Devarim: In God We Trust?

July 19, 2018 at 2:28 pm | Posted in Chukkat, Devarim, Shelach-Lekha | Leave a comment

Jordan River

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

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

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

Who told them to trust God?

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

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

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

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

Israelites march from southern to eastern border of Canaan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Numbers: The talk at the rock

Moses Striking the Rock,
by James Tissot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deuteronomy: The blame is the same

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Can any of us?

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

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

Mattot: From Confrontation to Understanding

July 11, 2018 at 11:52 am | Posted in Mattot | Leave a comment

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

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

Stage One: Confrontation and Ignorance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage Two: Discovering the Reasons

Reuben and Gad ask for Land, by Arthur Boyd Houghton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

avar (עָבַר) = he crosses.

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

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

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

Stage Three: Acknowledgement

Crossing the Jordan,
by Gustave Dore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gaddites and Reuvenites humbly reply:

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


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

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

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

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

Pinchas: Aromatherapy

July 4, 2018 at 5:37 pm | Posted in Korach, Noach, Pinchas | 3 Comments

The God-character in the Torah often lashes out in fits of rage.  Sometimes this anthropomorphic “God” kills offensive individuals, and sometimes “He” wipes out hundreds or thousands of people, the innocent with the guilty.

from Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

Moses succeeds in talking God down into relative calmness after the Israelites worship the golden calf in the book of Exodus/Shemot,1 and twice more in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.2  But the smell of aromatic smoke is an even more effective way to soothe the God-character.

This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, ends with a schedule of offerings to be burned on the altar.  God begins the list by telling Moses:

“Command the Israelites, and you shall say to them: You must pay attention to my offerings, my food—to my fire-offering of my reyach nichoach—to offer [it] to me at its appointed time.”  (Numbers 28:1-2)

reyach (רֵיחַ) = scent, odor, fragrance, aroma.  (From the same root as ruach,  רוּחַ= wind, spirit, mood.)

nichoach (נִחֺחַ) = soothing, calming.  (From the root verb nuach, נוּחַ = rest, settle down in peace and quiet.)

reyach nichoach (רֵיחַ נִחֺחַ) = soothing scent.

The phrase reyach nichoach appears ten more times in the schedule of animal and grain offerings that follows.3  Although the God-character no doubt appreciates the sacrifice of potential human food and the pouring of libations, the scent of the smoke is a key element.

The First Soothing Smoke

The smoke from burned offerings first reaches God as a reyach nichoach in Genesis/Bereishit, after the God-character has become so upset by the violence and corruption of humans (and perhaps other carnivores) that He decides to destroy all life on earth.4  God makes an exception only for the obedient Noah and the other occupants of his ark.

After the flood recedes, God tells Noah to empty out the ark.  Then Noah finally does something on his own initiative, building an altar and burning up some extra animals he brought along as an offering to God—perhaps in imitation of Abel, whose animal offering God turned toward.5  (See my post Noach: The Soother.)

And God smelled the reyach nichoach, and God said in His heart:  I will never again draw back to doom the earth on account of the human, for the impulse of the human heart is bad in its youth … (Genesis/Bereishit, 8:21)

The clouds of smoke probably remind God of Abel’s grateful sacrifice of sheep, before humankind turned bad.  Reassured, God concludes that at least some adults want to serve Him.

The phrase reyach nichoach appears again three times in the book of Exodus,6 seventeen times in Leviticus, and eighteen times in Numbers, always in descriptions of animal and grain offerings to God.


The God-character’s temper flares again in the next Torah portion, Korach, which begins with two simultaneous coups against Moses and Aaron.  God deals with the Reuvenite leaders by making the earth swallow them and their families, and with Korach’s 250 Levites by burning them up in a conflagration.  The next day the remaining Israelites complain about all the deaths, and God tells Moses:

“Take yourselves out from the midst of this community, and I will consume them in an instant!”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 17:10)

Once again, God wants to annihilate the entire Israelite people—and presumably start over again with only Moses and Aaron and their families.  This time Moses tells Aaron to stop the plague by taking his incense pan out into the community.

Aaron took it, as Moses had spoken, and he ran into the middle of the congregation, and hey!—the pestilence had already started among the people!  He put on the incense and he made atonement over the people.  And he stood between the dead and the living, and the pestilence was stopped.  (Numbers 17:12-13)

The God-character has already killed 14,700 people when Aaron’s incense checks His rage.

At the end of the portion Korach, God instructs the Israelites to offer the firstborn of every cow, ewe, and nanny goat at the altar, “… and you shall burn-into-smoke their fat as a fire-offering for reyach nichoach for God.”  (Numbers 18:17)


At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Balak, the Israelites join the local Moabite Midianites in worshiping their god Baal-Peor.  When a Reuvenite man brings a Midianite princess (possibly a priestess of Baal-Peor) right into God’s tent-sanctuary to copulate, the God-character’s fury boils over.  Aaron’s grandson Pinchas dashes into the tent chamber and stabs a spear through the copulating couple.7

And the pestilence was stopped from over the Israelites.  And the deaths in the pestilence were 24,000.  (Numbers 25:8-9)

The God-character rewards Pinchas, but remains angry in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas. God orders Moses to attack and kill all the Midianites who worship Baal-Peor—an order carried out in next week’s portion, Mattot.8  After addressing several other matters, God remembers the soothing scent of smoke in Numbers 28:1-2 (above).

Maybe the God-character finally realizes He has a quick temper and an anger management problem.  If the Israelites soothed Him with a reyach nichoach at regular intervals, He might stay calmer.

God requests two daily offerings, plus additional offerings every seventh day (Shabbat), every new moon, and on six special occasions during the year (now called PesachShavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret).  The daily offerings and the additional offerings on the new moon, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Shemini Atzeret are all labeled as either “a reyach nichoach, a fire-offering for God” or “a fire-offering of reyach nichoach for God”.

Smoke and the gods

Why does the God-character in the Torah calm down when He smells the smoke of an animal, grain, or incense offering?

The book of Ezekiel provides a clue.  Three times in Ezekiel, God complains that Israelites at home and in exile are flocking to foreign altars and giving mere idols a reyach nichoach.9

Moabite altars in “Bilam” by James Tissot

Burning animals at altars for local gods was standard religious practice in ancient Canaan and Mesopotamia.  The epic of Gilgamesh includes a story in which Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian equivalent of Noah, emerges from his boat after the flood and offers a sacrifice to the gods.  When he lights a fire of myrtle, cane, and cedar wood, the odor reaches the nostrils of the gods and gives them pleasure.10

Since many humans enjoy aromatic smoke from incense or from a barbecue, it is natural to assume an anthropomorphic god enjoys it, too.  Just as an angry king about to punish someone might be appeased by a delightful gift, an angry anthropomorphic god might be appeased by a gift of fragrant smoke.  Since the God of Israel and the gods of Canaanites and Mesopotamians were envisioned as living in the sky, smoke was one of the few gifts that would be sure to reach them.


Have we discarded the idea of an anthropomorphic god today?  Not entirely.  Both atheists and theists often think of God as a super-human being living in a “heaven” coexistent with our world.  Atheists prove that this super-being cannot exist, while most religious people explain that an anthropomorphic god is either one manifestation of the real God, or a helpful image in our own minds, not to be confused with the real God.

There are still some fundamentalists who believe in the angry, punishing God portrayed so often in the Hebrew Bible and inherited by Christianity and Islam.  The rest of us tend to view God as either loving (a helpful anthropomorphic image), or without emotion (because God is not really a super-human).

Yet we sometimes find ourselves disturbed by our own irrational anger, and the impulsive actions we commit as a result.  We do not want to be made in the image of the angry, temperamental God-character.  What can we do to become calmer human beings?

Smoking is not the best answer.  But making regular offerings to God could be.  Jews no longer burn animals on an altar to soothe God’s temper, thank God!  But we are asked to pray at the appointed times listed in Pinchas: daily, weekly, monthly, and on annual holy days.  I have found that when I pray thoughtfully, searching out inner meanings of some words and adding my own heartfelt longings, my prayer soothes my own spirit and lifts my soul closer to God.

May everyone who needs the blessing of calmness find a good way to receive it.

  1. Moses talks God out of annihilating the Israelites and starting over again with only Moses’ descendants in Exodus 32:9-14 and 32:25-35. See my post Ki Tissa: Fighting or Singing?  God may be testing Moses to see whether he will argue for the Israelites; but on the other hand, God does kill an untold number of them with a plague, even after the Levites have slain 3,000 guilty people.
  2. In Numbers 14:11-35 (Shelach-Lekha) God threatens to wipe out all the Israelites because they do not trust God to help them conquer Canaan and refuse to cross the border. Moses talks God down, and God makes them wait 40 years instead.  God’s next threat to annihilate all the Israelites is in Korach, reviewed above.
  3. Numbers 28:2, 6, 8, 13, 24, 27 and 29:2, 6, 8, 13, 36.
  4. Genesis 6:11-13, 6:17.
  5. Genesis 4:3-5.
  6. Exodus 29:18, 29:25, and 29:41.
  7. See my posts Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1 and Balak: Carnal Appetites.
  8. See my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.
  9. Ezekiel 6:13, 16:19, 20:28. In Ezekiel 20:41, God says that when all Israelites restrict themselves to serving their own God on the holy mountain of Israel, then God will accept the people themselves as a reyach nichoach.
  10. Gilgamesh tablet 11, part 4.

Chukkat: Death and the Red Cow, Part 2

June 27, 2018 at 8:23 pm | Posted in Chukkat | 1 Comment

Life-blood.  Dead ash.  Living water.  These three elements are necessary for the ritual that brings someone back into the community after encountering a human corpse.  (See Chukkat: Death and the Red Cow, Part 1.)

Deathbed, by Gustav Klimt

The one who touches any dead human being shall be tamei [for] seven days.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 19:11)

If a human being dies in a tent, everyone who comes into the tent and everyone who is [already] in the tent shall be tamei [for] seven days.  (Numbers 19:14)

tamei (טָמֵא) = contaminated, ritually impure, in an unfit state for approaching God, not tahor.

tahor (טָהוֹר) = uncontaminated, ritually pure, in the correct state for approaching God, not tamei.

Anyone who is tamei is forbidden to enter the courtyard around the sanctuary, where the Israelites make offerings to God.  For a minor cause of tumah (טֻמְאָה, the state of being tamei), such as a seminal emission, one need only wash and wait until sunset to become tahor again.1  But if the tumah is due to exposure to a dead human body, the tamei person must be sprinkled with a specific mixture of ash and water on the third and seventh days after the exposure.

Then he shall clean his clothing and wash in water, and he shall be tahor at sunset.  (Numbers 19:19)

At that point he or she can rejoin the community in worship.2  Meanwhile, the man who does the sprinkling becomes tamei by that very act.

And the one who sprinkles … he shall clean his clothing … and whoever touches the water … shall be tamei until sunset.  (Numbers 19:21)

What is this liquid that makes the tamei tahor and the tahor tamei?

From blood to ash to water

The process for making the ash that goes into the sprinkling water begins with the color of blood:

“Speak to the Israelites, and they shall bring to you a cow [that is] perfectly adumah, that has no blemish, that has not had a yoke upon her.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 19:2)

adumah (אֲדֻמָּה) = red-brown, blood-colored.  (feminine of adom, אַדֺם.  From the same root as dam, דָּם = blood; adam,אָדָם  = humankind; and adamah,אֲדָמָה  = earth, dirt, ground.)

The blood of an animal slaughtered at the altar is sacred, reserved for splashing on the altar or inside the sanctuary.  But the blood of any other animal still belongs to God, because blood is its  life.  “The blood of any flesh you shall not eat, because the life of all flesh is its blood.”  (Leviticus 17:14)3  Thus the blood-red cow is the color of life.

And you shall give her [the cow] to Elazar the priest, and he shall take her outside the camp and [a man] shall slaughter her in front of him.  And Elazar the priest shall take some of her blood with his finger and flick some of her blood toward the front of the Tent of Meeting seven times.  (Numbers 19:3-4)

We do not know the original purpose of flicking the blood toward the tent-sanctuary.  At the very least, the gesture emphasizes the connection between life and God.

Then [the man] shall burn the cow before his eyes; he shall burn her hide and her flesh and her blood over her intestinal contents.  And the priest shall take cedar wood and oregano and crimson yarn, and throw them down on the burning cow.  (Numbers 19:3-6)

The rest of the cow’s blood is burned along with the whole cow, the reddish wood of an evergreen tree, some yarn dyed bright red with shield-louse eggs—and oregano.

The oregano (a tall Syrian variety, origanum maru, traditionally but inaccurately translated as “hyssop”) is an aromatic herb used elsewhere in the Torah for ritual splashing and sprinkling with blood.4  All three of the items tossed on the burning cow are associated with blood, and therefore with life.

And a tahor man shall gather the afar of the cow and save them outside the camp in a tahor place.  (Numbers 19:9)

afar (עָפָר) = ash, dust.

Afar is a symbol of both birth and death.  God shapes the first human out of afar from the adamah (dust from the earth) and breathes life into it.5  Later, God tells Adam:

Afar you are, and to afar you will return.  (Genesis 3:19)

Thus the ash from the red cow signifies the border between life and non-existence, the border crossed by both birth and death.

When a person has become tamei by touching or being under the same roof as a dead human body, some of the ash from the ritual burning of a red cow is stirred into a vessel of “living water” or “water of life” (מַיִם חַיִּים): water from a naturally flowing source.6  This mixture is  sprinkled on the tamei person.

Thus the antidote for exposure to death follows a progression from the life-blood of the red cow (enhanced by other items evoking blood), to the ash of its death, to the living water.

From tahor to tamei to tahor

Humans who make or use the ash of the red cow also go through a three-stage progression in the Torah portion Chukkat.  They must be tahor to begin their work.  They become tamei during the work, and then return to a tahor state.

After the red cow has burned down to ash,

Then the priest shall clean his clothing and wash his flesh in water, and afterward he may come into the camp; but the priest will be tamei until sunset.  And the one burning her shall clean his clothing in water and wash his flesh in water, and he shall be tamei until sunset.  And a tahor man shall gather the ash of the cow and save it outside the camp in a tahor place …  And the gatherer of the ash of the cow shall clean his clothing, and he shall be tamei until sunset.   (Numbers/Bemidbar 19:7-8)

All three men must wash and wait until sunset before they are tahor again.

The Torah warns priests to be meticulous about avoiding tumah as much as possible, even if it means staying away from their own family members who die.7  After all, they must serve God both in the courtyard and inside the sanctuary, and all tamei persons are prohibited from entering the area.

Nevertheless, at least one, and possibly three, priests8 must become tamei until sunset on the day they burn the red cow—so that those who come close to the dead can become tahor again.

Similarly, the man who sprinkles the mixture of the ash and living water makes someone exposed to a dead human tahor again, but he becomes tamei just by touching the mixture.9

Chukkat hints that people who are exposed to the dead become tamei, unfit for communal worship, because they are in an altered state of consciousness.  (See Death and the Red Cow, Part 1, for my own experience.)  Perhaps sprinkling them with the mixture of ash and living water helps them to integrate their experiences of death and life.  After seven days, including two sprinklings, they might reach a tahor state of mind.

Then why does everyone involved in the creation or application of the red cow’s ash become tamei?   I suspect the ash is so spiritually powerful (or that what it represents is so psychologically powerful) that exposure to it causes a lesser version of the altered state of consciousness in someone exposed to a human corpse.  The ash-makers and the sprinkler need not be sprinkled or wait for seven days themselves, but they must still do some ritual washing and take the rest of the day off before they are once more in the correct frame of mind to engage in the ordinary religious life of the Israelites.


Today when we are in an altered state because we have witnessed death, we have a few mourning rituals to help us.  But although Jewish tradition calls for “sitting shiva” at home for seven days after the burial, we have nothing as dramatic as the ritual with the ashes of the red cow to snap us back into a state in which we are psychologically ready to participate in life with our community.  We can only wait for the shadow of death to slowly pass by.

May we be patient with ourselves, and with others, while we wait.

  1. Leviticus 15:16-18.
  2. Contamination through touch, and washing to eliminate the contamination, remind modern readers of the germ theory of disease, which was first proposed in the 16th century C.E. and generally accepted by the end of the 19th The ancient Israelites, however, were only concerned about an abstract state of fitness for worshiping God.  They considered physical diseases either mysteries, or punishments inflicted by God, which could be avoided only through prayer, not through quarantine or washing.
  3. Later in the Torah, the people are given permission to slaughter and eat kosher livestock in their villages if God’s altar is too far away. Moses urges the Israelites: “Only be strong, so as not to eat the blood, because the blood is the life…”  (Deuteronomy 12:23)
  4. The Israelites use this oregano (eizov, אֵזוֹב) to paint blood on the doorposts and lintels of their houses in Exodus 12:22, so the plague of the death of the firstborn would pass over them. Priests sprinkle blood using oregano branches in Leviticus 14:1-7 and 14:49-52 in order to convert both people and houses stricken with the disease of tzara-at from tamei to tahor.
  5. Genesis 2:7.
  6. Numbers 19:17. “Living water” includes water from a spring, a river, or a well; it excludes salt water or water from a cistern.
  7. Leviticus 21:1-4, 21:11.
  8. Leviticus 22:1-9.
  9. Numbers 19:21, translated above.

Chukkat: Death and the Red Cow, Part 1

June 21, 2018 at 3:56 pm | Posted in Chukkat | 3 Comments

This is the chukkah of the teaching that God has commanded, saying: “Speak to the Israelites, and they shall bring to you a cow [that is] perfectly red, that has no blemish, that has not had a yoke upon her.”  (Numbers 19:2)

chukkah (חֻקַּה) = decree, edict, prescription, obligation.  (Also chok, חֺק.)

This week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“chukkah of”), opens by prescribing a unique ritual for those who have touched a human corpse, uncovered a grave, or been under the same roof as a corpse.  The essential ingredient for this ritual is ash saved from burning a perfect red cow that has never been yoked.  (See next week’s post, Chukkat: Death and the Red Cow, Part 2, for the details about how, where, and with what the cow is slaughtered and burned.)

The red cow’s ash is mixed into water whenever it is needed to decontaminate someone who has been exposed to a dead human body.

One who touches a corpse of any human being shall be tamei for seven days.  He must compensate for himself on the third day and the seventh day; [then] he shall be tahor.  If he does not compensate for himself on the third day and the seventh day, he shall not become tahor. (Numbers 19:11-12)

tamei (טָמֵא) = ritually impure, in an unfit state for approaching God; not pure, contaminated.

tahor (טָהוֹר) = ritually pure, in the correct state for approaching God; pure, clean, uncontaminated.

Until tamei people have become tahor, they are prohibited from entering the courtyard around the sanctuary, and thus excluded from the religious life of the community.1

People who are tamei because they touched something else tamei, or had a genital discharge,  can become tahor by washing in water and/or waiting until evening.  A longer waiting period is required for a woman tamei because of childbirth, and an extra ritual is required for a person who has recovered from a skin disease.2  But people who are tamei because of a human corpse can only become tahor through the unique ritual described in the Torah portion Chukkat.

And they shall take for the tamei [person] some ash from the burning of the compensation-offering, and [a man] shall place it in living water in a vessel.  (Numbers 19:17)

A small amount of ash saved from the burning of the red cow is mixed into “living water”—water collected from a naturally flowing source rather than a well or cistern—and sprinkled on the tamei person. The same ritual is required whether someone stumbles upon an old unknown grave, or sits by the bedside of a dying family member.

Why is the mixture of red cow ash and living water the antidote to touching or being under the same roof as a human corpse?

An Inexplicable Decree

By the 12th century C.E., some rabbis were citing the ritual of the red cow as a prime example of a God-given law that humans cannot understand rationally, but must merely accept.3

“Rabbi Yosei son of Rabbi Chanina said: ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: To you I am revealing the reason for the cow, but for others it is a chukkah…’” (Numbers Rabbah 19:6)


Gold calf from Byblos

Other rabbis, including Rashi and Bachya ben Asher4, explained the chukkah of the red cow with a parable:  Just as a mother cleans up after her son makes a mess, the red cow corrects the sin of the golden calf.  Moses burned the golden calf, ground it into powder, added water, and made the Israelites drink it5—in order to purify them after they had defiled themselves by worshiping an idol, according to Rashi.  Similarly, the red cow is burned down to ash, water is added, and Israelites are sprinkled with it—in order to be purified after they have become defiled by proximity to a human corpse.

Rashi added that the cow must be red because sin is described as red.6  Its perfection is “an allusion to the Israelites, who were perfect, but became blemished. Let this come and atone for them so that they regain their perfection.”  The absence of a yoke reminds us that the Israelites cast off the yoke of Heaven.  The priest supervising the burning of the red cow is Elazar, not Aaron, because Aaron made the golden calf.


On a psychological level, the ritual of the red cow’s ash might carry another meaning.

What happens when you watch a human being die?  I remember my father’s death at age 87, in the nursing facility where he went after the hospital could do no more for him.  One day he no longer spoke, no longer opened his eyes—but when I held his hand and talked to him, he smiled.  The next morning he did not respond, and his breath rasped.  When I came back that afternoon, there was no breath.  His body looked the same, and when I touched his face it was still warm.  But my father was gone.

I had to go through all the business that must be done when someone dies.  I spoke calmly with my stepmother, my sister, my husband, and the employees at the nursing facility, exchanging information and making practical plans.  I returned to the motel and ate and recited prayers and slept and woke up and went through another day.  And all the time I was conscious of myself as a single point in a dim and vast universe.  I was in an altered state.

I did not feel more distant from God; if anything, I was more in awe of the divine mystery.  But I did feel distant from ordinary human company.  I finally understood the Jewish custom of “sitting shiva”, not leaving the house for seven days after a close family member dies.  I wished I could seclude myself.  When I got home and I was finally able to go to a service and say kaddish for my father, I slipped out quietly afterward because I could not bear to enter a room full of chattering friends eager to express their sympathy.  I was unfit to join my community in the courtyard.  Gradually I became tahor again, through the passage of time.

According to the Torah, we must not stay in the altered state of immediate knowledge of death.  To become whole and tahor human beings, we must integrate life and death.

In next week’s post, Chukkat: Death and the Red Cow, Part 2, I will consider how other details in the red cow ritual describe how human consciousness can change as we focus on life, then on death, and finally on integrating the two states of mind.

  1. Numbers 19:13.
  2. Leviticus 12:1-5 addresses becoming tahor after childbirth. Leviticus 14:1-7 describes the ritual for a human to become tahor after recovery from the skin disease tzara-at.
  3. Also see Numbers Rabbah 19:8; Maimonides (12th-century rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), Mishneh Torah, Trespass 8; Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, Torah Commentary, first published in 1492; and Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Bamidbar, translated by E.S. Maser, Mesorah Publications, 1993, p. 220-222.
  4. Rashi is the acronym for the French 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki. Rabbi Bachya ben Asher wrote circa 1300 C.E. in Spain.
  5. Exodus 32:20.
  6. If your sins are like crimson, they can turn white as snow … (Isaiah 1:18)


Korach: Who Is Holy?

June 13, 2018 at 7:54 pm | Posted in Korach | Leave a comment

The Israelites set off from Mount Sinai in formation, ready to march into Canaan.1

Yet when their “promised land” is just over the next ridge, the men become so terrified by reports of giants that they refuse to cross the border.2  Fed up with Moses’ insistence on obeying God, they say: “Let’s pick a leader and go back to Egypt!”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 14:4)  They do not doubt that Moses is God’s chosen prophet and leader.  The problem is that they no longer believe God will help them take the land.3

The reverse is true in this week’s Torah portion, Korach.  Korach and his 250 rebels want to continue serving God, but they reject Moses and Aaron as leaders.4

They gathered against Moses and against Aaron, and they said to them: “You have plenty!  Because all the assembly, all of them, are kedoshim, and God is in their midst.  So why do you elevate yourselves above the congregation of God?”  (Numbers 16:3)

kedoshim (קְדֺשִׁים) = holy (plural), consecrated; segregated for religious use only; personally dedicated to obeying God’s moral and religious rules.  (Singular: kadosh, קָדוֹשׁ.  From the root verb kadash, קָדַשׁ = be holy, be reserved for sacred rather than common use.)

After checking with God by falling on his face,5 Moses tells Korach and the Levites:

1907 Bible card

“In the morning God will make known who is his and who is kadosh and who he brings close to himself; [God] will choose who he brings close to himself.  Do this:  Korach and all [your] assembly, take for yourselves fire-pans, and place embers in them and put incense on them in front of God tomorrow.  And it will be the man whom God will choose, he is the kadosh one.  You have plenty, sons of Levi!” (Numbers 16:5-7)

Is Korach’s speech true?  Are all the Israelites holy?  Did Moses and Aaron elevate themselves?

Are all the Israelites holy?

In the strict sense of the word kadosh, it is impossible for everyone in a community to be holy, just as it is impossible for every bowl or basin to be consecrated.  The copper basin a priest uses to catch and splash the blood from an animal sacrifice is kadosh because it is reserved for religious rituals.  A copper basin used to make dinner is not kadosh.

Similarly, not all members of a community can spend most of their time as religious functionaries.  The community cannot survive unless most of its people are shepherds, farmers, craftsmen, millers, bakers, weavers, etc.  Only a minority of the Israelites can be segregated and reserved for protecting and transporting the sanctuary (the job of the Levites) and conducting religious rituals (the job of the priests).

Yet elsewhere in the Torah, God says:

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

“You shall be kedoshim because I am kadosh ”  (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:2)

While God may be distinguishing the possible holiness of the Israelites from the ordinariness of the other peoples of the world, it is more likely that God uses the word kadosh in these statements to mean “virtuous and obedient to God”.  The statement in Exodus is followed by the revelation and the “Ten Commandments”.  The statement in Leviticus is immediately followed by 17 principles for moral and religious behavior, from respecting your parents to loving your neighbor as yourself.

God did not say that the people were already holy in the sense of being good to other people and obedient to God.  God asked them to work on becoming holy in that way.

But Korach says everyone in the assembly of Israel is kadosh.  Even if he uses the word kadosh to mean “virtuous and obedient to God”, he is wrong.  Throughout the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness they rebel and complain about God and God’s arrangements, and periodically someone violates one of God’s rules.  They are still a long way from being a holy nation.

When Korach alludes to God’s phrase“a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, he is really more interested in the “kingdom of priests” part.  In fact, he and the 250 other rebellious Levites are more interested in priesthood for themselves than in universal priesthood.6

Moses hears this subtext.  After announcing the incense-pan test,

Moses said to Korach: “Listen, please, sons of Levi.  Is it too little for you that the God of Israel separated you, out of all the assembly of Israel, to bring close to him, to serve the service of the sanctuary of God and to stand before the assembly to minister to them?  [God] brought you close, and all your brother Levites with you; now do you seek the priesthood too?”  (Numbers 16:8-10)

Korach does not reply.  But he and his 250 Levites return the next morning with their fire-pans and incense, hoping to pass the test.  They are consumed by divine fire.


Did Moses and Aaron elevate themselves?

The rebel Levites resent their positions as assistants to the priests, doing less glamorous jobs.6  Korach argues that leadership should be shared, either by all Israelites or at least by all Levites.

Yet God chose Moses to transmit God’s commands and instructions—probably because Moses did not want to elevate himself.  When God was recruiting him at the burning bush, Moses kept finding excuses to get out of the job.7

Aaron did not elevate himself, either.  God picked him to assist his brother Moses in negotiations with the pharaoh of Egypt.8  Then when God gave instructions for the sanctuary and its rituals, God told Moses to consecrate Aaron and his sons as the priests.9

Who should lead?

Who are the proper leaders, civil and religious, for a large community?  The Torah answers that the top leaders should be chosen by God, or descended from those chosen by God.

God chooses Moses, and then Joshua, to govern the Israelites.  After a period with no central authority, God tells the prophet Samuel to anoint Saul as king, and then to replace him with David.  The descendants of King David rule Judah for centuries.

God chooses Aaron and his sons as the community’s priests.  Later God declares a covenant with Pinchas, one of Aaron’s grandsons, making him and all his descendants priests.10  Yet the first book of Samuel acknowledges that sometimes the sons of a good priest are worthless.11

Today, we had better not count on God to appoint our leaders.  Those who claim divine appointment probably suffer from inflated egos and skewed thinking.  There are no definitive miracles to prove God’s choices today, and those who deduce God’s will from omens and mysterious coincidences are like idol-worshippers in the Torah.12

So when we have a chance to vote for leaders in government, or to choose our own religious leaders, who should we pick?

One answer is to find out who is kadosh in the sense of being virtuous (acting for the benefit of others) and obedient to God (to the still, small inner voice of God, not to the rules of a particular religious sect).  We can judge potential leaders by their actions, not by genealogy or by claims of greatness.

And whatever jobs we end up with, we are all called upon to become kinder, more honest, more respectful, more insightful, and more aware of the divine in everything.  In other words, more holy.

  1. Numbers 10:11-28. See my post Bemidbar & Naso: Four Directions of Service.
  2. Numbers 13:25-33. See last week’s post, Shelach-Lekha: Caleb Waiting.
  3. See my post Shelach-Lekha: Mutual Distrust.
  4. The Torah portion interweaves two stories of rebellion: one featuring Korach and 250 fellow Levites, and one featuring chieftains from the tribe of Reuven. Modern critical scholarship assigns the two stories to different sources, combined awkwardly by a later redactor.  The Levite rebellion is usually identified as a P text, while the Reuvenite rebellion is attributed to the J source.  The story of their rebellion and punishment appears in Numbers 16:12-14 and 16:25-34.  See my post Korach: Buried Alive.
  5. See my post Korach: Face Down.
  6. Korach is a Levite in the Kehat clan (Numbers 16:1), which transports the most holy objects in the sanctuary (Numbers 4:15). Moses and Aaron are also descendants of Kehat (Exodus 6:18-21), and are Korach’s first cousins.  The Torah does not specify the clans of the other 250 Levite rebels, but all the Levites are relatives of the priests, Aaron and his sons, and all of them have duties regarding the sanctuary.
  7. Exodus 3:1-4:17.
  8. Exodus 4:14-16, 4:27.
  9. Exodus 28:1, Exodus 28:36-38, Leviticus 8:1-36.
  10. Numbers 25:11-13.
  11. Numbers 16:23-35.
  12. Deuteronomy 18:9-10.

Shelach Lekha: Caleb, Waiting

June 6, 2018 at 9:51 pm | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | 1 Comment

You say you’re bored, hanging around in the wilderness for forty years before God finally lets us move into the promised land?

When I was your age, I was angry at the men who got us stuck here.

We’d finally marched right up to the border of Canaan.  The land of our ancestors was just over the ridge—and we’d never seen it.  Moses announced that God said:  “Send men for yourself, and let them scout out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Children of Israel.  Send one man from each ancestral tribe, each one a leader.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:2)

Canaan Dog

Then he started naming the scouts.  I couldn’t believe it when Moses said:  “For the tribe of Judah, Kaleiv son of Yefuneh.”  (Numbers 13:6)

kaleiv (כָּלֵב) = dog; a proper name (Caleb in English).

Was I really a leader?  Me, the dog?

My father named me Kaleiv.  And in case you’re thinking about a shepherd’s best friend, let me tell you, we Israelites never used dogs that way.  Or at all.  For us, a dog was a scavenger in the streets, or worse; not fit to enter a decent person’s house.1

My father used to beat me.  So did our Egyptian owner.  When I was old enough, I ran away for good.  I was a real kaleiv then, a scavenger in the streets of the city of Ramses.

I found a cellar under a half-built warehouse to sleep in.  One night a bunch of slaves met there and talked about the latest plague.  They didn’t notice me curled up in the far corner.  They thought all the plagues were caused by their own god, the God of Israel.  And they used other names for this god, names I’d heard from my father.  He used to drone on about how things used to be a few hundred years ago, back when our people were free.  Useless talk, I’d always thought.

But this time when I heard the names of our God, I came out of my dark corner.  I was desperate.  They saw me and they froze.  I told them my genealogy, so they’d know I was a Hebrew too, from the tribe of Judah.  Then I asked if I could join them.  My voice shook.  But they actually welcomed me.

One of them became my friend:  Joshua.  He told me everything he knew about God and Moses and Aaron.  We both decided to pledge our service to God and follow Moses out of Egypt.

When we found out that God was about to send the final plague, the Death of the Firstborn, Joshua brought me home.  His father painted the door frame with lamb’s blood, and the angel of death skipped past us.2  In the morning I left Egypt with them.  Along with thousands of other Hebrew slaves, and some folks who just wanted to follow us and our God.

Even with the pillar of cloud and fire to guide us,3 our first week of traveling was a mess.  We were all right when we were walking.  But once we stopped for the night—imagine thousands of ex-slaves, waiting to be told what to do.  Joshua helped; he was a good organizer.  And I did what I could to help Joshua.

Moses noticed.  He made Joshua his battle general and personal attendant.  When he picked the twelve scouts to check out Canaan, he named Joshua for the tribe of Efrayim, some popular young men for the other tribes, and for Judah—me.  Kaleiv.  The dog.

I was going on a dangerous adventure for God and Israel!  What I liked about our God was that you never knew what would happen next.

Turns out it wasn’t so dangerous.  We were on foot, with no swords, so nobody stopped us.  Once we got north of the desert, we just strolled along, munching on fruit.  Sometimes we had to scramble off the road to make way for a troop of soldiers: tall men, with swords and shiny armor around their necks.  I said we were like grasshoppers compared to them, and everybody laughed.  I wondered where the soldiers and the people living in the cities would go after we moved in.

On the way back, I picked some huge pomegranates and figs and grapes.  I figured the sight of them would perk up the folks who were always complaining about manna.

When we walked into camp, everybody cheered.  Then they all gathered in front of the Tent of Meeting to hear our report.  The first few scouts to speak didn’t sound very enthusiastic.  And Joshua was in a difficult position, being Moses’ favorite.  So I got brave and said: “We should definitely go up and take possession, because we can definitely conquer it!”  (Numbers 13:30)

But the other scouts said: “We won’t be able to go up against those people, because they’re stronger than us!”  (Numbers 3:31)

I wanted to say that it didn’t matter how strong they were, because God was on our side.  But I couldn’t get a word in.  The other scouts were babbling that all the Canaanites were giants.  Even worse, they said: “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them!”  (Numbers 3:33)

My own joke, and nobody was laughing this time.  All the people started milling around, screaming and sobbing.  Even Moses couldn’t call the assembly back to order.

In the morning the men came to Moses and said: “If only we’d died in the land of Egypt!  Or if only we’d died in this wilderness!  Why is God bringing us to this land to fall by the sword?  Our wives and our children will be carried off!  Wouldn’t it be better to go back to Egypt?”  And they said to each other: “Let’s pick a leader and go back to Egypt.”  (Numbers 14:2-4)

Moses and Aaron fell on their faces, but it didn’t do any good. Then I heard a loud rip.  Joshua was tearing his robe like he was in mourning.  So I did too, even though it was my only clothing.  Somehow that made the men quiet down.  I glanced at Joshua.  He nodded at me.  So I said: “If God is pleased with us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us—a land that is flowing with milk and honey.  Just don’t rebel against God!”  (Numbers 14:8-9)

And Joshua added: “God is with us!  Don’t be afraid of them.”  (Numbers 14:9)

They didn’t believe us.  They picked up stones to throw at us.  But then the glory of God burst out like fire all around the Tent of Meeting, and everybody ran.  Except Moses, who walked right through the fire and went inside to talk to God.

I waited with my fists clenched.  Why did people have to be such idiots?

When Moses finally came out, he said God had forgiven the people.  But we all had to stay in the wilderness for 40 years, while the men who rebelled died one by one.  No man who was over age 20 would live to enter the promised land, except Joshua and me.4

Forty years.  It took me one year just to get over being angry about it.  Why did I have to wait, just because other Israelites didn’t trust God?

Joshua told me God was being kind.  The men were so upset they actually wanted to die in the wilderness.  And instead of striking them dead then and there, God let each one live to the age of 60, mostly here in the oasis of Kadeish-Barnea, a particularly comfortable spot of wilderness.5  I didn’t think a bunch of cowards deserved such kindness.

Then it occurred to me that we were all brave when we left Egypt.  A slave at least has food, a place to sleep, a familiar routine.  But we chose to leave everything we knew, and head toward a land we couldn’t imagine, following God—even though we’d only seen God’s harsh side.  We risked everything that day, changed our whole lives.

Maybe one big change was all some folks could manage.

For me, change was easier; staying in the same place was hard.  But that was my job now, to wait here with everybody else.  So I decided to change myself.  I learned how to live quietly.  How to cheer up folks who are getting old and regretful.  How to teach you young folks.  How to stir dates into my manna porridge.  How to make friends with a woman.  I got married, and we had a daughter,6 so I have even more to appreciate.

And you know what?  Sometimes I’m bored, too.  But I’ve been counting the years.  It’s almost time to go.  And I’m not a young dog anymore.  At the end of a long walk, I’m worn out and limping.  How can I help conquer Canaan when I’m in my sixties?

Now I’m the one who’s afraid.  I wish I could just keep living in this oasis with my friends and family.  But I have to change again.  If I didn’t, I’d let down God.

I don’t know what will happen in the promised land.  But I know I want to walk in smiling.

  1. See Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 373, footnote on Exodus 11:7.
  2. Exodus 12:21-23.
  3. Exodus 13:20-22.
  4. Numbers 14:28-35.
  5. Kadeish-Barnea was an oasis about 50 miles southwest of Beersheva, close to the southern border of Canaan. The people encamp there two years after the exodus from Egypt, and the scouts depart from there (Deuteronomy 32:32:8).  “The place becomes the Israelites’ chief base for the next thirty-eight years, until the time of conquest.” (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 1109, footnote on 13:26.)  In the 7th century B.C.E. the Kingdom of Judah built a fort at the oasis, then on a major trade route.  (Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, 2001, p. 268.)
  6. Caleb marries off and gives land near Hebron to his daughter Akhsah in Joshua 15:13-19.

Beha-alotkha & Ezra: Retirement Age

June 1, 2018 at 1:42 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Ezra | Leave a comment

This is what regards the Levites:  From the age of 25 years and above, each will enter the battalion of service for the Tent of Meeting.  And from the age of 50 years, yashuv from the battalion of service, and he shall not serve any more.  He shall attend to his brother in the Tent of Meeting, keeping his watch, but he shall not do service.  Thus you shall do for the Levites regarding their duties.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 8:24-26)

yashuv (יָשׁוּב) = he shall return, turn back, turn away, withdraw.

It sounds like a mandatory retirement age.  And retirement at 50 would be a golden dream to all the people today who must continue to toil at jobs that sap their energy instead of nourishing them.  Do the Levites really get this blessing?


This week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha, includes the consecration of the Levites as servants of God’s sanctuary, the Tent of Meeting.1  The first priests, Aaron and his sons, are consecrated in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.2  Leviticus also provides lengthy job descriptions for priests, who perform all the rituals of offerings at the altar, tend the most sacred holy objects, and judge various issues about ritual purity.

While the priests perform the highest-ranking work in the religious life of the ancient Israelites, many other duties are necessary to maintain either a traveling sanctuary (in Exodus through Joshua) or a permanent temple.  The first two Torah portions in Numbers begin assigning these duties to the three clans of Levites.  (See last week’s post, Bemidbar & Naso: Four Directions of Service.)

For each leg of the Israelites’ journey from Mount Sinai to the “promised land” of Canaan, the Tent of Meeting must be disassembled, carried to the next campsite, and reassembled.  Only the priests can prepare the holiest items for travel; they wrap the ark, the lampstand, the bread table, the incense altar, and the altar for offerings in multiple coverings before turning them over to the Levites of the Kehat clan for porterage.

Tent of Meeting and its courtyard

The other two clans of Levites, Geirshon and Merari, disassemble, carry, and reassemble the tent roof, the cloth walls of both tent and courtyard, and the frameworks they are stretched over.  All of these jobs are critical, and an error may result in death.  (See my post Shemini & 2 Samuel: Separating Holiness.)  They are also jobs that require physical strength and skill.

I believe these tasks are restricted to Levites old enough to be mindful, but young enough to do the labor without faltering.  Levites must withdraw, i.e. retire, from these duties before old age compromises their physical abilities.  So the men who do this work must be between the ages of 25 and 50—at least in the portion Beha-alotkha.

The first two portions of the book of Numbers give a different starting age for the Levites.  God requests a census of each of the three clans of Levites,

From the age of 30 years and above, up to the age of 50 years, all those who come into the battalion to do labor in the Tent of Meeting.  (Numbers 4:3, 4:23, 4:30)

The Talmud3 explains the different starting ages by claiming the Levites began learning these duties at age 25, and began actually performing them at 30.  I suspect the discrepancy is due to different opinions about the age at which young men can be trusted to carry out a long process with unflagging mindfulness of the sanctity of every movement.


The Levites age 50 and above still perform some duties, those that all Levites do while the Israelites are encamped and the sanctuary is in place.  What are these jobs?

The only ones mentioned in the first five books of the Torah are guarding the sanctuary to prevent any unauthorized persons from entering;4 and helping to collect tithes from the rest of the community, tithes used to support the priests, the Levites, and the poor.5

Other Levitical duties are not mentioned until books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which describe the building of the second temple in Jerusalem.

Supervising the building of a temple can apparently be done well by a wider range of Levites.  The book of Ezra says that when the exiled Israelites returned to Jerusalem from Babylon, their leaders appointed the Levites from age 20 years and above to supervise the labor of [building] the House of God.  (Ezra 3:8)

Both books list the job titles, ancestry, and numbers of men who serve at the new temple.  Priests are listed first, then Levites, then singers, then gatekeepers, then temple servants.6  Although the singers and gatekeepers are listed separately from “Levites”, the traditional interpretation is that these two groups were subdivisions of Levites.

One piece of evidence is the celebration over the completion the foundation of the second temple in the book of Ezra.

(woodcut, 1860)

…and the priests were stationed in their vestments with their trumpets, and the Levites, descendants of Asaf, with cymbals to praise God … And they [the Levites] answered with haleil and with thanks to God: “because [God]is good, because [God’s] kindness is everlasting(Ezra 3:10-11).

haleil (הַלֵּל) = songs of praise.

The same words “because [God]is good, because [God’s] kindness is everlasting” appear in Psalms 106, 118 and 136.  As far as we know, all the Psalms were sung at temple rituals, accompanied by instruments—and the musicians were Levites.

For us, as for the Levites, retirement is not ceasing to work; it is withdrawing from a job that has become difficult, and turning to work that benefits body and soul.  Yes, many retirees spend more and more time taking care of their aging and cranky bodies.  But we can also take some time to help others from a place of wisdom, and to do the work that nourishes our souls.

No doubt some of the Levites serving in the second temple got bored with locking and unlocking gates, or dreaded singing under a certain conductor, and wished they could retire at 50 like the Levites in the book of Numbers.  Lighter work is not always soul-nourishing work.

Levite singers, by James Tissot

But the duties of the Levites can inform our own retirements, when we finally shuv—withdraw, turn away, return from—the jobs we had to do to make a living.  In the workforce (equivalent to the “battalion” in this week’s Torah portion), we have to keep disassembling and reassembling our knowledge base, our skills, our resumes, as we meet the demands imposed by our employers or the larger society with live in.

Retired, we can exercise more of our own judgement about what to let in through our personal gates, and what to keep out.  And we can lift our own spirits toward the spirit of the divine by singing to God.

  1. Numbers 8:8-22.
  2. Leviticus 8:1-9:24.
  3. Chullin
  4. Numbers 18:2-6.
  5. Numbers 18:20-24; Nehemiah 12:44.
  6. Ezra 2:40-41 and 2:70; Nehemiah 7:43-45, 10:29, and 11:15-22.

Bemidbar & Naso: Four Directions of Service

May 24, 2018 at 10:01 pm | Posted in Bemidbar, Naso | 4 Comments

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.


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.


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.


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)


… 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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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)
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