Bereishit: Snake

October 13, 2017 at 1:01 pm | Posted in Bereishit | 1 Comment

a Torah monologue by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

 

I was created in Chapter Two.  The first creation story in the Bible didn’t even mention me.  I woke up on damp dirt under bare sky.  No plants, no animals.  Just a clump of dirt next to me, slowly changing shape as if somebody invisible were modelling it.1  I knew who: God.  I watched the hands form, and then the face.  As the creature developed, beams of light appeared around it.

“Hey, God, what are you creating?”

Adam.2  Humankind.  Or a model of it.”

I tried to look at my own body, for comparison, but all I saw was a squiggle of light between the adam-in-progress and—what?  My mind?

“Hey, God, what am I?”

“An archetype.  Of the snake.  You are the kind of snake that slides into the human mind.  Not the real-world animal that slithers over the ground or hangs from trees.”

“Wow.  Do all archetypes slide into human minds?”

“In a way.  Archetypes will inspire different groups of humans to invent their own myths about each of you: the healer, the king, birth, death, various gods—”

“Gods?  Hey, am I an archetype of a god?”

“No.  Oh, some humans might invent a snake god, why not?  But you, Snake, are unique.  I created you because humans are going to be complicated.  They’ll operate mostly by instinct and habit, like other animals.  But I’m giving them a bit a free will, to make things interesting.  And humans will need a lot of doubts and questions and temptations to make them use their free will.  Your job is to make them think, so they can choose to change.”

I had a job.  God created me for a purpose.  It made me feel tight inside my skin.  Ready to shed and be a bigger snake.

“Ssso then, are you an archetype of a god?”

God laughed.  I think.  I couldn’t see God’s face, and I realized the sound of laughter was something in my mind.  Like words.  I found out later that real snakes are deaf.  Not a problem for an archetype.

“I’m not that kind of god.  But humans will invent myths about me, too.”

“That what are you, God?  Are you some other kind of archetype?”

“That, Snake, is a trick question.  It depends on how you define archetype.  And reality.  And creation.”

God finished the human’s eyelashes, then breathed into its nostrils.  The dirt figure sighed, sat up, and looked straight at me.

I crawled out of my skin.

*

I woke up the second time in a garden.  Eden.  It didn’t look real.  Every leaf, every fruit, looked as if God had just painted it.  There was no decay, no dust.

I knew the real world could never be that perfect. Maybe this garden was another archetype.

The two trees in the middle of the garden sure looked like archetypes.  They had bark, branches, leaves, fruit, like all the other trees; but they glowed meaningfully.  I looped myself around the trunk of the first one and stuck my neck out, pretending to be an extra branch, but I had no bark.  Only bite.  So I tasted a fruit, and then I knew it was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.

That gave me a lot to think about.  But I was distracted by the second tree.  I stretched my neck out farther and bit into one of its fruits.  And I knew it was the Tree of Life.

After that I wasn’t hungry any more.  I slinked around the garden, hissing to myself, looking for the exit.  But there was no exit.  I was stuck in the garden of archetypes.

Still, I didn’t have to do the job God gave me.  I could go on strike.  Thanks to the Tree of Knowledge, I knew I had a choice.  Which meant I had a share in the human’s bit of free will.

Going on strike was boring, so I decided to look for the adam.  Animals were starting to appear in the garden; they were all perfect, without a single scratch or scar, and they all ate fruit.3  But they never went to the middle of the garden.

When I headed back that way, I came face to face with the adam.  It frowned, then said: “Nachash!4  Snake.

I followed the human around while it named other things, hoping it would invent verbs soon.  Maybe someday it would build up to complete sentences, and we could have a conversation.

But before the adam thought up verbs, God dropped by.  Of course I couldn’t see God, but I could tell by the wind.  The adam slumped down into a coma, and the wind really picked up.  Then Eden was still again, and there were two humans lying on the ground.  They both looked like the original, except for a few minor details.  They sat up and stared at one another.  Then they started talking in complete sentences.  I guess it takes two humans to invent a language.

After a while they started touching one another, and they had a really good time.  At least that’s how it looked to me, from my perch in the Tree of Knowledge.  The man dozed off afterward, and the woman wandered over toward me.  I felt a little push, like a gust of wind.

Right.  God.  I was here for a purpose.

The woman stopped in front of me and put her hands behind her back, as if she were afraid she might accidentally touch the tree.

I hung a loop of myself from a branch, and started talking.  “Pssst!  Did God really say that you shouldn’t eat from any tree of the garden?”5

Sure enough, she couldn’t resist explaining.  “Oh, we can eat the fruit of the trees of the garden.  Except for the tree in the middle of the garden.  God said:  You must not eat from it, and you must not touch it, lest you die.”6

Then her eyes shifted, and I knew she wasn’t as sure of herself as she sounded.  After all, she was remembering something God had said when she was only half of the adam.  Maybe she was missing something?

I whispered: “Which of the two trees in the middle was God talking about?”

She had no answer. But I knew eating from the Tree of Life would make her immortal, and then she could never live in the real world.  If she ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, she’d find out she could make choices.

Maybe the humans even had to disobey God, so they could experience inner conflict.  You can’t make a serious choice without inner conflict.

I said, “Oh, you will not die for certain.  Actually, God knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God, knowing good and bad.”7

I figured God must know the concepts “good” and “bad”, since God created the archetype of that tree.  But God couldn’t chew over the fruits of knowledge.  That was for human minds—and the archetypes inspiring them.

So does God have free will?

Trick question!  Depends on how you define God.

by Lucas Cranach
the Elder (1472-1553)

The woman thought for a while, gazing at the nearest fruit, and I knew I’d done my job and tempted her.  She wanted to become like God.  Finally she touched the fruit.  It fell into her hand.

She took a bite, swallowed, and smiled.  Then she ran back to the man, nudged him awake, and held out the glowing fruit.  He bit right into it.

After that, the two humans were more thoughtful.  When I threw out a question, they’d argue about the answer.  Life was more interesting.

When I asked them about the details that made their bodies different, they got self-conscious.  They sewed together fig leaves and made themselves aprons to hide the most obvious differences.  Silly, if you ask me, but they got satisfaction out of it.

Then one afternoon the wind came back.  God.  The humans must have remembered that God comes in the wind, because I saw a new expression on their faces.  Inner conflict!  They ran behind a tree with a lot of low branches.  As if they could hide from God, the way they wore aprons to hide from one another.

The voice of God rang through the garden.  “Where are you?”8

Good question.  Where were they now?  How much had they changed?  But the man took the question literally, and said, “I heard your sound in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid.”

“Who told you that you are naked?  Did you eat from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

“Uh, the woman that you put by my side, she gave me something from the tree, and I ate.”

What an answer!  Instead of taking responsibility, he blames both God and the woman.  Can you believe that idiot ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad?  I realized that once humans know there are such things as good and bad, they spend the rest of their lives figuring out what’s what.

God asked the woman what she had done, and she admitted she ate the fruit, but she blamed me.

Now, I was ready to own up to what I said, and explain why I said it.  But God didn’t ask me.  I guess God figured I was just doing my job, and went directly to the curses.  It became clear that real snakes and real humans were going to have a hard time in the real world.

After the cursing was over, the two humans didn’t look so fresh anymore.  They even had some scabs where they’d pricked themselves sewing the leaves together.  As if God had already clothed them in real human skins.9

Also they both looked depressed.

God spoke again.  To me, I think.  “Hey, the adam has become like one of us, knowing good and bad.  And now, lest it stretch out its hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat, and live forever—”

Then God made an opening from the Garden of Eden into the real world, and a wind pushed the humans through.  I guess they were finally complicated enough.

I thought of going into the real world too, but God set up this flaming, whirling sword at the gate.  And besides, my skin was feeling tight again.  I shrugged it off.

*

When I woke up the third time, I was in the book of Exodus, in the middle of a story about Moses and Pharaoh and magic.10  The real world was crawling with real snakes, but I was still an archetype, hanging out with Knowledge and Life.

I know where the exit is now, but I’m not going to leave the Garden of Eden.  I’m going to keep whispering doubts and questions into all your dim human minds.  After all, the more you humans stop to think, the more you make real choices.  And the world is slowly getting better.

But it’s still not good enough, not by a long shot.  Bad things keep on happening to good people.   So I’ve got a question for you.  Does God understand good and bad?

Trick question!

  1. After Genesis 1:1-2:4a, in which God creates the universe in six days and rests on the seventh, is a second creation story begins. In this story, God makes earth and heaven (Genesis 2:4b), and fresh water wells up from the ground and waters the surface of the earth (Genesis 2:6). Then, before creating rain or plants, God shapes a human out of the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:5, 2:7) and blows into its nostrils the breath of life.
  2. adam (אָדָם) = humankind; a human being. (From the same root as adamah, אֲדָמָה = ground, dirt; and adom, אָדֺם = red-brown.)
  3. Genesis 1:29-30.
  4. nachash (נָחָשׁ) = snake, serpent. (Probably from the same root as nichash, נִחַשׁ = read omens, practiced divination; and nechoshet, נְחֺשֶׁת = copper, bronze.)
  5. Genesis 3:1
  6. Genesis 3:2-3.
  7. Genesis 3:4-5.
  8. Genesis 3:9.
  9. Genesis 3:21.
  10. The next appearance of the word nachash in the Bible is Exodus 4:3, when Moses’ staff first transforms into a snake.
Advertisements

Ha-azinu: A Hovering Bird

September 18, 2017 at 10:55 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Ha-azinu | Leave a comment

Might God help us learn to fly?

This Shabbat, the one between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we read Ha-azinu (Use your ears). Most of the Torah portion is a long poem predicting that even though that God brought the Israelites up from Egypt and protected them, God’s people will continue to do wrong and worship other gods. At one point, Ha-azinu compares God to an eagle teaching its fledglings to fly.

Like an eagle1 [God] rouses Its nest;

Over Its fledglings yeracheif.

It spreads out Its wings, It takes one;

It carries it up on Its wings.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:11)

yeracheif (יְרַחֵף) = it hovers like a bird. (A form of the verb rachaf, רָחַף = flutter like a bird.)

This verse may describe a parent eagle hovering nearby while its young are practicing short flights. If an eaglet falls, the parent swoops under it and catches the fledgling on its own wings. (Eaglets usually learn to fly without assistance. Yet this type of parental rescue has been observed in our own time with golden eagles.)

The verb rachaf occurs only three times in the Bible: here, in the book of Jeremiah, and in the book of Genesis. Jeremiah describes his anguish over the false prophets in Jerusalem this way:

My heart is broken inside me.

            All my bones rachafu.

            I have become like a drunken man,

            Like a strong man who passed through wine. (Jeremiah 23:9)

rachafu (רָחֲפוּ) = they tremble, flutter.

Jeremiah uses a form2 of the verb rachaf  to show that he is so overwhelmed, the bones that are normally stiff enough to hold him up are fluttering, trembling, unreliable.

Golden eagle

But when the verb rachaf  refers to God, it is in a form3 that means hovering. Near the end of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God hovers like a parent ready to rescue young birds learning to fly.

In a few weeks, on Simchat Torah, Jewish congregations around the world will read the last lines of Deuteronomy, then roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning and read about the creation of the universe in Genesis/Bereishit.

In a beginning God created the heavens and the earth. But the earth was a vacancy and a void and a darkness over the face of the deep, and the wind of God merachefet over the face of the waters. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1-2)

merachefet (מְרַחֶפֶת) = was hovering (like a bird).

Before God even speaks light into being, the wind or spirit of God is hovering over the face of the water and darkness.  It seems as though God is watching, waiting to see if something will rise up, evolve on its own initiative.  When nothing arises, God has to take the next step and say “Let there be light”.

In this week’s Torah portion, almost at the end of the cycle of readings, God watches over human beings like a parent bird, waiting to see if we will evolve on our own initiative. If we are like eaglets, at first we simply eat the food (or live the life) that is given to us, without questioning it. Then we experiment, like fledglings flapping from branch to branch. Finally we are roused by ineffable longings, and we attempt to fly out into the blue.

When we get morally confused or mentally tired, we falter and fall. But the Torah says God is hovering over us, and catches us briefly so we can fly again.

This description may be true for people who feel a religious impulse and reach for the divine with open hearts and minds. Their religion can help to inspire awe and gratitude, and it can catch them when they begin to fall.

But all too often, purveyors of religion lose track of where God is. All too often we humans turn our religions into weapons instead of wings.  Then who, or what, will catch us and carry us back up to the light?

(An earlier version of this essay was published in September 2010.)

  1. nesher (נֶשֶׁר) = a general term for any eagle, vulture, or large bird of prey. In this case, the bird’s behavior indicates a golden eagle.
  2. The kal stem.
  3. The pi-el stem.

 

 

Haftarat Bereishit—Isaiah: A Reason to Exist

October 26, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Isaiah 2 | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , , ,
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week we read the very first Torah portion, Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8) and the haftarah is Isaiah 42:5-43:10.

In the beginning are the gods, or one god. The god(s) make the sky and the earth.  Later, the god(s) invent human beings.

That order of creation appears in most of the myths of the ancient Near East, from the Sumerians of circa 3000 B.C.E. to the Israelites of circa 530 B.C.E. But the reason why human beings were created changes.

Creation of the Human in Enuma Elish

The Sumerian creation myth was retold in Mesopotamia for thousands of years, with different names for the gods. The most complete expression of this myth that archaeologists have found so far is several copies of the Enuma Elish, a seven-tablet book in Akkadian cuneiform dating to about 1100 B.C.E.

Tiamat pursued by Marduk

Tiamat pursued by Marduk

The story begins when the two primordial gods mixed their waters together”, and the female, Tiamat, gives birth to more gods.  The gods multiply, and two factions fight against each other.  The hero-god (Marduk, in the copy from Babylon) kills Tiamat, the leader of the other faction, and creates the world out of parts of her body. Then he has a clever idea: the gods won’t have to work to get their own meals if they create humans to serve them.  The gods bind Tiamat’s favorite consort, Kingu, and an older god, Ea, makes humankind out of Kingu’s blood.

            From his blood he created mankind,

            On whom he imposed the service of the gods, and set the gods free.  (Enuma Elish, Tablet 6, lines 33-34)

Tablet Seven of Enuma Elish specifies the work the humans will do for the gods: providing lavish food offerings, taking care of their shrines, burning incense for them, and retelling their heroic stories.

Creation of the Human in Genesis 2

The first Torah portion in the Bible offers two creation myths.  It opens with an account organized into seven days, which was probably written sometime between the 9th and 6th centuries B.C.E. during the time of the first temple in Jerusalem. This account is immediately followed by a story that was probably written down earlier, in the 10th century B.C.E.

The second story begins:

On the day of God’s making the earth and the heavens, no bushes of the field existed yet on the earth, and no greens of the field had sprouted yet, because God had not made it rain upon the earth, and there was no adam to work the ground.  But fresh water ascended from the earth and watered all the surface of the ground. God vayitzer the adam out of dirt from the ground, and blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and the adam became an animated animal. (Genesis/Bereishit 2:4-7)

Hand of God, by Auguste Rodin

Hand of God,
by Auguste Rodin

adam (אָדָם) = human, humankind.

vayitzer (וַיִּיצֶר) = then he/it shaped, formed. (From the root yatzar (יָצַר) = shaped, formed, fashioned.)

In this creation myth there is only one god, and no sex. God makes the earth and the sky, but the writer does not care how. The important thing is that the earth consists of bare, moist dirt.  This is God’s raw material for making humankind, along with God’s own breath. One can imagine God as a human artist shaping a figure as if modeling clay, then blowing into its nostrils and bringing it to life.

And God took the adam and put it in the garden of Eden, to tend it and to watch over it. (Genesis 2:15)

God runs a few experiments, telling the adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge, inviting it to name animals, splitting it into male and female humans, and providing a talking snake.  Eventually God sends the two humans back into the world, which now contains rain, plants, and animals as well as dirt.

God does not create the adam to serve as a slave. Instead, the adam must watch the garden—while God is watching the adam.

Creation of the Human in Genesis 1

The redactors of the Bible placed the creation myth written during the time of the first temple at the very beginning of the book, before the earlier story about God making the adam out of dirt and breath. This story starts:

In a beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)

In this account, God is a spirit and a voice that speaks things into being. No raw materials are necessary. The account is divided into seven days, and God does not create humans until the sixth day, right after the other mammals.

Sixth Day of Creation, Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Sixth Day of Creation,
Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

And God created the adam in Its image, in the image of God It created it; male and female It created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subjugate it! And rule over fish of the sea and birds of the skies and all animals that crawl over the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

Today it is obvious that we have gone overboard in subjugating the earth and its animals. But in the Torah, before God assigns humankind that job, God says the human is made in God’s image. Perhaps humans are God’s proxies, assigned to handle the administration of the earth in place of God.

Creation of the Human in Second Isaiah

The second half of the book of Isaiah was written around 550-510 B.C.E., when King Cyrus of Persia finished conquering the Babylonian Empire. The prophet encourages the Israelite families that were deported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar’s conquering army to take advantage of King Cyrus’s policy of letting subjugated populations return to their former lands and rebuild temples for their own gods.

The exiles needed a lot of encouragement. Many of them doubted that the god of a nation that no longer existed would have the power to help them.  This week’s haftarah declares that God still has a purpose for the Israelites and will indeed redeem them.  Second Isaiah alludes to both of the creation stories in Genesis, reminding the Israelites that their god is the ultimate god, the creator of the world and all humankind, before he or she turns in a new direction.

            Thus said the god, God—

                        Creator of the heavens, stretching them out,

                        Spreader of the earth and her products,

                        Giver of breath to the people upon it,

                        And spirit to those who walk on it—   

by Waithamai

by Waithamai

           “I am God.  I summoned you with right conduct,

            And I held you firmly by your hand,

           Ve-etzarekha, and I gave you

            A covenant of a people, a light of nations.

           To open the eyes of the blind…” (Isaiah 42:5-7)

ve-etzarekha (וְאֶצָּרְךָ) = and I shaped you.  (From the root yatzar.)

Here God giving breath and spirit to all humanity, then “shapes” the children of Israel, using the same verb, yatzar, as when God shaped the adam our of dirt in Genesis 2. Second Isaiah implies that God yatzar the children of Israel in order to receive a covenant. Next the old covenant between God and the Israelites acquires a new purpose: in addition to obeying all of God’s rules, the people must now enlighten other nations.

What are the people of other nations (as well as many exiled Israelites) not seeing?

According to the haftarah, the Israelites must spread the word that God’s prophecies always come true, and the God of Israel is the only real god.

           You are My witnesses,

                        declares God,

            And My servant whom I have chosen. (Isaiah 43:10)

*

In all four creation stories from the ancient Near East, gods create the world and then add human beings.  In Enuma Elish, the purpose of humankind is to work for the gods.

In the oldest creation story in Genesis, the purpose of humankind seems to be to increase knowledge: human knowledge of the garden and of good and bad, and divine knowledge of human nature.

In the opening creation story in Genesis, the purpose of humankind is to rule over the earth and its other animals.

In second Isaiah, the purpose of the Israelites is to enlighten other peoples, ultimately leading them to convert to worshiping the God of Israel as the only real god.

Today the theory of evolution provides a logical explanation of why human beings exist, and many people consider our mental complexity an accidental side-effect of the process. In this line of thinking, humankind seems to have no purpose; the best we can do is follow Sartre and invent our own individual reasons for being.

But modern science cannot explain everything; there is room for a new concept of God, and even for the idea of a collective purpose.  What if there is a purpose for humankind in general?  What might it be?

Noach: Winds of Change

October 13, 2015 at 12:50 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Noach | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , ,

by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Wind changes the weather.  A persistent mood or spirit changes your behavior, driving you like the wind in a new direction.

Bibilical Hebrew has one word for both wind and spirit: ruach.

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; spirit, mood, emotional energy.

The Torah uses this word to describe both the creation of the world in the first Torah portion of Genesis/Bereishit, and its re-creation after the flood in this week’s Torah portion, Noach.

In a beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was a vacancy and a void and a darkness over the face of the deep, and the ruach of God was merachefet over the face of the waters. And God said: Light, be!  And light was. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1-2)

eagle+nestmerachefet (מְרַחֶפֶת) = fluttering, hovering tremulously. (The only other place the Bible uses the verb rachaf in this form is in Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:11, where God is compared to an eagle fluttering over its young.)

Translators disagree over whether the word ruach at the beginning of the Bible should be translated as “wind” or “spirit”.  I think the ruach of God, fluttering over the blank darkness and deep waters, is like the tender, hesitant spirit of someone about to become a parent.

The word ruach shows up again when Adam and Eve hear God’s voice in the garden “in the ruach of the day” (Genesis 3:8)   I agree with modern scholars that this means the windy time of day, which tended to be late afternoon in Israel.

The next time the Torah uses the word ruach is when God is musing about the dual nature of human beings.  God made the first human, in Genesis 2:7, out of both dirt and God’s own breath.  In other words, humans are partly animals with physical desires, and partly mental beings with spiritual desires.

And God said: My ruach will not always be judge in the human; he is also flesh…  (Genesis 6:3)

Here, ruach seems to mean God’s spirit, which shapes a human being’s character and prevailing mood.  Sometimes a person’s character controls the appetites of the flesh, but not always.

God lets these double-sided humans make their own choices for 1,556 years in the Torah, from the time God returns Adam and Eve to the world until the time when their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson Noah is 500 years old.

Then God saw that the badness of the human on earth was abundant—that the shape of every idea of his heart was only bad, all the time. And God had a change of heart about making the human on the earth, and he grieved in his heart. (Genesis 6:5-6)

God tells Noah to make an ark, because in another hundred years God is going to destroy the earth.

And hey, I Myself am bringing the deluge of water over the land to wipe out from under the heavens all flesh in which is the ruach of life.  Everything that is on the land will expire.  (Genesis 6:17)

The Torah repeats the phrase “the ruach of life” twice more in the story of Noah’s ark.  In the third occurrence it becomes clear that ruach in this phrase means moving air, a small-scale wind:

All that had the breath of the ruach of life in its nostrils, from all that were on dry land, they died.  (Genesis 7:22)

Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio

Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio

The flood wipes out all land animals, including humans, except those aboard Noah’s ark.  But God is not really starting over.  The animals and humans who emerge from the ark are the descendants of the ones God created in the beginning; they are built according to the same designs.  Human beings have the same dual nature.

Nevertheless, when God restores the earth to working order, the language in the Torah recalls the language of the original creation.

And God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark, and God made a ruach pass over the earth, and the waters abated.  The springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens were stopped up…(Genesis 8:1-2)

Once again God begins with a ruach.  But while the first ruach flutters like the tender spirit of a mother bird, this ruach sweeps across the flooded world like an eagle soaring—or a wind that brings a change of weather.

In the first creation story, God acts by speaking things into being.  In the re-creation story, God merely changes the weather, and the earth gradually dries out over the course of a year.  When God speaks, it is only to tell Noah to come out of the ark with his menagerie.

After the story of Noah, the word ruach continues to mean “wind” when the Bible talks about God. When it talks about humans, the word ruach means “spirit” or prevailing mood.

A third phenomenon is the ruach Elohim, a “spirit of God” that takes over or rests inside humans.  The ruach Elohim is a sublime wisdom in Joseph the dream-interpreter and Betzaleil the master artist, and a supernatural strength in Samson.  It is an infectious battle drive in war leaders, and a divine compulsion in mad King Saul as well as the many prophets God uses as mouthpieces.

Thus even the ruach Elohim is manifested only in human beings.

In the beginning of the Torah, God creates everything.  After the flood, the world and its humans continue on their own, and God intervenes only by blowing winds, by making plagues and occasional miracles, and by changing the spirits of a few select humans.

Today, I encounter two types of “spiritual” people.  One type often sees omens and miracles, attributing every coincidence to the hand of God rather than to the laws of probability or nature.  For this type, if a wind knocks down a tree that just misses them, God is literally in the wind and moves the tree.

The other type perceives God only through changes in their own spirits.  For this type (my type), if a wind knocks down a tree that just misses me, God is in the shaken liberation of joy after the flash of fear.  The divine is in me and moves my spirit.

Yet the Bible shows God changing the spirits of only the few.  And I know I am no prophet or war leader or master artist.

The world has always been full of silent people who are moved by a divine spirit, but never do anything famous enough to be written down in a book. After all, according to the Torah we are all made partly of God’s breath, God’s wind, God’s ruach.

 

Bereishit:  In Hiding

October 8, 2015 at 7:36 pm | Posted in Bereishit | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , , ,

Humankind and God have been hiding from each ever since the garden of Eden, according to the first portion of the first book of the Torah, Bereishit (“In a beginning”).

At first, humankind is as close to God as an infant is to its mother.

And God formed the adam of dirt from the adamah, and [God] blew into its nostrils the neshamah of life, and the adam became an animated animal.  (Bereishit/Genesis 2:7)

adam (אָדָם) = human, humanity, humankind.

adamah (אֲדָמָה) = ground, earth, soil.  (The words adam and adamah come from the same root.  Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, once translated adam as “earthling”.)

neshamah (נְשָׁמָה) = breath, soul.

In other words, a human is made out of two ingredients: the earth and the breath of God.  Our souls are God’s breath.

Fig Tree

Fig Tree

God removes the adam from the earth and places it in a mythical garden of Eden, telling the adam to eat from any tree except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, …because on the day you eat from it, you must die. (Genesis 2:17)

Like an infant the adam is immersed in its ongoing experience, unable to think for itself.  So it avoids the Tree of Knowledge.  Then God divides the adam into two people, male and female, and the situation changes.

And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating, and that it was delightful for the eyes, and the tree was desirable for understanding; and she took from its fruit and she ate, and she gave also to her man with her, and he ate. And the eyes of the two of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves, and they made themselves loincloths. (Genesis 3:6-7)

The Tree of Knowledge gives the humans the ability to make distinctions, including the distinction between “me” and “you”, as well as between “good” and “bad”.  Now they notice their separate bodies, with different sex organs.  Later in the Torah, the most common euphemism for sexual intercourse is “uncovering the nakedness” of someone.

detail of "Adam and Eve in Eden" by Pere Mates

detail of “Adam and Eve in Eden” by Pere Mates

Perhaps the first humans experiment with their bodies, and discover the power of sexual passion and the potential for procreation. Alarmed, they make clothing to hide their sex organs from one another.  If you cannot see something, you can ignore it.

Then they heard the voice of God going around in the garden at the windy time of the day; vayitchabei, the adam and his woman, from the face of God, among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:8)

vayitchabei (וַיּתְחַבֵּא) = and they hid themselves.

Hearing God’s voice, the humans realize they are also separate from God. Before they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, God was just part of their undifferentiated experience.  Now they view God as a separate intelligence with a voice and a face, more powerful than they are.  Suddenly they are afraid.

But if you cannot see something, you can ignore it. So the humans try to hide from God—among the trees of the garden God made.  Perhaps they even try to hide behind the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. They have learned to make distinctions, but they have not yet learned logical thinking.

God called to the adam, and he said: Ayeikah? (Genesis 3:9)

Ayeikah (אַיֶּכָּה) = Where are you?  (Ayeh (אַיֵּה) = where + suffix –kah (כָּה) = you.)

Rabbi David Fohrman points out in his intriguing book The Beast that Crouches at the Door that if God had wanted to know their physical location, God would have used the word eifoh—אֵיפֹה.  The other Hebrew word for “where”, ayehאַיֵּה—asks why something or someone is not here.  What happened to it?

The woman is silent, but the man answers:

I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; va-eichavei. (Genesis 3:10)

va-eichavei (וָאֵחָבֵא) = and I hid. (From the same root, חבא, as vayitchabei above.)

Biblical Hebrew has several verbs meaning “to hide”.  The verb חבא in its various forms appears 34 times in the Hebrew Bible, and (except for two metaphors in the book of Job) it always describes human beings hiding themselves. Usually they are hiding from human enemies in order to avoid being killed.

Why does the Torah use this word for “hiding” in the garden of Eden, when Hebrew has alternative words? Maybe the adam suddenly views God as an enemy who wants to kill him.  After all, God said that if the adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge, he would die.

In the story, the first humans become mortal creatures, and God returns them to the world.  Adam and Eve adapt to life on the ground, with its troublesome farming, sexual desire, and childbirth.

The next time the Torah mentions hiding, Adam and Eve’s oldest son, Cain, is afraid that God will conceal the divine “face” from him–and that he will be hidden from God.

Competing offerings in detail of print after Maarten de Vos 1583

Competing offerings in detail of print after Maarten de Vos 1583

Cain, a farmer, invents the idea of giving God an offering from his vegetables as an expression of gratitude.  (See my post Vayikra: Gifts to the Giver.)  His younger brother Abel, the shepherd, imitates him with an offering from his flock.  When God rejects Cain’s offering and accepts Abel’s, Cain is enraged and depressed.

God notices and warns him to master his evil impulse, but Cain does not reply.  Unable to vent his rage by killing God, Cain kills his brother Abel.  Then God informs Cain that the ground itself is cursed for him.  He will no longer be able to farm, and he will be homeless.

And Cain said to God:  My iniquity is too great to bear.  Hey, You have banished me today from the face of the adamah, and from Your face esateir.  I will be homeless and aimless in the land, and anyone encountering me will kill me. (Genesis 4:14)

esateir (אֶסָּתֵר) = I will be concealed, go unseen, be unrecognized, take cover, be hidden.

The verb סתר in its various forms is the most common word for hiding in the Bible, appearing more than 80 times. This word is used for the concealment of not only people, but also information, actions, and especially faces.

Starting in the book of Isaiah, the Bible emphasizes that humans cannot conceal themselves or their secrets from God. But Cain does not know this; he believes that once he is banished, God will no longer see him.

What does it mean to be concealed, unseen, unrecognized?  Human beings lower their faces or look away when they want to avoid communication.  We avoid people when we do not want to bother with them, or when we have given up on a relationship.  We also avoid people when we are afraid of them, either because we feel inferior, or because they might attack us.

Moses hides his face at the burning bush because he is afraid of seeing God. He feels inferior, unworthy of direct contact with the divine, and fears that it might hurt him.

Cain believes he will be hidden from God’s face because his crime makes him unworthy of any continuing contact with the divine.

The most frequent use of the verb סתר is to indicate when God conceals God’s “face” from humans, usually Israelites who have strayed from their religion.  The concealment of God’s face is a tragedy because if God does not “see” the Israelites, recognizing them as God’s people, then God will ignore them and stop protecting them from enemies and other dangers.

Later in history, many religious writers have considered the concealment of God’s face a tragedy because if people cannot “see” and recognize God, then they will ignore God’s will and become spiritually ungrounded.

Yet God tells Moses:

You will not be able to see My face, because the adam may not see Me and live.  (Exodus/Shemot 33:20)

Rabbi David Kasher wrote recently in ParshaNut: “We cannot see God’s face, for if we did, we would lose our separateness and cease to exist. It would kill us. In that sense, the true punishment would be not the hiding, but the revealing of God’s face.”

Thus the great creation myth of the Torah reveals that humans have a paradoxical relationship with the divine. God is inside us, in the sense that our bodies are earth and our souls are the breath of God. Yet having tasted fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, we know we are separate and distinct from something we experience as the voice of God.

When humans feel as if God is a loving parent who protects us, we are like Cain, who does not want to be concealed from God’s face.  When we feel unprotected, subject to all kinds of undesirable fates, including death, we are like Adam, who tries to hide from God.

And because we have some knowledge of good and bad, but do not understand what God is, we want to see God’s face. But we cannot see God and continue to live as individual human beings.

Maybe God is hidden from us because we cannot see the souls that God breathed into us.  Or maybe God is hidden because we cannot recognize God, even when the divine is both inside us and in front of us.

 

 

Bereishit: The Other Tree

October 15, 2014 at 8:35 am | Posted in Bereishit | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , ,

In the first creation story in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God makes human beings in Its image, male and female, and ends the sixth “day” by deciding that everything is “very good”. The Torah does not say in what way human beings resemble God.

Then we get a second creation story. In this story (attributed by scholars to an older source), God creates a single human before inventing plants or other animals.

And God formed ha-adam of dust from ha-adamah, and [God] blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and ha-adam became a nefesh chayah. (Genesis/Bereishit 2:7)

ha-adam (הָאָדָם) = the human, humankind, the earthling.

ha-adamah (הָאֲדָמָה) = the earth, the dirt.

nefesh chayah (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה) = animated animal, living creature.

Instead of simply making humans in God’s image, as in the first creation story, God shapes a human body and breathes life into it—the same process God uses later in the story to create various birds and mammals. Then God makes a place outside the world where the archetypal human can acquire a divine trait, and thereby become an image of God, unlike other animals. Peaches_clip_art_hight

Then God planted a garden in Eiden mikedem, and It put there ha-adam that It had formed. And God made sprout from the earth every tree that was desirable in appearance and good for food, and the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.  (Genesis 2:8-9)

Eiden (עֵדֶן) = Eden; luxury, pampering, delight.

mikedem (מִקֶּדֶם) = from the east, from primeval time.

God invites the human to eat from all but one of the trees in the garden.

And God laid an order on ha-adam, saying: From every tree in the garden you may certainly eat. But from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you may not eat from it, because on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die. (Genesis 2:16-17)

What about the Tree of Life, which is also in the middle of the garden? By giving the human permission to eat from every tree except the Tree of Knowledge, God offers the human the option of eating from the Tree of Life—whose fruit, we learn later in the story, confers immortality.

When I reread the story this year, I realized that God subtly gives ha-adam a choice between the two trees.  If the archetypal human eats from the Tree of Knowledge, it will gain the divine characteristic of moral knowledge, but it will be doomed to die.  If it eats from the Tree of Life, it will gain the divine characteristic of immortality–but will it lose the ability to discover morality?

The first human being is not yet human enough to react with curiosity. It asks no questions, and apparently refrains from the fruit of both the trees in the middle of the garden. Eventually God separates the two sides of the human into two individuals, one male and one female. This does the trick; the woman is curious enough to hear the questions and arguments of the snake (another of God’s creations), including the comment:

For God knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God, knowing good and bad. (Genesis 3:5)

We already know that every tree in the garden is desirable in appearance and good for food (Genesis 2:9). The woman now notices a third way in which the Tree of Knowledge is “good”.

The woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it satisfied a craving of the eyes, and the tree was desirable for haskil, so she took some fruit and she ate; and she gave also her to her man with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:7)

haskil (הַשְׂכִּיל) = understanding, having insight.

Both humans want divine insight so much, they forget about the Tree of Life and eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. They gain a basic concept of morality, and the ability to figure out what is good and bad on their own.

The two primeval humans do not keel over dead that day.  Instead, they become mortal.  God tells them they will return to the world, where life will be hard, and eventually they will die and turn back into dust. God mentions the pain of childbirth, and the man notices that there will be birth as well as death in the world.

So ha-adam called the name of his woman Chavah, because she herself had become a mother of all life. (Genesis 3:20)

Chavah (חַוָּה) = Eve; a variant of chayah = living animal, vigorous, to bring to life.

Instead of immortality, humankind chooses moral knowledge and life in this world, which is inseparable from birth and death.

And God said: Here, the human has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, and now, lest he stretch out its hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever—! (Genesis 3:22)

This sentence raises obvious two questions. What does God mean by saying the human has become like one of us? (Next year I want to write about all the hints of multiple gods in this first Torah portion, including in the passage above.) Secondly, why can’t the humans eat from both trees? Why shouldn’t they acquire a second divine characteristic?

I think the answer is that in our universe, everything is in flux, constantly changing.  Even stars burn out.  And every living thing is born, grows, experiences pain, and dies. Life in this world is mortal.  Immortality can only apply to something outside our universe, outside time and space—like the garden of Eiden.

But our world also presents human beings with moral choices that matter. We can choose actions that increase the life and well-being of others, or actions that increase death and pain. Our ability to puzzle out good and bad depends on living in this world.

So God sent [the human] out from the garden of Eiden, to serve the earth from which it had been taken. And [God] banished the human, and It set up in front of the garden of Eiden the cherubim and the flame of the whirling sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life. (Genesis 3:23-24)

Human beings in the real world can resemble God in having moral understanding, but we cannot resemble God by living forever.

Other ancient religions told stories about how human heroes tried, but failed, to become like the gods by eating or bringing home plants that would confer immortality. The remarkable thing about the second creation story in Genesis is that humankind gets a different divine characteristic: moral insight.

The rest of the book of Genesis can be read as a story about how both humans and God begin to learn how to apply moral insight to situations in the world. For example, when Cain becomes enraged, God tries to warn him against killing his brother, but it takes the rest of the book for the humans to figure out how brothers can tolerate each other.  When God decides to wipe out Sodom, Abraham tries to teach God to judge humans individually instead of punishing the innocent with the guilty, but God does not always apply the lesson.

We are still learning how to behave ethically. As our moral insights develop, many humans have learned how to be good in ways that neither the people nor the God-character in the Torah imagined. (For example, see my earlier post, Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame.)

We can never acquire immortality in this world, but we are still tasting the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. May we all remember how precious and desirable our moral insight is, and pause to think about our moral choices.

 

Lekh-Lekha (and Bereishit): Giving Directions

October 9, 2013 at 11:02 am | Posted in Bereishit, Lekh Lekha, Noach | 2 Comments
Tags: , , ,

For me, every story in the book of Genesis/Bereishit is another fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And the God who speaks to individual people, from Adam to Jacob, is like a human teacher trying to prod people into making conscious choices and moral judgments.

Like other animals, we humans make most of our decisions automatically, out of instinct and habit. Sometimes we stop to solve a practical problem or an intellectual puzzle. But only rarely do we stop to solve a moral problem. When we do become aware of a moral issue, and of our ability to choose between good and evil actions, I think we are tasting another fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

The anthropomorphic God in Genesis often talks to Himself, debating what to do next. He also talks to human characters, asking them questions, telling them His plans, blessing and cursing them, making covenants with them, and giving them directions.

“God” tries out several methods for giving directions. In the second creation story, “God” makes a single human out of dirt and breathes life into it. After placing the human (ha-adam) in the garden of Eden, the God character gives it an instruction.

figGod tzivah the human, saying: From every tree of the garden, certainly tokheil. But from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, not tokhal; for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die. (Genesis 2:16-17)

tzivah = commanded, ordered, directed.

tokheil, tokhal = you will eat, you shall eat, you should eat, you could eat, you may eat, you can eat, you are going to eat, you must eat.

It is impossible to translate this passage literally, because biblical Hebrew has only one verb form for action that has not yet happened. Is “God” telling the human “you must not eat” from the tree of knowledge, and if you do, you will be punished with death? Or is “God” saying “you could not eat” from it without becoming mortal?  Either translation is correct.

The God character’s motivation in giving this order is also open to interpretation. Classical commentary assumes “God” wants the human to stay in the garden, in a state of moral ignorance, and therefore after the female and male humans eat the fruit, they are punished for disobeying orders. I think “God” points out the Tree of Knowledge in order to show the adam, the solo and sexless human, that it can act of its own free will, and gain knowledge. But the adam passively follows orders, and nothing changes. I can imagine the God character wondering what it will take to get the humans to make a choice and acquire a sense of good and evil, so He can remove them from Eden and place them in the real world! “God” solves the problem by splitting the human it into male and female persons, and inventing the snake to make the female human think.

The next person in the Torah to get moral training is Cain, who gets upset when God shows a preference for Abel’s offering over his. Perhaps because reverse psychology did not work well with Adam, “God” avoids anything that sounds like an order when He first addresses Cain.

Cain, by Henri Vidal, detail

Cain, by Henri Vidal, detail

 

And God said to Cain: Why are you making yourself angry, and why has your face fallen? Is it not so: if you do good, [there is] uplifting; but if you do not do good, wrongdoing waits at the door, and its desire is for you. Yet you can rule over it. (Genesis 4:6-7)

Cain does not get the hint, and in a fit of rage kills his brother Abel.

In the story of Noah, the God character tries a different approach.

God said to Noah: The end of all flesh is coming before Me, because the earth is filled with violence on account of them, and here I am, the one Who destroys the earth.  Make for yourself a floating-container of gofer wood; you shall make the floating-container compartmented, and you shall cover it inside and outside with caulking. (Genesis 6:13-14)

If what “God” wants is for Noah to obey orders, His new style works. Noah simply follows orders, and makes no independent decisions until after the flood. But commentators have wondered for millennia whether Noah’s mechanical obedience is actually what “God” wants. (See my post last week, Noach: Righteous Choices.) What if “God” is hoping that Noah will propose an alternative, the way Abraham does later when “God” announces He will destroy Sodom and Gommorah?

abraham-looks-at-starsThis week’s Torah portion, Lekh-lekha, begins with the God character’s first direction to Abraham.

God said to Abraham: Lekh-lekha, away from your land, and away from your home, and away from the house of your father, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great people, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so it will become a blessing. (Genesis 12:1-2)

Lekh = Go!

-lekha = yourself, for yourself, to yourself.

Here the God character’s order specifies what Abraham should leave behind, but gives no details about the future he is walking into. What “God” does communicate is that this move is important for Abraham, not just for God. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) interpreted Lekh-lekha as “Go for yourself”, i.e. for your own sake. The Zohar (a 13th-century kabbalistic text) interpreted it as “Go to yourself”, i.e. recreate yourself as a new individual, separate from your past.

All the promises of blessing, while non-specific, also serve to let Abraham know that going to the new land will be for his own benefit. This is the first time in the Torah that “God” promises a reward for obeying His directions.

Abraham responds to the divine direction by leaving home for good, as instructed. But he takes some initiative and prepares for his own future by bringing along his wife, nephew, servants, and livestock.

Since the voice of God does not even tell him which way to head when he leaves his father’s house in Charan, Abraham chooses to travel west into Canaan. Only after he has reached Shechem, well inside Canaan, does “God” appear to him and say: To your offspring I will give this land. (Genesis 12:7)

The God character’s method of giving partial directions, promising an eventual reward, and leaving the rest up to the human being seems to be the most successful approach so far. Abraham responds by leaving his old familiar habits behind, and making new choices.

Today, few people hear God giving them direct instructions in Biblical Hebrew. But I can imagine the God character in these stories as an inner voice from the human subconscious, struggling to be heard properly.

There are many ways for a human being to get stuck and wait passively for change, instead of looking for a good action and bravely doing it. At times in my life I have been like the adam, obeying orders without raising questions, avoiding any potential conflict. I had to reach a certain level of misery before an inner voice from God’s snake reminded me that it would not kill me to pick the fruit and liberate myself, to choose my own course and act.

At times in my life I have been like Cain, feeling as though I am at the mercy of a bad desire. Yet eventually I hear the divine hint that I can master the desire, and choose to do good.

Other times, I feel overwhelmed, drowned, by the demands of other people and by the way the world works. I want to make my own little floating container and hide in it. But my conscience nags at me, reminding me that I cannot hide in an ark without bringing my family and hordes of hungry animals with me. God wants engagement with the world.

And yes, periodically I have heard an inner call to leave my familiar but not-so-good life, and set out for an unknown destination and destiny, like Abraham. So far, responding to that voice has led to blessings.

May we all be blessed to listen to our inner “God” voice, and never lose the taste of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Bereishit: Inner Voices

September 25, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Posted in Bereishit | 4 Comments
Tags: , , ,

The first Torah portion in the first book of the Torah (both called Bereishit, “In a beginning”, in Hebrew) opens with God’s creation of the world. It closes with God’s decision to destroy the world and start over again.

Just before God makes this decision, the Torah gives us a curious story fragment:

And beney ha-elohim saw the daughters of the human, how tov they were, and they took themselves wives from whomever they chose. (Genesis 6:2)

The Nefilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, for beney ha-elohim came into the daughters of the human, and they bore children to them. They were the mighty ones from long ago, men of renown. (Genesis 6:4)

beney ha-elohim = the sons of God.

tov = good, attractive.

What does “the sons of God” mean? Some traditional commentary claims the phrase refers to superior human men, who make the mistake of marrying an inferior class of women. Other commentators say the sons of God are angels, of a lower grade than the malachim (“messengers”) that appear in the Torah in human form in order to speak as mouthpieces for God.

What strikes me is that the phrase beney ha-elohim appears only four times in the whole Hebrew Bible: twice in the passage above, and twice in the book of Job. The book of Job begins by describing how upright, good, and God-fearing Job is. Then the scene shifts to the court of God:

One day beney ha-elohim came to present themselves in front of God, and ha-satan came too, in the middle of them. And God said to ha-satan: Where do you come from? And ha-satan answered God, and said: From roving about on the earth and from going back and forth on it. (Job 1:6-7)

ha-satan = the adversary, the obstacle

God pays attention to ha-satan, and does not question any of the other “sons of God”. The Adversary doubts whether Job is genuinely good and God-fearing, and persuades God to test Job’s faithfulness. God assigns the Adversary to strike all Job’s possessions. Ha-satan eliminates Job’s wealth and all his children—for no good reason—but Job still blesses God.

Then one day beney ha-elohim came to present themselves in front of God, and ha-satan came too, in the middle of them, to present itself in front of God. And God said to ha-satan: Where do you come from this? And ha-satan answered God, and said: From roving about on the earth and from going back and forth on it. (Job 2:1-2)

Once again God only converses with ha-satan. The Adversary persuades God to test Job again, this time by afflicting his body, and God authorizes another injustice in order to find out what Job will do.

The book of Job is a theological conversation in the guise of a story about a man who lived long ago and far away. In order to set up the question of whether God is just, the story uses an allegory of God in His court, receiving His sons, the lesser gods (a scene obviously borrowed from one of the pantheistic religions in the region).

But on another level, I see both stories about beney ha-elohim as allegories for the human mind.

In the book of Job, I think God’s court represents the human mind. The decision-making ego is visited by various sub-personalities, including one that takes an adversarial role and obstructs the ego by planting doubt, then tempting the ego to abandon morality in order to find out for sure.

In the book of Genesis, the interaction between “the sons of God” and the “daughters of the human” can also represent the human mind. Like ha-satan in Job, beney ha-elohim in Genesis  visit the earth. The purpose of the visit in Job is to observe the human beings from a different perspective than God’s, and bring that perspective into the heavenly court that I think represents the human mind.

The purpose of the visit in Genesis is to marry and “come into” human women. When the book of Genesis says “for beney ha-elohim came into the daughters of the human, and they bore children to them”, we can read it as simply a description of the sons of God having sex with their wives, who then give birth to mighty and famous men. But we can also read it as a representation of subconscious aspects of the mind coming into the consciousness of human women, and inspiring them to give birth to new ideas and notions.

In the Bible divine inspiration, ruach elohim, can be good or bad; good when a prophet is moved to speak out and warn people they are doing wrong, but bad when King Saul is seized by divinely-induced madness. What if divine inspiration comes from different aspects of God, different “sons”? One aspect might give us an impulse to speak out against injustice. Another aspect (such as ha-satan in Job) might give us an impulse to commit any injustice in order to prove a point.

The “sons of God” in Genesis are apparently bad impulses, leading to bad thoughts and actions.

And God saw the abundant badness of the human on the earth, that the shape of every idea of his heart was only bad all the time. And God nicham that It had made the human on the earth, and It was heartbroken. (Genesis/Bereishit 6:5-6)

nicham = had a change of heart, reconsidered. (This verb covers at least two kinds of change of heart: regret, and consolation.)

Before the beney ha-elohim show up, the humans on earth seem like a mixed lot, more good than bad. Cain is a murderer, and his great-great-great grandson Lemekh boasts to his wives about vengeance, but the other people the Torah mentions seem innocent enough. When Enosh is born, people start invoking the four-letter name of God. One of Enosh’s descendants, Enoch (Chanokh), “walked with God”.

Only after the beney ha-elohim influence the human race does God consider the ideas of the human heart “only bad all the time”. Perhaps these “sons of God” are like ha-satan in Job. The Adversary in Job corrupts the ruling god with feelings of doubt. The sons of God in Genesis apparently introduce urges that corrupt the conscious mind of the human “daughter”, and become obstacles to good behavior.

And God said: I will wipe away the human that I created from the face of the earth, from human to beast to creeper to flyer in the sky, because I have nicham that I made them. But Noah found grace in the eyes of God. (Genesis/Bereishit 6:7-8)

In next week’s Torah portion, God decides to start the world over again with Noah and his family (as well as pairs of all the animals). This is like deciding to eliminate all those awkward feelings of beney ha-elohim, and reduce the mind to a single virtuous ego. Yet when the flood ends, God reaches the more mature conclusion that the human mind is always subject to evil, and decides to put up with it.

Today, we all hear the mental voices of divine inspiration inside our own minds. Sometimes they are Adversaries, trying to push us off the right path and make us act out of doubt or resentment or another negative urge. Sometimes they enter with enlightenment, and impregnate us with ideas that lead to good actions.

May we all learn to put up with the many shapes of our ideas, as the god in Genesis did. And may we all become more discriminating about our inner promptings than the god in Job.

Vayakheil: Shadow Power

March 8, 2013 at 8:35 am | Posted in Bereishit, Vayakheil | 1 Comment

God spoke to Moses, saying: See? I have called by name Betzaleil son of Uri son of Chur of the tribe of Yehudah. And I have filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom and with insight and with knowledge, and with every craft. (Exodus/Shemot 31:1-3)

Moses said to the children of Israel: See? God has called by name Betzaleil son of Uri son of Chur of the tribe of Yehudah. And he has filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, with insight, and with knowledge, and with every craft. (Exodus 35:30-31)

Betzaleil (בְּצַלְאֵל) = In the shadow of God.           b- (=in, at, by, with) + tzeil (=shadow, shade) + eil (= god)

In the Torah portions of the last few weeks, God told Moses everything that should be included in a portable sanctuary the Israelites would make for God. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (And he assembled), Moses passes on the lists to the Israelites, and points out (See?) that God has chosen Betzaleil to be in charge of creating all the items properly. Everyone can see that God has filled Betzaleil with a divine spirit or inspiration, so it is easy to believe God has singled him our or “called him by name”–a name that is oddly appropriate for his mission.

What does it mean to be, or to create, in the shadow of God? Today we use the word “shadow” as a metaphor for so many things. For example, being in someone’s shadow means going unnoticed. The shadow side of a person or institution is the unacknowledged, unconscious, or repressed side. Shadowing someone is following their every move.

But in the Hebrew Bible, the meanings of the word “shadow” are more limited. The word tzeil appears 48 times, and 40 of those references are either literal (such as the shadow of a tree or a sundial) or a metaphor for shelter and protection. The first time the word appears is in Lot’s speech to the men of Sodom, begging them not to molest his two angelic visitors:

Here please, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Please let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them whatever is good in your eyes. Only don’t do a thing to these men, because they came into the shadow of my roof. (Genesis/Bereishit 19:8)

Here “the shadow of my roof” means “under my protection”. Once Lot has offered the visitors the hospitality of his house, he feels honor-bound to protect them from the mob.

Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, some people are under the “shadow” or protection of a government, and the luckiest people are in the “shadow” of God’s hand or wings.

In the shadow of Your wings I seek refuge. (Psalm 57:2)

Those of us who live in more moderate climates might not think of a shadow as a protection or a shelter, but in the deserts of the Middle East a shadow meant shade from the burning sun.

The other eight occurrences of the word tzeil, shadow, are all connected with a person’s lifespan. When that days of your life are like a shadow, it means they are brief and fleeting.

Humankind is like a puff of air; his days are like a passing shadow. (Psalm 144:4)

Both of these metaphors can be applied to the master craftsman Betzaleil. Since he is human, his life is short compared to God’s. By extension, his creations, however dazzling and holy, are a mere shadow of God’s creation of the universe.

On the other hand, Betzaleil is in the shadow of God, so God protects and shelters him as well as naming him. His inspiration for designing all the holy objects comes from the spirit of God, and therefore everything will come out right.

A literal shadow is like a silhouette; you see the outline of the original, but none of the details or colors. This kind of shadow fits the Hebrew word tzelem, which is sometimes translated as “shadow”, but more often translated as “image”. The word tzelem, which may well be related to the word tzeil, appears in the first account of God’s creation of the universe:

And God said: Let us make humankind betzalmeinu, in our likeness, and they will rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the beasts, and over all the land, and over all creepers that creep on the land. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:26)

betzalmeinu (בְּצַלְמֵנוּ) = in our image

Humans are shadows of God in the sense that we are like silhouettes of the divine. As two-dimensional images, our power, both to rule and to create, is limited yet still extensive. We cannot rule over the laws of nature, but we have a lot of control over this earth and its creatures. (We can even change the earth’s climate.) We cannot create a universe, but we can recombine existing elements to create new things within our universe. When we humans are at our best, when we are inspired to create, like Betzaleil, we shadow or imitate the divine. Only God can make a tree, but some poems are also inspiring.

So, I imagine, was the entire work of art of the portable sanctuary, and later of the temple.  It inspired the children of Israel to keep returning to their God, over the centuries, and it kept their religion alive until it could metamorphose and survive without a temple.

When God calls us by name, either to rule or to create, we are given a heavy responsibility. We humans have more power than we think, for good and for ill. May we use it wisely.

Bereishit: A First-Rate Beginning

October 11, 2012 at 12:58 am | Posted in Bereishit | Leave a comment

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1, King James Version)

I used to find flaws in the King James translation of the first line of the Bible: Bereishit bara Elohim eit hashamayim ve-eit ha-aretz. Consider the first word, a compound of

be- = a prefix meaning “in”, “with”, “at”, “by”, or another preposition, depending on context and idiomatic usage

+ reishit = beginning, first, first-rate, best

I knew that “in the” was ba, not be. So I preferred modern translations of bereishit as “In a beginning”. But this year, I checked all the other places where the word reishit appears in the Hebrew bible, and I discovered that reishit itself often implies a definite article (i.e. “the”). So the King James version’s In the beginning is accurate after all.

The second Hebrew word is bara, “created”. Before I learned Biblical Hebrew grammar, I made the translation mistake the Talmud warns against (Megillah 9a) and wondered if bereishit bara Elohim means “In-a-beginning” created God. Then I found out that the subject follows the verb in Hebrew, so the correct translation of bara Elohim is “God created”, not “created God”.

What about the word Elohim? It is a plural noun, used in the Torah for both God and for other peoples’ gods. But the book of Genesis/Bereishit would hardly open with other peoples’ gods creating the heavens and the earth!

The word translated in the King James version as “the heaven”, hashamayim, is either plural or double, not singular. So I would translate it as “the heavens”. But that is nit-picking.

When I began researching this blog, I still hoped I could come up with a more interesting, yet accurate, translation. Over the years I have enjoyed reading alternate translations, especially when they lead to intriguing ideas about the nature of God.

For example, here is one of 19th-century Rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch’s translations: From the very beginning God created the heaven and the earth. I notice that this version implies not only that God (Elohim) is the original, and perhaps the only, creator, but also that creating the heavens and the earth is an ongoing process.

For another example, here is Rabbi David Cooper’s 20th-century translation in God Is a VerbWith a beginning, [It] created God (Elohim), the heavens and the earth. Cooper explained that in kabbalah, the ein sof (“without end”) precedes Nothingness, and out of Nothingness comes Beginningness. From Beginningness comes Elohim, the plural name of God, and then plural creation follows, starting with the heavens and the earth. The first part of this amazing progression occured before the first word of the Torah. The word bereishit catches the kabbalistic progression at the stage of Beginningness.

Yet the 17th-century King James translation, prosaic as it seems, is closer to the original Hebrew. So then I wondered if I could invent an interesting alternate translation by using one of the other meanings of reishit.

The word reishit appears in the Hebrew bible 50 times. It is used most often (23 times) to indicate one kind of offering to the temple: an offering of the first or the finest sample of an agricultural product–usually fruit or grain, but sometimes bread, oil, or livestock. Another common use of the word (10 times) is to indicate that something else is first-rate: a person, a group of people, a father’s vigor, a land’s fertility, a fig’s flavor.

If the reishit part of the first word in the Bible meant “first-rate”, the first sentence could be translated: With the best, God created the heaven and the earth. We would learn that our universe is first-rate (or at least the best of all possible worlds), and that God also created other, inferior universes!

But this is stretching too far, when the Hebrew bible uses reishit to mean “the beginning” 17 more times after the opening Bereishit. Twelve of these occurrences refer to the beginning of something that unfolds over a period of time: a year, an episode in someone’s life, a king’s reign, a person’s lifetime, a kingdom’s duration. Two more occurrences refer to the beginning of a process of divine creation: the book of Job claims the behemoth was the beginning of God’s creation of animals, while the book of Proverbs claims wisdom was the beginning of God’s creation of the world. The word reishit is also used three  times for a more abstract beginning, as in Psalm 111:10 (The beginning of wisdom is awe of God).

The compound word bereishit shows up four times in the book of Jeremiah. All four times, bereishit merely gives the approximate date of a prophecy, by placing it “in the beginning of the reign of” a certain king. So the bereishit in the first sentence of the Torah must also be the beginning of something that unfolds over time, like a king’s reign. But this beginning came before everything. It is the beginning of time as we know it (one new thing after another), or the beginning of being.

Maybe Elohim, the god of plurals, means God the Creator, the God of Time, and the God of Endless Beginnings. Then what came before the beginning of time and creation, before Elohim? If the answer is God, this is a god we cannot even imagine. The Ein Sof (“Without End”) of kabbalah is, by definition, inconceivable. As the Zohar says, “No thought can grasp You at all.” Yet Elohim, the God that we can think about, points back at the Ein Sof, the inconceivable God  that began Rabbi David Cooper’s kabbalistic progression.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” is more profound than I thought.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.