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

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

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

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

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

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

from Sacra Parallela,
Byzantine, 9th century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Moses finally assembles an army.

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

Women of Midian Led Captive,
by James Tissot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genocide:

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

Repentance:

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

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

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

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

Wash yourselves clean;

            Remove evil from upon yourselves,

            From in front of My eyes.

And stop doing evil;

            Learn to do good.

            Seek justice. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

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

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

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

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

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

1  Genesis 3:12-13.

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

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

4  Genesis 49:10.

5  Leviticus chapter 4.

6  Leviticus chapter 16.

7  Isaiah 1: 19

8  Isaiah 1:27.

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Naso: Distanced by Hair

May 31, 2017 at 11:43 am | Posted in Naso | 1 Comment
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A man suspects his wife of adultery, and takes her to the temple to test her with a magic ritual.

A man or woman takes a vow to live as a holy ascetic and avoid wine.

What do the instructions for the sotah1 (the wife suspected of adultery) have in common with the instructions for the nazir (the holy ascetic)—besides that they appear in the same Torah portion, Naso (“Lift it”)? One answer is:  unbound hair.

The ordeal to establish the guilt or innocence of a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery begins with the priest unbinding the woman’s hair.

And the priest shall make the woman stand before God, and para the head of the woman. Then he shall place upon her palms the grain-offering of the reminding: it is the grain-offering of jealousies. And the water of the bitterness of the cursings shall be in the hand of the priest. (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:18)

para (פָּרַע) = let loose, remove from restraint, let go wild and uncontrolled. (For a head of hair, para = unbind, unbraid.)

The ordeal turns on what happens when wife drinks the magic water in the priest’s hand. (See my post Naso: Ordeal of Trust.) But the first step is to unbind the suspected woman’s hair. The Torah does not say whether married women before the time of the Second Temple bound their hair in cloth, or merely put up their hair in braids or pins. Either way, a wife was probably shamed if her hair came down in public.2

Loose hair marks the suspected wife as outside normal society, at least for the duration of the ordeal. In normal situations both men and women in the Torah restrain their hair in public. The only people who appear in public with unbound or uncovered hair are the mourner3, the metzora (someone afflicted with a certain disease) 4, the sotah, and the nazir.

Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: Any man or woman who vows the extraordinary vow of a nazir, lehazir for God: From wine or alcohol yazir … (Numbers 6:2-3)

nazir (נָזִיר) = someone dedicated for a period of time to devotion to God through abstaining from the usual norms for hair, wine, and mourning. (Plural nezirim, נְזִרִים. From the root nazar, נזר = separated, consecrated.)

lehazir (לְהַזִּיר) = to separate oneself through abstention; to live as a nazir. (From the root nazar.)

yazir (יַזִּיר) = he shall abstain. (From the root nazar.)

Nezerim must abstain not only from drinking any form of alcohol, but also from consuming any grape products. They must avoid all contact with any corpses—even if a family member dies. But even as they restrain themselves from drinking or mourning, they must let their hair grow unrestrained.

All the days of his vow of nizro, no blade shall pass over his head; until the fulfillment of the days that yazir to God,  his big, pera head of hair will be holy to God.  (Numbers 6:5)

nizro (נִזְרוֹ) = his dedication to undertaking the abstentions of a nazir. (From the root nazar.)

pera (פֶּּרַע) = unbound, loose, unrestrained, wild and out of control. (From the verb para; see above.)

Nezirim choose to set themselves apart from normal society for a period of time, like ascetics in other cultures. (See my post Haftarat Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer.) Israelite ascetics, unlike those in most cultures, do not leave their community or their family; but they do follow different rules regarding hair, wine, and corpses.

The unconventional hair of nezirim is a visible sign that they must be treated differently in society—perhaps with extra consideration for the thoughts that absorb them, as the Israelites in the Torah, and Jews today, treat people who are visibly mourning. Similarly, they are distanced from the rest of society by avoiding not only wine, but even grape juice (which might substitute for wine when their friends are drinking).  This social distance marks nezirim as holy, separated and dedicated to God.

When the period of their vow ends, nezirim shave their heads and put their hair on the altar fire, under the wholeness-offering, thus making their wild manes offerings to God.5

Israelite captives with tidy hair in Assyrian relief, 8th Century BCE

Hair is an indicator of a person’s relationship to the rest of society—in the Torah, and today. When I am getting ready to leave the house, I always “fix” my hair. Even today, an acceptable appearance in public includes hair that looks trimmed, combed, and arranged (sometimes in a carefully tousled style).  When someone appears in public with unkempt hair, it means that the person does not belong in normal society, for good reasons or bad.

In the Torah, the pera hair of mourners signals that their thoughts and feelings are so overwhelmed by the death in the family that they should not be expected to engage in normal social intercourse.

The pera hair of metzora-im signals that they are both ritually impure (and so excluded from communal worship) and socially impure (and so excluded from communal life).

The pera hair of the sotah (the wife suspected of adultery) is a sign of shame. Since she has behaved in a socially unacceptable way by being alone with a man other than her husband for even a short time, she is shamed even if it turns out she is not guilty of adultery. (There is no equivalent ordeal for a husband suspected of adultery, since in the Torah marital fidelity is not required of men.)

The pera hair of nezerim signals that their attention is on spiritual communion with God, rather than on social intercourse.

On the streets of my city, people whose hair is greasy and pera are often homeless and/or mentally ill.  Not wanting to be identified with these categories, I make sure my hair is clean and pulled back in a barrette when I go out.

But I have had times of mourning, and times when I am absorbed in questions about the meaning of my life and God.  At those times, when I go out in public for necessary errands, I wish I had a visible signal that would separate me from normal chatter and frivolity, while granting me the respect the Israelites granted to mourners and nezirim.

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

1  The noun sotah does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, though in this week’s Torah portion, Naso, the verb satah is used three times to describe an adulterous woman. (Numbers 5:19, 5:20, 5:29)  The passage concludes: This is the teaching of the kena-ot, when tisteh, a wife, from under her husband, and she becomes impure. (Numbers 5:29)

tisteh (תִּשְׁטֶה) = she goes aside, goes astray. (Satah (שָׁטָה) = he went aside, went astray.)

2  The Babylonian Talmud, Ketuvot 22a, states that when a woman goes out with an uncovered head, she transgresses Jewish practice, and cites Numbers 5:18 as a proof text.  19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch explained: “…the uncovering of the woman’s hair is intended to expose the woman as immodest. The head covering that hides the woman’s hair is an external symbol of her marital fidelity.” (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Bemidbar, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2007, p. 83.)

3  Mourners in the Torah let their hair hang loose and tear their clothing.  In Leviticus/Vayikra 10:6 and 21:10, priests are instructed to refrain from mourning by not doing those two things.  It is still customary for Jews to make a small tear in a shirt or a symbolic ribbon at the funeral of a family member, and then refrain from cutting their hair or shaving their beards for 30 days.

4  A metzora is someone with the skin disease called tzara-at in the Torah. Until a priest declares them cured, metzora-im must be thoroughly segregated from the community, and therefore they must tear their clothing, para their hair, cover their upper lips, call out “Impure! Impure!” when they pass others, and live outside the town or camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46)

5  Numbers 6:18.  According to 19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch, this indicates that the purpose of living for a time as a nazir is self-improvement, so the nazir will rejoin society as a better member of the community—less vain, perhaps, or wiser because of the extra time for self-reflection. (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Bemidbar, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2007, p. 116.)

 

Haftarat Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer

June 15, 2016 at 10:59 am | Posted in Amos, Judges, Naso | 2 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89) and the haftarah is Judges13:2-13:25.

Every religion has members who go beyond what is required of the whole community. In ancient Israel, there were priests, prophets, and nezirim.

drunk womanAnd I raised up some of your sons for prophets

And some of your young men for nezirim.

Is there nothing in this, Children of Israel?

—declares God.

But you made the nezirim drink wine

And you ordered the prophets not to prophesy!  (Amos 2:11-12)

nezirim (נְזִרִים) = “nazirites”: men and women who are dedicated and separated from the rest of the community as holy because they abstain from grooming their hair and drinking alcohol. Nezirim is the plural of nazir (נָזִיר), from the root verb נזר = separate, dedicate, restrain, abstain.

Samson, whose story begins in this week’s haftarah, is a nazir from the womb to the grave, but he fails to make his life holy. Perhaps that is why this week’s Torah portion lays out strict rules and term limits for living as a nazir.

Although the book of Numbers/Bemidbar is set at an earlier time in history than Samson’s story in the book of Judges, modern scholars agree that Judges was written long before the Torah portion Naso in Numbers.  Judges is a collection of old stories of heroes from the 11th century B.C.E. and earlier, stories which were probably compiled and rewritten in the 8th century B.C.E. Large parts of the book of Numbers, however, including the instructions for the nazir, were written after the Babylonian exile of the 6th century B.C.E., when priests were writing religious instructions for the time of the second temple.

Samson’s story begins in this week’s haftarah when an angel appears to the wife of a Danite named Manoach and announces that she will give birth to a nazir.

A messenger of God appeared to the woman, and he said to her: Hey, please! You are childless and you have not given birth, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son. So now guard yourself, please, and don’t you drink wine or alcohol, and don’t you eat anything ritually impure.  Because you are about to conceive, and you will give birth to a son, and a razor will not go upon his head, because the boy will be a nazir of God from the womb.  And he will begin to rescue Israel from the hand of the Philistines. (Judges 13:3-5)

Samson's Fight with the Lion, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1525

Samson’s Fight with the Lion, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1525

Samson’s first act (after the haftarah’s opening scene) is to ask his parents to marry him to a Philistine woman he finds attractive. They protest feebly that he should marry one of his own people, but they follow him to the Philistine village of Timnah to arrange the marriage. Samson discovers his superhuman strength on the way, when “a strong spirit of God came over him” and he rips apart a lion with his bare hands. (Judges 14:6)  For the wedding a year later, Samson hosts a seven-day drinking-party where he makes a wager and ends up killing 30 strangers in order to pay his gambling debt with their clothing.

As Samson’s adventures continue, the only thing he abstains from is cutting his hair.  His main interests are sex, and inventing spectacular ways of killing people.  He only prays to God at the end of his life, when Delilah has shaved his head and her co-conspirators have blinded and imprisoned him.  Then Samson asks God to return his super-human strength so he can bring down the temple of Dagon and all the Philistines in it—not for the sake of Israel or God, but for his own personal vengeance.

Samson does succeed in killing thousands of Philistines, but he is hardly the holy man that Manoach and his wife expected when the angel said their son would be a nazir.

The book of Numbers makes it clear that a nazir along the lines of Samson is unacceptable. For one thing, this week’s Torah portion says nobody is allowed to be a nazir from birth; only an adult man or woman can vow to live as a nazir, and the person making the vow sets a finite period of time for his or her dedication.  The instructions begin:

If a man or a woman vows the extraordinary vow of a nazir, lehazir for God… (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:2)

lehazir (לְהַזִּיר) = to restrain oneself, to abstain.  (From the root נזר.)

After describing what a nazir must abstain from, the Torah portion continues:

And this is the teaching of the nazir: On the day completing the days of nizro, he shall be brought to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:13)

nizro (נִזְרוֹ) = his life as a nazir, the term of his vow dedicating him to separateness; his crown. (Also from the root נזר.).

At the Tent of Meeting the nazir makes offerings, shaves his or her head, and returns to ordinary life.  Thus all nezirim consciously dedicate themselves to restraint for a fixed period of time for the sake of God.

Their restraint consists of three kinds of abstention. The first category is alcohol and all grape products.

wine and grapesFrom wine and other alcohol yazir; nor shall he drink wine vinegar or vinegar from other alcohol, nor any grape juice; nor shall he eat grapes, wet or dried.  All the days of nizro he must not eat anything that is made from grapevines, from seeds to skin.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:3-4)

yazir (יַזִּיר) = he will abstain.  (Also from the root נזר.)

Abstaining from alcohol would not only improve the nazir’s ability to focus on being holy to God, but would also emphasis the nazir’s separation from the rest of society.

nazir hairThe second thing nezirim must abstain from is cutting, binding, or even combing their hair.

All the days of the vow of nizro, no razor will pass over his head; until the fulfillment of the days that yazir, his big, unbound, bristling hair will be holy to God.  (Numbers 6:5)

In the Bible, the only other people who let their hair grow untrimmed and unbound are mourners. Mourners are expected to disregard the social norms while grief commands all of their attention. Nezirim must let their hair grow wild while God commands all of their attention.  (See my post Naso: Distanced by Hair.)

Old Man on his Deathbed, by Gustav Klimt

Old Man on his Deathbed, by Gustav Klimt

The third thing a nazir must avoid is contact with the dead. (See my post Emor: The God of Life.)

All the days of hazayro to God, he must not come upon a dead body. For his father or his mother, for his brother or his sister, he will not make himself ritually impure for them in their death, because the neizer of his god is on his head. All the days of nizro he is holy to God. (Numbers 6:6-8)

haziro (הַזִּירוֹ) = his time as a nazir(Also from the root נזר.)

neizer (נֵזֶר) = consecration; crown.  (Also from the root נזר.)

In the book of Numbers ordinary people who touch or come near a dead body are ritually impure for seven days; then a ritual sprinkling restores them to purity and they rejoin the religious community. But for a nazir, the rules are as strict as for the high priest, who must avoid all corpses, even those of his own parents. If a nazir touches or comes close to any corpse, the term of his or her vow ends prematurely. Then after seven days, the would-be nazir must shave his or her head, make offerings, and start all over again. Once again, nezerim must pay attention—and, perhaps, emulate the high priest.

According to these rules, parents cannot say an angel told them their child would be a lifelong nazir, or treat him as especially privileged.  No nezirim can expect God to give them superpowers from time to time.  Staying sober, they have no excuse for wild behavior like Samson’s at the end of his drinking-party.

And since nezirim must avoid being near dead bodies, they cannot kill people.  Although all of the people Samson killed were Philistines, none of them were actual soldiers engaged in war against Israelites. Impulsive murder was no longer acceptable by the time of the second temple.

*

I have known individuals who were overwhelmed by spiritual impulses that cannot be integrated into normal life in modern western society. We have roles for spiritual leaders and teachers, but few outlets for people who would have been prophets or nezirim in ancient Israel.

When prophets in the Bible are overcome by the spirit of God they can at least speak, turning the divine message into human language.  But nezirim have no words.  When Samson feels the divine spirit, he is filled with physical strength that he uses for killing.

In the book of Numbers, nezirim can still be identified by big, unbound, bristling hair, but they are also required to follow extra rules.  Perhaps these rules and abstentions satisfy the spiritual impulse of the nezirim enough so that when the spirit of God comes over them, they can rejoice in their self-discipline—as well as in their neizer, their visible crown of consecration.

I wonder if an equivalent discipline would work today to provide an outlet for those with the spirit of a nazir?

 

Naso: Ordeal of Trust

May 27, 2015 at 1:15 pm | Posted in Naso | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

The first person who says “Amen” in the Torah is a wife agreeing to a curse on her own body if she is guilty of adultery.

The law given in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift up”), stipulates a husband who suspects his wife of adultery—a serious crime against both the husband and God, according to the Torah. He cannot prove it, since there were no witnesses and she was not caught in the act. But even if his wife proclaims her innocence, he cannot believe her.

…and [if] a spirit of jealousy passed over him and he was jealous of his wife and she had defiled herself;  or a spirit of jealousy passed over him and he was jealous of his wife and she had not defiled herself—then the man shall bring his wife to the priest… (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:14-15)

The priest then conducts a unique ritual in the Bible: an ordeal by water.

The Jealous Husband by  Joseph Ducreux

The Jealous Husband by Joseph Ducreux

The husband has two other options:  he could divorce his wife, giving her the usual separation payment; or he could continue the marriage and live with his doubts.  If he is vindictive, like some husbands discussed in the Talmud, he might choose to bring his wife to the priest in the hope that she will be proven unfaithful, so he can divorce her without giving her the payment.  But if he hopes his wife has been faithful, yet he is tormented by jealousy, he brings her to the priest for proof or her guilt or innocence.

The priest takes an earthenware bowl, puts in some “holy” water (water from the basin where the priests wash their hands and feet, according to later commentary), and adds dust from the floor of the sanctuary (where only the priests may walk).  Then the priest pauses to undo the woman’s hair, thus publicly shaming both wife and husband.

The priest holds the bowl of water and dust, now called “water of the bitternesses of the cursings”, and addresses the sotah, the woman suspected of adultery.

And the priest shall make her swear with these oaths: he shall say to the wife: “If a man did not lie down with you, and if you did not stray in defilement from under your husband, be cleared by these waters of the bitternesses of the cursings!  But if you did stray from under your husband, and if you defiled yourself, and a man other than your husband put his semen into you—!”  Then the priest shall make the wife swear the oath of the imprecation; and the priest shall say to the wife: “May God make you a curse and an oath among your people, when God makes your yareikh fall and your belly tzavah.  And these waters of the cursings shall enter into your innards to make the belly tzavah and to make the yareikh fall.”  And the wife shall say: “Amen, amen.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:19-21)

yareikh (יָרֵךְ) = upper thigh, buttocks, genitals; side of a tent.

tzavah (צָבָה) = swelled.  (The root tzavah appears only four times in the whole Bible: three times in this passage, and once in Isaiah as a misspelling of the homonym tzava (צָבָא) = fought, assembled against, went to war. Maybe in this passage about the sotah, the curse is that her genitals will fall and her belly will fight against her arries.)

Amen (אָמֵן) = Amen; a solemn statement of confirmation or acceptance.  (From the root verb aman = be reliable, be faithful; trust, be certain.)scroll, blank

Once the wife has said amen twice, the priest writes out the curse on a scroll, and wipes off the ink so it dissolves into the water.  Now the liquid in his hand contains “holy” water, dust from the sanctuary floor, and the sacred name of God (which was part of the written curse).

And he shall give her the water to drink, and it will happen that if she defiled herself and she really betrayed her husband, then [when] the water of cursings for bitternesses come into her, her belly will tzavah and her yareikh will fall, and the woman will become an imprecation among her people. But if the woman did not defile herself, and she is pure, then she will be cleared, and she will bear seed. (Numbers 5:27-28)

In other words, if the presumably pregnant wife actually did commit adultery, the water will cause a painful miscarriage.  But if she did not, she will bear her husband’s child.

Few guilty wives would submit themselves to this ordeal unless they were innocent of adultery. Why go through the public shaming, saying amen, drinking the magical water, and the horrible miscarriage? It would be easier for an unfaithful wife to confess privately to her husband, and let the divorce proceed without the extra trauma.

But for an innocent wife, the ordeal would be the only way she could prove her faithfulness to her jealous husband.

When I wrote about the sotah in 2013 (Naso: A Suspicious Husband)  I concluded that any marriage was doomed without mutual honesty and trust, which requires that the marriage partners stick to their covenant, whatever it might be.

But now I wonder about the case in which a wife did stick to her marriage covenant, yet her husband could not believe her when she told him she was innocent. In this week’s Torah portion, the wife has faith that God will prove her innocence in the ordeal by water; she demonstrates that by saying “amen, amen”, confirming her acceptance of the two alternatives in the curse.

The husband is not required to say “amen, amen”.  Perhaps the ritual is so powerful, it would convince even the most jealous fool. But why is he unable to believe his wife until she goes through the ordeal?

I think the answer is that the husband could not have faith in any wife, or even in himself.  Maybe he grew up among untrustworthy women, so he believes no women can be trusted.  Or maybe he grew up believing he is so unimpressive or unlovable, he does not deserve a faithful wife.

How can you have confidence in another person’s reliability and faithfulness, if you do not have confidence in yourself?  And if you do not have confidence in any human being’s reliability and faithfulness, how can you have confidence in God?

A ritual as serious as the sotah ordeal is no longer available to us. What we can do is pay attention to the problem and wrestle with it until we find we have grown past it.

May each of us grow until we trust ourselves, so we can trust others who deserve it.  Maybe then we will even come to trust what we call “God”, like the innocent sotah. Then we can say “amen” and mean it.

(Next week: Moses wonders if he is a wet-nurse—another word related to “amen”.)

Naso: Blessing Inside and Out

May 27, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Posted in Naso | Leave a comment
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May God bless you and protect you.

May God shine its face toward you and be gracious to you.

May God lift its face toward you and grant you peace. (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:24-26)

This “Priestly Blessing” or “Threefold Blessing” moves the hearts of many Jews when it is chanted in services today. It first appears in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift up”), as God gives Moses instructions on the way the priests should bless the Israelites.  After the three lines of blessing, the Torah concludes:

They shall place My name upon the Children of Israel; and I, Myself, will bless them. (Numbers 6:27)

In other words, the priests are charged with reciting the correct formula in front of the people.  Then God, not the priests, will bless them. God’s blessing is triggered not by the benevolence of the priests, but by the people hearing the words.

The words sound particularly moving in Hebrew because they follow a pattern. The first sentence has three words in Hebrew, the second has five words, and the third has seven words.  Chanting these lines out loud, with a pause after each sentence, produces the effect of increasing blessing.

But what do the words in the Threefold Blessing mean?

I offer one possible literal translation at the beginning of this post. A more standard translation would read “His face”, but Hebrew is a gendered language; there is no separate word for “it”.  When English speakers would use the words “it” or “its”, Hebrew uses a masculine or feminine pronoun (as a prefix or suffix). While all translations from Hebrew to English refer to a house (bayit) or a hand (yad) as “it”, most translators persist in referring to God as “he”. I think this tricks some English speakers into thinking God is male. So I prefer to use “it” for everything except humans and other animals.

On the other hand, I retained the word “face” in the opening translation, even though it is an anthropomorphism. The poetic ideas of God shining its face and lifting its face deserve attention.

Ya-eir, God, its face toward you, and be gracious to you.

ya-eir (יָאֵר) = may it/he shine, may it/he illuminate.

Some commentators interpret “May God shine its face” as “May God smile”. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) handed down a tradition that the phrase means “May He show you a smiling countenance, a radiant countenance.” In English, we say people’s faces “light up” or “beam” when they express happiness. It makes sense that if God is beaming with happiness at the Israelites, God would feel inclined to be gracious and grant them favors.

Other commentators have focused on the meaning of ya-eir as “may it illuminate”, i.e. light up something so it is visible—literally or figuratively. The 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno interpreted the phrase as meaning: “May He open your eyes through the light of His countenance to see wonders from His Torah.” More generally, this part of the blessing might mean: May God enlighten you.

The third line of the Threefold blessing mentions God’s face again:

Yissa, God, its face toward you, and grant you peace.

yissa (יִשָּׂא) = may it/he lift up.

In the Hebrew Bible, lifting up your face to God means that you not ashamed or guilty. Ezra says: My God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you. (Ezra 9:6) And twice Job’s so-called comforters tell him that after he has repented for the sin they assume he committed, then he can lift up his face to God.

Rashi wrote that May God lift his countenance to you means May God suppress his anger.  This opinion is supported by the story of Cain and Abel. The Torah says that when God does not welcome Cain’s offering, Cain became very hot with anger, and his face fell. (Genesis/Bereishit 4:5)

A fallen face also indicates a frown when God tells Jeremiah to reassure the northern kingdom of Israel that it is on the right track. Jeremiah is to say: Continue turning back [to me], declares God; I will not make my face fall at you, because I am kind, declares God. I do not hold on forever. (Jeremiah 3:12)

If a fallen face is an angry frown, then a lifted face might be a kind smile. Therefore this part of the Threefold Blessing might mean May God be kind to you.

Now we have the following translation:

May God bless you and protect you.

May God enlighten you and be gracious to you.

May God be kind to you and grant you peace.

If we imagine an external being called God, who bestows gifts like a good king or a loving parent, then this Threefold Blessing expresses what we want God to give us in the world. We want the universe, personified, to bless us with success; to protect us from harm; to illuminate how the rules work; to give us the things we need in life graciously, in abundance; to treat us kindly regardless of what we deserve; and to arrange for us to live in peace.

However, there is plenty of evidence that our universe does not work that way. Many people are hapless, harmed, confused, starved, judged harshly, and/or miserable. That makes the Threefold Blessing either a fantasy, or a prayer that the universe will change.

On the other hand, if we imagine an internal God, a divine spark inside each of us, then the Threefold Blessing expresses the changes we want within ourselves. We want our deepest soul to bless us with joy and contentment; to protect us from our own undesirable impulses; to enlighten us so we grow in wisdom and understanding; to make us gracious to ourselves and to other people; to teach us kindness; and to give us peace of heart and mind.

May every one of us receive these blessings.

Naso: A Suspicious Husband

May 15, 2013 at 11:19 pm | Posted in Naso | 1 Comment

Only one trial by ordeal appears in the Torah, and it occurs in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift”). Halfway through the Torah portion, we read instructions for a bizarre ordeal for a priest to conduct when a jealous husband suspects his wife of adultery, but cannot prove it.

Shamed wife about to drink bitter water

The Hebrew Bible rejects almost all efforts to force God to act through magical means. One exception is that the high priest can consult the urim and  tummim in the pocket of his breast-piece to get God’s one-word answer to a question posed by a king. The other exception is the ordeal for a wife suspected of adultery.  Going through this ritual guarantees that God will give a clear sign of the woman’s guilt or innocence. If she is guilty, God will afflict her with a miscarriage or worse. If she is innocent, God will leave her healthy and make her fertile.

Why was the question of adultery so important that a ritual was designed to force God’s hand? In the Torah, correct behavior in marriage and sexual relations is an essential part of being holy for God. The Torah provides many rules on the subject. The sexism and homophobia of some of these rules do not sit well with many of us Jews today. But when the Torah was first written down, it addressed the society of the ancient Israelites, which was as deeply sexist as most cultures of the time. The Torah calls for justice and a measure of compassion within that culture, but it does not call for radical culture change–except in one vital area: the people must worship only one god. That change was radical enough, three thousand years ago.

So it is no surprise that the Torah prescribes an ordeal when a husband suspects his wife of adultery, but offers no help when a wife suspects her husband. The magical symbolism of the ordeal is remarkable, and I hope to explore that topic when we reach the Torah portion Naso again next year. This week, I will examine the other remarkable thing about this passage: how it reveals the holiness of marriage.

Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: Any man, if his wife tisteh and she betrays him with a betrayal— (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:12)

tisteh = the feminine form of satah = turn aside, stray, leave the path. (A noun from the same root is sotah, “straying woman”, the title of a Talmud tractate.)

This verse sets out the first condition before the ordeal can take place. The wife may or may not be guilty of adultery. So far, all we know is that she strayed from the true path and betrayed her husband in some way. Perhaps the correct behavior for a wife is to give her husband no cause to doubt her or feel jealousy. The Talmud tractate Sotah states that this verse means that the wife behaved suspiciously, and the husband warned her not to meet secretly with another man, but she betrayed her husband by having another secret meeting  anyway. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that the word tisteh in this passage means the wife veered away from the ways of modesty, and many subsequent commentators emphasized the suspected wife’s lack of modesty.

The word “modesty” in the English translation of Rashi is a red flag for me. The English word “modesty” has two meanings: 1) being humble and unassuming, and 2) observing propriety in dress and behavior, so as to appear unprovocative. This second form is almost always used only for girls and women. Even today, some traditional societies are notorious for encumbering women with garments that conceal far more than men must conceal, and limiting their movements, in the name of “modesty”.

But in the Torah itself, tisteh does not necessarily refer to this kind of imposed feminine modesty. The verb satah (שׂטה) appears only six times in the entire Hebrew Bible: four times in this portion, and twice in the book of Proverbsa collection of advice from a father to a son. Proverbs 4:15 advises the son to “turn aside” from the path of the wicked. Proverbs 7:25 urges him not to “turn aside” to the paths of prostitutes. In both cases, the word satah refers to succumbing to temptation oneself, rather than looking tempting to someone else.

In this week’s Torah portion, the wife succumbs to the temptation to betray her husband. This betrayal is not adultery per se, but her concealment of what happened.

—and a man might have lain with her, a lying-down with insemination, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband,and she is nistar, and she is made tamei, and there is no witness against her, and she was not caught; and a rush of kinah goes through him [her husband], and he is kina about his wife—whether she is tamei or she is not tamei—then the man shall bring his wife to the priest. He shall bring her offering for her … a grain-offering of kinot, a reminder of guilt. (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:13-5:15)

nistar = concealed, secret (often translated as “secluded” in this passage)

tamei = contaminated, defiled, ritually impure, unfit to enter God’s sanctuary, unfit for marriage

kina = zeal, passionate possessiveness, jealousy. (The plural form is kinot.)

A husband who suspects his wife of adultery could, according to Torah law, simply divorce her without proving anything. Alternatively, he could decide he wants to continue the marriage no matter what she did or did not do. The Talmud tractate  Sotah says Rabbi Akiva insisted that the husband has a moral duty to bring his wife to the priest to undergo the ordeal, even though the ordeal will result in bodily harm to the wife if she is guilty, and will shame her in public regardless.

(Briefly, in the ordeal the Torah describes in verses 5:16-28, the priest unties the woman’s hair, and makes her swear she will accept the evidence God provides as to her innocence or guilt. He writes the oath on a scroll, then dissolves the ink from the scroll into “holy” water containing dust from the floor of the sanctuary. Then the priest makes the woman drink. If she is guilty, she suffers a malady the Torah coyly refers to as “belly swelling and thigh falling”, a miscarriage or worse. If she is innocent, she remains healthy and bears a child to her husband.)

My first impulse was to agree with Rabbi Akiva that the husband in that position should do whatever it takes to determine whether his wife committed adultery. If she is innocent, he might get over his jealousy and want to stay with her instead of divorcing her. If she is guilty, the marriage is automatically annulled. But if the pair continue to live with uncertainty and jealousy on his side, and either resentment or secret guilt on her side, their marriage will degrade beyond repair.

Then I realized that if the husband suspects his wife of adultery, and she has neither confessed nor convinced him she did not do it, the marriage is already doomed. (Of course the same thing applies if a wife suspects her husband, or if one partner in a same-sex marriage suspects the other.) Any marriage is a commitment between two people to be lifelong companions, and to stay on the path of their own covenant, whatever it may be. In order for two people to be contented lifelong companions, mutual trust is essential. That means each partner must be honest, and trust the other partner to be honest.

A marriage is doomed if one partner strays (satah) from the path of commitment, and betrays the other—either by concealing (nistar) a violation of their mutual covenant, or by becoming obsessed with a jealousy (kinah) rooted in possessiveness and lack of trust.

I think marriage is the hardest of human relationships, but it can be the most rewarding. My first marriage did not have enough trust and commitment to survive. Now I am grateful for a long, rewarding marriage with a man I can trust. And our marriage is more important to me than any temptation to conceal misbehavior from him. I pray that many more couples may be blessed with the ability to stay on the path of their own covenant, rising to meet every need for honesty and trust, placing their partnership above all mundane matters. That is what makes a marriage holy.

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.

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