Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred

May 24, 2017 at 7:43 pm | Posted in Bemidbar | 1 Comment
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When you have a portable sanctuary, you need a procedure for packing up the holy items when it’s time to move on. And if unauthorized contact with a holy object results in death, the correct procedure is critical. This week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar (“In a wilderness”), specifies that only the priests may wrap up the holy items. Then Levites can carry them, once they are completely concealed.

They may not come in and see the holy even for a moment, or they will die.  (Numbers 4:20)

The first holy item the priests cover is the ark itself. The ark is usually hidden even from them, behind the partition-curtain in the Tent of Meeting that screens off the Holy of Holies.

Aharon and his sons shall come, when the camp is pulling out, and they shall take down the partition-curtain, and they shall cover the Ark of the Testimony with it.  Then they shall place over it a covering of tachash leather, and they shall spread a cloth of perfect  tekheilet over that, then put its poles in place. (Numbers/Bemidbar 4:5-6)

Murex shell

tachash (תָּחַשׁ) = An unknown Hebrew word for either a treatment for leather, or the animal providing the skin.1

tekheilet (תְּכֵלֶת) = Blue dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail.2

Next Aaron and his sons Elazar and Itamar cover up the holy items they use regularly inside the Tent of Meeting.

Then they shall spread over the Table of the Presence a cloth of tekheilet, and they will place upon it the bowls, ladles, offering-bowls, libation jars for libations, and [that week’s] perpetual bread.  And they shall spread out over them a cloth of tolat shani, and then cover it with a covering of tachash leather, and they shall put its poles in place.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 4:7-8)

Shield lice on branch

tola-at shani (תּוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי) =  A vivid red or scarlet dye made from the unhatched eggs of shield-lice living on oak bark.

Although the table also has three coverings, the utensils—and that week’s bread!—are stored on top of the first tablecloth, then covered by the second cloth and the leather.

Next they shall take a cloth of tekheilet, and they shall cover the lampstand (menorah) of the lighting and its lamps and its wick-cutters and its ash-pans and all the utensils for its oil that they use to attend to it. And they shall put it and all its utensils into a covering of tachash leather, and they shall place it on the carrying-frame.  (Numbers 4:9-10)

The priests cover the incense altar the same way, first in tekheilet cloth, then in tachash leather.3

Finally, the priests must prepare the altar used for animal sacrifices, which is stationed in front of the Tent of Meeting for burning offerings of animals and grain products.  Even though everyone can see this altar, the priests cover it before the Levites move it.

And they shall remove ashes from the altar, and they shall spread over it a cloth of argaman.  And they shall place on it all the serving utensils which they use to attend to it—the ash pans, the meat forks, the scrapers, and the sprinkling basins—all the utensils of the altar. And they shall spread over it [the altar and its utensils] a covering of tachash leather, and they shall put its poles in place.  (Numbers 4:13-14)

argaman (אַרְגָּמָן) = purple dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail.

The various coverings of the holy objects are made out of wool dyed in the three most vivid colors available, and a type of leather that is only used for the Tent of Meeting and its holy objects.  Clearly the holy items must be honored with the best possible But why are different colors, in a different order, assigned to each item?

Wool dyed with techeilet


Later in the book of Numbers the Israelites are told to wear fringes on the corners of their own garments, with a thread of tekheilet in each fringe, so that the sight of the fringe will remind them of everything God has commanded them to do.4 (See my post Shelach Lekha: Glimpses of Blue.) Why is turquoise the best color for the reminder?  Perhaps because it is the color of the sky, which is “the heavens”, the place God descends from.

Tekheilet is not used to cover the animal-offering altar, which stands outside the Tent of Meeting and is less holy.  But it is used for the innermost wrapping of the three holy objects placed inside the Tent, and for the outermost wrapping of the ark behind the partition.

God’s voice comes from the empty space above the lid of the ark, and the ark is sometimes called God’s throne. The Bible also pictures God’s throne in the heavens. And the pavement on which God’s feet appear in the vision on Mount Sinai is sapphire, “like the heavens for purity”.5 (See my post Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.)  Sky blue is the color most directly associated with God.6  So surrounding the wrapped ark with techeilet cloth is like surrounding it with the sky.7

A cloth of tekheilet is the innermost cover touching the table, the lampstand, and the incense altar, the three holy objects that the priests tend constantly inside the Tent of Meeting. Although God does not speak or sit above these objects, they are still imbued with a residue of the heavens.

Wool dyed with tolaat shani

Tola-at shani

Scarlet is the color of fresh blood.  In the Torah, blood represents the soul that animates the body, and therefore the Israelites are forbidden to eat or drink it.8 (See my post Reih: Don’t Be a Soul-Eater.)

Later the book of Numbers describes how a perfect red cow is slaughtered, then burned with other red objects:  cedar wood, hyssop, and shani tola-at. The ashes are mixed with water and sprinkled on anyone who has touched a corpse, in order to make them ritually pure again.9 (See my post Chukkat: Blood and Ash.)

The table in the Tent of Meeting is spread first with a cloth of techeilet, the color of the heavens. Then its utensils and the usual twelve loaves of bread are set out on the blue tablecloth. Even while the table is being carried through the wilderness, the “perpetual bread” is there as a human offering to God.  But the grain to make the bread is God’s offering to humans.  Our bodies cannot live without the food that God provides, so the priests add a cloth of tola-at shani, the color of life-blood.

Cloth dyed with argaman


A combination of blue (tekheilet), scarlet (tola-at shani), and purple (argaman) yarns are used to weave or embroider all the cloth walls and door-curtains of the Tent of Meeting, as well as the sashes of all the priests, and several items in the high priest’s costume.

The innermost cover over the ark is the partition-curtain that screens off the Holy of Holies when the Tent of Meeting is assembled. This curtain is woven out of tekheilet, tola-at shani, and argaman. Thus all three colors of holiness are touching the ark while it is being carried.

Cloth woven of only argaman wool, which the priests use to cover the outside altar, appears elsewhere in the Bible as a sign of wealth and royalty. Kings of Midian wear purple robes10, King Solomon sits on purple wool11, and the proverbial “woman of valor” dresses in purple.12

Why is the copper altar used to burn animal parts covered with the argaman of wealth? Perhaps turning the fat parts of cattle, sheep, and goats, or sometimes entire animals, into smoke for God is an expression of gratitude for the abundance that makes this offering possible.


The word tachash occurs in the Bible only as a type of skin or leather. In this week’s Torah portion, tachash leather is the middle layer of wrapping for the ark, and the outer layer covering the table, lampstand, and both altars when these holy objects are carried to a new campsite. Tachash leather is also the top layer of the roof of the Tent of Meeting.13

The only other appearance of tachash leather in the Bible is a description of God dressing Jerusalem in embroidered garments, fine linen, silk, jewelry, and sandals of tachash. (Ezekiel 16:10)  The analogy makes Jerusalem not only God’s bride, but also a holy place.

While tachash leather separates Jerusalem from the earth in Ezekiel, it separates the Tent of Meeting from the heavens in Exodus. When God wants the Israelites to remain encamped, a pillar of cloud and fire rests over the Tent of Meeting, above the tachash leather roof. When God wants the Israelites to move on, the pillar ascends, and the priests must cover the holy objects with tachash leather so they can be safely transported. The Levites carry these carefully wrapped items above the earth and below the heavens.


Today we move not only to new geographical locations, but to new positions in our interior lives.  When we reach a new insight, or enter a new stage of life, it helps to remember the beliefs in our old lives that helped us to be grateful or ethical. Even as we outgrow some old beliefs, we can reframe the ideas that still inspire us, and carry them into our new lives.

When Jews today finish reading from a Torah scroll, we cover it with a garment that both protects the hand-lettered parchment, and prevents us from taking the scroll for granted.  Similarly, we can wrap our own sacred ideas and imperatives in garments that preserve them and prevent us from treating them too familiarly.

What colors do you need to cover your own sacred ideas?  Sky blue, to remind you of everything beyond your horizon?  Scarlet, to remind you that you owe your own life to living things you did not create?  Purple, to remind you of an abundance you may not have noticed? Or the unknown color of tachash, the skin separating heaven and earth through a divine mystery?

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

1  Those who guess tachash is a treatment for leather translate it variously as tanned, blackened, dyed blue, and dyed ochre.  Those who guess tachash  is the name of the animal providing the skin translate it variously as badger, ermine, wild goat, wild ram, sea cow, narwhal, dolphin, or seal.

2  Although the hue varies according to the amount of exposure to sunlight during the process, modern dye from the same species of murex used for the fringes on prayer shawls, is turquoise.

3  (Numbers 4:11-12)

4  Numbers 15:38.

5  Exodus 24:10.

6  19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that “תכלת, ‘sky-blue,’ is the color that points to the limits (תִּכְלָה) of our horizon, to what lies beyond our field of vision—i.e., to the hidden to the Divine.” (Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, English translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 542 on Exodus 26:14.)

7  20th-century Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Bamidbar, English translation by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, New York, 1993,  p. 29.

8   Deuteronomy 12:23-25.

9  Numbers 19:3-6, 19:11-22. A similar mixture of cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet dye is mixed with blood from a slaughtered bird and sprinkled on someone who has recovered from skin disease in order to return them to ritual purity. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:6, 14:51-52)

10 Judges 8:26.

11  Song of Songs 3:10.

12  Proverbs 31:22.

13  The top of the Tent of Meeting is covered with tanned rams’ skins, and then over that goes a layer of tachash leather.  (Exodus/Shemot 26:14, 36:19, 39:34; Numbers 4:25.)





Haftarat Bemidbar—Hosea: Speaking in Wilderness

June 6, 2016 at 9:25 pm | Posted in Bemidbar, Hosea | 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 (Numbers 1:1-4:20) has the same name as the book it begins, Bemidbar. The haftarah is Hosea 2:1-22.

The Hebrew name of each of the first five books of the Bible is the first significant word in the first sentence of the book. This week Jews begin studying the book called “Numbers” in English, which begins:

Mount Sinai: one possible location

Mount Sinai: one possible location

God vayedabeir to Moses bemidbar of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first [day] of the second month, in the second year of their exodus from the land of Egypt. (Numbers/Bemidbar 1:1)

vayedabeir (וַיְדַבֵּר) = (and) he/it spoke.

bemidbar (בְּמִדְבָּר) = be- (בְּ) = in a + midbar (מִדְבָּר) = wilderness; uncultivated and/or uninhabited land.

Although bemidbar by itself means “in a wilderness”, when it is followed by a definite place-name, such as “Sinai”, a better translation is “in the wilderness of Sinai”. A common custom today is to call the book of Numbers Bamidbar (בַּמִדְבָּר), the word for “in the wilderness’ if it is not immediately followed by a place-name. But some commentators, myself included, prefer to take the name Bemidbar directly from the text.

A more important question is whether midbar comes from the same root as vayedabeir. The modern scholarly consensus is that there are at least two root words with the letters דבר, one that has to do with driving away or going behind, and one that has to do with speech, words, and things. Midbar comes from the first root, and could be translated as “back-country”. Vayedabeir comes from the second root, and is a form of the verb dibeir =speak.

But that does not stop a poetic prophet from using the word midbar both to indicate wilderness and to allude to a medabeir (מְדַבֵּר) = “one who speaks, speaker”.

Hosea’s prophesies were composed in the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E.. Like the later prophets, Hosea keeps warning the people of Israel to stop being unfaithful to God by worshiping other gods. Hosea compares Israel to a woman who abandons her first husband and prostitutes herself with other men. In this week’s haftarah, Hosea passes on God’s warning that Israel must stop soliciting.

drawing by Rembrandt

drawing by Rembrandt

Or else I will strip her naked,

Bare as the day of her birth,

And I will make her like the midbar

And render her like a waterless land,

And I will let her die of thirst. (Hosea 2:5)

God is threatening not merely to humiliate Israel like a women stripped naked in public, but also to turn the cultivated and inhabited land of Israel into the worst kind of wilderness: an empty desert. This is the midbar that the children of Israel feared when they crossed the wilderness with Moses, and panicked three times when there was no water: twice in the book of Exodus/Shemot, and once in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar:

There was no water for the community, and they congregated against Moses and against Aaron…and they said…Why did you bring the congregation of God to this midbar to die here, us and our livestock? (Numbers 20:2-4)

Their complaint was false on at least three counts: it was God who led the people into the wilderness; God led them from Mount Sinai straight to the border of their promised land, but they refused to cross, so it was their fault that God made them stay in the wilderness for 40 years; and finally, they had no reason to believe that God, who provided water and food throughout their wilderness journey, would fail to do so again.

Apparently the inhabitants of Israel in Hosea’s time were just as full of false beliefs. In this week’s haftarah, Israel (the unfaithful wife) says her other gods (her illicit lovers) gave her vines and fig trees; she does not recognize her crops as a gift from her own God.

God promises to turn Israel into a midbar to punish her. But then God will take her back.

Indeed, here I am, seducing her.

And I will lead her through the midbar,

Vedibarti to her heart. (Hosea 2:16)

vedibarti (וְדִבַּרְתִּי) = and I will speak. (From the same root as dibeir.)

Moses at the Burning Bush by Rembrandt

Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt

Now we see the midbar in a different light, as the place where God speaks to the Israelites. God first spoke to Moses out of the burning bush in the midbar of Sinai.

And Moses…led the flock to the back of the midbar, and he came to the mountain of the God… (Exodus/Shemot 3:1)

There God commissioned Moses to serve as God’s prophet in Egypt. After the Israelite slaves were freed, God’s pillar of cloud and fire led them back to the midbar of Sinai.

They journeyed from Refidim and they entered Midbar Sinai and they camped bamidbar, and Israel camped there in front of the mountain. And Moses went up to God… (Exodus 19:2-3)

The Israelites stayed in the midbar of Sinai for two years, while God spoke the Ten Commandments, made a covenant, and gave Moses instructions for the sanctuary and the duties of priests and the various holiday observances. That was the midbar where God was a medabeir, one who speaks.

The book of Hosea says that after God has punished Israel for being unfaithful and the land is reduced to a midbar, God will speak to Israel again—but this time, instead of repeating the rules and instructions for the religion, God will “speak to her heart”, “seducing” her to return to God.

vineyard 1The haftarah continues:

And I will give her vineyards from there,

And the valley of disturbance for a doorway of hope.

And she will answer there as in the days of her youth,

As the day she came up from the land of Egypt. (Hosea 2:17)

God will speak to Israel’s heart, and Israel will answer as in the days when the Israelites lived in the wilderness. The wild land will grow vineyards, and the wild heart will grow hope.


The midbar is the place of insecurity, where no wells are dug and no crops planted. But the midbar is also the place where people can hear the medabeir: God speaking.

Does God speak in your heart when you are well-clothed, well-fed, and secure? Or is that when you attribute your good fortune to other gods, such as your own cleverness or hard work?

Are you more likely to hear God speaking in your heart when you are in a place of insecurity?

Bemidbar: Tribes in Four Directions

May 22, 2015 at 10:07 am | Posted in Bemidbar | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

The Israelites leave Egypt in a rush, in a swarm, in no particular order.  At the beginning of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar (“In a wilderness”), they prepare to leave Mount Sinai in orderly formation.

One difference is that now they have made the portable sanctuary for God.  The tribe of Levi is responsible for the sanctuary, both when the people are camping and the sanctuary is assembled, and when they are marching and the Levites are carrying the disassembled parts.  So the Levites camp in the middle of the Israelites, immediately around the sanctuary: the priests (kohanim) and Moses on the east, the clan of Kehat on the south, the clan of Geirshon on the west, and the clan of Merari on the north.  (See my post Naso (and Bemidbar): Four Duties, Four Directions for details.)

Camping Formation

Camping Formation

Surrounding the Levites, but at a greater distance from the sanctuary, are the remaining twelve tribes.  They camp and march in four blocks: east, south, west, and north.  Each block has a leading tribe and two supporting tribes.

God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: Each man shall camp next to his banner, with the insignia of their father’s house.  They shall camp at a distance around the Tent of Meeting. And those camping keidmah, mizrachah, shall be the banner of the camp of Yehudah… And those camping next to them: the tribe of Yissachar …the tribe of Zevulun … All those counted for the camp of Yehudah were 186,400, by their legions; the first to pull out. (2:1-9)

keidmah (קֵדְמָה) = to the east, in front, originally. From the root verb kadam (קָדַם) = came toward, went first, confronted, preceded.

mizrachah (מִזְרָחָה) = to the east, toward sunrise. From the root verb zarach (זָרַח) = shone forth.

When the Israelites break camp, the tribe of Yehudah (יְהוּדָה), Judah in English, sets off toward the east, then veers in whatever direction the people will actually travel that day.

In the Torah, the east represents origins and birth. The front gate of the courtyard around the tent-sanctuary is on the east side.  So is the curtain at the entrance into the sanctuary proper, which only priests (and Moses) are allowed to enter.

sunriseMoses and the priests (Aaron and his sons) camp just east of the courtyard gate.  Farther east is the camp of Yehudah, accompanied by Yissachar and Zevulun. In the book of Genesis, Yehudah gradually becomes the leader of all the brothers who confront Joseph.  King David was from the tribe of Yehudah, and after Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, the kingdom of Yehudah survived for two more centuries.

When you face east, the south is on your right.  That means Reuven is Yehudah’s right-hand man in this week’s Torah portion:

The banner of the camp of Reuven shall be teymanahAnd those camping next to them shall be the tribe of Shimon…and the tribe of Gad… All those counted for the camp of Reuven were 161,450, by their legions; and they shall pull out second. (2:10-16)

teymanah (תֵּימָנָה) = to the south.  (From the root yamin, יָמִין, = right side, south side, right hand.)

In the Torah, south is the direction of the Negev desert, the kingdom of Edom in the hills of Sei-ir, Mount Paran, and Mount Sinai. Moses says in his final speech to the Israelites: God came from Sinai, and shone forth from Sei-ir for them, having radiated from Mount Paran… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 33:2)

menorahAll of this divine light dawns in the south.  Inside the sanctuary tent, the menorah (lampstand) is by the south wall.

The Levite clan of Kehat camps just south of the sanctuary.  Beyond them are the camps of Reuven and its two assisting tribes, Shimon and Gad.  Reuven is the firstborn of the twelve sons of Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, but he does not inherit the leadership of the extended family. His tribe gets second place, but at least it is close to God’s illumination in the south.

Then the Tent of Meeting shall set out, the camp of the Levites, in the middle of the camps; as they camp, so shall they pull out, each man in position next to their banners. (2:17)

Next come the tribes in the back, to the west of the sanctuary:

The banner of the camp of Efrayim by its legions shall be yammah…And next to them shall be the tribe on Menasheh…and the tribe of Binyamin…  All those counted for the camp of Efrayim: 108,100, by their legions; and they shall pull out third. (2:18-24)

yammah (יָמָּה) = to the west, toward the (Mediterranean) Sea (yam).

sunsetThe other Biblical Hebrew word for west is ma-arav (מַעֲרָב), toward the sunset. In the Bible, the west represents the unknown:  the great sea, the future, and death. The western end of the tent sanctuary is the back wall of the Holy of Holies.

The Levite clan of Geirshon camps just west of the sanctuary courtyard.  Behind them, in the position farthest west, is the tribe of Efrayim and its assistant tribes, Menasheh and Binyamin. In Genesis, Jacob rearranges his hands when he blesses Joseph’s two sons Menasheh and Efrayim, so that even though Menasheh is older, Efrayim receives the blessing of the firstborn.

Thus the chief tribe on the east is named after Yehudah, who took the role of the firstborn by his own leadership.  The chief tribe on the south is named after Reuven, who was the firstborn but lost his position.  And the chief tribe on the west is named after Efrayim, who was born second but promoted to firstborn.

The chief tribe on the north, Dan, does not even care about the rights of the firstborn.

The banner of the camp of Dan shall be tzafonah, by their legions… And those camping next to them shall be the tribe of Asher…and the tribe of Naftali… All those counted for the camp of Dan: 157,600; as the last they shall pull out, next to their banners. (2:25-31)

tzafonah (צָפֹנָה) = to the north. From the same root as the verb tzafan (צָפַן) = hide treasure, hide in ambush.

mountainIn the Bible, the north is where the Assyrians came from when they swept down and conquered the kingdom of Israel.  It is also the direction of Mount Tzafon, a peak near the Mediterranean coast in present-day northern Syria. In Canaanite mythology, when Baal became the supreme god, he built a palace on top of Mount Tzafon, and the gods assembled there.

Inside the sanctuary, the table displaying the twelve loaves of bread stands by the north wall. The loaves stand for the tribes of Israel, on display before God.

The Levite clan of Merari camps just north of the sanctuary.  Dan is the leader of the three tribes camping farther north.  Jacob’s fifth son, Dan, is unimportant in the book of Genesis.  But in Judges the tribe of Dan abandons its allotted territory and heads north.  As the tribe crosses Efrayim’s territory, it captures a priest and a molten idol.  Then Dan seizes the Canaanite city of Laish.  Both conquests are surprise attacks; perhaps the whole tribe of Dan is good at hiding in ambush. Laish, renamed Dan, becomes the northernmost city in the kingdom of Israel.

The word for northward, tzafonah, is related not only to hiding, but also to the center of Canaanite religion at Mount Tzafon. In the first book of Kings, the city of Dan has its own temple and a golden calf.

Maybe when the Israelites break camp the tribe of Dan pulls out last because it is not wholehearted about either the community of Israel or its god. Dan goes its own way, then follows the rest of Israelite and its sanctuary after all.

compassWhen the Israelites leave Mount Sinai, they march and camp in a formation that positions each tribe in relation to the four directions and to the sanctuary in the center.  Today, we also need to put what is holy to us at the center of our lives. Otherwise we will swarm about aimlessly.

In addition to holding a holy center, we need to operate in the world.  The four compass points might indicate four ways of operating. If we are fortunate, our primary strategy is represented by the east and Yehudah: taking the lead in our own lives and setting off on new ventures. A second strategy is represented by the south and Reuven: seeking and remembering moments of illumination. Third is the strategy represented by the west and Efrayim: humbly accepting the unknown future, as well as unexpected blessings from those wiser than we.  Finally there is the strategy represented by the north and Dan: stepping away when we need to, coming out of hiding, and doing the unexpected.

May all these elements be present when we organize our own lives.

Haftarah for Bemidbar–Hosea: An Unequal Marriage

May 18, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Posted in Bemidbar, Hosea | Leave a comment
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Everyone obeys God in the opening Torah portion of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar (“in a wilderness”), as the Israelites prepare to leave Mount Sinai and head toward their promised land.

And the children of Israel did everything that God commanded Moses; thus they did.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 1:54)

The people’s compliance falls apart even before they reach the border of Canaan. But for a while, in the wilderness, Israel and God enjoy a honeymoon.

The metaphors of courtship and marriage to express the covenant between God and the Israelites is popular in later Jewish writing, but it does not show up in the Hebrew Bible until the Latter Prophets. Going by the order of the books in the Hebrew Bible, the first occurrence is in Isaiah; going by the prophets in historical order, the first occurrence is in the book of Hosea, who lived in the 8th century B.C.E.

In this week’s haftarah (the reading from the Prophets that accompanies the Torah portion), Hosea criticizes the northern kingdom of Israel for worshiping other gods. He calls the kingdom the “mother” of the Israelites, and declares that she has abandoned her legitimate “husband”, God, and become a harlot.

At first Hosea, speaking God’s words, says Israel has abused her marriage covenant so badly that she and God are now divorced.

Rebuke your mother, rebuke; for she is not my wife, and I am not her ish. (Hosea 2:4)

ish (אִישׁ) = man, husband. (Out of the two Biblical terms for “husband”, ish and ba-al, ish is the more affectionate one.)

Next God promises to inflict drought on Israel. When she turns to other gods for help, God will frustrate her.

She will pursue her lovers, but she will not catch them. She will seek them, but she will not find them. Then she will say: I will go and return to my first ish, because it was better for me then than now. (Hosea 2:9)

After Israel has this thought, God will continue to punish her for a while, destroying her vines and fig trees. Then suddenly God’s behavior toward Israel will change. God will woo Israel into a second marriage, one that will last forever.

Therefore I myself will become her seducer, and I will lead her through the wilderness, and I will speak to her heart. (Hosea 2:16)

What will lead God to become Israel’s seducer?  Is it a response to her pursuit of other gods? Or to her brief realization that she was better off with her first husband, the god of Israel—even though she does not follow up on this realization by pursuing or seeking out God?

After speaking to her heart, God says, God will give Israel good farmland again.

She will respond there as in the days of her youth, as on the day she came up from the land of Egypt. And it will be on that day—declares God—you will call me “my ish”, and you will no longer call me “my ba-al”. I will remove the names of the be-alim from her mouth, and their names will no longer be remembered. (Hosea 2:17-19)

ba-al (בַּעַל), plural be-alim (בְּעָלִים) = owner, husband, master; the West Semitic god of weather, fertility, and war. (The be-alim were different local versions of Ba-al.)

Here the book of Hosea makes two predictions via one word, ba-al. The text says both that Israel will devote herself only to God, forgetting the gods (be-alim ) who were her illicit lovers; and that Israel will think of God affectionately, as a husband who is her ish (her man), rather than her ba-al (her master).

The haftarah portion ends with a marriage formula (which has become part of the prayer for putting on tefillin):

I will betroth you to me forever, and I will betroth you to me with rightness and with lawfulness, and with loyalty and with mercy; and I will betroth you to me with faithfulness, and veyadat God. (Hosea 2:21-22)

veyadat (וְיָדַתְּ) = and you will know. (Biblical Hebrew generally uses the verb yada for knowledge from direct experience, including sexual knowledge.)

This strikes me as an amazing betrothal. In our modern world, when two human beings get engaged, we assume both parties want the marriage and are independently motivated to commit to it. But in this passage, all the commitment comes from God.

Are rightness, lawfulness, loyalty, mercy, and faithfulness the qualities God is promising to exhibit as Israel’s husband? Or are they the qualities God intends to instill in Israel so the marriage can last?

Either way, all Israel does is respond when God speaks to her heart (and gives her farmland). God does not require any prior seeking out, repentance, or reform on Israel’s part. Israel is not required to embody rightness, lawfulness, loyalty, mercy, and faithfulness on her own initiative. God will take care of everything.

And then, the text promises, you will know God.

I suspect that most of us have to search with all our selves, conscious and unconscious, in order to find God. I know my own efforts result in teasing glimpses or transient feelings, but I have never yet been able to say I “know” God.

Yet maybe for some of us, it is enough merely to wonder if we would be better off with God than we are now. Maybe God might unexpectedly speak to our hearts, or inside our hearts, whether we have made an effort or not. And then we would know God, from the inside.

May everyone who needs a personal “marriage” to God be blessed to hear God speak in their hearts, and to know God.


Naso (and Bemidbar): Four Duties, Four Directions

May 29, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Posted in Bemidbar, Naso | 2 Comments

Out of all the twelve tribes of Israel, only men from the tribe of Levi take care of the portable sanctuary (the inner Tent of Meeting, and the outer courtyard) and conduct the religious cult there.  The original Levi is the third son of Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, in the book of Genesis/ Bereishit.  He has three sons of his own:  Geirshon, Kohat (or Kehat), and Merari.  The descendants of these three sons are the three clans of Levites in the book of Numbers (called Bemidbar, “In the Wilderness”, in Hebrew).

Whenever the Israelites break camp and make another journey through the wilderness, someone has to dismantle the sanctuary, carry the pieces, and reassemble it at the next camp.   Last week’s Torah portion assigns the priests (Aaron and his sons Elazar and Itamar, who happen to be descendants of Kohat) the job of wrapping up the most holy objects.  These objects are they carried by the non-priests in the Kohat clan of Levites.

This week’s portion, Naso (“Lift”), begins with a description of what the other two clans of Levites carry.

Geirshonites:  They shall carry the curtains of the santuary and of the Tent of Meeting; its roof-covering and the covering of the leather that is on top of it, and the covering of the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  This is the duty of the families of the sons of Geirshon in the Tent of Meeting; and their custody is in the hand of Itamar, son of Aaron the priest.  (Numbers/ Bemidbar 4:25, 4:28)

Merarites:  And this is their custody and their burden for all their duty in the Tent of Meeting:  the planks of the sanctuary, and its cross-pieces and its uprights and its sockets.  And the uprights of the courtyard all around, and their sockets and their pegs and their tent-ropes, including all of their tools for all of their duty; and you shall assign, by name, the tools for their custody and their burden.  This is the duty of the families of the sons of Merari; all their duty in the Tent of Meeting is in the hand of Itamar, son of Aaron the priest. (Numbers 4:31-33)

avodah: = duty, labor, service; work done not for oneself, but for another person or for God

In the Torah, the priests rank the highest in the hierarchy, and get the “holiest” duties.  When the sanctuary is dismantled, carried to the next camping-place, and reassembled, the priests’ duties include wrapping up the most sacred objects in various coverings, and supervising the other Levite men and assigning them their individual jobs.

The Kohatites carry the most sacred objects after they are wrapped:  the ark itself, the lampstand, the table for the twelve loaves of bread, and the incense altar.

The Geirshonites carry the walls of the sanctuary, which are all woven fabric, and the two layers of roofing over the inner Tent of Meeting, a large panel of woven goat-hair and another of waterproof leather.

The Merarites carry all the pieces of framework that hold up the inner Tent of Meeting and the outer courtyard wall.

Thus the four groups (the priests and the three Levite clans) have four different duties when the people journey.  And when the camp is set up again, these four groups pitch their personal family tents close to four different sides of the sanctuary.

Moses and the priests camp to the east, in front of the entrance to the sanctuary’s outer courtyard.  (The entrances to the Tent of Meeting and the innermost Holy of Holies also face east.)  The Kohatites camp on the south side of the sanctuary, the Gershonites on the west side, and the Merarites on the north side.

The words used in this part of the book of Numbers for east, south, west, and north all have another meaning:

keidmah = toward the east;  toward the front, the origin, the ancient time

teymanah = toward the south; from the root word yamin = right hand (the hand of favor and power)

yamah = toward the west; toward the sea

tzafonah = toward the north;  toward the hidden

The priests have the most perilous duty; they must touch the most holy objects in order to wrap them for transport.  They are also responsible for what the Levites do.  Their place is in the east, toward the ancient time, the origin of the human race.  (In Genesis, as soon as God has created a human being, God puts the adam  in the garden of Eden, which is in the “east”.)

Today, if we take on religious leadership, we need to remember that some people look up to us, and look to us for guidance.  Whatever we model, as well as teach, will have a deep effect on other human beings.  This is indeed a perilous duty.

The Kohatites get the next most dangerous job, carrying the holy objects on their shoulders without touching or seeing them directly.  Their place is in the south, at the favored right hand of the priests.

Today, when we choose to follow a religious leader, to serve at their right hand, we receive the gift of everything we learn from them.  But we are also responsible for carrying and passing on their teachings in a way that continues their good work—and does not degenerate into the idol-worship of mere objects and appearances.

The Geirshonites are responsible for walls and roofs.  Their place is to the west, toward the sea.

We often assume that if we put up psychological walls, we can actually keep the good stuff in and the bad stuff out.  If we put up a mental roof, we can operate in the mundane world without worrying about any inscrutable mysteries, anything that might be called God.  But we need to remember that walls and roofs are not as permanent as they might seem. Something that looks solid may turn out to be flimsy fabric, as fluid as the sea.  Like the wall of water when the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea, a psychological wall might protect us, or might crash down and drown us.

The Merarites are responsible for the supporting framework of the sanctuary.  Their place is to the north, the place where things are hidden.

Many treasures are hidden from us, including knowledge and insight.  We don’t even know ourselves.  The only way we can find any hidden insights is by periodically dismantling the structure of our beliefs, carrying the pieces to a new place we have not been before, and erecting a new framework of supporting beliefs and theories.

Sometimes we can linger in one place in our lives, enjoying its blessings.  Then something changes; the presence of God rises and moves on, so to speak, and our blessings disappear.  That’s when we have to dismantle our lives, our own sanctuaries, and journey to a new place.

When we sense that we’ve arrived at the next place where God wants us, we have to rebuild our lives.  First we do the work of the Merarites, erecting a new framework, a new set of theories about life to support us and allow us to continue uncovering hidden insights.  Next we do the work of the Gershonites, hanging walls and draping roofs, separating our interior space from the exterior world while recognizing that the barriers are fluid.  Then we do the work of the Kohatites, setting down the holy objects, our most sacred convictions, in their proper places so that they are no longer burdens.  And finally we do the work of the priests, unwrapping the holy objects, revealing the golden treasures of our souls just enough so we can do the holy work  of  influencing the world for the good.

Bemidbar: Don’t Look

May 25, 2011 at 10:26 am | Posted in Bemidbar | Leave a comment

This week we begin reading the Book of Numbers, which in Hebrew is called Bemidbar, “In the Wilderness”.  Later in this book the Israelites and their fellow-travelers do leave Mt. Sinai and travel across the wilderness, all the way to the banks of the Jordan River.  But first they need instructions on how to take down and set up their camp as they travel, including the portable sanctuary and all its sacred objects.

At this point there are only three priests, Aaron and his two surviving sons.  They are responsible for wrapping and unwrapping the holy objects—the ark, the bread table, the lamp-stand and its utensils, the incense altar, and the utensils for the big altar.  The priests must also supervise the Levites, who take down and set up the rest of the sanctuary, and carry everything while they journey.

Out of the three clans of Levites, the Kohatites get the job of carrying the holiest objects.  This is both the highest honor for a Levite, and the most dangerous work.

God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying:  Don’t cut down the tribe of the families of the Kohatites from among the Levites.  Do this for them, so they will live and they will not die: when they approach the Holy of Holies, Aaron and his sons shall come in and assign each man his service and his burden to carry.  And they shall not come in to look as the holy is bala, or they will die.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 40:17-20)

bala = swallowed up, completely enclosed, confused.  (Bala is sometimes translated in this passage as “inserted”.  The Talmud, Sanhedrin Tractate, says it’s a metaphor for “stolen”.)

A lot of commentary puzzles over the meaning of  bala in the passage above.  The root meaning of the verb (spelled bet-lamed-ayin) seems to be “swallow”, and its other uses are probably derived from that.  How could holy things be swallowed?  Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) said it means the Kohatites must not see “the holy” until it is completely covered with its wrappings.  Some 20th-century translators argue that the ancient Israelites had an idiom using the word “swallow” that was parallel to our “in the blink of an eye”; thus the Kohatites must not look at “the holy” even for as long as it takes to swallow.

Commentators also disagree about whether “the holy” in this sentence means all the holy objects wrapped up by the priests, or only the ark.  Personally, I think it can’t mean all the objects the priests wrap up, since all the Israelites can see the utensils for the big altar every day, when the priests burn sacrificial animals there.  “The holy” might include the objects in the inner sanctum where all the priests go to light the menorah, burn incense, and replace the bread on the table.   But I think “the holy” in this context just refers to the ark in the innermost enclosure, the Holy of Holies, where only Moses and the high priest can go.

I’ve read a number of reasons why it might be deadly to look at the ark when it’s uncovered.  One is that the  privilege of seeing the Holy of Holies would inflate a Kohatite with too much pride.  Another is that seeing the ark as a physical object would lead him to think of God as a physical object.  Yet another is that someone who sees the ark would be irresistibly drawn to touch it.  Levites could safely touch the carrying poles that were permanently attached to the ark, but touching the ark itself causes instant death.  (In 1 Samuel 6:19, God kills the men of Bet-Shemesh when they look at, or maybe into, the ark.  In 2 Samuel 6:6, Uzzah touches the ark in order to keep it from falling off a cart, and the divine power kills him anyway.  It doesn’t say whether the ark was covered that time.)

So looking at the ark leads to egotism, or to demeaning God, or to death by contact with this terrifyingly holy object.  Of course the priests should keep the Kohatites from seeing the ark before it’s completely covered.  And of course when the sanctuary is all set up, with the ark in its curtained enclosure, it should be seen only by the high priest, once a year.  Yet the passage I translate above seems to imply that lesser priests are allowed to see the ark every time they dismantle and set up the sanctuary.

On the other hand, the priests could cover the ark with the specified layers of cloths without actually looking at it (or touching it).  I think the Torah assumes they have the willpower to do this.  But the Kohatites waiting to receive the covered-up ark would not be able to resist peeking—not unless the priests assigned them tasks that would keep them busy from the time the curtains came down until the ark was covered.  After all, if you can take positive action when faced with a deadly temptation, it’s easier to redirect your mind and resist.

Maybe if Adam and Eve had been given the job of weeding around the Tree of Knowledge in the garden of Eden,  they could have resisted the temptation to taste its fruit.

What tempts you?  Hot fudge?  The body of a person who is off-limits for you?  Personal power?  How do you resist?

What is it like to be tempted by divine power?  To feel the urge to go beyond feeling awe and accepting the mystery?  To want to touch, to enter, something beyond reason, something so alien to normal human thinking that contact with it could destroy you?

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