Tags: ark of the covenant, Exodus, Golden Calf, idols, religion, Torah commentary, torah portion
For 40 days at the top of Mount Sinai, Moses listens to God’s instructions on ordaining priests and making a sanctuary for the new religion. The holiest object in the sanctuary will be the ark—a gold-plated box covered by a solid gold lid with two keruvim (sphinx-like creatures with eagle wings, lion bodies, and human faces) hammered out of the gold at the two ends of the lid.
Meanwhile, in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“When you bring up”), the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai conclude that Moses is never coming back.
The people saw that Moses was horribly late in going down from the mountain, so the people assembled against Aaron, and they said to him: Get up, make us elohim that will go before us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him! (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)
elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = gods; God; divine powers. (Elohim is the plural of eloha (אֱלוֹהַּ) = god, God.)
When the Israelites ask Aaron to make elohim, they want images of gods that carry some divine power or magic.
Aaron said to them: Pull off the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me. And all the people pulled off the gold rings in their ears, and they brought them to Aaron. He took [the gold] from their hand, and he shaped it in the mold, and he made it a calf of cast metal. And they said: These are your elohim, Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt! (Exodus 32:2-4)
There is only one gold statue, yet the people use the plural “these”. Modern commentator Robert Alter wrote that the Golden Calf was not intended to be inhabited by a deity, but rather to serve as the throne for one or more gods. The Phoenician storm god Hadad was pictured standing on a bull.
The ark with its keruvim is not a throne. Later in the Bible, God acquires the title “Who Sits [Above] the Keruvim”, but the only descriptions of God sitting above keruvim refer to angelic creatures in the heavens, not to the solid keruvim in the sanctuary.
Later in the Bible, King Jereboam, the first ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, sets up a golden calf in each of his two temples, one at Bethel and one in Dan. The Torah denounces these golden calves as sinful (reflecting the viewpoint of the southern kingdom of Judah, which retains two keruvim in the temple at Jerusalem).
Why are two gold keruvim acceptable to God, while a golden calf is not?
Hammered, not cast or carved
One line of commentary argues that God objects to cast-metal images, but not to images hammered out of a lump of gold. God does say “Cast-metal gods you shall not make for yourselves. (Exodus 34:17)”—but only later in this week’s Torah portion, after Moses has ground up the Golden Calf and climbed Mount Sinai for a second 40-day conference with God.
Imaginary, not actual
In one of the Ten Commandments, which come before the Golden Calf episode in the Torah, God declares: “You shall not make for yourself a carved idol, or any image of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters underneath. (Exodus 20:4)” One could argue that the Golden Calf is an image of an animal that lives on the earth, while the keruvim do not represent any known animal.
Commanded, not volunteered
In his book Kuzari, 12th-century commentator Judah Halevi argues that images were psychologically necessary for people in that era. Until they reached Mount Sinai, the Israelites followed a visible pillar of cloud and fire. After the pillar disappeared, they waited for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai with some other visible item. Only after they concluded Moses would never return did they make an unauthorized image. Halevi wrote: “They should have waited and not made an image by themselves.”
The difference between the keruvim and the Golden Calf, according to Halevi and subsequent commentary by Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel, is that God ordered the keruvim. God does not want people to use anything that God Itself has not authorized.
Heard, not seen
I think the underlying problem is that in the Torah, God is heard and not seen. Later in this week’s Torah portion, God explains to Moses:
You will not be able to see My face, because humankind may not see Me and live. (Exodus 33:20)
Even the pillar of cloud and fire is called God’s messenger, not God Itself. Only God’s creations can be seen. But God’s voice is heard by all the people in the revelation at Mount Sinai. And throughout the Bible, God speaks to select human beings.
The Israelites err in expecting God to manifest as a visible shape, sitting astride the calf or standing on its back. They want the reassurance of something they can see. But God only manifests as a voice; God wants people to listen for God’s words.
If God’s voice came from the Golden Calf, it would seem as though the words issued from the calf’s mouth—a clear case of idolatry. This is not a problem with the two keruvim at the ends of the ark. The Torah says that after the Holy of Holies is finished, God will speak from the empty space above the cover of the ark, between the wings of the Keruvim. ART
In the Torah, God does not speak from the solid and visible Golden Calf, but from the invisible empty space in between the keruvim.
In our lives today, God does not speak from visible and mundane things such as gold jewelry or expensive cars. God speaks to us from out of nowhere—if we make empty spaces in our lives, and listen.
Tags: Exodus, high priest, Moses and Aaron, Shemot, torah portion
You shall make garments of kodesh for Aaron, your brother, for kavod and for tifaret. And you, you shall speak to all the wise of heart whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, and they shall make the garments of Aaron lekadsho, to perform as a priest for Me. (Exodus/Shemot 28:2-3)
kodesh (קֹדֶשׁ) = holiness; a holy thing, person, place, or day.
lekadsho (לְקַדְּשׁוֹ) = to make him holy, to consecrate him.
kavod (כָּבוֹד) = honor, magnificence.
tifaret (תִּפְאָרֶת) = beauty, magnificence.
In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“you shall command”), God tells Moses how to set up the institution of priesthood for the Israelites’ new religion. Before giving instructions on how to ordain Aaron and his sons, God describes their costumes.
These are not merely fine clothes, but holy garments. In the Torah, something is holy when it is set apart for the worship of God. Priests must wear their vestments whenever they are on duty, and only when they are on duty.
The passage translated above says that Aaron’s holy garments will make him holy, too. Even if his heart were completely dedicated, he would not be holy without the garments.
Aaron, as high priest, must also wear these garments for kavod and tifaret. I can understand why special clothing confers honor; it indicates the wearer’s authority. In our society, doctors wear white lab coats, police officers wear uniforms and badges, and rabbis wear caps (kippot or yarmulkes) and prayer shawls (tallitot)—at least when they are on duty.
But the high priest of the Israelites must also wear special clothing for tifaret, for beauty or magnificence.
This is the first appearance in the Torah of the word tifaret in any of its forms. (Alternate spellings pronounced tiferet and tifarah occur later in the Bible.) Sometimes the word means “beauty” or even “beautification”, as when God threatens to strip all the jewelry and other ornamentations off the vain women of Zion (Isaiah 3:18). Sometimes it means “magnificence” or “distinction”, as when the general Barak says he will only go to war against Sisera if the prophetess Devorah comes with him, and Devorah replies:
Is that so? I will go with you. However, the way you are going, it will not be for your own tifaret; because God will hand over Sisera to the hand of a woman. (Judges 4:9)
The high priest and his assistant priests wear the same first two layers of clothing: undyed linen breeches (underpants), followed by linen tunics (undershirts). Over these, all the priests wear long robes—but the high priest’s robe is sky-blue, while the robes of the other priests are undyed.
All the priests wear the same sash to tie their robes: undyed linen embroidered with sky-blue, purple, and crimson wool, just like the curtains hanging at the doorways into the outer courtyard and the sanctuary of the mikdash (“holy place”). (See my post Terumah: Under Cover.) And all the priests wear turbans wound around their heads, though the high priest’s turban is a different shape.
The high priest gets additional costume items. The hem of his robe has alternating gold bells and embroidered pomegranates. (See my post Tetzavveh: The Sound of Ringing.) Over his robe he wears an eifod (an over-tunic of two squares of material fastened by straps at the shoulders and waist) with a gem on each shoulder strap. Over the front of the eifod hangs a choshen (a square pocket) with gold embroidery and twelve gems on the front. And tied to the high priest’s forehead, in front of his turban, is a tzitz (an engraved flower-shaped gold plate). (See my post Tetzavveh: Holy Flower.)
Modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote in The Particulars of Rapture that the appearance of the high priest is all-important; the man merely animates the glorious costume as it carries out the rituals in the courtyard and the sanctuary. She also pointed out the double meaning of the Hebrew word for “garments”.
You shall make begadim of kodesh for Aaron, your brother, for kavod and for tifaret. (Exodus 28:2)
begadim (בְּגָדִים) = garments, clothing. (The singular form, beged (בֶּגֶד), means “garment”, but is spelled the same way as beged (בֶּגֶד) = faithlessness, fraud, deception.)
Like “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, a person can deceive others by wearing clothes that do not match his true identity or his inner self. A high priest wearing a dazzling holy costume might have an unworthy personality.
Today, people often project their expectations on the person in uniform or the person with the title or degree. Doctors in their white lab coats, with their MD degrees, may or may not be the perfect diagnosticians that patients assume they are. The person who wears a kippa (cap or yarmulke) and a tallit (prayer shawl) as he or she leads services, and has received ordination as a rabbi, may or may not be as saintly as congregants assume.
For the high priest of the Israelites, the clothes did make the man. All people needed to do was watch the gorgeously bedecked priest carrying out the ritual of the moment, and the sheer beauty of it inspired them to religious worship.
For a congregational rabbi today, the longest and most gorgeous tallit is not enough. The rabbi must also inspire congregants with his or her d’var Torah (“word of Torah”, or sermon). And a rabbi today is expected to set an example of ethical behavior, and to provide pastoral counseling. A rabbi’s soul really does matter more than the rabbi’s clothing.
This makes a rabbi more like Moses, who wears ordinary clothing as he speaks with God and leads the Israelites. At least his clothing is never mentioned in the Torah, except for the shoes he removes at the burning bush, and the veil he wears after his face acquires an unearthly radiance. The materials or colors of Moses’ shoes and veil are not specified.
In the Torah, the religion of the Israelites is established with both Aaron and Moses, and continues with both a high priest to conduct religious rituals and a king and/or prophet to provide guidance.
Maybe we need both an Aaron and a Moses today, as well. My own congregation has a number of people who are skilled at leading services. (And we wear the right garments when we do so!) Yet a large number of our congregants want some of our services to be led by an official, ordained rabbi. The title “rabbi” is as reassuring to them as the MD after my doctor’s name is to me.
And sometimes an Aaron is not enough; we need inspiration from a Moses, from a person with deep soul, whether or not that person has a title or a uniform. But finding the person with the deep soul is harder. You can’t just look for a man in a blue robe with a gold plate on his forehead.
Tags: Exodus, holy of holies, holy place, mishkan, torah portion
How do you make a holy sanctuary, a place where God can manifest and be heard? God gives Moses instructions in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”). The instructions require the creation of both ritual objects (the ark, the bread-table, the lampstand, the outer altar) and the creation of ritual spaces through curtains.
The Torah uses five different words for curtains in Terumah. The name of each curtain depends on its position in a sanctuary designed so that the holier and more exclusive the space is, the more it is covered and screened off.
The outer courtyard of the sanctuary is accessible to all the people, walled off by curtains but open to the sky. It measures 50 by 100 cubits (roughly 75 by 150 feet, slightly smaller than an Olympic swimming pool). Inside the courtyard stands a tent sanctuary, called the “tabernacle” in English (from the Latin word for “tent”), and the mishkan, or “Dwelling-Place” for God in Hebrew. Only priests may enter the mishkan.
The innermost (western) chamber of the mishkan is the Holy of Holies. Only Moses and the high priest may enter the Holy of Holies, where God manifests as a voice above the ark and between the two keruvim, winged creatures hammered out of the two ends of the ark’s gold lid.
You shall make a courtyard for the mishkan; for the south side, kela-im for the courtyard of twisted linen, 100 cubits long for one side. …And thus for the north side, kela-im a hundred long…(Exodus 27:9, 11)
kela-im (קְלָעִים) = curtains, hangings. (From a root verb (קלע) meaning either “slung”, as from a slingshot, or “carved”.)
The word kela-im occurs 16 times in the Bible, 15 times to indicate the linen hangings around the outer courtyard of the portable sanctuary, and once to indicate the carved double door into the great hall of the first temple in Jerusalem.
The kela-im in this week’s Torah portion are made of a single material, twisted linen threads, undyed and therefore an off-white. The kela-im separate the outer courtyard, where all the people can gather around the altar, from the rest of the world. They are the boundary between holy space and mundane space.
There is one entrance into the courtyard, a 20-foot gateway in the east wall covered by a hanging curtain.
And for a gate of the courtyard, a masakh of 20 cubits of sky-blue wool and purple wool and crimson wool and twisted linen, the work of an embroiderer, with four posts and four sockets. (Exodus 27:16)
masakh (מָסָךְ) = hanging curtain across a doorway, portiere. (From the root word sakhakh (סכך)= block off.)
A masakh also hangs in the doorway of the mishkan, the tent inside the courtyard.
You shall make a masakh for the entrance of the tent, of sky-blue wood and purple wool and crimson wool and twisted linen, the work of an embroiderer. (Exodus 26:36)
There is only one doorway into the tent, an opening in the east wall. The curtain screening this doorway between the outer courtyard and the inner priest’s chamber has a different name.
Both of these curtains separate a less holy space from a more holy space, and both hang loose so they can be pushed aside when someone enters or exits. They are both woven from linen, like the walls of the courtyard, but a design is embroidered on them in three vivid colors of wool.
The word masakh appears 25 times in the Bible, all but three times referring to the hangings in the courtyard gate or the mishkan doorway. In the three exceptions, the word masakh is used for the cloth cover over a cistern (2 Samuel 17:19), for the metaphorical gateway to the kingdom of Judah (Isaiah 22:8), and for the cloud God spread over the Israelites when they left Egypt (Psalm 105:39).
The walls of the mishkan are made of another type of curtain.
And the Dwelling-Place you shall make of ten yeriyot of twisted linen and sky-blue wool and purple wool and crimson wool, with keruvim of weaving-work you shall make them. The length of each yeriyah is 28 cubits, and the width four cubits, one measure for all the yeriyot. (Exodus/Shemot 26:1-2)
yeriyah (יְרִיעָה), plural yeriyot (יְרִיעֹת) = curtain, panel of tent-cloth, tapestry.
keruvim (כְּרֻוִים) = sphinx-like creatures with lion bodies, eagle wings, and human faces.
Each yeriyah is four cubits (about six feet) wide—which was the standard width of an Egyptian loom. The linen and three colors of wool are all woven together into a tapestry with a design of mythical semi-divine creatures.
A few verses later, God tells Moses:
You shall make yeriyot of goat-hair for a tent-roof over the mishkan; eleven yeriyot you shall make. (Exodus 26:7)
Moses fastens together these tent-cloth panels into a ceiling for the tent-sanctuary. They are not as beautiful as the ones forming the walls, but they also face the holy space of the inner enclosure.
The word yeriyah appears 48 times in the Hebrew Bible, and all but three of those occurrences refer to the yeriyot of the mishkan or of the first temple in Jerusalem. The three exceptions are all poetic. Jeremiah 49:29 and Habakkuk 3:7 use yeriyot as a poetic synonym for tents. Psalm 104 describes God as “wrapping light like a robe, spreading out the heavens like a yeriyah”. (Psalm 104:2)
The ceiling of yeriyot woven from goat-hair must be covered with another layer of roofing: a curtain of hides sewn together.
You shall make a mikhseh for the tent of skins of rams dyed red, and a mikhseh of skins of tachashim over above. (Exodus 26:14)
mikhseh (מִכְסֶה) = curtain, covering. (From the root word kasah (כּסה) = cover, conceal.)
tachashim (תְּחָשִׁים) = (Nobody knows what this word means; speculations range from badgers to giraffes to dolphins.)
The word mikhseh occurs in the Bible thirteen times, twelve times as the outer layer of the roof over the tent-sanctuary, and once as the roof over Noah’s ark. It serves as a sort of waterproof tarpaulin, covering and protecting the tent-cloth ceiling underneath.
The fifth kind of curtain in the sanctuary is the partition that screens off the Holy of Holies from the priests’ chamber inside the mishkan.
You shall make a parokhet of sky-blue wool and purple wool and crimson wool and twisted linen, the making of a weaver; it will be made with keruvim. (Exodus 26:31)
And you shall place the parokhet beneath the hooks; and you shall bring in there, into the house for the parokhet, the Ark of the Testimony; and the parokhet will make a separation for you between the Holy [space] and the Holy of Holies. (Exodus 26:33)
parokhet (פָּרֹכֶת) = curtain, woven partition. (The word is related to the Assyrian parraku = a chamber or shrine that is shut off.)
The word parokhet occurs 25 times in the Bible, always in reference to the partition screening off the Holy of Holies.
The parokhet is woven of the same materials, with the same motif, as the walls of the mishkan. But it hangs so that Moses, Aaron, or the high priest after Aaron, can push it aside to enter the Holy of Holies and speak with God.
By using five different words for curtains, the Torah portion Terumah emphasizes the importance of the different levels of holiness of each space that is partitioned, blocked from view, or protected.
I think people also have zones of intimacy, each protected by its own barrier. To the outer world of strangers, we present a face like the blank white kela-im of the outer courtyard, without any designs or colors showing—except in the gateway, where our bland, socially acceptable surface is embroidered with a colored design indicating what our personalities might be like inside.
When we make friends, we admit them through the gate into our outer courtyard, where they can see the sanctuary protecting our true selves. Our friends get a glimpse of our own vivid colors, and the mythological animals that indicate our particular life stories. But our inner self is still hidden and protected by yeriyot panels and by a mikhseh, a roof covering we hope is disaster-proof.
Some people have never been inside the tent of their inner selves; they live only according to social roles and expectations, and find self-examination difficult. Others discover they have an inner priest who can enter the inner self and see what is inside. There, besides working with their own lamps and bread tables, they see the parokhet that screens off the Holy of Holies, where God might speak to them.
These self-explorers might invite one or two people into the priestly level of intimacy. But only the individual can walk through the parokhet and see their own ark, and the keruvim that inspired all their woven and embroidered designs. Only an individual can see the empty space where the voice of God might manifest.
Some individuals would prefer never to enter their own Holy of Holies, never to risk hearing a voice that comes from a deep place beyond the knowable self.
How intimate do you want to become with yourself? With God? Which curtains will you pass through, and which will block your passage?
Tags: ark of the covenant, brit, Covenant of Blood, Exodus, Moses, Ten Commandments, torah portion
A covenant can be a comfort. It’s reassuring to have a signed contract stating what you are required to do, and what the other party will do for you. When we feel insecure about an arrangement, we say, “Can I have that in writing?”
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”) includes the first covenant in the Torah that is backed up in writing. Yet it is broken sooner than any of the unwritten covenants in the book of Genesis/Bereishit—because one of the covenantal parties is God.
A classic covenant between two human beings is the compact between Jacob and his father-in-law, Lavan. Jacob heads back to Canaan with the family and livestock he acquired by serving Lavan for 20 years. Lavan, who does not want to lose his best employee, catches up with him on the heights of Gilead. They argue over who owns what, and then Lavan says:
So now, let us go and cut a brit, I and you… (Genesis/Bereishit 31:44)
brit (בְּרִית) = covenant, pact, treaty.
The two men set up a standing-stone and a mound of stones to serve as a boundary marker, a “witness”, and a sign of their brit. Lavan announces the terms: neither man will pass that boundary with hostile intent; and in addition, Jacob will neither mistreat Lavan’s daughters nor take any additional wives.
Then each man swears by a different name of the same God. Finally, Jacob slaughters animals, and the two chieftains and their men feast on the mountain.
Both leaders carry out the terms of their brit. Each party gives up something that might be in his self-interest (invading the other’s territory) in order to gain something that is definitely in his self-interest (safety from invasion by the other). The terms are reasonable, and the men do not want to violate a treaty made with an accepted ritual in front of three kinds of witnesses: boundary stones, other human beings, and God.
A brit with God is not so straightforward.
The first two times God declares a brit with human beings, it is really a unilateral promise, with no obligation stipulated for the humans. In the Covenant of the Rainbow, God promises not to destroy the earth with a flood again. In the Covenant of the Pieces, God promises to give Canaan to Abraham’s descendants.
God’s third brit repeats that God will give Abraham’s descendants, and adds that God will “be a god” to them and make them “nations” and “kings”. Then God says:
This is my brit, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Let every male be circumcised. You shall all be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it will be a sign of the brit between Me and you. (Genesis 17:10-11)
Circumcision is the stipulated action for humans, the ritual, and the sign of the covenant, all in one. Jews have performed their part of the brit milah (Covenant of Circumcision) for thousands of years, with or without possession of the land of Canaan, because it is an act of dedication to God—and each infant boy or adult male convert only has to go through it once.
In the book of Exodus, when the Israelites reach Mount Sinai, God proposes a new brit, one that the commentary calls the Covenant of Blood. God gives the Israelites and their fellow-travelers the Ten Commandments, followed by a list of other laws, beginning with a second injunction against making “gods” of silver or gold, and ending (in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim) with: “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. (Exodus/Shemot 23:19)
In return for obeying all these laws, God promises the people that they will never get sick, their women will be fertile and never miscarry, none of their lives will be cut short, their enemies will run away from them, and they will gradually take over not only Canaan, but all the land from the Mediterranean to the eastern wilderness and from the Euphrates in the north to the Reed Sea in the south.
This is the third time God promises to give the Israelites possession of the Promised Land. But it is the first and only time God promises to exempt the people from natural law by making them super-human, with bodies that are invulnerable to illness, infertility, miscarriage, and even accidental death. Such a deal!
Moses makes sure this new brit is ratified with elaborate ritual, symbolic reminders, and even a written copy.
Then Moses wrote down all the words of God, and he got up early in the morning, and he built an altar at the bottom of the mountain, and twelve standing-stones for the twelve tribes of Israel. … and they slaughtered animal-offerings of wholeness for God … And half of the blood he sprinkled over the altar. And he took the Book of the Brit and he read it in the ears of the people, and they said: Everything that God has spoken, we will do and we will listen! Then Moses took the blood and he sprinkled it over the people, and he said: Here is the blood of the brit that God has cut with you concerning all these words! (Genesis 24:4-8)
The blood from the animal offerings is sprinkled both on the symbol of God (the altar), and on the people (or at least the elders in front). The people ratify the brit by shouting “we will do and we will listen”, indicating their willingness to obey not only these laws, but also any future laws God chooses to give them.
According to 20th-century commentator Nahum Sarna, the ritual is completed when God gives Moses an even more impressive symbolic reminder: a pair of stone tablets on which God writes the teachings and commandments.
The people violate their part of the brit only 40 days later, in the Torah portion Ki Tissa. While Moses is receiving the stone tablets on top of Mount Sinai receiving, the Israelites below lose hope that he will ever return, and revert to their old ideas of God. When Moses comes down, the people are carousing in front of the Golden Calf, in clear violation of the rule against making a god of silver or gold. So the whole elaborate brit becomes null and void, and Moses smashes the tablets.
God never makes the Israelites super-human. But Moses does persuade God to forgive them. And God declares a second, modified brit in which God commits only to driving out the peoples living in Canaan. On their side, the Israelites must obey a list of rules that begins with refraining from cutting a brit with any of the peoples they are supposed to be displacing, and ends with “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. (Exodus 34:10-26)
And God said to Moses: Write down for yourself these words, because according to these words I have cut a brit with you and with Israel. (Exodus 34:27)
The Ten Commandments are not explicitly mentioned, but most commentators assume they are included in the words Moses carves on a second pair of stone tablets. Later the Israelites make a golden ark, following God’s instructions, and Moses places the tablets inside.
The Israelites continue to backslide on obeying God’s rules (though there is no record that they ever cook a kid in its mother’s milk). In the book of Joshua, God does not drive their enemies away, so the Israelites conquer most of Canaan by conventional warfare. Thus the second brit between God and the Israelites is also a failure.
Yet the Torah continues to call the ark containing the stone tablets aron ha-brit, “Ark of the Covenant”, and it remains the Israelites’ most revered object until it disappears during the fall of the first temple in Jerusalem.
A contract between two humans, or a treaty between two nations, is a practical affair. The obligations of both parties are feasible and spelled out clearly. The proper ritual and witnesses help to enforce the brit.
A brit between humans and God is more like a modern marriage covenant. Both parties make lifelong promises without any practical limitations. The ritual, witnesses, symbols, and written documents have emotional importance, but they do not prevent either party from falling short. At some point, a spouse is psychologically unable to be as loving and supportive as he or she intended. At some point, a religious human being is psychologically unable to obey every rule she or he has taken on. And God, at best, appears to operate on a non-human timeline.
Sometimes a marriage ends in divorce, and sometimes a brit with God ends in apostasy. But often, spouses pull themselves together and rededicate themselves to their marriage. And often, people seeking God rededicate themselves to the search for morality and meaning.
Each story of a brit with God remains a reminder of God’s presence. Even today, the two sets of stone tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai loom in our subconscious minds, reminding us that even if full compliance is impossible in a covenant with God, it is still worth dedicating ourselves to the call.
Tags: Exodus, honoring parents, Ten Commandments, torah portion, Yitro
When we said that, back in the 1970’s, we meant that something was impressive, difficult, or profound, not to be taken lightly. The Hebrew word for “heavy”, kaveid, has even more shades of meaning in the book of Exodus/Shemot.
When God tells Moses his mission at the burning bush, Moses objects that he cannot speak to the Israelites and the Pharaoh in Egypt because his tongue is kaveid.
But Moses said to God: Excuse me, my lord, I am not a man of words…because I am khevad mouth and khevad tongue. (Exodus/Shemot 4:10)
khevad (כְבַד) = heavy of. (Another formation from the root verb kaveid, כָּבֵד.)
What does Moses mean by saying his mouth and tongue are heavy? Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki) wrote that Moses stammered or had a speech impediment. His grandson Rashbam (12th-century Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir) wrote that Moses was no longer proficient in Egyptian. Either way, Moses’ speech is kaveid because it is slow and difficult.
When Moses and Aaron first ask Pharaoh to give the Israelites a three-day vacation to worship their god, Pharoah increases his laborers’ workload instead, saying:
Tikhebad, the work, upon the men, and they must do it, and they must not deal in lying words. (Exodus/Shemot 5:9)
tikhebad (תִּכְבַּד) = it will weigh heavily, let it be heavy, it must be a burden. (A form of the root verb kaveid, כָּבֵד.)
Pharoah’s heart (the seat of his thoughts and feelings, in Biblical Hebrew) also becomes heavy. After each divine miracle except the final one (the death of the firstborn), Pharaoh is tempted to let his slaves go on that three-day vacation. But then he reverts and refuses to change his economic and political system. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened six times, and made heavy (hakhebeid, הַכְבֵּד) five times. He is too stiff and too heavy to move.
Furthermore, the Torah describes four of the miraculous plagues (swarming insects, cattle disease, hail, and locusts) as kaveid, heavy, because they are so oppressive.
But when Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites and their fellow-travelers leave, we read:
And the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Sukkot, about 600,000 strong men on foot, besides non-marchers. And also a mixed throng went up with them, and flocks and herds, very kaveid property. (Exodus/Shemot 12:37-38)
kaveid (כָּבֵד) = heavy, weighty, oppressive, impressive, magnificent.
For newly-freed slaves, they leave with a lot of property: their own livestock, and all the gold and silver objects the Egyptians gave them on their way out. As they march away, the abundance of their possessions is impressive.
God also wants to be impressive. When the emigrants have entered the wilderness, God tells Moses that Pharoah’s army will pursue them, so that God can stage one last miracle at the Reed Sea.
…then ikavedah through Pharaoh and through all his army; … and the Egyptians will know that I am God. (Exodus 14:4, 14:17-18)
ikavedah (עִכָּבְדָה) = I will be recognized as important, I will be honored, I will be respected, I will appear magnificent. (A form of the root verb kaveid.)
The people reach Mount Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro (“his surplus”, the name of Moses’ father-in-law). This is where God pronounces the Ten Commandments. The fifth commandment begins with the word kaveid.
Kabeid your father and your mother, so that your days will lengthen upon the soil that God, your god, is giving to you. (Exodus 20:12)
Kabeid (כַּבֵּד) = Honor! Respect! Treat as weighty, important! (This imperative verb comes from the same root as the adjective kaveid.)
Honoring your parents sounds like a nice idea, but why is it one of God’s top ten rules?
In traditional commentary from the third century C.E. to the present, honoring your parents is a necessary step to honoring God, and neglecting your parents is an insult to God. One reason given is that your biological parents—and God—created you. However, the Talmud (Ketubot 103a) states that this commandment applies not only to biological parents, but also to step-parents and older brothers—and therefore, presumably, to adoptive parents.
The other traditional reason why honoring parents means honoring God is that parents must teach their children Jewish history and Torah. (Apparently reading books, including the Bible, is not enough; religious knowledge must be transmitted orally.) Children honor their parents by learning their religion and passing it on to the next generation. Without this transmission, God would cease to be honored.
Underage children are supposed to honor their parents by learning Torah from them, and by obeying them (as long as the parental request does not contradict God’s will).
Adult children must honor their parents in other ways. The Talmud (Kiddushin 31b) explained that you honor your parents by making sure they have food, drink, clothing, and coverings, and by “leading them in and out”. (It was assumed that the responsible son continued living in his parents’ house, and so could always arrange to escort them.)
Rambam (12th-century Rabbi Moses Maimonides) added in his Mishneh Torah, book 14, that if a man’s parents are poor and their son is able to take care of them, he must do so. He must also treat his parents with the respect of a student for a teacher, performing personal services and rising before them. However, Rambam wrote, if a parent is mentally ill and the son can no longer bear the stress, he may move out and hire someone else to care for his parents.
All this deference and personal care, the commentary insists, is required regardless of whether your parents were kind to you as you grew up. Nowhere in the Torah are parents required to honor or love their children; they are only required to circumcise their sons, to teach their children God’s commandments, and to refrain from incest and child-sacrifice.
If your parents were kind to you, it is a natural human inclination to honor them. But even if your parents did not earn your gratitude or love, the commentary on the fifth of the Ten Commandments says you must still honor them—in order to honor God.
Maybe the fifth commandment adds “so that your days will lengthen” in order to encourage people to honor even difficult parents. A longer life would be an especially good reward if it gives you more years to enjoy life after your difficult parent has died.
Yet we can all observe that some of the most dutiful children die younger than some of the most neglectful. A famous story in the Talmud (Chullin 142a) tells of a father who ordered his son to climb to the top of a building and bring down some chicks. The son “honored” his father by climbing up, and followed another Biblical rule that promises prolonged life by chasing away the mother bird before collecting her young. On the way down the ladder, the son fell and died. The rabbis in the Talmud conclude that “there is no reward for precepts in this world”, and declare that the story is an argument in favor of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.
Since the commandment says: so that your days will lengthen upon the soil that God, your god, is giving to you, Hirsch and other commentators explained that honoring parents would prolong the period of time when the Israelites got to live in the “Promised Land” of Canaan.
But the commandment in this week’s Torah portion uses the singular “you” throughout. I think the only way your days might be lengthened because you honor your parents is if each day feels longer to you. We can only hope that the day seems longer because it is fuller and richer, not because you can hardly wait for it to be over!
What kind of “honor” do we owe our parents today?
I think we should kabeid (honor) our own parents according to the way they have been kaveid (heavy) in their relations with us. Has a parent been oppressive, or impressive?
If parents caused childhood trauma, and remain crushing impediments, I think we are entitled to “move away”, as Rambam suggested. We do not need to personally delegate a caregiver, when we pay taxes for social services that will maintain them.
If parents were magnificently kind and encouraging, we should pay them every feasible honor, and continue to learn from them.
And in between? How shall we honor parents who are burdensome, but not bad—heavy, but not heavies?
Tags: Exodus, Moses and Miriam, religion, religion and singing, torah portion
Singing appears for the first time in the Torah as something missing. In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob works as an indentured servant for his uncle and father-in-law, Lavan, for twenty years. Then while Lavan is out of town, Jacob flees with his own wives, children, servants, herds, and flocks. Lavan catches up with Jacob on the road and says:
Why did you hide and run away? And you robbed me and you did not tell me—and I would have sent you off with gladness, and with shirim, with tambourine, and with lyre. (Genesis 31:27)
shirim (שִׁרִים) = songs. (Singular: shirah, שִׁירָה)
Although I think Lavan is lying, this first reference to song does tell us that musical celebrations of departure were customary in ancient Aram.
The first singing that does happen in the Torah is in this week’s portion, Beshallach (“When he sent out”). God splits the Reed Sea, the Israelites cross over on the damp sea-bottom, the Egyptian army pursues them, and the wheels of their chariots get stuck in the mud. As soon as all the Israelites and their fellow-travelers are safe on the other side, God makes the waters return and drown all the Egyptians. The Israelites see the dead bodies of the soldiers on the shore, and start to sing.
This is when Moses yashir, along with the children of Israel, this shirah to Y-H-V-H; and they said, saying:
Ashirah to Y-H-V-H, for He rises up in triumph;
horse and its rider He threw into the sea! (Exodus/Shemot 15:1)
yashir (יָשִׁיר) = he sings.
ashirah (אָשִׁירָה) = I sing, I will sing, let me sing.
(I am using “He” to translate the pronoun prefixes and suffixes in the “Song of the Sea’, since later lines in this hymn picture God as a “man of war”, i.e., warrior. For the name of God indicated by Y-H-V-H, see my blog post Va-eira: The Right Name.)
The hymn continues:
My strength and zimrat Yah, it is my salvation;
this is my god, and I extol Him;
the god of my father, and I exalt Him. (Exodus 15:2)
God is man of war; Y-H-V-H is His name. (Exodus 15:3)
zimrat (זִמְרָת) = the song of, the melody of, the praising-song of.
Yah (יָהּ) = a name for God, possibly an abbreviation of Y-H-V-H.
Since God has single-handedly defeated and killed the enemy, the Israelites sing a hymn celebrating God as the ultimate warrior.
(The Song of the Sea continues for 16 more verses, using a more archaic Hebrew than the text surrounding it. Modern scholars agree that whoever compiled and wrote down the first version of the book of Exodus, some time after 900 B.C.E., inserted a much older hymn here and attributed it to Moses.)
And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her, with tambourines and with circle-dances. And Miriam ta-an to them:
Shiru to Y-H-V-H, for He rises up in triumph;
horse and its rider He threw into the sea! (Exodus 15:20-21)
ta-an (תַּעַן) = she sang call-and-response; she answered, she responded (from the root anah, ענה).
Shiru (שִׁירוּ) = Sing!
Miriam appears to be leading singing, dancing, and percussion at the same time!
The next time the Torah reports singing is in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, when it inserts a short archaic song in honor of a well of water into a list of places the Israelites traveled through.
This is when Israel yashir this shirah:
Rise up, well! Enu for it!
The well that captains dug,
That donors of the people excavated,
With a scepter, with their walking stick. (Numbers 21:17-18)
Enu (עֱנוּ) = let us sing call-and-response (also from the root anah, ענה).
The only other reference to singing in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible precedes a long hymn inserted into the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim. To introduce this song, God tells Moses:
And now, write for yourselves this shirah, and teach it to the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, so that this shirah will be a witness for me against the children of Israel. (Deuteronomy 31:19)
Although the hymn inserted at this point does praise God, it also criticizes the people for backsliding, and warns them about God’s vengeance. The overall message is that the Israelites do not appreciate everything God has done for them, and they had better behave, or else. The purpose of the song, according to the Torah, is to make this message easy to remember.
King David is the first professional musician named in the Bible. In the second book of Samuel, he composes and sings not only another hymn praising God, but also the first two dirges in the Bible, one for Saul and Jonathan, and one for Avner. Both dirges are introduced by a new verb, va-yekonein (וַיְקֹנֵן) = and he sung a lamentation.
Besides songs of celebration and lamentation, the Bible contains many references to hymns addressed to God; and all 150 psalms are the lyrics of hymns. There are psalms of praise and of thanksgiving. The majority of the psalms plead with God: to reward those who worship God and do good, and punish the wicked; to rescue God’s followers from poverty or enemies; to grant us long life and to kill our enemies; to teach us how to do good; and—a plea that moves me today—to stop being silent and remote, to answer and prove that our God exists.
I remember that when I was I small child, I sang spontaneously whenever and happiness came over me, making up melodies and nonsense words as I went along. When I was in elementary school, I learned a variety of songs, and sang both to entertain myself, and to have fun with other people. I was singing when it was the custom, and when I wanted to celebrate—like the singers in the first part of the Hebrew Bible.
I admit that as a young teenager, I sang “Ding, dong, the witch is dead” when I was consumed with frustration over someone who seemed to be my enemy. I did not know that many psalms also begged God to kill the singer’s enemies.
After that, I learned that when I was feeling down, singing sad songs lifted my spirits. I had discovered the equivalent of the Biblical dirge. When I needed to vent my romantic frustrations and thwarted physical desires, singing certain popular songs gave my feelings an outlet.
When I was over 30, and searching for God, none of the popular songs I once loved met my needs. Then I stumbled upon a Jewish Renewal congregation, P’nai Or of Portland, that supplied me with all the songs I wanted. Finally, I could sing to express the yearning of my soul for both a good direction in life and a connection with the divine. And many of those songs and chants come from the book of psalms.
Recently, I was singing a chant by Rabbi Shefa Gold using two lines that appear in the Song of the Sea in today’s Torah portion, and are so evocative the Torah repeats them in Isaiah and Psalms:
Ozi ve-zimrat Yah, vayehi li liyshuah (עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה). Or in English:
My strength and the praising-song of Yah, it is my salvation. (Exodus 15:2, Isaiah 12:3, Psalm 118:14)
At this stage of my life, what saves my spirit is my own strength (which is a divine gift), combined with the ability to sing my own songs (both literally and figuratively) in praise of Yah, of the divine as I know it.
May we all be blessed with such music in our lives.
Tags: darkness, Exodus, Shemot, ten plagues, torah portion
Blood. Frogs. Lice. Insect swarms (“wild beasts” in earlier translations). Pestilence. Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. Death of the Firstborn.
These are the ten “plagues”—miraculous calamities—that God inflicts on Egypt before the Pharaoh lets the Israelites go. Jews recite the ten plagues every spring during Passover/Pesach, the holiday commemorating the exodus from Egypt. We also read about the last three plagues in this week’s portion, Bo (“Come”).
Most of the plagues inflict pain on humans, kill livestock, and destroy crops. The last plague kills humans. But the ninth plague, darkness, seems harmless at first glance.
God said to Moses: Stretch out your hand against the skies, and it will become choshekh over the land of Egypt, and the choshekh will be felt. And Moses stretched out his hand against the skies, and it became choshekh of afeilah throughout all the land of Egypt, for three days. No one could see his brother, and no one could get up from under it, for three days. But for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings. (Exodus/Shemot 10:21-23)
choshekh (חֹשֶׁךְ) = dark, darkness.
afeilah (אֲפֵלָה) = cut off from any light, complete darkness, impenetrable darkness.
The three days of total darkness terrorize the Egyptians so much that Pharaoh makes his best offer yet to Moses: the Israelites could go with their women and children, leaving merely their livestock behind. (Moses rejects this offer, so that God can produce the final plague and Pharaoh’s complete capitulation.)
What is so terrible about this darkness? If it were merely three days of blindness, the Egyptians might be able to wait it out. They would have to feel their way around, but they could still talk with each other. They could cooperate to make sure everyone got food and water. They could comfort each other.
But the plague of darkness is not physical blindness; it is psychological darkness.
This darkness can be felt. The Midrash Rabbah (a collection of commentary from Talmudic times) explains that the darkness has “substance”. Maybe when the Egyptians grope around to find things they cannot see, all they feel is “darkness”. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that groping means uncertainty, and in the impenetrable darkness of afeilah, everything seems uncertain and doubtful.
In this condition, stray thoughts that a person would normally dismiss in an instant become obsessions. What if there are no gods? Does my spouse wish I were dead? What if I don’t really care about my own children? Is my whole life meaningless? What if I am insane? A person living in spiritual darkness keeps groping for true answers, but feels only darkness.
The Torah adds: No one could see his brother. This is the darkness of extreme egotism, exemplified by the Pharaoh. As the plagues roll through Egypt, Pharaoh’s advisors and the Egyptian people protest that it would be better to give Moses and his god what they want than to put the land through more plagues. Pharaoh ignores them because he cares only about himself and his own pride; he does not recognize anyone as a “brother” human being.
Thus he is cut off not only from affection, but also from any possibility of enlightenment; he is incapable of learning from others. Similarly, the afeilah cuts off the Egyptians from any possibility of light.
At first, Pharaoh hardens his own heart. Over time, it becomes a habit from which only a divine intervention could shake him loose. But God keeps his heart hardened, so Pharaoh does not change. In the plague of darkness, all the Egyptians experience Pharaoh’s immobility. The Torah says “and no one could get up from under” the darkness. The Midrash Rabbah explains that anyone who was sitting could not stand, anyone standing could not sit, and anyone lying down could not rise up. Like the Pharaoh, the Egyptians cannot change their positions—or their beliefs.
Imagine experiencing a “dark night of the soul” so impenetrable that you cannot distract yourself by looking at anything; you cannot trust anything you feel; you cannot care about anyone else, or believe anyone cares about you; and you cannot get a new idea, or see life from a different perspective.
The plague of darkness terrifies the Egyptians because for three days, they experience what it is like to be the Pharaoh. Maybe it terrifies the Pharaoh himself because at the end of the three days, when the darkness lifts, he sees a glimmer of what his own soul is like. But it is only a glimmer; his habit of hardening his heart is too strong for actual enlightenment.
As I write this, my eyes are filling with tears for some people I know who appear to be living in a psychological darkness, unconsciously isolating themselves from others because they can neither trust nor respect them, and immobilizing themselves because they cannot change their perspective.
And I know that any of us can fall into a temporary state of darkness. I pray that whenever healthy uncertainty turns into doubting everything, we find the power to stop our obsessive groping. I pray that whenever we fall into the trap of justifying our own behavior instead of noticing and appreciating what others are doing, we realize that we are isolating ourselves, and make an effort to see our brothers and sisters. And I pray that whenever we are so depressed that change seems impossible, we follow any glimmer of light that gives us a view from a different perspective.
May every human being escape from the plague of darkness.
Tags: Exodus, God, God of Abraham, Moses, names of God, religion, Shemot, torah portion
Go to the king of Egypt, and tell him to declare a three-day holiday for his labor force, so they can go out into the wilderness and worship a god the king has never heard of.
This is the mission God gives Moses in the first Torah portion of Exodus/Shemot. Moses tries to get out of it, but God insists, and Moses gives in.
And afterward Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh: Thus says YHWH, god of Israel: Send out My people and they will celebrate-a-festival for Me in the wilderness. And Pharaoh said: Who is YHWH that I should listen to His voice and send out the Israelites? I do not know YHWH… (Exodus/Shemot 5:2)
YHWH = probably a form of the verb hayah (היה) = be, exist, become, occur. A variant spelling of this verb is havah or hawah (הוה). If the initial Y (י) indicates a third-person singular imperfect form, YHWH = he/it becomes, he/it exists, he/it will be. If the four-letter word is a unique verb form, YHWH = us-was-will be; being-becoming.
(YHWH is considered the most sacred name of God, God’s four-letter personal name. I do not include the Hebrew spelling here because according to Jewish tradition, any text containing the personal name of God must be treated with respect and disposed of by special means. Furthermore, the name YHWH is not supposed to be pronounced except once a year inside the Holy of Holies—which has not existed since the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., almost 2,000 years ago.)
Since Pharaoh does not know YHWH, he refuses to give the Israelites three days off. Instead he doubles the work of the Israelites forced to build his cities. The Israelite foremen complain to Moses, and Moses complains to God:
Since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done evil to this people, and You certainly did not rescue Your people! (Exodus 5:23)
Moses’ words imply that the name of God is ineffective. But for God, everything is going according to plan. As God tells Moses repeatedly in this week’s portion, Va-eira (“And I appeared”), God’s purpose in performing miracles in Egypt is: 1) so that the Israelites will know their own God as YHWH, and 2) so that the Egyptians will know the power of the god YHWH.
From God’s point of view, the ten miraculous “plagues” God plans to create will be all the more effective coming from a previously unknown god. God assures Moses that although it will be a long process, at its conclusion God will indeed rescue the Israelites from Egypt and bring them to Canaan.
But first God insists on being known by the right name.
And Elohim spoke to Moses, and said to him: I am YHWH. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as Eil Shaddai, but [by] my name YHWH I was not known to them. (Exodus 6:2-3)
elohim (אֱלֹהִים) = gods (when used with a plural verb suffix); God (when used with a singular verb suffix).
eil (אֵל) = god
shaddai (שַׁדָּי) = of breasts (if it comes from shad = breast), of devastation (if it comes from shadad = devastate), of the mountain (if it comes from the Akkadian word shadu).
In the book of Genesis Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob certainly know that YHWH is one of God’s names; all three of them sometimes use that name to refer to God. So why does God claim, in this week’s Torah portion, “my name YHWH I did not make known to them”?
Most commentators explain that the three patriarchs knew God in terms of the attribute or power associated with the name Eil Shaddai, but not in terms of the power associated with the name YHWH.
In fact, the name Shaddai only appears six times in the book of Genesis, four times followed by blessings for being fruitful and multiplying (17:1, 28:3, 35:11, and 48:3). Jacob also uses that name of God to pray for rachamim (רַחֲמִים) = mercy (literally, “wombs”—43:14) and to bless Joseph with “blessings of breasts and womb” (49:25).
Although Eil Shaddai took on other meanings in later books of the Hebrew Bible, it seems safe to say that as far as the three patriarchs are concerned, Eil Shaddai is the name of the god of fertility. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all concerned with the question of fertility, and want to be founders of a people or nation.
But in the book of Exodus, the Israelites in Egypt are not concerned about fertility. (The first pharaoh worries about the rapid birth rate of the Israelites; his son, the pharoah Moses speaks to in God’s name, agrees that there are far too many Israelites.) A different aspect of God is needed to impress both Israelites and Egyptians. And God Itself seems eager to promote a new identity.
One can deduce the divine power associated with Eil Shaddai from context, but this cannot be done with the name YHWH. The four-letter name appears 162 times in the book of Genesis alone, in a wide variety of actions and statements by God.
Commentary on which divine aspect is represented by the name YHWH ranges from the god of miracles (12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra); to the god expressed by all ten sefirot, i.e. divine emanations (Sefer Yetzirah, a book of kabbalah possibly written in the 4th century); to the preserver of existence (16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno).
All three of these interpretations boil down to the idea that God is the supreme deity; if any other gods can be said to exist, they are only emanations of YHWH, the god whose name means existence itself.
In the Exodus story, God wants Egypt to know that the god of the Israelites is the most powerful god in world, far more powerful than any of Egypt’s gods. And God wants the Israelites to know that the god who is making a covenant with them is not merely a fertility god, but a god with power over everything. Once everyone knows that God is YHWH, nobody can question God’s existence or decisions.
Or so God thinks, in the first two portions of the book of Exodus.
As the story continues, we read that after each time Pharaoh admitted the superior power of the god of the Israelites, he changed his mind and behaved as if he could win the contest with YHWH. Even after the tenth and final plague, when Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites leave Egypt, he changes his mind again and sends his army to pursue them. He only gives up after God splits the Reed Sea for the Israelites, then drowns the Egyptian army.
The Israelites themselves keep forgetting their god’s awesome power over life and death. As they travel through the wilderness of Sinai they worry whenever they run out of water or food, when Moses does not return from the top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, and when they face enemy forces. They cannot seem to trust the god who has taken them as Its people, even when the name of that god is YHWH.
Why doesn’t the name work?
I think that the idea of God as “being” or “becoming” is intellectually appealing. And sometimes I feel grateful that this universe exists, or that everything is in the process of becoming.
But psychologically, human beings cannot have a relationship with “existence” or “becoming”; the concepts are too abstract. To be followed, or loved, or feared, or trusted, God must be named after a more human attribute.
Eil Shaddai, the god of fertility, is not a useful divine name for most people today. When we lack children, we take practical steps; otherwise, we enjoy being fruitful in our own creative endeavors. Elohim, the God who combines the powers of all gods, is an irrelevant name at a time when nearly everyone is either an atheist or a monotheist. And YHWH, the concept of being and becoming, is too abstract for a relationship.
Then what name can inspire us to strive to “know” God? I welcome your suggestions.
Tags: Exodus, Hebrews, Moses, Pharaoh's daughter, Shemot, torah portion
At the end of his life, Moses says:
…life and death I place before you, blessing and curse; and you must choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring: le-ahavah God, your god; lishmoa Its voice; and ledavkah It… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:19-20)
le-ahavah (לְאַהַוָה) = to love, by loving.
lishmoa (לִשְׁמֹעַ) = to listen, by listening.
ledavkah (לְדָוְחָה) = to be attached to, to stick with, to be faithful to; by sticking with, etc.
At the beginning of his life, in the first Torah portion of the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses survives only because the women in the story choose life—by loving, listening, and being attached.
The character who wants to restrict life is Pharaoh, a xenophobe. He is frightened by the large number of Israelites living in Egypt (called “Hebrews” or ivrit in this Torah portion, from the Egyptian word habiru). This unnamed king of Egypt says:
…it may be if a war happens, then they will even be added to our enemies and wage war against us, and go up from the land. (Exodus/Shemot 1:10)
Pharaoh fears that the Hebrews will either stay in Egypt and fight against the Egyptians, or leave Egypt and deprive the land of workers. His solution to this double anxiety is to reduce the population of Hebrews gradually. First he drafts large numbers of them into forced labor building the new cities of Pitom and Ramses (which were actually built in the Nile delta, in the Goshen region, during the reign of Rameses II). But so many Hebrew men survive and have relations with their wives, the population of Hebrews continues to increase.
Pharaoh’s next ploy is to order the midwives of the Hebrews to kill all the boys as they are born, but let the girls live. At that time, more than 3,000 years ago, only men would go to battle, and only men would lead their families to another country. Women would do whatever their masters or husbands ordered. Pharaoh is thinking ahead, assuming that a future surplus of Hebrew women is no threat, since they would all become slaves or wives of native Egyptians. All he wants to do is reduce or even eliminate the future population of Hebrew men.
But the midwives feared God, and they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they kept the boys alive. Then the midwives said to Pharaoh: Because the Hebrews are not like Egyptian women, for [they are] lively animals; hey!—before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth. (Exodus 1:17-18)
In biblical Hebrew, to “fear God” is an idiom meaning to act righteously or ethically. The Hebrew midwives save lives, instead of following orders, because it us the right thing to do. They are listening—not to Pharaoh, but to the God of good deeds.
Then Pharaoh commanded his entire people, saying: Every son that is born, you shall throw him into the Nile. But every daughter you shall keep alive. (Exodus 1:22)
The Torah does not say how many baby boys are drowned, but we can tell that this command is also ineffective at reducing the number of Hebrew men; many years later, after that Pharaoh (probably Rameses II) has died and been replaced by a new Pharaoh (probably his son Merneptah), the new Pharaoh says: Hey, the people are numerous now in the land! (Exodus 5:5)
During the period when the previous Pharaoh was encouraging Egyptians to drown Hebrew male infants, a man and woman from the tribe of Levi have a son. (Later in the Torah, their names are given as Amram and Yokheved.)
And the woman conceived, and she gave birth to a son. And she saw him, ki tov hu, and she hid him for three months. (Exodus 2:2)
ki tov hu (כִּי־טוֹב הוּא) = that he was good.
Commentators have puzzled over whether the mother saw that her baby was exceptionally healthy, or beautiful, or placid and quiet, or good in some other sense. Both the Talmud (in Sotah 12a) and the Midrash Rabbah (in Shemot Rabbah 1:20) report the opinion of the Sages (i.e. authoritative rabbinic commentators from about 200 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.) that when Moses was born, the whole house was flooded with light. Their proof text is in the first chapter of Genesis/Bereishit, where God creates light.
And God said: Light will be! And light was. And God saw the light, ki tov. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:3-4)
What I can imagine is that when the mother sees her new baby, her heart is flooded with light. Just as God creates light, and sees that it is good, a human experiences creation as good. When I “create” a story, it feels as if I only shaping a story that comes to me from some unknown place, and when I have finished writing it down, I feel elated, knowing that something good has happened. Similarly, when I was pregnant, I felt as if I were a container for a mysterious process, and when my son was born, I felt elated, knowing that something good had happened.
Moses’ mother hides him to preserve his life because she sees the goodness of creation; in other words, she appreciates God the Creator. She loves her son, and she loves God. As a mother, she also attaches herself to her son until she can no longer protect him.
Then she was not able to hide him anymore, so she took for him an ark of papyrus, and asphalted it with asphalt and pitch, and she place the child in it, and she placed it in the reeds at the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself meirachok, to know what would be done to him. (Exodus 2:3-4)
meirachok (מֵרָחֹק) = at a distance, long ago, mysteriously.
In context, Moses’ older sister Miriam obviously stands at a distance from the riverbank. But the Torah’s choice of words hints that Miriam has a connection with mysteries. When we see her as an adult, the Torah calls her a prophet.
Miriam stands by, ready to intervene and make whatever happens to her baby brother the best possible outcome. This is a different kind of attachment than a mother’s attachment to her baby. Miriam the prophet is faithful to a vision of the future that she wants to help realize.
Then the daughter of Pharaoh went down to wash in the river, and her serving-women walked on the riverbank; and she saw the ark among the reeds, and she sent her slave-woman, and she took it. And she opened it, and she saw the child, and hey!—the boy was sobbing. And she felt compassion over him, and she said: This is one of the children of the Hebrews! (Exodus 2:5-6)
Pharaoh’s daughter decides to disobey her father’s command and save the life of the baby because she listens to him sobbing, and her heart is moved by compassion. This is another kind of love, the instinctive and generous love for a living being who needs help. It leads to another attachment, as she decides to protect the child by adopting him as her own.
Miriam emerges and offers to find a woman to nurse the infant. If Pharaoh’s daughter can see that the baby in the ark is a Hebrew, she can certainly see that Miriam is also a Hebrew, and she may suspect that the girl is offering to fetch the baby’s own birth mother. A jealous woman would not agree to this, but Pharaoh’s daughter has so much compassion that it includes the baby’s family. When Miriam returns with her mother, Pharaoh’s daughter says: Carry away this child and nurse him for me, and I myself will give [you] your wages. (Exodus 2:9)
Pharaoh’s daughter not only gives the baby to his natural mother until he is weaned, but even pays her, so the whole family will thrive. Then Moses’ mother proves to be as righteous as the midwives at the beginning of the story, because when her son is old enough, she duly returns him to his adoptive mother.
Thus Moses grows up as a prince of Egypt, and launches on a long life that results in the liberation of thousands of slaves. They leave Egypt (as Pharaoh feared) and walk into a new life.
All the women in this story—the midwives, Moses’ first mother, his sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter—choose life by disobeying the fearful Pharaoh, and keeping a child alive. They are motivated by all three ways of choosing life that Moses describes near the end of his own life, 120 years later: loving, listening, and faithful attachment.
May we all be blessed with open hearts so that we can do the same.
Tags: Bereishit, divine providence, forgiveness, Genesis, Joseph and his brothers, torah portion
Am I tachat God? (Genesis/Bereshit 50:19)
tachat (תַּחַת) = underneath, under the authority of; instead of, a substitute for, in exchange for.
Two people in the Hebrew Bible ask this question. Jacob says it to his favorite wife, Rachel, in the Torah portion Vayeitzei (“and he went”). Almost 60 years later, their son Joseph says it to his brothers in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (“and he lived”).
Jacob instead of God
Jacob throws the question at Rachel right after she has spoken for the first time in the Torah, more than ten years after Jacob first sees her and kisses her. Their romance is not smooth. Jacob serves her father Lavan for seven years as Rachel’s bride-price, and then on his wedding day, Lavan tricks him and marries him to Rachel’s sister Leah. Jacob’s wedding with Rachel follows a week later, once he commits to working an additional seven years. Leah has four sons before Rachel speaks up.
And Rachel saw that she had not borne children to Jacob, and she was envious of her sister. And she said to Jacob: Give me children!—and if not, I am dead. Then Jacob was angry with Rachel, and he said: Am I tachat God, who withheld from you fruit of the womb? (Genesis 30:1-2)
Rachel’s demand makes Jacob angry for more than one reason. When she says that without children, she is dead, Rachel implies that Jacob’s devotion is not enough to make her life worthwhile. Naturally Jacob’s anger flashes. And it is not his fault that Rachel is infertile. So he demands: Am I tachat God?
He cannot be a substitute for God. Only God can “open the womb” of an infertile woman.
It does not occur to Jacob to pray to God, as his father Isaac prayed for his mother Rebecca to conceive. But his rebuff does lead Rachel to take her own action. She gives her slave-woman, Bilhah, to Jacob as a wife, then adopts Bilhah’s two sons as her own.
Through this human solution, Jacob actually does give Rachel children, tachat—instead of—God.
Joseph instead of God
After Rachel has two adopted sons, God does open her womb, and she gives birth to Joseph. The family continues to be dysfunctional; Joseph’s ten older brothers hate him and sell him as a slave bound for Egypt. When they are reunited twenty years later, Joseph tells them not to worry about their past crime, because God planned it all in order to get him to Egypt and elevate him to viceroy so he could feed everyone during the seven-year famine. The whole clan, including the patriarch Jacob, Joseph’s brothers, and their families, immigrate to Egypt under Joseph’s protection.
But after Jacob dies, we learn that Joseph’s brothers are still worried about retribution. Like Rachel, they “see” a problem.
And Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said: If Joseph bears a grudge against us, then he will certainly pay us back for all the evil that we did to him! (Genesis 50:15)
They assume that their father’s words would carry more weight with Joseph than their own, and they send Joseph what they claim is a deathbed request from Jacob:
Please sa, please, the crime and the offense of your brothers, when they did evil to you; now sa, please, the crime of the servants of your father’s god. (Genesis 50:17)
sa (שָׂא) = lift up. (To lift up a man’s head was to legally pardon him.)
And Joseph sobbed when they spoke to him. (Genesis 50:17)
Unlike Jacob, Joseph is not angry when he asks: Am I tachat God? Instead, his brothers’ clumsy and obsequious request makes him cry. Perhaps he cries because his brothers cannot speak to him directly. Or perhaps he cries in frustration, because he thought everything was settled, and now he has to deal with the issue all over again.
And his brothers also went and flung themselves down in front of him, and they said: Here we are, your slaves. (Genesis 50:17-18)
Nothing has changed in the seventeen years since Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers. His older brothers still feel guilty. Joseph is sobbing again. His brothers bow down to him again, and offer to be his slaves again. (See my last post, Vayiggash: A Serial Sobber.)
And Joseph said to them: Do not be afraid. For am I tachat God? While you planned evil against me, God planned it for good, in order to accomplish what is today, keeping many people alive. (Genesis 50:19-20)
Joseph said something similar seventeen years before:
And now, do not be worried and do not be angry at yourselves because you sold me here; because God sent me ahead of you for preservation of life. (Genesis 45:5)
Contemporary commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg made the case that the first time Joseph tells his brothers their crime is part of God’s plan, he is suddenly seeing the big picture. His enslavement was a necessary step to reach his present position as the viceroy, enabling him to save his own family and many other people from starvation. Joseph drops his own resentment against his brothers, and he hopes that sharing his vision of big picture will let his brothers drop their guilt.
But years later, when their father dies, Joseph finds out that his brothers still feel guilty. And he still does not realize that what they need is forgiveness, or at least a pardon. (See my earlier post, Vayechi: Pleading for Forgiveness.) Instead, he once again declares that their evil deed turned out to be part of God’s plan. Joseph continues:
And now, do not be afraid; I myself will sustain you and your little ones. And he comforted them, and he spoke to their hearts. (Genesis 50:21)
Joseph’s brothers are comforted because his promise to sustain them—to keep them alive and well—implies that he no longer hates or resents them. Even though they do not get the relief of explicit forgiveness, they know that at least they do not need to worry about future retribution from their powerful brother.
Targum Onkelos, written around 100 C.E., translated Joseph’s statement “For am I tachat God?” as: “For I am subordinate to God”. In other words, this time tachat means “under” instead of “a substitute for”. In the 16th century, Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno took this interpretation further by explaining that Joseph considered his brothers God’s agents. It was not his place to judge God’s agents, just as it was not his place to judge God’s plans.
Nevertheless, Joseph acts almost like a substitute for God. As viceroy of Egypt and distributor of food, he decides who will live and who will die.
When Jacob tells Rachel he is no substitute for God as an opener of wombs, she finds another way he can give her the children she wants. When Joseph tells his brothers he is no substitute for God as a judge of men, they do not find another way to get the human pardon or forgiveness they want. They still cannot speak to Joseph directly. But he offers them a substitute for forgiveness: the reassurance that he will not punish them.
“Am I tachat God?” is a good question for us to ask ourselves today. Am I trying to do something no human can do? If so, is there another way to achieve a desirable outcome? Or am I acting like God when I should be acting like a human being toward someone? If so, how can I come down off my pedestal and have a true heart-to-heart conversation?