Tags: Exodus, matzot, Passover, Pesach, torah portion
In the Hebrew Bible, Passover appears to be a conflation of three holidays:
* chag ha-aviv (“festival of the new ears of grain”), a one-day celebration of spring on the 15th of the month that called Aviv until the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E, then renamed Nissan.
* chag ha-matzot (“festival of the unleavened bread”), a seven-day period of refraining from eating, or owning, any leavened food. This period fell at the beginning of the barley harvest in the spring.
* pesach (“skipping over”), a one-day observance in Aviv, in which a lamb or goat kid was sacrificed, and the meat was roasted and eaten in one night.
Some modern scholars speculate that the Torah combines an ancient festival of matzot (when farmers cleared out their old grain products in preparation for the new grain) with an ancient festival of pesach (when shepherds celebrated the spring lambing by sacrificing a lamb and performing a skipping dance)—and then incorporates both spring holidays in the story of the exodus from Egypt.
Thus the special Torah reading for the first day of Passover, Exodus 12:21-51 (in the Torah portion Bo), begins with Moses’ instructions to the Israelites for the night of the tenth and final plague in Egypt: the death of the firstborn. Each family must slaughter a lamb as a pesach offering, paint the blood on the lintel and doorposts of its home, and stay indoors all night, eating the roasted meat, while God “skips over” the marked houses and kills only the firstborn children of the Egyptians. The Torah adds that the Israelites shall continue to re-enact this ritual every spring.
Then, after describing the final plague and Pharaoh’s command that the Israelites leave at once, the Torah says:
The people picked up their dough before it could become chameitz, their kneading-troughs wrapped up in their cloaks upon their shoulders. …And the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Sukkot… And they baked the dough that they had taken from Mitzrayim in rounds of matzot, because it was not chameitz, because they were banished from Mitzrayim and they could not delay, and they had not even prepared provisions for themselves. (Exodus 12:34, 37, 39)
chameitz (חָמֵץ) = leavened bread, leavened food.
Mitzrayim (מִצְרַיִם) = Egypt. The dual form —ayim (ַיִם) probably refers to the combined kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. The first three letters, מצר, might be related to the word meitzar (מֵצַר) = narrow strait, constriction, confinement, bondage.
I have always found the above explanation of the festival of matzot unconvincing. If the normally made leavened bread in Egypt, then they would always have a jar of sourdough starter bubbling in the house. Why not bring that jar along with a kneading-trough and flour? The story in the book of Exodus smacks of a post-hoc, invented rationale.
Nevertheless, one of the special Torah readings for intermediate days of the week of Passover, Exodus 13:1-16 (also in the Torah portion Bo), makes the festival of matzot an essential part of the observance of Passover:
Moses said to the people: Remember this day on which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery. For with a strong hand God brought you out from this, and you shall not eat chameitz. Today you are leaving, in the month of Aviv… and it will happen when God brings you into the land…then you shall serve this service in this month. Seven days you shall eat matzot, and on the seventh day [will be] a festival for God. Matzot shall be eaten these seven days, and chameitz must not be seen with you, and se-or must not be seen with you in all your borders. And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: Because of this, God acted for me when I went out from Egypt. (Exodus 13:3-8)
se-or (שְׂאֹר) = sourdough starter; any leavening agent.
Throughout history, religions have connected their new holidays to pre-existing holidays. Sometimes the only real connection between the new and old holiday seems to be the time of year. Spring is certainly a good time of year to celebrate both the promise of new grain and the concept of liberation.
But the connection between the festival of matzot and the story of liberation from Egypt may be deeper than that.
In last week’s post, Tzav & Pesach: Being Unleavened, Part 1, I wrote about the symbolic meanings of matzot and chameitz proposed by Philo of Alexandria in the first century C.E. and by Rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch in the 19th century.
Philo considered how leaven makes bread rise and puff up, like an arrogant person. He wrote that eating matzot is a reminder of our humility before God.
Hirsch wrote that chameitz is the bread of independence, and matzot the bread of dependence. Among other arguments, he cited a verse from the special Torah reading for the eighth day of Passover, Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17 (in the Torah portion Re-eih):
Seven days you shall eat matzot, the bread of oni, because in hurried flight you went out from the land of Egypt—so that you shall remember the day of your exodus from the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:3)
oni (עֹנִי) = misery, wretchedness; a state of dependence due to poverty.
By eating matzot in remembrance of our deliverance from slavery, Hirsch argued, we acknowledge that we did not escape from poverty and oppression by our own actions, but only because of God’s actions: the ten plagues or miracles, and the warnings God communicated through Moses. We rose to the independence represented by chameitz only because God lifted us out of Egypt.
That is as far as Hirsch went. But I wonder: Does leaven itself represent one aspect the divine? What if God is the fermentation in our souls, and in the world, which leads to liberation and expansion?
During Passover we might acknowledge that without the divine spark, we would be as flat as matzah. We could not escape from Egypt, Mitzrayim, or the constrictions in our own souls. We would be slaves to our genetic predispositions and to all the psychological complexes we have acquired during our lives.
But if the divine spark in our souls bubbles up like the se-or that bubbles up and makes bread rise, and we are inspired with an insight, then we can make different decisions. With a holy insight, we can push open some of the narrow places in our psyches, and expand into a new life of more freedom and independence.
But we cannot change from matzot into chameitz through sheer willpower. It takes a touch of leavening, and that is a gift from God.
The festival called Chag ha-Matzot, Pesach, or in English, Passover, lasts for seven days in Israel. By Jewish tradition, Passover lasts for eight days outside of Israel (to make sure that those who live far away will be observing Passover during all of Israel’s seven days). This year in the diaspora, Passover begins on a Friday evening and ends on a Saturday evening the following week. That means we will study the special Torah portions for Passover—including the ones in this blog post—for two weeks.
So it will be two weeks before I return to the annual cycle of Torah portions, and post my new thoughts on Shemini, the next Torah portion in the book of Leviticus.
May all my Jewish readers have a happy Passover! And may some divine insight bubble up in everyone during this change of seasons.
Tags: fire offerings, leavened, Leviticus, matzot, minchah, prayer, todah, torah portion, unleavened
If you mix flour and water, spread it flat, and slap it in the oven at once, what comes out is a matzah (plural: matzot): “unleavened bread” that is really a large, bland cracker.
If you mix flour and water and let the mixture sit indoors for six to nine days, adding more flour and water each day, you get frothy sourdough starter, thanks to the activity of wild yeast—invisible microorganisms that cover everything, even flour. Add more flour to the starter, spend a day kneading it, shaping it, and letting it rise twice, and put the balls of dough in the oven. What comes out is chameitz: loaves of leavened bread. To get from flour and water to loaves of sourdough bread takes at least seven days.
The difference between matzot and chameitz is critical in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (“Command”), and even more critical in the Torah readings for the following two weeks, during the holiday of Passover/Pesach.
The Torah first mentions matzot in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, when Abraham’s nephew Lot meets two strangers in the town square of Sodom and invites them home.
He urged them very much, so they turned aside to him and came into his house. And he prepared food and drink, and he baked matzot, and they ate. (Genesis/Berieshit19:3)
matzot (מַצּוֹת) = (plural) unleavened “bread”.
Lot’s wife is not involved in this act of hospitality. Lot himself, who may not even know whether she has dough rising somewhere, simply mixes flour and water and spreads it on the hot inner surface of the oven, so that at least his guests will have crackers to eat with their meal.
The first mention of chameitz in the Torah is in the book of Exodus/Shemot, when God tells Moses what the Israelites should eat during the night of the final plague in Egypt, in preparation for the exodus the next morning. They must eat their meat roasted (the fastest way to cook it) and their bread as matzot (the fastest way to bake it). And every year after that, they must remember the event with matzot:
Seven days you shall eat matzot; but on the first day you shall eliminate se-or from your houses, because anyone who eats chameitz, that soul shall be cut off from Israel—from the first day to the seventh day. (Exodus/Shemot 12:15)
se-or (שְׂאֹר) = leavening agent, sourdough starter.
chameitz (חָמֵץ) = leavened bread, leavened food.
The Torah forbids the people of Israel to eat or own leavened bread during Passover. It also says that leavened bread must never be burned on the altar for God. But this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, gives directions for two kinds of offerings that include matzot burned on the altar: the grain offering and the thanksgiving offering.
And this is the teaching of the minchah: Sons of Aaron, bring it close before God, to the front of the altar. Then (one) shall elevate his handful: some of the fine flour of the minchah and some of its oil and all of its frankincense. Then he shall make it go up in smoke on the altar for a soothing aroma, a memorial portion for God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 6:8)
minchah (מִנְחָה) = grain offering; tribute or gift to express respect and allegiance.
The loose flour sprinkled with oil and frankincense can be burned on the altar because it is dry, and therefore unleavened.
A similar rule applies to the thanksgiving offering, which is made by someone who has emerged safely from a dangerous or oppressive situation. This type of offering includes both meat and grain products, and is divided into three portions: one to burn up on the altar for God, one for the officiating priest to eat, and one for the donor and his guests to eat.
And this is the teaching of the slaughtered-animal of the wholeness-offering that is brought close to God: If as a todah he brings it close, then he shall bring close along with the slaughtered-animal of todah [the following]: round bread of matzot mixed with oil, and thin matzot sprinkled with oil, and fine flour loaves soaked through with oil, along with loaves of chameitz bread. He shall bring close his offering: along with the slaughtered-animal, his whole todah. (Leviticus 7:11-13)
todah (תּוֹדָה) = thanks; thanksgiving offering (one category of shelamim = wholeness-offering).
In other words, the donor brings animals for slaughter, three kinds of matzot, and loaves of leavened bread. Portions of the animals and the matzot are burned on the altar. The officiating priest gets one of each kind of item (including a loaf of chameitz). The rest of the food, including the chameitz, is eaten by the donor and his guests.
Once again, matzot are considered more “holy” than chameitz.
In the first century C.E., Philo of Alexandria wrote that leaven is forbidden on the altar because it makes dough rise, and nobody should be inflated and puffed up by arrogance or insolence in front of God.
In the 19th century C.E., Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggested that chameitz stands for independence, and matzot for dependence. In a thanksgiving offering, Hirsch wrote, the chameitz represents the donor’s well-being and independence in the world. The matzot acknowledges that he regained his worldly independence only through God, upon whom he is always dependent.
As a modern Jew, I am happy to offer prayers and blessings as my tribute (minchah) and my thanks (todah) to the divine. But when I am addressing God, I do not want to waste my time begging a parent-figure to give me what my inflated ego wants. Instead, I want to acknowledge that I am not in charge—with an expression of humility, like tribute to a king, like matzot in a minchah offering.
I also want to give thanks for the amazing and wonderful universe I live in, knowing that I and the rest of the universe exist only because of forces I cannot imagine or control. I want to acknowledge that I am not in charge—with an expression of dependence and appreciation, like giving thanks, like the matzot in a todah offering.
And while I’m at it, I want to express my gratitude for life by sharing my food with others, like the donor of a todah. One of the things I want to share is some chameitz, some lovely leavened bread that stands for my joy over the small sphere of independence and power I have been given.
(Next week, check my blog for Tzav & Pesach: Unleavened, Part 2, which will discuss how ideas about leavened versus unleavened bread apply to the holiday of Passover.)
Tags: God, Leviticus, Masoretic text, torah portion, Vayikra
Vayikra to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1)
vayikra (וַיִּקְרא) = and he/It called, proclaimed, summoned; and he/It met.
The book of Leviticus and its first Torah portion are called Vayikra, the opening word. In Hebrew, the word looks different here than in any other place in the Bible, because of the size of the last letter:
Early copies of the Torah had no diminutive letters. But when the Masoretes wrote their definitive 9th-10th century versions of the Torah, they spelled 28 words with small letters, including Vayikra with a small alef, and the word has appeared that way ever since.
Torah scrolls omit the vowels that the Masoretes added to the text, but keep the Masoretic diminutive letters. So in a Torah scroll, the first word of Leviticus looks like this:
Most of the Masoretic additions to the text of the Hebrew Bible make it easier for someone to read (or chant) the Bible out loud. The nikkudim (marks above, below, and inside letters to indicate vowels and doubled consonants) clarify pronunciation. The trope (cantillation marks above and below letters) indicate which syllables to accent, and which melodic phrases to use for chanting. With both kinds of markings, the first word of Leviticus looks like this:
There are also places where the Masoretic text gives two versions of a word, one (ketiv) in its original spelling (an actual word, but probably a scribal error), and one (kere) in a spelling that makes sense in context.
But the 28 words with diminutive letters would be spoken or chanted the same way regardless of the size of their letters. Why did the Masoretes use small letters?
Some versions of 10th century Masoretic texts include marginal notes, and at least six of these notes on small letters say (in a rough translation of the Aramaic) “small [name of letter] to state the accepted version”. The footnotes for at least four more just say “small” (ze-ira), probably an abbreviation of the note that the letter is small to indicate the accepted version.
In other words, in the versions of the text that the Masoretes found unacceptable, the words were spelled with the controversial letters omitted. For example, the first word of Leviticus was spelled ויקר.
In the accepted version of the text, the words were spelled with the controversial letters included. Vayikra was spelled ויקרא. The Masoretes spelled these words according to the “accepted” version—but they made the controversial letters undersized to document that they were missing in some Torah scrolls.
Out of the 28 words with diminutive letters, seven are proper names, and ten are not even Hebrew words without the small letter. So only eleven of the words might mean something different if the diminutive letter were omitted. And one of these is vayikra, the first word of this week’s Torah portion.
Without the alef (א) at the end, vayikra (וַיִּקְרא = and he/it called, summoned, met, encountered) would be vayiker (וַיִּקֶר = and he/it happened to, befell). The opening sentence would read: And It happened to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.
God “happens to” (וַיִּקֶר) the Mesopotamian prophet Bilam in Numbers/Bemidbar 23:3. God tells Bilam what to do, and then when it is time for him to utter a curse or blessing, God puts the words into Bilam’s mouth. It is a one-way relationship.
But the prophet Moses has a two-way relationship with God. They have long conversations, and sometimes argue with one another. So God wants to get Moses’ attention, God “meets” him or “calls” to him.
In an earlier post, Vayikra: A Voice is Calling, I mentioned that God “called” Moses three times, the first two times from Mount Sinai, and the third time (with the diminutive alef) from the Tent of Meeting. I cited commentary in Rashi and the Zohar that the miniature alef indicates a restriction or muting of the call, and suggested that God switched to an “indoor voice” when the people switched to connecting with God through the vehicle of the sanctuary tent.
This year, I’d like to add that whether you encounter God in a sanctuary, or anywhere else in your life, there are two kinds of encounters. Sometimes a mystical experience just happens to you. If you are like Bilam, your mind is wired in such a way that it happens relatively often.
The other kind of encounter begins when you merely notice the possibility of the numinous—as Moses noticed the bush that burned but was not consumed. You stop and pay attention, and try to figure out what is going on. If you are quiet enough, you may discover that the divine is calling you—as God called to Moses in the first portion of Exodus:
God saw that he had turned aside to look, vayikra to him from amidst the bush, and It said: Moses! Moses! (Exodus/Shemot 3:4)
18th-century rabbi Menahem Nahum Twersky of Chernobyl wrote in Me’or ‘Eynayim , “God the cosmic aleph is present in miniature form within each Israelite, calling us to return. These are our pangs of conscience, but we do not perceive them as God’s own call to us.” (Translated by Rabbi Arthur Green in Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, p. 250.)
Thus a conversation with the divine voice could be a much quieter affair than when God “happens” to someone.
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, at the beginning of the book of Leviticus, God calls Moses with a small alef. Then Moses realizes that completing the Tent of Meeting according to God’s specifications is not the end of his work. Even though God’s radiance has filled the sanctuary, Moses hears the divine inner voice urging him to go back into the Tent of Meeting for further instructions.
May all of us learn how to be still, pay attention, and listen for the call inside ourselves.
Tags: Exodus, holiness, sabbath, Shabbat, Shemot, torah portion
Holy time is more important than holy space. Jewish commentary through the millennia has drawn this conclusion from several key passages in the Torah, including the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”):
And Moses assembled the whole community of the Children of Israel, and he said to them: Six days you shall do melakhah, and the seventh day there shall be holiness for you: a shabbat shabbaton for God. Anyone who does melakhah on it shall be put to death. You shall not kindle a fire in any of your settlements on the day of the shabbat. (Exodus/Shemot 35:1-3)
melakhah (מְלָאכָה) = tasks, job, crafts; creative work, productive work; project, enterprise.
Shabbat (שַׁבָּת) = day of rest, day of stopping. (From the root verb shavat, שָׁבַת = stop, cease, desist.)
shabbat shabbaton (שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן) = day of absolute stopping.
Immediately after this, Moses hands down God’s directions for making the portable sanctuary—the most holy type of melakhah humans can do. According to most of commentary, Moses first makes it clear that the work of making the sanctuary must be confined to six days a week, then tells the people what to make. The holy day of Shabbat trumps the holy sanctuary.
As confirming evidence, the commentary points to the first mention of any form of the root shavat in the Torah—after God spends six “days” creating the heavens and the earth and everything in them.
God finished on the seventh day Its melakhah that It had done, vayishbot on the seventh day from all Its work that It had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy… (Genesis/Bereishit 2:2-3)
vayishbot (וַיִּשְׁבֹּת) = and he/it stopped, ceased, desisted.
God made the seventh day holy long before making the sanctuary (or any other place) holy.
In between the beginning of Genesis and the ending of Exodus, the Torah gives us more information about Shabbat and melakhah in the fourth of the Ten Commandments.
Remember the day of the Shabbat to make it holy. Six days you shall serve and you shall do all your melakhah. And the seventh day is Shabbat for God, your god; you shall not do any melakhah—you or your son or your daughter, your male slave or your female slave or your livestock or your resident alien who is within your gates. Because [for] six days God made the heavens and the earth, the sea and everything that is in them, vayanach on the seventh day; therefore God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
vayanach (וַיָּנָח) = and he/it rested.
Here the Torah introduces the idea of stopping as resting. People, animals, and even God must periodically stop and rest. We know that our physical bodies need rest to rebuild energy. Do our souls also need rest to re-energize? During Moses’ first 40 days on Mount Sinai, God says:
The Children of Israel shall guard the Shabbat, to make the Shabbat for their generations, a covenant forever. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever, because for six days God made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day shavat, vayinafash. (Exodus 31:16-17)
shavat (שָׁבַת) = he/it stopped, ceased, desisted.
vayinafash (וַיִּנָּפַשׁ) = and refreshed his/its soul, and recovered himself/itself, and re-animated himself/itself. (From the same root as nefesh = soul, the soul that animates the body, inclination, appetite.)
Since the divine life of the universe pauses periodically for refreshment and redirection, so must our own souls. (See my earlier post, Shabbat in Yitro, Mishpatim and Ki Tissa: Soul Recovery.)
One divine inspiration can trigger human beings to engage in a lifetime of holy work; but if we do not stop regularly to rest and listen with our souls, our work will never be animated by new inspirations.
When Shabbat comes up again in this week’s Torah portion, the Torah adds a new detail:
You shall not kindle a fire in any of your settlements on the day of the shabbat. (Exodus 35:3)
Kindling a fire is the archetype of a human activity that is creative and useful, and enables further creative and useful work. Many ancient cultures considered kindling fire the beginning of civilization.
I would add that God manifests in the Torah as a sound, a cloud, or a fire. So fire can stand for our own holy work, as well as for God’s presence. And fire represents change and activity; flames are always moving, never stopping, until the fire has burned down to an ember.
I learned a hard lesson from preparing this blog post: as I suspected, I have been cheating myself.
It is a pleasure to refrain from doing drudgery on Shabbat. And during the years I worked at a job that was not my calling, I was always glad to take Saturday off.
But now I love my melakhah, my creative work of learning, pondering, and teaching Torah through my adult education classes, my Torah monologues, the services I lead, and this weekly blog. I love the work so much that it is hard to make myself take a vacation. I know I should rest on Shabbat, but after all, studying Torah is an approved Shabbat activity. So what if I put sticky tags next to passages I want to copy onto my computer the next day? So what if I take notes on Shabbat afternoon, even though the Talmud (in Shabbat 73a) includes writing in its list of melakhah forbidden on Shabbat? I decided long ago that I never wanted to be so strict in my observance that Shabbat became a punishment. Why not write down any ideas about the Torah that come to me? After all, studying Torah is holy work.
So was making the items for the sanctuary.
Rereading the portion Vayakheil this year, I can understand the value of stopping even holy work, once a week. My work makes me feel happy, but also driven. Every day that I have the blessing of time to work on Torah, I quickly kindle my inner fire. So far I have not run out of insights and observations—perhaps because I have 60 years of life to reflect upon. But I do run out of energy. I am starting to worry that my fuel supply is dwindling, and if I go on this way, I will burn out.
I need to rest more. I need to re-animate my soul. I need a regular day of shabbat shabbaton, absolute stopping. The Torah is right.
So I am going to start obeying the fourth commandment. I will still lead a Shabbat service now and then, having prepared the week before. But I will rest every Shabbat, and refrain from working on my next holy project. It will not be easy for me.
Tags: ark of the covenant, Exodus, Golden Calf, idols, religion, Torah commentary, torah portion
For 40 days at the top of Mount Sinai, Moses listens to God’s instructions on ordaining priests and making a sanctuary for the new religion. The holiest object in the sanctuary will be the ark—a gold-plated box covered by a solid gold lid with two keruvim (sphinx-like creatures with eagle wings, lion bodies, and human faces) hammered out of the gold at the two ends of the lid.
Meanwhile, in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“When you bring up”), the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai conclude that Moses is never coming back.
The people saw that Moses was horribly late in going down from the mountain, so the people assembled against Aaron, and they said to him: Get up, make us elohim that will go before us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him! (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)
elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = gods; God; divine powers. (Elohim is the plural of eloha (אֱלוֹהַּ) = god, God.)
When the Israelites ask Aaron to make elohim, they want images of gods that carry some divine power or magic.
Aaron said to them: Pull off the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me. And all the people pulled off the gold rings in their ears, and they brought them to Aaron. He took [the gold] from their hand, and he shaped it in the mold, and he made it a calf of cast metal. And they said: These are your elohim, Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt! (Exodus 32:2-4)
There is only one gold statue, yet the people use the plural “these”. Modern commentator Robert Alter wrote that the Golden Calf was not intended to be inhabited by a deity, but rather to serve as the throne for one or more gods. The Phoenician storm god Hadad was pictured standing on a bull.
The ark with its keruvim is not a throne. Later in the Bible, God acquires the title “Who Sits [Above] the Keruvim”, but the only descriptions of God sitting above keruvim refer to angelic creatures in the heavens, not to the solid keruvim in the sanctuary.
Later in the Bible, King Jereboam, the first ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, sets up a golden calf in each of his two temples, one at Bethel and one in Dan. The Torah denounces these golden calves as sinful (reflecting the viewpoint of the southern kingdom of Judah, which retains two keruvim in the temple at Jerusalem).
Why are two gold keruvim acceptable to God, while a golden calf is not?
Hammered, not cast or carved
One line of commentary argues that God objects to cast-metal images, but not to images hammered out of a lump of gold. God does say “Cast-metal gods you shall not make for yourselves. (Exodus 34:17)”—but only later in this week’s Torah portion, after Moses has ground up the Golden Calf and climbed Mount Sinai for a second 40-day conference with God.
Imaginary, not actual
In one of the Ten Commandments, which come before the Golden Calf episode in the Torah, God declares: “You shall not make for yourself a carved idol, or any image of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters underneath. (Exodus 20:4)” One could argue that the Golden Calf is an image of an animal that lives on the earth, while the keruvim do not represent any known animal.
Commanded, not volunteered
In his book Kuzari, 12th-century commentator Judah Halevi argues that images were psychologically necessary for people in that era. Until they reached Mount Sinai, the Israelites followed a visible pillar of cloud and fire. After the pillar disappeared, they waited for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai with some other visible item. Only after they concluded Moses would never return did they make an unauthorized image. Halevi wrote: “They should have waited and not made an image by themselves.”
The difference between the keruvim and the Golden Calf, according to Halevi and subsequent commentary by Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel, is that God ordered the keruvim. God does not want people to use anything that God Itself has not authorized.
Heard, not seen
I think the underlying problem is that in the Torah, God is heard and not seen. Later in this week’s Torah portion, God explains to Moses:
You will not be able to see My face, because humankind may not see Me and live. (Exodus 33:20)
Even the pillar of cloud and fire is called God’s messenger, not God Itself. Only God’s creations can be seen. But God’s voice is heard by all the people in the revelation at Mount Sinai. And throughout the Bible, God speaks to select human beings.
The Israelites err in expecting God to manifest as a visible shape, sitting astride the calf or standing on its back. They want the reassurance of something they can see. But God only manifests as a voice; God wants people to listen for God’s words.
If God’s voice came from the Golden Calf, it would seem as though the words issued from the calf’s mouth—a clear case of idolatry. This is not a problem with the two keruvim at the ends of the ark. The Torah says that after the Holy of Holies is finished, God will speak from the empty space above the cover of the ark, between the wings of the Keruvim. ART
In the Torah, God does not speak from the solid and visible Golden Calf, but from the invisible empty space in between the keruvim.
In our lives today, God does not speak from visible and mundane things such as gold jewelry or expensive cars. God speaks to us from out of nowhere—if we make empty spaces in our lives, and listen.
Tags: Exodus, high priest, Moses and Aaron, Shemot, torah portion
You shall make garments of kodesh for Aaron, your brother, for kavod and for tifaret. And you, you shall speak to all the wise of heart whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, and they shall make the garments of Aaron lekadsho, to perform as a priest for Me. (Exodus/Shemot 28:2-3)
kodesh (קֹדֶשׁ) = holiness; a holy thing, person, place, or day.
lekadsho (לְקַדְּשׁוֹ) = to make him holy, to consecrate him.
kavod (כָּבוֹד) = honor, magnificence.
tifaret (תִּפְאָרֶת) = beauty, magnificence.
In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“you shall command”), God tells Moses how to set up the institution of priesthood for the Israelites’ new religion. Before giving instructions on how to ordain Aaron and his sons, God describes their costumes.
These are not merely fine clothes, but holy garments. In the Torah, something is holy when it is set apart for the worship of God. Priests must wear their vestments whenever they are on duty, and only when they are on duty.
The passage translated above says that Aaron’s holy garments will make him holy, too. Even if his heart were completely dedicated, he would not be holy without the garments.
Aaron, as high priest, must also wear these garments for kavod and tifaret. I can understand why special clothing confers honor; it indicates the wearer’s authority. In our society, doctors wear white lab coats, police officers wear uniforms and badges, and rabbis wear caps (kippot or yarmulkes) and prayer shawls (tallitot)—at least when they are on duty.
But the high priest of the Israelites must also wear special clothing for tifaret, for beauty or magnificence.
This is the first appearance in the Torah of the word tifaret in any of its forms. (Alternate spellings pronounced tiferet and tifarah occur later in the Bible.) Sometimes the word means “beauty” or even “beautification”, as when God threatens to strip all the jewelry and other ornamentations off the vain women of Zion (Isaiah 3:18). Sometimes it means “magnificence” or “distinction”, as when the general Barak says he will only go to war against Sisera if the prophetess Devorah comes with him, and Devorah replies:
Is that so? I will go with you. However, the way you are going, it will not be for your own tifaret; because God will hand over Sisera to the hand of a woman. (Judges 4:9)
The high priest and his assistant priests wear the same first two layers of clothing: undyed linen breeches (underpants), followed by linen tunics (undershirts). Over these, all the priests wear long robes—but the high priest’s robe is sky-blue, while the robes of the other priests are undyed.
All the priests wear the same sash to tie their robes: undyed linen embroidered with sky-blue, purple, and crimson wool, just like the curtains hanging at the doorways into the outer courtyard and the sanctuary of the mikdash (“holy place”). (See my post Terumah: Under Cover.) And all the priests wear turbans wound around their heads, though the high priest’s turban is a different shape.
The high priest gets additional costume items. The hem of his robe has alternating gold bells and embroidered pomegranates. (See my post Tetzavveh: The Sound of Ringing.) Over his robe he wears an eifod (an over-tunic of two squares of material fastened by straps at the shoulders and waist) with a gem on each shoulder strap. Over the front of the eifod hangs a choshen (a square pocket) with gold embroidery and twelve gems on the front. And tied to the high priest’s forehead, in front of his turban, is a tzitz (an engraved flower-shaped gold plate). (See my post Tetzavveh: Holy Flower.)
Modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote in The Particulars of Rapture that the appearance of the high priest is all-important; the man merely animates the glorious costume as it carries out the rituals in the courtyard and the sanctuary. She also pointed out the double meaning of the Hebrew word for “garments”.
You shall make begadim of kodesh for Aaron, your brother, for kavod and for tifaret. (Exodus 28:2)
begadim (בְּגָדִים) = garments, clothing. (The singular form, beged (בֶּגֶד), means “garment”, but is spelled the same way as beged (בֶּגֶד) = faithlessness, fraud, deception.)
Like “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, a person can deceive others by wearing clothes that do not match his true identity or his inner self. A high priest wearing a dazzling holy costume might have an unworthy personality.
Today, people often project their expectations on the person in uniform or the person with the title or degree. Doctors in their white lab coats, with their MD degrees, may or may not be the perfect diagnosticians that patients assume they are. The person who wears a kippa (cap or yarmulke) and a tallit (prayer shawl) as he or she leads services, and has received ordination as a rabbi, may or may not be as saintly as congregants assume.
For the high priest of the Israelites, the clothes did make the man. All people needed to do was watch the gorgeously bedecked priest carrying out the ritual of the moment, and the sheer beauty of it inspired them to religious worship.
For a congregational rabbi today, the longest and most gorgeous tallit is not enough. The rabbi must also inspire congregants with his or her d’var Torah (“word of Torah”, or sermon). And a rabbi today is expected to set an example of ethical behavior, and to provide pastoral counseling. A rabbi’s soul really does matter more than the rabbi’s clothing.
This makes a rabbi more like Moses, who wears ordinary clothing as he speaks with God and leads the Israelites. At least his clothing is never mentioned in the Torah, except for the shoes he removes at the burning bush, and the veil he wears after his face acquires an unearthly radiance. The materials or colors of Moses’ shoes and veil are not specified.
In the Torah, the religion of the Israelites is established with both Aaron and Moses, and continues with both a high priest to conduct religious rituals and a king and/or prophet to provide guidance.
Maybe we need both an Aaron and a Moses today, as well. My own congregation has a number of people who are skilled at leading services. (And we wear the right garments when we do so!) Yet a large number of our congregants want some of our services to be led by an official, ordained rabbi. The title “rabbi” is as reassuring to them as the MD after my doctor’s name is to me.
And sometimes an Aaron is not enough; we need inspiration from a Moses, from a person with deep soul, whether or not that person has a title or a uniform. But finding the person with the deep soul is harder. You can’t just look for a man in a blue robe with a gold plate on his forehead.
Tags: Exodus, holy of holies, holy place, mishkan, torah portion
How do you make a holy sanctuary, a place where God can manifest and be heard? God gives Moses instructions in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”). The instructions require the creation of both ritual objects (the ark, the bread-table, the lampstand, the outer altar) and the creation of ritual spaces through curtains.
The Torah uses five different words for curtains in Terumah. The name of each curtain depends on its position in a sanctuary designed so that the holier and more exclusive the space is, the more it is covered and screened off.
The outer courtyard of the sanctuary is accessible to all the people, walled off by curtains but open to the sky. It measures 50 by 100 cubits (roughly 75 by 150 feet, slightly smaller than an Olympic swimming pool). Inside the courtyard stands a tent sanctuary, called the “tabernacle” in English (from the Latin word for “tent”), and the mishkan, or “Dwelling-Place” for God in Hebrew. Only priests may enter the mishkan.
The innermost (western) chamber of the mishkan is the Holy of Holies. Only Moses and the high priest may enter the Holy of Holies, where God manifests as a voice above the ark and between the two keruvim, winged creatures hammered out of the two ends of the ark’s gold lid.
You shall make a courtyard for the mishkan; for the south side, kela-im for the courtyard of twisted linen, 100 cubits long for one side. …And thus for the north side, kela-im a hundred long…(Exodus 27:9, 11)
kela-im (קְלָעִים) = curtains, hangings. (From a root verb (קלע) meaning either “slung”, as from a slingshot, or “carved”.)
The word kela-im occurs 16 times in the Bible, 15 times to indicate the linen hangings around the outer courtyard of the portable sanctuary, and once to indicate the carved double door into the great hall of the first temple in Jerusalem.
The kela-im in this week’s Torah portion are made of a single material, twisted linen threads, undyed and therefore an off-white. The kela-im separate the outer courtyard, where all the people can gather around the altar, from the rest of the world. They are the boundary between holy space and mundane space.
There is one entrance into the courtyard, a 20-foot gateway in the east wall covered by a hanging curtain.
And for a gate of the courtyard, a masakh of 20 cubits of sky-blue wool and purple wool and crimson wool and twisted linen, the work of an embroiderer, with four posts and four sockets. (Exodus 27:16)
masakh (מָסָךְ) = hanging curtain across a doorway, portiere. (From the root word sakhakh (סכך)= block off.)
A masakh also hangs in the doorway of the mishkan, the tent inside the courtyard.
You shall make a masakh for the entrance of the tent, of sky-blue wood and purple wool and crimson wool and twisted linen, the work of an embroiderer. (Exodus 26:36)
There is only one doorway into the tent, an opening in the east wall. The curtain screening this doorway between the outer courtyard and the inner priest’s chamber has a different name.
Both of these curtains separate a less holy space from a more holy space, and both hang loose so they can be pushed aside when someone enters or exits. They are both woven from linen, like the walls of the courtyard, but a design is embroidered on them in three vivid colors of wool.
The word masakh appears 25 times in the Bible, all but three times referring to the hangings in the courtyard gate or the mishkan doorway. In the three exceptions, the word masakh is used for the cloth cover over a cistern (2 Samuel 17:19), for the metaphorical gateway to the kingdom of Judah (Isaiah 22:8), and for the cloud God spread over the Israelites when they left Egypt (Psalm 105:39).
The walls of the mishkan are made of another type of curtain.
And the Dwelling-Place you shall make of ten yeriyot of twisted linen and sky-blue wool and purple wool and crimson wool, with keruvim of weaving-work you shall make them. The length of each yeriyah is 28 cubits, and the width four cubits, one measure for all the yeriyot. (Exodus/Shemot 26:1-2)
yeriyah (יְרִיעָה), plural yeriyot (יְרִיעֹת) = curtain, panel of tent-cloth, tapestry.
keruvim (כְּרֻוִים) = sphinx-like creatures with lion bodies, eagle wings, and human faces.
Each yeriyah is four cubits (about six feet) wide—which was the standard width of an Egyptian loom. The linen and three colors of wool are all woven together into a tapestry with a design of mythical semi-divine creatures.
A few verses later, God tells Moses:
You shall make yeriyot of goat-hair for a tent-roof over the mishkan; eleven yeriyot you shall make. (Exodus 26:7)
Moses fastens together these tent-cloth panels into a ceiling for the tent-sanctuary. They are not as beautiful as the ones forming the walls, but they also face the holy space of the inner enclosure.
The word yeriyah appears 48 times in the Hebrew Bible, and all but three of those occurrences refer to the yeriyot of the mishkan or of the first temple in Jerusalem. The three exceptions are all poetic. Jeremiah 49:29 and Habakkuk 3:7 use yeriyot as a poetic synonym for tents. Psalm 104 describes God as “wrapping light like a robe, spreading out the heavens like a yeriyah”. (Psalm 104:2)
The ceiling of yeriyot woven from goat-hair must be covered with another layer of roofing: a curtain of hides sewn together.
You shall make a mikhseh for the tent of skins of rams dyed red, and a mikhseh of skins of tachashim over above. (Exodus 26:14)
mikhseh (מִכְסֶה) = curtain, covering. (From the root word kasah (כּסה) = cover, conceal.)
tachashim (תְּחָשִׁים) = (Nobody knows what this word means; speculations range from badgers to giraffes to dolphins.)
The word mikhseh occurs in the Bible thirteen times, twelve times as the outer layer of the roof over the tent-sanctuary, and once as the roof over Noah’s ark. It serves as a sort of waterproof tarpaulin, covering and protecting the tent-cloth ceiling underneath.
The fifth kind of curtain in the sanctuary is the partition that screens off the Holy of Holies from the priests’ chamber inside the mishkan.
You shall make a parokhet of sky-blue wool and purple wool and crimson wool and twisted linen, the making of a weaver; it will be made with keruvim. (Exodus 26:31)
And you shall place the parokhet beneath the hooks; and you shall bring in there, into the house for the parokhet, the Ark of the Testimony; and the parokhet will make a separation for you between the Holy [space] and the Holy of Holies. (Exodus 26:33)
parokhet (פָּרֹכֶת) = curtain, woven partition. (The word is related to the Assyrian parraku = a chamber or shrine that is shut off.)
The word parokhet occurs 25 times in the Bible, always in reference to the partition screening off the Holy of Holies.
The parokhet is woven of the same materials, with the same motif, as the walls of the mishkan. But it hangs so that Moses, Aaron, or the high priest after Aaron, can push it aside to enter the Holy of Holies and speak with God.
By using five different words for curtains, the Torah portion Terumah emphasizes the importance of the different levels of holiness of each space that is partitioned, blocked from view, or protected.
I think people also have zones of intimacy, each protected by its own barrier. To the outer world of strangers, we present a face like the blank white kela-im of the outer courtyard, without any designs or colors showing—except in the gateway, where our bland, socially acceptable surface is embroidered with a colored design indicating what our personalities might be like inside.
When we make friends, we admit them through the gate into our outer courtyard, where they can see the sanctuary protecting our true selves. Our friends get a glimpse of our own vivid colors, and the mythological animals that indicate our particular life stories. But our inner self is still hidden and protected by yeriyot panels and by a mikhseh, a roof covering we hope is disaster-proof.
Some people have never been inside the tent of their inner selves; they live only according to social roles and expectations, and find self-examination difficult. Others discover they have an inner priest who can enter the inner self and see what is inside. There, besides working with their own lamps and bread tables, they see the parokhet that screens off the Holy of Holies, where God might speak to them.
These self-explorers might invite one or two people into the priestly level of intimacy. But only the individual can walk through the parokhet and see their own ark, and the keruvim that inspired all their woven and embroidered designs. Only an individual can see the empty space where the voice of God might manifest.
Some individuals would prefer never to enter their own Holy of Holies, never to risk hearing a voice that comes from a deep place beyond the knowable self.
How intimate do you want to become with yourself? With God? Which curtains will you pass through, and which will block your passage?
Tags: ark of the covenant, brit, Covenant of Blood, Exodus, Moses, Ten Commandments, torah portion
A covenant can be a comfort. It’s reassuring to have a signed contract stating what you are required to do, and what the other party will do for you. When we feel insecure about an arrangement, we say, “Can I have that in writing?”
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”) includes the first covenant in the Torah that is backed up in writing. Yet it is broken sooner than any of the unwritten covenants in the book of Genesis/Bereishit—because one of the covenantal parties is God.
A classic covenant between two human beings is the compact between Jacob and his father-in-law, Lavan. Jacob heads back to Canaan with the family and livestock he acquired by serving Lavan for 20 years. Lavan, who does not want to lose his best employee, catches up with him on the heights of Gilead. They argue over who owns what, and then Lavan says:
So now, let us go and cut a brit, I and you… (Genesis/Bereishit 31:44)
brit (בְּרִית) = covenant, pact, treaty.
The two men set up a standing-stone and a mound of stones to serve as a boundary marker, a “witness”, and a sign of their brit. Lavan announces the terms: neither man will pass that boundary with hostile intent; and in addition, Jacob will neither mistreat Lavan’s daughters nor take any additional wives.
Then each man swears by a different name of the same God. Finally, Jacob slaughters animals, and the two chieftains and their men feast on the mountain.
Both leaders carry out the terms of their brit. Each party gives up something that might be in his self-interest (invading the other’s territory) in order to gain something that is definitely in his self-interest (safety from invasion by the other). The terms are reasonable, and the men do not want to violate a treaty made with an accepted ritual in front of three kinds of witnesses: boundary stones, other human beings, and God.
A brit with God is not so straightforward.
The first two times God declares a brit with human beings, it is really a unilateral promise, with no obligation stipulated for the humans. In the Covenant of the Rainbow, God promises not to destroy the earth with a flood again. In the Covenant of the Pieces, God promises to give Canaan to Abraham’s descendants.
God’s third brit repeats that God will give Abraham’s descendants, and adds that God will “be a god” to them and make them “nations” and “kings”. Then God says:
This is my brit, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Let every male be circumcised. You shall all be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it will be a sign of the brit between Me and you. (Genesis 17:10-11)
Circumcision is the stipulated action for humans, the ritual, and the sign of the covenant, all in one. Jews have performed their part of the brit milah (Covenant of Circumcision) for thousands of years, with or without possession of the land of Canaan, because it is an act of dedication to God—and each infant boy or adult male convert only has to go through it once.
In the book of Exodus, when the Israelites reach Mount Sinai, God proposes a new brit, one that the commentary calls the Covenant of Blood. God gives the Israelites and their fellow-travelers the Ten Commandments, followed by a list of other laws, beginning with a second injunction against making “gods” of silver or gold, and ending (in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim) with: “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. (Exodus/Shemot 23:19)
In return for obeying all these laws, God promises the people that they will never get sick, their women will be fertile and never miscarry, none of their lives will be cut short, their enemies will run away from them, and they will gradually take over not only Canaan, but all the land from the Mediterranean to the eastern wilderness and from the Euphrates in the north to the Reed Sea in the south.
This is the third time God promises to give the Israelites possession of the Promised Land. But it is the first and only time God promises to exempt the people from natural law by making them super-human, with bodies that are invulnerable to illness, infertility, miscarriage, and even accidental death. Such a deal!
Moses makes sure this new brit is ratified with elaborate ritual, symbolic reminders, and even a written copy.
Then Moses wrote down all the words of God, and he got up early in the morning, and he built an altar at the bottom of the mountain, and twelve standing-stones for the twelve tribes of Israel. … and they slaughtered animal-offerings of wholeness for God … And half of the blood he sprinkled over the altar. And he took the Book of the Brit and he read it in the ears of the people, and they said: Everything that God has spoken, we will do and we will listen! Then Moses took the blood and he sprinkled it over the people, and he said: Here is the blood of the brit that God has cut with you concerning all these words! (Genesis 24:4-8)
The blood from the animal offerings is sprinkled both on the symbol of God (the altar), and on the people (or at least the elders in front). The people ratify the brit by shouting “we will do and we will listen”, indicating their willingness to obey not only these laws, but also any future laws God chooses to give them.
According to 20th-century commentator Nahum Sarna, the ritual is completed when God gives Moses an even more impressive symbolic reminder: a pair of stone tablets on which God writes the teachings and commandments.
The people violate their part of the brit only 40 days later, in the Torah portion Ki Tissa. While Moses is receiving the stone tablets on top of Mount Sinai receiving, the Israelites below lose hope that he will ever return, and revert to their old ideas of God. When Moses comes down, the people are carousing in front of the Golden Calf, in clear violation of the rule against making a god of silver or gold. So the whole elaborate brit becomes null and void, and Moses smashes the tablets.
God never makes the Israelites super-human. But Moses does persuade God to forgive them. And God declares a second, modified brit in which God commits only to driving out the peoples living in Canaan. On their side, the Israelites must obey a list of rules that begins with refraining from cutting a brit with any of the peoples they are supposed to be displacing, and ends with “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. (Exodus 34:10-26)
And God said to Moses: Write down for yourself these words, because according to these words I have cut a brit with you and with Israel. (Exodus 34:27)
The Ten Commandments are not explicitly mentioned, but most commentators assume they are included in the words Moses carves on a second pair of stone tablets. Later the Israelites make a golden ark, following God’s instructions, and Moses places the tablets inside.
The Israelites continue to backslide on obeying God’s rules (though there is no record that they ever cook a kid in its mother’s milk). In the book of Joshua, God does not drive their enemies away, so the Israelites conquer most of Canaan by conventional warfare. Thus the second brit between God and the Israelites is also a failure.
Yet the Torah continues to call the ark containing the stone tablets aron ha-brit, “Ark of the Covenant”, and it remains the Israelites’ most revered object until it disappears during the fall of the first temple in Jerusalem.
A contract between two humans, or a treaty between two nations, is a practical affair. The obligations of both parties are feasible and spelled out clearly. The proper ritual and witnesses help to enforce the brit.
A brit between humans and God is more like a modern marriage covenant. Both parties make lifelong promises without any practical limitations. The ritual, witnesses, symbols, and written documents have emotional importance, but they do not prevent either party from falling short. At some point, a spouse is psychologically unable to be as loving and supportive as he or she intended. At some point, a religious human being is psychologically unable to obey every rule she or he has taken on. And God, at best, appears to operate on a non-human timeline.
Sometimes a marriage ends in divorce, and sometimes a brit with God ends in apostasy. But often, spouses pull themselves together and rededicate themselves to their marriage. And often, people seeking God rededicate themselves to the search for morality and meaning.
Each story of a brit with God remains a reminder of God’s presence. Even today, the two sets of stone tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai loom in our subconscious minds, reminding us that even if full compliance is impossible in a covenant with God, it is still worth dedicating ourselves to the call.
Tags: Exodus, honoring parents, Ten Commandments, torah portion, Yitro
When we said that, back in the 1970’s, we meant that something was impressive, difficult, or profound, not to be taken lightly. The Hebrew word for “heavy”, kaveid, has even more shades of meaning in the book of Exodus/Shemot.
When God tells Moses his mission at the burning bush, Moses objects that he cannot speak to the Israelites and the Pharaoh in Egypt because his tongue is kaveid.
But Moses said to God: Excuse me, my lord, I am not a man of words…because I am khevad mouth and khevad tongue. (Exodus/Shemot 4:10)
khevad (כְבַד) = heavy of. (Another formation from the root verb kaveid, כָּבֵד.)
What does Moses mean by saying his mouth and tongue are heavy? Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki) wrote that Moses stammered or had a speech impediment. His grandson Rashbam (12th-century Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir) wrote that Moses was no longer proficient in Egyptian. Either way, Moses’ speech is kaveid because it is slow and difficult.
When Moses and Aaron first ask Pharaoh to give the Israelites a three-day vacation to worship their god, Pharoah increases his laborers’ workload instead, saying:
Tikhebad, the work, upon the men, and they must do it, and they must not deal in lying words. (Exodus/Shemot 5:9)
tikhebad (תִּכְבַּד) = it will weigh heavily, let it be heavy, it must be a burden. (A form of the root verb kaveid, כָּבֵד.)
Pharoah’s heart (the seat of his thoughts and feelings, in Biblical Hebrew) also becomes heavy. After each divine miracle except the final one (the death of the firstborn), Pharaoh is tempted to let his slaves go on that three-day vacation. But then he reverts and refuses to change his economic and political system. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened six times, and made heavy (hakhebeid, הַכְבֵּד) five times. He is too stiff and too heavy to move.
Furthermore, the Torah describes four of the miraculous plagues (swarming insects, cattle disease, hail, and locusts) as kaveid, heavy, because they are so oppressive.
But when Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites and their fellow-travelers leave, we read:
And the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Sukkot, about 600,000 strong men on foot, besides non-marchers. And also a mixed throng went up with them, and flocks and herds, very kaveid property. (Exodus/Shemot 12:37-38)
kaveid (כָּבֵד) = heavy, weighty, oppressive, impressive, magnificent.
For newly-freed slaves, they leave with a lot of property: their own livestock, and all the gold and silver objects the Egyptians gave them on their way out. As they march away, the abundance of their possessions is impressive.
God also wants to be impressive. When the emigrants have entered the wilderness, God tells Moses that Pharoah’s army will pursue them, so that God can stage one last miracle at the Reed Sea.
…then ikavedah through Pharaoh and through all his army; … and the Egyptians will know that I am God. (Exodus 14:4, 14:17-18)
ikavedah (עִכָּבְדָה) = I will be recognized as important, I will be honored, I will be respected, I will appear magnificent. (A form of the root verb kaveid.)
The people reach Mount Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro (“his surplus”, the name of Moses’ father-in-law). This is where God pronounces the Ten Commandments. The fifth commandment begins with the word kaveid.
Kabeid your father and your mother, so that your days will lengthen upon the soil that God, your god, is giving to you. (Exodus 20:12)
Kabeid (כַּבֵּד) = Honor! Respect! Treat as weighty, important! (This imperative verb comes from the same root as the adjective kaveid.)
Honoring your parents sounds like a nice idea, but why is it one of God’s top ten rules?
In traditional commentary from the third century C.E. to the present, honoring your parents is a necessary step to honoring God, and neglecting your parents is an insult to God. One reason given is that your biological parents—and God—created you. However, the Talmud (Ketubot 103a) states that this commandment applies not only to biological parents, but also to step-parents and older brothers—and therefore, presumably, to adoptive parents.
The other traditional reason why honoring parents means honoring God is that parents must teach their children Jewish history and Torah. (Apparently reading books, including the Bible, is not enough; religious knowledge must be transmitted orally.) Children honor their parents by learning their religion and passing it on to the next generation. Without this transmission, God would cease to be honored.
Underage children are supposed to honor their parents by learning Torah from them, and by obeying them (as long as the parental request does not contradict God’s will).
Adult children must honor their parents in other ways. The Talmud (Kiddushin 31b) explained that you honor your parents by making sure they have food, drink, clothing, and coverings, and by “leading them in and out”. (It was assumed that the responsible son continued living in his parents’ house, and so could always arrange to escort them.)
Rambam (12th-century Rabbi Moses Maimonides) added in his Mishneh Torah, book 14, that if a man’s parents are poor and their son is able to take care of them, he must do so. He must also treat his parents with the respect of a student for a teacher, performing personal services and rising before them. However, Rambam wrote, if a parent is mentally ill and the son can no longer bear the stress, he may move out and hire someone else to care for his parents.
All this deference and personal care, the commentary insists, is required regardless of whether your parents were kind to you as you grew up. Nowhere in the Torah are parents required to honor or love their children; they are only required to circumcise their sons, to teach their children God’s commandments, and to refrain from incest and child-sacrifice.
If your parents were kind to you, it is a natural human inclination to honor them. But even if your parents did not earn your gratitude or love, the commentary on the fifth of the Ten Commandments says you must still honor them—in order to honor God.
Maybe the fifth commandment adds “so that your days will lengthen” in order to encourage people to honor even difficult parents. A longer life would be an especially good reward if it gives you more years to enjoy life after your difficult parent has died.
Yet we can all observe that some of the most dutiful children die younger than some of the most neglectful. A famous story in the Talmud (Chullin 142a) tells of a father who ordered his son to climb to the top of a building and bring down some chicks. The son “honored” his father by climbing up, and followed another Biblical rule that promises prolonged life by chasing away the mother bird before collecting her young. On the way down the ladder, the son fell and died. The rabbis in the Talmud conclude that “there is no reward for precepts in this world”, and declare that the story is an argument in favor of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.
Since the commandment says: so that your days will lengthen upon the soil that God, your god, is giving to you, Hirsch and other commentators explained that honoring parents would prolong the period of time when the Israelites got to live in the “Promised Land” of Canaan.
But the commandment in this week’s Torah portion uses the singular “you” throughout. I think the only way your days might be lengthened because you honor your parents is if each day feels longer to you. We can only hope that the day seems longer because it is fuller and richer, not because you can hardly wait for it to be over!
What kind of “honor” do we owe our parents today?
I think we should kabeid (honor) our own parents according to the way they have been kaveid (heavy) in their relations with us. Has a parent been oppressive, or impressive?
If parents caused childhood trauma, and remain crushing impediments, I think we are entitled to “move away”, as Rambam suggested. We do not need to personally delegate a caregiver, when we pay taxes for social services that will maintain them.
If parents were magnificently kind and encouraging, we should pay them every feasible honor, and continue to learn from them.
And in between? How shall we honor parents who are burdensome, but not bad—heavy, but not heavies?
Tags: Exodus, Moses and Miriam, religion, religion and singing, torah portion
Singing appears for the first time in the Torah as something missing. In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob works as an indentured servant for his uncle and father-in-law, Lavan, for twenty years. Then while Lavan is out of town, Jacob flees with his own wives, children, servants, herds, and flocks. Lavan catches up with Jacob on the road and says:
Why did you hide and run away? And you robbed me and you did not tell me—and I would have sent you off with gladness, and with shirim, with tambourine, and with lyre. (Genesis 31:27)
shirim (שִׁרִים) = songs. (Singular: shirah, שִׁירָה)
Although I think Lavan is lying, this first reference to song does tell us that musical celebrations of departure were customary in ancient Aram.
The first singing that does happen in the Torah is in this week’s portion, Beshallach (“When he sent out”). God splits the Reed Sea, the Israelites cross over on the damp sea-bottom, the Egyptian army pursues them, and the wheels of their chariots get stuck in the mud. As soon as all the Israelites and their fellow-travelers are safe on the other side, God makes the waters return and drown all the Egyptians. The Israelites see the dead bodies of the soldiers on the shore, and start to sing.
This is when Moses yashir, along with the children of Israel, this shirah to Y-H-V-H; and they said, saying:
Ashirah to Y-H-V-H, for He rises up in triumph;
horse and its rider He threw into the sea! (Exodus/Shemot 15:1)
yashir (יָשִׁיר) = he sings.
ashirah (אָשִׁירָה) = I sing, I will sing, let me sing.
(I am using “He” to translate the pronoun prefixes and suffixes in the “Song of the Sea’, since later lines in this hymn picture God as a “man of war”, i.e., warrior. For the name of God indicated by Y-H-V-H, see my blog post Va-eira: The Right Name.)
The hymn continues:
My strength and zimrat Yah, it is my salvation;
this is my god, and I extol Him;
the god of my father, and I exalt Him. (Exodus 15:2)
God is man of war; Y-H-V-H is His name. (Exodus 15:3)
zimrat (זִמְרָת) = the song of, the melody of, the praising-song of.
Yah (יָהּ) = a name for God, possibly an abbreviation of Y-H-V-H.
Since God has single-handedly defeated and killed the enemy, the Israelites sing a hymn celebrating God as the ultimate warrior.
(The Song of the Sea continues for 16 more verses, using a more archaic Hebrew than the text surrounding it. Modern scholars agree that whoever compiled and wrote down the first version of the book of Exodus, some time after 900 B.C.E., inserted a much older hymn here and attributed it to Moses.)
And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her, with tambourines and with circle-dances. And Miriam ta-an to them:
Shiru to Y-H-V-H, for He rises up in triumph;
horse and its rider He threw into the sea! (Exodus 15:20-21)
ta-an (תַּעַן) = she sang call-and-response; she answered, she responded (from the root anah, ענה).
Shiru (שִׁירוּ) = Sing!
Miriam appears to be leading singing, dancing, and percussion at the same time!
The next time the Torah reports singing is in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, when it inserts a short archaic song in honor of a well of water into a list of places the Israelites traveled through.
This is when Israel yashir this shirah:
Rise up, well! Enu for it!
The well that captains dug,
That donors of the people excavated,
With a scepter, with their walking stick. (Numbers 21:17-18)
Enu (עֱנוּ) = let us sing call-and-response (also from the root anah, ענה).
The only other reference to singing in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible precedes a long hymn inserted into the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim. To introduce this song, God tells Moses:
And now, write for yourselves this shirah, and teach it to the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, so that this shirah will be a witness for me against the children of Israel. (Deuteronomy 31:19)
Although the hymn inserted at this point does praise God, it also criticizes the people for backsliding, and warns them about God’s vengeance. The overall message is that the Israelites do not appreciate everything God has done for them, and they had better behave, or else. The purpose of the song, according to the Torah, is to make this message easy to remember.
King David is the first professional musician named in the Bible. In the second book of Samuel, he composes and sings not only another hymn praising God, but also the first two dirges in the Bible, one for Saul and Jonathan, and one for Avner. Both dirges are introduced by a new verb, va-yekonein (וַיְקֹנֵן) = and he sung a lamentation.
Besides songs of celebration and lamentation, the Bible contains many references to hymns addressed to God; and all 150 psalms are the lyrics of hymns. There are psalms of praise and of thanksgiving. The majority of the psalms plead with God: to reward those who worship God and do good, and punish the wicked; to rescue God’s followers from poverty or enemies; to grant us long life and to kill our enemies; to teach us how to do good; and—a plea that moves me today—to stop being silent and remote, to answer and prove that our God exists.
I remember that when I was I small child, I sang spontaneously whenever and happiness came over me, making up melodies and nonsense words as I went along. When I was in elementary school, I learned a variety of songs, and sang both to entertain myself, and to have fun with other people. I was singing when it was the custom, and when I wanted to celebrate—like the singers in the first part of the Hebrew Bible.
I admit that as a young teenager, I sang “Ding, dong, the witch is dead” when I was consumed with frustration over someone who seemed to be my enemy. I did not know that many psalms also begged God to kill the singer’s enemies.
After that, I learned that when I was feeling down, singing sad songs lifted my spirits. I had discovered the equivalent of the Biblical dirge. When I needed to vent my romantic frustrations and thwarted physical desires, singing certain popular songs gave my feelings an outlet.
When I was over 30, and searching for God, none of the popular songs I once loved met my needs. Then I stumbled upon a Jewish Renewal congregation, P’nai Or of Portland, that supplied me with all the songs I wanted. Finally, I could sing to express the yearning of my soul for both a good direction in life and a connection with the divine. And many of those songs and chants come from the book of psalms.
Recently, I was singing a chant by Rabbi Shefa Gold using two lines that appear in the Song of the Sea in today’s Torah portion, and are so evocative the Torah repeats them in Isaiah and Psalms:
Ozi ve-zimrat Yah, vayehi li liyshuah (עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה). Or in English:
My strength and the praising-song of Yah, it is my salvation. (Exodus 15:2, Isaiah 12:3, Psalm 118:14)
At this stage of my life, what saves my spirit is my own strength (which is a divine gift), combined with the ability to sing my own songs (both literally and figuratively) in praise of Yah, of the divine as I know it.
May we all be blessed with such music in our lives.