Bemidbar & Naso: Four Directions of Service

May 24, 2018 at 10:01 pm | Posted in Bemidbar, Naso | Leave a comment

East, south, west, and north.  The book of Numbers/Bemidbar (“In a wilderness”) begins by organizing the Israelites before they set off from Mount Sinai.  The first Torah portion, also called Bemidbar, lays out where each tribe camps and what order the tribes march in when they travel.

The Israelites camp in two concentric rings around the portable sanctuary called the Tent of Meeting.  The outer ring is for the twelve tribes, excluding the Levites and counting Efrayim and Menasheh (named after Joseph’s sons) as two separate tribes; that way the ring can be divided into four quadrants, with three tribes camping in each cardinal direction.  (See my post Bemidbar: Tribes in Four Directions.)

Next God says that the Levite men will be responsible for the sanctuary, and camp in a protective inner circle around it.1

When the Israelites break camp and set out, the three tribes camping to the east march first, then the three tribes to the south, then the Levites in the middle (carrying the disassembled pieces of the sanctuary), followed by the three tribes to the west, and finally the three tribes to the north.2

These camping and marching orders have little to do with where the tribes eventually settle in the “promised land”.  But the allocation of the Levites in the four quadrants of the inner ring may be related to double meanings of the Hebrew words for east, south, west, and north.

East

The eastern part of the inner ring is where the leaders of the people as a whole camp with their families:  the prophet Moses and the priests Aaron, Elazar, and Itamar.

Those camping in front of the sanctuary keidmah, in front of the Tent of Meeting mizrachah, [shall be] Moses and Aaron and his sons, watching over the duties of the holy place, as a duty to the Israelites.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 3:38)

keidmah (קֵדְמָה) = to the east.  From the root verb kadam (קָדַם) = came toward, went first, confronted, preceded.  Kedem, קֶדֶם = east, front, origin, ancient time.

mizrachah (מִזרָחָה) = to the east.  Mizrach, מִזְּרָח = east, sunrise.  (From the root verb zarach (זָרַח) = shone forth.)

(Entrance curtains shown in red)

The east is where the sun rises and God’s world began; it represents birth and the past.  The garden of Eden is in kedem, the east or the ancient past.3  The entrances into the holy courtyard, into the Tent of Meeting, and into the back chamber called the Holy of Holies, are all in their eastern walls, implying that the presence of God faces east.  Moses and the priests camp just outside the courtyard gate.  They must serve as the doorway between God and the people, passing on God’s words to the people and the people’s worship to God.

When the Israelites travel, everything in the sanctuary must be packed up and carried, from the gate of the courtyard to the ark in the Holy of Holies.  The priests do the most dangerous packing.

Aaron and his sons shall come in at the breaking of camp and take down the screening curtain and cover the ark of the testimony with it.  (Numbers 4:5)

The ark is the most sacred object; God speaks from the empty space above it.  It stands in the back chamber of the tent, the Holy of Holies.  No one may enter that small room except Moses and the high priest, and the high priest may enter only on Yom Kippur.  (See my post Acharey Mot & Shemini: So He Will Not Die.)  So how can all three priests go in and cover the ark?  Perhaps when they take down the curtain separating that inner chamber from the rest of the Tent of Meeting, the Holy of Holies ceases to exist.

The priests must cover the ark with three layers of wrappings, so no one can see it.  The priests must also cover the lampstand, the gold incense altar, the bread table, and the copper altar for animal and grain offerings, as well as all their utensils.4  (See my post Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred.)

Only after the sacred objects are wrapped in multiple layers and the priests have inserted their carrying-poles can the Levites come and carry them away.

South

The other three quadrants of the inner ring of the camp are assigned to the Levites, who are divided into three clans.  Each clan is descended from one of the original Levi’s three sons: Kehat, Geirshon, and Merari.  (Moses and Aaron are also grandsons of Kehat,5 but by this time they are not counted among the Levites.)

The families of the sons of Kehat shall camp along the side of the sanctuary teymanah.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 3:29)

teymanah (תֵּימָנָה) = to the south.  (From yamin = right hand, the hand of favor and power.)

When one faces east, the south is on one’s right.  The Kehatites serve as the right hand of the priests, trusted to carry the most sacred things.

And their duties [shall be] the ark and the table and the lampstand and the altars and the holy utensils that they keep in them, and the curtain [at the tent entrance], and all their service.  (Numbers 3:31)

Aaron and his sons shall finish covering the holy objects and all the holy utensils at the breaking of camp.  And after this the sons of Kehat shall come to carry them away; and they must not touch the holy items or they will die.  These are the burdens of the sons of Kehat regarding the Tent of Meeting.  (Numbers 4:15)

And they shall not enter to see the holy as it is swallowed up [by the coverings], or they will die.  (Numbers 4:20)

The items kept inside the Tent of Meeting are too dangerous for the Kehatites to touch or even see.  They can only lift them by their carrying poles after the priests have wrapped each one in cloth and leather.

West

The families of the Geirshonites shall camp behind the sanctuary, yamah. (Numbers 3:23)

yamah (יָמָּה) = to the west; toward the (Mediterranean) sea.  (Yam, יָם = sea.)

The west wall of the Tent of Meeting is the back, behind the ark in the Holy of Holies, at the opposite end from the entrance.  West is the direction of both the sea and the setting sun.  It represents the future, including death.  The Geirshonites camp behind the sanctuary, in the west, to protect it from any encroachment in the rear.

In this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift”), the Geirshonites are assigned the duty of dismantling, carrying, and reassembling the fabric of the Tent of Meeting:  its roof coverings, its cloth walls, and the cloth walls of the open courtyard around it.

This is the service of the duties of the Geirshonites …  They shall carry the tent-cloths of [the walls of] the sanctuary and the roof-covering of the Tent of Meeting, and the leather covering that is above and over it, and the curtain at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and the fabric-walls of the courtyard and the curtain at the gate of the courtyard that surrounds the sanctuary and the altar; and their cords, and all their equipment …  (Numbers 4:24-26)

North

… Merari … along the side of the sanctuary tzafonah they shall camp.  (Numbers 3:35)

tzafonah צָפֺנָה)) = toward the north.  From tzafan, צָפַן = hid, stored up, treasured.

The sons of Merari … this is their duty of carrying, for all their service in the Tent of Meeting:  the planks of the sanctuary and its cross-pieces and its posts and its sockets; and the posts of the courtyard all around, and their sockets and their pegs and their cords, including all of their tools for all of their duty; and you shall assign, by name, the tools for their duty and their burden.  (Numbers 4:31-32)

In other words, the Merarites disassemble, carry, and reassemble the framework of the Tent of Meeting and of the courtyard wall.

Four Duties for Leaders

East

Out of all those who camp in the inner ring around the sanctuary, the priests have the most perilous duty; they must touch the holiest objects in order to wrap them for transport.  They are also responsible for what the Levites do.  Their place is in the east, toward the ancient time, the origin of humankind.

Today, if we take on religious leadership, we need to remember that some people look up to us, and look to us for guidance.  Whatever we model, as well as teach, will have a deep effect on other human beings.  This is indeed a perilous duty.

South

The Kohatites have the next most dangerous job, carrying the holy objects without touching or seeing them directly.  Their place is in the south, at the right hand of the priests.

Today, when we choose to follow a religious leader and serve at their right hand, we receive the gift of extra learning, and the honor of reflected greatness.  But we are also responsible for carrying and passing on the leader’s teachings in a way that continues their good work—and does not degenerate into the idol-worship of mere appearances.

West

The Geirshonites are responsible for roofs and walls.  Their place is to the west, toward the sea.

If we put up a psychological roof, how long can we operate in the mundane world without worrying about any inscrutable mysteries, anything that might be called God?  When will a change in our lives force us to break camp and take down the roof?

What if we put up an inner wall against something we do not want to face?  Like the wall of water that let the Israelites cross the Reed Sea and then crashed down on the Egyptian army, our psychological wall might crumble and drown us in reality.

If we hope to serve our communities, or the divine spirit inside us, we must be able to take down our own roofs and walls when we need to.

North

The Merarites are responsible for the supporting framework of the sanctuary.  Their place is to the north, the place of hidden treasure.

Knowledge and insight are among the treasures that are often hidden from us.  We cannot even fully know ourselves.  The only way to receive a hidden insight is to dismantle the structure of our beliefs, carry the pieces to a new place, wherever the divine pillar of cloud touches down.  Then we can erect a new framework of theories and supporting beliefs.

Sometimes we can follow leaders who have been able to reframe their lives.  Sometimes we must become those leaders.

 

Whenever we have to rebuild our lives, we are called to do the work of the priests and Levites in all four directions.  First, like the Merarites, we must erect a new framework, a new set of ideas about life that will support us and allow us to uncover more hidden insights.  Next, like the Geirshonites, we must hang walls and drape roofs, separating our interior space from the exterior world—while recognizing that the barriers are fluid.  Then, like the Kehatites, we set down our most sacred convictions in their proper places, so they are no longer burdens.  And finally, like the priests, we unwrap what is holy, revealing the golden treasures of our souls just enough so we can influence the world for the good.

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

  1. The Levite men officially replace the first-born males of each tribe as the men who are dedicated to God in Numbers 3:40-45.
  2. Numbers 2:1-31.
  3. Genesis 2:8.
  4. Numbers 4:7-14.
  5. Exodus 6:16-26.
  6. According to Canaanite literature, Mount Tzafon north of Ugarit (in present-day Syria) was where the god Baal built his palace.  Psalm 48:3 equates Mt. Tzafon with Mt. Zion.

 

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Ruth: The Use of Power

May 17, 2018 at 9:33 pm | Posted in Proverbs, Ruth, Shavuot | Leave a comment

After seven weeks of counting measures of barley, as prescribed in the Torah, Jews get to celebrated the holy day of Shavuot (“Weeks”).  (See my post Omer: Counting 49.)  The special reading for this weekend is the book of Ruth, a story that includes two Shavuot themes: the barley harvest, and embracing a covenant with the God of Israel.

Ruth Gleaning, by R.F. Babcock, 19th century

Ruth is a native of Moab, a young widow who chooses to leave her land and follow her widowed and impoverished mother-in-law Naomi to a potentially bleak future in the Israelite town of Beit Lechem.  Ruth commits herself to Naomi, her god, and her people.  After they arrive, she gleans barley in fields belonging to Boaz, a wealthy and devout Israelite.

Both Ruth and Boaz are admirable for their kindness.  Ruth goes beyond her duty by committing herself to Naomi and doing whatever it takes to support her mother-in-law.

from Ruth and Boaz, by E.C.F. Holbein, 1830

When Boaz first sees Ruth gleaning in one of his fields, he praises her, asks God to bless her, gives her lunch, orders his men not to touch her, and tells them to leave extra stalks of barley in the rows for her.  Eventually Boaz goes beyond his duty by marrying Ruth and taking both women into his household.

The book praises Boaz and Ruth not only for their kindness and loyalty to family members they have no obligation to help, but also for the ways they use power.

And Naomi had a kinsman through her husband, an ish gibor chayil from the family of Elimelekh, and his name was Boaz.  (Ruth 2:1)

ish (אִישׁ) = man.

gibor (גִּבּוֹר) = champion, hero in battle, respected man in a community.  (From the root verb gavar,גָּבַר = excelled, accomplished, prevailed.)

chayil (חַיִל) = power.  By itself, the noun chayil = army or wealth—the two main kinds of power in the Ancient Near East.  When the word is immediately preceded by a noun indicating a human individual (such as ish or gibor), chayil serves as an adjective meaning powerful, leading in battle, influential due to wealth or social standing, or highly capable.

Boaz is introduced as an ish gibor chayil, a respected and powerful man.  As the story unfolds we learn that his power comes from his wealth and his standing in the town of Beit Lechem.  He is one of the elders who sits at the town gate to judge cases.  His opinions are respected, and in the legal case the book of Ruth describes, the other elders follow Boaz’s lead.1

Not all wealthy men use their power to do good.  The prophets Isaiah and Amos rail against the wealthy who supply themselves with luxuries while oppressing the poor.2  But Boaz uses his power to ensure justice in his town, good behavior among his workers, and provisions for two impoverished widows, Ruth and Naomi.

Although Boaz goes out of his way to be kind to them during the harvest, it does not occur to him to make any arrangement for them after the harvest is over.  So Naomi tells Ruth when Boaz will hold a harvest celebration for his men on the threshing-floor, and instructs her to bathe, anoint herself, dress up, and hide nearby until all the men have eaten, drunk, and dozed off.  Then she must uncover Boaz’s “feet” and lie down next to him.3  Naomi concludes:

“And he will tell you what you should do.”  (Ruth 3:4)

Both women understand the risk; Boaz might use his position to marry her, or he might take advantage of his position to use her and cast her aside.  Ruth answers:

Everything that you say to me, I will do.”  (Ruth 3:5)

On the threshing floor, artist unknown

She follows Naomi’s instructions, and then goes beyond them when Boaz wakes up.

In the middle of the night, the man gave a start, and felt around.  And hey!  A woman was lying at his feet!  He said: “Who are you?”  And she said: “I am Ruth, your maidservant.  And you shall spread the wing [of your robe] over your maidservant, because you are a redeeming kinsman.”  (Ruth 3:8-9)

Ruth practically orders Boaz to spread his wing over her, and tells him he should be her redeemer.  Technically the redeemer of a childless widow is her late husband’s brother.  He is required to redeem the widow from poverty by marrying her, giving her a son, and taking care of her late husband’s land until her son is old enough to inherit it.4  But both of Naomi’s sons are dead, as well as the rest of the men in their immediate family.  Boaz is only a distant relative, not even the closest one on the family tree.

Nevertheless, he feels honored that Ruth is telling him to marry her.

And he said: “Blessed are you to God, my daughter!  Your latest chesed is better than the first—[your] not going after the young men, whether poor or rich.  And now, my daughter, you must not be afraid.  Everything that you say to me, I will do it, because all [the elders] at the gate of my people know that you are an eishet chayil.”  (Ruth 3:10-11).

chesed (חֶסֶד) = loyalty to family obligations; kindness.

eishet (אֵשֶׁת) = woman of.  (From the noun ishah,  אִֺשָּה= woman, wife.)

Boaz is an ish chayil, powerful because of his social standing in Beit Lechem.  Now he declares that the elders of the town consider Ruth, an impoverished foreigner, an eishet chayil.  Clearly her power does not come from either wealth or military prowess.  But she is a highly capable worker, and she has earned a sterling reputation because of her steadfast chesed to Naomi.  Boaz respects her so much that he promises “Everything that you say to me, I will do.”

That is exactly what Ruth said to Naomi.  The sentence also echoes the words of the Israelites at Mount Sinai, when Moses reads the scroll of the covenant out loud to the people, and they reply: “Everything that God has spoken, we will do.”5  All three replies commit the speakers to complete trust and devotion.  Ruth is devoted to Naomi, Boaz becomes devoted to Ruth, and the Israelites declare their devotion to God.

The phrase eishet chayil appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible.  The other two occurrences are in the book of Proverbs.

An eishet-chayil is a crown for her husband,

            But one who acts shamefully is like rottenness in his bones.  (Proverbs 12:4)

The book of Proverbs ends with a long encomium to the eishet-chayil, beginning with:

An eishet-chayil who can find?

            Far beyond rubies is her value.

Her husband trusts her in his heart,

            And lacks no profit.  (Proverbs 31:10-11)

The poem then describes how an eishet-chayil works long hours spinning and weaving, collecting food and feeding her whole household, acquiring land and planting vineyards.  Her arms are strong.

Her palm she spreads out to the poor,

            And her hand she extends to the needy.  (Proverbs 31:20)

Like Boaz, an eishet chayil uses the wealth she increases through her own work to give to the poor.

Her mouth opens with wisdom,

          And teachings of chesed are on her tongue.  (Proverb 31:26)

By calling Ruth an eishet-chayil, Boaz explains why he will do everything she says.  Like the eishet-chayil in Proverbs, Ruth uses the power of her example and influence to counsel wisdom and kindness.

The poem about the eishet-chayil concludes:

Extol her for the fruit of her hand,

            And her deeds will praise her at the gates.  (Proverbs 31:31)

The ideal eishet-chayil, like Ruth, is praised for her deeds by the elders at the gate.

*

Both Boaz and Ruth are instinctively kind and loyal, full of chesed.  Both have personal power, chayil; Boaz because of his wealth and social standing, Ruth because of her good example.  Even Naomi has moments when she uses the power of her influence to do good.  She provides for one daughter-in-law by persuading her to return to her parents in Moab, and provides for Ruth by arranging a marriage from behind the scenes, following her hunch about Boaz despite the risks.

The book of Ruth begins with the deaths of three men whose widows lose everything, but it has  an extraordinarily happy ending: the women of Beit Lechem visit Boaz’s house, where he is happily supporting his pleasant old relative Naomi; his young, capable, kind, and loyal wife Ruth; and their newborn son, who will carry their dreams into the future.6

Sometimes people who have power to influence our lives are not so virtuous.  Sometimes, despite our good intentions, we fail to help those around us.  But the book of Ruth demonstrates that power can be dedicated to good deeds and kindness.

May each of us notice acts of kindness with gratitude, and practice using our own power to be kind to others.

  1. Ruth 4:1-13.
  2. g. Isaiah 1:16-17, 1:23-24, 10:1-3, 58:5-7; Amos 8:4-6.
  3. In the Torah, regalayim (רַגְלַיִם = pair of feet) is sometimes a euphemism for male genitals (e.g. 2 Kings 18:27, Isaiah 7:20), and legalot ervah (לְגאלּוֹת עֶרוָה = to uncover nakedness) is a euphemism for sexual intercourse (e.g. Leviticus 18:6-18).
  4. See Genesis 38:8-11 and Deuteronomy 25:5-10 for the laws of levirate marriage/yibum.
  5. Exodus 24:7.
  6. Oved, the son of Ruth and Boaz, is the grandfather of King David. (Ruth 4:21)

Behar, Psalm 100, and Psalm 123: Master and Slave

May 9, 2018 at 8:20 pm | Posted in Behar, Psalms/Tehilim | Leave a comment

Who owns you?

This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“On a mountain”), sets limits on ownership of both humans and land.  God owns all the farmland.  The people are tenants with long-term leases, but God mandates that they must let the land rest every seventh year,1 and every fiftieth year (the jubilee/yoveil) any land that was purchased returns to the family that originally owned it.2  (See my post Behar: Owning Land.)

The same goes for human beings.  God owns all the Israelites.  If some of them become so impoverished they have nothing left to sell but themselves or their children, they can join another household as servants.  But they will not be permanent, inheritable slaves, like the foreign slaves Israelites own.3  Their extended families can buy them back from their Israelite masters at any time, and if they are still serving their masters when the jubilee year comes, they and their children are freed from service anyway—and can return to the land they once sold.4  (See my post Behar: Exclusive Ownership.)  God explains:

“Because they are my avadim, who I brought out from the land of Egypt, they may not be sold as an aved.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:42)

avadim (עֲבָדִים) = slaves, servants, subordinates.  (Singular:  eved, עֶבֶד or aved, עָבֱד.)

In this context, the Israelites are slaves of God, and can only become temporary servants or subordinates of human beings.  Even Israelites who sell themselves to resident aliens can be redeemed by their kinsmen, and must go free along with their children in a jubilee year.5

The master-slave relationship between God and the Israelites is a mutual obligation.  The Israelites are supposed to serve God by obeying all of God’s rules and commandments, which number in the hundreds.  God has absolute power over “their” lives, as well as over “their” land.  But just as the human owner of slaves is supposed to provide them with food, clothing, lodging, and all their other needs, God is supposed to take care of the Israelites.6

How did God acquire the Israelites as slaves?  In this week’s Torah portion, God says:

“Because the children of Israel are [already] avadim; they are my avadim that I brought out from the land of Egypt.  I am God, your God!”  (Leviticus 25:55)

In the book of Exodus, after God has rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them as far as Mount Sinai, God tells Moses to tell the people:

“And now, if you really listen to my voice and you observe my covenant, then you will be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.  For all the earth is mine, but you shall be my kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  (Exodus/Shemot 19:5-6)

After Moses has passed this on,

They answered, all the people as one, and they said: “Everything that God says, we will do!”  (Exodus 19:8)

Thus they wholeheartedly accept their new master.7

*

The relationship between God and God’s slaves is not always peaceful.  The book of Numbers/Bemidbar in particular, which we begin next week in the annual cycle of Torah reading, reports many incidents in which thousands of Israelites refuse to do what God asks, and God kills them.

The psalms offer contrasting opinions of what it is like to be God’s slave.  (Since the two psalms below compare God to a human master, my translations use the pronoun “he” and “his”.)

Psalm 100

A chant for thanksgiving:

            Call out homage to God, all the earth!

                        Ivdu God with joy!

                        Come before him with a shout of joy!

            Know that God is God;

                        He made us and we are his,

                        His people and the flock he is tending.

            Enter his gates with thanks,

                        His courtyards with praise.

                        Thank him!  Bless his name!

            For God is good.

                        His loving-kindness is forever,

                        And his faithfulness goes on from generation to generation.

ivdu (עִבְדוּ) = Serve!  (An imperative verb from the same root as avadim.)

 

Psalm 123

A song for ascending [stairs].

            To you I lift my eyes,

                        Dweller in the heavens.

            Hey, as the eyes of avadim are on the hand of their masters,

                        As the eyes of a female-slave are on the hand of her mistress,

            So our eyes are on God, our God,

                        Until he favors us.

            Be gracious to us, God!

                        For we have had too much contempt.

            Our soul has had too much ridicule from the complacent;

                        It is moaning over contempt from the arrogant.           

When life is going well, we rejoice in serving a God that is kind and faithful to us.  When life is going badly, we look for God anxiously and beg for succor.

Both of these psalms imply an external god who owns us.  But on another level, they can speak to an inner psychological truth: we do not fully own ourselves.

In today’s world, some people are still slaves to other human beings.  But even those of us who are relatively independent have only limited freedom to make our own decisions.  Most of our behavior is determined by our history, habits, complexes, and abilities.  Usually our conscious minds merely notice what we have already done—and instantly generate reasons for our unconscious decisions, to keep up the illusion that we are our own masters.  Only occasionally does a new bit of information stop us in our tracks, so that we take the time to think out a new response to life.  Only occasionally are we truly free.

Is God the mysterious force that determines the physical and mental operating systems for all creatures, like a master commanding his slaves?  If so, we can praise God when things happen that we consider good, and wait with trembling for the next move in God’s plan when things happen that we consider bad.  And we can consciously develop a habit of noticing and praising the good that comes our way—the food our master gives us, the beauty of a view, the companions assigned to us, the times when our required behavior is pleasant.

Or is God what we encounter in our moments of freedom?  If so, we can cultivate a habit of watching for other moments when we might seize the chance to do something new, and of welcoming the sudden uncertainty when we pause, trembling, and open ourselves to inspiration.

  1. Leviticus 25:5.
  2. Leviticus 25:13-17, 25:23-24.
  3. Leviticus 25:35, 25:39, 25:44-46.
  4. Leviticus 25:40-41.
  5. Leviticus 25:47-54.
  6. “…just as they belong to Him in that He can confiscate and apportion their land, so, too, do they belong to Him in the sense that He is responsible for looking after their wellbeing and welfare for all time.” (Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Maggid Books, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015, p. 267)
  7. Ibid., p. 268.

Emor: Blasphemy

May 3, 2018 at 9:13 pm | Posted in Emor | Leave a comment

Emor: Blasphemy

The scene at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”) raises two questions:

  • Should someone with a non-Israelite father be treated differently than someone with two Israelite parents?
  • What should be done in a case of blasphemy?

Discrimination

Medieval manuscript detail on Lev. 24:10

The son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man went out among the children of Israel; and they scuffled, the son of the Israelite woman and an Israelite man, concerning the camp.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 24:10)

The opening line above does not specify the subject of the quarrel.  The Hebrew could also be translated as “in the camp”, leaving the subject completely open.  But one traditional suggestion is that man with the Egyptian father resents being forbidden to pitch his tent inside the Israelite camp.1

And God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: “Each man shall camp according to his banner with the signs for the house of his fathers.  Facing all around the Tent of Meeting they shall camp.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 2:1-2)

Camps of 12 Tribes and Levites, all facing the sanctuary

Each tribe, and each clan within the tribe, is assigned its own camping area.    Since an Egyptian father does not belong to any Israelite tribe, his son would not be allowed to camp with his Israelite mother’s family in the area allotted to the tribe of Dan.

… the name of his mother was Shelomit daughter of Divri of the tribe of Dan.  (Leviticus 24:11)

The Torah does not say where the erev rav (the “mixed multitude” or “riff-raff” who left Egypt with the Israelites) camp, but it must be somewhere outside the ring of Israelite tribes, and therefore outside the camp proper.  “Outside the camp” is also where people with the skin disease tza-arat live2, and where dead bodies are taken.3

The fight or scuffle at the beginning of the scene probably began with the “Israelite man” insulting Shelomit’s son, denigrating him as a half-Egyptian who has to live outside the camp.

Blasphemy

The son of the Israelite woman put a hole through the name, vayekaleil [him?  it?].  And they brought him to Moses.  And the name of his mother was Shelomit …  (Leviticus 24:11)

vayekaleil (וַיְקַלֵּל) = and he pronounced a curse on, and he denigrated.  (From the root verb kalal, קַלַּל = “belittled, was lightweight” in the kal form, and “denigrated, cursed” in the piel form.)

The Hebrew word I translate as “put a hole through” is vayikov (וַיִּקֺּב), a form of the verb nakav (נָקַב).  This verb is used literally for piercing, boring, and tunneling;4 and metaphorically for designating or cursing a human being.5  Only in the story about Shelomit’s son is the word a metaphor for using the name of God in a curse.  (“The name” without a modifier means the name and/or reputation of God.)  When Shelomit’s son is scuffling with the “Israelite” man, he metaphorically makes a hole through God’s reputation.  This is blasphemy.

Honoring God is an essential commandment in the bible, and lowering God’s reputation would harm the whole community by encouraging idolatry.

Shelomit’s son then denigrates or curses (vayekaleil) someone or something.  The Torah omits the object of his curse.  If he denigrates or curses God or God’s name, he is committing blasphemy a second time—but the penalty is the same no matter how many times he does it in one utterance.

If he had vilified his opponent, “the Israelite man”, without using the name of God, there would be no penalty.  In the Torah one must never curse or denigrate God, a chieftain of a tribe, or one’s own parents.6  Everyone else is fair game, as long as God’s name is not invoked.  But Shelomit’s son makes the mistake of including the name of God in his curse.

The Blasphemer Stoned,
from Figures de la Bible, 1728

This week’s Torah portion continues:

And they put him in custody, to get themselves a clarification from the mouth of God.  God spoke to Moses, saying: “Remove the mekaleil to outside of the camp.  Everyone who heard shall lean their hands on his head, and then the entire assembly shall stone him.”  (Leviticus 24:12-14)  

mekaleil (הַמְקַלֵּל) = the blasphemer, the one who pronounced a curse, the one who denigrated.  (Also from the root verb kalal.)

Before Shelomit’s son denigrates God, he lives outside the camp, where corpses are buried.  Now that he has committed blasphemy, he is killed outside the camp.

Why does everyone who heard the blasphemy lean or lay hands on the blasphemer’s head?  Words have power, and hearing blasphemy psychologically contaminates the listener.  Even today, it is shocking or sobering to hear intentional blasphemy (rather than the common practice of using the word “god” in expletives).  If I heard intentional blasphemy, I would instinctively whisper something apotropaic.  Then, if I knew the person, I would find a time for a conversation about it.  But the ancient Israelites portrayed in the Torah were more action-oriented.  The witnesses to blasphemy cast off their sense of contamination by putting their hands on the blasphemer’s head.  Then instead of talking with him, they kill him.

No Discrimination Regarding Blasphemers

And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: “Anyone who yekaleil his god shall bear his guilt.  One who puts a hole through the name of God shall definitely be put to death.  The whole community shall definitely stone him, foreigner or native-born alike; if he puts a hole through the name, he shall be put to death.”  (Leviticus/ Vayikra 24:15-16)

yekaleil (יְקַלֵּל) = he pronounces a curse, he denigrates.  (From the root kalal.)

This final ruling comes down against discrimination on the basis of parentage.  As in thirteen other passages in the Torah, a foreigner who joins the Israelites must follow the same laws and receive the same justice as native-born citizens, and vice versa.  (See my post Mishpatim: The Immigrant.)  However, other parts of the Torah discriminate against foreigners and children of foreigners.7  The ancient Israelites were divided on this issue, just as Americans are today.

The Torah’s view of blasphemy, however, is harsher than that of modern Western countries.

The Blasphemer, by William Blake, ca. 1800

The ancient Israelites in the Torah are insecure about their survival as a people, a country, and a religion.  Those three things are easy to separate today, but in the ancient Near East they were inseparable.  By attacking the religion, blasphemy attacked the whole social structure.  So the God-character in this week’s Torah portion tells Moses to get rid of the problem by killing the blasphemer.  This is a quick and definitive solution for people who are too afraid of the disintegration of their religion, and therefore of their whole society, to engage in compassion and consideration.

*

To me, both denigrating God and using a word for God in curses are part of normal life.  When I was a teenager, and the only “God” I knew about was the beard-in-the-sky variation, I often declared God non-existent.  When I swore, I preferred phrases using the word “god” over crude words for sex or defecation.

Now I know that denigrating someone else’s concept of God is a bad idea, since it belittles the person who believes that concept.  But swearing using the word “god” is so widespread in Western society that it is merely an expression of frustration, not serious blasphemy.8 Serious blasphemy is cursing the god you do believe in, or misusing a name of God that is sacred to you.

Within a community of fundamentalists, a young man might, like Shelomit’s son, commit serious blasphemy out of rage against the unfairness of his own people.  Or someone might utter serious blasphemy as a howl of anguish over a concept of God that can no longer be borne.  These blasphemers need sympathetic listeners, and sometimes advocates.  Punishment is no solution.

After all, at some point in our lives (often in childhood), we are all like Shelomit’s son, stuck with a group that excludes us.  Yet most of us find ways to live peacefully in the larger world.

I pray that someday no one will be too frightened of disintegration to tolerate blasphemy.  I pray that more and more people will develop the security and kindness to feel compassion for those who cry out in rage or anguish, and try to help them instead of punishing them.

  1. Vayikra Rabbah 32:3 and Torat Kohanim 24:235 are cited by Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) and 19th-century rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch in their explanations that Shelomit’s son petitions Moses to camp with the tribe of Dan, and when Moses rejects his petition, the man goes out through the Israelite camp in a state of anger.  His anger makes him ready to pick a fight with the next person who discriminates against him, and also ready to utter curses.
  2. Leviticus 13:45-46.
  3. Leviticus 10:4-5.
  4. 2 Kings 12:10 and 18:21; Isaiah 36:6; Habakkuk 3:14; Haggai 1:6; and Job 40:24 and 40:26.
  5. Genesis 30:28; Numbers 1:17, 23:8, 23:25; Isaiah 62:2; Amos, 6:1; Proverbs 11:26, 24:24; 1 Chronicles 12:31, 16:41; and 2 Chronicles 28:15, 31:19. The book of Job also mentions cursing a particular day (3:8) and someone’s door (5:3).
  6. Exodus 20:7, Exodus 21:17, and Exodus 22:27.
  7. For example, Deuteronomy 7:1-4 and 23:4-7 are directly discriminatory. The list of campsites in Numbers 2:2 neglects to provide a camping area around the sanctuary for converts who left Egypt with the Israelites.
  8. This was probably true even in 11th-century France, when Rashi (Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) wrote that “he put a hole through the name” in Leviticus 24:16 means the death penalty applies only to one who pronounces the four-letter sacred name of God, not to someone who curses using another name for God.

Acharey Mot & Shemini: So He Will Not Die

April 25, 2018 at 8:26 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Shemini, Yom Kippur | 1 Comment

How can anyone enter the Holy of Holies and come out alive?

God spoke to Moses after the death of two of the sons of Aaron, when they drew close in front of God and they died.  And God said to Moses: “Speak to Aaron, your brother, so he shall not come at [just] any time into the holy place inside the curtain, to the front of the atonement-cover that is on the ark—so he will not die, because I appear in an anan over the atonement-cover.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:2)

anan (עָנָן) cloud (of water vapor, smoke, or anything that hangs in the air and limits vision.  Anan comes from the same root as onein, עוֹנֵן = made appear, conjured up.)

by James Tissot

Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense “close in front of God” earlier in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.  (See my post Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.)  Their souls are consumed by a divine fire.1  Only in this week’s Torah portion, Acharey Mot (“After the death”), does the Torah indicate how “close in front of God” is too close.

A curtain separates the Tent of Meeting, a portable sanctuary for God, into two rooms.  All the priests walk in and out of the larger front chamber, as they tend the incense altar, the bread table, and the menorah.  The smaller back chamber is the Holy of Holies where the ark stands.  The solid gold lid of the ark is called the atonement-cover or kaporet (כַּפֺּרֶת).  According to the Torah, God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the lid.2

Tent of Meeting. (Red lines are curtains.)

Do Nadav and Avihu go too far by bringing their unauthorized incense into the front chamber of the tent?  Or did they go farther and transgress by entering the Holy of Holies?  The commentary is divided, but the beginning of Acharey Mot implies that they walk all the way into the Holy of Holies.3

Then God says that even Aaron, the high priest, will die if he enters the back chamber at the wrong time.  When is the right time?  The ensuing instructions designate one day a year when the high priest will enter the Holy of Holies as part of a long ritual to make atonement with God.4  Identified here as “the tenth day of the seventh month”, this day came to be known as Yom Kippur.

On that day the high priest steps inside the Holy of Holies twice, and both times he sprinkles blood on the atonement-cover of the ark.  The first time the blood comes from a bull he has slaughtered to make atonement for himself and his own household.5

The second time the blood comes from a goat he has slaughtered as an atonement offering for the people.6  (It is one of two goats chosen by lot; the other goat is sent out into the wilderness to Azazel.  See my post Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles.)

But before the high priest sprinkles blood the first time, he must make a cloud of incense inside the Holy of Holies.

He shall take a pan-full of glowing charcoal embers from the side of the altar facing God, and two handfuls of finely-ground, fragrant incense, and he shall bring them through the curtain.  And he shall place the incense on the fire, in front of God.  And the anan of the incense shall conceal the atonement-cover that is over the Reminder [inside the ark], so he will not die.  Then he shall take some blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger over the surface of the atonement-cover… (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:12-14)

Apparently when Aaron first enters the Holy of Holies, no cloud covers the lid of the ark.  He has to generate a cloud from incense, on the spot.7  According to the Talmud, in the Holy of Holies inside the temple in Jerusalem the smoke from the high priest’s incense “rose straight up like a palm tree”.  Then it spread out over the ceiling and down the walls until it filled the whole room.8

The chamber remains thick with smoke when the high priest returns with the goat’s blood.  The Talmud says the smell of the incense on Yom Kippur spread out so far from the temple in Jerusalem that it made the goats in Jericho sneeze.9  (I imagine the goat led out into the wilderness for Azazel was also sneezing as it went.)

The phrase “so he will not die” is linked with an anan both at the beginning of the Torah portion and in the instructions for filling the Holy of Holies with smoke.

… so that he shall not come at [just] any time into the holy place inside the curtain, to the front of the atonement-cover … so he will not die, because I appear in an anan over the atonement-cover.

Leviticus 16:2

  And he shall place the incense on the fire, in front of God.  And the anan of the incense shall conceal the atonement-cover … so he will not die.

 Leviticus 16:13

In verse 16:2, God appears in an anan over the ark.  In verse 16:13, Aaron must generate an anan to conceal the ark.  In verse 16:2, this sight of God in an anan seems to be fatal.  In verse 16:13, a prolonged view of the ark cover seems to be fatal.

One cloud or two?

Are there two clouds, one conjured up by God and the other made by the high priest?  Classic commentary is divided on the question.10  If there is only one cloud, the anan of incense, then what would Aaron see when he first walks into the Holy of Holies?  This week’s Torah portion implies that he would see the lid of the ark and empty air above it.  Since he would remain alive long enough to fill the room with incense, the sight of the atonement-cover would be fatal only when he sprinkles blood on it.

We can assume God is in residence, to witness the atonement ritual.  The book of Exodus/Shemot tells us that no human being can see God’s “face” and live.11  Even Moses would not see God’s face when God spoke to him from above the lid of the ark.  So God’s presence above the ark must be either invisible, or clouded by God’s own anan.

From Egypt to Mount Sinai, and again from Mount Sinai to the Jordan River, God provides a pillar of cloud (by day) and fire (by night) to guide the Israelites and their fellow-travelers.12  At Mount Sinai, only Moses can enter the cloud of smoke at fire on the mountaintop, where he goes to converse with God before the tent-sanctuary is built.

But when Moses finishes assembling the sanctuary,

…the anan covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of God filled the dwelling-place.  Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting because the anan settled on it and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place.  (Exodus/Shemot 40:34-35)

kavod (כָּווֹד) = splendor, magnificence, weightiness.  (When kavod refers to God, it is usually translated as “glory” or “presence”.)

Everyone can see the cloud on top of the tent roof, just as everyone can see the pillar of cloud and fire during the Israelites’ journeys.  But even Moses cannot enter the Tent of Meeting when it is filled with the kavod of God—which might look, to human eyes, like either cloud or fire.

The cloud above the tent remains until God gives the signal to strike camp and journey on by lifting the cloud and restoring the guiding pillar of cloud and fire.  The kavod inside the tent shrinks or disappears at some point while the tent is still pitched at Mount Sinai, before Moses takes Aaron inside in the portion Shemini.

And Moses and Aaron came into the Tent of Meeting and they went out and they blessed the people.  Then the kavod of God appeared to all the people.  And fire went out from in front of God …  (Leviticus 9:23-24)

The fire consumes the offerings on the altar.  Then Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu go into the tent with their unauthorized incense, and the fire appears again and consumes them.  Yet after that, Aaron’s cousins safely enter the Tent of Meeting and carry out the two bodies.  And from then on, the priests move freely in and out of the front chamber of the tent.  Only the back chamber, the Holy of Holies, remains dangerous—probably because God might appear at any time in an anan of kavod over the ark.

If only the sight of God’s appearance in an anan is fatal, it follows that Aaron can enter the Holy of Holies safely on Yom Kippur because that is the day God will refrain from appearing in an ananat least until the room is so full of incense smoke that the high priest could not see God’s anan.

Therefore when Aaron first steps into the Holy of Holies there is no anan inside.  God is either invisible or not yet in residence.  Aaron makes a cloud of incense in order to hide the atonement-cover of the ark, so he can sprinkle blood on it without dying.  When the incense has filled the room, either God remains an invisible presence (as when God speaks to Moses in that spot), or God appears in a small anan of kavod over the ark, which Aaron cannot see through the smoke.

Inevitable Fog

I can understand why God’s kavod appears as cloud and fire.  We are finite creatures; when we try to understand the infinite, our minds cannot penetrate the mystery, and we find ourselves in a mental fog, glimpsing only transient flickers of enlightenment.  When we try to turn our experiences of God into concrete words or images, we lose their essence.

Perhaps if human beings look straight at the anan of God’s kavod for more than a moment, our minds snap.13  Our bodies remain whole, like those of Nadav and Avihu, but we lose our personal selves or souls, and what remains cannot function in the world.  This is the kind of death Aaron must avoid by entering the Holy of Holies under only two conditions:

  • when God has signaled that it is time to strike camp and move on; then Aaron and his two surviving sons take down the curtain and cover the ark with it.14
  • on Yom Kippur, the one day a year God has designated for the ritual of atonement.

The rest of the time, Aaron must stay out, so he will not accidentally see God appear in an anan.

While the incense altar in the front chamber of the Tent of Meeting is used for other purposes, the high priest creates an anan of incense inside the Holy of Holies only on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.  This is the day when we ask God for forgiveness for everything we have done wrong over the past year.  When we ask for that level of divine, inner forgiveness, it is not enough to know that God appears in a cloud.  We need to know that we cannot see ourselves clearly, either: neither our motivations nor how our actions look to others.  Like God, our own souls are manifest only in a cloud.

Yet as we grope through the fog of life, we can still try to become better people and try to serve God, whatever “God” might mean to each of us.

Even if we generate so much smoke our goats sneeze.

  1. The fire consumes them in Leviticus 10:1-2. Aaron’s cousins carry the bodies of Nadav and Avihu out of the camp, holding them by their tunics, in Leviticus 10:4-5.  Therefore the divine fire took their lives without incinerating their bodies or even burning their clothes.
  2. Exodus 25:22, Numbers 7:89.
  3. Since the divine fire passes through their tunics without charring them, it could also pass through both the inner curtain and the curtained doorway to the courtyard without damaging either curtain.
  4. Leviticus 16:29-34.
  5. Leviticus 16:6, 16:14.
  6. Leviticus 16:15.
  7. It seems clear to me that Aaron walks into the chamber carrying a pan of embers, two handfuls of ground incense (probably in a bag), and a bowl of bull’s blood (Leviticus 16:11-12). Once inside, he shall place the incense on the fire, in front of God, and the smoke conceals the atonement-cover (Leviticus 16:14).  This was also the opinion of the Pharisees during the time of the second temple in Jerusalem.  The Sadducees insisted the incense had to be smoking before the high priest entered the Holy of Holies.  They also tied a rope around the high priest’s ankle so someone could pull him out if he did die inside the Holy of Holies.
  8. Talmud Bavli, Yoma 53a.
  9. Talmud Bavli, Yoma 39b.
  10. Rashi and Maimonides wrote that Leviticus 16:2 refers to God’s cloud of kavod, so there were two clouds. Nachmanides and the Talmud Yerushalmi tractate Yoma  say that Leviticus 16:2 refers to the high priest’s cloud of incense.
  11. Exodus 33:18-23. Face (panim, פָּנִים) and kavod are used as synonyms in this passage.
  12. Exodus 13:21-22, Leviticus 40:36-37.
  13. The Talmud Bavli, Chagigah 14b, tells the story of four rabbis who entered pardes, paradise. Ben Azai looked at the divine kavod and died, Ben Zoma looked and went mad, and Elisha ben Abuyah (a.k.a. Acher) became an apostate.  Only Akiva, the greatest rabbi of that era, returned whole.
  14. When the Israelites break camp, Aaron and his two surviving sons take down the curtain in front of the Holy of Holies and cover the ark with it. Touching the uncovered ark would be fatal to the Levites who will carry it to the next campsite, but the priests are safe while they cover it. (Numbers 4:5-6, 4:15.)

Metzora: Ear, Thumb, Toe

April 18, 2018 at 11:05 am | Posted in Metzora, Tzav | Leave a comment

Ew, icky, gross, disgusting!  These words express is our unfiltered, untrained reactions to such things as slimy substances, corpses, and some visible diseases.

Tamei! says the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.

And the tzarua who has a mark, his clothes shall be torn and his hair shall be neglected and he shall wrap something over his lip, and he shall call out: Tamei!

tzarua (צָרוּעַ) = one stricken with the skin disease tzara-at (צָרָעַת). Also called a metzora (מְצֺרָע), from the same root.

tamei (טָמֵא) = ritually impure.

Anyone who is ritually impure, tamei, because of contact with genital discharges, dead bodies, or the skin disease tzara-at is forbidden to enter the courtyard around the sanctuary until the proper ritual purifies them.  Perhaps the writers of these passages1 imagined God was so anthropomorphic “he” would feel disgusted by these things, too.  Or perhaps the proper frame of mind for standing in front of God was to be free of any feelings of disgust—which would also explain why physically blemished priests could not serve at the altar.2

Metzora outside the city wall, by James Tissot

Tzara-at is not contagious,3 yet those afflicted with it are quarantined, forbidden even to live within their own community’s tent circle or town wall.4

This week’s Torah portion, Metzora (“someone with tzara-at”), prescribes how to make people who have healed from tzara-at ritually pure again, so they can rejoin the community for both worship and daily life.

First a priest must go outside the camp to inspect the metzora and confirm that their skin has really healed.  The writers of the Hebrew Bible assumed that any serious disease is a divine punishment for doing something wrong, and healing means that God had ended the punishment.  Many plagues are attributed to disobeying one of God’s commands.  Tzara-at, however, appears to be a divine punishment for demeaning other people through slander, denigration, or deception.5

If the skin disease is gone, the priest conducts a ritual with two wild birds.  (See my post Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles.)  Then, after washing and shaving their entire body, the metzora comes into the sanctuary courtyard with offerings to God.  The first offering is for their own purification and atonement.

The priest shall take one of the young rams and bring it near for an ashamThen the priest shall take some of the blood of the asham, and the priest shall put it on the rim of the right ear of the one being purified, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the thumb of his right foot.  (Leviticus 14:12, 14:14) 

asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering, to atone for an intentional misdeed.  (This is another indication that the Torah views bad behavior as the cause of tzara-at.)

In the whole Hebrew Bible, blood is daubed on the ear, thumb, and big toe for only two reasons: to purify an ex-metzora, or to ordain a priest.  Earlier in Leviticus we read:

Then [Moses] brought near the second ram, the ram of the ordination, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on the head of the ram.  And Moses slaughtered it, and he took some of its blood and put it on the rim of Aaron’s right ear, the thumb of his right hand, and the thumb of his right foot.  Then he brought near the sons of Aaron, and Moses put some of the blood on the rim of their right ears, on the thumb of their right hands, and on the thumb of their right feet.  (Leviticus 8:22-24)

Both a new priest and a newly healed metzora are daubed with ram’s blood from head to toe, on the right side, the active side.

Oil is involved in both rituals as well, though the order of application is different.  When Moses ordains the first priests, he sprinkles anointing oil (which contains aromatic spices) on the altar before the blood-daubing.6  A priest sprinkles some of the ex-metzora’s offering of plain olive oil on the altar after the blood daubing.7

In both cases, after sprinkling oil on the altar, the officiant pours oil on someone’s head.  Moses pours anointing oil on Aaron’s head.8  The procedure for an ex-metzora is more elaborate:

And some of the rest of the oil that is on his palm the priest shall put on the rim of the right ear of the one being purified and on the thumb of his right hand and on the thumb of his right foot, over the blood of the asham.  Then the remainder of the oil that is on the palm of the priest he shall put on the head of the one being purified.  Thus the priest shall make atonement for him before God.  (Leviticus 14:17-18) 

Why are the procedures for purification after a skin disease and ordination of a priest so similar?  One answer is that both the metzora and the priest take a step up in their ability to serve God.  The metzora becomes able to enter the space in front of the sanctuary where the altar is.  The priest becomes able to enter the inner sanctuary.

Community members who are temporarily barred from the sanctuary courtyard because of other ritual impurities do not go through the same blood-daubing and oil-pouring ritual—perhaps because they have done nothing wrong.  They might become ritually impure because of sex, or childbirth, or the death of a family member.  The passage of time and a less elaborate cleansing ritual are sufficient.

Perhaps someone who has recovered from tzara-at gets the full priestly treatment because the disease was thought to be the result of denigrating another person.  If one is accustomed to malicious gossip, or deception, or arrogant speech, it takes care and attention not to fall back into one’s old habits.  A powerful ritual can help motivate reformed persons to watch themselves continuously.

Priests in the Torah are also required to pay constant attention to their behavior.  Any slip on their part leads to improper worship by the whole community.  So they begin their tenure with a powerful ritual to remind them of their awesome responsibility.

Purity in any area requires careful attention.  Today, those with medical conditions requiring the complete elimination of certain foods, as well as Jews who are strict about keeping kosher, must read labels and ask embarrassing questions about meals served away from home.

And in our world of divisiveness and suffering, we all need to aim at purity in our own ethical behavior.  Like the metzora, we must guard ourselves against harmful speech.  Like the priest, we must be careful and thoughtful about what we teach, what we do, and the examples we set.

May the spirit of the divine help us all to pay attention.

  1. Modern scholars agree that all the instructions on protocol regarding the altar and sanctuary in Leviticus were written by the “P” source, i.e. one or more priests experienced in the rituals.
  2. See my post Emor: Flawed Worship.
  3. The detailed description of tzara-at in the Torah portion Metzora does not match any known contagious disease. The bible does not consider it contagious, either; while Naaman had tzara-at, he led an army, and the king of Aram often leaned on his arm for support (2 Kings 5:18).
  4. Those with tzara-at are excluded from the tent camp in Leviticus 13:46 and Numbers 12:14-16. They must stay outside the town wall in 2 Kings 7:3-10.
  5. Tzara-at is a punishment for harmful speech according to Numbers 12:-15; Talmud Bavli, Arachin 16a; Maimonides (Rambam) in “Mishnah” Nega’im 12:5; and Shlomoh ben Yitzchak (Rashi) in his commentary on Leviticus. The Torah implies that God strikes Naaman the Aramean with tzara-at because of his pride (2 Kings 5:9-14), which might have led to denigrating others.  And King Azariah gets lifelong tzara-at because of his failure to remove other gods’ shrines, which leads to Israelite apostasy (2 Kings 15:5).
  6. Leviticus 8:11.
  7. Leviticus 14:16 and 14:27.
  8. Exodus 29:7 and Leviticus 8:12.

Shemini: Fire Meets Fire

April 10, 2018 at 11:35 am | Posted in Shemini | 2 Comments

Aaron and his four sons spend seven days at the entrance of the tent-sanctuary after Moses consecrates them as the first priests of the Israelites.  (See my post Tzav: Filling Up a Priest.)  On the eighth day, in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (“Eighth”), Moses summons the new priests to make their first offerings on the altar.  He lists the necessary animal and grain offerings, then adds:

“This is the thing that God commanded you shall do; and then the glory of God will appear to you.”  (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:6)

Aaron, assisted by his sons, does the required slaughtering, blood splashing, and separation of the fatty parts (which make the best smoke for God’s pleasure).  The five priests lay out everything to be burned on the altar.  Aaron blesses the people.  Moses takes Aaron into the Tent of Meeting, and when they emerge again, they bless the people together.  (See my post Shemini: Prayer and Glory.)

… and the glory of God appeared to all the people.  And fire went out from before God, and it devoured the rising-offering and the fat parts on the altar.  And all the people saw, and they shouted with joy, and they fell on their faces.  (Leviticus 9:23-24)

The “glory of God” appears as a fire rushing out of the tent-sanctuary and devouring the offerings on the altar.  Since God’s presence is supposed to touch down in the Holy of Holies, the chamber at the back of the tent,1 the fire must miraculously travel through the curtains in two doorways without burning them.

In the midst of the rejoicing, Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, pick up their incense pans.  Nobody has instructed them to do so; each one is moved by his own impulse.  They put fire, in this case glowing embers, in their pans.

And Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon, each took his incense pan, and they placed fire in them, and they put incense upon it.  And they brought near before God strange fire, that [God] had not commanded them.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:1)

Nadav (נָדָב) = generous one, spontaneous giver.  (From the same root as nedavah, נְדָבָה = a voluntary and spontaneous gift, usually to God.2)

Avihu (אֲבִיהוּא) = my father (אֲבִי) is he (הוּא).

The Two Priests Are Destroyed, by James Tissot

And fire went out from before God, and it devoured them, and they died in front of God.  (Leviticus 10: 2) 

The Torah uses exactly the same Hebrew for “And fire went out from before God, and it devoured” on both occasions of divine fire.

What happened?  Commentators have developed too many theories over the last two thousand years to list them all in this blog post.  Here is my theory.

Nadav and Avihu are unlike their younger brothers, Elazar and Itamar, in two ways:

  1.  Seeing the Feet

Only Aaron’s two older sons walked halfway up Mount Sinai with Moses, Aaron, and the 70 elders. There they saw God’s feet on a pavement of sapphire (Exodus 24:10).  The elders could probably accept this as a once-in-a-lifetime vision, since they could never be prophets or priests.  But Nadav and Avihu are left hungry for more contact with God, more than the usual pillar of cloud and fire everyone sees.  As priests, they feel they are entitled.

They wait for the next opportunity to behold God.  In this week’s Torah portion, the miraculous fire of God comes forth and lands on the altar after Moses takes Aaron into the Tent of Meeting and back out again.  Perhaps the way to experience another close encounter with God is to enter the Holy of Holies—now, while God is in the mood to manifest.

Aaron’s younger sons, Elazar and Itamar, did not climb Mount Sinai and see God’s feet.  They are still waiting patiently for whatever comes their way in their new life as priests.

     2.  No time to think

The two older brothers are more impulsive than the two younger brothers—and the Torah signals this with their names. Nadav, whose name means “spontaneous giver”, decides to give himself as a nedavah to God.  He is willing, even eager, to let his own ego go up in smoke in order to be united with God.  So he picks up his incense pan and puts embers in it, even though Moses gave no such instructions.

Avihu, whose name means “he is my father”, takes after his father, Aaron.  When the people asked for an idol, Aaron had a flash of inspiration and immediately made the golden calf, forgetting that Moses had said God detests idols.1  Avihu is also forgetful in an important moment.  He watches Moses take his father Aaron into the tent, probably into the Holy of Holies.  And Avihu wants to do it, too.  When he sees Nadav heading into the sanctuary with an incense pan, he has a flash of inspiration, and immediately seizes his own pan, forgetting that Moses had not authorized an incense offering.

Elazar (אֶלְעָזָר = God helps) and Itamar (אִיתָמָר = date-tree coast) are not so impulsive.  Elazar wants to follow God’s rules in order to receive God’s help, and Itamar focuses on the physical things of this world.  They both want to preserve their lives, and they know God’s presence is dangerous, so they avoid taking any unauthorized actions.

*

Nadav and Avihu, unlike their younger brothers, crave religious experiences and are willing to risk their lives.  Symbolically, the “strange fire” they bring into the sanctuary is their burning desire to come closer to God—Nadav because of his impulsive generosity, and Avihu because he copies his father.  Their consuming desires are met with a consuming fire from God, and they die—presumably in ecstasy.

Elazar and Itamar stick to following instructions and doing the job God has given them.  They are rewarded with long lives and many descendants who also serve as priests.

*

Is it better to die in an ecstasy of worship, hurtling your soul into the unknown?  Or is it better to keep your head and pay attention to the demands of this world?  Both paths have their attractions, and perhaps there is a middle way, a life with one’s own feet on the ground and a vision of God’s feet in the sky.

But I prefer to be like Elazar and Itamar, and hope for a long life of service in this world, doing my work as well and as carefully I can.  (And I am glad I was not given the bloody work of an ancient Israelite priest!)

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

  1. Leviticus 16:2, Numbers 7:89.
  2. A nedavah is an offering on the altar, from a human to God, throughout the bible except in Psalms 68:10 and 110:3.

Pesach and Psalm 118: Still Singing

April 3, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Psalms/Tehilim | Leave a comment

After drinking, eating, talking, and singing our way through the Haggadah, we still have six more days of Passover/Pesach.  What do we do besides continuing our matzah diet, unleavened by any bread?

One of the 14 steps in the seder follows us all week: the Halleil (הַלֵּל = praise), consisting of Psalms 113-118.  The Levites sang these psalms in the second temple1 during the three pilgrimage festivals to Jerusalem:  Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. 2  All three festivals originated as harvest celebrations: Pesach for the first barley harvest, Shavuot for the first wheat and first fruits, and Sukkot at the end of the growing season, for all the other crops.  A harvest is a good reason to celebrate and praise God.

In my years of organizing Pesach seders and Shavuot and Sukkot services, I have been grateful that the Halleil includes Psalm 118.  Why?  Because the good lines in that psalm have inspired song and chant writers to come up with melodies.  Now, for the rest of the week of Pesach, I have the perfect excuse to keep on singing them!

Singing a verse again and again makes me ponder its meaning—which may be one reason we sing the psalms.  Here are my thoughts about some of the verses in Psalm 118:

118:1-4

Hodu l’Adonai ki tov,                         Thank God, because it is good,

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomar na Yisrael,                               Let Israel please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomru na beit Aharon,                       Let the house of Aaron please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomru na yirey Adonai,                      Let yirey God please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

yirey (יִרְאֵי) = those who are afraid of, those who are in awe of.

(Note:  In Hebrew, nouns and verbs have grammatical gender; in English they do not.  Therefore a masculine noun suffix or verb affix in Hebrew can be either masculine or neuter in English.  In this essay, I am translating references to God using “it” or “its”.)

Levites, from James Tissot, The Choristers

The first verses of Psalm 118 are scripted for call and response singing.  The choir, or choir leader, of the Levites invites three groups to respond. The first group, Israel, covers everyone present who is not a Levites or a priest.  The second group is the priests, whose hereditary office is traced back to Aaron in the Torah.  The third group is yirey God.3

It is tempting to consider the “yirey God” as the “God-fearers” of the Hellenistic period (the first through third century C.E.).  This was the name for people who had converted to worshipping the God of Israel, but did not go so far as to follow all the rules (such as circumcision).  One argument for this interpretation is that 118:4 calls for a class of people who are not “Israel”.  An argument against this interpretation is that Psalm 118 was probably written well before the first century C.E.

I can identify with the “yirey God”, despite my conversion to Judaism over 30 years ago, because I am not an ethnic Jew.  When the psalms were written, there were few apostates and few full converts; most of the people called “Israel” belonged by both birth and religion.  Today, when many people with Jewish ancestry live with no ties to the Jewish religion, and many converts are passionately engaged in that religion, I would appreciate a separate call for Jews by religion.4  We, too, can use a reminder that God’s “kindness is everlasting”.

118:14

Ozi vezimrat Yah,                               My strength vezimrat God,

          vayehi li liyshuah.                               and it became my rescue.

vezimrat (וְזִמְרָת) = and/or/but the zimrah of (a construct form of the noun zimrah).  Zimrah (זִמְרָה) = praising-song, melody, music.5

This line also appears in Exodus 15:2 in a song attributed to Moses, and is quoted in Isaiah 12:3.

English inserts the word “the” and forms of “to be” in places where Biblical Hebrew has no such connecting words.  Thus it is not always obvious, when translating from Hebrew to English, where to throw in the extra “the”, “is”, or “are”.  These grammatical differences mean there are at least two equally valid translations of Psalm 118:14:

“My own strength and song are of God!  And it [God] became my rescue!”  (Both the speaker’s strength and his song are attributed to God.  God rescues him by giving him superhuman strength and a song.)

“My own strength, and the song of God!  And it [the song of God] became my rescue!”  (The speaker has his own strength, but it is not enough to save him.  It is the song about God that rescues him—by calling in divine strength.)

When I sing verse 118:14, I imagine that singing in praise of God is giving me enough extra psychological strength to rescue me from my troubles.

118:19-20

Pitchu li shaarey tzedek                     Open to me the gates of righteousness

          Avo vam odeh Yah!                                         I will enter and praise God!

Zeh hashaar l’Adonai;                                    This is the gateway to God;

          Tzadikim yavo-u vo.                                    The righteous enter through it.

tzedek (צֶדֶק) = righteousness, what is right, what is just.

tzadikim (צַדִּיקִים) = (plural) the righteous, those who are innocent and in the right, those who act according to morality and justice.

When the Levites sang Psalm 118 in Jerusalem, the “gates of righteousness” probably referred to gates in the second temple complex.6  The pilgrimage festival may have included a ritual in which the double doors of a gate opened and the Levite choir sang while Judeans filed through.

The second temple had gates from the city into the outer courtyard (the “Court of Gentiles”); three gates from the outer courtyard into the eastern inner courtyard (the “Court of Women”) which only women and men of Israelite descent or full converts could enter; one gate from that court into the “Court of Israel” (for men only) with its view of the altar; and a curtained gate into the vestibule of the temple proper, which only priests were allowed to enter.

Was coming to the temple and worshiping the God of Israel enough to make someone righteous?  Or did stepping through the designated gate express a desire and commitment to become righteous?

The first time I sang this part of Psalm 118, I felt as if I were pretending I was already righteous and commanding the gates to open for me.  Then I realized that the request in 118:19 could also be a plea.  Now when I sing, I beg for the gates of righteous to open to me, so that I can receive whatever I need to become righteous.

Rashi7 wrote that the “gates of righteousness” were the entrances to synagogues and study halls.  I would agree that these are places where one can become more enlightened about righteousness—through an emotional channel in a synagogue service, and through an intellectual channel in a study hall.  But personal gates of righteousness may also open to us, if we ask.

*

As I sing Psalm 118, using different melodies for different sections, I think of God in terms of infinite kindness; I feel the strength of a divine source entering me as I sing to God; and I humble myself to pray for the ability to become righteous.

And all that comes before Psalm 118 reminds me to look again when I reject or feel rejected, since:

The stone the builders rejected

          Has become the cornerstone!  (118:22)

  1. Scholarly consensus is that Psalm 118 was written during the time of the “second temple” in Jerusalem. The Babylonians razed the first temple dedicated to the God of Israel in 586 B.C.E.  After the Persians conquered the Babylonians, King Cyrus decreed that exiles could return to their original lands and rebuild sites of worship.  Under Ezra and Nehemiah, returning exiles from Judah laid the foundations of a second temple on the site of the old one in Jerusalem.  The temple was completed in 516 B.C.E.
  2. The Talmud determined that only the “Half Halleil”, which abbreviates Psalms 116 and 117, should be recited during the last six days of Pesach (Arachin 10a-b).
  3. Psalm 115, earlier in the Halleil, appeals to the same three groups: Israel, the house of Aaron, and “yirey God”. In this case, the leader asks each group to trust in God, and the group responds: “Their help and their shield is he!”
  4. Converts are currently called “Jews by choice”, but I do not want to exclude people of Jewish ancestry who also choose to practice Judaism.
  5. In this verse only, zimrat is often translated as “the might of” or “the strength of” . Yet the root verb zamar, זָמַר, means “pruned” in the kal form, and “sang praises” or “made music” in the pi’el   There is only one verse in the Hebrew Bible in which zimrah or zimrat is not translated in terms of music: Genesis 43:11.  There Jacob lists six products he considers zimrat the land: four kinds of aromatic resin, fruit syrup, and almonds.  All these luxuries come from trees, and therefore could be considered “prunings”.
  6. Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century), The Hirsch Tehillim, Feldheim Publishers, Nanuet, NY, 2014, p. 968; Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, p. 417; The Koren Siddur (Nusach Sepharad), commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2012, p. 771.
  7. 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.

Pesach: Miriam the Prophetess

March 27, 2018 at 9:09 am | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Beshallach, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment

Pesach (פֶּסַח, “skipping”) means Passover.  Seder (סֵדֶר, “order”) means the dinner table ritual following the order in the Haggadah.  Haggadah (הַגָּדָה, “the telling”—a term that came into use in the 19th century) means the book of rituals, prayers, questions, four cups of wine, and stories.  The longest story, told while the second cup of wine sits on the table, is about the exodus from Egypt, up to the point when the pursuing Egyptian army drowns in the Reed Sea, and the newly-freed slaves celebrate on the far shore.

In the book of Exodus, Moses led the people in celebrating by singing a lengthy psalm.1

Miriam’s Song, 1909

Then Miriam the neviyah, the sister of Aaron, took the drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her, with drums and with circle-dances.  And Miriam chanted for them:

Sing to God, for He is high above the high;

horse and its rider He hurled into the sea.  (Exodus/Shemot 15:20-21)

neviyah (נְבִיאָה) = prophetess (the feminine form of navi (נָבִיא) = prophet).

Miriam is the first woman in the Torah to be called a neviyah.  She leads the women in singing as well as in tapping hand drums and dancing.2

Miriam is a character in three dramatic scenes in the Torah.  She is the resourceful young woman who, when the pharaoh’s daughter adopts her infant brother Moses, arranges for their own mother to be his paid wet-nurse.3  She is the leader of thousands of women in the scene above.  And later in the trek across the wilderness, she leads her brother Aaron in a joint complaint regarding Moses’ wife.  (See my post Beha-alotkha: Unnatural Skin.)  The two siblings point out that they are prophets, too:

“Has God spoken only with Moses?  Hasn’t He also spoken with us?”  And God heard.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 12:2)

by Johann Christoph Weigel, 1695

God calls Miriam, Aaron, and Moses to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and speaks to all three from the pillar of cloud—in order to tell them that Moses gets the most direct divine communication.

And [God] said: “Please listen to my words!  When there is a navi of God among you, I make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream.  Not so my servant Moses … I speak with him mouth to mouth, and in seeing, not in riddles, and he looks at the likeness of God.  (Numbers 12:6-8)

God afflicts Miriam with a temporary skin disease to underscore the point.  Nevertheless, in that scene Miriam is indeed a neviyah who hears God’s voice directly!

Miriam is mentioned in passing five times after this, including God’s speech in the book of Micah reminding the Israelites that God sent them three leaders for the exodus from Egypt: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 4

*

What is a navi or neviyah?  The Torah offers several paradigms.

  • Intercessor

The word navi first appears in the book of Genesis, when God tells King Avimelekh in a dream: “And now, return the wife of [Abraham], since he is a navi, and he can pray for you and you will live.” (Genesis 20.7)

Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, and an unnamed prophet in the first book of Kings are also prophets who have God’s ear and intercede with God to save other people.5

  • Spokesperson

The Torah introduces a second paradigm of a navi after the enslaved Israelites give up on Moses’ idea that God will liberate them.  When God tells Moses to speak to Pharaoh next, he tries to get out it, arguing that he has “uncircumcised lips”, i.e. he cannot speak well.6  But God has an answer for everything.

Then God said to Moses: “See, I place you as a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother will be your navi.”  (Exodus 7:1)

Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh, March Chagall, 1931

In other words, Aaron will act like a navi for Moses, hearing Moses speak and then passing on Moses’ words to the Egyptian court.  Obviously Moses is God’s navi, hearing God speak and passing on God’s words, though the Torah does not bother to say so until the end of Deuteronomy:  And never again in Israel rose a navi like Moses, who knew God face to face.  (Deuteronomy 34:10)

Moses and God have the longest, most frequent, and most direct conversations in the entire Hebrew Bible.  After Moses gets over his initial reluctance to speak, he fluently delivers God’s instructions, warnings, and hundreds of rules.7

Other prophets transmit God’s predictions, or warnings, about the future of kings or kingdoms if they do not change their ways.  These include all the major prophets (Isaiah through Malachi).

  • Ecstatic

The third kind of navi in the Hebrew Bible is one who goes into an altered state of consciousness characterized by an awareness of the divine and obliviousness to the world, and who does not return with any coherent message from God.  The first occurrence of this state in the Torah is when God shares some of Moses’ spirit or ruach with 70 elders.

And the spirit was upon them, vayitnabe-u, but they did not continue.  (Numbers 11:25)

Saul Before Samuel and the Prophets, by Benjamin West, 1812

vayitnabe-u (וַיּתְנַבְּאוּ) = and they acted like prophets, and they prophesied to themselves, and they spoke in ecstasy.  (From the same נבא root as navi.)

In both books of Samuel and both books of Kings, bands of prophets wander around making music, dancing, and babbling.  The bible explains the proverb “Is Saul, too, among the prophets?” first with a scene in which King Saul falls in with a band of prophets on the road and speaks in ecstasy like them, then with a scene in which not only babbles, but also strips naked.8

*

Miraim is the first of only five women called prophets in the Hebrew Bible. After her, two major prophetesses are spokespersons for God (type 2 above): Deborah, who summons a general and tells him to go to war;9 and Huldah, who authenticates a scroll as the word of God and utters two prophetic predictions.10  Two other prophetesses are mentioned only glancingly.11

Miriam is the only neviyah whom the bible reports as engaging in what might be ecstatic behavior: playing a drum, dancing, and singing on the shore of the Reed Sea.  But Miriam leads circle dances in complicated patterns that require concentration and planning.  She leads a coherent chant.  Rather than directing ecstatic worship, she is probably organizing a celebration of God as the victor in a war against the Egyptian charioteers.  Women customarily greeted soldiers returned from a victory with drumming, dancing, and singing.12

Although Miriam hears God’s voice, the Torah does not report her serving as either an intercessor or a spokesperson for God.

by Simeon Solomon, 1860

The Talmud attempts to fill the void by claiming that Miriam did pronounce a prophecy: that her mother would have a son who would save the Israelites from Egypt.  When Moses was born, according to this story, the whole house filled with light, and Miriam’s father exclaimed that his daughter’s prophecy had been fulfilled.13  This is a pleasant tale with no basis in the Torah.

A modern folk explanation is that Miriam must have had foreknowledge of the victory at the Reed Sea, and told the women to bring their drums.  Otherwise they would not have bothered to pack them, since they left their homes in Egypt in such a hurry that the dough had no time to rise in their kneading-troughs.14

This argument for Miriam’s power as a neviyah fails in the context of the larger story in Exodus.  The Israelite women were already packing all the gold, silver, jewelry, and clothing they “borrowed” from the Egyptians; they could easily add their hand drums and any their other sentimental and ritual objects.

*

Miriam may be called a neviyah because of other deeds not recorded in the bible.  Or she may simply be an exceptional person who has a close relationship with God.

A traditional Passover seder includes pouring a cup of wine for Elijah the navi.  Many a modern seder adds a ritual cup of water for Miriam the neviah.  (The water alludes to a Talmudic story that says a well of water followed the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years thanks to the merit of Miriam.15)

I lift a cup for Miriam at Passover knowing that she may not be a neviyah in the sense of being an intercessor with God, a spokesperson for God, or a religious ecstatic.  I celebrate her lifelong wise leadership, and her ability to listen to God.  May we all learn to be a little more like Miriam the neviyah.

  1. Exodus 15:1-18. See my post Beshallach & Psalm 136: Miracle at Sea.
  2. Since the two lines of Miriam’s song are the same as the first two lines of the psalm ascribed to Moses, the women might sing them as a periodic refrain during the longer psalm. Most modern scholars consider either the entire psalm, or at least Miriam’s song, to be one of the oldest poems in the Torah (based on Frank M. Cross and David N. Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1973).
  3. Exodus 2:4-8.
  4. When she dies in Numbers 20:1; in two genealogies listing her with her brothers Aaron and Moses, Numbers 26:59 and 1 Chronicles 5:29; in a warning about skin disease in Deuteronomy 24:9, and in Micah 6:3-4.
  5. Moses for the Israelite people in Exodus 32:9-14, Exodus 33:12-17, Numbers 11:1-2, and Numbers 21:6-9, and for Miriam in Numbers 12:10-15; Samuel for the Israelites in 7:5-10; Elijah to bring a dead boy back to life in 1 Kings 17:20-24; Elisha for the same reason in 2 Kings 4:8-37; an unnamed prophet for King Jereboam in 1 Kings 13:1-6.
  6. Exodus 6:12, 6:30. See my post Va-eria & Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2.
  7. The Talmud (Makkot 23b and Yevamot 47b) claims there are 613 commandments in the Torah.  It is hard to decide which rules should count, but 10th-century C.E. rabbi Saadiah ben Yosef Gaon found a way to list 613 in his Sefer Hamitzvot, and Maimonides (12th-century C.E. rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, nicknamed Rambam) came up with 613 for his book by the same name.
  8. 1 Samuel 10:10-12 and 19:18-24.
  9. Judges 4:4-16.
  10. 2 Kings 22:14-20.
  11. The unnamed wife of the first Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3) and Noadeyah, a false neviyah listed in Nehemiah 6:14.
  12. Judges 11:34, 1 Samuel 18:6-7.
  13. Talmud Bavli Megillah 14a.
  14. Exodus 12:34.
  15. Talmud Bavli Taanit 9a.

Tzav: Oil and Blood

March 21, 2018 at 10:04 am | Posted in Tzav | 3 Comments

What does it mean to be a priest in the Hebrew Bible?  One clue is the ordination ritual.

Smikhah letter, 1877

My own ordination as a maggid, a Jewish preacher and storyteller, included telling a story.  Ordination as a rabbi through the ALEPH program includes giving a divrei Torah (“words of Torah”, corresponding to a sermon in the Christian tradition).  In both cases written documents are signed, and the final step is the laying on of hands (smikhah) transmitting authority from the teacher to the student.1

The first priests of the Israelites undergo an entirely different initiation experience in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (“Command”).  The primary job of biblical priests is to process various animal and grain offerings according to all the rules in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.  Priests also enforce the rules on ritual purity;2 diagnose the skin disease of tzara-at;3 recite a blessing formula over the community;4; tend the menorah (lampstand) and other holy items inside the sanctuary;5 and look impressive while on duty.6  No wonder the ordination of the first priests focuses on purification, blood, and clothing.

First, in front of all the Israelites, Moses bathes Aaron and his four sons in water.7  Water and the blood of animal offerings are purifying agents in the Torah.  Next Moses dresses Aaron in all the garments of the high priest, ending with the gold forehead ornament engraved “Holy to God”.8

Next Moses picks up the anointing oil.  In the Hebrew Bible, only priests and kings are anointed before they take up their duties.

Then Moses took the anointing oil, and he anointed the sanctuary and everything that was in it, vayekadeish them.  And he sprinkled some of it seven times on the altar, and all its tools, and the basin and its stand, lekadesham.  And he poured out some of the anointing oil on the head of Aaron, and he anointed him lekadeshu.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:10-12)

vayekadeish (וְַיקַדֵּשׁ) = and he made holy, and he sanctified.  (In the Hebrew Bible, kadosh (קָדוֹשׁ = holy) means set apart for God rather than for ordinary use.  See my post Kedoshim: Reciprocal Holiness.)

lekadesham (לְקַדְּשָׁם) = to made them holy.

lekadeshu (לְקַדְּשׁוּ) = to make him holy.

Moses uses the same oil to make Aaron and all the objects related to the sanctuary holy.9  While the temple stood in Jerusalem, priesthood was hereditary and new priests, when they came of age, were anointed to consecrate them for serving God.

After the anointing, Moses finally dresses Aaron’s four sons in their assistant priest garments.  (Some commentary assumes that they put on their own linen breeches after the bathing, so they did not spend the entire time nude.)

Then Moses slaughters three animal offerings: a bull as a chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering, a ram as an olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering, and a second ram as a milu-im (מִלֻּאִים) = ordination-offering.  (See my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2 on these three types of offerings.)

Smikhah for Aaron and sons

And he presented the bull of the reparation-offering, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on the head of the bull of the reparation-offering.  And Moshe slaughtered it. and he took the blood and put it on the horns of the altar all around with his finger, and he made reparation for the altar.  And he poured out the blood onto the foundation of the altar, and vayekadeish it for atonement.  (Leviticus 8:14-15)

The five men who are being ordained transfer some of their spirit or identity to the bull by laying their hands on its head.  (See last week’s post, Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys.)  Then Moses cuts its throat and puts blood on the four corners of the altar, which are shaped like animal horns, as well as on its foundation.  According to Rashi, this blood not only makes the altar ritually pure, but also changes its status from ordinary to holy, so it can be used from then on to make reparations for people’s errors and atone for their crimes against God.10

Horned altar at Beersheva

Moses slaughters the first ram as an olah and burns up the whole animal into smoke; the God-character in the sky appreciates the fragrance.11  Then he slaughters the second ram as a milu-im, an ordination offering.  Just as he daubed bull’s blood on the horns of the altar, Moses daubs ram’s blood on the right ears, right thumbs, and right big toes of the five men being ordained, before he splashes the rest on the altar.12

Then Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood that was on the altar, and he sprinkled on Aaron, on his clothes, on his sons, and on the clothes of his sons with him.  Vayekadeish Aaron and his clothes and his sons and the clothes of his sons with him.  (Leviticus 8:30)

The anointing oil is for consecration; the blood is for ritual purification.  Having completed both, Moses tells Aaron and his sons to spend seven days and nights at the entrance of the sanctuary.  On the eighth day, the new priests will officially inaugurate the altar, and their own service, with seven animal offerings and a grain offering.  (See my post Tzav: Filling Up a Priest.)

Why does Moses apply oil and blood not only to the five men he is ordaining, but also to their clothing and the altar?

Sacrificing an animal is the primary means of worshiping God in the most of the Hebrew Bible.  Once the priests are ordained, the Israelites bring their animals to the altar to be slaughtered.  The priests collect and splash the blood, butcher the animals, lift up animal parts, burn, roast, and remove waste.  Both the priests and the altar are intermediaries between the people and God.

When I reread this week’s Torah portion I felt sorry for the priests in the bible.  Their honor is merely hereditary, and their contribution to the welfare of the Israelites consists in following the rules.  They do not volunteer creative work, like Betzaleil and the artisans who craft all the items for the tent-sanctuary.  They do not make plans and decisions, like the kings and their generals and aides.  They do not have visions and hear God’s voice, like the prophets.

The priests also do not get to tell stories, like a maggid.  They do not get to explain words of Torah, like a rabbi.  They learn the Torah only in order to follow and teach the rules about offerings, impurity, diseases, and temple protocol.  No wonder the ordination of the first priests includes multiple applications of blood from animal offerings in order to effect ritual purity.

Nevertheless, the Israelites depend on the labor of the priests so they can worship God in the only way they know.  Today, may we all honor those who follow the rules and keep things running just as much as we honor inspired artists, leaders, and prophets.

  1. For more on smikhah see last week’s post, Vayikra& Jeremiah: Kidneys.
  2. The many examples include Leviticus 12 and 15, and Numbers 5 and 6:9-20.
  3. Leviticus 13:1-14:57.
  4. Numbers 6:22-27.
  5. Exodus 27:20-21, Numbers 8:1-3.
  6. Priests are not allowed to serve at the altar or inside the sanctuary unless they have unblemished bodies (Leviticus 21:16-23 and 21:18-20). They must also be wearing their garments made of white linen and expensive dyes, and when the high priest officiates he wears a gold tabard with gems and a gold plate on his forehead (Exodus 28).  The high priest may not dishevel his hair or rip his garments—the usual signs of mourning—even when his closest family members die (Leviticus 21:10-12).
  7. Leviticus 8:6.
  8. Leviticus 8:7-9. For more information, see my post Tetzavveh: Holy Flower.
  9. But God’s instructions to Moses in Exodus 29:7 only mention pouring oil on Aaron’s head, not on the sanctuary or the altar.
  10. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) explained that Moses chata, made reparation, not because anyone had missed the mark, but simply to purify the altar so as to convert it from an ordinary state to a holy state.
  11. Leviticus 8:18-21.
  12. Leviticus 8:22-24.
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