Jonah: Turning Around

September 12, 2018 at 8:31 pm | Posted in Yom Kippur, Jonah | Leave a comment

Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement”, is when Jews spend 25 hours trying to turn around and get back to God.  It is the last of ten days of teshuvah (תְּשׁוּבָה), often translated as “repentance”, though teshuvah literally means “returning, turning around’.  On Yom Kippur we acknowledge our collective as well as individual sins and misdeeds against the inner, or perhaps outer, force we call God.  And we pray for forgiveness and a new start on a more righteous life.

Jonah, National Library of the Netherlands

Late in the afternoon of Yom Kippur, Jews read one last passage from the bible.  What could be uplifting and inspiring enough to help us finally turn around and enter the gates of heaven?

The book of Jonah.

Did the ancient rabbis play a joke on us?  What is the story of this reluctant and ridiculous prophet good for besides comic relief?

The Meaning of Nineveh

The word of God happened to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying: “Kum!  Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim about it, because the perversity of their wickedness [has come] before me.”  (Jonah 1:1-2)

Kum (קוּם) = Get up!  Stand up!  Rise!  Arise!

750 BCE

Jonah son of Amittai is not a new prophet; he appears earlier in the bible as a prophet from Gat-Hachefer in the northern kingdom of Israel.1  At that time, Jonah tells King Jereboam II that God wants him to conquer some Aramean territory from Lebo-Hamat to the Dead Sea.  The king does so.

Jereboam II expanded the kingdom of Israel circa 790-750 B.C.E.  About ten years after his death, the king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Tiglath-Pileser III, began chipping away at Israel, capturing town after town and deporting its leading citizens.  In 722 B.C.E. the Assyrian king Sargon II conquered its capital, Samaria, and the northern kingdom of Israel ceased to exist.

700 BCE

Some of its residents escaped deportation by fleeing to the southern kingdom of Judah, which the Assyrian armies had reduced to a small vassal state required to send annual tribute to Assyria.

The capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire was Nineveh.2  When the book of Jonah was written down, probably in 3rd century B.C.E. Judah, any Israelite would think of “Nineveh” as an evil enemy.

Jonah’s Descent

Vayakam, Jonah, to run away to Tarshish, away from God.  Vayeired to Yafo and found a ship going to Tarshish, and he paid [his] fare, vayeired into her to go with them to Tarshish, away from God.  (Jonah 1:3)

vayakam (וַיָּקָם) = but he got up, and he rose.  (Another form of the verb kum.)

vayeired (וַיֵּרֶד) = and he went down, and he descended.  (A form of the verb yarad (יָרַד) = went down, descended.)

Jonah gets up, but then instead of heading northeast to Nineveh, he flees toward Tarshish, the westernmost city on the Mediterranean known to the ancient Israelites.

Does he think he can run away from God?  Probably not.  Jonah simply does not want to hear God’s call, either because he is afraid of prophesying in Nineveh or, as he says later, because he does not want God to forgive Nineveh for any reason.  So he gets up—and then flees inside himself, going down into denial: down to the seaport and down into the ship.  When a storm threatens to break up the ship, Jonah goes even farther down.

But Jonah yarad to the hold of the vessel, and he lay down, and he fell into a deep sleep.  (Jonah 1:5)

Unconsciousness is the only way he can escape his feelings of fear and hatred regarding Nineveh, or his guilt over disobeying God.

The captain wakes up Jonah and says:

“How are you sleeping so soundly?  Kum, call to your god!  Maybe the god will take notice of us and we will not perish.”  (Jonah 1:6)

The sailors cast lots to see whose god is responsible for the storm, and the lot falls on Jonah.  Jonah admits he is running away from his god, and asks them to throw him overboard in order to end the storm.  He would rather die than do teshuvah.  But at least he is honest, and makes an effort to save the lives of innocent bystanders.

The men rowed hard lehashiv to dry land, but they could not, because the sea was going violently about them.  (Jonah 1:13)

lehashiv (לְהָשִׁיב) = to return, to bring back or restore something.  (From the same root as teshuvah.)

Only Jonah has turned away from God; only Jonah needs to do teshuvah.  Finally the sailors give up and follow Jonah’s orders.  The prophet begins to sink—but God will not let him descend any farther.

Jonah and the Whale,
by Pieter Lastman, 1621

And God supplied a big fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.  And Jonah prayed to God, his God, from the belly of the fish.  (Jonah 2:1-2)

In the subsequent hymn Jonah even expresses thanks to God for saving his life.3  He appears to have turned around.

And God spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land.  And the word of God happened to Jonah a second time, saying: “Kum!  Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the appeal that I will be speaking to you!”  Vayakum, Jonah, and he went to Nineveh, as God had spoken.  (Jonah 2:11-3:3)

Jonah in Nineveh,
by Jakob Steinhardt, 1923

This time Jonah gets up and walks in the right direction.  But we soon learn that despite his poetic prayer inside the fish, he has not really turned around inside his mind.  He obeys God only minimally: he walks into the city, utters five words in Hebrew (“Another forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown”), and leaves with no explanation.

Hope for Ninevites

Today we do teshuvah by praying and searching our souls.  Many Jews also fast during the day of Yom Kippur.  In the Hebrew Bible people do teshuvah by fasting, wearing scratchy sackcloth, and lying in ashes.

That is exactly what the Ninevites do.  Somehow they realize at once that God wants them to repent.  They all fast and put on sackcloth, even the king, who decrees from his ash-heap:

“They shall cover themselves with sackcloth, human and beast, and they shall call out mightily to God.  And every man yashuvu from his evil ways and from the violence in his palm.  Who knows, God yashuv and have a change of heart, veshav from his wrath, and we will not perish.”  (Jonah 3:8-9)

yashuvu (יָשֻׁבוּ) = they shall turn back, turn around.  (From the same root as teshuvah.)

yashuv (יָשׁוּב) = he shall turn back, turn around.  (Also from the same root as teshuvah.)

veshav (וְשָׁב) = and he shall turn back.  (Also from the same root as teshuvah.)

And God saw their deeds, that shavu from their evil ways, and God had a change of heart over the bad thing he [intended] to do to them, and did not do it.  (Jonah 3:10)

shavu (שָׁבוּ) = they had turned away, repented.  (Also from the same root as teshuvah.)

Someone listening to the book of Jonah at a Yom Kippur service might think: If even the Ninevites could do teshuvah, then so could anyone.  And if God could forgive Nineveh, then I could forgive all those people I believe have harmed my people.

Hope for Jonah

Jonah is enraged at God’s forgiveness.  He wants retribution, not compassion, when it comes to Israel’s worst enemy.  He tells God:

“Isn’t this what I spoke of when I was in my own land?  This is why I fled to Tarshish in the first place, because I know that you are a gracious and compassionate god4 …  So now, God, please take my life from me, because better I die than I live.”  And God said: “Is your anger good?”  (Jonah 4:2-4)

With that question hanging in the air, Jonah builds himself a sukkah5 where he has a view of the city, and sits down to wait 40 days to see what happens.  God supplies a vine to give Jonah shade; the next day God makes it wither and sends a hot east wind.  This triggers Jonah’s anger and death-wish again.

The patience of God with his perverse prophet is remarkable.  God keeps giving Jonah another chance—after he runs away toward Tarshish, after he utters a single half-hearted prophecy, after he is angry with God for forgiving Nineveh, and after he is angry about the death of the vine.  God even tries to teach Jonah to stay aware when he wants to be unconscious (during the storm at sea), to realize his anger is not good, and to be compassionate toward the innocent (especially children and animals):

And God said: “You were concerned about the vine, which you did not exert yourself over …  And I, shall I not be concerned about Nineveh, the great city that has 120,000 humans in it who do not know the difference between their right and their left, and also many beasts?”  (Jonah 4:10-11)

Someone at a Yom Kippur service might think: I keep screwing up, like Jonah, but maybe God will be patient and give me another chance, too.  Maybe God will even teach me how to be less angry, more aware, and more compassionate.

Behind the humor of the story, the book of Jonah can indeed inspire listeners to complete the work of Yom Kippur, to finally do teshuvah and atone with God—whether we think of God as the ruler of the universe and creator of miracles (such as a fish a man can live inside for three days), or as a mysteriou force within us.

Anyway, a little humor near the end of a long fast can only help.

(I published some of the material in this post in September 2010.)

  1. 2 Kings 14:25. From about 930 to 722 B.C.E., Israelites lived in two kingdoms, the more prosperous northern kingdom of Israel (capital: Samaria) and the poorer southern kingdom of Judah (capital: Jerusalem).
  2. King Sargon II moved the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire from Kalhu/Nimrud to the district of Nineveh circa 710 B.C.E., when he built a new city called Dur Sharrukin (Sargon’s City) close to the old walled city of Nineveh.
  3. Jonah 2:10.
  4. Jonah actually recites the first five of the 13 attributes of God, given in Exodus 34:6-7 and repeated during Yom Kippur.
  5. Sukkah (סֻכָּה) hut, temporary shelter. It is a Jewish tradition to take meals in a sukkah during the week of Sukkot, which follows Yom Kippur.



Rosh Hashanah: Remembering

September 5, 2018 at 9:55 pm | Posted in Rosh Hashanah | Leave a comment

A new year begins on the evening of September 9, 2018: the first day of the month of Tishrei and the year 5779 in the Hebrew calendar.

Shofar (horn for blasts)

… the first of the month1 will be for you a day of complete rest, of zikhron, of horn blasts; a holy convocation.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 23:24)

zikhron (זִכְרוֹן), zikaron (זִכָּרוֹן) = remembrance, memorial, record.  (Derived from the verb zakhar, זָכָר = remembered, brought to mind.)

Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”) is also called Yom Ha-zikaron (“Day of Remembrance”), even though it lasts for two days.2

Who is doing the remembering on Yom Ha-zikaron?  And what is remembered?

In the Torah

In the Hebrew Bible, prophets in Deuteronomy through Malachi warn the Israelites to keep God in mind, so that they will obey God’s laws and worship only the God of Israel.  When the Israelites forget God and worship other gods, they are punished.3  When times are good, Moses says, the people must remember that their bounty comes from God.  (See my post Eikev, Ve-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?)  In many psalms, the poets remember God when they are suffering, and ask why God has forgotten them.4

Channah Prays,
by Marc Chagall

God also remembers the Israelites again and again.  The bible portrays God remembering the covenant with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with the Israelites who left Egypt, and with all the children of Israel.5  God also remembers individuals; for example, when a long-childless woman finally becomes pregnant, the bible says that God remembers her and opens her womb.  The haftarah reading for the first morning of Rosh Hashanah is the story of Channah’s successful prayer for a child.6

In the Rosh Hashanah Liturgy

Just as some psalmists pray for God to remember them, on Rosh Hashanah Jews pray for God to remember us for a good life—and to keep this in mind by writing down the names of everyone who will live for another year in a “Book of Life”. 7

The following sentences asking God to remember us in the Book of Life are inserted in every Amidah (“standing prayer”) during Rosh Hashanah:

by Jakub Weinles

In the first prayer:  Zakhreinu for life, king who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for your sake, God of life!  (Avot)

zakhreinu (זָכְרֵנוּ) = remember us, bring us to mind.    (An imperative of the verb zakhar.)

In the second prayer:  Who is like you, merciful father, zokheir his creatures for life!  (Gevurot)

zokheir (זוֹכֵר) = who remembers, who brings to mind.  (A participle of the verb zakhar.)

In the fourth prayer:  … on this Yom Ha-zikaron.  Zakhreinu on it for goodness, God, our God, and commission us on it for blessing …  (Kedushat Hayom)

In the sixth prayer:  And inscribe all the children of your covenant for a good life!  (Modim)

And in the seventh prayer:  In the Book of Life, [for] blessing and peace and a good livelihood and good decisions, salvations and consolations, nizakheir and may we be inscribed before you, we and all the people of the House of Israel, for a good life and for peace. (Shalom)

nizakheir (נִזָּכֵר) = may we be remembered, may we come to mind.  (The nifil imperfect of the verb zakhar.)

On regular weekdays. Jews traditionally pray the Amidah three times a day, in the morning, afternoon, and evening.8  But during the two days of Rosh Hashanah, we pray the Amidah 18 times!9  And each time, we pray for God to remember us and record our names in the Book of Life.

from Minhagim, 1707

The repetitions of the Amidah in the morning services and musaf (additional) services also include extra prayers for Rosh Hashanah.  The musaf services add three sections of liturgy on Rosh Hashanah themes (Kingship, Remembrance, and Shofars), with quotations from the bible and shofar10 blowing for each section.  The section on Remembrance is called Zikhronot (זִכְרֺנוֹת), the plural of zikaron.  Its opening prayer includes:

And regarding regions, it is said on [this day] which [region] is destined for the sword and which for peace, which for starvation and which for satiation.  And regarding creatures, they are accounted for on [this day] to hazkir for life or for death.

hazkir (הַזְכִּיר) = prompt recollection.  (The hifil infinitive of the verb zakhar.)

Then the Zikhronot section mentions instances of God remembering characters in the bible and doing good things for them, most notably when God remembers Noah and makes the flood subside,11 and when God remembers the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and brings their descendants out of Egypt.12

The service leader’s repetition of the Amidah in the musaf service includes not only the three sections with shofar blowing described above, but also a dramatic recitation that begins:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

          how many will pass away and how many will be created;

          who will live and who will die,

          who will be cut off [before his time] and who will not;

          who by water and who by fire,

          who by the sword and who by the beast,

          who by hunger and who by thirst …

The list goes on until the declaration:  But turning around, prayer, and charity bypass the evil decree!

On Rosh Hashanah we may get into the Book of Life despite our earlier bad deeds, if we sincerely turn around. On Yom Kippur, nine days later, the Book of Life is sealed.


In the Rosh Hashanah liturgy we plead with God to remember us, the heirs of the Israelites, and to grant us life because whatever our past faults, now we are turning around, praying, and doing good deeds.

But before we can beg God to remember us in the Book of Life, we must remember God.

My God, my soul is prostrate;

            Therefore ezkarekha.  (Psalm 42:7)

I say to God, my rock:

            Why have you forgotten me?  (Psalm 42:10)

ezkarekha (אֶזְכָּרְךָ) = I remember you.  (Another imperfect of the verb zakhar.)

When we feel alienated from our better selves, when we feel that we have not lived up to our own ideals, that we have missed the mark, then we feel alienated from God.  Some of us assume God will punish us, even decree an early death; others assume that our alienation is the punishment.

Either way, our personal task is the same as the communal task of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:  to make amends with people we have wronged, and to pray for atonement with God.  When we remember God (and listen to the inner voice), God remembers us (and the inner voice speaks).  Then our lives improve.

Leshanah tovah tikateivu—May you all be inscribed for a good year!

  1. Leviticus 23:24 specifies the first day of the seventh month. The Hebrew calendar starts counting months in the spring, the first month being Nissan, from the Akkadian word for “first produce”.  But the agricultural year begins in the autumn, when fields are plowed and sown with winter wheat before the rain comes.  The first month of this year is Tishrei, from the Akkadian word for “beginning”.  This is also the time when the first temple is dedicated in 1 Kings 8:2.  (See Yael Avrahami, “Why Do We Eat Matzah in the Spring?”,
  2. Many Jewish holy days are observed for an extra day outside Israel. Rosh Hashanah is the only one that is observed for two days in Israel as well as in the rest of the world.
  3. g. Deuteronomy 8:19-20, 1 Samuel 12:9, Jeremiah 13:24-26, and Ezekiel 6:9.
  4. g. Psalms 42:7-10, 44:18-27, 77:2-12, and 143:1-7.)
  5. g. Exodus 2:24 and 6:5, Leviticus 26:42-45, Jeremiah 14:21, and Psalms 105:8-11 and 42-43, 106:44-5, and 111.
  6. 1 Samuel 1:10-20.
  7. The Rosh Hashanah liturgy was codified in the 9th century CE.
  8. The Ma-ariv service in the evening, the Shacharit service in the morning, and the Mincha service in the afternoon, corresponding to the three times for offerings at the altar in ancient Israel. When one of these services is prayed by a congregation, as on Shabbat and various holy days, the Amidah is traditionally prayed in an undertone first, then repeated out loud by the service leader (with the congregation chiming in).
  9. On Rosh Hashanah we pray the Amidah twice during each of the three evening services, twice during each of the two morning services, twice during each musaf (additional) service following the morning service, and twice during each afternoon service.
  10. A shofar (שׁוֹפָר) is a musical instrument made out of the horn of an animal, usually a ram. The tip of the horn is modified to serve as a mouthpiece.
  11. Genesis 8:1.
  12. Exodus 2:24 and Leviticus 26:45.

Ki Tavo: A Perishing Aramean

August 29, 2018 at 8:12 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo, Passover/Pesach, Shavuot | Leave a comment

Still life by Caravaggio, 1605

Do we own land, prosper in business, or put food on the table entirely because of our own efforts?  The book of Deuteronomy/Devarim says no.  Moses tells the Israelites that they will conquer Canaan only with God’s help.  (See my post Re-eih: Ownership.)  Then they will acquire cities, houses, and farms that other people built.  (See my post Eikev, Va-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?)  After that they will build more houses, and all their enterprises will prosper, making their wealth increase.  Moses predicts they will then forget God, and think:

“My ability and the power of my hand made me this wealth.”  Then you must remember God, your God, who gives you the ability to make wealth …”  (Deuteronomy 8:11, 17-18)

Furthermore, the Israelites must not confuse taking possession of land, or inheriting it from their fathers, with actual ownership.1

Hey!  The heavens and the heavens of the heavens, the land and everything in it, belongs to God, your God.  (Deuteronomy 10:14)


In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you come”), Moses prescribes an annual ritual to thank God for the land we pretend we own, and for the harvest we pretend comes exclusively from our own labors.

Bible card by Providence Lithograph Co., ca. 1900

You shall take some of the first of every fruit of the earth that you bring in from your land that God, your god, is giving to you.  And you shall place them in a basket and go to the place that God, your God, will choose to let [God’s] name dwell.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:2)

The place that “God will choose” is Jerusalem.2  The head of each household brings the basket to the temple. and affirms that the land on which his family grew the fruits is a gift from God.

And you shall come to whoever is the priest in those days, and you shall say to him: “I declare today to God, your God, that I came to the land that God swore to our forefathers to give to us.”  (Deuteronomy 26:3)

The priest sets the basket in front of the altar.

And you shall respond, and you shall say in front of God, your God: “Arami oveid avi.  And he went down to Egypt and he sojourned there with few men, but he became there a nation great and powerful and populous.”  (Deuteronomy 12:4-5)

Arami (אֲרַמִּי) = a male Aramean, a man from the country of Aram (roughly corresponding to present-day Syria).

oveid (אֺבֵד) = wandering lost; being ruined; perishing.  (Oveid is the kal participle of the verb avad, אָבַד, and implies that the subject is lost, ruined, or perishing.)3

avi (אָבִי) = my father, my forefather.

Who is the Arami?  The book of Genesis/Bereishit tells us that Abraham lives in the Aramean city of Charan (also called Paddan-Aram) before God tells him to go to Canaan.  Later in Genesis, Abraham’s grandson Jacob flees to Charan and lives there with his uncle Lavan for 20 years before returning to Canaan.  So we have three candidates for the Aramean in this declaration: Abraham, Lavan, or Jacob.  And only two of those, Abraham and Jacob, qualify as a forefather of the Israelites.

Rashi4 identified the Arami as Lavan and the avi as Jacob.  His interpretation, “Lavan sought to uproot everyone [all Jews] as he chased after Jacob,” requires translating Arami oveid avi as “An Aramean was ruining my forefather.”  But oveid cannot mean “ruining”, only “being ruined”.(see 3)  Furthermore, Biblical Hebrew grammar allows for an implied verb “to be” anywhere in the phrase Arami oveid avi, but not for the Arami to be the subject doing something to avi as a direct object.5  So Arami and avi must be the same person.

Rashbam6 recognized this, and identified the person as Abraham.  He associated oveid with wandering when one is exiled from one’s own land, and rephrased Arami oveid avi as “My father Abraham, an Arami was he, oveid and exiled from the land of Aram.”  Then he cited Genesis 12:1, where God tells Abraham: “Go forth from your land and from your relatives and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  If Aram is Abraham’s own land, Rashbam must have reasoned, then in Canaan he is an exile.

Calling Abraham an exile seems like a stretch to me.  Abraham hears God and decides to leave.  He brings along his wife, his nephew, the people who work for them, and the wealth he has accumulated in livestock and goods.  It sounds like a comfortable emigration.

Rashbam’s explanation also fails to account for the sentence immediately following Arami oveid avi in Deuteronomy 12:5 above.  Abraham and his household do visit Egypt, but the same group returns to Canaan after a very short sojourn there.  They may pick up a few Egyptian slaves, but Abraham’s returning household is far from being “a nation great and powerful and populous”.

That leaves Abraham’s grandson Jacob as the Arami who is the speaker’s forefather.  Jacob, a.k.a. “Israel”, moves to Egypt to join his son Joseph and brings along 66 of his descendants, not counting the wives of the adult men.7  These “children of Israel” stay in Egypt for 430 years.8  When they leave in the book of Exodus, there are “about 600,000 men on foot” along with their families and fellow travelers9—enough to count as a nation in the Ancient Near East.  The sentence following Arami oveid avi fits only Jacob.

If Jacob is the Aramean and “my forefather”, why is he called oveid?  The translation of oveid that best describes Jacob’s life at the time he emigrates to Egypt is “perishing”, since he and his extended family are suffering through a second year of famine in Canaan.  Therefore, Arami oveid avi should be translated: “A perishing Aramean was my forefather”.

A man bringing his first fruits to the temple does identify himself as an Israelite with these three words, but it would be simpler to say “Jacob is my forefather” or “Israel is my forefather”.  The clause Arami oveid avi acknowledges two other things: that his ancestors had not always lived in Canaan/Judah, and that at a critical time they were perishing in a famine.  Remembering these things, the farmer is more likely to feel grateful that God gave the Israelites land, and that the God who makes famines has provided him with agricultural abundance.


The recitation and ritual actions continue in this week’s Torah portion without mentioning that they are part of Shavuot, one of the three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem dictated in the Torah.  In Exodus 34:22 Shavuot is described as a celebration the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and in Numbers 28:26 Shavuot is identified as the “Day of First Fruits” (Yom Habikkurim).

But the recitation beginning Arami oveid avi has also become part of Passover/PesachIn 220 C.E., when Judah HaNasi recorded the Mishnah (the core of the Talmud), the farmer’s declaration before the priest was already included in the seder (the Passover service at home around the table).10  It still is.

Arami oveid avi is a humbling opening line.  If God could let Jacob, one of God’s favorite people, come close to perishing of hunger, any of us might be ruined.  And every human being will eventually perish from this earth.

Yes, while we are alive we must cultivate our crops.  Our own efforts are necessary, but not sufficient, for prosperity; other necessary factors are out of our hands.  The good life is a fragile and temporary blessing.

May we notice the first fruit of every blessing in our lives, and express our gratitude.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in September 2011.)

  1. The real owner of the land is also revealed in Leviticus 25:23, when God declares: “But the land must not be sold to forfeit reacquisition, because the land is Mind; for you are resident aliens with Me.” (See my post Behar: Owning Land.)
  2. Modern critical scholars agree that the earliest form of book of Deuteronomy was written no earlier than the 7th century B.C.E., after the northern kingdom of Israel had been wiped out by the Assyrians, and the only remaining Israelite kingdom was Judah, with its capital and temple at Jerusalem.
  3. The piel participle, me-abeid (מְאַבֵּד = giving up as lost, ruining, letting perish) implies that the subject is abandoning, ruining, or destroying someone else.)
  4. Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  5. In Biblical Hebrew, if avi were a definite direct object instead of a subject, it would be preceded by the word et (אֶת).
  6. Rashbam is the acronym for Rashi’s grandson, the 12th-century rabbi Shmuel ben Meir.
  7. Genesis 46:26.
  8. Exodus 12:40. (In Genesis 15:13 God predicts it will be 400 years.)
  9. Exodus 1:7, 12:37-38.
  10. Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 116a, Mishnah.

Ki Teitzei: Virtues of a Parapet

August 22, 2018 at 9:34 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei, Samuel 2 | 2 Comments

When you build a new house, then you shall make a ma-akeh for your roof; then you will not put blood-guilt on your house if the faller falls from it.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:8)

ma-akeh (מַעֲקֶה) = parapet: a low wall along the edge of a roof or another structure.

This verse appears in a compilation of practical laws in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“When you go out”).  At the most literal level, it simply requires a parapet around a roof as a safety precaution to prevent anyone from falling.  If the faller were being injured or killed the owner of the house would be liable, bearing the “blood-guilt”.

Roofs from Egypt to Babylon (as well as in other parts of the world with dry climates and mild winters) were usually flat and built to bear weight, so people could walk, sit, sleep, and work on them.  In the Ancient Near East, builders ran wooden beams or whole logs from wall to wall.  They covered the beams with framed straw or reed mats, then topped the roof with several layers of clay compacted with stone rollers.  Sometimes they added latticed rooftop structures to provide shade for people using the roof.  A parapet around the edge made the top layer more durable, as well as improving safety.

The Hebrew Bible mentions using rooftops for private conversations,1 for sleeping,2 for storage,3 and for making sacrifices at altars for other gods.4  The Talmud also mentions keeping small lambs or goat kids on one’s roof.5


A roof without a parapet is unsafe not only because a person might fall off, but also because something might fall, or get pushed, from the roof onto a person below.  When an unsavory king in the book of Judges, Avimelekh of Shechem, captures the town of Teiveitz, its residents flee to the tower in the middle of their town.

And they shut themselves inside and they went up onto the roof of the tower.  And Avimelekh came up to the tower… to set it on fire.  Then a woman sent down an upper millstone onto the head of Avimelekh, and it cracked his skull.  (Judges 9:51-53)

The Talmud (Bava Kamma 15b) extends the requirement for a parapet around a roof to all other hazards in a house, such as keeping a vicious dog or setting up an unstable ladder.  If the owner does not remove the hazard, he is liable for damages and a court can even excommunicate him.

Even if the owner is the only person who lives in the house, he must still make it safe for the benefit of guests and future residents.6


A sufficiently high parapet also provides privacy.  According to the Talmud (Bava Batra 2b) if the roof of one house adjoins the courtyard of another house, the owner of the first house must build a parapet four cubits high,7 so he cannot look into the neighbor’s courtyard when he is using his roof.  A similar ruling is that a wall separating the courtyards of two adjacent houses should be four cubits high, so neighbors cannot see into each other’s courtyards  (Bava Batra 5a).

Even if houses are not adjacent, a higher parapet may be needed for privacy.  If two houses are on opposite sides of a public road (Bava Batra 6a), both owners are likely to build a parapet high enough to prevent anyone on the road below from seeing them; but each owner must also build one side of his front parapet high enough to block the view from the opposite roof.  Then both families will have privacy (and share the expense equally).

A story in the bible illustrates another situation in which a high parapet would have provided privacy.

Bathsheba, by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1889

It was evening time, and David rose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the king’s house.  And he saw a woman bathing, from up on the roof, and the woman was very good in appearance.  (2 Samuel 11:2)

For the sake of privacy, Bathsheba would have been bathing either on her own lower roof, or in the enclosed courtyard of her own house.  But King David’s view was not blocked by a high enough parapet.  Enamored of her naked beauty, he found out who she was and sent for her, assuming that since  her husband Uriah was away at war, he would never know.  When Bathsheba became pregnant, King David had Uriah sent home from the front, but he refused to sleep with his wife until the war was over.  So David arranged for the death of the innocent man.  None of this would have happened if King David’s parapet had been four cubits high.

Metaphor for Pride

The original injunction in this week’s Torah portion has also been interpreted allegorically, with the rooftop standing for pride.  Philo of Alexandria wrote in the first century C.E. that when people give themselves credit for intellectual and social advancement, instead of crediting God, they are likely to fall from their high positions and be destroyed.

For the most grievous of all falls is for a man to stumble and fall from the honour due to God; crowning himself rather than God, and committing domestic murder. For he who does not duly honour the living God kills his own soul …  (The Works of Philo, trans. by C.D. Yonge, “XXXIX, On Husbandry, 171”)

A Poet’s Fall, 1760

The Hassidic commentator Dov Baer Friedman interpreted Deuteronomy 22:8 by applying the metaphor of pride before a fall8 to a Torah scholar’s pride in coming up with a new interpretation.

This refers to one offering a new interpretation of Torah.  “Make a railing for your upper storey.”  If the verse were referring to a literal house, it would have said: “for its upper storey.”  As it is, the upper storey is on you, referring to the swelling of your pride at this new teaching.  Do not let your head get turned by pride!  Even though this is a bit of Torah that no ear has ever heard, it comes not from you, but from God.

            “Should somebody fall from it.”  You are all set for such a fall.9


Building a Mental Parapet

Pride: All of us who enjoy either personal achievement or a high position in society should build a mental parapet to prevent ourselves from falling into the self-delusion of pride.  This mental parapet might be a prayer or a reminder that our success depends on the deeds of other human beings, on the family and society we inherit, and on the genes that nature or God gave us.

Privacy:  We can also find an inner meaning of the Talmud’s extension of the law in Ki Teitzei to cover privacy.

Just as humans need privacy in our living quarters, we need privacy in our own mental lives.  You can share your physical space with close family members, and you can share your personal information, random thoughts, and emotional reactions with a trusted partner who knows you well.  But sharing these things with neighbors, friends, or strangers can cause them to feel uncomfortable, to make false assumptions about you, or to feel burdened by your apparent neediness.  It can even give false friends information they can use against us or against other people we know.

When it comes to privacy, we should to set our own boundaries, building a mental parapet so we do not reveal the wrong things, whether in response to an inappropriate question, or in a gush of good will or exhibitionism.

Those of us with flat and inhabitable roofs still need parapets to prevent people and things from falling off.  But we all need parapets when it comes to the contents of our own minds.

  1. Examples of using a roof for private conversations: Joshua 2:6, 1 Samuel 9:25-26.
  2. Examples of using a roof for sleeping: Joshua 2:6, 2 Samuel 11:2.
  3. A roof is used for storing flax in Joshua 2:6.
  4. Examples of using a roof for altars to worship other gods: 2 Kings 23:12, Jeremiah 19:13 and 32:29, Zephanaiah 1:5.
  5. Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 6b.
  6. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Devarim, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2009, p. 513.
  7. A cubit is the length of a forearm from elbow to fingertips. Four cubits would be over 6 feet, or almost 2 meters.  (Bava Batra 2b also provides rules for window and courtyard partition placements to prevent a neighbor from being able to look inside the house next door.)
  8. Proverbs 16:18.
  9. Dov Baer Friedman of Miedzyrzec, Or Torah (1804), translated by Arthur Green in Arthur Green, Speaking Torah, vol. 2, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2013, p. 124.

Shoftim: To Do Justice

August 15, 2018 at 8:17 pm | Posted in Shoftim | Leave a comment

Tzedek, tzedek you must pursue. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:20)

tzedek (צֶדֶק) = right behavior; ethical standards; justice.

The pursuit of justice and/or ethical behavior is an obligation incumbent upon all of us.  But in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), the pursuit of tzedek is an instruction to judges.  The portion begins:

Shoftim and officers you shall appoint in all your gates [of towns] that God is giving to you according to your tribes; veshaftu the people [with] rulings of tzedek.  (Deuteronomy 16:18)

shoftim (שֺׁפְטִים) = judges; those who decide cases; those who deliver justice.

veshaftu (וְשָׁפְטוּ) = and they shall judge, make settlements among, deliver justice to.

Samson, also a judge

The shoftim in this week’s portion are not the kind of shoftim we see in the book of Judges/Shoftim.  There, most shoftim were chieftains or war leaders during a time of frequent conflicts among small states.  They deliver justice to the people by leading an army that frees them from their latest conquerors.  Afterward they usually serve as chieftains who are also judges.1

City gate at Megiddo

The shoftim in this week’s Torah portion also differ from the town elders who serve as judges in biblical passages referring to the time before Israel and Judah had kings. During that period, an individual with a claim to press, or two household heads seeking arbitration, would go to the town gate or the village threshing floor at daybreak and call ten of the settlement’s elders (respected male heads of households) to come over and adjudicate.2  A decision required the consensus of all ten men.3

Although the book of Deuteronomy is set on the bank of the Jordan at the end of Moses’ life, it was written for the citizens of the kingdom of Judah, and refers to their legal system.4  The shoftim in this week’s portion are appointed judges, not the first ten respected elders to pass by.

These appointed shoftim must judge the people with “rulings of tzedek” as follows:

You may not skew a ruling; you may not recognize a face; and you may not take a bribe, since a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and distorts the words of the tzaddikimTzedek, tzedek you must pursue, so you may live and take possession of the land that God, your God, is giving to you.  (Deuteronomy 16:19-20)

tzaddikim (צַדִּיקִם) = the innocent; the righteous, the ethically good, the just.  (From the same root as tzedek.)

To “recognize a face” means to show favoritism, not just in the decision but also in how the parties are treated during the hearing.5

Why would pursuing justice enable the Israelites to live and conquer more and more of the land of Canaan?  Deuteronomy predicts that they will only win battle victories with God’s help.  (See my post Re-eih: Ownership.)  Therefore it pays to do what God wants.

Moses frequently restates what God wants from the Israelites, which includes just decisions about legal claims.  It also includes avoiding the worship of other deities (the first of the Ten Commandments).  If local appointed judges hear that someone has been worshiping other gods, they must investigate thoroughly.  If the rumor proves true,

Stoning, from Piola Domenico, 17th century

Then you shall bring out to your gates that man or that woman who did the wicked thing, and stone them with stones so they will die.  On the word of two or three witnesses they shall definitely be executed, [but] they shall not be put to death on the word of one.  (Deuteronomy 17:5-6)

At least two eye-witnesses must agree that they saw the accused bow down to, or otherwise serve, an alien god before the judges can declare the accused guilty.  One or zero witnesses are insufficient for a guilty verdict, no matter what the circumstantial evidence.6

The Torah portion Shoftim also addresses what local judges should do when it is hard to connect a legal case with the appropriate law or ruling.

If a matter of law is too difficult for you, … then you shall get up and go up to the place God, your God, chooses.  And you shall come to the priests of the Levites, or to the judge who is [serving] at that time, and you shall inquire; and he shall tell you the matter of the law.  (Deuteronomy 17:8-9)

The next few verses say that the local judges must carry out the ruling from Jerusalem (the place God chooses) exactly as instructed.  This passage parallels the scene in Exodus/Shemot where Yitro tells his son-in-law Moses to appoint judges to settle minor disputes, and ask them to bring the major cases to him.7  Yitro explains that the major cases should go to Moses not because he is the central authority, but because God talks to him and gives him the laws.  Perhaps difficult cases must be referred to the priests and judges in Jerusalem not because they are the central authority, but because they are more experienced in interpreting God’s laws.


Just as “Tzedek, tzedek you must pursue” should be a goal for every human being in some sphere of life, we can take to heart other instructions to the shoftim in this week’s portion.  How do you judge the actions of another person?

Do you act like the chieftains and war leaders in the book of Judges, convinced that your own cause is just and therefore you have the right to dictate to everyone else?  Or do you act like the elders in the gate, taking action against someone only if your sense of what is right matches the opinions of other respected people in your community?

Do you “recognize a face” or show favoritism, making excuses for someone you like while judging someone you dislike harshly?  Do you feel obligated to refrain from correcting someone who has given you a gift, such as a job or status?

If one person tells you about the terrible thing a third person did, do you believe it?  Or do you wait until two eye-witnesses confirm it?  Do you draw conclusions about someone from circumstantial evidence?

If you cannot make up your mind about whether another person is guilty of wrongdoing, or whether you need to do anything about it, to whom do you take the case?  Who can you trust?

It is not so easy to pursue justice.

  1. Judges 2:16-19. Specific war-leaders whom the book of Judges cites as shoftim administering justice are Otniel (3:9), Jepthah/Yiftach (12:7), and Samson/Shimshon. (15:20, 16:31).  The shoftim named in Judges who appear to be chieftains who also judge cases are Tola (10:1-2), Ya-ir (10:3), Ivtzan (12:8-9), Eilon (12:11), and Avdon (12:13-14).  One woman, Devorah, takes a dual role.  She is introduced as “a prophetess, a woman of Lapidot, [who] administered justice in Israel at that time … and Israelites went up to her for rulings” (Judges 4:4-5), but then she calls for war and accompanies a general into battle.
  2. Ruth 4:1-11, Proverbs 31:23, and Lamentations 5:14. Also see Victor H. Matthews & Don C. Benjamin, Social World of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BCE, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 1993, pp. 122-124.  Deuteronomy 25:7 calls for the elders at the gate to rule on the case of a new husband who accuses his bride of not being a virgin; perhaps the older system of town elders survived, modified by later laws and rulings imposed by the kingdom’s priests and other higher-ranking judges (see Deuteronomy 17:8-13).
  3. Matthews & Benjamin, p. 124.
  4. Most modern critical scholars date the composition of Deuteronomy chapters 12-25 to the reign of King Josiah of Judah in the 7th century B.C.E., with some editing later.
  5. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) on Deuteronomy 16:19.
  6. Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37b.
  7. Exodus 18:22.

Re-eih: Ownership

August 8, 2018 at 11:14 am | Posted in Eikev, Re-eih | 2 Comments

Mine!  I own this land, these people, this enterprise!

Human beings instinctively claim things as their own—and justify their ownership.  Sometimes the reasons why we own things are ethical.  (She gave her painting to me.  I bought this house from the previous owner.)  But sometimes our justifications boil down to “Because I’m better” or “Because God gave it to us”.

Kingdoms c. 830 BCE

Why did Israelites own a significant part of Canaan (later called Palestine) from the 10th to 6th centuries BCE?  The Hebrew Bible repeats again and again that God gave the land of Canaan to the Israelites.  This “gift” is the premise behind Moses’ instructions in this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See!”).

For you will be crossing the Jordan to enter and lareshet of the land that God, your God, is giving to you, vireshtem of it and you will settle in it.  Then take care to carry out all the decrees and the laws that I am placing before you this day.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:31-32)

lareshet (לָרֶשֶׁת) = to take possession.  (A form of the verb yarash, יָרַשׁ = took possession, inherited, dispossessed.)

vireshtem (וִירְשׁתֶּם) = and you will take possession.  (Another form of the verb yarash.)

How will God give possession of Canaan to the Israelites?  And why?



When Moses gets his marching orders at the burning bush, God tells him:

I have come down to bring them [the Israelites] out from the hand of Egypt and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Emorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites.  (Exodus/Shemot 3:8)

The land of Canaan is already occupied by six nations.1  How will God transfer their land to hundreds of thousands of Israelites?

It turns out that the inhabitants of Canaan do not give, sell, or trade land to the newcomers.2  They do not conveniently decide to move elsewhere.  Instead, they are willing to fight to keep the land they planted, and the houses and cities they and their ancestors built.

In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God promises to “erase” or “drive out” the native inhabitants.3  But in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar it becomes clear that the Israelites must do the driving out.  They get a head start on military conquest before they cross the Jordan.  At God’s urging, the Israelites fight and win battles against three nations on the east side of the river: Cheshbon (the city and its territory), Bashan, and the Midianites north of Moab.  The Israelite men burn towns, kill all the men, and seize all the land.4

When the tribes of Reuven and Gad ask Moses if they can have this newly captured land instead of future allotments in Canaan, Moses agrees on the condition that their fighting men enter Canaan with the rest of the Israelites, and participate in every battle there until Canaan has been conquered.5  Everyone knows, now, that the Israelites will take Canaan through war.

The book of Deuteronomy/Devarim assumes that God will give the Israelites the land of Canaan by ensuring them victory in battle—and that the Israelites will be the aggressors.  In last week’s Torah portion, Eikev, Moses reminds his people:

Listen, Israel!  You are crossing the Jordan this day lareshet nations greater and stronger [than you].  And you shall realize this day that God, your God … will subdue them before you, vehorashtam, and you shall exterminate them quickly, as God has spoken to you.  (Deuteronomy 9:1-3)

vehorashtam (וְהוֹרַשְׁתָּם) = and you shall dispossess them.  (A form of the verb yarash.)



Moses continues:

Not because of your righteousness or because of the uprightness of your heart shall you come lareshet their land.  God, your God, shall be morisham in front of you because these nations are wicked, and in order to carry out the word that God swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 9:5) 

morisham (מוֹרִשָׁם) = taking possession of them, dispossessing them, driving them out.  (Another  form of yarash.)

You are not so perfect that you deserve to own Canaan, Moses tells the Israelites.  God will help you to conquer it only because God made a promise to your ancestors, and because the present inhabitants of Canaan are even worse than you are.

The promise

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all hear God promise that their descendants will someday own the land of Canaan.6  The sixth time God makes this promise, it is part of a covenant: Abraham and his male descendants will be circumcised and follow God; God will give them the land of Canaan and look after them.

“And I will give to you, and to your seed after you, land from your sojourning: all the land of Canaan, as a holding forever.  And I will be their God.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 17:8)

The wickedness

Offering to Molech,
Bible Pictures, 1897

The nations of  Canaan are “wicked” because they engage in practices the God of Israel despises, according to the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.  These practices include sexual unions forbidden in Leviticus, and child sacrifice to Molech.7

In this week’s Torah portion, God tells the Israelites not only to exterminate all the inhabitants of Canaan, but also to destroy their shrines and religious objects.8

These are the decrees and the laws that you must take care to carry out in the land that God, the God of your forefathers, gave to you lerishtah all the days that you live on the earth.  You must utterly destroy all the places where the nations that you are yoreshim worshiped their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every luxuriant tree.  And you shall tear down their altars, and shatter their standing-stones, and burn their goddess-posts in the fire, and break into pieces the statues of their gods; and you shall eliminate their name from that place.  (Deuteronomy 12:1-3)

lerishtah (לְרִשְׁתָּה) = to possess it.  (A form of the verb yarash.)

yoreshim (יֺרְשִׁם) = taking possession of.  (Another form of the verb yarash.)

Ethnic cleansing is not enough, Moses says.  Even after the inhabitants of Canaan have been eliminated, some Israelites might still be tempted to adopt their religious practices.

When God, your God, cuts down the nations where you come lareshet them from before you, veyarashta them and you have settled in their land, guard yourselves lest you become ensnared [in] following them, after they have been exterminated from before you; and lest you inquire about their gods, saying: “How did these nations serve their gods?  Then I will do this too, even I.”  You must not do thus for God, your God, because everything abhorrent to God, [everything] that he hates, they do for their gods.  For they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire for their gods!  (Deuteronomuy 12:29-31)

veyarashta (וְיָרַשְׁתָּ) = and you dispossess.  (Yes, another form of yarash.)

This is the other justification in the Torah for taking over Canaan and eliminating its natives.  The inhabitants of Canaan, like the Israelites, worshipped their gods primarily through burning animal offerings on altars.  But other religious practices of the six groups of Canaanites were so awful that they did not deserve to own the land.  They did not even deserve to live.


The Torah speaks with many voices.  When the context is the period when Israelites own the land, the Torah urges them to treat the foreigners living among them with love and justice.9  But when the context is the period before the Israelites own the land, the Torah urges them to exterminate the foreigners who do own it.

Although modern scholars disagree on when each of the first five books of the bible was first written down, they agree that all five were written down no earlier than the 10th century BCE, when Israelites ruled one or two kingdoms in eastern Canaan.10  Perhaps those who wrote down the old stories noticed the conflict between the injunctions to treat resident aliens with fairness, and tales of the brutal conquest of non-Israelite natives.  How could they justify the aggression of their ancestors?

The solution of those early scribes was to explain that God took Canaan away from its previous inhabitants and gave it to the Israelites.  The conquest by the Israelite army merely carried out God’s will.

Today some groups still believe in a divine right to own land and the people living on it.  When there are rival claims to territory, people of different religions point to their sacred books and their ancient histories rather than working toward an ethical solution for sharing the land.

Today some individuals still believe that might makes right, and the fact that they succeeded in acquiring control over a business or a branch of government means God is on their side.

I pray that someday everyone in the world is blessed with humility.

  1. The same six peoples are mentioned as inhabiting Canaan in Exodus 23:23, 33:2, and 34:11.
  2. Abraham buys one field with a burial site in Canaan (Genesis 23:3-16), and Jacob buys a parcel of land where he is camping (Genesis 33:19), but there are no other purchases of land in Canaan in the biblical record until after the Israelites have occupied a large part of Canaan.
  3. God promises “and I will erase them” (וְהִכְחַדְתִּיו) in Exodus 23:23. God plans to drive the natives out of Canaan in Exodus 23:27-30 (through psychological means), 33:1-3, and 34:11 (as well as in Leviticus 18:24-25 and 20:23).
  4. Numbers 21:21-25, 21:33-35, 31:1-18.
  5. Numbers 32:6-27. See my post Mattot: From Confrontation to Understanding.
  6. The God character makes this promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:7, 13:15, 15:7, 15:18, and 17:8; to Isaac in Genesis 26:3; and to Jacob in Genesis 28:13-14 and 35:12.
  7. Leviticus 18:3-30.
  8. This instruction also appears in Numbers 33:52-53.
  9. Geirim (גֵּרִים) = resident aliens (in biblical Hebrew).  Geirim are included in God’s covenant in Deuteronomy 29:9-11 and 31:12, Joshua 8:33-35, and Ezekiel 47:21-23.  The same laws and rights apply to citizens and geirim in Exodus 12:19, 12:48-49, and 20:10; Leviticus 16:29, 17:8-15, 18:26, 20:2, 22:18, 24:16, and 24:22; Numbers 9:14, 15:14-16, 15:26, 15:29-30, 19:10, and 35:15; Deuteronomy 1:16, 5:14, 16:14, 24:14, and 26:11-13; Joshua 20:9; and Ezekiel 14:7.  The Israelites are warned not to oppress geirim in Exodus 22:20 and 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; and Ezekiel 22:7 and 22:29.  The Torah orders the Israelites to love geirim or treat them like brothers in Leviticus 19:33-34 and Deuteronomy 10:18-19 and 24:14.
  10. The united kingdom of Israel ascribed to kings David and Solomon in the bible dates to the mid-900’s BCE. Its existence has not yet been confirmed by archaeologists.  Hoever, there is evidence supporting the biblical claim that there were two Israelite kingdoms from the 920’s to the 720’s BCE: the northern kingdom of Israel/Samaria and the southern kingdom of Judah.

Eikev, Va-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?

August 1, 2018 at 10:02 pm | Posted in Eikev, Noach, Va-etchannan | 2 Comments

Five Kings of Midian Slain by Israel, 1728

The Israelites are camped on the east bank of the Jordan River, ready and willing to cross over and do to the native populations of Canaan what they have already done to the Amorites and Midianites east of the Jordan: burn all their towns, kill all their men, and take over all their land—with God’s explicit approval and assistance.1

I will explore the evolution of and biblical justifications for this ethnic cleansing in next week’s post, Re-eih: Ownership.  This week, let’s look at how Moses says the Israelites should act after their conquest.

In last week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan, Moses warns the Israelites not to feel entitled after they have taken everything the Canaanites own.

And it will happen when God, your God, brings you into the land that was sworn to your forefathers … cities great and good that lo vanita, and houses filled with everything good that you did not fill, stone-hewn cisterns that you did not hew out of stone, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.  And you will eat and you will be satisfied.  Guard yourself, lest you forget God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:10-12)

lo vanita you did not build.  lo (לֺא) = not + banita (בָּנִיתָ) = you built.  (A form of the verb banah, בָּנָה = built, constructed, fortified, rebuilt; built up a family.)

Once the Israelites own everything the previous inhabitants built and planted, they will have an easy head start in their new life.  But Moses does not tell the Israelites to be grateful for the labor of generations of Canaanites.  He only warns them not to forget that everything they own is a gift from God.

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, takes the idea of God’s gift farther.

Guard yourself lest you forget God, your God, and fail to guard [God’s] commandments and laws and decrees, which I, myself, am commanding you this day—lest you eat and you are satisfied, and tivneh good houses, and you dwell in them; and your herds and flocks increase, and silver and gold increases for you, and everything that is yours increases; and then your heart is arrogant and you forget God, your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  (Deuteronomy 8:11-14)

tivneh (תִּבְנֶה) = you build, fortify, build up.   (Another form of the verb banah.)

Here Moses points out that even if the Israelites do build their own houses and bring in their own livestock, wealth in the land they have conquered is not guaranteed.  What you build yourself, as well as what you take from someone else, is a gift from God.

In general, the Hebrew Bible uses the verb “create” (bara, בָּרָא) for what God does, and “build” (banah, בָּנָה) for what humans do, using materials God created.2  People in the bible build many things just to improve their lives, including houses, towns, walls, and livestock pens.  But sometimes humans build for the sake of their own self-importance, and sometimes they build to honor God.


Building a name

After the story of Noah and the flood, the humans on earth figure out how to make bricks and mortar them with bitumen.

Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563

And they said: “Come, nivneh for ourselves a city and a tower [with] its head in the heavens, and we will make for ourselves a name, lest we scatter over the face of all the earth.”  And God went down to look at the city and the tower than the descendants of the human banu.  (Genesis 11:4-5)

nivneh (נִבִנֶה) = let us build.

banu (בָּנוּ) = they built.

Noah’s descendants start to build a single city for the whole human population, with a tower that intrudes on God’s realm, the heavens.  They want to make a “name” or reputation for themselves.  (Since there are no other humans, perhaps that want a reputation among creatures in the heavens.)  God takes them seriously, believing that humankind is indeed capable of doing too much.  So God decides to scatter them—just what the city-builders fear most—so that they will develop different languages and become mutually incomprehensible.

And [God] scattered them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off libanot the city.  Therefore it was called by the name Bavel, because there God confused the lips of the whole earth … (Genesis 11:8)

libanot (לִבְנֺת) = building.

Bavel (בָּבֶל) = Babylon.3

City gate at Megiddo

Building a city can be problematic in the Torah.  The building of the city and tower of Bavel is portrayed as an exercise in arrogance.  In Egypt, the Israelites are forced to build two brick storage-cities for Pharaoh, Pitom and Rameses.4  Later, King Solomon embarks on building projects in the cities of Jerusalem, Megiddo, Chatzor, and Gazer, all using the forced labor of the remaining natives of Canaan.5  Building a city, palace, or fortress means that the some human beings are likely to lord it over others.

In the Torah portion Va-etchannan, Moses warns the Israelites not to feel self-important when they are living in cities and towns that the natives had already built.  After all, they could not kill or drive away those natives without God’s help.

In the Torah portion Eikev, Moses reminds the Israelites not to let their prosperity in their “promised land” make them arrogant, and not to forget that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt.


Building for God

Living in cities built by other people leads to egotism.  But other kinds of building are for the sake of God.

First Temple reconstruction in Bible Museum, Amsterdam

Noah builds the ark at God’s command, but after the flood has receded he builds an altar for animal sacrifices to God on his own initiative. 6  It is the first of many altars men build to worship God.  In the book of Exodus, all the Israelites, men and women, cooperate to build the portable tent-sanctuary for God.  In the first book of Kings, King Solomon enslaves native Canaanites to build his own palace and several fortresses, but he uses the same forced labor to build the first temple for God in Jerusalem.

The bible praises those who build altars and sanctuaries for God, just as it criticizes those who forget their debt to God when they build or take over cities.  But what about the overlords’ dependence on people they defeated and enslaved?  The bible considers only the Israelite point of view.  No gratitude for the labor of non-Israelites is required.

I pray that all of us today may recognize that nobody becomes wealthy without help.  Nobody builds something without the raw materials this world provides, and nobody builds something without the present or past work of other human beings.

As Moses reminds us, may we be grateful to what is not human (whether we call it God or nature) for everything we have, even the air we breathe.  And as Moses fails to remind us, may we also be grateful for the labor of other human beings—even if we consider them Canaanites.

  1. Numbers 21:21-25, 21:33-35, and 31:1-12.
  2. One exception is when God uses the side of the human protype, adam, to “build” a female counterpart (Genesis 2:22), although in Genesis 1:27 and 5:2 God “creates” female and male humans.  Psalms 69, 78, and 102 refer poetically to God as the builder of Tzion or the cities of Judah.  Another exception is when Joshua tells the Josephites to “create” farmland for themselves by clear-cutting forests in the hill-country (Joshua 17:15-18), although they will only be using materials God created, i.e. trees, fire, and dirt.
  3. The name Bavel comes from the Babylonian god Beil, but the Torah might also be alluding to the sound of foreign languages the Israelites encountered during their enforced exile in Babylonia in the 6th century BCE.
  4. Exodus 1:11.
  5. 1 Kings 9:15-20.
  6. Although both Cain and Abel make offerings to God, the first altar mentioned in the Torah is built by Noah after the flood (Genesis 8:20).

Va-etchannan: Fire, Not Idols

July 25, 2018 at 3:21 pm | Posted in Va-etchannan | Leave a comment

A disembodied voice.  A fire.  A cloud.  These are the ways God manifests most often in the Hebrew Bible.  When Moses recounts the revelation at Mount Sinai (also called Mount Choreiv) in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (“And I pleaded”), what he remembers best after 39 years is the fire.

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

And you drew near, and you stood under the mountain, and the mountain was blazing with the eish up to the heart of the heavens—darkness, cloud, and thick fog.  Then God spoke to you from the middle of the eish.  You were hearing a sound of words, but you were seeing no shape, nothing but a voice.  And [God] told you [God’s] covenant that [God] commanded you to do, the Ten Words.  And [God] inscribed them on two stone tablets.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:11-13)

eish (אֵשׁ) = fire.

So you must guard yourselves carefully, since you did not see any shape on the day God spoke to you on Choreiv from the middle of the eish, lest you [cause] ruin and you make yourselves a carved image, a shape of any idol … (Deuteronomy 4:15)

Moses continues warning the Israelites never to make any idols.  He reminds the Israelites of both the second commandment and the tragedy of the Golden Calf,1 but he also drives home his point that God appears to them as fire and has no shape—and therefore cannot be represented by any idol.

The account of the revelation at Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus/Shemot mentions fire only once.2  But in this week’s Torah portion Moses describes God manifesting in fire fourteen times.3

Furthermore, he describes the fire in terms that inspire fear.  God’s manifestation as fire could kill people.

Because God, your god, is an eish okhelah …  (Deuteronomy 4:23)

okhelah (אֺכְלָה) = that devours, that consumes, that eats.  (From the verb akhal, אָכַל = ate up.) 

After recounting the Ten Words, Moses describes the fearful reaction of the Israelites.

And it was, when you heard the voice from the middle of the darkness, and the mountain was blazing with the eish, and you approached me, all your heads of tribes and your elders, and you said: “Here, God, our God, let us see [God’s] glory and greatness, and we heard [God’s] voice from the middle of the eish this day.  We have seen that God can speak with humankind and [the human] can survive.  But now, why should we die?  Because this great eish, tokheleinu if we listen any more to the voice of God, our God, and we will die.  Because who of all flesh has heard the voice of the living God speaking from the middle of the eish, as we did, and lived on? You go close and listen …  Then you, you speak to us everything that God, our God, speaks to you.  And we will listen and we will do it.   (Deuteronomy 5:20-24)

tokheleinu (תֺאכְלֵנוּ) = it will devour us, consume us, eat us up.  (Also from the verb akhal.)

Here Moses reminds the Israelites that as children, they heard God’s disembodied voice from the middle of the darkness, and they saw the volcanic presence of God in fire, cloud, gloom, and more fire.  Even their parents were too frightened to stay near the voice and the fire, so they commissioned Moses to listen to God’s rules for them and report back.

He was the go-between for their parents 39 years before, and now he is passing on God’s words to the new generation.4


When God manifests as fire in the Torah, it is not a natural fire. Often the time of day determines whether people see the manifestation as cloud or fire.  God leads the Israelites through the wilderness with an intangible pillar that looks like cloud by day and fire by night, so they can always see it.5  From Mount Sinai on, whenever God wants the Israelites to remain encamped, God stations the cloud by day and fire by night above the Tent of Meeting.6

And on the day the sanctuary was erected, the cloud covered the sanctuary, the Tent of the Reminder, and in the evening it was over the sanctuary like the appearance of eish until morning.  Thus it was always: the cloud covered it, and the appearance of eish at night.  (Numbers 19:15-16)

A divine manifestation can even look like fire to one person, and cloud to another.  Moses climbs to the top of the mountain to spend 40 days and 40 nights learning God’s rules.

And the glory of God settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days.  Then [God] called to Moses on the seventh day from the middle of the cloud.  But the glory of God appeared as an eish of okhelet on top of the mountain to the eyes of the Israelites.  (Exodus 24:16-17)  

okhelet (אֺכֶלֶת) = devouring, consumption, demolition.  (Also from the verb akhal.)

Does God appear as a cloud that conceals, or a fire that devours?  It depends on the beholder.  Moses thought he was walking into fog to hear God’s words.  But the people below concluded he had walked into fire and died, so they made the Golden Calf.  (See my post Ki Tissa: Making an Idol out of Fear.)

The manifestation of fire, or something that looks like fire, is also scaled up or down according to God’s motives.  When God first speaks to Moses, God wants to know whether Moses is good at paying attention to details.  So God manifests as a small fire inside a thorn bush, easy to miss in the glaring sun.

Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt

He looked, and hey! The bush was aflame with the eish, yet the bush was not ukal.  (Exodus 3:2)

ukal (אֻכָּל) = devoured, consumed, eaten up.  (Also from the verb akhal.)

On the other hand, when the Israelites finish making God’s portable sanctuary, the Tent of Meeting, and the new priests lay out the first sacrifice to inaugurate the altar, God makes a more impressive display.

And eish went forth from in front of God, vatokhal the rising-offering and the fat on the altar.  And all the people saw, and they shouted and fell on their faces.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:24)

vatokhal (וַתֺּאכַל) = and it devoured, consumed, ate up.  (Yes, another form of the verb akhal.)

How could an idol of a golden calf compare with the sight of a fire rushing out of the sanctuary and devouring the butchered animals on the altar?


Like fire, God has no definite boundaries, is constantly changing, and is impossible to grasp.

Idols, on the other hand, are man-made inanimate objects—solid, tangible, and immobile, the opposite of fire and fog.  Other religions in the Ancient Near East viewed idols as forms that gods would temporarily inhabit, rather than as gods themselves.  But Moses warns the Israelites against using idols for any religious purpose.

Fire is an unnerving metaphor for God’s manifestation in our world.  Yet I have met people who yearn for God’s unmediated presence.  They are ready to be devoured.  I am more cautious, or perhaps more ego-centered, than that.  A momentary experience of divine unity and purpose is plenty for me.  And I do not expect to be devoured.

I suspect that only our “right brains”, our irrational, intuitive minds, can be touched by an experience of God.  Most of the time, our “left brains”, our rational egos, are built-in mediators that protect us from being consumed by divine fire.

In other words, we have our own inner Moses to translate for us and keep us sane—although we always lose something in translation.

May we all learn that we cannot express the mystery at the heart of existence through tidy, concrete statements and creeds—any more than we can lure God into inhabiting idols.

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

  1. The Ten Words, first recorded in Exodus 20:1-14, are repeated in Deuteronomy 5:6-18. The second commandment begins: You may not make for yourself a carved image, any shape of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below, or in the waters below on the earth … (Deuteronomy 5:8).  The Torah first tells the story of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32:1-35, and Moses retells it in Deuteronomy 9:8-21.
  2. Exodus 19:18.
  3. Deuteronomy 4:11, 4:12, 4:15, 4:23, 4:33, 4:36 (twice), 5:4, 5:5, 5:19, 5:20, 5:21, 5:22, 5:23.
  4. Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy has both some omissions (for example, see my post Devarim: In God We Trust?) and some repetitions, such as the insistent recurrence of God’s fire in this week’s portion.
  5. The pillar of cloud by day and fire by night is first mentioned in Exodus 13:21-22.
  6. First mentioned in Exodus 40:38.


Devarim: In God We Trust?

July 19, 2018 at 2:28 pm | Posted in Chukkat, Devarim, Shelach-Lekha | 1 Comment

Jordan River

Why does Moses die on the wrong side of the Jordan River, where he can see but not enter God’s “promised land”?

The Torah offers two conflicting reasons—and a hidden clue.

Moses blames the fathers of the Israelites he is addressing in this week’s Torah portion, Devarim (“Words”—the first portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim).  He retells the story of the scouts who toured Canaan in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, 38 years before.  When ten out of the twelve returning scouts reported that the land was full of giants and well-fortified cities, the frightened Israelites refused to cross the border.1

Who told them to trust God?

Someone argued with them.  In the book of Numbers, Moses and Aaron fell on their faces but said nothing.  It was Caleb and Joshua, the two scouts who gave the minority report in favor of crossing the border, who reminded the people that God would fight for them.2  (See my post Shelach-Lekha: Too Late.)  But in this week’s Torah portion, Moses claims he was the one who argued with the Israelites.

And I said to you: “You should not be terrified of them, and you should not be overawed by them.  God, your God who walks before you, [God] will fight for you, like everything that [God] did for you in Egypt, before your eyes, and in the wilderness …  Yet in this matter you have no ma-aminim in God, your God.” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:29-32)

ma-aminim (מַאֲמִינִים) = relying upon, trusting, having faith; reliance upon, trust, faith.  (A participle from the same root as ne-eman (נֶאֱמַן) = trustworthy, reliable; and amen (אָמֵן).)

Moses might be excused for misremembering who told the Israelites they should trust God to help them.  He is, after all, 120 years old.3  The difference between the two stories of the scouts can also be explained by the theory that Numbers and Deuteronomy were written by different authors, in different centuries.4

Israelites march from southern to eastern border of Canaan

The result is the same in both accounts: despite hearing someone argue that they can rely on God to help them, the Israelites refuse to cross the border.  Then God decides the people must wait until 40 years after their exodus from Egypt before they get another chance to enter Canaan.  By that time, God says, all the men over 20 (i.e. the generation that refused to enter Canaan) will be dead—except for the two optimistic scouts, Caleb and Joshua.

But what about Moses and Aaron?  In the original story of the scouts, while Caleb and Joshua tell the people to trust God, they fall on their faces, waiting to hear God’s orders.  Surely they do not deserve the same fate as the rebellious Israelites.  And God’s first reaction implies that Moses will be spared.

And God said to Moses: “How long will this community treat me disrespectfully, and how long lo ya-aminu in me, despite all the signs that I have made in their midst?  I will strike them dead with the pestilence and disown them, and I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they!”  (Numbers 14:11-12)

lo ya-aminu (יַאֲמִינוּ) = will they not have faith?   lo = not + ya-aminu = they will have faith in,  trust, rely upon.  (Also from the same root as ne-eman and amen.)

At this point, God wants Moses to populate Canaan.  Moses talks God out of killing everyone but him, and God settles on the 40-year plan.

Both Numbers and Deuteronomy note that the first time the Israelites approach the border of Canaan, from Kadeish-Barnea to the south, there is a lack of faith or trust.  The men who refuse to cross do not believe God is ne-eman (reliable); when God gives an order, they do not say amen.

In both Numbers and Deuteronomy, God decrees that Moses and Aaron will also die without entering Canaan.  But the two books give different reasons for this decree.

Numbers: The talk at the rock

Moses Striking the Rock,
by James Tissot

The people set off from Kadeish-Barnea after Miriam’s death, and the first place they camp has no water.  God tells Moses and Aaron to take their staff and speak to the rock, and it will yield water.  They assemble the Israelites in front of the rock.  Then Moses says:

“Listen up, mutineers!  Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” (Numbers 20:10)

Moses makes it sound as if he and Aaron can get water from rock with no help from God.  Then he hits the rock with the staff, instead of speaking to it.  And water gushes out.  Aaron stands by, doing nothing to correct his brother Moses.  (See my post Chukkat: The Price of Silence.)

But God said to Moses and to Aaron: “Because lo he-emantam on me, [you were not] treating me as holy in the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”  (Numbers 20:12)

lo he-emantam (הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם) = you did not rely.   lo = not + he-emantam = you had faith, trusted, relied upon.  (Also from the same root as ne-eman and amen.)

The Israelites continue traveling east through the wilderness, and God says:

Let Aaron be gathered to his people, since he may not enter the land that I have given to the Israelites, because you [plural] mutinied against my word concerning the water… (Numbers 20:24)

Aaron dies on top of Mt. Hor, and his son Elazar takes over as high priest.5  Moses continues to lead the Israelites all the way to the Jordan River, but he knows he, too, will die without crossing it.

Deuteronomy: The blame is the same

The book of Deuteronomy mentions the episode of the water-bearing rock only near the end, when God tells Moses to climb Mount Nevo, where he will die, just as Aaron died on Mount Hor—

—because you both betrayed me in the midst of the Israelites at the water of Meribat-Kadeish in the wilderness of Tzin, because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the Israelites.  (Deuteronomy 32:51)

But in this week’s portion, Moses tells a different story.  He says God decreed that Caleb, Joshua, and everyone who was a child at the time would live to enter Canaan, but “these men of this bad generation” would die before the 40 years were up (Deuteronomy 1:35-39).

Also God felt angry against me on your account, saying: “Even you shall not enter there!”  (Deuteronomy 1:37)

When Moses says “on your account” he does not distinguish between the new generation of Israelites listening to his speech and the old, bad generation.  His book-length speech in Deuteronomy does not mention that the new generation did anything to offend God; but in Numbers, when the Israelites first camp on the east bank of the Jordan, they worship the local god, Ba-al Peor.  (See my post Balak: Carnal Appetites.)  Instead of reaffirming their reliance on God, the new adults act as if God is not enough for them.  Like their fathers, they fail when it comes to ma-aminim in God.

Moses implies that their failure to rely on God is the reason why God will not let him cross into Canaan before he dies.  Ramban6 wrote that Moses wanted to demonstrate that the whole community is responsible for and suffers from any lack of faith in God.  As the leader of all the Israelites, Moses had the most responsibility.


This week’s Torah portion, Devarim, implies that God decreed Moses’ death on the east bank of the Jordan because Moses had failed to instill enough ma-aminim in the Israelites by the time they reached the southern border of Canaan.

In the book of Numbers, God decreed Moses’ death on the east bank because he failed to instill enough ma-aminim in the Israelites when he neglected to give God credit for the water gushing from the rock.

The timing is different in these two explanations of God’s decree, but the underlying cause is the same.  And the Torah gives us the clue by repeatedly using the same verb when someone fails to rely on God.

At the burning bush, God chose Moses because no one else could serve as God’s prophet before Pharaoh and also hold the Israelites together no matter how long it took to get them to Canaan.  For more than 40 years, Moses devoted his whole strength to the nearly impossible job of transforming a huge and motley collection of ex-slaves and camp followers into a single people dedicated to a new religion.  When Moses addresses the survivors in Deuteronomy, they are finally unified, optimistic, and ready to cross into their promised land.7

But can they keep their faith in God?  Can they trust God, who over the years delivered punishments as well as miraculous rescues?  Can they rely upon their God, and no other?

Can any of us?

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

  1. Numbers 13:1-14:4. At that time the Israelites are camped on the southern border of Canaan, near Kadeish-Barnea.
  2. Numbers 14:5-10.
  3. Though when Moses does die at the end of Deuteronomy, the Torah says “…his eye had not clouded and his vigor had not waned.” (Deuteronomy 34:7)
  4. Modern scholars examine differences in vocabulary, syntax, and style to assign parts of the Torah to different (unknown) authors writing in different eras. Although they disagree about many details, most agree that the first 11 chapters of Deuteronomy were written during the reign of King Josiah of Judah in the 7th century B.C.E.  The story of the scouts in the book of Numbers appears to be a composite of several texts written during different centuries.
  5. Numbers 20:22-29. Aaron is older than his 120-year-old brother Moses, but the Torah insists that he dies in the wilderness because of disobedience, not old age.
  6. 13th-century Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, also called Nachmanides as well as the acronym RaMBaN.
  7. The Israelites cross the Jordan River, the northeastern border of Canaan, in Joshua 3:1-17.

Mattot: From Confrontation to Understanding

July 11, 2018 at 11:52 am | Posted in Mattot | 1 Comment

The Israelites conquer land east of the Jordan River before they even entered Canaan.  They ask permission to use the king’s road through the land of Cheshbon, and when King Sichon refuses and sends his troops, the Israelites win the battle and take all his land.  After that, for no reason given in the Torah, the Israelites march north and conquer Bashan, ruled by King Og.  Only then do they finally turned around and camp on the east bank of the Jordan, across from the land of Canaan.1

After exterminating the local population there (see my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent) most of the Israelites are ready to cross the river and take over Canaan.  But the men of the tribes of Gad and Reuven have a different idea.

Stage One: Confrontation and Ignorance

They come to the authorities—Moses, the new high priest Elazar, and the chieftains of the other tribes—and declare:

“The land that God struck down before the community of Israel is livestock land, and your servants have livestock.”  And they said: “If we find favor in your eyes, give this land to your servants as property; don’t ta-avireinu the Jordan!”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 32:4-5)

ta-avireinu (תַּעֲוִרֵנוּ) = you make us cross, you let us cross.  (A form of the verb avar, עָבַר = cross, pass through, go past.)

At this stage, the men of Gad and Reuven are saying “Don’t make us cross the Jordan!”  They are only thinking about their livestock, their livelihood.  They have come up with only one supporting argument for their request:  that God gave the Israelites the land east of the Jordan River by letting the Israelites win battles.  The implication, they hope, is that the lands formerly ruled by Sichon and Og might also count as God’s “promised land”.  After all, God once promised “I will set your borders from the Sea of Reeds to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates River” (Exodus 23:31).2  That would include and extend beyond the territories the livestock men want.3

But in the book of Numbers Moses consistently treats the Jordan River as the northeastern border of God’s promised land of milk and honey.  So he assumes that the Gaddites and Reuvenites are starting yet another rebellion against God’s plan.

And Moses said to the Gaddites and to the Reuvenites: “Will your brothers go to war while you stay here?  And why will you inhibit the hearts of the Israelites from avor into the land that God gives you?  That is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadeish-Barnea to look at the land.”  (Numbers 32:6-8)

avor (עֲבֺר) = crossing.  (Also a form of avar.)

Moses then brings up the catastrophe in the portion Shelach-Lekha, when the ten out of twelve spies returning to Kadeish-Barnea from their tour of Canaan reported that the land was too well-fortified, and its inhabitants were as gigantic as its fruit.  Frightened,  the people refused to cross the southern border of Canaan, and God declared they must wait 40 years in the wilderness, while the old generation died off, before they got another chance.4  Now the 40 years are complete.

What if the tribes of Gad and Reuven do stay behind when it is time to cross the river?  The rest of the Israelites might assume that conquering Canaan would be harder than they thought. 5   If the Israelites became too afraid to cross, Moses figures, God would become enraged and punish them again.  This idea disturbs Moses so much that he accuses the men of Gad and Reuven:

“And hey!—you rose up, replacing your fathers, you brood of sinful men—to sweep God’s anger again toward Israel!”  (Numbers 32:14)

Moses calls the men of Gad and Reuven sinful because they are obstructing God’s grand plan.6

At this stage, Moses and the men of Gad and Reuben appear to be on opposite sides.  Will the two tribes rebel against Moses?  Or will they submit and go live in Canaan with the rest of the Israelites?

Stage Two: Discovering the Reasons

Reuben and Gad ask for Land, by Arthur Boyd Houghton

What Moses overlooks is that the Gadites and Reubenites are politely asking to settle on the east bank, using the phrases “if we find favor in your eyes” and “your servants”.  The men of the two tribes could have secretly plotted to make their move right after Moses’ death and before his successor, Joshua, began the river crossing.  Instead, they ask Moses’ permission ahead of time, in front of the high priest and the chiefs of all the tribes.

I believe this shows that they want to stay in good standing with the whole community of Israel, even though they do put their own livelihoods first.  It may even indicate that they respect God, and therefore respect the leadership God has established.  They simply did not realize that the other tribes would react badly if they stayed behind instead of crossing the Jordan.

Instead of stalking off or hardening their position, the men of Gad and Reuven respond to Moses’ accusation by reformulating their request to include the new information they gleaned from Moses’ first response.

Then they stepped up to him and they said: “We will build stone pens for our livestock and towns for our dependents.  Then we ourselves will go armed, hurrying in front of the Israelites until we bring them to their place.  And our dependents7 will stay in the towns fortified against the dwellers of the land.  We will not return to our houses until each Israelite has taken possession of his permanent possession.”  (Numbers 32:16-18)

At this point Moses could respond that their offer is not good enough.  The Gaddites and Reuvenites already seem to care more about their livestock than about God.  Moses suspects that choosing to live on the other side of the river from Canaan is further evidence of their disinterest in God.

However, he decides to accept their revised offer—as long as two key elements are added: God and the community.8  First Moses emphasizes that God will witness the battles to come.

And Moses said to them: “If you do this thing, if you bear arms in front of God to go to war; and everyone who is armed avar the Jordan in front of God, until [God] has dispossessed [God’s] enemies from in front of [God]; and the land has been subjugated in front of God; and afterward you return.  Then you will be cleared with God and with Israel, and this land will be your property in front of God.”  (Numbers 32:20-22)

avar (עָבַר) = he crosses.

Next Moses reminds the men of Gad and Reuven that if they do not carry out their promise in full, God will punish them.

“But if you do not do this, hey!—you sin against God.  Know that your sin will catch up with you!  So build for yourselves cities for your dependents, and stone pens for your livestock. And then what has gone out from your mouth, you must do.”  (Numbers 32:23-24)

Having noticed that the Gaddites and Reuvenites thought of their livestock first, Moses is careful to put the cities for their dependents first, and the pens for their livestock second.9

Stage Three: Acknowledgement

Crossing the Jordan,
by Gustave Dore

And the Gaddites and the Reuvenites said to Moses: “Your servants will do as my lord commands.  Our dependents, our women, our livestock, and all our animals will be there in the towns of Gilead.  And your servants, everyone who is armed for war, ya-avru to go to war in front of God, as my lord has spoken.”  (Numbers 3:25-27)

ya-avru (יַעַבְרוּ) = they will cross.  (Another form of the verb avar.)

The men of Gad and Reuven are still polite—and still interested in their livestock.  But they have listened carefully to Moses, and they correct their proposal accordingly.  They put the people before the animals when they mention securing settlements in Gilead.

They also include Moses’ phrase “in front of God” when they mention crossing the Jordan and fighting in the vanguard of the Israelites.  Thus they acknowledge Moses’ concern that they might not be placing enough value on human relations or on God’s presence.

Moses accepts their reformulation, and gives them provisional permission.  Since God has decreed that Moses will die on the east side of the Jordan, Moses gives instructions to his successor Joshua, to the high priest Elazar, and to the chieftains of the other tribes.

Moses said to them: “If all the armed Gaddites and Reuvenites ya-avru the Jordan with you to make war lifnei God, and the land is subjugated lifnei you, then you shall give them the land of Gilead as [their] property.  But if the armed men do not ya-avru with you, then they shall take property in the land of Canaan.”  (Numbers 32:29-30)

Given Moses’ mistrust of the motivations of the Gaddites and Reuvenites, he naturally makes the assignment of the land east of the Jordan conditional on their promise to send their armed men across the Jordan and fight in the vanguard until they have conquered enough territory so all the Israelites have their property.

But Moses’ instructions end with a surprise.  If the Gaddites and Reuvenites break their promise, their punishment shall be—that they take property in Canaan instead of Gilead!  Settling on conquered land outside Canaan is optional, a favor to be allowed or denied.  But Moses views settling on conquered land inside Canaan is the right of every Israelite, regardless of their character.  By stating this the contingency plan, Moses is acknowledging that the men of Gad and Reuven are still part of the community of Israel.

The Gaddites and Reuvenites humbly reply:

“Whatever God has spoken concerning your servants, thus we will do.”  (Numbers 32:31)


Did the men of Gad and Reuven agree to all of Moses’ terms, using his language, simply so they could acquire the lands they wanted for their livestock?

Or did they realize during the negotiations that they had been acting as if livelihood and land were the only vital things, when other things were actually more important?  Did they learn to appreciate their own families, the larger Israelite community, and even the Holy One?

May we all listen carefully, when we speak with people who seem to be on the other side of an issue.  And whether we reach an agreement or not, may we all learn about the other concerns in the hearts of our “opponents”, and acknowledge them.

  1. Numbers 21:31-22:1, in the Torah portion Chukkat. See my post Devarim & Shelach-Lekha: A Giant Detour.
  2. The land in God’s promise to Abraham also has the Euphrates River as its eastern border: On that day God cut a covenant with Avram, saying: To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.  (Genesis 15:18)
  3. The two Amorite kingdoms of Cheshbon and Bashan become the area called Gilead in the bible, and are part of the kingdom of Jordan today.
  4. Numbers 13:21-14:35.
  5. Rashi (11-th century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) explains that Moses believes the other Israelites will be inhibited from crossing the Jordan because they think the men of Gad and Reuven are afraid to cross.
  6. Chatta (חַטָּא) = fallible, likely to sin (by disobeying God), sinful, guilty. (From the root verb chata, חָטָא = miss the mark, offend, be guilty.)
  7. The word I translate in this post as “dependents” is taf (טָף), which usually means either small children, or all non-marchers (i.e. all members of a tribe who cannot walk far). Sometimes the Torah uses the word taf to mean children and the elderly; other times taf includes women as well.
  8. Isaac ben Moses Arama, a 15th-century rabbi, wrote in Sefer Akedat Yitschak that Moses noticed the men of Gad and Reuven were only considering economics, not the spiritual value of living in the “promised land”, so he angrily reminded them four times of God’s share in the land by saying “in front of God”.
  9. Rashi wrote that the men of Gad and Reuven cared more about their property than about their children, since they put their livestock first, and Moses corrected the order.
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