Devarim: In God We Trust?

July 19, 2018 at 2:28 pm | Posted in Chukkat, Devarim, Shelach-Lekha | Leave a comment

Jordan River

Why does Moses die on the wrong side of the Jordan River, where he can see but not enter God’s “promised land”?

The Torah offers two conflicting reasons—and a hidden clue.

Moses blames the fathers of the Israelites he is addressing in this week’s Torah portion, Devarim (“Words”—the first portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim).  He retells the story of the scouts who toured Canaan in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, 38 years before.  When ten out of the twelve returning scouts reported that the land was full of giants and well-fortified cities, the frightened Israelites refused to cross the border.1

Who told them to trust God?

Someone argued with them.  In the book of Numbers, Moses and Aaron fell on their faces but said nothing.  It was Caleb and Joshua, the two scouts who gave the minority report in favor of crossing the border, who reminded the people that God would fight for them.2  (See my post Shelach-Lekha: Too Late.)  But in this week’s Torah portion, Moses claims he was the one who argued with the Israelites.

And I said to you: “You should not be terrified of them, and you should not be overawed by them.  God, your God who walks before you, [God] will fight for you, like everything that [God] did for you in Egypt, before your eyes, and in the wilderness …  Yet in this matter you have no ma-aminim in God, your God.” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:29-32)

ma-aminim (מַאֲמִינִים) = relying upon, trusting, having faith; reliance upon, trust, faith.  (A participle from the same root as ne-eman (נֶאֱמַן) = trustworthy, reliable; and amen (אָמֵן).)

Moses might be excused for misremembering who told the Israelites they should trust God to help them.  He is, after all, 120 years old.3  The difference between the two stories of the scouts can also be explained by the theory that Numbers and Deuteronomy were written by different authors, in different centuries.4

Israelites march from southern to eastern border of Canaan

The result is the same in both accounts: despite hearing someone argue that they can rely on God to help them, the Israelites refuse to cross the border.  Then God decides the people must wait until 40 years after their exodus from Egypt before they get another chance to enter Canaan.  By that time, God says, all the men over 20 (i.e. the generation that refused to enter Canaan) will be dead—except for the two optimistic scouts, Caleb and Joshua.

But what about Moses and Aaron?  In the original story of the scouts, while Caleb and Joshua tell the people to trust God, they fall on their faces, waiting to hear God’s orders.  Surely they do not deserve the same fate as the rebellious Israelites.  And God’s first reaction implies that Moses will be spared.

And God said to Moses: “How long will this community treat me disrespectfully, and how long lo ya-aminu in me, despite all the signs that I have made in their midst?  I will strike them dead with the pestilence and disown them, and I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they!”  (Numbers 14:11-12)

lo ya-aminu (יַאֲמִינוּ) = will they not have faith?   lo = not + ya-aminu = they will have faith in,  trust, rely upon.  (Also from the same root as ne-eman and amen.)

At this point, God wants Moses to populate Canaan.  Moses talks God out of killing everyone but him, and God settles on the 40-year plan.

Both Numbers and Deuteronomy note that the first time the Israelites approach the border of Canaan, from Kadeish-Barnea to the south, there is a lack of faith or trust.  The men who refuse to cross do not believe God is ne-eman (reliable); when God gives an order, they do not say amen.

In both Numbers and Deuteronomy, God decrees that Moses and Aaron will also die without entering Canaan.  But the two books give different reasons for this decree.

Numbers: The talk at the rock

Moses Striking the Rock,
by James Tissot

The people set off from Kadeish-Barnea after Miriam’s death, and the first place they camp has no water.  God tells Moses and Aaron to take their staff and speak to the rock, and it will yield water.  They assemble the Israelites in front of the rock.  Then Moses says:

“Listen up, mutineers!  Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” (Numbers 20:10)

Moses makes it sound as if he and Aaron can get water from rock with no help from God.  Then he hits the rock with the staff, instead of speaking to it.  And water gushes out.  Aaron stands by, doing nothing to correct his brother Moses.  (See my post Chukkat: The Price of Silence.)

But God said to Moses and to Aaron: “Because lo he-emantam on me, [you were not] treating me as holy in the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”  (Numbers 20:12)

lo he-emantam (הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם) = you did not rely.   lo = not + he-emantam = you had faith, trusted, relied upon.  (Also from the same root as ne-eman and amen.)

The Israelites continue traveling east through the wilderness, and God says:

Let Aaron be gathered to his people, since he may not enter the land that I have given to the Israelites, because you [plural] mutinied against my word concerning the water… (Numbers 20:24)

Aaron dies on top of Mt. Hor, and his son Elazar takes over as high priest.5  Moses continues to lead the Israelites all the way to the Jordan River, but he knows he, too, will die without crossing it.

Deuteronomy: The blame is the same

The book of Deuteronomy mentions the episode of the water-bearing rock only near the end, when God tells Moses to climb Mount Nevo, where he will die, just as Aaron died on Mount Hor—

—because you both betrayed me in the midst of the Israelites at the water of Meribat-Kadeish in the wilderness of Tzin, because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the Israelites.  (Deuteronomy 32:51)

But in this week’s portion, Moses tells a different story.  He says God decreed that Caleb, Joshua, and everyone who was a child at the time would live to enter Canaan, but “these men of this bad generation” would die before the 40 years were up (Deuteronomy 1:35-39).

Also God felt angry against me on your account, saying: “Even you shall not enter there!”  (Deuteronomy 1:37)

When Moses says “on your account” he does not distinguish between the new generation of Israelites listening to his speech and the old, bad generation.  His book-length speech in Deuteronomy does not mention that the new generation did anything to offend God; but in Numbers, when the Israelites first camp on the east bank of the Jordan, they worship the local god, Ba-al Peor.  (See my post Balak: Carnal Appetites.)  Instead of reaffirming their reliance on God, the new adults act as if God is not enough for them.  Like their fathers, they fail when it comes to ma-aminim in God.

Moses implies that their failure to rely on God is the reason why God will not let him cross into Canaan before he dies.  Ramban6 wrote that Moses wanted to demonstrate that the whole community is responsible for and suffers from any lack of faith in God.  As the leader of all the Israelites, Moses had the most responsibility.

*

This week’s Torah portion, Devarim, implies that God decreed Moses’ death on the east bank of the Jordan because Moses had failed to instill enough ma-aminim in the Israelites by the time they reached the southern border of Canaan.

In the book of Numbers, God decreed Moses’ death on the east bank because he failed to instill enough ma-aminim in the Israelites when he neglected to give God credit for the water gushing from the rock.

The timing is different in these two explanations of God’s decree, but the underlying cause is the same.  And the Torah gives us the clue by repeatedly using the same verb when someone fails to rely on God.

At the burning bush, God chose Moses because no one else could serve as God’s prophet before Pharaoh and also hold the Israelites together no matter how long it took to get them to Canaan.  For more than 40 years, Moses devoted his whole strength to the nearly impossible job of transforming a huge and motley collection of ex-slaves and camp followers into a single people dedicated to a new religion.  When Moses addresses the survivors in Deuteronomy, they are finally unified, optimistic, and ready to cross into their promised land.7

But can they keep their faith in God?  Can they trust God, who over the years delivered punishments as well as miraculous rescues?  Can they rely upon their God, and no other?

Can any of us?

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

  1. Numbers 13:1-14:4. At that time the Israelites are camped on the southern border of Canaan, near Kadeish-Barnea.
  2. Numbers 14:5-10.
  3. Though when Moses does die at the end of Deuteronomy, the Torah says “…his eye had not clouded and his vigor had not waned.” (Deuteronomy 34:7)
  4. Modern scholars examine differences in vocabulary, syntax, and style to assign parts of the Torah to different (unknown) authors writing in different eras. Although they disagree about many details, most agree that the first 11 chapters of Deuteronomy were written during the reign of King Josiah of Judah in the 7th century B.C.E.  The story of the scouts in the book of Numbers appears to be a composite of several texts written during different centuries.
  5. Numbers 20:22-29. Aaron is older than his 120-year-old brother Moses, but the Torah insists that he dies in the wilderness because of disobedience, not old age.
  6. 13th-century Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, also called Nachmanides as well as the acronym RaMBaN.
  7. The Israelites cross the Jordan River, the northeastern border of Canaan, in Joshua 3:1-17.
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Shelach Lekha: Caleb, Waiting

June 6, 2018 at 9:51 pm | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | 1 Comment

You say you’re bored, hanging around in the wilderness for forty years before God finally lets us move into the promised land?

When I was your age, I was angry at the men who got us stuck here.

We’d finally marched right up to the border of Canaan.  The land of our ancestors was just over the ridge—and we’d never seen it.  Moses announced that God said:  “Send men for yourself, and let them scout out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Children of Israel.  Send one man from each ancestral tribe, each one a leader.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:2)

Canaan Dog

Then he started naming the scouts.  I couldn’t believe it when Moses said:  “For the tribe of Judah, Kaleiv son of Yefuneh.”  (Numbers 13:6)

kaleiv (כָּלֵב) = dog; a proper name (Caleb in English).

Was I really a leader?  Me, the dog?

My father named me Kaleiv.  And in case you’re thinking about a shepherd’s best friend, let me tell you, we Israelites never used dogs that way.  Or at all.  For us, a dog was a scavenger in the streets, or worse; not fit to enter a decent person’s house.1

My father used to beat me.  So did our Egyptian owner.  When I was old enough, I ran away for good.  I was a real kaleiv then, a scavenger in the streets of the city of Ramses.

I found a cellar under a half-built warehouse to sleep in.  One night a bunch of slaves met there and talked about the latest plague.  They didn’t notice me curled up in the far corner.  They thought all the plagues were caused by their own god, the God of Israel.  And they used other names for this god, names I’d heard from my father.  He used to drone on about how things used to be a few hundred years ago, back when our people were free.  Useless talk, I’d always thought.

But this time when I heard the names of our God, I came out of my dark corner.  I was desperate.  They saw me and they froze.  I told them my genealogy, so they’d know I was a Hebrew too, from the tribe of Judah.  Then I asked if I could join them.  My voice shook.  But they actually welcomed me.

One of them became my friend:  Joshua.  He told me everything he knew about God and Moses and Aaron.  We both decided to pledge our service to God and follow Moses out of Egypt.

When we found out that God was about to send the final plague, the Death of the Firstborn, Joshua brought me home.  His father painted the door frame with lamb’s blood, and the angel of death skipped past us.2  In the morning I left Egypt with them.  Along with thousands of other Hebrew slaves, and some folks who just wanted to follow us and our God.

Even with the pillar of cloud and fire to guide us,3 our first week of traveling was a mess.  We were all right when we were walking.  But once we stopped for the night—imagine thousands of ex-slaves, waiting to be told what to do.  Joshua helped; he was a good organizer.  And I did what I could to help Joshua.

Moses noticed.  He made Joshua his battle general and personal attendant.  When he picked the twelve scouts to check out Canaan, he named Joshua for the tribe of Efrayim, some popular young men for the other tribes, and for Judah—me.  Kaleiv.  The dog.

I was going on a dangerous adventure for God and Israel!  What I liked about our God was that you never knew what would happen next.

Turns out it wasn’t so dangerous.  We were on foot, with no swords, so nobody stopped us.  Once we got north of the desert, we just strolled along, munching on fruit.  Sometimes we had to scramble off the road to make way for a troop of soldiers: tall men, with swords and shiny armor around their necks.  I said we were like grasshoppers compared to them, and everybody laughed.  I wondered where the soldiers and the people living in the cities would go after we moved in.

On the way back, I picked some huge pomegranates and figs and grapes.  I figured the sight of them would perk up the folks who were always complaining about manna.

When we walked into camp, everybody cheered.  Then they all gathered in front of the Tent of Meeting to hear our report.  The first few scouts to speak didn’t sound very enthusiastic.  And Joshua was in a difficult position, being Moses’ favorite.  So I got brave and said: “We should definitely go up and take possession, because we can definitely conquer it!”  (Numbers 13:30)

But the other scouts said: “We won’t be able to go up against those people, because they’re stronger than us!”  (Numbers 3:31)

I wanted to say that it didn’t matter how strong they were, because God was on our side.  But I couldn’t get a word in.  The other scouts were babbling that all the Canaanites were giants.  Even worse, they said: “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them!”  (Numbers 3:33)

My own joke, and nobody was laughing this time.  All the people started milling around, screaming and sobbing.  Even Moses couldn’t call the assembly back to order.

In the morning the men came to Moses and said: “If only we’d died in the land of Egypt!  Or if only we’d died in this wilderness!  Why is God bringing us to this land to fall by the sword?  Our wives and our children will be carried off!  Wouldn’t it be better to go back to Egypt?”  And they said to each other: “Let’s pick a leader and go back to Egypt.”  (Numbers 14:2-4)

Moses and Aaron fell on their faces, but it didn’t do any good. Then I heard a loud rip.  Joshua was tearing his robe like he was in mourning.  So I did too, even though it was my only clothing.  Somehow that made the men quiet down.  I glanced at Joshua.  He nodded at me.  So I said: “If God is pleased with us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us—a land that is flowing with milk and honey.  Just don’t rebel against God!”  (Numbers 14:8-9)

And Joshua added: “God is with us!  Don’t be afraid of them.”  (Numbers 14:9)

They didn’t believe us.  They picked up stones to throw at us.  But then the glory of God burst out like fire all around the Tent of Meeting, and everybody ran.  Except Moses, who walked right through the fire and went inside to talk to God.

I waited with my fists clenched.  Why did people have to be such idiots?

When Moses finally came out, he said God had forgiven the people.  But we all had to stay in the wilderness for 40 years, while the men who rebelled died one by one.  No man who was over age 20 would live to enter the promised land, except Joshua and me.4

Forty years.  It took me one year just to get over being angry about it.  Why did I have to wait, just because other Israelites didn’t trust God?

Joshua told me God was being kind.  The men were so upset they actually wanted to die in the wilderness.  And instead of striking them dead then and there, God let each one live to the age of 60, mostly here in the oasis of Kadeish-Barnea, a particularly comfortable spot of wilderness.5  I didn’t think a bunch of cowards deserved such kindness.

Then it occurred to me that we were all brave when we left Egypt.  A slave at least has food, a place to sleep, a familiar routine.  But we chose to leave everything we knew, and head toward a land we couldn’t imagine, following God—even though we’d only seen God’s harsh side.  We risked everything that day, changed our whole lives.

Maybe one big change was all some folks could manage.

For me, change was easier; staying in the same place was hard.  But that was my job now, to wait here with everybody else.  So I decided to change myself.  I learned how to live quietly.  How to cheer up folks who are getting old and regretful.  How to teach you young folks.  How to stir dates into my manna porridge.  How to make friends with a woman.  I got married, and we had a daughter,6 so I have even more to appreciate.

And you know what?  Sometimes I’m bored, too.  But I’ve been counting the years.  It’s almost time to go.  And I’m not a young dog anymore.  At the end of a long walk, I’m worn out and limping.  How can I help conquer Canaan when I’m in my sixties?

Now I’m the one who’s afraid.  I wish I could just keep living in this oasis with my friends and family.  But I have to change again.  If I didn’t, I’d let down God.

I don’t know what will happen in the promised land.  But I know I want to walk in smiling.

  1. See Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 373, footnote on Exodus 11:7.
  2. Exodus 12:21-23.
  3. Exodus 13:20-22.
  4. Numbers 14:28-35.
  5. Kadeish-Barnea was an oasis about 50 miles southwest of Beersheva, close to the southern border of Canaan. The people encamp there two years after the exodus from Egypt, and the scouts depart from there (Deuteronomy 32:32:8).  “The place becomes the Israelites’ chief base for the next thirty-eight years, until the time of conquest.” (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 1109, footnote on 13:26.)  In the 7th century B.C.E. the Kingdom of Judah built a fort at the oasis, then on a major trade route.  (Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, 2001, p. 268.)
  6. Caleb marries off and gives land near Hebron to his daughter Akhsah in Joshua 15:13-19.

Korach: Face Down

June 21, 2017 at 11:29 am | Posted in Chukkat, Korach, Shelach-Lekha | 3 Comments
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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.

 

Shelach-Lekha: Reminder

June 14, 2017 at 8:34 pm | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | Leave a comment
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Living in the present is hard. Even when humans have a plan for the future, we crave knowledge of what benefits and obstacles we will encounter. The more we believe we know about what lies ahead, the more secure we feel—unless the new information makes us panic.

The Israelites reach Kadesh Barnea, on the southern border of Canaan, at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”). God tells Moses to send scouts to bring back advance knowledge for the people.

“Send for yourself men, veyaturu the land of Canaan which I am giving to the Israelites. Send one man for each tribe of their fathers, each a leader among them.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:2)

veyaturu (וְיָתֻרוּ) = and they shall scout out, reconnoiter, wander around and investigate. (A form of the verb tur, תּוּר.)

God does not say what aspects of the land the twelve representatives should investigate. Moses gives them more detailed instructions, addressing first the people’s insecurity about how hard it will be to overcome the indigenous population, then their insecurity about how well they can live in Canaan.

And Moses sent them latur the land of Canaan, and he said to them: “Go up this way through the Negev, and you shall go up into the hill-country. And you shall see the land: what it is and the people who are dwelling on it. Are they strong or feeble, are they few or many? And what is the land where they are dwelling? Is it good or is it bad? And what are the towns where they are dwelling? Are they open camps, or fortified places? And what is the land? Is it fat or is it thin? Are there trees, or none?” (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:17-20)

latur (לָתוּר) = to scout out, reconnoiter, wander around and investigate. (Also a form of the verb tur, תּוּר.)

Scouts return with produce

All twelves scouts return with glowing reports about the fertility of the land, but ten out of twelve describe the towns of the hill-country to the north as large and fortified, and its residents as mighty giants. These ten scouts frighten most of the Israelites and their fellow-travelers into abandoning the commitment they made when they followed the God of Moses out of Egypt, and calling for a return to Egypt.

Then the scouts Joshua and Caleb say:

Only do not rebel against God, and you need not fear the people the land, because they are our food!1  Their protection has left them, but God is with us.  Do not fear them! (Numbers 14:9)

The crowd reaches for stones to throw at the two scouts. They stop only because God’s glory appears (probably as cloud or fire, the usual manifestations). God decrees that they must stay in the wilderness for another 39 years. When they decide to cross into Canaan anyway, perhaps hoping to change God’s mind, they are defeated in battle. (See my post Shelach-Lekha: Too Late.)

The Torah portion closes with God giving more instructions about animal offerings, declaring a death sentence for a man gathering wood on Shabbat, and ordering the Israelites to wear fringes on the corners of their garments. According to some modern scholars, these three passages were written by different scribes and inserted into the main story by a later redactor.2

However, I believe the teaching about the fringes offers a solution to the human tendency revealed by the story of the scouts. When potentially adverse information makes our plan look iffy, we refuse to move forward with it, because we do not trust ourselves, our fellow humans, or “God” (which might mean the mastermind of the universe, fate, the deep soul, or something else). Instead we tend to panic and clutch at a less reasonable alternative plans—especially if they are seductive, like the Israelites’ false memories of security and plentiful food in Egypt.

Tzitzit

At the end of the Torah portion, God tells Moses:

Speak to the Israelites, and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves tzitzit on the kenafayim of their begadim through their generations, and place on the tzitzit of the kanaf a thread of tekheilet.  And it shall be a tzitzit for you, and you shall look at it and you shall remember all the commandments of God and you shall do them; and lo taturu after your heart or after your eyes, after that which seduces you. Thus you shall remember and do all My commandments, and you shall become holy to your God. (Numbers 15:38-40)

tzitzit (צִיצִת) = fringe(s), tassel(s), tuft(s). (From the same root as tzitz, צִיצ = flower, bud; the gold medallion on the high priest’s forehead. See my post Tetzavveh: Holy Flower.)

kenafayim (כְּנָפַיִם) = plural of kanaf (כָּנָף) = wing, corner, edge, hem, skirt.

begadim (בְּגָדִים) = plural of beged (בּגֶד) = clothing, garment, outer wrapping; unfaithfulness, treachery.

Wool dyed
with tekheilet

tekheilet (תְּכֵלֶת) = blue dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail. (The cord fastening the tzitz to the high priest’s forehead is dyed tehkeilet, as are parts of the curtains of the Tent of Meeting, and cloths that cover the holy ark, table, lampstand, and incense altar when they are moved. See my post Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred.)

lo taturu (lo, לֺא = not + taturu, תָתֻרוּ = another form of the verb tur, תּוּר.) = you shall not scout out, reconnoiter, wander around investigating.

On a simple level, God asks people—from the Israelites on the border of Canaan down through the generations to Jews today—to attach fringes that include blue threads to the corner hems of their clothing. We must look at them, and remember all the divine rules we are supposed to follow. Then instead of carrying out whatever fantasy pops up in our hearts, or succumbing to whatever temptation we see in the world, we will remember God and follow the rules, thereby becoming holy people.

On a more poetic level, God asks people to make flowers of thread reminiscent of the flower of gold on the high priest’s forehead. Each thread flower must include a thread dyed the same blue as the cord around the high priest’s head and the cloth used for the sanctuary. These reminders of holiness shall be like wings, lifting us away from our outer covering of unfaithfulness to our God. When we look at our tzitzit, we shall want to become holy people, so we shall follow God’s rules instead of straying after temporary seductions.

When I pray the morning service, I look at the tzitzit on the corners of my prayer shawl when I first put it on, and at several points in the daily prayer service when holding up tzitzit is customary. Following Jewish tradition, I kiss my tzitzit when I read out the passage from Numbers 15:37-41, from the end of this week’s Torah portion.

Is this reminder enough to make me faithful to God? Maybe not to the God of Israel, since I do not follow most of the rules that observant Orthodox Jews follow. But looking at the tzitzit does remind me not to panic when I receive upsetting information regarding the possible future. It reminds me to move forward anyway, keeping my commitments to myself, to my fellow human beings, and to the “God” that I am grounded in. It reminds me that what happens to me is not as important as how well I behave.

May we all find more ways to be mindful, so that when panic threatens we will remind ourselves of the deep commitments that give our lives meaning, and rise toward the holiness of being steadfast in our dedication to the good.

1  They are our food” is an idiom meaning: They are helpless against us, we can eat them up as a predator eats its prey.

2  One example is Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 203, pp. 266-268.

Haftarat Shelach-Lekha—Joshua: The Defector

June 27, 2016 at 6:06 pm | Posted in Joshua, Shelach-Lekha | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Shelach-Lekha (Numbers 13:1-15:41) and the haftarah is Joshua 2:1-2:24.

Spies scout out the land the Israelites will conquer in both the Torah portion and the haftarah this week. The twelve spies Moses sends in the book of Numbers do not speak to anyone in Canaan, and ten of them say the natives are fearsome giants who the Israelites could never defeat.  The results of this report are disastrous.  (See my post Shelach-Lekha: Too Late.)

City gate at Megiddo

City gate at Megiddo

When God lets the next generation of Israelites enter Canaan (after 40 years in the wilderness) their new leader, Joshua, sends two spies across the Jordan River into the nearest town, the walled city of Jericho. These spies view the Canaanites of Jericho as ordinary human beings.  They go through the city gate during the day, when strangers are allowed in for trading, and converse with at least one of the natives.

And Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two men, spies, from Shittim, saying: Go see the land and Jericho.  So they went, and they came into the house of a woman of zonah, and her name was Rachav, and they lay down there.  (Joshua 2:1)

zonah (זוֹנָה) = prostitute. From the verb zanah (זָנַָה) = have illicit intercourse, practice prostitution for profit or for a Canaanite religion, be faithless to a husband or to God.

rachav (רָחָב) = broad, wide. (The proper name Rachav appears as Rahab in many English translations.)

The story gets off to a racy start, with the men “coming into” and “lying down” in the house of a prostitute, and the sexual humor continues with more double meanings as the tale unfolds.  But in the ancient Near East the custom was for a stranger to wait in the town plaza (or rachov (רָחֹב) = open place) until someone offered him shelter (as in Judges 19:15-20).  Joshua’s spies would not want to be that conspicuous, so they go into the prostitute’s house instead.

Alas, someone observes them entering Rachav’s house, recognizes them as Israelites from the vast camp across the Jordan, and reports it to the king of Jericho.

And the king of Jericho sent to Rachav, saying: Bring out the men, the ones who came into your house, because they came to scout out the land!  (Joshua 2:3)

Rachav Helping the Two Spies, by F.R. Pickersgill, 1897

Rachav Helping the Two Spies, by F.R. Pickersgill, 1897

At this point, a loyal citizen of Jericho would produce the two spies.  But Rachav seizes the opportunity to switch her loyalty.

And the woman took the two men and she hid them. Then she said: Indeed, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from.  And the gate was going to close at dark, and the men went out.  I do not know where the men went. Chase after them quickly, because you can overtake them! But she had taken them up to the roof, and she had hidden them among the flax stalks, the ones stacked for her on the roof.  (Joshua 2:4-6)

After the king’s men are gone, Rachav follows up on her defection by climbing up to her roof and speaking to the two Israelite spies. She begins:

I know that God has given to you the land, because terror of you fell over us… (Joshua 2:9)

Everyone in Jericho heard how the God of Israel dammed the Reed Sea for the Israelites when they left Egypt, she says, and how the Israelites recently destroyed the Amorite kingdoms of Sichon and Og.

And we listened, and it melted our heart, and the will to live could not rise again in any man facing you. Because God, your god, is god in the heavens above and over the land below.  (Joshua 2:11)

Here Rachav declares her faith in the God of Israel over the local god or gods of Jericho.  Next, she asks the two spies to help her and her family defect to the Israelites.

And now swear, please, to me, by the God, because I acted chessed with you, and so you should act chessed with my father’s household. (Joshua 2:12)

chessed (חֶסֶד) = loyally, faithfully, in solidarity, in kindness.

They agree on a dead: Rachav will not tell on the two spies, and she will leave a red cord hanging from her window, so they can identify her house when the Israelites attack.  The Israelites will rescue everyone inside her house from the destruction of Jericho.

Ruins of a casemate wall: a double wall with living quarters inside

Ruins of a casemate (double) city wall. Larger walls had living quarters inside.

And she let them down by the rope through the window, for her house was in the city wall, the casemate wall, and she was living in the casemate wall.  (Joshua 2:15)

 *

Most commentary, from the Tamud on, views Rachav’s defection as a sincere conversion to the God of Israel. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, in her brilliant analysis in Reading the Women of the Bible (2002), interpreted Rachav’s statements “I know that God has given to you the land” and “God, your god, is god in the heavens above and over the land below” as a formal declaration of her faith in the God of Israel and conversion to Israel’s religion.

Some modern commentators also interpret Rachav’s chessed as kindness to the spies.  Tikva Frymer-Kensky translated chessed as “benevolently”.  Although she may have been moved by kindness, like the stereotypical hooker with the heart of gold, she uses her initial act of hiding the spies as a bargaining chip: in exchange for her loyalty to them, they must swear loyalty to her.

Why does a person defect to another religion and/or to another country?  What motivates someone to abandon a lifelong allegiance and commit to a new loyalty—becoming a traitor or apostate to their former people?

Some defectors do switch sides because of a passionate conviction in a matter of principle. If Rachav is one of these, maybe she is so impressed by the story of the parting of the Reed Sea that she becomes convinced that the god of Israel is the highest god, and decides she must become one of the people of Israel, even if it means betraying her people.

But some people defect, or emigrate, because their lives have become difficult in the old religion or the old country. The economy has tanked and they can no longer make a living; the sub-group they belong to is suffering from discrimination; war has come to their country and they fear for their lives.  Unlike their compatriots who blindly continue to serve their old allegiances, these defectors use intelligence and courage to seize an opportunity for radical change—in the hope that the group they are joining will provide them with a better life.

Rachav scarlet cord 2I think Rachav is this second kind of defector.

As a zonah, a prostitute, she occupies a marginal role in the society of Jericho, symbolized by her living quarters in the wall marking the edge of the city.

The word zonah comes from the verb zanah, which means both practicing prostitution and being faithless to a god.  She is willing to be faithless to her old god, and commit herself to a new one, if it seems like the best solution.

Her name, Rachav, is related to the word rachov = open place, town plaza, where strangers wait hoping someone will offer them shelter for the night. Rachav shelters the spies overnight, then asks for shelter from the coming destruction of Jericho.

She believes that the Israelites and their god will destroy Jericho for rational reasons: there are hundreds of thousands of Israelites, and they have a record of success: their God made a miracle for them at the Reed Sea, and they vanquished the larger countries ruled by Sichon and Og. Even if Jericho’s double wall withstood an onslaught of Israelites, her town would lose a siege.

Desperate to save herself and her family from death, Rachav courageously seizes the opportunity to switch sides by helping the Israelite spies, converting on the spot to their religion, and making them swear to rescue everyone in her house when the city falls.  She is an opportunist for a good cause—saving the lives of her whole family.  She is a rational defector.

And she succeeds.

And Joshua let her live, Rachav the zonah and her father’s household and everyone who was hers, and she [her clan] dwell in the midst of Israel to this day…  (Joshua 6:25)

May we all have the courage to seize the moment and abandon old allegiances when we must do so for a greater good.  And may we honor all people who courageously escape with their families from war, and commit to a new country.

Yom Kippur: Broken Promises

September 28, 2015 at 8:40 am | Posted in Shelach-Lekha, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment
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Yom Kippur is the annual day for atonement: for forgiving, being forgiven, and reuniting with God. This year my congregation, P’nai Or of Portland, chose an alternative  Torah reading for the Minchah (afternoon) service, from Shelach Lekha in the Book of Numbers/Bemidbar:

God said to Moses:  How long will this people disrespect Me, and how long will they not trust Me, despite all the signs I have made in their midst?  Let me strike them with the plague and disinherit them, and I will make you a greater and mightier nation than they.  Then Moses said to God: …Please forgive the sin of this people according to the greatness of Your kindness, and as You have carried this people from Egypt until now.  And God said:  I forgive, as you have spoken.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 14:11-12, 14:19-20)

I am pleased to post this thoughtful guest commentary that Chellema Qolus delivered  on Yom Kippur 5776 (2015).

 

hands reaching

by Chellema Qolus

Our Torah reading today is from the Book of Numbers, or Bamidbar. It’s the one where twelve scouts journey to check out the holy land. Ten come back and say “Oh no! It’s full of giants and scary stuff!” Two come back and say “It’s the land of milk and honey.”

Imagine you are God. You just gave your people some wonderful land. But instead of being grateful, 10 of 12 responses are “oooh no – it’s scary!” God in this case reacts like many of us often do when we feel unappreciated—God gets mad and says to Moses “Oh these people! I’m done with them! Forget it, I’ve changed my mind – I’m not going to play with them anymore!”

This happened before – when the Israelites made the golden calf God said the same thing. And who talked God out if it? Moses. Moses does a repeat performance here. Moses says “You promised—it’ll look bad if you go back on your promise. Come on, please? Forgive your people.”

Now, how is it that the all-knowing omniscient Infinite Oneness makes an agreement, gets mad, wants to break that agreement and then is convinced to keep it? I mean, if God knows everything that’s going to happen, how does this make sense?

God is infinite. All possibilities exist. God makes light and dark, good and evil. How this plays out at this level has a lot to do with us. If we are made in the image of God, then our portrayal of God in the Torah is also a reflection of us. Our relationship with God is a participatory process. That means we have to make the case, like Moses did, that forgiveness is included in the covenant.

If you look at the stories in Torah – the golden calf, the scouts, pretty much every story, people are breaking promises or betraying trusts right, left and sideways – EVERYONE!   Even Moses literally breaks the tablets of the covenant when he comes down from the mountain and sees the people dancing around the golden calf.

Here’s the thing. We ALL break our promises. We ALL betray trusts. We ALL hurt each other whether we mean to or not. That’s the way the world is. That’s the way we are. The great Kabbalist Isaac Luria said that when the universe was first created God’s infinite light was too much for the vessels of existence to hold and they shattered. So our universe has brokenness and so do we. Or, as the ten scouts would say “There’s giants and scary stuff! Oh no!”. The two scouts would say “Our souls are pure—direct from the Infinite. In nature we see the Glory, the cosmic pattern of wholeness of The Eternal. And in our kindness with each other, our hearts are one with God.”

These two perspectives, together, fuel our hopes and fears. We get so hurt and mad sometimes because it means so much. Early in my time with this congregation, I enjoyed a wonderful service and a warm and friendly oneg meal. I was feeling so much love for everyone and it struck me – I saw the patterns, my own patterns: how much community means to me, how much I love  the people here… and how I stumble, make mistakes, am misunderstood, and how inevitably, my heart is broken. After this wonderful service where I felt so much love … I went home and cried. Because I knew—I knew my heart would break with this community. And it did—in small ways, and large ways. But one thing is different from my previous experiences of this—I’m still here. And right now, in this moment, we’re all here.

We are all the characters in the story. Sometimes, like the two scouts Caleb and Joshua, we are in tune with God’s dance and understand how everything fits together and revel in God’s glory. Sometimes, like the ten scouts, we are overwhelmed by our pain and our fears and we project and perpetuate the negative. Sometimes, like God in this story, the God-spark in us feels unappreciated and we are hurt and lash out and just want to call everything off. Sometimes, like Moses, we plead with each other and the Divine Infinite for mercy and compassion.

To call on the Infinite for forgiveness that is attuned to us, here, on this level, we must first forgive ourselves and each other. Our forgiveness is like a homing beacon for God’s forgiveness. It creates a container made from the pieces of our brokenness, made to receive God’s Shalom, God’s Wholeness.handshake

…I call to Torah everyone who wants to bring our broken pieces together, creating a container to receive the Infinite One’s forgiveness and wholeness. Shalom.

 

Shelach-Lekha: Mutual Distrust

June 9, 2015 at 10:08 am | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Moses reaches the end of his rope in last week’s Torah portion, and protests to God:

Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Did I myself become pregnant with all this people, or did I myself give birth to them, that you say to me: Carry them in your bosom, like the omein carries the one who suckles, to the land that You swore to their forefathers? … I am not able to carry all this people by myself alone, because they are too heavy for me! If At must do thus to me, please kill me altogether, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and don’t let me see my badness! (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:12-15)

omein (אֹמֵן) = guardian, substitute parent. (The feminine form, omenet (אֹמֶנֶת) means a wet nurse or nanny.  Moses views himself as both omein and omenet. See my post Beha-alotkha: Moses as Wet-Nurse.)

at (אַתְּ) = you, feminine form.  (The masculine form of “you” is atah, אַתָּה.)

I think Moses’ use of the feminine form here alludes to God’s responsibility for the people. If Moses is like an omenet for the Israelites, so is God.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”), the God character reaches the end of his (or her) rope.

God said to Moses: How long will this people spurn me, and how long lo ya-aminu me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? (Numbers 14:11)

lo ya-aminu = will they not trust.  Lo (לֹא) = not. Ya-aminu (יַאֲמִינוּ) = they will believe, be convinced by, put trust in, have faith in, rely upon.

Ya-aminu comes from the same root verb, aman (אמן), as the nouns omein and omenet. An omein and an omenet must be reliable so that their young charges can believe and trust them.

Both Moses and God are reliable parental substitutes during the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai. Whenever something bad happens—the Egyptian army catching up with them at the Reed Sea, or a shortage of water or food—the people panic, afraid that their god has abandoned them.  Each time, Moses speaks to God, and God takes care of the problem.

One breach of trust is recorded in the book of Exodus/Shemot: the episode of the Golden Calf.  Moses and God take turns becoming enraged; Moses has 3,000 calf-worshiping men killed by the sword, and God strikes down many of the survivors. Moses has to talk God out of annihilating the Israelites altogether.

After that, the remaining Israelites spend a quiet year eating God’s manna and fabricating the tent sanctuary and its holy objects. God issues rules with dire penalties, but does not kill any more people—until the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, after they leave Mount Sinai.scouts with grapes 1

In this week’s Torah portion, the people reach the wilderness of Paran on the border of Canaan.  Moses sends twelve men to scout out the land, and they return 40 days later with a gigantic grape cluster as well as pomegranates and figs.  Ten of the scouts report that the human inhabitants of Canaan are also gigantic, and say:

We are not able to go up against that population, because it is stronger than we! …and all the people that we saw in its midst were men of unusual size …and we were in our own eyes like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.  (13:31-33)

The ten pessimistic scouts assume the Israelites would have to conquer Canaan by their own efforts, without any help from God.  The rest of the Israelite men—except for Moses, Aaron, and the other two scouts, Caleb and Joshua—make the same assumption. The people weep all night, complaining:

If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness, if only we had died!  And why is God bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? And our young children will be the [enemy’s] plunder.  Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?—So they said, each man to his brother: Let us pick a leader and return to Egypt! (Numbers 14:2-4)

The next morning everyone assembles.  Caleb and Joshua say:

If God is pleased with us, then [God] will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. However, do not rebel against God! And you, do not be afraid of the people of the land, because …God is with us! (14:8-9)

The trouble with this argument is that it begins: “If God is pleased with us”.  The people have every reason to think God is not pleased with them. After all, since they left Mount Sinai they have complained twice, and both times God flew into a rage and killed many of them.  Now they have just spent the night complaining about God’s plan to send them into Canaan.

Perhaps because they feel doomed anyway, the people vent their frustration on Caleb and Joshua, threatening to stone them.

Then the glory of God appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all the Children of Israel. God said to Moses: How long will this people spurn Me, and how long lo ya-aminu Me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? (14:10-11)

Apparently the God character in this story thinks that the Israelites doubt his ability to give them a miraculous victory in Canaan. In fact, the people never doubt God’s power, only God’s love.  They doubt God’s commitment to protecting them.

And they are right. In a private conversation with Moses, God once again declares he will wipe out the Israelites and start over:

I will strike with a pestilence, and I will dispossess them, and I will make you a greater and more powerful nation than they!  (Numbers 14:12)

Moses once again talks him out of it. God still kills the ten scouts who spoke against entering Canaan immediately.  And God swears that only Caleb, Joshua, and the Israelites who are currently under age 20 will enter Canaan and get a share of the land. Everyone else will die in the wilderness—gradually, over the next 38 years. The people must now spend 40 years in the wilderness before they can enter Canaan.  (This total includes the two years that have already passed since the people left Egypt.)

The next morning, some of the men confess they were wrong, and try to get back into God’s good graces by launching an assault across the border of Canaan. But God has made up his mind; he lets the Canaanites defeat them.

It is possible to argue that God does care about the Israelites—if you grant that:

1) God has so little respect for the people that “he” administers corporeal punishment without attempting to explain himself, and

2) God considers the Israelites a single entity, rather than a group of individuals.

This is not the kind of omein that medieval theologians pictured when they decided that God must be omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, and personal. Nor is it the kind of deity that anyone today would want to trust or believe in.

God said to Moses: How long will this people spurn me, and how long lo ya-aminu me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? (14:11)

I think the answer that this god deserves is: “As long as it takes for You to become as wise, just, and kind as the best human being.”

Needless to say, I do not believe in the existence of the anthropomorphic God in the first five books of the Torah, the one who has vast magical powers but very limited understanding.

But what was life like for the people who took this part of the Bible literally, and not only believed the God character in this story existed, but thought of him as a father-figure (omein), and strove to trust him?

What is life like for the people who still do so today?

Devarim & Shelach-Lekha: A Giant Detour

July 27, 2014 at 8:44 pm | Posted in Devarim, Shelach-Lekha | 1 Comment
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The first time the Israelites reach the border of Canaan, they refuse to cross because they are afraid of giants. The second time, they delay crossing the border because of a giant.

The first time, the Israelites come from Mount Sinai directly to the southern border of the land God promised to give them. In the Torah portion Shelach-Lekha in Numbers/Bemidbar, Moses sends scouts into Canaan. The scouts return saying the land is full of giants.

And all the people that we saw in it were men of unusual size. There we saw the Nefilim—children of Anak from the Nefilim—and we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were in their eyes! (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:32-33)

Nefilim (נְפִילִים) = “fallen ones”, giants; offspring of “the gods” and human women before the Flood.

Anak = founder of the Anakim (עֲנָקִים) = “necklace people”, giants.

There are three groups of people in the Torah who are tall enough to be considered giants: the Nefilim, the Anakim, and the Refa-im. The passage above confirms that the Nefilim and Anakim are giants.

At the southern border of Canaan, the Israelites refuse to go into a promised land that is full of giants. God declares they must wait until 40 years have passed since the exodus from Egypt, and all the men of that generation have died (except for Joshua, and Caleb, the two scouts in favor of  going).

Bashan and Cheshbon

Bashan and Cheshbon

In the 39th year, in the Torah portion Chukkat in Numbers, Moses leads the Israelites around the kingdoms of Edom and Moab, and they camp on the Arnon River.  Now all that lies between them and the Jordan River, the eastern border of Canaan, is the kingdom of Cheshbon.

Moses asks Sichon, king of Cheshbon, for permission to pass through his land on the king’s highway. Sichon not only refuses, but calls up his army and goes to battle. The Israelites win, and take over Cheshbon.

Then, instead of heading straight for the Jordan River, they take a long detour to the north, all the way to Edre-ii.

Then they turned their faces and they went up the Bashan road; and Og, king of the Bashan, went out to come against them to do battle, he and all his people, at Edre-ii. And God said to Moses: Do not be afraid of him, because into your hand I have given him, and all his people, and all his land; and you shall do to him as you did to Sichon, king of the Emori, who was living in Cheshbon. So they struck him down, and his sons and all his people, until there were no survivors left, and they took possession of his land. Then the Children of Israel pulled out, and they pitched camp on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:33- 22:1)

Og (עוֹג) = a proper name. (In Biblical Hebrew, the closest word is oog (עוּג) = bake a cake. In Phoenician, og = a supernatural being who attacks grave-desecrators.)

Why do the Israelites make this gratuitous detour to conquer an extra country—a country that is not even part of the “promised land” of Canaan?

According to most traditional commentary, King Og would have come south and attacked the Israelites anyway, as soon as they conquered Cheshbon. Some commentators have claimed that Og and Sichon were allies, others that they were both hired by the Canaanites to guard the Jordan River against invaders from the east. In the Talmud, Niddah 61a says Og and Sichon were brother giants who escaped the Flood in Noah’s day. (According to one old story, baby Sichon was a stowaway in the ark, and Og rode on the roof.)

Yet when the Israelites head up the Bashan road, they do not meet Og and his army until they get all the way to the fortress of Edre-ii, King Og’s second capital. Therefore, according to the Torah itself, Og is not on his way to attack the Israelites in Cheshbon. The Israelites’ detour to the Bashan is unnecessary.

So why do they do it—with Moses’ cooperation, and God’s consent and reassurance?

When Moses retells the story in this week’s Torah portion, Devarim (“Words”), his account begins the same way as in Numbers. But then he gives us new information about King Og.

For only Og, king of the Bashan, remained from the rest of the Refa-im. Hey! His bedstead was a bedstead of iron! Is it not in Rabbah of the Ammonim? Nine cubits is its length, and four cubits its width, according to the cubit of a man. (Deuteronomy 3:11)

Refa-im  (רְפָאִים) = an ancient people of huge size; the dead.

A bed that size indicates that Og is about ten to twelve feet tall (about 300 to 370 cm)—twice as tall as an ordinary man. No wonder God tells Moses not to be afraid!

After the Nefilim and the Anakim, the third group of extra-large people in the Torah is the Refa-im. We know the Refa-im are giants not only because Og is a Refa-i, but also because of another aside in this week’s Torah portion. Moses remembers that God told him not to provoke the Ammonites on the way to the Jordan, since God reserved their land for the descendants of Lot’s son Ammon. Then Moses adds that Ammon

…is also considered the land of Refa-im; Refa-im used to live there previously … a great people, and numerous and tall as the Anakim. God exterminated them before [the Ammonim], and displaced them, so they live in their place instead. (2:10-11)

This explanation ties together the two meanings of refa-im. The refa-im are giants; and they are also extinct, by the time of Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy; the Israelites kill the last Refa-ii, King Og. The refa-im are the dead.

When the scouts reported that Canaan was full of gigantic Anakim, the Israelite men of the older generation are afraid to cross the southern border of Canaan. Now a new generation is preparing to enter Canaan across a different border, the Jordan River at the eastern edge of Canaan. These young men need to prove to themselves that unlike their fathers, they are not afraid of giants.

Fortunately, from their point of view, there is a giant ruling the country just north of Cheshbon. The chance to attack King Og is irresistible.

Many of us today are haunted by giants from the past. When Jews say “Never again”, we are thinking of Nazi giants. Individuals also remember feeling like grasshoppers in the face of those who used to have power over them: an abusive parent, a menacing teacher, the draft board, “the system”. It takes many years for us to grow and develop our own power.

Eventually, we may believe we are strong enough and brave enough to prevent anyone from seizing power over us. But our memories still haunt us. How can we be sure we are now safe from giants?

I have even caught myself wishing a giant would attack me, just so I could prove to myself that I can stand up to it!

Some of us might be tempted to attack potential giants who are minding their own business—just  to prove we have to courage to do it. It takes even greater strength to refrain, and not turn onto the Bashan road.

I pray that everyone may find not only the strength to stand up to giants, but also the greater strength to refrain from provoking them. May we wait for an actual threat before acting. And may we use our newfound power and courage with wisdom and compassion, so we do not turn anyone into a grasshopper.

 

 

Shelach-Lekha: Courage and Kindness

June 11, 2014 at 8:37 pm | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | Leave a comment
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The Israelites march to the southern border of Canaan in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”). Then Moses sends twelve men to scout out the land God promised them. The scouts return after forty days, carrying extra-large grapes, pomegranates, and figs.  Ten of the scouts report to Moses and the whole assembly of Israel, saying:

We came into the land where you sent us, and indeed it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. But it is all for nothing, for the dwellers in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very big, and also we saw the offspring of the Anak there. (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:27-28)

They list other hostile peoples living in the land of Canaan, reinforcing their hint that it does not matter how fertile the land is, since the Israelites have no hope of conquering its inhabitants.  Then one scout, Caleb, objects.

Caleb hushed the people toward Moses, and he said: We must certainly go up and we must certainly take possession of it, because we are certainly able to do it!  But the men who had gone up with him said: We will not be able to go up against those people, because they are stronger  mimenu. (Numbers 13:30-31)

mimenu (מִמֶּנּוּ) = than us; than him, than it.

In the Talmud (Sotah 35a), Rabbi Hanina bar Papa interprets mimenu as meaning “than Him”, than God—“as if even the master of the house cannot remove his furniture from it!”  Other commentators interpret mimenu as “than us”, and conclude that the ten scouts did not believe God would simply remove the inhabitants from the land before the Israelites walked in. Instead, they assumed they would have to fight for every farm and city, and they despaired.

Whether the scouts give up on God or give up on the people, their next move is to exaggerate the dangers of Canaan, emphasizing that …all the people that we saw inside it were men of unusual size. (Numbers 13:32)

The Israelites despair along with the ten scouts, and sob all night.

And all the Children of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them: If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness! If only we had died! Why is God bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little children will become booty. Is it not better for us to turn back toward Egypt? (Numbers 14:2-3)

If they actually returned to Egypt, they would be punished as runaway slaves and their wives and children would be treated just like booty.  But the men do not think of this, and they decide to pick a new leader and head back. Moses and Aaron fall on their faces—but this time no divine inspiration comes. (See my earlier post, Korach: Falling on Your Face.) The crowd stops only because the two dissenting scouts, Caleb and Joshua, rip their clothing—an action that is normally performed as a sign of mourning. Now that they have the Israelites’ attention, they explain why the people should go up into Canaan:

The land that we passed through to scout out, it is very, very good land. If God favors us, then [God] will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. However, do not rebel against God! And do not be afraid of the people of the land, for they are our food, and the shade of protection has left them. God is with us; do not be afraid of them! (Numbers 14:7-9)

The people are not convinced.  They are about to stone Caleb and Joshua, when the glory of God appears at the Tent of Meeting and stops them. I suspect the message that they are supposed to trust God makes them so uncomfortable they cannot bear to think about it, so they want to kill the messengers instead.

Moses persuades God to let go of anger and forgive the people, according to the greatness of your kindness (Numbers 14:19). But God swears that nobody who rebelled or ignored God will see the promised land. Only Caleb, Joshua, and the Israelites who are currently under age 20 will enter Canaan and get a share of the land. Everyone else will die in the wilderness—gradually, over a period of 40 years.

It sounds like a spiteful punishment; God gives them what they said they wanted, death in the wilderness.  But I believe this apparent punishment is actually a great kindness.  The adults among the Children of Israel mustered the courage to leave Egypt in the first place, and to face an unknown future following the mysterious and obviously dangerous God who inflicted the ten plagues on Egypt. But someone who can act with great courage in desperate situations, such as worsening slavery, does not necessarily have the willpower to take risks when life is pretty good.

At the time the Israelites refuse to enter Canaan, they are camped in the oasis of Kadeish-barnea, where there is enough vegetation for them and their livestock to live indefinitely, even without manna. They are not required to do any unusual labor, only to follow a set of reasonable laws and easy rituals. Why not just stay there for the rest of their lives?

The answer is that God is urging them to do something further. For Caleb and Joshua, and for Moses and his brother and sister, this urging is stronger than natural inertia and fear of the unknown.  But for others, the need for security and comfort is stronger.

So God kindly lets the Israelites stay at the oasis in the wilderness, living out their lives until each one dies at age 60. God recognizes that it is too much for most of the people to summon the willpower for another big act of courage.

Each of us today faces similar turning points in our lives. Sometimes we find ourselves trapped in a desperate situation, and it still takes a lot of inner strength to escape to a new life, but finally we do it. Other times life is pretty good, but something inside keeps urging us to make a change, to step out and take a risk that frightens us. Do we do it?

Whether we pick up the challenge or not depends on how fragile or strong our souls are. In this week’s Torah portion, God says:

But my servant Caleb, because there is a different ruach with him, and he followed me fully, I shall bring him into the land… (Numbers 14:24)

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind, spirit, mood, state of mind, driving impulse, motivation, temperament.

Perhaps when we hesitate between sticking with a pretty good life and taking a chance on the inner urge for change, all we can do is pray for wisdom and the right ruach.

May God, and life, be kind both to those who do not have the ruach to change, and to those who do.

Shelach-Lekha: Too Late

May 30, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | 4 Comments

The Israelites are on the verge of entering Canaan at the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”). They are in Kadesh-Barnea, an oasis in the wilderness of Paran that is close to a hilly ridge on the border of Canaan. The tribes are camped in marching formation, and all the men over 20, who will fight any upcoming battles, have been counted. The portable sanctuary (mishkan) is completed, and God’s cloud hovers over the inner sanctum, where the ark of the covenant rests.

The only problem is that the people keep complaining, and God keeps dealing with it by killing the worst complainers. Nevertheless, God has led the survivors all the way to the border of Canaan. This week’s portion begins with God giving Moses permission to send scouts for himself into Canaan.

Scouts with grapes from Canaan

Scouts with grapes from Canaan

Sending in scouts is standard military procedure before a conquest. When Moses’s twelve scouts return, they all agree that Canaan is good land, full of milk, honey, and fruit. (They bring back a gigantic bunch of grapes as evidence.) Two of them, Caleb and Joshua, predict that the Israelites will go up and conquer the land, with God’s help. But the other ten scouts say that the inhabitants of Canaan are giants, too strong for the Israelites to conquer. Then the “entire assembly” of Israel wails:

If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why is God bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be taken captive. Isn’t it better for us to return to Egypt? Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt! (Numbers/Bemidbar 14:3-4)

God (according to this story) is infuriated by the people’s rejection, and assumes that they doubt God has the power to make their conquest successful. I think that what the Israelites actually doubt is God’s commitment to them. And they have a point. Once again, Moses has to persuade God not to simply annihilate everybody on the spot. God compromises by decreeing that the Israelites must wander in the wilderness for another 40 years, until everyone over 20 has died—except for Caleb and Joshua, who in reward for their faithfulness will live long enough to enter Canaan. God sensibly decides to presume that those under 20 are innocent, so they can enter the land at the end of the 40 years.

Ironically, God is giving the Israelites what they said they wanted, when they despaired of conquering Canaan and wailed: If only we had died in this wilderness!  But when Moses gives them the news, they are not pleased.

Moses spoke these words to all the children of Israel, and the people cursed themselves very much. They got up early in the morning and they went up to the top of the hill, saying: Here we are! And we will go up to the place that God said, because we were wrong! (Numbers/Bemidbar 14:39-40)

But Moses said: Why are you going beyond the word of God? That will not succeed! Do not go up, because God is not in your midst, and you will be defeated in the face of your enemies. For the Amalekite and the Canaanite are there in front of you, and you will fall by the sword; since you turned away from following God, then God will not be with you.  (Numbers 14:41-43)

Yet they stormed up to the top of the hill. But the ark of the covenant of God, and Moses, did not budge from the middle of the camp. Then the Amalekite and the Canaanite, who were staying on that hill, came south and beat and battered them until the chormah. (Numbers 14:44-45)

chormah (חָרְמָה) = a possible place-name; the verb charam (חָרַם)= destroy utterly, dedicate to utter destruction for the sake of God + the suffix ah = toward

I feel sorry for the men who admit they were wrong, and try to correct their mistake, only to be utterly destroyed for the sake of God. I am also impressed by their sheer stupidity. How can they fail to see that they will fail?

These men know they did something wrong, or God would not have sentenced them to die in the wilderness.  The men assume their misdeed was simply refusing to climb the ridge into the land of Canaan. It does not occur to them that a more serious misdeed was refusing to obey God, or that the worst of all was deciding to abandon God and return to Egypt.

Moses points out that rushing up the ridge without God’s permission will never succeed, because they turned away from following God. But the men do not listen to Moses, even though he has spoken for God ever since he and God freed them from slavery in Egypt. Neither do they do not attach any meaning to the fact that Moses and the ark remain in the camp with the women and children (and, presumably, the subset of men who did not try to storm the ridge). Ignoring all evidence, the men who rush up the ridge actually believe that by doing what God ordered in the first place, they can change God’s mind and win a reprieve from being sentenced to die in the wilderness.

They are only human. I bet all human beings, at some point in their lives, realize that they have made a terrible mistake, and try to fix it by turning back the clock and doing it right this time. The problem is that we cannot turn back time. There are no second chances.

Once the Israelite men reject God and God’s plan for entering Canaan, they cannot change themselves back into innocent followers of God. Saying we were wrong is a good beginning of an apology, although they also need to acknowledge their rejection of God, and repent. That is the best they could do. Then they would merit whatever fate God deemed appropriate for people who had been unfaithful, but now were reforming. They could not have started conquering Canaan as if nothing had happened, but perhaps God would have softened their sentence.

Similarly, someone who has lied or cheated on a spouse cannot return to the original situation and do it over again, getting it right this time. Once you have betrayed someone’s trust, the best you can do is to apologize and repent. And even if the betrayed spouse forgives the betrayer, the marriage will not be the same. The same principle applies to a betrayal between friends, or between a parent and child.

There are no second chances; the story of the men who rush up the hill after it is too late only illustrates how our world works. Nevertheless, we can do better than that band of Israelites, if we are willing to study our own mistakes and misdeeds. With humility and deep reflection, we can change our approach to life, and make better choices when we encounter challenges in the future.

May we receive the strength to do this had inner work. May we receive the grace to accept where we are now, even if we wish we had never left Egypt. And may we receive the insight to make better and better choices.

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