Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys

March 15, 2018 at 8:07 pm | Posted in Jeremiah, Vayikra | Leave a comment

In English we speak of rational thinking as using our brains, of feelings emotions in our hearts, and of reacting intuitively as having gut feelings.  But no body part corresponds to our conscience, or to our inner self.  And no colloquial metaphor uses our kidneys.

Biblical Hebrew associates the whole conscious mind, rational and emotional, with the heart (leiv, לֵב or leivav לֵבָב).  There is neither a separate word nor a body part for intuitions.  But the seat of both the inner self and the conscience is in the kidneys (kelayot, כְּלָיֺת or kilyot כִּליוֹת).

Kidneys are first mentioned in the Torah in the book of Exodus/Shemot, when God gives Moses instructions for ordaining priests.  The first animal offering prescribed is a bull.

And you shall take all the fat that covers the innards and the extra lobe on the kaveid and the two kelayot and the fat that is on them, and you shall turn them into smoke on the altar.  (Exodus 29:13)

kaveid (כָּבֵד) = liver; heavy, weighty, oppressive, impressive, important.

The first eleven verses that refer to kidneys are all part of prescriptions for making animal offerings to God.1  For most types of offerings2 the fattiest parts, including the abdominal organs, are completely burned up into smoke.  Other parts of the animal are reserved for other purposes: meat for human consumption, blood for splashing on altars and curtains, and hides either for leather or for burning outside the camp.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra (“And he called”)3, describes specific organs burned up along with the belly fat in two types of offerings:

  • the shelamim (שְׁלָמִים = wholeness offering) of a community member who wants to thank God or give a voluntary donation.
  • the asham (אָשָׁם = guilt offering) of a priest who unwittingly caused the people to disobey one of God’s rules.

And [the priest] shall offer, from the slaughtered animal of the shelamim, a fire-offering to God: the belly fat and the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails; and the two kelayot and the fat that is on them, which is on the sinews; and the extra lobe on the kaveid over the kelayot which he removes.  And the sons of Aaron shall turn them into smoke at the altar … a fire-offering, a soothing scent for God.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 3:3-5)

The same organs are singled out for burning up into smoke when a priest offers a bull as an asham.4

Priests with ordination offering

When the instructions for removing and burning these organs were recorded,5 they were literal instructions for the priests serving at the temple in Jerusalem.  Before each animal is slaughtered, its owner must lay a hand on the animal’s head, a magic or symbolic act transferring some of the owner’s spirit or identity.6  Then when the animal is offered to God, the owner is offering part of himself to God.7

The meaty parts of the animal are lifted toward God, roasted rather than completely burned, and then eaten by the priests and their families and/or the owners and their guests.  Thus the animal’s owner shares his muscles, representing his actions in the world, with God.  He will continue to act so as to take care of himself, his family, and his community, but now he dedicates himself to doing so in alignment with God’s laws.

The organs from a shelamim or an asham that are completely burned could correspond symbolically with what the owner is surrendering entirely to God.  The extra lobe of the kaveid, the liver8 might represent excess self-importance; by surrendering it, the owner humbles himself.

What part of the owner is being offered with the kelayot. the kidneys?


The kidneys appear as metaphor in poems elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.  Sometimes kidneys refer to a person’s deepest self.  For example, the father in the book of Proverbs says:

            My son, if wisdom [is in] your leiv,

                        My leiv will rejoice in me.

           And my kilyot will exult,

                        When your lips are speaking upright things.                                                 (Proverbs 23:15-16)

The father predicts that if he observes his son thinking and speaking wisely, he will be happy both at the level of his conscious mind and at the level of his deepest feelings.

In some biblical poems, the kidneys represent a person’s conscience or moral sense.  For example, Psalm 16 implies that the voice of one’s conscience is the voice of God:

          I bless God, who has advised me;

                        Even [during] the nights my kelayot have chastised me.                        (Psalm 16:7)

And Jeremiah asks God:

Why does the way of the wicked succeed?

                        All the treacherous enjoy peace and quiet!

            You planted them, and they also took root;

                        They went and made fruit.

            You are close in their mouths,

                        But remote from their kilyot.

            Yet you, God, you know me, you see me.

                        And you have tested my leiv; it is with you.  (Jeremiah 12:1-3)

In other words, the wicked talk about God easily, but they have no access to divine warnings from their consciences.  Therefore they calmly continue to produce evil results.  Jeremiah, on the other hand, is dedicated to God with all his thoughts and feelings; his heart (mind) is in harmony with his kidneys (conscience).9


In the 6th century B.C.E. and earlier, astute Israelites and those who recorded their words understood the human conscience.  Jeremiah expected people with a weak conscience to be treacherous and violate God’s laws.  Today we identify sociopaths (or people with “anti-social personality disorders”) as those who have little or no conscience, who lack empathy or any deep feelings, and who casually disregard rules.  They are “the wicked” of the bible who have no communication with their shriveled kidneys, and therefore are unable to surrender their conscience or their feelings to God.

For the rest of us, who make it out of childhood with healthy kidneys, our minds have a chance at connecting with both our deepest feelings and our conscience.  But it does not happen automatically.

In Vayikra, the owner of a sacrificial animal brings his deepest self, as well as his conscience, to God as the kelayot of the animal are turned into smoke.  It is the ultimate act of trust in God.

Today we know that it is wise to check one’s own conscience before following what anyone else says God wants.  Some people find the voice of God in their own deepest selves and their own moral sense.

I pray that we all find our own ways to express thanksgiving and become more generous, like the shelamim donor; to pay attention and notice when we have inadvertently done something wrong, like the asham offerer; to cultivate empathy without selfishness; and to enlarge our own conscience so that we hear the divine voice of love rather than fear or hatred.

  1. Exodus 29:13, 29:22; Leviticus 3:4, 3:10, 3:15, 4:9, 7:4, 8:16, 8:25, 9:10, 9:19.
  2. In an olah (עֺלָה), a rising offering, the entire animal is turned into smoke rising up to God.
  3. The first Torah portion in each of the five books has the same name as the book, which is the first significant word to appear. In this case, both the book and its first portion are called Vayikra, the Hebrew word that opens the book of Leviticus.
  4. Leviticus 4:8-10.
  5. Modern scholars agree that Leviticus 1:1-8:36, comprising the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, were written by the “P” source. Although they disagree on the century in which P passages were written, scholars in the late 20th and early 21st centuries C.E. have all dated the P source to sometime when the first Israelite temple stood in Jerusalem, i.e. between the 10th century B.C.E. and the temple’s destruction in 588 B.C.E.
  6. Samakh (סָמַךְ) = he leaned or lay (a hand or hands) on. When Moses lays his hands on Joshua, he transfers some of his authority and spirit to his successor as the leader of the Israelites (Numbers 27:18-23, Deuteronomy 34:9).  When the Levites are ordained, the Israelites lay hands on them to make them the people’s substitutes for service in the sanctuary (Numbers 8:10).  The word samakh is also used for the ritual before an animal sacrifice.  The word smikha (סְמִיכָה), from the root samakh, refers to the ordination of rabbis and other Jewish religious functionaries to this day.
  7. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra Part 1, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem & New York, 2002, p. 16-17.
  8. Cattle, sheep, and goats have an extra lobe of the liver not found in humans. In Hebrew this lobe is the yoteret (יֺתֶרֶת), from the same root as yeter (יֶתֶר) = remainder, excess, what is left over.
  9. Kelayot also appear in Jeremiah 11:20, 17:10, and 20:12 as a different part of the mind from the leiv.

Vayakheil & Ki Tissa: Second Chance

March 7, 2018 at 5:37 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Vayakheil | Leave a comment

Moses’ first forty-day stint on Mt. Sinai results in the disaster of the golden calf, which brings out the worst in both Moses and the people.  (See last week’s post, Ki Tissa: Making an Idol Out of Fear.)  But then Moses goes back up the mountain for another forty days, and gives the people a second chance.

40 days and 40 nights

During the first forty days and forty nights, God gives Moses the plans for building a holy sanctuary, its furnishings, and the vestments and accoutrements of its priests.  Meanwhile, the people below are afraid that Moses has died in the fire on top of the mountain.  In last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, they tell Aaron, the deputy leader:

“Get up!  Make for us a god that will go in front of us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him!”  (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)

During his second forty days on the mountaintop, Moses persuades the God-character to forgive the people for making an idol (the golden calf), and to reveal more of the divine personality to him.  Meanwhile, the people below wait patiently for Moses to return.  When he does, they are afraid of what happened to him.

And Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, and hey!—the skin of his face glowed!  And they were afraid to come near him.  (Exodus 34:30)

But Moses calls to them, and gradually the people come close enough to listen to his report from God.

Some assembly required

At the end of Moses’ first forty days on the mountain, the people assemble themselves and confront Aaron with their demand for an idol.

Vayikaheil, the people, against Aaron, and they said to him: “Get up!  Make for us a god …” (Exodus 32:1)

vayikaheil (וַיִּקָּהֵל) = and they assembled, and they gathered together.

When Moses returns from his second forty days, the people wait until he assembles them.  This week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil, begins:

Vayakheil, Moses, the whole community of the Israelites, and he said to them: “These are the things that God commanded you to do …” (Exodus 35:1)

vayakheil (וַיַּקְהֵל) = and he assembled.  (From the same root as vayikaheil.)

Calf versus tent

Gold calf from Temple of Baalat, Byblos

The first time, the people demand an idol, a statue for God to inhabit, and Aaron makes a golden calf.  Nobody remembers God’s prohibition against worshiping idols, i.e. images or statues for gods to inhabit.

Then they said: “This is your god, Israel, the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”  (Exodus 32:4)

Aaron confirms their identification of the golden calf by declaring a festival for God, using God’s personal four-letter name.1

The second time, they make the tent-sanctuary God requested and sanctioned, confident that God will dwell in it.  Moses has time now to repeat what God said during the first forty days on the mountaintop:

“They shall make a holy place for me, and I will dwell among them. Like everything that I show you, the pattern of the dwelling-place and the pattern of all its furnishings, that is how you shall make it.”  (Exodus 25:8-9)


The first time, the people donate their gold earrings so Aaron can make them an idol.

And all the people took the gold rings that were in their ears, and they brought them to Aaron.  And he took from their hands, and he shaped [the gold] with a metal-working tool, and he made it [into] a calf.  (Exodus 32:3-4)

The second time, in the Torah portion Vayakheil, the people donate precious metals and gems, expensive dyes, linen and goat hair and leather, wood, oil, and spices—everything needed to make an elaborate portable sanctuary and its furnishings.

Then they came, every man whose heart lifted and everyone whose spirit nadevah him.  They came with the donation of God for the works of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the clothing of the holy.  And they came, the men in addition to the women, everyone nediv of heart … (Exodus 35:21-22)

nadevah (נָדְבָה) = it prompted, urged on.

nediv (נְדִיב) = willing, generous, noble.  (From the same root as nadevah.)

Moses also calls for skilled workers, male and female, to volunteer to make all the sacred objects.

And they took from in front of Moses all the donations that the Israelites had brought for the work of making (the items for) the service of the holy.  But [the people] brought to him more nedevah, morning after morning.  (Exodus/Shemot 36:3)

nedevah (נְדֶבָה) = voluntary gift, spontaneous generous offering.  (Also from the same root as nediv.)

The people donate so many materials that Moses has to tell them to stop.  Their hearts overflow with the desire to give, and the craftspeople among them are eager to donate their time and skills to make a sanctuary for the God of Moses.

From broken to whole

Moses Breaking the Tablets, by Rembrandt

The first time Moses comes down with a pair of stone tablets engraved by God, he sees the people dancing in front of the golden calf.

And it happened as he drew near the camp: he saw the calf and the circle-dances, and Moses got angry, and he hurled the tablets down from his hands and shattered them at the bottom of the mountain.  (Exodus 32:19)

But when he comes down with a second pair of engraved tablets, the stones remain whole.


What the people want all along is a leader to guide them, and a visible sign of God to reassure them.  They fail to get what they want the first time because, in their fear, they assume Moses is dead and they forget that their God hates idols.

The second time around the people succeed in getting what they want.  They trust Moses to return and he does, more impressive than ever.  Then they eagerly create a new and more impressive visible reminder of the presence of their invisible God.

Furthermore, they now have something they can do to please God, a project that gives their lives meaning and purpose.

All of these rewards result from the people’s change in attitude.  The second time around, they wait patiently for Moses to return from the mountaintop.  They are careful to follow God’s rules and obey God’s prophet.  Relieved that both God and Moses have forgiven them, they become eager to make their relationship with God better than ever.  This leads to an outpouring of generosity.

What causes the people’s change of heart?

After Moses smashes the first pair of tablets, he has a few thousand Israelites killed, and God strikes more of them with a plague.  After that, I suspect, the people are more terrified of Moses and God than they are of being leaderless.

But then Moses forgives them.  The next day, having recovered from his anger and fear, Moses announces that he will beg God to forgive them, and he climbs back up Mt. Sinai.2

Moses also asks God for a different vision of the divine, and the God-character shows him another side of the divine personality: the thirteen attributes of God, which include compassion, tenderness, patience, forbearance, and kindness.3  Finally, God lets the people build the sanctuary for him despite their two-day relapse into idol worship.

After a disaster or a misunderstanding, it takes compassion and kindness from leaders for their followers to respond with trust and generosity.

May we all develop these attributes.

  1. Exodus 32:5.
  2. Exodus 32:30.
  3. Exodus 34:6-7

Ki Tissa: Making an Idol Out of Fear

March 1, 2018 at 8:10 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa | 1 Comment

The Israelites give up waiting for Moses to come back down from Mount Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“When you bring up”).  Forty days before they had watched him walk into the fire at the top.1  Now they think he must have died there.

And the people saw that Moses took too long to come down from the mountain, and the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Get up!  Make for us elohim that will go in front of us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him!  (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)

elohim (אֱלוֹהִים= gods (the plural of eloha, אֱלוֹהַּ.); a god, God.

The Israelites and their fellow-travelers have run out of hope.  They are afraid they are stranded in the wilderness without their leader, without the man who spoke with God and knew what to do.  And even God’s pillar of cloud and fire, which led them from Egypt to Mount Sinai, is gone.

Out of fear, they ask Aaron to make them an idol or two.  Out of fear, he does it, and calls the golden calf by the four-letter name of the God.2  The next morning they make animal offerings to it, and feast and drink and dance and play.

Moses Breaking the Tablets, by Rembrandt

And it happened as he drew near the camp: he saw the calf and the circle-dances, and Moses got angry, and he hurled the tablets down from his hands and shattered them at the bottom of the mountain.  (Exodus 32:19)

The sound of the shattered tablets stops the revelers cold.

And he took the calf that they had made and her burned it in fire, and he ground it until it was fine powder, and he scattered it on the surface of the water and made the Israelites drink it.  (Exodus 32:20)

The people meekly obey.  Moses is in charge.

Then Moses questions Aaron about what happened.

And Moses saw that the people were out of control, because Aaron had let them get out of control …  (Exodus 32:25)

Where there is anger there is often submerged fear.  Now Moses’ fear emerges.  He does not realize that his own appearance has restored order.

And Moses stood in a gate of the camp, and he said: “Whoever is for God, to me!”  And all the sons of Levi gathered to him.  And he said to them: “Thus says God, the God of Israel:  Each man put his sword on his thigh.  Pass through and return from gate to gate of the camp, and each man kill his kinsman, and each man his neighbor, and each man his closest.”  (Exodus 32:26-27)

Did God really issue this order?  Elsewhere in the book of Exodus/Shemot, God and Moses have a conversation first, and then Moses transmits God’s instructions.  Here, God says nothing.  Perhaps Moses, like many insecure religious leaders, is claiming higher authority for his own words.

Spoiling the Egyptians,
Golden Haggadah, 1325-1349

All the Levite men have swords, even though they were slaves in Egypt.  The Torah portion Beshallach notes: And the Israelites went up armed from the land of Egypt.  (Exodus13:18)   Perhaps while the Israelite women were taking gold, silver, jewelry, and clothing from their Egyptian neighbors, the Israelite men were stealing weapons, knowing they might be attacked by either Egyptians or new enemies in the wilderness.3  Enough men were armed to wage a battle when they were attacked by Amalek.4

They did not expect to attack each other.

And the sons of Levi did as Moses spoke.  And about 3,000 men from the people fell that day.  (32:28)

Is it really necessary for Moses to order his fellow Levites to harden their hearts and kill so many people, even their own best friends and nearest relatives?

No.  Moses forgets that he is no longer the tongue-tied novice he was at the Burning Bush; that he has threatened the Pharaoh in his palace, and commanded thousands of people.  Yes, the Israelites grumbled a few times between the Reed Sea and Mount Sinai.  But they kept following him.  And during God’s revelation at Sinai, the people were so shaken they begged Moses to pass on God’s words to them while they stood at a distance.5  They were happy to trust him.

Moses does not realize that the people are relieved to have their leader back in charge.  He does not see that now he could speak to the people instead of having them killed.  He could remind them that God does not want them to worship any images; the second commandment says so.  He could say that God will not abandon them as long as they did not abandon God.

But Moses does not see it.  He acts out of fear, and 3,000 people die.

How can someone be so blind?  I think it begins with personal insecurity.  Moses tried to get out of being God’s prophet by making excuses at the burning bush.6  He did not believe he could be competent prophet and leader.

In America today, many people are living with uncertainty and a lack of confidence.  Some Americans feel insecure because the values they learned from their families, and the work they know how to do, are losing their value in our changing society.

Next, an alarming piece of news ignites personal insecurity and turns it into anger and fear. For Moses, it is seeing his people dance around an idol.  Today, it might be propaganda about immigrants, or news of a mass shooting.

Under the influence of fear, it is hard to assess the facts and draw rational conclusions.  It is hard to call for improving the rule of law, for improving society, for attending to unbalanced individuals.  But it is easy to succumb to panic and call for more weapons to defend ourselves.  And it is easy to panic and demonize the people who oppose us.

We are all afraid of something.  We do not all act of fear.  But it is hard to transcend yourself when you are too angry and fearful to see straight, like Moses when he realizes his people were out of control.

May we all be blessed with the ability to take a deep breath; with sympathy for our fellow human beings; with the humility to change our minds; and with the insight to stop the cycle of fear.

  1. Exodus 24:17-18.
  2. See my post Lekh-Lekha: New Names for God.
  3. Exodus 12:35-36.
  4. Exodus 17:8-13.
  5. Exodus 20:15-18.
  6. Exodus 3:11-4:13.

Psalm 127: Anxiety and Security

February 21, 2018 at 9:55 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim | 2 Comments

Vigilance can be contemplative, as when one keeps a vigil.  Or vigilance can be stressful, as when one keeps watch for the least sign of trouble, afraid to blink.

Parts of an almond tree

In last week’s post, Terumah: Tree of Light, I explored how the Hebrew word shakad (שָׁקַד) has two different meanings: “it was like an almond”, and “he was vigilant”.  In the Hebrew Bible, some words based on shakad describe how the menorah is made like parts of an almond tree.1   Others refer to God’s vigilant attention to the Israelites,2 human vigilant alertness for chances to do evil,3 a leopard watching vigilantly for someone to leave a town and become its prey,4 and people who stay awake and alert at night.5  One appearance of shakad that refers to staying alert at night is in Psalm 127:1.

This week I noticed that Psalm 127 as a whole is a meditation on the anxiety of vigilance and the serenity of acceptance.

Humans are easily gripped by anxiety.  In simple situations, a bit of anxiety can be helpful, motivating a person to take action against a threat, or to create a more secure life.  But continuous anxiety, like continuous suffering, damages both one’s physical health and one’s ability to make good decisions.

Psalm 127 begins with three different examples of how we cannot guarantee our own security, no matter how much we do.  Knowing this makes humans anxious.  How can we find serenity despite our insecurity?  According to Psalm 127, the answer is God.

(A song of ascents for Solomon.)

          Unless God builds a bayit

                        In vain do its builders labor.

          Unless God watches over a city

                        In vain is the watchman shakad. (Psalm 127:1)

bayit (בַּיִת) = house, home, household; temple.

Psalm 127 is dedicated to King Solomon, who built the first Israelite temple in Jerusalem.  He implication is that despite all the fine materials and the labor by both willing craftsmen and temporary slaves (corvée labor), the temple could not have become a home for God if God had not chosen to dwell there—or had not been welcomed into the hearts of the people.

The word bayit also means a physical house providing protection from the weather, wild beasts, and enemies; a home providing a place to rest in comfort and security; and a household or family providing mutual support.

City of Megiddo

A walled city also provided protection, security, and mutual support for its residents.  Its watchmen served as guards to sound the alarm if they saw anything threatening.  Today nation-states are supposed to fill the function of ancient cities, protecting their residents from external attack and internal crime, and providing systems for mutual aid and support.

The point of the first verse is that no matter how hard we work to achieve security, we cannot guarantee it.  A house with locks and alarms and bars over the windows might still be smashed by a bomb or an earthquake; while setting the locks and alarms and seeing the bars help to keep the inhabitants in a state of useless anxiety.  A nation with walls and guards on its borders, and X-ray machines in its airports, is still not safe from its own natives (especially when they are armed); while talking about “homeland security” generates more useless anxiety.

Real security comes not from anxious labor, but from a different state of mind, which this psalm attributes to God.


The next verse of Psalm 127 remains a puzzle for translators and commentators.

          In vain you rise early

                        And stop to sit late,

          Eating the bread of suffering;

                        Indeed [God] gives “his” beloved ones sheina.  (Psalm 127:2)

sheina (שֵׁנָא) = ?  (The usual translation of sheina here is “sleep”, but the word is a hapax legomenon, i.e. it occurs only once in the entire bible.  This translation is based on the word sheinah (שֵׁנָה) = sleep, which occurs 22 times.  Perhaps sheina in Psalm 127 is merely a misspelling.  On the other hand, sheina could be related to shena (שְׁנָא) = changed, altered.)

The psalm’s reference to eating “the bread of suffering” alludes to the story of the Garden of Eden.  There God tells Adam:

“… accursed is the earth on account of you; in suffering you shall eat from it all the days of your life.  Thorns and thistles it will sprout for you…  By the sweat of your face you will eat bread …”  (Genesis 3:17-19).

Psalm 127 suggests that even if people get up early and toil away at agriculture, only sitting down late in the day, their labor might still be in vain, unless God sends the right weather for their crops.  Yet those whom God loves have a different attitude.  They work, but they also rest—perhaps because God helps them to change.  They no longer suffer anxiety about their crops, since they find security in their own relationship with God.6

In the Garden of Eden story, God also predicts that Eve will suffer as she labors to bear children:

To the woman [God] said: “I will certainly multiply your suffering and your pregnancies; in suffering you will bear children …”  (Genesis 3:16) 7


The third verse of Psalm 127 points out that childbirth can be viewed either as a hardship or as a reward.

          Hey, an inheritance from God is sons;

                        A reward is the fruit of the womb.  (Psalm 127:3)

It takes more than the two parents to make a baby.  In the Torah, God is responsible for opening and closing wombs, i.e. making pregnancy possible.8

Quiver & arrowheads
16th century BCE

The praise of having children continues from the male point of view.

          Like arrows in the hand of a warrior

                      So are the sons of youth.

          Fortunate is the man

                    Who fills his quiver with them.

          They will not be shamed

                    When they speak to enemies in the gate.  (127:4-5)

These last two verses offer a resolution of the first verse.  If you want to build a household (one meaning of bayit), you will labor in vain unless God lets you have a son.  In ancient Israel and Judah, the head of a household was a man, who acquired a wife (or wives), children, and servants.  His household was worthless without at least one son to inherit his land, livestock, and/or business.  Sons could also defend his property if he were attacked.9  So a literal interpretation of the opening and closing of Psalm 127 is:

          Unless God builds a household,

                      In vain do its builders labor …

          Unless God opens a womb,

                      In vain does a man seek security.


An interpretation of Psalm 127 for our own time might be:

         Unless we see God in each other,

                        In vain does our household exist.

          Unless we want friends more than walls,

                      In vain do we watch out for foes.  (127:1)

          Unless we change suffering to love,

                      In vain do we work for our bread.  (127:2)

            From God we inherit our world;

                      The fruit of each womb is a gift.  (127:3)

            Fortunate is the human who learns

                      How to speak to an enemy in the gate.

            Accept what life brings with a full heart,

                      And you will not be insecure.  (127:4-5)

  1. Exodus 25:33-34, 37:19-20.
  2. Jeremiah 31:28, Jeremiah 44:27, Daniel 9:14.
  3. Isaiah 29:20.
  4. Jeremiah 5:6.
  5. Psalm 102:8, Psalm 127:1, Job 21:32.
  6. “An ordinary person, once he becomes aware of this inadequacy of all human endeavor, will worry without cease; he will be driven to overtax his energies; he will lose rest and sleep, and he will be unable to enjoy the very bread he eats. But it is through this same knowledge of inadequacy of all human effort that he who is aware of God’s tender love, of His friendship, as it were (ידיד is passive, i.e., ‘beloved’), will acquire that serenity which will enable him to sleep in peace.”  (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Tehillim, translated by Gertrude Hirschler, Feldheim Publishers, New York, 2014, pp. 1049-1050.)  Hirsch was a 19th-century Orthodox rabbi.
  7. The Hebrew words I translate as “suffering”—atzavim (עֲצָבִים) in Psalm 127:2, itzavon (עִצָּבוֹן) in Genesis 3:16 and 3:17, and etzev (עֶצֶב) in Genesis 3:16 all mean “suffering, hardship, pain, distress”. All three words come from the same root verb, atzav (עָצַב), which means “caused suffering or pain” in the kal form, and “felt distressed, anxious” in the nifil form.
  8. The belief that only God opens or closes a woman’s womb appears in Genesis 29:31, 30:2, and 30:22; and 1 Samuel 1:5-6.
  9. “The man who begets many sons in his youth creates the equivalent of a little army on which he can depend. In the social structure of ancient Israel, this may not have been an entirely fanciful notion.”  (Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, p. 450)

Terumah: Tree of Light

February 14, 2018 at 11:01 pm | Posted in Terumah, Tetzavveh | 1 Comment

In February the almond trees bloom in Israel.  They are the first trees to wake up from winter dormancy, and their white flowers appear before their leaves.

Moses receives detailed instructions from God Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”), for making a tent-sanctuary and each holy item inside it.  God describes the lampstand or menorah in terms of an almond tree.

You shall make a menorah of pure gold.  Of hammered work you shall make the menorah; its seat and its shaft, its bowls, its kaftorim, and its blossoms shall be from it.  (Exodus/Shemot 25:31)

menorah (מְנֺרַה) = lampstand supporting bowls of oil with wicks.

Almond drupes

kaftor (כַּפְתֺּר), plural kaftorim (כַּפְתֺּרִים) = knobs, drupes (fruits with pits, such as peaches, plums, and almonds), capitals of columns resembling almond drupes; natives of Crete.

Since the lamp-stand is hammered out of pure gold, a fairly soft metal, it cannot be any taller than six feet. The Talmud (Menachot 28b) says it was eighteen handbreadths, just over five feet.  At that height, the high priest could easily reach the seven oil lamps on top to refill the bowls and trim and light the wicks.1

(The Arch of Titus in Rome, carved in 82 C.E., bears a relief sculpture of the sacking of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, including two soldiers carrying away a menorah somewhat shorter than they are.)

The overall shape of the menorah, according to this week’s Torah portion, is like a flat or espaliered tree with a central trunk and three branches on each side.  The branches and the central shaft all terminate in oil lamps, so there are seven lamps across the top:

And you shall make seven lamps on it … of pure gold.  (Exodus 25:37-38)

And [it shall have] six shafts going out from its sides: three shafts of the menorah on one side and three shafts of the menorah on the second side.  Three bowls meshukadim on one side, on each a kaftor and a blossom, and three bowls meshukadim on the other side, on each a kaftor and a blossom; the same way for all six of the shafts going out from the menorah.  And on [the central shaft of] the menorah, four bowls meshukadim, [each with] its kaftor and its blossom: a kaftor under each pair of shafts branching from it …  (Exodus/Shemot 25:32-35)

meshukadim (מְשֻׁקָּדִים) = being made like almonds.  (From one of the two root verbs spelled shakad, שָׁקַד.)

Menorah model at Temple Mount Institute

Each oil lamp consists of a bowl that looks like an almond blossom sitting on top of an almond drupe.  (Unlike a peach, the fleshy part of an almond drupe is a relatively thin covering over the pit, which has an almond seed or nut inside.)  The central shaft of the menorah has the same decorative motif at each of the three junctions where shafts branch out, with the central shaft continuing up from the flower-bowl shape.  At the top of the central shaft the fourth almond flower-bowl is open and serves as the middle lamp.

Lexicons classify meshukadim as a form of the verb shakad (שָׁקַד) = made like an almond, as opposed to the identically spelled verb shakad (שָׁקַד) = watched for, was vigilant, was alert.  Another passage in the Hebrew Bible uses the identical spelling and pronunciation of the two shakad root verbs as a prophetic pun.

And the word of God happened to me, saying: “What do you see, Jeremiah?”  And I said: “A shoot of a shakeid I see.”  And God said to me: “You do well to see it.  Because I am shokeid over my word, to do it.”

shakeid (שָׁקֵד) = almond, almond tree.

shokeid (שֺׁקֵד) = being vigilant, watchful, alert.

The Hebrew Bible also describes God as watchfully attentive to the Israelites, for good or bad.2  Elsewhere in the Bible, the verb shakad that means being vigilant is used to describe people watching for chances to do evil,3 a leopard watching for humans to leave their towns and become its prey,4 and people who stay awake at night.5


Lamps are symbols of enlightenment, divine inspiration that casts light so we can see something more clearly.  The menorah in the sanctuary is the size of a human for practical reasons—but perhaps also because it is humankind’s job to receive and spread enlightenment.

It may be shaped like a tree in recollection of in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad in the garden of Eden.  After all, enlightenment is a spark of insight that blooms into new knowledge.

Why is the design of the menorah taken from the almond tree?  I think this is a double symbol, from the double meaning of meshukadim: “being made like almonds” and “from those who are vigilant, watchful, awake, alert”.  Almond trees flower before any other useful tree.  They wake up and bloom when it is still winter.  Similarly, enlightenment can bloom even in the winter of our souls—but only if we keep watch for it, if we stay alert to any sign of holiness.

We can be shokeid, vigilant, by serving as our own high priests, tending the lamps of our own inner menorah.  We human beings are all too liable to sink into a semi-conscious state in which we operate automatically, making habitual assumptions instead of asking ourselves questions.  Yet when we do pay close attention to our own minds, to the people we encounter, and to the teachings we receive, we create our own menorah and find our own enlightenment.

(I published an earlier version of this essay on January 30, 2011)

  1. Aaron, the first high priest, has the duty of tending the lamps.  See Exodus 30:7-8, Leviticus 24:3-4, Numbers 8:1-2.
  2. Jeremiah 31:28, Jeremiah 44:27, Daniel 9:14.
  3. Isaiah 29:20.
  4. Jeremiah 5:6.
  5. Psalm 102:8, 127:1, Job 21:32.

Mishpatim: The Immigrant

February 7, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Posted in Mishpatim | 5 Comments

Aramean Immigrants in Canaan

The first immigrant in the Bible is Abraham.

And God said to Abraham: “Go for yourself, away from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 12:10)

Abraham, his wife Sarah, his nephew Lot, and all the people who work for them leave the land of Aram forever and immigrate to Canaan, where they become neighbors, allies, and trading partners with the natives.

Just as most Americans who were born in the United States are descended from immigrants, the “native citizens” of the two Israelite kingdoms traced their descent to the immigrants Abraham and Sarah.

Israelite Immigrants in Egypt

Abraham and Sarah’s grandson Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, immigrates to Egypt with his entire family.

According to the Torah the Israelites (“the Children of Israel”) live there for 430 years1—but the Egyptians still view them as foreigners.  Two pharaohs worry that if the Israelites become too populous they might rebel and fight against Egypt.2

They finally do rebel, but without fighting.  The Israelites and some fellow-travelers walk away from slavery and out of Egypt, following Moses and God’s pillar of cloud and fire.

God’s plan is to “give” the Israelites the land of Canaan, where their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were once resident aliens.

Immigrants in Israelite Kingdoms

At Mount Sinai, after the revelation with the ten commandments, God gives the people a series of more specific laws in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”).  One law becomes a theme in the Hebrew Bible:

You may not oppress a geir, nor may you push him around3, for you yourselves were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Exodus/Shemot 22:20)

geir (גֵּר), plural geirim (גֵּרִים) = immigrant, resident alien; (or) a foreign man who has settled down in ancient Israel, has been circumcised, and observes the state religion.  (From the root verb gur, גוּר.)

As far as we know, no other country in the Ancient Near East had a law against oppressing immigrants.  From Exodus to Malachi, the Hebrew Bible tells us 13 times not to oppress, push, wrong, or exploit a geirFour of those times the bible adds that we were geirim in Egypt.4

Later in this week’s Torah portion, God elaborates:

You may not push around a geir; and you know the nefesh of a geir, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Exodus 23:9)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = soul that animates the body, state of mind, inclination, appetite.

Does knowing the state of mind of an immigrant help people to treat new immigrants fairly?

Twentieth-century scholar Nehama Leibowitz has pointed out that many people who were oppressed in the past become tyrants themselves if they come into positions of power.5  This, she wrote, is why Ramban interpreted the phrase “you were geirim in the land of Egypt” as a reminder that the Egyptian oppressors thought there was no one to help the Israelites, but God responded to their cries—and destroyed much of Egypt in the process.6  The implied warning is: When you have your own land, don’t imagine that the strangers living among you will be helpless.  God will respond to the cries of any immigrants you oppress, and then you’ll be sorry.

The bible distinguishes between a visiting foreigner, who is not expected to observe Israelite religious law, and a geir, a resident alien who has no other home.  A geir must follow the same rules as a native about holy days,7 burnt offerings to the God of Israel,8 blasphemy9, child sacrifice,10 and procedures regarding dead animals11.

Natives and geirim get equal rights as well as equal responsibilities.  Judges are forbidden to wrong a geir12, and the cities of refuge are available to a geir as well as a native who commits accidental manslaughter.13

Furthermore, employers must let the geirim who work for them take a day off every week, just like the Israelites.14  One law in the portion Mishpatim states:

Six days you shall do your jobs, but on the seventh day you shall cease, so that your ox and your donkey shall rest, and the son of your slave-woman and the geir yinafeish.  (Exodus 23:12)

yinafeish (יִנָּפֵשׁ) = he shall refresh his nefesh, recover himself, reanimate himself.  (See my post Shabbat in Yitro, Mishpatim, and Ki Tissa: Soul Recovery.)

The Gleaners,
by Jean Francois Millet

The bible considers geirim a disadvantaged group, like widows, fatherless children, and the very poor, so there are many reminders that the rest of society must help them.  Every year, land owners must leave behind gleanings for the poor, widows, orphans, and geirim.15  Every third year, they must give a tithe to feed several groups of people who do not own land, including geirim.16

Why were geirim at a disadvantage?  Modern scholars have noted that resident aliens were especially vulnerable to being cheated and taken advantage of, because unlike ordinary Israelites, they had no clan network to protect them, and unlike visiting foreigners, they could not call on their own countries for succor.17  Furthermore, they had no hereditary land in either of the two kingdoms of Israel.  They could buy land, but every fiftieth year the land reverted to the Israelite clan that originally owned it.18

When Immigrants Are Fellow-Travelers to Canaan

All the biblical laws about not oppressing geirim and making sure they have enough to eat apply to geirim who arrive after the Israelites have established their own country in the land formerly called Canaan.

But three times in the bible, when Israelites are preparing to seize the land of Canaan, the geirim who chose to travel with the Israelites are included as regular citizens of the new kingdom-to-be.

In Deuteronomy, Moses declares that all the geirim who traveled with the Israelites from Egypt will be included in the covenant with God.19  Joshua then seizes much of Canaan through war, killing or subjugating the native population (as Europeans did to the native populations in America in order to seize their land).  But when Joshua holds a covenantal ceremony for the new owners of the land, he asks the children of the geirim who traveled with the Israelites from Egypt to join the Israelites in the ritual blessing at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval.20

During the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century B.C.E., the prophet Ezekiel tells the Israelites that when they finally return to their old land, they will be allotted land-holdings along with the geirim among them.  And they will be for you as native-born citizens, along with the Children of Israel … (Ezekiel 47:22)


In short, the bible dictates that people from other ethnic groups who joined the Israelites in Egypt or Babylon will become citizens just like the descendants of Jacob.  People who immigrate separately to the land of Israel must receive the same rights and responsibilities as native-born citizens.  God decrees that these geirim must not be cheated or oppressed.  They have to be treated with justice and kindness, and if they are poor they must be fed the same way as the poor among the Israelites.

These laws about treating immigrants as equals were so important that they were repeated again and again in the Hebrew Bible.

If the relatively primitive culture of ancient Israel held this standard, I wonder why the United States of America cannot do the same today?

  1. Exodus 12:40.
  2. Both the first and the second pharaoh in the Exodus story enslave the Israelites by assigning them to corvee labor making bricks, building cities, and doing fieldwork (Exodus 1:8-14, 5:4-9), on the theory that if they have no free time, they cannot rebel. The first pharaoh also tries to reduce the Israelite population through infanticide (Exodus 1:15-22).
  3. The verb lachatz (לָחַץ) can mean press toward, crowd, oppress, push toward, or push around.
  4. We are told not to oppress (inah, עִנָּה) or push around (lachatz, לָחַץ) or subvert the rights of (hitah mishpat, הִטָּה מִשְׁפַּט) or exploit (ashak, עָשָׁק) a geir in Exodus 20:20 and 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 1:16, 24:14, 24:17-18, and 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6 and 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7 and 22:29; Zecharaiah 7:10, and Malachi 3:5. A reference to the Israelites being geirim in Egypt is included in Exodus 20:20 and 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, and Deuteronomy 24:17-18.  God tells native citizens to love the geir in Leviticus 19:33-34 and Deuteronomy 10:19.
  5. Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, Part II, translated by Aryeh Newman, Joint Authority of Jewish Zionist Education, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 384-6.
  6. 13th century rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, or Nachmanides.
  7. Exodus 12:19 and 12:48-49; Leviticus 16:29; Numbers 9:14; and Deuteronomy 16:11-12 and 16:14.
  8. When geirim make burnt offerings to the God of Israel, they must follow the same rules as natives in Leviticus 17:8 and 22:18, Numbers 15:14-16 (which adds “you are alike before God”), and Numbers 19:10. Geirim are also included in the community that God forgives when it unknowingly makes an error in observance (Numbers 15:16 and 15:29).
  9. Leviticus 24:16 (using God’s name in blasphemy) and Numbers 15:30 (reviling God).
  10. Geirim, like native citizens, are forbidden to offer their children to Molech (Leviticus 18:26 and 20:2).
  11. Geirim as well as natives are forbidden to eat the blood of slaughtered animals (Leviticus 17:10-13) or animal carcasses killed by predators (Leviticus 17:15).  Leviticus 24:21-22 says the law about making restitution if you kill someone else’s livestock also applies to geirim.
  12. For example, see Exodus 12:49, Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 14-16, Deuteronomy 1:16, and Jeremiah 22:3.
  13. Numbers 35:15 and Joshua 20:9.
  14. Shabbat for geirim is mandated in Exodus 20:10 (one of the Ten Commandments), Exodus 23:12 (translated above), and Numbers 5:14.
  15. Leviticus 19:10 and 23:22.
  16. Deuteronomy 14:29 and 26:11-13.
  17. James L. Kugel, The God of Old, The Free Press, New York, p. 109; and W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 582.
  18. See my post Behar: Owning Land.
  19. Deuteronomy 29:10.
  20. Joshua 8:33-35.

Yitro: Rejected Wife

January 31, 2018 at 5:03 pm | Posted in Yitro | 4 Comments

Moses, the Israelites, and their fellow-travelers are camping in the wilderness of Sinai when visitors arrive at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Yitro.

And Yitro, priest of Midian, father-in-law of Moses, heard all that God had done for Moses and for his people, Israel: that God had brought Israel out from Egypt.  So Yitro, father-in-law of Moses, took Tzipporah, wife of Moses, after her shilluchim, and her two sons … (Exodus/Shemot 18:1-3)

shilluchim (שִׁלּוּחִים) = dismissal of a wife to her father’s house; dowry or farewell gift when a woman leaves her father’s house to marry.  (This noun is derived from the verb shillach (שִׁלַּח) = send away, set free, let go—which is the piel form of the root verb shalach (שָׁלַח) = send, let go.)

After Moses received orders from God at the burning bush, he took his wife and sons on the first leg of his journey back to Egypt.  They spent the night at a lodging place where God came to kill Moses, and Tzipporah saved his life by circumcising one of their sons and smearing the blood on her husband, calling him a “bridegroom of blood”.1  (See my post Va-eira & Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2.)

Tzipporah’s decisive action indicates she would be a good person to have by his side in a dangerous situation.2  Yet something about that dramatic ritual made Moses change his mind about bringing his wife to Egypt.  Maybe he did not even believe her account of what happened while he was unconscious.  So he sent Tzipporah back to her father’s house after she saved his life, and before he met his brother Aaron on the road.3

Was it merely a separation, or a divorce?  Was he protecting or rejecting her?

Sending away versus casting out

The noun shilluchim appears in only two other verses of the Bible, once as a dowry, and once as a metaphorical farewell gift.4  However, Deuteronomy/Devarim uses the related verb form shillach in three laws about sending away wives.

If a man wants a female war captive, he must take her home and let her mourn unmolested for one month before he takes her as a wife.  “Then if you no longer want her, veshillachtah her soul, and you must certainly not sell her for silver; you must not treat her brutally, since you overpowered her.”  (Deuteronomy 21:14)

veshillachtah (וְשִׁלַּחְתָּה) = then you must set her free, let her go.

If a man tries to return his bride the next morning by claiming falsely that she was not a virgin, “… then she will be his wife; he will not be able to shallechah all his days.”  (Deuteronomy 22:19)

shallechah (שַׁלְּחָהּ) = send her away.

And if a man rapes a virgin who is not engaged, he must pay her father and accept her as his wife.  “… since he overpowered her, he will not be able to shallechah all his days.”  (Deuteronomy 22:29)

In all three of these laws, the verb shillach is used to mean divorce.


Nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible does a man send his own wife back to her father’s house temporarily, without divorcing her.  Yet most commentary before the 20th century assumed Moses did this, either so that Tzipporah and their children would not suffer,5 or so that he could “devote himself entirely to the fulfillment of his mission”.6

One piece of evidence for this interpretation is that when Yitro brings Tzipporah back to Moses, she is still called eishet Moshe (אֵשֶׁת מֺשֶׁה) = wife of Moses, and Yitro is still called chotein Moshe (חֺתֵן מֺשֶׁה) = father-in-law of Moses.

The Hebrew Bible uses only two types of words for divorce:  variants of shillach (שִׁלַּח) = send away, set free, let go; and variants of goreish (גֺּרֵשׁ) = cast out, driven out.  In other biblical books a divorcee is called a gerushah (גְרוּשָׁה), a female who has been cast out.7  But Tzipporah is not called a gerushah.  Moses did not “cast out” Tzipporah; he “sent her away”.


by E.A. Girardet, 19th century

And Moses went out to invite his father-in-law, and he bowed down to him, and he kissed him, and they inquired about one another’s welfare, and they came into the tent.  (Exodus 18:7)

Moses greets Yitro warmly, but he does not even acknowledge the presence of Tzipporah and their two sons.  Although there are no instances in the Hebrew Bible of a man kissing his wife or ex-wife in public, men do kiss their kinsmen in front of other people.8  Yet the Torah does not say Moses greets his own sons in any way.  He does not even perform the basic courtesy of inviting them to dismount and rest.

Inside the tent, Moses tells his father-in-law the details of God’s miracles in Egypt and afterward.  Yitro makes a burnt offering to Moses’ God, and feasts with Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel.  No provision for Tzipporah, Gershom, or Eliezer is mentioned.  The next day, Yitro gives Moses advice on how to delegate the legal cases his people bring to him.

And Moses sent off his father-in-law, and he went to his own land.  (Exodus 18:27)

Do Tzipporah, Geirshom, and Eliezer go home again with Yitro, ignored and rejected?  Or do they stay with Moses and the Israelites, ignored and rejected?

The name “Tzipporah” never appears again in the Hebrew Bible.  A wife of Moses is mentioned only once more, when Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses “on account of the Kushite wife that he took; for he had taken a Kushite wife”(Numbers/Bemidbar 12:1)  Elsewhere in the bible, a Kushite is a dark-skinned person from Kush, which may be either Nubia (south of Egypt) or part of southern Midianite territory (near the Gulf of Aqaba).  The commentary is divided on whether this wife is Tzipporah or another woman.  One tradition is that Miriam and Aaron complain because Moses is denying his wife sexual relations.9

Certainly Moses does not share his tent with a wife.  His tent becomes the Tent of Meeting (with God), and only Moses and his apprentice Joshua sleep there.

Moses’ sons, Geirshom and Eliezer, have no role in the rest of the story of Moses’ life.  Joshua inherits Moses’ position as political leader of the Israelites, and Aaron’s son Elazar becomes the high priest.  Geirshom and Eliezer are not mentioned again until the first book of Chronicles, which includes them in genealogical lists of Levites in charge of the temple treasuries.10

So I believe that Yitro does leave his daughter and grandsons behind when he says farewell to Moses and goes home.  Moses lets Tzipporah and their two sons travel with the Israelites, but he has little or no contact with his erstwhile family.  Although they travel with the Israelites, perhaps pitching their tent with the other foreigners on the edges of the camps, Moses maintains his separation from them.

And I think that when Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses “on account of his Kushite wife” in the book of Numbers, they are referring to his neglect of Tzipporah.  (I plan to explore this idea further when we reach Beha-alotkha in the Jewish cycle of Torah portions at the end of May 2018).


After Moses separates from Tzipporah on the road to Egypt, we never see him interacting with a wife or child again.  If he is married to anyone, he is married to God.  If he has any children, they are the thousands of children of Israel that he has become responsible for.  He misses out on the long companionship of marriage partners.

So does Tzipporah.  Her heroic act in the bridegroom of blood scene is ignored, forgotten.  She is treated like excess baggage, passed back and forth between Yitro and Moses.  Her name means “bird”, but she is never allowed to fly.

May we have compassion for all caged birds—and for all great leaders.

  1. Exodus 4:24-26.
  2. Pamela Tarkin Reis, Reading the Lines, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 2002, pp. 101-102.
  3. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) follows the Mekhilta by adding dialogue in which Aaron advises Moses not to bring his wife and sons into Egypt. But the Torah says only that Aaron met Moses at the mountain of God and kissed him; Moses told Aaron what God wanted them to do; and the two brothers went into Egypt and assembled the elders of Israel.  There is no mention of Tzipporah or Moses’ sons.  (Exodus 4:27-29)
  4. 1 Kings 9:16, Micah 1:14.
  5. Rashi, based on the Mekhilta.
  6. Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th-century rabbi), The Hirsch Chumash: SeferShemos, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 301.
  7. Leviticus 21:7, 21:14, 22:13; Numbers 30:10.
  8. Jacob kisses his cousin Rachel in front of strangers when he first meets her at the well in Genesis 29:2, 29:10-12. Lavan kisses his daughters and grandsons farewell in front of his men and Jacob’s servants in Genesis 32:1.  Esau and Jacob, long-lost brothers, kiss and embrace in front of Esau’s 400 men and Jacob’s retinue in Genesis 33:4.
  9. Including Exodus Rabbah 46:3, Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:10, Midrash Tachuma Tzav 13, Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki).
  10. 1 Chronicles 23:15-17 and 26:24-25.

Beshallach: See, Fear, Trust, Sing

January 24, 2018 at 7:34 pm | Posted in Beshallach | Leave a comment

by Bernardino Luini, 1481-1532

The Reed Sea splits.  The Israelites and their fellow travelers cross on dry land.  The chariots pursue them.  The sea returns and drowns the Egyptian army.

After the miracle at the Reed Sea in this week’s Torah portion, Beshellach (“When sending away”), the consciousness of the Israelites changes in four steps.  They perceive God’s power1, they feel fear and awe, and they give up their reservations (at least for a while) and trust in God and Moses. Then Moses begins to sing, and everyone joins in.

Vayareh, the Israelites, the great power that God used against the Egyptians; vayiyre-u, the people, of God; vaya-aminu in God and in Moses, God’s servant.  That was when yashir, Moses and the Israelites, this song in honor of God.  (Exodus 14:31, 15:1)

vayareh (וַיַּרְא) = and they saw, perceived, looked at, recognized, acknowledged, considered. (A form of the root verb ra-ah, רָאָה.)

vayiyre-u (וַיִּירְאוּ) = and they felt fear, fear and awe, awe and reverence.  (A form of the root verb yarei, יָרֵא.)

vaya-aminu (וַיַּאֲמִינוּ) = and they believed, trusted, relied upon.  (Probably from the same root as amen, אָמֵן.)

yashir (יָשִׁיר) = he sang.


Vayareh the great power that God used against the Egyptians …

The Israelites have already witnessed the ten miraculous plagues in Egypt.  Why do they only now see God’s power?

I think they have been reluctant even to acknowledge God’s plan for taking them out of Egypt because they know they are doomed if it does not work.  After all, the first time Moses asked Pharaoh to give them three days off to worship God, Pharaoh only increased their workload.2

The first two plagues proved that either Moses or his God had strong magic; but Pharaoh’s magicians could also turn water into blood and make frogs overrun houses.  The next six plagues, from lice to locusts, could be explained as large-scale natural disasters; only the quick succession of afflictions betrayed a supernatural power at work.  The last two plagues, three days of total darkness and the overnight death of the firstborn, were too unnatural to mean anything but the power of a god.  But was the God of Moses their savior, or just a god of destruction?

After the Israelites and their fellow-travelers march out of Egypt, they are accompanied by a miraculous pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.3  But it is still hard for them to believe that any god is working for them and against Pharaoh.  Everyone in Egypt knows that the pharaoh is not only a king, but the son of all the Egyptian gods.4  Their whole lives, he has had absolute power over them.  How can they think of Pharaoh any other way?

When they find out that his army has pursued them into the wilderness, they are full of fear (although they do not lose their dark humor).

And Pharaoh came close, and the Israelites raised their eyes, and hey!  The Egyptians were pulling out after them!  Vayiyre-u very much, and the Israelites cried out to God.  And they said to Moses: “Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?”  (Exodus 14:11)

They are trapped, camped between that army and the Reed Sea.  They cry to God for help, but they expect Pharaoh’s army to win.  It always has.

During the night God splits the sea and the Israelites cross on dry land, with God’s pillar of fire as a rearguard between them and the Egyptians.  The Pharaoh’s charioteers follow across the sea bed, but the chariot wheels get stuck in the mud.  At dawn God makes the water return, and the Israelites watch the Egyptian army drown.

The world changes.  I imagine the Israelites trembling with shock.  Now their hearts crack open and they finally see the great power of God.


Vayiyre-u of God

After seeing that God really has drowned the Egyptian army and rescued them from slavery, the Israelites stop being afraid of Pharaoh, and start being afraid of God.

When the Egyptian army drowns, the Israelites see and believe that their world has changed.  Amazed, they can now believe that God is liberating them from Egypt altogether.  But they do not fall in love with this God who changes the status quo by sending plagues and killing people.  Instead, they feel fear and awe.


Vaya-aminu in God and in Moses, God’s servant

Only after the Israelites fear God more than Pharaoh do they put their trust in God and Moses.  (At least until the next serious setback, when they run out of food in the wilderness of Sin.)5

They did not believe or trust or rely upon God when they marched out of Egypt; Pharaoh had kicked them out.  They followed Moses because they had to follow somebody.  When the pillar of cloud and fire appeared, they followed that.  Why not?  They had nothing to lose.

When they walk across the bed of the Reed Sea during the last shift of the night, they do not believe that they will get safely to the other side.  But the enemy is right behind them; why not go forward?

Only after God destroys the Egyptian army does the Israelite attitude changes from “I’m doomed anyway, I’ll take the risk” to “I am committed to this God.”  This trust and commitment comes from awe and amazement at being saved—but also from fear of such a powerful God.


That was when yashir, Moses and the Israelites, this song in honor of God.  (Exodus 15:1)

Critical scholars agree that the psalm following this introduction is in an older Hebrew than the rest of the story.  The details of the story in Beshallach and the psalm they sing do not quite match.  (See my post Beshallach & Psalm 136: Miracle at Sea.)  But why should we expect Moses to invent a new song on the fly?  When people are overwhelmed with emotion and feel moved to sing, they sing the most appropriate song they know.

Everyone sings, and all the women drum and dance to celebrate God’s victory.6  This is the first singing in the Torah.


What if you felt oppressed and hopeless your whole life?  What if you could not believe anything could change?  What if suddenly your old life ended, and you had to cope with an entirely new situation?  Could you see and believe in the change?  Would you feel afraid?  Could you turn your fear into wonder (Abraham Joshue Heschel’s “radical amazement”)?  Could you make a commitment to the new reality?  And would the emotion welling over inside you come pouring out in song?

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

  1. In this post, I have consistently translated the word yad (יַָד) as “power”. In Biblical Hebrew, yad means “hand” literally, and “power” metaphorically.
  2. Exodus 5:1-21.
  3. Exodus 13:21-22.
  4. See Jan Assmann, “Pharaoh’s Divine Role in Maintaining Ma’at (Order)”,
  5. Exodus 16:1-3.
  6. Exodus 15:20.

Bo & Va-eira: A Hard Habit

January 17, 2018 at 9:18 pm | Posted in Bo, Va-eira | Leave a comment

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320

Blood, frogs, lice or gnats, swarms of vermin, livestock disease, skin disease, hail, locusts, impenetrable darkness, death of the firstborn.  Why does it take ten miraculous plagues in the Torah portions Va-eira and Bo before Pharaoh lets the Israelite slaves go?1

When Moses first returns to Egypt, he and his brother Aaron simply ask the new pharaoh to give the Israelite slaves three days off to make animal sacrifices to their God in the wilderness.2  Pharaoh replies that he does not know this god.  Then he increases the workload of the Israelites, so they will not even think about taking a vacation.  Ruling through oppression is the model his father used, the only model he knows.

Moses and Aaron return to perform a small demonstration miracle.  Aaron throws down a staff that turns into a crocodile.3  Pharaoh summons his wonder-workers, who perform a similar trick.  Even though Aaron’s magic crocodile eats the Egyptians’ magic crocodiles, Pharaoh refuses to be impressed.

Vayechezak, the leiv of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as God had spoken.  And God said to Moses: “Kaveid is the leiv of Pharaoh; he refuses to let the people go”.  (Exodus 7:13-14)

vayechezak (וַיֶּחֶזַק) = and it hardened, became stronger, became unyielding.  (From the same root as chazak, חָזָק = strong, firm, resolute.)

leiv (לֵב) = heart; conscious mind, conscious thoughts and feelings.

kaveid (כָּבֵד) = heavy, dull and slow, immobilized; oppressive, impressive.

Pharaoh’s mind is already so heavy that it “hardens” itself; he dismisses questions before they arise, and continues to behave as he always has.

We are what we learn

Moses and the current pharaoh both grew up in the Egyptian court.  But Moses was the son of Israelite slaves before he was adopted by an Egyptian princess, and never forgot his origins.  Then as an adult, he joined a Midianite clan east of Sinai.  Thus he learned how to adapt to novel situations with curiosity and an open mind.  When he saw the bush that burned but was not consumed he approached it, and when he heard God’s voice he believed it.

Nevertheless, Moses argued with God.  At the burning bush he tried five times to get out of returning to Egypt as God’s prophet before he finally accepted his mission and changed his life again.4

Pharaoh Ramses III followed by his son

The old pharaoh’s firstborn son, on the other hand, grew up knowing he would someday succeed his father as the god-like ruler of Egypt.  All he had to do was learn his predefined role.  He had no reason to question anything, no new situations to master.

After the staff-crocodile demonstration the miraculous plagues begin: seven in last week’s Torah portion, Va-eira, and three this week in Bo.  Several times Pharaoh promises Moses and Aaron that if they get God to end the current plague, he will let the Israelites go for three days.5  But as soon as the plague stops, Pharaoh goes back on his promise.  After each plague, Pharaoh’s leiv returns to being either chazak or kaveid.  He acts as if he can continue to depend on the labor of his Israelite slaves, and their God will not afflict the country with another miracle.

Pharaoh’s mind hardens on its own after six of the plagues, but God ensures its rigidity after the plagues of skin disease, locusts, and darkness.

Plague of Boils, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747

After the sixth plague, a skin rash with boils,

Vayechazeik, God, the leiv of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as God had spoken to Moses.  (Exodus 9:12)

Vayechazeik (וַיְחַזֵּק) = and [God] hardened, strengthened, made rigid.  (Another verb form from the same root as chazak.)

Why does God intervene?  One possibility is that Pharaoh is finally wavering, wondering whether his refusal to listen to Moses is taking too a high toll on his country—or on his own body.  Is his “heart” softening, his mind becoming a little more flexible?  If so, God apparently wants to prevent Pharaoh from changing his mind too soon, before God has finished the whole demonstration.

Plague of Locusts, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747

During the plagues of locusts and darkness in this week’s Torah portion, Pharaoh switches from empty promises to let the people go for three days to genuine offers—with conditions.  While the locusts are devouring all the remaining crops, he offers to let the Israelite men go, as long as their children remain hostage in Egypt.  Moses refuses the condition.

Vayechazeik, God, the leiv of Pharaoh, and he did not let the Israelites go.  (Exodus 10:20)

During the plague of impenetrable darkness, Pharaoh offers to let all the Israelites go for three days, as long as they leave their flocks and herds behind.  Again Moses refuses.

Vayechazeik, God, the leiv of Pharaoh, so he was not willing to let them go.  (Exodus 10:27)

Pharaoh remains attached to being the all-powerful ruler of an economy based on slavery.  Is God or Pharaoh responsible for the king’s inability to imagine a new world order?

Free will

If God is deliberately hardening Pharaoh’s mind, then the king of Egypt has no free will.  God is depriving Pharaoh of the ability to make choices.

The idea that God can remove a human being’s free will has disturbed commentators through the ages.  The ability to make our own choices is part of being human, according to the book of Genesis; God gave Adam and Eve the ability to decide whether to eat from the Tree of Knowledge or not.  And we all prefer to believe that we are not automatons, that it is possible for us to choose and change.

Other commentators have argued that God hardens Pharaoh’s mind not by making him more stubborn, but by giving him the courage to bear the suffering caused by his bad choices.  God does not want Pharaoh to make a reasonable decision when he realizes that his country is collapsing into poverty and disease.  God wants Pharaoh to believe in the power of God and repent.  So instead of making Pharaoh more stubborn, God gives Pharaoh the courage to bear the suffering of Egypt.6

Yet the Torah describes God as making Pharaoh’s heart chazak and kaveid, the same two words it uses for what Pharaoh does to himself.  It does not use an alternate word or phrase to indicate strengthening by instilling courage.7

Another possible reading of God’s intervention is that Pharaoh’s mind is already so inflexible that God does not need to make it any more rigid.  He has developed an ingrained habit of hardening his heart the moment a disaster ends.

Some commentators have written that the book of Exodus gives God credit for the power of habit.  God made humans so that the longer someone persists in doing evil, the harder it becomes to switch to doing good.8

Modern neuroscience shows that the human brain cannot make an unaccustomed choice in the heat of the moment.  The choice happens and our words or actions are triggered before we become consciously aware of what we have already decided.  In order to make a free choice instead, we have to train ourselves to pause as soon as we become aware of our reaction, then give ourselves time to make a conscious decision.

One last time

Death of Firstborn, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747

When Moses announces the tenth plague, death of the firstborn, he storms out before Pharaoh can react.  Why should he listen to another empty promise, another unacceptable bargain?

In the middle of the night, death strikes the oldest son of everyone in Egypt, from the Pharaoh to the lowest slave—except for the Israelites who are safe inside the houses they have marked with lamb’s blood for that night.9  Only after his own son is killed does Pharaoh come to Moses and insist that all the Israelites must leave, without conditions.  In the morning, the exodus from Egypt begins.

Yet in next week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, Pharaoh reconsiders one more time.  The damage has been done, so why should he lose so many slaves whose labor could help rebuild Egypt?  He sends an army to pursue his ex-slaves across the wilderness.  Pharaoh has not truly broken his habit.


Some of us are like Pharaoh, and cannot break our bad habits for more than a day, even after life has hammered at us from every side.  Yet many of us are like Moses; although we may refuse to accept our calling five times, we then find the courage to change and do what really needs to be done.  What a blessing to know that Moses’ response is also possible!

May every mind that has become hard and heavy finally open, and receive the blessing of change.

  1. Psalm 78 lists seven plagues, and Psalm 105 lists eight. See my post Va-eira & Bo: Psalm 78 & Psalm 105: Responding to Miracles.
  2. Exodus 5:1.
  3. When God rehearses this demonstration with Moses in Exodus 4:1-5, Moses’ staff becomes a nachash (נָחָשׁ) = snake. Most modern scholars attribute this version of the demonstration miracle to a story from the northern kingdom of Israel, the “E” source. In the demonstration in 7:10, Aaron throws down the staff and it becomes a tannin (תַנִּין) = crocodile, cobra, or other large reptile.  This version  is considered a later addition from the “P” source, written by priests sometime after the first Israelite temple in Jerusalem was built.
  4. See my post last week, Ve-eira and Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2.
  5. Frogs (Exodus 8:4), swarms of vermin (Exodus 8:21-24), and hail (Exodus 9:27-28).
  6. Nehama Leibowitz cites 15th-century rabbi Joseph Albo and 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno in New Studies in Shemot (Exodus), Part 1, translated by Aryeh Newman, Zion Ezra Production, Maor Wallach Press, Jerusalem, 1996, pp. 152-153.
  7. For example, Deuteronomy 2:30 uses the phrase imeitz et levavo (אִמֵּץ אֶת־לְבַבוֹ) to say that God had made King Sihon’s heart braver.
  8. Rambam (12th-century rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon, a.k.a. Maimonides), Mishneh Torah, chapter 5, cited in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot (Exodus), Part 1, pp. 155-156.
  9. Exodus 12:21-23.

Va-era & Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2

January 10, 2018 at 11:59 am | Posted in Shemot, Va-eira | 3 Comments

Moses flees Egypt in last week’s Torah portion, Shemot, because he killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew man.1  He returns to Egypt as God’s prophet, but the new pharaoh responds to his request by increasing the work of the Israelite slaves.2

Egyptian brick-making

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (“And I appeared”), Moses tries to convince the Israelite slaves that God really has sent him to liberate them.  But they are unable to listen, because they are short of breath (or spirit) from their hard labor.3  When God tells Moses to speak to Pharaoh again, he balks, saying:

“Hey!  The Israelites would not listen to me, so how would Pharaoh listen?  And my lips are aral!”  (Exodus 6:12)

aral (עָרַל) = uncircumcised, possessing a foreskin.

Power of Speech

Moses expresses the problem more literally in last week’s Torah portion, Shemot.  When he sees the burning bush, he notices something numinous that others might overlook—a fire that burns but does not consume—and he steps closer to it.  So God speaks to the potential prophet and orders him to return to Egypt and demand that the pharaoh let the Israelite slaves go free to worship their own god.

But Moses is unwilling to accept the job.  He tries to turn down his mission five times, and each time God answers his objection.4  For his fourth attempt to excuse himself, Moses says he is the wrong man for the job because he is not a good speaker.

And Moses said to God: “Excuse me, my lord, I have not been a man of words, yesterday, nor the day before, nor earlier than when you spoke to your servant; for I am kaveid of peh and kaveid of lashon.”  (Exodus/Shemot 4:10)

kaveid (כָּבֵד) = (When used as an adjective for a body part): heavy, dull, hard, insensitive, clumsy.  (When used as an adjective for a person): honored, impressive, oppressive.

peh (פֶּה) = mouth; statement, spoken command.

lashon (לָשׁוֹן) = tongue; language.

A kaveid mouth and tongue are like aral lips.  Some thickness, covering, or blockage prevents Moses from speaking effectively.

Moses could merely be making another desperate excuse to avoid the mission in Egypt.  But since he claims his lips are aral in the portion Va-eira, after he is already in Egypt, he must be truly blocked, either physically or psychologically.

Commentators have proposed that Moses has a speech impediment or stutter5, that he has forgotten the Egyptian language6, and that he lacks the enthusiastic dedication to be eloquent enough to persuade anyone.7

In the Torah, circumcision of the foreskin is not just the removal of a covering, but a sign of consecration to God’s covenant with the people of Israel.8  The symbol of a man’s power in the Torah is a staff.  Circumcision dedicates a male’s power to God.

I think Moses feels powerless in both Shemot and Va-eira because he has had no authority to speak.  When he is accused of murder in Egypt, he flees instead of defending himself.  Then he serves for decades as a shepherd under the Midianite priest Jethro/Yitro, and defers to his authority.  Moses has been silent so long that his mouth, tongue, and lips feel too heavy to move.

Furthermore, he has never spoken as a Hebrew or Israelite before.  Once he was weaned, he lived in the Egyptian court as the adopted son of a pharaoh’s daughter.  He arrived in Midianite territory as an Egyptian, and married the daughter of a Midianite priest.  Only at the burning bush does Moses discover the God of his ancestors.

When Moses pleads that his mouth and tongue are too kaveid to speak well, God replies:

“Who puts the peh in humankind, or who appoints the dumb or the deaf, the clear-sighted or the blind?  Is it not I, God?  Now go, and I myself will be with your peh and I will instruct you what you shall speak!”

But he said: “Excuse me, my lord, please send by the hand of whom you will send!”  And God burned in anger against Moses.  (Exodus 4:11-14)

After God overrides Moses’ fourth protest, he has no more excuses.  He merely begs God to send someone else.  God gets angry, but tells Moses he can use his brother Aaron as a go-between.  Finally Moses gives up.  He returns to his father-in-law and asks his permission to go to Egypt.

Power of Blood

Moses, Tzipporah, and sons,
Rylands Haggadah

On the way, at a lodging-place, God met him and sought to put him to death.  And Tzipporah took a flint, and she cut the foreskin of her son, and she touched it to his raglayim, and she said: “Because you are a bridegroom of bloodshed for me!”  And it/he desisted from him.  That was when she said: “A bridegroom of bloodshed for the circumcisions”.  (Exodus/Shemot 4:24-26)

raglayim (רַגְלַיִם) = pair of feet, pair of legs; a euphemism for genitals.

The only clear information in this brief ambiguous story is that the is that one of Tzipporah’s sons still has a foreskin, and she circumcises him.  Which son is uncircumcised?  Whom does God seek to put to death?  If it is Moses, why would God attack him?  Why does Tzipporah circumcise her son?  Whose raglayim does she touch with the bloody foreskin?  Why does this save him from death?

In last week’s post (Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 1) I argued that the uncircumcised son is probably their firstborn, Geirshom, and that God seeks to put Moses to death.  The remaining enigmas in the “Bridegroom of Blood” passage can all be related to Moses’ feeling that he is incapable of serving as God’s prophet because his lips are aral.

Why would God attack Moses?

According to one Talmudic opinion, God wants to kill Moses because he had not circumcised his son, and therefore left the boy outside the covenant between God and the Israelites.  (See Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 1.)

But there is a more psychologically compelling reason for God to attack Moses: God is still angry about Moses’ five attempts to reject his assignment.  (Three later prophets in the bible are initially reluctant, but accept their vocation after one demurral.9  Only Moses continues to argue with God.  Rashbam6 wrote that God’s anger over Moses’ rejection leads to the attack on the way to Egypt.)

In the 21st century, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote: “It is striking that when he complained about his speech problem at the Burning Bush, God made no move to heal him; he did not even promise him that his situation would change, for this problem is expressive of a radical resistance on Moses’ part, which arouses God’s anger and almost brings about his death …”10

It is Moses’ responsibility to rise to God’s challenge and remove his own impediment.  So far he has failed.

Why does Tzipporah circumcise her son?

The Hebrew Bible requires an Israelite father to circumcise each of his sons eight days after birth, in order to enroll the infant boy into the covenant between the Israelites and God.11  Although Moses knows his birth parents were Israelites12, he grew up in the Egyptian court, then joined the family of a Midianite priest.  Only at the burning bush does he discover the God of Israel.

After Moses finally accepts the job God gives him, it may not even occur to him to mark his firstborn son as a member of the Israelites’ covenant with God.

While Moses lies helpless under God’s attack, his Midianite wife, Tzipporah, takes action.  Her first thought might be to appease God through an animal sacrifice.  The Midianites as well as the Israelites shared the Canaanite custom of sacrificing animals to their gods.13  But the only animal they have with them is the donkey that Tzipporah and the boys need to travel through the desert.

Then Tzipporah has an inspiration.  She can sacrifice a small bit of blood and flesh from their own son to the God who has commandeered Moses.  She knows that this God approves of circumcision, since Moses is circumcised.14

Whose raglayim does she touch with the bloody foreskin?

The Torah says only that Tzipporah touches the foreskin to “his” raglayim—to someone’s feet, or legs, or genitals.  I believe she uses Geirshom’s foreskin to dab blood on Moses’ genitals as a symbolic second circumcision, a rededication to the God of Israel.  Her explanation “Because you are a bridegroom of bloodshed for me!” is an incantation that completes the sympathetic magic.

If circumcising Moses’ firstborn son is not enough to appease God, this additional ritual, she hopes, will do the trick.  And it works.

Why does this save Moses from death?

If God is angry at Moses, why would Tzipporah’s actions solve the problem?

The book of Exodus presents God in two different ways.  Usually God speaks like an intelligent but easily offended human being.  This anthropomorphic God is the character who talks with Moses at the burning bush, and gives him further instructions just before he sets off for Egypt.

Painting blood on the doorposts, Paris Bible c. 1390

This God-character also gets angry, and “his” anger sometimes releases a divine force which slaughters people indiscriminately.  Before the tenth plague strikes Egypt, Moses warns the Israelite slaves about the coming “death of the firstborn”, and tells them to daub lamb’s blood on their lintels and doorposts.

And God will pass through to strike Egypt, and “he” will see the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, and God will skip over the entrance, and “he” will not allow the Destroyer to come into your houses to strike.  (Exodus 12:23)

Here “the Destroyer” refers to God’s raging alter ego, which does not distinguish between the guilty and the innocent and cannot stop itself without a dramatic visible sign.15  The blood on Moses’ genitals proves as effective as the blood on the Israelite doorways in halting this primitive aspect of God, which does not distinguish between individuals.

Power of Dedication

Moses is not merely reluctant to become God’s prophet; he is afraid of speaking for God and getting it all wrong.  The anthropomorphic God-character becomes angry with Moses for trying to excuse himself from the job instead of trusting God’s assurances.  A silent, more primitive aspect of God seeks to kill Moses on the way to Egypt.

Tzipporah responds by physically circumcising their son.  Then she symbolically re-circumcises her husband, rededicating him to the covenant with God.  This act also serves to metaphorically circumcise Moses’ lips, removing the weight of his determined silence, making his mouth sensitive for God’s use.

At first Moses does not realize the full extent of what his wife has done.  He sends Tzipporah back to her father, along with their sons—perhaps for their own safety, now that he knows how deadly God can be.  (See my post Yitro: Rejected Wife.)  When he first arrives in Egypt, he uses Aaron to speak to the pharaoh for him, believing his lips are still aral.  Only when the ten miraculous plagues begin does Moses find his own voice.


What does it mean to be dedicated to God?  A Jewish ritual dedicating eight-day-old boys only shows how their parents identify them.  Adults might follow all the extant rules of a religion out of habit and to fit in with their community, but lack the personal and vitally serious dedication that Moses accepts after the “Bridegroom of Blood” episode.

Can that kind of dedication to God come only out of necessity, as a life-and-death choice?  What about those of us who are not threatened?  Can we at least choose to dedicate ourselves to seeking out God?

  1. Exodus 3:11-15.
  2. Exodus 5:1-9.
  3. Exodus 6:9. The Hebrew word ruach (רוּחַ) can mean wind, breath, or spirit.
  4. The first three times are in Exodus 3:11-12, Exodus 3:14-15, and Exodus 4:2-9.
  5. Exodus Rabbah 1:26 tells a story in which Moses burns his lips as a child. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh ben Yitzchaki) wrote that Moses stammered and mumbled.
  6. Rashbam (12th-century rabbi Samuel ben Meir).
  7. g. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on Exodus 4:10; and Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments, Schocken Books, New York, 2015, p. 176.
  8. Genesis 17:9-15.
  9. Isaiah feels unworthy until an angel purifies his lips (Isaiah 6:1-8); Jeremiah protests a single time that he is too young to know how to speak (Jeremiah 1:4-9); and Jonah flees because he does not want to obey God and give his enemies a chance to repent (Jonah 1:1-3).
  10. Avivah Gottleib Zornberg, Bewilderments, Schocken Books, New York, 2015, p. 161.
  11. Genesis 17:10-14, Leviticus 12:1-3. By the fourth century C.E., there were also professional circumcisers called mohalim.
  12. Exodus 2:11.
  13. Tzipporah’s father, Yitro, demonstrates animal sacrifice when he comes to visit Moses and the liberated Israelites camping near Mount Sinai (Exodus 18:10-12).
  14. Moses would have undergone circumcision either as an infant with Hebrew parents, or at puberty as an upper-class Egyptian. Talmud tractate Nedarim 32a and Exodus Rabbah 5:8 imagine Tzipporah watching the angel of death swallow Moses from his head down to his genitals, where Moses’ circumcision stops the process.
  15. Besides Exodus 4:24-25 and 12:29, other examples of God as a mute, irrational force of destruction, unable to distinguish the innocent from the guilty without an obvious sign, appear in Numbers 11:1-3 (fire), Numbers 25:1-9 (plague after Baal Pe-or worship), and 1 Samuel 6:19 (the ark).
Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at
Entries and comments feeds.