Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2

July 19, 2017 at 9:01 pm | Posted in Joshua, Judges, Mattot | 1 Comment
Tags: , , ,

Pinchas first appears in the Torah grabbing a spear and skewering two worshipers of a local Midianite god, Baal Peor. God (that is, the God-character in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar) is relieved, because “He” could not stop “His” own anger at the apostasy and the resulting plague. (See my post Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1.) Pinchas’s zealous impulse does the trick.

God tells Moses:

Therefore say: Here I am, giving to him My covenant of shalom. And it shall be for him, and for his descendants after him, a covenant of priesthood for all time, founded because he was zealous for his God, so he atoned for the children of Israel.” (Numbers 25:12-13)

shalom (שָׁלוֹם) = peace, wholeness, well-being.

The covenant of shalom makes Pinchas a priest, binding him to commit no further violence against humans (though like all priests, he must slaughter animal offerings at the altar).

However, there is no covenant of peace binding God. In this week’s Torah portion, Mattot (“Tribes”), God orders Moses:

Avenge the vengeance of the Israelites on the Midianites! Afterward you shall be gathered to your people. (Numbers 31:1)

After Moses dies, the rest of the Israelites live with the knowledge of both their unfaithfuless to God and their vengeance on the Midianites. Next week’s post, Mattot & Va-etchannan: How to Stop a Plague, Part 3, will consider the lasting effects of the Baal Peor incident on the Israelites. This week’s post explores what happens to Pinchas after his well-timed murder.

Pinchas in Mattot

Moses sent a thousand from each tribe for the army, and Pinchas, son of Elazar the Priest, for the army; and holy utensils and trumpets for blasting were in his hands. And they made war against Midian, as God had commanded Moses … (Numbers 31:6-7)

A priest accompanies an army in the Torah not to engage in battle, but to address the troops before battle1 and take charge of holy objects2. Sometimes a general consults a priest before battle, and the priest uses an oracular device to relay simple questions to God and report God’s brief replies.3

The Torah portion Mattot does not identify the holy utensils Pinchas brought to the battle against the Midianites in the valley of Baal Peor. Trumpets were used to sound an alarm, to signal troops to advance, and to signal troops to retreat.4

Pinchas in the Book of Judges

Dead Concubine at Gibeah

Pinchas does use an oracular device to answer the questions of generals many years later, when he is the high priest of the Israelites. After the tribes have conquered and settled various parts of Canaan, some men in the territory of Benjamin rape and kill a Levite’s concubine. The Levite rallies all the other tribes to go to war against the Benjaminites.5

Pinchas stays in the town of Beit-El, where the ark is in residence, about 8 miles (13 km) north of Gibeah, the main town of Benjamin. Before each day of battle, men from the Israelite army go to Beit-El with a question for God.

First they ask which tribe should advance first against the Benjaminites, and God’s answer is “Judah”. The Israelites lose the battle. They return to Beit-El and ask if they should attack again, and God answers yes. But they lose the second battle as well.

Then they went up … and they came to Beit-El and they wept, and they sat there before God, and they fasted that day until the evening, and they sent up rising-offerings and shelamim before God. (Judges 20:26)

shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = animal-offerings either to express gratitude to God for well-being, or to attempt a state of peace and unity with God. (From the same root as shalom.)

And the Israelites inquired of God—and the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, and Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron was standing in attendance before [God] in those days—saying: “Should we gather again to go out to war with the Benjaminites, our brothers, or should we give up?” And God said: “Go up, because tomorrow I will give them into your hand.” (Judges 20:27-28)

The Israelites defeat the Benjaminites the next day, wiping out most of the men of that tribe and all of the women. But the only role Pinchas plays is to report God’s answers; he takes no action on his own.

Pinchas in the Book of Joshua

Pinchas takes a more active role in the book of Joshua when nine and a half tribes are considering making war on the other two and a half.

At the end of Mattot, this week’s portion, the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask Moses for permission to settle east of the Jordan in Gilead and Bashan, the lands that the Israelites have already conquered. Moses grants them and the half-tribe of Menasheh these lands, but only after they have promised that their fighting men will cross the Jordan with the rest of the Israelites and help conquer Canaan.6

After the death of Moses, Joshua leads these men and all the other Israelites across the Jordan River. His army conquers a large part of Canaan, the men of Reuben, Gad, and Menasheh return to their new homes, and the land west of the Jordan is allotted among the other nine and a half tribes. Joshua erects the portable Tent of Meeting containing God’s ark at Gilgal first, then at Shiloh, both on the west side of the Jordan.

And the Israelites heard [a report] saying: Hey! The Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Menasheh built an altar opposite the land of Canaan, in the district across from the Israelites. (Joshua 22:11)

This is the same region where the Israelites were camping when they joined the Midianites in their worship of Baal Peor.

And the Israelites heard, and they assembled, the whole community of the sons of Israel, at Shiloh to go up to make war upon them. And the Israelites sent Pinchas, son of Elazar the [high] priest … to the land of Gilead, along with ten chieftains … (Joshua 22:12-14)

If anything could trigger Pinchas’s jealousy and zealotry for the God of Israel again, it would be news that some Israelites had built an altar for a foreign god. When his delegation arrives, Pinchas protests:

Is it a small matter for us, the crime of Peor from which we have not purified ourselves to this day? It is a scourge in the community of God! And you, you would turn away from God? If you rebel today against God, tomorrow the whole community of Israel will become angry! (Joshua 22:17-18)

The east-bank tribesmen quickly explain that they have no intention of worshiping another god. They claim they were afraid of being excluded from the community of the God of Israel, and they only built a symbolic replica of God’s altar in Shiloh.

because it is a witness between our eyes and your eyes. Far be it from us to rebel against God!” (Joshua 22:28-29).

And Pinchas the priest heard, and the chieftains of the community and the heads of the companies of Israel who were with him, the words that they spoke … and it was good in their eyes. (Joshua 22:30)

Pinchas and his delegation return to Shiloh with their new understanding, and war is averted. Pinchas has indeed become a man of shalom, of peace, wholeness, and well-being.

Did God’s covenant of shalom transform Pinchas because it gave him the responsibilities of a priest?7 Or did it transform him because God’s response shocked him into recognizing his own excessive zeal?

Imitating God’s forgiveness might be a fine strategy, but imitating the murderous zeal of the God-character in the Torah is bad for a human being. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the 19th-century author of Ha’amek Davar, wrote: “Since it was only natural that such a deed as Pinhas’ should leave in his heart an intense emotional unrest afterward, the Divine blessing was designed to cope with this situation and promised peace and tranquility of soul.”8

May all human beings who are overwhelmed by jealousy or anger be transformed like Pinchas —whether by a new responsibility, a new realization, or an inner blessing—into people of shalom.

1  See Deuteronomy 20:2.

2  See 1 Samuel 4:4-5.

3  This oracular device is called urim and/or tummim in Numbers 27:21, 1 Samuel 14:41, and 1 Samuel 28:6; and an eifod in 1 Samuel 23:9-12 and 1 Samuel 30:7-8.  An eifod in the Bible is usually a tabard worn by priests and other attendants on God’s sanctuary: a garment made of two rectangular panels of cloth fastened together at the shoulders and belted around the waist. Exodus 28:6-30 describes the elaborate eifod of the high priest and the choshen tied to its front panel. The choshen is a square pouch with twelve precious stones on the front side. Inside the pouch are the urim and tummim, items that scholars have not yet identified.

4  2 Samuel 17:6, 20:22; Jeremiah 4:19, 6:1, 51:27; Ezekiel 33:6; Amos 3:6.

5  Judges 20:1-48.

6  Numbers 32:1-33.

7  The priesthood was hereditary, so Pinchas, son of the high priest Elazar, son of the high priest Aaron, could expect to be consecrated as a priest eventually. But the Zohar notes that someone who has killed a person is normally disqualified from the priesthood. (Arthur Green in Sefat Emet, The Language of Truth, by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, translation and commentary by Arthur Green, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1998, p. 264)

8  Translation from Ha’amek Davar in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar (Numbers), translated from Hebrew by Aryeh Newman, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1980.

Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1

July 13, 2017 at 3:12 pm | Posted in Balak, Pinchas | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,

And Israel strayed at the acacias, and the people began to be unfaithful [to God] with the daughters of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrificial slaughters of their god, and the people ate and bowed down to their god. And Israel attached itself to Baal Peor, and God’s nose burned against Israel. (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1-3)

The Israelites camp for a while under the shade of acacia trees on the east bluff of the Jordan River, with a view of their “promised land” of Canaan across the water. In last week’s Torah portion, Balak, some local women invite the Israelite people—men and women—to feasts in honor of their god, Baal Peor, and the Israelites accept. (See my post Balak: False Friends.) They bow down to Baal Peor along with their hostesses, perhaps at first out of politeness. But their prostrations become sincere; they end up worshiping Baal Peor. The God of Israel is enraged at their unfaithfulness; in the Biblical Hebrew idiom, God’s nose burns.

This is the second time a large number of Israelites flout one of the Ten Commandments. The first time, at Mount Sinai, they make and worship the golden calf (as an image of the God of Israel), violating the commandment against idols in Exodus/Shemot 20:4. Even after Moses has the Levites kill about 3,000 idol-worshipers, God sends a plague that kills more of them.

The Ten Commandments also include “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). Right after forbidding other gods and idols, God says:

You shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them; because I, God, your god, am a kana god, taking retribution for the crimes of parents upon their children, upon the third and the fourth [generations] of those who hate Me. (Exodus 20:5)

kana (קַנָּא) = jealous, zealous.

In last week’s Torah portion, Balak, many Israelites flagrantly disobey God by worshiping Baal Peor. This time God’s plague kills 24,000 Israelites.

Everyone wants to stop the epidemic—even God. Apparently pestilence is a direct expression of God’s anger (along with the idiomatic burning nose), and God (as portrayed in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar) cannot simply switch off divine anger.

So what can stop the plague? God has the first idea, and tells Moses:

Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them for God in full sunlight. Then the heat of God’s nose will turn away from Israel. (Numbers 25:4)

But Moses, who prefers justice over mass extermination, does not follow God’s suggestion. He  orders a different action to stop God’s anger:

Moses said to the judges of Israel: Each man, execute his men who are attached to Baal Peor. (Numbers 25:5)

The Torah does not say whether Moses’ order is carried out. But in the next verse, a chief from the tribe of Shimon tries another idea for halting the plague.

from Sacra Parallela, Byzantine, 9th century

And hey! An Israelite man came and brought the Midianite close to his brothers, before the eyes of Moses and the eyes of the whole community of the Israelites who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. And Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the Priest, saw it, and he stood up in the midst of the community and he took a spear in his hand. And he entered the kubah after the man of Israel, and he pierced the two of them, the man of Israel and the woman, to kavatah. And the pestilence was held back from the Israelites. (Numbers 25:6-8)

kubah (קֻבָּה) = alcove, small tent. (This word may be related to the Akkadian kabu, a verb for calling upon a god, and/or the Arabic kubatu, a small tent-shrine.)

kavatah (קֳבָתָהּ) = her belly. (The word is probably used here as a pun on kubah.)

The word kubah is not used in any descriptions of the God of Israel’s Tent of Meeting; in fact, it appears only once in the Hebrew Bible. So why is there suddenly a kubah near the entrance of the Tent of Meeting?

The Israelite man, we learn in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, is Zimri son of Salu, a chief of the tribe of Shimon. The Midianite is Kozbi daughter of Tzur, a chief of a tribe of Midian. According to commentator Tikva Fryemer-Kensky, a high-ranking Midianite woman might well be a priestess who sets up her own kubah in the hope that she can stop the plague.1 The religious ritual she uses to invoke her god apparently includes sexual intercourse with Zimri, given the pun about her kubah. Thus Zimri and Kozbi are probably transgressing three of God’s rules at once: worshiping another god, letting a foreigner enter the holy courtyard around the Tent of Meeting, and having intercourse there.2

Although some commentary justifies Pinchas’s violent deed by pointing out that the first two of these rules carry a death penalty, there is no legal trial.3  Pinchas is not an executioner, but someone who murders in the grip of emotion—like God.

Is Pinchas’s action necessary? In other parts of the Torah, God kills individuals instantly when they flout one of God’s rules or decisions.4 But in the Torah portion Balak, God seems to be overpowered by rage, unable to either calm down or attend to anything else.

In the Torah portion Pinchas, God thanks Pinchas.

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the high priest, turned back my rage from the children of Israel through his kina, kina for me in their midst, so I did not finish off the children of Israel in my kina.  Therefore say: Here I am, giving him my covenant of peace.  And it shall be for him, and for his descendants after him, a covenant of priesthood for all time, founded because kinei for his God, so he atoned for the children of Israel.” (Numbers 25:10-13)

kina (קִנְאָ)=  zeal, jealousy, fervor, passion for a cause. (From the same root as kana above.)

kinei (קִנֵּא) = he was zealous, he was jealous.

God recognizes a kindred spirit. Both God and Pinchas act out of kina when someone is unfaithful to God.

Pinchas’s double murder for God’s sake does prevent the deaths of any more Israelites from God’s plague. And murder may be justified if it is the only way to prevent other people from being killed. Does God grant Pinchas a covenant of peace and priesthood as a reward for halting the plague that God is unable to halt?

Or does the covenant modify Pinchas’s kina, giving him an ability to make peace? (See next week’s post, Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2.)

It takes longer for the God character in the bible to master “His” own kina over how “He” is treated by the Israelites. For example, after the Israelites are settled in Canaan, God strikes 70 Israelite villagers dead when they look into the ark, even though they are rejoicing over its return to Israelite territory and worshiping God through animal offerings.5

Eventually God calms down somewhat. When God becomes angry with the Israelites of Judah for worshiping other gods at the temple in Jerusalem, He lets the Babylonian army do the killing. God merely informs the Israelites, through the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that they deserve it.

And in Second Isaiah God finally gives up His kina over the unfaithful Israelites. God promises to take them back with love and never lash out in anger again, despite their infidelity.6

In the western world today we understand jealousy as a natural human emotion, but we caution people not to act out of jealousy, since that often leads to unfortunate or immoral results. On the other hand, we still praise zeal, passionate attachment to a cause.

Yet over the centuries millions of people have been murdered, often in battle, because of zeal for a religion. I pray that more people will question their own beliefs, and stop confusing God with the God-character in the Bible, who kills thousands in uncontrollable fits of rage and kina.

And I pray that all people who are filled with passionate attachment to a cause, even a good cause, will pause and think before taking any action that might harm someone.

May we all become humans of peace.

1  Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, Schocken Books, New York, 2002, pp. 220-222.

2  The Torah prescribes the death penalty for an Israelite sacrificing to any gods other than the God of Israel (Exodus 22: 19 combined with Leviticus 27:29), and for a foreigner approaching the Tent of Meeting (Numbers 3:10). The Israelite religion also forbids semen even in the courtyard around the Tent of Meeting; anyone who has sex must bathe and wait until evening before entering the area (Leviticus 15:16-18).

3  A legal punishment can only be carried out after a trial including the testimony of two witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15). When Moses orders the judges to execute the men who are attached to Baal Peor (Numbers 25:5), he is in effect asking for such trials. Some commentators say Pinchas assumes responsibility for impaling Zimri because God’s plague is raging and the judges of Israel are too slow to act.

4  For example, God employs fire to kill Nadav and Avihu when they bring unauthorized incense into the Tent of Meeting (Leviticus 10:1-2). God makes the earth swallow up  Korach, Datan, and Aviram when they challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:27-33—see my post Korach: Buried Alive). And God inflicts an invisible death (perhaps a stroke or heart attack) on Uzza with when he touches the ark to prevent it from tipping over (2 Samuel 6:6-7—see my post Haftarat Shemini—2 Samuel: A Dangerous Spirit) and on King Achazeyahu after he consults with a foreign god (2 Kings 1:16-17).

5  1 Samuel 6:15, 6:19.

6  Isaiah 54:7-10. See my post Haftarat Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser.

 

Balak: Prophet and Donkey

July 5, 2017 at 9:53 pm | Posted in Balak | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

Bilam appears to be a sorcerer who can bless and curse people, but he is actually a prophet who transmits God’s blessings and curses. Bilam’s donkey1 appears to be an ordinary domestic animal, but she actually knows more than Bilam.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Balak, King Balak of Moab is alarmed by the large Israelite camp on his border. He sends messengers to Bilam, whom he thinks is a professional sorcerer, with this request:

“Now come, please, curse for me this people, because they are too mighty for me. Then perhaps I will be able to strike them and drive them out from the land; for I know whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:6)

God has used Bilam as a prophet so often that Bilam believes he can count on God to speak to him during the night (presumably in a dream). So he tells Balak’s messengers:

“Remain here overnight, and I will bring back to you whatever God speaks to me.”  (Numbers 22:8)

That night, God tells Bilam:

“You shall not go with them.  You shall not curse the people, because it is blessed.” And Bilam got up in the morning and said to the officials of Balak: “Go back to your own country, because God refused to permit me to go with you.” (Numbers 22:12-13)

Bilam fails to mention that God has already blessed the Israelites. When the messengers report to their king, they fail to mention God at all; they simply say:

“Bilam refused to go with us.” (Numbers 22:14)

King Balak assumes Bilam refused only because he did not expect to get paid enough, so he sends a larger and higher-ranking group of officials. His second message promises Bilam:

I will honor you very impressively, and anything that you say to me I will do; just come, please, curse for me this people. (Numbers 22:17)

This time Bilam suggests the payment he would like: the king’s house full of silver and gold. In other words, he wants as much wealth and/or as much honor as a king. But he is at least honest enough to add that he cannot do anything that contradicts God’s command. Then he asks the messengers to stay overnight while he checks with God.

And God came to Bilam at night, and said to him: “If the men came to invite you, get up, go with them. But only the word that I speak to you, shall you do.” And Bilam got up in the morning and saddled his she-donkey and went with the officials of Moab. (Numbers 22:20-21)

Bilam’s silence in the morning is dishonest, since it gives Balak’s messengers the impression that the cursing will take place as requested.

And God vayichar af because he [Bilam] was going, and a messenger of God manifested itself on the road as an accuser for him. (Numbers 22:22)

vayichar (וַיִּחַר) = and he/it became glowing hot.

af (אַף) = nose, nostril.

vayichar af (וַיִּחַר אַף) = and his nose burned: an idiom meaning “and he became angry”.

God gives Bilam permission to go to Moab, but God is angry when he goes. Perhaps God disapproves of Bilam’s lying by omission, or of his greed for a payment he is unlikely to receive.2

Three times a messenger of God (i.e. an angel), manifests on the road to Moab. Who sees the divine apparition? Not Bilam, the prophet and would-be sorcerer; not his two human servants; but only his donkey. Bilam has only heard God’s voice at night, but his donkey sees God’s angel in broad daylight.

Each time Bilam’s donkey sees an angel with a drawn sword in the middle of the road, she refuses to go forward. The first time she runs off into a field, the second time the road lies between walls and she presses Bilam’s foot against the stones, and the third time the way is so narrow she lies down in the middle of the road. Each time Bilam beats his donkey, unable to see the reason for her behavior. The third time, the Torah describes the beating:

…and she lay down underneath Bilam, and Bilam vayichar af and he beat the she-donkey with the stick. (Numbers 22:27)

Then god opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and she said to Bilam: “What have I done to you that you beat me these three times?” And Bilam said to his she-donkey: “Because you made a fool of me!  If only there were a sword in my hand, I would kill you now!” (Numbers 20:28-29)

Bilam has been beating his donkey out of pride. With his servants and possibly King Balak’s officials watching him, he wants to look as if he is in control of his animal. In fact, his donkey is in control of where Bilam goes, and the donkey sees God’s messenger—with a sword in its hand, ready to kill Bilam!

by Rembrandt, 1626

And the she-donkey said to Bilam: “Am I not your she-donkey, upon whom you have ridden all your life until this day?  Have I really been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he said: “No.” (Numbers 22:30)

The donkey says “all your life”, not “all my life”, even though the average life-span of a working donkey is 15 years in developing countries (a category that applies to all countries in biblical times). While Bilam’s age is not given in the story, he is a man who has developed a reputation, so he is too old to have been riding the same donkey his whole life.  The donkey’s words are a clue that the donkey is not just a talking animal; she also represents a part of Bilam.

Though he enjoys hearing God speak in the dark, Bilam is only a human being, and he cannot do anything without his animal: his body. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Bilam rides a she-donkey; in Biblical Hebrew, the word nefesh, which means both an individual body and the soul that animates the body, is feminine.

When Bilam answers his donkey with the word “No”, he both recognizes the truth and humbles himself before the animal he rides.

Then God uncovered the eyes of Bilam, and he saw the messenger of God standing in the road, and its drawn sword was in its hand.  Then he knelt down, and he bowed down le-apav.  (Numbers 22:31)

le-apav (לְאַפָּיו) = to his nostrils, to his nose. (A form of af.)

Bowing down to his nose is an idiom for making a full prostration, indicating his humility and submission before God’s messenger. But it also implies Bilam is surrendering his own “hot nose”, his own anger.

Then God speaks through the divine messenger and explains that the donkey saved Bilam’s life three times. If the donkey had not shied away from the angel, God would have killed Bilam—but spared the donkey.

After that humbling experience, Bilam becomes a better prophet. He is more direct and honest; as soon as he meets King Balak, he warns his employer that he can speak only the word God puts into his mouth. And now God speaks to Bilam in the daylight, and even gives him prophetic visions.

Of course all three times Bilam attempts to curse the Israelites, God makes praise and blessings come out of his mouth. And his employer, King Balak, is enraged.

Balak, vayichar af at Bilam …and Balak said to Bilam: “To curse my enemies I called you, and hey! You kept on blessing them, these three times!  So now run away to your own place! I said I would honor you impressively, but hey! God held you back from honor.”

King Balak dismisses Bilam rudely and without payment. But Bilam no longer seeks honor from other people. Now he knows that seeking wealth or fame blinds him to God’s message, and he is a prophet.  He responds to Balak only by pronouncing another prophecy—one that includes Israel defeating Moab. Then, unrewarded by either wealth or status,

Bilam got up and went and returned to his own place. (Numbers 24:25)

*

Personally, I resent being humbled by my donkey.  All too often I set off on what looks to me like a rewarding path, assuming I can do what I want—only to find that my body refuses to carry me. My chronic pain increases and my energy flags. If I try to whip my body into doing my will by drinking too much coffee, for example, my body starts lying down underneath me.

These days I find myself getting a “hot nose” less and less often, thank God. I am trying to pay attention to my own donkey. I am slowly giving up my desire for recognition and honor, knowing that I am still blessed with the ability to do my calling, as long as I listen to both my God and my donkey.

Who knows, if I learn enough humility, maybe someday my eyes will be uncovered and I’ll see a messenger of God in the road! But I’m not planning on it.  It’s enough to learn how to get along with this faithful donkey whom I’ve been riding all my life.

1  “Donkey” and “ass” are two words for the same species of equine animal. In Hebrew, a she-donkey, or jenny, is an aton (אָתוֹן).

2  According to Ramban (3th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman or Nachmanides), God was angry at Bilam for leaving without telling Balak’s messengers everything God had said, and for hoping that he might be able to curse Israel after all.

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

Chukkat: The Price of Silence

June 28, 2017 at 1:20 pm | Posted in Chukkat | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , ,

Miriam dies while the Israelites are camped in the wilderness of Tzin in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (Law). Then the people complain, once again, that Moses brought them from Egypt into the wilderness only so they and their livestock would die of hunger and thirst.1 Moses and Aaron both throw themselves on their faces. (See last week’s post, Korach: Face Down.)

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Take the staff and assemble the community, you and your brother Aaron. Vedibartem to the rock, before their eyes, and it will give its water.  Vehotzeita for them water from the rock, vehishkita the community and their livestock.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:7-8)

vedibartem (וְדִבַּרְתֶּם) = and you (plural) shall speak (i.e. both Moses and Aaron shall speak).

vehotzeita (וְהוֹצֵאתָ) = and you (singular) shall bring forth (i.e. Moses shall bring forth).

vehishkita (וְהִשְׁקִיתָ) = and you (singular) shall provide drink to.

Moses Strikes the Rock,
by James Tissot

God apparently wants Moses and Aaron to use the staff only to assemble the community, not to trigger the miracle—unlike 39 years before, when God told Moses to bring water from a rock by striking it with his staff. 2

Once the people are assembled, (both) Moses and Aaron are supposed to speak to the rock. As a result, Moses (alone) will bring forth water. Did a careless scribe mix up the plural and singular verb suffixes? Or is God making a deliberate distinction between what both brothers should do and what only Moses is responsible for?

And Moses took the staff from in front of God, as [God] had commanded him. (Numbers 20:9)

Only Moses takes the staff “from in front of God”, i.e. out of the Tent of Meeting.  This is the staff with Aaron’s name written on it. In the previous Torah portion, Korach, the leader of each tribe lends his staff to Moses, who writes the leader’s name on it. 3  Moses leaves the twelve staffs in the Tent of Meeting overnight (Numbers 17:17-21). In the morning, Aaron’s staff has bloomed and produced almonds, proving that God has chosen him (Numbers 17:22-23). (See my post Korach: Early and Late Bloomers.)

Moses returns the unaltered staffs to the tribe leaders, but follows God’s instructions to put Aaron’s staff back in the Tent as a sign for the “children of mutineers”—the next generation. (Numbers 17:25). Showing the complainers this staff would remind them that God gave authority to the tribe of Levi, whose leaders are Aaron and Moses.

And Moses and Aaron assembled the assembly in front of the rock, and he said to them: “Listen up, mutineers!  Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” (Numbers 20:10)

Moses brings out the staff, but both Moses and Aaron assemble the Israelites, as instructed. Next both Moses and Aaron are supposed to speak to the rock. Instead, Moses speaks to the Israelites. Losing his patience, he implies that he and Aaron have the power to bring water out of the rock. He does not mention God.

Moses Striking the Rock,
by Marc Chagall

And Moses raised his hand and he struck the rock twice with his staff.  And abundant water came forth, and the community and their livestock drank. (Numbers 20:11)

Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses hits it with the staff—just as he did at another waterless camp 39 years earlier, following God’s directions.4  Now God has changed the directions, but Moses does what worked last time. The Torah now says it is his staff.

Why does the miracle occur anyway? Maybe the staff retains some power from its miraculous blossoming in the Torah portion Korach. 12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra suggested that Moses has become able to do small miracles by himself. Or maybe God is covering for Moses, so the people will continue to follow him.

But will the people follow Moses because he is God’s prophet, or because they believe he has power of his own? Even though God let the miracle proceed, God is not amused.

And God said to Moses and to Aaron: “Because lo he-emantem in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Israelites, therefore lo taviyu this assembly to the land that I have given to them.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:12)

lo he-emantem (לֺא הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם) = you (plural) did not believe, have faith, put trust.

lo taviyu (לֺא תָבִיאוּ) = you (plural) shall not lead.

Only Moses hits the rock, yet God accuses both men of failing to trust God and therefore failing to increase the Israelites’ awe of God. So God decrees the same punishment for both Moses and Aaron.

Commentators have generated many different reasons why God decides to punish Moses. (David Kasher presented 18 of them in his ParshaNut post on Chukkat in 2015.)  But why does God also punish Aaron?

Here is what we know about Aaron’s actions during this episode:

1) When the Israelites complain, both Moses and Aaron throw themselves on their faces. Although God addresses Moses, commentators assume that Aaron also heard God’s instructions.

2) After Moses brings the staff with Aaron’s name on it out of the Tent of Meeting, both Moses and Aaron assemble the people in front of the rock, as instructed.

3) Aaron stands by silently as Moses says: “Listen up, mutineers!  Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Unlike Moses, Aaron does not lose his temper. He does not say that he and Moses will make a miracle. On the other hand, he fails to mention God’s name after Moses omits it.

4) Aaron watches silently while Moses strikes the rock twice with Aaron’s staff. He does not try to stop Moses. He does not speak to the rock himself, even though God asked him, as well as Moses, to do so.

Apparently God blames him for his silence and inaction.  God refrained from punishing Aaron after he made the Golden Calf 5, but now God punishes him for doing nothing.

God announces Aaron’s immanent death later in this week’s Torah portion:

God said to Moses and to Aaron at Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom: “Aaron will be gathered to his people [here]; for he will not come into the land that I have given to the Israelites, because meritem My word concerning the water at Merivah.”  (Numbers 20:23-24)

meritem (מְרִיתֶם) = you (plural) mutinied against, rebelled against. (A form of the word that Moses called the Israelites: morim, מֺרִים = mutineers, rebels.)

Moses mutinies through his speech to the Israelites and through his action in hitting the rock.  Aaron mutinies through silence and inaction.

Who can blame Aaron for letting the great prophet Moses take the lead, as usual, and making no effort to correct him?

God can, and does.

In my own life, I often wonder when to speak up and when to be silent. Writing a letter to your congressman is not like sitting next to a person in authority who is doing the wrong thing—perhaps while holding a staff with your name on it.  This Torah portion demonstrates that if you know what is right, then you must speak up, or you are equally guilty.

But how and when to speak is seldom clear.

May all of us be blessed with the ability to know when the situation is so urgent and important we must speak immediately, in public; when it is better to wait and speak in private or at another time; and when it is better to be silent.

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

1  When the Israelites camp at Refidim, between the Reed Sea and Mount Sinai, they complain that there is no water, and that Moses brought them from Egypt into the wilderness only so they and their livestock would die of thirst (Exodus/Shemot 17:1-3).

2 At Refidim, when the Israelites complain about the lack of water, God tells Moses to hit a rock, using “your staff with which you struck the Nile” (Exodus 17:5). This is also the staff God uses to perform a demonstration miracle at the burning bush (Exodus 4:2-4), and both Moses and Aaron use to trigger God’s miracles in Egypt (Exodus 7:9-10:13) and the parting of the Reed Sea (Exodus 14:16).

After everyone drinks the water from the rock at Refidim, the people name the spot Massah-u-Merivah, “Trial and Strife” (Exodus 17:7). In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, God identifies the new spot where Moses hits the rock as Merivah, “strife” (Numbers 20:13, 20:24).

3  After Refidim (Exodus 17:5), no staff is mentioned until the Torah portion Korach. The Torah does not say whether Aaron’s staff in the portion Korach is the same as the staff both brothers used in the book of Exodus.

4  Exodus 17:6.

5  Exodus 32:1-6.

 

Korach: Face Down

June 21, 2017 at 11:29 am | Posted in Chukkat, Korach, Shelach-Lekha | 1 Comment
Tags: , ,

Moses falls on his face three times in this week’s Torah portion, Korach—and each time, he does it on purpose.

The Torah portion begins with a Levite named Korach challenging his cousins Moses and Aaron. Standing with him are three rebels from the tribe of Reuben and 250 prestigious men (described first as chieftains, then as Levites for the rest of the story).

And they assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and they said to them: “You have too much! Because all the congregation, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves over the assembly of God?” Moses listened. Vayipol on his face. (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:3-4)

Vayipol (ו־יּפֺּל) = Then he fell (by accident or on purpose), then he threw himself down.

Why does Moses suddenly drop to the ground, face down?

*

Bowing to Hamaan

The Hebrew Bible refers to prostration in two ways: nofeil al panav (נֺפֵל עַל פָּנָיו, falling on one’s face) and mishtachaveh (מִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה, bowing low). Mishtachaveh could be to anything from a deep standing bow, to kneeling and putting one’s forehead to the floor, to stretching out full length. It is a formal and deliberate act in the Torah, signifying deference, obeisance, or worship. Extrabiblical sources confirm that mishtachaveh was required before kings and other persons of authority in ancient Egyptian and Persian courts. In the Bible, Joseph’s brothers bow down to Joseph when he is an Egyptian viceroy,1 and when Hamaan is the Persian viceroy all the king’s employees except Mordecai bow down to him.2

Falling on one’s face, or throwing oneself down onto one’s face, is a more dramatic prostration. People fall on their faces 27 times in Hebrew Bible3:

—7 times before another person, as an expression of submission4,

—11 times before a manifestation of God, from being overcome with awe5, and

—9 times in order to initiate communication with God.6

Only Abraham, Joshua, Ezekiel (twice), and Moses (once by himself and four times with Aaron) are brave enough to initiate communication with God. They want God to speak to them directly and answer their question and/or tell them what to do next. To grab God’s attention, they have to do something more dramatic than a formal prostration.

Moses first falls on his face in last week’s portion, Shelach-Lekha. The Israelites have been weeping all night in despair of taking over Canaan, and they decide to choose a new leader and go back to Egypt. In the morning,

Vayipol, Moses and Aaron, on their faces in front of the whole assembly of the community of Israelites. (Numbers 14:5)

Stoning, from a sketch by Piola Domenico, 17th century

Some commentators7 propose that Moses and Aaron are prostrating themselves to the Israelites as a silent gesture pleading for them to change their minds. I cannot agree. Moses may be humble, but nowhere else in the bible does someone in authority bow down or fall on his face to someone under his own supervision. It is Joshua and Caleb who use a silent gesture to plead with the Israelites, tearing their clothes as mourners do. Then Joshua and Caleb try verbal persuasion, while Moses and Aaron remain silent. I believe Moses and Aaron fling themselves down and wait for God to respond. God finally manifests just in time to stop the Israelites from stoning Joshua and Caleb.

*

Moses gets a faster response when he throws himself on his face at the opening of this week’s Torah portion. Although God’s words are not recorded, God apparently tells Moses what to do about Korach’s challenge, because Moses then tells Korach and his men there will be a divine test.

“Do this: Take for yourselves fire-pans, Korach and all his company. And you shall place embers in them, and put incense on them, in front of God tomorrow. And the man who, God chooses, he is the holy one.” (Numbers 16:6-7)

The next morning, when Korach and his 250 Levites arrive at the Tent of Meeting with their fire-pans and incense, God tells Moses and Aaron to stand at a safe distance while God annihilates the challengers. This time Moses and Aaron fall on their faces in order to get God to listen to them.

Vayiplu [Moses and Aaron] on their faces, and they said: “God, God of the spirits of all flesh, one man is guilty, and you rage against the whole community? (Numbers 16:22)

Vayiplu (וַיִּפְּלוּ) = and they fell, and they threw themselves down. (Another form of the verb nafal, נָפַל.)

The action suddenly shifts to where three ringleaders—the Ruevenites Datan and Aviram, and the Levite Korach—are standing defiantly at the entrances of their own tents. God instructs Moses to tell everyone to stand back from the three tents. Then God makes the earth swallow the tents, the three ringleaders, and their families.

In a thoroughly edited story8, the reader might now expect God to respond to Moses and Aaron’s plea by pardoning the 250 Levites who had stood with Korach. Instead, the action hops back to the story of the Levite rebellion:

And fire went out from God and it consumed the 250 men offering the incense. (Numbers 16:35)

The next day all the Israelites protest against Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the death of 253 people.

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Get up away from the midst of this community, and I will consume them in an instant.”  Vayiplu on their faces.  Then Moses said to Aaron: “Take the incense pan and place fire on it from the altar, and put in incense, and go quickly to the community and atone for them, because the rage has gone out from before God.  The affliction has begun.”  (Numbers 17:9-11)

Instead of following God’s order and running away, Moses and Aaron throw themselves down on their faces. This time they catch God in the middle of slaughtering the Israelites with a fast-acting disease. But Moses finds out how to stop the epidemic, and Aaron’s incense does the trick. If they had not fallen on their faces, perhaps God would have wiped out everyone.

Moses and Aaron fall on their faces one more time, in next week’s Torah portion, Chukkat. The Israelites are complaining that there is no water to drink.

And Moses and Aaron moved from facing the assembly to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, vayiplu on their faces, and the glory of God appeared. (Numbers 20:6)

They get God’s attention, and God gives Moses instructions for getting water from a rock.

*

Thus Moses throws himself down on his face both to ask God for instructions, and to persuade God to do something different.  Falling on his face gets God’s attention and indicates humility before God. But it also means dropping his own pride and external identity—losing face, in a way. This helps Moses to reopen communication with God.

Today worshipers in many religions use gestures of humility in prayer such as bowing or kneeling, and some even perform prostrations.  But these gestures fall short of the passionate abandon of flinging oneself face-down.

Would falling on our faces help us to get answers from God?

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

1  Genesis 42:6, 43:26, 43:28.

2  Esther 3:2.

3  There are also two occasions when an idol of the Philistine god Dagon falls on its face. The Philisties of Ashdod capture the ark of the God of Israel and put it in their temple of Dagon. For two mornings in a row, when they enter the temple, they discover: Hey! Dagon nofeil (נֺפֵל = is fallen) to his face to the ground before the ark of God! (1 Samuel 5:3, 5:4).

4  People fall on their faces to express submission to David in 1 Samuel 17:49 and 25:23; and 2 Samuel 9:6, 14:22, and 14:33.  The lesser prophet Ovadiah falls on his face before Elijah in surprise and obeisance in 1 Kings 18:7.  Ruth falls on her face before her benefactor Boaz in Ruth 2:10.

5  People fall on their faces before a manifestation of God as a vision (Ezekiel 1:28, 3:23, 43:3, and 44:4; Daniel 8:17; and 1 Chronicles 21:16), a supernatural fire (Leviticus 9:24, I Kings 18:39), or a man who turns out to be an angel (Joshua 5:14, Judges 13:20). In 2 Chronicles 20:18, the people throw themselves on their faces before God after someone utters an unexpected prophecy.

6  Abraham only falls on his face before God once; the result is that God speaks again and gives him further information (Genesis 17:3). Joshua and the elders of Israel fall face down in front of the ark in order to get God to speak to them (Joshua 7:10). Twice, in his visions, Ezekiel throws himself on his face before speaking to God (Ezekiel 9:8, 11:13).

7  E.g. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 750, and Ramban (the acronym for 13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a.k.a. Nachmanides).

8  The text provides two different responses from God because this Torah portion combines two original stories: one about a rebellion by two or three leaders in the tribe of Reuben, and one about a challenge from Korach on behalf of all Levites, who take care of the Tent of Meeting but are excluded from serving as priests.

 

Shelach-Lekha: Reminder

June 14, 2017 at 8:34 pm | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , ,

Living in the present is hard. Even when humans have a plan for the future, we crave knowledge of what benefits and obstacles we will encounter. The more we believe we know about what lies ahead, the more secure we feel—unless the new information makes us panic.

The Israelites reach Kadesh Barnea, on the southern border of Canaan, at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”). God tells Moses to send scouts to bring back advance knowledge for the people.

“Send for yourself men, veyaturu the land of Canaan which I am giving to the Israelites. Send one man for each tribe of their fathers, each a leader among them.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:2)

veyaturu (וְיָתֻרוּ) = and they shall scout out, reconnoiter, wander around and investigate. (A form of the verb tur, תּוּר.)

God does not say what aspects of the land the twelve representatives should investigate. Moses gives them more detailed instructions, addressing first the people’s insecurity about how hard it will be to overcome the indigenous population, then their insecurity about how well they can live in Canaan.

And Moses sent them latur the land of Canaan, and he said to them: “Go up this way through the Negev, and you shall go up into the hill-country. And you shall see the land: what it is and the people who are dwelling on it. Are they strong or feeble, are they few or many? And what is the land where they are dwelling? Is it good or is it bad? And what are the towns where they are dwelling? Are they open camps, or fortified places? And what is the land? Is it fat or is it thin? Are there trees, or none?” (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:17-20)

latur (לָתוּר) = to scout out, reconnoiter, wander around and investigate. (Also a form of the verb tur, תּוּר.)

Scouts return with produce

All twelves scouts return with glowing reports about the fertility of the land, but ten out of twelve describe the towns of the hill-country to the north as large and fortified, and its residents as mighty giants. These ten scouts frighten most of the Israelites and their fellow-travelers into abandoning the commitment they made when they followed the God of Moses out of Egypt, and calling for a return to Egypt.

Then the scouts Joshua and Caleb say:

Only do not rebel against God, and you need not fear the people the land, because they are our food!1  Their protection has left them, but God is with us.  Do not fear them! (Numbers 14:9)

The crowd reaches for stones to throw at the two scouts. They stop only because God’s glory appears (probably as cloud or fire, the usual manifestations). God decrees that they must stay in the wilderness for another 39 years. When they decide to cross into Canaan anyway, perhaps hoping to change God’s mind, they are defeated in battle. (See my post Shelach-Lekha: Too Late.)

The Torah portion closes with God giving more instructions about animal offerings, declaring a death sentence for a man gathering wood on Shabbat, and ordering the Israelites to wear fringes on the corners of their garments. According to some modern scholars, these three passages were written by different scribes and inserted into the main story by a later redactor.2

However, I believe the teaching about the fringes offers a solution to the human tendency revealed by the story of the scouts. When potentially adverse information makes our plan look iffy, we refuse to move forward with it, because we do not trust ourselves, our fellow humans, or “God” (which might mean the mastermind of the universe, fate, the deep soul, or something else). Instead we tend to panic and clutch at a less reasonable alternative plans—especially if they are seductive, like the Israelites’ false memories of security and plentiful food in Egypt.

Tzitzit

At the end of the Torah portion, God tells Moses:

Speak to the Israelites, and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves tzitzit on the kenafayim of their begadim through their generations, and place on the tzitzit of the kanaf a thread of tekheilet.  And it shall be a tzitzit for you, and you shall look at it and you shall remember all the commandments of God and you shall do them; and lo taturu after your heart or after your eyes, after that which seduces you. Thus you shall remember and do all My commandments, and you shall become holy to your God. (Numbers 15:38-40)

tzitzit (צִיצִת) = fringe(s), tassel(s), tuft(s). (From the same root as tzitz, צִיצ = flower, bud; the gold medallion on the high priest’s forehead. See my post Tetzavveh: Holy Flower.)

kenafayim (כְּנָפַיִם) = plural of kanaf (כָּנָף) = wing, corner, edge, hem, skirt.

begadim (בְּגָדִים) = plural of beged (בּגֶד) = clothing, garment, outer wrapping; unfaithfulness, treachery.

Wool dyed
with tekheilet

tekheilet (תְּכֵלֶת) = blue dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail. (The cord fastening the tzitz to the high priest’s forehead is dyed tehkeilet, as are parts of the curtains of the Tent of Meeting, and cloths that cover the holy ark, table, lampstand, and incense altar when they are moved. See my post Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred.)

lo taturu (lo, לֺא = not + taturu, תָתֻרוּ = another form of the verb tur, תּוּר.) = you shall not scout out, reconnoiter, wander around investigating.

On a simple level, God asks people—from the Israelites on the border of Canaan down through the generations to Jews today—to attach fringes that include blue threads to the corner hems of their clothing. We must look at them, and remember all the divine rules we are supposed to follow. Then instead of carrying out whatever fantasy pops up in our hearts, or succumbing to whatever temptation we see in the world, we will remember God and follow the rules, thereby becoming holy people.

On a more poetic level, God asks people to make flowers of thread reminiscent of the flower of gold on the high priest’s forehead. Each thread flower must include a thread dyed the same blue as the cord around the high priest’s head and the cloth used for the sanctuary. These reminders of holiness shall be like wings, lifting us away from our outer covering of unfaithfulness to our God. When we look at our tzitzit, we shall want to become holy people, so we shall follow God’s rules instead of straying after temporary seductions.

When I pray the morning service, I look at the tzitzit on the corners of my prayer shawl when I first put it on, and at several points in the daily prayer service when holding up tzitzit is customary. Following Jewish tradition, I kiss my tzitzit when I read out the passage from Numbers 15:37-41, from the end of this week’s Torah portion.

Is this reminder enough to make me faithful to God? Maybe not to the God of Israel, since I do not follow most of the rules that observant Orthodox Jews follow. But looking at the tzitzit does remind me not to panic when I receive upsetting information regarding the possible future. It reminds me to move forward anyway, keeping my commitments to myself, to my fellow human beings, and to the “God” that I am grounded in. It reminds me that what happens to me is not as important as how well I behave.

May we all find more ways to be mindful, so that when panic threatens we will remind ourselves of the deep commitments that give our lives meaning, and rise toward the holiness of being steadfast in our dedication to the good.

1  They are our food” is an idiom meaning: They are helpless against us, we can eat them up as a predator eats its prey.

2  One example is Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 203, pp. 266-268.

Beha-alotkha: Father-in-Law

June 7, 2017 at 12:58 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Shemot, Yitro | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , ,

When the Israelites strike camp at the end of almost a year at Mount Sinai1, we discover that a Midianite named Chovav has been camping with them. This week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you bring up”), says:

And Moses said to Chovav, the son of Reueil the Midianite, the father-in-law of Moses:  “We are journeying to the place of which God said:  I will give it to you.  Go with us, and we will do good for you, because God has spoken of [doing] good for Israel.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 10:29)

Mount Sinai, Elijah Walton,
19th century

Chovav (חֺבָב) = One who loves.  (From the verb choveiv (חֺבֵב) = loving.)

Reu-eil (רְעוּאֵל) = Friend of God. Rei-eh (רֵעֶה) = friend + Eil (אֵל) = God.

The syntax is ambiguous in the original Hebrew, as it is in the English translation.  Is Moses’ father-in-law Chovav or Reu-eil?

The name “Chovav” appears only in one other place in the Hebrew Bible:

And Chever the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, from the descendants of Chovav, the father-in-law of Moses, and he pitched his tent as far as the great tree in Tzaananim… (Judges 4:11)

This verse clearly identifies Chovav as Moses’ father-in-law.  Yet when Moses gets married in the book of Exodus/Shemot, his father-in-law seems to be Reu-eil.

The Midiante priest,
Bible Moralisee, 13th century

A priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came [to the well] and drew and filled the watering-troughs to water their father’s flock. Then the shepherds came and drove them away. And Moses stood up and saved them and watered their flock. And they came back to Reueil, their father … (Exodus/Shemot 2:16-18)

Medieval commentators and modern scholars have generated many explanations for this discrepancy.2 I believe the difference between “Reu-eil” in Exodus and “son of Reu-eil” in Numbers is a scribal error.

Both early commentators and modern scholars identify Chovav as another name for Yitro, who is called Moses’ father-in-law ten times in the book of Exodus. But if Chovav is Moses’ father-in-law, what motivates Moses to invite him to journey with the Israelites to Canaan?

Moses meets his future father-in-law when he is a young man fleeing Egypt. He stops to rest by a well in Midian territory, and comes to the aid of the seven daughters of the priest of Midian called Reu-eil. The young women tell their father what happened, and he invites Moses to dinner.

And Moses agreed to stay with the man, and he gave his daughter Tzipporah to Moses. (Exodus/
Shemot 2:21)

The purpose of the marriage seems to be to tie Moses to the family as the priest’s son-in-law. Moses shepherds for him, and gives him two grandsons. The Midianite priest apparently has no sons of his own, since they do not help with the flock.

In the next story in the book of Exodus, Moses’ father-in-law is named Yitro.

And Moses was tending the flock of Yitro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he guided the flock behind the wilderness and came to the mountain of God… (Exodus 3:1)

Yitro (יִתְרוֹ) = his yeter (יֶתֶר) = remainder, surplus. (Yitro is usually translated in English as Jethro.)

Moses has a long conversation with God at the burning bush, then asks his father-in-law for permission to go back to Egypt to see how his relatives are doing there. Yitro wisely tells him to “go in peace”.3 Moses takes his wife and children, then sends them back to Yitro before he reaches Egypt. (See my post Yitro: Degrees of Separation.)

After the exodus from Egypt, as soon as Moses and the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai, Yitro stages a family reunion.

And Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses …said to Moses: “I, your father-in-law Yitro, am coming to you, and your wife and her two sons with her.” And Moses went to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed down and he kissed him, and each man asked about his fellow’s well-being, and they entered the tent. (18:5-7)

Yitro Advises Moses,
Figures de la Bible,1728

Moses completely ignores his wife and children, but he welcomes his father-in-law. Yitro says the God of Israel is the greatest of all gods, and burns an animal offering for God.4 The next morning, Yitro tells Moses how to delegate his workload and set up a judicial system for the Israelites.

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

Moses and Yitro part on good terms, but Moses does not press his father-in-law to stay. Yitro leaves Moses’s wife and sons behind.

Over the next eleven months at Mount Sinai, Moses receives the Ten Commandments (twice) as well as many more laws. He has people killed for worshiping the Golden Calf, and he supervises the creation of the portable tent-sanctuary and the holy items in it. Finally, in this week’s Torah portion, everything is organized for the journey to the border of Canaan. Then Moses suddenly asks Chovav to come with them. Apparently his father-in-law returned to Mount Sinai for another visit; it was not a long journey from his home.

He [Chovav] said to him:  “I will not go, because I would go to my land, to my kindred.”(Numbers 10:30)

Then he [Moses] said:  “Please do not forsake us, because you know how we camp in the wilderness, and you can be eyes for us.  And if you go with us, then by that goodness with which God does for us, we will be good to you.” (Numbers 10:31-32)

Moses gives Chovav two reasons to travel with the Israelites: to help them navigate the wilderness, and to receive a share of the land that God promised to give them in Canaan.

Transporting the ark

What kind of help do the Israelites need? “You can be eyes for us” might be a request for Chovav to scout ahead for the best routes and camping places. But then the Torah says the ark itself is their scout.

And they set out from the mountain of God on a journey of three days, and the ark of the covenant of God set out in front of them on a journey of three days to scout out a resting place for them. And the cloud of God was over them by day, when they set out from the camp. (Numbers 10:33-34)

Earlier in this week’s Torah portion, we get a preview of the Israelites’ departure.

the cloud was taken up from over the Dwelling Place of the testimony, so the Israelites set out for their journeys away from the wilderness of Sinai. And the cloud stopped in the wilderness of Paran. (Numbers 10:11-12)

This cloud hovers over the Tent of Meeting when the ark is in residence.5 Now we learn that when the Israelites travel, the cloud travels with them. It may even lead them, as God’s pillar of cloud and fire did when they traveled from Egypt to Mount Sinai.

Whether the cloud or the ark is doing the scouting, the Israelites do not seem to need Chovav as a guide. Rashi6 proposed an alternate meaning of you know how we camp in the wilderness, and you can be eyes for us: if anything occurs that Moses and the elders do not understand, Chovav could enlighten them. In that case, perhaps Moses begs his father-in-law to go with him because he remembers how the man enlightened him about delegating judicial authority. Since then, the incident of the Golden Calf might have made Moses even less confident that he could handle everything himself.

There is no transition between Moses’ second plea to Chovav (Numbers 10:31-32) and the announcement that the Israelites set out with guidance from the ark and the cloud (Numbers 10:33-34). The Torah does not tell us whether Chovav changes his mind and accompanies his son-in-law and the Israelites after all. I imagine he is torn between his duties as a father and a priest of Midian, and his deep affection for his son-in-law.

Yitro adopts Moses into his family when he is homeless. When Moses arrives at Mount Sinai with thousands of Israelites, his father-in-law comes, embraces him, and gives him good advice. When Moses leaves for Canaan, he begs his father-in-law to come with him.

Perhaps it is Moses who gives Yitro the name Chovav, “one who loves”. He has cherished his father-in-law’s love, and wants it to continue.

1  The Israelites and their fellow-travelers arrive at Mount Sinai in the third month after leaving Egypt (Exodus 19:1-2) and leave Mount Sinai for Canaan on the twentieth day of the second month of the second year after leaving Egypt (Numbers 10:11-12).

2  Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), Ibn Ezra (12th-century rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra), and Ramban (13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a.k.a. Nachmanides), explained that Moses’ father-in-law was called Yitro until he decided to worship only the God of Israel4, and then his name was changed to Chovav—according to Ramban3, because he “loved” God’s teaching. Reueil was actually Yitro’s father, but Tzipporah and her sisters also called their grandfather “Father”.

A common modern theory is that the story of Moses’ marriage in Exodus 2:16-21 was written by the “J” source, someone from the southern kingdom of Judah, who thought of Moses’ father-in-law as Reueil.  The other three stories in Exodus that include Moses’ father-in-law were written by the “E” source, someone from the northern kingdom of Israel, who thought of the man as Yitro. The redactor who compiled the book of Exodus from these two sources left in both names. (See Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 2003.)

3  Exodus 4:18.

4  The classic commentators cite Exodus 18:11-12 as proof of Yitro’s “conversion”. I suspect that the Midianite priest was already familiar with the God of Israel, and may have pointed out Mount Sinai to Moses, since it was in Yitro’s territory.

5  Exodus 40:36-37.

6  Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.

Naso: Distanced by Hair

May 31, 2017 at 11:43 am | Posted in Naso | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , ,

A man suspects his wife of adultery, and takes her to the temple to test her with a magic ritual.

A man or woman takes a vow to live as a holy ascetic and avoid wine.

What do the instructions for the sotah1 (the wife suspected of adultery) have in common with the instructions for the nazir (the holy ascetic)—besides that they appear in the same Torah portion, Naso (“Lift it”)? One answer is:  unbound hair.

The ordeal to establish the guilt or innocence of a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery begins with the priest unbinding the woman’s hair.

And the priest shall make the woman stand before God, and para the head of the woman. Then he shall place upon her palms the grain-offering of the reminding: it is the grain-offering of jealousies. And the water of the bitterness of the cursings shall be in the hand of the priest. (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:18)

para (פָּרַע) = let loose, remove from restraint, let go wild and uncontrolled. (For a head of hair, para = unbind, unbraid.)

The ordeal turns on what happens when wife drinks the magic water in the priest’s hand. (See my post Naso: Ordeal of Trust.) But the first step is to unbind the suspected woman’s hair. The Torah does not say whether married women before the time of the Second Temple bound their hair in cloth, or merely put up their hair in braids or pins. Either way, a wife was probably shamed if her hair came down in public.2

Loose hair marks the suspected wife as outside normal society, at least for the duration of the ordeal. In normal situations both men and women in the Torah restrain their hair in public. The only people who appear in public with unbound or uncovered hair are the mourner3, the metzora (someone afflicted with a certain disease) 4, the sotah, and the nazir.

Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: Any man or woman who vows the extraordinary vow of a nazir, lehazir for God: From wine or alcohol yazir … (Numbers 6:2-3)

nazir (נָזִיר) = someone dedicated for a period of time to devotion to God through abstaining from the usual norms for hair, wine, and mourning. (Plural nezirim, נְזִרִים. From the root nazar, נזר = separated, consecrated.)

lehazir (לְהַזִּיר) = to separate oneself through abstention; to live as a nazir. (From the root nazar.)

yazir (יַזִּיר) = he shall abstain. (From the root nazar.)

Nezerim must abstain not only from drinking any form of alcohol, but also from consuming any grape products. They must avoid all contact with any corpses—even if a family member dies. But even as they restrain themselves from drinking or mourning, they must let their hair grow unrestrained.

All the days of his vow of nizro, no blade shall pass over his head; until the fulfillment of the days that yazir to God,  his big, pera head of hair will be holy to God.  (Numbers 6:5)

nizro (נִזְרוֹ) = his dedication to undertaking the abstentions of a nazir. (From the root nazar.)

pera (פֶּּרַע) = unbound, loose, unrestrained, wild and out of control. (From the verb para; see above.)

Nezirim choose to set themselves apart from normal society for a period of time, like ascetics in other cultures. (See my post Haftarat Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer.) Israelite ascetics, unlike those in most cultures, do not leave their community or their family; but they do follow different rules regarding hair, wine, and corpses.

The unconventional hair of nezirim is a visible sign that they must be treated differently in society—perhaps with extra consideration for the thoughts that absorb them, as the Israelites in the Torah, and Jews today, treat people who are visibly mourning. Similarly, they are distanced from the rest of society by avoiding not only wine, but even grape juice (which might substitute for wine when their friends are drinking).  This social distance marks nezirim as holy, separated and dedicated to God.

When the period of their vow ends, nezirim shave their heads and put their hair on the altar fire, under the wholeness-offering, thus making their wild manes offerings to God.5

Israelite captives with tidy hair in Assyrian relief, 8th Century BCE

Hair is an indicator of a person’s relationship to the rest of society—in the Torah, and today. When I am getting ready to leave the house, I always “fix” my hair. Even today, an acceptable appearance in public includes hair that looks trimmed, combed, and arranged (sometimes in a carefully tousled style).  When someone appears in public with unkempt hair, it means that the person does not belong in normal society, for good reasons or bad.

In the Torah, the pera hair of mourners signals that their thoughts and feelings are so overwhelmed by the death in the family that they should not be expected to engage in normal social intercourse.

The pera hair of metzora-im signals that they are both ritually impure (and so excluded from communal worship) and socially impure (and so excluded from communal life).

The pera hair of the sotah (the wife suspected of adultery) is a sign of shame. Since she has behaved in a socially unacceptable way by being alone with a man other than her husband for even a short time, she is shamed even if it turns out she is not guilty of adultery. (There is no equivalent ordeal for a husband suspected of adultery, since in the Torah marital fidelity is not required of men.)

The pera hair of nezerim signals that their attention is on spiritual communion with God, rather than on social intercourse.

On the streets of my city, people whose hair is greasy and pera are often homeless and/or mentally ill.  Not wanting to be identified with these categories, I make sure my hair is clean and pulled back in a barrette when I go out.

But I have had times of mourning, and times when I am absorbed in questions about the meaning of my life and God.  At those times, when I go out in public for necessary errands, I wish I had a visible signal that would separate me from normal chatter and frivolity, while granting me the respect the Israelites granted to mourners and nezirim.

(An earlier version of this blog was published in May 2010.)

1  The noun sotah does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, though in this week’s Torah portion, Naso, the verb satah is used three times to describe an adulterous woman. (Numbers 5:19, 5:20, 5:29)  The passage concludes: This is the teaching of the kena-ot, when tisteh, a wife, from under her husband, and she becomes impure. (Numbers 5:29)

tisteh (תִּשְׁטֶה) = she goes aside, goes astray. (Satah (שָׁטָה) = he went aside, went astray.)

2  The Babylonian Talmud, Ketuvot 22a, states that when a woman goes out with an uncovered head, she transgresses Jewish practice, and cites Numbers 5:18 as a proof text.  19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch explained: “…the uncovering of the woman’s hair is intended to expose the woman as immodest. The head covering that hides the woman’s hair is an external symbol of her marital fidelity.” (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Bemidbar, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2007, p. 83.)

3  Mourners in the Torah let their hair hang loose and tear their clothing.  In Leviticus/Vayikra 10:6 and 21:10, priests are instructed to refrain from mourning by not doing those two things.  It is still customary for Jews to make a small tear in a shirt or a symbolic ribbon at the funeral of a family member, and then refrain from cutting their hair or shaving their beards for 30 days.

4  A metzora is someone with the skin disease called tzara-at in the Torah. Until a priest declares them cured, metzora-im must be thoroughly segregated from the community, and therefore they must tear their clothing, para their hair, cover their upper lips, call out “Impure! Impure!” when they pass others, and live outside the town or camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46)

5  Numbers 6:18.  According to 19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch, this indicates that the purpose of living for a time as a nazir is self-improvement, so the nazir will rejoin society as a better member of the community—less vain, perhaps, or wiser because of the extra time for self-reflection. (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Bemidbar, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2007, p. 116.)

 

Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred

May 24, 2017 at 7:43 pm | Posted in Bemidbar | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

When you have a portable sanctuary, you need a procedure for packing up the holy items when it’s time to move on. And if unauthorized contact with a holy object results in death, the correct procedure is critical. This week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar (“In a wilderness”), specifies that only the priests may wrap up the holy items. Then Levites can carry them, once they are completely concealed.

They may not come in and see the holy even for a moment, or they will die.  (Numbers 4:20)

The first holy item the priests cover is the ark itself. The ark is usually hidden even from them, behind the partition-curtain in the Tent of Meeting that screens off the Holy of Holies.

Aharon and his sons shall come, when the camp is pulling out, and they shall take down the partition-curtain, and they shall cover the Ark of the Testimony with it.  Then they shall place over it a covering of tachash leather, and they shall spread a cloth of perfect  tekheilet over that, then put its poles in place. (Numbers/Bemidbar 4:5-6)

Murex shell

tachash (תָּחַשׁ) = An unknown Hebrew word for either a treatment for leather, or the animal providing the skin.1

tekheilet (תְּכֵלֶת) = Blue dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail.2

Next Aaron and his sons Elazar and Itamar cover up the holy items they use regularly inside the Tent of Meeting.

Then they shall spread over the Table of the Presence a cloth of tekheilet, and they will place upon it the bowls, ladles, offering-bowls, libation jars for libations, and [that week’s] perpetual bread.  And they shall spread out over them a cloth of tolat shani, and then cover it with a covering of tachash leather, and they shall put its poles in place.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 4:7-8)

Shield lice on branch

tola-at shani (תּוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי) =  A vivid red or scarlet dye made from the unhatched eggs of shield-lice living on oak bark.

Although the table also has three coverings, the utensils—and that week’s bread!—are stored on top of the first tablecloth, then covered by the second cloth and the leather.

Next they shall take a cloth of tekheilet, and they shall cover the lampstand (menorah) of the lighting and its lamps and its wick-cutters and its ash-pans and all the utensils for its oil that they use to attend to it. And they shall put it and all its utensils into a covering of tachash leather, and they shall place it on the carrying-frame.  (Numbers 4:9-10)

The priests cover the incense altar the same way, first in tekheilet cloth, then in tachash leather.3

Finally, the priests must prepare the altar used for animal sacrifices, which is stationed in front of the Tent of Meeting for burning offerings of animals and grain products.  Even though everyone can see this altar, the priests cover it before the Levites move it.

And they shall remove ashes from the altar, and they shall spread over it a cloth of argaman.  And they shall place on it all the serving utensils which they use to attend to it—the ash pans, the meat forks, the scrapers, and the sprinkling basins—all the utensils of the altar. And they shall spread over it [the altar and its utensils] a covering of tachash leather, and they shall put its poles in place.  (Numbers 4:13-14)

argaman (אַרְגָּמָן) = purple dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail.

The various coverings of the holy objects are made out of wool dyed in the three most vivid colors available, and a type of leather that is only used for the Tent of Meeting and its holy objects.  Clearly the holy items must be honored with the best possible But why are different colors, in a different order, assigned to each item?

Wool dyed with techeilet

Tekheilet

Later in the book of Numbers the Israelites are told to wear fringes on the corners of their own garments, with a thread of tekheilet in each fringe, so that the sight of the fringe will remind them of everything God has commanded them to do.4 (See my post Shelach Lekha: Glimpses of Blue.) Why is turquoise the best color for the reminder?  Perhaps because it is the color of the sky, which is “the heavens”, the place God descends from.

Tekheilet is not used to cover the animal-offering altar, which stands outside the Tent of Meeting and is less holy.  But it is used for the innermost wrapping of the three holy objects placed inside the Tent, and for the outermost wrapping of the ark behind the partition.

God’s voice comes from the empty space above the lid of the ark, and the ark is sometimes called God’s throne. The Bible also pictures God’s throne in the heavens. And the pavement on which God’s feet appear in the vision on Mount Sinai is sapphire, “like the heavens for purity”.5 (See my post Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.)  Sky blue is the color most directly associated with God.6  So surrounding the wrapped ark with techeilet cloth is like surrounding it with the sky.7

A cloth of tekheilet is the innermost cover touching the table, the lampstand, and the incense altar, the three holy objects that the priests tend constantly inside the Tent of Meeting. Although God does not speak or sit above these objects, they are still imbued with a residue of the heavens.

Wool dyed with tolaat shani

Tola-at shani

Scarlet is the color of fresh blood.  In the Torah, blood represents the soul that animates the body, and therefore the Israelites are forbidden to eat or drink it.8 (See my post Reih: Don’t Be a Soul-Eater.)

Later the book of Numbers describes how a perfect red cow is slaughtered, then burned with other red objects:  cedar wood, hyssop, and shani tola-at. The ashes are mixed with water and sprinkled on anyone who has touched a corpse, in order to make them ritually pure again.9 (See my post Chukkat: Blood and Ash.)

The table in the Tent of Meeting is spread first with a cloth of techeilet, the color of the heavens. Then its utensils and the usual twelve loaves of bread are set out on the blue tablecloth. Even while the table is being carried through the wilderness, the “perpetual bread” is there as a human offering to God.  But the grain to make the bread is God’s offering to humans.  Our bodies cannot live without the food that God provides, so the priests add a cloth of tola-at shani, the color of life-blood.

Cloth dyed with argaman

Argaman

A combination of blue (tekheilet), scarlet (tola-at shani), and purple (argaman) yarns are used to weave or embroider all the cloth walls and door-curtains of the Tent of Meeting, as well as the sashes of all the priests, and several items in the high priest’s costume.

The innermost cover over the ark is the partition-curtain that screens off the Holy of Holies when the Tent of Meeting is assembled. This curtain is woven out of tekheilet, tola-at shani, and argaman. Thus all three colors of holiness are touching the ark while it is being carried.

Cloth woven of only argaman wool, which the priests use to cover the outside altar, appears elsewhere in the Bible as a sign of wealth and royalty. Kings of Midian wear purple robes10, King Solomon sits on purple wool11, and the proverbial “woman of valor” dresses in purple.12

Why is the copper altar used to burn animal parts covered with the argaman of wealth? Perhaps turning the fat parts of cattle, sheep, and goats, or sometimes entire animals, into smoke for God is an expression of gratitude for the abundance that makes this offering possible.

Tachash

The word tachash occurs in the Bible only as a type of skin or leather. In this week’s Torah portion, tachash leather is the middle layer of wrapping for the ark, and the outer layer covering the table, lampstand, and both altars when these holy objects are carried to a new campsite. Tachash leather is also the top layer of the roof of the Tent of Meeting.13

The only other appearance of tachash leather in the Bible is a description of God dressing Jerusalem in embroidered garments, fine linen, silk, jewelry, and sandals of tachash. (Ezekiel 16:10)  The analogy makes Jerusalem not only God’s bride, but also a holy place.

While tachash leather separates Jerusalem from the earth in Ezekiel, it separates the Tent of Meeting from the heavens in Exodus. When God wants the Israelites to remain encamped, a pillar of cloud and fire rests over the Tent of Meeting, above the tachash leather roof. When God wants the Israelites to move on, the pillar ascends, and the priests must cover the holy objects with tachash leather so they can be safely transported. The Levites carry these carefully wrapped items above the earth and below the heavens.

*

Today we move not only to new geographical locations, but to new positions in our interior lives.  When we reach a new insight, or enter a new stage of life, it helps to remember the beliefs in our old lives that helped us to be grateful or ethical. Even as we outgrow some old beliefs, we can reframe the ideas that still inspire us, and carry them into our new lives.

When Jews today finish reading from a Torah scroll, we cover it with a garment that both protects the hand-lettered parchment, and prevents us from taking the scroll for granted.  Similarly, we can wrap our own sacred ideas and imperatives in garments that preserve them and prevent us from treating them too familiarly.

What colors do you need to cover your own sacred ideas?  Sky blue, to remind you of everything beyond your horizon?  Scarlet, to remind you that you owe your own life to living things you did not create?  Purple, to remind you of an abundance you may not have noticed? Or the unknown color of tachash, the skin separating heaven and earth through a divine mystery?

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

1  Those who guess tachash is a treatment for leather translate it variously as tanned, blackened, dyed blue, and dyed ochre.  Those who guess tachash  is the name of the animal providing the skin translate it variously as badger, ermine, wild goat, wild ram, sea cow, narwhal, dolphin, or seal.

2  Although the hue varies according to the amount of exposure to sunlight during the process, modern dye from the same species of murex used for the fringes on prayer shawls, is turquoise.

3  (Numbers 4:11-12)

4  Numbers 15:38.

5  Exodus 24:10.

6  19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that “תכלת, ‘sky-blue,’ is the color that points to the limits (תִּכְלָה) of our horizon, to what lies beyond our field of vision—i.e., to the hidden to the Divine.” (Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, English translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 542 on Exodus 26:14.)

7  20th-century Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Bamidbar, English translation by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, New York, 1993,  p. 29.

8   Deuteronomy 12:23-25.

9  Numbers 19:3-6, 19:11-22. A similar mixture of cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet dye is mixed with blood from a slaughtered bird and sprinkled on someone who has recovered from skin disease in order to return them to ritual purity. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:6, 14:51-52)

10 Judges 8:26.

11  Song of Songs 3:10.

12  Proverbs 31:22.

13  The top of the Tent of Meeting is covered with tanned rams’ skins, and then over that goes a layer of tachash leather.  (Exodus/Shemot 26:14, 36:19, 39:34; Numbers 4:25.)

 

 

 

Behar: Owning Land

May 18, 2017 at 11:47 am | Posted in Behar | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , ,

Is owning land like owning a bowl or a blanket? Do human beings have the right to buy and sell land, inherit it, give it away, use it any way they like, destroy it?

This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“on a mountain”), lays out rules for land ownership in ancient Israel and Judah. The first rule is about farmland:

The seventh year will be a time of the most restful rest for the land, a time of rest for God. You shall not sow your field and you shall not prune your vineyard.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:4)

Every seventh year, the Torah explains, everyone can eat what grows wild on your land:

It shall be … for yourself and for your male servant and for your female servant and for your hired laborer and for your toshav, the geirim with you; and for your cattle and for the wild beasts that are in your land; all may come to it to eat.  (Leviticus 25:6-7)

toshav (תּוֹשָׁב) = resident alien, foreigner living in a citizen’s household. Plural = toshavim (תּוֹשָׁבִים).

geir (גֵּר) = resident alien, immigrant; non-citizen who moved from another land. Plural = geirim (גֵּירִים).

The implication is that although you own the land, you only own its produce six years out of seven. Every seventh year you must let it lie fallow,1 giving the land a year of rest (shabbat, שַׁבָּת), just as every seventh day you give everyone in your household a day of rest (shabbat, שַׁבָּת). During your land’s year of rest, whatever it produces is ownerless, and can be eaten by anyone, even wild animals. Additionally, landowners may neither sell nor hoard the produce during that year; like everyone else, they may pick up only what they can eat.

Tribal lands according to Joshua

The next rule in the Torah portion Behar lays out what happens to land every 50th year. After the 49th year (which is a year of rest for the land, as above), all the land gets an additional year of rest, and during that year ownership of each parcel of land reverts to the family that owned it 50 years before—the descendants of the family that owned that land 50 years before that, and so on, all the way back to the original assignment of land in the book of Joshua.2

In this year of the yoveil, each of you shall return to his holding. (Leviticus 25:13)

yoveil (יוֹבֵל) = ram, ram’s horn, shofar; year of blowing the ram’s horn.  (English “jubilee”.)

That means a plot of land may not be sold in the sense we sell land today. Instead, someone pays up-front to lease the land for however many years are left before the next yoveil. During those years, he3 may plant and harvest as he likes—but then he has to return the land.

According to the count of years since the yoveil, you shall purchase it from your fellow; … since he is selling you the number of harvests.  (Leviticus 25:15, 16.)

Does that mean that the only true owners are the “original” families that were given land when the Israelites conquered Canaan, and get the same lands back every 50 years?  No.  The Torah says that all land belongs to God.

You may not forfeit the right to reacquire the land, because the land is Mine; for you are geirim and toshavim with Me.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:23)

The Gleaners, Jean Francois Millet, 1857

God is the true landowner of the land; even the Israelites who inherit land, or get it back in a yoveil year, are resident aliens from God’s point of view.

If everyone who “owns” land is actually borrowing it from God, everyone must obey God’s rules about the use of the land. Besides letting the ground rest every seven years, they must leave some of the harvest in the field for poor people and geirim to glean.4

Of course if a victorious enemy simply seizes land, there is nothing the Israelites can do but wait and hope God will return it to them eventually.

In modern nations today, our own governments can seize private land by eminent domain, often (depending on the nation) compensating the owners for their loss. In general, people can buy, sell, inherit, and give away land, but there are limits—set by government rather than God—on how they can use the land. We have zoning laws, laws protecting wetlands, laws requiring large developers to set aside some land for public parks or green spaces.

But we could do better, if our governments were truly dedicated to the public good.  For example, we could have laws banning the use, on farms and on homeowners’ lawns, of any pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers that poison the environment. We could have laws severely limiting carbon dioxide emissions, and all forms of air and water pollution.

After all, does anyone have the right to degrade our God-given earth?

All human beings are merely temporary residents, geirim and toshavim, on God’s land.  We live here on sufferance.  We depend on nature, which some people call God’s creation—because it certainly isn’t ours. If only we could remember that we are all gleaners, harvesting our food from land that does not really belong to us!

We need to wake up and hear the ram’s horn!

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

1  The seventh year is called the year of shmittah (שְׁמִטָּה), “release”, in Deuteronomy 15:1-14, where it is described as the year for remission of debts and the freeing of Hebrew slaves.

2  Joshua 13:8-33 confirms Moses’ assignment of land east of the Jordan River to the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe, divided by their clans. Joshua 15:1-17:18 confirms the assignment of land the tribes of Judah, Efrayim, and the other half of Menashe have already taken by conquest west of the Jordan, divided by their clans. Joshua 18:1-19:48 describes the assignment of land by lottery (which was presumed to be the will of God) to the remaining seven tribes and their clans. (The Levites, who serve at the temple instead of farming, are given land only in towns, with small attached pastures.) In the next few books of the Bible, the tribes do not conquer all of these assigned lands, and the tribe of Dan moves to another area.

3  Society in the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah was patriarchal, giving the male head of household authority over everyone else. According to current scholarship, the book of Leviticus was written sometime after the Assyrian Empire captured the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C.E., but the patriarchal system continued in Judah.  Women could inherit land only when their fathers died without a son, as in Numbers 27:1-11, and even then strings were attached (Numbers 36:2-12).

4  Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-21.

Next Page »

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