Tags: book of life, Golden Calf, levirite marriage, Psalm 109, Psalm 69
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
Of course God is angry about the golden calf. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below.” (Exodus/Shemot 20:4) It’s right there in the Ten Commandments. Why can’t these Israelites follow simple directions?
Moses is about to walk back down Mt. Sinai with the two stone tablets in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, when God warns him that the Israelites below have cast a golden calf and are worshiping it. (See my blog post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen.)
And God said to Moses: “I have observed this people, and hey, it is a stiff-necked people! So now let Me be, and My anger will blaze over them and I will consume them, and I will make you into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9-10)
Moses talks God out of this idea. Then he walks down the mountain, smashes the two stone tablets, and gets the Levites to kill the 3,000 worst offenders.
The next day he climbs back up Mt. Sinai to ask God to forgive the surviving Israelites.
“And now, if you will only lift their guilt! But if not, please mecheini from your book that you have written.” But God said to Moses: “Whoever sinned against Me, emechenu from My book. Now go lead the people to [the place] that I have spoken of to you.” (Exodus 32:32-33)
mecheini (מְחֵנִי) = wipe me away, erase me. (A form of the verb machah, מָחָה = wiped out, wiped off, destroyed, blotted out.1)
emechenu (אֶמְחֶנּוּ) = I will wipe them off, I will erase them. (Another form of the verb machah.)
In other words, Moses insists that his personal fate must not be separated from that of the Israelites. If God erases them from the book, God must erase him, too. God replies that guilty individuals will erased, but the people of Israel as a whole will continue their journey under Moses’s leadership.
When the story is retold in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God says to Moses:
“Hey! This is a stiff-necked people. Leave me alone, and I will exterminate them, and emecheh their name from under the heavens, and I will make you a nation greater than they.” (Deuteronomy 9:13-14)
emecheh (אֶמְחֶה) = I will wipe it out, I will erase it. (Another form of the verb machah.)
The Hebrew word for “name”, sheim (שֵׁם), means not only an appellation, but also someone’s reputation, standing, or renown (as in the English “making a name for herself”).
God’s book appears to be a list of names recorded at birth. Female names are not mentioned (the Bible reflects the male-centered, patriarchal society of its time), so we do not know if the list is comprehensive.
What happens when someone’s name is machah from the divine list?
One clue appears later in Deuteronomy. Lineage is important in the Bible; for a man to die without any male heirs is a terrible fate. So if a married man died without issue, his brother was obligated to impregnate the widow. If she bore a son, he would become the dead man’s heir.
And the firstborn that she bears shall be established on the name of his dead brother, and his name will not yimacheh from Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:6)
yimacheh (יִמָּחֶה) = be wiped out, be erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)
Two of the psalms include pleas for God to punish enemies by erasing their names from the divine book. Psalm 109 opens with a complaint that certain people are lying about the psalmist, accusing him without cause. Verses 6-19 ask God to punish a personal enemy. These verses include separate requests for the man to be convicted of a crime, lose his job, and become impoverished while alive; for him to die before his time; for his children and his parents to suffer; and for his lineage to be exterminated.
May no one extend kindness to him;
And may no one be gracious to his orphans.
May his posterity be cut off;
In the next generation, may their names yimach. (Psalm 109:12-13)
yimach (יִמַּח) = be blotted out, erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)
In Psalm 69, the speaker feels as though he is drowning, and asks God to rescue him from being shamed and abused. Then he asks God to punish all his enemies. This middle section concludes with:
Place guilt upon their guilt,
and do not let them come into Your righteous deliverance.
Yimachu from the book of life,
And among the righteous do not record them. (Psalm 69:28-29)
yimachu (יִמַּחְוּ) = May they be blotted out, erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)
This passage alludes to two divine lists: a “book of life” or “book of the living” (seifer chayim, סֵפֶר חַיִּים), and a record of the righteous, which may or may not be the same scroll. When the psalmist asks for the names of his tormentors to be erased from the book of life, he may be asking God to deprive them of heirs, or he may be asking God to make them die soon.
The Hebrew Bible refers to God’s list of names as a “book of life” only in Psalm 69, which was written around 500 B.C.E. Almost a thousand years later, the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Rosh Hashanah 16b) cited Psalm 69:29 as support for the idea that God keeps three books of names. According to this tractate, on the first day of each new year, Rosh Hashanah, God writes down the names of the righteous in one book and the names of the wicked in another. People whose deeds are partly good and partly bad are listed in the third book until Yom Kippur, nine days later, when God decides which of these intermediate people to record in the book of the righteous and which in the book of the wicked.
What happens to the people listed in these books? The Talmud says that according to school of Shammai, those in the book of the righteous are rewarded with everlasting life, while those in the book of the wicked go to Gehinnom after death.2
But by the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, codified in the 9th century C.E., says simply that God writes down who will live and who will die that year; any possibility of life after death is omitted.3 Neither does the liturgy mention wiping out any names that were written earlier.
The image of God erasing names from a book expresses a biblical hope that people will be punished for bad deeds, either by untimely death or by the end of their lineage—equally bad fates from an ancient Israelite point of view.
Few people today believe God punishes miscreants in this way. Some folks still cling to the idea of reward or punishment after death. I prefer the idea that virtue is its own reward, and I believe that people who enjoy being mean never get to experience the best things in life, such as true friendship and love.
Today the image of God keeping a book, or books, of names is still used in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services as a metaphor for the idea that God only knows when a person will die. The liturgy pleading to be written into this year’s “book of life” provides emotional reinforcement for the knowledge that the time of our death is unknown—and therefore it behooves us to use our present lives well.
May all human beings, whatever their past deeds and attitudes have been, wake up with new insight into the shortness of life and the value of goodness. And may we all realize, like Moses in this week’s Torah portion, that there is no point in having our own names written in the book of life unless our fellow human beings are also listed there.
1 The Bible uses various forms of the verb machah not only for wiping away or erasing names, but also for wiping away tears, wiping a dish clean, or wiping out (killing) an entire population. God tells the Israelites to wipe out the memory of an enemy tribe called Amaleik; several Israelite leaders beg God not to wipe out, i.e. forget, someone’s good or bad deeds. When a husband accused his wife of adultery, a priest wrote a curse on a scroll, then machah it in water and made the woman drink it; the results determined her guilt or innocence (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:23-24).
2 Talmud Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 16b. There is also a Christian tradition about a “book of life” that is a divine record of who will “go to heaven” after death.
3 Prayers for God to “inscribe us in the book of life” were added to the Amidah sections of Rosh Hashanah liturgy by the Babylonian Geonim in the 9th century C.E. The “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer, an earlier addition to the liturgy, states that every year God decrees who will die, and by what means, during the coming year.
Ramban (13th century Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, known as Nachmanides) explained that the book of the righteous is the book of life, and the book of the wicked is the book of death. Everyone whose name is written in the book of life merits life until the following Rosh Hashanah, and everyone whose name is written in the book of death will die that year.
Tags: Babylonian exile, Golden Calf, mishkan, Psalm 74, sanctuary, temple, torah portion
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
Where does God live?
The “heavens” are the primary residence of many gods, including the God of Israel in the Hebrew Bible. In Canaanite and Babylonian religions, the gods inhabit both the heavens and any number of statues on earth. The God of Israel flatly rejects idols, but still wants a second home on earth. In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”), Moses is receiving instructions from God on top of Mount Sinai. God tells him:
They shall make a holy place for me, veshakhanti among them. Like everything that I show you, the pattern of the mishkan and the pattern of all its furnishings, that is how you shall make it. (Exodus/Shemot 25:8-9)
veshakhanti (וְשָׁכַנְתִּי) = and I will dwell, and I will stay. (A form of the root verb shakhan (שָׁכַן) = stay, settle, dwell, inhabit. This is the first occurrence in the Bible of the verb shakhan.)
mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = dwelling-place, home. (Also from the root verb shakhan. This is also the first occurrence in the Bible of the noun mishkan.)
Moses stays on top of Mount Sinai so long—40 days and 40 nights—that in the Torah portion Ki Tissa the Israelites at the foot of the mountain despair of seeing him again. So they make a golden calf in the hope that God will inhabit it.1 God refuses the golden statue and threatens to destroy all the Israelites except Moses and his direct descendants. Moses refuses God’s offer, and God settles for sending a plague.2
After the surviving Israelites have built an elaborate portable tent-sanctuary according to God’s instructions, God descends on it in a pillar of cloud.3 In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the ark in this mishkan’s innermost chamber.
Throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers the only mishkan for God is the portable tent-sanctuary. In the first book of Samuel a temple in Shiloh houses the ark, and God speaks to Samuel there.4
King Solomon builds a temple of stone and wood in Jerusalem for God to inhabit. (See my post Terumah & 1 Kings: Tent vs. Temple.) This temple lasts until the Babylonian army razes it in 587 B.C.E., along with most of the city.
Psalm 74 argues that this act was not merely a political conquest by the expanding Babylonian empire, but an attempt to eradicate the worship of God by destroying God’s home on earth. The psalmist, like most prophets writing after the fall of the first temple, probably believed God arranged the fall of Jerusalem in order to punish the Israelites for worshiping idols. Now that the punishment is complete, the psalmist is waiting for God to rescue the deported Israelites (and punish the Babylonians).
Why, God, do You endlessly reject us?
Your anger smokes at the flock You tended.
Remember Your community You acquired long ago!
You redeemed the tribe of your possession.
Mount Zion is where shakhanta. (Psalm 74:1-2)
shakhanta (שָׁכַנְתָּ) = you dwelled, you lived. (Another form of the verb shakhan.)
The psalm then describes how the Babylonian army replaced all the emblems of the Israelite religion in the temple with their own emblems, hacked up the carved ornamentation, and burned the wooden parts of the building down to the ground.
They set Your holy place on fire;
They profaned the ground inside the mishkan of Your name. (Psalm 74:7)
Given this disrespect, and given that the Israelites are the people God adopted and brought to Jerusalem in the first place, Psalm 74 asks why God is taking so long to restore God’s own mishkan, city, and people.
Why do you draw back Your right hand,
Holding it in Your bosom? (Psalm 74:11)
The psalm then points out that God created the world and the day and night, then did great deeds without a mishkan on earth. Lack of power is not holding God back. And the Israelites, particularly the poor and needy, belong to God.
Look to the covenant! (Psalm 74:20)
If God would only pay attention, the psalm implies, God would honor Its covenant, restore the Israelites to Jerusalem, and cause a new mishkan to be built there to facilitate worship.
Do not let the miserable turn back disgraced.
Let the poor and the needy praise Your name! (Psalm 74:21)
In Psalm 74, the mishkan of God is also the mishkan of the people. They need their own home, and they need to have a home for God in their midst. Then, instead of suffering miserably, the needy can praise God and rejoice.
Many Jews still want a home where we are free to praise God, to practice our own religion without fear or discrimination.
Half of the Jews in the world live in the nation of Israel, founded in 1948 as a homeland where Jews could escape the genocide, as well as less drastic forms of discrimination, inflicted on them in Europe. Yet over the next 69 years, the Jewish and Muslim residents of Israel have been attacked both by neighboring countries and by each other.
Most of the Jews living outside Israel today are American citizens. Discrimination against Jews in the United States has fallen over the past sixty years, and many of us view America as our real home, where we can participate in the life of our country and remain free to practice our own religion. God has many second homes among religious American Jews; every synagogue is a divine mishkan, and each of us can make a mishkan for God to dwell in our own hearts.
Yet in the past year, discrimination against ethnic and religious groups has become more socially acceptable in the United States. Psalm 74 suddenly seems more relevant.
I pray that the divine spirit blooms in all of our hearts. May we quickly reverse this dangerous trend. And may all people, everywhere, find a safe home.
Do not let the miserable turn back disgraced!
1 Exodus 32:1-5.
2 Exodus 32:35: Then God struck the people over what they had done with the calf that Aaron made.
3 Exodus 40:33-34: When Moses completed the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the magnificence of God filled the mishkan.
4 1 Samuel 3:1-10.
Tags: 1 Kings, Baal, Elijah, fire offerings, haftarah, King Ahab, King Saul, Moses, prophets, religion, torah portion
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 Tissa (Exodus 30:11-34:31), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 18:1-39.
And Elijah said to the people: I am the only navi left for God, and the neviyim of the Baal are 450 men. (1 Kings 18:22)
navi (נָבִיא) = prophet. (From the root verb niba (נבּא) = raved; conveyed the word of God.)
neviyim (נְבִיאִִים) = plural of navi.
The Hebrew Bible uses the word navi for two kinds of people: those who go into an altered state in order to experience God, and those who hear God whether they want to or not.
In the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses is the prophet who hears God directly, whenever God wants to speak to him. When God first speaks to him at the burning bush, Moses tries to turn down God’s mission, but later he gets used to passing on God’s words to Pharaoh and the Israelites. God also uses Moses to signal miracles, both by words and by raising his staff or his hand. He is a full-service prophet, but he never goes into a prophetic ecstasy.
The book of Numbers/Bemidbar gives us an example of a non-Israelite prophet who does not rave in ecstasy, but hears and must obey God’s commands. First Bilam hears God’s words in dreams, but by the end of his story God is channeling poetic prophecies to him directly. (See my post Balak: Three Places to Be Blessed.)
There are also bands of Israelite prophets who go into an altered state and speak in ecstasy, but do not hear or convey God’s commands. In one episode in the first book of Samuel, King Saul sends messengers to seize David, whom the prophet Samuel has anointed behind Saul’s back.
And they saw a group of the neviyim nibim, and Samuel standing stationed over them. And the spirit of God came over the messengers of Saul, vayitnabu, even they. And they told Saul, and he sent other messengers, vayitnabu, even they. Then Saul sent a third group of messengers, vayitnabu, even they. (1 Samuel 19:20-21)
nibim (נִבְּאִים) = speaking in ecstasy; raving.
vayitnabu (וַיִּתְנַבְּאוּ) = and they spoke in prophetic ecstasy; and they raved as if insane.
Next Saul goes himself in search of David.
And he walked there, to Nayot in Ramah, and the spirit of God came over him, even him, and he continued walking, vayitnabei until he entered Nayot in Ramah. Then he stripped off his clothes, even he, vayitnabei, even he, in front of Samuel, and he fell naked… (1 Samuel 19:23-24)
vayitnabei (וַיִּתְנַבֵּא) = and he spoke in prophetic ecstasy; and he raved.
The two kinds of neviyim could be easily distinguished; one kind quietly listens to God’s words and then speaks and acts like a rational person, while the other kind is overcome by God’s spirit and speaks and acts like a madman.
In this week’s haftarah Elijah is a navi in the tradition of Moses: he hears God while he is in his normal consciousness, he tells God’s words to other people, and he serves as a conduit for God’s miracles. He also thinks up a plan to achieve God’s ends.
The 450 prophets of Baal, on the other hand, are neviyim who induce an altered state of prophetic ecstasy in themselves.
At this time, the northern kingdom of Israel is ruled by King Ahab, who welcomes the worship of the Canaanite gods Asherah (a mother goddess) and Baal (a god of weather, especially lightning and rain). Ahab’s wife Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon, supports hundreds of prophets who serve these two gods, but wants to exterminate all the prophets of the God of Israel.
Since Israel under King Ahab views Baal as the god in charge of weather, Elijah warns Ahab that it will not rain again until he, the servant of God, says so. Then Elijah flees and hides east of the Jordan while Israel suffers three years of drought.
This week’s haftarah begins:
And it was much later, and the word of God happened to Elijah in the third year, saying: Go, appear to Ahab; then I will send rain over the face of the earth. (1 Kings 18:1)
When Elijah confronts King Ahab again, he requests a contest.
Now send, gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 neviyim of the Baal and the 400 neviyim of the Asherah who eat at the table of Jezebel. (1 Kings 18:19)
Instead of killing Elijah on the spot, the king arranges a contest between God and Baal. (The neviyim of the goddess Asherah drop out of the story at this point.) Ahab probably expects Elijah and the God of Israel to lose. After all, God will have only one prophet, Elijah; Baal will have 450. On Mount Carmel God’s altar is in ruins; Baal’s altar is in good repair. The winning side will be the one whose god who answers with fire; lightning is one of Baal’s specialties.
Once everyone has gathered at Mount Carmel, Elijah says:
So the contest begins. Each side gets its altar, a bull to butcher, and a stack of wood. When each sacrifice is prepared, the prophets will call on their gods. The Israelites agree that the god who answers by setting the wood on fire will be their god henceforth.
Elijah lets the neviyim of Baal go first.
…and they called in the name of the Baal, saying: Answer us! But there was no voice and there was no answer. Then they hopped around on the altar that was prepared. And at noon Elijah mocked them, and said: Call in a louder voice! After all, he is a god. Maybe he is chatting, or maybe he is preoccupied, or maybe he is on the road. Maybe he is sleeping, and he will wake up.
And they called in a louder voice, and they cut themselves with daggers and with lances, as is their custom, and blood poured out over them. And noon passed, vayitnabu, until the time of the afternoon offering, but no one answered and no one paid attention. (1 Kings 18:26-29)
The neviyim of Baal did everything they could to work themselves into a prophetic ecstasy, but their speech sounded like insane raving—especially in light of Elijah’s mockery and the lack of response from Baal.
Then Elijah repaired the altar for the God of Israel, laid out his bull offering on the wood, and had twelve jugs of water poured over it, so everyone would see that no ordinary fire could burn there. Then he said:
God, god of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, today may it be known that You are elohim in Israel and I am Your servant, and at Your word I did all these things. Answer me, God, answer me, and this people will know that You, God, are the god… And the fire of God fell, and it ate up the rising-offering and the wood and the stones and the dirt, and it licked up the water in the trench. And all the people saw, and they fell on their faces and said: God, He is the elohim! God, He is the elohim! (1 Kings 18:36-39)
Later that day, it finally rains.
And the winner is … not only the God of Israel, but also his rational navi.
Does this mean the bible prefers non-ecstatic prophets? Not quite. The bands of raving Israelite neviyim are not criticized in either the book of Numbers or the first book of Samuel. There is nothing wrong with entering an altered state in order to experience God’s presence.
But experiencing God’s presence is different from hearing God’s words. A navi like Moses or Elijah hears God whether he wants to or not, and must keep his head in order to act on God’s words, whether he is passing on divine information, signaling a miracle, or, in this week’s haftarah, elaborating on a hint from God (Go, appear to Ahab; then I will send rain over the face of the earth) in order to make the right things happen.
May all of us who engage in religion remember that experiencing God in an altered state, or even in an especially good worship service, is not the same as serving God. To truly serve God, we must listen for the divine word or inspiration during our everyday lives, and think carefully before we act.
Tags: ark of the covenant, Exodus, Golden Calf, idols, religion, Torah commentary, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
For 40 days at the top of Mount Sinai, Moses listens to God’s instructions on ordaining priests and making a sanctuary for the new religion. The holiest object in the sanctuary will be the ark—a gold-plated box covered by a solid gold lid with two keruvim (sphinx-like creatures with eagle wings, lion bodies, and human faces) hammered out of the gold at the two ends of the lid.
Meanwhile, in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“When you bring up”), the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai conclude that Moses is never coming back.
The people saw that Moses was horribly late in going down from the mountain, so the people assembled against Aaron, and they said to him: Get up, make us elohim that will go before us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him! (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)
elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = gods; God; divine powers. (Elohim is the plural of eloha (אֱלוֹהַּ) = god, God.)
When the Israelites ask Aaron to make elohim, they want images of gods that carry some divine power or magic.
Aaron said to them: Pull off the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me. And all the people pulled off the gold rings in their ears, and they brought them to Aaron. He took [the gold] from their hand, and he shaped it in the mold, and he made it a calf of cast metal. And they said: These are your elohim, Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt! (Exodus 32:2-4)
There is only one gold statue, yet the people use the plural “these”. Modern commentator Robert Alter wrote that the Golden Calf was not intended to be inhabited by a deity, but rather to serve as the throne for one or more gods. The Phoenician storm god Hadad was pictured standing on a bull.
The ark with its keruvim is not a throne. Later in the Bible, God acquires the title “Who Sits [Above] the Keruvim”, but the only descriptions of God sitting above keruvim refer to angelic creatures in the heavens, not to the solid keruvim in the sanctuary.
Later in the Bible, King Jereboam, the first ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, sets up a golden calf in each of his two temples, one at Bethel and one in Dan. The Torah denounces these golden calves as sinful (reflecting the viewpoint of the southern kingdom of Judah, which retains two keruvim in the temple at Jerusalem).
Why are two gold keruvim acceptable to God, while a golden calf is not?
Hammered, not cast or carved
One line of commentary argues that God objects to cast-metal images, but not to images hammered out of a lump of gold. God does say “Cast-metal gods you shall not make for yourselves. (Exodus 34:17)”—but only later in this week’s Torah portion, after Moses has ground up the Golden Calf and climbed Mount Sinai for a second 40-day conference with God.
Imaginary, not actual
In one of the Ten Commandments, which come before the Golden Calf episode in the Torah, God declares: “You shall not make for yourself a carved idol, or any image of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters underneath. (Exodus 20:4)” One could argue that the Golden Calf is an image of an animal that lives on the earth, while the keruvim do not represent any known animal.
Commanded, not volunteered
In his book Kuzari, 12th-century commentator Judah Halevi argues that images were psychologically necessary for people in that era. Until they reached Mount Sinai, the Israelites followed a visible pillar of cloud and fire. After the pillar disappeared, they waited for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai with some other visible item. Only after they concluded Moses would never return did they make an unauthorized image. Halevi wrote: “They should have waited and not made an image by themselves.”
The difference between the keruvim and the Golden Calf, according to Halevi and subsequent commentary by Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel, is that God ordered the keruvim. God does not want people to use anything that God Itself has not authorized.
Heard, not seen
I think the underlying problem is that in the Torah, God is heard and not seen. Later in this week’s Torah portion, God explains to Moses:
You will not be able to see My face, because humankind may not see Me and live. (Exodus 33:20)
Even the pillar of cloud and fire is called God’s messenger, not God Itself. Only God’s creations can be seen. But God’s voice is heard by all the people in the revelation at Mount Sinai. And throughout the Bible, God speaks to select human beings.
The Israelites err in expecting God to manifest as a visible shape, sitting astride the calf or standing on its back. They want the reassurance of something they can see. But God only manifests as a voice; God wants people to listen for God’s words.
If God’s voice came from the Golden Calf, it would seem as though the words issued from the calf’s mouth—a clear case of idolatry. This is not a problem with the two keruvim at the ends of the ark. The Torah says that after the Holy of Holies is finished, God will speak from the empty space above the cover of the ark, between the wings of the Keruvim. ART
In the Torah, God does not speak from the solid and visible Golden Calf, but from the invisible empty space in between the keruvim.
In our lives today, God does not speak from visible and mundane things such as gold jewelry or expensive cars. God speaks to us from out of nowhere—if we make empty spaces in our lives, and listen.
Tags: ark of the covenant, brit, Covenant of Blood, Exodus, Moses, Ten Commandments, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
A covenant can be a comfort. It’s reassuring to have a signed contract stating what you are required to do, and what the other party will do for you. When we feel insecure about an arrangement, we say, “Can I have that in writing?”
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”) includes the first covenant in the Torah that is backed up in writing. Yet it is broken sooner than any of the unwritten covenants in the book of Genesis/Bereishit—because one of the covenantal parties is God.
A classic covenant between two human beings is the compact between Jacob and his father-in-law, Lavan. Jacob heads back to Canaan with the family and livestock he acquired by serving Lavan for 20 years. Lavan, who does not want to lose his best employee, catches up with him on the heights of Gilead. They argue over who owns what, and then Lavan says:
So now, let us go and cut a brit, I and you… (Genesis/Bereishit 31:44)
brit (בְּרִית) = covenant, pact, treaty.
The two men set up a standing-stone and a mound of stones to serve as a boundary marker, a “witness”, and a sign of their brit. Lavan announces the terms: neither man will pass that boundary with hostile intent; and in addition, Jacob will neither mistreat Lavan’s daughters nor take any additional wives.
Then each man swears by a different name of the same God. Finally, Jacob slaughters animals, and the two chieftains and their men feast on the mountain.
Both leaders carry out the terms of their brit. Each party gives up something that might be in his self-interest (invading the other’s territory) in order to gain something that is definitely in his self-interest (safety from invasion by the other). The terms are reasonable, and the men do not want to violate a treaty made with an accepted ritual in front of three kinds of witnesses: boundary stones, other human beings, and God.
A brit with God is not so straightforward.
The first two times God declares a brit with human beings, it is really a unilateral promise, with no obligation stipulated for the humans. In the Covenant of the Rainbow, God promises not to destroy the earth with a flood again. In the Covenant of the Pieces, God promises to give Canaan to Abraham’s descendants.
God’s third brit repeats that God will give Abraham’s descendants, and adds that God will “be a god” to them and make them “nations” and “kings”. Then God says:
This is my brit, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Let every male be circumcised. You shall all be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it will be a sign of the brit between Me and you. (Genesis 17:10-11)
Circumcision is the stipulated action for humans, the ritual, and the sign of the covenant, all in one. Jews have performed their part of the brit milah (Covenant of Circumcision) for thousands of years, with or without possession of the land of Canaan, because it is an act of dedication to God—and each infant boy or adult male convert only has to go through it once.
In the book of Exodus, when the Israelites reach Mount Sinai, God proposes a new brit, one that the commentary calls the Covenant of Blood. God gives the Israelites and their fellow-travelers the Ten Commandments, followed by a list of other laws, beginning with a second injunction against making “gods” of silver or gold, and ending (in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim) with: “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. (Exodus/Shemot 23:19)
In return for obeying all these laws, God promises the people that they will never get sick, their women will be fertile and never miscarry, none of their lives will be cut short, their enemies will run away from them, and they will gradually take over not only Canaan, but all the land from the Mediterranean to the eastern wilderness and from the Euphrates in the north to the Reed Sea in the south.
This is the third time God promises to give the Israelites possession of the Promised Land. But it is the first and only time God promises to exempt the people from natural law by making them super-human, with bodies that are invulnerable to illness, infertility, miscarriage, and even accidental death. Such a deal!
Moses makes sure this new brit is ratified with elaborate ritual, symbolic reminders, and even a written copy.
Then Moses wrote down all the words of God, and he got up early in the morning, and he built an altar at the bottom of the mountain, and twelve standing-stones for the twelve tribes of Israel. … and they slaughtered animal-offerings of wholeness for God … And half of the blood he sprinkled over the altar. And he took the Book of the Brit and he read it in the ears of the people, and they said: Everything that God has spoken, we will do and we will listen! Then Moses took the blood and he sprinkled it over the people, and he said: Here is the blood of the brit that God has cut with you concerning all these words! (Genesis 24:4-8)
The blood from the animal offerings is sprinkled both on the symbol of God (the altar), and on the people (or at least the elders in front). The people ratify the brit by shouting “we will do and we will listen”, indicating their willingness to obey not only these laws, but also any future laws God chooses to give them.
According to 20th-century commentator Nahum Sarna, the ritual is completed when God gives Moses an even more impressive symbolic reminder: a pair of stone tablets on which God writes the teachings and commandments.
The people violate their part of the brit only 40 days later, in the Torah portion Ki Tissa. While Moses is receiving the stone tablets on top of Mount Sinai receiving, the Israelites below lose hope that he will ever return, and revert to their old ideas of God. When Moses comes down, the people are carousing in front of the Golden Calf, in clear violation of the rule against making a god of silver or gold. So the whole elaborate brit becomes null and void, and Moses smashes the tablets.
God never makes the Israelites super-human. But Moses does persuade God to forgive them. And God declares a second, modified brit in which God commits only to driving out the peoples living in Canaan. On their side, the Israelites must obey a list of rules that begins with refraining from cutting a brit with any of the peoples they are supposed to be displacing, and ends with “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. (Exodus 34:10-26)
And God said to Moses: Write down for yourself these words, because according to these words I have cut a brit with you and with Israel. (Exodus 34:27)
The Ten Commandments are not explicitly mentioned, but most commentators assume they are included in the words Moses carves on a second pair of stone tablets. Later the Israelites make a golden ark, following God’s instructions, and Moses places the tablets inside.
The Israelites continue to backslide on obeying God’s rules (though there is no record that they ever cook a kid in its mother’s milk). In the book of Joshua, God does not drive their enemies away, so the Israelites conquer most of Canaan by conventional warfare. Thus the second brit between God and the Israelites is also a failure.
Yet the Torah continues to call the ark containing the stone tablets aron ha-brit, “Ark of the Covenant”, and it remains the Israelites’ most revered object until it disappears during the fall of the first temple in Jerusalem.
A contract between two humans, or a treaty between two nations, is a practical affair. The obligations of both parties are feasible and spelled out clearly. The proper ritual and witnesses help to enforce the brit.
A brit between humans and God is more like a modern marriage covenant. Both parties make lifelong promises without any practical limitations. The ritual, witnesses, symbols, and written documents have emotional importance, but they do not prevent either party from falling short. At some point, a spouse is psychologically unable to be as loving and supportive as he or she intended. At some point, a religious human being is psychologically unable to obey every rule she or he has taken on. And God, at best, appears to operate on a non-human timeline.
Sometimes a marriage ends in divorce, and sometimes a brit with God ends in apostasy. But often, spouses pull themselves together and rededicate themselves to their marriage. And often, people seeking God rededicate themselves to the search for morality and meaning.
Each story of a brit with God remains a reminder of God’s presence. Even today, the two sets of stone tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai loom in our subconscious minds, reminding us that even if full compliance is impossible in a covenant with God, it is still worth dedicating ourselves to the call.
Tags: Exodus, God, Golden Calf, holy place, sefirot, Shemot, torah portion
What does it take to create something that will help people feel the presence of God?
Aaron tries to do this when he makes the Golden Calf in last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa. At first, the people are ecstatic over the idol, bowing down to it and singing and dancing. But this simple and undisciplined religious outlet does not last. When Moses returns and grinds the calf into gold dust, nobody protests. Moses stirs the gold dust into water, and they all meekly swallow it. Aaron’s creation turns out to be a failure.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”), the master craftsman Betzaleil begins making the holy objects for the new sanctuary. The completed creation is so successful that it sustains the religion of the Israelites for several centuries, until King Solomon replaces it with the temple in Jerusalem.
The key difference between Aaron and Betzaleil as creators of religious objects appears in the Torah twice, repeated word for word. In the portion Ki Tissa, God says it to Moses. In this week’s portion, Moses says it to the Israelites:
See? God has called by name Betzaleil, son of Uri, son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehudah. And [God] has filled him with ruach of God, with chokhmah, with tevunah, and with da-at, and with every craft. (Exodus/Shemot 35:30-31)
ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; spirit, motivation, overwhelming state of mind.
(Usually when the ruach of God comes over someone in the Hebrew Bible, that person speaks as a prophet or leads people into battle. Exceptions are Samson, who is gripped by a murderous rage and supernatural strength; and Betzaleil the artist, who is filled with a divine motivation to create.)
chokhmah (חָכְמָה) = wisdom; inspiration.
tevunah (תְבוּנָה) = insight, rational understanding, analytic ability.
da-at (דַעַת) = knowledge.
In later Kabbalistic writings, chokhmah and binah (another form of the word tevunah) are two of the sefirot or divine powers. (See my earlier post: Vayakheil: Seven Lamps.) **** Chokhmah is the sefirah associated with the left side of the head, i.e. the left brain that popular science now associates with non-rational, intuitive, holistic consciousness. Binah (tevunah) is the sefirah associated with the right side of the head, i.e. the right brain that we now associate with rational, logical, analytic thinking. In the Kabbalist system, da-at is the product of chokhmah combined with binah.
Aaron, although he will serve as the high priest, lacks the four qualities with which God fills Betzaleil. When the Israelites are waiting at the foot of Mount Sinai in Ki Tissa, Aaron feels no ruach of God, no divine urge to create a holy object. The people decide Moses will never return and order Aaron: Get up, make for us gods that will go before us! (Exodus 32:1). Then Aaron acts, but only to satisfy the crowd.
He has no chokhmah, no inspiration nor wisdom about what to make; he merely calls for gold earrings to melt down, since the finest idols are made of gold.
He took it from their hands and he shaped it with the engraving tool, and he made it into an image of a calf. (Exodus 32:4)
Afterward, when Aaron explains to Moses what happened, he says: I said to them, “Who has gold? Pull it off yourselves.” And they gave it to me and I threw it into the fire and out came this calf.” (Exodus 32:24)
Aaron admits that he acted without any of the insight or discrimination of tevunah, and also without any da-at, any knowledge of what would emerge from the fire.
Betzaleil, on the other hand, is born betzalmeinu—in God’s shadow or image—when it comes to creativity. (See my earlier post, Vayakheil: Shadow Power.) **** He creates under the protection of God’s shadow. God “fills” him with the qualities he already has the potential and experience to develop.
Even as Moses comes down with God’s basic design for a portable sanctuary, Betzaleil is filled with a divine desire to create it. He has the chokhmah to visualize the whole thing, and to imagine beautiful and inspiring objects—from the gold keruvim (hybrid winged beasts) on top of the ark to the design embroidered in brilliant colors on the curtain at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. He has the tevunah to analyze and understand how each part can be made well and assembled into the whole. And he has da-at, knowledge, of every craft: metal-working, jewelry, wood-working, weaving, and embroidery.
Betzaleil is so filled with chokhmah, tevunah, and da-at that he and his assistant can teach other craftsmen and craftswomen among the people.
And [God] put teaching into his heart, him and Ahaliyav son of Achisamakh of the tribe of Dan. (Exodus 35:34)
And Betzaleil and Ahaliyav and everyone wise of heart to whom God gave chokhmah and tevunah for da-at and for doing all the work for the service of the Holy, they shall do everything that God commanded. (Exodus 36:1)
The sanctuary that is completed in next week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, is the product of the grand design Moses heard from God; the divine spirit, inspiration, understanding, and know-how of the master artist, Betaleil; and the enthusiasm and wisdom of the contributors in the community. No wonder it becomes a place where people feel God’s presence.
I think that the qualities God gives Betzaleil are necessary for anyone to produce truly moving art, whether its explicit goal is religious or not. I know that when I do “creative writing”, especially of Torah monologues and fiction, both my motivation (ruach) and my inspiration (chokhmah) seem to come from a mysterious place outside myself, or perhaps from some inner place so deep my conscious mind can never penetrate it. I might as well say they come from God, the great mystery.
But the most burning motivation and inspiration leads nowhere without the application of rational insight and analysis (tevunah). My own ability in this area is a talent I was born with, a gift of God, that I have developed over many years of practice. And as in Kabbalah, I have found that the combination of left-brained inspiration (chokhmah) and right-brained analysis (binah or tevunah) does indeed result in knowledge (da-at).
The final requirement for creating art is to actually do all the labor. I am grateful that the ruach that blows through me from the unknown source I call God is strong enough to motivate me to keep on working, with enthusiasm—like the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion.
May the divine spirit be strong in all artists.
Tags: Exodus, God, Golden Calf, Moses, religion, Shemot, torah portion
After God’s revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, the people repeatedly promise to do everything God says. Then Moses and Aaron lead the elders halfway up the mountain, where they have a vision of God’s feet. (See my earlier post, Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.)
This is their high point. After this, Aaron and the Israelite leaders go downhill, both literally and figuratively. Joshua, Moses’ attendant and war-leader, stays partway up the mountain. And Moses climbs to the summit again. There he disappears into God’s cloud—or fire, from the point of view of the Israelites below. (See my earlier post, Mishpatim: Seeing the Cloud.)
Inside the cloud, Moses listens to God’s instructions for 40 days . Meanwhile, the Israelites below conclude that their prophet has died in the fire on the mountaintop and will never return. But without Moses, how can their god lead them to their promised land?
They fall back on an old and familiar solution in this week’s portion, Ki Tissa (“When you lift up”): a physical image or idol for the god to inhabit. They give Aaron their gold earrings, and get him to mold an image in the shape of a calf. On his own initiative, Aaron builds an altar and declares a festival for God the next day.
The same day that the Israelites bring animal offerings to the new altar, God hands Moses the two stone tablets written by the finger of God (Exodus/Shemot 31:18), tells him to go down the mountain, and then tells him what the Israelites have done.
Quickly they deserted the path that I commanded them! They made for themselves a cast image of a calf, and they bowed down to it and they slaughtered offerings to it, and they said: These are your gods, Israel, that brought you from the land of Egypt. (Exodus 32:8)
God offers to consume the Israelites and make Moses into a great nation instead. But Moses refuses the offer and tramps down the slope, still holding the two stone tablets on which God wrote, among other things, the commandment against making idols.
Joshua joins his mentor partway down. He has spent 40 days waiting on the mountainside, unaware of what was happening either to Moses at the top or to the Israelites at the bottom.
Then Joshua heard the sound of the people as they shouted, and he said to Moses: The sound of battle is in the camp! (Exodus 32:17)
Moses does not reply. Joshua listens carefully as they continue to descend.
And he said: Not the sound of anot of prevailing, and not the sound of anot of defeat. A sound of annot I am hearing. (Exodus 32:18)
anot (עֲנוֹת) = responding, answering; humiliating, abusing; call-and-response singing (such as kirtan or antiphony).
annot (עַנּוֹת) = (This form of the verb anot is used most often for humiliation, but it is also used in at least one other place, Isaiah 27:2, for singing.)
If there were indeed a battle in camp, Joshua would hear the winners raising their voices in war-cries, abuse, or battle-songs. He would also hear the losers raising their voices in pain, fear, or grief. Because he does not hear these sounds, he concludes that there is no battle. The camp has not been attacked by strangers. Nor has it divided into two sides fighting each other. Whatever the people are doing, nobody in the camp is objecting to it.
What sound does Joshua decide he is hearing? Here are two possible translations:
“A sound of humiliating I am hearing.” In other words, he is hearing the sound of people who have abandoned reason and conscience. Maybe sexual excess has turned into rape. Or maybe the people’s wild party is humiliating for Joshua and Moses, the only two Israelites left to stand against the worship of the Golden Calf.
“A sound of call-and-response singing I am hearing.” In other words, he is hearing a joyful celebration. Elsewhere in the Bible, people use call-and-response singing, along with dancing, to rejoice over God’s success (as Miriam does after they cross the Reed Sea), and to rejoice over David’s victories in battle.
I can imagine Joshua realizing that something happened in the camp, while Moses was gone, and now the Israelites are either holding an orgy, or singing and dancing to rejoice over—what?
The Torah returns to Moses’ point of view.
And it happened as he drew near to the camp, he saw the calf and dancing. Then Moses’ anger flared up, and he threw down from his hand the tablets, and he shattered them under the mountain. (Exodus 32:19)
Moses already knows about the Calf, so why does his anger flare up now? One frequent answer by commentators is that now he sees the people dancing. If the Israelites were worshiping the Calf in a state of doubt and anxiety, they might reject their idol as soon as they saw Moses. Instead, they are rejoicing over the Golden Calf, as if they like the old-time religion better than following Moses’ lead.
It takes the shock of the shattering tablets to yank them back into their former state of mind, when they promised to obey the god of Moses.
Joshua already knows the Israelites are singing. He can assume they are also dancing; elsewhere in the Bible call-and-response singing is usually accompanied by dancing. Now Joshua sees the Golden Calf and the smoking altar in front of it, so he knows the reason for the people’s ecstasy. He also hears the sound of stone shattering. The singing stops.
Moses grinds the Calf into gold dust, adds it to water, and makes the people drink it. He questions Aaron briefly, then stands at the gateway of the camp and shouts: Whoever is for God, to me! (Exodus 32:26)
All the men from the tribe of Levi go over to the side of Moses and Joshua. Moses orders the Levite men, in the name of God, to take their swords and go through the camp from gate to gate. The Levites kill 3,000 Israelite men. The Torah reports no casualties on the Levite side; apparently the Calf worshippers were too cowed or ashamed to fight back.
So Joshua finally does hear the battle cries of the winners, and the screams of pain and humiliation of the losers. There is no more singing of any kind in the Torah until the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.
I have always wondered if killing 3,000 Calf-worshippers was overkill. After all, everyone was shocked when Moses shattered the tablets God gave him. Everyone drank the gold dust from the Calf. What if Moses’ next move had been to start up a song, instead of a massacre?
What if he had changed the words of the call-and-response song the people were singing for the Calf? Their song is not recorded, but here are two other call-and-response songs in the Torah:
Sing to God because He is the highest;
Horse and its rider He threw into the sea! (Exodus 15:21)
Saul struck down his platoons;
And David struck down his armies! (I Samuel 21:12)
Some people need the outlet of ecstatic song and dance. Maybe another call-and-response song would have turned the hearts of the apostate ecstatics toward the God of Moses. Here is my proposal for the people who rejoiced in the Golden Calf:
“Sing to God because He is the highest;
Higher than idols and higher than gold.”
Just set it to a catchy melody, and let Miriam lead the dancing.
The covenant between the people of Israel and the God of the Torah has often been compared to a wedding, perhaps ever since the prophecy of the 6th century BCE: As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:5) According to the Torah, God and the Israelites make their covenant (a contract like a marriage) at Mount Sinai. The Talmud tractate Kiddushin states that the three elements of a wedding are money (the dowry), a written contract (the ketubah), and intercourse. So far in the book of Exodus/Shemot, God has given the Israelites a dowry: their freedom from Egypt, plus the gold and silver that the Egyptians handed over to the Israelites in response to God’s miraculous plagues. In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“When you lift”), when Moses comes down from a 40-day meeting with God on Mount Sinai, he brings the other two elements of the wedding: a marriage contract engraved on two stone tablets (presumably the Ten Commandments), and instructions for building a sanctuary so God will “dwell among them”.
Alas, while Moses was away, the bride was unfaithful. The Israelites, terrified that Moses would never return, got Aaron to make a golden calf to lead them. Moses returns to find the people cavorting in front of an idol. Clearly, the Israelites do not yet have enough faith and fortitude for this marriage. So Moses quickly smashes the two stone tablets of the contract, and postpones the building of the sanctuary for cohabitation.
Before the wedding can resume, the bride must have a change of heart. So God and Moses arrange for the Israelites to see their separation from God’s presence.
And Moses, he shall take the tent and pitch it for himself outside the camp, far away from the camp, and he shall call it the Tent of Meeting. Then it will be that anyone seeking God must go to the Tent of Meeting, which will be outside the camp. (Exodus/Shemot 33:7)
In the next two books of the Torah, we learn that anyone who contracts the skin disease tzara-at is ritually impure, and must live outside the camp until he or she is cured. Here in the portion Ki Tissa, the whole camp is ritually impure after the golden calf worship, unfit for worshiping God. Therefore the place where God can be encountered must be far away from the camp—until the whole camp is cured. Only then does the Tent of Meeting move from outside the camp to inside the new sanctuary in the heart of the camp.
During the period when God does not dwell in the camp, any individual who wants to communicate with God must go to the Tent of Meeting, which will be outside the camp. The Torah does not say whether Moses acts as an intermediary, or God answers the seekers who walk out to the Tent of Meeting directly. But the Torah does describe the experience of the people who wait in the camp while Moses goes to meet God.
Then it was, that when Moses was going out to the Tent, all the people stood up, and each one stationed himself at the petach of his tent, and they gazed after Moses until he came to the Tent. And it was, that when Moses came to the Tent, the pillar of the cloud descended, and it stood at the petach of the Tent, and It spoke with Moses. And all the people saw the pillar of the cloud standing at the petach of the Tent, and all the people stood, and each one prostrated himself at the petach of his [own] tent. (Exodus 33:8-10)
petach = opening, entrance, doorway
How do the people feel when they gaze after Moses, and see him speaking with the pillar of cloud ? How do they feel, knowing that they have jilted God?
The Talmud offers two different theories. In one, the people resent Moses so much, they accuse him of profiting at their expense. In the other, they admire Moses for his confidence that God will speak to him. Either way, they are painfully aware that Moses’ relationship with God is unbroken, while they are suffering through a separation. I think that their jealousy of Moses contains more longing than resentment, since they stand up respectfully when he leaves for the Tent of Meeting, and they prostrate themselves, bowing to God, when they see the pillar of cloud. These are the Israelites who survived the killings Moses and God carried out after the Golden Calf worship, presumably the ones who did not incite idol worship, but did look the other way. Now, after the death of their neighbors and the separation of God’s presence from the camp, the survivors are humble.
The repetition of the Hebrew word petach indicates to me that this period between the destruction of the golden calf and the building of the sanctuary is is a time of openings and doorways. When Moses speaks with God at the entrance of the tent outside the camp, each Israelite stands alone in the entrance of his (and perhaps her) own tent. Each one longs for God from a distance. I can imagine an Israelite bowing down toward the distant God that he or she betrayed. A person’s tent is his dwelling-place, like his body, or his mind. Bowing to God leaves the doorway open; it makes an opening for change.
I have been feeling distant from God lately. I try to pray, since my prayers of gratitude used to make an opening for joy to enter my own “tent”. But these days, the prayers feel formulaic. I am not aware of doing anything to jilt God, but nevertheless I feel a separation. I wish I could see a Moses going out to the Tent of Meeting. Maybe the sight would inspire me. Or maybe then I’d know where to seek God.
The book of Exodus ends when the people have made everything to build a mishkan, a dwelling-place, for God, and Moses puts all the pieces together. Then God comes into the camp and dwells in their midst. In other words, the wedding resumes, and the covenant is cut or signed between the Israelites and God. Will something similar happen to each of us today, when we yearn for God? Will our longing make an opening? If we work hard to make God’s dwelling-place, will God become manifest to us?
And can we do it individually? Or do we need a whole community, a whole camp, to bring God into our midst?
The curious verb nafash shows up only three times in the whole Hebrew Bible. The first occurrence comes in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Laws):
Six days you shall make your makings, and on the seventh day you shall shavat, in order that your ox and your donkey will rest in tranquility, and the son of your slave-woman and the resident foreigner vayinafeish. (Exodus 23:12)
shavat (שָׁבַת) = desist, cease, stop an activity. (From the same root as shabbat = day of stopping, not-doing.)
vayinafeish (וַיִּנָּפֵשׁ), vayinafash (וַיִּנָּפַשׁ) = and refreshed his/its soul, and recovered himself/itself, and re-animated himself/itself. (From the same root as nefesh = soul, the soul that animates the body, inclination, appetite.)
Hebrew has several words for “soul”; nefesh means the soul at the level that animates the body. It also means an individual person, or an inclination or appetite. The corresponding verb nafash implies resting to recover one’s personal energy and self-direction.
This definition certainly applies to the only use of the verb nafash in the Hebrew Bible excluding the book of Exodus. In the second book of Samuel/Shmuel, King David and his men have endured a long march while Shimi, a member of Saul’s clan, walked beside them hurling insults, dirt clods, and stones. Finally they leave Shimi behind, and camp at the Jordan.
The king, and all the people who were with him, arrived exhausted; and he vayinafeish there. (2 Samuel 16:14)
King David and his men are used to marching; they are not exhausted physically, but their souls are exhausted by enduring the abuse. They rest to recover their animation and their inner selves.
The drudgery and daily misfortunes of life can wear down anyone’s soul at the nefesh level. So Mishpatim orders us to share our shabbat with humans less fortunate than we are—including those who work for us, or who are alienated in our society—get one day a week to refresh their energy and recover their individual selves.
The Torah identifies two elements in this shabbat process:desisting from productive work, and refreshing the spirit. The desisting aspect of shabbat is emphasized in the fourth commandment:
Remember the day of the shabbat, to make it holy. Six days you shall serve and you shall do all your melakhah. But the seventh day is shabbat for God, your god; you shall not do any melakhah—you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your slave, nor your foreigner who is in your gates. Because for six days God made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and then (God) rested in tranquility on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the day of the shabbat and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
melakhah (מְלָאכָה) = tasks, job, craft; creative work, productive work; project, enterprise.
The Hebrew Bible repeats this general injunction against doing creative or productive work on Shabbat many times. It also specifically prohibits lighting a fire (Exodus 35:3), gathering food or wood (Exodus 16:23-30, Numbers 16:32-36), carrying burdens outside (Jeremiah 17:21), treading in a winepress (Nehemiah 13:15), and selling or buying food (Nehemiah 13:15-18). Apparently the Israelites needed extra reminders not to do any work related to getting food to the table.
Other activities prohibited on shabbat can be inferred, but are not actually stated in the bible. Later, the Talmud multiplied rules about what a Jew cannot do on shabbat. The 312-page Talmud tractate Shabbat discusses every finicky prohibition the rabbis of the first few centuries C.E. could imagine. Although many orthodox Jews today observe shabbat according to strict and complex rules that evolved from the Talmud, I know that if I tried to imitate them, I would spend the whole day worrying. My anxiety and resentment would make shabbat a day to dread, and I would look forward to the six weekdays when I could relax and refresh my soul!
Fortunately, the Torah itself offers a more attractive and interesting view of Shabbat for unorthodox people like me. Desisting from creative work is connected with recovering the soul in a passage from the upcoming portion of Exodus called Ki Tissa. (It is also part of the Shabbat liturgy.)
The children of Israel shall observe the shabbat, to make the shabbat for their generations a covenant for all time. Between Me and the children of Israel it will be a sign forever, because for six days God made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day (God) shavat and vayinafash. (Exodus 31:16-17)
I am awed by this portrayal of a god that changes through time, breathing life into the universe and then stopping to catch its breath and recover the divine soul. That is how I experience life, the universe, and everything—not as a static abstraction, but as the changing rhythmic flow of heartbeats, breaths, lifespans, seasons.
The Torah says that in order to be holy to God, we humans must add another rhythm to our lives: a seven-day cycle of work and rest, creative production and cessation. For six days we may pour out our energy and creativity into productive work, but on the seventh day we desist from creative work to re-center and re-animate our inner selves.
But wait a minute! I used to need a day off from my bookkeeping job to recover my self. But a lot of the creative work I do now—including writing this blog—re-energizes me. When I finish writing an essay or a story, I feel joy, and a sense of purpose, and the re-centering that comes from returning to my own soul. Why should I deprive myself of creative work once a week?
One answer is that I cannot keep creating endlessly without pause. Even God, in the story of creation that opens the book of Genesis/Bereishit, divides the job into six separate days, completes each day of creation before starting the next, and then takes a break at the end. I need to finish a piece of work and then stop to pay attention to where I am and where God is. I can believe that I need not only those moments of stopping every day, but also a whole day of stoppage every week. a whole day to reconnect with myself and the holy.
Alas, I still have not developed a steady practice for spending the day of shabbat in tranquility, restoring my soul. Merely refraining from certain activities doesn’t do it for me. Joining my congregation in prayer is uplifting, and following or leading Shabbat services does remind me of what to focus on. Yet all too often, the long drive and the personal interactions disturb my ability to focus on anything.
Nevertheless, I have not given up on establishing a shabbat practice. Any suggestions, readers?
It’s Friday, I’ve had an exhausting week, and besides finally writing this blog and catching up on my work, I’m determined to clean the bathroom before sunset.
Any Jewish readers observe or try to observe Shabbat, Shabbes, the Sabbath, are smiling now. It sounds wonderful to make one day a week a holy day of rest. And the importance of keeping Shabbat comes up over and over again in the Torah, in the Talmud, and in the writings and talks of sages and rabbis for thousands of years, to this day. Yet observing Shabbat can be so hard … and not just because it takes some preparation every Friday. Even Jews committed to strict observance have to figure out how to carry out the letter of the law recorded in the Torah, which was written at a time when our lives today were unimaginable. Jews who want to carry out the spirit of the law of Shabbat observance, in addition or instead of the letter of the law, also have a lot of figuring out to do.
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (When you lift up), begins with God’s final instructions to Moses before God hands over the first pair of stone tablets popularly known as the Ten Commandments. After God finishes telling Moses how to make the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that will make God’s presence manifest, and all the sacred objects in it, God says:
And you, you speak to the children of Israel, saying: Nevertheless, guard my shabbatot, because that is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, in order to know that I, God, am making you holy. (Exodus/Shemot 31:13)
shabbatot (שַׁבָּתֹת) = sabbaths, stopping-days
In other words, Shabbat is even more important than creating the sanctuary. Every seventh day, the Israelites must stop doing the holy work God commanded, and do something different. And after the sanctuary is built, the descendants of the Israelites, every generation, including Jews in the 21st century, must stop and do something different on Shabbat. The Torah continues:
And you shall guard the shabbat because it is holy for you; whoever desecrates it will certainly die, for anyone who does melakhah on it, that soul shall be cut off from among its people. (Exodus 31:14)
melakhah (מְלָאכָה) = tasks, job, crafts; creative work, productive work; project, enterprise.
What counts as melakhah? The Hebrew bible gives six concrete examples of activities forbidden on Shabbat: cooking manna (Exodus 16:23), lighting a fire (Exodus 35:3), gathering wood (Numbers 15:32), carrying burdens into Jerusalem or out of your house (Jeremiah 17:21-22), treading grapes for wine (Nehemiah 13:15), or buying and selling (Nehemiah 10:32).
From these examples, as well as from the multiple meanings of the word melakhah, and from lists of tasks necessary to build the sanctuary, Jewish commentary from the Talmud to today extrapolates so many different arguments about what you shouldn’t do on Shabbat that my head spins.
But desisting from certain kinds of work is not all it takes to observe Shabbat. This week’s Torah portion says that Shabbat is a sign that God is making us holy. When we stop and rest on the seventh day, what do we do to realize that holiness?
I found two good clues in the Torah. One comes from the book of Isaiah:
… turn back from stepping on Shabbat/ Doing whatever you want on My holy day/And instead call the Shabbat a delight/ The holy (day) of God an honor … (Isaiah 58:13)
Instead of stepping all over Shabbat by doing whatever you want, including melakhah, we should make Shabbat a delight and an honor to observe.
Another clue comes at the end of the warning about Shabbat in this week’s Torah portion:
Between Me and the children of Israel it is a sign forever, that for six days God made the heavens and the earth, but on the seventh day It stopped and was refreshed (shavat vayinafash). (Exodus 31:17)
shavat (שָׁבַת) = he/it stopped, ceased, desisted. (From the same root as Shabbat)
vayinafash (וַיִּנָּפַשׁ) = and refreshed his/its soul, and recovered himself/itself, and re-animated himself/itself.
Here, God is refreshed by a day of rest. Earlier in the book of Exodus (Mishpatim, 23:12), Israelites are required to desist from work on Shabbat so that all of their dependents (by example, the son of a maidservant) and the strangers living among them could be refreshed.
So how can I observe Shabbat in a way that will result in my being refreshed, re-animated, re-ensouled? I confess that I am still trying to figure this out. (For example, singing prayers with my congregation re-animates my soul, but driving an hour to where we meet—and back—wears me out.)
I do know that my spirit is brighter when I don’t have to look at a dirty bathroom. So please excuse me now; Shabbat begins at sunset this evening, and Friday afternoon is all too short.