Yitro & Psalms 29, 82, & 97: Greater Than Other Gods

February 16, 2017 at 5:08 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Psalms/Tehilim, Yitro | 2 Comments
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Miriam's Song, 1909

Miriam’s Song, 1909

(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

The Song of the Sea, in last week’s Torah portion, includes the verse:

           Who is like You among the eilim, Y-h-w-h?

                        Who is like You, glorious in holiness,

                        Awesome, praiseworthy, doing wonders! (Exodus 15:11)

Y-h-w-h (י־ה־ו־ה) = God’s personal four-letter name. (Many English translations substitute “LORD” for this name, even though it is spelled using letters from several forms of the Hebrew verb “to be” rather than from the Hebrew noun for “lord”.)1

eilim (אֵלִם) = plural of eil (אֵל) = a god. (In some Canaanite religions, Eil was the founding god of a pantheon.)

The Song of the Sea assumes that other gods exist, and rejoices that the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h, is so powerful. Since the Song of the Sea is one of the oldest poems in the Bible, dating to around 1100 B.C.E., one might dismiss its polytheism as an archaic remnant.  Yet this verse is included in the daily Jewish liturgy, morning and evening. When Jews sing “Mi chamokha” (“Who is like You?”) we do not always remember that we are comparing our God with other gods.

Yitro advises Moses in Figures de la Bible, 1728

Yitro advises Moses
in Figures de la Bible, 1728

Yitro and the First Commandment

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Midianite priest Yitro meets his son-in-law Moses near Mt. Sinai a few days after God and Moses have brought the Israelites out of Egypt.

And Yitro said: “Blessed be Y-h-w-h, Who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh…Now I know that Y-h-w-h is greater than all the elohim…” (Exodus/Shemot 18:11)

elohim (אֱלֺהִים) = gods, god, God. (Grammatically elohim is the plural of eloha, a rarely used word for a god. But the Bible uses the word elohim to refer to a single god as well as to multiple gods. Elohim refers occasionally to a foreign god2, and frequently to the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h.)

Does Yitro believe in the existence of multiple gods only because he is a Midianite? No; many passages in the Bible that were originally written before the destruction of the first temple in 587 B.C.E. share this belief. Even the first of the “Ten Commandments” in this week’s Torah portion does not require monotheism, but only a henotheistic religion in which Y-h-w-h is the best god and the only one the people are allowed to worship.

I am Y-h-w-h, your elohim, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of servitude. You shall have no other elohim over and above My presence. (Exodus/Shemot 20:2-3)

(For other translations, see my post Yitro: Not in My Face.)

Y-h-w-h does not say that there are no other gods, but only that the Israelites must not have them.

A number of psalms3 are similarly henotheistic, at least in the Hebrew. (Some translators strain to make them sound as monotheistic as later Biblical writings.) These psalms treat other gods as real, but emphasize that they are weak and worthless compared with Y-h-w-h, the God of Israel.  Here are three examples:

Psalm 29

Psalm 29 is probably the oldest of the henotheistic psalms. It opens:

           Grant to Y-h-w-h, children of eilim,

                        Grant to Y-h-w-h magnificence and might!

            Grant to Y-h-w-h the magnificence of Its name,

                      Bow down to Y-h-w-h of holy beauty!

           The voice of Y-h-w-h is over the waters;

                      The eil of magnificence is thundering.  (Psalm 29:1-3)

Baal preparing lightning, bronze

Baal preparing lightning, bronze

Canaanite poems describe the god Baal as the weather god who speaks in thunder and makes lightning and earthquakes. Psalm 29 goes on to describe the voice of Y-h-w-h as shattering cedars, making the mountains of Lebanon dance, kindling fire, shaking the wilderness, and startling does into giving birth—all images related to thunderstorms and earthquakes.

Then the psalm declares:

And in Its palace everyone says: Magnificent!

Y-h-w-h sat [enthroned] for the flood,

                        And Y-h-w-h sits [enthroned as] king forever.  (Exodus 29:10)

Similarly, in Canaanite literature the god Baal conquers the waters of chaos, builds a palace on a mountaintop, and becomes king over all the other gods except his father, Eil.

The purpose of Psalm 29 may have been to replace Baal-worship among the Israelites with the worship of Y-h-w-h, and to persuade them that all the other gods are less powerful than Y-h-w-h, the mere “children of eilim. These inferior gods acclaim and bow down to Y-h-w-h in Its palace.

Psalm 82

In Canaanite religious writings from Ugarit, the father god Eil periodically convenes an assembly of the gods, each of whom has its own sphere of power. With advice from the other gods, Eil makes the major decisions about the world.4

Psalm 82, however, takes the idea a divine assembly in a different direction.

The Council of Gods, sketch by Peter Paul Rubens

The Council of Gods, sketch by Peter Paul Rubens

Elohim takes a stand in the assembly of Eil,

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

In the first line “Elohim” refers to Y-h-w-h; in the second line “elohim” refers to all the assembled gods.  “Eil” in the first line might be either Y-h-w-h or the Canaanite father god.

Y-h-w-h then accuses the other gods of unjust rulings that favor the wicked and fail to rescue the poor. But the other gods don’t get it.

            They neither know nor understand,

                      They walk around in darkness;

                      Causing all the foundations of the earth to totter.  (Psalm 82:5)

Without true justice, the whole human world is threatened. So Y-h-w-h gets rid of the ignorant lesser gods, commenting:

           I used to say to myself: You are elohim,

                      And children of the Most High, all of you.

           Nevertheless, you will die like humans,

                      And you will fall like one of the princes.  (Psalm 82:6-7)

Psalm 82 might be an explanation of why the wicked are not always punished: inferior gods have been acting as judges.

On the other hand, this psalm might be a story exhorting the Israelites to abandon other gods because they are wicked, stupid, and no longer immortal. Only Y-h-w-h is worth worshiping, because only Y-h-w-h administers true justice and lives forever.

Psalm 97

           The heavens told of [God’s] true justice;

                        All the peoples saw Its magnificence.

            Every worshiper of a carved idol is shamed,

                        Those who boast of the elilim.

Sumerian annunaki (gods from the sky)

Sumerian annunaki (gods from the sky)

             All elohim bowed down to It! (Psalm 97:6-7)

elilim (אֱלִילִים) = worthless gods, nonentities, not-gods, insignificant gods.

“The heavens” in verse 6 probably refers not to the inanimate sky, but to the gods (including stars) who dwell in the heavens. Since even the other gods bow down to Y-h-w-h and acknowledge Its justice, anyone silly enough to worship these insignificant gods should be ashamed.


According to the Bible, it took many centuries for the Israelites to stop worshiping the old gods. The people would declare their allegiance to Y-h-w-h, and then slide back into worshiping some other god, a god “everyone” knew was especially effective at inflicting or solving the problem they were dealing with at the moment.

Henotheism was a hard enough concept. Monotheism was truly radical. After second Isaiah started preaching true monotheism during the Babylonian exile, who knows how long it took before most Israelites believed there was only one god in the universe?

I suspect that psalms and hymns were the most effective way to change the people’s beliefs. The “Ten Commandments” are powerful, but not persuasive.  The Bible often shows Moses and other prophets and priests scolding the Israelites for straying after other gods, but the scoldings must have been ineffective, since the people kept on backsliding.

A message embedded in a psalm is different. Music kindles people’s emotions. When I read the words of a psalm or hymn silently, I often have theological objections. But when I sing at services, I am often carried away with the feeling of the song. And the underlying message of the song stays with me, in my heart or my gut.

My advice to religious seekers is to choose your religion carefully, so you do not get emotionally carried away in the wrong direction.  And my advice to religious leaders is to make sure the singing is good.

1  I usually translate the four-letter name as “God”, but in this post it is important to distinguish Y-h-w-h from elohim. I insert hyphens because according to Jewish tradition, God’s personal name must not be spelled correctly in writings that are neither biblical nor liturgical. For many Jews this applies even to spelling the name with Roman letters.

The Hebrew for “lord” or “master” is adon (אָדוֹן). When Jews read out loud in religious services, we often substitute adonai  (“my lords”) for the four-letter name of God.

2 The Bible uses “elohim” as a singular noun for the gods Baal, Baal-berit, Baal-zebub, Dagon, Kemosh, Milkom, and Nisrach; the goddesses Astarte and Ashtoret; and the golden calf.

3  Psalms 29, 82, 86, 89, 95, 96, 97, 135, and 136 all assume the existence of other gods.

4  A divine assembly also appears in the book of Job and in Psalms 82 and 89.

Haftarat Yitro—Isaiah: Burning Angels

January 27, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Posted in Isaiah 1, Yitro | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), and the haftarah is Isaiah 6:1-7:6 & 9:5-6.

You cannot see My face, because humankind may not see Me and live. (Exodus/Shemot 33:20)

Although God cannot be seen directly, people in the Bible do experience visions of God. The Israelites see a manifestation of God in this week’s Torah portion, and Isaiah sees a manifestation of God in this week’s haftarah.

Mount Sinai

Mount Sinai

In the vision shared by everyone at Mount Sinai, God appears only as fire.

And Moses brought out the people from the camp to meet God, and they stationed themselves at the bottom of the mountain. And all of Mount Sinai smoked, because God went down upon it in fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke of the furnace, and all the mountain shuddered very much. (Exodus 19:17-18)

A shuddering, smoking mountain sounds like a volcano—except that in this vision, God’s fire comes down from the sky, not up from a crater. God also manifests in the book of Exodus as the fire Moses sees in the burning bush on Sinai, as the pillar of cloud and fire that leads the Israelites to Mount Sinai, and as fire and cloud on the mountain when Moses ascends to receive each pair of stone tablets.

No angels or other semi-divine creatures appear in the revelation at Mount Sinai; only fire, smoke, and various sounds.

In Isaiah’s moment of revelation God does not appear as fire.

In the year King Uzziyahu died, I saw my Master sitting elevated on a lofty throne, and His skirts filling the heykhal. (Isaiah 6:1)

heykhal (הֵיכָל) = palace, temple; main room of the temple in Jerusalem; heavenly palace.

Isaiah beholds God wearing a robe and sitting on a throne, like a king—except that the skirts of the robe mysteriously flow out to fill the room. As the vision continues God speaks, but does not move.

However, angelic attendants surrounding God move, speak, and burn with fire.

Isaiah 6 serafSerafim are stationed above Him, each with six wings; with one pair he covers his face, and with a pair he covers his raglayim, and with a pair he flies. And one calls to another, and he says: Holy, holy holy! God of Tzevaot, Who fills all the earth with His glory! And the supports of the threshold shiver from the sound of the calling, and the house fills with smoke. (Isaiah 6:1-4)

serafim (שְׂרָפִים) = burners, burning creatures. (From the verb saraf, שָׂרַף = burn. Used in Numbers and Deuteronomy for “burning serpents”—probably poisonous snakes.)

tzevaot  (צְבָאוֹת) = armies (on earth); the stars (in the heavens).

raglayim (רַגְלָיִם) = (pair of) feet, legs; a euphemism for the penis. Singular: regel (רֶגֶל) = foot, leg; walking pace; time set for a pilgrimage-festival.

The serafim must both cover and uncover their faces and their raglayim; if these body parts were permanently covered, they would not need wings for that purpose. When and why do they conceal these parts of their anatomy?

In Leviticus Rabbah, a collection of commentary from 400-600 C.E., Rabbi Jacob ben Zadbi says the serafim cover their faces to avoid looking at God’s presence, and cover their feet so God would not have to look at such unsightly appendages. (The writer assumed that the feet of the serafim were like the feet of Ezekiel’s angelic keruvim, which resembled calves’ feet.)

Twelfth-century C.E. rabbi Moses Maimonides wrote in The Guide for the Perplexed that the description of serafim covering their body parts is symbolic. The faces of the serafim are covered to indicate that “the cause of their existence is hidden and concealed”, while their feet are covered to indicate that their actions in the universe are also hidden. The wings for flying, Maimonides adds, merely represent the speed with which the serafim move when they act.

I propose a simpler explanation. Maybe the serafim cover their faces whenever they turn toward Isaiah, so he is not exposed to the blinding light radiating from these burning creatures. If seeing God’s face means death, seeing the faces of the serafim might be almost as bad.

Moses at the burning bush

Moses at the burning bush

As for covering their raglayim, I doubt the serafim are concealing their feet.  After all, humans must have bare feet when they are in God’s presence; Moses must remove his sandals in front of the burning bush, and the priests must go barefoot inside the sanctuary. Since Isaiah’s vision is set inside a heykhal, the serafim in God’s presence probably expose their bare feet.

Although the word raglayim most often refers to feet or legs, sometimes it implies the pubic area between the legs, and there are three places in the Bible where raglayim is definitely a euphemism for the male genital organs. In Judges 3:24 and 1 Samuel 24:4 the word raglayim is combined with a verb to indicate a man urinating.  And in the part of chapter 7 of Isaiah that is left out of this week’s haftarah, the prophet says that God will use the king of Assyria as a razor to shave off the head of hair and the hair of the raglayim (JPS: public hair) and also snatch away the beard. (Isaiah 7:20)

A man’s hair, especially his beard and pubic hair, stood for virility in ancient Israelite culture. Isaiah employs a shaving metaphor to prophesy that God will use Assyria to symbolically castrate Israel’s other enemies.

Why would the serafim in Isaiah’s vision use their extra wings to cover their genitals?

The penis is a symbol of rule, dominance, and control throughout the Bible, from the oath Abraham’s servant swears on his master’s yareich (which can also mean genitals; see my post Chayyei Sarah: A Peculiar Oath) to the Persian king who approves Esther’s interruption by lifting his sharvit (scepter). But God is the ultimate ruler. It would be subversive for a male to uncover his genitals in God’s presence.

That is why this week’s Torah portion specifies that all altars for God must be built without stairs or steps.

You must not ascend on stairs to My altar; that way you would expose your nakedness upon it. (Exodus 20:23)

The Torah also requires that priests must wear linen undergarments, so their genitals will be concealed in all areas of God’s sanctuary.

So each seraf uses one pair of wings to conceal his fiery face from Isaiah, for his own protection; and one pair of wings to conceal his genitals, so Isaiah will know that God rules, not the serafim.

Nevertheless, these angels are endowed with the potential to generate independent decisions and actions. One example occurs after Isaiah expresses his anxiety about having a vision of God.

The Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall

The Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall

And I said: Woe to me! I am as good as dead, because I am a man of impure lips, and I am living in the midst of a people of impure lips, yet my eyes behold the King, God of Tzevaot! Then one of the serafim flew toward me, and in his hand was a live coal he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. And he touched it to my mouth and he said: Hey! Now that this has touched your lips, your bad deeds have gone away, and your offense is atoned for. Then I heard the voice of my Master saying: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? And I said: Here I am, send me! (Isaiah 6:5-8)

We have come a long way from the vision at Mount Sinai of God as undifferentiated fire, unaccompanied by any furniture or subsidiary creatures.

Isaiah sees God in terms of a throne and skirts, not in terms of fire. The fire exists in God’s serafim, “burning ones”, who occupy a station somewhere between humankind and God. They praise God (Holy, holy holy!) and they are privy to some of God’s plans (and who will go for us?) They protect Isaiah from the blinding brightness of their faces, and they cover their genitals to indicate that although they have some power, God is the ultimate ruler. And one seraf, hearing Isaiah’s anxiety about his unworthiness, takes action to remove his guilt. In his relief, Isaiah volunteers to be God’s prophet. Thus the seraf both furthers God’s plan and helps Isaiah rise to his calling.

The image of God as a king with a throne and a long robe has continued to be popular, from some of the writings after the fall of the first temple to some of the explanations given to children today. For me, God as fire is a better metaphor. An individual human cannot become a god.

But maybe we can aspire to be brighter, more aware of God’s presence, and more able to listen to people and address their concerns.

May all of us humans learn to act as thoughtfully as the serafim in Isaiah’s vision.

Yitro: The Heaviness of Honoring Parents

February 3, 2015 at 10:46 pm | Posted in Yitro | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

“Heavy, man!”

When we said that, back in the 1970’s, we meant that something was impressive, difficult, or profound, not to be taken lightly. The Hebrew word for “heavy”, kaveid, has even more shades of meaning in the book of Exodus/Shemot.

Moses at the Burning Bush by Rembrandt van Rijn

Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt van Rijn

When God tells Moses his mission at the burning bush, Moses objects that he cannot speak to the Israelites and the Pharaoh in Egypt because his tongue is kaveid.

But Moses said to God: Excuse me, my lord, I am not a man of words…because I am khevad mouth and khevad  tongue. (Exodus/Shemot 4:10)

khevad (כְבַד) = heavy of. (Another formation from the root verb kaveid, כָּבֵד.)

What does Moses mean by saying his mouth and tongue are heavy? Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki) wrote that Moses stammered or had a speech impediment.  His grandson Rashbam (12th-century Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir) wrote that Moses was no longer proficient in Egyptian. Either way, Moses’ speech is kaveid because it is slow and difficult.

When Moses and Aaron first ask Pharaoh to give the Israelites a three-day vacation to worship their god, Pharoah increases his laborers’ workload instead, saying:

Tikhebad, the work, upon the men, and they must do it, and they must not deal in lying words. (Exodus/Shemot 5:9)

tikhebad (תִּכְבַּד) = it will weigh heavily, let it be heavy, it must be a burden. (A form of the root verb kaveid, כָּבֵד.)

Pharoah’s heart (the seat of his thoughts and feelings, in Biblical Hebrew) also becomes heavy. After each divine miracle except the final one (the death of the firstborn), Pharaoh is tempted to let his slaves go on that three-day vacation. But then he reverts and refuses to change his economic and political system. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened six times, and made heavy (hakhebeid, הַכְבֵּד) five times. He is too stiff and too heavy to move.

Brick making Tomb of King  Rekhmire in Thebes

Brick making
Tomb of King Rekhmire in Thebes

Furthermore, the Torah describes four of the miraculous plagues (swarming insects, cattle disease, hail, and locusts) as kaveid, heavy, because they are so oppressive.

But when Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites and their fellow-travelers leave, we read:

And the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Sukkot, about 600,000 strong men on foot, besides non-marchers. And also a mixed throng went up with them, and flocks and herds, very kaveid property. (Exodus/Shemot 12:37-38)

kaveid (כָּבֵד) = heavy, weighty, oppressive, impressive, magnificent.

For newly-freed slaves, they leave with a lot of property: their own livestock, and all the gold and silver objects the Egyptians gave them on their way out. As they march away, the abundance of their possessions is impressive.

God also wants to be impressive.  When the emigrants have entered the wilderness, God tells Moses that Pharoah’s army will pursue them, so that God can stage one last miracle at the Reed Sea.

…then ikavedah through Pharaoh and through all his army; … and the Egyptians will know that I am God. (Exodus 14:4, 14:17-18)

ikavedah (עִכָּבְדָה) = I will be recognized as important, I will be honored, I will be respected, I will appear magnificent. (A form of the root verb kaveid.)

The people reach Mount Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro (“his surplus”, the name of Moses’ father-in-law).  This is where God pronounces the Ten Commandments. The fifth commandment begins with the word kaveid.

Kabeid your father and your mother, so that your days will lengthen upon the soil that God, your god, is giving to you. (Exodus 20:12)

Kabeid (כַּבֵּד) = Honor! Respect! Treat as weighty, important!  (This imperative verb comes from the same root as the adjective kaveid.)

Honoring your parents sounds like a nice idea, but why is it one of God’s top ten rules?

In traditional commentary from the third century C.E. to the present, honoring your parents is a necessary step to honoring God, and neglecting your parents is an insult to God. One reason given is that your biological parents—and God—created you. However, the Talmud (Ketubot 103a) states that this commandment applies not only to biological parents, but also to step-parents and older brothers—and therefore, presumably, to adoptive parents.

The other traditional reason why honoring parents means honoring God is that parents must teach their children Jewish history and Torah. (Apparently reading books, including the Bible, is not enough; religious knowledge must be transmitted orally.) Children honor their parents by learning their religion and passing it on to the next generation.  Without this transmission, God would cease to be honored.

Underage children are supposed to honor their parents by learning Torah from them, and by obeying them (as long as the parental request does not contradict God’s will).

Adult children must honor their parents in other ways. The Talmud (Kiddushin 31b) explained that you honor your parents by making sure they have food, drink, clothing, and coverings, and by “leading them in and out”. (It was assumed that the responsible son continued living in his parents’ house, and so could always arrange to escort them.)

Rambam (12th-century Rabbi Moses Maimonides) added in his Mishneh Torah, book 14, that if a man’s parents are poor and their son is able to take care of them, he must do so. He must also treat his parents with the respect of a student for a teacher, performing personal services and rising before them. However, Rambam wrote, if a parent is mentally ill and the son can no longer bear the stress, he may move out and hire someone else to care for his parents.

All this deference and personal care, the commentary insists, is required regardless of whether your parents were kind to you as you grew up. Nowhere in the Torah are parents required to honor or love their children; they are only required to circumcise their sons, to teach their children God’s commandments, and to refrain from incest and child-sacrifice.

If your parents were kind to you, it is a natural human inclination to honor them. But even if your parents did not earn your gratitude or love, the commentary on the fifth of the Ten Commandments says you must still honor them—in order to honor God.

Maybe the fifth commandment adds “so that your days will lengthen” in order to encourage people to honor even difficult parents. A longer life would be an especially good reward if it gives you more years to enjoy life after your difficult parent has died.

Yet we can all observe that some of the most dutiful children die younger than some of the most neglectful.  A famous story in the Talmud (Chullin 142a) tells of a father who ordered his son to climb to the top of a building and bring down some chicks. The son “honored” his father by climbing up, and followed another Biblical rule that promises prolonged life by chasing away the mother bird before collecting her young.  On the way down the ladder, the son fell and died. The rabbis in the Talmud conclude that “there is no reward for precepts in this world”, and declare that the story is an argument in favor of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.

Since the commandment says: so that your days will lengthen upon the soil that God, your god, is giving to you, Hirsch and other commentators explained that honoring parents would prolong the period of time when the Israelites got to live in the “Promised Land” of Canaan.

But the commandment in this week’s Torah portion uses the singular “you” throughout.  I think the only way your days might be lengthened because you honor your parents is if each day feels longer to you.  We can only hope that the day seems longer because it is fuller and richer, not because you can hardly wait for it to be over!

What kind of “honor” do we owe our parents today?

I think we should kabeid  (honor) our own parents according to the way they have been kaveid (heavy) in their relations with us.  Has a parent been oppressive, or impressive?

If parents caused childhood trauma, and remain crushing impediments, I think we are entitled to “move away”, as Rambam suggested. We do not need to personally delegate a caregiver, when we pay taxes for social services that will maintain them.

If parents were magnificently kind and encouraging, we should pay them every feasible honor, and continue to learn from them.

And in between? How shall we honor parents who are burdensome, but not bad—heavy, but not heavies?

Yitro: The Power of the Name

January 13, 2014 at 11:47 am | Posted in Yitro | Leave a comment
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The Israelites and their fellow-travelers camp at Mount Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, and Moses tells them to prepare for a divine revelation. God comes down to the top of Mount Sinai with fire, smoke, lightning, thunder, and horn blasts. Then God makes ten statements, commonly called the “Ten Commandments”. First God declares Itself and tells the people not to worship other gods (or the gods of others; see my earlier post, Yitro: Not in My Face). God continues by telling them not to make or bow down to images.

The third commandment, according to the 1611 King James translation, is: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”

That is not a bad translation, although it raises the question of what it means to “take” God’s name “in vain”. Let’s look at the Hebrew words that translated as “take” and “in vain”.

You shall not nasa the name of God, your god, lashav; because God shall not leave unpunished whoever will nasa Its name lashav. (Exodus/Shemot 20:7)

nasa (נָשָׂא) = lift up, raise, carry, take on a burden, lift away a burden.

lashav (לַשָׁוְא) = for falsehood, for  deceit; for emptiness, needlessly, idly.

What does it mean to “raise” God’s name? It does not mean merely raising the subject of God. Nor does it mean praising God, anywhere in the Hebrew bible.

The consensus in ancient commentary is that “raising the name of God” means invoking God’s name while swearing an oath or vow. In the Hebrew bible, lifting up one’s hand often means taking an oath. Sometimes the bible uses the verb nasa (lift up) but omits the word for “hand” when someone swears an oath.

The Talmud devotes a whole tractate to oaths, and advises against swearing oaths whenever possible. About the same time, Philo of Alexandria wrote in On the Decalogue: “For an oath is the calling of God to give his testimony concerning the matters which are in doubt; and it is a most impious thing to invoke God to be witness to a lie.” God will not bear false witness, and therefore will punish anyone who swears falsely using God’s name.

The word lashav can mean either “for falsehood” or “for emptiness”. Invoking God’s name to support a false claim, or a promise that one might not carry out, denigrates God and denies God’s power. But what if you are in the habit of sprinkling God’s name throughout your conversation? Philo and 12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra argued that this habit of invoking God for “emptiness” inevitably leads to using God’s name “for falsehood”.

Rabbis in the Talmud were so concerned about invoking God’s name for emptiness—i.e., idly or needlessly—that the mishnah (core text) of tractate Berakhot says anyone who invents trivial blessings such as “May Your mercies extend to a bird’s nest!” should be silenced.

I was alarmed when I read this, since I often say Barukh Hashem! (Bless God!) when I notice something beautiful or wonderful; and when I lead Saturday morning services, I give ad-hoc blessings to the people who have come up for the honor of the Torah reading. Should I be silenced?

I think not, because I am not using the name of God that is given in the third commandment. There, the Hebrew word I translate above as “God” is the co-called Tetragrammaton, the sacred four-letter name composed of the same letters as the various three-letter forms of the Hebrew verb that means “be”, “become”, or “happen”.

I follow the Jewish custom of avoiding any attempt to write or pronounce that particular name of God. On the other hand, I freely use synonyms such as Hashem (“the Name”), the Holy One, or the English word God, and I transliterate the common god-names Adonai and Elohim as they are pronounced in Hebrew—practices that many orthodox Jews avoid.

Maybe I do not take God’s sacred name seriously enough. The second commandment forbids making images of things that other people consider gods; the third commandment forbids misusing God’s name. In The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut wrote, “Both image and name are aspects of identity, and man must take care lest he infringe on the sanctity of God in any manner.”

I can understand commitments between human beings that are so sacred they take top priority. I also consider some ethical imperatives sacred. But I find it harder to understand the sanctity of God—perhaps because I am always wondering what the word “God”, and the Tetragrammaton, actually refer to. There are so many different definitions of God, even within the Hebrew bible! So am I entitled to use the word “God” for a definition that means something important to me? Or am I limited to one of the more common definitions that other people assume?

I hope this prayer is not lashav, “for emptiness”:

May Hashem guide me to do this work that comes from my love of Torah, this work that means so much to me, without falseness or deception. And may we all discover our own inner truths, and find ways to live by them without hurting others.

Shabbat in Yitro, Mishpatim, & Ki Tissa: Soul Recovery

February 5, 2013 at 10:27 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Mishpatim, Yitro | 2 Comments

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?

Yitro: Degrees of Separation

February 8, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Posted in Yitro | Leave a comment

The children of Israel and fellow-travelers escape from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea and set off across the Sinai peninsula, following God’s guiding pillar of cloud and fire.  Meanwhile, Yitro gets the news about the miracles that freed the Israelites, and intercepts them just before they arrive at Mount Sinai.  This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, begins:

Yitro, priest of Midyan, father-in-law of Moses, heard all that God had done for Moses, and for his people, Israel—that God had brought Israel out from Egypt.  So Yitro, father-in-law of Moses, took Tzipporah, wife of Moses, after her divorce, and her two sons, of whom one was named Gershom …  and one was named Eliezer … (Exodus/Shemot 18:1-4)

shillucheyha = her shilluchim

shilluchim = divorce; rejection; sending back a wife to her father’s house (from the root verb shallach = send)

There are two steps to divorce in the Torah:  the husband gives his wife a sefer keritut (literally a “document of cutting off”), and he sends her back to her father’s house.  Theoretically, a man might  return his wife to her father’s house temporarily, without actually divorcing her.  Many commentators, even today, claim that Moses sent Tzipporah back merely for her own safety while he was doing dangerous work for God in Egypt, and he always intended to return and reclaim her.

But if this is so, then why did Moses bring his wife and sons along on the journey to Egypt, only to send them back before they reached their destination? Also, if this is so, why didn’t the Torah employ one of the more common forms of the verb “to send”, instead of using the word shilluchim, a rare form of the root word that elsewhere in the Torah is only used to indicate a divorce?

On the grounds of both logic and grammar, I have to agree with modern commentators Athalia Brenner and Pamela Tamarkin Reis that somewhere on the road to Egypt, after the evening when Tzipporah saved Moses’ life (by performing a circumcision, smearing the blood on Moses, and calling him her “bridegroom of blood”), Moses decided to divorce his wife.  Something about that dramatic ritual must have pushed him over the edge.

The Torah does not say whether he also handed Tzipporah a document of cutting off, so we do not know whether Moses completed the divorce.  (I wonder, though if Tzipporah took care of that part symbolically through her own  act of cutting-off.  The text in Exodus chapter 4 does not say whether she circumcised Moses or one of their sons.)

Despite these indications of divorce, Yitro still calls his daughter Tzipporah the wife of Moses.

And he said to Moses:  I myself, your father-in-law Yitro, am coming to you, and your wife and her two sons with her.  And Moses went out to invite his father-in-law, and he bowed down to him, and he kissed him, and they inquired about one another’s welfare, and they came into the tent.  (Exodus 18:6-7)

Yitro travels into the wilderness to see Moses again, and to confirm that his god performs miracles.  I suspect he brings along Tzipporah and the boys in the hope that Moses will take them back.  Yitro is called “father-in-law of Moses” 13 times in this chapter of Torah, and he does seem to appreciate his family connection with the new leader of the Israelites.  No doubt he would like his daughter reinstated as Moses’ wife, and his grandsons acknowledged as Moses’ heirs.

Even if Tzipporah is a gerushah (divorced woman)she is free to remarry, and if she has not married someone else in the meantime, she can even remarry her original husband.  If Moses will take her.

Moses seems delighted to see  Yitro again.  He bows to his father-in-law, kisses him, exchanges greetings, and welcomes him into his tent.  The Torah says nothing about his reaction to seeing the wife and sons he sent away.  As far as we can tell, he completely ignores them.

The Torah gives us no reason to think Moses and Tzipporah ever become reconciled.  The only time the Torah mentions any wife of Moses  again is in Numbers/Bamidbar 12:1, which says Moses had married a Cushite woman, but does not give her name.

When Yitro leaves the camp, he apparently returns to his own land alone.

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

The Torah does not say what happens to Tzipporah and the boys.  I imagine they stay with the Israelites, but Moses does not share a tent with his wife.  Shortly after this, Moses’ tent is named the Tent of Meeting (with God), and only Moses and his apprentice Joshua sleep there.

After Moses separates from Tzipporah on the road to Egypt, we never see him interacting with a wife or child again.  If he is married to anyone, he is married to God.  If he has any children, they are the thousands of children of Israel, by birth or adoption, that he has become responsible for.

It sounds exalted, like being the father of your country.  Yet I feel sorry for Moses.  His whole life is consumed by his service as an intermediary between God and the people.  He may have loving relationships with his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam, but he misses out on the long companionship of marriage partners.

And my heart bleeds for Tzipporah.  Being a woman, she cannot decide her own fate.  Her father gives her to Moses in the first place.  When God chooses Moses as a prophet, Tzipporah rises to the challenge of her new circumstances, and even saves her husband’s life—only to be sent back, renounced, perhaps divorced.  In her society, without an adult son to take her in, she has no choice but to return to her father’s house and live under his authority again.  And then Yitro takes her back to Moses and dumps her in the Israelite camp, among strangers.  Her heroic act in the bridegroom of blood scene is ignored, forgotten.  She might as well be excess baggage.

The name Tzipporah means “bird”, but she is never allowed to fly.  She is a caged bird, carried from one owner to another.  Yet she has hidden depths, and is capable of great deeds.

We still have a long way to go before everyone in this world, including women, can escape their cages and fly.  We have a long way to go before everyone is free both to succeed in their work, and to have the intimate relationships that bring another kind of meaning to life.  In the meantime, may we have compassion for all caged birds— and for all great leaders.

Yitro: Don’t Even Touch It!

April 15, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Posted in Yitro | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on January 31, 2010.)

And you will set bounds around the people encircling (Mount Sinai).  Guard yourselves against going up on the mountain, or touching its outskirts.  Everyone who is touching the mountain will surely die.  You will not touch it with a hand, because he (who does) will surely be stoned, or he will surely be thrown off; whether cattle or man, he will not live …  (Exodus/Shemot 19:12-13)

negoa = touching

Don’t go up on Mount Sinai on the day God is coming down.  Don’t even touch it!

This order from God to Moshe in the Torah portion Yitro reminds me of the conversation between Chava (Eve) and the serpent in Genesis 3:3.  Chava tells the serpent: “And from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God said: Do not eat from it and do not touch it, lest you die.”

The verb for “touching” is the same.  Both passages threaten death for disobedience.  And both are interpreted by some commentators as making a “fence” around an injunction in the Torah, in order to avoid transgressing by accident.  But the context makes a big difference.

In Genesis, God tells Adam not to eat the fruit, but says nothing about not touching the tree of knowledge.  Either Adam adds that fence when he passes on the warning to Chava, or Chava adds the fence when she speaks to the serpent.  Either way, the fence is a human invention.

Medieval commentators Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki) and Rambam (Maimonides) wrote that because Chava adds to the prohibition, she feels able to subtract from it as well, and that is why she is bold enough to taste the fruit.  16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno wrote that the serpent pushed her against the tree, to prove that touching it did no harm, and therefore eating from it might not kill her, either.  That, said Sforno, is why one must always distinguish between God’s original prohibitions and the fences humans place around them.

In Exodus, on the other hand, God tells Moshe that the people may not climb Mount Sinai on the day that God will descend, and God also says the people may not touch the mountain until the signal of the sound of a ram’s horn.  Both prohibitions, against climbing and against touching, come from God.  God makes the fence.

19th-century rabbi Samson R. Hirsch wrote that both restrictions (along with being sanctified, washing their clothes, and waiting three days) are given in order to make the people realize that the Torah will fundamentally change in the world.  He interpreted verse 19:13 as saying that any man or animal caught crossing the boundary and touching the mountain must be put to death, by stoning or by being pushed off a height—presumably to increase the drama.

However, I notice that when God does speak on the third day, Mount Sinai is smoking and quaking, crowned by thunder and lightning, and God descends on it with fire.  Clearly it is not physically safe for either a human or an animal to touch this supernatural volcano.

Yet the people encircle the mountain, close enough to hear Moshe’s voice as well as God’s.  The miracle is that as long as they stay on their side of the boundary, they are shaken, but not harmed.

And in this miraculous zone of safety, the people—the Israelites and theeirev rav (the  converts and riff-raff who left Egypt with them)—receive the Ten Statements (Exodus 20:1-14).  Then “… all the people were seeing the voices and the flames and the voice of the shofar and the mountain smoking …” (Exodus 20:15).  They are given ten basic ethical principles, and they experience synesthesia, seeing sounds.  At that moment, they are all transparent to God, like prophets.

Some of my own friends have said they wish they could experience a miracle like seeing God’s voice at Mount Sinai.  Personally, I think an experience like that would be too terrifying to bear.  I’m not in any hurry to get the maximum dose of the ruach ha-kodesh (the wind/spirit of the holy).  I’m grateful that, by the grace of God, my numinous experiences have been only gentle intimations, and the changes in my soul have been gradual.

When Moshe speaks in Deuteronomy to the generations that were not yet born when the people stood at Sinai, he implies that all Jews, maybe even all people, were present when God gave the Torah.  I take this to mean that the Torah is in our bones.  Even without a Sinai-level miracle, if we reflect deeply enough, if we meditate until we touch the divine voice within, we will find the underlying Torah of truth.

What a blessing!

Yitro: Not in My Face

April 11, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Posted in Yitro | 2 Comments

(This blog was first posted on January 16, 2011.)

You will not have other gods besides My presence.

You will not have gods of others in addition to My presence.

You will not have gods of others in addition to My visible side.

You will not have other gods over against Me.

You will not have other gods in My face.

(Five literal translations of Exodus/Shemot 20:3)

elohim acheirim = other gods; gods of others

al = besides, in addition to; over against; concerning; because of. (The most common meaning of al is “on, upon, over, or above”; but verse 5 explains that you must not worship anything else but God—so verse 3 cannot mean that it’s okay to serve other gods as long as they are below God.  )

panai = my face, my presence, my surface, my visible side, my identity

The Ten Commandments appear in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, which is named after Moses’ father-in-law.  Yitro comes to the Israelite camp at Mount Sinai and tells Moses to govern by delegating lesser cases to intermediaries to judge.  Later, the people are terrified by a direct experience of God, and ask Moses to be their intermediary, and tell them God’s orders.  So God gives Moses the Ten Commandments (aseret devarim,  “ten statements”).  The last five are simple orders, such as Don’t steal.  The first five come with at least some explanation, and the longest explanation is given following the second commandment.

This commandment opens with the verse translated in different ways above.  Next the Torah explains:  Do not make yourself a carved idol or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or of what is in the land below, or of what is in the water beneath the land.  Do not prostrate to them and do not serve them.

Then it gives reasons for obeying: Because I am God, your god, a jealous god, calling to account the wrongdoing of fathers upon children over the third and fourth (generations), for my enemies; but doing kindness to the thousandth (generation) for those who love me and who observe my commandments.

Despite these elaborations, over the millennia people have written reams of commentary on what that first sentence of the second commandment means.  This year I noticed that various commentaries are related to various translations of the Hebrew, so I generated five valid translations of the verse.

First let’s look at the difference between “other gods” and “gods of others”, two phrases that are identical in Biblical Hebrew.  If the Israelites can’t have “other gods”, they are not only forbidden to worship the gods of others, but also any gods they happen to think of or notice on their own.  Therefore they must not worship any manifestations of God, such as angels or the weather or nature.  Only the one God itself will do.

On the other hand, if the Israelites can’t have “gods of others”, the focus turns to the kind of gods worshiped by Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Canaanites.  These peoples made idols in an effort to entice gods to come down out of the heavens or up from under the earth and inhabit their statues, the way humans inhabit their bodies.  A god living in a statue is easier to communicate with, and easier to appease and honor and butter up so it will act for your benefit.

But the Torah repeatedly condemns idols, and insists that God, the god of Abraham, the god of the Israelites, is different from gods (or non-gods) that can be idolized.  God may appear as a humanoid angel or as fire or cloud, but what we see is God’s choice of manifestation, not the work of our own hands.  The vision may disappear at any moment; it is not solid; it cannot be set on a table or paraded through town.

That brings us to the last two words of the sentence:  al-panai.  If the phrase means “over against Me”, or even “in my face”, it is a warning that God would be offended if you worshiped any other gods, considering that God rescued you from slavery.  (In the first commandment, God specifically identifies itself as the one “who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves”.)  The second commandment goes on to explain that God is a “jealous” god, i.e. passionately exclusive.

However, if al-panai is translated as “in addition to My presence” or “besides My presence”, it means simply that the Israelites must worship and serve only the one god.  Some commentators who translated the word panai as “My presence” interpreted it as meaning that God is present everywhere and at all times, so don’t think you can get away with having another god without the One God noticing.

But since the next verse in Exodus begins “Do not make yourself a carved idol”, I think panai means both “My presence” and “My visible surface”.  The Torah contrasts the carved idols that are supposedly inhabited by the gods of others with the presence of the God of the Israelites, which is some-times visible as a vision of an angel or a fire, and sometimes invisible, as when God is present in the empty space above the cherubim in the Holy of Holies.

Similarly, sometimes the God of the Torah is audible to everyone, as a sound like thunder or the blowing of rams’ horns.  And sometimes God is audible only to one person, who “hears” the words that God speaks inside him or her.

I bet you’ve all encountered the idea that “You will have no other gods besides Me” means we must not make a god out of wealth, or having a perfect body, or any other value exalted by our culture.  And it’s a good point.

Yet the second commandment not only orders us to refrain from bowing to and serving other gods, but also asks us to bow to and serve  our one God.  How do we do that?

How can we bow to this God, i.e. honor it and be humble before it, when God cannot be contained in a statue, or a synagogue or church, or even in the Holy of Holies?  What can we do when God makes its presence known unpredictably, when you never know where, when, or who will become aware of God for a moment?

And how can we serve our elusive God, when even the Ten Commandments give us only a rough idea of what we’re supposed to do?  And when half of the more specific laws in the Torah were dropped as inapplicable more than 1,500 years ago in the Talmud?  Does anyone today have the authority to tell us how to serve God?  What actions and attitudes can we take that count as service?

I’m working on some answers to those questions.  It will take me the rest of my life


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