Mattot, Va-etchannan, & Isaiah: How to Stop a Plague, Part 3

July 27, 2017 at 8:15 pm | Posted in Isaiah 1, Naso, Va-etchannan | 1 Comment
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from Domenichino,
“The Rebuke of Adam and Eve”, 1626

“Don’t blame me!” We say that when we feel guilty.  Even the first human beings in the Bible blame someone else when they disobey God’s instruction not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. The male human blames the female, and the female blames the snake.1

In the Book of Numbers/Bemidbar, the Israelites flagrantly disobey the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me”, after accepting an invitation from the local women (first called Moabites, then Midianites) in the land the Israelites have conquered east of the Jordan River.

And they invited the people to the slaughter-sacrifices for their god.  And the people ate, and they bowed down to their god. (Numbers 25:2)

The story told in the Torah portion Balak gives no indication that the women deceive the Israelites, no hint of a lie or a trick. (See my post Balak: False Friends.) It is the Israelites who decide to worship that god, Baal Peor.

from Sacra Parallela,
Byzantine, 9th century

God’s rage at the Israelites’ apostasy is expressed as an epidemic among the Israelites, a divine plague that even the God-character cannot control. The plague stops only when Pinchas spears an Israelite man and a Midianite woman (who is probably a priestess of Baal Peor) in the act of doing something unholy. (See my post Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1.)

The God-character rewards Pinchas for calming “His” rage in the next Torah portion, Pinchas. (See my post Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2.)

At least the God-character’s uncontrollable anger targets the Israelites, the people guilty of disobeying God’s commandment. Ironically, when the God-character is calm, ‘He” targets the Midianites, accusing them of actively tricking the Israelites.

Attack the Midianites and strike them down! –beecause they attacked you through nikheleyhem when niklu you over the matter of Peor … (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:17-18)

nikheleyhem (נִכְלֵיהֶם) = their deceit, their cunning, their wiles.

niklu (נִכְּלוּ) =they deceived, they treated cunningly.

But Moses turns his attention to other issues. So eventually, in the Torah portion Mattot, God reminds Moses:

Nekom nikmah of the Israelites on the Midianites! Afterward you shall be gathered to your people. (Numbers 31:1)

nekom (נְקֺם) = Avenge! Take revenge! Get even!

nikmah (נִקְמַה) = [the] vengeance, revenge, payback.

And Moses finally assembles an army.

The God-character is calling for revenge, not for removing temptation. At most, the extermination of the local population prevents the Israelites from sliding back into worshiping Baal Peor. It does not stop them from straying after other Gods once they settle in Canaan.

Women of Midian Led Captive,
by James Tissot

The Israelite soldiers kill all the Midianite men and burn all their settlements. But instead of killing the Midianite women and children, the army returns with them as booty.

And Moses said to them: “You let every female live? Hey, they caused the Children of Israel, through the word of Bilam, to elevate themselves over God in the matter of Peor, so that the plague came to the community of God!” (Numbers 31:14-16)

Moses blames the Midianite women for seducing the Israelites into Baal-worship, instead of blaming the Israelites for their own actions. He also casts blame on Bilam, the prophet who uttered God’s blessings for the Israelites, then returned to his distant home on the Euphrates.2  Any foreigner is easier to blame than your own people.

Moses then orders his officers to kill all the Midianite women and the boys, exempting only the virgin girls from the genocide. (See my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.) The Torah portion Mattot illustrates how guilt over your own behavior can lead to blaming others, and even destroying them.

Yet there are other ways humans can deal with guilt and shame. In next week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan, Moses says:

Your eyes saw what God did about Baal Peor; for God, your God, exterminated from among you every man who went after Baal Peor. But you who cling to God, your God, are alive, all of you, today. (Deuteronomy 4:3-4)

Here Moses returns to the originally story, placing the blame on the Israelite men and declaring that God punished the guilty Israelites by killing them with the plague. Everyone who remained faithful to the God of Israel, he says, was not punished.

This is certainly more just than accusing the Midianites or Bilam for the deeds of the unfaithful Israelites. But I notice two moral problems:

Genocide:

The Israelites who followed the orders to massacre all the Midianites in the valley of Peor, even infants, are never considered guilty. Genocide is not a crime in the Torah. If the Israelite men felt uneasy about it, they probably excused themselves by thinking: “Don’t blame me; God made me to do it.”

Repentance:

None of the Israelites who worship Baal Peor get a chance to admit their own guilt, repent, and reform. The God-character’s angry plague wipes them out without even a trial.

Judah sets a stellar example of repentance and reform in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.3 But God neither punishes nor rewards Judah directly, though God does provide a prophecy that Judah’s descendants will someday be the rulers of Israel.4

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra provides ritual animal-offerings for those who inadvertently disobey one of God’s rules,5 but the only atonement it offers for deliberate misdeeds is the high priest’s annual ritual on Yom Kippur, which purifies the entire people of Israel.6

The first time the Bible declares that guilty individuals can repent and receive forgiveness and a second chance from God is near the beginning of the book of Isaiah.

Wash yourselves clean;

            Remove evil from upon yourselves,

            From in front of My eyes.

And stop doing evil;

            Learn to do good.

            Seek justice. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

The first prophet Isaiah then tells the Israelites to “do good and listen”7 and to “turn around”, i.e. repent8.

I suspect the world today is teeming with people haunted by shame and guilt. What can we do about our recurrent memories of betraying ourselves, betraying our God, and doing the wrong thing?

I have led a relatively blameless life, yet shame has haunted me, too. It took me years to forgive myself for insulting my best friend in first grade. I did not repeat that particular shameful act, but I betrayed my own principles in other ways during the years when I clung to my first husband, accepting his abuse and ignoring my inner ethical voice. After I finally left him, it took many more years before I could trust myself again.

May all of us learn to accept responsibility for our own transgressions, instead of blaming others. When we are ashamed of our own behavior, may we admit it and strive to do the right thing next time. And may we stop and think when anyone tells us that God wants something we know in our hearts is wrong.

(A portion of this material is from Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame”, an essay I published in August 2014.)

1  Genesis 3:12-13.

2  The king of Moab hires Bilam to curse the Israelites, but Bilam utters God’s blessings, and goes home without pay (Numbers 24:10-11, 24:25). The Torah gives no reason why Bilam would ever return to the land north of Moab. Yet the description of the Israelite war on Midian mentions that they kill the five kings of Midian—and Bilam (Numbers 31:8).

3 Judah is guilty of selling his brother Joseph as a slave (Genesis 37:26-28) and condemning his daughter-in-law Tamar to death (Genesis 38:24). He publicly admits his guilt about Tamar (Genesis 38:25-26) and rescues his brother Benjamin from slavery (Genesis 44:16-34).

4  Genesis 49:10.

5  Leviticus chapter 4.

6  Leviticus chapter 16.

7  Isaiah 1: 19

8  Isaiah 1:27.

Haftarat Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship

August 11, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Posted in Devarim, Isaiah 1, Jeremiah | 2 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22) and the haftarah is Isaiah 1:1-27.

Jerusalem, the strong walled city in the hills, the capital of Judah and the site of the temple of the God of Israel, fell to the Babylonian army in 587 B.C.E. On Tisha B’Av, the tenth of the month of Av, Jews remember the razing of the temple by chanting the book of Lamentations/Eykhah, which begins:

Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch by Gustave Dore

Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch
by Gustave Dore

     Eykhah!

     The city sits alone,

     Once great with people.

     She has become like a widow,

     Once great among the nations.

     A princess among the provinces,

     She has become a slave. (Lamentations 1:1)

Eykhah (אֵיכָה) = Oh, how? Alas! How could it be? (See my post Devarim: Oh, How?)

The prophet Jeremiah had been warning the people of Jerusalem to stop worshiping other gods and acting immorally (as well as warning the kings of Jerusalem to submit to the Babylonians before it was too late). But they all ignored him. So the God of Israel, the “god of armies”, according to Jeremiah, let the Babylonians destroy the city that was supposed to be the place where God’s enlightenment came into the world.

The book of Jeremiah calls Jerusalem (and by extension the Israelites) God’s bride, who made a covenant like a marriage with God—and then strayed after other gods and became a prostitute. In Lamentations, she has become a widow, utterly bereft of God.

This week’s haftarah is always read on the Saturday morning before Tisha B’Av, and it also includes the despairing cry, Eykhah!

Isaiah by Gustave Dore

Isaiah
by Gustave Dore

  Eykhah! She has become a prostitute,

     The [once] faithful city

     Filled with justice.

     Tzedek used to linger in her,

     But now—murderers. (Isaiah 1:21)

 Tzedek (צֶדֶק) = virtue, rightness, righteousness justice, good deeds.

 The haftarah, which refers to events in 701 B.C.E., also reminds us that according to the book of Isaiah, God gave the people of Judah and Jerusalem more than a century of opportunities to change their ways before finally the temple was razed.

What misdeeds does Isaiah urge the people to stop doing?

This haftarah is not about worshiping false gods, but about worshiping God falsely—by following the ritual forms without obeying God’s commandments about just behavior toward fellow human beings.

     Why do you give me so many slaughter-sacrifices?
—God says.

First temple altar     I am sated with rising-offerings of rams

     And the fat of meat-cattle

     And the blood of bulls.

     And lambs and he-goats

     I do not want

     When you come to appear before Me.

     Who asks for that from your hand?

     Do not go on trampling My courts

     Bringing oblations!

     Incense is repugnant to Me.

     New moon and sabbath

     Reading to an assembly—

     I cannot endure

     Misdeeds and ritual celebrations! (Isaiah 1:11-13)

Isaiah is especially critical of the government in Jerusalem.

     Your officials are obstinate

     And comrades of thieves,

     Every one a lover of bribes

     And a pursuer of payments.

     They do not judge the case of the orphan,

     Nor does the lawsuit of the widow come to them. (Isaiah 1:23)

Nevertheless, God offers the people a chance to reform and be saved from future wars.

     Go, please, and be set right

     —says God.

Flour Background

     [Even] if your faults are like crimson dye,

     They shall become white like the snow.

     If they are red as scarlet fabric,

     They shall become like fleece.

     If you do good and you pay attention,

     The goodness of the land you shall eat.

     But if you refuse and you are obstinate,

     You will be devoured by the sword… (Isaiah 1:18-20)

The haftarah concludes:

     Zion can be redeemed through justice,

     And those who turn back, through tzedek. (Isaiah 1:27)

*

Like Job, we know that being good is not always rewarded in this world. When we see God as an anthropomorphic judge meting out rewards and punishments, God seems to look away from saints as well as sinners.

Yet the human race as a whole could be redeemed through justice and virtue. If we all dedicated ourselves to following treaties and international laws, to being honest and fair, and to helping the needy, war would disappear.

On an individual level, at least good behavior leads to a clear conscience and the trust of others, and those result in a happier life than the lives of the murderers, thieves, bribe-takers, and heart-hardeners who ruled Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time.

And a happier life than the priests in this week’s haftarah, who spread their hands to bless he congregation even though they, too, are guilty.

     And when you spread out your palms

     I lift My eyes away from you;

     Even if you make abundant prayers

     I will not be listening;

     Your hands are filled with bloodshed. (Isaiah 1:15)

So go ahead and pray, attend services, follow rituals to approach God. But remember Isaiah’s words, and also keep your hands clean.

Pesach: Isaiah and the Peaceable Kingdom

April 21, 2016 at 10:16 am | Posted in Isaiah 1, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment
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(Note: I will be traveling during the week of Passover, so I’m publishing my post for April 24-30 ahead of time. This year, the eight days of Passover end on April 30, 2016.)

For the eighth day of Passover/Pesach, the special Torah reading is Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17, which includes directions for observing Passover “so that you will remember the day of your exodus from the land of Egypt all the days of your life”. (See last week’s post, Pesach: The Matzah of Misery.)

The haftarah (the accompanying reading from the Prophets) is Isaiah 10:32-12:6. It mentions Egypt only in Isaiah’s prediction that God will return the Israelites from the far-flung places where they were deported by Assyrian Empire.

Crossing the Red Sea, by William Hole

Crossing the Red Sea,
by William Hole

God will dry up the tongue of the sea of Egypt, and will wave a hand over the River [Euphrates] with the might of God’s ruach and break it into seven wadis so it can be walked over dry-shod. And it will become a highway for the remainder of God’s people who remained from Assyria, like [the highway] for Israel on the day it went up from the land of Egypt. (Isaiah 11:15-16)

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind (when blowing over water); spirit (when sweeping into a human being).

But the return of the exiled Israelites is only part of Isaiah’s grand vision in this week’s haftarah.

The prophet has been urging King Achaz of Judah to avoid taking sides in the revolt of Aram and the northern kingdom of Israel against the empire of Assyria, which had conquered the two  states during the 8th century B.C.E. Isaiah tells the king of Judah that Aram, Israel, and even Assyria will all disappear in only a few years. God has a three-part plan. First God will eliminate the vast empire of Assyria; then a great and righteous king will arise in Judah; and finally people everywhere will unite in worshiping Judah’s God.

In the ancient Near East, people believed major change came from the top down: from god to king to the people. A great king was required for a civilization to be transformed. So Isaiah prophesies:

A shoot will go out from the stump of Jesse

And a crown from its root will bear fruit.

And a ruach of God will rest upon him,

A ruach of wisdom and insight,

A ruach of counsel and courage,

A ruach of knowledge and awe of God. (Isaiah 11:1-2)

God will inspire a human king, a descendant of King David’s father Jesse, to establish a moral government. Then, Isaiah prophesies, human nature itself will change.

The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, 1826 version (William Penn's peace treaty in background)

The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, 1826 version
(William Penn’s peace treaty in background)

A wolf will dwell with a young ram,

And a leopard will lie down with a goat kid,

And a calf and a young lion will pasture together,

And a little boy will be leading them.

And a heifer and a she-bear will graze

And they will let their young ones lie down together.

And a lion, like an ox, will eat straw.

A baby will play over a viper’s hole,

And a toddler will put his hand over a snake’s lair. (Isaiah 11:6-8)

In other words, there will be no predators; all animals will be peaceful and non-violent. Judah and the other small countries in the hills of Canaan are like lambs, kids, calves, babies.  But in the future, the wolves, leopards, lions, and bears of great empires will no longer prey on them.

Not only will all peoples live together in peace, but they will all be morally upright and search out the same god.

They will do no evil nor destruction

On all My holy mountain

Because the land will be as filled with seekers of God

As the water covering the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse will be standing

As a banner for peoples.

Nations will come to him with inquiries,

And his haven will be honored.  (Isaiah 11: 9-10)

Isaiah claims that this great king from “the root of Jesse” will arise in just a few years—i.e. right after the reign of King Achaz. Achaz’s son Hezekiah was indeed one of the religious kings praised by the Bible. But after Hezekiah’s reign (~716-697 B.C.E.), people noticed that the rest of Isaiah’s prophecy was no closer to coming true; the empires of Assyria and Egypt continued to squabble over ownership of the lands between them until the Neo-Babylonian Empire became the new top predator.

We are still waiting for world peace. Christianity developed the theory that Isaiah’s righteous king was Jesus, who would return someday to straighten out the world. According to traditional Judaism, we are still waiting for the messiah—or at least for a messianic era without predators or prey.

According to the Torah, the Israelites in Egypt waited 400 years for an opportunity to escape and become a free people, serving only their god.

We have already waited over 2,400 years for Isaiah’s vision to come true. Maybe it’s time to stop praying to an all-powerful God who lives outside the world. Maybe it’s even time to stop waiting for a Moses, a king, a messiah. We need to take action ourselves.

Imagine one individual after another dedicating him-or-her-self to respecting everyone and preying on no one; to avoiding violence; and to seeking the divine in everyone and everything.

May all human beings become filled with the ruach of Isaiah’s inspiration.

 

 

 

 

Haftarat Yitro—Isaiah: Burning Angels

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

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

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

Mount Sinai

Mount Sinai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moses at the burning bush

Moses at the burning bush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall

The Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haftarah for Devarim –Isaiah: Ignoring the Divine

July 8, 2013 at 10:29 pm | Posted in Devarim, Isaiah 1 | 2 Comments

Every weekly Torah portion is paired with a haftarah (“what emerges”), a passage from Prophets/Neviim. For nearly 2,000 years, in traditional Saturday Torah services, the chanting of the haftarah follows the chanting of the Torah portion. This week, Jews read the first Torah portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, which is also called Devarim (“Words”). The haftarah this week is Isaiah 1:1-27. Both the Torah portion and the haftarah contain the word eykhah, which means “how” as in “Oh, how could this happen?” This is also the opening word of the book of Lamentations, which we read on Tisha Be-Av, the fast day shortly after this Shabbat. (See my earlier blog post, Devarim: Oh, How.)

All three readings accuse the Israelites of rebellion against God. But Isaiah offers the most hope for change. The Shabbat before Tisha Be-Av is called Shabbat Chazon (Sabbath of Vision) because the book of Isaiah begins with the word chazon (vision or revelation).

The vision of Yeshayahu, son of Amotz, who had vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem … (Isaiah 1:1)

The Hebrew for Isaiah is Yeshayahu, which means “Rescue of God”. Again and again, even as Isaiah points out how despicably the children of Israel are behaving, he promises that eventually God will rescue them.

After the opening sentence, which also dates Isaiah’s prophecies by listing the names of the kings of Judah during his time, Isaiah’s first poem begins:

Listen, heavens, and use [your] ears, earth;

Because God has spoken:

I brought up children, and I made them high,

And they? They rebel against me.

An ox knows his koneh,

And a donkey the feeding-trough of his ba-al.

Israel does not know;

My people do not hitbonan. (Isaiah 1:2-4)

koneh = owner, buyer; creator.

ba-al = master, ruler; local god.

hitbonan = consider. (From the same root as binah = understanding, analysis.)

In these verses, the ox is the most knowledgeable because it recognizes its owner. Next comes the donkey, which recognizes the place where its owner provides nourishment. Last come the Israelites, who do not even recognize that someone is giving them nourishment.

The reverse order applies to the role of God. God, who creates all creatures, is only the creator (an earlier meaning of koneh) as far as the ox is concerned. God is the ba-al, the local god, of the donkey. But when it comes to the children of Israel, God is also like a parent, bringing them up, making them high (superior), and considering them “My people”.

Does this mean that the more God does for someone, the less that creature recognizes God? Not necessarily. The tragedy in these opening verses is that God elevates human beings in general by endowing us with both the intelligence to consider, analyze, and understand, and the desire to distinguish between good and bad. The Israelites, like any people, have the God-given ability to figure out that God is their creator, sustainer, and parent. They also have the ability to feel gratitude, and to choose good behavior. Yet they do not take the trouble to stop and consider any of this.

Isaiah views this willful ignorance not as laziness, but as deliberate denial: They rebel against me. Furthermore, in Isaiah’s view, those who turn their backs on God also turn their backs on ethical behavior. He calls them People heavy with crooked deeds. (Isaiah 1:4)

Willful ignorance is not bliss. Isaiah mourns how much the Israelites have suffered at the hands of the Assyrians, whose attack on the two Israelite kingdoms began around 740 B.C.E. The Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom, and besieged but did not capture Jerusalem, the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah. Isaiah, like most of the prophets, assumes that if the Israelites had been upright and ethical, God would not have permitted the Assyrians to defeat them and burn their cities. Isaiah calls God the God of Armies, including Assyrian armies. He uses God’s complete destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to remind his audience that God destroys immoral peoples.

If the God of Armies had not left us a few survivors,

We would be like Sodom,

We would resemble Gomorrah. (Isaiah 1:9)

Nevertheless, the surviving Israelites are not doomed. They still have the ability to change, and God still wants them to turn back from evil. Isaiah reports God saying:

Give up doing evil!

Learn to do good!

Seek out the rule of law.

Step on the oppressor.

Get justice for the orphan.

Defend the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

God assures the people that they can, indeed, be redeemed from their immorality, if they pay attention and obey God. Then Isaiah mourns over how far the people of Jerusalem have fallen, beginning with the line: Eykha (Oh, how) has it become a prostitute, [this] faithful city? (Isaiah 1:21)

Nevertheless, at the end of the haftarah, Isaiah says that if the surviving Israelites in Judah (also called Zion) learn to do good, then God will save them.

Zion will be redeemed through lawful justice,

And those who turn back, through righteousness. (Isaiah 1:27)

Isaiah’s poetry calls for the repentance of the people of Judah. But does it address any people today?

Certainly human beings are still endowed with the intelligence to figure out that we did not create ourselves, nor the world that supports us. We might also notice that our elaborate intelligence and our ethical intuitions are extraordinary gifts. Yet like the Israelites of the 8th century B.C.E., we often do not take the trouble to stop and consider.

Someone who does stop and consider today might conclude that human abilities are merely an accidental result of evolution, and have nothing to do with anything that might be called God. For atheists, Isaiah’s claim that turning away from God means turning away from moral behavior makes no sense. When I was an atheist myself, I still felt gratitude for the world and humanity, and I believed that the human condition came with its own ethical imperatives.

Someone with a traditional Jewish or Christian background who stopped to consider might conclude that God is sufficiently anthropomorphic to prefer some types of human behavior over others. Such a person might analyze the Bible as well as the world, and conclude that God prescribes moral behavior such as honoring parents and protecting orphans, and proscribes immoral behavior such as cheating, adultery, and murder. Someone who believes in a somewhat anthropomorphic God, but takes the Bible with a grain of salt, might conclude that God desires whatever human behavior promotes harmony, cooperation, and mutual respect.

What if someone who is neither an atheist nor a believer in a semi-anthropomorphic God stops to consider? My intellectual analysis deduces that God is the condition of “becoming” implied by the four-letter name of God (sometimes written in Roman letters as YHVH) based on the Hebrew verb for “to be” or “to become”. Another part of my mind concludes that the word “God” covers various mysterious forces in the world. I believe God is evolving along with the universe, and our human attitudes and actions affect God’s evolution. If we become more ethical, the forces of God become more ethical.

Does this mean that eventually God will not let the army of one country devastate another country? Maybe so—if God works through the human psyche.

The lesson I draw from the Isaiah’s opening poem is that if we learn to do good as individuals, the whole world will improve. And the first step toward learning to do good is to stop and consider that our existence depends on forces outside our control; and therefore we owe gratitude to other human beings, to the whole universe, and—yes—to God.

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