Mattot, Va-etchannan, & Isaiah: How to Stop a Plague, Part 3

July 27, 2017 at 8:15 pm | Posted in Isaiah 1, Naso, Va-etchannan | 1 Comment
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from Domenichino,
“The Rebuke of Adam and Eve”, 1626

“Don’t blame me!” We say that when we feel guilty.  Even the first human beings in the Bible blame someone else when they disobey God’s instruction not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. The male human blames the female, and the female blames the snake.1

In the Book of Numbers/Bemidbar, the Israelites flagrantly disobey the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me”, after accepting an invitation from the local women (first called Moabites, then Midianites) in the land the Israelites have conquered east of the Jordan River.

And they invited the people to the slaughter-sacrifices for their god.  And the people ate, and they bowed down to their god. (Numbers 25:2)

The story told in the Torah portion Balak gives no indication that the women deceive the Israelites, no hint of a lie or a trick. (See my post Balak: False Friends.) It is the Israelites who decide to worship that god, Baal Peor.

from Sacra Parallela,
Byzantine, 9th century

God’s rage at the Israelites’ apostasy is expressed as an epidemic among the Israelites, a divine plague that even the God-character cannot control. The plague stops only when Pinchas spears an Israelite man and a Midianite woman (who is probably a priestess of Baal Peor) in the act of doing something unholy. (See my post Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1.)

The God-character rewards Pinchas for calming “His” rage in the next Torah portion, Pinchas. (See my post Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2.)

At least the God-character’s uncontrollable anger targets the Israelites, the people guilty of disobeying God’s commandment. Ironically, when the God-character is calm, ‘He” targets the Midianites, accusing them of actively tricking the Israelites.

Attack the Midianites and strike them down! –beecause they attacked you through nikheleyhem when niklu you over the matter of Peor … (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:17-18)

nikheleyhem (נִכְלֵיהֶם) = their deceit, their cunning, their wiles.

niklu (נִכְּלוּ) =they deceived, they treated cunningly.

But Moses turns his attention to other issues. So eventually, in the Torah portion Mattot, God reminds Moses:

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

nekom (נְקֺם) = Avenge! Take revenge! Get even!

nikmah (נִקְמַה) = [the] vengeance, revenge, payback.

And Moses finally assembles an army.

The God-character is calling for revenge, not for removing temptation. At most, the extermination of the local population prevents the Israelites from sliding back into worshiping Baal Peor. It does not stop them from straying after other Gods once they settle in Canaan.

Women of Midian Led Captive,
by James Tissot

The Israelite soldiers kill all the Midianite men and burn all their settlements. But instead of killing the Midianite women and children, the army returns with them as booty.

And Moses said to them: “You let every female live? Hey, they caused the Children of Israel, through the word of Bilam, to elevate themselves over God in the matter of Peor, so that the plague came to the community of God!” (Numbers 31:14-16)

Moses blames the Midianite women for seducing the Israelites into Baal-worship, instead of blaming the Israelites for their own actions. He also casts blame on Bilam, the prophet who uttered God’s blessings for the Israelites, then returned to his distant home on the Euphrates.2  Any foreigner is easier to blame than your own people.

Moses then orders his officers to kill all the Midianite women and the boys, exempting only the virgin girls from the genocide. (See my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.) The Torah portion Mattot illustrates how guilt over your own behavior can lead to blaming others, and even destroying them.

Yet there are other ways humans can deal with guilt and shame. In next week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan, Moses says:

Your eyes saw what God did about Baal Peor; for God, your God, exterminated from among you every man who went after Baal Peor. But you who cling to God, your God, are alive, all of you, today. (Deuteronomy 4:3-4)

Here Moses returns to the originally story, placing the blame on the Israelite men and declaring that God punished the guilty Israelites by killing them with the plague. Everyone who remained faithful to the God of Israel, he says, was not punished.

This is certainly more just than accusing the Midianites or Bilam for the deeds of the unfaithful Israelites. But I notice two moral problems:

Genocide:

The Israelites who followed the orders to massacre all the Midianites in the valley of Peor, even infants, are never considered guilty. Genocide is not a crime in the Torah. If the Israelite men felt uneasy about it, they probably excused themselves by thinking: “Don’t blame me; God made me to do it.”

Repentance:

None of the Israelites who worship Baal Peor get a chance to admit their own guilt, repent, and reform. The God-character’s angry plague wipes them out without even a trial.

Judah sets a stellar example of repentance and reform in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.3 But God neither punishes nor rewards Judah directly, though God does provide a prophecy that Judah’s descendants will someday be the rulers of Israel.4

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra provides ritual animal-offerings for those who inadvertently disobey one of God’s rules,5 but the only atonement it offers for deliberate misdeeds is the high priest’s annual ritual on Yom Kippur, which purifies the entire people of Israel.6

The first time the Bible declares that guilty individuals can repent and receive forgiveness and a second chance from God is near the beginning of the book of Isaiah.

Wash yourselves clean;

            Remove evil from upon yourselves,

            From in front of My eyes.

And stop doing evil;

            Learn to do good.

            Seek justice. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

The first prophet Isaiah then tells the Israelites to “do good and listen”7 and to “turn around”, i.e. repent8.

I suspect the world today is teeming with people haunted by shame and guilt. What can we do about our recurrent memories of betraying ourselves, betraying our God, and doing the wrong thing?

I have led a relatively blameless life, yet shame has haunted me, too. It took me years to forgive myself for insulting my best friend in first grade. I did not repeat that particular shameful act, but I betrayed my own principles in other ways during the years when I clung to my first husband, accepting his abuse and ignoring my inner ethical voice. After I finally left him, it took many more years before I could trust myself again.

May all of us learn to accept responsibility for our own transgressions, instead of blaming others. When we are ashamed of our own behavior, may we admit it and strive to do the right thing next time. And may we stop and think when anyone tells us that God wants something we know in our hearts is wrong.

(A portion of this material is from Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame”, an essay I published in August 2014.)

1  Genesis 3:12-13.

2  The king of Moab hires Bilam to curse the Israelites, but Bilam utters God’s blessings, and goes home without pay (Numbers 24:10-11, 24:25). The Torah gives no reason why Bilam would ever return to the land north of Moab. Yet the description of the Israelite war on Midian mentions that they kill the five kings of Midian—and Bilam (Numbers 31:8).

3 Judah is guilty of selling his brother Joseph as a slave (Genesis 37:26-28) and condemning his daughter-in-law Tamar to death (Genesis 38:24). He publicly admits his guilt about Tamar (Genesis 38:25-26) and rescues his brother Benjamin from slavery (Genesis 44:16-34).

4  Genesis 49:10.

5  Leviticus chapter 4.

6  Leviticus chapter 16.

7  Isaiah 1: 19

8  Isaiah 1:27.

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Haftarat Va-etchannan—Isaiah: Who Is Calling?

August 18, 2016 at 3:05 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Va-etchannan | 2 Comments
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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 Va-Etchannan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11) and the haftarah is Isaiah 40:1-26.

Deportation from Jerusalem

Deportation from Jerusalem

Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, razed its temple, and deported all its leading citizens to Babylonia in 597-596 B.C.E. Then each family in exile faced a decision.

Should they give up on their own religion, their own identity, and assimilate? Or should they have faith that their god had the power and the desire to eventually return them to their own land?

           Nachamu, nachamu My people!

            Says your god. (Isaiah 40:1)

nachamu (נַחַמוּ) = Comfort! Reassure! (This imperative verb has the plural suffix u (וּ), meaning the speaker—God—is urging more than one person—or divine being—to reassure God’s people.)

This call for reassurance (and enlightenment) opens this week’s haftarah and what is really the second book of Isaiah.

(Isaiah 1-39, considered the first book of Isaiah, is set in the 8th century B.C.E., and warns that God will send an army against the people of Jerusalem if they do not reform. (See my post last week, Haftarah for Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship.) The rest of Isaiah, chapters 40-66, is set in the 6th century B.C.E., near the end of the Babylonian exile and shortly before the Persian emperor Cyrus II took Babylon in 539 B.C.E. , This second book of Isaiah shares a new vision of God: that God is both the protector of the Israelites and the only god in the universe, powerful beyond imagining.)

The haftarah at the beginning of the second book of Isaiah promises that God has forgiven the exiles in Babylonia and will soon gather them home.

God continues:

            Speak (dabru) to the heart of Jerusalem

            And call out (kire-u) to her

            That she has worked off her debt,

            That her wrongdoing has been accepted,

            That she has received from the hand of God

            Double the amount of all her sins. (Isaiah 40:2)

The Hebrew words for both “Speak!” and “Call out!” above also have the plural suffix u (וּ). But who is God addressing? As the poem continues, it seems that God is giving orders to two disembodied voices.

           Isaiah 40 3A kol is calling out:

           Clear (panu) in the wilderness

           A path for God!

           Level (yasheru) in the desert

           A highway for our god! (Isaiah 40:3)

kol (קוֹל) = voice; sound; speech.

            And the glory of God shall be revealed

            And all flesh shall see (ra-u) it together… (Isaiah 40:5)

Again, the verbs are in the plural, with the suffix u (וּ). The kol is not addressing a work crew; it seems to be urging multiple persons to open the minds of the Jerusalemites in Babylon, so they can experience God.

           …A[nother] kol says: Call out! (kera!)

           And he says: What shall I call out? (Isaiah 40:6)

The second kol uses the singular form, commanding one unidentified male person to call out. But “he” seems to be depressed about the transience of human life, and eight lines later, the kol recruits a second person:

            Climb up (aliy) on a high mountain,

            Mevaseret of Zion!

            Lift up (harimiy) your voice with strength,

            Mevaseret of Jerusalem!

            Lift up (harimiy), do not be afraid (tiyra-iy)!

            Say (imriy) to the cities of Judah:

            Here is your god! (Isaiah 40:9)

mevaseret (מְבַשֶֹּרֶת) = herald, bringer of news. (Mevaseret is the feminine form of mevaseir (מְבַשֵֹּר) = a (male) herald.)

The voice addresses the mevaseret using imperative verbs with a singular feminine suffix, iy (יִ), telling her to speak so as to lift the spirits and hopes of the Jewish exiles.

As Sheryl Noson-Blank points out in The Women’s Haftarah Commentary, early commentators could not imagine the mevaseret as a woman; Targum Yonatan (~50 B.C.E.) translated mevaseret into Aramaic as plural male prophets, while David Kimchi (1160-1235 C.E.) decided the mevaseret was the land of Zion herself.

The second book of Isaiah never tells us the identity of the man or the woman recruited by the kol. Maybe they are the prophet-poets who wrote the book. Or maybe they represent all inspired men and women among the exiles in Babylon.

Nor does the book clarify what the two voices are. The first statement, that the people of Jerusalem have been sufficiently punished and should now be reassured that God will redeem them, is definitely attributed to God.

But how will God’s order be achieved? The first kol says all impediments to beholding God must be cleared away. The second kol says the news must be called out by heralds, man and woman.

What are these voices that interpret God’s original thought?

*

Some commentators view the voices as members of a divine council. In other religions of the ancient Near East, the gods assembled under the chairmanship of the chief god to discuss earthly affairs. The Hebrew Bible also mentions a divine council or assembly, whose members are variously described as:

           elohim (אֱלֺֹהִים) = gods; a god with various aspects; God.

           beney ha-elohim (בְּנֵי־הָאֱלֹהִים) = offspring of the gods; offspring of God.

           kedoshim (ֹקְדֹשִׁים) = holy ones, holy places.

           ruchot (רוּחוֹת) = spirits, winds, motivating forces.

In Psalm 82 the members of God’s assembly are called simply elohim, gods.

           God takes a stand in the assembly of El,

           Among elohim he pronounces judgment. (Psalm 82:1)

El is the high god in Canaanite mythology, equated with the God of Israel in this psalm.  God/El criticizes the elohim in God’s assembly for ignorantly favoring the wicked rather than the poor in their judgments, and decrees that henceforth these lesser gods will die like human beings.

Psalm 89 calls the members of the divine assembly beney elohim (“offspring of gods” or “offspring of God”) and kedoshim (“holy ones”), but they still appear to be lesser gods:

           Because who in the sky can measure up to God,

           Can compare to God, among beney elohim?

           El is greatly dreaded in the council of kedoshim

           And held in awe above everyone around Him. (Psalm 89:7-8)

In the book of Genesis, beney ha-elohim (offspring of “the gods” or God) resemble the gods in Greek myths.

The beney ha-elohim saw that the daughters of humankind were good, and they took wives for themselves from all that they chose. …when the beney ha-elohim came into the daughters of humankind, they bore children to them, heroes that were famous forever. (Genesis 6:2, 6:4)

Many scholars consider this fragment a piece of an ancient Canaanite text that was included in Genesis as a result of clumsy editing. However, the book of Job also refers to beney ha-elohim in its first two chapters.

One day the beney ha-elohim came to stand before God, and even the satan came among them. (Job 1:6)

satan (שָׂטָן) = accuser, adversary, one who feels animosity.

The satan persuades God to test Job to find out if he serves God only because he is fortunate, and God commissions this particular “offspring of the gods” to kill Job’s children and destroy his wealth. The heavenly council meets again, and the satan persuades God to commission him to afflict Job with diseases. Then most of the book is a long discussion of the problem of how God can be omnipotent and good, yet permit evil in the world.

Is the divine council of beney ha-elohim, including God’s satan, merely an engaging way of setting up the problem by using a Canaanite mythological theme? Or do the beney ha-elohim represent different aspects of the mind of God, like the different and sometimes conflicting inclinations in each human mind?

In the first book of Kings, the prophet Mikhayehu describes his vision of a divine council whose members appear to include stars, which are often called “the army of the heavens” in the Bible.

I saw God sitting on His throne, and all the army of the heavens was standing in attendance on Him to His right and to His left. And God said: “Who will fool Ahab so he will go up and fall at Ramot of Gilad?” And this one said thus, and this one said thus. Then the ruach went and stood before God and said: “I, I will fool him.” And God said to him: “How?”  And he said: “I will go and be a ruach of falsehood in the mouth of all his prophets.” (1 Kings 22:19-22)

ruach (רוּחַ) = spirit, wind, or motivating psychological force (singular of ruchot).

One or more ruchot are also at the council meeting, advising God. Just as God commissions the satan to carry out his suggestion about testing Job, in the first book of Kings God commissions the ruach to carry out his suggestion for bringing down Ahab. Elsewhere in the Bible, God sends a ruach elohim (a spirit of God) or a ruach hakodesh (a holy spirit) to individuals to overwhelm them with a mood or inspire them to become prophets. Here, the ruach that volunteers to makes Ahab’s prophets speak falsehoods is an aspect of God.

*

Back to this week’s haftarah in second Isaiah. I think the “voices” that respond to God’s initial order to nachamu, nachamu the people of Israel are like a divine council—but it is a council consisting of different aspects of one God. As God considers how to reassure the exiled Israelites, ideas arise, each with its own kol or voice.

The unnamed man and the mevaseret hear these divine voices inside their own heads, and they must respond.

Perhaps their response is the second book of Isaiah.

Va-etchannan: All in One

July 30, 2015 at 8:51 pm | Posted in Va-etchannan | 2 Comments
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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!

Jacob Wrestling with an Angel, by Gustave Dore, detail

Jacob Wrestling with an Angel by Gustave Dore, detail

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.

detail by John Constable

detail by John Constable

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?

Devarim: Enough Already

July 24, 2015 at 12:37 am | Posted in Devarim, Va-etchannan | Leave a comment
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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”).

Cloud over the portable sanctuary

Cloud over the portable sanctuary

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.)

Detour of Israelites

Detour of Israelites

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!

Va-etchannan: No Other

July 16, 2013 at 11:16 pm | Posted in Va-etchannan | Leave a comment

The god of Israel is the highest and strongest of all the gods in the first four books of the Torah—but other, inferior gods also appear to exist. In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God tells Moses and Aaron: I will pass over the land of Egypt on that night, and I sill strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt, from human to beast; and I will make judgments against all the gods of Egypt. (Exodus 12:12)

After they have crossed the Red Sea, Moses and the Israelites sing: Who is like You among the gods? (Exodus 15:11). The second of the Ten Commandments says: You shall not have other gods in front of me. (Exodus 20:3) God also says that when the Israelites conquer Canaan, they must drive out the natives, because otherwise they would end up serving their gods. God tells Moses: You shall not cut a covenant with them or with their gods. (Exodus 23:32). It all sounds as if the gods of other people are not mere fantasies.

In the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy/Devarim, Moses continues to warn his people not to serve other gods, but only after he has made it clear that no other gods actually exist. This week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan  (“And I implored”), may contain the first written statement of monotheism, the belief that there is one and only one god.

This statement occurs, twice, in Moses’ speech to reassure the Israelites that God will not abandon them. In this context, he identifies which god he is talking about:

Elohim who created humankind on the earth, and from one end of the heavens to the other end… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:32)

elohim = gods; God. The word elohim is the plural of eloah = god, a variant of the more common word for a god, el. The Torah uses the word elohim with a singular verb to refer to God, and with a plural verb to refer to multiple other gods.

Next Moses says the creator of the universe is also the god who revealed itself to the Israelites.

Has a people heard the voice of Elohim speaking from the midst of the fire, as you yourselves heard, and lived? Or has Elohim nissah coming and taking for himself a nation from within a nation, …with great awe, like all that Y-H-V-H your Elohim did for you in Egypt before your eyes? (Deuteronomy 4:33-34)

nissah = tried, tested, experimented with.

Y-H-V-H = The four Hebrew letters י and  ה and ו and ה, called the Tetragrammaton, are the personal name of God in the Torah. These four letters are also used for various conjugations of the Hebrew verb hayah = be, become, happen, occur.

Then comes Moses’ first monotheistic statement, eyn od (“there is no other”).

You yourself have been shown in order to know that Y-H-V-H Itself is the elohim; there is no other besides It alone. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:35)

Next Moses says why God, the creator, intervened in the usual order of creation and made miracles for the Israelites:

From the heavens It let you hear Its voice, leyasrekha; and on earth It let you see Its great fire, and you heard Its words from the midst of the fire. And because It loved your forefathers, It chose in their place their descendants after them, and brought you out from Egypt with Its presence, with great power. (Deuteronomy 4:36-37)

leyasrekha = to reprove you, to discipline you, to train you.

God made miracles in Egypt out of love for the forefathers of the children of Israel, and made miracles on the fire at Mount Sinai in order to train the children of Israel.

Moses repeats his statement of monotheism in order to urge the Israelites to believe it.

And you shall know today, and you shall take it into your heart, that Y-H-V-H is the elohim, in the heavens above and on the earth below; there is no other. (Deuteronomy 4:39)

According to Moses, we know that there is only one God because the people who joined the exodus from Egypt saw the miracles and heard the voice at Mount Sinai. Those people were shown direct evidence. Yet in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking 40 years after the exodus. Many of the Israelites he is addressing were born after the miracles in Egypt, after the revelation at Sinai. They themselves were not shown anything; they have to go by what their elders have told them.

Anyone who reads the book of Deuteronomy is in the same position. Why should we believe that there is one and only one god?

Some people believe it because their elders (parents, teachers, culture) told them, just like the Israelites in Deuteronomy. And some believe it because it says so in the Torah. They assume that the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy report everyone’s direct experience of God literally, without exaggeration or metaphor.

Some people believe it because they have had their own mystical experiences, which they interpret as manifestations of a single, universal god.

Some people believe it because they find one of the many logical arguments for the existence of God compelling (despite all the counter-arguments philosophers have made over the centuries).

And some people do not believe it. The number of polytheists has dwindled, as world religions have redefined lesser gods as manifestations or aspects of a single god. But many people are atheists, unable to believe God is real according to any of the usual definitions of God. For example, when I examine the standard medieval theologian’s definition of God as an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent, and personal being, I always conclude that such a god is impossible. According to that definition of God, I am an atheist.

Yet when I use the word “God”, or a Hebrew name for God, I am referring to something I believe is real. I am still fumbling toward my own definition of what I mean by “God”.

The book of Deuteronomy contains no explicit definition of God, but this week’s Torah portion does offer several clues. In the verses I translate above, Moses describes God as:

* the creator of humankind, and the creator of all the heavens (and therefore the universe).

* a creator of miracles, e.g. isolated events violating the usual ongoing order of the universe.

* a god whose personal name is based on the verb meaning “be, become, happen”.

* a speaker.

* an experimenter.

* a trainer.

* a lover.

This list appears to describe two different kinds of god. One is the abstract, unimaginable creator of the cosmos, who continues to create new events. Existence itself is this god’s name.

The other kind of god is more understandable, because it has some human traits. It tests and experiments with humans, like a scientist. It speaks to human beings, trains them, and loves them, like a parent. It is more powerful than any king, but this god resembles a human king more than an abstract generator of the cosmos.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses says Y-H-V-H and the Elohim are one; but he also assumes that the Cosmogenerator and the Invisible (but not inaudible) King are one.

Can you think of a way to reconcile the two notions of God, a reason why the two kinds of god are one? Do you find either version of God compelling?

Va-etchannan: Extreme Love

August 1, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Posted in Eikev, Va-etchannan | 2 Comments

You shall love God, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your uttermost. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:5)

ve-ahavta = And you shall love

levavekha = your heart, your mind, your stream of consciousness

nafshekha = your soul, your vitality, your life, your appetite, your desire

me-odekha = your uttermost, your muchness, your might, your means

The verse commanding us to love God, which appears in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (“And I implored”), is also a key moment in every evening and morning Jewish prayer. For Jews serious about prayer, it can be a daunting commandment.

What does it mean to love God?  And how can we do it?

When the book of Deuteronomy was written down, perhaps in the 7th century B.C.E., the word ahavah, “love”, often meant loyalty. When treaties called for vassals to love their overlords with all their heart, they meant that the vassals must be totally loyal.

This definition of love answers the question “How can love be commanded?” Our emotions may not be under our own control, but we can freely choose, over and over again, to act with loyalty. Similarly, we can choose to be committed to someone, even when our desires pull us in another direction.

The concept of love as commitment and loyalty continued in the Talmud, which tells the story of Rabbi Akiva’s execution by the Roman government, after his conviction for teaching Torah. Akiva interpreted nafshekha as “your life”, and said at his execution that he was fulfilling the commandment to love God with all his life.

Today it is still possible to be loyal and committed to your religion, and in one sense this counts as loving God.

Ideas about the meaning of the word  ahavah, “love”,  changed over the centuries, and Torah commentary on this verse changed accordingly. Medieval thinkers saw love as an overwhelming state of mind. In the 11th century, Bachya ibn Pakuda wrote in Duties of the Heart: “What does the love of God consist of? The soul’s complete surrender of its own accord to the Creator in order to cleave to His supernal light…” In this state of mind, there would be “no place for any other thought, sending forth not even one of the limbs of its body on any other service but that drawn to be His will; loosening the tongue but to make mention of Him and praise Him out of love of Him and longing for Him.”

This kind of obsessive passion sometimes happens to a lover who is falling in love, or to a mother who is enraptured by her baby.  The condition is temporary, and does not require any deliberate choice. Can obsessive passion for God be commanded? Can we choose to enter into that state?

In the 12th century, Moshe ben Maimon, known as Maimonides or Rambam, wrote that passion for God can be prompted by deliberately paying attention to the wonders of God’s creation. “When man contemplates His works and His wonderful, great creatures and fathoms through them His inestimable and boundless wisdom, he will immediately love, and praise, and exalt, and will be seized by a keen longing passion to know Him …” (Yesodei ha-Torah).  Judging by another of his books, Maimonides thought contemplation would lead to an obsession as great as the one Pakuda described. “What is suitable love? To love God with an exceedingly great and very intense love until one’s soul is knit with the love of God and one is constantly obsessed by it. As in a state of love-sickness, in which the mind cannot be diverted from the beloved, the love is constantly obsessed by his love, lying down or rising up, eating or drinking.” (Teshuva).

The Chassidic movement among eastern European Jews in the 18th century also placed a high value on passionate attachment to God, but its rabbis emphasized the feeling of longing for union with God. The holy Chassids are described as desiring God with an intensity like the sexual desire of a young adult who has fallen in love–hard. Yet the yearning for God seems to be enough, even if the lover of God occasionally gets distracted, and even if the lover never feels as if the union with God is consummated.

Building on the Chassidic tradition, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger wrote in his 1808 work Sfaat Emet (as translated by Arthur Green): “This means one should want nothing but God. ‘With all your soul’—‘with every single soul-breath that God has created in you.’ And the meaning of ‘be-khol levavekha’ is not ‘with all your heart,’ as most people interpret it. But rather, we need to become aware that each feeling we have is only the life force that comes from God. … Even if it is hard for us to imagine fulfilling ‘with all your heart,’ we should still have that willful longing to reach it at all times. For it is through this longing that gates open in the human heart.”

Later in the 19th century, the rationalist Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained the verse this way: “All your thoughts and emotions, all your wishes and aspirations, and all your possessions shall be regarded by you only as means for attaining closeness to God, for bringing God near to you; this shall be their sole value to you.” Selfish desires, he continued, should be sacrificed for the sake of the relationship with God.

Although self-sacrifice acquired a bad reputation in the 1960’s, today many people believe that marriages are successful when both partners are willing to sacrifice selfish desires for the sake of the marriage. Can this view of love as being unselfish and giving the other person priority be applied to God?

When I say or read the commandment to love God with all my heart/mind and all my desire/life and all my uttermost means, my immediate thought is always that it’s too hard.  I just don’t have the inner means to do it–whether I define love as loyalty and commitment, as passionate obsession, as extreme longing, or as self-sacrifice.

Yet I have loved a few human beings in all of those ways. Perhaps if I believed in an anthropomorphic god, I would be able to follow the commandment to love God.  Since I do not, I am hoping that partial love of God is better than none at all.  So instead of loving God as I love a human being, I am committed to Torah and a moral life. I have established a habit of remembering to contemplate the wonders of the universe, as Maimonides recommends, and a habit of moving my feeling-soul by singing prayers. I keep longing and seeking to go farther on this journey. I am taking better care of my real needs, but I am prepared to sacrifice any apparent needs to serve a greater good. That is my all my uttermost, all I can do to love God.

Va-etchannan: Attachment to Life

August 10, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Posted in Va-etchannan | 6 Comments

There’s a lot of theology in this week’s Torah potion, Va-etchannan (“And I implored”).  Besides relating God to fire (see my blog last year, Va-etchannan: Fire and Idols), Moses gives the “Shema“, the core statement that God is “one”; and the “Ve-ahavta“, telling us to love God in everything we do.  There is also the Torah’s first reference to God as Elohim Chayyim, the God of Life or the Living God.

For who, of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the God of Life speaking from the midst of the fire, as we did, has stayed alive?  (Deuteronomy 5:23)

chayyim = life; a vivid life; meaningful life

As in English, the Hebrew word for “life” has more than one meaning.  Sometimes chayyim is the opposite of physical death; when one of God’s plagues kills people, those who remain have life.  Sometimes it’s the opposite of mechanical existence; chayyim is life that is vividly experienced (as in the English “She’s full of life!”).  And sometimes it’s the opposite of meaningless existence; chayyim is life with purpose (as in the English “Get a life!”).

These three meanings of chayyim correspond to the first three levels of of soul. (Traditional Jewish kabbalah, including the Zohar, defines five levels of soul, the first three being personal to an individual, the last two merging with the divine, universal soul.)  Nefesh is the soul that animates the body with physical life, including the ability to breathe and move.  Ruach is experienced as  significant feelings or tides of emotion that motivate action.  Neshamah is the soul that receives inspiration, entertains ideas, grasps notions such as good versus bad, and makes whatever choices we can make through free will.

I think the phrase “God of Life” not only implies that God is like a human full of life, but also means that God is the source of all three kinds of life represented by these three kinds of personal soul.  At the beginning of Genesis/Bereishit, God creates the inanimate universe, and then all living things.  God makes the human, the adam, a “nefesh chayyah“, an animated animal, a living body.

Then God places the human nefesh in the garden of Eden and exposes it to the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.  When the human (now divided into male and female) taste the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, they feel shame and fear of God; they have acquired ruach.  They also gain an intuitive knowledge of good and bad and what it means to choose; each now has a neshamah.

The God that arranges for humankind to have these three levels of soul, these three kinds of “life”, also arranges their eventual death.  But it’s the nature of the world (outside the mythic garden of Eden) for  life and death, good and bad, to come in pairs.  You can’t have one without the other.

After so much attention in the last book of the Torah, Bedmidbar, to God as the dealer of death, this week’s Torah portion focuses on the God of Life— and our own ability to choose life by clinging to God.

But you who are sticking to Yah your God, all of you have life today.  (Deuteronomy 4:4)

deveikim = sticking to, clinging to, being attached to

How do we attach ourselves to God?

On the simple animal level of action, the level of nefesh, Moses keeps telling the Israelites to stick to God by following God’s rules and avoiding idol worship.  Jewish writing ever since has also urged people to be “observant”, to follow all the rules, whether they are about not killing your neighbor or not lighting a fire on the sabbath.

Much of later Jewish writing urges the cultivation of deveikut, the practice of inner attachment to God.  This includes redirecting one’s ruach to feeling awe and/or love of God at every moment—something that only the greatest Jewish saints or tzaddikim are said to have achieved.

A line in this week’s Torah portion also refers to both actions and emotions, to both moving and being moved:

And Hashem commanded us to carry out all these decrees, feeling awe of God, our God, for our own good, all the days—to keep us alive as we are this day.  (Deuteronomy 6:24)

Both following the rules and feeling awe are necessary to keep us  “alive”, to maintain both mechanical life and a vivid experience of life.

But to be fully human, we also need a life of meaning and purpose, the life expressed by our neshama.  People who stick to God’s decrees by following the letter of the law rather than its spirit may feel righteous, but they often act without enough respect for other human beings.  This makes their lives thin and their loves limited.

People cling to their god with emotion may feel as though their lives are rich with meaning, but sometimes, drowning in their own feelings they, too, act without enough respect for other human beings.  This makes their lives ungrounded and their loves unreliable.

For our own good, and for the good of our whole world, I believe we need a third way of being attached to God, the way of the neshamah.  We need to rethink our automatic actions, transcend our feelings, and cultivate awareness of other human beings and of the whole world.  We need to reach inside for our deepest ethics, and make free choices from that deep knowledge of good and bad.  Only then will we have a life of meaning and purpose, attached to the god that is Oneness.

Here’s to life!  Lechayyim!  May we all savor a life of action, a life of feeling, and a life of meaning.

Va-etchannan: Fire and Idols

April 13, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Posted in Va-etchannan | 1 Comment

(This blog was first posted on July 21, 2010.)

And you drew near, and you stood under the mountain, and the mountain was blazing with fire up to the heart of the heavens, darkness, cloud, and thick fog.  Then God spoke to you from the middle of the fire.  You were hearing a sound of words, but you were seeing no form, nothing but a sound.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:11-12)

You must watch over yourselves, lest you forget the covenant that God, your God, cut with you, and you make for yourselves a carved idol of any form that you appointed to God, your God.  Because God, your God, is a consuming fire, a god demanding exclusive rights.  (Deuteronomy 4:23-24)

choshech = darkness; (figuratively) obscurity, hiddenness, blindness, ignorance, curse

arafel = gloom, opaque darkness, thick cloud or fog

Moses makes Mount Horev, a.k.a. Mount Sinai, sounds like a holy volcano.  But there is a practical purpose behind Moses’ description in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (I implored).  As he continues to remind the Israelites of their history since they left Egypt, Moses emphasizes what he thinks they need to know when they cross the Jordan and start a new nation.

Exodus chapters 19-20 gave us the first description of the revelation and receiving of the ten commandments at Mount Sinai.  This account mentioned fire only twice.  Moses’ recapitulation in Deuteronomy chapters 4-5 mentions fire 16 times.

His most intense description, translated in the first quote above, is quite a contrast from the first time Moses ever heard the voice of God, at the burning bush.  That was a small fire, in broad daylight, that burned but did not consume.  Now, at the edge of the promised land (and his own death), Moses associates God’s voice with an over-whelming, terrifying, consuming fire.  And the fire is surrounded with darkness, cloud, and thick fog.  Maimonides (Rambam) explained this verse by writing that God is a constant, brilliant light, but our own inability to understand holiness appears to us as darkness.

Actually fire, darkness, and cloud or fog are all hard to see through, or to grasp (both literally and metaphorically).  By implication, God also has no definite boundaries, is constantly moving and changing, and is impossible to comprehend.

Moses presents this idea of God along with a long sermon against worshiping idols carved out of wood or stone, like the Canaanites who live in the land the Israelites are about to take over.  Being man-made inanimate objects, idols are solid, concrete, tangible, and immobile, the opposite of fire and fog.

Actually, other ancient religions in the Middle East viewed idols as forms that gods would temporarily inhabit, rather than as gods themselves.  Even so, Moses warns the Israelites against trying to use idols for any religious purpose; God cannot be lured into temporarily inhabiting an idol.

God does not even inhabit fires or clouds, but merely creates them—including the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that leads the Israelites on all their journeys through the wilderness; and the fire that consumes Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu (see my blog “Shemini:  Strange Fire”).  And on rare occasions—at God’s first covenant with Abraham, at the burning bush, and at Mount Sinai/Horev—God speaks from the fire.

Fire is an unnerving metaphor for God’s direct intrusion into our world.  The Israelites are terrified of being consumed by God’s fiery presence, or even of hearing God’s voice from the fire.  So they beg Moses to stand between them and God, and tell them what God says.

I’ve met people who yearn for the divine so much that they want God’s presence, unmediated.  They’re ready to be blasted away.  I’m a more cautious person, myself, and I’d be afraid to experience more of the divine than the few momentary spiritual experiences I’ve had so far.  But I’m not too worried.  I suspect that only our “right brains”, our irrational, intuitive minds, can be touched by an experience of God.  Most of the time, our “left brains”, our rational egos, are built-in mediators that protect us from being consumed by divine fire.  We have our own inner Moses to translate for us and keep us sane.

Of course we lose something in translation.  Every moment of enlightenment, every perception of something beyond normal experience, such as a voice in a fire, is surrounded with obscuring darkness, cloud, and thick fog.  Inspiration strikes—but we are only human, and deep mystery remains.

May we all learn to be grateful for both sides of the human mind.  And may we learn that we cannot express the mystery at the heart of existence through tidy, concrete statements and creeds—any more than we can lure God into inhabiting idols.

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