Tags: torah portion, Canaan, Deuteronomy, Devarim, Torah, Shechem
by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah
Moses commands the Israelites to paint orders from God on standing stones in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you enter”). They are supposed to erect the stones on Mount Eyval, beside the town of Shechem.
And it shall be when you cross over the Jordan, you shall erect these stones, as I command you this day, on Mount Eyval; and you shall paint them with limewash. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 27:4)
When limewash is painted on a surface in multiple layers, the coating hardens into a thin shell of white limestone, which could last for millennia in dry conditions. (See my post Ki Tavo: Writing in Stone.) Remnants of one ancient text painted in ink on a limewashed wall still survive after 29 centuries!
And you shall write on the stones all the words of this torah, be-eir thoroughly. (Deuteronomy 27:8)
torah (תוֹרָה) = teaching. (The word torah also refers to the first five books of the Bible, to the whole Hebrew Bible, and to any teaching of Jewish law or religion.)
be-eir (בְּאֵר) = (verb) explaining, making clear, making plain. (The noun be-eir = well, watering place.)
A simple interpretation of this line is that the letters on the limewash must be plain and easy to read. But the Talmud (Sotah 36a) asserts that the teaching was made plain by being inscribed in 70 languages, so anyone who came by could read it. The purpose of the stones, according to the Talmud, was to teach the laws of the Torah to the native Canaanites. This would give them a chance to renounce their own gods and adopt the laws of Israel, and thus be spared from death at the hands of the Israelite invaders.
I like the Talmud’s attempt to find a safe path for Canaanites. But it is a stretch to imagine that all the different tribes inhabiting Canaan would immediately send scribes to read and copy the writing on the stones.
What other purpose is there for the limewashed stones? In this week’s Torah portion, Moses gives orders for a ritual at the city of Shechem (now Nablus). Just east of the old town of Shechem stand two hills with a narrow valley between them. Until modern times, Mount Gezerim to the south was wooded, and Mount Eyval to the north was barren. (See my earlier blog, Vayishlakh: Mr. Shoulders.) Moses wants the standing stones erected on Mount Eyval. Then his ritual calls for the men of half of the twelve tribes to stand on one mountain, and half on the other.
And Moses commanded the people on that day, saying: These will stand for blessing the people upon Mount Gerizim, when you have crossed the Jordan: Simon and Levi and Judah and Issachar and Joseph and Benjamin . And these will stand for the cursing on Mount Eyval: Reuben, Gad, and Asher, and Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. And the Levites shall sing out, and they shall say to all the men of Israel, in an uplifted voice… (Deuteronomy 27:11-14)
The Levites are to pronounce twelve curses, and at the end of each curse all the Israelites are to say “amen”. The curses are conditional; each one begins with the formula “Accursed is the one who…” and then states a prohibition in the Torah. The prohibitions include making an idol, treating a parent with contempt, moving a boundary marker, leading the blind astray, doing injustice to the poor, three kinds of incest, lying with a beast, two kinds of murder, and failing to perform “the words of this torah”, i.e. the more complete text on the standing stones.
The Israelites are to confirm their acceptance of the torah by saying “amen”.
Although both of the twin hills are part of the ritual, Moses calls for stones with the written torah only on Mount Eyval—the same hill where half the tribes are to stand to represent the curses. My guess is that Mount Eyval was chosen for both purposes because it was bare, while Mount Gerizim was wooded. A bare hill implies infertile land, which would be a curse in Biblical times. And on the bare summit of Eyval, the white stones would be visible from a distance.
They would also be clearly visible to the men of Israel standing on both hills and saying “amen”. Rabbi David Kasher, in his blog at parshanut.com, points out that the Israelites would internalize their commitment to the laws of the Torah more deeply by looking at the giant stones. “Words and ideas, I guess, even though they are the essence of the Torah, are somewhat elusive. We human beings relate to reality in physical space, because that’s where we experience ourselves existing. So objects help us concretize ideas, to bring them into reality.”
A similar function is served by the Torah scroll in Jewish services today. Reading the Torah portion out loud is the purpose of the ritual. But the reader uses a particular chant to sing out the text, because a melody reaches deeper into the heart. The reader chants not from a book, but from a Torah scroll, written by a scribe with a quill on parchment. And we have rituals for taking the Torah scroll out of the ark, unwrapping and unrolling it, holding it up afterward for everyone to see the writing, then rolling, dressing, and returning it to its ark. All of these rituals make the text itself more real, more important, and more holy to us.
And you shall write on the stones all the words of this torah, be-eir thoroughly. (Deuteronomy 27:8)
be-eir (בְּאֵר) = (verb) explaining, making clear, making plain. (The noun be-eir = well, watering place.)
Yes, the writing on the standing stones must be clear and easy to read. But the other meaning of the verb be-eir can also be applied to Moses’ directions. The ritual of the Levites singing out twelve prohibitions from the Torah, while the men of Israel stand on top of the two hills saying “Amen”, clarifies the purpose of the writing on the stones. The teachings must be taken as mandatory God-given instructions for behavior. Anyone who does not follow them is cursed; his life will go badly.
In a way, the noun be-eir also applies to part of the Torah portion. A deep teaching is like a well, a watering-place in the desert. If you travel through life with no guidance, acting merely according to your intuitions and feelings in the moment, your life will go badly—as if you were cursed. Human beings need instructions, words of wisdom to hold onto. But it is easy to forget a piece of torah when you need it. How do you internalize a teaching? How do you drink it in?
Saying the words out loud helps. Chanting or singing them works even better. Conducting a whole ritual around them impresses your subconscious with their importance.
Then when we come to a decision point, the words of the torah emerge from the depths of our minds. We still have to figure out the best way to apply them to our current situation, but at least we have something to work with.
May we all internalize the best torah to guide our decisions in our own lives!
Tags: Deuteronomy, gender roles, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah
The kli of a gever shall not be upon a woman, and a gever shall not wear the garment of a woman, for toeivah of God, your god, are all who do these things. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:5)
kli (כְּלִי) = gear, equipment, implements, vessels, utensils, weapons.
gever (גֶּבֶר) = an adult man; a man in a position of power; a warrior or soldier.
toeivah (תּוֹעֵבָה) = repugnant, causing visceral disgust; an “abomination”.
A hasty reading of the above verse in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“When you go out”) leads some people to think that God finds cross-dressing abominable.
Last week, in Shoftim: Abominable, I wrote about how attributing toeivah to God anthropomorphizes the One. The verse in this week’s Torah portion probably means that a scribe or an authority in 7th-century B.C.E. Judah found everyone who did “these things” disgusting, and wanted to reinforce the social norm by attributing disgust to God.
If we discount the reference to God’s disgust, does the verse prohibit cross-dressing?
The Babylonian Talmud (Nazir 59a) points out that the purpose of the verse cannot be to teach that men should not dress like women, and vice versa, because mere cross-dressing is not an abomination. The Talmud offers two other reasons for the verse. The first is that someone should not cross-dress in order to “mix” with the opposite sex and thus find opportunities for illicit sex, which (according to the Talmud) is abominable.
This idea comes from a long tradition of attempting to prevent heterosexual sex outside of marriage by separating men and women, rather than by requiring that both genders exercise willpower.
This first interpretation fails to account for specific words in the verse in Deuteronomy. It prohibits a woman from wearing the kli, the gear, of a gever, not his garment. Furthermore, the text uses the word gever, which implies a warrior or a ruler, rather than ish, the common term for any man. In the Torah, the gear of a warrior is his sword or his bow and arrows; the gear of a ruler is his staff.
The second Talmudic interpretation, attributed to Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov, fits the verse better: women should not go to war bearing weapons, and men should not use cosmetics to beautify themselves. This is also the interpretation of Targum Onkelos, the first century C.E. translation of the Torah from Hebrew into Aramaic, which says more generally that men should not beautify their bodies after the manner of women.
In today’s terms, it would be acceptable for a woman to wear pants, but not for her to carry a gun. A man could wear a skirt (for comfort, not to show off his legs), but he should not wear jewelry or make-up.
The underlying assumptions are that weapons and war are part of a man’s nature, and personal beautification is part of a woman’s nature. These assumptions were rarely questioned until the 20th century C.E.
19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch used our verse in his commentary on Deuteronomy to support his belief that a woman’s place was in the home—i.e. that motherhood was the calling of all women, and any other vocation was for men only. Hirsch wrote that in our verse, “…the Torah forbids each sex that which is specifically suited to the nature of the opposite sex. A man shall not attend to his external physical appearance in the way appropriate to a woman’s nature, and a woman shall not appear in a vocation suited to a man’s nature…”
I suspect it did not occur to Hirsch, any more than it occurred to most women of my mother’s generation, that women who made beauty and sex appeal a top priority expected to be dependent on men, unable to support themselves.
From Biblical times until my own “baby boomer” generation, marriage followed by motherhood was the primary goal for most young women. Men would bear weapons and fight in wars, while women would stay at home with their children—and hope that enemy soldiers did not reach their houses.
This view of the “natures” of men and women is countered by two stories in the Hebrew Bible: one about an armed woman, and one about a primping man.
The Torah does not say that Joseph primps or applies cosmetics; that tradition began in the commentary. It does say that Jacob spoils him by giving him a fancy coat or tunic. When Joseph becomes a slave to Potifar, and Potifar’s wife tries to seduce him, the Torah says:
And Joseph was beautiful of shape and beautiful of appearance. (Genesis/Bereishit 39:6)
Joseph keeps refusing to lie with Potiphar’s wife, but on one occasion she catches him in the house alone, and grabs his clothing. He flees outside, leaving his clothes in her hand, but his virtue intact. The frustrated woman uses Joseph’s clothes to slander him and send him to prison, where his adventures continue, and he eventually becomes Pharaoh’s viceroy.
The Midrash Rabbah on Genesis, edited in the 4th to 5th centuries C.E., says Joseph was vain about his beauty: “It may be illustrated by a man who sat in the street, putting kohl around his eyes, curling his hair, lifting his heel, and exclaiming, ‘I am indeed a man.’ ‘If you are a man,’ the bystanders retorted, ‘here is a bear; up and attack it!’”
Yet Jacob’s deathbed blessing praises Joseph’s power with a manly weapon: And his bow was continually taut, and his arms and hands were agile… (Genesis 49:24)
Joseph has a reputation as both beautifying himself like a woman, and being a gever with weapons and the power to rule.
A story in the book of Judges features two women who engage in acts of war. The prophetess Devorah serves openly as the general of an army recruited from two tribes of Israel, though she wears no weapon and her male lieutenant, Barak, leads the soldiers into battle. When they win, the enemy general, Sisera, flees to a tent where he believes he will be safe—because Sisera’s king is friends with the owner of the tent, Chever the Kenite. Chever is not at home, so his wife, Jael (Ya-el), welcomes Sisera inside and gives him a drink of milk.
Sisera naturally assumes all women are subservient to their men, so he drinks the milk and relaxes. Then Chever’s wife kills him.
The Bible gives two accounts of the murder. In the first one, Jael waits until Sisera falls asleep, then kills him by hammering a tent peg through his skull. Next an ancient poem describes the same incident, but implies that Jael crushes Sisera’s head with a hammer while he is still awake and upright. Either way, Jael does not have access to men’s gear, so she improvises her own weapon.
Far from censuring her for using a weapon and a man’s power of independent decision, the book of Judges praises Jael—as a woman.
Most blessed of women is Jael, the wife of Chever the Kenite; most blessed is she in the tent. (Judges/Shoftim 5:24)
Thus even in the Torah, a woman who improvises the kli (gear) of a gever (warrior), and a man who wears the beauty (and perhaps vanity) that the Torah assigns to a woman, are praised for taking on the roles of both genders.
Adopting roles previously associated with the opposite gender is commonplace in advanced societies today. Some men are tender parents of infants and young children, and some men devote themselves to looking sexy. Some women succeed in vocations previously reserved for men, and some women are fighters.
Are we moving toward a society which takes off from the stories of Joseph and Jael, rather than from the verse in this week’s Torah portion? Are we moving toward a society in which both men and women are complete people?
Tags: abomination, Deuteronomy, disgust, religion, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah
toeivah (תּוֹעֵבָה) = repugnant, causing visceral disgust; an “abomination”.
This is only the first of five times the word toeivah appears in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”). This emotionally loaded noun or adjective appears 117 times in the Hebrew Bible, and its verb form (תעב) appears 23 times. The word has been used to manipulate reactions for millennia.
An object or action can be toeivah to a class of human beings, or to God. Sometimes the Torah simply states that something is toeivah without saying who finds it repugnant; the implication is that the reader or listener should be repelled.
The first three times the word toeivah appears in the Bible, it describes what disgusts Egyptians. The book of Genesis/Bereishit says that Egyptians find eating at the same table with Hebrews toeivah (Genesis 43:32). We do not know whether Egyptians were disgusted by their manners or by their diet. Next Joseph tells his brothers that all shepherds of flocks are toeivah to Egyptians (Genesis 46:34). In the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses tells the Pharaoh that the Hebrews must travel some distance to make sacrifices to God because their animal offerings are toeivah to Egyptians (Exodus 8:22).
The first thing considered toeivah to God, rather than to a specific group of humans, is in the book of Leviticus: With a male you shall not lie down as one lies down with a woman; it is toeivah. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:22)
This infamous line (misused by fundamentalists to claim that all homosexuality is an “abomination”) occurs in the middle of a list of sexual prohibitions God tells Moses to issue to the Israelites. Since God is the speaker in this verse, the implication is that God finds that particular act (whatever it might actually be) toeivah.
The first verse in this week’s Torah portion to mention toeivah specifies that an animal offering with a defect is toeivah to God, your god. It establishes that God Itself finds a defective offering repulsive, revolting, viscerally disgusting. I picture God as a human being making a face and swallowing hard because his or her gorge is rising.
The problem is that God, unlike Egyptians, has no viscera. Attributing visceral disgust to God is an anthropomorphization.
Immediately after warning that God finds offerings with defects revolting, this week’s Torah portion says that if anyone worships other gods,
and it is told to you and you hear, and you inquire thoroughly, and hey!—it is true, well-founded, that the thing was done, this toeivah, in Israel—then you shall take out that man or that woman who did this evil thing within your gates, and you shall pelt the man or the woman with stones so that they die. (Deuteronomy 17:4-5)
Is worshiping other gods toeivah to God, or to the people of Israel? Other parts of Deuteronomy make it clear that any act worshiping other gods is disgusting to God. For example:
Carved images of their gods you shall burn in the fire. You must not covet the silver and gold upon them and take it for yourself, lest you be snared by it, for it is toeivah to God, your god. (Deuteronomy 7:25)
The toeivah things and practices in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, include defective animal offerings, the worship of other gods, and the practice of magic.
When you come into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, you must not learn to do as the toavot of those nations. There must not be found among you one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, a caster of cast lots, a cloud-reader, or a snake-diviner, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells with a familiar, or a woman who inquires of the dead, or a man who consults ghosts, or a medium for the dead. Because everyone who does these things is toavot, and on account of these toeivot, God, your god, is dispossessing them [the Canaanite nations] before you. (Deuteronomy 18:9-12)
toavot, toeivot (תּוֹעֵבֹת, תּוֹעֲוֹת) = plural of toeivah.
Since God is dispossessing the Canaanites because of their magical practices, the Torah concludes that God finds the magic repugnant and disgusting. (See my blog post Shoftim: Taboo Magic.)
The word toeivah comes up one more time in this week’s Torah portion, when Moses tells the Israelites that when they conquer any town within the land designated for Israel, they must kill all the inhabitants, men, women, and children—
—so that they will not teach you to do like any of their toavot that they did for their gods, and you would do wrong for God, your god. (Deuteronomy 20:18)
I believe this is one of the places where the Bible advocates something unethical. Should we commit genocide against a people because we find their superstitious or religious practices disgusting? Of course not! Should we kill them all because we are afraid they will convert us? Of course not!
Genocide motivated by visceral disgust for a group still happens. The Nazi round-up and slaughter of not only Jews, but also homosexual men, gypsies, and others the Nazis found disgusting, is the most famous example of modern genocide. Unfortunately genocide still happens around the world.
Nevetheless, some reactions of disgust have an ethical component. I find okra disgusting because of its taste and texture, but I do not consider people who eat it immoral. The idea of cooking and eating a dog repels me in a different way, because I find it unethical. Dogs have been my cross-species friends; they have enough in common with human beings so I believe it is wrong for humans to kill them for no better reason than to eat them. (Twenty years ago I realized that this reasoning applies to all mammals, and I have avoided eating them ever since.)
Most Americans find the idea of eating a dog toeivah. Many (though not all) Chinese still consider dog an acceptable meat. Should we therefore kill the Chinese? Of course not!
When we feel visceral repugnance, our impulse is to get rid of whatever is disgusting us. But in order to be morally upright, we have to step back from our visceral reactions and determine what actions are ethically acceptable. I can ethically work to pass laws against slaughtering dogs and other mammals for food. I cannot ethically kill people who happen to be butchers.
Yet if I thought God found eating dogs toeivah, I could use that as a justification for killing dog butchers. I could even cite an earlier verse in Deuteronomy: You shall not eat any toeivah. (Deuteronomy 14:3), which is followed by a list of animals that are toeivah to eat, including any animal with paws instead of hooves.
Thus attributing human disgust to God opens the way to truly abominable deeds.
Tags: Deuteronomy, shmittah, torah portion, tzedakah
by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah
Nevertheless, there should not be among you evyon; because God will truly bless you in the land that God, your god, is giving to you to possess as a hereditary holding—but only if you truly pay attention to the voice of God, your god, to be careful to do this entire commandment that I Myself command you today. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 15:4-5)
evyon (אֶבְיוֹן) = paupers, needy, destitute, those with no means to make a living.
This week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See!”) claims that the land of Canaan is fertile enough so that none of its residents need be paupers—as long as the Israelites share their wealth according to God’s instructions.
The portion gives directions for several ways to reduce poverty. First, Re-eih calls for landowners to tithe for six years out of a seven-year cycle. The tithe—a tenth of the landowner’s produce—is designated for several different purposes. A third of the annual tithe (or perhaps the whole tithe every three years) is given to the poor in the landowner’s town, specifically to landless resident aliens, orphans, and widows.
In the seventh year of the cycle, all farmland lies fallow, and whatever food grows naturally is available to everyone. This week’s Torah portion also calls for the release of debts in the seventh year.
At the end of seven years you shall make a shmittah. And this is the matter of the shmittah: everyone who has handed out a loan shamot the loan to his fellow. He shall not press his fellow or his brother, for a shmittah has been proclaimed for the sake of God. (Deuteronomy 15:1-2)
shmittah (שְׁמִטָּה) = release; remission of debt.
shamot (שָׁמפּט) = releases.
In other words, borrowers who are simply too poor to repay their debts on time are freed from the obligation. They are no longer dunned by their creditors or burdened by guilt.
The Torah warns people to continue to make loans to the poor, even if it is getting close to the end of the seventh year. It assumes we feel a natural sympathy for paupers, but we sometimes check that feeling with second thoughts.
When there is among you an evyon from one of your brothers within one of your gates in your land that God, your god, is giving to you, you shall not harden your heart and you shall not shut your hand to your brother the evyon. Rather, you shall truly open your hand to him, and you shall truly lend him what he lacks, so that it shall not be lacking for him. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)
At this point, the Torah has progressed from the artificial mechanisms of tithing and the release of debt every seven years to simply giving the poor in your town what they need whenever they need it.
A token donation is not enough. “…you shall truly lend him what he lacks” had been interpreted to mean not only food, but also anything from a kind word to the tools, training, and starter loan to take up a trade.
The passage in this week’s Torah portion concludes:
Because the evyon will not cease from the midst of the land, therefore I myself command you, saying: Truly open your hand to your brother, to your oni, and to your evyon in your land! (Deuteronomy 15:11)
oni (עָנִי) = the poor, the wretched, the unfortunate, the humble.
This week’s Torah portion first says “there should not be among you evyon”, then later acknowledges that since not everyone is generous enough, “the evyon will not cease from the midst of the land”.
Today we still have evyon, paupers who are unable to earn a living and depend entirely on charity, and oni, people who have become poor because of bad luck. If the products of our planet were distributed evenly, everyone would have enough food and shelter. But the governments of the world still are not generous enough. And individuals with means still are not generous enough.
How often have you had an impulse to give to an unfortunate person, and then hardened your heart by deciding that this person did not deserve your money?
How often have you passed a beggar without opening your hand—either because you were saving those dollars for a latte, or because the beggar looked, smelled, or behaved like someone who might be unpleasant or dangerous?
I am cultivating a practice of opening my hand and giving a dollar to every beggar I pass, regardless of the judgments that pop up in my mind. I also donate a dollar to the county food share program every time I buy groceries at the store that handles donations. I pay dues to my congregation, which provides the space for many people (including me) to serve as the equivalent of Levites. I pay taxes, of which a small percentage goes to programs that help the poor.
Yet I pass up countless other opportunities to donate to charities and good causes. (Even as I was writing this, a canvasser knocked on my door and I did not answer.) I do not have the time, I tell myself, I do not have the money. And how can I tell whether responding to this particular appeal would do any real good?
This week’s Torah portion says to make loans and gifts to the poor within your gates, the ones whom you encounter in your own life. That sounds reasonable, since you are more likely to know “what they truly lack”.
Yet I wonder what I should give to the people I know who are too handicapped to earn a living and who are not supported by their families. I do not have enough emotional strength to act as their friend or substitute family member, which is “what they truly lack”. So I settle for giving a token—a cookie, a ride, a smile—until the person becomes too difficult and demanding. Then I harden my heart and close my hand.
I would rather pay extra taxes for social programs.
A passage in the book of Proverbs that describes the virtues the eshet chayil or “woman of valor” includes this couplet:
Her palm spreads open to the poor
And her hands stretch out to the evyon. (Proverbs 31:20)
I am not a “woman of valor”. I am not strong enough to open my hands to all the evyon within my gates. I do not understand how to be an eshet chayil.
If you have suggestions, please reply to this post!
Tags: Deuteronomy, manna, not by bread alone, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah
“Man does not live by bread alone” is an old-fashioned aphorism in English, indicating that human beings also have essential spiritual needs. Christian English-speakers trace it to Matthew 4:4, where Jesus quotes it to Satan. But the original source is in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“on the heels of”), when Moses warns the Israelites that when they take over Canaan, they must remember what they learned in the wilderness.
And you shall remember the entire way that God, your god, made you walk these 40 years in the wilderness in order to anotekha, to test you, to know what was in your heart: Would you observe [God’s] commandments or not? So [God] anotekha and let you go hungry and fed you the manna, which you did not know and your fathers did not know, in order to let you know—
—that not by bread alone does ha-adam live; rather, on everything that comes out of the mouth of God ha-adam lives. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 8:2-3)
anotekha (עַנֹּתְךָ) = humble(d) you, humiliate(d) you, impoverish you, deprive(d) you of all independence.
ha-adam (הָאָדָם) = the human, humankind.
This is a new reason for keeping the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years. In the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, the wilderness time was prolonged from two years to forty when the people first reached the southern border of Canaan and refused to cross it. (See my posts on the story of the scouts: Shelach-Lekha: Mutual Distrust and Shelach-Lekha: Risking vs. Wandering.)
God decided then that the people would spend an additional 38 extra years in the wilderness, until the generation that refused to cross into the “promised land” had died out. Now, in Deuteronomy, Moses reveals another reason for the extra 38 years: so that the new generation would be tested.
God’s test had two phases. Back in the book of Exodus/Shemot, the people journeyed for a month and a half after leaving Egypt without running out of food. Then halfway between the oasis of Eylim and Mount Sinai they complained of a famine.
This seems like an odd complaint for people who are traveling with large herds of milk-producing animals. Did their cows, ewes, and nannies all dry up at once? Was there an unrecorded rule that they could not slaughter any of their livestock for food until after God gave them the rules for animal offerings? God must have done something to the Israelites’ walking food supply, since this week’s Torah portion says God let you go hungry and fed you the manna. In Exodus,
God said to Moses: Here I am, raining down for you bread from the heavens. And the people shall go out and gather up the day’s worth on its day, so that I can test them: Will they go by my teaching or not? (Exodus/Shemot 16:4)
Manna began appearing on the ground every sunrise, looking like tiny white seeds. Unlike any other food the Israelites had known, manna melted in the sun, and rotted when people tried to keep it overnight in their tents. They could cook and eat only one day’s portion for each person—except on the sixth day of the week. On that day only, they were able to cook or bake a double portion of manna, and follow God’s commandment to rest on the seventh day, Shabbat.
The first phase of the test was whether people would go out to gather manna on Shabbat. Some people did, hoping to hoard their extra one-day portion of cooked or baked manna. But the ground was bare on Shabbat, and they had to eat the manna they had saved. They could never get ahead.
The manna continued the rest of the time the Israelites lived in the wilderness, but the test changed. If the first phase was to train people to observe Shabbat, the second phase focused on the people’s dependence on a food that they were powerless over.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses says twice that God anotekha: humbled you or humiliated you. Moses is addressing the adult children of slaves, who were never as independent as the free and wealthy. But at least the slaves had procured their own food. Now all the adults were as dependent on manna as an infant is on its mother’s milk.
From one point of view (particularly among men used to ruling their own households) this was a form of humiliation. From another point of view, it was a reminder of humankind’s dependence on God’s gifts. The manna tested which point of view each person would take—so they would know what was in their heart.
God humbled—or humiliated—the Israelites by making them dependent on manna, Moses says, …in order to let you know that not by bread alone does ha-adam live; rather, on everything that comes out of the mouth of God ha-adam lives. (Deuteronomy 8:3)
In context, this statement means:
1) Humans cannot live on what we make for ourselves (such as bread); we can live only because of everything God gives us (which may include the grains, rains, and brains required to make bread—or may include some other food).
and 2) Humans depend on God not only for food, but also for everything else God calls into being to sustain us. In the book of Genesis, this “everything” includes companionship (It is not good for ha-adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18), language (and whatever ha-adam called each living creature, that was its name (Genesis 2:19)), and the ability to learn from tests.
Forty years of testing
For 40 years in the wilderness, God trained the Israelites to accept their utter dependence on God for everything in life. At the same time, God insisted that the Israelites follow all the rules Moses put into words, and punished the most egregious violations with death.
This training seems designed to make people passive and submissive. Yet when the Israelites finally did cross the Jordan and conquer Canaan, they would need to act independently, first in war and then in agriculture and commerce. Why wasn’t God training these children of slaves to take initiative and manage their own physical needs?
I would answer that all the rebellions against God and Moses indicate that the people were neither passive nor submissive by nature. Left to their own devices, they would act, not just wait for something to happen. In fact, when they were left to their own devices while Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai, they took the initiative and made the Golden Calf.
The lessons the Israelites really needed, both in the wilderness and in Canaan, were that no matter what they did on their own, their very lives depended on God (or nature); and that the only route to a good life was obeying God’s rules. They had to be trained to accept whatever God gave them, so that they could love and fear (or be in awe of) their god.
We face the same test today. As adults, most of us want to take care of ourselves and avoid being dependent on other people. We may not have spent 40 years in a wilderness, but when we were children, our dependence frustrated us, and we learned that humans we depended on could suddenly be absent when we needed them.
Yet we also know that we cannot do everything on our own; we are not gods. We will always be at least partly dependent on other people. We will always be dependent on “nature”, which we can alter somewhat for better or worse, but cannot create in the first place. And even though we can often improve our lives by taking the right actions, there will always be surprises: both bad and good things will happen that we have no control over. In a sense, we are always at the mercy of God.
Not by bread alone does a human live; rather, a human lives on everything that comes from God.
The choice we can make in our hearts is whether to feel humble or humiliated; to feel grateful for what we are given, or resentful over what we are deprived of.
After I converted to Judaism 29 years ago, I discovered that I could use prayer in order to cultivate humbleness and gratitude. Life is better that way! May each one of us find a practice that will help us to accept every test and every portion of manna that comes our way.
Tags: Deuteronomy, God, religion, Shema, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah
The most important sentence in Jewish liturgy appears in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (“and I pleaded”). Jews recite it daily in both morning and evening prayers. We are called to say this sentence before we die, so some of us say it at any time of danger, or at bedtime (just in case). Personally, I feel better if I recite this sentence when I am sitting in an airplane that is just taking off.
If you haven’t guessed, the sentence is:
Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:4)
Shema (שְׁמַע) = Listen! Hear! Heed! Listen up, pay attention! Now hear this!
Yisrael (יִשְׂרָאֵל) = Israel, which was the additional name given to Jacob after he wrestles with the unnamed being at the ford, and also the name of Jacob’s descendants (the twelve tribes) and those adopted into the people Israel. Many personal names in the Bible begin or end in el (אֵל) = god. An “is” or “of” is implied between the el and the other part of the name. Yisra (יִשְׂרָא) = he struggles with, he persists with (from the root verb sarah = contended, strove); or upright (from the root verb yashar = was upright, level, straight ahead).
(See below for translations of Adonai, eloheynu, and echad.)
The first two words, Shema Yisrael, tell a certain group of people to pay attention to what comes next. In Deuteronomy/Devarim, Moses uses the phrase to introduce a fundamental message about God, but it serves the same function as “Hear ye, citizens of Fredonia”, or “Attention, all passengers for Flight 613”.
The only question is which people are being addressed. Within the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is addressing all the descendants of Jacob, i.e. Israel (including descendants of the non-Israelites who also followed Moses out of Egypt and became part of the people) who arrived at the Jordan River.
By the first century C.E., the Shema was a central part of morning and evening prayers. But only in the past half-century have some Jews have expanded the idea of Yisrael to include everyone who persists in struggling with God.
That means everyone who questions and wrestles with the concept of God, and everyone who strives to follow divine direction, should pay attention to the message: Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad.
Adonai = my lord, my master. The Hebrew for Adonai does not appear in the actual Hebrew text of the Shema. Instead, the Torah gives the four-letter personal name of God. In Jewish tradition over the last two millennia, the four-letter name must be treated with the utmost respect; it is never pronounced, and it is spelled out only in prayer-books and the Bible. (It may be a unique four-letter form of the Hebrew verb for “to be” or “to happen”.) When Jewish liturgy is spoken or the Bible is read out loud, a common substitute for the four-letter name is Adonai.
eloheynu (אֱלֹהֵינוּ) = our elohim. Elohim (אֱלֹהִים) = god; gods. (The Hebrew words eloheynu and elohim are in the plural form, but are usually used to refer to the single god of Israel. Three times in the Bible the Philistines say eloheynu in reference to their own god, Dagon.)
echad (אֶחָד) = one; first; single, only, unique; once; the same kind of; united, indivisible.
What does the imperative message Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad mean?
Most Biblical scholars date the book of Deuteronomy to the 7th century B.C.E., and identify it with the holy book “discovered’ in the temple during the 641-609 B.C.E. reign of King Josiah of Judah, and used to lend authority to Josiah’s agenda: expanding Judah to include part of the former northern kingdom of Israel, and eliminating the worship of any other gods in his kingdom. Although Deuteronomy recapitulates much of the history and law in the books of Exodus through Numbers, there are a number of differences. Most (though not all) of the differences support the theory that Deuteronomy was written just before or during King Josiah’s reign.
An English translation for the Shema in the context of King Josiah’s reforms could be: Listen up, residents of Judah and survivors of the kingdom of Israel! Adonai is our god, only Adonai!
The idea that the primary message of the Shema is to exclude the worship of other gods continues in some English translations. Many modern works use the “JPS” translation:
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. (Jewish Publication Society, 1962)
But this is not the only possible meaning of Adonai echad. Even a book written in the 7th century B.C.E. might also declare that God is one-of-a-kind, the only god in the universe.
The book of Amos, written in the 8th century B.C.E., not only credits Adonai with the creation of the universe, but also quotes God as saying:
Like the children of Kushi-im, aren’t you mine, children of Israel? —declares Adonai.
Didn’t I bring up Israel from the land of Egypt,
And the Philistines from Kaftor, and Aram from Kyr? (Amos 9:7)
In other words, although the Kushites, Philistines, and Aramites believe they have their own separate gods, there is actually only one God for them all.
Many modern Jewish and Christian translations of the Shema into English treat Adonai echad as a statement of monotheism. For example:
Listen, Israel, God is our Lord, God is One. (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, 1981)
Listen, Israel! The Lord our God is the only true God! (American Bible Society, 1995)
Yet there is a third way to interpret Adonai echad. The word echad is also used in Biblical Hebrew to mean united or indivisible.
A key concept in Kabbalah, presented in the earliest known book on the subject, Sefer Yetzirah (written sometime between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E.) is that the universe was (and continues to be) created through ten sefirot (divine powers or qualities). Later Kabbalist writings changed the sefirot to forces such as compassion or discipline. The various traditions of Kabbalah all emphasize that God is one and indivisible. The sefirot only appear to be separate powers; really they are aspects of the One.
This idea of the unity of everything is part of an unusual translation of the Shema by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014):
Listen you Yisrael person, Yah who is, is our God, Yah who is, is One, Unique, All there is. (quoted in Rabbi David Zaslow, Ivdu Et Hashem B’Simcha, 1997)
When I pray, in Hebrew or English, I want to know what the words mean—not just what the traditional meanings are, but what the words can say to my own heart. Sometimes the personal meaning of a prayer changes over the years for me, as I change.
Here is my own interpretation of the Shema, this summer of 2015:
Pay attention, you who persist in struggling with the idea of God: Being is our god, and Being is all there is.
What is your interpretation this year?
Tags: Canaan, Deuteronomy, God, Moses, religion, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah
When Moses begins his book-length speech, God sounds different. I notice it every year when I read the first Torah portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim (“Words”).
For example, when the Israelites finish all their preparations and leave Mount Sinai in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, God does not need to say anything; the Israelites simply follow the divine cloud:
And it was in the second year, in the second month, on the 20th of the month, the cloud was lifted from over the sanctuary of the testimony, and the Children of Israel pulled out from the wilderness of Sinai for their journey. And the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran. (Numbers 10:11-12)
Here is how Moses describes the departure in Deuteronomy:
God, our god, spoke to us at Choreiv [Sinai], saying: Rav-lakhem sitting still at this mountain! Face about, pull out, and come to the highlands of the Emori and…the land of the Canaanite… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:6-7)
rav (רַב) = abundant, plenty, huge, many, much, too much.
lakhem (לָכֶם) = for you, to you, belonging to you. (“You” is plural in lakhem. The singular is lakh.)
Rav-lakhem (רַב־לָכֶם) = Too much for you! You have too much! (Or in Yiddish-inflected English, “Enough already!”)
Not only is God giving verbal orders, instead of merely using the pre-arranged signal of the lifting cloud; God also sounds impatient and a little crabby. God protests that the people have spent “too much” time “sitting still at this mountain”.
I can see why the Israelites might want to linger at the foot of Mount Sinai. When they first arrive in the book of Exodus/Shemot, they make the Golden Calf instead of trusting that Moses will return from the mountaintop with God’s instructions. Thousands are killed as a result, first by Moses’ Levite tribe and then by a plague from God. Moses talks God into giving the people another chance, and they spend a year at Sinai living on manna and fabricating all the components of the portable sanctuary for God. The food is sufficient, the work is pleasant, and no one bothers them, neither human nor divine. Naturally they are reluctant to change their comfortable way of life.
And naturally God, whose grand plan requires the conquest of Canaan, gets impatient with them and says, “Rav lakhem! Too long for you!”
God snaps Rav lakhem! again later in Moses’s story, when the Israelites set out from Kadeish-Barnea to make their second attempt to enter the “promised land”. (The first one fails when fear paralyzes the people and they refuse to cross the southern border of Canaan in the desert. God makes them wait in the wilderness for 38 years, until most of the old generation has died, and then lets them try again by a different route.)
In both Numbers and Deuteronomy, the second time that the Israelites head toward Canaan they go east first, hoping to pass through the kingdom of Edom and then continue north along the shore of the Dead Sea opposite Canaan, finally crossing over at the Jordan River. But the king of Edom refused to let the people go through his country.
According to Numbers, Moses simply leads the Israelites south, so they can circle around Edom. Two things happen on the way: At Mount Hor, Aaron dies and the people pause to mourn him for the traditional 30 days; and at a sea of reeds (different from the one between Egypt and Mount Sinai) they complain about the manna, so God lets poisonous snakes bite them. (See my post Chukkat: Facing the Snake). As soon as they reach the wilderness east of Edom, they head north.
The story sounds different when Moses tells it in Deuteronomy. In this version, the people head toward the sea of reeds south of Edom, but they wander around the skirts of Mount Seir in Edom until God scolds them.
And we turned and we pulled out toward the wilderness on the way to the sea of reeds, as God had spoken to me, and we circled around the mountain of Seir many days. Then God said to me, saying: Rav-lakhem, circling around this mountain! Face about, tzafonah! (Deuteronomy 2:1-3)
tzafonah (צָפֹנָה) = northward. (From the root verb tzafan, צָפַן = hid; stored treasure.)
Once again God gets impatient with the Israelites for delaying. But there is nothing safe or pleasant about the snake-infested wilderness around hostile kingdom of Edom. The people are not lingering because they are comfortable where they are. The only possible reason for delay is so that they can complain (and then recover from snake-bite).
Perhaps this time, God’s Rav-lakhem means “Too much complaining from you, as you circle around this mountain!” Instead of grumbling and insulting God’s manna, they should turn and face the tzafan, the treasure God has stored up for them in the part of Canaan to their north.
In next week’s Torah portion, Va-Etchannan, God uses the phrase with a singular “you” to snap at Moses.
But God was cross with me because of you, and would not listen to me. And God said to me: Rav-lakh! Do not speak to Me again about this matter! (Deuteronomy 3:26)
In the book of Numbers, God declares the Moses will not enter Canaan because he says the wrong thing to the people at the Waters of Merivah; and Moses does not protest God’s ruling.
But in Deuteronomy, Moses blames the people for God’s anger at him, and says he begged God to let him cross over the Jordan after all. God said Rav-lakh! because Moses tried to reopen a subject that should have been settled. Both God and Moses seem irascible in the passage from Deuteronomy. I think God’s exclamation could be translated: “You’ve said too much already!”
Why is God more impatient in Deuteronomy than in Numbers?
Modern scholars point out a number of differences between the language of the two books, and conclude that they were written in different centuries. (For example, Richard Elliott Friedman dates much of Numbers to the P source in the 6th century B.C.E., after the fall of the first temple. He dates Deuteronomy to the reign of King Josiah a century earlier, circa 640-610. According to this dating, God snaps Rav lakhem! and Rav lakh! in the earlier account. In the later account, God is silent.)
Traditional commentary generally ignores the differences in language between Deuteronomy and Numbers. It addresses the small but telling differences in content by explaining that in Deuteronomy Moses selected the key events the new generation needed to know before they entered Canaan, and related them the way the people needed to hear them.
Sometimes we do need a god who reacts like an exasperated human being, a god like the one in the first two portions of Deuteronomy. When we feel safe and comfortable where we are, the way Moses portrays the Israelites at Mount Sinai, we are likely to ignore a signal like a rising cloud. We need to hear a divine voice saying Rav lakhem! to get us unstuck, so we will take on the next challenge.
When we get so caught up in our complaints that we forget the goal we are heading toward, like the Israelites in snake country south of Edom, we need to hear a divine voice saying Rav lakhem! to jolt our awareness back to the hidden treasure we need to find.
And when we keep trying to change what cannot be changed, the way Moses begs God to reconsider and let him go to Canaan, we need to hear a divine voice saying Rav lakh! to shut us up, so we can concentrate on making the most of the life that we do have.
The impatient God in the beginning of Deuteronomy can still serve a purpose!
Tags: Book of Numbers, documentary hypothesis, Midian, Moab, Moses, religion, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah
Moabites and Midianites are two distinct peoples in most of the Bible. Yet they appear to be interchangeable in a story about sex and revenge that runs through three Torah portions in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar: the portions Balak (last week), Pinchas (this week), and Mattot (next week).
The conflation between Moabites and Midianites begins after the Israelites have marched through the wilderness east of Moab and conquered the Amorite kingdom to its north. The Israelites camp on the east bank of the Jordan River, in their newly captured territory.
Balak, the king of Moab, is afraid they will go south and attack his country next.
And [the king of] Mo-av said to the elders of Midyan: Now the congregation will nibble away all our surroundings, as an ox nibbles away the grass of the field. (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:4)
Mo-av (מוֹאָב), Moab in English = a kingdom east of the Dead Sea; the people of this kingdom. (The actual etymology is unknown. Genesis/Bereishit 19:36-37 claims the Moabites are descended from incest between Lot and one of his daughters, and implies that the daughter named her son Mo-av to mean “from father”. The actual Hebrew for “from father” would be mei-av מֵאָב.) The Moabite language was a Hebrew dialect, and appears on a circa 840 B.C.E. stele about a war between Israel and a Moabite king named Mesha.
Midyan (מִדְיָן), Midian in English = a territory occupied by the people of Midian, whose geographic location differs in various parts of the Bible. (Possibly from the Hebrew dayan (דַּיָּן) = judge. Midyan might mean “from a judge”, “from judgement”, or “from a legal case”.) References to a people called Madyan or Madiam appear in later Greek and Arabic writings, and Ptolemy wrote of a region of Arabia called Modiana (see #1 on map), but archeology has not yet proven the existence of a country of Midian. The Midianites may have been a nomadic people without a fixed territory.
When King Balak sends a delegation to the prophet Bilam to ask him to curse the Israelites, it consists of the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian. (Numbers 22:7).
When Bilam arrives at the mountaintop overlooking the Israelite camp, King Balak is there with “all the nobles of Moab” (Numbers 23:6, 23:17) but apparently no Midianites.
After Bilam fails to curse the Israelites and goes home, a brief story in the portion Balak describes how some young women invite the Israelites to participate in ritual feasts to their gods, and many Israelites end up bowing down to the local god, Baal Peor. (See my post Balak: False Friends?) At first, these women are identified as Moabites.
And Israel settled among the acacias, and the people began to be unfaithful with the daughters of Moab. (Numbers 25:1)
Next, an Israelite man brings a foreign woman into the Tent of Meeting itself for sex. Aaron’s grandson Pinchas saves the day by quickly spearing the two of them. The woman is identified as a Midianite, and in the next Torah portion, Pinchas, we find out she is a woman of rank.
And the name of the Midianite woman who was struck down was Kozbi, daughter of Tzur, the head of the people of a paternal household from Midian. And God spoke to Moses, saying: Be hostile toward the Midianites, and strike them down. Because they were hostile to you through their deceit, when they deceived you about the matter of Peor… (Numbers 25:15-18)
Suddenly the Moabite women who invited the Israelites to feasts for their gods are being called Midianites!
In the next Torah portion, Mattot (“Tribes”), God reminds Moses to attack the Midianites, but does not mention the Moabites.
And they arrayed against Midian, as God had commanded Moses, and they killed every male. And the kings of Midian they killed …five kings of Midian, and Bilam son of Beor, they killed by the sword. But the children of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones… (Numbers 31:7-9)
This story ends with the slaughter of the captive Midianite women. (See my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.)
And Moses said to them: You let every female live! Hey, they were the ones who, by the word of Bilam, led the Israelites to apostasy against God in the matter of Peor, so there was a plague in the assembly of God. So now, kill every male among the little ones and every woman who has known a man by lying with a male, kill! (Numbers 31:15-17)
Here Moses declares that it was Midianite women who seduced Israelites into worshiping Baal Peor. The Moabite women are no longer mentioned.
When we look at the storyline over three Torah portions, the enemies of the Israelites seem to change from a coalition of Moabite and Midianite leaders, to Moabite men, to Moabite women, to Midianite women, to Midianites in general. How can we explain the shift from Moabites to Midianites?
As usual when it comes to inconsistencies in the scripture, the commentary falls into three camps: the apologists, the scientists, and the psychologists. (A fourth camp of commentary is the mystics, who focus on individual phrases and words, and ignore inconsistencies in storylines.)The Apologists
The apologists take the Torah as literal history, and find clever ways to explain apparent inconsistencies.
The Talmud considers Midian and Moab two separate nations that became allies against the Israelites. Thus men from both nations hire Bilam to curse the Israelites, and make their daughters seduce the Israelite men (in order to cause the God of Israel to abandon the Israelites and leave them vulnerable).
In one Talmud story, God tells Moses to spare Moab and attack only Midian because God wants to preserve the land of Moab for the birth of Ruth, the virtuous ancestor of King David. (Talmud Bavli, Bava Kama 38a-b.) Another tractate of the Talmud (Sotah 43a) says that the attack on Midian is actually vengeance for the episode in the book of Genesis when a band of Midianites buys Joseph from his brothers and sells him into slavery in Egypt.
Rashi (11th century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that the king of Moab consults the Midianites because he knows Moses spent a period of his life in Midian, and he wants to learn more about the leader of the Israelites. The elders of Midian choose to not only advise the king of Moab, but join forces with him in the campaign to seduce the Israelite men. According to Rashi, God orders Moses to attack only the Midianites because the Moab acted solely out of fear for their own nation, “but the Midianites became enraged over a quarrel which was not their own”.
Some 20th century commentary explains the conflation between Moabites and Midianites by concluding that Midian was not a separate kingdom, but a confederation of nomadic tribes. (This explains why the first Midianites Moses meets lived near Mount Sinai, while the Midianites in the book of Numbers live in or near Moab, several hundred miles away.) According to this theory, King Balak recruits local Midianite elders in order to involve all the people living in Moab, and the two ethnic groups work together to weaken the Israelites.
The commentators I call “the scientists” use linguistic and archeological evidence to assign various parts of the biblical text to authors from different periods and with different agendas. Inconsistencies in a Torah story occur when two different sources are awkwardly combined by a redactor.
The “documentary hypothesis” about when various pieces of the Bible were written has been revised a number of times since it first became popular in the 19th century, but linguistic scholars have agreed that passages in the first five books of the Bible come from at least four original documents (and probably additional fragments), and were stitched together and edited by at least one redactor.
Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Bible with Sources Revealed (2003) proposes that the stories in the Torah portions Balak, Pinchas, and Mattot came from three different sources which were compiled and edited by a final redactor (perhaps the priest called Ezra the Scribe).
The two references to Midian (…to the elders of Midian…in Numbers 22:4; … and the elders of Midian … in Numbers 22:7) were inserted into the Bilam story by the final redactor who compiled and edited the five books of the Torah in the 5th century B.C.E. This redactor (possibly Ezra) inserted the elders of Midian into the Bilam story in order to harmonize it with the later story of seduction by Midianite women.
According to Friedman, the bulk of the Torah portion Balak was written by the “E” source in the northern kingdom of Israel. The northern kingdom was often in conflict with Moab across the Jordan River, and at one point conquered the whole country, only to be defeated by a new king of Moab named Mesha. The “E” source considered Moab an enemy.
Friedman credits the redactor of J/E with writing the story of the Moabite women seducing the Israelites into worshiping Baal Peor. The J/E redactor combined the “E” scripture from the northern kingdom of Israel with the “J” scripture from the southern kingdom of Judah, and added a few other stories—including the story of the Moabite women, according to Friedman.
The “P” source, which Friedman assigns to the Aaronide priests at the time of King Hezekiah of Judah, wrote the next story, in which a man from the tribe of Shimon and the daughter of a Midianite king go into the Tent of Meeting to copulate, and are speared in the act by Aaron’s grandson Pinchas. God then makes a covenant with Pinchas, and tells Moses to attack the Midianites.
Friedman notes that the “P” source was responding to a conflict at the time between priests who claimed descent from Aaron, and a clan of Levites called “Mushi” who may have been descendants of the two sons of Moses and his Midianite wife, Tzipporah. The first book of Chronicles, written between 500 and 350 B.C.E., says their descendants were the Levites in charge of the treasury. This story by “P” praises Aaron’s grandson, while denigrating Midianites.
In the next Torah portion, Mattot, the “P” source records the story of the Israelite’s war on the five kings of Midian, and has Moses blame the Midianite women for causing Israelite men to worship Baal Peor.
The approach used by Friedman and other scientific commentators certainly explains why this part of the book of Numbers keeps adding or replacing Moabites with Midianites. But it does not address the psychological insights of the stories when they are read as if they are episodes in a novel or mythic epic.The Psychologists
The commentators I call “the psychologists” read the Bible as it stands, viewing it as a collection of mythic tales rolled into one grand epic, and mine it for insights about human nature.
One of the first psychological commentaries appears in a 5th century C.E. story in the Midrash Rabbah for Numbers. Referring to the Torah story about an Israelite man bringing a Midianite princess into the Tent of Meeting for sex, the Midrash says: “He seized her by her plait and brought her to Moses. He said to him: ‘O son of Amram! Is this woman permitted or forbidden?’ He answered him: ‘She is forbidden to you.’ Said Zimri to him: ‘Yet the woman whom you married was a Midianitess!’ Thereupon Moses felt powerless and the law slipped from his mind. All Israel wailed aloud; for it says, they were weeping (25:6). What were they weeping for? Because they became powerless at that moment.”
As a psychological commentator myself, I would point out that until the Israelites reach the Jordan north of Moab, all their contacts with Midianites have been positive. Moses himself is sheltered by a Midianite priest, Yitro, when he is fleeing a murder charge in Egypt. Yitro becomes his beloved mentor and father-in-law. The Torah does not say Moses loves his wife, Yitro’s daughter Tzipporah, but she is the mother of his two sons, and she does rescue him from death on the way back to Egypt.
When Moses is leading the Israelites from Egypt toward Mount Sinai, his Midianite family arrives at the camp, and Moses greets his father-in-law with joy and honor. Yitro calls the god of Israel the greatest of all gods, makes an animal offering to God, and gives Moses good advice about the administration of the camp. (Exodus 18:5-27)
Moses and the Israelites do not encounter Midianites again until 40 years later, about 500 miles to the northeast, and in the book of Numbers. These Midianites are hostile instead of benevolent, determined to ruin the Israelites by alienating them from their god.
Does Moses feel betrayed by the people he married into? Does he feel powerless, as the Midrash Rabbah claims, when his own affiliation with Midian seems to contradict his orders to destroy Midian?
Does it break his heart to see Midianite women, kin to his own wife, seducing Israelite men away from God? Does it break his heart to transmit God’s orders to kill all the Midianites near Moab, including the captive women?
Does he turn against his own Midianite wife and sons then?
Or does he reassure himself, and perhaps others, that the Midianite tribes in Moab are different from the Midianite tribes near Mount Sinai; that there are good Midianites and bad Midianites, and it is right to marry the good ones, and kill the bad ones?
If Moses distinguishes between good Midianite tribes and bad Midianite tribes, does it occur to him that within a tribe there might be good and bad individuals? That wholesale slaughter, although the usual procedure in war, is actually unjust because a number of innocent people die with the guilty?
Judging by Moses’ long speech to the Israelites in the book of Deuteronomy (which scientific commentators attribute to sources written after 640 B.C.E.), Moses and the Torah continue to condemn tribes and nations wholesale, without regard for individual members.
Just as Moses judges all Midianites in the five northern tribes as evil because of the actions of a few of their members, human beings throughout history have made judgements about undifferentiated groups. It is so much easier than discriminating among individuals. From Biblical times to the present day, some people have judged all Jews as bad.
Today, I catch myself ranting against Republicans, as if every person who voted Republican in the last election were responsible for the particular propaganda efforts and political actions that I deplore. A psychological look at the story of Moses and the Midianites near Moab reminds me that I need to be careful not to slander the innocent with the guilty.
Note: This blog completes the book of Numbers for this year (2015 in the modern calendar, 5775 in the Hebrew calendar). My next blog post will be in two weeks, when we open the book of Deuteronomy.
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Friendliness from foreigners is a new experience for the Israelites, after 40 years in a wilderness where the only new people they encountered were armed and hostile.
In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, the Israelites are camped on the northern border of Moab, overlooking the Jordan River. They have already skirted Moab, then conquered the Amorite country to its north. They are poised to cross the Jordan into Canaan, but Balak, the king of Moab, does not know that. He panics at the sight of thousands of Israelites on his border, and hires the Mesopotamian prophet Bilam to curse them. (See my earlier post, Balak: A Question of Anxiety.) Bilam’s blessings and curses always come true—because he can only declare the words God puts into his mouth.
But God makes Bilam give only good prophecies about Israel. Immediately after this, the Israelites prove themselves unworthy of the honor.
Israel settled among the acacias, and the people began liznot with the daughters of Moab. They invited the people lezivchey to their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1-2)
liznot (לִזְנוֹת) = to be unfaithful (to God or to a husband); to prostitute oneself.
lezivchey (לְזִבְחֵי) = to slaughter an animal on an altar, as a sacrifice to a god.
Why do the Israelites succumb so quickly? They know what it means to slaughter animals on an altar, give selected portions to God, and eat the rest themselves; they do the same thing for their own god when they make wholeness offerings (shelamim). They are also accustomed to bowing down to their own god. Now they are performing the same kinds of worship to the gods of Moab.
What makes the dinner invitations of the young women of Moab so irresistible?
The Midrash Rabbah for the book of Numbers (in the section based on the 5th century C.E. Tanhuma) spins a tale in which the Moabite women set up stalls in the market to sell linen, and when Israelite men come to buy, the old women in front of the stalls sends them into the back, where young women seduce them.
But I think this elaborate scenario is unnecessary. All the Israelites need is the novel experience of a friendly invitation to dinner.
The last friendly foreigners the Israelites encountered were Moses’ own Midianite family, who came to visit him in the wilderness at Refidim, on the way to Mount Sinai, nearly 40 years before. The next time Israelites see other people is two years later, when the twelve scouts go into Canaan and see “giants”. Their report leads the Israelites waiting at Kadesh in Paran to despair and decide to go back to Egypt—and this leads to God’s decree that the people must stay in the wilderness for a total of 40 years before they have another chance to enter Canaan.
The next morning, some of the men charge over the hill into Canaan anyway, and the Amalekites trounce them. So the Israelites spend another 38 years in the wilderness, mostly in isolation at Kadesh. Then, instead of crossing the border into Amalek country again, they circle east and north, so they can enter Canaan by crossing the Jordan River.
Here are the foreigners the Israelites encounter during that journey:
* The troops of Edom, who come to their border to make sure the Israelites take the long away around, without entering their land.
* The king of Arad and his troops, who attack and take captives. (The Israelites retaliate, with God’s help, and destroy Arad’s towns.)
* The troops of Sichon, king of the Amorites, who respond to the Israelites’ request for safe passage through their country by attacking them. (The Israelites conquer and occupy Sichon’s country.)
* King Og and his troops, who meet the Israelite men in battle when the Israelites go up the road to Bashan for no obvious reason. (See my post Devarim & Shelach-Lekha: A Giant Detour.)
No wonder the Israelites associate other peoples with war, and consider outsiders bad news.
The Israelites camp in the Amorite land they have conquered, among the acacias near the Jordan, just north of the Moab border. Then suddenly some Moabite women invite them over for a feast in honor of their gods.
Perhaps some of the men are interested in sex with exotic foreign women. And perhaps all the Israelites are touched by an unprecedented gesture of friendliness. It would be easy for them to forget that by participating in the animal sacrifice and bowing down to the Moabite god, they are being unfaithful to their own God.
Israel yoked itself to the ba-al of Peor, and God became hot with anger against Israel. So God said to Moses: Take all the heads of the people and impale them for God in front of the sun; then God’s blazing anger will turn back from against Israel. But Moses said to the judges of Israel: Each man, kill the men yoked to the ba-al of Peor. (Numbers 25:3-5)
ba-al (בַּעַל) = a local god; master, owner. (In Canaan, ba-al could also mean the main god of weather and war.)
How easy it is for some of the Israelites to slide from attending rituals for foreign gods to worshipping one of those gods! Moses later orders the Israelites to kill the Midianite women from Moab, saying:
Hey! They are the ones who led the Children of Israel, by the word of Bilam, to betray God over the matter of Peor! (Numbers 31:16)
Thus he shifts the blame for the Israelites’ unfaithfulness to their God onto the foreign women, and even onto Bilam (who merely goes home unpaid after blessing the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion).
Are outsiders really bad news? Should we avoid attending a different religion’s services? Should we suspect and reject friendly overtures from people who are not part of our own community?
No. I believe that once again, a Torah story can inspire us to exercise more maturity than the characters in it. Friendship between people of different religions can benefit both the individuals and the world. What we need to do is examine our own standards for behavior, and then stick to them (politely), while still meeting new people with a peaceful and friendly attitude.
Tags: Book of Numbers, Canaan, copper snake, manna, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
The first time the Israelites in the wilderness complain about food, they are traveling toward Mount Sinai with all their cows, sheep, and goats. Neither meat nor milk is taboo, yet they say:
If only we had died by God’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us to this wilderness to kill this whole congregation by famine! (Exodus/Shemot, 16:3)
Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. But now our nefashot are drying up; there is nothing except the manna before our eyes! (Numbers 11:4-5)
nefashot (נְפָשׁוֹת) = plural of nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = throat, appetite; what animates the body; individual life.
The people are not hungry, merely fed up with their restricted diet. This time, God sends in a huge flock of quail that falls two cubits deep on the ground, and many people die “with the meat still between their teeth”.
This is the generation that refuses to enter Canaan, even after their scouts bring back appetizing fruits. They just want to go back to Egypt. God decrees that they must stay in the wilderness for 40 years.
In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“Decree”), most of that generation has died, and the next generation is on its way to Canaan. Yet when they have to take a long detour around the kingdom of Edom, they complain.
They pulled out from Mount Hor by way of a sea of reeds, to go around the land of Edom, and on the way the nefesh of the people became katzar. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: Why bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and there is no water, and our nefesh is katzah with the unappetizing food. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:4-5)
katzar (קָצַר) = was short, was shortened. When used with nefesh, katzar is an idiom meaning “impatient”.
katzah (קָזָה) = at an end, at its limit. When used with nefesh, katzah is an idiom meaning “fed up”.
They sound just like their fathers—but with an important difference.
When the earlier generation gets obsessive about food, they want to go back to Egypt. The second generation complains about the manna only when they have to take a long detour on their way to the “promised land”. They are impatient to reach Canaan and start eating normal food in the land God that wants them to occupy and farm.
Instead of killing them with quail, God responds by letting the snakes in the wilderness bite them.
Then God let loose the burning nechashim against the people. and they bit the people, and many of the people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and they said: We are at fault, because we spoke against God and you. Pray to God, and he will remove the nachash from upon us! And Moses prayed on behalf of the people. (Numbers 21:6-7)
nechashim (נְחָשִׁים) = plural of nachash (נָחָשׁ) = snake. (This word is related to the verb nachash (נָחַשׁ) = did divination, read omens.)
The new generation of Israelites has learned that Moses is their intermediary with God. More mature than their fathers, they apologize, and ask Moses to mediate for them.
Why does God respond with snakes? The Torah has already associated the snake (which literally travels on its belly) with food cravings and journeys. In the story of the Garden of Eden, the snake encourages the woman to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. God decrees that the snake will go on its belly and eat dust. (Genesis/Bereishit 3:1-14) Jacob prophesies that the tribe of Dan will be “a snake upon the road”. (Genesis 49:17)
So snake bites are an appropriate punishment—but maybe God’s intent is not punishment. Maybe God is starting to prepare the people for life in Canaan, where they will be independent, and cannot expect any more divine miracles—such as the miraculous (if monotonous) food, and the miraculous removal of snakes from their path.
Naturally, the people ask Moses to ask God to remove the snakes again. Instead, God offers a cure for snake bite.
God said to Moses: Make yourself a saraf and put it on a pole, and all of the bitten will see it and live. So Moses made a nechash nichoshet and he put it on the pole, and if a nachash bit someone, then he would look at the nechash nichoshet and live. (21:8-9)
saraf (שָׂרָף) = a burning creature. (From the verb saraf (שָׂרַף) = burn in a fire. In the book of Isaiah, a saraf is a creature with six wings who lives in the visionary space around God’s throne. In the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, a saraf seems to be a venomous snake.)
nechash nichoshet (נְחַשׁ נִחֹשֶׁת) = a snake of a copper alloy (brass or bronze); a divination of copper.
Why would looking at a copper snake on a pole cure someone of snake bite?
Many commentators argue that since Moses made the snake at God’s command, looking at it reminds snake-bite victims of God and induces a prayerful attitude.
According to 19th-century rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the copper snake is a reminder of God’s power to protect people from danger even when they are unaware of it—like the Israelites before God let loose the snakes in their path.
I believe looking at the copper snake means looking at the cause of your problem. It is all too easy for humans to avoid thinking about painful issues. If snakes start biting you, it does not help to complain, or to ignore it, or to consider it an omen for mystical divination. The best approach is to look for reasons.
The Israelites looked and saw that they had just complained about God’s manna. They realized God had kept the snakes away for 40 years, and they knew enough to apologize and ask Moses for help. They received a cure for snake bite.
Alternatively, they might have concluded that the burning snakes lived only along the detour around Edom, and looked forward to heading north again, out of snake country and toward the land God promised them. Either way, they would remember their purpose in life, and view the snake bites as a temporary set-back.
Is something biting you? Do you feel as though you were burned? Then look at the symbolic snake and figure out the causes of your distress. Is it a problem you contributed to with an unwise choice? Is it something you had to go through at the time, but you can avoid in the future? Is it something that cannot be cured, but that you can accept with grace as you focus on your real purpose in life?
Face your snake!