by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Friendliness from foreigners is a new experience for the Israelites, after 40 years in a wilderness where the only new people they encountered were armed and hostile.
In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, the Israelites are camped on the northern border of Moab, overlooking the Jordan River. They have already skirted Moab, then conquered the Amorite country to its north. They are poised to cross the Jordan into Canaan, but Balak, the king of Moab, does not know that. He panics at the sight of thousands of Israelites on his border, and hires the Mesopotamian prophet Bilam to curse them. (See my earlier post, Balak: A Question of Anxiety.) Bilam’s blessings and curses always come true—because he can only declare the words God puts into his mouth.
But God makes Bilam give only good prophecies about Israel. Immediately after this, the Israelites prove themselves unworthy of the honor.
Israel settled among the acacias, and the people began liznot with the daughters of Moab. They invited the people lezivchey to their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1-2)
liznot (לִזְנוֹת) = to be unfaithful (to God or to a husband); to prostitute oneself.
lezivchey (לְזִבְחֵי) = to slaughter an animal on an altar, as a sacrifice to a god.
Why do the Israelites succumb so quickly? They know what it means to slaughter animals on an altar, give selected portions to God, and eat the rest themselves; they do the same thing for their own god when they make wholeness offerings (shelamim). They are also accustomed to bowing down to their own god. Now they are performing the same kinds of worship to the gods of Moab.
What makes the dinner invitations of the young women of Moab so irresistible?
The Midrash Rabbah for the book of Numbers (in the section based on the 5th century C.E. Tanhuma) spins a tale in which the Moabite women set up stalls in the market to sell linen, and when Israelite men come to buy, the old women in front of the stalls sends them into the back, where young women seduce them.
But I think this elaborate scenario is unnecessary. All the Israelites need is the novel experience of a friendly invitation to dinner.
The last friendly foreigners the Israelites encountered were Moses’ own Midianite family, who came to visit him in the wilderness at Refidim, on the way to Mount Sinai, nearly 40 years before. The next time Israelites see other people is two years later, when the twelve scouts go into Canaan and see “giants”. Their report leads the Israelites waiting at Kadesh in Paran to despair and decide to go back to Egypt—and this leads to God’s decree that the people must stay in the wilderness for a total of 40 years before they have another chance to enter Canaan.
The next morning, some of the men charge over the hill into Canaan anyway, and the Amalekites trounce them. So the Israelites spend another 38 years in the wilderness, mostly in isolation at Kadesh. Then, instead of crossing the border into Amalek country again, they circle east and north, so they can enter Canaan by crossing the Jordan River.
Here are the foreigners the Israelites encounter during that journey:
* The troops of Edom, who come to their border to make sure the Israelites take the long away around, without entering their land.
* The king of Arad and his troops, who attack and take captives. (The Israelites retaliate, with God’s help, and destroy Arad’s towns.)
* The troops of Sichon, king of the Amorites, who respond to the Israelites’ request for safe passage through their country by attacking them. (The Israelites conquer and occupy Sichon’s country.)
* King Og and his troops, who meet the Israelite men in battle when the Israelites go up the road to Bashan for no obvious reason. (See my post Devarim & Shelach-Lekha: A Giant Detour.)
No wonder the Israelites associate other peoples with war, and consider outsiders bad news.
The Israelites camp in the Amorite land they have conquered, among the acacias near the Jordan, just north of the Moab border. Then suddenly some Moabite women invite them over for a feast in honor of their gods.
Perhaps some of the men are interested in sex with exotic foreign women. And perhaps all the Israelites are touched by an unprecedented gesture of friendliness. It would be easy for them to forget that by participating in the animal sacrifice and bowing down to the Moabite god, they are being unfaithful to their own God.
Israel yoked itself to the ba-al of Peor, and God became hot with anger against Israel. So God said to Moses: Take all the heads of the people and impale them for God in front of the sun; then God’s blazing anger will turn back from against Israel. But Moses said to the judges of Israel: Each man, kill the men yoked to the ba-al of Peor. (Numbers 25:3-5)
ba-al (בַּעַל) = a local god; master, owner. (In Canaan, ba-al could also mean the main god of weather and war.)
How easy it is for some of the Israelites to slide from attending rituals for foreign gods to worshipping one of those gods! Moses later orders the Israelites to kill the Midianite women from Moab, saying:
Hey! They are the ones who led the Children of Israel, by the word of Bilam, to betray God over the matter of Peor! (Numbers 31:16)
Thus he shifts the blame for the Israelites’ unfaithfulness to their God onto the foreign women, and even onto Bilam (who merely goes home unpaid after blessing the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion).
Are outsiders really bad news? Should we avoid attending a different religion’s services? Should we suspect and reject friendly overtures from people who are not part of our own community?
No. I believe that once again, a Torah story can inspire us to exercise more maturity than the characters in it. Friendship between people of different religions can benefit both the individuals and the world. What we need to do is examine our own standards for behavior, and then stick to them (politely), while still meeting new people with a peaceful and friendly attitude.
Tags: Book of Numbers, Canaan, copper snake, manna, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
The first time the Israelites in the wilderness complain about food, they are traveling toward Mount Sinai with all their cows, sheep, and goats. Neither meat nor milk is taboo, yet they say:
If only we had died by God’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us to this wilderness to kill this whole congregation by famine! (Exodus/Shemot, 16:3)
Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. But now our nefashot are drying up; there is nothing except the manna before our eyes! (Numbers 11:4-5)
nefashot (נְפָשׁוֹת) = plural of nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = throat, appetite; what animates the body; individual life.
The people are not hungry, merely fed up with their restricted diet. This time, God sends in a huge flock of quail that falls two cubits deep on the ground, and many people die “with the meat still between their teeth”.
This is the generation that refuses to enter Canaan, even after their scouts bring back appetizing fruits. They just want to go back to Egypt. God decrees that they must stay in the wilderness for 40 years.
In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“Decree”), most of that generation has died, and the next generation is on its way to Canaan. Yet when they have to take a long detour around the kingdom of Edom, they complain.
They pulled out from Mount Hor by way of a sea of reeds, to go around the land of Edom, and on the way the nefesh of the people became katzar. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: Why bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and there is no water, and our nefesh is katzah with the unappetizing food. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:4-5)
katzar (קָצַר) = was short, was shortened. When used with nefesh, katzar is an idiom meaning “impatient”.
katzah (קָזָה) = at an end, at its limit. When used with nefesh, katzah is an idiom meaning “fed up”.
They sound just like their fathers—but with an important difference.
When the earlier generation gets obsessive about food, they want to go back to Egypt. The second generation complains about the manna only when they have to take a long detour on their way to the “promised land”. They are impatient to reach Canaan and start eating normal food in the land God that wants them to occupy and farm.
Instead of killing them with quail, God responds by letting the snakes in the wilderness bite them.
Then God let loose the burning nechashim against the people. and they bit the people, and many of the people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and they said: We are at fault, because we spoke against God and you. Pray to God, and he will remove the nachash from upon us! And Moses prayed on behalf of the people. (Numbers 21:6-7)
nechashim (נְחָשִׁים) = plural of nachash (נָחָשׁ) = snake. (This word is related to the verb nachash (נָחַשׁ) = did divination, read omens.)
The new generation of Israelites has learned that Moses is their intermediary with God. More mature than their fathers, they apologize, and ask Moses to mediate for them.
Why does God respond with snakes? The Torah has already associated the snake (which literally travels on its belly) with food cravings and journeys. In the story of the Garden of Eden, the snake encourages the woman to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. God decrees that the snake will go on its belly and eat dust. (Genesis/Bereishit 3:1-14) Jacob prophesies that the tribe of Dan will be “a snake upon the road”. (Genesis 49:17)
So snake bites are an appropriate punishment—but maybe God’s intent is not punishment. Maybe God is starting to prepare the people for life in Canaan, where they will be independent, and cannot expect any more divine miracles—such as the miraculous (if monotonous) food, and the miraculous removal of snakes from their path.
Naturally, the people ask Moses to ask God to remove the snakes again. Instead, God offers a cure for snake bite.
God said to Moses: Make yourself a saraf and put it on a pole, and all of the bitten will see it and live. So Moses made a nechash nichoshet and he put it on the pole, and if a nachash bit someone, then he would look at the nechash nichoshet and live. (21:8-9)
saraf (שָׂרָף) = a burning creature. (From the verb saraf (שָׂרַף) = burn in a fire. In the book of Isaiah, a saraf is a creature with six wings who lives in the visionary space around God’s throne. In the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, a saraf seems to be a venomous snake.)
nechash nichoshet (נְחַשׁ נִחֹשֶׁת) = a snake of a copper alloy (brass or bronze); a divination of copper.
Why would looking at a copper snake on a pole cure someone of snake bite?
Many commentators argue that since Moses made the snake at God’s command, looking at it reminds snake-bite victims of God and induces a prayerful attitude.
According to 19th-century rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the copper snake is a reminder of God’s power to protect people from danger even when they are unaware of it—like the Israelites before God let loose the snakes in their path.
I believe looking at the copper snake means looking at the cause of your problem. It is all too easy for humans to avoid thinking about painful issues. If snakes start biting you, it does not help to complain, or to ignore it, or to consider it an omen for mystical divination. The best approach is to look for reasons.
The Israelites looked and saw that they had just complained about God’s manna. They realized God had kept the snakes away for 40 years, and they knew enough to apologize and ask Moses for help. They received a cure for snake bite.
Alternatively, they might have concluded that the burning snakes lived only along the detour around Edom, and looked forward to heading north again, out of snake country and toward the land God promised them. Either way, they would remember their purpose in life, and view the snake bites as a temporary set-back.
Is something biting you? Do you feel as though you were burned? Then look at the symbolic snake and figure out the causes of your distress. Is it a problem you contributed to with an unwise choice? Is it something you had to go through at the time, but you can avoid in the future? Is it something that cannot be cured, but that you can accept with grace as you focus on your real purpose in life?
Face your snake!
Tags: Korach, Moses, Sheol, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Then Moses got up and went to Datan and Aviram, and the elders of Israel went after him. And he spoke to the assembly, saying: Please move away from the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything that is theirs, lest you are swept away with their offense! (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:25-26)
Datan and Aviram, two men from the tribe of Reuben, have been arguing that Moses should no longer lead the Israelites. They pointed out that under Moses’ leadership, the people did not get into a land flowing with milk and honey, but instead are stuck dying in the wilderness.
They did not mention that God decreed 40 years in the wilderness because all the men of Israel except Moses, Aaron, Caleb, and Joshua refused to cross the border into Canaan. (See last week’s post, Shelach-Lekha: Mutual Distrust.)
At that time, most of the Israelites wanted to choose a new leader to take them back to Egypt. But after Moses reported that they would die in the wilderness when they reached the age of 60, but the next generation, those under age 20, would enter the “promised land,” the people accepted God’s decree.
So they went up away from around the dwelling-place of Korach, Datan, and Aviram. But Datan and Aviram went out and were standing at the entrance of their tents, and their wives and their children and their little ones. (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:27)
Datan and Aviram can hear Moses’ warning, so they have an opportunity to send their own families out of harm’s way, but they do not. And in the patriarchal society of the ancient Israelites, it is rare for women or children to act on their own.
Do the two rebels believe that God will not “sweep them away” for their offense? After more than two years of miracles demonstrating cooperation between God and Moses, do they think God will let them—and their families—live?
If so, Moses is determined to prove once and for all that he is only serving God, not grabbing power on his own initiative.
And Moses said: Through this you will know that God sent me to do all these deeds, that they did not [come] from my own mind. If these die like every human dies, and if the fate of every human is their fate, God did not send me. But if Hashem creates a new creation, and the ground opens up her mouth and swallows them and all that is theirs, and they go down alive to Sheol, then you will know that these men spurned God. (Numbers 16:28-30)
Sheol (שְׁאוֹל) = the underworld of the dead; a lightless, silent place where the spirits of the dead lie in graves—as their bodies lie in graves closer to the surface of the earth. (The etymology of Sheol is uncertain, but the word may come from the root verb sha-al, שׁאל = inquired, asked for, asked about.)
In the Hebrew Bible, all the dead “go down” to Sheol—after they die. The “new creation” Moses promises is that Datan, Aviram, and “all that is theirs” will go down to Sheol while they are still alive.
And it happened, as he finished speaking all these words: the ground that was underneath them broke open. And the earth opened her mouth, and she swallowed them and their households … And they went down, they and all that was theirs, alive to Sheol, and the earth covered over them, and they were carried off from the midst of the congregation. And all Israel that was around them fled at their noise, for they said: Lest the earth swallow us! (Numbers 16:31-34)
It sounds as if the families of Datan and Aviram go down screaming.
What happens to them after the earth swallows them? The Torah is silent. But the other 61 references to Sheol in the Bible make it clear that no one lives there. It is the abode of all the dead, and only the dead. When the two families in this week’s Torah portion are buried alive, they suffocate and die. Their corpses remain deep underground, and the spirits that had animated their bodies “sleep” forever in Sheol.
The Bible has no concept of an immortal soul that reunites with God after death. Later Jewish writings use the Hebrew word neshamah for such a soul, but in the Bible neshamah means only “breath” or “breathing person”. What goes to Sheol in the Bible, particularly in the Psalms, is the nefesh.
What man alive will never see death,
will save his nefesh from the grip of Sheol? (Psalm 89:49)
nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = the “soul” that animates the body; throat, appetite, personality, individual, an individual’s life.
A nefesh in Sheol retains the identity of the formerly living person, but it does not speak, experience feelings, or do anything except perhaps sleep. Unlike the Egyptian ka, which can eat, drink, and be waited on in the tomb after death, the Israelite nefesh simply lies or sleeps in Sheol. The best a man can hope for in Biblical eschatology is to die peacefully, so he can lie among his ancestors.
Jews did not develop any theory of an afterlife until the second century B.C.E. The book of Daniel, written around 165 B.C.E., never mentions Sheol, but it does predict the bodily resurrection of the dead at the end of the world as we know it. The idea that an individual’s soul survives the death of the body and has its own experiences crept into Jewish writings in the first century C.E. In the Talmud this independent, conscious soul might be punished for misdeeds after death in a hellish place called Gehenna.
But neither hell nor conscious souls exist in the book of Numbers. Datan and Aviram know they are risking immediate death without a conscious afterlife. And they know they are risking the same oblivion for their wives, children, and infants, who will receive no heavenly reward after death.
The last thing that they experience is the terror of being swallowed by the earth. They go down alive to Sheol, and then their corpses, as well as their personalities, lie there inert, forever.
Datan and Aviram are stupid to dispute Moses’ leadership and his status as God’s favorite servant. But I think their real crime is ignoring the next generation, including their own children. By modern standards, these two men are so self-absorbed they view their wives and children as mere possessions, part of “all that is theirs”—as if these human beings who depend on them are already inanimate, silent, dead.
How many of us today are so caught up in the drama of our own lives that we ignore everyone else? That we find no comfort in the thought that our children, our students, the next generation, might lead good lives after we have died?
May we all learn to live as if there is no afterlife, as if our deeds in this world really matter, and as if the life of every other human being really matters.
Tags: Canaan, faith, God, religion, Shelach, torah portion, twelve scouts
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Moses reaches the end of his rope in last week’s Torah portion, and protests to God:
Did I myself become pregnant with all this people, or did I myself give birth to them, that you say to me: Carry them in your bosom, like the omein carries the one who suckles, to the land that You swore to their forefathers? … I am not able to carry all this people by myself alone, because they are too heavy for me! If At must do thus to me, please kill me altogether, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and don’t let me see my badness! (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:12-15)
omein (אֹמֵן) = guardian, substitute parent. (The feminine form, omenet (אֹמֶנֶת) means a wet nurse or nanny. Moses views himself as both omein and omenet. See my post Beha-alotkha: Moses as Wet-Nurse.)
at (אַתְּ) = you, feminine form. (The masculine form of “you” is atah, אַתָּה.)
I think Moses’ use of the feminine form here alludes to God’s responsibility for the people. If Moses is like an omenet for the Israelites, so is God.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”), the God character reaches the end of his (or her) rope.
God said to Moses: How long will this people spurn me, and how long lo ya-aminu me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? (Numbers 14:11)
lo ya-aminu = will they not trust. Lo (לֹא) = not. Ya-aminu (יַאֲמִינוּ) = they will believe, be convinced by, put trust in, have faith in, rely upon.
Ya-aminu comes from the same root verb, aman (אמן), as the nouns omein and omenet. An omein and an omenet must be reliable so that their young charges can believe and trust them.
Both Moses and God are reliable parental substitutes during the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai. Whenever something bad happens—the Egyptian army catching up with them at the Reed Sea, or a shortage of water or food—the people panic, afraid that their god has abandoned them. Each time, Moses speaks to God, and God takes care of the problem.
One breach of trust is recorded in the book of Exodus/Shemot: the episode of the Golden Calf. Moses and God take turns becoming enraged; Moses has 3,000 calf-worshiping men killed by the sword, and God strikes down many of the survivors. Moses has to talk God out of annihilating the Israelites altogether.
After that, the remaining Israelites spend a quiet year eating God’s manna and fabricating the tent sanctuary and its holy objects. God issues rules with dire penalties, but does not kill any more people—until the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, after they leave Mount Sinai.
In this week’s Torah portion, the people reach the wilderness of Paran on the border of Canaan. Moses sends twelve men to scout out the land, and they return 40 days later with a gigantic grape cluster as well as pomegranates and figs. Ten of the scouts report that the human inhabitants of Canaan are also gigantic, and say:
We are not able to go up against that population, because it is stronger than we! …and all the people that we saw in its midst were men of unusual size …and we were in our own eyes like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes. (13:31-33)
The ten pessimistic scouts assume the Israelites would have to conquer Canaan by their own efforts, without any help from God. The rest of the Israelite men—except for Moses, Aaron, and the other two scouts, Caleb and Joshua—make the same assumption. The people weep all night, complaining:
If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness, if only we had died! And why is God bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? And our young children will be the [enemy’s] plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?—So they said, each man to his brother: Let us pick a leader and return to Egypt! (Numbers 14:2-4)
The next morning everyone assembles. Caleb and Joshua say:
If God is pleased with us, then [God] will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. However, do not rebel against God! And you, do not be afraid of the people of the land, because …God is with us! (14:8-9)
The trouble with this argument is that it begins: “If God is pleased with us”. The people have every reason to think God is not pleased with them. After all, since they left Mount Sinai they have complained twice, and both times God flew into a rage and killed many of them. Now they have just spent the night complaining about God’s plan to send them into Canaan.
Perhaps because they feel doomed anyway, the people vent their frustration on Caleb and Joshua, threatening to stone them.
Then the glory of God appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all the Children of Israel. God said to Moses: How long will this people spurn Me, and how long lo ya-aminu Me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? (14:10-11)
Apparently the God character in this story thinks that the Israelites doubt his ability to give them a miraculous victory in Canaan. In fact, the people never doubt God’s power, only God’s love. They doubt God’s commitment to protecting them.
And they are right. In a private conversation with Moses, God once again declares he will wipe out the Israelites and start over:
I will strike with a pestilence, and I will dispossess them, and I will make you a greater and more powerful nation than they! (Numbers 14:12)
Moses once again talks him out of it. God still kills the ten scouts who spoke against entering Canaan immediately. And God swears that only Caleb, Joshua, and the Israelites who are currently under age 20 will enter Canaan and get a share of the land. Everyone else will die in the wilderness—gradually, over the next 38 years. The people must now spend 40 years in the wilderness before they can enter Canaan. (This total includes the two years that have already passed since the people left Egypt.)
The next morning, some of the men confess they were wrong, and try to get back into God’s good graces by launching an assault across the border of Canaan. But God has made up his mind; he lets the Canaanites defeat them.
It is possible to argue that God does care about the Israelites—if you grant that:
1) God has so little respect for the people that “he” administers corporeal punishment without attempting to explain himself, and
2) God considers the Israelites a single entity, rather than a group of individuals.
This is not the kind of omein that medieval theologians pictured when they decided that God must be omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, and personal. Nor is it the kind of deity that anyone today would want to trust or believe in.
God said to Moses: How long will this people spurn me, and how long lo ya-aminu me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? (14:11)
I think the answer that this god deserves is: “As long as it takes for You to become as wise, just, and kind as the best human being.”
Needless to say, I do not believe in the existence of the anthropomorphic God in the first five books of the Torah, the one who has vast magical powers but very limited understanding.
But what was life like for the people who took this part of the Bible literally, and not only believed the God character in this story existed, but thought of him as a father-figure (omein), and strove to trust him?
What is life like for the people who still do so today?
Tags: Exodus, Golden Calf, Moses, Moses and Aaron, Shemot, torah portion, trust, wet-nurse
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Moses never wanted the job.
When God spoke out of the burning bush and assigned him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses tried to get out of it. He objected:
Hey! Lo ya-aminu me, and they will not listen to my voice, for they will say: Your god, God, did not appear. (Exodus 4:1)
Lo ya-aminu = They will not believe, they will not trust. Lo (לֹא) = not. Ya-aminu (יַאֲמִינוּ) = They will believe, be convinced by, put trust in, have faith in. (From the root aman, אמן, which is also the root of amen (אָמֵן) = a solemn statement of confirmation or acceptance. See last week’s post, Naso: Ordeal of Trust for the first use of “Amen” in the Torah.)
God gave Moses three miraculous signs to convince the Israelites that he really did speak for God. But Moses still tried to turn down the job. Finally God compromised by giving Moses a partner: his older brother Aaron, who had stayed in Egypt when Moses fled to Midian many decades before.
The arrangement was that God would speak to Moses, Moses would speak to Aaron, and Aaron would deal directly with the people. Moses accepted this arrangement—maybe because he had run out of excuses.
Moses and Aaron are still together in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“when you bring up”), in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. But their roles have changed. The big change came while the Israelites were camped at Mount Sinai, halfway between Egypt and the “promised land’ of Canaan. When they first arrived at Mount Sinai, the people trusted God. Sure, they had panicked a few times when there was a shortage of water or food, but each time Moses talked to God and God fixed the problem. So when they reached Mount Sinai, the people said:
Everything that God speaks we will do! And God said to Moses: Hey! I myself will come to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the people will listen when I speak with you, and also ya-aminu in you forever. (Exodus 19:9)
Alas, while Moses is secluded inside God’s cloud on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, the people feel abandoned and lose faith that Moses will return to them. They ask Aaron to make a god to lead them, now that Moses has disappeared.
If Aaron were trustworthy as Moses’ co-leader, he would have reminded them that God explicitly forbade them to make gold or silver idols. He might have redirected them toward making an acceptable offering to God. Instead, Aaron made the Golden Calf, and the Israelites had a wild party.
When Moses returned and questioned him about it, Aaron lied about his own role—
So I said to them: Who has gold? They took it off themselves and they gave it to me, and I threw it away into the fire, and out came this calf (Exodus 32:24)
—and slandered the Israelites—
You yourself know the people, that they are bad. (Exodus 32:22)
The Midrash Rabbah on the Song of Songs, a collection of commentary from the 8th century C.E., said that the two breasts of the woman in the song symbolize Moses and Aaron, who were full of the milk of Torah. But Aaron fails as a wet-nurse when he fails to set appropriate limits for the “children” of Israel, and instead gives them their golden calf—and then denies his own responsibility for their downfall.
God and Moses between them kill thousands of the guilty, but they let Aaron live. Later they make him the high priest: the chief technician in charge of conducting rituals, looking impressive, handling holy objects, and diagnosing skin diseases. But Moses is left as the people’s sole boss and spiritual leader.
He does his best to keep them encouraged and in line, but in this week’s Torah portion Moses finally cracks.
The people appear to be in good shape at the beginning of the book of Numbers. They are marching from Mount Sinai to the border of Canaan in battle formation, with their portable sanctuary and all its holy objects in the middle, so they know God is with them. They have water to drink and manna to eat.
Then suddenly they are overcome with craving.
They weep and say:
Who will feed us basar? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. But now nafsheinu are drying up; there is nothing except the manna before our eyes. (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4-6)
basar (בָּשָׂר) = human flesh (skin and/or muscle); animal meat.
nafsheinu (נַפְשֵׁנוּ) = our souls, our lives, our throats, our appetites.
They are not actually hungry. They are disgusted with God’s manna and, according to many commentators who point out the double meaning of basar, with God’s laws restricting sex partners. Perhaps they are fed up with the whole religion. Or perhaps they have had their fill of spiritual experiences, long lists of rules, and the goal of taking over Canaan. They get cranky. They want a break for immediate physical pleasure.
Moses heard the people weeping in their family groups, each one at the entrance of its tent, and God’s anger flared very hot; and in the eyes of Moses it was bad. And Moses said to God: Why do You do bad to your servant, and why have I not found favor in your eyes, that you put the burden of all this people on me? Did I myself become pregnant with all this people, or did I myself give birth to them, that you say to me: Carry them in your bosom, like the omein carries the one who suckles, to the land that You swore to their forefathers? (Numbers 11:10-12)
omein (אֹמֵן) = guardian, substitute parent. (Literally, the reliable one, the dependable one; from the same root as ya-aminu and amen.)
Elsewhere in the Bible, an omein is a man in charge of bringing up a child; each of King Ahab’s underage children has an omein in the second book of Kings, and Mordecai is Esther’s omein in the book of Esther. The female form of this word, omenet, means wet-nurse or nanny. Moses imagines himself not just as a parent to the Israelites, but as their wet-nurse, too.
I am not able to carry all this people by myself alone, because they are too heavy for me! If thus You must do to me, please kill me altogether, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and don’t let me see my badness! (Numbers 11:14-15)
Moses has a hard enough time serving as the people’s sole spiritual leader and teaching them God’s directives. Being a nanny for thousands of ex-slaves is too much for him. e HeIf only they acted like mature adults, restraining their impulses and deferring immediate pleasure for the sake of higher goals! Instead, the people are like small children—as immature as if they are still nursing. (Children in ancient Israel nursed until they were about four years old.)
Moses cannot bear to be a single mother. He tells God he would rather die than continue to be their omein.
God tries to solve the problem by giving 70 elders some of Moses’ spirit of prophecy, so they can all help him. But in the rest of the book of Numbers, the elders prove insufficient to control the childish impulses of the Israelites. Either the elders are not mentioned, or in the case of Korach’s rebellion, they are part of the group that revolts and complains to Moses.
Have you ever been responsible for a small child who loses control and throws a tantrum? Rational explanations go right over their heads; all they can think about is the physical gratification they want right now, the comfort that their parent or babysitting is denying them. Back when that child was my son, I had to fight hard to stay calm until I could calm him down.
Small children are totally dependent on their caregivers. If they are to grow up into independent adults, rather than slaves, their omein or omenet must be totally dependable—emunah.
Yet all humans are imperfect, unable to rise successfully to every single challenge. I was not a perfect mother, but I did not give up, and now I am proud of my adult son.
Moses does not give up either, even though he did not give birth to the Israelites, nor ask for the job of being their nanny. When God lashes out at the people, Moses talks God out of God’s temper tantrum, and keeps everyone on the road to the future.
May everyone who is given responsibility for others find the fortitude to carry on. May we all be more like Moses than Aaron.
In next week’s Torah portion, the Israelite spies return from Canaan and ten out of twelve report that the land is full of fearsome giants. Look for my next blog post about how the people weep and refuse to go—because this time they do not ya-aminu God.
Tags: amen, faithful, ordeal by water, sotah, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
The first person who says “Amen” in the Torah is a wife agreeing to a curse on her own body if she is guilty of adultery.
The law given in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift up”), stipulates a husband who suspects his wife of adultery—a serious crime against both the husband and God, according to the Torah. He cannot prove it, since there were no witnesses and she was not caught in the act. But even if his wife proclaims her innocence, he cannot believe her.
…and [if] a spirit of jealousy passed over him and he was jealous of his wife and she had defiled herself; or a spirit of jealousy passed over him and he was jealous of his wife and she had not defiled herself—then the man shall bring his wife to the priest… (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:14-15)
The priest then conducts a unique ritual in the Bible: an ordeal by water.
The husband has two other options: he could divorce his wife, giving her the usual separation payment; or he could continue the marriage and live with his doubts. If he is vindictive, like some husbands discussed in the Talmud, he might choose to bring his wife to the priest in the hope that she will be proven unfaithful, so he can divorce her without giving her the payment. But if he hopes his wife has been faithful, yet he is tormented by jealousy, he brings her to the priest for proof or her guilt or innocence.
The priest takes an earthenware bowl, puts in some “holy” water (water from the basin where the priests wash their hands and feet, according to later commentary), and adds dust from the floor of the sanctuary (where only the priests may walk). Then the priest pauses to undo the woman’s hair, thus publicly shaming both wife and husband.
The priest holds the bowl of water and dust, now called “water of the bitternesses of the cursings”, and addresses the sotah, the woman suspected of adultery.
And the priest shall make her swear with these oaths: he shall say to the wife: “If a man did not lie down with you, and if you did not stray in defilement from under your husband, be cleared by these waters of the bitternesses of the cursings! But if you did stray from under your husband, and if you defiled yourself, and a man other than your husband put his semen into you—!” Then the priest shall make the wife swear the oath of the imprecation; and the priest shall say to the wife: “May God make you a curse and an oath among your people, when God makes your yareikh fall and your belly tzavah. And these waters of the cursings shall enter into your innards to make the belly tzavah and to make the yareikh fall.” And the wife shall say: “Amen, amen.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:19-21)
yareikh (יָרֵךְ) = upper thigh, buttocks, genitals; side of a tent.
tzavah (צָבָה) = swelled. (The root tzavah appears only four times in the whole Bible: three times in this passage, and once in Isaiah as a misspelling of the homonym tzava (צָבָא) = fought, assembled against, went to war. Maybe in this passage about the sotah, the curse is that her genitals will fall and her belly will fight against her arries.)
Once the wife has said amen twice, the priest writes out the curse on a scroll, and wipes off the ink so it dissolves into the water. Now the liquid in his hand contains “holy” water, dust from the sanctuary floor, and the sacred name of God (which was part of the written curse).
And he shall give her the water to drink, and it will happen that if she defiled herself and she really betrayed her husband, then [when] the water of cursings for bitternesses come into her, her belly will tzavah and her yareikh will fall, and the woman will become an imprecation among her people. But if the woman did not defile herself, and she is pure, then she will be cleared, and she will bear seed. (Numbers 5:27-28)
In other words, if the presumably pregnant wife actually did commit adultery, the water will cause a painful miscarriage. But if she did not, she will bear her husband’s child.
Few guilty wives would submit themselves to this ordeal unless they were innocent of adultery. Why go through the public shaming, saying amen, drinking the magical water, and the horrible miscarriage? It would be easier for an unfaithful wife to confess privately to her husband, and let the divorce proceed without the extra trauma.
But for an innocent wife, the ordeal would be the only way she could prove her faithfulness to her jealous husband.
When I wrote about the sotah in 2013 (Naso: A Suspicious Husband) I concluded that any marriage was doomed without mutual honesty and trust, which requires that the marriage partners stick to their covenant, whatever it might be.
But now I wonder about the case in which a wife did stick to her marriage covenant, yet her husband could not believe her when she told him she was innocent. In this week’s Torah portion, the wife has faith that God will prove her innocence in the ordeal by water; she demonstrates that by saying “amen, amen”, confirming her acceptance of the two alternatives in the curse.
The husband is not required to say “amen, amen”. Perhaps the ritual is so powerful, it would convince even the most jealous fool. But why is he unable to believe his wife until she goes through the ordeal?
I think the answer is that the husband could not have faith in any wife, or even in himself. Maybe he grew up among untrustworthy women, so he believes no women can be trusted. Or maybe he grew up believing he is so unimpressive or unlovable, he does not deserve a faithful wife.
How can you have confidence in another person’s reliability and faithfulness, if you do not have confidence in yourself? And if you do not have confidence in any human being’s reliability and faithfulness, how can you have confidence in God?
A ritual as serious as the sotah ordeal is no longer available to us. What we can do is pay attention to the problem and wrestle with it until we find we have grown past it.
May each of us grow until we trust ourselves, so we can trust others who deserve it. Maybe then we will even come to trust what we call “God”, like the innocent sotah. Then we can say “amen” and mean it.
(Next week: Moses wonders if he is a wet-nurse—another word related to “amen”.)
Tags: Book of Numbers, four directions, torah portion, twelve tribes
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
The Israelites leave Egypt in a rush, in a swarm, in no particular order. At the beginning of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar (“In a wilderness”), they prepare to leave Mount Sinai in orderly formation.
One difference is that now they have made the portable sanctuary for God. The tribe of Levi is responsible for the sanctuary, both when the people are camping and the sanctuary is assembled, and when they are marching and the Levites are carrying the disassembled parts. So the Levites camp in the middle of the Israelites, immediately around the sanctuary: the priests (kohanim) and Moses on the east, the clan of Kehat on the south, the clan of Geirshon on the west, and the clan of Merari on the north. (See my post Naso (and Bemidbar): Four Duties, Four Directions for details.)
Surrounding the Levites, but at a greater distance from the sanctuary, are the remaining twelve tribes. They camp and march in four blocks: east, south, west, and north. Each block has a leading tribe and two supporting tribes.
God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: Each man shall camp next to his banner, with the insignia of their father’s house. They shall camp at a distance around the Tent of Meeting. And those camping keidmah, mizrachah, shall be the banner of the camp of Yehudah… And those camping next to them: the tribe of Yissachar …the tribe of Zevulun … All those counted for the camp of Yehudah were 186,400, by their legions; the first to pull out. (2:1-9)
keidmah (קֵדְמָה) = to the east, in front, originally. From the root verb kadam (קָדַם) = came toward, went first, confronted, preceded.
mizrachah (מִזְרָחָה) = to the east, toward sunrise. From the root verb zarach (זָרַח) = shone forth.
When the Israelites break camp, the tribe of Yehudah (יְהוּדָה), Judah in English, sets off toward the east, then veers in whatever direction the people will actually travel that day.
In the Torah, the east represents origins and birth. The front gate of the courtyard around the tent-sanctuary is on the east side. So is the curtain at the entrance into the sanctuary proper, which only priests (and Moses) are allowed to enter.
Moses and the priests (Aaron and his sons) camp just east of the courtyard gate. Farther east is the camp of Yehudah, accompanied by Yissachar and Zevulun. In the book of Genesis, Yehudah gradually becomes the leader of all the brothers who confront Joseph. King David was from the tribe of Yehudah, and after Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, the kingdom of Yehudah survived for two more centuries.
When you face east, the south is on your right. That means Reuven is Yehudah’s right-hand man in this week’s Torah portion:
The banner of the camp of Reuven shall be teymanah… And those camping next to them shall be the tribe of Shimon…and the tribe of Gad… All those counted for the camp of Reuven were 161,450, by their legions; and they shall pull out second. (2:10-16)
teymanah (תֵּימָנָה) = to the south. (From the root yamin, יָמִין, = right side, south side, right hand.)
In the Torah, south is the direction of the Negev desert, the kingdom of Edom in the hills of Sei-ir, Mount Paran, and Mount Sinai. Moses says in his final speech to the Israelites: God came from Sinai, and shone forth from Sei-ir for them, having radiated from Mount Paran… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 33:2)
The Levite clan of Kehat camps just south of the sanctuary. Beyond them are the camps of Reuven and its two assisting tribes, Shimon and Gad. Reuven is the firstborn of the twelve sons of Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, but he does not inherit the leadership of the extended family. His tribe gets second place, but at least it is close to God’s illumination in the south.
Then the Tent of Meeting shall set out, the camp of the Levites, in the middle of the camps; as they camp, so shall they pull out, each man in position next to their banners. (2:17)
Next come the tribes in the back, to the west of the sanctuary:
The banner of the camp of Efrayim by its legions shall be yammah…And next to them shall be the tribe on Menasheh…and the tribe of Binyamin… All those counted for the camp of Efrayim: 108,100, by their legions; and they shall pull out third. (2:18-24)
yammah (יָמָּה) = to the west, toward the (Mediterranean) Sea (yam).
The other Biblical Hebrew word for west is ma-arav (מַעֲרָב), toward the sunset. In the Bible, the west represents the unknown: the great sea, the future, and death. The western end of the tent sanctuary is the back wall of the Holy of Holies.
The Levite clan of Geirshon camps just west of the sanctuary courtyard. Behind them, in the position farthest west, is the tribe of Efrayim and its assistant tribes, Menasheh and Binyamin. In Genesis, Jacob rearranges his hands when he blesses Joseph’s two sons Menasheh and Efrayim, so that even though Menasheh is older, Efrayim receives the blessing of the firstborn.
Thus the chief tribe on the east is named after Yehudah, who took the role of the firstborn by his own leadership. The chief tribe on the south is named after Reuven, who was the firstborn but lost his position. And the chief tribe on the west is named after Efrayim, who was born second but promoted to firstborn.
The chief tribe on the north, Dan, does not even care about the rights of the firstborn.
The banner of the camp of Dan shall be tzafonah, by their legions… And those camping next to them shall be the tribe of Asher…and the tribe of Naftali… All those counted for the camp of Dan: 157,600; as the last they shall pull out, next to their banners. (2:25-31)
tzafonah (צָפֹנָה) = to the north. From the same root as the verb tzafan (צָפַן) = hide treasure, hide in ambush.
In the Bible, the north is where the Assyrians came from when they swept down and conquered the kingdom of Israel. It is also the direction of Mount Tzafon, a peak near the Mediterranean coast in present-day northern Syria. In Canaanite mythology, when Baal became the supreme god, he built a palace on top of Mount Tzafon, and the gods assembled there.
Inside the sanctuary, the table displaying the twelve loaves of bread stands by the north wall. The loaves stand for the tribes of Israel, on display before God.
The Levite clan of Merari camps just north of the sanctuary. Dan is the leader of the three tribes camping farther north. Jacob’s fifth son, Dan, is unimportant in the book of Genesis. But in Judges the tribe of Dan abandons its allotted territory and heads north. As the tribe crosses Efrayim’s territory, it captures a priest and a molten idol. Then Dan seizes the Canaanite city of Laish. Both conquests are surprise attacks; perhaps the whole tribe of Dan is good at hiding in ambush. Laish, renamed Dan, becomes the northernmost city in the kingdom of Israel.
The word for northward, tzafonah, is related not only to hiding, but also to the center of Canaanite religion at Mount Tzafon. In the first book of Kings, the city of Dan has its own temple and a golden calf.
Maybe when the Israelites break camp the tribe of Dan pulls out last because it is not wholehearted about either the community of Israel or its god. Dan goes its own way, then follows the rest of Israelite and its sanctuary after all.
When the Israelites leave Mount Sinai, they march and camp in a formation that positions each tribe in relation to the four directions and to the sanctuary in the center. Today, we also need to put what is holy to us at the center of our lives. Otherwise we will swarm about aimlessly.
In addition to holding a holy center, we need to operate in the world. The four compass points might indicate four ways of operating. If we are fortunate, our primary strategy is represented by the east and Yehudah: taking the lead in our own lives and setting off on new ventures. A second strategy is represented by the south and Reuven: seeking and remembering moments of illumination. Third is the strategy represented by the west and Efrayim: humbly accepting the unknown future, as well as unexpected blessings from those wiser than we. Finally there is the strategy represented by the north and Dan: stepping away when we need to, coming out of hiding, and doing the unexpected.
May all these elements be present when we organize our own lives.
Tags: consecration, donations, holiness, Leviticus, religion, Temple in Jerusalem, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Men are worth more than women. It says so in the Torah—or does it?
A list of the equivalent value in silver of each of eight classes of people appears in Bechukkotai (“by My decrees”), the last portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra:
erekekha (עֶרְכְּךֳ) = the equivalent value, assessment.
—then the erekekha of the male of age 20 years up to age 60 years, erekekha will be 50 shekels of silver according to the shekel-weight of the Holy place. And if she is a female, erekekha will be 30 shekels. (Leviticus 27:3-4)
And if from age 5 years up to age 20 years, erekekha will be for the male 20 shekels, and for the female 10 shekels. (Leviticus 27:5)
And if from the age of a month up to age 5 years, erekekha will be for the male 5 shekels of silver, and erekekha for the female 3 shekels of silver. (Leviticus 27:6)
And if from age 60 years and above, if male, erekekha will be 15 shekels, and for the female, 10 shekels. (Leviticus 27:7)
In this lis of equivalent values, males are assigned a higher erekekha than females, and adults between the ages of 20 and 60 are assigned a higher erekekha than children or seniors. Individual differences between people within each of the eight classes of persons are disregarded.
What does undertaking “a vow consisting of erekekha of persons for God” mean?
Leviticus includes a number of mandatory gifts to the sanctuary or the priests who serve there. All Israelite households are required to give:
* the firstborn of their livestock and a portion of their first fruits.
* the prescribed animal and grain offerings for relieving guilt and thanking God for good fortune.
* the prescribed offerings for being readmitted into the community after a period of ritual impurity.
The tithes and the first farm products are like annual taxes or membership dues. For the ancient Israelites, there was no separation of temple and state; every citizen was also a member of the religious community and had to help support the religious rituals at the temple. Individuals had to make additional payments to support the rituals for specified situations in their own lives.
I daresay most Israelites were glad to be part of a system that connected them with their God through concrete actions. And sometimes one of them had a religious impulse, and felt moved to pledge an extra donation.
Ancient Israelites could not do this by simply writing a check. In fact, even coins were not invented until the sixth century B.C.E. (A shekel was a measure of weight in silver, rather than a coin.) So the Torah portion Bechukkotai considers four other things that could be donated: a field, a house, part or all of an edible animal, and the erekekha of a person.
The Talmud tractate Arakhin, written during the first few centuries C.E. by rabbis analyzing this passage in the Torah, states that either a man or a woman could make this vow. A person often dedicated his or her own erekekha to the temple in Jerusalem. But someone could also vow to donate the erekekha of any person belonging to him or her at the time—i.e. someone the vower owned and could legally sell. In that era, people could sell their slaves or their own underage sons and daughters.
When someone made the vow, a priest would collect a token pledge. Then sometime later, the vower would come to the temple and fulfill his or her vow by paying the erekekha in silver.
Why donate the equivalent value of a person?
Wouldn’t it be simpler to vow to give a certain weight of silver to the sanctuary? Why bring a person into the equation?
One theory is that the system of erekekha was developed to replace the custom of giving human beings to God, either by sacrificing them at the altar or by dedicating them to service at a temple.
Human sacrifice was widespread in the ancient Near East, and is mentioned several times in the Bible. In the book of Judges, an Israelite general named Yiftach (Jephthah in English) vows that if God lets him vanquish the enemy and return safely, he will give God whatever comes out the door of his house by making it a burnt offering. His daughter comes out the door. She is sacrificed.
In the first book of Samuel, Hannah vows that if God lets her have a son, she will give him to God for “all the days of his life”. Once her son, Samuel, is weaned, she brings him to the temple in Shiloh to serve as an assistant to the high priest.
The book of Leviticus, on the other hand, describes the practices of the priests during the time of the first temple in Jerusalem, centuries after the period described in Judges and Samuel. Human sacrifice has been banned, and the priests and Levites who serve at the temple in Jerusalem inherit their positions.
But perhaps some people still made vows that if God would do something extraordinary for them, then they would do something extraordinary for God. And perhaps some people simply wanted to be consecrated to the temple, even though they could not be priests or Levites.
One way to achieve this was to replace the donation of a human being with the donation of the human being’s erekekha in silver.
The time lag between the vow and the delivery of the erekekha is not explained in either the Bible or the Talmud. Perhaps some people felt moved to make an unusual vow before they had saved up enough silver to fulfill it.
Or perhaps the time lag was important because between the time of the vow and the time the silver was delivered, the person whose erekekha was vowed was considered consecrated—marked out as having a holy purpose.
Imagine what it would be like to undertake a vow that made you consecrated to God for a period of time. Unlike a monk or nun (or a nazirite in ancient Israel—see my blog post Naso: Let Down Your Hair), you would continue with your usual life. But the meaning of your life would be different.
Imagine what it would be like to undertake a vow that made your servant or your young child consecrated to God for a period of time.
Why set the value according to age and gender?
The erekekha of a person is not his or her market value. The eight classifications according to age and gender do bear some relation to a person’s ability to perform work; generally speaking, adults between the ages of 20 and 60 can do more work than the very old or the very young, and men can do more literal heavy lifting than women. But the market value of an individual sold as a slave varied according to the person’s physical and mental condition. (Talmud Bavli, Arakhin 2a) The eight assessments for a person’s erekekha disregard any individual strengths or weaknesses.
The assignment of values according to age and gender probably reflects the prejudices of society in the ancient Near East, which was dominated by men who were heads of households. Yet Judith Antonelli, in her book In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah, argues that the lower erekekha for women indicates that the ancient Israelites respected women more than their neighbors did. “…the lower prices for women reflect the Torah’s prohibition of sexual slavery. Where female slaves are officially used for sex as well as for labor—that is, kept in harems as concubines—they are in greater demand than male slaves and thus command a higher price.”
In other words, even slave women had value as persons, not merely as sex objects.
So the amount of each erekekha reflected the realities of an agricultural society in which brawn mattered, free men dominated, and children were possessions. But vowing to pay the erekekha of a woman, child, or old person, meant respecting that person’s value. By consecrating him or her to God for the period of your vow, you were assigning a high value to your slave or your child.
And when you consecrated yourself to God by vowing to pay your own erekekha, you were assigning a high value to your own life.
Today our systems of religious worship are very different. But I wonder if we could devise a new way to consecrate our own life, or the life of someone in our family, for a period of time until we achieve a goal. It would change the way we treated ourselves or the other person. And everyone, of any age and gender, might be worth more.
Tags: kohanim, religion, Temple in Jerusalem, torah portion, Tzadok, Zadok the Priest
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Say to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, say to them: For the death of someone among his people he shall not become ritually impure; only for the blood-relations closest to him… (Leviticus/Vayikra 21:1-2)
kohanim (כֹּהֲנִים) = priests. (Singular: kohein, כֹּהֵן)
Thus this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”), opens with instructions from God to the priests on avoiding ritual impurity as much as possible in their personal lives, including who they mourn for and who they marry. The haftarah (the weekly reading from the prophets) comes from the book of Ezekiel, and also warns that a priest must not marry a divorced women, enter a house where there is a corpse, or engage in mourning practices for anyone except his immediate blood relatives.
The details of the two warnings differ, but the general themes are the same, and support the idea that priests must devote themselves completely, body and soul, to the ritual service for God. According to both the book of Leviticus/Vayikra and the book of Ezekiel (Yechezkeil), a requirement for his total devotion to divine service is to avoid various negative conditions as much as possible—both physical conditions (such as contact with a corpse) and psychological conditions (such as the states of mind that arise in mourning, or in dealing with a wife who was divorced by her previous husband).
In the entire Hebrew Bible, priesthood is hereditary. And even today, men whose last name is “Cohen” share a genetic marker. The right genealogy was enough to qualify a man for service as a priest in both the portable sanctuary of Leviticus and the temple of Ezekiel. But both books insist that the priests must also observe certain rules of behavior in order to be “holy” and serve God properly.
The book of Ezekiel was written either by, or about, a man named Ezekiel who was exiled to Babylon, along with other Judahite officials, priests, and craftsmen, after the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and destroyed the first temple in 586 B.C.E. Ezekiel lived in a community of exiles on the Kedar Canal outside the city of Babylon, where he had a series of visions and became a prophet. The haftarah begins in the middle of one of Ezekiel’s visions, shortly after a divine guide has given Ezekiel the measurements for rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem.
And the priests of the Levites [who are] the children of Tzadok, who kept custody of My sanctuary while the children of Israel were straying away from Me, only they shall come close to Me to minister to Me, and they shall stand before Me to offer Me fat and blood—declares my lord, God. Only they shall come into My sanctuary, and only they shall come close to My table to minister to Me, and they shall keep My custody. (Ezekiel 44:15-16)
Tzadok (צָדוֹק) = Righteous one. From the same root as tzedek (צֶדֶק) = what is morally right or just.
In the book of Leviticus, all the descendants of Aaron (a man from the tribe of Levi who was the brother of Moses and the first high priest) qualify as priests who can perform the rituals involving incense and animal and grain offerings. Men in the tribe of Levi who are not descended from Aaron are classified as Levites, who assist the priests by transporting the (carefully wrapped) holy objects, and by guarding the portable sanctuary while it is erected. (Singing Levites are not mentioned until the first book of Chronicles.)
Ezekiel says that only the descendants of Tzadok will be priests when the temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt. Tzadok is a tenth or eleventh-generation descendant of Aaron through Aaron’s son Eleazar. He first appears in the second book of Samuel, where King David appoints him as one of two priests in Jerusalem, along with Evyatar. In the first book of Kings, after many adventures, King Solomon fires Evyatar and makes Tzadok the only high priest.
And the king placed Benayahu son of Yehoyada over the army instead of him [Yoav], and Tzadok ha-kohein the king placed instead of Evyatar. (I Kings 2:35)
ha-kohein (הַכֹּהֵן) = the priest; the high priest.
Aaron has numerous descendants; two of his four sons die childless in Leviticus, but the survivors, Eleazar and Itamar, father large dynasties. Why should the priesthood be limited to Tzadok’s branch of the family tree?
A later chapter in the book of Ezekiel explains:
…the holy contribution [of land] for the kohanim: on the north 25,000 [cubits] and on the west 10,000 and on the east 10,000 and on the south 25,000, and the holy place of God will be in its center. The holy place will be for the kohanim [descended] from Tzadok, who kept My custody, who did not stray continually [like] the Children of Israel or like the Levites. (Ezekiel 48:10-11)
Ezekiel implies that during the last years of the first temple in Jerusalem, there were two factions of priests. The Tzadokites stuck to the rules for serving God, but the other priests, as well as the Levites and the non-clergy, kept straying. A vision in chapter 8 of Ezekiel shows some priests as well as some Israelites worshipping other gods right on the temple grounds.
Scholars speculate that Ezekiel himself was a descendant of Tzadok, because his visions and prophecies focus on rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem and reinstating the traditional priestly rituals. Nothing else is important to him; the presence of God must once again have a home in Jerusalem.
In order to make God’s contact point on earth secure, the Tzadokites must be the only legitimate priests—not because of their lineage, but because they remained true to God and continued the ritual service of the God of Israel. And part of that service, in both the haftarah in Ezekiel and the Torah portion Emor, is maintaining a state of mind compatible with ritual purity.
Despite Ezekiel’s prophecy, non-Tzadokite priests were allowed to serve in the second temple once it was built in 538 B.C.E. But Tzadokites were the high priests of the second temple from the founding priest Ezra until 153 B.C.E., when the Romans appointed Jonathan Maccabaeus as both king and high priest of Judah.
During the past two millennia, since the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., almost all Jews have abandoned the idea of reinstating temple worship. Unlike Ezekiel, we do not believe that God needs one particular spot to bring the divine presence to earth.
We have also abandoned the idea of hereditary priesthood, except for a few minor customs. (Cohens get to do special blessings at services, and are supposed to stay out of cemeteries.) Instead of ritually pure technical experts who make temple offerings, we now want spiritual leaders such as rabbis to help us improve our inner selves and our prayers. Many Jews retain some practices having to do with ritual purity, such as keeping kosher. But holiness is now about divine inspiration and ethical behavior.
We can still aspire to be “a kingdom of priests” and priestesses, as Moses predicts in Exodus/Shemot 19:6. We can even aspire to be Tzadok the priest. But today, that means being tzaddikim, people who are righteous and ethical, like Tzadok—“Righteous One”.
Tags: God, holiness, Leviticus, torah portion, Vayikra
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole assembly of the Children of Israel, and say to them: Kedoshim tiheyu, for kadosh [am] I, God, your god. (Leviticus/ Vayikra 19:1-2)
kadosh (קָדוֹשׁ) = holy; set apart for religious ritual. (plural kedoshim).
tiheyu (תִּהְיוּ) = you shall become, you shall be.
This divine directive, which opens the Torah portion Kedoshim, bundles together three statements:
1) You can, and should, become holy.
2) God, the God of Israel, is holy. (Or God will be holy. English requires a form of the verb “to be” between “holy” and “I” in this sentence, but Hebrew omits it, so we can only guess whether God is holy, or used to be holy, or will be holy.)
3) God’s holiness is related to human holiness.
First, what does it mean for a human being to be holy?
A place is called “holy” in the Hebrew Bible if it is physically close to a manifestation of God. (When Moses stands in front of the Burning Bush, he is standing on holy ground. The Holy of Holies in the sanctuary or temple is where the voice of God manifests.)
Objects (such as incense pans) and days (such as Shabbat) are holy if they are set apart for religious use. The holy status of the high priest of the Israelites is probably due to both his proximity to God’s presence in the Holy of Holies, and the dedication of his life to service in the sanctuary.
The Torah mentions two other ways human beings can become holy. One way is by always obeying God’s laws and decrees.
This day God, your god, commands you to perform these decrees and the laws, and you must observe and perform them with all your heart and with all your soul. … And God promised to you today you will be Its treasured people … a holy people to God, your god, as It has spoken. (Deuteronomy 26:16-19)
Another way that a person can become holy is by always acting ethically. In Kedoshim, after telling the Israelites to become holy, God provides a list of general rules of behavior which scholars call the Holiness Code. The opening of the Torah portion is followed by a list of general rules, most of which are about treating other people ethically, from You shall respect your mother and your father (Leviticus:19:3) to You shall love your fellow as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).
So human beings become holy if they are set apart for religious ritual, if they observe and perform all of God’s laws and decrees, or if they consistently behave according to the ethics laid out in this Torah portion.
What does it mean for the God of Israel to be holy?
The god portrayed in the Bible is not holy in any of the three ways humans become holy. God is not set apart for religious ritual; “He” also interferes in a variety of human affairs, telling people what to do, sending plagues, and frightening armies. God does not obey “His” own laws and decrees, since they are written so they only apply to humans. And the God character in the Torah violates at least two of the ethical imperatives in the Holiness Code.
You shall not do injustice in judgement … (Leviticus 19:15)
The God character often makes a judgement in anger and then wipes out the innocent with the guilty. For example, “He” floods the earth and kills every human being except for Noah’s immediate family—deliberately drowning thousands of innocent children. Another example is when God is responsible for killing all of Job’s children and afflicting him with horrible diseases—just in order to find out what Job will do.
You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall certainly reprove your fellow person and …you shall not take vengeance. (Leviticus 19:17-18)
In other words, when someone’s behavior angers you, you must give that person an opportunity to repent, rather than lashing back in revenge. But in the Torah, God is often keen on vengeance. For example, in the poem at the end of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God vows:
When I whet the lightning of My sword
And my hand seizes it with judgement
I will give back vengeance to My adversary
And My hated enemy I will repay. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:41)
In later parts of the Hebrew Bible, God becomes more ethical. A shining example is the book of Jonah, in which God rescues Jonah from drowning even though he has refused to obey God’s order to go to Nineveh, makes sure Jonah reproves the inhabitants of Nineveh so they have an opportunity to repent, withholds vengeance against them when they do repent, and reproves the refractory Jonah with a lesson in compassion.
The directive at the opening of Kedoshim is usually translated:
You shall be holy, for I, God, your god, am holy.
But maybe we should translate it this way:
You shall become holy, for I, God, your god, will become holy.
Another way to explain the difference between human holiness and divine holiness is to note that God in the Bible seems to be holy by definition; anything pertaining to God is, or ought to be, holy.
One of the names of God is Ha-kaddosh, “the holy one”. In the Prophets, God’s holiness appears to refer to a numinous experience of the divine beyond our ordinary perceptions.
In the year of the death of the king Uzziyahu, I beheld my Lord sitting on a high and elevated throne, and [God’s] skirts were filling the palace. Serafim are standing up above him, six wings, six wings to each: with a pair it covers its face and with a pair it covers its feet and with a pair it flies. And it would call, one to another, and say: “Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh! God of hosts! Its glory fills the earth!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)
How is God’s holiness related to human holiness?
Nevertheless, there must be some relationship between God’s holiness and human holiness, or the opening directive in Kedoshim would not instruct us to become holy because God is holy.
In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, God creates humankind “in God’s image”. Even the primeval adam, human, seems to lack most of God’s traits, but he-she can speak and name things, has the potential to make new objects, and has the potential to acquire knowledge of good and bad—like God. Before they can actually make things or distinguish between good and bad, humans have to spend time learning and thinking.
I think that humankind also has the potential to become holy like God. The first stage is to learn how to serve the divine and how to behave ethically. Next we must dedicate ourselves to a divine purpose and to always striving to do the right thing. After that comes practice. I have met a few people who had practiced for a long time, and to me they seemed to embody holiness. I could sense it just by being in their presence—the way someone who beheld God might be moved to sing out Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh! Holy! Holy! Holy!