Tags: Babylonian exile, Dry bones, prophecy, resurrection, ruach
During the week of Passover/Pesach, we pause in the annual cycle of Torah readings to commemorate the story of the liberation from slavery in Egypt. The first evening of Passover (or the first and second evenings, in some traditions) is devoted to the seder, a 14-step ritual with a meal and a story that goes from the beginning of Exodus through the crossing of the Reed Sea. One of the many songs in the ritual can be translated as “We were slaves; now we are free!”
After the excitement of the seder or seders, Jews are supposed to spend the rest of the week of Passover eating matzah and eschewing all other grain products. On the Shabbat that falls during this week we get two special readings. The Torah reading comes from later in the book of Exodus, when God proclaims Its “thirteen attributes” to Moses on top of Mount Sinai.1 The haftarah reading is a vision from the book of Ezekiel.
The hand of God came over me, and it brought me out by the ruach of God and set me in the middle of the broad valley [which] was full of bones. And it swept me over them, around and around, and hey!—there were very many on the surface of the broad valley, and hey!—they were very dry. And [God] said to me: “Son of humankind, will these bones become alive? And I said: “My lord God, [only] You know.” (Ezekiel 37:1-3)
ruach (רוּחַ) = wind, spirit, breath. (Plural ruchot, רוּחוֹת.)
Ezekiel uses the phrase “the hand of God came over me” to mean that God overpowered him and compelled him to enter his vision.2 After asking Ezekiel if the dry human bones can come to life, God tells his prophet what to say to the bones.
And I prophesied as I had been commanded. And a sound happened, as I was prophesying, and hey!—a clatter!—and the bones drew close [to each other], a bone to its bone. Then I looked, and hey!—they had sinews and flesh on them, and skin spread over them. But there was no ruach in them. (Ezekiel 37:7-8)
Next God instructs Ezekiel to bring breath—or spirit—into the bodies by saying:
Thus said my lord God: Ruach, come from the four ruchot, and blow into these slain, and they will become alive. And I prophesied as [God] commanded me. And the ruach came into them, and they became alive, and they stood up on their feet—a very, very great force. (Ezekiel 37:9-10)
What does this vision mean? Some early commentators viewed it as a literal statement that some dead Israelites were, or would be, resurrected.3 But in the book of Ezekiel, God explains the vision as a metaphor or parable.
And [God] said to me: “Son of humankind, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Hey! They are saying: ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished, and we are cut off’. Therefore prophesy, and you shall say to them: ‘Thus says my lord God: Hey! I, Myself, am opening your graves, and I will lift you out of your graves, My people, and I will bring you back to the soil of Israel. … And I will put My ruach inside you, and you will become alive [again], and I will put you back on your soil. (Ezekiel 37:12, 14)
The book of Ezekiel was written in the 6th century B.C.E. during the Babylonian Exile. When the Babylonians conquered Judah, the southern kingdom of the Israelites, they deported its leading families to Babylon, including Ezekiel’s family of priests. Ezekiel prophesied to his fellow exiles, who were inclined to despair of either returning to their old land, or building new lives among the Babylonians, who treated them as paroled prisoners.
After showing Ezekiel the vision of the dry bones coming to life, God tells Ezekiel to give new hope to “the whole house of Israel”: both the Israelites from the kingdom of Judah who have given up on their lives in Babylon, and the Israelites whom the Assyrians had deported from the northern kingdom of Israel about 150 years earlier.
It is never too late to come to life again.
At the beginning of Passover, we tell the story of God’s ten miracles and how God, with the prophet Moses, leads a few thousand subjugated people out of Egypt to a new land that will become their own.4 On the Shabbat during Passover, we read about God’s demonstration to Ezekiel that miracles are still possible, and God can liberate the subjugated people in Babylon and give them a new life ruling their old homeland.
May everyone today who slides toward despair receive the ruach to hold onto hope instead. May we all create new lives for ourselves, and build good countries wherever we may be. It is not too late.
1 Exodus/Shemot 33:12-34:2.
2 Rashi (1th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), commentary on Ezekiel 37:1. In Hebrew, the phrase is hayetah (הָיְתָה) = it happened; alai (עָלַי) = over me; yad (יַד) = hand, power; of God. See also Ezekiel 1:3, 3:22, and 8:1.
3 In the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 92b, the rabbis argue about whether Ezekiel’s vision is a parable, or whether he actually resurrected some long-dead skeletons. Rabbi Yehudah bar Batyra claims to be a descendent of one of the resurrected men!
4 Unfortunately, the “promised land” in the Torah is already occupied by Canaanites. In the book of Joshua the ex-slaves from Egypt have to fight and defeat the indigenous peoples in order to take over their land. History often clashes with morality. It is a challenge today to provide liberty and justice for all the people residing in a country.
Tags: exodus from Egypt, miracles, Moses and Pharaoh, Passover, Pesach, Psalm 105, Psalm 78, psalms, ten plagues, torah portion
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
It takes two Torah portions (Va-eira this week and Bo next week) to describe the miraculous “plagues” that force the Pharaoh to let the enslaved Israelites walk out of Egypt. Two psalms, Psalm 78 and Psalm 105, offer briefer versions of the story. And the festival of Passover/Pesach tells the story of how God rescued the Israelites from Egypt in such detail that the seder (“order”; ritual retelling of the story) can last half the night.
In the Torah portion Va-eira, God lays out the plan to Moses:
Therefore say to the children of Israel: “I am God, and I will bring you out from under the burden of Egypt, and I will rescue you from enslavement, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your god. And you will yada that I am God, your god, who is taking you out from under the burden of Egypt. (Exodus/Shemot 6:6-7)
yada (יָדַע) = know, realize, recognize, become acquainted, come to understand through direct experience. (Yada is the root verb. The Hebrew here uses the form viyda-etem (וִידַעְתֶּם) = and you will yada.)
Why does God inflict “great acts of judgement” on Egypt? The first reason given in this week’s Torah portion is so that the Israelites will yada God.
The second reason is so that the Pharaoh and the Egyptians will yada God, or at least recognize God’s existence and power:
And Egypt, they will yada that I am God when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and I bring out the children of Israel from their midst. (Exodus 7:5)
(The Hebrew in this verse uses form veyade-u (וְיָדְעוּ) = and they will yada.)
How many plagues does it take before both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada God? Anyone who has participated in a Passover seder, spilling a drop of wine for each plague, knows the answer is ten. And in the book of Exodus/Shemot God does indeed inflict ten miracles on Egypt—the first seven in Va-eira (And I appeared), and the last three in Bo (Come).
However, the ten plagues are described in two different voices. Any close reader of Va-eira and Bo, even in translation, notices points where the narrative suddenly stops and restarts, rephrasing a bit of the story that has already been told. Scholars examining the language itself have discovered that two stories of the plagues are woven together (but not seamlessly).
Both strands have something to say about the plagues of blood, frogs, and death of the firstborn. The other seven plagues are described by one strand or the other, not both. Maybe each of the two original stories had fewer than ten plagues. Or maybe the redactor(s) who combined the two stories decided to give both descriptions of three plagues, but chose only their favorite descriptions for the other seven.
Psalms 78 and 105 report fewer than ten plagues, and the order is different than in Exodus.
What accounts for these differences? We cannot identify any of these accounts as the original story. At least one strand in the composite story in Exodus was probably written in the 8th century B.C.E. Psalm 78 may have been written as early as the 10th century B.C.E., soon after the first Israelite temple was built in Jerusalem. Psalm 105 could have been written any time after that, maybe before the book of Exodus, maybe as late as the period of the second temple. Probably the story of God’s miracles in Egypt was familiar to all the authors before they began to write down their own versions.
The two psalms and the composite in Exodus borrow language from each other, not only using the same words for the plagues, but sharing pieces of description. For example, Exodus describes the plague of blood this way:
…and he raised the staff and he struck the water that was in the Nile before the eyes of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the waters of the Nile turned into blood. And the fish that were in the Nile died. And the Nile stank and the Egyptians were not able to drink water from the Nile, and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:20-21)
Psalm 78 focuses on the lack of drinking water:
And [God] turned into blood the Nile and its streams;
They could not drink. (Psalm 78:34)
Psalm 105 focuses on the loss of an important food:
[God] turned their waters into blood
And it made their fish die. (Psalm 105:39)
Whether the story is expanded in the book of Exodus, or contracted in a psalm, it is always offered as a decisive example of God’s miracles on behalf of the Israelites.
In the book of Exodus, the purpose of the plagues is to get both the Israelites and the Egyptians to yada God. But the Torah portion Bo also gives instructions several times for the earliest Passover rituals, which were conducted about 3,000 years ago. The purpose of these rituals is to remember the story of the exodus.
This day shall be for you for remembrance, and you shall celebrate it as a festival for God, through [all] your generations. It is a decree forever: you shall celebrate it. (Exodus 12:14)
While Exodus only calls for remembering the story of God’s miracles in Egypt, Psalms 78 and 105 tell the story in order to motivate the Israelites of Judah to action.
Psalms 78 hopes that if the Israelites remember the miracles God did for them, then they will stop backsliding, trust God, and obey God’s rules.
What we have listened to, and we yada,
and our ancestors recounted to us,
should not be concealed from their descendants,
to the last generation recounting
praises of God and Its strength
and Its wonders that It did. (Psalm 78:3-4)
(The Hebrew in verse 3 uses form vaneida-eim (וַנֵּדָעֵם) = and we will yada.)
Why must God’s miracles be recounted to every generation?
Then they will place their kesel in God,
and they will not forget the deeds of God,
and they will comply with Its commandments. (Psalm 78:7)
kesel (כֶּסֶל) = conviction, certitude, unwavering belief regardless of other evidence or arguments; folly, stupidity.
The section of Psalm 78 that tells about the miracles God inflicted on Egypt (78:42-51) is not designed to mention every single plague, but rather to bring the story to life in ten short verses. Psalm 78 leaves out the kinim, the shechin, and the darkness, but it adds a few details that are not in Exodus:
—that the action happened at Tzoan, a specific place in the Nile Delta. (78:43)
—that the arov, the mixed hordes of vermin, ate the flesh of the Egyptians. (78:45)
—that when God sent hail, Egyptian flocks were hit by lightning. (78:48)
—that the hail killed grapevines and fig trees (important crops in Canaan, but not in Egypt). (78:47)
These additional details would make the story more vivid in the listener’s imagination.
Psalm 105 is less concerned than Psalm 78 about lack of faith and commitment among the people of Judah. I believe its purpose is to whip up enthusiasm for God and the religion among the worshipers at the temple.
Thank God, call out Its name,
hodiyu among the peoples Its deeds!
Sing to [God], make music to It,
consider all Its wonders!
Revel in the name of Its holiness!
Let the heart of those who seek God rejoice! (Psalm 105:1-3)
hodiyu (הוֹדִיעוּ) = make known, inform, announce. (A different form of the root verb yada.)
Psalm 105 then tells the story of the people who became Jews, starting with God’s covenant with Abraham and ending with the Israelites’ conquest of part of Canaan. When it describes the plagues, it omits both livestock pestilence and shechin, perhaps because the thought of rashes and boils would depress the congregation. Or, according to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, because diseases do not seem supernatural enough to count as miracles. But Psalm 105 uses some of same vivid details as Psalm 78.
Do the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt achieve their purpose?
Direct experience of miracles works in Exodus; both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada—know, realize, and recognize—a powerful god acting on behalf of the Israelites. The instruction to perform a ritual to remember what happened also worked; we have been celebrating Passover for about 3,000 years.
Does the account in Psalm 78 work, leading people to kesel, an unshakeable belief in God, and to a determination to obey God’s rules? I think it would depend on the listener. Some people believe any account that is vivid (like Psalm 78’s selection of details) and comes from an accepted source (such as the temple priests, or a particular news station, or a friend’s e-mail). Other people are skeptics by nature; they examine a story to see if it is logical and how it fits with personal experience and other information. This type of person would probably need direct experience, yada, to achieve kesel and commit themselves to obeying all the rules of the religion.
What about Psalm 105? I believe that an account of past miracles can inspire both kinds of people, especially when it is poetry set to uplifting music. Even natural skeptics can get caught up in singing joyful praise, and leave the temple (or synagogue) with a better attitude toward their God and their religion. And natural believers might be moved to proselytize, following the instruction hodiyu—make known, announce!
The singing of the psalms continued as part of both Jewish and Christian prayer after the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. It continues today. But Jewish liturgy concentrates on other psalms. It quotes only one verse from Psalm 78 and fifteen from Psalm 105, none of which are verses addressing the plagues in Egypt.
However, serious-minded Jews study the story of the plagues in the Torah portions Va-eira and Bo every winter, when we reach this time in the cycle of Torah readings. And in the spring many more Jews celebrate Passover, a festival of dramatic rituals, prayers, songs, and stories about how God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
The haggadah (“the telling”), the book that provides the texts and ritual instructions, includes many quotes from our two Torah portions in Exodus. Psalms 78 and 105 are not traditionally included. In a modern American haggadah, the song “Go Down Moses” usually is.
Out of all the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt, I would say Passover is by far the most effective at getting Jews to remember the claim that God created miracles to rescue our people from Egypt. The ritual itself has changed and grown over the millennia, so it can speak to new generations. Even Jews who grew up in families that managed to conduct a boring seder every year cannot help but remember the symbolic foods, the song that the youngest child must sing, the exodus story, spilling a drop of wine for each of the ten plagues, and hunting for the hidden piece of matzah.
Thus Passover still serves the purpose given in the book of Exodus: remembering the story. Whether we can go further and yada God (as in Exodus), or commit ourselves to kesel (as in Psalm 78), or be moved to joy and a desire to recommend the religion (as in Psalm 105) depends on the individual.
Personally, I have a skeptical nature, and I actively try to avoid kesel—while remaining committed to studying Torah and being a Jew in a liberal sense. But I remember the exodus story every winter when I study it in the Torah, as well as every spring when I participate in Passover. I do not yada the God of the ancient Israelites, but I do yada something I cannot describe that I call God. And when I sing psalms that have uplifting words and melodies, I am indeed moved to joy. I would recommend that to anyone!
Tags: haftarah, Passover, Peaceable Kingdom, Pesach, world peace
(Note: I will be traveling during the week of Passover, so I’m publishing my post for April 24-30 ahead of time. This year, the eight days of Passover end on April 30, 2016.)
For the eighth day of Passover/Pesach, the special Torah reading is Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17, which includes directions for observing Passover “so that you will remember the day of your exodus from the land of Egypt all the days of your life”. (See last week’s post, Pesach: The Matzah of Misery.)
The haftarah (the accompanying reading from the Prophets) is Isaiah 10:32-12:6. It mentions Egypt only in Isaiah’s prediction that God will return the Israelites from the far-flung places where they were deported by Assyrian Empire.
God will dry up the tongue of the sea of Egypt, and will wave a hand over the River [Euphrates] with the might of God’s ruach and break it into seven wadis so it can be walked over dry-shod. And it will become a highway for the remainder of God’s people who remained from Assyria, like [the highway] for Israel on the day it went up from the land of Egypt. (Isaiah 11:15-16)
ruach (רוּחַ) = wind (when blowing over water); spirit (when sweeping into a human being).
But the return of the exiled Israelites is only part of Isaiah’s grand vision in this week’s haftarah.
The prophet has been urging King Achaz of Judah to avoid taking sides in the revolt of Aram and the northern kingdom of Israel against the empire of Assyria, which had conquered the two states during the 8th century B.C.E. Isaiah tells the king of Judah that Aram, Israel, and even Assyria will all disappear in only a few years. God has a three-part plan. First God will eliminate the vast empire of Assyria; then a great and righteous king will arise in Judah; and finally people everywhere will unite in worshiping Judah’s God.
In the ancient Near East, people believed major change came from the top down: from god to king to the people. A great king was required for a civilization to be transformed. So Isaiah prophesies:
A shoot will go out from the stump of Jesse
And a crown from its root will bear fruit.
And a ruach of God will rest upon him,
A ruach of wisdom and insight,
A ruach of counsel and courage,
A ruach of knowledge and awe of God. (Isaiah 11:1-2)
God will inspire a human king, a descendant of King David’s father Jesse, to establish a moral government. Then, Isaiah prophesies, human nature itself will change.
A wolf will dwell with a young ram,
And a leopard will lie down with a goat kid,
And a calf and a young lion will pasture together,
And a little boy will be leading them.
And a heifer and a she-bear will graze
And they will let their young ones lie down together.
And a lion, like an ox, will eat straw.
A baby will play over a viper’s hole,
And a toddler will put his hand over a snake’s lair. (Isaiah 11:6-8)
In other words, there will be no predators; all animals will be peaceful and non-violent. Judah and the other small countries in the hills of Canaan are like lambs, kids, calves, babies. But in the future, the wolves, leopards, lions, and bears of great empires will no longer prey on them.
Not only will all peoples live together in peace, but they will all be morally upright and search out the same god.
They will do no evil nor destruction
On all My holy mountain
Because the land will be as filled with seekers of God
As the water covering the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse will be standing
As a banner for peoples.
Nations will come to him with inquiries,
And his haven will be honored. (Isaiah 11: 9-10)
Isaiah claims that this great king from “the root of Jesse” will arise in just a few years—i.e. right after the reign of King Achaz. Achaz’s son Hezekiah was indeed one of the religious kings praised by the Bible. But after Hezekiah’s reign (~716-697 B.C.E.), people noticed that the rest of Isaiah’s prophecy was no closer to coming true; the empires of Assyria and Egypt continued to squabble over ownership of the lands between them until the Neo-Babylonian Empire became the new top predator.
We are still waiting for world peace. Christianity developed the theory that Isaiah’s righteous king was Jesus, who would return someday to straighten out the world. According to traditional Judaism, we are still waiting for the messiah—or at least for a messianic era without predators or prey.
According to the Torah, the Israelites in Egypt waited 400 years for an opportunity to escape and become a free people, serving only their god.
We have already waited over 2,400 years for Isaiah’s vision to come true. Maybe it’s time to stop praying to an all-powerful God who lives outside the world. Maybe it’s even time to stop waiting for a Moses, a king, a messiah. We need to take action ourselves.
Imagine one individual after another dedicating him-or-her-self to respecting everyone and preying on no one; to avoiding violence; and to seeking the divine in everyone and everything.
May all human beings become filled with the ruach of Isaiah’s inspiration.
Tags: Deuteronomy, Exodus, matzah, Passover, Pesach, torah portion
“This is the bread of affliction,” we intone during the Passover/Pesach ritual, holding up a piece of matzah. Many Jews feel that just eating this dry unleavened cracker is an affliction—especially if they eat it for the prescribed eight days and eschew real bread, or anything else made with yeast or other leavening.
At a traditional Passover seder, we hold up the matzah and say in Aramaic: Ha lachma anya di akhalu avhatana be-ara demitzrayim! which means: “The bread of misery that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt!” This phrase is based on one of the Torah portions we read during the week of Passover, Deuteronomy /Devarim 14:22-16:17.
You must not eat with [the meat from the animal sacrifice] anything leavened. Seven days you shall eat with it matzot, the bread of oni, because in haste you went out from the land of Egypt. Thus you shall remember the day of your going out from the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:3)
matzot (מַצּוֹת) = plural of matzah (מַצָּה) = unleavened flatbread made of flour and water only, quickly mixed and baked before any sourdough in the air can act on it.
oni (עֳנִי or עֹנִי) = misery, suffering, humiliation, plight, deprivation. (This noun comes from one of the four root verbs spelled ענה, this one meaning “to stoop down in humiliation, humility, or subjection”.)
The noun oni appears 37 times in the Hebrew Bible, although the passage above is the only one mentioning “bread of oni”. Individuals in the Bible experience oni, misery, because they are unloved, infertile, abused, or deprived of their due. The poor live in a state of oni because they are victimized by a selfish upper class. The Israelites live in oni because they have been conquered by enemy armies—or because they are abused slaves, as in the Passover story.
Why is matzah the bread of oni? The book of Exodus claims that the enslaved Hebrews had to hurry out of Egypt before the dough in their kneading-bowls had time to rise. I find this unconvincing. (See my post Pesach: Being Unleavened, Part 2.)
I think the oni, the misery, came first, and the matzah symbolizes it. Matzah, made out of flour and water paste with nothing interesting added, not even sourdough, serves to remind us of the tedious life of slaves making bricks for Pharaoh.
Matzah, the “bread of oni”, can also remind us of times in the Bible when people live in misery and God sees their oni, stops ignoring them, and acts to improve their situation. I counted 13 occurrences of this motif, as well as additional occasions when God acts after hearing people cry out in their oni.
For example, God tells Moses at the burning bush:
I certainly see the oni of my people who are in Egypt, and I have paid attention to their cry for help in the face of their being hard-pressed, for I know their anguish. … And I have said I will lift them out from the oni of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites…to a land flowing with milk and honey. (Exodus 3:7, 3:17)
Sometimes people draw God’s attention to their own oni, hoping that God will then notice it, stop ignoring them, and act. For example, Channah suffers because she is infertile and verbally abused by her husband’s other wife, who has many children.
And she vowed a vow, and she said: God of Armies, if you will really look at the oni of your female-servant, and you remember me and do not ignore me, and you give your female-servant a male child, then I will give him to God for all the days of his life… (1 Samuel 1:11)
The psalms also include pleas to God to notice the singer’s misery and act. For example,
See my oni and my misfortune
And lift off all my wrongdoing. (Psalm 25:18)
May I sing out and may I rejoice in your kindness
Because you see my oni and you know the distress of my soul. (Psalm 31:8)
See my oni and save me
Because your teaching I have not ignored. (Psalm 119:153)
Maybe Jews began holding up matzah during the Passover ritual not just to remind themselves of times of deprivation, but also to draw God’s attention to their own oni. To make sure God gets the point, we call the matzah the “bread of oni”. If God sees our misery, pays attention to it, then maybe God will stop ignoring us and do something to improve our lives—the way God freed the slaves in Egypt.
What is your oni this year? What misery is enslaving you? Is it something that you can fix? Or something that will lift by itself?
Or is it something that you can only be freed from by a divine intervention? If so, what would a true divine intervention be?
Tags: Exodus, matzot, Passover, Pesach, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
In the Hebrew Bible, Passover appears to be a conflation of three holidays:
* chag ha-aviv (“festival of the new ears of grain”), a one-day celebration of spring on the 15th of the month that called Aviv until the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E, then renamed Nissan.
* chag ha-matzot (“festival of the unleavened bread”), a seven-day period of refraining from eating, or owning, any leavened food. This period fell at the beginning of the barley harvest in the spring.
* pesach (“skipping over”), a one-day observance in Aviv, in which a lamb or goat kid was sacrificed, and the meat was roasted and eaten in one night.
Some modern scholars speculate that the Torah combines an ancient festival of matzot (when farmers cleared out their old grain products in preparation for the new grain) with an ancient festival of pesach (when shepherds celebrated the spring lambing by sacrificing a lamb and performing a skipping dance)—and then incorporates both spring holidays in the story of the exodus from Egypt.
Thus the special Torah reading for the first day of Passover, Exodus 12:21-51 (in the Torah portion Bo), begins with Moses’ instructions to the Israelites for the night of the tenth and final plague in Egypt: the death of the firstborn. Each family must slaughter a lamb as a pesach offering, paint the blood on the lintel and doorposts of its home, and stay indoors all night, eating the roasted meat, while God “skips over” the marked houses and kills only the firstborn children of the Egyptians. The Torah adds that the Israelites shall continue to re-enact this ritual every spring.
Then, after describing the final plague and Pharaoh’s command that the Israelites leave at once, the Torah says:
The people picked up their dough before it could become chameitz, their kneading-troughs wrapped up in their cloaks upon their shoulders. …And the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Sukkot… And they baked the dough that they had taken from Mitzrayim in rounds of matzot, because it was not chameitz, because they were banished from Mitzrayim and they could not delay, and they had not even prepared provisions for themselves. (Exodus 12:34, 37, 39)
chameitz (חָמֵץ) = leavened bread, leavened food.
Mitzrayim (מִצְרַיִם) = Egypt. The dual form —ayim (ַיִם) probably refers to the combined kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. The first three letters, מצר, might be related to the word meitzar (מֵצַר) = narrow strait, constriction, confinement, bondage.
I have always found the above explanation of the festival of matzot unconvincing. If the normally made leavened bread in Egypt, then they would always have a jar of sourdough starter bubbling in the house. Why not bring that jar along with a kneading-trough and flour? The story in the book of Exodus smacks of a post-hoc, invented rationale.
Nevertheless, one of the special Torah readings for intermediate days of the week of Passover, Exodus 13:1-16 (also in the Torah portion Bo), makes the festival of matzot an essential part of the observance of Passover:
Moses said to the people: Remember this day on which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery. For with a strong hand God brought you out from this, and you shall not eat chameitz. Today you are leaving, in the month of Aviv… and it will happen when God brings you into the land…then you shall serve this service in this month. Seven days you shall eat matzot, and on the seventh day [will be] a festival for God. Matzot shall be eaten these seven days, and chameitz must not be seen with you, and se-or must not be seen with you in all your borders. And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: Because of this, God acted for me when I went out from Egypt. (Exodus 13:3-8)
se-or (שְׂאֹר) = sourdough starter; any leavening agent.
Throughout history, religions have connected their new holidays to pre-existing holidays. Sometimes the only real connection between the new and old holiday seems to be the time of year. Spring is certainly a good time of year to celebrate both the promise of new grain and the concept of liberation.
But the connection between the festival of matzot and the story of liberation from Egypt may be deeper than that.
In last week’s post, Tzav & Pesach: Being Unleavened, Part 1, I wrote about the symbolic meanings of matzot and chameitz proposed by Philo of Alexandria in the first century C.E. and by Rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch in the 19th century.
Philo considered how leaven makes bread rise and puff up, like an arrogant person. He wrote that eating matzot is a reminder of our humility before God.
Hirsch wrote that chameitz is the bread of independence, and matzot the bread of dependence. Among other arguments, he cited a verse from the special Torah reading for the eighth day of Passover, Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17 (in the Torah portion Re-eih):
Seven days you shall eat matzot, the bread of oni, because in hurried flight you went out from the land of Egypt—so that you shall remember the day of your exodus from the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:3)
oni (עֹנִי) = misery, wretchedness; a state of dependence due to poverty.
By eating matzot in remembrance of our deliverance from slavery, Hirsch argued, we acknowledge that we did not escape from poverty and oppression by our own actions, but only because of God’s actions: the ten plagues or miracles, and the warnings God communicated through Moses. We rose to the independence represented by chameitz only because God lifted us out of Egypt.
That is as far as Hirsch went. But I wonder: Does leaven itself represent one aspect the divine? What if God is the fermentation in our souls, and in the world, which leads to liberation and expansion?
During Passover we might acknowledge that without the divine spark, we would be as flat as matzah. We could not escape from Egypt, Mitzrayim, or the constrictions in our own souls. We would be slaves to our genetic predispositions and to all the psychological complexes we have acquired during our lives.
But if the divine spark in our souls bubbles up like the se-or that bubbles up and makes bread rise, and we are inspired with an insight, then we can make different decisions. With a holy insight, we can push open some of the narrow places in our psyches, and expand into a new life of more freedom and independence.
But we cannot change from matzot into chameitz through sheer willpower. It takes a touch of leavening, and that is a gift from God.
The festival called Chag ha-Matzot, Pesach, or in English, Passover, lasts for seven days in Israel. By Jewish tradition, Passover lasts for eight days outside of Israel (to make sure that those who live far away will be observing Passover during all of Israel’s seven days). This year in the diaspora, Passover begins on a Friday evening and ends on a Saturday evening the following week. That means we will study the special Torah portions for Passover—including the ones in this blog post—for two weeks.
So it will be two weeks before I return to the annual cycle of Torah portions, and post my new thoughts on Shemini, the next Torah portion in the book of Leviticus.
May all my Jewish readers have a happy Passover! And may some divine insight bubble up in everyone during this change of seasons.
Tags: fire offerings, leavened, Leviticus, matzot, minchah, prayer, todah, torah portion, unleavened
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
If you mix flour and water, spread it flat, and slap it in the oven at once, what comes out is a matzah (plural: matzot): “unleavened bread” that is really a large, bland cracker.
If you mix flour and water and let the mixture sit indoors for six to nine days, adding more flour and water each day, you get frothy sourdough starter, thanks to the activity of wild yeast—invisible microorganisms that cover everything, even flour. Add more flour to the starter, spend a day kneading it, shaping it, and letting it rise twice, and put the balls of dough in the oven. What comes out is chameitz: loaves of leavened bread. To get from flour and water to loaves of sourdough bread takes at least seven days.
The difference between matzot and chameitz is critical in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (“Command”), and even more critical in the Torah readings for the following two weeks, during the holiday of Passover/Pesach.
The Torah first mentions matzot in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, when Abraham’s nephew Lot meets two strangers in the town square of Sodom and invites them home.
He urged them very much, so they turned aside to him and came into his house. And he prepared food and drink, and he baked matzot, and they ate. (Genesis/Berieshit19:3)
matzot (מַצּוֹת) = (plural) unleavened “bread”.
Lot’s wife is not involved in this act of hospitality. Lot himself, who may not even know whether she has dough rising somewhere, simply mixes flour and water and spreads it on the hot inner surface of the oven, so that at least his guests will have crackers to eat with their meal.
The first mention of chameitz in the Torah is in the book of Exodus/Shemot, when God tells Moses what the Israelites should eat during the night of the final plague in Egypt, in preparation for the exodus the next morning. They must eat their meat roasted (the fastest way to cook it) and their bread as matzot (the fastest way to bake it). And every year after that, they must remember the event with matzot:
Seven days you shall eat matzot; but on the first day you shall eliminate se-or from your houses, because anyone who eats chameitz, that soul shall be cut off from Israel—from the first day to the seventh day. (Exodus/Shemot 12:15)
se-or (שְׂאֹר) = leavening agent, sourdough starter.
chameitz (חָמֵץ) = leavened bread, leavened food.
The Torah forbids the people of Israel to eat or own leavened bread during Passover. It also says that leavened bread must never be burned on the altar for God. But this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, gives directions for two kinds of offerings that include matzot burned on the altar: the grain offering and the thanksgiving offering.
And this is the teaching of the minchah: Sons of Aaron, bring it close before God, to the front of the altar. Then (one) shall elevate his handful: some of the fine flour of the minchah and some of its oil and all of its frankincense. Then he shall make it go up in smoke on the altar for a soothing aroma, a memorial portion for God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 6:8)
minchah (מִנְחָה) = grain offering; tribute or gift to express respect and allegiance.
The loose flour sprinkled with oil and frankincense can be burned on the altar because it is dry, and therefore unleavened.
A similar rule applies to the thanksgiving offering, which is made by someone who has emerged safely from a dangerous or oppressive situation. This type of offering includes both meat and grain products, and is divided into three portions: one to burn up on the altar for God, one for the officiating priest to eat, and one for the donor and his guests to eat.
And this is the teaching of the slaughtered-animal of the wholeness-offering that is brought close to God: If as a todah he brings it close, then he shall bring close along with the slaughtered-animal of todah [the following]: round bread of matzot mixed with oil, and thin matzot sprinkled with oil, and fine flour loaves soaked through with oil, along with loaves of chameitz bread. He shall bring close his offering: along with the slaughtered-animal, his whole todah. (Leviticus 7:11-13)
todah (תּוֹדָה) = thanks; thanksgiving offering (one category of shelamim = wholeness-offering).
In other words, the donor brings animals for slaughter, three kinds of matzot, and loaves of leavened bread. Portions of the animals and the matzot are burned on the altar. The officiating priest gets one of each kind of item (including a loaf of chameitz). The rest of the food, including the chameitz, is eaten by the donor and his guests.
Once again, matzot are considered more “holy” than chameitz.
In the first century C.E., Philo of Alexandria wrote that leaven is forbidden on the altar because it makes dough rise, and nobody should be inflated and puffed up by arrogance or insolence in front of God.
In the 19th century C.E., Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggested that chameitz stands for independence, and matzot for dependence. In a thanksgiving offering, Hirsch wrote, the chameitz represents the donor’s well-being and independence in the world. The matzot acknowledges that he regained his worldly independence only through God, upon whom he is always dependent.
As a modern Jew, I am happy to offer prayers and blessings as my tribute (minchah) and my thanks (todah) to the divine. But when I am addressing God, I do not want to waste my time begging a parent-figure to give me what my inflated ego wants. Instead, I want to acknowledge that I am not in charge—with an expression of humility, like tribute to a king, like matzot in a minchah offering.
I also want to give thanks for the amazing and wonderful universe I live in, knowing that I and the rest of the universe exist only because of forces I cannot imagine or control. I want to acknowledge that I am not in charge—with an expression of dependence and appreciation, like giving thanks, like the matzot in a todah offering.
And while I’m at it, I want to express my gratitude for life by sharing my food with others, like the donor of a todah. One of the things I want to share is some chameitz, some lovely leavened bread that stands for my joy over the small sphere of independence and power I have been given.
(Next week, check my blog for Tzav & Pesach: Unleavened, Part 2, which will discuss how ideas about leavened versus unleavened bread apply to the holiday of Passover.)
Tags: darkness, Exodus, Shemot, ten plagues, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Blood. Frogs. Lice. Insect swarms (“wild beasts” in earlier translations). Pestilence. Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. Death of the Firstborn.
These are the ten “plagues”—miraculous calamities—that God inflicts on Egypt before the Pharaoh lets the Israelites go. Jews recite the ten plagues every spring during Passover/Pesach, the holiday commemorating the exodus from Egypt. We also read about the last three plagues in this week’s portion, Bo (“Come”).
Most of the plagues inflict pain on humans, kill livestock, and destroy crops. The last plague kills humans. But the ninth plague, darkness, seems harmless at first glance.
God said to Moses: Stretch out your hand against the skies, and it will become choshekh over the land of Egypt, and the choshekh will be felt. And Moses stretched out his hand against the skies, and it became choshekh of afeilah throughout all the land of Egypt, for three days. No one could see his brother, and no one could get up from under it, for three days. But for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings. (Exodus/Shemot 10:21-23)
choshekh (חֹשֶׁךְ) = dark, darkness.
afeilah (אֲפֵלָה) = cut off from any light, complete darkness, impenetrable darkness.
The three days of total darkness terrorize the Egyptians so much that Pharaoh makes his best offer yet to Moses: the Israelites could go with their women and children, leaving merely their livestock behind. (Moses rejects this offer, so that God can produce the final plague and Pharaoh’s complete capitulation.)
What is so terrible about this darkness? If it were merely three days of blindness, the Egyptians might be able to wait it out. They would have to feel their way around, but they could still talk with each other. They could cooperate to make sure everyone got food and water. They could comfort each other.
But the plague of darkness is not physical blindness; it is psychological darkness.
This darkness can be felt. The Midrash Rabbah (a collection of commentary from Talmudic times) explains that the darkness has “substance”. Maybe when the Egyptians grope around to find things they cannot see, all they feel is “darkness”. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that groping means uncertainty, and in the impenetrable darkness of afeilah, everything seems uncertain and doubtful.
In this condition, stray thoughts that a person would normally dismiss in an instant become obsessions. What if there are no gods? Does my spouse wish I were dead? What if I don’t really care about my own children? Is my whole life meaningless? What if I am insane? A person living in spiritual darkness keeps groping for true answers, but feels only darkness.
The Torah adds: No one could see his brother. This is the darkness of extreme egotism, exemplified by the Pharaoh. As the plagues roll through Egypt, Pharaoh’s advisors and the Egyptian people protest that it would be better to give Moses and his god what they want than to put the land through more plagues. Pharaoh ignores them because he cares only about himself and his own pride; he does not recognize anyone as a “brother” human being.
Thus he is cut off not only from affection, but also from any possibility of enlightenment; he is incapable of learning from others. Similarly, the afeilah cuts off the Egyptians from any possibility of light.
At first, Pharaoh hardens his own heart. Over time, it becomes a habit from which only a divine intervention could shake him loose. But God keeps his heart hardened, so Pharaoh does not change. In the plague of darkness, all the Egyptians experience Pharaoh’s immobility. The Torah says “and no one could get up from under” the darkness. The Midrash Rabbah explains that anyone who was sitting could not stand, anyone standing could not sit, and anyone lying down could not rise up. Like the Pharaoh, the Egyptians cannot change their positions—or their beliefs.
Imagine experiencing a “dark night of the soul” so impenetrable that you cannot distract yourself by looking at anything; you cannot trust anything you feel; you cannot care about anyone else, or believe anyone cares about you; and you cannot get a new idea, or see life from a different perspective.
The plague of darkness terrifies the Egyptians because for three days, they experience what it is like to be the Pharaoh. Maybe it terrifies the Pharaoh himself because at the end of the three days, when the darkness lifts, he sees a glimmer of what his own soul is like. But it is only a glimmer; his habit of hardening his heart is too strong for actual enlightenment.
As I write this, my eyes are filling with tears for some people I know who appear to be living in a psychological darkness, unconsciously isolating themselves from others because they can neither trust nor respect them, and immobilizing themselves because they cannot change their perspective.
And I know that any of us can fall into a temporary state of darkness. I pray that whenever healthy uncertainty turns into doubting everything, we find the power to stop our obsessive groping. I pray that whenever we fall into the trap of justifying our own behavior instead of noticing and appreciating what others are doing, we realize that we are isolating ourselves, and make an effort to see our brothers and sisters. And I pray that whenever we are so depressed that change seems impossible, we follow any glimmer of light that gives us a view from a different perspective.
May every human being escape from the plague of darkness.
Tags: Deuteronomy, pilgrimage festivals, rejoicing, torah portion
Sometimes joy comes unexpectedly. Sometimes we plan on rejoicing, setting ourselves up for joy on a particular occasion. This week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See!”), says that three times a year, everyone should rejoice.
Universal joy is required during the three annual pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Although the Torah gives instructions for these three festivals in the earlier books of the Torah, this portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim is the first one that mandates a pilgrimage to the central sanctuary even for Pesach.
Three times in the year all your males shall appear in the presence of God, your god, in the place that [God] will choose: on the festival of the matzot and on the festival of the shavuot and on the festival of the sukkot … (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:16)
matzot (מַצּוֹת) = unleavened bread. (This spring festival is part of Pesach or Passover.)
shavuot (שָׁבֻעוֹת) = weeks. (This summer festival occurs after counting seven weeks of the barley harvest, and includes bringing the first fruits and loaves of leavened bread to the priests at the sanctuary.)
sukkot (סֻכּוֹת) = huts, temporary shelters. (In Exodus this autumn festival is called the festival of the asif, “ingathering”, and pilgrims donate products from their threshing-floors and wine-presses. Leviticus adds the rituals of dwelling in temporary huts for seven days.)
…and they shall not appear in front of God empty-handed; each man [shall give] according to the giving-capacity of his hand, according to the blessing that God, your god, has given to you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:16-17)
Only Israelite men are required to make the three pilgrimages to the central sanctuary (which was in Shiloh for about 370 years, and Jerusalem for about 1,000 years). But this week’s portion also encourages women, children, and slaves to go, while recognizing that the journey may not be possible for pregnant or nursing women. Each head of a household must bring the second tithe (a donation for the priests and the temple administration), and a sacrificial animal for God. But the donations must be in proportion to the family’s wealth, so nobody’s joy is dampened by having to give more than they can afford.
In the Torah’s previous instructions regarding the three festivals, rejoicing is mentioned only once, when Leviticus 23:40 says to take branches from four species of trees and rejoice for the seven days of Sukkot.
But in this week’s Torah portion, rejoicing is called for three times, once in the instructions for Shavuot and twice in the instructions for Sukkot.
(Although this Torah portion does not specifically mention rejoicing during Pesach, later passages in Ezra and Chronicles 2 mention rejoicing in Jerusalem during this festival.)
The requirement for rejoicing in the portion Re-eih includes the Levite, stranger, orphan, and widow, who were not mentioned in any of the earlier instructions on the three festivals. During Shavuot, the Torah portion says:
Rejoice in the presence of God, your god—you and your son and your daughter and your man-servant and your woman-servant, and the Levite who is within your gates, and the foreigner and the orphan and the widow … (Deuteronomy 16:11)
And during Sukkot:
Rejoice in your festival, you and your son and your daughter and your man-servant and your woman-servant, and the Levite and the foreigner and the orphan and the widow who are within your gates. Seven days you shall celebrate a festival for God, your god, in the place that [God] will choose, because God, your god, will have blessed you in all that comes to you and in all the doings of your hands, and there will be for you only joy. (16:14-15)
Feeling joy might be easy for the landowner who brings his offerings to the sanctuary, since he gives in proportion to his means, and he is celebrating that God blessed his agricultural endeavors with success.
But when the Torah addresses this landowner, it informs him that his family and his servants or slaves must also feel joy during the festivals. Furthermore, the Torah gives examples of four classes of people who are unlikely to own land or other independent means in a society built around inheritance through the male line: the Levites, whose pasture land is restricted and depend on donations; foreigners, who can lease but not inherit estates; orphans who have no fathers to provide for them; and widows, who are dependent on the mercy of relatives unless they have wealthy sons. The Torah says that all of the disadvantaged people who live in the landowner’s town or village must also rejoice during the three festivals. Their joy becomes the landowner’s responsibility.
What can he do for them? According to the commentary of 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, he must arrange for those who cannot travel to rejoice at home. Everyone who can travel must come with him to the central sanctuary, to experience the joy of celebrating in the national community, whose people are dedicated to one god, and to one another.
Hirsch added that these festivals are also times that God appointed to meet the people at God’s sanctuary. The awareness of God’s presence, he wrote, brings the purest joy.
In the 11th century, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that the phrase I translate above as “there will be for you only joy” means that if you bring everyone to God’s chosen place for a festival, God promises you will be happy.
I have observed this effect in my own life. Occasionally happiness lifts me when I am alone; more often it comes when I am with my beloved. But when I am singing with my congregation at services, my heart almost always rises. The only times this communal singing does not bring me joy are when someone in the group looks angry or miserable.
The unhappy people are like the poor foreigners in the Torah, alienated from the community where they live. Sometimes these “foreigners” cannot come to the place where God is; they are unable to travel spiritually. Then those of us who have greater means, like the landowners in the Torah, must make arrangements to help them rejoice in the spiritual state where they are.
Other times, the unhappy “foreigners” are able to travel, if we carry them with us. The Torah tells us not to neglect them, but to bring them to God’s place to celebrate with us.
Then “there will be only joy”. Complete joy happens only when everybody contributes, and nobody gets left out.
Tags: Four worlds, Haggadah, Kabbalah, Passover, Pesach
This week we pause in the yearly cycle of Torah readings to celebrate Passover/Pesach. The Passover ritual celebrates the exodus from Egypt—but not only by telling the story. The seder (“order” or agenda) that has evolved over that last 2,000 years has 13 sections of ritual plus dinner, punctuated by blessing four cups of wine.
To keep track of it all, Jews have a haggadah (“the telling”—plural haggadot), a book to work through during the long evening of ritual. But the old joke applies that wherever you have two Jews you have three opinions, so we keep writing new haggadot, retaining the basic elements but explaining them in new ways.
Some haggadot associate the four cups of wine with the four “worlds” of kabbalah, so that as we bless each cup we ascend one stage closer to God.
Assiyah (עֲשִׂיָה) = action. (From the verb asah = make, do. Assiyah is the physical world we operate in.)
Yetzirah (יְצִירָה) = formation. (From the verb yatzar = form, shape. Yetzirah includes intuitions, dreams, myth, and metaphor. Although the word yetzirah does not mean emotion, it is often associated with emotion because it is non-rational.)
Beriah (בְּרִיאָה) = creation. (From the verb bara = create. Beriah includes inventing and designing in the stage of abstract ideas.)
Atzilut (אֲצִילוּת) = emanation. (Probably from the preposition eitzel = beside, next to. The world of Atzilut is undifferentiated divine spirit.)
Human beings operate in the world of assiyah, and approach awareness of God by rising up through yetzirah and beriah toward atzilut. This is the order in which we drink the four cups of wine on Passover. The fourth cup, representing atzilut, comes at the end of the evening, when we are exhausted and uninhibited.
During the first part of the seder (covered by the first two ritual cups of wine) we build up to the story of the exodus with songs and stories based on the number four, including “the four questions” about why this night is different from all other nights, and the description of four types of children (traditionally “the four sons”).
The four children are based on four passages in the Torah which tell parents what to say when their children express curiosity about Passover:
When your son will ask you in the future, saying: What are the rules and the decrees and the laws that God, our god, commanded you? Then you shall say to your son: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:20-21)
A traditional haggadah labels this son “the wise son” because he wants to know all the rules.
And it will happen that your son says to you: What is this service to you? Then you shall say: It is an animal-offering to God, because He pasach over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, by dealing a blow to Egypt but rescuing our houses. (Exodus/Shemot 12:26)
pasach (פָּסַח) = limped, skipped. (One possible meaning of the word Pesach is “skip over”.)
Tradition labels this son “the wicked son” on the grounds that he seems uninterested in what Passover might mean to himself.
And it will happen that your son asks you, in the future, saying: What is this? Then you shall say to him: With a strong hand God brought us out from Egypt, from the house of slavery. (Exodus 13:14)
Tradition labels this son “the simple son” because his question is elementary.
The Torah has no fourth question from a son about Passover, so the early rabbis found a fourth question implied in the following verse:
And you shall tell your son that day, saying: Because God did this for me when I went out from Egypt. (Exodus 13:8)
Tradition labels this son “the son who does not know how to ask”.
In an earlier post, I suggested that the four sons could correspond to the four sons of Aaron in the Torah. (See Shemini: Four Sons.)
But we can also look at these four children in terms of the four worlds of kabbalah. Here is the “Four Children” section in the haggadah I wrote this year:
Children of the Four Worlds
Assiyah: One kind of child (the so-called “simple son”) asks: “Mah zot? What is that?” This is the child of Assiyah, the world of doing. Assiyah people are most interested in practical action, the physical senses, and tangible things.
Yetzirah: Another child (the so-called “wicked son”) asks: “What does this ritual mean to you?” This is the child of Yetzirah,the world of intuition, dreams, and metaphors. Yetzirah people are most interested in personal symbolic meanings. They are introspective and find more truth in the arts than in the sciences.
Beriah: A third child (the so-called “wise son”) asks: “What is the meaning of the statutes, laws, and rules which our God has commanded?” This is the child of Beriah, the world of the intellect. Beriah people love abstract thinking.
Atzilut: The fourth kind of child (the so-called “son who does not know how to ask”) is silent. This is the child of Atzilut, the world of divine emanation, where all forms are aspects of God. Atzilut people seek a life of mystery, ecstasy, and divine union.
Though every human has a particular strength, all four of these worlds are aspects of being fully human. We fail if we reject one of the worlds and try to exclude it from our lives.
Pause for a few moments and consider silently: Am I spending too much of my energy in one of the worlds—Assiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, or Atzilut? Am I stuck in that world, that approach to life, as if it were an Egypt? Do I need to liberate myself so I can receive the blessings of a different world?
Humans tend to bring gifts to their gods. They have done it all over the world, from the beginning of history. In the Torah, the first human to offer a gift to God is Cain, the oldest son of Adam and Eve … and God rejects his offering. Religions help people to avoid the fear of being rejected by their gods by spelling out what gifts are and are not acceptable.
The first part of the book of Leviticus/Vayikra (And It Called) is devoted to instructions about offerings for the altar. What kinds of animal and grain offerings will be acceptable to God? The first Torah portion begins by considering animals for burned offerings.
If one brings an olah from the herd, he shall bring an unblemished male; he shall bring it to the opening of the Tent of Meeting, liretzono before God. And he shall lean his hand upon the head of the olah, and it will be nirtzah for him, to atone for him. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:3-4)
olah = an offering that is completely burned, so its smoke will rise to the heavens
liretzono = to be accepted for him
nirtzah = favorably received, acceptable, counted as good (from the same root as liretzono, רצה)
After an initial review of animal offerings, the Torah gives particulars about the minchah offering: a gift of homage to God, made from grain. (See my blog post “Vayikra: Gifts to the Giver”.) Embedded in the minchah instructions is a ban on any leavening or sweetener in a burned offering:
Every homage that you bring to God you shall make without chameitz; for you shall not bring any sourdough or any devash into an offering by fire to God. (Leviticus 2:11)
chameitz = leavened bread, fermented food
devash = syrup, bee honey, fruit nectar
Leavened loaves of bread can only be brought to the sanctuary for the priests and their families to eat; they must not be burned on the altar. Fruit syrup or jam can only be brought at the annual festival of first fruits, Shavuot, and the fruit preserves were also eaten by the priests.
Why are leavened bread and syrup are banned from burned offerings? Philo of Alexandria, who lived 2,000 years ago, began a long line of Jewish commentatary comparing bread rising to a human puffing up with self-importance—the opposite of the humility needed to pay homage to God. Another view stresses the instruction in the book of Exodus/Shemot to eat unleavened matzah on Passover/Pesach in order to remember that the Israelites did not have time to let their dough leaven before escaping Egypt. Since matzah is “the bread of our affliction”, the Israelites presumably did not have time to watch bread rise during their years of slavery, either. According to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphel Hirsch, leavened bread therefore represents political independence, which the Israelites achieved not by their own efforts, but only by following God’s Torah. Fruit syrup represents ownership of land where dates and other fruit trees grow naturally—another gift from God. Hirsch argued that an acceptable offering to God could only be something that the Israelites had acquired by their own efforts. (Presumably the Israelites put a lot of their own labor into making flour and tending their animals.)
I am not persuaded by either Philo or Hirsch. I suspect that the key lies in the way the ancient Israelites viewed leavening. For modern Americans, leavened bread is sweet and yeasty, and sourdough bread is an interesting variation. But the ancient Israelites had only sourdough leavening, and their word for leavened bread, chameitz, comes from the same root as the word for vinegar, chometz. In Biblical Hebrew, when something leavens or ferments itself, yitchameitz, it turns sour and sharp, whether it is flour becoming sourdough bread or grape juice becoming vinegar.
An offering that is going to straight up to God in smoke should not be sour. If we give ourselves to God in a sour mood, our offering will not be accepted.
Nor should an offering sent straight to God be sweetened, as if the donor wanted to make it more palatable to God. If we try to sweet-talk our way into God’s favor, or to adopt a sweetness that we do not feel inside, our offering will not be accepted.
After banning leaven and syrup in burned offerings, the Torah says that all offerings to God must be salted:
Every offering of your homage you shall salt with salt; you may not omit the melach of the brit of your God from your homage. You shall put melach on every offering of yours. (Leviticus/Vayikra 2:13)
melach = salt
brit = covenant, pact, alliance
Why is salt required for acceptance? Salt was not a rare commodity in Canaan; the Israelites used to quarry rock salt near the Dead Sea, which the Hebrew Bible calls the Sea of Salt. The salt quarries between that sea and the city of Sodom may be the “Valley of Salt”, the site of at least two battles in the Hebrew Bible. When God annahilates Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Lot’s wife looks back at Sodom and becomes a pillar of salt (one of many strange salt formations left by the evaporation of the Dead Sea). In Deuteronomy/Devarim Moses warns that when the Israelites worship idols in the future, God will destroy their land, and visitors will compare its barrenness to burning with sulfur and salt.
Yet the proper care of a newborn infant included bathing it in water and rubbing it with salt, according to the book of Ezekiel/Yechezkeil; and the prophet Elisha “heals” a contaminated spring with a dish of salt in 2 Kings/Melakhim. Salt is both a preservative and a condiment for food. Thus the Hebrew Bible associates salt with both death and life.
This week’s Torah portion refers to salt as a form of covenant. A covenant of salt also shows up in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. After disposing of Korach’s threat to the rights of priests, God tells the high priest Aaron:
All holy upraised offerings that the children of Israel raise up to God, I give to you and to your sons and to your daughters with you, as a decree forever; it will be a brit melach forever; it is before God for you and your offspring with you. (Numbers/Bemidbar 18:19)
And in the second book of Chronicles, Aviyah, king of Judah, says:
Listen to me, Yaravam and all Israel! Don’t you know that God, the god of Israel, gave kingship to David over Israel forever, to him and to his sons, a brit melach? (2 Chronicles/2 Divrei Hayamim 13:4-5)
Salt apparently makes a covenant especially unbreakable and long-lasting. Many commentators attribute this to the fact that salt was the main preservative used by the Israelites. But salt was also their universal seasoning, set on the table for every meal. Eating a man’s salt was an idiom for being either his friend or his dependent. So a covenant of salt might imply not only durability, but also dependence or even friendship.
Now that we reach out to God by praying instead of by burning animals and matzah, we can apply the ideas in Leviticus about leaven, syrup, and salt in a more subtle way. All too often, when we stand before other people, we have to paste on a sweet smile. But when we stand before God, we need to abandon any false sweetness, as well as the pride and the sourness implied by leavening. And we need to be serious about life and death, offering our whole selves, and acknowledging that we all eat our salt at God’s table.