Beha-alotkha: Father-in-Law

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

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

Mount Sinai, Elijah Walton,
19th century

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Midiante priest,
Bible Moralisee, 13th century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yitro Advises Moses,
Figures de la Bible,1728

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transporting the ark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3  Exodus 4:18.

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

5  Exodus 40:36-37.

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

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Haftarat Beha-alotkha—Zechariah: Not by Might

June 24, 2016 at 12:13 am | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Zechariah | 1 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 Beha-alotkha (Numbers 8:1-12:16) and the haftarah is Zechariah 2:14-4:7.

Zechariah by Michelangelo

Zechariah by Michelangelo

“Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the LORD of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6—King James translation)

This line from the haftarah in the book of Zechariah is famous in both Jewish and Christian circles. But what does it actually mean?

Zechariah was probably born in Babylon; that is where the upper classes of the kingdom of Judah, including Zechariah’s grandfather Iddo, were deported after King Nebuchadnezzar’s army razed Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.

Only 46 years later, the Persian king Cyrus marched into Babylon and quickly seized the whole Neo-Babylonian Empire.  While Nebuchadnezzar had ordered the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, King Cyrus declared an empire-wide policy of religious tolerance, and authorized the exiles from Judah to return to Jerusalem and build another temple to their own god.

map Persian and Babylonian EmpiresAccording to the book of Ezra, the first large group of Judahites to return to Jerusalem was led by Zerubavel, a grandson of Judah’s next-to-last king, Yehoyakhin. This group also Zechariah, a grandson of the priest Iddo.

The famous line in the book of Zechariah is preceded by a vision:

And the angel who was speaking to me returned, and it roused me as a man is roused from sleep. And it said to me: What do you see?  And I said: I see—hey!—a lampstand of gold, and a bowl above its head. And seven lamps are on it, seven, and seven pipes to the lamps …And two olive trees are over it, one on the right of the bowl and one on its left. (Zechariah 4:1-3)

menorah 1A gold lampstand with seven lamps is the menorah described in the book of Exodus, mentioned at the start of this week’s Torah portion, and reproduced for Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.  The rest of Zechariah’s vision is more mysterious, so he asks the angel: What are these? (Zechariah 4:4)

Instead of explaining the vision, the angel replies:

This is the word of God to Zerubavel, saying: Not by chayil and not by koach, but rather by My ruach, said the God of Tzevaot. (Zechariah 4:6)

chayil (חַיִל) = troop, small army, or military escort; courage in the face of a military threat; wealth; ability. (King James translation: “might”.)

This word refers to a military force about 100 times out of about 230 times it appears in the Hebrew Bible.

koach (כֹּחַ) = power, physical strength, energy, physical force. (King James translation: “power”.)

When the subject is God, koach = power to transform. When the subject is human, koach = physical strength or energy.

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; life-breath; prophetic inspiration; insight; mood.  (King James translation: “spirit”.)

Winds, life-breath, human prophetic inspiration, and exceptional human insight are caused by God in the Hebrew Bible. Human moods can either arise naturally or be sent by God.

tzevaot (צְבָאוֹת) = large armies: hosts of stars or angels (metaphorically, as God’s heavenly army).  (King James translation: “hosts”.)

*

What does God’s message to Zerubavel, the leader of the Judahites returning from Babylon, have to do with Zechariah’s vision of the menorah and the two olive trees?

The ex-exiles laid the foundations for the Second Temple during their second year in Jerusalem. Then some of their neighbors who had stayed in the area during the Babylonian exile came to Zerubavel and said:

Let us build with you, since like you we worship your God, and we have slaughtered animals for Him since the days of Eisar-Haddon, King of Assyria, who brought us here. (Ezra 4:2)

Zerubavel rejected them, and the local people retaliated by threatening the newcomers, bribing Persian ministers to oppose the building project, and sending a damning letter to the next king after Cyrus. Their plan worked, according to the book of Ezra; construction of the temple was halted for 17 years.

King Darius I

King Darius I

In 522 B.C.E. Darius I took the throne of the Persian Empire. King Darius simplified the administration of the empire by dividing it into provinces and appointing a native of high rank to rule each district. By 520 B.C.E. he had appointed Zerubavel as governor of Yehud Medinata, a province including the core of the old kingdom of Judah.

And in 520 B.C.E. Zechariah began prophesying.

After the angel gives Zechariah the message for Zerubavel, it explains:

The hands of Zerubavel laid the foundation of this house, and his hands shall bring it to an end. Then you shall know that God of Tzevaot sent me to you. (Zechariah 4:9)

Then Zechariah asks the angel to interpret the two olive trees in his vision, the ones with pipes pouring olive oil above the menorah.

Artist's sketch of Zechariah's vision

Artist’s sketch
of Zechariah’s vision

And it said: These are the two sons of the olive oil, the ones who stand with the lord of all the earth. (Zechariah 4:14)

“Son of the olive oil” is an idiom in Biblical Hebrew for “anointed”. Traditionally, a new king or high priest was consecrated by being anointed with olive oil. In Zechariah’s vision, Governor Zerubavel and High Priest Yehoshua are the two consecrated leaders who serve God, the lord of all the earth.

Zechariah does not ask the angel for further clarification about that particular vision, but we can infer that it foretells a time when Zerubavel and Yehoshua relight the old religion by ensuring there is a new menorah in a new temple.

This message from God (as well as a prophesy by Zechariah’s fellow prophet Haggai, according to the book of Ezra) apparently encouraged Governor Zerubavel to resume construction of the temple.

This time the local population did not protest; no troops (chayil) nor physical force (koach) was necessary.

The Second Temple was completed in only four years and dedicated in 516 B.C.E.—perhaps because God filled the master craftsmen with ruach, the same exceptional insight God granted Betzaleil, the master craftsman of the first sanctuary, in the book of Exodus.

*

As a message to Zerubavel, the line from this week’s haftarah is best translated as:

(You shall build the temple) not by troops (chayil) and not by physical force (koach), but rather by My divine insight (ruach), said the God of Armies (Tzevaot). (Zechariah 4:6)

But can we rescue the famous line and apply it today?

The “temple” we need now is not a building where priests sacrifice animals; it is a world-wide devotion to peaceful cooperation in order to save human lives and our planet.  Like Governor Zerubavel, we all need to shun the use of troops or any other kind of physical force—between nations and between individuals.  And when our neighbors come and say “Let us build with you,” we need to work out safe ways for everyone to contribute.

So may we all be filled with the chayil of ability, the koach of energy, and the ruach of inspiration to light our own menorah for a new way of life on earth.

Beha-alotkha and Shemot: Moses as Wet Nurse

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

Moses never wanted the job.

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

Moses at the Burning Bush by Rembrandt van Rijn

Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt van Rijn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gold calf, Temple of Baalat in Byblos

Gold calf, Temple of Baalat in Byblos

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

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

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

—and slandered the Israelites—

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

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

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

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

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

Then suddenly they are overcome with craving.

They weep and say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moses continues:

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

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

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

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

 

Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Beha-alotkha & Beshallach: Stomach versus Soul

June 5, 2014 at 11:49 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Beshallach | 1 Comment
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Food cannot satisfy us, when we doubt the meaning of our lives. Yet many people divert anxiety about their futures into craving for food—both today and in the Torah.

When the Israelites and their fellow-travelers leave Egypt, they take all their herds and flocks with them. They are never forbidden to use their livestock for milk or meat, so they are in no danger of starving. Yet a month and a half after they leave Egypt, they complain about food.

The entire assembly of the Children of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness.  The Children of Israel said to them: If only we had died by God’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat beside a pot of meat, when we ate bread until [we were] sated; for you brought us out to this wilderness to put to death this whole congregation by famine! (Exodus/Shemot 16:2-3, in the Torah portion Beshallach)

How could dying in Egypt with a full stomach be better than journeying with God’s protection? These are the people who choose to follow Moses and his god out of Egypt, who sing and dance after God rescues them from the Egyptian army at the Reed Sea. How could they feel so discouraged in the second month of their trek across the wilderness?

God diagnoses the problem, and solves it—temporarily—with manna.

Then God said to Moses: Here I am, raining down food from the heavens… (Exodus 16:4)

Manna satisfies the people for a while—not because they need additional food, I think, but because it reminds them daily that God loves them like a parent. They are already following the divine pillar of cloud and fire across the wilderness. Now they know that they are not wandering aimlessly; serving God gives them a purpose in life.

The Israelites forget their purpose and fail to serve God whenever they are idle or afraid during their sojourn at Mount Sinai. But they are in good spirits when they march away from the mountain in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you raise up”) in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. They head toward their promised land supplied not only with the manna God provides, and the livestock they brought up from Egypt, but also with a splendid portable sanctuary and its numinous objects, as well as a set of God-given rules and principles to live by.

Alas, after only three days of marching they lapse into complaining again. The Torah does not tell us the content of their complaint at Taverah. It merely says God hears and reacts with anger, consuming the edge of the camp with fire. Then the people switch from complaining to sobbing.

And the riff-raff that was in its midst felt strong cravings, and they sobbed, and the Children of Israel also [sobbed], and they said: Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, and the cucumbers and watermelons and leeks and onions and garlic. And now our nefesh is dried up; there is nothing except the manna for our eyes. (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4-6)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite, throat, animating soul, life

Why, when they are on the verge of getting their own land, do the people yearn for the food in Egypt again? Psalm 78 answers: They tested God in their hearts by asking for food for their nefesh. (Psalm 78:18)

To me, this shows that the people are not complaining about dry throats, but about dry lives. They have not lost their appetite for food, but they have lost their appetite for being God’s people.

For the survivors of the Golden calf incident, life at Mount Sinai was both pleasant and meaningful. They had the pleasure of serving God by making donations, but their donations were the treasures they took from their Egyptian neighbors, rather than anything personal. They also had the pleasure of serving God by skilled creative work, as they made the sanctuary and its holy objects.

Now, as they march north, the people are approaching the border of Canaan. They know their next service to God will be taking over a land inhabited by other people. As we learn in next week’s Torah portion, Shelach, very few Israelites believe that God will single-handedly drive out the inhabitants and leave them empty cities and farms. Instead they are anticipating war, which means many hardships and deaths.

Now the thought of serving God fills them with anxiety instead of purpose. So, as the psalm says, they sob for Egyptian food to (unconsciously) test whether God will nourish their souls.

God correctly interprets the sobbing as indicating a lack of faith, rather than a desire for tasty food. But instead of reassuring the people that their lives will be filled with meaning, God takes a punitive approach, and tells Moses:

To the people you shall say: Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow; then you will eat meat … Not for one day will you eat, nor for a couple of days, nor for five days, nor for ten days, nor for twenty days. Until a month of days, until it comes out of your nostrils and you are nauseated because of it! For you rejected God, who is in your midst … saying: Why did we leave Egypt for this? (Numbers 11:18-20)

I confess I am like the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion. My life is full of meaning and purpose right now, while my material needs are met and I spend my days drawing insights and inspirations from the Torah, and sharing my life with people I love. Yet there are empty times in my day, when I need to rest or alleviate chronic pain. At those times, anxiety about the future haunts me. What if my sense of purpose is not strong enough to carry my through old age, when I must face hardships and the deaths of people I love?

My first impulse, as these times, is to comfort myself by eating something tasty. Yet I know that if I eat too much, I will make myself sick in the long run. I would rather keep faith that God is with me, and my life will continue to be worthwhile no matter what happens.  But how can I do that?

The only solution I know is to refocus and cultivate gratitude for the good life I have now. Do you have another solution to the anxiety of the Israelite? Please comment!

 

Beha-alotkha: Backward Nuns

May 24, 2013 at 2:07 am | Posted in Beha-alotkha | 2 Comments

For thousands of years, scribes have been writing the first five books of the Hebrew Bible onto parchment Torah scrolls, without changing a letter—not even to correct a spelling mistake. Besides carefully preserving ancient errors, scribes reproduce letters that are traditionally written larger or smaller than the surrounding text. And in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you bring up”), scribes faithfully recreate two inverted or upside-down nuns.

Capture nuns

The symbol on the left above is the Hebrew letter nun. When a nun is part of a word, it sounds like our letter “N”. Before Arabic numerals were invented, Hebrew (like Latin) used letters to stand for numbers, the letter nun stood for 50.

The symbol on the right above is an inverted nun, which is not really a letter at all. An inverted nun (as well as an upside-down nun) is a symbol written next to a piece of text to indicate that the text is out of place. The ancient Greeks used an inverted sigma for the same purpose.

Out of the 22 Hebrew letters, why did the ancient scribes pick a nun to reverse? Nobody know, but the question opens the way to mystical speculations, which I hope to explore in the future. My question this week is why they picked only one passage in the Torah scroll to mark with inverted nuns. Modern scholars have pointed out many bits of poetry in the Torah that appear be quotes from a longer poem or song. But this week’s Torah portion,  Beha-alotkha,  is the only one accompanied by inverted nuns.  And the only other inverted nuns in the Hebrew Bible appear in Psalm 107, where these symbols follow seven of the verses.

The Babylonian Talmud (in Shabbat 115b-116a) mentions the inverted nuns in Beha-alotkha, and states that the verses between the two inverted nuns were moved from another place in the Torah text. Most commentary after the Talmud also identifies the displaced passage in Beha-alotkha as the two verses in between the inverted nuns. But in Psalm 107, each verse being pointed out is  followed by an inverted nun. Does this mean that the first scribe to draw inverted nuns in our Torah portion also intended his symbols to follow the verses being pointed out? I wonder if the original scribe was even pointing out the pair of verses before the first inverted nun, then the pair of verses before the second inverted nun. All four verses seem out of place to me, both because of the language they use and because they are wedged for no obvious reason between a conversation Moses has with an in-law, and a series of complaints by the Israelites.

Here is my translation:

They headed out from the mountain of God for a journey of three days, and the ark of the covenant of God was heading out in front of them for a journey of three days, to scout out a resting-place for them. (Numbers/Bemidbar 10:33) And the cloud of God was above them by day, when they were heading out from the camp. (Numbers/Bemidbar 10:34) 

׆

It happened that when the ark headed out, Moses said: Kumah, God, and Your enemies will scatter, and those who oppose You will flee from Your presence. (Numbers 10:35)

And when it came to rest, he said: Shuvah, God, the multitude of thousands of Israel. (Numbers 10:36)

׆

Kumah = Rise up! Stand up! Uphold! (The masculine imperative is kum, and the feminine imperative is kumi. Kumah is a variant that occurs for the first time here.)

Shuvah = Return! Turn back! Turn toward! (The masculine imperative is shuv, and the feminine imperative is shuvi. Shuvah is a variant that occurs for the first time here.)

In the Talmud (Shabbat 116a), Rav Ashi suggests that the two verses between the inverted  nuns were moved forward from Numbers 1:52-2:34, the passage describing the marching positions of the tribes of Israel during their wilderness journeys. But when I read that passage, I do not see any obvious place for our two verses. Other ancient commentary proposes that the verses were pulled from a lost prophecy by Eldad and Meidad, who break into prophesy in Numbers 11:26; or that the two verses stand as a separate book of the Torah.

What I notice is that  the verses translated above are the only place in the five books of the Torah scroll where the words kumah and shuvah are used instead of the usual imperative verbs kum and shuv. Neither of these variants appears again until the later books in the Hebrew Bible, after the book of Joshua. There the variant  kumah appears 14 times. Three of these times, starting with the book of Judges, a man or group of men are being told to get up. The other 11 times, (nine of them in Psalms), someone is asking God to rise up—just as in Numbers 10:35 above.

Similarly, the variant shuvah appears once in Numbers 10:36, then does not show up again until the book of Isaiah. The imperative shuvah occurs three times in books of the prophets, when God is asking Israel to return; and four times in Psalms, when the psalmist is asking God to return—just as in Numbers 10:36. So judging by the language, Numbers 10:35-36 belongs to the literary tradition of Psalms, not to any writing in the first five books of the Bible.

Furthermore, in all other descriptions of the Israelites moving from camp to camp in the wilderness, the ark is carried by Levites in the middle of the marching formation, and the cloud of God leads the way in front. But in Numbers 10:33-34, translated above, the ark leads the way, and the cloud hovers above the Israelites. This makes me suspect that these two verses before the first inverted nun were also moved from a later piece of writing.

In the book of Joshua, priests carry the ark in front of the Israelites, leading them across the Jordan. Then they carry the ark around the walls of Jericho, leading the troops. In both books of Samuel, the ark is carried into battle, and except for one occasion when it was captured by Philistines, God’s presence defeated Israel’s enemies. No cloud is mentioned in Joshua, Samuel I, or Samuel II. The entreaty in Numbers 10:35, “Rise up, God, and Your enemies will scatter!” would fit right into this period between the start of the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan and Solomon’s erection of the temple in Jerusalem.

Nobody knows why the verses accompanied by inverted nuns were moved to this week’s Torah portion. The Talmud tractate Shabbat cites Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel’s explanation that the displaced passage provides a break between two transgressions of the Israelites, but I find this unconvincing. Elsewhere the Torah either stacks up series of transgressions without compunction, or finds other ways to insert a more cheerful passage.

However, I have noticed that when the people remember events from the distant past—their own pasts, or stories they heard or read a long time ago—they often make factual errors by transplanting something recent into the earlier time. For example, we might remember a teenager in the 1970’s saying a fellow teenager was “hot”, even though that particular word did not become slang for “sexy” until much later. Similarly, Numbers 10:35-36 uses the words kumah and shuvah even though they did not become alternatives to kum and shuv until later in the Bible.

Besides mis-remembering minor facts, we also re-interpret our pasts to fit the paradigms of our present lives.

For the Israelites in the wilderness, God’s pillar of cloud was critically important. It led them out of Egypt and all the way to Mount Sinai. But for the Israelites living in Canaan and fighting  with their neighbors, the pillar of cloud was history. They no longer needed God to guide them through the wilderness; what they needed was for God to be on their side in battle. The best symbol they had of God’s presence was the ark, and until Solomon built a permanent temple, they carried the ark with them into battle. These later Israelites might well re-interpret their past to fit their current paradigm, and imagine Moses sending the ark ahead of the people, and calling on God for help by saying: Rise up, God, and Your enemies will scatter, and those who oppose You will flee from Your presence.

I keep re-interpreting my own past too. As a teenager I thought in terms of escape—from my parents’ house and from nearly all social situations. I believed I was a misfit and I did not hope to change myself, only to escape to a better environment—preferably a “promised land” where I would not be expected to date or marry or have children. To my surprise, I ended up doing all three. For the next 30 years, my life revolved around marriage and motherhood, and I lived in a state of perpetual responsibility. I was drawn to Judaism partly because of its emphasis on ethical behavior, which now seemed vitally important to me. I judged my own past in terms of my current moral standards, and I felt guilty about each time I had left my sister or a friend in the lurch because I was running away from a situation I could not handle. Eventually I realized I was projecting my current concerns onto my past. Perhaps I was thinking like the ancient Israelite editor who imagined Moses sending the ark ahead and calling “Kumah!“.

Since I turned 50—the age represented by a regular, non-inverted nun—I have been working through another stage of life, redefining what is important to me, becoming a leader in a Jewish congregation, and learning several new kinds of courage.  I am still a misfit in general society, but what matters is who I am in my own circle. Now I focus on revealing more of myself, and doing my own work. Now when I remember my adult life before age 50, I regret that I had neither the personality nor the prescience to take time for religious education. And when I remember my adolescence now, I think of the moments when I touched the divine—at least according to my present interpretation of  those moments.  These days, I pray for God to guide me, and nobody answers; there is no pillar of cloud. Yet I know I am guided. Life seems more mysterious to me now, and my whole past before age 50 seems distant and amazing. I know I am transplanting my present sense of mystery into my memories of the past. If I wrote an autobiography from my current point of view, I would have to put inverted nuns all over the manuscript.

How wonderful it is to change and re-evaluate life and re-interpret our memories! May we all recognize our revisions of the past, and learn from each new stage in our lives.

Beha-alotkha: Unnatural Skin

June 6, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha | Leave a comment

Miriam spoke, and Aaron, against (or with) Moses on account of the Kushite wife that he had taken; for he had taken a Kushite wife.  And they said:  Is it indeed only with Moses God spoke?  Isn’t it also with us He spoke?  And God heard?  (Numbers/ Bemidbar 12:1-2)

Kushiyt = a female from the territory south of Egypt; a female Nubian; a woman with very dark skin

Miriam takes the lead in complaining on account of Moses’ Kushite wife, and Aaron goes along with her.  Medieval Jewish commentators objected to the idea that Moses would take a second wife, and they went to great lengths to argue that the Kushite wife was really Moses’ Midianite wife, Tzipporah.  Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) even gave three different reasons why Kushite in this context really means “beautiful”, and has nothing to do with the wife’s skin color or country of origin.

I object to the idea that Moses would take a second wife for a different reason: at this point his entire life is devoted to getting instructions from God and translating them for his people; he has no psychic energy for anything else, even a wife.  But whether the wife in these verses is Tzipporah or another woman, she must have very dark skin—and not just a deep suntan.  Jeremiah 36:14 asks, “Can a Kushite change his skin?  Or a leopard his spots?”

Classic commentary agrees that whoever the Kushite wife is, Miriam and Aaron are complaining on her behalf, because Moses is neglecting his marriage bed.  Since Miriam and Aaron point out that God speaks with them, also, the implication (according to Medieval commentaries) is that if they can be both prophets and sexually active spouses, Moses ought to do it, too.

But God disagrees, explains that Moses operates on a higher level of prophecy, and punishes Miriam with a skin disease.  In this Torah story, Moses’ Kushite wife has naturally dark skin, and God imposes unnaturally white skin on Miriam.

And the cloud departed from above the Tent; and hey! Miriam had the skin disease that is like the snow; and Aaron turned to Miriam and hey!  skin disease!  (Numbers 12:10)

What does it mean to compare her skin disease to snow?  There are six other places in the Hebrew Bible where the word for snow, shaleg, is used as a simile, rather than as  a reference to the actual icy precipitation.  Two of them also describe skin disease.  The other four mean either white, or clean and pure.  The skin disease of tzara-at is definitely not clean or pure, but the symptoms given in Leviticus do include a white patch of skin.  So Miriam, after complaining on account of a woman with especially dark skin, is stricken with especially white skin.

Moses himself has another kind of skin, which he acquired in the book of Exodus after seeing God’s “back” on Mount Sinai and bringing down the second set of stone tablets.

When Moses came before God to speak with Him, he would remove the veil until he went out; then he went out and told the children of Israel what had been commanded.  And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the face of Moses shone with rays of light; then Moses put the veil back over his face until he came to speak with Him (again).  (Shemot/ Exodus 34:34-35)

Moses, his Kushite wife, and his sister Miriam all have unnatural skin at the end of the Torah portion Beha-alotkha.  Because they look different from a normal Israelite, or even a normal Egyptian camp follower, all three are outcasts of one sort or another.   The Kushite wife is singled out for her dark skin, which marks her as a non-Israelite.  Miriam has to live outside the camp for seven days while her skin looks like snow.  And Moses has to cover his face whenever he is not speaking with God or passing on God’s instructions, because the radiant light of his skin is too overwhelming to the Israelites when they go about their daily life.

In the Hebrew of the Torah, as in modern English, “light” is also a metaphor for insight (“enlightenment”), and for a good soul.  I’m sure the Torah meant Moses’ radiant skin to be a sign that he was a man of extraordinary insight and goodness.  I’d like to extend this approach to the Kushite wife’s dark skin and Miriam’s white skin.

We know now that a dark surface absorbs light, while a white surface reflects light.  Perhaps Moses’ Kushite wife absorbed Moses’ teachings and goodness, but was unable to share them, to reflect them out to others.  Are you like the Kushite, absorbing enlightenment but not spreading it?

In my Torah monologue “Miriam’s Healing”, I imagine Miriam in this week’s Torah portion as a self-confident leader and prophetess who speaks out against anything she thinks is unfair, including Moses’ sexual separation from his wife.  Only when she is stricken with skin disease and has to spend a week in isolation does she switch from spreading her own enlightenment to considering what life might be like for her brother Moses.  Are you like Miriam, reflecting out enlightenment without replenishing your own store of understanding?

Do you aspire to be like Moses, a clear vessel for enlightenment to shine through?

I suspect I’m more like an ordinary Israelite, who can only manage a brief glance, once in a while, at the frighteningly bright rays of enlightenment.  The rest of the time I need a veil between myself and the divine light.  I can only absorb so much.  But I hope that whatever vessels of divinity I encounter wear a veil that a little gentle light shines through.  Then my mind can keep on learning and my soul can keep on growing.

 

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