Pesach and Psalm 118: Still Singing

April 3, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Psalms/Tehilim | Leave a comment

After drinking, eating, talking, and singing our way through the Haggadah, we still have six more days of Passover/Pesach.  What do we do besides continuing our matzah diet, unleavened by any bread?

One of the 14 steps in the seder follows us all week: the Halleil (הַלֵּל = praise), consisting of Psalms 113-118.  The Levites sang these psalms in the second temple1 during the three pilgrimage festivals to Jerusalem:  Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. 2  All three festivals originated as harvest celebrations: Pesach for the first barley harvest, Shavuot for the first wheat and first fruits, and Sukkot at the end of the growing season, for all the other crops.  A harvest is a good reason to celebrate and praise God.

In my years of organizing Pesach seders and Shavuot and Sukkot services, I have been grateful that the Halleil includes Psalm 118.  Why?  Because the good lines in that psalm have inspired song and chant writers to come up with melodies.  Now, for the rest of the week of Pesach, I have the perfect excuse to keep on singing them!

Singing a verse again and again makes me ponder its meaning—which may be one reason we sing the psalms.  Here are my thoughts about some of the verses in Psalm 118:

118:1-4

Hodu l’Adonai ki tov,                         Thank God, because it is good,

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomar na Yisrael,                               Let Israel please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomru na beit Aharon,                       Let the house of Aaron please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomru na yirey Adonai,                      Let yirey God please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

yirey (יִרְאֵי) = those who are afraid of, those who are in awe of.

(Note:  In Hebrew, nouns and verbs have grammatical gender; in English they do not.  Therefore a masculine noun suffix or verb affix in Hebrew can be either masculine or neuter in English.  In this essay, I am translating references to God using “it” or “its”.)

Levites, from James Tissot, The Choristers

The first verses of Psalm 118 are scripted for call and response singing.  The choir, or choir leader, of the Levites invites three groups to respond. The first group, Israel, covers everyone present who is not a Levites or a priest.  The second group is the priests, whose hereditary office is traced back to Aaron in the Torah.  The third group is yirey God.3

It is tempting to consider the “yirey God” as the “God-fearers” of the Hellenistic period (the first through third century C.E.).  This was the name for people who had converted to worshipping the God of Israel, but did not go so far as to follow all the rules (such as circumcision).  One argument for this interpretation is that 118:4 calls for a class of people who are not “Israel”.  An argument against this interpretation is that Psalm 118 was probably written well before the first century C.E.

I can identify with the “yirey God”, despite my conversion to Judaism over 30 years ago, because I am not an ethnic Jew.  When the psalms were written, there were few apostates and few full converts; most of the people called “Israel” belonged by both birth and religion.  Today, when many people with Jewish ancestry live with no ties to the Jewish religion, and many converts are passionately engaged in that religion, I would appreciate a separate call for Jews by religion.4  We, too, can use a reminder that God’s “kindness is everlasting”.

118:14

Ozi vezimrat Yah,                               My strength vezimrat God,

          vayehi li liyshuah.                               and it became my rescue.

vezimrat (וְזִמְרָת) = and/or/but the zimrah of (a construct form of the noun zimrah).  Zimrah (זִמְרָה) = praising-song, melody, music.5

This line also appears in Exodus 15:2 in a song attributed to Moses, and is quoted in Isaiah 12:3.

English inserts the word “the” and forms of “to be” in places where Biblical Hebrew has no such connecting words.  Thus it is not always obvious, when translating from Hebrew to English, where to throw in the extra “the”, “is”, or “are”.  These grammatical differences mean there are at least two equally valid translations of Psalm 118:14:

“My own strength and song are of God!  And it [God] became my rescue!”  (Both the speaker’s strength and his song are attributed to God.  God rescues him by giving him superhuman strength and a song.)

“My own strength, and the song of God!  And it [the song of God] became my rescue!”  (The speaker has his own strength, but it is not enough to save him.  It is the song about God that rescues him—by calling in divine strength.)

When I sing verse 118:14, I imagine that singing in praise of God is giving me enough extra psychological strength to rescue me from my troubles.

118:19-20

Pitchu li shaarey tzedek                     Open to me the gates of righteousness

          Avo vam odeh Yah!                                         I will enter and praise God!

Zeh hashaar l’Adonai;                                    This is the gateway to God;

          Tzadikim yavo-u vo.                                    The righteous enter through it.

tzedek (צֶדֶק) = righteousness, what is right, what is just.

tzadikim (צַדִּיקִים) = (plural) the righteous, those who are innocent and in the right, those who act according to morality and justice.

When the Levites sang Psalm 118 in Jerusalem, the “gates of righteousness” probably referred to gates in the second temple complex.6  The pilgrimage festival may have included a ritual in which the double doors of a gate opened and the Levite choir sang while Judeans filed through.

The second temple had gates from the city into the outer courtyard (the “Court of Gentiles”); three gates from the outer courtyard into the eastern inner courtyard (the “Court of Women”) which only women and men of Israelite descent or full converts could enter; one gate from that court into the “Court of Israel” (for men only) with its view of the altar; and a curtained gate into the vestibule of the temple proper, which only priests were allowed to enter.

Was coming to the temple and worshiping the God of Israel enough to make someone righteous?  Or did stepping through the designated gate express a desire and commitment to become righteous?

The first time I sang this part of Psalm 118, I felt as if I were pretending I was already righteous and commanding the gates to open for me.  Then I realized that the request in 118:19 could also be a plea.  Now when I sing, I beg for the gates of righteous to open to me, so that I can receive whatever I need to become righteous.

Rashi7 wrote that the “gates of righteousness” were the entrances to synagogues and study halls.  I would agree that these are places where one can become more enlightened about righteousness—through an emotional channel in a synagogue service, and through an intellectual channel in a study hall.  But personal gates of righteousness may also open to us, if we ask.

*

As I sing Psalm 118, using different melodies for different sections, I think of God in terms of infinite kindness; I feel the strength of a divine source entering me as I sing to God; and I humble myself to pray for the ability to become righteous.

And all that comes before Psalm 118 reminds me to look again when I reject or feel rejected, since:

The stone the builders rejected

          Has become the cornerstone!  (118:22)

  1. Scholarly consensus is that Psalm 118 was written during the time of the “second temple” in Jerusalem. The Babylonians razed the first temple dedicated to the God of Israel in 586 B.C.E.  After the Persians conquered the Babylonians, King Cyrus decreed that exiles could return to their original lands and rebuild sites of worship.  Under Ezra and Nehemiah, returning exiles from Judah laid the foundations of a second temple on the site of the old one in Jerusalem.  The temple was completed in 516 B.C.E.
  2. The Talmud determined that only the “Half Halleil”, which abbreviates Psalms 116 and 117, should be recited during the last six days of Pesach (Arachin 10a-b).
  3. Psalm 115, earlier in the Halleil, appeals to the same three groups: Israel, the house of Aaron, and “yirey God”. In this case, the leader asks each group to trust in God, and the group responds: “Their help and their shield is he!”
  4. Converts are currently called “Jews by choice”, but I do not want to exclude people of Jewish ancestry who also choose to practice Judaism.
  5. In this verse only, zimrat is often translated as “the might of” or “the strength of” . Yet the root verb zamar, זָמַר, means “pruned” in the kal form, and “sang praises” or “made music” in the pi’el   There is only one verse in the Hebrew Bible in which zimrah or zimrat is not translated in terms of music: Genesis 43:11.  There Jacob lists six products he considers zimrat the land: four kinds of aromatic resin, fruit syrup, and almonds.  All these luxuries come from trees, and therefore could be considered “prunings”.
  6. Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century), The Hirsch Tehillim, Feldheim Publishers, Nanuet, NY, 2014, p. 968; Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, p. 417; The Koren Siddur (Nusach Sepharad), commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2012, p. 771.
  7. 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
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Pesach: Miriam the Prophetess

March 27, 2018 at 9:09 am | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Beshallach, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment

Pesach (פֶּסַח, “skipping”) means Passover.  Seder (סֵדֶר, “order”) means the dinner table ritual following the order in the Haggadah.  Haggadah (הַגָּדָה, “the telling”—a term that came into use in the 19th century) means the book of rituals, prayers, questions, four cups of wine, and stories.  The longest story, told while the second cup of wine sits on the table, is about the exodus from Egypt, up to the point when the pursuing Egyptian army drowns in the Reed Sea, and the newly-freed slaves celebrate on the far shore.

In the book of Exodus, Moses led the people in celebrating by singing a lengthy psalm.1

Miriam’s Song, 1909

Then Miriam the neviyah, the sister of Aaron, took the drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her, with drums and with circle-dances.  And Miriam chanted for them:

Sing to God, for He is high above the high;

horse and its rider He hurled into the sea.  (Exodus/Shemot 15:20-21)

neviyah (נְבִיאָה) = prophetess (the feminine form of navi (נָבִיא) = prophet).

Miriam is the first woman in the Torah to be called a neviyah.  She leads the women in singing as well as in tapping hand drums and dancing.2

Miriam is a character in three dramatic scenes in the Torah.  She is the resourceful young woman who, when the pharaoh’s daughter adopts her infant brother Moses, arranges for their own mother to be his paid wet-nurse.3  She is the leader of thousands of women in the scene above.  And later in the trek across the wilderness, she leads her brother Aaron in a joint complaint regarding Moses’ wife.  (See my post Beha-alotkha: Unnatural Skin.)  The two siblings point out that they are prophets, too:

“Has God spoken only with Moses?  Hasn’t He also spoken with us?”  And God heard.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 12:2)

by Johann Christoph Weigel, 1695

God calls Miriam, Aaron, and Moses to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and speaks to all three from the pillar of cloud—in order to tell them that Moses gets the most direct divine communication.

And [God] said: “Please listen to my words!  When there is a navi of God among you, I make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream.  Not so my servant Moses … I speak with him mouth to mouth, and in seeing, not in riddles, and he looks at the likeness of God.  (Numbers 12:6-8)

God afflicts Miriam with a temporary skin disease to underscore the point.  Nevertheless, in that scene Miriam is indeed a neviyah who hears God’s voice directly!

Miriam is mentioned in passing five times after this, including God’s speech in the book of Micah reminding the Israelites that God sent them three leaders for the exodus from Egypt: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 4

*

What is a navi or neviyah?  The Torah offers several paradigms.

  • Intercessor

The word navi first appears in the book of Genesis, when God tells King Avimelekh in a dream: “And now, return the wife of [Abraham], since he is a navi, and he can pray for you and you will live.” (Genesis 20.7)

Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, and an unnamed prophet in the first book of Kings are also prophets who have God’s ear and intercede with God to save other people.5

  • Spokesperson

The Torah introduces a second paradigm of a navi after the enslaved Israelites give up on Moses’ idea that God will liberate them.  When God tells Moses to speak to Pharaoh next, he tries to get out it, arguing that he has “uncircumcised lips”, i.e. he cannot speak well.6  But God has an answer for everything.

Then God said to Moses: “See, I place you as a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother will be your navi.”  (Exodus 7:1)

Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh, March Chagall, 1931

In other words, Aaron will act like a navi for Moses, hearing Moses speak and then passing on Moses’ words to the Egyptian court.  Obviously Moses is God’s navi, hearing God speak and passing on God’s words, though the Torah does not bother to say so until the end of Deuteronomy:  And never again in Israel rose a navi like Moses, who knew God face to face.  (Deuteronomy 34:10)

Moses and God have the longest, most frequent, and most direct conversations in the entire Hebrew Bible.  After Moses gets over his initial reluctance to speak, he fluently delivers God’s instructions, warnings, and hundreds of rules.7

Other prophets transmit God’s predictions, or warnings, about the future of kings or kingdoms if they do not change their ways.  These include all the major prophets (Isaiah through Malachi).

  • Ecstatic

The third kind of navi in the Hebrew Bible is one who goes into an altered state of consciousness characterized by an awareness of the divine and obliviousness to the world, and who does not return with any coherent message from God.  The first occurrence of this state in the Torah is when God shares some of Moses’ spirit or ruach with 70 elders.

And the spirit was upon them, vayitnabe-u, but they did not continue.  (Numbers 11:25)

Saul Before Samuel and the Prophets, by Benjamin West, 1812

vayitnabe-u (וַיּתְנַבְּאוּ) = and they acted like prophets, and they prophesied to themselves, and they spoke in ecstasy.  (From the same נבא root as navi.)

In both books of Samuel and both books of Kings, bands of prophets wander around making music, dancing, and babbling.  The bible explains the proverb “Is Saul, too, among the prophets?” first with a scene in which King Saul falls in with a band of prophets on the road and speaks in ecstasy like them, then with a scene in which not only babbles, but also strips naked.8

*

Miraim is the first of only five women called prophets in the Hebrew Bible. After her, two major prophetesses are spokespersons for God (type 2 above): Deborah, who summons a general and tells him to go to war;9 and Huldah, who authenticates a scroll as the word of God and utters two prophetic predictions.10  Two other prophetesses are mentioned only glancingly.11

Miriam is the only neviyah whom the bible reports as engaging in what might be ecstatic behavior: playing a drum, dancing, and singing on the shore of the Reed Sea.  But Miriam leads circle dances in complicated patterns that require concentration and planning.  She leads a coherent chant.  Rather than directing ecstatic worship, she is probably organizing a celebration of God as the victor in a war against the Egyptian charioteers.  Women customarily greeted soldiers returned from a victory with drumming, dancing, and singing.12

Although Miriam hears God’s voice, the Torah does not report her serving as either an intercessor or a spokesperson for God.

by Simeon Solomon, 1860

The Talmud attempts to fill the void by claiming that Miriam did pronounce a prophecy: that her mother would have a son who would save the Israelites from Egypt.  When Moses was born, according to this story, the whole house filled with light, and Miriam’s father exclaimed that his daughter’s prophecy had been fulfilled.13  This is a pleasant tale with no basis in the Torah.

A modern folk explanation is that Miriam must have had foreknowledge of the victory at the Reed Sea, and told the women to bring their drums.  Otherwise they would not have bothered to pack them, since they left their homes in Egypt in such a hurry that the dough had no time to rise in their kneading-troughs.14

This argument for Miriam’s power as a neviyah fails in the context of the larger story in Exodus.  The Israelite women were already packing all the gold, silver, jewelry, and clothing they “borrowed” from the Egyptians; they could easily add their hand drums and any their other sentimental and ritual objects.

*

Miriam may be called a neviyah because of other deeds not recorded in the bible.  Or she may simply be an exceptional person who has a close relationship with God.

A traditional Passover seder includes pouring a cup of wine for Elijah the navi.  Many a modern seder adds a ritual cup of water for Miriam the neviah.  (The water alludes to a Talmudic story that says a well of water followed the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years thanks to the merit of Miriam.15)

I lift a cup for Miriam at Passover knowing that she may not be a neviyah in the sense of being an intercessor with God, a spokesperson for God, or a religious ecstatic.  I celebrate her lifelong wise leadership, and her ability to listen to God.  May we all learn to be a little more like Miriam the neviyah.

  1. Exodus 15:1-18. See my post Beshallach & Psalm 136: Miracle at Sea.
  2. Since the two lines of Miriam’s song are the same as the first two lines of the psalm ascribed to Moses, the women might sing them as a periodic refrain during the longer psalm. Most modern scholars consider either the entire psalm, or at least Miriam’s song, to be one of the oldest poems in the Torah (based on Frank M. Cross and David N. Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1973).
  3. Exodus 2:4-8.
  4. When she dies in Numbers 20:1; in two genealogies listing her with her brothers Aaron and Moses, Numbers 26:59 and 1 Chronicles 5:29; in a warning about skin disease in Deuteronomy 24:9, and in Micah 6:3-4.
  5. Moses for the Israelite people in Exodus 32:9-14, Exodus 33:12-17, Numbers 11:1-2, and Numbers 21:6-9, and for Miriam in Numbers 12:10-15; Samuel for the Israelites in 7:5-10; Elijah to bring a dead boy back to life in 1 Kings 17:20-24; Elisha for the same reason in 2 Kings 4:8-37; an unnamed prophet for King Jereboam in 1 Kings 13:1-6.
  6. Exodus 6:12, 6:30. See my post Va-eria & Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2.
  7. The Talmud (Makkot 23b and Yevamot 47b) claims there are 613 commandments in the Torah.  It is hard to decide which rules should count, but 10th-century C.E. rabbi Saadiah ben Yosef Gaon found a way to list 613 in his Sefer Hamitzvot, and Maimonides (12th-century C.E. rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, nicknamed Rambam) came up with 613 for his book by the same name.
  8. 1 Samuel 10:10-12 and 19:18-24.
  9. Judges 4:4-16.
  10. 2 Kings 22:14-20.
  11. The unnamed wife of the first Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3) and Noadeyah, a false neviyah listed in Nehemiah 6:14.
  12. Judges 11:34, 1 Samuel 18:6-7.
  13. Talmud Bavli Megillah 14a.
  14. Exodus 12:34.
  15. Talmud Bavli Taanit 9a.

Haftarat Pesach—Ezekiel: Dry Bones

April 12, 2017 at 3:43 pm | Posted in Ezekiel, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment
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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.

Valley of the Dry Bones
by Gustave Dore, 1866

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.

Va-eira & Bo; Psalm 78 & Psalm 105: Responding to Miracles

January 26, 2017 at 7:01 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach, Psalms/Tehilim, Va-eira | 3 Comments
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Pharaoh Merneptah subjugating Semites

Pharaoh Merneptah subjugating Semites

(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.

Pharaoh Mernptah, son of Ramses II

Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramses II

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.

plagues-table

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:

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain

…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:

Plague of Hail, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747 Germany

Plague of Hail, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747 Germany

—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.)

Rylands Haggadah, 14th century Spain. Left: livestock pestilence. Right: Shechin.

Rylands Haggadah, 14th century Spain. Left: livestock pestilence. Right: Shechin.

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.

from an Iraqi haggadah, printed in Vienna 1930

from an Iraqi haggadah, printed in Vienna 1930

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!

Pesach: Isaiah and the Peaceable Kingdom

April 21, 2016 at 10:16 am | Posted in Isaiah 1, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment
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(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.

Crossing the Red Sea, by William Hole

Crossing the Red Sea,
by William Hole

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.

The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, 1826 version (William Penn's peace treaty in background)

The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, 1826 version
(William Penn’s peace treaty in background)

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.

 

 

 

 

Pesach: The Matzah of Misery

April 17, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Re-eih | 1 Comment
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“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.

matzah001At 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.

Kneading bowl in the Egyptian royal bakery

Kneading bowl in Egypt

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)

Channah in the Child's Bible 1884

Channah in the Child’s Bible 1884

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)

matzah001

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?

 

Pesach:  Being Unleavened, Part 2

March 30, 2015 at 2:33 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach, Re-eih | 1 Comment
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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.

lamb 2* 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.

Egyptian kneading trough

Egyptian kneading trough

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.

matzah001

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.

Tzav & Pesach:  Being Unleavened, Part 1

March 25, 2015 at 10:11 am | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Tzav | 1 Comment
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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.

one kind of leavened bread

one kind of leavened bread

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)

matzah

matzah

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.

matzah001

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.

matzah001

(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.)

Bo: Impenetrable Darkness

January 18, 2015 at 9:43 am | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment
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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.

Seder Haggadah shel Pesach: Plague of Darkness

Seder Haggadah shel Pesach: Plague of Darkness

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.

stars in blackAnd 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.

Re-eih: Recipe for Joy

August 18, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Re-eih, Shavuot, Sukkot | Leave a comment
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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) 

Barley

Barley

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.

Pilgrimage for Sukkot

Pilgrimage for Sukkot

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.

 

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