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.
Tags: Adam, creation myths, Enuma Elish, Genesis, haftarah, Tiamat, torah portion
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 we read the very first Torah portion, Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8) and the haftarah is Isaiah 42:5-43:10.
In the beginning are the gods, or one god. The god(s) make the sky and the earth. Later, the god(s) invent human beings.
That order of creation appears in most of the myths of the ancient Near East, from the Sumerians of circa 3000 B.C.E. to the Israelites of circa 530 B.C.E. But the reason why human beings were created changes.
Creation of the Human in Enuma Elish
The Sumerian creation myth was retold in Mesopotamia for thousands of years, with different names for the gods. The most complete expression of this myth that archaeologists have found so far is several copies of the Enuma Elish, a seven-tablet book in Akkadian cuneiform dating to about 1100 B.C.E.
The story begins when the two primordial gods “mixed their waters together”, and the female, Tiamat, gives birth to more gods. The gods multiply, and two factions fight against each other. The hero-god (Marduk, in the copy from Babylon) kills Tiamat, the leader of the other faction, and creates the world out of parts of her body. Then he has a clever idea: the gods won’t have to work to get their own meals if they create humans to serve them. The gods bind Tiamat’s favorite consort, Kingu, and an older god, Ea, makes humankind out of Kingu’s blood.
From his blood he created mankind,
On whom he imposed the service of the gods, and set the gods free. (Enuma Elish, Tablet 6, lines 33-34)
Tablet Seven of Enuma Elish specifies the work the humans will do for the gods: providing lavish food offerings, taking care of their shrines, burning incense for them, and retelling their heroic stories.
Creation of the Human in Genesis 2
The first Torah portion in the Bible offers two creation myths. It opens with an account organized into seven days, which was probably written sometime between the 9th and 6th centuries B.C.E. during the time of the first temple in Jerusalem. This account is immediately followed by a story that was probably written down earlier, in the 10th century B.C.E.
The second story begins:
On the day of God’s making the earth and the heavens, no bushes of the field existed yet on the earth, and no greens of the field had sprouted yet, because God had not made it rain upon the earth, and there was no adam to work the ground. But fresh water ascended from the earth and watered all the surface of the ground. God vayitzer the adam out of dirt from the ground, and blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and the adam became an animated animal. (Genesis/Bereishit 2:4-7)
adam (אָדָם) = human, humankind.
vayitzer (וַיִּיצֶר) = then he/it shaped, formed. (From the root yatzar (יָצַר) = shaped, formed, fashioned.)
In this creation myth there is only one god, and no sex. God makes the earth and the sky, but the writer does not care how. The important thing is that the earth consists of bare, moist dirt. This is God’s raw material for making humankind, along with God’s own breath. One can imagine God as a human artist shaping a figure as if modeling clay, then blowing into its nostrils and bringing it to life.
And God took the adam and put it in the garden of Eden, to tend it and to watch over it. (Genesis 2:15)
God runs a few experiments, telling the adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge, inviting it to name animals, splitting it into male and female humans, and providing a talking snake. Eventually God sends the two humans back into the world, which now contains rain, plants, and animals as well as dirt.
God does not create the adam to serve as a slave. Instead, the adam must watch the garden—while God is watching the adam.
Creation of the Human in Genesis 1
The redactors of the Bible placed the creation myth written during the time of the first temple at the very beginning of the book, before the earlier story about God making the adam out of dirt and breath. This story starts:
In a beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)
In this account, God is a spirit and a voice that speaks things into being. No raw materials are necessary. The account is divided into seven days, and God does not create humans until the sixth day, right after the other mammals.
And God created the adam in Its image, in the image of God It created it; male and female It created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subjugate it! And rule over fish of the sea and birds of the skies and all animals that crawl over the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-27)
Today it is obvious that we have gone overboard in subjugating the earth and its animals. But in the Torah, before God assigns humankind that job, God says the human is made in God’s image. Perhaps humans are God’s proxies, assigned to handle the administration of the earth in place of God.
Creation of the Human in Second Isaiah
The second half of the book of Isaiah was written around 550-510 B.C.E., when King Cyrus of Persia finished conquering the Babylonian Empire. The prophet encourages the Israelite families that were deported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar’s conquering army to take advantage of King Cyrus’s policy of letting subjugated populations return to their former lands and rebuild temples for their own gods.
The exiles needed a lot of encouragement. Many of them doubted that the god of a nation that no longer existed would have the power to help them. This week’s haftarah declares that God still has a purpose for the Israelites and will indeed redeem them. Second Isaiah alludes to both of the creation stories in Genesis, reminding the Israelites that their god is the ultimate god, the creator of the world and all humankind, before he or she turns in a new direction.
Thus said the god, God—
Creator of the heavens, stretching them out,
Spreader of the earth and her products,
Giver of breath to the people upon it,
And spirit to those who walk on it—
“I am God. I summoned you with right conduct,
And I held you firmly by your hand,
Ve-etzarekha, and I gave you
A covenant of a people, a light of nations.
To open the eyes of the blind…” (Isaiah 42:5-7)
ve-etzarekha (וְאֶצָּרְךָ) = and I shaped you. (From the root yatzar.)
Here God giving breath and spirit to all humanity, then “shapes” the children of Israel, using the same verb, yatzar, as when God shaped the adam our of dirt in Genesis 2. Second Isaiah implies that God yatzar the children of Israel in order to receive a covenant. Next the old covenant between God and the Israelites acquires a new purpose: in addition to obeying all of God’s rules, the people must now enlighten other nations.
What are the people of other nations (as well as many exiled Israelites) not seeing?
According to the haftarah, the Israelites must spread the word that God’s prophecies always come true, and the God of Israel is the only real god.
You are My witnesses,
And My servant whom I have chosen. (Isaiah 43:10)
In all four creation stories from the ancient Near East, gods create the world and then add human beings. In Enuma Elish, the purpose of humankind is to work for the gods.
In the oldest creation story in Genesis, the purpose of humankind seems to be to increase knowledge: human knowledge of the garden and of good and bad, and divine knowledge of human nature.
In the opening creation story in Genesis, the purpose of humankind is to rule over the earth and its other animals.
In second Isaiah, the purpose of the Israelites is to enlighten other peoples, ultimately leading them to convert to worshiping the God of Israel as the only real god.
Today the theory of evolution provides a logical explanation of why human beings exist, and many people consider our mental complexity an accidental side-effect of the process. In this line of thinking, humankind seems to have no purpose; the best we can do is follow Sartre and invent our own individual reasons for being.
But modern science cannot explain everything; there is room for a new concept of God, and even for the idea of a collective purpose. What if there is a purpose for humankind in general? What might it be?
Tags: Days of Awe, haftarah, Joshua, Simchat Torah, Sukkot, transitions
The standard cycle of Torah readings ends with Moses’ death in the last Torah portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim, Vezot Habrakhah. On the holy day of Simchat Torah, most Jewish congregations read this last portion in a Torah scroll, then roll the scroll all the way back and read the beginning of Genesis/Bereishit. The accompanying haftarah (reading from the Prophets) is Joshua 1:1-18.
Have you ever tried to turn over a new leaf, and found that without a systematic process you soon slide back to your old ways?
One process for changing your life can be found in the Jewish holy days from Rosh Hashanah to Simchat Torah. I realized this year that these days are a recipe for a 23-day period of transformation.
1) On the two days of Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”), we declare the beginning of a new year. And we wake up when we hear the blast of the shofar, a loud wind instrument made out of a ram’s horn.
2) On Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), having apologized to the people we have wronged and forgiven those who wronged us, we go on to confess our errors to God and forgive ourselves.
3) During the seven days of Sukkot (“Huts”), we eat, sleep, and study (as much as the weather permits) in temporary shelters whose roofs of branches let in some rain and starlight. The new lives we are creating for ourselves are like these sukkot: fragile, not secure—but open to nature, to other people, and to the presence of the divine.
4) On the seventh day, Hoshana Rabbah (“Great Supplication”), we circle the sanctuary seven times while beating willow branches on the floor to symbolically disperse the last traces of the previous year’s misdeeds.
5) On Shemini Atzeret (“Eighth Gathering”), we pray for rain so that the new seeds we have planted will grow during the winter.
6) On Simchat Torah (“Rejoicing in Torah”), we read the end of the Torah scroll (the last portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim, called Vezot Habrakhah, “And this is the blessing”). Then we roll it back to the beginning and read about the creation of the world in Genesis/Bereishit. In this way we acknowledge the blessings of the old year, close the book on our past mistakes, and launch into creating our new life.
The haftarah for Simchat Torah is the beginning of the book of Joshua, right after Moses has died. Everything must change now. Joshua, who has spent 40 years as Moses’ attendant, must quickly become the de facto king of the Israelites. The Israelites, who have spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, complaining about the food, learning the rules of their new religion from Moses, and listening to the old folks’ stories about being slaves in Egypt, must now become first a conquering army, then a people who farm, trade, and live in towns—in the unfamiliar land of Canaan.
Both Joshua and the Israelites are unprepared for their new lives.
Moses anticipates this toward the end of Deuteronomy. He legitimizes Joshua as his successor by laying hands on him, and God confirms it with a pillar of cloud. Then Moses tells the Israelites:
Chizku and imetzu! Do not be afraid and do not feel dread in front of them [the Canaanites], because God, your God, is going with you Itself. It will not let go of you and It will not forsake you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:6)
chizku (חִזְקוּ) = (plural) Hold strong! Hold on! Be fortified! Be stalwart! Be strong!
imetzu (אִמְצוּ) = (plural) Be resolute! Be firm! Be strong!
Then Moses called Joshua and said to him, in the sight of all Israel: Chazak and ematz, because you yourself shall bring this people to the land that God swore to their fathers to give to them, and you yourself shall apportion it among them. (Deuteronomy 31:7)
chazak (חֲזָק) = (singular of chizku) Hold strong! (etc.)
ematz (אֱמָץ) = (singular of imetzu) Be resolute! (etc.)
After Moses dies, Joshua may have felt like running run away, but he accepts his new life. The book of Joshua begins with God speaking to Joshua.
It happened after the death of Moses, the servant of God; God spoke to Joshua, son of Nun, Moses’ attendant, saying: My servant Moses is dead. So now get up and cross this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the children of Israel. (Joshua 1:1-2)
Joshua says nothing, but I imagine him feeling fearful and doomed. He served as a general once, 40 years ago, when Amalek attacked the Israelites; but the untrained ex-slaves won the battle only when Moses raised his hands toward heaven. Joshua has never led a war of conquest or administered a country. When he was one of the scouts Moses sent to report on the land of Canaan, he could not even persuade anyone that the land was worth entering. How can he persuade the Israelites to cross the Jordan and enter it now? And how can he turn himself into a conqueror, judge, and administrator?
God tells him:
No one shall be able to stand against you, all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, I will be with you. I will not let go of you and I will not forsake you. (Joshua 1:5)
I expect it would help to know that God was on your side. When I embark on a new phase of my life, it helps to know that I am doing the right thing. But that knowledge by itself is not enough to make me step forward.
Chazak and ematz, because you shall apportion among this people the land that I swore to their fathers to give to them. Only chazak and ematz very much to guard and do according to all the teaching that My servant Moses commanded to you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left, so that you shall act with insight everywhere you go. … Did I not command you: chazak and ematz? You shall not be afraid and you shall not be dismayed, because God, your God, will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:6-7, 9)
Joshua proceeds to become the leader he never was before. He makes decisions based on the teachings of Moses, he conquers large parts of Canaan (with the help of two divine miracles), and he divides up the land among the tribes of Israel.
Chazak and ematz, he probably reminds himself; hold strong and be resolute! The Bible uses this particular pairing of words only at four times of major change: when Joshua replaces Moses as the leader of the Israelites (in Deuteronomy and Joshua), when Joshua encourages his officers to continue the conquest of Canaan (in Joshua), when Solomon replaces David as the king of Israel (in the first book of Chronicles), and when King Hezekiah encourages his people to defend Jerusalem against the Assyrians (in the second book of Chronicles).
In all four transitions, the people who were told to be resolute felt nervous and insecure. And all four times they succeeded in their new roles.
It takes a lot to turn over a new leaf, to embark on a new direction in your life. From the Jewish holy days at this time of year we learn to wake up, face what we did wrong, make amends, and let go; to live for a while in the insecure space of transition as we stay open to guidance and pray for growth; to acknowledge the blessings in our old lives before we begin creating our new lives; and, in this week’s haftarah, to proceed with an attitude that will keep us going on our new path. We must trust that we are doing God’s will or the right thing, and we must be determined to keep going regardless of anything frightening or discouraging along the way.
Chazak and ematz; hold strong and be resolute. Keep going.
Tags: atonement, Jonah, King David, repentance, righteousness, second Isaiah, Yom Kippur
In this season of Jewish holy days, we once again have three haftarot (readings from the Prophets) in one week. On Yom Kippur we read Isaiah 57:14-58:14 and the whole book of Jonah. Then on Saturday we read 2 Samuel 22:1-51, the haftarah for Ha-azinu, the second to last Torah portion in Deuteronomy.
The English word “atone” was first used in the 16th century as a contraction of “at one”. Atonement is the process of making amends for wrongdoing in order to restore unity—especially unity with God.
In Biblical Hebrew, the word for atonement is kippurim (כִּפֻּרִים). It comes from the verb kipper (כִּפֶּר), which means cover, appease, make amends, reconcile.
The first Torah reading on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is a selection from the Torah portion Acharey Mot in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. The portion describes an annual ritual of atonement in which the high priest places lots on two goats. He sacrifices one goat to reunite the sanctuary with God, and places the sins of the Israelites on the head of the other goat before sending it off into the wilderness. (See my post Metzorah & Acharey Mot: Doubles.)
Today on Yom Kippur, Jews read this Torah portion about the ancient technology for atonement, but we also confess misdeeds, beg for forgiveness, and pray for atonement with the divine.
All three haftarot this week assume that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked—but if those who have been wicked repent and make amends, God welcomes them back.
First Haftarah on Yom Kippur: Isaiah 57:14-58:14
In this passage from second Isaiah, God promises to revive and heal the humble, but:
There is no shalom, said my God, for the wicked. (Isaiah 57:21)
shalom (שָׁלוֹם) = peace, safety, ease, well-being.
I believe this is true even without an all-seeing god who directly interferes in the lives of individuals. Everyone who acts immorally eventually suffers because most of the humans around them come to distrust and reject them.
People who have a moral sense and know they are doing wrong also suffer from nagging uneasiness. They can distract themselves and/or go into denial, but peaceful well-being is not an option for them. They cannot become “at one” with the still, small voice within themselves.
The haftarah from Isaiah goes on to say that fasting and bowing, sackcloth and ashes—the 6th-century B.C.E. formula for Yom Kippur—are useless for atonement unless one also frees the oppressed, feeds the hungry, shelters the poor, clothes the naked, and refrains from violence and evil speech. The way to be heard by God is to do good for your fellow human beings.
That is when you will call and God will answer;
You will cry for help and [God] will say: Here I am. (Isaiah 58:9)
Good deeds create atonement.
Second Haftarah on Yom Kippur: Jonah
When the prophet Jonah finally submits to doing the mission God gave him, he walks into Nineveh, the capitol of the Assyria, oppressor of the Israelites, and calls out:
“Another forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the men of Nineveh believed in God, and they proclaimed a fast and they put on sackcloth, from the great to the small. And the word was told to the king of Nineveh, and he rose from his throne and he took off his robe and he put on sackcloth and he sat on the ashes. (Jonah 3:5-6)
The king issues a proclamation that all the human residents, and even the livestock, must fast, wear sackcloth, cry out to God, and repent of doing violence.
And God saw what they did, that they turned away from the evil path; and God had a change of heart about the bad thing [God] spoke about doing to them, and [God] did not do it. (Jonah 3:10)
God forgives the whole Assyrian capitol city of Nineveh even before its people do any good deeds. It is enough for them to admit their bad behavior and sincerely intend to reform.
Repentance creates atonement.
Third Haftarah: Reading from 2 Samuel for Saturday
The haftarah for the Torah portion Ha-azinu is read on either the Saturday before Yom Kippur or the Saturday afterward, depending on that year’s Hebrew calendar. This year it comes after Yom Kippur.
This haftarah is a psalm attributed to King David, looking back on his life. (The long poem reappears with only a few minor word changes as Psalm 18.) Most commentary praises David for attributing all his narrow escapes and military successes to God rather than to his own cleverness.
Yet after praising and thanking God for rescuing him from his enemies, David explains:
He rescues me ki He is pleased with me.
God treats me according to my righteousness,
According to the cleanness of my hands He requites me.
Ki I have kept the ways of God,
And I have not done evil before my God.
Ki all His laws are in front of me
And from His decrees I do not swerve.
And I am without blame or blemish for Him,
And I have kept myself from wrongdoing. (2 Samuel 22:20-24)
ki (כִּי) = because, when, if.
How can David describe himself as a paragon? Earlier in the second book of Samuel, he clearly violates two of the Ten Commandments:
You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus/Shemot 20:13)
Earlier in the second book of Samuel, David sees a beautiful woman bathing, and finds out that she is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who is one of David’s soldiers. Nevertheless, he summons her to his palace and lies down with her.
When she informs the king that she is pregnant, he sends a message to the battlefront for Uriah to come back to Jerusalem. King David urges Uriah to go home and spend the night with his wife. But Uriah insists on sleeping with the king’s officers, so David cannot claim he got his own wife pregnant.
David sends Uriah back to the front with a letter for his general, Joab, instructing him to place Uriah in the most dangerous part of the battlefield, then fall back so Uriah will be killed. General Joab carries out the king’s orders.
As soon as Bathsheba has finished the mourning period for Uriah, King David takes her as his eighth wife. But he has already committed both adultery and murder. The prophet Nathan tells David a parable illustrating why his actions were despicable, and informs him that God said:
Why then did you hold the word of God in contempt, doing what is evil in My eyes? (2 Samuel 12:9)
God then states the consequences: “the sword will not swerve from your household”, and someone from David’s household will lie with the king’s women.
And David said to Nathan: “I did wrong before God.” Then Nathan said to David: “God will even let your wrongdoing pass; you will not die. Nevertheless …the son, the one [about to be] born to you, he will die.” (2 Samuel 12:13-14)
So how can David say, in this Saturday’s haftarah: “I have not done evil before my God” and “From His decrees I do not swerve”?
Maybe David is living in a narcissist’s fantasy world, guilty of grandiosity and denial. Yet he did admit wrongdoing when Nathan pointed it out to him. Maybe David believed that God only rescues people who are perfectly good, so David painted himself that way.
But I think David knows he did wrong in the eyes of God when he took Uriah’s wife and had Uriah killed. His confession saved his own life, but he was thoroughly punished. Bathsheba’s first son sickened and died soon after birth. Later, one of David’s older sons, Absalom, killed his half-brother Amnon, overthrew his father, and lay with his father’s concubines. In the ensuing war between father and son, Absalom was killed despite David’s orders to spare his life.
By the time King David writes the psalm comprising this Saturday’s haftarah, he probably considers that God had punished him enough for his heinous crimes, and his slate has been wiped clean. Since those terrible times, his behavior has been righteous.
When David says:
He rescues me ki He is pleased with me. (2 Samuel 22:20)
he might mean that God rescues him when God is pleased with him, not because. And when David writes:
God treats me according to my righteousness,
According to the cleanness of my hands He requites me. (2 Samuel 22:21)
he might mean that when he is righteous and keeps his hands clean, God rewards him, but when he fails to do the right things, God makes him suffer. He knows that God’s response varies according to his behavior, and that he was not always such a paragon. Realizing this, David says,
I became without blame or blemish for Him,
And I kept myself from wrongdoing. (2 Samuel 22: 24)
According to this reading, David’s message is that a human being can change. We suffer when we do evil, but we still have the ability to keep ourselves from doing wrong again. We can still become good and righteous, without blame or blemish.
The two haftarot we read on Yom Kippur show that both good deeds and repentance create atonement with God. The haftarah for Ha-azinu this Saturday shows that even a murderer can repent and change himself into a righteous human being. The conscientious effort to return to the right path and stay on it creates atonement.
May we all be blessed with the ability to return to oneness with God, and may we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year.
Tags: Channah, haftarah, Hosea, prayer, Rosh Hashanah
Almost 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). But the Torah portion this week is Vayeilekh (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:1-30), and it is not assigned a haftarah of its own.
Nevertheless, this week is especially rich in haftarot (plural of “haftarah”) because it includes the two days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) and Shabbat Shuvah, the “Sabbath of Return” to God—all before we dive into Yom Kippur (the “Day of Atonement”) next week.
The haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10. The reading for the second day is Jeremiah 31:2-20. And the haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah this Saturday is Hosea 14:2-10. Perhaps it is no accident that during this time of intense prayer from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, two of these three haftarot show that praying with words is better than slaughtering an animal and burning it up into smoke for God.
Prayer is not a dialogue with God, although persons in the Hebrew Bible from Adam to the prophet Malachi do talk with God and hear God’s responses in words—in fact in complete sentences. Sometimes prophets report what God said; other passages are like conversations between two human beings of different rank and power.
Besides having many conversations with God, Moses also prays on behalf of the Israelites when they are traveling through the wilderness south of Edom, 40 years after their exodus from Egypt. The Israelites complain again about their diet of manna, and God sends poisonous snakes.
Then the people came to Moses and they said: We did wrong when we spoke against God and against you. Hitpalleil to God so He will clear away from us the snakes! Vayitpalleil, Moses, on behalf of the people. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:7)
Hitpalleil (הִתְפַּלֵּל) = Pray! (Probably from the same root as pilleil = reassess. Prayer may be asking for a reassessment from God.)
Vayitpalleil (וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל) = And he prayed.
Here the Israelites confess their misdeed, but they do not believe they can pray to God directly, so they ask Moses, God’s prophet, to do it for them.
Smoke, not spoken prayer, is the primary way to worship God in the first seven books of the Bible. If you want to bring God your devotion, you slaughter an animal and burn up part or all of it on an altar, turning it into smoke. God appreciates the smell of the smoke. (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.)
The book of Leviticus/Vayikra lays out five categories of offerings burned up into smoke, and each one was transformed into a type of prayer.
1) olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering, to maintain the relationship between the worshiper and God. This became liturgy, written prayers to read, recite, or sing at specific times and occasions.
2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering, to show homage or respect. This corresponds to prayers of praise.
3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering, to thank God or to express devotion. This corresponds to prayers of thanksgiving.
4) chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering, to fix an unintentional transgression against one of God’s laws; and 5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering, to atone for an intentional wrong (after making amends with the human whom you wronged). Instead of these two animal offerings, we have prayers of confession asking for God’s forgiveness.
(For more on these smoke offerings, see my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.)
A additional type of prayer in the Bible is the petitionary prayer, in which we ask God to do us a favor. This category includes intercessory prayer, in which a prophet or someone else who is known to be on speaking terms with God utters a petitionary prayer on behalf of a community.
In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, any male head of a household can worship God by building an altar and turning an animal into smoke on it. Gradually this right is restricted in the Hebrew Bible, until animal offerings can only be made at the temple in Jerusalem and under the supervision of priests. Meanwhile, the tradition of individual prayer expands until anyone can do it, and God will hear.
The first prayer in the Bible is an intercessory prayer. King Avimelekh takes Sarah into his household thinking she is Abraham’s sister, not his wife. God responds by afflicting the king and all his women with a disease. Then in a dream, God tells Avimelekh: And now restore the wife to the husband, because he is a prophet vayitpalleil on your behalf, and you will live. But if you do no restoring, know that you will certainly die, you and all that are yours. (Genesis/Bereishit 20:7)
After the king gives Avraham his wife Sarah along with some gifts, Avraham does pray, and God removes the disease.
Intercessory prayers continue to be mentioned in the Bible, including Moses’ prayer regarding the poisonous snakes. But not until the first book of Samuel, in the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, does someone who has never conversed with God pray for her own sake. On her own initiative, Channah, who has been childless for many years, walks up to the doorway of the temple in Shiloh and prays for a son.
And she was bitter of spirit, vatitpalleil to God, and she wept continually. And she vowed a vow, and she said: God of Armies, if You really see the wretchedness of Your maidservant and You remember me and do not forget Your maidservant, and You give to Your maidservant a seed of men, then I will give him to God for all the days of his life… (1 Samuel 1:10-11)
vatitpalleil (וַתִּתְפַּלֵּל) = and she prayed.
God does not answer Channah in words, but she does have a son (a “seed of men”), and she brings him to the temple in Shiloh once he is weaned. There she and her husband sacrifice a bull, following the established ritual, then give him to the priest so the boy can serve as an attendant at the temple. (Channah’s son, Samuel (Shmu-eil), later becomes a prophet and a judge of Israel.)
…and they bowed down there to God. Vatitpalleil, Channah, and she said:
My heart rejoices in God…
There is no holy one like God,
Because there are none except for You. (1 Samuel 2:1-2)
Channah continues with a long psalm praising God’s power. This time her prayer is not petitionary, but a prayer of praise, like a minchah offering.
This Saturday, on Shabbat Shuvah, we read in the book of Hosea:
Shuvah, Israel, all the way to God, your god,
For you have stumbled, through your wrongdoing.
Take devarim with you
And shuvu to God.
Say to [God]:
May You forgive all wrongdoing
And take the good.
And we will make amends of the bulls
Of our lips. (Hosea 14:2-3)
Shuvah (שׁוּבָה) = Return! (singular, addressing Israel)
shuvu (שׁוּבוּ) = Return! (plural, addressing the people)
devarim (דְּבָרִים) = words; events, affairs.
Hosea asks the Israelites to make amends and return to God not by slaughtering bulls and burning them on an altar for God, but through the words of their lips, praying for God to forgive them. Instead of the smoke from a chataat or an asham offering, God wants people to return and atone with spoken prayer.
As we approach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the haftarah from 1 Samuel reminds us of the power of individual heartfelt prayer, and the haftarah from Hosea reminds us to return—shuvah!—to God through prayer.
A priest cuts the animal’s throat, blood gushes, smoke roils up into the sky—that kind of worship was sure to have an emotional impact. But even if someone brought the animal for an asham offering to atone for his own misdeed, or even if the high priest was killing the goat for God on Yom Kippur, people watched the show from a distance.
Channah worked harder, pulling out her own words to plead with God. Hosea asks us to work harder, bringing our own personal words of confession to God, and returning to the holy one by praying for forgiveness.
It is possible to mouth formulaic prayers without thinking about them. But I believe it is better for our souls if we plumb our own depths, find our own words to bring to God, and do the work.
Tags: second Isaiah, tzedakah
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 the Torah portion is Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20) and the haftarah is Isaiah 61:10-63:9).
The final haftarah before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) is the last of the seven weeks of consolation. The reading from second Isaiah begins:
I truly rejoice in God;
The soul of my body shouts with joy for my God!
For [God] has dressed me in garments of liberation:
[God] wrapped me in a meiyl of tzedakah
Like a bridegroom, priest-like in a glorious turban,
And like a bride adorned with her jewelry. (Isaiah 61:10)
meiyl (מְעִיל) = formal robe worn over other garments, wrapped and tied with a sash. (Plural: meiylim.)
tzedakah (צְדָקָה) = righteousness, right behavior, justice.
This passage is narrated by the prophet, but it implies that God is dressing every Israelite living in exile in Babylon with the same amazing garments.
Second Isaiah rejoiced because after more than 50 years of exile, the Israelites in Babylon were free. The Persian king Cyrus finished conquering the Babylonian Empire and decreed in 535 B.C.E. that all foreign populations were now free to return to their old homelands and rebuild their own temples. According to second Isaiah (45:1), God anointed King Cyrus as God’s agent in order to liberate the Israelites.
The poet expresses this liberation in terms of clothing. God dresses the Israelites in new garments, clothing associated with priesthood and weddings.
The word meiyl appears 28 times in the Hebrew Bible. The first ten times it refers to a robe worn exclusively by the high priest.
They shall make the garments of Aaron to sanctify him to serve as a priest to Me. And these are the garments they shall make: a breast-piece and an oracular-apron and a meiyl and a checkered tunic and a turban and a sash… (Exodus/Shemot 28:3-4)
The purpose of the unique costumes worn by the priests is to make the men holy so they can serve in the sanctuary. In this case, the clothes do make the man. The high priest, beginning with Aaron, wears additional garments, including a meiyl over his long tunic. The high priest’s meiyl is a long rectangle of woven fabric with a nicely finished neck-hole in the middle. It is dyed completely blue, and it has alternating gold bells and embroidered pomegranates around the bottom hem. (For more details, see my posts Tetzavveh: The Sound of Ringing, and Tetzavveh: The Clothes Make the Man.)
In the first five books of the Bible, only the high priest wears a meiyl. After that, a meiyl is the prophet Samuel’s signature garment from childhood to death and beyond. When he is a boy serving as an attendant at the temple in Shiloh,
…his mother made for him a little meiyl, and she brought it up for him every year when she went up with her husband to slaughter the animal sacrifice. (1 Samuel 2:19)
Samuel continues to wear a meiyl as Israel’s chief prophet and judge. After Samuel is dead, King Saul asks the witch of En-Dor to summon his ghost.
And he said to her: What do you see? And she said: An old man rising up, and he, he is wrapped in a meiyl. Then Saul knew that he was Samuel… (1 Samuel 28:14)
Although the highest service is to God, the Bible also shows rulers dedicated to serving their nations wearing meiylim: King Saul, King David, the princes of the Phoenician city-states in the book of Ezekiel, and Ezra—the first informal ruler of Jerusalem when the exiles began to rebuild.
The children of rulers might also wear meiylim. King Saul’s son Jonathan removes his meiyl and gives it to David as a pledge of love. Once David is the king, he dresses his daughters in meiylim.
The only people in the Bible who wear meiylim even though they are neither rulers nor prophets nor priests appear in the book of Job. Job tears his meiyl in grief when he hears that all his children are dead, and Job’s three friends tear their meiylim when they first see him sitting in the garbage dump, covered with boils. Here the meiyl seems to be merely a garment indicating the status of prominent citizens.
Four of the meiylim in the Bible are imaginary; the image of a robe reinforces the idea of being wrapped in something. A meiyl is used in a metaphor for being wrapped in tzedakah in Job 29:14, and for being wrapped in shame in Psalm 109:29. God wraps Itself in a meiyl of zeal in Isaiah 59:17. And in this week’s haftarah, God wraps the prophet and every exiled Israelite in “a meiyl of tzedakah”.
Perhaps men wore meiylim to their weddings in Biblical times, but the Bible does not say. Brides and bridegrooms did wear their most beautiful clothes and jewelry, and the haftarah compares the bridegroom’s turban to the turban of a priest. The haftarah goes on to say that the rebuilt Jerusalem will “marry” God, and the returning Israelites will “marry” Jerusalem. It is appropriate, then, for God to dress the new Jerusalemites as if they were priests serving God.
The divine act of wrapping the Israelites in meiylim of tzedakah also explains a statement at the end of last week’s haftarah, in which God tells Jerusalem:
And your people, all of them tzaddikim,
Forever they will possess the land…(Isaiah 60:21)
tzaddikim (צַדִּיקִים) = persons who are innocent, morally in the right, righteous, just. (From the same root as tzedakah.)
How could all of the people be, or become, tzaddikim? The answer in this week’s haftarah is that God is wrapping them in tzedakah by wiping the slate clean and granting everyone a fresh start, in which they are innocent and dedicated to righteous service, dressed by God in the meiyl of a high priest, a king, a bridegroom.
Thus in the seventh and final haftarah of consolation, God is viewed as a being who grants the Israelites total forgiveness for their past misdeeds, and lovingly wraps them in robes that consecrate them and transform them into perfectly good people.
We all drag behind us the memories of our own misdeeds. Some of us strive to become better people, serving the good and staying on the right side of morality and God. What a blessing it would be for a supernatural being to grant us complete absolution and a fresh start as a human with naturally good instincts and desires!
Yet just as the Israelites who returned to Jerusalem soon began committing new misdeeds, we, too, would stray from the right path. Our new meiylim would fade into a memory, and we would once again face the human condition, in which we are constantly given opportunities to choose our own behavior.
But after all, it is greater to choose to do the right thing than to do it unintentionally. And it is greater to do tzedakah because we have consciously developed good habits than to do it because we have no free will.
Then we can say, with second Isaiah:
The soul of my body shouts with joy for my God!
For [God] has dressed me in garments of liberation.