Vayikra & Tzav vs. Isaiah & Psalm 40: Smoke vs. Words & Deeds

March 14, 2019 at 4:41 pm | Posted in Isaiah 1, Psalms/Tehilim, Tzav, Vayikra | Leave a comment

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra gets right down to business.  The first Torah portion opens with God calling to Moses, then telling him more instructions for the Israelites—this time about conducting the rituals at the altar.

from Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

Speak to the Israelites, and you shall say to them:  Any human among you who offers an offering to God, from the livestock—from the herd or from the flock—you shall offer your offering.  If it is an olah he will offer from his herd…  (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:2)

olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering; an offering that is completely burned into smoke.  (Plural: olot (עֺלוֹת).)

A person who offers an offering of minchah to God, fine flour will be his offering …  (Leviticus 2:1)

minchah (מִנחָה) = gift of allegiance or homage; a grain-offering.

And if he offers a zevach as a thankgiving-offering …  (Leviticus 3:1)

zevach (זֶבַח) = animal slaughter as an offering on the altar.  (Plural: zivechim (זִבְחִעם).)

The text continues through this week’s Torah portion (Vayikra) and next week’s (Tzav) with instructions for a total of six kinds of offerings.  (See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.)  The last four all involve slaughtering animals, burning parts of them so God can enjoy the smell of the smoke, and eating the remaining edible parts after they have been roasted on the altar.

The primary method of serving God throughout the Hebrew Bible is turning animals into smoke, “… a fire-offering of a soothing smell for God” (Leviticus 3:5).  In the first twelve books of the bible (Genesis through 2 Kings) this method goes unquestioned.

Where does this idea come from?  The Torah does not say, but I believe the ancient Israelites assumed God wanted animal sacrifices because the other gods in the Ancient Near East were worshiped that way.1

Only when foreign empires began swallowing up the kingdoms of Israel did prophets and psalmists begin to question this approach.  The first prophet in the book of Isaiah reports:

“Why your many zivechim for me?” God says.

“I am sated with olot of rams.

And suet from fattened animals

And blood of bulls and lambs and he-goats

I do not want!”  (Isaiah 1:11)

“… And when you spread your palms

I am averting my eyes from you.

Even though you multiply [your] prayers

I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

Wash, become pure;

Remove your evil acts from in front of my eyes;

Cease doing evil!

Learn to do good!

Seek justice,

Make the oppressed happy,

Defend the orphan,

Argue the widow’s case!”  (Isaiah 1:15-17)

Here God does not totally reject animal sacrifices, but God does consider good deeds and justice a higher form of service.

Psalm 40 declares:

[God] gave my mouth a new song,

A song of praise for our God.

May the many see, and may they be awed

And may they trust in God.    (Psalm 40:4)

Zevach and minchah you do not want.

You dug open a pair of ears for me!

Olah and guilt-offering you do not request.  (Psalm 40:7)

That is when I said:

Hey, I will bring a scroll of the book written for me.

I want to do what you want, my God,

And your teaching is inside my guts.

I delivered the news of right behavior to a large assembly.

Hey! I will not eat my lips.  (Psalm 40:7-10)

The speaker in Psalm 40 maintains that God does not want smoke, only words of praise. Nothing can make this poet recant; he will not “eat his lips”.  (See my post Tetzavveh: Smoke and Pray.)

*

What does God want?  Most, but not all, of the Hebrew Bible assumes God wants offerings on the altar.  Today we assume God wants words of prayer and blessing, as well as deeds of kindness and justice.

But why should we give God what we think God wants?

Suppose you want to thank a person for saving your life.  You might speak to them, send them a card, send them flowers or a bigger gift.

Suppose you want to manipulate or appease a person who has power over you.  You might speak to them, send them a card, send them flowers or a bigger gift.

The same human impulses apply to thanking or manipulating a semi-anthropomorphic God.  In the bible, the Israelites slaughter their animals in order to give them to God, either in gratitude or in an attempt at appeasement.2

Today, do we pray and do good deeds to express gratitude?  Or to appease God?  Or to manipulate God into giving us what we want?

  1. For example, the odor of Utnapishtim’s burnt sacrifice gives the gods of Mesopotamia pleasure in Gilgamesh tablet 11, part 4. In the book of Numbers, Moabite women invited Israelites to worship Baal Pe-or with them through zivechey their god” (Numbers 25:2).  (Zivechey (זִבְחֵי) = slaughter offerings of.)  In the book of Ezekiel, God complains that Israelites are flocking to foreign altars and burning sacrifices to give idols soothing smells (Ezekiel 6:13, 16:19, and 20:28).
  2. Offerings of wholeness or thanksgiving (shelamim, שְׁלָמִים) are described in the portion Vayikra in Leviticus 3:1-16 and in the portion Tzav in Leviticus 7:11-21. Offerings to appease God after violating one of God’s rules (chataat, חַטָּאת, and asham, אָשָׁם) are described in Vayikra in Leviticus 4:1-5:22.

Vayakheil & Psalm 13: Waiting for Contentment

February 27, 2019 at 11:40 am | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Vayakheil | 1 Comment

detail of “Moses on Mt. Sinai” by Jean-Leon Gerome, ca. 1900

The Israelites are overcome with anxiety the first time Moses spends 40 days on Mount Sinai.  In last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa:

The people saw that Moses was long delayed in coming down from the mountain, and they assembled against Aaron, and they said to him: “Get up, make for us a god who will go in front of us, since this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him!”  (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)

Aaron asks them to donate their gold earrings to melt down.  They do, but Aaron does the work of making the golden calf.  Even though he says the new idol represents the God of Israel, not another god, it turns out to be a bad solution to the people’s anxiety.  Between them, Moses and God destroy thousands of Israelites and chasten the survivors.  After a while God forgives them.  (See last week’s post, Ki Tissa: Stiff-Necked People.)

Then Moses tells the Israelites what God does want them to make: a portable tent-sanctuary, where God will speak from the empty space above the ark inside the inner chamber.  In in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”), they gladly pitch in.

Every man and woman whose heart prompted them to bring anything for the work that God had commanded to do through Moses, the Israelites brought as a nedavah for God.  (Exodus 35:29)

nedavah (נְדָבָה) = spontaneous voluntary offering.

Betzaleil and Oholiav, Anton Koberger, Nuremberg Bible, 1483

Then Moses called on Betzaleil and on Ohaliav and on everyone with a skilled mind, to whom God had given a skilled mind; everyone whose heart lifted at approaching the work to do it.  (Exodus 36:2)

Moses appoints the most skilled craftsman, Betzaleil, to make the most holy objects.  But everyone with skill in weaving, sewing, metal-smithing, and woodworking gets to make some part of the new Tent of Meeting and its courtyard enclosure.  And the people with materials keep on donating them, until Moses has to tell them to stop because the artisans have more than enough.1

For the rest of the book of Exodus (five chapters), nobody complains and nobody worries.  The people are content, fulfilled by using their gifts to make something important, secure in their knowledge that God will be with them.

Yet in the book of Numbers, three days after they set out from Mount Sinai, the Israelites start complaining again—this time about the food.2  Even though both the ark and a divine cloud are leading them, even though the Levites are carrying all the pieces of the portable sanctuary, the people are discontented.  Perhaps the problem is that they no longer have anything to do but march to the border of Canaan.

The Israelite ex-slaves in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy are like children, who enjoy doing things on their own but depend on an adult to straighten out anything that goes wrong.  When they are hungry or afraid, they complain and wait for God to relieve their suffering.

The book of Psalms includes pleas by suffering individuals as well as pleas for all the Israelites.  Psalm 44 is the first of a series of psalms complaining that God is neglecting and hiding from the Israelites as a whole, letting them be defeated in battle and subjugated by enemies.  Individuals feel abandoned and ask how long God will make them wait for rescue from diseases or personal enemies in Psalms 6, 10, 13, 22, and 35.  Only Psalm 13 hints at a solution to God’s abandonment.

Psalm 13

by John Constable

How long, God, will you endlessly forget me?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I make schemes inside myself,

My heart in torment all day?

How long will my enemy loom over me?

Look!  Answer me, God, my God!

Light up my eyes, lest I sleep death!

Lest my enemy say he has prevailed over me,

My adversaries rejoice when I am made to stumble.  (Psalm 13:2-5)

The speaker has two problems:

1) God is hiding God’s face; i.e. the speaker is no longer aware of God’s presence, and so feels abandoned.

2) The enemy seems to be winning, despite the schemes the speaker devises.  In this life-and-death struggle, only God’s intervention can turn the tables.  But the speaker has already been waiting an unbearably long time for God to manifest and act.  Where is the responsible adult in charge?3

Unlike the Israelites who wait 40 days for Moses to return, only to give up and demand an idol, the speaker in Psalm 13 finds a better response.

by James Tissot

Yet I will trust in your loyal-kindness.

My heart will rejoice in your rescue.

I will sing to God,

Because [God] gamal me.  (Psalm 13:6)

gamal (גָמַל) = ripened, weaned, rewarded, made mature.

Even if God seems to have abandoned the speaker, the speaker decides not to abandon God.  A more mature approach is to sing to God while waiting for God to act.

*

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil, God makes a request, and the Israelites create beautiful items for God’s sanctuary.  As long as they are doing that work, they are content to wait for God to rejoin them.

In Psalm 13, God neither makes a request nor acts to rescue the speaker.  After waiting a long time, the speaker takes initiative and creates a song for God.  They are still waiting for God to rescue them, but at least they are mature enough to sing, which leads to a hopeful frame of mind.

I think there is a third possibility, not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.  If you are miserable and God does not tell you what to do, then act on your own initiative.  Even when you cannot figure out a scheme for improving your situation, you can make something beautiful for God.  Sing, write, paint.  Smile and speak humbly to a fellow human being.  Whenever you do something beautiful, God is inside you.

  1. Exodus 36:4-7.
  2. Numbers 10:33, 11:1-6.
  3. Breuggemann’s interpretation goes farther: “The speaker does not for a moment entertain the thought that the trouble comes from guilt or failure. It is because of Yahweh’s irresponsible absence, which is regarded as not only unfortunate, but unfaithful to covenant.” (Walter Breuggemann, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Publishing House, 1984, p. 59)

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Ezekiel & Psalm 46: Desist!

January 23, 2019 at 11:21 pm | Posted in Ezekiel, Psalms/Tehilim | 2 Comments

Desist!  And know that I am Elohim.  (Psalm 46:11)

Elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = God; gods in general.

The phrase “know that I am God” appears nine times in the book of Exodus, but it always uses God’s personal name (whose four letters approximate Y-H-V-H) instead of Elohim.  God wants Egyptians and Israelites to know the identity of the god who creates the miracles they witness.  (See my post Beshallach & Shemot: Knowing the Name.)

Ezekiel, by Michelangelo

In the book of Ezekiel, the phrase “know that I am God” appears more than 50 times using God’s personal name.  The book opens in the settlement near Babylon where the prophet Ezekiel was deported during King Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah in the 6th century BCE.   Jerusalem, the only remaining Israelite city, is still under siege.1  Its people are suffering—and it is their own fault, according to Ezekiel.  They enraged God by worshiping idols, so God sent famine, pestilence, and the Babylonian army to destroy them.  The losing side in a war, according to Ezekiel, is the side that made God angry.

Then you shall know that I am Y-H-V-H, whose decrees you did not follow, and whose laws you did not do; you did according to the laws of the nations that surrounded you.  (Ezekiel 11:12)

At least 25 times Ezekiel prophesies that the surviving Israelites will realize their guilt and “know that I am Y-H-V-H”.2

Ezekiel also declares that God will send Babylonians to conquer Ammon, Moab, Philistia, Tyre, Egypt, and Edom because none of these nations tried to help the Israelites.  Then their people, too, “shall know that I am Y-H-V-H”.3

Valley of the Dry Bones, by Gustave Dore, 1866

But eventually God will forgive the deportees from Judah, reestablish the covenant with them, and return them to Jerusalem.  Ezekiel prophesies seven times that when God stops punishing the people and repopulates Jerusalem, the Israelites “shall know that I am Y-H-V-H”.4

In the distant future, the prophet says, the vast armies of Gog from Magog and his allies will invade the hills of Israel, and God will defeat them both by creating natural disasters (earthquake, pestilence, hail) and by making Gog and his allies turn on each other.5

“Thus I shall manifest my greatness and my holiness, and make myself known in the eyes of many nations.  And they shall know that I am Y-H-V-H”.  (Ezekiel 38:3)

In Ezekiel, people recognize Y-H-V-H only after a human army is wiped out.

*

In Psalm 46 people recognize God when God puts an end to war.  The song begins:

View of Fortress on a Hill, detail, by Augustin Hirschvogel, 1546

Elohim is for us a refuge and a stronghold,

            A help in dire straits, very accessible.

Therefore we are not afraid when the earth is transformed,

            When mountains collapse into the heart of the seas,

Its waters roar and foam,

            The mountains quake in its surge.  Selah.  (Psalm 46:2-4)

Some commentators have claimed that the upheavals of earth and sea are a metaphor for the violence of warring nations expected at the end of history, i.e. the war of Gog prophesied by Ezekiel.6  Others take this first section of the song so literally that they date the psalm according to an earthquake that occurred two centuries before the time of Ezekiel.7   A third interpretation is that God is responsible for all natural disasters, from floods to earthquakes, and that God will protect devout Israelites even while God is inflicting these “acts of God” on others.8

The first part of the psalm ends with the ancient Hebrew word Selah, a musical instruction whose meaning is unknown.  The second part presents an image of joy and stability in the “city of Elohim where God dwells on earth, in contrast with the chaos around it.9  This section ends with another Selah.  Then the psalmist says:

Go perceive the marvelous acts of Y-H-V-H;

            Who puts frightful devastations on the earth,

Stopping wars to the edge of the earth,

            breaking a bow and cutting up a spear,

            flaming [war] wagons with fire.

“Desist!  And know that I am Elohim.

            “I am higher than the nations,

            “I am higher than the earth.”  (Psalm 46:9-11)

This last part of Psalm 46 may be a prediction that someday God, who initiates natural disasters, will cause humans to desist from war over the entire earth.  In other words, when all humans know that Elohim is still active in nature, we will stop fighting and have world peace.

Biblical commentators usually follow Ezekiel in assuming that world peace will happen only after the defeat of Gog from Magog and the end of history, when messianic time begins.

But I believe we cannot wait for the legendary armies of Gog.  Groups of humans from families to nations have been fighting each other not only with wars, but also by exercising their own power without pity for any other creatures, human or not.  Now we are beginning to suffer from world-wide natural disasters, otherwise known as global climate change.

Can we stop fighting and making heartless power plays?  Can we change our own human natures, and rescue whoever and whatever can be rescued all over the earth?

I pray that God will inspire even the most intransigent hearts to “Desist!  And know that I am Elohim”, the divinity in all of nature, including ourselves.

  1. The people known collectively as Israelites in the Hebrew Bible had two kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Israel with its capitol in Samaria, and the southern kingdom of Judah with its capitol in Jerusalem, until the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom circa 720 BCE. The Babylonian Empire took over the Assyrian Empire circa 605 BCE, conquered most the kingdom of Judah, and besieged Jerusalem on and off from 605 BCE until it fell in 586 BCE.  Leading Israelites from Jerusalem and Judah were deported from 597 BCE to as late as 581 BCE.
  2. Ezekiel 6:7, 6:10, 6:13, 6:14, 7:4, 7:27, 11:10, 11:12, 12:15, 12:16, 12:20, 13:9, 13:14, 13:21, 13:23, 14:8, 15:7, 20:38, 20:26, 20:44, 22:16, 23:49, 24:4, 24:27, 33:29.
  3. Ezekiel 25:5, 25:7 regarding Ammon; 25:11 regarding Moab; 5:17 regarding Philistines; 26:6 regarding Tyre; 29:6, 29:9, 29:16, 29:21, 30:8, 30:19, 30:25, 30:26, and 32:15 regarding Egypt; 35:4, 35:9, and 35:15 regarding Edom (Mt. Seir); and 36:23 regarding “the nations” in general.
  4. In Ezekiel 16:62, 20:20, 20:42, 34:27, and 36:38, God will accept the repentance of the surviving Jerusalemites who were deported to Babylon, renew the old covenant, and return them to their land. In Ezekiel 37:6 and 37:13, God will (at least metaphorically) bring the dry bones of the slain back to life.
  5. Ezekiel 38:19-22. Ezekiel adds that the Israelites will “know that I am Y-H-V-H” in 39:22 and 39:28.
  6. g. Radak (12th-13th century Rabbi David Kimchi): “At the time when the mountains quake and collapse and the waters of the sea are stirred up, that is to say—when there will be great distress and war between the kingdoms of the nations, Israel will not be afraid but instead will rejoice.  This is what is said in a metaphorical fashion…”  (Sefaria translation, www.sefaria.org/Radak_on_Psalms.46. )
  7. The earthquake mentioned in Amos 1:1 occurred circa 750 BCE. See Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, p. 162; and Arie Folger, “Understanding Psalm 46”, Jewish Bible Quarterly, http://jbq.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/411/jbq411psalm46folger.pdf.  Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) cites Numbers 16:31-32, where the earth swallows people, but the descriptions there sounds more like a sudden sinkhole than an earthquake.
  8. Folger, ibid.
  9. Psalm 46:5-7.

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Behar, Psalm 100, and Psalm 123: Master and Slave

May 9, 2018 at 8:20 pm | Posted in Behar, Psalms/Tehilim | Leave a comment

Who owns you?

This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“On a mountain”), sets limits on ownership of both humans and land.  God owns all the farmland.  The people are tenants with long-term leases, but God mandates that they must let the land rest every seventh year,1 and every fiftieth year (the jubilee/yoveil) any land that was purchased returns to the family that originally owned it.2  (See my post Behar: Owning Land.)

The same goes for human beings.  God owns all the Israelites.  If some of them become so impoverished they have nothing left to sell but themselves or their children, they can join another household as servants.  But they will not be permanent, inheritable slaves, like the foreign slaves Israelites own.3  Their extended families can buy them back from their Israelite masters at any time, and if they are still serving their masters when the jubilee year comes, they and their children are freed from service anyway—and can return to the land they once sold.4  (See my post Behar: Exclusive Ownership.)  God explains:

“Because they are my avadim, who I brought out from the land of Egypt, they may not be sold as an aved.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:42)

avadim (עֲבָדִים) = slaves, servants, subordinates.  (Singular:  eved, עֶבֶד or aved, עָבֱד.)

In this context, the Israelites are slaves of God, and can only become temporary servants or subordinates of human beings.  Even Israelites who sell themselves to resident aliens can be redeemed by their kinsmen, and must go free along with their children in a jubilee year.5

The master-slave relationship between God and the Israelites is a mutual obligation.  The Israelites are supposed to serve God by obeying all of God’s rules and commandments, which number in the hundreds.  God has absolute power over “their” lives, as well as over “their” land.  But just as the human owner of slaves is supposed to provide them with food, clothing, lodging, and all their other needs, God is supposed to take care of the Israelites.6

How did God acquire the Israelites as slaves?  In this week’s Torah portion, God says:

“Because the children of Israel are [already] avadim; they are my avadim that I brought out from the land of Egypt.  I am God, your God!”  (Leviticus 25:55)

In the book of Exodus, after God has rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them as far as Mount Sinai, God tells Moses to tell the people:

“And now, if you really listen to my voice and you observe my covenant, then you will be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.  For all the earth is mine, but you shall be my kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  (Exodus/Shemot 19:5-6)

After Moses has passed this on,

They answered, all the people as one, and they said: “Everything that God says, we will do!”  (Exodus 19:8)

Thus they wholeheartedly accept their new master.7

*

The relationship between God and God’s slaves is not always peaceful.  The book of Numbers/Bemidbar in particular, which we begin next week in the annual cycle of Torah reading, reports many incidents in which thousands of Israelites refuse to do what God asks, and God kills them.

The psalms offer contrasting opinions of what it is like to be God’s slave.  (Since the two psalms below compare God to a human master, my translations use the pronoun “he” and “his”.)

Psalm 100

A chant for thanksgiving:

            Call out homage to God, all the earth!

                        Ivdu God with joy!

                        Come before him with a shout of joy!

            Know that God is God;

                        He made us and we are his,

                        His people and the flock he is tending.

            Enter his gates with thanks,

                        His courtyards with praise.

                        Thank him!  Bless his name!

            For God is good.

                        His loving-kindness is forever,

                        And his faithfulness goes on from generation to generation.

ivdu (עִבְדוּ) = Serve!  (An imperative verb from the same root as avadim.)

 

Psalm 123

A song for ascending [stairs].

            To you I lift my eyes,

                        Dweller in the heavens.

            Hey, as the eyes of avadim are on the hand of their masters,

                        As the eyes of a female-slave are on the hand of her mistress,

            So our eyes are on God, our God,

                        Until he favors us.

            Be gracious to us, God!

                        For we have had too much contempt.

            Our soul has had too much ridicule from the complacent;

                        It is moaning over contempt from the arrogant.           

When life is going well, we rejoice in serving a God that is kind and faithful to us.  When life is going badly, we look for God anxiously and beg for succor.

Both of these psalms imply an external god who owns us.  But on another level, they can speak to an inner psychological truth: we do not fully own ourselves.

In today’s world, some people are still slaves to other human beings.  But even those of us who are relatively independent have only limited freedom to make our own decisions.  Most of our behavior is determined by our history, habits, complexes, and abilities.  Usually our conscious minds merely notice what we have already done—and instantly generate reasons for our unconscious decisions, to keep up the illusion that we are our own masters.  Only occasionally does a new bit of information stop us in our tracks, so that we take the time to think out a new response to life.  Only occasionally are we truly free.

Is God the mysterious force that determines the physical and mental operating systems for all creatures, like a master commanding his slaves?  If so, we can praise God when things happen that we consider good, and wait with trembling for the next move in God’s plan when things happen that we consider bad.  And we can consciously develop a habit of noticing and praising the good that comes our way—the food our master gives us, the beauty of a view, the companions assigned to us, the times when our required behavior is pleasant.

Or is God what we encounter in our moments of freedom?  If so, we can cultivate a habit of watching for other moments when we might seize the chance to do something new, and of welcoming the sudden uncertainty when we pause, trembling, and open ourselves to inspiration.

  1. Leviticus 25:5.
  2. Leviticus 25:13-17, 25:23-24.
  3. Leviticus 25:35, 25:39, 25:44-46.
  4. Leviticus 25:40-41.
  5. Leviticus 25:47-54.
  6. “…just as they belong to Him in that He can confiscate and apportion their land, so, too, do they belong to Him in the sense that He is responsible for looking after their wellbeing and welfare for all time.” (Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Maggid Books, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015, p. 267)
  7. Ibid., p. 268.

Pesach and Psalm 118: Still Singing

April 3, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Psalms/Tehilim | Leave a comment

After drinking, eating, talking, and singing our way through the Haggadah, we still have six more days of Passover/Pesach.  What do we do besides continuing our matzah diet, unleavened by any bread?

One of the 14 steps in the seder follows us all week: the Halleil (הַלֵּל = praise), consisting of Psalms 113-118.  The Levites sang these psalms in the second temple1 during the three pilgrimage festivals to Jerusalem:  Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. 2  All three festivals originated as harvest celebrations: Pesach for the first barley harvest, Shavuot for the first wheat and first fruits, and Sukkot at the end of the growing season, for all the other crops.  A harvest is a good reason to celebrate and praise God.

In my years of organizing Pesach seders and Shavuot and Sukkot services, I have been grateful that the Halleil includes Psalm 118.  Why?  Because the good lines in that psalm have inspired song and chant writers to come up with melodies.  Now, for the rest of the week of Pesach, I have the perfect excuse to keep on singing them!

Singing a verse again and again makes me ponder its meaning—which may be one reason we sing the psalms.  Here are my thoughts about some of the verses in Psalm 118:

118:1-4

Hodu l’Adonai ki tov,                         Thank God, because it is good,

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomar na Yisrael,                               Let Israel please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomru na beit Aharon,                       Let the house of Aaron please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomru na yirey Adonai,                      Let yirey God please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

yirey (יִרְאֵי) = those who are afraid of, those who are in awe of.

(Note:  In Hebrew, nouns and verbs have grammatical gender; in English they do not.  Therefore a masculine noun suffix or verb affix in Hebrew can be either masculine or neuter in English.  In this essay, I am translating references to God using “it” or “its”.)

Levites, from James Tissot, The Choristers

The first verses of Psalm 118 are scripted for call and response singing.  The choir, or choir leader, of the Levites invites three groups to respond. The first group, Israel, covers everyone present who is not a Levites or a priest.  The second group is the priests, whose hereditary office is traced back to Aaron in the Torah.  The third group is yirey God.3

It is tempting to consider the “yirey God” as the “God-fearers” of the Hellenistic period (the first through third century C.E.).  This was the name for people who had converted to worshipping the God of Israel, but did not go so far as to follow all the rules (such as circumcision).  One argument for this interpretation is that 118:4 calls for a class of people who are not “Israel”.  An argument against this interpretation is that Psalm 118 was probably written well before the first century C.E.

I can identify with the “yirey God”, despite my conversion to Judaism over 30 years ago, because I am not an ethnic Jew.  When the psalms were written, there were few apostates and few full converts; most of the people called “Israel” belonged by both birth and religion.  Today, when many people with Jewish ancestry live with no ties to the Jewish religion, and many converts are passionately engaged in that religion, I would appreciate a separate call for Jews by religion.4  We, too, can use a reminder that God’s “kindness is everlasting”.

118:14

Ozi vezimrat Yah,                               My strength vezimrat God,

          vayehi li liyshuah.                               and it became my rescue.

vezimrat (וְזִמְרָת) = and/or/but the zimrah of (a construct form of the noun zimrah).  Zimrah (זִמְרָה) = praising-song, melody, music.5

This line also appears in Exodus 15:2 in a song attributed to Moses, and is quoted in Isaiah 12:3.

English inserts the word “the” and forms of “to be” in places where Biblical Hebrew has no such connecting words.  Thus it is not always obvious, when translating from Hebrew to English, where to throw in the extra “the”, “is”, or “are”.  These grammatical differences mean there are at least two equally valid translations of Psalm 118:14:

“My own strength and song are of God!  And it [God] became my rescue!”  (Both the speaker’s strength and his song are attributed to God.  God rescues him by giving him superhuman strength and a song.)

“My own strength, and the song of God!  And it [the song of God] became my rescue!”  (The speaker has his own strength, but it is not enough to save him.  It is the song about God that rescues him—by calling in divine strength.)

When I sing verse 118:14, I imagine that singing in praise of God is giving me enough extra psychological strength to rescue me from my troubles.

118:19-20

Pitchu li shaarey tzedek                     Open to me the gates of righteousness

          Avo vam odeh Yah!                                         I will enter and praise God!

Zeh hashaar l’Adonai;                                    This is the gateway to God;

          Tzadikim yavo-u vo.                                    The righteous enter through it.

tzedek (צֶדֶק) = righteousness, what is right, what is just.

tzadikim (צַדִּיקִים) = (plural) the righteous, those who are innocent and in the right, those who act according to morality and justice.

When the Levites sang Psalm 118 in Jerusalem, the “gates of righteousness” probably referred to gates in the second temple complex.6  The pilgrimage festival may have included a ritual in which the double doors of a gate opened and the Levite choir sang while Judeans filed through.

The second temple had gates from the city into the outer courtyard (the “Court of Gentiles”); three gates from the outer courtyard into the eastern inner courtyard (the “Court of Women”) which only women and men of Israelite descent or full converts could enter; one gate from that court into the “Court of Israel” (for men only) with its view of the altar; and a curtained gate into the vestibule of the temple proper, which only priests were allowed to enter.

Was coming to the temple and worshiping the God of Israel enough to make someone righteous?  Or did stepping through the designated gate express a desire and commitment to become righteous?

The first time I sang this part of Psalm 118, I felt as if I were pretending I was already righteous and commanding the gates to open for me.  Then I realized that the request in 118:19 could also be a plea.  Now when I sing, I beg for the gates of righteous to open to me, so that I can receive whatever I need to become righteous.

Rashi7 wrote that the “gates of righteousness” were the entrances to synagogues and study halls.  I would agree that these are places where one can become more enlightened about righteousness—through an emotional channel in a synagogue service, and through an intellectual channel in a study hall.  But personal gates of righteousness may also open to us, if we ask.

*

As I sing Psalm 118, using different melodies for different sections, I think of God in terms of infinite kindness; I feel the strength of a divine source entering me as I sing to God; and I humble myself to pray for the ability to become righteous.

And all that comes before Psalm 118 reminds me to look again when I reject or feel rejected, since:

The stone the builders rejected

          Has become the cornerstone!  (118:22)

  1. Scholarly consensus is that Psalm 118 was written during the time of the “second temple” in Jerusalem. The Babylonians razed the first temple dedicated to the God of Israel in 586 B.C.E.  After the Persians conquered the Babylonians, King Cyrus decreed that exiles could return to their original lands and rebuild sites of worship.  Under Ezra and Nehemiah, returning exiles from Judah laid the foundations of a second temple on the site of the old one in Jerusalem.  The temple was completed in 516 B.C.E.
  2. The Talmud determined that only the “Half Halleil”, which abbreviates Psalms 116 and 117, should be recited during the last six days of Pesach (Arachin 10a-b).
  3. Psalm 115, earlier in the Halleil, appeals to the same three groups: Israel, the house of Aaron, and “yirey God”. In this case, the leader asks each group to trust in God, and the group responds: “Their help and their shield is he!”
  4. Converts are currently called “Jews by choice”, but I do not want to exclude people of Jewish ancestry who also choose to practice Judaism.
  5. In this verse only, zimrat is often translated as “the might of” or “the strength of” . Yet the root verb zamar, זָמַר, means “pruned” in the kal form, and “sang praises” or “made music” in the pi’el   There is only one verse in the Hebrew Bible in which zimrah or zimrat is not translated in terms of music: Genesis 43:11.  There Jacob lists six products he considers zimrat the land: four kinds of aromatic resin, fruit syrup, and almonds.  All these luxuries come from trees, and therefore could be considered “prunings”.
  6. Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century), The Hirsch Tehillim, Feldheim Publishers, Nanuet, NY, 2014, p. 968; Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, p. 417; The Koren Siddur (Nusach Sepharad), commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2012, p. 771.
  7. 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.

Psalm 127: Anxiety and Security

February 21, 2018 at 9:55 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim | 2 Comments

Vigilance can be contemplative, as when one keeps a vigil.  Or vigilance can be stressful, as when one keeps watch for the least sign of trouble, afraid to blink.

Parts of an almond tree

In last week’s post, Terumah: Tree of Light, I explored how the Hebrew word shakad (שָׁקַד) has two different meanings: “it was like an almond”, and “he was vigilant”.  In the Hebrew Bible, some words based on shakad describe how the menorah is made like parts of an almond tree.1   Others refer to God’s vigilant attention to the Israelites,2 human vigilant alertness for chances to do evil,3 a leopard watching vigilantly for someone to leave a town and become its prey,4 and people who stay awake and alert at night.5  One appearance of shakad that refers to staying alert at night is in Psalm 127:1.

This week I noticed that Psalm 127 as a whole is a meditation on the anxiety of vigilance and the serenity of acceptance.

Humans are easily gripped by anxiety.  In simple situations, a bit of anxiety can be helpful, motivating a person to take action against a threat, or to create a more secure life.  But continuous anxiety, like continuous suffering, damages both one’s physical health and one’s ability to make good decisions.

Psalm 127 begins with three different examples of how we cannot guarantee our own security, no matter how much we do.  Knowing this makes humans anxious.  How can we find serenity despite our insecurity?  According to Psalm 127, the answer is God.

(A song of ascents for Solomon.)

          Unless God builds a bayit

                        In vain do its builders labor.

          Unless God watches over a city

                        In vain is the watchman shakad. (Psalm 127:1)

bayit (בַּיִת) = house, home, household; temple.

Psalm 127 is dedicated to King Solomon, who built the first Israelite temple in Jerusalem.  He implication is that despite all the fine materials and the labor by both willing craftsmen and temporary slaves (corvée labor), the temple could not have become a home for God if God had not chosen to dwell there—or had not been welcomed into the hearts of the people.

The word bayit also means a physical house providing protection from the weather, wild beasts, and enemies; a home providing a place to rest in comfort and security; and a household or family providing mutual support.

City of Megiddo

A walled city also provided protection, security, and mutual support for its residents.  Its watchmen served as guards to sound the alarm if they saw anything threatening.  Today nation-states are supposed to fill the function of ancient cities, protecting their residents from external attack and internal crime, and providing systems for mutual aid and support.

The point of the first verse is that no matter how hard we work to achieve security, we cannot guarantee it.  A house with locks and alarms and bars over the windows might still be smashed by a bomb or an earthquake; while setting the locks and alarms and seeing the bars help to keep the inhabitants in a state of useless anxiety.  A nation with walls and guards on its borders, and X-ray machines in its airports, is still not safe from its own natives (especially when they are armed); while talking about “homeland security” generates more useless anxiety.

Real security comes not from anxious labor, but from a different state of mind, which this psalm attributes to God.

*

The next verse of Psalm 127 remains a puzzle for translators and commentators.

          In vain you rise early

                        And stop to sit late,

          Eating the bread of suffering;

                        Indeed [God] gives “his” beloved ones sheina.  (Psalm 127:2)

sheina (שֵׁנָא) = ?  (The usual translation of sheina here is “sleep”, but the word is a hapax legomenon, i.e. it occurs only once in the entire bible.  This translation is based on the word sheinah (שֵׁנָה) = sleep, which occurs 22 times.  Perhaps sheina in Psalm 127 is merely a misspelling.  On the other hand, sheina could be related to shena (שְׁנָא) = changed, altered.)

The psalm’s reference to eating “the bread of suffering” alludes to the story of the Garden of Eden.  There God tells Adam:

“… accursed is the earth on account of you; in suffering you shall eat from it all the days of your life.  Thorns and thistles it will sprout for you…  By the sweat of your face you will eat bread …”  (Genesis 3:17-19).

Psalm 127 suggests that even if people get up early and toil away at agriculture, only sitting down late in the day, their labor might still be in vain, unless God sends the right weather for their crops.  Yet those whom God loves have a different attitude.  They work, but they also rest—perhaps because God helps them to change.  They no longer suffer anxiety about their crops, since they find security in their own relationship with God.6

In the Garden of Eden story, God also predicts that Eve will suffer as she labors to bear children:

To the woman [God] said: “I will certainly multiply your suffering and your pregnancies; in suffering you will bear children …”  (Genesis 3:16) 7

*

The third verse of Psalm 127 points out that childbirth can be viewed either as a hardship or as a reward.

          Hey, an inheritance from God is sons;

                        A reward is the fruit of the womb.  (Psalm 127:3)

It takes more than the two parents to make a baby.  In the Torah, God is responsible for opening and closing wombs, i.e. making pregnancy possible.8

Quiver & arrowheads
16th century BCE

The praise of having children continues from the male point of view.

          Like arrows in the hand of a warrior

                      So are the sons of youth.

          Fortunate is the man

                    Who fills his quiver with them.

          They will not be shamed

                    When they speak to enemies in the gate.  (127:4-5)

These last two verses offer a resolution of the first verse.  If you want to build a household (one meaning of bayit), you will labor in vain unless God lets you have a son.  In ancient Israel and Judah, the head of a household was a man, who acquired a wife (or wives), children, and servants.  His household was worthless without at least one son to inherit his land, livestock, and/or business.  Sons could also defend his property if he were attacked.9  So a literal interpretation of the opening and closing of Psalm 127 is:

          Unless God builds a household,

                      In vain do its builders labor …

          Unless God opens a womb,

                      In vain does a man seek security.

*

An interpretation of Psalm 127 for our own time might be:

         Unless we see God in each other,

                        In vain does our household exist.

          Unless we want friends more than walls,

                      In vain do we watch out for foes.  (127:1)

          Unless we change suffering to love,

                      In vain do we work for our bread.  (127:2)

            From God we inherit our world;

                      The fruit of each womb is a gift.  (127:3)

            Fortunate is the human who learns

                      How to speak to an enemy in the gate.

            Accept what life brings with a full heart,

                      And you will not be insecure.  (127:4-5)

  1. Exodus 25:33-34, 37:19-20.
  2. Jeremiah 31:28, Jeremiah 44:27, Daniel 9:14.
  3. Isaiah 29:20.
  4. Jeremiah 5:6.
  5. Psalm 102:8, Psalm 127:1, Job 21:32.
  6. “An ordinary person, once he becomes aware of this inadequacy of all human endeavor, will worry without cease; he will be driven to overtax his energies; he will lose rest and sleep, and he will be unable to enjoy the very bread he eats. But it is through this same knowledge of inadequacy of all human effort that he who is aware of God’s tender love, of His friendship, as it were (ידיד is passive, i.e., ‘beloved’), will acquire that serenity which will enable him to sleep in peace.”  (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Tehillim, translated by Gertrude Hirschler, Feldheim Publishers, New York, 2014, pp. 1049-1050.)  Hirsch was a 19th-century Orthodox rabbi.
  7. The Hebrew words I translate as “suffering”—atzavim (עֲצָבִים) in Psalm 127:2, itzavon (עִצָּבוֹן) in Genesis 3:16 and 3:17, and etzev (עֶצֶב) in Genesis 3:16 all mean “suffering, hardship, pain, distress”. All three words come from the same root verb, atzav (עָצַב), which means “caused suffering or pain” in the kal form, and “felt distressed, anxious” in the nifil form.
  8. The belief that only God opens or closes a woman’s womb appears in Genesis 29:31, 30:2, and 30:22; and 1 Samuel 1:5-6.
  9. “The man who begets many sons in his youth creates the equivalent of a little army on which he can depend. In the social structure of ancient Israel, this may not have been an entirely fanciful notion.”  (Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, p. 450)

Shemini: Prayer and Glory

April 19, 2017 at 8:17 am | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Shemini | 2 Comments
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For seven days after Moses consecrates Aaron and his sons as priests, they sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The Torah portion Shemini (“Eighth”) opens on the eighth day, when the new priests are ready to make their first offerings on the altar: two different offerings for the high priest Aaron, and four different offerings for the people.1 Moses explains:

Because today God will appear to you.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:4)

After the animals and the grain have been assembled, and the rest of the Israelites are standing in front of the altar, Moses gives further instructions, saying:

This is the thing that God commanded you must do; then the kavod of God will appear to you.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:6)

kavod (כָּבוֹד) = weight, importance, impressiveness, magnificence; a glorious manifestation (often translated as “glory”).

Vesuvius in Eruption, by J.M.W. Turner, 1817

The Israelites have already witnessed a long string of miracles in Egypt, culminating in the splitting of the Reed Sea.  They have followed the kavod of God, in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire, from Egypt to Mount Sinai. On the day of the revelation they experienced God’s kavod as lightning and smoke on the mountain itself, along with thunder and blasts of a shofar.2

Yet once miracles stop, it is hard to keep faith.  When Moses stayed on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, and no pillar of cloud and fire reappeared near the camp, the Israelites felt abandoned.  Who would lead them to a new home?

In desperation, the men asked Aaron for an idol, then worshiped the golden calf he made.3  Moses returned to them, but God’s cloud and fire did not.  The Israelites were so anxious to see the kavod of God again that when Moses called for donations to make a dwelling-place for God, they donated more than enough treasure and labor.4  The dwelling-place, the new Tent of Meeting, is completed at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot.

Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place.  (Exodus/Shemot 40:34)

For the cloud of God was over the dwelling-place by day, and fire was in it at night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, on all their journeys.  (Exodus 40:38)

Presumably the cloud is resting over the Tent of Meeting on the day the new priests make their first offerings at the altar.  So why do the Israelites need another view of God’s kavod?

Perhaps God, or Moses, knows that the Israelites are still insecure. The survivors of the Golden Calf incident have committed their work and treasure to God, and they are ready to follow the new version of God-worship Moses has laid out, in which priests are intermediaries.  But they need divine confirmation that Aaron and his sons really are God’s chosen priests. After all, it was Aaron who made the Golden Calf—choosing to pacify the people rather than sticking to God’s commandment against idols. Could they trust him to serve only God from now on—and keep the Israelites in God’s favor?

While all the people watch, Aaron and his sons carry out the required procedures for the six offerings at the altar.

Then Aaron raised his hands toward the people and he blessed them …  (Leviticus  9:22)

The Torah doesn’t say what Aaron’s blessing is, but the Talmud assumes that it must be the blessing prescribed for priests in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar 5 (and still used in Jewish liturgy today):

May God bless you and guard you; May God illuminate Its face for you and be gracious to you; may God lift Its face to you and place peace over you.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:22-27)

After this blessing, one might expect the kavod of God to appear as promised. It does not.

19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, claimed that God delays the divine manifestation on purpose so as to prevent any belief that animal offerings make God’s glory appear by magic.6  The kavod appears when God wants it to appear.

Then Moses came, and Aaron, into the Tent of Meeting. Then they went out and they blessed the people … (Leviticus 9:23)

What is this second blessing?  According to the Sifra, a 4th-century collection of commentary on the book of Leviticus, Moses says: “May it be God’s will to cause His Presence to rest upon the work of your hands!  May God, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold and bless you, as He promised you!”

And the people respond with a verse that appears in Psalm 90:

May the comfort of God, our God, be upon us, and may the work of our hands be an enduring foundation for us.  (Psalm 90:17) 7

Moses’ blessing is a prayer that God will indeed dwell in the new Tent of Meeting that the Israelite people made.  The people’s response, in this context, is a prayer that the work they did with their own hands will result in both divine comfort and an enduring commitment to serving God.

The children of Israel are moved to commit themselves further to God when Moses and Aaron, their human leaders, come out of God’s dwelling-place and bless them. After this commitment,

… and the kavod of God appeared to all the people. Fire went out from the presence of God, and it devoured the rising-offering and the fatty animal-parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and they shouted with joy and they fell on their faces.  (Leviticus 9:23-24)

At that sign of God’s acceptance, the people shout with joy—and relief.

*

A blessing from another person can seem like a useless exercise.  After all, a human being has no power to make the blessing come true.  We can only express the hope that God will make it happen.

And today, the sudden appearance of fire means an emergency, not divine acceptance.

Yet I remember when I received blessings from Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, and I felt a transfer of good will and even a sense of kavod.  This feeling made a psychological difference to me, changing my attitude toward life and toward the divine.

I find I can be committed to an abstract principle, but not comforted by it. Comfort and joy come more naturally when the abstraction is connected with a human being, someone whose warm feelings are palpable.  Maybe a blessing in itself can be a manifestation of God.

Bless someone today.  It might make a difference.

(An earlier version of this essay was posted on March 20, 2010.)

1  First the new high priest, Aaron, makes a reparation-offering (חַטָּאת) and a rising-offering (עֺלָה) for himself. Then he makes a reparation-offering, a rising-offering, a grain offering (מִנְחָה), and a wholeness-offering (שְׁלָמִים) for the people.  For an explanation of these four types of offerings, see my posts Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.

2  Shofar (שׁוֹפָר) = a ram’s horn modified for blowing as a wind instrument.

3  Exodus/Shemot  32:1-6.  See my post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen.

4  Exodus/Shemot  35:4-29 and 36:2-7.

5  The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 38a, assuming that Aaron’s first blessing of the people in Leviticus 9:22 is the same as the blessing God commands all priests to give in Numbers 6:22-23, argues that therefore the “priestly blessing” in Numbers 6:24-26 must be pronounced with the hands raised. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) and the majority of medieval commentators agreed that Aaron spoke the “priestly blessing”.

6  Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Vayikra Part 1, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002,  p. 289-290.

7  Sifra, quoted by W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 804.

Vaykheil & Psalm 18: Wings for Chariots

March 22, 2017 at 11:56 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Vayakheil | 1 Comment
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(This is the last of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms. Next week I will begin revisiting some sparks in the ancient priestly religion described in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.)

Skilled artisans among the Israelites make all the items for the portable tent that is to be a dwelling-place1 for God in the Torah portion Vayakheil. Moses then assembles the new Tent of Meeting, the divine fiery cloud covers it, and the glory of God fills the inside in the next Torah portion, Pekudei. The golden calf was a mistake, but this time the Israelites got it right! The success in this week’s double portion, Vayakheil-Pekudei, completes the book of Exodus/Shemot.

One replica of the ark, Jerusalem

The focal point for God’s presence is the empty space above the ark inside the inner chamber of the tent.  The ark is a gold-plated wooden box holding the second pair of tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. The master-artisan Betzaleil hammers out a solid gold lid for the ark—not just a slab of gold but a sculpture, with two winged creatures rising from the lid in one continuous piece of gold.

And he made two keruvim; of gold hammered work he made them, from two edges of the lid: one keruv from this edges and one keruv from that edges. From the lid he made the keruvim, from its edges. And the keruvim were spreading out wings above, shielding the lid with their wings. And each one faced its brother, and the faces of the keruvim were toward the lid.  (Exodus/Shemot 37:76-9)

keruv (כּרוּב) = a hybrid creature with wings and a human face. Plural: keruvim (כְּרוֻבִים  or  כְּרוּוִים). (The English word “cherub” is derived from the Hebrew keruv, but a keruv in the Bible does not look like a chubby baby with stubby white wings.)

Keruvim and ark in First Temple (one interpretation)

When King Solomon builds the first temple in Jerusalem, its back room, the Holy of Holies, contains two free-standing gold-plated sculptures representing keruvim. Each is 10 cubits tall (15 to 20 feet) and has a 10-cubit wingspan. Solomon has the ark carried in and placed under their wings. (See my post Pekudei & 1 Kings: A Throne for the Divine.)

The Hebrew word keruv may come from the Akkadian word kuribu, “blessed ones”, their name for the colossal statues of hybrid winged beasts guarding doorways and gates. Commentators have speculated that keruvim might have the bodies of bulls (like Assyrian shedu) or lions (like Egyptian sphinxes or Phoenician lammasu) or humans. Raanan Eichler has made a good argument that the keruvim spreading their wings over the ark must have stood upright on two legs, and therefore probably had human bodies.

Hybrid beings with wings and human faces appear in many Ancient Near Eastern sculptures. When they are not demons battling heroes, they are either guardians of gates, or servants transporting a god. Keruvim in the Hebrew Bible are never demons, but they do appear as both guardians and transportation.

Guardians

Kusarikku from palace of Sargon II

Assyrians placed sculptures of shedu, winged bulls, as guardians at either side of a gateway into a city or palace. Another guardian figure, called Gud-alim by Sumerians and Kusarikku by later Mesopotamians, represented a door-keeper who protected a house from intruders. He stood upright and looked fairly human, except that he often had wings, horns, or a bull’s legs. In some depictions he carries a bucket.

Phoenician artworks from coastal cities west of ancient Israel and Judah also feature a pair of hybrid winged creatures on either side of a tree of life. Their tree of life is a composite of a lotus and a papyrus (borrowed from Egyptian art) and sometimes a palm tree.

Phoenician sphinxes and tree of life

Similarly, the decorations carved in the walls of King Solomon’s temple—by artisans from the Phoenician city-state of Tyre—featured keruvim and palm trees.2

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, two keruvim serve as guardians of the way back into the Garden of Eden, where the Tree of Life remains untasted.3

One of Ezekiel’s prophesies compares the king of Tyre with a keruv that is supposed to protect its city.4  In an earlier post, Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day, I suggested that since God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the ark,5 the two keruvim are also guardians of an entrance: a portal to the invisible God.

Baal Hadad with thunderbolt, Ugarit

Divine Transportation

Tarhunz from Arslantepe, Turkey

The gods of other religions in the ancient Near East rarely rode on the backs of winged creatures; instead they used these creatures to pull their chariots. Tarhunz, the high god of the Luwian people living north of Canaan, was in charge of weather and war. He used lightning as a weapon, and rode in a chariot pulled by winged horses. South of the Luwians and north of Israel, the Canaanites of Ugarit worshiped Baal Hadad (“Master of Thunder”), a weather and war god who also wielded lightning. The Ugarit writings call this Baal “Rider of Clouds”.

The God of Israel also seems to have a chariot of clouds, in the poetry of Jeremiah and Psalm 104.6

God’s cloud chariot is pulled by keruvim in a poem that appears twice in the Bible, once as chapter 22 in the second book of Samuel, and later (with only slight changes) as Psalm 18. The speaker, King David, faces death at the hands of an enemy army, and calls on God for help. God descends from the heavens.

            Smoke went up from His nostrils

                        And fire from His mouth devours.

                        Embers blazed from Him.

            He tilted the heavens and descended,

                        And a thundercloud was beneath His feet.

            And He drove a keruv and flew,

                        And He soared on the wings of the wind. (Psalm 18:9-11)

I use the pronoun “He” in this translation because God is presented as if “He” were Baal Hadad from the Canaanite pantheon of male and female gods. Psalm 18 continues with imagery of dark clouds, hail, thunder, and arrows of lightning. God then stages a dramatic rescue, and David wins the battle.

A Chariot Throne

The ark with its two keruvim is often considered God’s throne in the Bible—the authoritative location where God sits like a king. But sometimes this throne is movable, like a chariot.

Before David conquers Jerusalem, when the ark is housed in a temple at Shiloh, the Israelite army decides to carry it with them into battle against the Philistines, hoping that God will fight for them.

And they took away from there the ark of the covenant of God of Armies Sitting on the Keruvim … (1 Samuel 4:4)

Although the Israelite forces carry God’s throne, they lose the battle. The Philistines capture the ark, then later abandon it in Israelite territory. When King David retrieves it for his new capital in Jerusalem, it is called

the ark of the god whose name was invoked, the name of God of Armies Sitting upon the Keruvim.  (2 Samuel 6:2)

The title is also used in psalms 80 and 99.

            Listen, Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock!

                        Sitter on the keruvim, shine forth!  (Psalm 80:2-3)

           God, King, the peoples will tremble!

                        Sitter on the keruvim, You will shake the earth!  (Psalm 99:1)

The Babylonian army razed the first temple in Jerusalem in 579 B.C.E., burning it to the ground. The army carried off some of its gold items as booty, but the ark and its keruvim disappeared from history. When some of the Israelites returned to Jerusalem under Persian rule and built a second temple, they left the Holy of Holies empty.

Ever since the destruction of the first temple with its ark and gold keruvim, God’s throne could only be an abstraction or a vision. The prophet Ezekiel reports two mystical visions of hybrid winged creatures during the exile in Babylon (Ezekiel 1:4-28; Ezekiel 10:1-22 and 11:22-23). In his second vision he identifies these creatures as keruvim.

Ezekiel’s Vision, by Matthuas Merian 1670 (some assembly required)

In both visions, the glory of God (not God Itself) appears as a fiery figure on a throne that looks like sapphire, suspended above four keruvim, each of which is accompanied by an interlocking wheel covered with eyes.  Each keruv has a single leg ending in a calf’s hoof, a human body, four wings, a human hand below each wing, and a head with four faces: one human, one lion, one eagle, and one that is called the face of an ox in the first vision and the face of a keruv in the second vision.

The keruvim and their wheels move up and down as well as in all four directions, and the throne suspended above them moves along with them. Although Ezekiel does not call this arrangement a chariot, subsequent Jewish writers developed a school of mysticism based on the merkavah (מֶרְכָּבָה = chariot) in the book of Ezekiel.

Clouds by John Constable

Even without a temple, even without keruvim, the human mind needs poetic images to think about God. Today many of us no longer need to assign God a face, a hand, or a body in robes; we can handle the paradox of God as both invisible and manifest in everything we see. Yet poetic images still well up around the notion of God:  clouds, beams of light, opalescent radiance, perhaps even wings. They are not God, yet God is in the imagery.

When God Itself seems too abstract, perhaps we can think of something like a keruv, a creation that pulls the presence of God toward us when we need rescue, and that stands at our gateways when we need a guardian.

1  (See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.)

2  In the first (Israelite) temple in Jerusalem, keruvim and palms  are carved in relief on the wooden walls and two sets of double doors (1 Kings 6:29, 32, 34). Keruvim, palms, and lions are engraved on the stands for ten bronze wash-basins (1 Kings 7:36).

3  Genesis 3:24.

4  Ezekiel 28:14, 16.

5  Exodus 25:22, Numbers 7:89.

6           Hey! Like clouds it ascends;

            Like a whirlwind is [God’s] chariot;

            Lighter than eagles are His horses.  (Jeremiah 4:13)

In Psalm 104, God’s cloud chariot is pulled by the wind:

            Setting beams for [God’s] roof chambers in the waters [above the sky],

                        Making the clouds His chariot,

                        He goes on the wings of the wind.  (Psalm 104:3)

 

Ki Tissa & Psalms 109 & 69: Wiped Off the List

March 15, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Psalms/Tehilim, Rosh Hashanah | Leave a comment
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(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

Gold calf from Byblos

Of course God is angry about the golden calf. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below.” (Exodus/Shemot 20:4) It’s right there in the Ten Commandments. Why can’t these Israelites follow simple directions?

Moses is about to walk back down Mt. Sinai with the two stone tablets in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, when God warns him that the Israelites below have cast a golden calf and are worshiping it. (See my blog post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen.)

And God said to Moses: “I have observed this people, and hey, it is a stiff-necked people! So now let Me be, and My anger will blaze over them and I will consume them, and I will make you into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9-10)

Moses talks God out of this idea. Then he walks down the mountain, smashes the two stone tablets, and gets the Levites to kill the 3,000 worst offenders.

Moses Breaking the Tablets, by Rembrandt, 1659

The next day he climbs back up Mt. Sinai to ask God to forgive the surviving Israelites.

“And now, if you will only lift their guilt!  But if not, please mecheini from your book that you have written.” But God said to Moses:  “Whoever sinned against Me, emechenu from My book.  Now go lead the people to [the place] that I have spoken of to you.”  (Exodus 32:32-33)

mecheini (מְחֵנִי) = wipe me away, erase me. (A form of the verb machah, מָחָה = wiped out, wiped off, destroyed, blotted out.1)

emechenu (אֶמְחֶנּוּ) = I will wipe them off, I will erase them. (Another form of the verb machah.)

In other words, Moses insists that his personal fate must not be separated from that of the Israelites. If God erases them from the book, God must erase him, too.  God replies that guilty individuals will erased, but the people of Israel as a whole will continue their journey under Moses’s leadership.

When the story is retold in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God says to Moses:

“Hey! This is a stiff-necked people. Leave me alone, and I will exterminate them, and emecheh their name from under the heavens, and I will make you a nation greater than they.” (Deuteronomy 9:13-14)

emecheh (אֶמְחֶה) = I will wipe it out, I will erase it. (Another form of the verb machah.)

The Hebrew word for “name”, sheim (שֵׁם), means not only an appellation, but also someone’s reputation, standing, or renown (as in the English “making a name for herself”).

God’s book appears to be a list of names recorded at birth. Female names are not mentioned (the Bible reflects the male-centered, patriarchal society of its time), so we do not know if the list is comprehensive.

What happens when someone’s name is machah from the divine list?

One clue appears later in Deuteronomy. Lineage is important in the Bible; for a man to die without any male heirs is a terrible fate. So if a married man died without issue, his brother was obligated to impregnate the widow. If she bore a son, he would become the dead man’s heir.

And the firstborn that she bears shall be established on the name of his dead brother, and his name will not yimacheh from Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:6)

yimacheh (יִמָּחֶה) = be wiped out, be erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)

Similarly, a name is erased from God’s book if God decrees that the man will pass out of collective memory—perhaps by his own early death, or perhaps by dying without heirs to carry on his lineage.

*

Two of the psalms include pleas for God to punish enemies by erasing their names from the divine book. Psalm 109 opens with a complaint that certain people are lying about the psalmist, accusing him without cause. Verses 6-19 ask God to punish a personal enemy. These verses include separate requests for the man to be convicted of a crime, lose his job, and become impoverished while alive; for him to die before his time; for his children and his parents to suffer; and for his lineage to be exterminated.

            May no one extend kindness to him;

                        And may no one be gracious to his orphans.

            May his posterity be cut off;

                        In the next generation, may their names yimach. (Psalm 109:12-13)

yimach (יִמַּח) = be blotted out, erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)

In Psalm 69, the speaker feels as though he is drowning, and asks God to rescue him from being shamed and abused.  Then he asks God to punish all his enemies. This middle section concludes with:

            Place guilt upon their guilt,

                        and do not let them come into Your righteous deliverance.

            Yismachu from the book of life,

                        And among the righteous do not record them.  (Psalm 69:28-29)

yimachu (יִמַּחְוּ) = May they be blotted out, erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)

This passage alludes to two divine lists: a “book of life” or “book of the living” (seifer chayim, סֵפֶר חַיִּים), and a record of the righteous, which may or may not be the same scroll. When the psalmist asks for the names of his tormentors to be erased from the book of life, he may be asking God to deprive them of heirs, or he may be asking God to make them die soon.

The Hebrew Bible refers to God’s list of names as a “book of life” only in Psalm 69, which was written around 500 B.C.E.  Almost a thousand years later, the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Rosh Hashanah 16b) cited Psalm 69:29 as support for the idea that God keeps three books of names. According to this tractate, on the first day of each new year, Rosh Hashanah, God writes down the names of the righteous in one book and the names of the wicked in another.  People whose deeds are partly good and partly bad are listed in the third book until Yom Kippur, nine days later, when God decides which of these intermediate people to record in the book of the righteous and which in the book of the wicked.

What happens to the people listed in these books? The Talmud says that according to school of Shammai, those in the book of the righteous are rewarded with everlasting life, while those in the book of the wicked go to Gehinnom after death.2

But by the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, codified in the 9th century C.E.,  says simply that God writes down who will live and who will die that year; any possibility of life after death is omitted.3 Neither does the liturgy mention wiping out any names that were written earlier.

*

The image of God erasing names from a book expresses a biblical hope that people will be punished for bad deeds, either by untimely death or by the end of their lineage—equally bad fates from an ancient Israelite point of view.

Few people today believe God punishes miscreants in this way. Some folks still cling to the idea of reward or punishment after death.  I prefer the idea that virtue is its own reward, and I believe that people who enjoy being mean never get to experience the best things in life, such as true friendship and love.

Today the image of God keeping a book, or books, of names is still used in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services as a metaphor for the idea that God only knows when a person will die. The liturgy pleading to be written into this year’s “book of life” provides emotional reinforcement for the knowledge that the time of our death is unknown—and therefore it behooves us to use our present lives well.

May all human beings, whatever their past deeds and attitudes have been, wake up with new insight into the shortness of life and the value of goodness.  And may we all realize, like Moses in this week’s Torah portion, that there is no point in having our own names written in the book of life unless our fellow human beings are also listed there.

1  The Bible uses various forms of the verb machah not only for wiping away or erasing names, but also for wiping away tears, wiping a dish clean, or wiping out (killing) an entire population. God tells the Israelites to wipe out the memory of an enemy tribe called Amaleik; several Israelite leaders beg God not to wipe out, i.e. forget, someone’s good or bad deeds. When a husband accused his wife of adultery, a priest wrote a curse on a scroll, then machah it in water and made the woman drink it; the results determined her guilt or innocence (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:23-24).

2   Talmud Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 16b. There is also a Christian tradition about a “book of life” that is a divine record of who will “go to heaven” after death.

3  Prayers for God to “inscribe us in the book of life” were added to the Amidah sections of Rosh Hashanah liturgy by the Babylonian Geonim in the 9th century C.E. The “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer, an earlier addition to the liturgy, states that every year God decrees who will die, and by what means, during the coming year.

Ramban (13th century Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, known as Nachmanides) explained that the book of the righteous is the book of life, and the book of the wicked is the book of death. Everyone whose name is written in the book of life merits life until the following Rosh Hashanah, and everyone whose name is written in the book of death will die that year.

Tetzavveh & Psalms 141, 51, and 40: Smoke and Prayer

March 7, 2017 at 11:20 am | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Tetzavveh | 1 Comment
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(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

Outdoor altar at First Temple

Two kinds of smoke please God, according to the book of Exodus:

* the smoke from burning sacrificial animals and grain products on the copper altar in front of the Tent of Meeting described in last week’s Torah portion, Terumah,1 and

* the smoke from burning incense on the gold altar inside the tent, described in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“you shall command”):

And you shall make an altar for miketar ketoret; from wood of acacias you shall make it. …And you shall plate it with pure gold …And place it in front of the curtain that is over the Ark of the Reminder, …where I will reveal myself to you. Vehiketeyr on it, Aaron, ketoret of spices …  (Exodus/Shemot 30:1-7) 

miketar (מִקְטַּר) = letting smoke rise; scenting with smoke. (A form of the verb ketar, קִטּר  = burned incense.)

ketoret  (קְטֺרֶת) = incense. (From the root verb ketar.)

vehiketeyr (וְהִקְטֵיר) = And he shall make smoke. (Another form of the verb ketar.)

In the Wilderness

The altar for burning animals and grain (which would otherwise be food for people) is outside the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites construct in the wilderness of Sinai.  The incense altar is inside, right in front of the Holy of Holies. All the Israelites worship God by bringing food offerings for the priests to burn on the outdoor altar. Only the high priest, Aaron, burns spices on the incense altar for God.

Food offerings are sent up in smoke for various reasons. Some offerings express gratitude to God, some atone for transgressing God’s rules, some mark a change in ritual status, and some observe holy days. The fragrance of the incense, however, is intended only to honor and please God.

The Israelites send columns of smoke up to God. And God sends columns of cloud and fire down to the people. When the Israelites are walking from Egypt to Mount Sinai,

God was walking in front of them in a column of cloud by day, to lead them on the way, and in a column of fire by night, to make light for them, [so they could] walk day and night.  (Exodus 13:21)

After God’s tent-dwelling is completed, the book of Exodus ends with:

For the cloud of God was over the dwelling-place by day, and there was fire in it by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel, on all their journeys.  (Exodus 40:38)

During the Babylonian Exile

Israelites continue to use the smoke from burning food and incense as their main communication with God until the Babylonians destroyed the first Israelite temple in Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E. (The Bible also mentions a few individual prayers, but does not portray Levites as singing psalms until the time of the second temple.)

The Israelites deported to Babylon were not sure what to do.  Should they continue sending up smoke to God, even without the temple, the food altar, or the incense altar?  Or should they use another approach?

Psalm 141 is a plea for God to help the psalmist avoid harmful speech and bad company. The psalm opens with a request that this prayer be considered as a substitute for making smoke.

           God, I called You. Hurry to me!

                        Listen to my voice when I call to You!

            May my prayer endure as ketoret before You,

                        Lifting up my palms2 as an evening offering.  (Psalm 141:1-2)

After the Second Temple

After the Persians conquered Babylon, some of the Israelites returned to Jerusalem and built a second temple in 516 B.C.E. They reinstituted the sacrificial system in their new temple, making both an outside altar for burning food offerings and an inside altar for incense. This type of worship continued until the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 C.E.

After the fall of the second temple, some Jews hoped for a third temple, and another return to worshiping God through smoke. The Amidah (“standing”) prayer, which is recited at morning and evening services to this day, begins with a verse from Psalm 51 about spoken prayer:

             My lord, may you open my lips,

                        And my mouth will declare Your praise.  (Psalm 51:17)

However, Psalm 51 ends:

            May You rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

                        That is when You will want slaughter-offerings of righteousness,

                        Rising-offerings and complete offerings.  (Psalm 51:20)

Similarly, in traditional prayer books the Amidah3 includes this request: “And return the service to the inner sanctum of Your house, and the fire-offerings of Israel, and their prayer, with love, accepting it with favor.”  According to this tradition, prayer is good, but prayer and smoke together are better.

Many liberal prayer books produced in the last century or so omit or reinterpret this prayer in the Amidah, so as to avoid praying for either reinstituting animal sacrifices or building a third temple.

Psalm 40, composed at least 2,000 years ago, is bolder and more direct:

            Slaughter and grain offering You do not want.

                        You dug open a pair of ears for me!

                        Rising-offerings and guilt-offerings You do not request.

            That is when I said:

                        Hey, I will bring a scroll of the book written for me.

            I want to do what You want, my God,

                        And Your teaching is inside my guts.

            I delivered the news of right behavior to a large assembly.

                        Hey! I will not eat my lips.  (Psalm 40:7-10)

The speaker in Psalm 40 insists that God does not want smoke, only words. Nothing can make this prophetic poet recant; he will not “eat his lips”.

Tomorrow

I almost envy the simplicity of the early Israelite religion, in which people and priests burn something to make a column of smoke rise up to God in the sky or “heavens”, and God sends down a column of divine smoke (described as cloud and fire) to guide the people.

Personally, I could not even imitate this process by burning incense, since I am allergic to any type of smoke.  And these days, columns of cloud and fire do not descend from the sky; we only get lightning and general precipitation.

But I do pray to God with words, for all the reasons the ancient Israelites made smoke: to express gratitude, to ask for forgiveness and self-improvement, to observe holy days, and just to honor the divine. And though I often say, or sing, the words out loud, I do not pray to a God in the sky, but to a divine source I encounter “inside my guts”, like the author of Psalm 40.

I was brought up to be an atheist; I did not begin praying until I was 32.  My life for the past 30 years has been deeper, thanks to prayer; I have become more grateful, less egotistical, and more accepting.  And, God willing, I can continue to improve.

May everyone who would benefit from a prayer practice discover a good one.

            Oh God, may you open my lips,

                        And my mouth will declare Your praise.  (Amidah and Psalm 51:17)         

1  See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home about the Tent of Meeting, and my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy about smoke from animal sacrifices.

2  The Hebrew Bible describes two postures for prayer.  Prostration—bowing until you lie face down on the ground) indicates submission and the willingness to receive any word God might send you.  Raising your hands, palms up, toward the sky (with or without kneeling) indicates a petitionary prayer, in which you are asking God for something.

King Solomon

One example is when King Solomon dedicates the first temple in Jerusalem:

As Solomon was finishing praying to God all this prayer and this supplication, he got up from in front of the altar of God, from kneeling on his knees and his palms spread toward the heavens.  (1 Kings 8:54)

3   This prayer, called the Avodah (“Service”), is number 5 in the Shabbat Amidah, and number 17 in the longer weekday Amidah.

 

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