Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred

May 24, 2017 at 7:43 pm | Posted in Bemidbar | Leave a comment
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When you have a portable sanctuary, you need a procedure for packing up the holy items when it’s time to move on. And if unauthorized contact with a holy object results in death, the correct procedure is critical. This week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar (“In a wilderness”), specifies that only the priests may wrap up the holy items. Then Levites can carry them, once they are completely concealed.

They may not come in and see the holy even for a moment, or they will die.  (Numbers 4:20)

The first holy item the priests cover is the ark itself. The ark is usually hidden even from them, behind the partition-curtain in the Tent of Meeting that screens off the Holy of Holies.

Aharon and his sons shall come, when the camp is pulling out, and they shall take down the partition-curtain, and they shall cover the Ark of the Testimony with it.  Then they shall place over it a covering of tachash leather, and they shall spread a cloth of perfect  techeilet over that, then put its poles in place. (Numbers/Bemidbar 4:5-6)

Murex shell

tachash (תָּחַשׁ) = An unknown Hebrew word for either a treatment for leather, or the animal providing the skin.1

techeilet (תְּכֵלֶת) = Blue dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail.2

Next Aaron and his sons Elazar and Itamar cover up the holy items they use regularly inside the Tent of Meeting.

Then they shall spread over the Table of the Presence a cloth of techeilet, and they will place upon it the bowls, ladles, offering-bowls, libation jars for libations, and [that week’s] perpetual bread.  And they shall spread out over them a cloth of tolat shani, and then cover it with a covering of tachash leather, and they shall put its poles in place.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 4:7-8)

Shield lice on branch

tola-at shani (תּוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי) =  A vivid red or scarlet dye made from the unhatched eggs of shield-lice living on oak bark.

Although the table also has three coverings, the utensils—and that week’s bread!—are stored on top of the first tablecloth, then covered by the second cloth and the leather.

Next they shall take a cloth of techeilet, and they shall cover the lampstand (menorah) of the lighting and its lamps and its wick-cutters and its ash-pans and all the utensils for its oil that they use to attend to it. And they shall put it and all its utensils into a covering of tachash leather, and they shall place it on the carrying-frame.  (Numbers 4:9-10)

The priests cover the incense altar the same way, first in techeilet cloth, then in tachash leather.3

Finally, the priests must prepare the altar used for animal sacrifices, which is stationed in front of the Tent of Meeting for burning offerings of animals and grain products.  Even though everyone can see this altar, the priests cover it before the Levites move it.

And they shall remove ashes from the altar, and they shall spread over it a cloth of argaman.  And they shall place on it all the serving utensils which they use to attend to it—the ash pans, the meat forks, the scrapers, and the sprinkling basins—all the utensils of the altar. And they shall spread over it [the altar and its utensils] a covering of tachash leather, and they shall put its poles in place.  (Numbers 4:13-14)

argaman (אַרְגָּמָן) = purple dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail.

The various coverings of the holy objects are made out of wool dyed in the three most vivid colors available, and a type of leather that is only used for the Tent of Meeting and its holy objects.  Clearly the holy items must be honored with the best possible But why are different colors, in a different order, assigned to each item?

Wool dyed with techeilet

Techeilet

Later in the book of Numbers the Israelites are told to wear fringes on the corners of their own garments, with a thread of techeilet in each fringe, so that the sight of the fringe will remind them of everything God has commanded them to do.4 (See my post Shelach Lekha: Glimpses of Blue.) Why is turquoise the best color for the reminder?  Perhaps because it is the color of the sky, which is “the heavens”, the place God descends from.

Techeilet is not used to cover the animal-offering altar, which stands outside the Tent of Meeting and is less holy.  But it is used for the innermost wrapping of the three holy objects placed inside the Tent, and for the outermost wrapping of the ark behind the partition.

God’s voice comes from the empty space above the lid of the ark, and the ark is sometimes called God’s throne. The Bible also pictures God’s throne in the heavens. And the pavement on which God’s feet appear in the vision on Mount Sinai is sapphire, “like the heavens for purity”.5 (See my post Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.)  Sky blue is the color most directly associated with God.6  So surrounding the wrapped ark with techeilet cloth is like surrounding it with the sky.7

A cloth of techeilet is the innermost cover touching the table, the lampstand, and the incense altar, the three holy objects that the priests tend constantly inside the Tent of Meeting. Although God does not speak or sit above these objects, they are still imbued with a residue of the heavens.

Wool dyed with tolaat shani

Tola-at shani

Scarlet is the color of fresh blood.  In the Torah, blood represents the soul that animates the body, and therefore the Israelites are forbidden to eat or drink it.8 (See my post Reih: Don’t Be a Soul-Eater.)

Later the book of Numbers describes how a perfect red cow is slaughtered, then burned with other red objects:  cedar wood, hyssop, and shani tola-at. The ashes are mixed with water and sprinkled on anyone who has touched a corpse, in order to make them ritually pure again.9 (See my post Chukkat: Blood and Ash.)

The table in the Tent of Meeting is spread first with a cloth of techeilet, the color of the heavens. Then its utensils and the usual twelve loaves of bread are set out on the blue tablecloth. Even while the table is being carried through the wilderness, the “perpetual bread” is there as a human offering to God.  But the grain to make the bread is God’s offering to humans.  Our bodies cannot live without the food that God provides, so the priests add a cloth of tola-at shani, the color of life-blood.

Cloth dyed with argaman

Argaman

A combination of blue (techeilet), scarlet (tola-at shani), and purple (argaman) yarns are used to weave or embroider all the cloth walls and door-curtains of the Tent of Meeting, as well as the sashes of all the priests, and several items in the high priest’s costume.

The innermost cover over the ark is the partition-curtain that screens off the Holy of Holies when the Tent of Meeting is assembled. This curtain is woven out of techeilet, tola-at shani, and argaman. Thus all three colors of holiness are touching the ark while it is being carried.

Cloth woven of only argaman wool, which the priests use to cover the outside altar, appears elsewhere in the Bible as a sign of wealth and royalty. Kings of Midian wear purple robes10, King Solomon sits on purple wool11, and the proverbial “woman of valor” dresses in purple.12

Why is the copper altar used to burn animal parts covered with the argaman of wealth? Perhaps turning the fat parts of cattle, sheep, and goats, or sometimes entire animals, into smoke for God is an expression of gratitude for the abundance that makes this offering possible.

Tachash

The word tachash occurs in the Bible only as a type of skin or leather. In this week’s Torah portion, tachash leather is the middle layer of wrapping for the ark, and the outer layer covering the table, lampstand, and both altars when these holy objects are carried to a new campsite. Tachash leather is also the top layer of the roof of the Tent of Meeting.13

The only other appearance of tachash leather in the Bible is a description of God dressing Jerusalem in embroidered garments, fine linen, silk, jewelry, and sandals of tachash. (Ezekiel 16:10)  The analogy makes Jerusalem not only God’s bride, but also a holy place.

While tachash leather separates Jerusalem from the earth in Ezekiel, it separates the Tent of Meeting from the heavens in Exodus. When God wants the Israelites to remain encamped, a pillar of cloud and fire rests over the Tent of Meeting, above the tachash leather roof. When God wants the Israelites to move on, the pillar ascends, and the priests must cover the holy objects with tachash leather so they can be safely transported. The Levites carry these carefully wrapped items above the earth and below the heavens.

*

Today we move not only to new geographical locations, but to new positions in our interior lives.  When we reach a new insight, or enter a new stage of life, it helps to remember the beliefs in our old lives that helped us to be grateful or ethical. Even as we outgrow some old beliefs, we can reframe the ideas that still inspire us, and carry them into our new lives.

When Jews today finish reading from a Torah scroll, we cover it with a garment that both protects the hand-lettered parchment, and prevents us from taking the scroll for granted.  Similarly, we can wrap our own sacred ideas and imperatives in garments that preserve them and prevent us from treating them too familiarly.

What colors do you need to cover your own sacred ideas?  Sky blue, to remind you of everything beyond your horizon?  Scarlet, to remind you that you owe your own life to living things you did not create?  Purple, to remind you of an abundance you may not have noticed? Or the unknown color of tachash, the skin separating heaven and earth through a divine mystery?

(An earlier version of this essay was published in May 2010.)

1  Those who guess tachash is a treatment for leather translate it variously as tanned, blackened, dyed blue, and dyed ochre.  Those who guess tachash  is the name of the animal providing the skin translate it variously as badger, ermine, wild goat, wild ram, sea cow, narwhal, dolphin, or seal.

2  Although the hue varies according to the amount of exposure to sunlight during the process, modern dye from the same species of murex used for the fringes on prayer shawls, is turquoise.

3  (Numbers 4:11-12)

4  Numbers 15:38.

5  Exodus 24:10.

6  19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that “תכלת, ‘sky-blue,’ is the color that points to the limits (תִּכְלָה) of our horizon, to what lies beyond our field of vision—i.e., to the hidden to the Divine.” (Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, English translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 542 on Exodus 26:14.)

7  20th-century Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Bamidbar, English translation by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, New York, 1993,  p. 29.

8   Deuteronomy 12:23-25.

9  Numbers 19:3-6, 19:11-22. A similar mixture of cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet dye is mixed with blood from a slaughtered bird and sprinkled on someone who has recovered from skin disease in order to return them to ritual purity. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:6, 14:51-52)

10 Judges 8:26.

11  Song of Songs 3:10.

12  Proverbs 31:22.

13  The top of the Tent of Meeting is covered with tanned rams’ skins, and then over that goes a layer of tachash leather.  (Exodus/Shemot 26:14, 36:19, 39:34; Numbers 4:25.)

 

 

 

Behar: Owning Land

May 18, 2017 at 11:47 am | Posted in Behar | 1 Comment
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Is owning land like owning a bowl or a blanket? Do human beings have the right to buy and sell land, inherit it, give it away, use it any way they like, destroy it?

This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“on a mountain”), lays out rules for land ownership in ancient Israel and Judah. The first rule is about farmland:

The seventh year will be a time of the most restful rest for the land, a time of rest for God. You shall not sow your field and you shall not prune your vineyard.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:4)

Every seventh year, the Torah explains, everyone can eat what grows wild on your land:

It shall be … for yourself and for your male servant and for your female servant and for your hired laborer and for your toshav, the geirim with you; and for your cattle and for the wild beasts that are in your land; all may come to it to eat.  (Leviticus 25:6-7)

toshav (תּוֹשָׁב) = resident alien, foreigner living in a citizen’s household. Plural = toshavim (תּוֹשָׁבִים).

geir (גֵּר) = resident alien, immigrant; non-citizen who moved from another land. Plural = geirim (גֵּירִים).

The implication is that although you own the land, you only own its produce six years out of seven. Every seventh year you must let it lie fallow,1 giving the land a year of rest (shabbat, שַׁבָּת), just as every seventh day you give everyone in your household a day of rest (shabbat, שַׁבָּת). During your land’s year of rest, whatever it produces is ownerless, and can be eaten by anyone, even wild animals. Additionally, landowners may neither sell nor hoard the produce during that year; like everyone else, they may pick up only what they can eat.

Tribal lands according to Joshua

The next rule in the Torah portion Behar lays out what happens to land every 50th year. After the 49th year (which is a year of rest for the land, as above), all the land gets an additional year of rest, and during that year ownership of each parcel of land reverts to the family that owned it 50 years before—the descendants of the family that owned that land 50 years before that, and so on, all the way back to the original assignment of land in the book of Joshua.2

In this year of the yoveil, each of you shall return to his holding. (Leviticus 25:13)

yoveil (יוֹבֵל) = ram, ram’s horn, shofar; year of blowing the ram’s horn.  (English “jubilee”.)

That means a plot of land may not be sold in the sense we sell land today. Instead, someone pays up-front to lease the land for however many years are left before the next yoveil. During those years, he3 may plant and harvest as he likes—but then he has to return the land.

According to the count of years since the yoveil, you shall purchase it from your fellow; … since he is selling you the number of harvests.  (Leviticus 25:15, 16.)

Does that mean that the only true owners are the “original” families that were given land when the Israelites conquered Canaan, and get the same lands back every 50 years?  No.  The Torah says that all land belongs to God.

You may not forfeit the right to reacquire the land, because the land is Mine; for you are geirim and toshavim with Me.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:23)

The Gleaners, Jean Francois Millet, 1857

God is the true landowner of the land; even the Israelites who inherit land, or get it back in a yoveil year, are resident aliens from God’s point of view.

If everyone who “owns” land is actually borrowing it from God, everyone must obey God’s rules about the use of the land. Besides letting the ground rest every seven years, they must leave some of the harvest in the field for poor people and geirim to glean.4

Of course if a victorious enemy simply seizes land, there is nothing the Israelites can do but wait and hope God will return it to them eventually.

In modern nations today, our own governments can seize private land by eminent domain, often (depending on the nation) compensating the owners for their loss. In general, people can buy, sell, inherit, and give away land, but there are limits—set by government rather than God—on how they can use the land. We have zoning laws, laws protecting wetlands, laws requiring large developers to set aside some land for public parks or green spaces.

But we could do better, if our governments were truly dedicated to the public good.  For example, we could have laws banning the use, on farms and on homeowners’ lawns, of any pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers that poison the environment. We could have laws severely limiting carbon dioxide emissions, and all forms of air and water pollution.

After all, does anyone have the right to degrade our God-given earth?

All human beings are merely temporary residents, geirim and toshavim, on God’s land.  We live here on sufferance.  We depend on nature, which some people call God’s creation—because it certainly isn’t ours. If only we could remember that we are all gleaners, harvesting our food from land that does not really belong to us!

We need to wake up and hear the ram’s horn!

(An earlier version of this essay was published in May 2010.)

1  The seventh year is called the year of shmittah (שְׁמִטָּה), “release”, in Deuteronomy 15:1-14, where it is described as the year for remission of debts and the freeing of Hebrew slaves.

2  Joshua 13:8-33 confirms Moses’ assignment of land east of the Jordan River to the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe, divided by their clans. Joshua 15:1-17:18 confirms the assignment of land the tribes of Judah, Efrayim, and the other half of Menashe have already taken by conquest west of the Jordan, divided by their clans. Joshua 18:1-19:48 describes the assignment of land by lottery (which was presumed to be the will of God) to the remaining seven tribes and their clans. (The Levites, who serve at the temple instead of farming, are given land only in towns, with small attached pastures.) In the next few books of the Bible, the tribes do not conquer all of these assigned lands, and the tribe of Dan moves to another area.

3  Society in the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah was patriarchal, giving the male head of household authority over everyone else. According to current scholarship, the book of Leviticus was written sometime after the Assyrian Empire captured the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C.E., but the patriarchal system continued in Judah.  Women could inherit land only when their fathers died without a son, as in Numbers 27:1-11, and even then strings were attached (Numbers 36:2-12).

4  Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-21.

Emor: Flawed Worship

May 10, 2017 at 10:17 pm | Posted in Emor | Leave a comment
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And God spoke to Moses, saying:  “Speak to Aaron, saying:  Anyone from your descendants through your generations who has a moom may not approach to offer the food of his god.” (Leviticus 21:16-17)

moom (מוּם) = blemish, flaw.  (Plural: moomim, מוּמִים.)

In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, the word moom is used only for physical blemishes in humans or sacrificial animals. Moom appears 20 times in the Hebrew Bible, but only three of those instances refer to a character flaw, rather than a physical flaw.1

Priest tending the altar

This week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”) lays out rules for priests, including this statement that no priest with a moom may serve at the altar. As in other ancient Near Eastern religions, there are many offerings in which select parts of the animals are burned up into smoke for God, while the remaining meat is roasted and eaten by the priests and their households (including their wives, children, and slaves). Priesthood is hereditary; any adult son of a priest gets his share of the food, even if he cannot officiate because he has a moom.

He may eat the food of his god, from the holiest and from the holy [offerings]. However, he may not come behind the curtain [into the Tent of Meeting] and he may not approach the altar, because there is a moom in him… (Leviticus 21:22-23)

After giving a few more rules about eating from offerings, the Torah portion states that the animals brought to the altar must also be unblemished.

Anyone from the house of Israel or from the resident alien in Israel who offers their offering … from the herd or from the flock, it must be flawless to be accepted; no moom may be in it. (Leviticus 22:19, 21)

This week’s portion helpfully provides both a list of disqualifying blemishes for priests (Leviticus 21:18-20), and a list of disqualifying moomim for sacrificial animals (Leviticus 22:22-24).2

Why must both the priests who make the offerings and the animals that are offered must be physically flawless? Rashi3, citing the book of Malachi4, answered that it would be disrespectful to offer God a defective gift or use a defective emissary.

Maimonides5, citing the Talmud6, wrote that people were more likely to think of the temple with awe and reverence if its officiating priests were not only dressed in beautiful garments, but also looked like perfect physical specimens.

Other commentators, including S.R. Hirsch, claimed that the physical perfection of the officiating priests was necessary to symbolize their psychological perfection.7 A man with a moom would be a symbol of a broken and incomplete life; the Israelites were supposed to offer God their whole, complete selves through the rituals at the altar.

We no longer give the lives of our animals to God to express our devotion or gratitude; instead we give God our prayers and blessings. And for almost two millennia8 Jews have not used priests as intermediaries; although we have clergy, any adult can lead a group in prayer9. Physical flaws do not matter in prayer, only the state of one’s heart or mind.10

Do the Levitical lists of unacceptable moomim for priests have any relevance today?

Some psychological, rather than physical, flaws can harden our hearts and impede the act of praying. Does the Torah’s list of moomim that disqualify priests from ritual service address this problem?

Let’s look again at the list of moomim in priests.  Some of the words carry more than one meaning.  Some come from the same three-letter root as other Hebrew words. And many concrete words are used metaphorically in Biblical Hebrew, as in English.

This yields an alternate translation of verses 21:18-20:

Because anyone who has a moom must not present an offering:  anyone who is stirred up, or has been skipped over, or split off from ordinary life, or stretched (too far); (Leviticus 21:18)

Or anyone who is having a breakdown and is unable to walk forward or act; (21:19)

Or who hunches over (with insecurity), or who is stingy, or who has clouded vision, or who has problems that fester and don’t heal, or whose libido is crushed or crushes others. (21:20)

We all have some psychological “flaws” or limitations. And like priests with moomim, we can all absorb some nourishment from praying and blessing. But it is a bad idea to lead prayer, or to offer spiritual insights to others, when one is in the grip of a psychological moom on the list above. Only after you have understood and repaired (or at least set aside) your own moom can you step forward to lead with an open heart.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in April 2010.)

1  Deuteronomy 32:5, Proverbs 9:7, and Job 11:14-15.

2  There were disagreements about what some of the Hebrew words meant even when Talmudic rabbis discussed them in the third century C.E. My translations follow modern translations in William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1988; Robert Alter, The Five Book of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004; and The Jewish Publication Society translation of 1999.

3  Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), commentary on Leviticus.

4  When you bring up a blind one for sacrificial slaughter, there is nothing wrong? And when you bring up a lame or a sick one, there is nothing wrong? Offer it, please, to your governor!  Will he accept you or favor you? (Malachi 1:8)

5  Maimonides (12th-century rabbi Moses ben Maimon), The Guide for the Perplexed, Chapter 45.

6  The Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 43b, states that hereditary priests were also disqualified from serving at the altar if their heads were too square or too bald in the back.

7  Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th-century rabbi), The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra—Part 2, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, p. 723.

8  Since the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

9  However, many Orthodox Jewish congregations still prohibit women from leading parts of the service. The other branches (denominations) of Judaism accept women both as lay leaders and as rabbis and cantors.

10  Texts emphasizing the importance of kavvanah (intention, direction) in prayer go back to the Talmud (about 300-500 C.E.). Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 30b says one should not stand up to pray except in a sincere and serious frame of mind; Berakhot 31a adds that when a man prays, he should direct his heart to heaven.

Kedoshim: Reciprocal Holiness

May 5, 2017 at 2:31 pm | Posted in Kedoshim, Shemini | Leave a comment
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The Torah portion named Kedoshim (“holy”) begins:

And God spoke to Moses, saying:  “Speak to the whole community of the Children of Israel, and you shall say to them:  Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I, God, your God.”  (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:1-2)

kedoshim (קְדֺשִׁים) = plural of kadosh.

kadosh (קָדוֹשׁ) = (As an adjective:) holy, sacred; set apart for religious use; dedicated to God. (As a noun:) something that is holy. (Kodesh, קֺדֶשׁ, has a similar meaning, and is also used in the Torah both as an adjective and as a noun.)

Vestments of the high priest

An object (such as a priest’s vestments, a tool for the altar, an animal offering) is kadosh in the Hebrew Bible when it is for religious use only. A place is (such as Mount Sinai, the temple, Jerusalem) is kadosh when God is present there, either manifesting as a fire or a voice, or simply known to dwell there. (See my posts Chayyei Sarah: A Holy Place and Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.) The day of Shabbat is kadosh because it is dedicated to abstaining from ordinary activities in order to spend time in contemplation or worship of God.

God’s reputation is also called kadosh. Later in the Torah portion Kedoshim, God warns that anyone who gives a child to the Molekh profanes the reputation of God’s kodesh.1

A priest is kadosh because he is formally dedicated to God, and has a different life from non-priests: he must serve God at the temple and instruct the people on ritual matters; and he depends on the whole community for support, owning no farmland of his own.

But what does it mean for God to be kadosh? And what does it mean for human beings who are not priests to be kedoshim?

Here are the three passages in the Hebrew Bible in which God orders people to be kedoshim because God is kadosh:

  1. Holiness as ritual purity

The first two times God declares that the Israelites shall be kedoshim because God is kadosh happen in the Torah portion Shemini, earlier in the book of Leviticus. Right after a list of which animals are and are not kosher for eating, the Torah says:

Because I, God, am your god, vehitkadishtem, and you will be kedoshim, because kadosh am I; and you shall you shall not make yourselves impure through any of the tiny teeming animals swarming over the earth.  Because I am God, the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your god; and you shall be kedoshim because kadosh am I. This is the teaching of the land-animals and the flying-animals, and for all living beings teeming in the water and for all swarming animals on the earth: to distinguish between the impure and the pure, and between the edible living things and the living things that you may not eat. (Leviticus 11:44-47)

vehitkadishtem (וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם) = you shall make yourselves kedoshim, you shall consecrate yourselves.

Animals that the Israelites are forbidden to eat cause temporary ritual impurity in any person or thing that touches their dead carcasses.  The mammals and birds that are acceptable sacrificial offerings to God (cattle, sheep, goats, and two kinds of birds) are all from the kosher list.

The Torah includes many other laws about ritual observance. Transgressing one of these laws means being less obedient to God, and therefore no longer kadosh—until one has made atonement with the appropriate sacrifice.

The Torah portion Kedoshim reinforces this idea:

Vehitkadishtem, and you will be kedoshim, because I, God, am your god. And you shall observe My decrees and do them.  I, God, am mekadishkhem. (Leviticus 20:7-8)

mekadishkhem (מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם) = the one who makes you kedoshim, the one who consecrates you, the one who transfers holiness to you.

For a human, in other words, being kadosh is a condition like ritual purity.  People who follow all the rules of the Israelite religion are kedoshim—because God puts them in a kadosh state.  Maybe for God, being kadosh means being mekadishkhem.

  1. Holiness as moral virtue

Honor Your Parents,
by Hans der Maler, 1529

The Torah portion Kedoshim begins with Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I” (Leviticus 19:2). Right before this divine direction, in the previous portion, Acharey Mot, is a list of forbidden sexual partners.2  Right after it is a list of 20 commandments, starting with “Everyone shall revere his mother and his father” and concluding with “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. While two or three of these commandments are about religious ritual3, the rest lay out ethical standards for human interactions.

For the last millennium, many commentators have concluded that God is asking us to become kedoshim by behaving ethically toward other people. In the 11th century C.E. three great rabbis, Rashi in France4, Maimonides in Egypt5, and Bachya ibn Pakudah in Spain6, all responded to Kedoshim by writing that human beings become kedoshim by exercising self-restraint over their passions and appetites, especially their sexual appetites. Besides avoiding the immoral deeds specifically mentioned in Acharey Mot and Kedoshim, humans must fully dedicate themselves to holiness by acting moderately and responsibly even when they are doing what is permitted.

More recently, Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz has pointed out: “Bringing a korban [an offering to the altar] every once in a while is simple. But to fulfill all the various major and minor requirements listed in Parashat Kedoshim every day is quite another story. Not for naught does the Torah say, ‘Everyone shall revere his mother and his father’ (Lev. 19:3). Anyone who has any experience in this knows how difficult it is. It is something that we are faced with every day, and it can be especially challenging when one’s father and mother are themselves not exceptionally holy people.

            “This struggle is the fundamental struggle for holiness. Parashat Kedoshim presents a long list of minor requirements, none of which is extraordinary on its own, but each one recurs day after day. The very requirement to maintain this routine without succumbing to jadedness and despair—that itself creates the highest levels of holiness.”7

For a human, in other words, being kadosh means continuously striving to act ethically in the world.  Most commentators who argue for this meaning of kadosh assume that God is kadosh because God is morally perfect, and we become kedoshim to the extent that we imitate God.

Yet the anthropomorphic God portrayed in much of the Torah often seems to act immorally. The “God” in the first five books of the Torah or Bible frequently bursts into anger and kills thousands of people without discriminating between the truly evil ringleaders (if any) and those who are merely weak or imperfect, or happen to be part of a wrong-doer’s family.

However, in the book of Exodus God claims to be compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, kind, truthful, and forgiving.8 Some people claim that what looks to us like God’s bad behavior, both in the Torah and when bad things happen to good people today, is really part of God’s larger plan for ultimate justice and mercy for everyone.  We humans can’t see the big picture, but this is the best of all possible worlds, and God is kodesh after all.

  1. Holiness as exclusive possession

Sometimes the Torah calls the Israelites kadosh because they are set apart by God, and God is kadosh through the distinction of being the only god the Israelites worship.9 This concept of holiness as segregation appears near the end of this week’s Torah portion.

And you shall be kedoshim for Me, because kadosh am I, God, and I have separated you from the [other] peoples to be Mine.  (Leviticus 20:26)

Asa Destroys Idols,
Petrus Comestor Bible Historiale, France, 1372

The exclusivity of this arrangement between God and the Israelites leads to rules that discriminate against non-Israelites.  For example, in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, Moses warns the people that when they conquer their “promised land’ in Canaan and defeat the seven tribes already living there, they must not make any treaties with these tribes; they must not intermarry with them; and they must destroy all their religious items.

For you are a kadosh people to God, your god; God, your god, chose you to belong to It as a treasured possession, out of all the peoples on the face of the earth.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 7:6)

Sifra, a collection of commentary on Leviticus that was probably compiled in the third century C.E., rephrases God’s direction at the beginning of the Torah portion Kedoshim this way: “As I, God, am set apart, so you must be set apart.” The same condition of being “set apart”—from other peoples or from other gods—defines how both the Israelite people and God are kadosh.

*

All of the passages in the Torah that include some version of Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I” concern activities in the physical world: obeying or decreeing ritual rules; or dedicating oneself to ethical behavior; or excluding other people and other gods. None of these passages mention spiritual transcendence.

Later in the Hebrew Bible, the prophets sometimes use the word kadosh to indicate that God is an awesome and overpowering mystery.10  In the 16th century C.E., the Maharal of Prague wrote that a person or act is kadosh when it is transcendent in its essence—like God.11 And in the 18th century, Hassidic rabbis defined holiness as an intense and continuous attachment and devotion to God. This deep mental connection let God’s holiness flow into a person.12

But in the book of Leviticus, kadosh describes something in the physical world: an object, a place, a day, a priest—or an ordinary Israelite’s actions in the world, or God’s actions in the world.

What it means to say God’s actions are kadosh depends on how you define “God”—and that determines what human beings do to become kadosh.

  1. The “God” of ritual purity

Some people think of “God” as the anthropomorphic biblical character who makes all the rules. They strive to follow whatever rules their current human leaders have selected from the Bible in a literal way, eschewing symbolism. (It would be impossible to follow all the rules in the Bible; some contradict each other, and some cannot be performed in the modern world.)

To the extent that literal-minded religious people achieve this, they consider themselves holy. But all too often this definition of God leads people to denounce those who they believe are not following their chosen biblical rules.

  1. The “God” of moral virtue

Some people think of “God” not as an anthropomorphic being, but as a theological abstraction of perfection: omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. Others think of “God” as the force of goodness in the world. Either way, “God” is perfectly virtuous by definition, and the bible should not always be taken literally.

When people think of “God” as an ethical ideal (from the original 13 attributes to modern variations on “God is love”), and they try to become holy, they strive to act with more forethought or kindness or compassion toward others—thus imitating their God.

  1. The “God” of exclusive possession

Some Jews consider themselves the “chosen people”, descendants of the Israelites with whom “God” has a special and exclusive relationship in the Hebrew Bible.  Some Christians consider themselves the “chosen people”, with whom “God” made a new covenant in the Christian Bible.

Defining God in terms of the in-group usually results in disparaging the out-group. People imitate the “God” who singles out one “chosen people” by discriminating against all other groups of people, who they assume are inferior and/or threatening.

 

If you want to become kadosh, be careful how you think about God!

1  Leviticus 20:3.  The Torah portion does not say whether sacrificing a child to the alien god Molekh profanes God’s reputation for separating the Israelites from people with other religions, or God’s reputation for the ethical act of banning child sacrifice.

2  Leviticus 18:1-30.

3  Seventeen of the twenty commandments in 19:3-18 are definitely about behavior toward other people, i.e. ethics.  The other three are:

* Observe Shabbat. (Leviticus 19:5)

* Do not worship idols. (19:4)

* Eat a wholeness-offering (שְׁלָמִים) in the first two days. (19:5-8)  This appears to be an instruction about ritual, but some commentators point out that the wholeness-offering is the only offering in which some of the roasted meat and grain is shared with guests. In order to make sure this large offering is eaten in two days, the person making the offering must invite multiple guests, so this commandment may also address the ethical virtue of generosity.

4  Rashi (Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), commentary on Leviticus 19:2.

5  Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), Guide for the Perplexed.

6  Rabbi Bachya ben Yosef ibn Pakudah, Kad HaKemach.

7  Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015.

8  This is a summary of the “13 attributes” God proclaims to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. However, 34:7 ends by saying that God punishes not only wrongdoers, but their children and children’s children, to the fourth generation.

9  God is called kedosh Israel, “the holy one of Israel”, twelve times in the first book of Isaiah and fourteen times in the second book of Isaiah, as well as in 2 Kings 19:22; Jeremiah 50:29 and 51:5; Ezekiel 39:7; and Psalms 71:22, 78:41, and 89:19.

10  One example is a vision of the first Isaiah: In the year of the death of the king Uzziyahu, I beheld my lord sitting on a high and elevated throne, and [God’s] skirts were filling the palace.  Serafim were standing over [God], six wings, six wings to each … And they would call, one to another, and say:  “Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh!  God of hosts!  [God’s] glory fills the earth!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)

11  Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Betzaleil, a.k.a. the Maharal of Prague, Tiferet Yisrael 37.

12  Arthur Green, Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2013, pp. 292, 295.

Metzora: A Diseased Family

April 26, 2017 at 4:55 pm | Posted in Metzora, Tazria | 1 Comment
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Priests spend most of their working hours, according to the Torah, on three kinds of tasks: maintaining God’s dwelling-place, whether tent or temple; processing the offerings made there; and ritually purifying people who have become ritually impure.

There are many ways a person might become ritually impure, and therefore excluded from communal worship—or even from the whole community—until the situation is rectified. This week’s double Torah portion, Tazria and Metzora, goes into great detail about one: the disease called tzara-at.

If a human has on the skin of their flesh a swelling, or scales, or a white patch, and it becomes a mark of tzara-at on the skin of their flesh, then they shall be brought to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons, the priests. (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:2)

tzara-at (צָרָעַת) = a disfiguring disease of human skin, characterized by patchy white discoloration; something causing patchy red or green discoloration in fabric, leather, or wall-plaster.

Leukoderma

Priests are not healers, but they do diagnose the presence or absence of that one disease. Tzara-at was previously mistranslated as “leprosy”, but the descriptions in Leviticus/Vayikra show that human tzara-at is a relatively harmless skin disease, perhaps a form of leukoderma. Sometimes it heals by itself. When the disease is present, the human being must be quarantined from the rest of the community.  When the tzara-at is cured, the priests conduct a ritual for re-entry.

The quarantine also applies when a priest finds tzara-at in fabric, leather, or the plastered walls of a house.

God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving to you for property, and I put a mark of tzara-at in a bayit on the land you possess, then the one who has the house shall come and inform the priest, saying: Something like a mark has become visible to me in the bayit. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:33-35)

bayit (בַּיִת) = house, building, home; household (consisting of family and servants living together).

Then the priest shall give an order, and they shall clear out the bayit before the priest comes to look at the mark, so nothing in the bayit will become ritually impure.  After that the priest will come to look at the bayit. And he will see the mark, and hey! the mark is sunken into the walls of the bayit, yerakrakot or adamdamot, and appears deep in the wall! (Leviticus 14:36-37)

Red mold

Green mold

yerakrakot (יְרַקְרַקּוֹת) = thin greens.1

adamdamot (אֲדַמְדַּמוֹת) = blood reds.2

In that case, the priest must quarantine the house for seven days.  If the green or red patches have spread when he returns, the discolored portion of the wall has to be dismantled and its stones must be carried off to the dump.  The plaster over the rest of the walls in the house must be scraped off and taken to the dump.  Then the house owner has to rebuild the missing section of wall and re-plaster the whole interior.  (Leviticus 14:37-42)

If discoloration reappears in the house, and a priest confirms that it is tzara-at again, the entire house has to be torn down and the rubble taken to a dump outside the city. (Leviticus 14:43-45)

Black mold is common the damp climate of western Oregon; I’ve been fighting it for the past twenty years.  In some buildings the only permanent solution includes stripping the walls down to the studs, not to mention removing all the grout from bathroom tile. I have not encountered red or green mold, but I know these molds still plague some buildings. Ritual impurity is not an issue for us, but when I scrub my walls or my tile and still see black stains, I feel as if our living quarters are contaminated.

At least the tzara-at contaminates only our walls, not our marriage.  But in the Torah portion Metzora, tzara-at of a bayit can also be interpreted as a contamination of the family unit. The Torah often uses the word bayit to mean a household or family rather than a physical house. And the word tzara-at appears to come from the same root (צרע) as the word tzirah (צִרְעָה) = dread or despair sent by God, causing people to flee.3

So we could translate the Torah’s introduction to tzara-at in the bayit this way:

God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving to you for property, and I put a mark of despair in a household in your land, then the head of the household shall come and inform the priest, saying: Something like a mark has become visible to me in my household. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:33-35)

Despair, by Edvard Munch, 1894

In other words, the head of the household notices that someone in his family is stricken with despair.  He (in ancient Israel, the head was always a man) could pretend everything is fine, and keep the problem behind closed doors. But then the despair might spread. Servants or members of his family might even run away.  And those who stayed would be ritually impure, unable to mingle with the rest of the community.

So instead of pretending everything is fine at home, the patriarch should inform a priest.  He and his family must clear out all the baggage they can.  Then the priest comes in to observe whether the household looks normal.

If he sees signs of yerakrakot, “thin greens”, perhaps the family is too repressed, so its members cannnot grow and flourish like healthy green plants. If he sees signs of adamdamot, “blood reds”, perhaps someone is not respecting the Biblical rule that “the blood is the life”: there may be an invasion of personal space and inner life, or even psychological bloodshed.

Both colors of tzara-at sink deep into the household, causing tzirah—depression, dread, or despair. So the priest must separate the members of the household from one another for seven days. If this vacation does not help, the only solution is to start tearing down and replacing some of the family dynamics.  And if even that does not work, the household must be disbanded.

Male heads of households in the Torah do not invite interference, but in the case of tzara-at they are required to ask for interference by experts. Adults in our own time also tend to think of the families they have made as their own business, and try to ignore signs of distress.

But if the problem is bad enough, a household cannot continue in its old ways without every member becoming contaminated by despair. The family needs help from an expert. And if that does not work, separation is necessary.  People must suffer through divorce or the estrangement of children. Individuals who choose to stay together must build new households or new relationships.

May everyone become able to diagnose tzara-at of the family with the skill of a Biblical priest, and may everyone become able to make major changes.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in April 2010.)

1  Yarak (יָרָק) = green plant, vegetable. Rak (רַק) = thin, slight.

2   Adom (אָדֺם) = red. Dam (דָּם) = blood.

3  12th-century rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra suggested that the word tzirah must be related to the word tzara-at, since it has the same root letters, and concluded that tzirah was a disease. His opinion is reflected in the most recent (1985) translation of the Bible by the Jewish Publication Society,  in which “the tzirah” is translated as “a plague”. Another tradition, followed by the King James Bible, translates the word tzirah (צִרְעָה) as “hornet”, but some modern scholars dispute this. Robert Alter uses the traditional translation “hornet”, but proposes that tzirah actually means a supernatural agent called “smasher”. (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, footnotes on pp. 453 and 919; Robert Alter, Ancient Israel, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2013, footnote p. 100.)  Everett Fox translates tzirah as “Despair” with a capital D the first time it appears in his The Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, New York, 1983, p. 389), but inexplicably reverts to “hornet” the second time (ibid., p. 887).

Tzirah appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible, always with the prefix meaning “the” (הַצִּרְעָה):

…and I will panic all the people who you come among … And I will send the tzirah before you, and it will drive out the Hivvite and the Canaanite and the Hittite away from you. (Exodus 23:27-28)

And also God, your God, will send the tzirah against them, until those who remain and those who hide from you perish. (Deuteronomy 7:20)

And I sent the tzirah before you, and it drove them away from you, the two Amorite kings—not your sword nor your bow. (Joshua 24:12)

In context, tzirah appears to be an overwhelming dread, sent by God, that induces people to abandon their land and flee.

Shemini: Prayer and Glory

April 19, 2017 at 8:17 am | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Shemini | Leave a comment
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For seven days after Moses consecrates Aaron and his sons as priests, they sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The Torah portion Shemini (“Eighth”) opens on the eighth day, when the new priests are ready to make their first offerings on the altar: two different offerings for the high priest Aaron, and four different offerings for the people.1 Moses explains:

Because today God will appear to you.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:4)

After the animals and the grain have been assembled, and the rest of the Israelites are standing in front of the altar, Moses gives further instructions, saying:

This is the thing that God commanded you must do; then the kavod of God will appear to you.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:6)

kavod (כָּבוֹד) = weight, importance, impressiveness, magnificence; a glorious manifestation (often translated as “glory”).

Vesuvius in Eruption, by J.M.W. Turner, 1817

The Israelites have already witnessed a long string of miracles in Egypt, culminating in the splitting of the Reed Sea.  They have followed the kavod of God, in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire, from Egypt to Mount Sinai. On the day of the revelation they experienced God’s kavod as lightning and smoke on the mountain itself, along with thunder and blasts of a shofar.2

Yet once miracles stop, it is hard to keep faith.  When Moses stayed on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, and no pillar of cloud and fire reappeared near the camp, the Israelites felt abandoned.  Who would lead them to a new home?

In desperation, the men asked Aaron for an idol, then worshiped the golden calf he made.3  Moses returned to them, but God’s cloud and fire did not.  The Israelites were so anxious to see the kavod of God again that when Moses called for donations to make a dwelling-place for God, they donated more than enough treasure and labor.4  The dwelling-place, the new Tent of Meeting, is completed at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot.

Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place.  (Exodus/Shemot 40:34)

For the cloud of God was over the dwelling-place by day, and fire was in it at night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, on all their journeys.  (Exodus 40:38)

Presumably the cloud is resting over the Tent of Meeting on the day the new priests make their first offerings at the altar.  So why do the Israelites need another view of God’s kavod?

Perhaps God, or Moses, knows that the Israelites are still insecure. The survivors of the Golden Calf incident have committed their work and treasure to God, and they are ready to follow the new version of God-worship Moses has laid out, in which priests are intermediaries.  But they need divine confirmation that Aaron and his sons really are God’s chosen priests. After all, it was Aaron who made the Golden Calf—choosing to pacify the people rather than sticking to God’s commandment against idols. Could they trust him to serve only God from now on—and keep the Israelites in God’s favor?

While all the people watch, Aaron and his sons carry out the required procedures for the six offerings at the altar.

Then Aaron raised his hands toward the people and he blessed them …  (Leviticus  9:22)

The Torah doesn’t say what Aaron’s blessing is, but the Talmud assumes that it must be the blessing prescribed for priests in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar 5 (and still used in Jewish liturgy today):

May God bless you and guard you; May God illuminate Its face for you and be gracious to you; may God lift Its face to you and place peace over you.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:22-27)

After this blessing, one might expect the kavod of God to appear as promised. It does not.

19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, claimed that God delays the divine manifestation on purpose so as to prevent any belief that animal offerings make God’s glory appear by magic.6  The kavod appears when God wants it to appear.

Then Moses came, and Aaron, into the Tent of Meeting. Then they went out and they blessed the people … (Leviticus 9:23)

What is this second blessing?  According to the Sifra, a 4th-century collection of commentary on the book of Leviticus, Moses says: “May it be God’s will to cause His Presence to rest upon the work of your hands!  May God, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold and bless you, as He promised you!”

And the people respond with a verse that appears in Psalm 90:

May the comfort of God, our God, be upon us, and may the work of our hands be an enduring foundation for us.  (Psalm 90:17) 7

Moses’ blessing is a prayer that God will indeed dwell in the new Tent of Meeting that the Israelite people made.  The people’s response, in this context, is a prayer that the work they did with their own hands will result in both divine comfort and an enduring commitment to serving God.

The children of Israel are moved to commit themselves further to God when Moses and Aaron, their human leaders, come out of God’s dwelling-place and bless them. After this commitment,

… and the kavod of God appeared to all the people. Fire went out from the presence of God, and it devoured the rising-offering and the fatty animal-parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and they shouted with joy and they fell on their faces.  (Leviticus 9:23-24)

At that sign of God’s acceptance, the people shout with joy—and relief.

*

A blessing from another person can seem like a useless exercise.  After all, a human being has no power to make the blessing come true.  We can only express the hope that God will make it happen.

And today, the sudden appearance of fire means an emergency, not divine acceptance.

Yet I remember when I received blessings from Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, and I felt a transfer of good will and even a sense of kavod.  This feeling made a psychological difference to me, changing my attitude toward life and toward the divine.

I find I can be committed to an abstract principle, but not comforted by it. Comfort and joy come more naturally when the abstraction is connected with a human being, someone whose warm feelings are palpable.  Maybe a blessing in itself can be a manifestation of God.

Bless someone today.  It might make a difference.

(An earlier version of this essay was posted on March 20, 2010.)

1  First the new high priest, Aaron, makes a reparation-offering (חַטָּאת) and a rising-offering (עֺלָה) for himself. Then he makes a reparation-offering, a rising-offering, a grain offering (מִנְחָה), and a wholeness-offering (שְׁלָמִים) for the people.  For an explanation of these four types of offerings, see my posts Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.

2  Shofar (שׁוֹפָר) = a ram’s horn modified for blowing as a wind instrument.

3  Exodus/Shemot  32:1-6.  See my post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen.

4  Exodus/Shemot  35:4-29 and 36:2-7.

5  The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 38a, assuming that Aaron’s first blessing of the people in Leviticus 9:22 is the same as the blessing God commands all priests to give in Numbers 6:22-23, argues that therefore the “priestly blessing” in Numbers 6:24-26 must be pronounced with the hands raised. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) and the majority of medieval commentators agreed that Aaron spoke the “priestly blessing”.

6  Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Vayikra Part 1, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002,  p. 289-290.

7  Sifra, quoted by W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 804.

Haftarat Pesach—Ezekiel: Dry Bones

April 12, 2017 at 3:43 pm | Posted in Ezekiel, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment
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During the week of Passover/Pesach, we pause in the annual cycle of Torah readings to commemorate the story of the liberation from slavery in Egypt. The first evening of Passover (or the first and second evenings, in some traditions) is devoted to the seder, a 14-step ritual with a meal and a story that goes from the beginning of Exodus through the crossing of the Reed Sea. One of the many songs in the ritual can be translated as “We were slaves; now we are free!”

After the excitement of the seder or seders, Jews are supposed to spend the rest of the week of Passover eating matzah and eschewing all other grain products. On the Shabbat that falls during this week we get two special readings. The Torah reading comes from later in the book of Exodus, when God proclaims Its “thirteen attributes” to Moses on top of Mount Sinai.1 The haftarah reading is a vision from the book of Ezekiel.

The hand of God came over me, and it brought me out by the ruach of God and set me in the middle of the broad valley [which] was full of bones. And it swept me over them, around and around, and hey!—there were very many on the surface of the broad valley, and hey!—they were very dry.  And [God] said to me: “Son of humankind, will these bones become alive?   And I said: “My lord God, [only] You know.”  (Ezekiel 37:1-3)

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind, spirit, breath. (Plural ruchot, רוּחוֹת.)

Ezekiel uses the phrase “the hand of God came over me” to mean that God overpowered him and compelled him to enter his vision.2 After asking Ezekiel if the dry human bones can come to life, God tells his prophet what to say to the bones.

Valley of the Dry Bones
by Gustave Dore, 1866

And I prophesied as I had been commanded. And a sound happened, as I was prophesying, and hey!—a clatter!—and the bones drew close [to each other], a bone to its bone. Then I looked, and hey!—they had sinews and flesh on them, and skin spread over them. But there was no ruach in them.  (Ezekiel 37:7-8)

Next God instructs Ezekiel to bring breath—or spirit—into the bodies by saying:

Thus said my lord God: Ruach, come from the four ruchot, and blow into these slain, and they will become alive. And I prophesied as [God] commanded me. And the ruach came into them, and they became alive, and they stood up on their feet—a very, very great force.  (Ezekiel 37:9-10)

What does this vision mean? Some early commentators viewed it as a literal statement that some dead Israelites were, or would be, resurrected.3 But in the book of Ezekiel, God explains the vision as a metaphor or parable.

And [God] said to me: “Son of humankind, these bones are the whole house of Israel.  Hey! They are saying: ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished, and we are cut off’. Therefore prophesy, and you shall say to them: ‘Thus says my lord God: Hey! I, Myself, am opening your graves, and I will lift you out of your graves, My people, and I will bring you back to the soil of Israel. … And I will put My ruach inside you, and you will become alive [again], and I will put you back on your soil.  (Ezekiel 37:12, 14)

The book of Ezekiel was written in the 6th century B.C.E. during the Babylonian Exile. When the Babylonians conquered Judah, the southern kingdom of the Israelites, they deported its leading families to Babylon, including Ezekiel’s family of priests.  Ezekiel prophesied to his fellow exiles, who were inclined to despair of either returning to their old land, or building new lives among the Babylonians, who treated them as paroled prisoners.

After showing Ezekiel the vision of the dry bones coming to life, God tells Ezekiel to give new hope to “the whole house of Israel”: both the Israelites from the kingdom of Judah who have given up on their lives in Babylon, and the Israelites whom the Assyrians had deported from the northern kingdom of Israel about 150 years earlier.

It is never too late to come to life again.

*

At the beginning of Passover, we tell the story of God’s ten miracles and how God, with the prophet Moses, leads a few thousand subjugated people out of Egypt to a new land that will become their own.4 On the Shabbat during Passover, we read about God’s demonstration to Ezekiel that miracles are still possible, and God can liberate the subjugated people in Babylon and give them a new life ruling their old homeland.

May everyone today who slides toward despair receive the ruach to hold onto hope instead. May we all create new lives for ourselves, and build good countries wherever we may be.  It is not too late.

1  Exodus/Shemot 33:12-34:2.

2  Rashi (1th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), commentary on Ezekiel 37:1. In Hebrew, the phrase is hayetah (הָיְתָה) = it happened; alai (עָלַי) = over me; yad (יַד) = hand, power; of God. See also Ezekiel 1:3, 3:22, and 8:1.

3  In the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 92b, the rabbis argue about whether Ezekiel’s vision is a parable, or whether he actually resurrected some long-dead skeletons. Rabbi Yehudah bar Batyra claims to be a descendent of one of the resurrected men!

4  Unfortunately, the “promised land” in the Torah is already occupied by Canaanites. In the book of Joshua the ex-slaves from Egypt have to fight and defeat the indigenous peoples in order to take over their land. History often clashes with morality. It is a challenge today to provide liberty and justice for all the people residing in a country.

Tzav: Filling Up a Priest

April 5, 2017 at 5:44 pm | Posted in Tzav | Leave a comment
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The Israelites complete the tent that will serve as a portable temple at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot. Moses consecrates the altar and the priests who will perform all the required rituals in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, the second portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.

High Priest’s garments

Moses assembles the whole community outside the entrance of the new Tent of Meeting. In front of everyone he washes his brother Aaron and Aaron’s four sons, then dresses them in the white, gold, red, purple, and blue ritual garments described in the book of Exodus/Shemot.1

The ceremony continues with the ritual slaughter of a bull and three rams, offerings of animal parts and three kinds of flat cakes, and the application of anointing oil and blood from the slaughtered animals in various locations and combinations. (See my post Tzav: Horns, Ears, Thumbs, and Toes.) After the gorgeous new ceremonial garments are spotted all over with oil and blood they are holy—dedicated to God.  So are Aaron and his sons, but they are not yet priests.

Moses leaves them with a supply of boiled meat (from the second ram) and leftover grain products (from the grain offering), and gives them strict instructions:

You must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day of melot the days of your milu-im; because in seven days yemallei your yad. (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:33)

melot (מְלֺאת) = filling up, being full, fulfilling, completing.  (A form of the verb mala, מָלַא = filled, was full.)

milu-im (מִילֻּאִים) = ordination; setting for a jewel to fill.  (From the root mala.)

yemallei (יְמַלֵּא) = it will fill up.  (Another form of the verb mala.)

yad (יַד) = hand; power, ability.

mala yad (מָלַא יַד) = Literally: filled the hand.  Idiomatically: ordained.2

Tent of Meeting and its courtyard
(entrances in red)

According to God’s instructions to Moses in the book of Exodus, one part of the ritual will be repeated each day during this seven-day period: the slaughter of a bull and consecration of the altar with its blood.3 But Aaron and his sons will simply sit in the tent entrance in their spattered garments, gradually eating their portions of the meat and grain offerings that they had shared with God.

God commanded to do what was done today, to atone for you. And you must sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven days, and you must watch over the watch of God, so you will not die; for so I was commanded.  (Leviticus 8:34-35)

The Torah does not say whether the long ritual served as a general atonement and spiritual purification, or whether it atones for Aaron’s sin of making the golden calf back in the book of Exodus.4

Nor does it say what Aaron and his sons must watch over or guard for seven days. Many commentators have written that they spend the seven days meditating on the rules of holiness and ritual purity for serving God.5

Another viewpoint is that they are mourning, because they have a premonition that at least one of them will die on the eighth day, when they first serve God as official priests.6 But when Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, in next week’s Torah portion, it comes as a shock to everyone.

The Torah also quotes Moses as telling Aaron and his sons that they must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days because “it will fill up (yemallei) your ability (yad)”.  Maybe it takes seven days in the entrance to God’s dwelling-place to fill up with sufficient holy awe to be able to conduct the business of holiness.

What strikes me is that Aaron and his sons are neither born nor trained to be priests.  They get their new positions without any previous job experience.

Chur and Aaron support Moses, by J.E. Millais, 1871

Up to this point, Aaron has not been the sort of man who wears a gold medallion on his forehead saying “Holy to God”.   It’s clear in the book of Exodus that God only calls Aaron in because Moses makes so many objections to the job God gives him at the burning bush.7  To his credit, Aaron greets his long-lost brother without jealousy, and willingly serves as Moses’ sidekick.  When the Israelites are attacked by Amalek on the way to Mount Sinai, Aaron literally supports Moses’ arm and helps him save the day.8  But when Moses climbs Mount Sinai and does not return for 40 days, and the people panic and ask for idols, Aaron makes the golden calf.

Now Aaron is promoted from Moses’ unreliable assistant to High Priest.  Aaron will officiate over the ritual offerings in the sanctuary.  Aaron will light the menorah.  Aaron will be in charge of God’s dwelling place.

Aaron’s four sons are also getting major promotions.  They have not done anything of distinction, though they would be treated with the respect simply because they are Aaron’s sons.9  Now they are being ordained as priests.  They will be the only people besides Moses and Aaron and Moses who are allowed to enter the Tent of Meeting, the only people allowed to handle the holiest objects inside it.  Only they will turn the offerings of their people into smoke that ascends to God.

For seven days Aaron and his sons sit inside the sanctuary, in the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Perhaps they face out, gazing at the bronze altar and the wash-basin in the sunlit courtyard. Perhaps they face in, gazing at the golden menorah, incense altar, and bread table under the tent roof, not to mention the curtain screening off the ark itself.  For seven days they sit there, without distractions, realizing they will spend the rest of their lives dedicated to holy service.

I doubt they are doing anticipatory mourning for the coming deaths of Nadav and Avihu. But they may be mourning for their old way of life, which has ended forever.  At the end of seven days, they will be the servants of God’s dwelling-place, who must act as God’s representatives every waking minute.

Their new lives as priests are imposed on them.  They do not apply for the job. They do not even hear God call them, the way prophets in the Hebrew Bible are called into service. Moses simply tells them what God told him do. It might seem like a great honor to them, or it might seem as arbitrary as an accident.

At least they are granted seven days to sit at the entrance of their new lives, experiencing the grief, fear, awe, and whatever else comes along, letting the transformation sink in.

We don’t have a Moses to set aside seven days for us when we face a sudden major change in life.  But we have the example in this week’s Torah portion.  May everyone who can take time on the threshold between an old life and a new one receive the inspiration to sit and reflect.  And whenever our lives change, may God fill up our ability to meet the new challenge.

(An earlier version of this essay was posted in March 2010.)

1  Exodus 28:1-43, 39:1-31. See my post Tetzavveh: The Clothes Make the Man.

2  The source of this idiom is not known, but it may be related to the elevation offering, the tenufah (תְּנוּפָה), in which priests lay the meat or grain cakes to be offered on their palms and either hold them out, raise them, or wave them toward God before burning them. A tenufah was part of the ordination ceremony for Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 8:26-28).

3  Exodus 29:35-38.

4  Exodus 32:1-8, 21-25. See my post Ki Tissa: Out Came this Calf!

5  e.g. 13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman (a.k.a. Ramban, Nachmanides), paraphrased in Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1992, p. 71; 19th-century rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 1, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 277.

6  Midrash Tanchuma, a collection of commentary from the 5th through 8th centuries C.E., paraphrased in Munk, p. 72.  Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, consumed by a fire from God (Leviticus 10:1-2); and Moses forbids Aaron and his two surviving sons to engage in mourning for them (Leviticus 10:6-7). The seven days sitting at the tent entrance are compared to the initial seven-day mourning period of shivah, but “sitting shivah” is a later Jewish custom.

7  Exodus 4:10-17.

8  Exodus 17:8-13.  See my post Beshallach: Hands Up.

9  Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, are treated as if they are elders when they walk partway up Mount Sinai with the 70 regular elders, Moses, and Aaron to behold a vision of God’s feet (Exodus 24:1, 9-11).

Vayikra: A Voice Calling

March 29, 2017 at 4:38 pm | Posted in Vayikra | Leave a comment
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Moses at the Burning Bush,
by Rembrandt

There are only four times in the Bible when Gods “calls” to Moses before speaking to him, and all four happen at Mount Sinai. God calls from the burning bush1 for their first introduction; from the top of Mount Sinai when the ex-slaves from Egypt first arrive2; and from the top of the mountain again (when it is smoking and thundering) to give Moses more instructions before the revelation known as the “Ten Commandments”3.

The fourth time, God calls to Moses from within the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites have constructed at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Vayikra to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them… (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1-2)

vayikra (וַיִּקְרָא) = and he/It called (by name).

This divine call opens the book of Leviticus/Vayikra and this week’s Torah portion, which is also named Vayikra. Why does God call to Moses before giving him a new set of instructions?

One answer is that God always called Moses before speaking to him, as an expression of affection or courtesy, but the Torah does not always mention it.4

Cloud resting on
the Tent of Meeting

Another explanation points out that at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses assembles the new Tent of Meeting for the first time, and the presence of God moves from the top of Mount Sinai into the tent.

Then Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested on it the magnificence of God filled the Dwelling-Place.  (Exodus 40:35)

Moses is not willing to try again until God calls to him from inside the tent. When he hears this call, he realizes that his job is not finished; he must continue to serve as an intermediary between God and the Israelites.5  The only difference is that now he will hear God’s voice from the empty space above the ark in the back chamber of the tent, the Holy of Holies.6

A unique feature of the word vayikra at the beginning of Leviticus is that in every Torah scroll, the letter aleph (א) at the end of the word is written smaller than the other letters.

Six words in the first five books of the Bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy, the contents of a Torah scroll) have been written with one letter smaller than the others ever since the 7th century C.E.7  No one knows the historic reason for these miniature letters, but symbolic interpretations have been proposed for each one.

The Zohar explains the small א in vayikra as indicating a restriction in God’s summons. Earlier in the Torah, God calls to Moses in full majesty from out of fire: first from the burning bush, then from the fire at the top of Mount Sinai. Now God calls from the Tent of Meeting, from inside the Holy of Holies.8

The idea of restriction is reinforced by the fact that in the first sentence of Leviticus, the Torah says He/It called to Moses, instead of God called to Moses; the name of God is only used in the second clause, when God speaks to Moses and gives him instructions. Moses hears the initial call when he is standing outside the Tent of Meeting. Then he goes inside to receive God’s new instructions.

From that point on, although Moses occasionally prostrates himself on the ground to get a quick word of divine advice, God usually speaks to him from the empty space above the ark in the Holy of Holies.

from Vesuvius in Eruption,
J.M.W. Turner, 1817

What does it mean that God now speaks with an indoor voice instead of an outdoor voice?  I think this change is related to a change in the Israelites’ relationship with God.  In the book of Exodus, God only speaks to the people once, on the day of revelation, and the people at the foot of Mount Sinai experience thunder, lightning, heavy cloud, the blare of a horn, smoke and fire, and earthquake.9

The experience is too devastating for the people, and they beg Moses to be a go-between for them.10  Moses does so, trotting up and down Mount Sinai, speaking with God at the top and the people at the bottom.  The ex-slaves from Egypt remain passive.  Even when they are afraid Moses has died, and they want an idol to replace him as their leader, they ask Moses’ brother Aaron to make it; they wouldn’t dare make a golden calf by themselves.

But when Moses passes on God’s instructions for making a dwelling-place for God, everyone with a willing heart donates materials, and everyone with a wise heart helps with the craftsmanship. (See my post Vayakheil: Will My Cup Run Over?)  In the book of Leviticus, Moses passes on God’s instructions for when and how the people should serve God by bringing their offerings, both animal and vegetable, to the altar.  Aaron and his four sons get new jobs as priests conducting sacred rituals, and at every stop on the journey through the wilderness, each tribe has a designated camping spot in relation to the Tent of Meeting.

Everyone is involved in serving God.  But only Moses and Aaron (the high priest) hear God’s voice; only they are permitted to enter the Holy of Holies.

Today we still see a difference between the organized religion of a congregation, and a lone person hearing God’s voice on a mountain-top.  People still have individual mystical experiences, usually when they are alone and confronted with a sight or sound that inspires awe.  Those experiences are precious.  But they are not sufficient for leading a good or holy life.  After all, does anyone today get explicit instructions from God whenever he or she needs them?  Is anyone today like Moses?

When we yearn for a moral compass or a way to walk with (or at least toward) God, we need help from other people.  We need a community of fellow-seekers, wise teachers to advise us, books to study, prayers to chant, rituals to perform.  We need our own equivalent of the Tent of Meeting.

If we do build a dwelling-place for God, in the right way for our own community in our own time, then we, too, can draw closer to God.  We may not hear God’s voice, but we can all feel that God is calling, and God’s presence rests in our midst.

(An earlier version of this essay was posted on March 6, 2010.)

1  And God saw that he had turned aside to look, vayikra to him, God, from the middle of the bush, and said: Moses! Moses!  (Exodus 3:4).

2  And they journeyed on from Refidim, and they entered the wilderness of Sinai, and they camped in the wilderness; and Israel camped there in front of the mountain. And Moses went up to God. Vayikra to him, God, from the mountain, saying: Thus you shall say to the House of Jacob…  (Exodus 19:2-3)

3  And God came down onto Mount Sinai, vayikra Moses, God did, to the top of the mountain.  And Moses went up.  (Exodus 19:20)

4  Rashi (12th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) on Torat Kohanim (Leviticus), after Sifra, ed. by Rav Chiyya of the Babylonian Talmud.  Also see Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar, 14:21.

5  “Moses needed constant goading because he was a humble person who instinctively withdrew from the attention and the honors that go with leadership.”  (Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1992, p. 2)

6  And when Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God], then he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the lid that was on the Ark of the Testimony, from between the two keruvim; and [God] spoke to him.  (Numbers 7:89)

7  During the 7th to 10th centuries C.E., rabbis arrived at a single, authoritative Biblical text derived from various copies written in consonants only. The Masoretes added diacritical marks to the text to indicate vowels, cantillation, and grammar. They also added marginal notes, and made some letters abnormal in size or position. The small letters (zeira) were among the earliest changes by the Masoretes. These six miniscule letters appear in Genesis 2:4 (ה in behibaram = when being created), Genesis 23:2 (כּ in velivkotah = and to wail for her), Genesis 27:46 (ק in katzeti = I am disgusted), Leviticus 1:1 (א in vayikra), Leviticus 6:2 (מ in mokdah = fire-place), and Numbers 25:11 (י in the name Pinchas).

8  Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, p. 3, paraphrasing the Zohar, a multi-volume kabbalistic commentary by Moshe deLeon, 13th century.

9  Exodus 19:16-19.

10  Exodus 20:15-18.

Vaykheil & Psalm 18: Wings for Chariots

March 22, 2017 at 11:56 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Vayakheil | 1 Comment
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(This is the last of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms. Next week I will begin revisiting some sparks in the ancient priestly religion described in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.)

Skilled artisans among the Israelites make all the items for the portable tent that is to be a dwelling-place1 for God in the Torah portion Vayakheil. Moses then assembles the new Tent of Meeting, the divine fiery cloud covers it, and the glory of God fills the inside in the next Torah portion, Pekudei. The golden calf was a mistake, but this time the Israelites got it right! The success in this week’s double portion, Vayakheil-Pekudei, completes the book of Exodus/Shemot.

One replica of the ark, Jerusalem

The focal point for God’s presence is the empty space above the ark inside the inner chamber of the tent.  The ark is a gold-plated wooden box holding the second pair of tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. The master-artisan Betzaleil hammers out a solid gold lid for the ark—not just a slab of gold but a sculpture, with two winged creatures rising from the lid in one continuous piece of gold.

And he made two keruvim; of gold hammered work he made them, from two edges of the lid: one keruv from this edges and one keruv from that edges. From the lid he made the keruvim, from its edges. And the keruvim were spreading out wings above, shielding the lid with their wings. And each one faced its brother, and the faces of the keruvim were toward the lid.  (Exodus/Shemot 37:76-9)

keruv (כּרוּב) = a hybrid creature with wings and a human face. Plural: keruvim (כְּרוֻבִים  or  כְּרוּוִים). (The English word “cherub” is derived from the Hebrew keruv, but a keruv in the Bible does not look like a chubby baby with stubby white wings.)

Keruvim and ark in First Temple (one interpretation)

When King Solomon builds the first temple in Jerusalem, its back room, the Holy of Holies, contains two free-standing gold-plated sculptures representing keruvim. Each is 10 cubits tall (15 to 20 feet) and has a 10-cubit wingspan. Solomon has the ark carried in and placed under their wings. (See my post Pekudei & 1 Kings: A Throne for the Divine.)

The Hebrew word keruv may come from the Akkadian word kuribu, “blessed ones”, their name for the colossal statues of hybrid winged beasts guarding doorways and gates. Commentators have speculated that keruvim might have the bodies of bulls (like Assyrian shedu) or lions (like Egyptian sphinxes or Phoenician lammasu) or humans. Raanan Eichler has made a good argument that the keruvim spreading their wings over the ark must have stood upright on two legs, and therefore probably had human bodies.

Hybrid beings with wings and human faces appear in many Ancient Near Eastern sculptures. When they are not demons battling heroes, they are either guardians of gates, or servants transporting a god. Keruvim in the Hebrew Bible are never demons, but they do appear as both guardians and transportation.

Guardians

Kusarikku from palace of Sargon II

Assyrians placed sculptures of shedu, winged bulls, as guardians at either side of a gateway into a city or palace. Another guardian figure, called Gud-alim by Sumerians and Kusarikku by later Mesopotamians, represented a door-keeper who protected a house from intruders. He stood upright and looked fairly human, except that he often had wings, horns, or a bull’s legs. In some depictions he carries a bucket.

Phoenician artworks from coastal cities west of ancient Israel and Judah also feature a pair of hybrid winged creatures on either side of a tree of life. Their tree of life is a composite of a lotus and a papyrus (borrowed from Egyptian art) and sometimes a palm tree.

Phoenician sphinxes and tree of life

Similarly, the decorations carved in the walls of King Solomon’s temple—by artisans from the Phoenician city-state of Tyre—featured keruvim and palm trees.2

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, two keruvim serve as guardians of the way back into the Garden of Eden, where the Tree of Life remains untasted.3

One of Ezekiel’s prophesies compares the king of Tyre with a keruv that is supposed to protect its city.4  In an earlier post, Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day, I suggested that since God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the ark,5 the two keruvim are also guardians of an entrance: a portal to the invisible God.

Baal Hadad with thunderbolt, Ugarit

Divine Transportation

Tarhunz from Arslantepe, Turkey

The gods of other religions in the ancient Near East rarely rode on the backs of winged creatures; instead they used these creatures to pull their chariots. Tarhunz, the high god of the Luwian people living north of Canaan, was in charge of weather and war. He used lightning as a weapon, and rode in a chariot pulled by winged horses. South of the Luwians and north of Israel, the Canaanites of Ugarit worshiped Baal Hadad (“Master of Thunder”), a weather and war god who also wielded lightning. The Ugarit writings call this Baal “Rider of Clouds”.

The God of Israel also seems to have a chariot of clouds, in the poetry of Jeremiah and Psalm 104.6

God’s cloud chariot is pulled by keruvim in a poem that appears twice in the Bible, once as chapter 22 in the second book of Samuel, and later (with only slight changes) as Psalm 18. The speaker, King David, faces death at the hands of an enemy army, and calls on God for help. God descends from the heavens.

            Smoke went up from His nostrils

                        And fire from His mouth devours.

                        Embers blazed from Him.

            He tilted the heavens and descended,

                        And a thundercloud was beneath His feet.

            And He drove a keruv and flew,

                        And He soared on the wings of the wind. (Psalm 18:9-11)

I use the pronoun “He” in this translation because God is presented as if “He” were Baal Hadad from the Canaanite pantheon of male and female gods. Psalm 18 continues with imagery of dark clouds, hail, thunder, and arrows of lightning. God then stages a dramatic rescue, and David wins the battle.

A Chariot Throne

The ark with its two keruvim is often considered God’s throne in the Bible—the authoritative location where God sits like a king. But sometimes this throne is movable, like a chariot.

Before David conquers Jerusalem, when the ark is housed in a temple at Shiloh, the Israelite army decides to carry it with them into battle against the Philistines, hoping that God will fight for them.

And they took away from there the ark of the covenant of God of Armies Sitting on the Keruvim … (1 Samuel 4:4)

Although the Israelite forces carry God’s throne, they lose the battle. The Philistines capture the ark, then later abandon it in Israelite territory. When King David retrieves it for his new capital in Jerusalem, it is called

the ark of the god whose name was invoked, the name of God of Armies Sitting upon the Keruvim.  (2 Samuel 6:2)

The title is also used in psalms 80 and 99.

            Listen, Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock!

                        Sitter on the keruvim, shine forth!  (Psalm 80:2-3)

           God, King, the peoples will tremble!

                        Sitter on the keruvim, You will shake the earth!  (Psalm 99:1)

The Babylonian army razed the first temple in Jerusalem in 579 B.C.E., burning it to the ground. The army carried off some of its gold items as booty, but the ark and its keruvim disappeared from history. When some of the Israelites returned to Jerusalem under Persian rule and built a second temple, they left the Holy of Holies empty.

Ever since the destruction of the first temple with its ark and gold keruvim, God’s throne could only be an abstraction or a vision. The prophet Ezekiel reports two mystical visions of hybrid winged creatures during the exile in Babylon (Ezekiel 1:4-28; Ezekiel 10:1-22 and 11:22-23). In his second vision he identifies these creatures as keruvim.

Ezekiel’s Vision, by Matthuas Merian 1670 (some assembly required)

In both visions, the glory of God (not God Itself) appears as a fiery figure on a throne that looks like sapphire, suspended above four keruvim, each of which is accompanied by an interlocking wheel covered with eyes.  Each keruv has a single leg ending in a calf’s hoof, a human body, four wings, a human hand below each wing, and a head with four faces: one human, one lion, one eagle, and one that is called the face of an ox in the first vision and the face of a keruv in the second vision.

The keruvim and their wheels move up and down as well as in all four directions, and the throne suspended above them moves along with them. Although Ezekiel does not call this arrangement a chariot, subsequent Jewish writers developed a school of mysticism based on the merkavah (מֶרְכָּבָה = chariot) in the book of Ezekiel.

Clouds by John Constable

Even without a temple, even without keruvim, the human mind needs poetic images to think about God. Today many of us no longer need to assign God a face, a hand, or a body in robes; we can handle the paradox of God as both invisible and manifest in everything we see. Yet poetic images still well up around the notion of God:  clouds, beams of light, opalescent radiance, perhaps even wings. They are not God, yet God is in the imagery.

When God Itself seems too abstract, perhaps we can think of something like a keruv, a creation that pulls the presence of God toward us when we need rescue, and that stands at our gateways when we need a guardian.

1  (See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.)

2  In the first (Israelite) temple in Jerusalem, keruvim and palms  are carved in relief on the wooden walls and two sets of double doors (1 Kings 6:29, 32, 34). Keruvim, palms, and lions are engraved on the stands for ten bronze wash-basins (1 Kings 7:36).

3  Genesis 3:24.

4  Ezekiel 28:14, 16.

5  Exodus 25:22, Numbers 7:89.

6           Hey! Like clouds it ascends;

            Like a whirlwind is [God’s] chariot;

            Lighter than eagles are His horses.  (Jeremiah 4:13)

In Psalm 104, God’s cloud chariot is pulled by the wind:

            Setting beams for [God’s] roof chambers in the waters [above the sky],

                        Making the clouds His chariot,

                        He goes on the wings of the wind.  (Psalm 104:3)

 

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