Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets) in the Jewish tradition. This week’s Torah portion is Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 2:1-12.
Sometimes a deathbed scene is silent; the dying person is unable to speak, or cannot even recognize the one waiting and hoping for a goodbye. But sometimes there are last words.These words might express acknowledgement, affection, even appreciation. Or the dying person might complain, give advice, or issue an order. Giving a deathbed blessing is different from extracting a deathbed promise.
The Hebrew Bible offers two complete deathbed scenes: Jacob’s speeches to his twelve sons in this week’s Torah portion, and David’s final words to his son Solomon in this week’s haftarah.
The Torah portion Vayechi offers three stories of the death of Jacob (also called “Israel”). In the first, Jacob gives an extremely polite order.
And the time came close for Israel to die, and he summoned his son Joseph, and he said to him: “If, please, I have found favor in your eyes, please place your hand under my thigh and do with me chesed and fidelity: please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, then take me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” And he [Joseph] said: “I myself will do as you have spoken”. And he [Jacob] said: “Swear to me!” And he swore to him. And Israel bowed down at the head of the bed. (Genesis 47:29-31)
chesed (חֶסֶד) = expected kindness; kindness out of loyalty to a family member or treaty partner.
In Egypt, Joseph is the pharaoh’s viceroy, and his father Jacob is only a guest. Although Jacob uses subservient language, he still reminds Joseph that he owes his father loyalty. Then he extracts a deathbed promise from Joseph: to bury him in Canaan, in the cave of Machpelah where Jacob’s parents and grandparents are buried.
And it happened after these things, someone said to Joseph: “Hey! Your father is weakening.” So he took his two sons with him, Menasheh and Efrayim. And Jacob was told: “Hey! Your son Joseph has come to you. And Israel mustered his strength and sat up on the bed. (Genesis 48:1-2)
In this second story, Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons, giving them each a share of his estate. He kisses them, then blesses Joseph and his sons: the ultimate expression of acknowledgement and appreciation.
But Jacob has eleven other sons, and he addresses all twelve sons in a third deathbed story.
And Jacob summoned his sons, and he said: “Gather and I will tell you what will meet you in the end of days.” (Genesis 49:1)
Jacob delivers a long poem with a prophecy about the tribe that will descend from each of his sons. Only one remark is unmistakably about the son himself: a complaint about Reuben.
For when you climbed up on the lying-down place of your father
That was when you profaned it. My couch he climbed! (Genesis 49:4)
Jacob still holds a grudge against Reuben for having intercourse with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah some 40 years earlier1. At the conclusion of the poem, a sentence that scholars attribute to a later redactor of the Hebrew Bible credits Jacob with blessing all his sons.
All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve, and this is what their father spoke to them. And he blessed them, each one according to his blessing he blessed them. (Genesis 49:28)
Finally Jacob returns to the subject most on his mind.
Vayetzav them, and he said to them: “I am being gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers, in the cave … And Jacob finished letzavot with his sons, and he gathered his feet into the bed, and he expired, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:29, 49:33)
Vayetzav (וַיְצַו) = And he commanded, and he ordered. (From the root verb tzivah (צִוָּה) = commanded.)
letzavot (לְצַוֺּת) = Commanding, giving orders. (Also from the root verb tzivah.)
In his three deathbed speeches, Jacob expresses acknowledgement and appreciation of his twelve sons (and two of his grandsons) by blessing them. He complains about Reuben. He gives prophecies rather than advice. And he repeats his orders about where he must be buried, but he has no other final requests.
And David came close to the time of death, vayetzav his son Solomon, saying: I am going according to the way of all the earth. And you must be strong and you must be an adult. (1 Kings 2:1-2)
David’s first command or order to Solomon sounds more like advice. Now that his young son has become the king of Israel, he must behave like a strong adult.
Next come two sentences in a different linguistic style, using synonyms in multiple phrases. Modern scholar Robert Alter has argued that these verses were added later by the editor of Deuteronomy, in order to improve David’s reputation.
And you must guard the custody of God, your god, to walk according to Its ways, to guard Its decrees, Its commandments, and Its rules, and Its admonitions, as written in the Teaching of Moses, so that you shall act with insight in everything that you do and everywhere you turn. So that God will establish Its word that It spoke concerning me, saying: if your descendants guard the way they take before Me faithfully, with all their heart and with all their soul—saying: yours will not be cut off from upon the throne of Israel. (1 Kings 2:3-4)
David reminds Solomon that as king, he must be a guardian of the religion of Israel, and base his own royal decisions on its rules. Then he gives the reason for his pious advice: so that his descendants to rule as kings of Israel forever.
The language of David’s deathbed speech reverts to a simpler style as he remembers the worst part of his life, when his beloved older son Absalom staged a coup and took over Jerusalem. Now he broods about unfinished business from those days.
He tells his son Solomon:
And furthermore, you know what Joab son of Tzeruyah did to me, what he did to two commanders of armies of Israel, to Avneir son of Neir and to Amasa son of Yeter: he killed them and he shed the blood of war beshalom…(1 Kings 2:5)
beshalom (בְּשָׁלֺם) = in peace, in peacetime.
David became the king of all Israel through a treaty with his opponent’s general, Avneir. Then David’s general, Joab, assassinated Avneir.2
About 20 years later, Absalom usurped his father’s throne. David fled with his supporters, including Joab. When David’s army defeated Absalom’s, Joab quickly killed Absalom despite David’s order to the contrary.3 After David was reinstalled as king, he pardoned Absalom’s general, Amasa, but this did not stop Joab from murdering him under the cover of a friendly embrace.4 David did not dare punish Joab for either killing.
And so you must act in accordance with your wisdom, and you must not let his gray hair go down beshalom to Sheol. (1 Kings 2:6)
Even as David criticizes Joab for killing two generals in times of peace, he orders Solomon to kill Joab in peacetime—and make sure he does not die peacefully.
But with the sons of Barzillai of the Gilead, you shall do chesed. And they must eat at your table, because they came close to me when I fled from Absalom, your brother. (1 Kings 2:7)
While Absalom controlled Jerusalem, Barzillai had fed David and his men in exile at Machanayim. When David returned to the capital, he promised to reward Barzillai and provide for his son.5 Now David orders his son Solomon to honor that promise.
Then he issues a third command. When David fled from Jerusalem, Shimi son of Geira hurled stones and insults at him on the road.6 When he returned in triumph, Shimi apologized for his wrongdoing, accompanied by a thousand Benjaminites who offered to serve King David. David had little choice but to accept the apology and swear not to execute him.7 But David still resents Shimi.
So you must not leave him unpunished, because you are a wise man, and you know what you will do to him and send down his gray hair in blood to Sheol. (1 Kings 2:9)
That is the last thing David says before he dies. Once again, he compliments his son for being wise enough to figure out how to carry out his father’s revenge, but does not trust him to make his own decision.
And David slept with his fathers, and he was buried in the City of David. (1 Kings 2:10)
His acknowledgement of Solomon’s wisdom is overshadowed by his demands that Solomon carry out his orders, including finding pretexts to execute two powerful men. Is David so self-centered that his only concern on his deathbed is making his successor promise to avenge him? Or is David urging Solomon to get rid of Joab and Shimi before they make Solomon suffer, too?
Either way, David’s death is not peaceful. He expresses appreciation for Solomon’s wisdom only in order to assure him he can carry out his father’s commands. He complains bitterly about Joab and Shimi. He gives Solomon advice about following his religion, but he also issues commands about killing Joab, rewarding Barzillai, and killing Shimi. His last thoughts are about murder and revenge.
Although Jacob is self-centered earlier in his life, on his deathbed he has a broader view than David. His only command concerns his own burial. He is affectionate with one of his sons, Joseph, and two grandsons. He blesses them, and gives prophecies and blessings to his other sons, despite his complaint about Reuben. Jacob dies with dignity, passing on more blessings than obligations to the next generation.
I pray that my own last words (many years from now, God willing!) will be only blessings. And in case I am not granted a deathbed scene in which I can speak to those I am leaving, I am resolved to express acknowledgement and appreciation every day, and avoid complaining about people and giving excessive advice. May the Holy One grant me the strength!
1 Genesis 35:22.
2 After the death of King Saul, David took control of Judah and Saul’s son Ish-Boshet took over the Israelite lands to the north. For two years they fought for the kingship of all Israel, until Ish-Boshet’s general, Avneir, persuaded him to let David be the king. Avneir made a treaty with David, but afterward Joab tracked him down and assassinated him. David cursed Joab, but did not dare demote him. (2 Samuel 3:6-34)
Later, King David got Bathsheba pregnant, and used General Joab to get rid of her husband Uriah. (2 Samuel 11:1-21) After that, the already powerful Joab was ungovernable.
3 2 Samuel 18:5-17.
4 After Joab kills Absalom, David sends a message to Absalom’s general, Amasa. “And to Amasa you shall say: Aren’t you my own bone and flesh? May God do this and more to me if you do not become my army commander for all time instead of Joab! (2 Samuel 19:14) David succeeds in recruiting Amasa as one of his own commanders, but his attempt to replace Joab fails; when they are chasing down a band of rebels, Joab tricks Amasa by reaching to kiss him with one hand and knifing him with the other (2 Samuel 20:8-13).
5 2 Samuel 19:32-39.
6 2 Samuel 16:5-8.
7 2 Samuel 19:17-24. When David became bedridden and his older son Adoniyah made a bid for the kingship, Shimi joined Solomon’s faction (1 Kings 1:8).
Tags: Assyrian exile, Babylonian exile, haftarah, Israel and Judah, Joseph's brothers, Prophet Ezekiel, twelve tribes
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets) in the Jewish tradition. This week’s Torah portion is Vayiggash (Genesis 44:18-47:27), and the haftarah is Ezekiel 37:15-28.
Cut a board into two pieces, then glue them back together. The glued board is not identical to the original board.
Yet Ezekiel, in this week’s haftarah, says two separate ethnic groups that once shared a religion will again become one nation.
And the speech of God happened to me, saying: And you, son of Adam, take yourself one piece of wood and write on it “belonging to Judah and to the Children of Israel, its chaveirim”. And take another piece of wood and write on it “belonging to Joseph, the wood of Ephraim and all the household of Israel, its chaveirim”. And bring them close, one to the other, to [make] yourself one piece of wood; and it will be as one in your hand.” (Ezekiel 37:15-18)
chaveirim (חֲבֵרִים) = comrades, companions, partners. (From the root verb chavar, חָבַר = allied, joined forces.)
In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob has twelve sons and acquires a second name, Israel. Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, alienates his ten older brothers. Led by Judah, the ten young men sell Joseph to a slave caravan bound for Egypt. (Jacob’s twelfth son, Benjamin, is still a baby at the time.) In this week’s Torah portion, the brothers are reunited after a final confrontation between Joseph and a reformed Judah. Their descendants become the twelve tribes of Israel—who escape from Egypt 400 years later, as one people called the “Children of Israel”.
All twelve tribes settle in Canaan, but they only become a unified nation called “Israel” under King David, according to the second book of Samuel. After the death of the next king, Solomon, the northern part of the country secedes.
The new northern kingdom calls itself Israel, since it includes the traditional lands of most of the original tribes. Its richest and most dominant tribe is Ephraim, which is the name of one of Joseph’s sons. In Ezekiel’s time the northern kingdom no longer exists, but one piece of wood represents the descendants of its people by listing Joseph, Ephraim, and the tribe’s chaveirim or companion tribes from the former kingdom.
The truncated southern kingdom calls itself Judah/Yehudah. It includes only two tribal lands: the large area of Judah and the small traditional territory of Benjamin. They, too, are Children of Israel.
For two centuries the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are uneasy neighbors—sometimes allies, sometimes enemies. What they continue to have in common is their attachment to the same God (often called “the God of Israel”)—though they disagree about the correct number of temples and how to furnish them.1
The Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 740-721 B.C.E. and deported its leading citizens, leaving only its peasants and a few puppet administrators. During several waves of deportation, some northerners escaped to Judah.
The southern kingdom of Judah survived another 150 years or so by paying tribute to Assyria. Then the Neo-Babylonian Empire swallowed the Assyrian Empire and went on to conquer Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, in 601-586. King Nebuchadnezzar’s army deported Judah’s leading citizens (including Ezekiel) to Babylon, leaving only peasants and puppet administrators.
God instructs Ezekiel to continue his performance art with the two pieces of wood until someone asks him to explain it. Then, God says, Ezekiel must answer:
Thus says my lord God: Hey! I myself … will be making it one piece of wood. And they will be one in My hand… (Ezekiel 37:19)
Thus says my lord God: Hey! I myself will be taking the Children of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will collect them from all around, and I will bring them to their land. And I will make them a single nation on the land, in the hills of Israel, and one king will be king for all of them. And never again will they be two nations… (Ezekiel 37:21-22)
Ezekiel can only hold the “Judah” stick and the “Joseph” stick together to make one piece of wood symbolically. But God promises to reunite the two peoples literally, making them chaveirim who are not merely allies, but a single, seamless kingdom as in the time of David. This kingdom will be a home for everyone who worships the God of Israel; one land with one king, one capital (Jerusalem), and one temple, greater than the first.
Yet in human experience, time is unidirectional. We cannot go backward; our world never returns to the way it used to be. We can only go forward, building with the material we have now. Boards cut from a tree can never become a tree again, but we might make them into a chair.
Ezekiel’s prophesy never came true. After the Persian Empire took Babylon in 539 B.C.E., some of the exiles from Judah did return to Jerusalem and build a second temple, and some of their descendants served as provincial governors of Judea. Other Judahites stayed behind, building a thriving Jewish community that eventually produced the Babylonian Talmud. Most of the exiles the Assyrians deported from Israel were assimilated and lost their identity and religion.
There never was another independent kingdom of Israel. The third “temple” in Jerusalem is a mosque. After millions of Jews were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators, the nation of Israel was created in 1948 C.E., and its population now includes almost half the Jews in the world. Almost as many Jews live in the United States. If Ezekiel were here to prophesy today, he would write “Israel” on one piece of wood and “U.S.A.” on the other.
Yet the two groups of Jews are so dissimilar that only a trickle emigrate from one nation to the other. Currently, American Jews are generally respected by their fellow Americans; Israeli Jews dominate Israel and deal with entirely different issues. I cannot imagine the two groups forming a single nation in a single land, even if there were room for all of us.
May all human beings, of any religion or tradition, recognize that we can’t go home again; if we try, we find that our old home has changed. Change is the nature of this world, the world of the God whose personal name is a form of the verb meaning “to become”.2
I pray that we may all move beyond Ezekiel’s vision; that we may all find new ways to help our own identities, our communities, and our religions grow, wherever we live. And may we also find new ways to work together with people who were once strangers.
1 The opinion of Judah prevailed in the Hebrew Bible: that there should be only one temple, in Jerusalem, and the only statues allowed are the two keruvim, mythical winged creatures. (See my post Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.) The Bible criticizes the northern kingdom of Israel for maintaining temples at Dan and Beit-El as well as its capital, Samaria, and for the golden calves standing at the entrances of the temples in Beit-El and Dan (2 Kings 10:29).
2 YHVH = the Tetragrammaton or four-letter personal name of God that Jews consider most sacred. The name appears to be a form of havah or hayah (הוה or היה), the root of the verb “to be”, “to happen”, or “to become”, although it is a form that does not fit any standard Hebrew verb conjugations.
Tags: binah, haftarah, King Solomon, two prostitutes ownership, wisdom
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 3:15-4:1.
Solomon, the young new king of Israel, has a dream just before this week’s haftarah reading. God offers him not three wishes, but one wish:
At Gibeon God appeared to Solomon in a dream in the night, and God said: “Ask, what shall I give you?” (1 Kings 3:5)
Solomon, being already somewhat wise, does not ask for wealth. long life, or the defeat of his enemies (as God notices with approval). After mentioning his own inexperience as a leader, the new king says:
May You give Your servant an understanding mind to judge Your people, lehavin between good and bad. For who is able to judge this impressive multitude of Your people? (1 Kings 3:9)
lehavin (לְהָבִין) = to be able to discern, to gain insight. (From the same root as binah, בִּינָה = insight.)
God responds: Hey! I have done as you spoke. Hey! I gave you a mind [which is] wise and navon… (1 Kings 3:12)
navon (נָווֹן) = perceptive, discerning. (Also from the same root as binah.)
In the Garden of Eden, God tells Adam not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad. (See my post Giving Directions.) But in the dream at Gibeon, God grants Solomon’s wish for the ability to discern between good and bad.
The young king wakes up from his dream and returns to Jerusalem at the opening of this week’s haftarah, sacrifices at the altar, and holds a banquet.
It was then that two prostitute women came to the king and stood before him. (1 Kings 3:16)
Solomon asked for understanding and binah in order to be a good judge for the whole multitude of Israel. His first case is a dispute between two of its most despised members: prostitutes. Normally a local elder would judge this case; a king would only serve as a court of appeals or as the judge for affairs of state. Either the two prostitutes have already gone to a local judge, who was unable to decide on a ruling, or they simply barge in on the new king’s party and he decides to hear them out instead of throwing them out.
Since the two prostitutes are never named in this story, I will quote only their dialogue as they present their case, identifying each speaker as Woman #1 or Woman #2.
Woman #1: Please, my lord, I and this woman [#2] are living in one house, and I gave birth with her in the house. And it happened that on the third day after my giving birth, this woman [#2] also gave birth. And we were together; there was no stranger with us in the house except me. The two of us were in the house. (1 Kings 3:17-3:18)
So far, Woman #1 has explained that there were no witnesses to the event she is about to describe. But a discerning listener—and Solomon is now discerning—would notice that unlike other Israelite women, the two prostitutes do not live with any family members. They live alone in a shared house. Clients (including the unknown fathers of their infants) may come and go, but they have only one another for companionship and help.
Woman #1: Then the son of this woman [#2] died at night, when she lay down on him. And she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side, while your servant [woman #1] slept. And she [woman #2] laid him in her bosom. And her son, the dead one, she laid in my bosom. When I got up in the morning to nurse my son, hey! He was dead! Va-etbonein him in the morning, and hey! He was not my son to whom I had given birth! (1 Kings 3:19-21)
va-etbonein (וָאֶתְבּוֹנֵן) = but I looked closely at, but I paid attention to, but I was perceptive about. (From the root binah, like the words lehavin and navon in Solomon’s dream.)
Woman #2: No, for my son is the living one and your son is the dead one! Yet this one [woman #1] is saying: “No, for your son is the dead one and my son is the living one.” (1 Kings 3:22)
While Woman #1 tells a complete story, Woman #2 merely contradicts her on the key question: Who is the mother of the living infant? Like Woman #1, she refers to her housemate and companion only as “this one” or “this woman”. The trauma of the dead baby has alienated the two women; they are no longer friends. Now they are desperate competitors for a baby to nurse and love (and eventually, if all goes well, a grown son to support them in old age).
King Solomon summarizes the dispute, then calls for his sword. His servants place it between the king and the two women. This dramatic visual aid makes his words more believable when he says:
Cut the boy in two, and you shall give half to one and half to the other. (1 Kings 3:24-25)
In a fairy tale, that is what the evil monster would say, prompting the two women to unite against him. But this is a wisdom tale about an insightful judge.
The Bible does not dictate what a judge should do if two people claim ownership of the same object, and there are no witnesses or other evidence. But the Mishnah (written ~200 C.E.) for the Talmud tractate Bava Metzia discusses the problem using the example of a valuable garment two people are holding onto as they speak to a judge.
One of them says “I found it’ and the other says “I found it’. One of them says “it is all mine’ and the other says “It is all mine”. Then one shall swear that his share in it is not less than half, and the other shall swear that his share in it is not less than half, and it shall then be divided between them. (Bava Metzia 2a, Soncino translation)
The Mishnah it is a record of “oral law”, i.e. previously unwritten legal precedents thought to date back to the time of Moses. So the above rule may well have been in use since the books of Kings were written in 6th century B.C.E., about seven centuries before the Mishnah was written.
The haftarah does not say whether both women are holding onto the baby while they stand before the king. But if so, this precedent would give King Solomon an excuse for uttering the same ruling about a disputed baby as he would about a disputed garment.
Both women believe he means it, and are shocked into revealing more about themselves.
And the woman whose son was living said to the king—because her compassion was stirred up over her son—she said: “Please, my lord, give the living boy to her, or you will certainly kill him!” But the other one was saying: “Let him be neither mine nor hers. Cut him!” (1 Kings 3:26)
Which woman begs the king to give the living baby to her enemy, in order to save his life—Woman #1 or Woman #2? Which woman is so fixated on winning the dispute over ownership that she no longer cares about the child? The text is not clear, though perhaps the first woman to present her case (Woman #1) is also the first woman to speak after Solomon’s shocking order.
And the king responded, and he said: “Give her the living boy, and certainly do not kill him. She is his mother! And all Israel heard the judgment that the king had judged, and they were in awe in face of the king, because they saw that the wisdom of God was within him to do justice. (1 Kings 3:27-28)
The bottom line is that only a woman who wants a baby to live is fit to be its mother. Anyone who would rather let a child die than lose a dispute is an unfit parent, even if she reacts that way only in a moment of temporary insanity. King Solomon proves that he can go beyond legal considerations and rule according to his God-given binah between good and bad.
I suspect the compassionate mother is Woman #1, the one who told a coherent story about what happened. She is the one who said “va-etbonein him in the morning”: she paid attention to the infant, looking at him with a Solomon-like discernment. She implied that if she had recognized the dead baby as her own, she would have accepted her loss; she knows infants are not interchangeable.
Woman #2 speaks only to insist that she owns the living baby, without offering any explanation. I can imagine her making the midnight substitution in order to get the advantage for herself, without even considering whether her action is ethical. When Woman #1 demands her own child back, Woman #2 is reduced to saying: No, it’s mine!
If Woman #2 is also the woman who says “Cut him!” she lacks not only compassion, but also any knowledge of good and bad.
Nobody is good all of the time. Waking up next to a dead baby might fill any woman with grief and horror. With no one to comfort her, and breasts full of milk, Woman #2 might have switched the babies in the middle of the night without thinking it through. But when Woman #1 discovered the substitution in the morning, a woman with a heart would have apologized, cried, and handed over the living baby. Who knows, perhaps then the two lonely prostitutes could have made peace and raised the boy together.
But when one of the two women insisted on lying, peace and friendship became impossible. The innocent woman could not bear, and would not dare, to continue living in the same house with a predatory liar. Yet she has no family or friends to help her get away and protect her and her son. She goes all the way to the king, who turns out to have the binah to see the truth.
Unfortunately, compassion and truth do not always triumph in our world. Those who have little power can still be victimized by people who never tasted fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad—people who are impaired either by their genes or their upbringing, and do not understand the moral imperative of being human.
I pray that every powerless victim may either escape or find a wise judge. And I pray that everyone who is called upon to judge may be granted binah—and compassion.
Tags: Amos, Jonah, nazirites, prophets
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), and the haftarah is Amos 2:6-3:8.
The doom of other countries is easier to read about than the doom of your own. So the book of Amos opens with God’s proclamations against the kingdom of Israel’s neighbors Aram, Philistia, Phoenicia, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Judah. In each prophecy, Amos mentions a wicked deed the state committed, followed by the war-related punishment that God will bring down upon it.
I can imagine Amos’s audience in the kingdom of Israel nodding at the well-deserved punishments predicted for other countries, many of which their own king, Jereboam II, attacked in the mid-eighth century B.C.E. Then Amos’s introductory formula for the next prophecy names Israel. This week’s haftarah begins:
Thus said God:
Because of three revolts of Israel,
And because of four, I will not accept it:
Because of selling the innocent for silver,
And the needy for the sake of a pair of sandals. (Amos 2:6)
The first revolt (or transgression) against God in Amos’s polemic against the Israelites is selling people into slavery merely out of greed. In the Bible parents are allowed to sell themselves or their children—but only to fellow Israelites, and only in order to pay off debts.1 Selling someone to an outsider, or for any reason other than debt, is unacceptable.
In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave for 20 pieces of silver, to a caravan bound for Egypt. Their only reason is that they hate him. Later they suffer for this bad deed.
The book of Amos goes on to list four other revolts against God by Israelites:
Mauling the head of the powerless in the dust of the ground,
They stretch the path of the needy.
A man and his father go to the [same] na-arah
For the sake of profaning My holy name.
And on garments taken as security [for debts]
They stretch out beside every altar.
And wine from fines they charged
They drink in the house of their god(s). (Amos 2:7-2:8)
na-arah (נַעֲרָה) = girl; a young woman old enough to marry who has not yet had a child; a female slave or servant.
The Israelites who revolt against God are the ones who victimize the innocent, the needy, the powerless, servants, and debtors. They disregard God’s instructions about the poor in order to accumulate silver and live in selfish luxury, indulging in dubious sex and lolling about drinking beside religious altars. (Either they are worshiping an alien god, as Amos discovers in Bethel, or they are using a shrine built for making libations and animal sacrifices to God as if it were a private drinking hall.)
The wealthier Israelites ignore God despite everything God has done for them: bringing them up from Egypt (where the Israelites were the slaves), guiding them through the wilderness, and destroying their Amorite (i.e. Canaanite) enemies. Furthermore,
I raised up some of your children for neviyim,
And some of your youths for nezirim.
Is this also nothing, children of Israel?
neviyim (נְבִיאִים) = prophets (singular= navi, נָבִיא). From the root verb niba (נִבָּא) = behave like a prophet, either by having ecstatic experiences of the divine, or by serving as a mouthpiece and translator for God.
nezirim (נְזִרִים) = nazirites; men and women who dedicate themselves to a period of sanctity during which they abstain from grooming their hair and from drinking wine and other alcohol. (See my post Haftarat Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer.)
The neviyim transmit God’s messages to the people. The nezirim set an example of inner strength, even in their youth, by holding themselves to a different standard for the sake of sanctity. God’s rhetorical question—Is this also nothing?—is designed to make the listeners agree that neviyim and nezirim are assets to the community.
But you made the nezirim drink wine,
And you ordered the neviyim, saying: Lo tinavu! (Amos 2:11-12)
Lo tinavu (לֹא תִּנָּבְאוּ) = You shall not prophesy! Lo (לֹאּ) = not; tinavu is a form of the verb niba (נִבָּא).
Naturally the immoral, disobedient Israelites do not want anyone reminding them of their own wickedness.
Since the Israelites have rejected God’s gifts, God threatens to make Israel’s army unnaturally slow and weak. The obvious, though unstated, conclusion is that if an enemy army (such as the Assyrians) attacks, the kingdom will be unable to defend itself.
Amos continues God’s prophecy with a list of rhetorical questions, including:
If misfortune happens in a town,
Did not God make it? (Amos 3:6)
This expresses the common Biblical belief that God controls everything that happens to human beings. Individuals are responsible for their own behavior, but nothing else; when bad things happen to them it is always a punishment from God for misbehaving. (The Hebrew Bible questions this ancient belief only in the book of Job.) Biblical writers applied a similar principle to collective behavior: if a whole country is vanquished, the reason is not that the enemy has superior military might, technology, or strategy, but rather that God is using the enemy’s army to punish people who have done wrong.
By sending a prophet, God gives a country a chance to reform and avoid the divine punishment. In the book of Jonah, once the reluctant prophet finally prophesies in Nineveh, the people repent and the city is saved—even though Nineveh is the capital of the evil Neo-Assyrian Empire. Amos pauses in his list of rhetorical questions to remind his audience:
Indeed, my lord God does not do a thing
Unless He has revealed His confidential plan to His servants, the neviyim. (Amos 3:7)
Then Amos finishes his list:
A lion has roared;
Who will not be afraid?
My lord God has spoken;
Who will not prophesy? (Amos 3:8)
God’s voice is as frightening as a lion’s roar. When God speaks to the prophet, he cannot help but obey God by transmitting the message. Amos may be implying that God’s word, spoken by a true prophet, should be just as frightening. Then the Israelites could not help but repent and reform.
Yet the wealthy and powerful of Israel are so resistant to change that they order the neviyim to keep their mouths shut and go away.2 They would rather continue doing wrong and stay in denial than admit their wrongdoing and change their ways in time to avoid the conquest and destruction of their country.
Today, when we face the degradation of the whole world due to climate change, including a high toll on human life, few people consider it a punishment from God. Why blame an anthropomorphic deity, when it is so easy so see how human actions are causing our collective suffering?
Nevertheless, it is hard to change our actions. Many people today offer information about what is happening, and call for reducing air pollution and preparing for rising waters. Some individuals are responding by using less gasoline to travel—and no doubt when Amos prophesied, a few individuals responded by treating the poor and their own families with more justice, and their religion with more respect.
Yet when a whole kingdom, or the whole world, is threatened, the disaster can only be avoided or ameliorated by commitment and action on the part of the leaders at the top. In the book of Jonah, Nineveh would not have repented if its king had not put on sackcloth and issued his decree. In the book of Amos, King Jereboam II never reforms, and neither do his people. By 720 B.C.E. the Assyrian army had captured Israel and its capital, Samaria.
May a divine spirit open all of our ears and hearts today, and may all the leaders and influential people of the world become more like the repentant king of Nineveh than like the leaders of Israel in the time of Amos.
1See my post Haftarat Vayeira—2 Kings: Dance of Pride. Even when someone acquired a slave as a payment of debt, the debtor’s kinsman was obligated to buy back his relative as soon as he could afford it, and after six years a master had to liberate an Israelite slave even without financial recompense. In fact, the Torah says: And when you send him out emancipated from you, do not send him out with nothing. You must certainly provide him [with goods] from your flock or from your threshing-floor or from your wine-vat, which are blessings that God has given you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 15:13-14)
2 An example is given later in the book: Amatzyah, the priest of Bethel, sent to Jereboam, the king of Israel, saying: Amos conspires against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land cannot endure everything he speaks! (Amos 7:10) … And Amatzyah said to Amos: Seer, go with your spirit to the land of Judah, and eat your bread there, and prophesy there! But do not ever prophesy again at Bethel, because it is a sanctuary for the king and a royal palace. (Amos 7:12-13)
Tags: anthropomorphic God, haftarah, Hosea
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), and the haftarah is Hosea 12:13-14:10. Next week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43) and the haftarah is Hosea 11:7-12:12. 1
Together, the passages from Hosea show us a God whose “heart has turned upside down”.
A punishment from God! That’s how the Bible describes almost every plague or military defeat the Israelites suffer, from the time they leave Mt. Sinai to the fall of the temple in Jerusalem. God gets a hot nose (the biblical idiom for anger) when the Israelites fail to live up to their covenant with God—by not trusting God to provide for them, by worshiping other gods, or by neglecting God’s ritual and ethical laws. Then God yells at them through a prophet, and lashes out with a deadly punishment.
Yet in the second half of Isaiah, God says the Israelites have suffered enough, and forgives them. And in the haftarot for this week and next week, two contiguous sections the book of Hosea, God is torn between vicious anger and tender-hearted love.
The double passage begins with God saying:
My people are stuck in meshuvah from me.
Upward they are summoned—
They do not rise at all. (Hosea 11:7)
meshuvah (מְשׁוּבָה) = backsliding, defection (to other gods), disloyalty.
The people of the northern kingdom of Israel (which Hosea also calls Efrayim, after the tribe of its first king, Jeroboam) remain trapped in their habit of worshiping Baal, even though prophets such as Hosea call for reform. When any of the people of Israel or Judah persist in worshiping idols, God usually becomes enraged and threatens destruction. But this time, God says:
How can I give you up, Efrayim?
[How] can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I put you in the position of Admah?
[How] can I treat you like Tzevoyim?
My heart nehapakh.
It is altogether anxious, and I have had a change of heart. (Hosea 11:8)
nehapakh (נֶהְפַּךְ) = has turned upside down, turned around, been overturned.
Admah and Tzevoyim were villages annihilated along with their neighbors, Sodom and Gomorrah, and presumably shared their immorality. Although the northern kingdom of Israel is engaging in the Baal-worship of its neighboring kingdoms, the thought of annihilating Israel turns God’s anger into anxiety.
I will not act on the anger of My nose.
I will not turn to destroy Efrayim.
Because I am a god, and not a man;
The holy one in your midst.
And I will not come with agitation. (Hosea 11:7-9)
The book of Hosea implies that only a human man would reject his unfaithful wife in anger. A god, unlike a man, is able to master emotional reactions. The God of Israel chooses the path of love instead—at least for a few more verses. Then God remembers:
Efrayim encircled Me with false denials,
And the house of Israel with deceit… (Hosea 12:1)
It cut a covenant with Assyria;
Then it brought oil as tribute to Egypt. (Hosea 12:2)
The book of Hosea, like the book of Jeremiah, urges the Israelites not to become vassal states of other empires, but to remain independent and trust God to protect them. The government of the northern kingdom is deceiving itself by pretending that an alliance with a foreign empire does not affect its service to God, but only leads to wealth and power. Israel, personified as Efrayim, says:
How rich I have become!
I have found power for myself.
[In] all my labor they cannot find crooked activity
That is a sin. (Hosea 12:9)
Efrayim knows his shady dealings are crooked, but tells himself that he is good as long as he does not break the letter of the law. However, God knows better.
And now they add sin to sin
And they make for themselves molten images…
They speak to them!
Sacrificers of humans, they kiss calves! (Hosea 13:2)
God’s nose gets hot again, and God speaks of punishing the Israelites in various terrible ways, concluding:
By the sword they shall fall;
Their infants shall be smashed on rocks,
And their pregnant women shall be ripped open! (Hosea 14:1)
Then Hosea advises the Israelites to pray for forgiveness and promise never to worship idols again. (See my post Haftarot for Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuva.) Their words are enough to turn God’s heart upside down once again. God says:
I will heal their meshuvah.
I will love them nedavah.
For my hot nose has turned away from them. (Hosea 14:5)
nedavah (נְדָבָה) = voluntarily, freely, as a gift, spontaneously.
A prayer and a promise are enough to change God from an angry punisher into a loving and forgiving healer. God’s love is not even contingent on the Israelites fulfilling their promise.
God predicts that the Israelites will be cured of their meshuvah, their habit of disloyalty and defection, in response to God’s freely given love.
Efrayim [shall say]: “What are idols to me now?”
I Myself shall respond and I shall look at him with regard. (Hosea 14:9)
Parents and teachers are familiar with the conundrum God faces in these haftarot. After you have told children what they are doing wrong, and what they should do instead, do you wait for them to change their behavior before you reward them? Or do you shower them with love first, hoping that they will then change in response to your trust in them?
I suspect the right answer is different for each child. And once in a while, when a child is testing you, you need to show that your temper has limits, and mete out an appropriate level of punishment.
In most of the Bible, God is not a wonderful parent or teacher. The anthropomorphic God has a hair-trigger temper, and “His” punishments include early and painful death for thousands of innocent people. But Hosea holds up a different model when he suggests that a god has more self-control than a man. The God of Israel need not act like a man who cannot overcome his anger against an unfaithful wife, Hosea says. God can stay calm and heal humans of their slavish devotion to idols and emperors—through love.
Today many adult humans try to meet the higher standards that Hosea set for God, behaving with self-control, good judgment, and love. It is not easy, since we seem to be made in the image of the old anthropomorphic God, full of both anger and love.
Underneath those feelings, can we come close to a more holy God? I believe we can, if we spend enough time reflecting and turning our hearts upside down, as well as recognizing our self-deceit and denial and pushing through to deeper truths.
You, you must return to your own god!
You must observe kindness and just judgments,
And eagerly wait for your god, constantly! (Hosea 12:7)
1 (There is an alternate tradition of reading the book of Obadiah for next week’s haftarah, but Obadiah merely predicts the triumph of the people of Jacob (Israel) and the complete downfall of the people of Esau (Edom), without offering any reasons or any characterizations of God, Jacob, or Esau. Hosea 11:7-12:12, on the other hand, mentions Jacob wrestling with the mysterious being, a key feature of the Torah portion Vayishlach, as well as considering divine and human psychology.)
Tags: emet, haftarah, Malachi, reverence, rituals, torat emet
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Toledot (Genesis 25:19-28:9), and the haftarah is Malachi 1:1-2:7.
The three faults that draw the most condemnation from the prophets in the Hebrew Bible are
1) worshiping other gods,
2) behaving unethically toward other people, and
3) failing to follow the rules of rituals—in that order, if one judges by the number of words devoted to each.
When the prophets criticize the Israelites for their sacrifices at the temple, they usually condemn them for going through the ritual motions while continuing to act unjustly toward the poor, orphans, and widows.
But when the prophets criticize the temple priests, they denounce them for not teaching the Israelites about God (Jeremiah 2:8), for not separating the holy from the unholy and the pure from the impure (Ezekiel 22:26 and Zephaniah 3:4), for charging fees to make religious rulings (Micah 3:11), for promoting sexual sins (Hosea 6:9), and, in this week’s haftarah, for accepting defective animals as offerings for the altar.
The last prophet in the Hebrew Bible is Malachi, whom most scholars date to the 5th century B.C.E., when the homeland of the Israelites has become a province in the Persian Empire, and Ezra and Nehemiah have rebuilt Jerusalem and its temple.
A pronouncement: the word of God to Israel, by the hand of Malakhi. (Malachi 1:1)
Malakhi (מַלְאָכִי) = Malachi (usual English spelling); My malakh.
malakh (מַלְאָךְ) = messenger, either human or divine.
God’s messenger delivers God’s complaint against the priests of the second temple.
“A son should honor a father, and a slave his master; but if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am masters, where is My reverence?” says the God of [Heavenly] Armies to you, the priests who are bozeh of My sheim. And you say: “How are we bozeh of Your sheim?” (Malachi 1:6)
bozeh (בּוֹזֶה) = being in contempt, slighting, disrespecting, demeaning, finding insignificant.
sheim (שֵׁם) = name, reputation.
“Presenting on My altar degraded food, then you ask: How are we degrading you? When you say: The table of God is nibezeh. Then if you present a blind [animal] for a slaughter-sacrifice, there is nothing wrong, and if it is lame or sick, there is nothing wrong!” (Malachi 1:7-8)
nibezeh (נִבְזֶה) = insignificant, contemptible, not worthy of respect. (From the same root verb as bozeh.)
The animals are given by the people, but the priests must decide whether each animal is acceptable to burn on the altar that serves as God’s “table”. Malachi astutely diagnoses the problem with flawed offerings: although the end-product of smoke is the same, priests who accept defective animals as gifts for God are showing contempt for God’s reputation. This teaches the people that they can give God any old leftovers; they need not honor God the way they would honor a parent or a master by serving a beautifully presented dinner.
The haftarah contrasts this negligent attitude with the respect and reverence that Israelite priests used to show for their God.
A torah of emet was in his mouth
And no wickedness was found on his lips;
In peace and on level ground he walked with Me
And he turned many away from wrongdoing. (Malachi 2:6)
torah (תּוֹרַה) = instruction, direction; the sum of God’s law; a book containing God’s laws. (From the same root as yoreh (יוֹרֶה) = he will teach; and moreh (מוֹרֶה) = teacher.)
emet (אֱמֶת) = reliability, trustworthiness, truth; reliable, trustworthy, true.
A good priest teaches the people what to do, both ritually and ethically. The priest’s actions are consistent with his teachings; he is honest, what we call being “on the level” even in English. Therefore his instructions are emet.
And they seek torah from his mouth;
Because he is a malakh of the God of [Heavenly] Armies.
But you turned away from the path;
You made many stumble through the torah;
You wiped out the covenant of the Levites, said the God of Armies. (Malachi 2:7-8)
Just as the author of the book Malachi is a malakh, a messenger from God, every priest must be a responsible malakh.
The Talmud extends this requirement to everyone who teaches about God. Rabbi Yochanan says: “If the rabbi is like a messenger of the God of Armies, they should seek the law at his mouth; but if he is not, they should not seek the law at his mouth.” (Babylonian Talmud, Mo-ed Katan 17a)
Back to our original question: Do rituals matter? And how important is it to get the details right?
For the priests at the second temple in the 5th century B.C.E., it was essential. They had to carry out the letter of the law concerning animal sacrifices, particularly the requirements for unblemished animals, in order for the people to see that they took God seriously.
After the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., Judaism’s new teachers, the rabbis cited in the Talmud, focused on interpreting and extrapolating the laws in the Bible that did not require offerings at a temple. The examples they set in their personal lives were also scrutinized. If you wanted your rulings to be respected about the shape of lamps permissible on Shabbat or which slaves a master is obligated to feed, you had to follow all the rules yourself.
Today many rabbis and other teachers of the Torah, as well as many teachers of other religions, are primarily concerned with ethical behavior toward fellow human beings. The Hebrew Bible addresses ethics, but provides proof texts for contradictory opinions. For example, in one passage Moses commands genocide (see my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent). In another, God tells Moses to tell the people: You shall not wrong a stranger, and you shall not oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (ExodusShemot 22:20)
In the face of conflicting passages, a modern Torah interpreter is responsible for finding the deepest truth and teaching it. Rabbi David Frankel wrote: “Thus, what makes Torah “true” is the sincerity and integrity with which one pursues the process of searching and interpreting.”
I am continually away of the shortcomings in my own behavior when I teach the Torah in a class, in a service, or in this blog. Not only is my idea of keeping kosher too idiosyncratic for most observant Jews, but I catch myself falling short of my own standards for kindness and justice. Are my words emet? Probably not. I can only pray that my sincere attempts to wrestle with the text and reach through to the divine spirit behind it will somehow lead to an occasional flicker of inspiration. I may not walk with God on level ground, but I am grateful for this journey.
Tags: Adoniyahu, Avishag, ba bayamim, Bathsheba, death, haftarah, King David, King Solomon, Natan
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Chayyei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 1:1-31.
And Abraham was old, ba bayamim, and God had blessed Abraham in everything. (Genesis/Bereishit 24:1)
And the king, David, was old, ba bayamim, and they covered him with [bed]clothes, but he did not feel warm. (1 Kings 1:1)
ba (בָּא) = he came; coming, coming in, arriving, entering.
bayamim (בַּיָּמִים) = in the days; at the time.
Ba bayamim is often translated as “advanced in years”; Biblical Hebrew sometimes uses “days” where English would use “years”. Ba bayamim could also be translated as “coming on in years” or literally, “arriving at the time”.
The term occurs only six times in the Hebrew Bible: once in this week’s Torah portion, once in the haftarah (above), and four times in the book of Joshua (including the variants bata bayamim (בָּאתָ בַּיָּמִים) = you have arrived at the time, and bati bayamim (בָּאתִי בַּיָּמִים) = I have arrived at the time).
Joshua was old, ba bayamim. And God said to him: You have grown old, bata bayamim, and a lot of the land left over/remains to take possession of. (Joshua 13:1-2)
God tells Joshua he must apportion among the twelve tribes all of the land that will someday be Israel. After Joshua has accomplished this, the book repeats:
…and Joshua was old, ba bayamim. And Joshua summoned all Israel, its elders and its chiefs and its judges and its officials, and he said to them: I am old, bati bayamim. (Joshua 23:1-2)
He then makes a farewell speech urging them to serve God faithfully in order to keep the land.
Both points in the book of Joshua where ba bayamim and a variation of the phrase appear, there is a task the old leader must do before he dies. I believe this is also true when the phrase appears in reference to Abraham and David.
Abraham is old, ba bayamim, when he is in his 130’s, wealthy, and at peace with his neighbors. He is also still vigorous enough to remarry, have six more sons, and live to 175. But when he becomes ba bayamim he arranges a wife for his estranged son Isaac, whom he and God have chosen as his successor, so that his tribe’s lineage and religion can continue.
(Later, he leaves gifts to his younger six sons, and sends them away from Isaac so there will be no dispute about the inheritance.)
When King David is ba bayamim, he is 70 years old and frail. But he, too, has a final task to accomplish: he must establish which of his surviving sons will be king now that he is no longer able to rule.
There are factions behind three different candidates: Adoniyahu, David’s oldest surviving son; Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba; and possibly David himself, if he can return to health.
Following the announcement that David is old and ba bayamim, the haftarah says:
And they covered him with [bed]clothes, but he did not feel warm. So his avadim said to him: They will seek for my lord the king a virgin girl to stand in waiting on the king. And she will be a nurse for him, and she will lie in your bosom and make warmth for my lord the king. (1 Kings 1:1-2)
avadim (עֲבָדִים) = slaves, servants, employees, courtiers.
Some commentators claim that the king’s courtiers only want a girl to provide warmth, but in that case, why do the avadim specify that the king’s new bed-warmer must be a virgin?
Other commentary claims they want someone to stimulate David’s flagging sexual energy. If a virgin gets pregnant on the job in the closely watched king’s bedchamber, it will prove that David is still virile enough to rule. So the king’s avadim select a young woman who is both a virgin and beautiful, who can both warm him and stimulate him.
And they sought a beautiful girl through all the territory of Israel, and they found Avishag of Shunem, and they brought her to the king. And the girl was very beautiful, and she became an attendant on the king, and she waited on him. But the king did not know her intimately. (1 Kings 1:3-4)
The king’s courtiers are probably disappointed. If David’s kingship were extended, they could continue with their own positions in the palace. A new king might fire them, or worse.
And Adoniyahu, son of Chaggit [David’s fourth wife], was aggrandizing himself, saying: I will reign! And he made himself a chariot and horsemen with fifty men going before him. (1 Kings 1:5)
And he spoke with Yoav son of Tzeruyah, and with Evyatar the Priest, and they supported Adoniyahu. But Tzadok the Priest, and Benayahu son of Yehoyada, and Natan the Prophet, and Shimi the Friend, and the fighting men who were David’s, were not with Adoniyahu. (1 Kings 1:7-8)
Tzadok, Natan, and their faction prefer Solomon, Bathsheba’s son. King David himself has no idea what is going on.
So Natan asks Bathsheba to go to David and remind him that he once promised her Solomon would become the next king.
And Bathsheba came to the king in the inner chamber. And the king was very old, and Avishag of Shunem was waiting on the king. And Bathsheba knelt, and she bowed down to the king. And the king said: “Mah lach?”
Mah lach (מַה־לָּךְ) = What is the matter? (Literally, “What is for you?”)
These are the first words David speaks after the Bible tells us he is ba bayamim. He is too miserable to find out what is going on in his kingdom, and too sick to be interested in sex (though he once had eight wives and ten concubines). But he rouses himself when Bathsheba comes for an audience.
She reminds David about his promise, and tells him that Adoniyahu has made himself king behind David’s back. Then Natan comes in, bows, and asks David why he made Adoniyahu king without telling his loyal servant Natan.
Alert at last, King David swears Solomon will be the next king, and gives instructions to make it happen. The story continues after this week’s haftarah with a scene in which the people celebrating Adoniyahu’s kingship hear another crowd blowing shofars and shouting “Long live King Solomon” at the Tent of Meeting. Solomon gets to the throne first.
When King David is old and ba bayamim , he is too feeble to complete his final task on his own. His avadim get him a new concubine, while his son Adoniyahu schemes to seize the throne. King David’s succession has almost slipped out of his control when Natan and Bathsheba induce him to give orders about the next king—something he should have done before he was reduced to lying in bed shivering.
When we grow old, some of us find that we have tidied up as we went along, and nothing remains to be done. But some of us are ba bayamim, arriving at the time when we must finish a task before we die. May we all be aware of our own time and achieve what we need to.
And when the time comes, may each of us die not like David, but like Abraham.
And Abraham died at a good old age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:8)
(I dedicate this post to my mother-in-law, Mildred Carpenter, who died last week at age 96, surrounded by her family, leaving nothing undone.)
Tags: hospitality, miracles, mutual favors, Prophet Elisha, reviving the dead
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Vayeira (Genesis 18:1-22:21), and the haftarah is 2 Kings 4:1-37.
Elisha is not only a prophet, but a miracle-worker. He and his mentor, Elijah, are the only characters in the Hebrew Bible who create supernatural wonders on their own initiative—yet with God’s approval.
This week’s haftarah relates two of Elisha’s miracles. First the widow of one of Elisha’s disciples begs him for help. She is in debt to a creditor who is coming to take her two sons as slaves. Elisha speaks to her simply and directly, saying:
What can I do for you? Tell me what you have in the house. (2 Kings 4:2)
He has no problem arranging a miracle for the poor and desperate woman, turning her single small jar of oil into so much oil that when she sells it she can pay off her whole debt, with money left over. Magnanimity comes easily to Elisha.
In the next story, the woman who approaches Elisha is wealthy and content. Instead of asking for help, she is determined to help Elisha. He becomes the recipient of her magnanimity.
It happened one day [that] Elisha passed by Shuneim, and there was a gedolah woman, vatachazek him to eat a meal. Then it happened whenever he passed by, he turned aside there to eat a meal. And she said to her husband: “Hey, please! I know that the one who passes by regularly is a holy man of God. Let us make, please, an upper room with a wall, and let us put there a bed for him, and a table and a chair and a lampstand, and it will happen whenever he comes to us, he will turn aside there”. And it happened one day [that] he came there and he turned aside to the upper room …(2 Kings 4:8-11)
gedolah (גְדוֹלָה) = great, significant, big.
vatachazek (וַתַּחֲזֶק) = and she took hold of, and she prevailed over, and she seized.
The woman of Shuneim is probably gedolah, significant in her town, because she and her husband are wealthy enough to build a walled chamber on top of their roof as a guest room. She may also be called gedolah because she is unusually forceful for a woman in the ancient kingdom of Judah. She does not politely ask Elisha if he would like to come to her house for a meal; she makes him do it, either by refusing to take no for an answer or by actually grabbing him.
But feeding Elisha is not enough for her. So she politely tells her husband she wants to build and furnish a guest room for him. Her husband’s reply is not recorded, but judging by the rest of the story, he never stands in her way. In the next sentence, Elisha’s guest room is complete.
What is the woman of Shuneim’s motivation for this extreme hospitality? One clue is that she calls Elisha a “man of god”, an ish elohim. Maybe she is religious, and sees taking care of a man of God as a way to contribute to the cause of glorifying the God of Israel.
And it happened one day [that] he came there and he turned aside to the upper room, and he lay down there. And he said to Geichazi, his manservant: “Call that woman of Shuneim.” And he called her, and she stood before him. (2 Kings 4:11-12)
Elisha is already famous in the kingdoms of both Judah and Israel. Now he has his own servant. He sends Geichazi to summon her, instead of going downstairs himself. He does not refer to his hostess by name (and we never learn it). When she climbs up the ladder to his room, he is reclining on the bed as if he were a king.
Putting on even more airs, Elisha does not speak to her directly, but only through his servant.
And he [Elisha] said to him: “Say, please, to her: Hey! You have troubled yourself with all this trouble for us. What is there to do for you? To speak for you to the king? Or to the commander of the army?” (2 Kings 4:13)
There is no indication that the woman needs anything from the king or the army commander. I believe Elisha is showing off, letting her know that he has influence with these exalted persons.
The woman is unimpressed. She merely replies:
I am dwelling among my own people. (2 Kings 4:13)
She does not need Elisha’s influence because she is already well-known and respected in Shuneim. She then goes back downstairs, making it clear that she does not want any favors from the “man of God”.
And he [Elisha] said: “Then what to do for her?” And Geichazi said: “Actually, she has no son, and her husband is old.” Then he [Elisha] said: “Call her”. And he called her, and she stood in the doorway. (2 Kings 4:14-15)
Geichazi assumes that the woman’s husband is too old to have successful intercourse with her. This story is a good match for the Torah portion Vayeira because in Vayeira, Sarah stands in the doorway of the tent and laughs silently when she hears a guest tell her 99-year-old husband, Abraham, that the following year she will have a son.
The guest, who is actually divine, hears Sarah’s thoughts and tells Abraham:
Is anything too extraordinary for God? Lamo-eid hazeh I will return to you, ka-eit chayyah, and Sarah will have a son. (Genesis 18:14)
lamo-eid hazeh (לַמּוֹעֵד הַזֶּה) = at this appointed time.
ka-eit chayyah (כָּעֵת חַיָּה) = in the same season of life. (An idiom for “at the same time next year”.)
Elisha borrows language from the Torah portion to announce his own miracle, and finally addresses the woman instead of confining his remarks to his servant.
And he said: “Lamo-eid hazeh, ka-eit chayyah, you will be embracing a son.” Then she said: “No, my lord, Man of the God. Don’t you lie to your maidservant.” (2 Kings 4:16)
Through the language of this annunciation, Elisha is comparing himself with Abraham’s guest, an angel who turns into the voice of God. I suspect that the woman of Shuneim rejects his message because she knows Elisha is only a man of God, not an angel. She puts him in his place.
She may not even want a son. Most women in Biblical times needed a son to support them in old age, since they rarely had property of their own. But as commentator Tikva Frymer Kensky pointed out, the woman of Shuneim appears to be independent, and may even own the land her husband farms for her.
Nevertheless, she has a son the following year. When the boy is old enough to follow his father around outside, but still young enough to fit on his mother’s lap, he suddenly has a pain in his head. His father does not take it seriously, and merely tells a servant to carry him back to his mother.
And he sat on her knees until noon. Then he died. And she took him up and laid him on the bed of the man of God, and she closed [the door] behind him, and she left. (2 Kings 4:20-21)
The woman realizes that now she does need a favor from Elisha, and she has a right to demand it. When she reaches him on Mount Carmel, she brushes off Elisha’s servant Geichazi.
And she came up to the man of God on the mountain, vatachazek his feet… (2 Kings 4:27)
Once again the woman seizes Elisha, but this time instead of making him accept a favor from her, she requests one from him.
Geichazi tries to pull her away, but Elisha tells his servant:
“Leave her alone, because her soul is bitter, and God has hidden it from me and has not told me [about it].”
Then she said: “Did I ask for a son from my lord? Did I not say: Don’t you be careless with me?” (2 Kings 4:27-28)
That is enough of a clue for Elisha. He realizes her son has died, and he gives his staff to Geichazi with orders to place it on the boy’s face. But the woman knows that will not work. She insists on taking Elisha to her house in person. He still does not speak to her directly, but he follows her. When they arrive, the boy is still laid out dead on Elisha’s bed.
Elisha’s pride has taken two blows; first God did not tell him anything was wrong, and then his idea for a miraculous revivification did not work. His benefactress knew more than he did.
All he can do now is imitate one of his mentor Elijah’s successful miracles, and hope it works for him, too. He goes into the guest room, shuts the door on Geichazi and the woman, and prays to God. Then he climbs up and lies down on the boy, mouth to mouth and hands to hands. (Too much time has elapsed for mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; Elisha is attempting to send some of his own life-spirit into the child.)
After he does this a second time, the boy sneezes and opens his eyes. Elisha calls Geichazi and says: “Call that woman of Shuneim.” It sounds as if Elisha is resuming his proud distance from his benefactress. But when she arrives, he speaks to her, saying: “Pick up your son.” (2 Kings 4:36)
And she came and she fell at his feet and she bowed low to the ground and she picked up her son and she left. (2 Kings 4:37)
Although she bows to him, it is only his due as a man of God who has brought a dead child to life. She retains her dignity by rising and carrying her son away.
Does Elisha give up some of his prickly pride about receiving help from the woman of Shuneim? The story ends here, but later the second book of Kings reports:
And Elisha spoke to the woman whose son he had revived, saying: “Get up and go, you and your household, and sojourn wherever you will sojourn, because God has called for a seven-year famine, and even now it comes to the land.” And the woman got up and did as the man of God spoke… (2 Kings 8:1-2)
God is speaking to Elisha, and Elisha is speaking to the woman of Shuneim, treating her with consideration, even if she did once force him to accept favors from her.
Maybe I see this haftarah as a story of prickly male pride because I was born in the 1950’s and I’ve seen that dynamic again and again—though less often in this 21st century. On the other hand, I sometimes find it difficult to accept help myself, because I, too, want to appear competent and in control, not weak and needy.
This week’s haftarah demonstrates that there are times when even the great woman of Shuneim, or Elisha the man of God, needs help. In order for we humans to do our work best, we need three things: the strength to ask for help when we need it, the strength to accept help whether we need it or not, and the compassion to give help when we can.
Tags: God, haftarah, morning blessings
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Lekh-Lekha (Genesis 12:1-17:27), and the haftarah is Isaiah 40:27-41:16.
What do you do when you once had a relationship with God, but now God seems to be absent?
The question is painful on this anniversary of Kristallnacht. It is especially painful for those who believe in God as a benevolent parent or guardian, an external force looking after them and ensuring that, ultimately, good people will be rewarded, innocent people will have a chance, and everything will turn out for the best.
Then something happens: Job is afflicted, Jerusalem is razed, the Nazis torture and kill millions of innocents, girls are raped, the day’s news threatens future darkness. And it no longer makes sense to trust in a benevolent external God.
What do you do when God seems absent?
Many psalms address this question, and so does the second half of the book of Isaiah, written about 50 years after the Babylonian army razed Jerusalem and deported its population. The prophet we know only as “second Isaiah” tried to persuade the Israelites that their God was still alive and strong, and would soon rescue them. This week’s haftarah from second Isaiah opens:
Why do you say, Jacob,
And why do you assert, Israel:
“My path is hidden from God,
My claim slips away from my God.” (Isaiah 40:27)
The Israelites believe that God cannot see what is happening to them, and that their covenant with the God of Israel has slipped away. They feel invisible to God. Second Isaiah responds:
Do you not know?
Surely you have heard?
God is the god of all time,
Creator of the ends of the earth.
Never yiyaf and never will It grow weary.
No one can fathom the depth of Its tevunah. (Isaiah 40: 28)
yiyaf (יִהעַף) = will he/It become faint, will tire out.
tevunah (תְּבוּנָּה) = insight, intelligence, discernment, skill.
The prophet counters that the God of Israel is the god of all time and all space, whose powers never flag and who has infinite insight. Therefore the Israelites cannot be invisible to God.
They feel invisible to God only because God is invisible to them. Living in Babylon, they see no evidence of their God. The city is full of statues, reliefs, and paintings of other gods, but not the God of Israel. Their own god let the Babylonians raze the temple in Jerusalem, and let them languish in exile for decades. Has God run out of power?
Second Isaiah says not only that God never grows faint or weary, but adds that God is:
Notein laya-eif koach,
And [giver] of abundant energy to those without vigor. (Isaiah 40:29)
Notein (נוֹתֵן) = Giver, giving.
laya-eif (לַיָּעֵף) = to the faint, to the tired. (From the same root as yiyaf.)
koach (כֹּחַ) = strength, endurance, power, ability to carry on.
Notein laya-eif koach = Giver of strength to the faint and tired.
Thus the prophet counters that not only is God powerful, but God is the one who gives strength and energy to human beings fainting with weariness.
Once again, second Isaiah declares that reality is the reverse of what the Israelites think. God is not worn out; they are.
When I read the first line of Isaiah 40:29 in Hebrew, I recognized it from the Jewish morning blessings. Our tradition upon arising is to bless God in gratitude for a list of blessings that come from God to us, including sight when we open our eyes, clothing, the ability to walk, and so on.
Out of the 16 morning blessings in the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, 12 are dictated by the Babylonian Talmud tractate Berachot (“Blessings”). One of the blessings that is not from the Talmud is:
Blessed are You, God, our God, Ruler of everything, hanotein laya-eif koach.
hanotein (הַנּוֹתֵן) = the one who gives, the giver.
I often pronounce this blessing with extra enthusiasm, since I have chronically low energy, yet I am determined to make the most of my life.
Although some of second Isaiah’s exhortations no longer apply today, many of us still feel invisible to whatever runs the universe, as if “My path is hidden from God”. Many of us still feel as if we’re drowning in a sea of exhaustion. And many of us still feel doomed by the agendas of other people, or by the results (such as global warming) of past human actions.
Second Isaiah says that our God is powerful and always with us. I conclude that our task is to learn how to sense God within, and draw inner strength from that sense. We can fathom the depth of our own insight. Then we might discover a core of divine strength within — and maybe even enough prophetic intuition to see our own paths.
May every one of us discover our own inner God, and draw strength from that connection to rise above our inevitable wounds and dedicate ourselves to kindness and patience. And as we keep learning more about ourselves, may we keep learning more about other people — checking our assumptions, questioning hearsay, opening our minds to understand people who may seem like enemies until we get to know them. May God strengthen us inside so we can cooperate to make life on this fragile earth as good as is possible now for all of us.
Tags: haftarah, milk and wine, Noah, second Isaiah, word of God
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). However, this week the haftarah is almost a duplicate. This week’s Torah portion is Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32), and the haftarah is Isaiah 54:1-55:5—which includes all of haftarah for the Torah portion Re’eih, eight weeks ago.
After the flood subsides in this week’s Torah portion, God swears:
Never again to curse the earth on account of the human, since the yeitzer of the heart of the human is bad from its youth; and never again to destroy all life, as I have done. (Genesis/Bereishit 8:21)
yeitzer (יֵצֶר) = what is shaped or formed; by extension, an impulse or a tendency. (From the root yatzar, יָצַר = shaped, formed.)
Perhaps God senses that It overreacted, wiping out not just the entire human race, but all land-based animals (except for those on Noah’s ark). God might have tried to educate humankind, or at least to issue a detailed warning and then exercise selective punishment against chronic transgressors. God warns Noah about the flood 100 years ahead of time, so God might even have given Noah instructions for acting as a teacher and prophet. But in the Torah, God only instructs Noah about how to build and fill the ark, and then releases the flood. The divine rage at human evil is unabated. (See my post: Noach: Spoiled.)
The first chapter of this week’s haftarah compares God’s covenant with the Israelites to a marriage, and God, the husband, says:
In a flood of rage I hid My face a while from you
But with unending loyal kindness I had compassion on you,
—said your redeemer, God.
Like the days of Noah this is to me:
As I swore that the waters of Noah would not pass over the earth again,
So I swear against becoming angry at you and against rebuking you! (Isaiah 54:8-9)
Many a battered wife has heard a promise like that, as I pointed out when I discussed this haftarah eight weeks ago. (See my post Haftarah for Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser.)
But after God has finished promising that “he” will never, ever throw the Israelites out of the house again, or bring over foreign bullies to attack them, the haftarah abruptly takes a different turn.
Hoy! Everyone who is tzamei! Come for water!
And if you have no silver, come, buy and eat!
And come, with no silver and with nothing to barter, buy wine and milk! (Isaiah 55:1)
Hoy! (הוֹי) = Oy! My goodness! Alas! Oh! Oh, no! Oh, dear!
tzamei (צָמֵא) = thirsty.
Instead of a raging flood, God offers drinking water. Then God promises food, wine, and milk, all free of charge. What is this poetic largesse?
Second Isaiah is addressing the exiled Israelite families that were deported to Babylon in 597-586 B.C.E. when King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah and Jerusalem. Apparently these exiles were familiar with a passage from the book of Amos (circa 760 B.C.E.):
Hey! Days are coming—declares God—when I will send a famine into the land: not a famine for bread nor a tzama for water, but for hearing the words of God. And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east they shall roam, seeking the word of God, but they shall not find it. (Amos 8:11-12)
tzama (צָמָא) = thirst. (From the same root as tzamei.)
Amos prophesied the end of the northern Israelite kingdom of Samaria (which fell to the Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.), and promised a distant future when God would reinstate the Israelites in their own lands. Until then, he warned, people who were hungry and thirsty for the word of God would be unable to find it.
The “word of God” means either directives from God—the rules of the religion—or teaching (in Hebrew, torah, תּוֹרָה) by and about God. When the Babylonian Talmud was assembled around 500 C.E., there was already a tradition comparing torah with water. Ta’anit 7a and Bava Kama 82a in the Talmud even cite Isaiah 55:1 as proof that “water” means torah.
Second Isaiah declares that Amos’s distant future has arrived. After all, when King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.E., the Israelites became free to return to their old homelands and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Now people who were hungry and thirsty for the word of God can find it.
The haftarah picks up where Amos left off and gives further information about the word of God: it is free, and it will sustain the soul. Just as water is essential for the human body to live, the word of God is essential for the human soul to live.
Furthermore, according to second Isaiah, one can even get milk and wine for free.
Milk appears in the Bible as the nourishment humans receive without hard labor. Mothers nurse their infants, and the land that God promises to give the Israelites is repeatedly described as a “land flowing with milk and honey”. The luxury of milk is given out of parental love: a mother’s tenderness or God’s compassion.
Wine makes the heart glad. (Psalm 104:15)
Although the Bible denounces excessive drinking, it calls for wine in sacraments as a sign of joy. Wine first appears in the Torah when Abraham returns victorious from a regional battle. Malki-tzedek (“King of Righteousness”) of Jerusalem brings him bread and wine and blesses him in the name of God. Later the Torah requires that people bring libation offerings of wine to the altar along with their offerings of animals and grain.
Since the word of God is compared to water, milk, and wine, Joanne Yocheved Heligman wrote in The Women’s Haftarah Commentary, focusing on “spiritual goals” will nurture us with a balance of physical sustenance (water), love (milk), and spiritual joy (wine).
I would add that spiritual work is sustaining, like water, when it involves reading, studying, and interpreting words. It is nurturing, like milk, when it involves praying and behaving ethically toward other people. And it brings joy, like wine, when we have emotional and mystical experiences—although we must avoid becoming drunk on religious experiences and spending too much time away from the practical world.
When we feel empty and long for something we might call God, are we longing for water, milk, or wine? The Psalms identify the longing for God’s presence with thirst for water.
Like a deer who longs for streams of water,
So my soul longs for You, God;
My soul is tzamei for God, for the god of life.
When can I come in? (Psalm 42:2)
May we all discover where to find free water, and all the other nourishment we long for.