Chukkat: The Price of Silence

June 28, 2017 at 1:20 pm | Posted in Chukkat | Leave a comment
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Miriam dies while the Israelites are camped in the wilderness of Tzin in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (Law). Then the people complain, once again, that Moses brought them from Egypt into the wilderness only so they and their livestock would die of hunger and thirst.1 Moses and Aaron both throw themselves on their faces. (See last week’s post, Korach: Face Down.)

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Take the staff and assemble the community, you and your brother Aaron. Vedibartem to the rock, before their eyes, and it will give its water.  Vehotzeita for them water from the rock, vehishkita the community and their livestock.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:7-8)

vedibartem (וְדִבַּרְתֶּם) = and you (plural) shall speak (i.e. both Moses and Aaron shall speak).

vehotzeita (וְהוֹצֵאתָ) = and you (singular) shall bring forth (i.e. Moses shall bring forth).

vehishkita (וְהִשְׁקִיתָ) = and you (singular) shall provide drink to.

Moses Strikes the Rock,
by James Tissot

God apparently wants Moses and Aaron to use the staff only to assemble the community, not to trigger the miracle—unlike 39 years before, when God told Moses to bring water from a rock by striking it with his staff. 2

Once the people are assembled, (both) Moses and Aaron are supposed to speak to the rock. As a result, Moses (alone) will bring forth water. Did a careless scribe mix up the plural and singular verb suffixes? Or is God making a deliberate distinction between what both brothers should do and what only Moses is responsible for?

And Moses took the staff from in front of God, as [God] had commanded him. (Numbers 20:9)

Only Moses takes the staff “from in front of God”, i.e. out of the Tent of Meeting.  This is the staff with Aaron’s name written on it. In the previous Torah portion, Korach, the leader of each tribe lends his staff to Moses, who writes the leader’s name on it. 3  Moses leaves the twelve staffs in the Tent of Meeting overnight (Numbers 17:17-21). In the morning, Aaron’s staff has bloomed and produced almonds, proving that God has chosen him (Numbers 17:22-23). (See my post Korach: Early and Late Bloomers.)

Moses returns the unaltered staffs to the tribe leaders, but follows God’s instructions to put Aaron’s staff back in the Tent as a sign for the “children of mutineers”—the next generation. (Numbers 17:25). Showing the complainers this staff would remind them that God gave authority to the tribe of Levi, whose leaders are Aaron and Moses.

And Moses and Aaron assembled the assembly in front of the rock, and he said to them: “Listen up, mutineers!  Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” (Numbers 20:10)

Moses brings out the staff, but both Moses and Aaron assemble the Israelites, as instructed. Next both Moses and Aaron are supposed to speak to the rock. Instead, Moses speaks to the Israelites. Losing his patience, he implies that he and Aaron have the power to bring water out of the rock. He does not mention God.

Moses Striking the Rock,
by Marc Chagall

And Moses raised his hand and he struck the rock twice with his staff.  And abundant water came forth, and the community and their livestock drank. (Numbers 20:11)

Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses hits it with the staff—just as he did at another waterless camp 39 years earlier, following God’s directions.4  Now God has changed the directions, but Moses does what worked last time. The Torah now says it is his staff.

Why does the miracle occur anyway? Maybe the staff retains some power from its miraculous blossoming in the Torah portion Korach. 12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra suggested that Moses has become able to do small miracles by himself. Or maybe God is covering for Moses, so the people will continue to follow him.

But will the people follow Moses because he is God’s prophet, or because they believe he has power of his own? Even though God let the miracle proceed, God is not amused.

And God said to Moses and to Aaron: “Because lo he-emantem in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Israelites, therefore lo taviyu this assembly to the land that I have given to them.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:12)

lo he-emantem (לֺא הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם) = you (plural) did not believe, have faith, put trust.

lo taviyu (לֺא תָבִיאוּ) = you (plural) shall not lead.

Only Moses hits the rock, yet God accuses both men of failing to trust God and therefore failing to increase the Israelites’ awe of God. So God decrees the same punishment for both Moses and Aaron.

Commentators have generated many different reasons why God decides to punish Moses. (David Kasher presented 18 of them in his ParshaNut post on Chukkat in 2015.)  But why does God also punish Aaron?

Here is what we know about Aaron’s actions during this episode:

1) When the Israelites complain, both Moses and Aaron throw themselves on their faces. Although God addresses Moses, commentators assume that Aaron also heard God’s instructions.

2) After Moses brings the staff with Aaron’s name on it out of the Tent of Meeting, both Moses and Aaron assemble the people in front of the rock, as instructed.

3) Aaron stands by silently as Moses says: “Listen up, mutineers!  Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Unlike Moses, Aaron does not lose his temper. He does not say that he and Moses will make a miracle. On the other hand, he fails to mention God’s name after Moses omits it.

4) Aaron watches silently while Moses strikes the rock twice with Aaron’s staff. He does not try to stop Moses. He does not speak to the rock himself, even though God asked him, as well as Moses, to do so.

Apparently God blames him for his silence and inaction.  God refrained from punishing Aaron after he made the Golden Calf 5, but now God punishes him for doing nothing.

God announces Aaron’s immanent death later in this week’s Torah portion:

God said to Moses and to Aaron at Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom: “Aaron will be gathered to his people [here]; for he will not come into the land that I have given to the Israelites, because meritem My word concerning the water at Merivah.”  (Numbers 20:23-24)

meritem (מְרִיתֶם) = you (plural) mutinied against, rebelled against. (A form of the word that Moses called the Israelites: morim, מֺרִים = mutineers, rebels.)

Moses mutinies through his speech to the Israelites and through his action in hitting the rock.  Aaron mutinies through silence and inaction.

Who can blame Aaron for letting the great prophet Moses take the lead, as usual, and making no effort to correct him?

God can, and does.

In my own life, I often wonder when to speak up and when to be silent. Writing a letter to your congressman is not like sitting next to a person in authority who is doing the wrong thing—perhaps while holding a staff with your name on it.  This Torah portion demonstrates that if you know what is right, then you must speak up, or you are equally guilty.

But how and when to speak is seldom clear.

May all of us be blessed with the ability to know when the situation is so urgent and important we must speak immediately, in public; when it is better to wait and speak in private or at another time; and when it is better to be silent.

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

1  When the Israelites camp at Refidim, between the Reed Sea and Mount Sinai, they complain that there is no water, and that Moses brought them from Egypt into the wilderness only so they and their livestock would die of thirst (Exodus/Shemot 17:1-3).

2 At Refidim, when the Israelites complain about the lack of water, God tells Moses to hit a rock, using “your staff with which you struck the Nile” (Exodus 17:5). This is also the staff God uses to perform a demonstration miracle at the burning bush (Exodus 4:2-4), and both Moses and Aaron use to trigger God’s miracles in Egypt (Exodus 7:9-10:13) and the parting of the Reed Sea (Exodus 14:16).

After everyone drinks the water from the rock at Refidim, the people name the spot Massah-u-Merivah, “Trial and Strife” (Exodus 17:7). In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, God identifies the new spot where Moses hits the rock as Merivah, “strife” (Numbers 20:13, 20:24).

3  After Refidim (Exodus 17:5), no staff is mentioned until the Torah portion Korach. The Torah does not say whether Aaron’s staff in the portion Korach is the same as the staff both brothers used in the book of Exodus.

4  Exodus 17:6.

5  Exodus 32:1-6.

 

Korach: Face Down

June 21, 2017 at 11:29 am | Posted in Chukkat, Korach, Shelach-Lekha | 1 Comment
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Moses falls on his face three times in this week’s Torah portion, Korach—and each time, he does it on purpose.

The Torah portion begins with a Levite named Korach challenging his cousins Moses and Aaron. Standing with him are three rebels from the tribe of Reuben and 250 prestigious men (described first as chieftains, then as Levites for the rest of the story).

And they assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and they said to them: “You have too much! Because all the congregation, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves over the assembly of God?” Moses listened. Vayipol on his face. (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:3-4)

Vayipol (ו־יּפֺּל) = Then he fell (by accident or on purpose), then he threw himself down.

Why does Moses suddenly drop to the ground, face down?

*

Bowing to Hamaan

The Hebrew Bible refers to prostration in two ways: nofeil al panav (נֺפֵל עַל פָּנָיו, falling on one’s face) and mishtachaveh (מִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה, bowing low). Mishtachaveh could be to anything from a deep standing bow, to kneeling and putting one’s forehead to the floor, to stretching out full length. It is a formal and deliberate act in the Torah, signifying deference, obeisance, or worship. Extrabiblical sources confirm that mishtachaveh was required before kings and other persons of authority in ancient Egyptian and Persian courts. In the Bible, Joseph’s brothers bow down to Joseph when he is an Egyptian viceroy,1 and when Hamaan is the Persian viceroy all the king’s employees except Mordecai bow down to him.2

Falling on one’s face, or throwing oneself down onto one’s face, is a more dramatic prostration. People fall on their faces 27 times in Hebrew Bible3:

—7 times before another person, as an expression of submission4,

—11 times before a manifestation of God, from being overcome with awe5, and

—9 times in order to initiate communication with God.6

Only Abraham, Joshua, Ezekiel (twice), and Moses (once by himself and four times with Aaron) are brave enough to initiate communication with God. They want God to speak to them directly and answer their question and/or tell them what to do next. To grab God’s attention, they have to do something more dramatic than a formal prostration.

Moses first falls on his face in last week’s portion, Shelach-Lekha. The Israelites have been weeping all night in despair of taking over Canaan, and they decide to choose a new leader and go back to Egypt. In the morning,

Vayipol, Moses and Aaron, on their faces in front of the whole assembly of the community of Israelites. (Numbers 14:5)

Stoning, from a sketch by Piola Domenico, 17th century

Some commentators7 propose that Moses and Aaron are prostrating themselves to the Israelites as a silent gesture pleading for them to change their minds. I cannot agree. Moses may be humble, but nowhere else in the bible does someone in authority bow down or fall on his face to someone under his own supervision. It is Joshua and Caleb who use a silent gesture to plead with the Israelites, tearing their clothes as mourners do. Then Joshua and Caleb try verbal persuasion, while Moses and Aaron remain silent. I believe Moses and Aaron fling themselves down and wait for God to respond. God finally manifests just in time to stop the Israelites from stoning Joshua and Caleb.

*

Moses gets a faster response when he throws himself on his face at the opening of this week’s Torah portion. Although God’s words are not recorded, God apparently tells Moses what to do about Korach’s challenge, because Moses then tells Korach and his men there will be a divine test.

“Do this: Take for yourselves fire-pans, Korach and all his company. And you shall place embers in them, and put incense on them, in front of God tomorrow. And the man who, God chooses, he is the holy one.” (Numbers 16:6-7)

The next morning, when Korach and his 250 Levites arrive at the Tent of Meeting with their fire-pans and incense, God tells Moses and Aaron to stand at a safe distance while God annihilates the challengers. This time Moses and Aaron fall on their faces in order to get God to listen to them.

Vayiplu [Moses and Aaron] on their faces, and they said: “God, God of the spirits of all flesh, one man is guilty, and you rage against the whole community? (Numbers 16:22)

Vayiplu (וַיִּפְּלוּ) = and they fell, and they threw themselves down. (Another form of the verb nafal, נָפַל.)

The action suddenly shifts to where three ringleaders—the Ruevenites Datan and Aviram, and the Levite Korach—are standing defiantly at the entrances of their own tents. God instructs Moses to tell everyone to stand back from the three tents. Then God makes the earth swallow the tents, the three ringleaders, and their families.

In a thoroughly edited story8, the reader might now expect God to respond to Moses and Aaron’s plea by pardoning the 250 Levites who had stood with Korach. Instead, the action hops back to the story of the Levite rebellion:

And fire went out from God and it consumed the 250 men offering the incense. (Numbers 16:35)

The next day all the Israelites protest against Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the death of 253 people.

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Get up away from the midst of this community, and I will consume them in an instant.”  Vayiplu on their faces.  Then Moses said to Aaron: “Take the incense pan and place fire on it from the altar, and put in incense, and go quickly to the community and atone for them, because the rage has gone out from before God.  The affliction has begun.”  (Numbers 17:9-11)

Instead of following God’s order and running away, Moses and Aaron throw themselves down on their faces. This time they catch God in the middle of slaughtering the Israelites with a fast-acting disease. But Moses finds out how to stop the epidemic, and Aaron’s incense does the trick. If they had not fallen on their faces, perhaps God would have wiped out everyone.

Moses and Aaron fall on their faces one more time, in next week’s Torah portion, Chukkat. The Israelites are complaining that there is no water to drink.

And Moses and Aaron moved from facing the assembly to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, vayiplu on their faces, and the glory of God appeared. (Numbers 20:6)

They get God’s attention, and God gives Moses instructions for getting water from a rock.

*

Thus Moses throws himself down on his face both to ask God for instructions, and to persuade God to do something different.  Falling on his face gets God’s attention and indicates humility before God. But it also means dropping his own pride and external identity—losing face, in a way. This helps Moses to reopen communication with God.

Today worshipers in many religions use gestures of humility in prayer such as bowing or kneeling, and some even perform prostrations.  But these gestures fall short of the passionate abandon of flinging oneself face-down.

Would falling on our faces help us to get answers from God?

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

1  Genesis 42:6, 43:26, 43:28.

2  Esther 3:2.

3  There are also two occasions when an idol of the Philistine god Dagon falls on its face. The Philisties of Ashdod capture the ark of the God of Israel and put it in their temple of Dagon. For two mornings in a row, when they enter the temple, they discover: Hey! Dagon nofeil (נֺפֵל = is fallen) to his face to the ground before the ark of God! (1 Samuel 5:3, 5:4).

4  People fall on their faces to express submission to David in 1 Samuel 17:49 and 25:23; and 2 Samuel 9:6, 14:22, and 14:33.  The lesser prophet Ovadiah falls on his face before Elijah in surprise and obeisance in 1 Kings 18:7.  Ruth falls on her face before her benefactor Boaz in Ruth 2:10.

5  People fall on their faces before a manifestation of God as a vision (Ezekiel 1:28, 3:23, 43:3, and 44:4; Daniel 8:17; and 1 Chronicles 21:16), a supernatural fire (Leviticus 9:24, I Kings 18:39), or a man who turns out to be an angel (Joshua 5:14, Judges 13:20). In 2 Chronicles 20:18, the people throw themselves on their faces before God after someone utters an unexpected prophecy.

6  Abraham only falls on his face before God once; the result is that God speaks again and gives him further information (Genesis 17:3). Joshua and the elders of Israel fall face down in front of the ark in order to get God to speak to them (Joshua 7:10). Twice, in his visions, Ezekiel throws himself on his face before speaking to God (Ezekiel 9:8, 11:13).

7  E.g. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 750, and Ramban (the acronym for 13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a.k.a. Nachmanides).

8  The text provides two different responses from God because this Torah portion combines two original stories: one about a rebellion by two or three leaders in the tribe of Reuben, and one about a challenge from Korach on behalf of all Levites, who take care of the Tent of Meeting but are excluded from serving as priests.

 

Haftarot for Rosh Hashanah & Shabbat Shuvah—1 Samuel & Hosea:  From Smoke to Words

October 6, 2016 at 11:36 am | Posted in Chukkat, Hosea, Rosh Hashanah, Samuel 1 | Leave a comment
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Almost 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). But the Torah portion this week is Vayeilekh (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:1-30), and it is not assigned a haftarah of its own.

Nevertheless, this week is especially rich in haftarot (plural of “haftarah”) because it includes the two days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) and Shabbat Shuvah, the “Sabbath of Return” to God—all before we dive into Yom Kippur (the “Day of Atonement”) next week.

The haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10.  The reading for the second day is Jeremiah 31:2-20.  And the haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah this Saturday is Hosea 14:2-10. Perhaps it is no accident that during this time of intense prayer from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, two of these three haftarot show that praying with words is better than slaughtering an animal and burning it up into smoke for God.

Prayer is not a dialogue with God, although persons in the Hebrew Bible from Adam to the prophet Malachi do talk with God and hear God’s responses in words—in fact in complete sentences. Sometimes prophets report what God said; other passages are like conversations between two human beings of different rank and power.

first-temple-altarPrayer is more like smoke; it rises up toward God, but God does not answer in words.

Besides having many conversations with God, Moses also prays on behalf of the Israelites when they are traveling through the wilderness south of Edom, 40 years after their exodus from Egypt.  The Israelites complain again about their diet of manna, and God sends poisonous snakes.

Then the people came to Moses and they said: We did wrong when we spoke against God and against you. Hitpalleil to God so He will clear away from us the snakes!  Vayitpalleil, Moses, on behalf of the people. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:7)

Hitpalleil (הִתְפַּלֵּל) = Pray!  (Probably from the same root as pilleil  = reassess. Prayer may be asking for a reassessment from God.)

Vayitpalleil (וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל) = And he prayed.

Here the Israelites confess their misdeed, but they do not believe they can pray to God directly, so they ask Moses, God’s prophet, to do it for them.

Temple altar

Temple altar

Smoke, not spoken prayer, is the primary way to worship God in the first seven books of the Bible. If you want to bring God your devotion, you slaughter an animal and burn up part or all of it on an altar, turning it into smoke. God appreciates the smell of the smoke.  (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.)

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra lays out five categories of offerings burned up into smoke, and each one was transformed into a type of prayer.

1) olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering, to maintain the relationship between the worshiper and God. This became liturgy, written prayers to read, recite, or sing at specific times and occasions.

2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering, to show homage or respect.  This corresponds to prayers of praise.

3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering, to thank God or to express devotion. This corresponds to prayers of thanksgiving.

4) chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering, to fix an unintentional transgression against one of God’s laws; and 5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering, to atone for an intentional wrong (after making amends with the human whom you wronged).  Instead of these two animal offerings, we have prayers of confession asking for God’s forgiveness.

(For more on these smoke offerings, see my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.)

A additional type of prayer in the Bible is the petitionary prayer, in which we ask God to do us a favor. This category includes intercessory prayer, in which a prophet or someone else who is known to be on speaking terms with God utters a petitionary prayer on behalf of a community.

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, any male head of a household can worship God by building an altar and turning an animal into smoke on it.  Gradually this right is restricted in the Hebrew Bible, until animal offerings can only be made at the temple in Jerusalem and under the supervision of priests. Meanwhile, the tradition of individual prayer expands until anyone can do it, and God will hear.

The first prayer in the Bible is an intercessory prayer.  King Avimelekh takes Sarah into his household thinking she is Abraham’s sister, not his wife.  God responds by afflicting the king and all his women with a disease.  Then in a dream, God tells Avimelekh: And now restore the wife to the husband, because he is a prophet vayitpalleil on your behalf, and you will live. But if you do no restoring, know that you will certainly die, you and all that are yours. (Genesis/Bereishit 20:7)

After the king gives Avraham his wife Sarah along with some gifts, Avraham does pray, and God removes the disease.

Intercessory prayers continue to be mentioned in the Bible, including Moses’ prayer regarding the poisonous snakes.  But not until the first book of Samuel, in the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, does someone who has never conversed with God pray for her own sake. On her own initiative, Channah, who has been childless for many years, walks up to the doorway of the temple in Shiloh and prays for a son.

Channah praying from etching by Marc Chagall

Channah praying
from etching by
Marc Chagall

And she was bitter of spirit, vatitpalleil to God, and she wept continually. And she vowed a vow, and she said: God of Armies, if You really see the wretchedness of Your maidservant and You remember me and do not forget Your maidservant, and You give to Your maidservant a seed of men, then I will give him to God for all the days of his life…  (1 Samuel 1:10-11)

vatitpalleil (וַתִּתְפַּלֵּל) = and she prayed.

God does not answer Channah in words, but she does have a son (a “seed of men”), and she brings him to the temple in Shiloh once he is weaned. There she and her husband sacrifice a bull, following the established ritual, then give him to the priest so the boy can serve as an attendant at the temple. (Channah’s son, Samuel (Shmu-eil), later becomes a prophet and a judge of Israel.)

…and they bowed down there to God.  Vatitpalleil, Channah, and she said:

            My heart rejoices in God…

            There is no holy one like God,

            Because there are none except for You. (1 Samuel 2:1-2)

Channah continues with a long psalm praising God’s power. This time her prayer is not petitionary, but a prayer of praise, like a minchah offering.

This Saturday, on Shabbat Shuvah, we read in the book of Hosea:

            Shuvah, Israel, all the way to God, your god,

            For you have stumbled, through your wrongdoing.

            Take devarim with you

            And shuvu to God.

            Say to [God]:

            May You forgive all wrongdoing

            And take the good.

            And we will make amends of the bulls

            Of our lips.  (Hosea 14:2-3)

Shuvah (שׁוּבָה) = Return! (singular, addressing Israel)

shuvu (שׁוּבוּ) =  Return! (plural, addressing the people)

devarim (דְּבָרִים) = words; events, affairs.

Hosea asks the Israelites to make amends and return to God not by slaughtering bulls and burning them on an altar for God, but through the words of their lips, praying for God to forgive them. Instead of the smoke from a chataat or an asham offering, God wants people to return and atone with spoken prayer.

*

As we approach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the haftarah from 1 Samuel reminds us of the power of individual heartfelt prayer, and the haftarah from Hosea reminds us to return—shuvah!—to God through prayer.

A priest cuts the animal’s throat, blood gushes, smoke roils up into the sky—that kind of worship was sure to have an emotional impact.  But even if someone brought the animal for an asham offering to atone for his own misdeed, or even if the high priest was killing the goat for God on Yom Kippur, people watched the show from a distance.

Channah worked harder, pulling out her own words to plead with God.  Hosea asks us to work harder, bringing our own personal words of confession to God, and returning to the holy one by praying for forgiveness.

It is possible to mouth formulaic prayers without thinking about them. But I believe it is better for our souls if we plumb our own depths, find our own words to bring to God, and do the work.

 

Haftarat Chukkat—Judges: A Peculiar Vow

July 12, 2016 at 11:45 am | Posted in Chukkat, Judges | 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 Chukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1) and the haftarah is Judges 11:1-33.
Yiftach by Guillaume Rouille

Yiftach
by Guillaume Rouille

Why would a man who is clear-headed, cool, and careful with words suddenly make a vow that threatens his only child?

The haftarah from Judges introduces Yiftach as a man who is an outcast through no fault of his own.

Yiftach of Gilad was a capable warrior, and he was the son of a prostitute, and he was begotten by Gilad. Then the wife of Gilad bore him sons, and the sons of his wife grew up and they drove out Yiftach. They said to him: “You shall not inherit in our father’s household, because you are the son of another woman.” So Yiftach fled from his brothers, and he settled in the land of Tov, and men without means gathered around Yiftach and went out with him. (Judges 11:1-3)

Yiftach (יִפְתָּח) = he opened.  “Jephthah” in English translations.

Grassland in Gilad (now in west Jordan)

Grassland in west Gilad
(now in Jordan)

Gilad (גִּלְעָד) = “Gilead”, the region east of the Jordan River, settled by the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menashe in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar because it was good for cattle. Yiftach’s father is probably called “Gilad” because he is the chief or de facto king of the region; the Bible often refers to a king by the name of his country.

The oldest son of a chief does not automatically become the next chief, but all of a man’s sons are entitled to a share of his property.  As a capable warrior, Yiftach could attack his half-brothers when they refuse to share with him. But he is too sensible to take this risk. Instead he accepts that he has been deprived of both his home and any of his father’s herds, and he flees to a remote part of east Gilad.

There he leads a band of landless men who “go out”—probably to raid villages for spoils, a common occupation in the ancient Near East.

Later, the Ammonites to the south attack the Giladites and capture some of their towns.  Since Gilad has no war leader, a delegation of elders travels to Tov and asks Yiftach to take the job.  He refuses on the grounds that he was disinherited and driven away. So the elders make him a better offer.

“You shall go with us and you shall battle against the Ammonites and you shall become our chief, for all the inhabitants of Gilad.” (Judges 11:8)

Yiftach, clever and careful, rephrases their offer to mean that he will be the permanent chief of Gilad, even after the Ammonites are defeated:

“If you are bringing me back to battle against the Ammonites, and God gives them up to me, it is I who will be your chief.” (Judges 11:9)

The elders agree, but as an extra precaution Yiftach repeats his words in front of God at the nearest high place, the mitzpah or lookout post of Gilad.

We can assume he brings his raiders with him and recruits and trains more soldiers.  But his next recorded move is to send a message to the king of the Ammonites:

Gilad at the end of the book of Numbers

Gilad (Menasheh, Gad, and Reuben) at the end of the book of Numbers

“What is between me and you, that you come to me to make war on my land?” (Judges 11:12)

Yiftach addresses the Ammonite ruler as one king to another, as if it were a personal quarrel.  The king of the Ammonites replies that the Israelites took his ancestral land, between the Arnon and Yabok rivers east of the Jordan, when they came up from Egypt centuries ago.  Yiftach replies by explaining that Amorites captured that land before the Israelites arrived, so the Ammonites have no legitimate grudge against the Israelites of Gilad.  This time, the Ammonite king sends no return message.

Up to this point Yiftach has acted cautiously and reasonably. Then something happens to him.

And a ruach of God came over Yiftach.  And he passed through the Gilad and Menasheh, and he passed the lookout of Gilad, and from the lookout of Gilad he passed ahead to the Ammonites. (Judges 11:29)

ruach (רוּחַ) when immediately followed by a name of God = prophetic inspiration or ecstasy; charisma; mood, motivating force, prevailing attitude.

The book of Judges tells of two war leaders before Yiftach who were overcome by a ruach of God: Othniel and Gideon, both of whom were motivated to go to war.  After Yiftach, whenever Samson is overcome by the ruach of God he has a burst of superhuman strength and commits an impulsive act of violence. In the first book of Samuel, King Saul is overcome both by a ruach of prophetic ecstasy and by a ruach that plunges him into foul and suspicious moods—and both kinds of ruach come from God.

What kind of ruach of God comes over Yiftach? The first effect of the divine ruach is that he gathers his troops and goes to fight the Ammonites. But the ruach may have a second effect; immediately after the sentence quoted above, the haftarah continues:

And Yiftach vowed a vow to God, and he said: “If You definitely give the Ammonites into my hand, then it will be the one that goes out from my door of my house to meet me at my safe return from the Ammonites—[that one] will belong to God, veha-alitehu [as] an olah.” (Judges 11:30-31)

veha-alitehu (וְהאעֲלִיתְהוּ) = and I will make him/it go up. (From the root verb alah (עלה) = go up. The –hu ending can mean either a male human or an animal.)

olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering. (Also from the root alah (עלה) = go up.) In an olah an entire slaughtered animal offering is burned up into smoke.

Camel in Egyptian petroglyph

Camel in Egyptian petroglyph

This is not the vow of someone who is thinking clearly. After all, he does not know who or what will come out the door of his house.  The Midrash Rabbah for Leviticus/Vayikra imagines God wondering if Yiftach would offer up a non-kosher animal unsuitable for altar sacrifice, such as a camel, donkey, or dog, if it happened to come out the door first.

Yiftach, who is so well-versed in Israelite history, would know that human beings are also unacceptable as offerings on God’s altar. Yet his vow implies that not only will he give God ownership of the person or animal that comes out of his house, but that he will do so by burning up the man or animal in an olah offering.

Perhaps Yiftach is still under the influence of the ruach of God, and not thinking clearly.

I found three other if-then vows in the Bible, and all three are more practical about the object of the vow. Jacob vows that if God keeps him safe until he returns to his father’s house, then he will give a tithe of all his property to God (Genesis 29:20-22).  Hannah vows that if God gives her a son, she will give him to God as a lifelong servant—a nazir, priest, and/or prophet. (1 Samuel 1:11)  In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites …vowed a vow to God and said: If You definitely give this people into my hand, then I will devote their towns to utter destruction for God. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:2)

In each case, God fulfills the request, and the person who makes the vow gives what he or she promised to God.  God also fulfills the request in this week’s haftarah:

And Yiftach passed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and God gave them into his hand. …twenty towns … a very great blow. And the Ammonites were subdued before the Israelites. (Judges 11:32-33)

So when Yiftach gets home, he must fulfill his unconsidered vow.

daughter of Yiftach 3bThis is where the haftarah ends, but the story continues in the book of Judges:

And Yiftach came to the lookout post, to his house, and hey!—his daughter was going out to meet him, with tambourines and with dancing.  And she was an only child; he had no other son or daughter. (Judges 11:34)

Yiftach’s response shows that he has recovered from the ruach of God that gave him battle fever and led to his muddled vow.

As he saw her, he tore his clothes [in mourning] and he said: Ah! My daughter, I have certainly been knocked down to my knees! And you, you have become okherai. And I, I opened up my mouth to God, and I am not able to turn back. (Judges 11:35)

okherai (עֹכְרָי) = one who cuts me off from social life, one who makes trouble for me.

When Yiftach’s father died, his brothers cut off from his old life and subjected him to troubles.  Now he blames his daughter for doing it again. He also blames himself for making the vow in the first place.

*

I know some people today who seek ecstatic experiences, who want to be overcome by the ruach of God.  And I know people who are driven by a mission they consider sacred, one that has taken over their lives and muddled their thinking, as if they had been overcome by a ruach of God.

As for myself, I would rather keep my head clear and think before I speak.  I would rather be like Yiftach before the ruach hit him.

What about you?

*

(Look for next week’s post (Haftarah for Balak) for an exploration of how Yiftach fulfills his vow, what actually happens to Yiftach’s daughter, and how this story informs next week’s haftarah from the book of Micah.)

Chukkat: Facing the Snake

June 26, 2015 at 2:29 pm | Posted in Chukkat | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

The first time the Israelites in the wilderness complain about food, they are traveling toward Mount Sinai with all their cows, sheep, and goats. Neither meat nor milk is taboo, yet they say:

If only we had died by God’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate our fill of bread!  For you have brought us to this wilderness to kill this whole congregation by famine! (Exodus/Shemot, 16:3)

God responds by providing manna every morning. But when they leave Mount Sinai about a year later, the people complain about the manna:two onions and a garlic on a white background closeup

Who will feed us meat? 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 our nefashot are drying up; there is nothing except the manna before our eyes! (Numbers 11:4-5)

nefashot (נְפָשׁוֹת) = plural of nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = throat, appetite; what animates the body; individual life.

The people are not hungry, merely fed up with their restricted diet. This time, God sends in a huge flock of quail that falls two cubits deep on the ground, and many people die “with the meat still between their teeth”.

This is the generation that refuses to enter Canaan, even after their scouts bring back appetizing fruits. They just want to go back to Egypt. God decrees that they must stay in the wilderness for 40 years.

Detour of Israelites

Detour of Israelites

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“Decree”), most of that generation has died, and the next generation is on its way to Canaan.  Yet when they have to take a long detour around the kingdom of Edom, they complain.

They pulled out from Mount Hor by way of a sea of reeds, to go around the land of Edom, and on the way the nefesh of the people became katzar. And the people spoke against God and against Moses:  Why bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and there is no water, and our nefesh is katzah with the unappetizing food. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:4-5)

katzar (קָצַר) = was short, was shortened.  When used with nefesh, katzar is an idiom meaning “impatient”.

katzah (קָזָה) = at an end, at its limit.  When used with nefesh, katzah is an idiom meaning “fed up”.

They sound just like their fathers—but with an important difference.

When the earlier generation gets obsessive about food, they want to go back to Egypt.  The second generation complains about the manna only when they have to take a long detour on their way to the “promised land”.  They are impatient to reach Canaan and start eating normal food in the land God that wants them to occupy and farm.

Instead of killing them with quail, God responds by letting the snakes in the wilderness bite them.

Then God let loose the burning nechashim against the people. and they bit the people, and many of the people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and they said:  We are at fault, because we spoke against God and you.  Pray to God, and he will remove the nachash from upon us! And Moses prayed on behalf of the people. (Numbers 21:6-7)

nechashim (נְחָשִׁים) = plural of nachash (נָחָשׁ) = snake.  (This word is related to the verb nachash (נָחַשׁ) = did divination, read omens.)

The new generation of Israelites has learned that Moses is their intermediary with God.  More mature than their fathers, they apologize, and ask Moses to mediate for them.

Why does God respond with snakes?  The Torah has already associated the snake (which literally travels on its belly) with food cravings and journeys. In the story of the Garden of Eden, the snake encourages the woman to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.  God decrees that the snake will go on its belly and eat dust. (Genesis/Bereishit 3:1-14) Jacob prophesies that the tribe of Dan will be “a snake upon the road”. (Genesis 49:17)

So snake bites are an appropriate punishment—but maybe God’s intent is not punishment.  Maybe God is starting to prepare the people for life in Canaan, where they will be independent, and cannot expect any more divine miracles—such as the miraculous (if monotonous) food, and the miraculous removal of snakes from their path.

Naturally, the people ask Moses to ask God to remove the snakes again.  Instead, God offers a cure for snake bite.

Nechash nichoshet

Nechash nichoshet

God said to Moses: Make yourself a saraf and put it on a pole, and all of the bitten will see it and live. So Moses made a nechash nichoshet and he put it on the pole, and if a nachash bit someone, then he would look at the nechash nichoshet and live. (21:8-9)

saraf (שָׂרָף) = a burning creature.  (From the verb saraf (שָׂרַף) = burn in a fire.  In the book of Isaiah, a saraf is a creature with six wings who lives in the visionary space around God’s throne.  In the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, a saraf seems to be a venomous snake.)

nechash nichoshet (נְחַשׁ נִחֹשֶׁת) = a snake of a copper alloy (brass or bronze); a divination of copper.

Why would looking at a copper snake on a pole cure someone of snake bite?

Many commentators argue that since Moses made the snake at God’s command, looking at it reminds snake-bite victims of God and induces a prayerful attitude.

According to 19th-century rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the copper snake is a reminder of God’s power to protect people from danger even when they are unaware of it—like the Israelites before God let loose the snakes in their path.

 

I believe looking at the copper snake means looking at the cause of your problem.  It is all too easy for humans to avoid thinking about painful issues.  If snakes start biting you, it does not help to complain, or to ignore it, or to consider it an omen for mystical divination.  The best approach is to look for reasons.

The Israelites looked and saw that they had just complained about God’s manna.  They realized God had kept the snakes away for 40 years, and they knew enough to apologize and ask Moses for help. They received a cure for snake bite.

Alternatively, they might have concluded that the burning snakes lived only along the detour around Edom, and looked forward to heading north again, out of snake country and toward the land God promised them. Either way, they would remember their purpose in life, and view the snake bites as a temporary set-back.

Is something biting you?  Do you feel as though you were burned? Then look at the symbolic snake and figure out the causes of your distress.  Is it a problem you contributed to with an unwise choice?  Is it something you had to go through at the time, but you can avoid in the future?  Is it something that cannot be cured, but that you can accept with grace as you focus on your real purpose in life?

Face your snake!

Chukkat: Two Lives, Two Deaths

June 22, 2014 at 11:44 pm | Posted in Chukkat, Micah | 3 Comments
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Miriam and Aaron both die in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“Decree”). The portion opens in the first month of the fortieth and final year the Israelites must spend in the wilderness. Miriam’s death is described in a single sentence.

The Children of Israel, the whole community, came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and the people stayed at Kadeish. And Miriam died there and she was buried there. (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:1)

kadeish (קָדֵשׁ) =  being holy, being dedicated to God; a Canaanite male temple prostitute; one of two places named before the Israelites took Canaan, presumably sacred spots for non-Israelites (Kadeish in the wilderness of Paran in the southern Negev, or Kadeish in the wilderness of Tzin on the border of Edom).

Canaan and its Neighbors

Canaan and its Neighbors

The Torah says nothing further about Miriam’s death. All the Israelites observe 30-day mourning periods after the deaths of Aaron and Moses. But no official mourning period is set for Miriam.

Aaron dies later in this week’s Torah portion, after the Israelites have begun circling around Edom and Moab. (At the end of this week’s Torah portion they camp on the east bank of the Jordan River, across from Jericho.)

The Torah describes Aaron’s death in detail.

And they pulled out from Kadeish and the Children of Israel, the whole community, came to hor hahar. And God spoke to Moses and Aaron at hor hahar, on the border of the land of Edom, saying: Let Aaron be gathered to his people … Take Aaron and his son Elazar and bring them up to hor hahar. And strip off Aaron’s garments, and clothe his son Elazar. Then Aaron will be gathered, and die there. And Moses did as God commanded, and they headed  up hor hahar before the eyes of the whole community. Moses stripped off Aaron’s garments, and he clothed his son Elazar. And Aaron died there, on the head of hahar. And Moses went down, and Elazar, from hor hahar. Then the whole community saw that Aaron had expired, and the whole house of Israel mourned for Aaron 30 days. (Numbers 20:22-29)

Hor hahar (הֹר הָהָר) = mountain of the mountain, hill on the hill, Hor Mountain. (Rashi—11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki—spoke for the majority of commentators when he wrote that Hor hahar looked like a small mound on top of a large mound.)

Miriam and Aaron both die near the border of Edom. The Torah calls them both prophets, and ranks them both as leaders of the Israelites along with Moses. So why is Miriam’s death described in a single verse, while Aaron’s death takes eight verses?

The books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are full of Aaron, since much of the material concerns the establishment of rituals conducted by male priests and Levites. But the Torah gives Miriam only three scenes.

In her first scene, Miriam comes forward after the pharaoh’s daughter rescues the infant Moses from the Nile. In one sentence (Shall I go and summon a nursing woman from the Hebrews, that she may suckle the child for you?) she gives the pharaoh’s daughter both the idea of adopting the baby, and the idea of hiring a Hebrew woman to nurse him. Then Miriam arranges for her own mother—and Moses’—to be the wet nurse.

Miriam’s second scene comes after the Israelites cross the Reed Sea safely and God drowns the Egyptian army. Then Miriam has another brilliant idea. It was customary, when soldiers came home from a victory, for women to greet them with dancing, drumming, and chanting. Miriam picks up her timbrel and gets the women to do the same thing to celebrate God’s victory.

The Torah calls Miriam a prophetess at this point, and confirms her status as a prophet again in her third scene. Here she speaks out against Moses regarding his wife, and gets Aaron to agree with her. God responds by saying Moses’s level of prophecy trumps Miriam and Aaron’s, and gives her a seven-day skin disease. The people wait for her to recover and rejoin them before they journey on.

Miriam’s role in the Torah is to be a prophet, not a priest. She receives divine inspiration, and inspires other people through her words and actions. I think she dies at a place that was already named holy (Kadeish) because she is intrinsically holy (kadosh). She is dedicated not only to serving God, but also to making things right for human beings.

Hor Hahar, the place where Aaron dies, has neither a holy name, like Miriam’s gravesite, nor a view of the “promised land” of Canaan, like Moses’. It is merely a mountain with an unusual shape.

Aaron is called a prophet, along with Miriam, because he does occasionally hear God’s voice giving instructions. But he lacks inspiration. He fails God and succumbs to the will of the mob when he makes the Golden Calf. He becomes the high priest only when Moses dresses him in the high priest’s garments and anoints him.  After that Aaron spends his days performing rituals and keeping track of holy objects.

The most important part of Aaron’s death is when Moses removes the unique vestments he wears as the high priest, and puts them on his son and successor, Elazar.  What makes someone a high priest is the breastplate with the divining gems, and the gold plate inscribed “Holy to God”. The clothes make the man.

Aaron the high priest is easily replaced by his son, through a change of clothing.  But nobody replaces Miriam.

Aaron has to leave the camp and die with only Moses and Elazar as witnesses. Miriam dies in the camp, surrounded by the Children of Israel.

Yes, I admire Miriam, for her brilliance, her courage, and her dedication to her calling. And I also admire Aaron, for his dedication to the job he was assigned—serving as the people’s high priest for nearly 40 years despite his own personal failure in making the Golden Calf.

In the book of Micah, God reminds the Israelites:

I brought you up from the land of Egypt,

And from the house of slavery I redeemed you,

And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. (Micah 6:4)

It took all three leaders to get the people out of Egypt and ready to enter Canaan: Moses to work with God to create a new religion; Aaron to faithfully play his role within that religion; and Miriam to challenge people and transmit inspiration.

Every person has a different set of abilities, and a different role to play in life.  Whatever our own roles are, may each of us be blessed with the whole-hearted dedication of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

 

Chukkat: Passing Through

June 11, 2013 at 1:31 am | Posted in Chukkat | 2 Comments
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Kings are often synonymous with their countries in the Bible. For example, in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“Decree”), the king of Edom is simply called “Edom”, and when he refuses to give the Israelite permission to pass through his country, he says: You shall not pass through me. (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:18)

We all have rules about other people entering our personal space. Whether our personal space is an inch or an arm-length away from our bodies, we only want people we are intimate with to enter that zone. When anyone else, however benign, comes too close, it feels like an invasion.

In the Torah, the king of Edom acts as though his personal space covers his entire country. After all, he is Edom. He gives no reason for refusing permission for the Israelites to pass through him, and there is no obvious political reason. Although the Israelites have  601,730 fighting men, they are planning to conquer Canaan, not Edom.

Moses sent messengers from Kadeish to the king of Edom: Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardships that have found us. Our forefathers went down to Egypt, and we dwelled in Egypt many years, and the Egyptians were bad to us and to our forefathers. And we cried out for help to God, and God listened to our voice, and sent a messenger and brought us out from Egypt. And hey! We are in Kadeish, a town at the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through a field nor a vineyard, nor will we drink water from a well. On the king’s road we will go; we will not turn aside to the right or the left, until we have passed through beyond your territory. (Numbers 20:14-17)

Kadeish = making holy.

Edom = a large Semitic kingdom south of the Dead Sea, including the mountain range of Seir; a variant of the word adom = red.

According to Genesis/Bereishit, Edom was Esau’s nickname, and became the name of the country he founded. Esau was the brother of Jacob, who became known as Israel. When Moses calls Edom and Israel brothers, he reminds the king that the Israelites are not only fellow Semites, but family. Edom should treat Israel like a brother, feeling empathy for its abuse at the hands of Egypt, and recognizing that God is on the Israelites’ side. By sending his message from Kadeish, rather than any other town on the border, Moses might even be hinting that Israel and Edom are both holy.

His request could hardly be more polite and humble. He does not want to disturb Edom; his goal is to get the Israelites into Canaan, the land God promised them.

The first time the Israelites reached the border of Canaan, 38 years before, they refused to cross it, because they did not trust God to help them take the land.  (See my blog post Shelach-Lekha: Too Late.) God sentenced them to spend a total of 40 years in the wilderness, while the mistrustful generation died off. In this week’s Torah portion, the people have served their time, and the 120-year-old Moses takes responsibility for getting the next generation to Canaan, even though he knows he will die before they cross over.

This time, God does not tell Moses where the Israelites should cross. Nor does Moses fall on his face and ask God. On his own, Moses decides to avoid the southern border, and lead his people around the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, so they can enter Canaan from the northeast, at the Jordan River. The first part of this route crosses the kingdom of Edom, which lies south of the Dead Sea.

But Edom said to him: You shall not pass through me, lest I go out with the sword to oppose you. (Numbers 20:18)

Then the children of Israel said to him: We will go up on the high path, and if we drink your water, I myself or my livestock, then I will give their price. Only nothing will happen. On foot I will pass through it. (Numbers 20:19)

The change from plural to singular in Moses’s second request implies that he identifies with the children of Israel in the way a king identifies with his country. Moses gives up on the convenient road through the farmland of Edom, and asks permission to take the high path over the Seir mountains. Perhaps he thinks the king would find this road less threatening because it does not pass near the Edom’s capitol.  Moses also gives the king of Edom a financial incentive by offering to pay for water. But Edom still feels as if his personal space is threatened.

And he said: You shall not pass through! And Edom went out to oppose him, with a serious fighting-people and a strong hand. And Edom refused to let Israel pass through his territory, and Israel turned away from him. (Numbers 20:20-21)

Moses accepts that the king of Edom does not consider the children of Israel close enough relatives to welcome them into his personal space. Instead of fighting about it, he makes his disgruntled people march over a much longer route. They circle all the way around Edom, going south almost as far as the Gulf of Aqaba, before finally heading north again toward the Jordan River and Canaan.

When do you let someone “pass through” your personal space, coming uncomfortably close before leaving again? When do you insist on passing through someone else’s personal space?

These questions are easy in some settings, such as a medical office, or an elevator in which all the passengers come from the same culture. It can be harder to decide whether to let someone in through your front door. And I often find myself puzzled by the question of whether to hug someone when we say hello or goodbye. I watch my friends and acquaintances to see if they are stepping forward with their hands rising, or keeping their distance.  To be polite, I need to match them—and they need to match me.

I feel invaded when I get a greeting-hug from a stranger, or an acquaintance I don’t like.  I don’t want to let them pass through my personal space. Unfortunately, a few of the people I want to keep at arm’s length are my relatives, and American culture assumes that relatives are intimate.

I can empathize with the king of Edom refusing passage to Israel, even though the Israelites and Edomites have the same great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. To Edom, these people from Egypt are strangers.

And I admire Moses for respecting the king of Edom, and turning away after the king rejects his second polite request. Civilized life requires good boundaries for everyone.

Yet the Israelites are on their way to Canaan, which they conquer by the sword in the book of Joshua. If the old generation had trusted God and crossed the southern border of Canaan when God told them to, 38 years before, would God have arranged for the Canaanites to surrender without bloodshed?  Maybe when the Israelites try again, they have to invade Canaan with battles and sieges because they no longer have God’s full support. Yet they do not give up on the land God promised them, 40 years before. After all, if 601,730 of them are men over 20, the whole population must number at least two million. Two million people need a land. And God promised their parents the land of Canaan.

So in the book of Joshua, the Israelites cross into the personal space of the Canaanite peoples, and insist on staying. Their desperation for a homeland leads to war.

In a just world, every family would have its own home, and every people would have its own country, uncontested. In a just world, every border would be clear, and it would be easy for people to respect each other’s boundaries. But we do not live in a just world. God is not fixing the world for us, so our responsibility is to fix the world for each other. I know I can have only a small effect on the world, but it does make a difference if I treat other humans with respect.

May we all learn to respect boundaries, to compromise without giving up our journey, and to seek peace, like Moses.

Chukkat: Blood and Ash

June 24, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Posted in Chukkat | 1 Comment

The Torah portion that Jews begin reading this Saturday afternoon is Chukkat, “Decree”.  The portion opens with God’s decree about using the ashes of a perfect red cow (or red heifer) after being exposed to death.  For centuries, rabbis have used this decree as the prime example of a law given by God that humans cannot understand, but must merely accept.

Nevertheless, some parts of the decree of the red cow make sense in terms of human psychology.

Speak to the children of Israel, and they shall take to you a completely blood-red cow that has no blemish in her, that never had a yoke put upon her.  (Numbers/ Bemidbar 19:2)

The Torah continues with instructions for slaughtering the cow outside the camp but within view of the sanctuary entrance, and then burning it down to ashes, along with cedar, hyssop, and red yarn.  This ash must be preserved in a safe place outside the camp.  When someone needs spiritual decontamination after being in the presence of a corpse, some of the ash is mixed with “living water” and sprinkled on the affected person.  Only after being sprinkled can that person engage in religious life again.

Anyone who touches a corpse, anyone with a human soul who is destined to die, who does not clear himself of guilt, will contaminate the dwelling-place of God.  And that soul will be cut off from Israel, because if the water of exclusion was not sprinkled upon him, he will be contaminated; his contamination will always be with him.  (Numbers 19:13)

nefesh = soul (the soul that animates a body); throat, appetite

tamei = contaminated, ritually unclean or impure, unacceptable for public worship

The Torah adds that this rule applies not only to touching a corpse, but also to touching a human bone or a grave, or merely entering a tent where someone has just died.

A few days ago, I was “touched” by a moving story my friend told about her stillborn grandson.  Then I walked into a Torah study class, without any ritual in between.  Usually I approach any Torah text as an exciting challenge, and I look forward to wrestling meaning out of it.  This time, the Torah seemed dull and lifeless to me.  It took a while for my mind to recover so I could engage with the Torah.

Witnessing a death, or touching a corpse, is far more “contaminating” than hearing a story about it.  Actual contact with death requires a far greater shift in consciousness to return to the activities of life.  The Torah classifies entering “the dwelling-place of God” as an activity of life.

Over and over again, the Torah insists that the god of the Israelites can only be worshiped when one is tahor (uncontaminated, ritually pure; the opposite of tamei). That means we cannot approach the divine when we are still in touch with  death.  The contrast with ancient Egyptian religion’s focus on death is probably intentional.

(I’ve read that some Christians who meditate on an image of Jesus on the cross find God by focusing first on death, and then on its miraculous transformation.  That would be a third kind of relationship between religion and death.  I’m often amazed by the different deeply-held human beliefs about both God and death.)

Let’s return to the Torah portion.  How would the unique ritual of the ashes of the red cow help someone to make the shift in consciousness from death to life?

On one level, it is significant that the cow is completely red— and the word used for red here is adumah, related to adam, “human”, adamah, “earth”, and dam, “blood”.  The other ingredients the priest throws into the fire when the cow is burned are also reminders of blood:  red cedar-wood, hyssop branches (used in other rituals for sprinkling with blood), and red yarn.  All these things are part of the ash.  When it’s time to sprinkle someone, a little of  the ash is mixed with “living water”, water from a source such as a spring, rather than a well.

The next book of the Torah,  Deuteronomy/ Devarim, says “the blood is the nefesh”, the soul which makes a body alive.  To me, the ritual of the red cow seems to move from life (represented by blood) to death (represented by ashes).  Then death is mixed back into life (represented by living water), and the mixture is sprinkled on a living person who was contaminated by contact with death.

Traditional commentary sees the red cow as representing a human being’s animal nature, which inevitably dies.  But, the rabbis say, humans are a mixture of animal and divine natures, so we must not let an awareness of physical death make us believe we are no more than animals.

The 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that sacrificing the red cow means renouncing our selfish egocentrism, so we can serve God with a pure soul.  Brooding on death gives someone a divided heart; we cannot embrace our moral freedom and sense of eternity when we focus too much on our animal life, which ends in death.  Being sprinkled with a mixture of ashes and living water reminds the person touched by death that life still runs through all human experience, in this world and the world to come.

We don’t have ashes from a perfectly red cow anymore (although there is a literal-minded orthodox group in Israel that’s working on getting some).   So what can we do now to return to life and God after being touched by death?  I suspect that in our highly individualistic culture, we each need to find our own way to return.  For me, a return might begin with a very long walk, with all my senses open to receive, gradually, the wonder of creation.  For you, it might begin another way.  If the contact with death is the passing of someone you love, or news of your own final illness, it might take a long time to finish shifting your consciousness.

But I believe that somehow, we all need to find a way to return—so that we can truly live for as long as we are alive.

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