Ki Tavo: A Perishing Aramean

August 29, 2018 at 8:12 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo, Passover/Pesach, Shavuot | Leave a comment

Still life by Caravaggio, 1605

Do we own land, prosper in business, or put food on the table entirely because of our own efforts?  The book of Deuteronomy/Devarim says no.  Moses tells the Israelites that they will conquer Canaan only with God’s help.  (See my post Re-eih: Ownership.)  Then they will acquire cities, houses, and farms that other people built.  (See my post Eikev, Va-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?)  After that they will build more houses, and all their enterprises will prosper, making their wealth increase.  Moses predicts they will then forget God, and think:

“My ability and the power of my hand made me this wealth.”  Then you must remember God, your God, who gives you the ability to make wealth …”  (Deuteronomy 8:11, 17-18)

Furthermore, the Israelites must not confuse taking possession of land, or inheriting it from their fathers, with actual ownership.1

Hey!  The heavens and the heavens of the heavens, the land and everything in it, belongs to God, your God.  (Deuteronomy 10:14)

*

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you come”), Moses prescribes an annual ritual to thank God for the land we pretend we own, and for the harvest we pretend comes exclusively from our own labors.

Bible card by Providence Lithograph Co., ca. 1900

You shall take some of the first of every fruit of the earth that you bring in from your land that God, your god, is giving to you.  And you shall place them in a basket and go to the place that God, your God, will choose to let [God’s] name dwell.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:2)

The place that “God will choose” is Jerusalem.2  The head of each household brings the basket to the temple. and affirms that the land on which his family grew the fruits is a gift from God.

And you shall come to whoever is the priest in those days, and you shall say to him: “I declare today to God, your God, that I came to the land that God swore to our forefathers to give to us.”  (Deuteronomy 26:3)

The priest sets the basket in front of the altar.

And you shall respond, and you shall say in front of God, your God: “Arami oveid avi.  And he went down to Egypt and he sojourned there with few men, but he became there a nation great and powerful and populous.”  (Deuteronomy 12:4-5)

Arami (אֲרַמִּי) = a male Aramean, a man from the country of Aram (roughly corresponding to present-day Syria).

oveid (אֺבֵד) = wandering lost; being ruined; perishing.  (Oveid is the kal participle of the verb avad, אָבַד, and implies that the subject is lost, ruined, or perishing.)3

avi (אָבִי) = my father, my forefather.

Who is the Arami?  The book of Genesis/Bereishit tells us that Abraham lives in the Aramean city of Charan (also called Paddan-Aram) before God tells him to go to Canaan.  Later in Genesis, Abraham’s grandson Jacob flees to Charan and lives there with his uncle Lavan for 20 years before returning to Canaan.  So we have three candidates for the Aramean in this declaration: Abraham, Lavan, or Jacob.  And only two of those, Abraham and Jacob, qualify as a forefather of the Israelites.

Rashi4 identified the Arami as Lavan and the avi as Jacob.  His interpretation, “Lavan sought to uproot everyone [all Jews] as he chased after Jacob,” requires translating Arami oveid avi as “An Aramean was ruining my forefather.”  But oveid cannot mean “ruining”, only “being ruined”.(see 3)  Furthermore, Biblical Hebrew grammar allows for an implied verb “to be” anywhere in the phrase Arami oveid avi, but not for the Arami to be the subject doing something to avi as a direct object.5  So Arami and avi must be the same person.

Rashbam6 recognized this, and identified the person as Abraham.  He associated oveid with wandering when one is exiled from one’s own land, and rephrased Arami oveid avi as “My father Abraham, an Arami was he, oveid and exiled from the land of Aram.”  Then he cited Genesis 12:1, where God tells Abraham: “Go forth from your land and from your relatives and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  If Aram is Abraham’s own land, Rashbam must have reasoned, then in Canaan he is an exile.

Calling Abraham an exile seems like a stretch to me.  Abraham hears God and decides to leave.  He brings along his wife, his nephew, the people who work for them, and the wealth he has accumulated in livestock and goods.  It sounds like a comfortable emigration.

Rashbam’s explanation also fails to account for the sentence immediately following Arami oveid avi in Deuteronomy 12:5 above.  Abraham and his household do visit Egypt, but the same group returns to Canaan after a very short sojourn there.  They may pick up a few Egyptian slaves, but Abraham’s returning household is far from being “a nation great and powerful and populous”.

That leaves Abraham’s grandson Jacob as the Arami who is the speaker’s forefather.  Jacob, a.k.a. “Israel”, moves to Egypt to join his son Joseph and brings along 66 of his descendants, not counting the wives of the adult men.7  These “children of Israel” stay in Egypt for 430 years.8  When they leave in the book of Exodus, there are “about 600,000 men on foot” along with their families and fellow travelers9—enough to count as a nation in the Ancient Near East.  The sentence following Arami oveid avi fits only Jacob.

If Jacob is the Aramean and “my forefather”, why is he called oveid?  The translation of oveid that best describes Jacob’s life at the time he emigrates to Egypt is “perishing”, since he and his extended family are suffering through a second year of famine in Canaan.  Therefore, Arami oveid avi should be translated: “A perishing Aramean was my forefather”.

A man bringing his first fruits to the temple does identify himself as an Israelite with these three words, but it would be simpler to say “Jacob is my forefather” or “Israel is my forefather”.  The clause Arami oveid avi acknowledges two other things: that his ancestors had not always lived in Canaan/Judah, and that at a critical time they were perishing in a famine.  Remembering these things, the farmer is more likely to feel grateful that God gave the Israelites land, and that the God who makes famines has provided him with agricultural abundance.

*

The recitation and ritual actions continue in this week’s Torah portion without mentioning that they are part of Shavuot, one of the three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem dictated in the Torah.  In Exodus 34:22 Shavuot is described as a celebration the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and in Numbers 28:26 Shavuot is identified as the “Day of First Fruits” (Yom Habikkurim).

But the recitation beginning Arami oveid avi has also become part of Passover/PesachIn 220 C.E., when Judah HaNasi recorded the Mishnah (the core of the Talmud), the farmer’s declaration before the priest was already included in the seder (the Passover service at home around the table).10  It still is.

Arami oveid avi is a humbling opening line.  If God could let Jacob, one of God’s favorite people, come close to perishing of hunger, any of us might be ruined.  And every human being will eventually perish from this earth.

Yes, while we are alive we must cultivate our crops.  Our own efforts are necessary, but not sufficient, for prosperity; other necessary factors are out of our hands.  The good life is a fragile and temporary blessing.

May we notice the first fruit of every blessing in our lives, and express our gratitude.

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

  1. The real owner of the land is also revealed in Leviticus 25:23, when God declares: “But the land must not be sold to forfeit reacquisition, because the land is Mind; for you are resident aliens with Me.” (See my post Behar: Owning Land.)
  2. Modern critical scholars agree that the earliest form of book of Deuteronomy was written no earlier than the 7th century B.C.E., after the northern kingdom of Israel had been wiped out by the Assyrians, and the only remaining Israelite kingdom was Judah, with its capital and temple at Jerusalem.
  3. The piel participle, me-abeid (מְאַבֵּד = giving up as lost, ruining, letting perish) implies that the subject is abandoning, ruining, or destroying someone else.)
  4. Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  5. In Biblical Hebrew, if avi were a definite direct object instead of a subject, it would be preceded by the word et (אֶת).
  6. Rashbam is the acronym for Rashi’s grandson, the 12th-century rabbi Shmuel ben Meir.
  7. Genesis 46:26.
  8. Exodus 12:40. (In Genesis 15:13 God predicts it will be 400 years.)
  9. Exodus 1:7, 12:37-38.
  10. Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 116a, Mishnah.
Advertisements

Ki Tavo & Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 2

September 5, 2017 at 6:36 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo, Ki Teitzei, Yitro | 1 Comment

A person’s inner state and outer garment should match, according to the Torah.

And God said to Moses: Go to the people and consecrate them, today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their semalot. Then they shall be ready for the third day, for on the third day God is coming down before the eyes of all the people on Mount Sinai. (Exodus/Shemot 19:10-11)

semalot (שְׂמָלוֹת) = plural of simlah (שִׂמְלַה) = a long, loose outer garment resembling a caftan or cloak. (A variant spelling is salmah (שַׂלְמָה), plural salmot (שַׂלְמֹת).)

If you are consecrated, made holy enough to behold God, then your simlah must also be purified. Although men remove their semalot to do physical labor, stripping down to a less bulky garment underneath, the Israelites in the Bible wear their semalot for public appearances, as well as for protection from wind, sun, and rain. At night one’s simlah serves as a blanket.

Three of the laws in last week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, assume every individual has the right to a simlah. Even an impoverished debtor and a captive of war must be allowed to sleep in their semalot. Depriving someone of a simlah would not only expose them to the elements, but deprive them of human dignity. (See my post Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 1.)

Two other laws in the portion Ki Teitzei (4 and 5 below) show how a simlah can reveal something about the essential nature of the person who wears it. And this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you enter”), ends with miraculous semalot that reveal the nature of humankind.

  1. Abominable or godly?

One of the laws about the simlah in Ki Teitzei has become notorious:

The equipment of a man shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not put on the simlah of a woman, because anyone doing this is to-eivah to God, your God. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:5)

Head of a prince or princess from Ugarit, 13th century B.C.E.

to-eivah (תוֹעֲבַה) = abhorrent, abominable, anathema.

The first clause in this verse may be a reaction against a Canaanite myth (discovered in the ruins of Ugarit) about Paghat, a young woman who wears weapons under her female clothing and sets out to avenge her brother’s murder.1 The Bible frequently denounces Canaanite religions, and the Talmud (Nazir 59a) agrees that the “equipment of a man” consists of weapons of war.

The second clause in the verse may be a reaction against a Canaanite practice in which male temple functionaries cross-dressed and offered themselves as surrogates for gods in homosexual religious acts. According to the Bible, this happened even at the Temple in Jerusalem until King Josiah put an end to it.2

A man wearing a woman’s simlah may be to-eivah because the only men who appeared that way in public were those paid for sexual rituals from another religion—a practice God clearly abhors according to a later law in Ki Teitzei:

No daughter of Israel shall be a female religious prostitute, and no son of Israel shall be a male religious prostitute. You shall not bring into the house of God, your God, the fee of a harlot [female prostitute] or the price of a dog [male prostitute] for any vowed offering, because both of them are to-eivah to God, your God. (Deuteronomy 23:18-19)

Nevertheless, for more than two millennia people have used the law in Ki Teitzei about cross-dressing to promote the traditional gender roles in their own societies. (See my post Ki Teitzei: Crossing Gender Lines.)

Today many people reject the idea that every individual must squeeze into one of two gender roles defined by a particular society. Some individuals in the 21st century C.E. choose apparel that blurs gender lines in order to reveal their own nuanced identities.

In the 7th century B.C.E. kingdom of Judah, a man who wore the simlah of a woman also revealed an essential part of his identity: he was dedicated to gods other than the God of Israel, and he served these gods by providing ritual sex for worshipers.

  1. Fraud or honesty?

The remaining law in Ki Teitzei that mentions a simlah is about the virginity of a bride. It begins:

If a man takes a wife and he comes into her, and then he hates her, and he brings charges against her and gives her a bad name, and he says: “I took this woman, and I approached her, but I did not find evidence of virginity in her!”— (Deuteronomy 22:13-14)

Detail of “Hymen” by Marc Chagall

This was a serious charge in ancient Judah. A marriage was a contracted alliance between two households. The legal contract included the dowry paid to the groom’s household, and the bride-price paid to the bride’s household. When the bride and groom had intercourse, the marriage was completed. The bride (but not the groom) was expected to be a virgin (unless the contract stipulated otherwise).

So if a man claimed, after the wedding, that his bride was not a virgin, he was not only defaming her and her parents, but also suing her family for contract fraud. If the village elders ruled in his favor, he got a divorce, the bride (if she was permitted to live4) became unmarriageable, and the bride’s father had to return the bride-price to the groom. The grooms’ household, on the other hand, got to keep the dowry, the bride price, and the family’s good name.3

What if a groom tells a lie in order to get a divorce with a lucrative financial settlement? Then, according to Ki Teitzei, the bride’s parents should bring “evidence of the girl’s virginity” to the elders sitting as judges, and the bride’s father should say:

“But this is evidence of the virginity of my daughter!” And they shall spread the simlah before the elders of the town. (Deuteronomy 22:17)

The evidence is the simlah the bride wore on her wedding night. When the couple goes to bed, she lies on top of her own simlah—and leaves a bloodstain if her hymen breaks.

In much of the ancient Near East, a bride’s parents collected her wedding simlah the morning after—just in case they would need to display it.

The law in Ki Teitzei affirms that a bloodstained simlah is evidence of virginity, and punishes the lying husband. He is flogged; he pays 100 shekels of silver to the bride’s father (to compensate for impugning his honor); and he may never divorce the bride.

The good name of the bride’s family is restored. The bride herself at least has the consolation of a salvaged reputation and a guaranteed home (even if she might prefer to be the property of a different man).

Thus the condition of the bride’s simlah proves something about her character: she was honest when she affirmed she was a virgin.

  1. Natural or miraculous?

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses quotes God:

“And I led you forty years through the wilderness. Your salmot did not wear out upon you, and your sandal did not wear out upon your foot. Bread you did not eat, and wine or alcohol you did not drink, so that you would know that I, God, am your God.” (Deuteronomy 29:4-5)

During their 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites did not need to grow grain and grind it into flour; manna miraculously appeared every morning. They did not need to cultivate grapes and make wine; God provided fresh drinking water in the desert. They did not need to make leather for sandals, or weave cloth for semalot; God continuously renewed their clothing.5

Instead, the Israelite women wove cloth to make God’s sanctuary. All the weavers were generous volunteers.6  And God generously volunteered the small miracles that kept the people clothed and fed. All God wanted was acknowledgement “he” was their god.

The Israelites in the books of Exodus and Numbers did praise God for saving them at the Reed Sea and for giving them victories in battles. But in ordinary daily life, they complained about the food, were impatient when they ran out of water, and did not even notice the condition of their semalot.

Moses introduces God’s words at the end of Ki Tavo by saying:

But God did not give you a mind to know, or eyes to see, or ears to hear, until this day. (Deuteronomy 29:3)

Only at the end of 40 years in the wilderness to the people notice God’s daily generosity.

The portrayal of God’s character must be taken with a grain of salt. The Torah sometimes portrays God as a patient parent, sometimes as an angry mass murderer. This is the result of trying to explain everything in terms of an anthropomorphic god.

Yet the passage at the end of Ki Tavo does offer insight into the character of human beings. Human nature takes good situations for granted—until we are deprived of them, or until we grow wise enough to see how fragile our lives are. To find that wisdom—a mind to know, eyes to see, ears to hear—might take 40 years. And we cannot force ourselves to become wise.  It comes as a gift.

  1. She emerges, dons a youth’s raiment, puts a k[nife] in her sheath. A sword she puts in her scabbard, and over all dons woman’s garb. (“The Tale of Aqhat”, The Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, by James B. Pritchard, Princeton Univ. Press, 1958, p. 132)
  2. And he smashed the houses of the male religious prostitutes that were inside the house of God, where the women wove fabrics for Asherah. (2 Kings 23:7).  The book of Deuteronomy was probably written during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 B.C.E.), and encouraged his campaign to wipe out the practice of other religions in Judah.
  3. Victor H. Matthews & Don C. Benjamin, Social world of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BCE, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass., 1993, p. 127-128.
  4. But if this charge is true, evidence of the girl’s virginity was not found, then they shall bring the girl out to the entrance of her father’s house, and the men of the town shall stone her with stones. And she will die because she did a serious offense in Israel, fornicating in the house of her father. (Deuteronomy 22:20-21)
  5. Deuteronomy 8:2-6 and Nehemiah 9:20-21 report similar miracles. (See my post Eikev: Not by Bread Alone.)
  6. Exodus 35:20-29.

Haftarat Ki Tavo—Isaiah: A Place for Feet

September 23, 2016 at 10:11 am | Posted in Isaiah 2, Ki Tavo | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , ,
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8) and the haftarah is Isaiah 60:1-22).
by Michelangelo

by Michelangelo

A popular image of God is of an old man with a beard, floating in the sky and stretching out his hand like the God that Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel. But the Hebrew Bible never mentions a beard in connection with God.  “By the hand of God” appears all over the Bible, but it is simply an idiom for “through the agency of God”.  Sometimes a deed is accomplished by the hand of a human being, sometimes by the hand of God.

In the Bible, the most common anthropomorphic image of God is of someone enveloped in robes, sitting on a throne. The face is too bright to be seen, and the hands are not mentioned. But sometimes the feet are.

The feet of God appear in this week’s haftarah, where second Isaiah encourages the exiles in Babylon to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem.  God tells Jerusalem that someday the other nations, from Sheba to the Phoenician cities of Lebanon, will bring tribute to her.

            The magnificence of the Lebanon will come to you,

            All its juniper, fir, and cypress,

            To glorify the place of My holy site;

            And the place of My raglayim I will honor.  (Isaiah 60:13)

raglayim (רַגְלַיִם) = pair of feet. (From regel, רֶגֶל = foot. Regalim, רְגָלִים = feet (more than two); times, occasions.)

The Babylonian army had burned the First Temple to the ground when it captured Jerusalem and deported its leading families to Babylon in 589-587 B.C.E.  But in 535 B.C.E., the Persian king Cyrus captured Babylon and decreed that all of its foreign populations were free to return to their former homes and worship their own gods. Some of the exiled Israelites were skeptical about going.  So in this week’s haftarah, God promises that once the Israelites build a new temple in Jerusalem, God will honor it as the place of the divine presence. Second Isaiah refers to God’s presence in terms of both God’s light and God’s raglayim.

The most stunning appearance of God’s feet is in the book of Exodus/Shemot, when 74 people climb halfway up Mount Sinai.

Then they went up, Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and 70 of the elders of Israel.  And they saw the God of Israel, and beneath his raglayim it was like a making of bricks of sapir and like an image of the sky for purity.  (Exodus/Shemot 24:9-10)

sapir (סַפִּיר) = a blue precious stone. (From the same root as safar (סָפַר) = counted up, and seifer (סֵפֶר) = scroll, document, book.)

Do the 74 Israelites actually see human-shaped feet against the bright blue sky?  Is it a shared vision in a dream state?  Or do they see something indescribable, which Exodus tries to capture with the metaphors of feet (suggestive of footsteps), sapir (suggestive of writing) and sky (which is also the word for heavens)?

Baal Preparing Thunder & Lightning

Baal Preparing
Thunder and Lightning

Four other references to God’s feet are based on descriptions of Baal the storm-god in other Canaanite religions. For example:

            And He bent down the sky and descended,

            And a thick fog was beneath his raglayim.  (Psalm 18:10)

Did the original poets who invented these descriptions believe that Baal actually had feet and stood on the clouds, or were they simply writing poetry?  What about the poets who applied those descriptions to the God of Israel?

The Bible does use raglayim for several idioms involving human beings. When a man’s foot slips or stumbles, it means he is straying from the path of righteousness. Raglayim also appears as a euphemism for genitals, and even urination. In another biblical idiom, when person A bows at the raglayim of person B, it means A submits to B’s authority.  An example occurs in this week’s haftarah immediately after the verse about God’s feet.

            And they will walk to you bowing,

            The children of your oppressors.

            And they will bow down at the soles of your raglayim,

            Everyone who used to scorn you.

            And they will call you City of God,

            Zion, Holy of Israel.  (Isaiah 60:14)

Pharaoh Tutankhamun's throne and footstool

Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s throne and footstool

 

People bow down to the ground to honor God throughout the Hebrew Bible, but they never bow to God’s feet. They do, however, bow down to God’s footstool in the Psalms.

            Let us enter His sanctuary.

            Let us bow down to His hadom-raglayim.

            Arise, God, to your resting-place,

            You and the ark of Your power!  (Psalm 132:7-8)

hadom-raglayim (הֲדֺם־רַגְלַיִם) = the stool for a pair of feet; footstool. (Used in the Bible only five times, always in reference to God).

In Psalms, Lamentations, and 2 Chronicles, God’s footstool is either the ark or the whole First Temple in Jerusalem. But in second Isaiah, the idea of God’s footstool expands along with the idea of God:

Thus said Hashem:

            The heavens are My throne

            And the earth is My hadom-raglayim.

            Where is this house that you will build for Me?

            Where is this place, my resting-place?

            All these were made by My hand,

            So all these came into being

                        —declares God.  (Isaiah 66:1-2)

*

This week’s haftarah is the sixth of seven readings from second Isaiah called the seven haftarot of consolation. Each one gives us a different view of God, either by shaking up one of the traditional beliefs about a local, anthropomorphic God or by expanding on the concept of a single abstract God for the whole universe.

How can we interpret the line “And the place of My raglayim I will honor” in this haftarah?

God is addressing Jerusalem—but not the ruined houses and broken stones of the old city in the hills of Judah.  God is really addressing the people of Jerusalem, the exiles who feel ruined and broken in Babylon. Now they have a chance to go home and rebuild. Now the people can make themselves into a holy footstool, a hadom-raglayim, for God.

Then will they see God’s feet over their heads?  No. In the rest of this week’s haftarah second Isaiah describes God’s presence in terms of light, not body parts.  The haftarah begins:  Arise, shine, for your light has come.  (See my earlier post, Haftarah for Ki Tavo—Isaiah: Rise and Shine.)

After God promises to honor the temple as if God’s feet rested there, the haftarah says:

            God will be for you an everlasting light;

            And your God will be your splendor.  (Isaiah 60:19)

The presence of God is more like light than like a robed figure with feet.  And if you make yourselves a holy community, the light of God will shine through you.

Ki Tavo: Making It Clear

September 1, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

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)

Fragments of 8th-century B.C.E. Bilam story on limewash at Deir Alla, Jordan

Fragments of 8th-century B.C.E. Bilam story on limewash at Deir Alla, Jordan

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.

Mt. Gerezim (left) before deforestation, Mount Eyval (right)

Mt. Gerezim (left) before deforestation, Mount Eyval (right)

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.”

Torah scroll, dressed

Torah scroll, dressed

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!

Ki Tavo: Writing in Stone

September 10, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

Carve something on a stone, and set it upright as a memorial or a boundary marker.  People have been doing this all over the world for millennia.  Americans today still erect gravestones and mark historic sites with upright stones bearing text.

Anyone can read the inscribed stone or stele and learn something—about the battle that took place at that spot, or the boundary it marks, or the person who is buried there.

Code of Hammurabi, 1750 B.C.E.

Code of Hammurabi, 1750 B.C.E.

In the ancient Middle East, most steles recorded victories in battle. But the oldest stele discovered so far from that region is a stone seven and a half feet high, with the Code of Hammurabi carved into it during the 18th century B.C.E.  The 282 laws of the reigning Babylonian king are written in Akkadian.

Standing stones without any words carved into them are even older. Only oral tradition can tell subsequent generations what the stones commemorated. A stranger from another place or a later time who sees a blank monument, or a circle of tall stones, knows only that they are significant, not what they signify.

The first standing stones in the Torah are uncarved.  In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob erects four different matzeivot or standing stones, marking the sites of his dream of angels, the boundary  between his area of influence and his father-in-law Lavan’s, and his wife Rachel’s grave.

Moses erects twelve standing stones at the foot of Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus/Shemot, to represent the twelve tribes of Israel in their covenant with God.  But the only inscribed stones in Exodus are the two small tablets bearing the ten commandments, and they are so sacred that they are carried inside the ark, which must never be touched or opened.

At Mount Sinai and in the wilderness, the blank stones that depend on mutable oral tradition are out in public.  But the immutable, fixed written words are hidden in a sacred place.

Moses does not call for standing stones with writing on them until this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you enter”), in the book of Deuteromy/Devarim.

Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying:  Observe the entire commandment that I command you this day.  And it shall be, on the day that you cross over the Jordan into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, you shall erect for yourself great stones, vesadeta them with the siyd. And you shall write on them all the words of this torah when you cross over, so that you may come into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as God, the god of your forefathers, has spoken to you. (Deuteronomy 27:1-3)

vesadeta (וְשַׂדְתָּ) = and you shall limewash (coat them with a paint-like mixture of lime and water).

siyd (שִׂיד) = lime, quicklime, limewash.

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.)

The people of the ancient Middle East made quicklime (calcium oxide powder) by burning bones. Adding enough water to slake the lime turns it into calcium hydroxide, which can be mixed with additional water to make limewash.  Limewash is still used to coat surfaces in order to make them smooth and white; the coating hardens into a thin shell of limestone, which may last for millennia in dry conditions. Remnants survive of a text painted in ink on a white limewashed wall in the 8th century B.C.E.

Fragments of 8th-century B.C.E. Balaam story on limewash at Deir Alla, Jordan

Fragments of 8th-century B.C.E. Balaam story on limewash at Deir Alla, Jordan

Thus the text on Moses’ limewashed stones could have been readable for many centuries. The Hebrew Bible does not specify which torah Moses wants on the stones, but it must include some or all of the laws from the written Torah we have today—the first five books of the Bible, as copied and recopied on parchment and paper. According to 12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, Moses means the 613 commandments that the Talmud (Makkot 23b) says are in the five books. Other commentary speculates that Moses is calling for the code of laws in the book of Deuteronomy (chapters 13-26), or for the whole book of Deuteronomy (which would fit on two stones the size of the one used for the Code of Hammurabi).

Until this point in the Torah, Moses passes down God’s laws by announcing them verbally to the assembly of Israelites. Only in this week’s Torah portion does Moses call for laws to be “carved in stone”—or at least painted on limestone—and set out in a public place: the top of Mount Eyval, next to the ancient town of Shekhem.

And it shall be when you cross over the Jordan, you shall erect these stones, as I command you this day, on Mount Eyval; vesadeta them with the siyd. And you shall build there an altar for God, your god … (Deuteronomy 27:4-5)

Moses continues with orders for offerings at the altar, followed by a ritual of blessings and curses to indicate acceptance of God’s law.  (See my earlier post, Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.)

On the bare summit of Mount Eyval, the stones would be visible from a distance, as shining white pillars against the sky.

Perhaps the author of this section of Deuteronomy imagined that the steles on Mount Eyval would be like the Code of Hammurabi, which many scribes over the centuries copied onto clay tablets. In the Talmud (Sotah 35b), Rabbi Yehudah imagines scribes from different Canaanite tribes visiting the stones on Mount Eyval and bringing home copies of their text.

Yet ancient scribes, including those who copied the Hebrew Bible, not only made copying errors, but also felt free to insert additional material. The steles on Mount Eyval would stand as a permanent record of the original laws of Moses, whatever amendments people made later.

From the viewpoint of the storyline within the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ desire for a permanent, immutable, and public record of the laws is understandable. He is about to die, and he believes the Israelites, with their history of backsliding, will eventually abandon God’s laws and convert to Canaanite religions. Moses’ last hope of preserving his religion is to write it down.

He writes multiple copies of “this torah” in Deuteronomy 31:9, and a book of “this torah” to be placed inside the ark in Deuteronomy 31:24-26. All of these writings appear to be on parchment scrolls. But he also wants a more permanent record, so he orders the limewashed standing stones.

From the viewpoint of modern scholarship, Deuteronomy was written much later than Numbers, probably after the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  King Josiah of Judah, the southern kingdom, wanted public support for conquering the old northern territory and reinstating the old religion the two kingdoms shared. The description of a permanent monument bearing the laws of Moses might make King Josiah’s people feel that the religion of the God of Israel should persist.

From the viewpoint of a practicing Jew today, I would say the religion could not have survived this long without additions and reinterpretations. Of the 613 mitzvot or commandments in the five books of the Torah, as compiled by Rambam (12th-century rabbi Moses Maimonides), only 271 can be observed at all today. (Many of the old laws were about sacrifices at the temple, a method of worship that ended about 2,000 years ago with the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem.)

And some of the commandments are clearly inferior to ethical customs that Jews adopted later in their history. For example, although the Torah includes highly ethical commandments (such as not to insult, embarrass, or slander people), it also contains commandments such as the requirement that a rapist must marry his victim if she is single (Deuteronomy 22:29). There was a reason for that law in Judah 2,700 years ago, but 21st-century American society has better ways of handling the situation.

If archaeologists ever discover limewashed stones with some laws of Moses written on them, I pray that we may view the laws as artefacts, not immutable rules to follow forever. Reinterpretations of both oral traditions and traditional writings are what keep a religion alive, and let it walk farther on the path of virtue.

Haftarah for Ki Tavo–Isaiah: Rise and Shine

August 19, 2013 at 11:16 am | Posted in Isaiah 2, Ki Tavo, Yom Kippur | 1 Comment
Tags: , ,

I was an alto before I was a Jew. I first sang Handel’s “Messiah” in my high school choir. Now, 27 years after my conversion, I still enjoy Handel’s music, and I still do not take the words seriously. But when you sing words, you remember them.

This week I read the Torah portion, Ki Tavo, and then turned to the haftarah, the passage from the Prophets/Neviyim that is traditionally chanted after the Torah portion. I glanced at the first line of this week’s haftarah in Hebrew, and I immediately sang:

handel-1Arise, shine, for thy light has come! (Isaiah 60:1)

This King James Bible translation accurately captures one possible meaning of the Hebrew. But the “Messiah” uses the line for an entirely different purpose than the book of Isaiah. Handel’s friend Charles Jennens, who provided the libretto for the oratorio, was a devout Anglican who wanted to tell a story of Jesus’ life in terms of direct divine intervention in human affairs. So he cut and pasted verses from all over the King James Bible and the Common Book of Prayer to make his point.

Jennens took many lines out of context from the book of Isaiah. At the beginning of the “Messiah”, after setting the scene, he put in a line from the King James version of Isaiah: Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel: God with us.

This line is now notorious as a bad Hebrew translation. A more accurate translation would be: Behold (or Hey!), the young woman is pregnant and is giving birth to a son; may she call his name Immanu-El (with us God). (Isaiah 7:14)

There is no virgin birth in the original Hebrew, and the young woman is already pregnant. There is no indication here or in the rest of Isaiah that this line has anything to do with the birth of someone called Jesus about 700 years later.

But by using this quote from the King James Bible, Jennens established that the “Messiah” was going to be about Jesus. He proceeded with another out-of-context quote from Isaiah: O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion …say unto the cities of Judah, behold your god! (Isaiah 40:9)

Then Jennens goes directly to the verse at the beginning of this week’s haftarah. The King James translation is: Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.

Here is my own translation:

Arise! Shine! For your light ba,

And the kavod of God dawns over you. (Isaiah 60:1)

ba = come, has come, is coming

kavod = glory, honor, dazzling splendor, awesome presence

In the “Messiah”, Jennens uncharacteristically chose to follow up Isaiah 60:1 with the next two verses, Isaiah 60:2-3. A solo bass sings the King James version: For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.

Here is my translation from the Hebrew:

For hey! the darkness will cover the earth

And the gloom the peoples;

But God will dawn upon you

And Its kavod will appear over you.

And the nations will walk to your light

And kings to a gleam of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:2-3)

What is the light that either came or is coming? And who is “you”?

These three verses connect “light” with God’s glory. In the previous two chapters of Isaiah, the Israelites who live in exile in Babylonia have been groping in the darkness of ignorance, wondering how to find their god. So “light” may mean both enlightenment and God’s close approach.

The “you” (and all the verbs) in the verses above are in the feminine singular, but no female human is mentioned. “The people” and “God” (and “Jesus”!) would all take the masculine form. However, most place-names in the Torah are feminine. The subject whose light will attract the tribute of many nations is finally named in 60:14: And they will call you City of God, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

Zion (pronounced Tziyon in Hebrew) is a synonym for Jerusalem. Scholars date the second half of the book of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) to about 550-515 B.C.E., around the time when the Persian king Cyrus  gave the Jews in exile permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. The poet in Isaiah chapter 60 apparently rejoiced that Zion’s people and religion were rising again, and hoped that the religion would spread as more and more nations “saw the light”.

So in the 6th century B.C.E., the book of Isaiah saw the rebuilding of Jerusalem as the dawn of an era in which belief in the god of Israel would become universal. In the 18th century C.E., the librettist of Handel’s “Messiah” connected the dawning of God’s light with the birth of Jesus, heralding the new religion of Christianity. Meanwhile, for the last 2,000 years or so, Isaiah 60:1-22 has been the “sixth haftarah of consolation” of Jews; we read it during the sixth week after Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for the fall of the first and second temples in Jerusalem.

Can this haftarah from Isaiah, which is so hopeful about the rebuilding of the temple, still console us for the fall of both temples in Jerusalem? Personally, I am glad that for the last 2,000 years we have been seeking God through prayer instead of through animal offerings at a temple.  But I am still waiting for enlightenment to dawn over Zion.

Meanwhile, I can use a message of hope during this introspective month of Elul, when Jews are asked to prepare for Yom Kippur by reviewing the past year and acknowledging their misdeeds. As Rabbi Shoshana Dworsky pointed out, it is easy for a woman to take the first few verses of this haftarah personally, since all the language is in the feminine singular! What if the poem is addressing me, as I wonder how I will ever outgrow the shortcomings in my character that I am pondering this month?

Maybe my light is coming, and soon I will arise and shine.

Ki Tavo: Milk and Honey

September 2, 2012 at 10:44 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo | 1 Comment

I can understand why the Israelites complain for 40 years in the wilderness. They have to put up with a severely restricted diet, hundreds of new rules to follow, no intercourse with native people or their gods, and the recurring threat of their own god’s next creative punishment. Then, when they finally enter Canaan, they still have to conquer it and subjugate the resident population–with no professional army, no chariots, and no horses. In the end, they will get their own land. But is it worth it?

Moses reminds the people ten times that the place God has promised them is a land flowing with milk and honey. The phrase appears three times in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you come”—into the land). The Israelites are camped on the east bank of the Jordan, and Moses is describing two more rituals they must enact after they cross over.  The first one is the annual pilgrimage to bring the first fruits of the year to the temple.  This is the only ritual in which Moses gives the people lines to recite, including these two sentences:

And [God] brought us to this place, and gave to us this land, a land of zavat chalav and devash . (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:9)

Look down here from the stronghold of holiness, from the heavens, and bless Your people Israel, and the earth that You gave to us, as You swore to our fathers, a land of zavat chalav and devash. (Deuteronomy 26:15)

zavat = flowing, oozing, trickling (also used for  water seeping from rocks, and  for genital discharges)

chalav = milk (from the breast) or liquid yogurt (a popular drink in biblical times)

devash = honey or fruit syrup

The second ritual Moses prescribes is to set up two stones inscribed with Moses’ instructions, then stand on two hills to recite lists of blessings for obeying God and curses for disobeying. (See my blog “Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself”.)

You will inscribe on them all the words of this torah, when you cross over, in order that you may come into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, a land of flowing milk and honey, as God, the god of your fathers, spoke to you. (Deuteronomy 27:3)

Torah = instructions, teaching; the first five books of the Hebrew bible; the entire Hebrew bible

Taking possession of  a land of flowing milk and honey is the reward for obeying the instructions, the Torah. And every year, after they harvest their first fruits, the Israelites must publicly express their gratitude  for living in a land of flowing milk and honey. Clearly “flowing milk and honey” describes something desirable. But what does this idiom mean?

The most literal explanation is offered in the Talmud, where several rabbis describe seeing nanny goats dripping milk as they grazed under fig trees oozing syrup (Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 111b). Later commentary often explains the idiom as referring to a land that is good for both raising livestock (which produce milk) and growing fruits (which produce syrup). An alternative explanation is that valleys are fertile everywhere, but in Canaan even the hills provided food, because their lush vegetation supported wild goats (for milk) and wild bees (for honey).

Midrash Rabbah, a collection of commentary from the same time as the Talmud (about 200-500 C.E.) considers “milk and honey” a description of the Torah, claiming that the words of the Torah are as pure as milk, sweeter than honey, and as healthy for a person as milk and honey together.

The Talmud also describes milk and honey as intoxicating. In several different tractates, it elaborates on the rule in Leviticus/Vayikra 10:9 that when priests are on duty in the Tent of Meeting (or later, in the temple) they must not drink any wine or other intoxicant. According to the Talmud, a priest is guilty if he eats preserved figs or drinks honey or milk before enters the temple.

In the Song of Songs, milk and honey are connected with sexual intoxication:

Comb-honey drips from your lips, my bride,

Honey and milk are under your tongue … (Song of Songs/Shir Hashirim 4:11)

I ate my honeycomb with my honey,

I drank my wine with my milk.

Eat, friends, drink!

And become drunk with love! (Song of Songs 5:1)

Living in the “promised land” and reading the Torah are sensual activities, like drinking liquid yogurt with honey. Milk also indicates fertility, and honey is a luxury, one of the choice products that Jacob sent to Egypt. Perhaps, just as the land’s abundant fertility is indicated by the description “flowing milk and honey”, the Torah is also fertile to the point of luxury.

Personally, I cannot agree with the Midrash Rabbah that the Torah is uniformly pure and sweet. Some passages are gruesome. Some passages require a public execution in situations where I would consider killing the person an unforgivable murder.

Nevertheless, the more I study the Torah and mull over various commentaries and write up my own reactions, both in this blog and in my Torah monologues, the more I find that the Torah is indeed fertile ground, flowing over with important insights, oozing poetry, nourishing my soul and sweetening my days.

To paraphrase a line from this week’s Torah portion, I am grateful to God for bringing me to this place, and giving me this Torah, a sacred text of flowing milk and honey.

Ki Tavo: The Perishing Aramean

September 13, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo, Passover/Pesach, Shavuot | Leave a comment

A ritual harvest pilgrimage opens this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you come in”).

It will be, when you come in to the land … then you will take some of the first fruits  of every fruit of the earth that you bring in from your land that God, your god, is giving to you, and you shall place them in a basket and go to the Place …  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:1-2)

And the priest shall take the basket from your hand, and he shall set it down before the altar of God, your god.  Then you shall respond, and you shall say before God, your god:  “A perishing Aramean was my forefather (Arami oveid avi), and he went down to Egypt …”  (Deuteronomy 26:4-5)

Arami = an Aramean, someone from the country of Aram (roughly corresponding to present-day Syria)

oveid = perishing, becoming lost, being destroyed, nearing ruin

avi = my father, my forefather

The Talmud provides a detailed description of the ritual of bringing the first fruits of the year, the bikkurim, to the altar of the second temple in Jerusalem.  But the second temple was destroyed in the year 70, and by 220, when Judah HaNasi recorded the Mishnah (the core of the Talmud), the first part of the declaration before the priest had already been transplanted into a different ritual:  the Passover seder.  Although Passover is observed at home in the spring, it does center around the story of the exodus from Egypt, and for at least 1,800 years, the traditional opening of the story on Passover is “Arami oveid avi”.

I translate “Arami oveid avi” as “A perishing Aramean was my forefather”.  It’s a straightforward translation, but not all translations are so direct.

One approach, used by the 3rd-century commentary Sifrei and the 11th-century commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak), claims that the phrase means  “An Aramean was destroying my forefather”.  According to this approach, the forefather is Jacob, and the Aramean is Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law and opponent in the book of Genesis.  I’ve noticed that some classic commentary makes every effort to attribute additional evil deeds to the enemies of the patriarchs of Israel (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).  Here, the commentary has to make a stretch by claiming that  avi (my forefather) is the direct object of a verb in “Arami oveid avi”.   But according to the usual grammar of biblical Hebrew, the Aramean and the forefather in this phrase are the same person, who is described as being oveid.

Many modern haggadot (books of Passover ritual) translate the phrase as  “A wandering Aramean was my forefather”.  It’s true that all three patriarchs were nomadic herdsmen who wandered from place to place.  But I think “wandering” is a poor translation, reflecting a desire to avoid saying anything negative about one of the patriarchs.  Every other time any form of the word oveid appears in the Torah,  it has to do with perishing, ruin, or destruction.  For example, Deuteronomy 30:18 says:  “I tell you today that you will certainly perish; you will not live long upon the earth …”

So a direct reading of “Arami oveid avi …” is that the declarer’s forefather was an Aramean who was perishing, and who then went down to Egypt.  This could describe either Abraham or Jacob, since both lived in Aram for part of their lives, and both traveled to Egypt when there was a famine in Canaan.  Calling this forefather an Aramean emphasizes his insecure status as a resident alien in Canaan.  Calling him “perishing” points out that famine was threatening the man’s life; he and his family were perishing from hunger.

In contrast, the Torah tells the Israelites that once they have taken over Canaan, they must bring the first fruits of their fields and orchards  to the temple.  They are blessed with food only because God did not inflict a famine upon them.  The offering of first fruits expresses gratitude and acknowledges that humans, and plants, are dependent on God.

Over and over the Torah reminds us not to be smug when we prosper, because our prosperity is not due entirely to our own efforts; our success also depends on the grace of God.  The ancient Israelites expressed gratitude for divine gifts through offerings of food plants and animals, just as Jews for the last 2,000 years have expressed gratitude for divine gifts through prayers.

In this week’s Torah portion, the phrase Arami oveid avi, “A perishing Aramean was my father”, reminds us that even God’s favorite people, such as Abraham or Jacob, might perish.  As some American have learned since the  economic crash of 2009, and others learned after the crash of 1929, we can never count on personal prosperity, even if we do all the right things.

Yes, we must cultivate our crops to get nourishment from them.  Our own efforts are necessary, but not sufficient.  The good life is a fragile blessing, a temporary gift.  Let’s appreciate every good thing while we have it.  Let’s notice the first fruit of every new blessing in our lives, and lift up our souls by expressing our gratitude.

Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself

April 13, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo | 4 Comments

(This blog was first posted on August 23, 2010.)

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 testify, and they shall say to every man of Israel in a loud voice: Arur is the craftsman who makes a carved idol or a cast idol, a taboo of God, or the one who sets it up in a hiding-place.  And all the people shall answer and say: Amen. (27:12-15)

arur (אָרוּר) = accursed, isolated and ruined

amen (אָמֵן) = Supported! Confirmed! (A formula indicating acceptance of a curse, oath, message, deal, or religious tenet.)

Mount Gerizim, which represented blessings, was thickly wooded.  Mount Eyval, which represented curses, was bare and stony.

Mt. Gerezim (left) before deforestation, Mount Eyval (right)

Mt. Gerezim (left) and Mount Eyval (right)

The two hills stood (and still stand) about half a mile apart.  At one spot the slopes facing one another were curved to form a natural amphitheater, so someone who stood in the middle of the valley and shouted could actually be heard by people standing on the two slopes.  Gerizim and Eyval rise above the city of Nablus now, but in ancient times the city of Shechem lay in the valley between them.  (See my blog Vayishlach: Mr. Shoulders on Shechem.)

 

The ritual prescribed in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (When you enter), would have a major psychological impact on people just entering their new homeland.  Instead of celebrating victory, they dedicate themselves to choosing good and avoiding evil.

Because the wooded Mount Gerizim stands for blessings and the barren Mount Eyval stands for curses, it is clear that doing the right things means choosing the blessing of abundant life, whereas doing the wrong things means choosing an accursed life of emptiness and metaphorical death.  By saying “Amen” after the Levites recite each curse, the people commit themselves to this choice.

And what are the twelve accursed behaviors?  Making or secretly setting up an idol; demeaning one’s father or mother; moving another’s boundary marker; making a blind person go astray; skewing justice concerning a stranger, orphan, or widow; having sex with one’s father’s wife; having sex with any animal; having sex with one’s sister or half-sister; having sex with one’s mother-in-law; striking a person in secret; taking payment to murder someone; and not upholding the words of this Teaching.

Many commentators have pointed out that these curses deal with acts done secretly or privately, acts that society is not likely to discover and punish.  But if you knew that God would punish you, you might well resist the temptation. By saying amen to these curses, the people are internalizing an aversion to or fear of transgressing.

Of course, more secret vices could be added to the list, but since the Israelites had twelve tribes, these twelve secret sins serve as examples.

The twelve blessings are not listed in this Torah portion, but according to the Talmud they are simple inverses of the curses, e.g. not making and secretly setting up an idol, etc.  However, it’s easy to extrapolate more active descriptions of behaviors that lead to being blessed: worshiping only God (dedicating oneself to a holy path); honoring one’s parents; respecting others’ property; guiding the blind; being just to people who are at a disadvantage in society; having sex only with appropriate partners; refraining from violence, even if you could get away with it; rejecting any rationale for destroying another person; and sticking to ethical behavior while encouraging others to behave ethically.

The blessings and curses still apply to us today.  Every time an individual faces a decision between doing something they know is wrong, and doing the right thing instead, that individual stands  between Mount Eyval and Mount Gerizim.  The Levites in the valley represent the conscious ego, reminding us of right and wrong.

Thanks to our inner Levites, we know that if we do something wrong in secret, even if we appear to get away with it, we will still be accursed:  we will suffer from guilt, we will feel degraded, and we will isolate ourselves.  If we do something good in secret, even if nobody else finds out, we will still be blessed:  we will feel full of life, right with the world and right with our souls.

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.