Beha-alotkha: Father-in-Law

June 7, 2017 at 12:58 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Shemot, Yitro | Leave a comment
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When the Israelites strike camp at the end of almost a year at Mount Sinai1, we discover that a Midianite named Chovav has been camping with them. This week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you bring up”), says:

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

Mount Sinai, Elijah Walton,
19th century

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Midiante priest,
Bible Moralisee, 13th century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yitro Advises Moses,
Figures de la Bible,1728

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transporting the ark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3  Exodus 4:18.

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

5  Exodus 40:36-37.

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


Shemot and Psalm 137:  Cry Like a Baby

January 20, 2017 at 10:48 am | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Shemot | Leave a comment
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This week begins the reading of the book of Exodus/Shemot in the Jewish tradition. This year my posts on Exodus will relate each Torah portion to one of the psalms.

Too many foreigners live in the country, from the Pharaoh’s point of view in this week’s Torah portion. Unlike those who fear immigrants in our own time, the Pharaoh is not afraid that the Israelites will take jobs from native Egyptians. He is afraid that if another country makes war on Egypt, these foreigners will join Egypt’s enemies.

Pharaoh's decree, by Michiel van der Borch, 1332

Pharaoh’s decree, by Michiel van der Borch, 1332

Instead of integrating the Israelites into Egyptian society to win their loyalty, the Pharoah enslaves them, requiring that the men do forced labor. He also tries to reduce the population.

Then Pharaoh commanded his entire people, saying: “Every son that is born, you shall throw him into the Nile. But every daughter you shall keep alive”. (Exodus/Shemot 1:22)

And a man from the house of Levi went out and married a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived and she bore a son, and she saw that he was good, and she hid him for three months. (Exodus 2:1-2)

Commentators have suggested many reasons why the baby (later named Moses) is “good”. But since his mother (later identified as Yokheved) is able to hide the baby for three months, the simple answer is that he is placid and quiet. As long as his mother is there whenever he wakes up, Moses does not cry.

Why could Yokheved no longer hide him after three months? The commentary offers different theories. I suspect that Moses happens to be three months old when Egyptian bullies start searching the houses of Israelites for baby boys to drown.

It occurs to Yokheved that the best hiding place for an Israelite baby boy is the Nile itself. She tars a floating box made of papyrus stems, and places Moses inside. Then she carries it to the pool where a woman of the royal family goes to bathe, and wedges it among the reeds so the current will not carry it away. The care with which Yokheved picks the spot shows that she hopes her baby will be discovered and adopted.

detail, Golden Haggadah, c.1420 Spain

detail, Golden Haggadah, c.1420 Spain

And the daughter of Pharaoh went down to bathe in the Nile, and her maidens were walking next to the Nile. And she saw the floating box among the reeds, and she sent her slave-girl to fetch it. (Exodus 2:5)

The princess sees the box; she does not hear any crying. Moses, rocking gently inside, is probably asleep.

And she opened it and she saw the child, and hey! It was a boy, bokheh! And she felt pity for him, and she said: “This is one of the children of the Ivrim”. (Exodus 2:6)

bokheh (בֺּכֶה) = weeping, crying, sobbing, wailing. (From the root bakhah, ּבָּכָה = wept.)

Ivrim (עִבְרִים) = Hebrews; immigrants. (From the root avar, עָבַר = passed over, crossed through, emigrated.) Egyptians in the book of Exodus sometimes call the Israelites the Ivrim.

The story continues like a fairy tale, as the Pharaoh’s daughter ends up paying Moses’s own mother to nurse him, then adopts him after he is weaned. But why does Moses begin to cry when the princess opens the lid of the box? Probably the sudden sunlight wakes him—and then, instead of seeing the familiar face of his mother, he sees a stranger.

All infants cry when they are suddenly deprived of their primary caregivers, just as adults cry when someone they are deeply attached to dies. The world is strange and frightening without that familiar presence.

People may also cry when they are forced to leave their homes and live in a strange place. Yet when the Israelites and their fellow travelers follow the adult Moses out of Egypt, they “leave with a high hand” (Exodus 14:8). They rejoice rather than weep because they are choosing to leave a life of slavery and seek a new land to make their home.

On the other hand, in Psalm 137 the Israelites weep when the Babylonian army deports them from Jerusalem many centuries later, circa 586 B.C.E. They have no choice; they are forced to leave their homeland and live as foreigners in a strange place.

           psalm-137-1By the rivers of Babylon

           There we sat down, bakhinu,

           when we remembered Tziyon. (Psalm 137:1)

bakhinu (בָּכִינוּ) = we wept, cried, sobbed, wailed. (From the same root, bakhah, as in Exodus 2:6.)

Tziyon (צִיוֹן) = Zion; a hill overlooking Jerusalem; Jerusalem itself as a religious center.

The deportees weep when they see the place where they must now live. It even looks different from their motherland.         

Prisoners playing lyres from Sennacherib's palace, Nineveh, circa 700 B.C.E.

Prisoners carrying lyres, palace of Sennacherib, Nineveh, c. 700 B.C.E.

           Upon the poplars in her [Babylon’s] midst,

            Our lyres will remain hung. (137:2)

            Because there our captors asked us for words of song,

            Our oppressors for rejoicing:

            “Sing to us some song of Tziyon!” (137:3)

The Babylonian officers ask the deportees to entertain them by singing one of their quaint, provincial songs from Tziyon. If the officers merely wanted a folk song, they might have asked for a song from Jerusalem or Judah. By using the word Tziyon, the Babylonians are referring to Jerusalem as a religious center. Thus they remind the Israelites how helpless they are, even in matters of religion, now that the Babylonian army has razed the temple and deported them.

            How can we sing a song of God

           On the soil of a foreign land? (137:4)

The Israelites, and the Jews descended from them, do eventually sing sacred songs in foreign lands—including the psalms once sung in the temple. But in Psalm 137, they recoil from the idea of singing a hymn to God in order to let the Babylonians mock and humiliate them.

            If I forget you, Jerusalem,

            May my right hand forget. (137:5)

            May my tongue cling to my palate,

            If I do not remember you,

            If I do not exalt you, Jerusalem,

           Above my highest joy. (137:6)

            Remember, God, the Edomites

           On the day of Jerusalem, who said:

            “Strip it! Strip it down to the foundations!” (137:7)

According to the book of Obadiah, probably also written in the 6th century B.C.E., the men of the nearby land of Edom joined the Babylonians in sacking the city of Jerusalem (Obadiah 1:11-13).

            Babylon the despoiler,

            Fortunate are those who will retaliate for your retaliation against us! (137:8)

            Fortunate are those who will seize and smash

           Your little children on the rock! (137:9)

I picture the Israelites reacting like children, full of desperation at the loss of their mother land and religion, suddenly under the thumb of cruel and all-powerful foreigners. Toddlers in that situation might well scream with outrage and hatred at the mean strangers who have kidnapped them. It takes time to cool down, grow up, and consider the ramifications of one’s initial reaction. For a whole society, it can take centuries.

When the infant Moses cries at the sight of a stranger, it is because the stranger is not his mother, and he fears he has lost his mother forever. When the Israelite deportees cry at the sight of the rivers of Babylon, it is because Babylon is not their home, and they fear they will lose everything that means home to them: their identity, their way of life, and their religion.

They promise themselves they will never forget Jerusalem. Perhaps they recall the stories about Moses as an adult, who breaks with his royal Egyptian family to rescue the Israelite slaves.  He never forgets his mother and his own people.

May every one of us remember those we have loved and lost. May we remember our true homes—whether they are the homes we were born into (like the Israelites in Psalm 137), or the homes we adopt (like the Israelites that Moses leads out of Egypt in the book of Exodus).


Beha-alotkha and Shemot: Moses as Wet Nurse

June 1, 2015 at 8:05 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Shemot | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Moses never wanted the job.

When God spoke out of the burning bush and assigned him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses tried to get out of it.  He objected:

Moses at the Burning Bush by Rembrandt van Rijn

Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt van Rijn

Hey! Lo ya-aminu me, and they will not listen to my voice, for they will say: Your god, God, did not appear. (Exodus 4:1)

Lo ya-aminu = They will not believe, they will not trust.  Lo (לֹא) = not.  Ya-aminu (יַאֲמִינוּ) = They will believe, be convinced by, put trust in, have faith in.  (From the root aman, אמן, which is also the root of amen (אָמֵן) = a solemn statement of confirmation or acceptance.  See last week’s post, Naso: Ordeal of Trust for the first use of “Amen” in the Torah.)

God gave Moses three miraculous signs to convince the Israelites that he really did speak for God.  But Moses still tried to turn down the job. Finally God compromised by giving Moses a partner: his older brother Aaron, who had stayed in Egypt when Moses fled to Midian many decades before.

The arrangement was that God would speak to Moses, Moses would speak to Aaron, and Aaron would deal directly with the people.  Moses accepted this arrangement—maybe because he had run out of excuses.

Moses and Aaron are still together in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“when you bring up”), in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.  But their roles have changed.  The big change came while the Israelites were camped at Mount Sinai, halfway between Egypt and the “promised land’ of Canaan.  When they first arrived at Mount Sinai, the people trusted God.  Sure, they had panicked a few times when there was a shortage of water or food, but each time Moses talked to God and God fixed the problem. So when they reached Mount Sinai, the people said:

Everything that God speaks we will do!  And God said to Moses: Hey! I myself will come to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the people will listen when I speak with you, and also ya-aminu in you forever. (Exodus 19:9)

Alas, while Moses is secluded inside God’s cloud on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, the people feel abandoned and lose faith that Moses will return to them.  They ask Aaron to make a god to lead them, now that Moses has disappeared.

Gold calf, Temple of Baalat in Byblos

Gold calf, Temple of Baalat in Byblos

If Aaron were trustworthy as Moses’ co-leader, he would have reminded them that God explicitly forbade them to make gold or silver idols.  He might have redirected them toward making an acceptable offering to God.  Instead, Aaron made the Golden Calf, and the Israelites had a wild party.

When Moses returned and questioned him about it, Aaron lied about his own role—

So I said to them: Who has gold? They took it off themselves and they gave it to me, and I threw it away into the fire, and out came this calf (Exodus 32:24)

—and slandered the Israelites—

You yourself know the people, that they are bad. (Exodus 32:22)

The Midrash Rabbah on the Song of Songs, a collection of commentary from the 8th century C.E., said that the two breasts of the woman in the song symbolize Moses and Aaron, who were full of the milk of Torah. But Aaron fails as a wet-nurse when he fails to set appropriate limits for the “children” of Israel, and instead gives them their golden calf—and then denies his own responsibility for their downfall.

God and Moses between them kill thousands of the guilty, but they let Aaron live. Later they make him the high priest: the chief technician in charge of conducting rituals, looking impressive, handling holy objects, and diagnosing skin diseases.  But Moses is left as the people’s sole boss and spiritual leader.

He does his best to keep them encouraged and in line, but in this week’s Torah portion Moses finally cracks.

The people appear to be in good shape at the beginning of the book of Numbers.  They are marching from Mount Sinai to the border of Canaan in battle formation, with their portable sanctuary and all its holy objects in the middle, so they know God is with them. They have water to drink and manna to eat.

Then suddenly they are overcome with craving.

They weep and say:

Who will feed us basar? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. But now nafsheinu are drying up; there is nothing except the manna before our eyes. (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4-6)

basar (בָּשָׂר) = human flesh (skin and/or muscle); animal meat.

nafsheinu (נַפְשֵׁנוּ) = our souls, our lives, our throats, our appetites.

They are not actually hungry.  They are disgusted with God’s manna and, according to many commentators who point out the double meaning of basar, with God’s laws restricting sex partners. Perhaps they are fed up with the whole religion.  Or perhaps they have had their fill of spiritual experiences, long lists of rules, and the goal of taking over Canaan.  They get cranky. They want a break for immediate physical pleasure.

Moses heard the people weeping in their family groups, each one at the entrance of its tent, and God’s anger flared very hot; and in the eyes of Moses it was bad. And Moses said to God: Why do You do bad to your servant, and why have I not found favor in your eyes, that you put the burden of all this people on me?  Did I myself become pregnant with all this people, or did I myself give birth to them, that you say to me: Carry them in your bosom, like the omein carries the one who suckles, to the land that You swore to their forefathers? (Numbers 11:10-12)

omein (אֹמֵן) = guardian, substitute parent. (Literally, the reliable one, the dependable one; from the same root as ya-aminu and amen.)

Elsewhere in the Bible, an omein is a man in charge of bringing up a child; each of King Ahab’s underage children has an omein in the second book of Kings, and Mordecai is Esther’s omein in the book of Esther. The female form of this word, omenet, means wet-nurse or nanny.  Moses imagines himself not just as a parent to the Israelites, but as their wet-nurse, too.

Moses continues:

I am not able to carry all this people by myself alone, because they are too heavy for me! If thus You must do to me, please kill me altogether, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and don’t let me see my badness! (Numbers 11:14-15)

Moses has a hard enough time serving as the people’s sole spiritual leader and teaching them God’s directives. Being a nanny for thousands of ex-slaves is too much for him. e HeIf only they acted like mature adults, restraining their impulses and deferring immediate pleasure for the sake of higher goals!  Instead, the people are like small children—as immature as if they are still nursing. (Children in ancient Israel nursed until they were about four years old.)

Moses cannot bear to be a single mother.  He tells God he would rather die than continue to be their omein.

God tries to solve the problem by giving 70 elders some of Moses’ spirit of prophecy, so they can all help him. But in the rest of the book of Numbers, the elders prove insufficient to control the childish impulses of the Israelites. Either the elders are not mentioned, or in the case of Korach’s rebellion, they are part of the group that revolts and complains to Moses.


Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Have you ever been responsible for a small child who loses control and throws a tantrum?  Rational explanations go right over their heads; all they can think about is the physical gratification they want right now, the comfort that their parent or babysitting is denying them. Back when that child was my son, I had to fight hard to stay calm until I could calm him down.

Small children are totally dependent on their caregivers.  If they are to grow up into independent adults, rather than slaves, their omein or omenet must be totally dependable—emunah.

Yet all humans are imperfect, unable to rise successfully to every single challenge. I was not a perfect mother, but I did not give up, and now I am proud of my adult son.

Moses does not give up either, even though he did not give birth to the Israelites, nor ask for the job of being their nanny. When God lashes out at the people, Moses talks God out of God’s temper tantrum, and keeps everyone on the road to the future.

May everyone who is given responsibility for others find the fortitude to carry on.  May we all be more like Moses than Aaron.


In next week’s Torah portion, the Israelite spies return from Canaan and ten out of twelve report that the land is full of fearsome giants. Look for my next blog post about how the people weep and refuse to go—because this time they do not ya-aminu God.

Shemot: Choosing Life

January 4, 2015 at 12:22 pm | Posted in Nitzavim, Shemot | 3 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

At the end of his life, Moses says:

…life and death I place before you, blessing and curse; and you must choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring: le-ahavah God, your god; lishmoa Its voice; and ledavkah It… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:19-20)

le-ahavah (לְאַהַוָה) = to love, by loving.

lishmoa (לִשְׁמֹעַ) = to listen, by listening.

ledavkah (לְדָוְחָה) = to be attached to, to stick with, to be faithful to; by sticking with, etc.

At the beginning of his life, in the first Torah portion of the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses survives only because the women in the story choose life—by loving, listening, and being attached.

The character who wants to restrict life is Pharaoh, a xenophobe. He is frightened by the large number of Israelites living in Egypt (called “Hebrews” or ivrit in this Torah portion, from the Egyptian word habiru). This unnamed king of Egypt says:

…it may be if a war happens, then they will even be added to our enemies and wage war against us, and go up from the land. (Exodus/Shemot 1:10)

Goshen and the new cities of Ramses and Pitom

Nile delta circa 1250 B.C.E., with the capital, Tanis, and the new cities of Ramses and Pitom

Pharaoh fears that the Hebrews will either stay in Egypt and fight against the Egyptians, or leave Egypt and deprive the land of workers. His solution to this double anxiety is to reduce the population of Hebrews gradually. First he drafts large numbers of them into forced labor building the new cities of Pitom and Ramses (which were actually built in the Nile delta, in the Goshen region, during the reign of Rameses II). But so many Hebrew men survive and have relations with their wives, the population of Hebrews continues to increase.

Pharaoh’s next ploy is to order the midwives of the Hebrews to kill all the boys as they are born, but let the girls live. At that time, more than 3,000 years ago, only men would go to battle, and only men would lead their families to another country. Women would do whatever their masters or husbands ordered. Pharaoh is thinking ahead, assuming that a future surplus of Hebrew women is no threat, since they would all become slaves or wives of native Egyptians. All he wants to do is reduce or even eliminate the future population of Hebrew men.

But the midwives feared God, and they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they kept the boys alive. Then the midwives said to Pharaoh: Because the Hebrews are not like Egyptian women, for [they are] lively animals; hey!—before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth. (Exodus 1:17-18)

In biblical Hebrew, to “fear God” is an idiom meaning to act righteously or ethically. The Hebrew midwives save lives, instead of following orders, because it us the right thing to do. They are listening—not to Pharaoh, but to the God of good deeds.

Then Pharaoh commanded his entire people, saying: Every son that is born, you shall throw him into the Nile. But every daughter you shall keep alive. (Exodus 1:22)

The Torah does not say how many baby boys are drowned, but we can tell that this command is also ineffective at reducing the number of Hebrew men; many years later, after that Pharaoh (probably Rameses II) has died and been replaced by a new Pharaoh (probably his son Merneptah), the new Pharaoh says: Hey, the people are numerous now in the land! (Exodus 5:5)

During the period when the previous Pharaoh was encouraging Egyptians to drown Hebrew male infants, a man and woman from the tribe of Levi have a son. (Later in the Torah, their names are given as Amram and Yokheved.)

And the woman conceived, and she gave birth to a son. And she saw him, ki tov hu, and she hid him for three months. (Exodus 2:2)

ki tov hu (כִּי־טוֹב הוּא) = that he was good.

Commentators have puzzled over whether the mother saw that her baby was exceptionally healthy, or beautiful, or placid and quiet, or good in some other sense. Both the Talmud (in Sotah 12a) and the Midrash Rabbah (in Shemot Rabbah 1:20) report the opinion of the Sages (i.e. authoritative rabbinic commentators from about 200 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.) that when Moses was born, the whole house was flooded with light. Their proof text is in the first chapter of Genesis/Bereishit, where God creates light.

And God said: Light will be! And light was. And God saw the light, ki tov. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:3-4)

What I can imagine is that when the mother sees her new baby, her heart is flooded with light. Just as God creates light, and sees that it is good, a human experiences creation as good.  When I “create” a story, it feels as if I only shaping a story that comes to me from some unknown place, and when I have finished writing it down, I feel elated, knowing that something good has happened. Similarly, when I was pregnant, I felt as if I were a container for a mysterious process, and when my son was born, I felt elated, knowing that something good had happened.

Moses’ mother hides him to preserve his life because she sees the goodness of creation; in other words, she appreciates God the Creator. She loves her son, and she loves God. As a mother, she also attaches herself to her son until she can no longer protect him.

Then she was not able to hide him anymore, so she took for him an ark of papyrus, and asphalted it with asphalt and pitch, and she place the child in it, and she placed it in the reeds at the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself meirachok, to know what would be done to him. (Exodus 2:3-4)

meirachok (מֵרָחֹק) = at a distance, long ago, mysteriously.

In context, Moses’ older sister Miriam obviously stands at a distance from the riverbank. But the Torah’s choice of words hints that Miriam has a connection with mysteries.  When we see her as an adult, the Torah calls her a prophet.

Miriam stands by, ready to intervene and make whatever happens to her baby brother the best possible outcome. This is a different kind of attachment than a mother’s attachment to her baby. Miriam the prophet is faithful to a vision of the future that she wants to help realize.

Meritamun, one of Rameses II's daughters

Meritamun, one of Rameses II’s daughters

Then the daughter of Pharaoh went down to wash in the river, and her serving-women walked on the riverbank; and she saw the ark among the reeds, and she sent her slave-woman, and she took it. And she opened it, and she saw the child, and hey!—the boy was sobbing. And she felt compassion over him, and she said: This is one of the children of the Hebrews! (Exodus 2:5-6)

Pharaoh’s daughter decides to disobey her father’s command and save the life of the baby because she listens to him sobbing, and her heart is moved by compassion. This is another kind of love, the instinctive and generous love for a living being who needs help. It leads to another attachment, as she decides to protect the child by adopting him as her own.

Miriam emerges and offers to find a woman to nurse the infant. If Pharaoh’s daughter can see that the baby in the ark is a Hebrew, she can certainly see that Miriam is also a Hebrew, and she may suspect that the girl is offering to fetch the baby’s own birth mother. A jealous woman would not agree to this, but Pharaoh’s daughter has so much compassion that it includes the baby’s family. When Miriam returns with her mother, Pharaoh’s daughter says: Carry away this child and nurse him for me, and I myself will give [you] your wages. (Exodus 2:9)

Pharaoh’s daughter not only gives the baby to his natural mother until he is weaned, but even pays her, so the whole family will thrive. Then Moses’ mother proves to be as righteous as the midwives at the beginning of the story, because when her son is old enough, she duly returns him to his adoptive mother.

Thus Moses grows up as a prince of Egypt, and launches on a long life that results in the liberation of thousands of slaves. They leave Egypt (as Pharaoh feared) and walk into a new life.

All the women in this story—the midwives, Moses’ first mother, his sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter—choose life by disobeying the fearful Pharaoh, and keeping a child alive. They are motivated by all three ways of choosing life that Moses describes near the end of his own life, 120 years later: loving, listening, and faithful attachment.

May we all be blessed with open hearts so that we can do the same.

Va-eira: A Request for Wilderness

December 23, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Posted in Shemot, Va-eira | 1 Comment
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What does Moses request from the pharaoh of Egypt?

In Moses’ first encounter with God, at the burning bush on Mount Sinai, God tells Moses that the long-term plan is to take the children of Israel out of Egypt and relocate them in Canaan. But then God says:

You and the elders of Israel shall come to the king of Egypt, and you shall say to him: God, the god of the Hebrews, manifested to us; and now, let us go, please, a journey of three days into the midbar, and we will bring animal-offerings for God, our god. (Exodus/Shemot 3:18)

midbar (מִּדְבָּר) = wilderness, uncultivated land (pasturage or desert), uninhabited land

What difference would it make if the Israelites were granted a leave of absence for a week (three days into the wilderness, perhaps a day for the ceremonies, and three days back), if they had to go back to corvée labor building brick storehouses as soon as they returned? Why not have Moses ask the pharaoh for their emancipation from forced labor in the first place?

I always used to wonder if the ulterior motive was to get all the Israelites far enough away so that they could simply continue toward Mount Sinai, instead of returning. After all, when they do finally leave Egypt, it takes them three days to get to the Sea of Reeds (a.k.a. Red Sea), where God creates the miracle that liberates them from Egypt for good.

However, God knows that the pharaoh would not grant the request for a leave of absence. So the value of this initial request on behalf of the Israelites must lie in the concepts it expresses: going into the wilderness, and serving their own god.

The pharaoh reacts to Moses’ request by giving the Israelites additional work instead of an unpaid vacation. In this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (“And I appeared”), Moses and his brother Aaron come before the pharaoh a second time, and demonstrate the miracle of the staff that turns into a snake. Pharaoh is unmoved, so God begins the series of “ten plagues”, ten miraculous devastating events.

The pharaoh ignores the first plague, in which all the water in Egypt turns into blood. The second plague, an infestation of frogs, bothers the pharaoh enough so he summons Moses and Aaron.

…and he said: Plead for me to God, so He will clear away the frogs from me and from my people; then I will send out the people, and they may slaughter an offering to God. (Exodus 8:4)

After Egypt is relieved of frogs, the pharaoh makes his heart heavy and refuses to carry out his side of the bargain. Only after the fourth plague (arov (עָרֹב) = literally “mixers”, possibly a swarm of mixed insects or wild beasts) does the pharaoh make a more genuine offer.

And Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and he said: Go! Slaughter offerings to your god in the land. (Exodus 8:21)

Moses refuses. He says they will only make offerings to God in the wilderness, not in the populated part of Egypt. His excuse is that the animal offerings God wants from the Israelites are taboo to native Egyptians.

So Pharaoh said: I, I will send you, and you shall slaughter offerings for God, your god, in the midbar—only you definitely must not go far away. Plead for me! (Exodus 8:24)

Of course, after Moses has pleaded with God to remove the plague of arov, the pharaoh hardens his heart again, and refuses to give the Israelites their leave of absence.

During the rest of the plagues, God, Moses, and the pharaoh speak only of sending out the people; the wilderness is now assumed to be their destination.

Why can the Israelites only serve their god in the wilderness, not in the settled land of Egypt? For one thing, the pharaoh is an absolute ruler. In all the inhabited parts of his country, everyone is required to serve him as if he were a god. But, as we learn later in the book of Exodus, the god of the Israelites is a “jealous” god, who requires exclusive service. One cannot serve both God and Pharaoh.

Furthermore, the wilderness seems to be where it is easiest to connect with God. In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God speaks to Hagar twice, both times when she has walked far into the midbar south of Beersheva. Jacob first encounters God in a rocky spot on his journey through the wilderness north of Beersheva, and wrestles with a divine being in an uninhabited area by the Yabok River. Moses does not encounter God until he is 80, and then he sees the burning bush on Mount Sinai, so deep in the wilderness that last week’s Torah portion says: And he led the flock behind the midbar, and he came to the mountain… (Exodus 3:1)

In my own experience, there are two kinds of divine connection. I find that when I am praying with my friends and fellow travelers on the Jewish path, the connection among all of us brings in the divine, and we serve God together. I miss these prayer services when I go too long without them.

Yet if I want a deeper connection with the divine inside me, I can only reach it in a wilderness: a place where there are no other people (even praying people or inspiring speakers) to distract me, and no other artifacts of civilization to remind me of what else I might be doing. If I see only plants, dirt, and sky, if I hear only the wind and my own breathing, then I can do a different kind of prayer, and sink down into a deep place.

In that place, I am separated from my usual enslavements. I am neither a pharaoh who demands achievement, nor an Israelite who works harder than she really can in order to achieve. The words “God” and “service” are slippery concepts, but you might say that “serving God” in this way gives me freedom. And a little freedom returns with me when I leave the wilderness and return to the world of people.

May we all find that wilderness when we need it.

(I will be traveling next week, with no opportunity to write a post on the next Torah portion, Bo. Click on these links if you want to read my previous posts on Bo: Heard-Hearted Habit, Clouds and East Wind, Serving God with Possessions, and The Dog in the Night. And watch for my post two weeks from now, on Beshallach (“And he sent”), when the Israelites leave Egypt and immediately encounter some daunting new problems.)

Shemot: Hebrews vs. Children of Israel

December 18, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Posted in Shemot | Leave a comment
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In the last portion of the book of Genesis/Bereishit, the pharaoh welcomes the extended family of his viceroy, Joseph, to settle in Egypt. The clan is called the “children of Israel” because 70 of them are direct descendants of Joseph’s father, who has two names:

Ya-akov (יַעֲקֹב) = Jacob; he grasps by the heel.

Yisra-el (יִשְׂרָאֵל) = Israel; y-s-r (ישׂר) + eil (אֵל) = god, God.  Y-s-r is either yisar (יִּשַׂר) = he strives, contends, struggles; or yasor (יָשֹׂר) = he rules, directs.

Jacob earned the name Yisra-el after wrestling with a mysterious being. The meaning of yisra-el is uncertain, but likely translations are “God strives”, “He struggles [with] God”, and “God rules”. Calling Jacob’s descendants the children of Israel, instead of the children of Jacob, focuses on their ongoing and active relationship with their god.

During the next 350 years, according to the Torah, a new dynasty takes over Egypt, and the population of the children of Israel explodes. The new pharaoh in the book of Exodus/Shemot (“Names”) panics.

And he said to his people: Hey! The people, the children of Yisra-el, are more numerous and more mighty than we… If a war is declared, they might even be added to our enemies, and wage war against us and rise up from the land. (Exodus/Shemot 1:9-10)

The pharaoh refers to the children of Israel by their own name for themselves. He is superficially respectful at the beginning of his campaign against the Israelites, perhaps so as not to alarm Egyptians who previously had nothing against their Israelite neighbors.

But then Pharaoh assigns the Israelites to corvée labor (forced and unpaid labor on a state project). They must build storage cities in the eastern delta of the Nile, near the Goshen region where they live. This move establishes their lower-class status, and puts them under close supervision so they cannot defend themselves against any future injustice.

The king’s next move is to order the midwives to kill all the Israelites’ newborn boys. At this point, Pharaoh calls the Israelite women “Hebrews”.

And he said: When you deliver the ivriyot, and you look at the pair of stones [birthing seat], if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live. (Exodus 2:16)

ivriyot = ivri women.

ivri (עִבְרִי) =  a Hebrew person; Pass through! Cross over! Pass by!

The word ivri is etymologically related to the Egyptian word ‘apiru and the Mesopotamian word habiru (and the English word “Hebrew”). Several thousand years ago, the countries surrounding Canaan used the term to mean any Semitic immigrants who lived on the fringes of society in their own countries. Surviving ancient texts refer to Hebrews as nomadic herders, temporary laborers, mercenaries, or outlaws.

In the Hebrew language, the word ivri is also the imperative form of the verb avar, which refers to crossing over or passing through. Nomads and temporary resident aliens are indeed people who pass through a country, but do not stay permanently.

Yet when the book of Exodus opens, the children of Israel have been living and raising livestock in Egypt for at least 210 years. Although they belong to a distinct ethnic group, they have a long-established place in Egyptian society.

Nevertheless, the pharaoh switches from calling them “children of Israel” to calling them “Hebrews”. At the very least, this change in language signals that they are aliens who do not really belong in Egypt. Given the usual meaning of the Egyptian word ‘apiru, the pharaoh may also be implying that the Israelites are low-class migrant workers and potential outlaws.

Inciting people to murder requires denigrating the intended victims. The pharaoh does this partly by imposing corvée labor on them, and partly by using a racial slur.

But the midwives do not carry out the pharaoh’s hate crime; they come up with an excuse to let the baby boys live. Although the pharaoh does not punish the midwives, he remains determined to eliminate the “Hebrews” by attrition, letting the old ones die without a new generation to replace them. His next move is to incite the whole native Egyptian population to commit a form of genocide.

Pharaoh gave orders to all his people, saying: Every son that is born, you shall throw away into the Great River; but every daughter, you shall let live. (Exodus/Shemot 1:22)

Why does the pharaoh want to kill only the newborn boys, and not the girls? Commentators have pointed out that men carried the identity of a tribe or nation. Women became members of their husbands’ tribes when they married. If the only young Israelites were female, they would merely become wives, prostitutes, or servants to Egyptians.

I would add that adolescent boys and young men are always seen as the most dangerous members of an out-group. If the pharaoh emphasized that the Hebrew boys would grow into wild young men who might “rise up” and “wage war”, he could incite enough fear in Egyptian men to overcome any reluctance about murdering their neighbors’ babies.

The children of Israel are already subject to corvée labor with no fixed endpoint—in practice, a kind of slavery. After the pharaoh’s general order, they are also helpless against any Egyptians who decide to drown their male children.  Only a hero and a miracle can reverse the situation. The miracles will come from God; the hero is born among the Israelites in Egypt. His mother hides him for three months before putting him into the Nile in her own way.

When the pharaoh’s daughter opens the papyrus box (or ark) floating among the reeds of the Nile and sees a baby boy, she says: This is one of the children of the ivrim. (Exodus 2:6)

Thus the infant whom she adopts and names Moses begins life identified as an ivri. Although Moses grows up with the status of a grandson of the pharaoh, he knows that the persecuted “Hebrews” in Goshen are his people. But only during his sojourn among the Midianites on the Sinai peninsula does Moses become the archetype of Yisra-el, someone who struggles with God. Then God sends him back to Egypt to liberate his people. After God’s miracles have broken the pharaoh’s strength, Moses leads the ivrim out of Egypt and toward Canaan: the land where ivrim come from, and the land where they can live as children of Yisra-el.

The word ivri, in its singular and plural forms, occurs a number of times in Genesis and Exodus when the action is taking place in Egypt. Once the Israelites leave Egypt, the rest of the “Hebrew” (or Jewish) Bible rarely calls them ivrim. References to “Hebrew” people appear only in rules regarding Israelites who have sold themselves as slaves, and conversations with non-Israelites.

The Israelites consider themselves “children of Israel” (unless they are degraded by slavery), but outside their own land, they continue to go by a name that implies they are just hobos or bandits passing through.

The Israelite occupation of Canaan was not permanent; the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, the Israelites’ last stronghold, in 586 BCE. It took 2,534 years before there was an independent nation of Israel again. During much of that time, in many different countries, Jews were treated like ivrim, unsavory migrants.

The modern state of Israel was declared a nation in 1948 CE, but the Jews who “returned” there were very different, ethnically and religiously, from the Israelites who were swallowed by the Babylonian empire. Similarly, the people of modern Egypt are very different from the Egyptians of 3,000 years ago.

No group of people is permanent. Identifying some residents of a country as natives, and others as migrants, outsiders, ivrim, is ultimately a useless enterprise. Demagogues can stir up fear and hatred for a while, but then every country and its people will inevitably change.

I believe that none of us are natives, if you look back far enough in history. None of us have an exclusive claim to a patch of land. All of us are temporary residents—in our countries, and on this earth. We are all ivrim.

Our challenge is to recognize that everything is temporary. Some of us embrace a further challenge: to dedicate the rest of our short lives to becoming true children of yisra-el, wrestling with mysteries and struggling with our relationship with God.

Shemot & Va-eira: Staff, Snake, Crocodile

January 10, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Shemot, Va-eira | Leave a comment

At the burning bush, in last week’s Torah portion (Shemot), God gives Moses his mission: to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses protests that the Israelites will not believe that their god appeared to him, so they will not listen to him. God responds by showing Moses two “signs” he can perform to demonstrate that God is with him.

God said to him: What is this in your hand? And he said: a matteh. Then (God) said: Throw it to the ground. So he threw it to the ground, and it became a nachash, and Moses fled from it. Then God said to Moses: Reach out your hand and grasp it by its tail. And he reached out his hand and he held it, and it became a matteh in his palm. (Exodus/Shemot 4:2-3)

matteh = staff, an official symbol of authority

nachash = snake, instrument of divination or bewitchment

Both a staff and a snake are phallic symbols, and I suspect the image of a snake stiffening into a staff when Moses holds it in his palm is a deliberate evocation of an erection. The staff and the snake represent two varieties of masculine creative power. God uses them to demonstrate, first to Moses and then to the Israelites, that the ultimate control over everything masculine belongs to God.

In the Torah, a staff is not only a stick used by a shepherd, but also a symbol of authority over a tribe or a country. Sometimes the twelve tribes of Israel are called mattot, staves. So I think that on another level, the staff-snake-staff  transformation illustrates God’s power over both the bewitching snake in the Garden of Eden, and the twelve tribes that God will liberate from Egypt.

God shows Moses a second “sign” to use if the Israelites are insufficiently impressed by the first one. At God’s cue, Moses puts his hand into the front fold of his garment, and when he withdraws it, the hand is covered with dreaded skin disease tzara-at, “like snow”. Then he puts his hand back in, and pulls it out completely healed. The underlying message is that God controls both sickness and health.

Moses has to use both signs to convince the Israelites that he really is speaking for their god, but then they do believe him. Next, Moses and his brother Aaron ask the pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves take a three-day vacation and go into the wilderness to worship their god. They refer to God by God’s personal name, the four-letter name related to the verb meaning “to be” or “to become”. God has already told Moses that the pharaoh will refuse, and he does, saying that he does not know any god by that name.

The pharaoh then increases the workload of the Israelite slaves. When they protest, he says Moses’ vacation request proves they are lazy. So the Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for their unpaid overtime.

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (And I appeared), God tells Moses to speak to the pharaoh again, and adds:

When Pharoah speaks to you, saying “Give for yourselves a mofeit“, then say to Aaron, “Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh”. It will become a tannin. (Exodus 7:9)

mofeit = portent, marvel (from the same root as mefateyha = deceiving, persuading)

tannin = a giant reptile (such as a crocodile), a sea monster

The pharaoh says exactly what God predicts. Some commentary assumes that the pharaoh is refusing to listen to another request until Moses and Aaron prove to him that they are bona fide magicians for a god. But I agree with the 20th-century scholar Nehama Leibowitz, who argued that the pharaoh is challenging Moses and Aaron to redeem their ruined reputation in public, by producing a wonder for themselves. He thinks that when they fail to produce a marvel, and his own magicians succeed, any whisper of a slave revolt will be nipped in the bud.

And Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and they did thus, as God had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a tannin. Then Pharaoh also called for the sages and for the sorcerers, and they also, the diviners of Egypt, did thus with their flame-magic. And each one threw down his staff, and they became tanninim. And the staff of Aaron swallowed down their staffs. But Pharaoh’s heart was firm, and he did not listen to them, just as God had spoken. (Exodus 7:10-13) 

Why does the staff become a snake for the Israelites, but a tannin for the pharaoh? One theory is that the crocodile was important to Egyptian religion. The transformation of a staff into a crocodile would remind Egyptians of their crocodile god, Sobek, who both created the Nile and gave strength to the pharaoh. In the Torah, Aaron’s crocodile confronts the pharaoh’s crocodiles. When Aaron’s swallows down all the others, it is an obvious omen that the god of Moses and Aaron will triumph over the pharaoh.

The Hebrew in the Torah implies that Aaron’s crocodile does not swallow down the others until after it has changed back into a staff. According to Midrash Rabbah, a collection of commentary from Talmudic times, God arranges it that way because it is more impressive for an inanimate object to swallow things. The Midrash says the pharaoh is amazed, and afraid that the staff might swallow up him and his throne next. Nevertheless, he strengthens his psyche with firm resolve, the first of a series of heart-hardenings.

Modern Torah readers are familiar with the concept that God is omnipotent. The magic tricks that God arranges with a staff seem like a sideshow before the main action of the ten plagues begins. Yet it is necessary for Moses to prove to both the Israelites and the Egyptians that he really is speaking for a powerful god, and that his God is more powerful than any Egyptian god or Egyptian magic. Otherwise the Israelites will never follow him out of Egypt, and the pharaoh might attribute the plagues to other deities.

Therefore the staff is not Moses’ phallic symbol, nor Aaron’s. It is God’s phallic symbol, as God shows off to the simple-minded people in Egypt, from slave to monarch. It would be easy for me, as a feminist, to mock these crude displays of male power. Yet even today, that is what it takes to get some people’s attention.

Moses notices the subtle miracle of the bush that burned without being consumed. But not everyone is able to notice subtle cues and then question their views of reality.  In the Torah, the pharaoh does not give up on his assumption that he must keep his slaves until he is hit with the death of his own first-born son. I know people like that today.

I do not know how much I can notice subtle cues and change my approach to life accordingly, and how much I am mired in habits of thought I do not even recognize. But I hope–and I pray–that I will become more like Moses than like either the Israelites or the pharaoh. I’d like to wake up without being hit by either a disaster or a phallic symbol.

Shemot: Holy Ground

January 2, 2013 at 9:02 pm | Posted in Shemot | 2 Comments

This week we open a new book in the cycle of Torah readings, the book of Exodus/Shemot (“Names”). The Israelites, who were welcome guests in Egypt at the end of  Genesis/Bereishit, are now slaves under a genocidal pharoah. This week’s Torah portion, also called Shemot, tells the story of Moses from his birth to Hebrew slaves, up to his return to Egypt as God’s prophet.

Later in the story, Moses will become more intimate with God than anyone else in the Hebrew bible. But here, his life story does not mention God until after Moses is settled in the land of Midian with a wife and child. He knows that he was born a Hebrew, and that his people have their own god, but he does not know the god’s name. Moses must learn about Egyptian gods while he is growing up as the adopted son of the pharaoh’s daughter. He must also learn about the gods of Midian, since he lives with the Midianite priest Yitro (or Reuel) and  marries one of his daughters. In Midian, Moses leads a introspective life as a shepherd, deliberately taking his flock to remote places where he will be alone.

Moses was shepherding the flock of Yitro, his father-in-law, priest of Midian, and he guided the flock achar hamidbar, and he came to the mountain of ha-elohim, to chorev. (Exodus/Shemot 3:1)

 achar = behind, after, in the back, in the future

hamidbar = the wilderness; the mouth (as the instrument of speech)

ha-elohim = the gods; God

chorev =  dry desolation; “Horeb” (in English), the  name of a mountain and a region also identified as Sinai

A simple translation is that Moses “guided the flock beyond the wilderness, and he came to the mountain of God, to (Mount) Chorev”.

Alternatively, maybe Moses “guided the flock to the future of the speaking mouth, and he came to the mountain of the gods, to dry desolation”. The second translation is non-standard, but it does describe Moses’ psychological journey. He takes what he was given by his father-in-law the priest (literally sheep, but perhaps also theology), and goes beyond his accustomed life into his own future. He is about to become a prophet, a mouth speaking for God. He is also about to feel dry and desolate, because he does not want the mission God thrusts upon him.

Meanwhile, God has noticed the groaning of the enslaved Israelites, and is about to recruit Moses as the instrument for liberating and leading the Israelites. But God does not suddenly speak to Moses, or appear in a dream, as God did with Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Jacob in the book of Genesis. Instead, God arranges a small miracle off to one side of Moses’ route.

Then a malakh of God appeared to him in a flame of fire from the middle of  the seneh; and he saw it; and hey! the seneh was burning in the fire, but the seneh was not consumed. (Exodus 3:2)

malakh = emissary, messenger (often translated as “angel”)

seneh = a particular type of bush

In the entire Hebrew bible, the word seneh appears only in this scene (five times), and once in Deuteronomy/Devarim. It is probably related to the Arabic word sina = thornbush, and the Latin senna = a family of woody flowering perennials with straggling branches, about knee-high. The seneh may or may not come from the same Hebrew root as Sinai, the other name for the mountain where Moses repeatedly meets God. But as Martin Buber pointed out, repeating the word seneh three times in one sentence certainly evokes the name “Sinai”.

Later in the book of Exodus, God manifests at Mount Sinai in volcanic fire and thunder. But here, God’s fire appears in a small plant, and burns quietly without consuming it. Why does God choose this manifestation?

The symbolic meaning of the burning bush according to Midrash Rabbah, a collection of sayings from rabbis of the first few centuries C.E. (the Common Era for Jews, called A.D. by Christians) is that Moses is afraid Egypt will destroy Israel, just as a fire would normally destroy a bush. Since this burning bush is not consumed, it represents a promise that the Israelites will never be destroyed by their oppressors.

I agree with 20th-century scholar Nehama Leibowitz that the fire in the bush is an implausible symbol for the Egyptians. Since God’s messenger (angel) appears in the midst of this fire, the fire would more plausibly represent divine revelation. According to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the burning bush means that anyone who opens their heart to God will not be destroyed by the divine power.

Moses said: Oh, I must turn aside so I will see this great sight! Why does the bush not burn up?  (Exodus 3:3)

The “messenger” of God is simply the sight of something outside natural law—and therefore numinous. Moses is a person who will notice something unusual and turn aside. Maybe  he is curious about the nature of the universe; or maybe he is searching for God. After all, why did he take the flock beyond the grassy wilderness to this dry and desolate mountain, where there is nothing good for sheep to eat? His father-in-law the priest must have told him where to find the “mountain of the gods”. Now Moses is alert for any sign of the divine.

God does not speak to Moses until after he has turned aside to look at the bush. Apparently alert curiosity and a willingness to approach the numinous are essential traits that God requires in his prophet.

And God saw that he had turned aside to see, so God called to him from the middle of the bush, and said: Moses! Moses! And he said: Here I am. (Exodus 3:4)

According to Midrash Rabbah, God chose to speak to Moses from a mere thorn-bush in order to demonstrate that that God is everywhere, even in the lowliest places: a scrubby shrub as well as a tall cedar of Lebanon, a small and barren mountain as well as a lofty peak.

I smiled when I read this, since I have heard many friends say they feel God’s presence the most when they are out hiking and surrounded by tall trees or snow-capped peaks. I confess that I, too, feel touched by something numinous when I see the awesome natural wonders here in Oregon. Yet I know that if we want to seek the divine, we need to look at straggly little plants as well as cedars, and pray in uninteresting rooms as well as cathedrals.

And God said: Don’t come closer to here! Take off your sandals from upon your feet, because the place that you are standing upon is holy ground. (Exodus 3:5)

Moses cannot come closer to God right away. No matter how much he wants to understand the divine, he must learn about God during the course of a long relationship.

In my experience, that is also true for God-seekers today. A mystical experience can be a message, but it does not change your life, or even your soul. The next day, your old behaviors come right back (even if your feeling of transformation keeps you from noticing them). One experience cannot change you into someone who walks with God—someone who thoughtfully does the right things and remains aware of a larger view of reality. You have to change yourself over the course of many years, noticing when it is time to turn aside, noticing when you have made another mistake, and remembering over and over again that a divine fire hides in the weedy bushes of life.

At least that’s what I believe. So I take comfort from knowing that even Moses cannot walk right into the divine fire and become one with God. His encounter at the burning bush is only the beginning. But at least God tells him he is standing on holy ground. If only we could realize that we are all standing on holy ground!

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Shemot: Moses Is Not Consumed

April 15, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Posted in Shemot | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on January 3, 2010.)

And a messenger of God appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of the thornbush, and he saw, and behold, the thornbush was blazing with fire, and the thornbush was not being consumed. (Exodus/Shemot 3:2)

uchal = being consumed, being devoured

The original Levi, Jacob’s third son, was a violent man.  (See last week’s blog on Levi and his brother Shimon, who perpetrated the massacre at Shechem.)  On his deathbed, Jacob praises most of his sons, but when it comes to Shimon and Levi, he says:  Accursed is their rage because it is fierce, and their fury because it is relentless.  (Genesis 49:7).

This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, emphasizes that Moses is a Levite, the son of a Levite father and Levite mother.  In the next four books of the Torah, Exodus (Shemot, “Names”) through Deuteronomy (Devarim, “Words”), members of the tribe of Levi are often depicted as quick to anger and prone to violence.  After the golden calf worship, the Levites answered Moses’ call to slaughter 3,000 Israelite men in one day, without any sort of trial to determine if they really were the idolaters (Exodus 32:26-28).  Later, when an Israelite takes a Baal-Peor worshiper into the Tent of Meeting to fornicate, Aaron’s grandson Pinchas, a Levite, runs in and spears the couple in the act (Numbers 25:1-14).  And after Moses has led the Israelites across the Reed Sea, he loses his temper on many occasions.

Yet before that crossing, Moses is portrayed as a cautious and moderate person.  When he is born, his mother sees that he is “good” and hides him for three months (Exodus 2.2).  19th-century rabbi Samson R. Hirsch points out that the reason she is able to hide him is that he is a “good” baby, a baby who does not scream or wail as long as his needs are met.

When Moses reaches adulthood, he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, but he does not strike down the Egyptian until after he has looked around (Exodus 2:12).  Some commentators say he is looking to see if anyone else would address the injustice.  Probably he is checking to see if there were witnesses, since two verses later he is frightened to learn that someone knows about his killing of the Egyptian.  Either way, Moses does not act impulsively, in the heat of anger.

Is Moses rational and restrained, or merely timid?  Alone in a strange land, he stands up to a gang of cruel shepherds in order to rescue seven young women (Exodus 2:17).  When he sees the burning bush, he knows it is a miracle, but is not afraid to come close to look at it.  When God speaks to him, he hides his face in fear—but it is appropriate to be afraid of gazing at God (Exodus 3:6).  When God turns Moses’ staff into a serpent, he flees from it, but then when God tells him to pick up the snake by the tail, he obeys at once (Exodus 4:3-4).  When Moses begs God to send someone else to Egypt, he gives reasons that indicate low self-confidence rather than timidity: he is a poor orator, and he believes he will fail (Exodus 4:10, 4:13).

Moses has a burning desire to correct injustice and save the victims of abuse, whether they are Hebrew slaves in Egypt or female shepherds in Midyan.  He is willing to take risks to act against the abusers.  But he keeps his head; his anger is restrained.  Like the thornbush, he burns inside, but he is not consumed by the fire.

Moses has the passionate heart of a Levite.  Why is he able to set limits on his fiery nature?  Is it because his passion is for God and for justice?

Or because he is brought up by women associated with water—his mother and sister, who entrust him to the water of Nile, and Pharaoh’s daughter, who draws him out of the water?

Or because he is simply born “good”?

I wonder what nature I inherited: earth, water, air, or fire?  And what enables me to set limits on it—to avoid being buried, or drowned, or blown away, or consumed?

Shemot: Openings

April 11, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Posted in Shemot | Leave a comment

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

And Moses said to God: Excuse me, my lord, I have not been a man of words, even yesterday, even the day before, even earlier when you spoke to your servant; for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.  (Exodus/Shemot 4:10)

kaveid (when used as an adjective for a body part) = heavy, dull, implacable, insensitive

On the way, at the lodging-place, God encountered him and sought to have him put to death.  And Tzipporah took a flint, and she cut the foreskin of her son, and she touched it to his legs, and she said: Because you are a bridegroom of bloodshed for me.  And it withdrew from him; then she said: A bridegroom of bloodshed for the circumcisions.  (Exodus/Shemot 4:24-26)

The book of Exodus opens with this week’s Torah portion.  (Both the book and the first portion are called Shemot—Names).  The Israelites are now slaves in Egypt, and the new Pharoah fears insurrection.  Moses is born and adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter.  As a young man, he murders an Egyptian overseer, flees to Midian, and marries the daughter of a Midianite priest.  At age 80, still vigorous, Moses encounters the burning bush, and God assigns him the job of returning to Egypt and demanding that the Pharaoh let the Israelite slaves go free to worship their god.  Moses tries to back away from this mission five times, and each time God counters his objection.  The fourth time, Moses pleads that he has never been a good speaker, saying “I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (see my first translation above).

Does this mean that Moses believes he is not eloquent, that he has forgotten the Egyptian language, or that he has a speech impediment?  The commentary is divided.  A famous midrash describes Pharaoh testing three-year-old Moses by presenting him with a choice between a jewel (or in some versions, a lump of gold) and a burning coal, on the theory that if this adopted grandson is a threat, he will choose the jewel.  An angel in this story guides Moses’ hand so he picks up the coal, brings it to his mouth, and burns himself.  The resulting scar causes a speech impediment by making his mouth literally kaveid:  heavy, thick, insensitive.

On the other hand, in next week’s Torah portion, Moses describes himself twice as having “uncircumcised lips”.  Circumcision of the foreskin is both the removal of a covering, and an act of consecration to God.  Thus the phrase “uncircumcised lips” is a metaphor both for being habitually silent (close-mouthed), and also for being unworthy to speak.  I think when Moses describes his mouth and tongue as kaveid in this week’s portion, he is also using a metaphor.  This metaphor emphasizes his inability to speak effectively.

Why does Moses keep saying he cannot, dare not, or will not speak?  He may regret murdering the Egyptian overseer so much that he is still unwilling to take any significant action in the world.  Opening his mouth and telling the Pharaoh to release of a huge number of Hebrew slaves certainly counts as significant action.

For a prophet, power comes from speech.  Power is also indicated in the Torah by the symbol of a king’s staff or rod, and by other phallic euphemisms such as “thigh” or “legs”.  Circumcision, then, dedicates a male’s symbol of power to God.

The idea of circumcision appears in this week’s Torah portion as soon as Moses gives in to God’s demand and heads toward Egypt with his wife and their two sons.  In the famously mysterious “Bridegroom of Blood” episode (my second translation above), God seems to want Moses’ death, and Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, saves his life by circumcising one of her sons and touching the blood to someone’s “legs”.

The ambiguity of the pronouns in this passage has resulted in many different explanations of the details.  (For example, did Tzipporah touch the bloody foreskin to the “legs” of her son, or Moses, or an angel God sent to kill him?)   But traditional commentators agree on its main message: that Moses deserves death because he failed to circumcise one of his sons at the proper time, and this transgression made him unworthy of being God’s agent in Egypt.  Tzipporah saves her husband’s life by immediately circumcising the correct son and ritually connecting her act with Moses.

Modern alternative theories include Martin Buber’s comment that founders of religions normally experience a night when their newly-won certainty suddenly collapses, and they are assailed by demons of terror and doubt.  Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg considered the uncircumcised baby a stand-in for Moses with his uncircumcised lips.

I agree with both of them.  I think Moses’ encounter with death does express his terror of speaking for God and getting it all wrong.  The emergency circumcision ritual does enable him to commit himself to speaking for God, and sanctifies that commitment.

Moses’ wife is the one who changes his terror into commitment.  Whatever her beliefs about God, Tzipporah is a Midianite, not a Hebrew by birth.  She would know of Hebrew circumcision rites only by hearsay.  Yet she does exactly the right thing to rescue her husband from his disabling and deadly fear of speaking in the name of God.  Maybe her graphic reminder of circumcision, the primary sign of commitment to God, jolts Moses into his own commitment.  Or maybe it is her action that commits him, willy-nilly, and Moses can only accept it, knowing in his deepest heart that his wife is right.

Tzipporah only says two sentences in the Torah.  Her last word is “circumcisions” in the plural.  She has circumcised someone physically, and she has also circumcised Moses’ lips metaphorically, removing the weight of his determined silence, making his mouth sensitive for God’s use.

The commentary agrees that Moses could not have survived without the unusual actions of the women in his life: his mother Yocheved, who casts him into the Nile in a basket; Pharaoh’s daughter, who finds him and adopts him; and Moses’ sister Miriam, who arranges for their own mother to be his hired wet-nurse.  But the strangest rescue of all is when his wife Tzipporah sees him dying and saves him with blood, in a stroke of divine inspiration.

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