תַנּוּר) = fire-pot, brazier, oven, furnace.
In the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, God’s presence is often described in terms of smoke and fire. But imagine a disembodied smudge-pot and a torch passing between the pieces!
When God and Abraham cut a covenant, it is God who walks between the pieces.
This is God’s last unilateral covenant in the Hebrew Bible. The next covenant between God and Abraham, at the end of this week’s Torah portion, is conditional; God will multiply Abraham’s descendants if and only if every male in Abraham’s household is circumcised.
After that, covenants between God and humans are like Biblical covenants between two humans: the party with more power promises to protect the party with less power, on the condition that the weaker party remains loyal to his superior and follows the stipulated rules. In God’s case, people must obey various laws, observe holy days, and/or refrain from worshiping other gods as a condition for God’s favor and protection.
Why does God switch to conditional covenants? I think God is frustrated by what happens right after God cuts a covenant with Abraham. His post-menopausal wife, Sarah, gives him her slave Hagar to produce a son for him; and instead of continuing to wait for a miraculous birth, Abraham cooperates. But God seems disappointed, and makes a new covenant with Abraham. Besides requiring circumcision as a condition, God specifies that Sarah must be the mother of the son who inherits the covenant, and says: I will bless her, and also give you a son from her. (Genesis 17:16)
From then on, God apparently does not trust humans to make their own arrangements without at least a few divine rules to guide them.
Today people make many conditional contracts with each other: for rent, for employment, for services. Some people also try to bargain with God, promising to do something they think God wants in exchange for a divine favor—as if God could be bribed.
There is also a widespread unconditional covenant between human beings today: marriage. Our wedding rituals can be elaborate (though they do not feature cutting up animals and walking between the pieces). But at the heart of the ceremony, each person promises to be with and support the other (like God promising to favor and protect someone), regardless of what happens.
Today, Jewish circumcision is more like an unconditional covenant with God. Infant boys are dedicated to the God of Israel through circumcision with no expectation that God will grant them fertility or any special favors in return.
But can you imagine God initiating a covenant with a human being today? Can you imagine God raising up or cutting a covenant with you?
What would it be like? Has it already happened, in some subtle way?
Tags: Bereishit, Genesis, good and evil, Noah, torah portion
By the end of the first Torah portion in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God regrets creating human beings, and decides to wipe them out. I offered theories about why God thought the human race was spoiled in two of my earlier blog posts: Noach: Spoiled, and Bereishit: Inner Voices. This year, when I reread the Torah portion named after Noah—Noach in Hebrew—I wondered why such a discouraged God made one exception, and saved Noach and his immediate family from the flood.
Last week’s Torah portion ends: But Noach found favor in the eyes of God. (Genesis/Bereishit 6:8)
This week’s Torah portion, named after Noach, begins: These are the histories of Noach. Noach was a righteous man; in his generations, Noach walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)
Noach (נֹחַ) = Noah; an alternate spelling of noach נוֹחַ)), a form of the verb nuch (נוּח) = come down to rest, settle down.
The first appearance of the verb nuch in the Torah is when Noach’s ark comes to rest on Mount Ararat at the end of the flood in Genesis 8:4. This is also Noach’s turning point, when he finally begins (at the age of 600) to take some initiative: sending out the birds to test the water level, making an animal offering to God, and planting a vineyard.
Before the flood, God tells His favorite person, Noach, that people are evil and the whole world has been spoiled. He gives Noach instructions for making a wooden ark, and says He will flood the earth and destroy all flesh—except for the few humans and animals on the ark.
(I used the pronoun “He” in case because the God character the Torah presents here is quite anthropomorphic, making sweeping generalizations and acting emotionally.)
Later in the Torah, when God tell His favorite person of the era that He is about to commit genocide, that person talks God out of it. Abraham persuades God to refrain from burning up Sodom if there are even ten innocent people in the city. Moses persuades God to give the Israelites a second chance after they worship the Golden Calf.
But Noach is silent. After God has spoken to him, all the Torah says is: And Noach did everything that God commanded him; thus he did. (Genesis 6:22)
God tells Noach to load seven pairs of each of the ritually-pure animals on board, as well as one pair of each of the impure animals. Then He rephrases His plan, saying that He is going make a flood and wipe out everything standing on the face of the earth (Genesis 7:4).
Again, Noach is silent. The Torah repeats: And Noach did everything that God commanded him.
Both times, Noach makes no protest, but only does what God commands. So God floods the earth.
After the flood is over and Noach empties the ark, his first order of business is acting on the hint implied in God’s order to carry seven times as many of the animals that are ritually pure (according to the rules for purity laid out later, in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra).
Then Noach built an altar for God, and he took from all of the ritually-pure animals and from all of the ritually-pure birds; and rising-offerings went up [in smoke] on the altar. And God smelled the nichoach aroma, and God said to His heart: I will not again draw back to curse the earth on account of the human, for the impulse of the human heart is bad in its youth … (Genesis/Bereishit, 8:20-21)
nichoach (נִיחֹחַ) = soothing or pleasing to a god. (The use of this word may be a play on Noach’s name, and may also imply that the god in question will be inclined to come down and rest its presence over the sacrifice.)
Noach’s action puts God in a better mood. God has another change of heart, and views the human condition more optimistically and rationally. According to classic commentary, God decides that it is only natural for children to act on their bad impulses, but adults can learn to control these impulses and be good. So God tells Himself not to overreact to human misdeeds again.
Why does the aroma of Noach’s offering soothe God?
Maybe the God character in the Torah, like other Canaanite gods, loves the smell of burning animals. This would explain why God favored Abel’s animal offering and rejected Cain’s plant offering. It would also explain why slaughtering and burning livestock was the primary method of worshiping God from the time of Genesis down to the fall of the second temple 70 BCE. God really liked that barbecue smell, so that’s what the Israelites gave Him.
On the other hand, maybe God provided Noach with excess ritually-pure animals because He remembered Cain and Abel’s spontaneous offerings, and wanted to make sure Noach had something to offer if he happened to feel spontaneous gratitude for being saved from the flood. The thick clouds of smoke from the combustion of more than 33 kinds of birds and beasts reassures God that Noach does, indeed, feel grateful. So God concludes that adults, at least, can feel and act on good impulses.
So have many commentators, from Philo of Alexandria in the first century C.E. to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in the 19th century. But I think both those commentators and the God character in the Torah still had more to learn about human psychology.
Why Noach Burned the Animals
I can imagine Noach acting purely out of fear of this God of wholesale destruction, who cares nothing about innocent children or animals. Noach might well be moved to burn as many animals as possible in the hope of forestalling the Destroyer’s next whimsy.
Another possibility is that Noach acts out of despair. When the flood begins, he had to hustle his own family and the animals he has collected into the ark, then keep everyone else out of it. God closes the door into the ark, but perhaps Noach could still hear the cries of his own neighbors and the sobbing of frightened children.
When the flood waters sink, Noach would see not only mud and broken trees, but floating corpses. He goes ahead and sacrifices the excess ritually-pure animals because he has figured out God wants him to. There is no point in disobeying God now. He wishes he had spoken up earlier, before the earth was destroyed. Did God leave another hint that he missed? Could he have done anything to save more people? Now it is too late, and Noach has to live with himself.
He listens to God’s speech giving instructions for living in the new world, and promising that a flood will never destroy the earth again. But I think Noach is too depressed to care. As soon as God is done talking, Noach plants a vineyard. In the next sentence, he gets drunk.
Some commentators criticize Noach for his silent obedience. But when I reflect on my own life, I know that the number of times I spoke up in favor of justice or mercy were few in comparison with all the times I felt powerless and kept my mouth shut. When the person in authority has absolute power and does not show compassion, it is hard to risk a loss of acceptance, loss of a job, or even loss of one’s life. I can only feel sorry for Noach.
The most frightening thing about the Torah portion Noach is that the person in authority is a god, a god who gets carried away by egotistical emotions and has only a primitive sense of justice. Even today, natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions can be taken as evidence of a morally deficient god.
That’s why, when I write about these parts of the Torah, I often refer to “the God character”. The anthropomorphic character that the Torah stories refer to by various names of God is simply not the same as the creator of the universe; or the theologians’ omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being; or the essence and totality of existence; or even the mysterious unknown we sometimes sense with our non-rational minds.
Yet we can still learn from Torah stories in which the God character not only creates and tests and destroys human beings, but also learns from them. There is a God character inside each of our psyches, as well as a Noach, and an Abraham, and maybe even a Moses.
Tags: Bereishit, free will, Genesis, God, good and evil, torah portion, Tree of Knowledge, Tree of Life
In the first creation story in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God makes human beings in Its image, male and female, and ends the sixth “day” by deciding that everything is “very good”. The Torah does not say in what way human beings resemble God.
Then we get a second creation story. In this story (attributed by scholars to an older source), God creates a single human before inventing plants or other animals.
And God formed ha-adam of dust from ha-adamah, and [God] blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and ha-adam became a nefesh chayah. (Genesis/Bereishit 2:7)
ha-adam (הָאָדָם) = the human, humankind, the earthling.
ha-adamah (הָאֲדָמָה) = the earth, the dirt.
nefesh chayah (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה) = animated animal, living creature.
Instead of simply making humans in God’s image, as in the first creation story, God shapes a human body and breathes life into it—the same process God uses later in the story to create various birds and mammals. Then God makes a place outside the world where the archetypal human can acquire a divine trait, and thereby become an image of God, unlike other animals.
Then God planted a garden in Eiden mikedem, and It put there ha-adam that It had formed. And God made sprout from the earth every tree that was desirable in appearance and good for food, and the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. (Genesis 2:8-9)
Eiden (עֵדֶן) = Eden; luxury, pampering, delight.
mikedem (מִקֶּדֶם) = from the east, from primeval time.
God invites the human to eat from all but one of the trees in the garden.
And God laid an order on ha-adam, saying: From every tree in the garden you may certainly eat. But from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you may not eat from it, because on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die. (Genesis 2:16-17)
What about the Tree of Life, which is also in the middle of the garden? By giving the human permission to eat from every tree except the Tree of Knowledge, God offers the human the option of eating from the Tree of Life—whose fruit, we learn later in the story, confers immortality.
When I reread the story this year, I realized that God subtly gives ha-adam a choice between the two trees. If the archetypal human eats from the Tree of Knowledge, it will gain the divine characteristic of moral knowledge, but it will be doomed to die. If it eats from the Tree of Life, if will gain the divine characteristic of immortality, but will it lose the ability to discover morality?
The first human being is not yet human enough to react with curiosity. It asks no questions, and apparently refrains from the fruit of both the trees in the middle of the garden. Eventually God separates the two sides of the human into two individuals, one male and one female. This does the trick; the woman is curious enough to hear the questions and arguments of the snake (another of God’s creations), including the comment:
For God knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God, knowing good and bad. (Genesis 3:5)
We already know that every tree in the garden is desirable in appearance and good for food (Genesis 2:9). The woman now notices a third way in which the Tree of Knowledge is “good”.
The woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it satisfied a craving of the eyes, and the tree was desirable for haskil, so she took some fruit and she ate; and she gave also her to her man with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:7)
haskil (הַשְׂכִּיל) = understanding, having insight.
Both humans want divine insight so much, they forget about the Tree of Life and eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. They gain a basic concept of morality, and the ability to figure out what is good and bad on their own.
The two primeval humans do not keel over dead that day. Instead, God tells them they will return to the world, where life will be hard, and eventually they will die and turn back into dust. God mentions the pain of childbirth, and the man notices that there will be birth as well as death in the world.
So ha-adam called the name of his woman Chavah, because she herself had become a mother of all life. (Genesis 3:20)
Chavah (חַוָּה) = Eve; a variant of chayah = living animal, vigorous, to bring to life.
Instead of immortality, humankind chooses moral knowledge and life in this world, which is inseparable from birth and death.
And God said: Here, the human has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, and now, lest he stretch out its hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever—! (Genesis 3:22)
This sentence raises obvious two questions. What does God mean by saying the human has become like one of us? (Next year I want to write about all the hints of multiple gods in this first Torah portion, including in the passage above.) Secondly, why can’t the humans eat from both trees? Why shouldn’t they acquire a second divine characteristic?
I think the answer is that in our universe, everything is in flux, constantly changing. Even stars burn out. And every living thing is born, grows, experiences pain, and dies. Life in this world is mortal. Immortality can only apply to something outside our universe, outside time and space—like the garden of Eiden.
But our world also presents human beings with moral choices that matter. We can choose actions that increase the life and well-being of others, or actions that increase death and pain. Our ability to puzzle out good and bad depends on living in this world.
So God sent [the human] out from the garden of Eiden, to serve the earth from which it had been taken. And [God] banished the human, and It set up in front of the garden of Eiden the cherubim and the flame of the whirling sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life. (Genesis 3:23-24)
Human beings in the real world can resemble God in having moral understanding, but we cannot resemble God by living forever.
Other ancient religions told stories about how human heroes tried, but failed, to become like the gods by eating or bringing home plants that would confer immortality. The remarkable thing about the second creation story in Genesis is that humankind gets a different divine characteristic: moral insight.
The rest of the book of Genesis can be read as a story about how both humans and God begin to learn how to apply moral insight to situations in the world. For example, when Cain becomes enraged, God tries to warn him against killing his brother, but it takes the rest of the book for the humans to figure out how brothers can tolerate each other. When God decides to wipe out Sodom, Abraham tries to teach God to judge humans individually instead of punishing the innocent with the guilty, but God does not always apply the lesson.
We are still learning how to behave ethically. As our moral insights develop, many humans have learned how to be good in ways that neither the people nor the God-character in the Torah imagined. (For example, see my earlier post, Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame.)
We can never acquire immortality in this world, but we are still tasting the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. May we all remember how precious and desirable our moral insight is, and pause to think about our moral choices.
Tags: Canaan, Deuteronomy, Genesis, Phoenicians, religion, torah portion, Zevulun
This week Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the year. This Saturday is Shabbat Shuva, and the Torah portion is Ha-azinu (Use your ears). In the last few years, I have written four posts on Ha-azinu: Upright, Devious, and Struggling; The Tohu Within; Raining Insights; and Hovering. But since I will be traveling for three weeks, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur and Sukkot, this post will look at the Torah portion Vezot Habrakhah (“And this is the blessing”), the last portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim.
On Simchat Torah (October 16-17 this year) a Jewish tradition is to finish Deuteronomy and start the new annual cycle of Torah readings with the opening of Genesis/Bereishit. That first Torah portion will be the subject of my first post when I get home in a few weeks!
In the last Torah portion of Deuteronomy, Moses pronounces prophecies for each of the tribes of Israel, as well as blessing all the Israelites, before he climbs Mount Nevo to die. The text of the “blessings” of the tribes that has been handed down to us is somewhat corrupted by scribal error, according to modern scholars. But it still expands Jacob’s “blessings” of the tribes near the end of Genesis/Bereishit.
Jacob pronounces blessings, or prophecies, about his twelve sons before he pulls his feet up into his bed and dies. Each prophecy is really about the tribe that will bear that son’s name. (See my earlier post, Vayechi: Fierce Brothers.) But earlier in Genesis, Jacob’s sons are characters in the story.
Half of the twelve sons are the equivalent of spear-carriers; the Torah gives them neither lines nor stage business. Unlike their eponymous tribes, the only identities these six sons have are their names—Dan, Naftali, Gad, Asher, Yissakhar, and Zevulun—and the meanings their mothers or adoptive mothers assign to their names.
The youngest spear-carrier is Zevulun, Leah’s sixth and last son. When he is born, Leah says: God gave a gift to me, a good gift; [this] time my husband yizbeleini because I bore him six sons. And she called his name Zevulun. (Genesis/Bereishit 30:20)
yisbeleini (יִזְבְּלֵנִי) = he will elevate me, he will exalt me, he will honor me. (The root of this verb, זבל, is the same as the root of the name Zevulun.)
Zevulun (זְבֻלוּן) = exalted place, place of honor.
As with all the other baby-namings in the Torah, the name indicates the parent’s state of mind. We learn nothing about the character of Leah’s sixth son from his name.
But we do learn something about Zevulun’s tribe when Jacob recites his prophetic poem about the tribes from his deathbed. He says: Zevulun, at the shore of the sea he will dwell; and he will be a shore for ships, and his flank will be upon Tzidon. (Genesis 49:13)
Tzidon (צִידֹן) = Sidon; one of the first Phoenician port cities on the Mediterranean Sea. (Tzidon is now the city of Sayda in Lebanon).
The second prophetic poem about the tribes, spoken by Moses in the last Torah portion of Deuteronomy, combines the tribe of Zevulun with the tribe that bears the name of Leah’s fifth son, Yissakhar (often spelled Issachar in English).
And to Zevulun he said: Rejoice, Zevulun, in your going out, and Yissakhar, in your tents. They will call peoples to the mountain; there they will slaughter slaughter-offerings of righteousness; for they will suckle on the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sand. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 33:18-20)
Both poems about the tribes of Israel claim that the territory of Zevulun includes a piece of the Mediterranean coast. Jacob’s poem says Zevulun will extend as far as Tzidon, but in the book of Joshua, when the tribal territories are allocated by lot, it is Asher, Zevulun’s northern neighbor, that reaches as far as the great city of Tzidon.
The boundaries of Zevulun given in the book Joshua include many place-names we cannot identify today, and do not mention any coastline. The one identifiable place in the description of Zevulun’s land is Beit-Lechem. The coast west of Beit-Lechem of Galilee is Haifa Bay, which lies south of both Tzidon and Tzor (Sidon and Tyre ), the two major Phoenician cities at the time. But the Phoenicians had coastal villages farther south, as far as Dor.
The coast south of Dor, from Ashdod to Gaza, was being invaded by the Plishtim (Philistines) around the time of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, which the Bible places circa 1300 B.C.E. The Plishtim migrated from Crete and other islands across the sea, and after seizing their beachheads on the coast, they fought for centuries to conquer more of Canaan.
But the Bible does not record any hostile actions by Phoenicians against Israelites. Could Zevulun have shared the Mediterranean coast with them?
I think so. Historically, both the Israelites and the Phoenicians spoke a Canaanite dialect in the Semetic language family, and the writings of both peoples reveal roots in Canaanite culture.
In the Bible, the people of Zevulun get along with non-Israelite neighbors. Although Moses instructs the Israelites to dispossess the Canaanites and drive all the natives out of the land, the first book of Judges lists the tribes that did not do so. Zevulun is one of the tribes that lives alongside the Canaanites.
Furthermore, even Moses’ poem about the tribes predicts that Zevulun and Yissakhar will call peoples to the mountain; there they will slaughter slaughter-offerings of righteousness. (Deuteronomy 33:19) Rather than trekking all the way to Israel’s central place of worship, they invite neighboring peoples to join them in offering animal sacrifices at a local mountain in the Galilee. And even though Deuteronomy is full of warnings to worship God at only one place, the poem Moses recites at the end of his life calls the neighborly offerings on a local mountain “righteous”.
Zevulun’s reward for friendly relations with its Phoenician neighbors is a share of Phoenician wealth, which came from maritime trade, fishing, and the sale of valuable purple dye and white (milk) glass. The dye came from mollusks found on that part of the coast, and the glass was made from the high-quality sand on the shore. The commentaries agree that these Phoenician products must be the hidden treasures of the sand mentioned in Deuteronomy 33:20.
This glimpse into the ways of Zebulun is a welcome contrast with all the times the Hebrew Bible urges the Israelites to treat other peoples as enemies. The Bible often condones vicious pre-emptive wars against Canaanites, Amorites, Midianites, and assorted other peoples in the region. (For an example, see my post Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame.) Apparently God, Moses, and many of the prophets (at least as portrayed in the Bible) believe the Israelites are so easily tempted to abandon their own religion, they must commit genocide lest they learn about another attractive cult.
There is a better way to prevent people from discarding their God and their religion: make the religious practices more inspiring and more likely to touch the heart. The Torah illustrates this method in the book of Exodus, when the anxious people turn to the Golden Calf, but then turn back to God with joy and dedication when Moses gives them the chance to make a beautiful sanctuary for God.
Zevulun offers another illustration, by adopting the Phoenician way of making a livelihood, and inviting their foreign friends to join them in making offerings to God on a nearby mountain. They drop the rule about worshiping God only at the central sanctuary. But in exchange they gain peace with their neighbors—without abandoning their own god. And the Torah portion Vezot Habrakhah says their offerings are righteous.
I think the hidden treasures of the sand that Zevulun enjoys are not only milk glass and purple dye, but also the treasures that come from tolerance and goodwill.
May all people learn how to preserve their religions by offering friendship to strangers as they offer their hearts to their own gods.
Tags: Canaan, Deuteronomy, God, mysticism, religion, torah portion
Hanistarot is for God, our god, and haniglot is for us and for our children forever, to do all the words of this Torah. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 29:18)
hanistarot (הַנִּסְתָּרֹת) = what is hidden, concealed, secret.
haniglot (הַנִּגְלֹת) = what is revealed, uncovered, exposed.
In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“taking a stand”), the sentence above is wedged in between two predictions. The first is that the Israelites will worship other gods and then God will destroy their land and exile them. The second is that eventually the Israelites will return to God and God will return them to the land.
Does the sentence about what is concealed and revealed have anything to do with Moses’ predictions? Since the sentence follows Moses’ prediction that the Israelites will commit the “sin” of worshiping other gods, some commentary assumes this sentence is about sins. According to Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), it means that if a sin is committed so secretly that nobody could discover it, then God is responsible for punishing the individual offender. But if a sin is committed openly, it is up to the community to punish the offender; “and if we do not execute judgment upon these, then the whole community will be punished” by God.
Other commentators relate the sentence about the concealed and the revealed to the next passage, where Moses predicts that the exiled Israelites will return to God, and then God will gather them all back to the land of Canaan. In this case, what is concealed is the length of the exile. The future is always hidden from human beings. What is revealed is what we should do in the meantime: all the words of this Torah. In other words, we and our descendants must strive to obey the 613 rules in the Torah as much as we can. (See last week’s post, Ki Tavo: Writing in Stone.)
A third strand of commentary, starting in the Talmud, interprets “what is secret (hanistarot) is for God” as a warning to individuals against pursuing arcane mystical knowledge. “What is revealed (haniglot)” is the Torah, which is good for us to study.
In the Babylonian Talmud (written by rabbis living under Persian rule in the first few centuries C.E.) the tractate Chaggigah mentions rabbis who taught about Ezekiel’s mystical vision of the chariot. Then it points out the dangers of pursuing arcane knowledge by offering a story about four great Torah scholars who entered a pardeis.
Pardeis (פַּרְדֵּס), often translated as “paradise”, is a Persian word for an orchard or an enclosed garden. Chaggigah 14b uses a pardeis as an image of the “upper worlds” of heaven, a realm of spiritual truth divorced from the physical world.
The four famous scholars who enter the pardeis in this story are Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, the “other” (Elisha ben Avuya), and Rabbi Akiva, their senior. Ben Azzai glimpses the divine presence, abandons his body, and dies. Ben Zoma glimpses the divine presence, suffers from a consuming a surfeit of “honey”, and loses his mind. Elisha ben Avuya, the “other”, glimpses the divine presence, but sees a duality: God versus an angel (Metatron) who is sitting and recording the merits of Israel. The Talmud says Elisha “chopped down the shoots” of saplings, i.e. became a heretic who separated God (the root) from the angel (the shoot). Only Rabbi Akiva comes out of the pardeis safely.
When the scholars are entering the pardeis, Akiva warns them that they will see pure marble stones that appear to be water, but they must not say “water, water”. Perhaps Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, and Elisha ben Avuya were unable to distinguish between polished marble and water—that is, between two key points in mystical understanding of the divine—and the result was death, madness, or heresy. Hanistarot, what is secret, belongs to God, and very few can perceive one of God’s secrets and remain whole.
In the 12th century B.C.E., Rambam (Moses Maimonides) wrote that the hidden secret (hanistarot) in the sentence from this week’s Torah portion is Kabbalah, and the revealed wisdom (haniglot) is the Torah. Those who learn Kabbalah must still take care to observe the rules of the Torah in the world of physical action.
Today I encounter people who are so fascinated by mysticism that they ignore the Rambam’s advice, and spend all their energy pursuing an “oh, wow!” state of mind. Sometimes I get the impression that anything arcane and mysterious attracts these people, as long as it is non-logical and only tenuously related to the world we live in. These ungrounded mystics seem to assume they can transcend the rules in the Torah and rise above their own psychological (soul) issues. They appear to be more concerned with feeling love, than with thinking about what actions might be loving.
I also encounter people who want to “do all the words of this Torah”, but prefer specific rules about physical actions over admonitions to change their heart and soul. If they are Jews, they may be strict about keeping kosher, but not so thorough about loving their fellows as themselves. Examining their own psyches in order to love other people is too much for them.
In between these two types are the people who cautiously mine mystical claims for insight without trying to enter pardeis. They are enthusiastic about how religion can be applied to ethics and personal insight. Figuring out how to love one’s fellow as oneself, for example, is more important to them than either feeling ecstatic or following all the rules.
I want to belong to that third group. I want to investigate my own soul and stay grounded in my life here on earth. I want to borrow an occasional idea from Kabbalah without getting lost in it, and I want to use the Torah’s concrete rules as guidelines for behavior, to be reinterpreted if following the letter of the law gets in the way of following its spirit.
So I can subscribe to first part of the sentence from this week’s Torah portion:
Hanistarot [what is hidden] is for God, our god, and haniglot [what is revealed] is for us and for our children …
But I would like to end the sentence this way:
… to study all the words of this Torah, and apply them thoughtfully to our lives.
Tags: Deuteronomy, limewash, Moses, religion, standing stones, torah portion
Carve something on a stone, and set it upright as a memorial or a boundary marker. People have been doing this all over the world for millennia. Americans today still erect gravestones and mark historic sites with upright stones bearing text.
Anyone can read the inscribed stone or stele and learn something—about the battle that took place at that spot, or the boundary it marks, or the person who is buried there.
In the ancient Middle East, most steles recorded victories in battle. But the oldest stele discovered so far from that region is a stone seven and a half feet high, with the Code of Hammurabi carved into it during the 18th century B.C.E. The 282 laws of the reigning Babylonian king are written in Akkadian.
Standing stones without any words carved into them are even older. Only oral tradition can tell subsequent generations what the stones commemorated. A stranger from another place or a later time who sees a blank monument, or a circle of tall stones, knows only that they are significant, not what they signify.
The first standing stones in the Torah are uncarved. In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob erects four different matzeivot or standing stones, marking the sites of his dream of angels, the boundary between his area of influence and his father-in-law Lavan’s, and his wife Rachel’s grave.
Moses erects twelve standing stones at the foot of Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus/Shemot, to represent the twelve tribes of Israel in their covenant with God. But the only inscribed stones in Exodus are the two small tablets bearing the ten commandments, and they are so sacred that they are carried inside the ark, which must never be touched or opened.
At Mount Sinai and in the wilderness, the blank stones that depend on mutable oral tradition are out in public. But the immutable, fixed written words are hidden in a sacred place.
Moses does not call for standing stones with writing on them until this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you enter”), in the book of Deuteromy/Devarim.
Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying: Observe the entire commandment that I command you this day. And it shall be, on the day that you cross over the Jordan into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, you shall erect for yourself great stones, vesadeta them with the siyd. And you shall write on them all the words of this torah when you cross over, so that you may come into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as God, the god of your forefathers, has spoken to you. (Deuteronomy 27:1-3)
vesadeta (וְשַׂדְתָּ) = and you shall limewash (coat them with a paint-like mixture of lime and water).
siyd (שִׂיד) = lime, quicklime, limewash.
torah (תוֹרָה) = teaching. (The word torah also refers to the first five books of the Bible, to the whole Hebrew Bible, and to any teaching of Jewish law or religion.)
The people of the ancient Middle East made quicklime (calcium oxide powder) by burning bones. Adding enough water to slake the lime turns it into calcium hydroxide, which can be mixed with additional water to make limewash. Limewash is still used to coat surfaces in order to make them smooth and white; the coating hardens into a thin shell of limestone, which may last for millennia in dry conditions. Remnants survive of a text painted in ink on a white limewashed wall in the 8th century B.C.E.
Thus the text on Moses’ limewashed stones could have been readable for many centuries. The Hebrew Bible does not specify which torah Moses wants on the stones, but it must include some or all of the laws from the written Torah we have today—the first five books of the Bible, as copied and recopied on parchment and paper. According to 12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, Moses means the 613 commandments that the Talmud (Makkot 23b) says are in the five books. Other commentary speculates that Moses is calling for the code of laws in the book of Deuteronomy (chapters 13-26), or for the whole book of Deuteronomy (which would fit on two stones the size of the one used for the Code of Hammurabi).
Until this point in the Torah, Moses passes down God’s laws by announcing them verbally to the assembly of Israelites. Only in this week’s Torah portion does Moses call for laws to be “carved in stone”—or at least painted on limestone—and set out in a public place: the top of Mount Eyval, next to the ancient town of Shekhem.
And it shall be when you cross over the Jordan, you shall erect these stones, as I command you this day, on Mount Eyval; vesadeta them with the siyd. And you shall build there an altar for God, your god … (Deuteronomy 27:4-5)
Moses continues with orders for offerings at the altar, followed by a ritual of blessings and curses to indicate acceptance of God’s law. (See my earlier post, Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.)
On the bare summit of Mount Eyval, the stones would be visible from a distance, as shining white pillars against the sky.
Perhaps the author of this section of Deuteronomy imagined that the steles on Mount Eyval would be like the Code of Hammurabi, which many scribes over the centuries copied onto clay tablets. In the Talmud (Sotah 35b), Rabbi Yehudah imagines scribes from different Canaanite tribes visiting the stones on Mount Eyval and bringing home copies of their text.
Yet ancient scribes, including those who copied the Hebrew Bible, not only made copying errors, but also felt free to insert additional material. The steles on Mount Eyval would stand as a permanent record of the original laws of Moses, whatever amendments people made later.
From the viewpoint of the storyline within the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ desire for a permanent, immutable, and public record of the laws is understandable. He is about to die, and he believes the Israelites, with their history of backsliding, will eventually abandon God’s laws and convert to Canaanite religions. Moses’ last hope of preserving his religion is to write it down.
He writes multiple copies of “this torah” in Deuteronomy 31:9, and a book of “this torah” to be placed inside the ark in Deuteronomy 31:24-26. All of these writings appear to be on parchment scrolls. But he also wants a more permanent record, so he orders the limewashed standing stones.
From the viewpoint of modern scholarship, Deuteronomy was written much later than Numbers, probably after the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. King Josiah of Judah, the southern kingdom, wanted public support for conquering the old northern territory and reinstating the old religion the two kingdoms shared. The description of a permanent monument bearing the laws of Moses might make King Josiah’s people feel that the religion of the God of Israel should persist.
From the viewpoint of a practicing Jew today, I would say the religion could not have survived this long without additions and reinterpretations. Of the 613 mitzvot or commandments in the five books of the Torah, as compiled by Rambam (12th-century rabbi Moses Maimonides), only 271 can be observed at all today. (Many of the old laws were about sacrifices at the temple, a method of worship that ended about 2,000 years ago with the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem.)
And some of the commandments are clearly inferior to ethical customs that Jews adopted later in their history. For example, although the Torah includes highly ethical commandments (such as not to insult, embarrass, or slander people), it also contains commandments such as the requirement that a rapist must marry his victim if she is single (Deuteronomy 22:29). There was a reason for that law in Judah 2,700 years ago, but 21st-century American society has better ways of handling the situation.
If archaeologists ever discover limewashed stones with some laws of Moses written on them, I pray that we may view the laws as artefacts, not immutable rules to follow forever. Reinterpretations of both oral traditions and traditional writings are what keep a religion alive, and let it walk farther on the path of virtue.
Tags: Deuteronomy, gleaning, omer, torah portion
Last week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, told us not to cut down fruit trees when we are besieging a city. By Talmudic times, this injunction had been expanded into the principle of bal taschchit, do not destroy anything useful. (See my post Shoftim: Saving Trees.)
Some of the rules in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“When you go out”), have been similarly expanded. Here is one, nicknamed “The Forgotten Sheaf”:
If you harvest your harvest in your field, and you forget an omer in the field, you shall not turn back to take it. It shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow, so that God, your god, will bless you in everything your hands do. (Deuteronomy/Devarium 24:19)
omer (עֹמֶר) = a dry measure, roughly 2 quarts or 2 liters, used in the Torah for both manna and cut ears of grain.
The word omer is sometimes translated as “sheaf”, but the omer of manna discussed in the book of Exodus/Shemot consists of tiny white spheres the size of coriander seed. Manna could hardly be gathered into a sheaf! Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the word omer refers to grain, and can easily be translated as a quantity of grain heads. (The sheaves in Joseph’s dream in Genesis/Bereishit are called alumim (אֲלֻמִּים), an entirely different word.)
Commentators over the centuries have agreed that the purpose of the rule about the so-called “Forgotten Sheaf” could not be to provide for the poor (epitomized by three types of people unlikely to own land or to be supported by wealthy men: resident aliens, orphans, and widows). One omer of grain might feed one person for one day. Landowners and their employees would have to be extraordinarily forgetful to accidentally leave enough grain to feed all the poor in their area.
Moreover, the Torah already requires landowners to deliberately leave behind grain, grapes, and other produce for the poor to glean.
When you harvest the harvest of your land, you shall not finish harvesting to the edge of your field, nor gather up the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vines nor gather up your fallen grapes in your vineyard; to the poor and to the stranger you shall leave them. (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:9-10)
The Torah portion for this week in Deuteronomy adds orchards to the fields and vineyards.
When you beat out your olive tree, you shall not strip the branches behind you; they shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow. (Deuteronomy 24:20)
If landowners are already required to leave food in their fields, vineyards, and orchards for the poor to glean, why does the Torah tell them not to go back and gather an omer they forgot about?
The 13th-century book Sefer Ha-Chinukh answers that the purpose of this commandment is to help people develop the habit of generosity. Even if you are giving to the poor as required by gleaning laws, tithes, or taxes, as you work to increase your own wealth you must still cultivate the belief that sharing wealth is more important than maximizing your own profit.
Philo of Alexandria’s commentary, written in the first century C.E., criticizes people who devote themselves exclusively to increasing their own wealth, and never notice that their gains would be impossible without the natural world God gives us. (I would add that the gains of the money-hungry also require the labor of other people.) And in the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that the commandment not to go back for the forgotten omer is intended to clear possessiveness and greed from your thoughts.
Besides breaking the habits of possessiveness and greed, leaving the forgotten omer behind might also help someone to overcome the habits of worrying about being cheated, or thinking of everything in terms of private property.
What if a farmer left grain in the field, and nobody came by to pick it up? Would this violate the principle of bal tashchit, “do not waste”?
This was not an issue in ancient Israel, where there were always people without land of their own who gleaned to feed themselves.
Gleaning projects are being revived today in the United States, collecting food that would otherwise be wasted. But we can also update the principle of the forgotten omer. What if you are fumbling with your purse or billfold, and you accidentally drop money on the sidewalk? If you leave it behind, the money will not go to waste; someone will pick it up. What if you forget to collect your change at the counter, or discover you left too large a tip? Going back for your money would shrink your soul. Leaving it for someone else gives you practice in keeping your priorities straight.
When you have forgotten to do a good deed, go back. But when you have forgotten to be selfish, go on, and be grateful for your forgetfulness.