Tags: book of life, Golden Calf, levirite marriage, Psalm 109, Psalm 69
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
Of course God is angry about the golden calf. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below.” (Exodus/Shemot 20:4) It’s right there in the Ten Commandments. Why can’t these Israelites follow simple directions?
Moses is about to walk back down Mt. Sinai with the two stone tablets in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, when God warns him that the Israelites below have cast a golden calf and are worshiping it. (See my blog post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen.)
And God said to Moses: “I have observed this people, and hey, it is a stiff-necked people! So now let Me be, and My anger will blaze over them and I will consume them, and I will make you into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9-10)
Moses talks God out of this idea. Then he walks down the mountain, smashes the two stone tablets, and gets the Levites to kill the 3,000 worst offenders.
The next day he climbs back up Mt. Sinai to ask God to forgive the surviving Israelites.
“And now, if you will only lift their guilt! But if not, please mecheini from your book that you have written.” But God said to Moses: “Whoever sinned against Me, emechenu from My book. Now go lead the people to [the place] that I have spoken of to you.” (Exodus 32:32-33)
mecheini (מְחֵנִי) = wipe me away, erase me. (A form of the verb machah, מָחָה = wiped out, wiped off, destroyed, blotted out.1)
emechenu (אֶמְחֶנּוּ) = I will wipe them off, I will erase them. (Another form of the verb machah.)
In other words, Moses insists that his personal fate must not be separated from that of the Israelites. If God erases them from the book, God must erase him, too. God replies that guilty individuals will erased, but the people of Israel as a whole will continue their journey under Moses’s leadership.
When the story is retold in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God says to Moses:
“Hey! This is a stiff-necked people. Leave me alone, and I will exterminate them, and emecheh their name from under the heavens, and I will make you a nation greater than they.” (Deuteronomy 9:13-14)
emecheh (אֶמְחֶה) = I will wipe it out, I will erase it. (Another form of the verb machah.)
The Hebrew word for “name”, sheim (שֵׁם), means not only an appellation, but also someone’s reputation, standing, or renown (as in the English “making a name for herself”).
God’s book appears to be a list of names recorded at birth. Female names are not mentioned (the Bible reflects the male-centered, patriarchal society of its time), so we do not know if the list is comprehensive.
What happens when someone’s name is machah from the divine list?
One clue appears later in Deuteronomy. Lineage is important in the Bible; for a man to die without any male heirs is a terrible fate. So if a married man died without issue, his brother was obligated to impregnate the widow. If she bore a son, he would become the dead man’s heir.
And the firstborn that she bears shall be established on the name of his dead brother, and his name will not yimacheh from Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:6)
yimacheh (יִמָּחֶה) = be wiped out, be erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)
Two of the psalms include pleas for God to punish enemies by erasing their names from the divine book. Psalm 109 opens with a complaint that certain people are lying about the psalmist, accusing him without cause. Verses 6-19 ask God to punish a personal enemy. These verses include separate requests for the man to be convicted of a crime, lose his job, and become impoverished while alive; for him to die before his time; for his children and his parents to suffer; and for his lineage to be exterminated.
May no one extend kindness to him;
And may no one be gracious to his orphans.
May his posterity be cut off;
In the next generation, may their names yimach. (Psalm 109:12-13)
yimach (יִמַּח) = be blotted out, erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)
In Psalm 69, the speaker feels as though he is drowning, and asks God to rescue him from being shamed and abused. Then he asks God to punish all his enemies. This middle section concludes with:
Place guilt upon their guilt,
and do not let them come into Your righteous deliverance.
Yimachu from the book of life,
And among the righteous do not record them. (Psalm 69:28-29)
yimachu (יִמַּחְוּ) = May they be blotted out, erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)
This passage alludes to two divine lists: a “book of life” or “book of the living” (seifer chayim, סֵפֶר חַיִּים), and a record of the righteous, which may or may not be the same scroll. When the psalmist asks for the names of his tormentors to be erased from the book of life, he may be asking God to deprive them of heirs, or he may be asking God to make them die soon.
The Hebrew Bible refers to God’s list of names as a “book of life” only in Psalm 69, which was written around 500 B.C.E. Almost a thousand years later, the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Rosh Hashanah 16b) cited Psalm 69:29 as support for the idea that God keeps three books of names. According to this tractate, on the first day of each new year, Rosh Hashanah, God writes down the names of the righteous in one book and the names of the wicked in another. People whose deeds are partly good and partly bad are listed in the third book until Yom Kippur, nine days later, when God decides which of these intermediate people to record in the book of the righteous and which in the book of the wicked.
What happens to the people listed in these books? The Talmud says that according to school of Shammai, those in the book of the righteous are rewarded with everlasting life, while those in the book of the wicked go to Gehinnom after death.2
But by the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, codified in the 9th century C.E., says simply that God writes down who will live and who will die that year; any possibility of life after death is omitted.3 Neither does the liturgy mention wiping out any names that were written earlier.
The image of God erasing names from a book expresses a biblical hope that people will be punished for bad deeds, either by untimely death or by the end of their lineage—equally bad fates from an ancient Israelite point of view.
Few people today believe God punishes miscreants in this way. Some folks still cling to the idea of reward or punishment after death. I prefer the idea that virtue is its own reward, and I believe that people who enjoy being mean never get to experience the best things in life, such as true friendship and love.
Today the image of God keeping a book, or books, of names is still used in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services as a metaphor for the idea that God only knows when a person will die. The liturgy pleading to be written into this year’s “book of life” provides emotional reinforcement for the knowledge that the time of our death is unknown—and therefore it behooves us to use our present lives well.
May all human beings, whatever their past deeds and attitudes have been, wake up with new insight into the shortness of life and the value of goodness. And may we all realize, like Moses in this week’s Torah portion, that there is no point in having our own names written in the book of life unless our fellow human beings are also listed there.
1 The Bible uses various forms of the verb machah not only for wiping away or erasing names, but also for wiping away tears, wiping a dish clean, or wiping out (killing) an entire population. God tells the Israelites to wipe out the memory of an enemy tribe called Amaleik; several Israelite leaders beg God not to wipe out, i.e. forget, someone’s good or bad deeds. When a husband accused his wife of adultery, a priest wrote a curse on a scroll, then machah it in water and made the woman drink it; the results determined her guilt or innocence (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:23-24).
2 Talmud Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 16b. There is also a Christian tradition about a “book of life” that is a divine record of who will “go to heaven” after death.
3 Prayers for God to “inscribe us in the book of life” were added to the Amidah sections of Rosh Hashanah liturgy by the Babylonian Geonim in the 9th century C.E. The “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer, an earlier addition to the liturgy, states that every year God decrees who will die, and by what means, during the coming year.
Ramban (13th century Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, known as Nachmanides) explained that the book of the righteous is the book of life, and the book of the wicked is the book of death. Everyone whose name is written in the book of life merits life until the following Rosh Hashanah, and everyone whose name is written in the book of death will die that year.
Tags: Days of Awe, haftarah, Joshua, Simchat Torah, Sukkot, transitions
The standard cycle of Torah readings ends with Moses’ death in the last Torah portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim, Vezot Habrakhah. On the holy day of Simchat Torah, most Jewish congregations read this last portion in a Torah scroll, then roll the scroll all the way back and read the beginning of Genesis/Bereishit. The accompanying haftarah (reading from the Prophets) is Joshua 1:1-18.
Have you ever tried to turn over a new leaf, and found that without a systematic process you soon slide back to your old ways?
One process for changing your life can be found in the Jewish holy days from Rosh Hashanah to Simchat Torah. I realized this year that these days are a recipe for a 23-day period of transformation.
1) On the two days of Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”), we declare the beginning of a new year. And we wake up when we hear the blast of the shofar, a loud wind instrument made out of a ram’s horn.
2) On Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), having apologized to the people we have wronged and forgiven those who wronged us, we go on to confess our errors to God and forgive ourselves.
3) During the seven days of Sukkot (“Huts”), we eat, sleep, and study (as much as the weather permits) in temporary shelters whose roofs of branches let in some rain and starlight. The new lives we are creating for ourselves are like these sukkot: fragile, not secure—but open to nature, to other people, and to the presence of the divine.
4) On the seventh day, Hoshana Rabbah (“Great Supplication”), we circle the sanctuary seven times while beating willow branches on the floor to symbolically disperse the last traces of the previous year’s misdeeds.
5) On Shemini Atzeret (“Eighth Gathering”), we pray for rain so that the new seeds we have planted will grow during the winter.
6) On Simchat Torah (“Rejoicing in Torah”), we read the end of the Torah scroll (the last portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim, called Vezot Habrakhah, “And this is the blessing”). Then we roll it back to the beginning and read about the creation of the world in Genesis/Bereishit. In this way we acknowledge the blessings of the old year, close the book on our past mistakes, and launch into creating our new life.
The haftarah for Simchat Torah is the beginning of the book of Joshua, right after Moses has died. Everything must change now. Joshua, who has spent 40 years as Moses’ attendant, must quickly become the de facto king of the Israelites. The Israelites, who have spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, complaining about the food, learning the rules of their new religion from Moses, and listening to the old folks’ stories about being slaves in Egypt, must now become first a conquering army, then a people who farm, trade, and live in towns—in the unfamiliar land of Canaan.
Both Joshua and the Israelites are unprepared for their new lives.
Moses anticipates this toward the end of Deuteronomy. He legitimizes Joshua as his successor by laying hands on him, and God confirms it with a pillar of cloud. Then Moses tells the Israelites:
Chizku and imetzu! Do not be afraid and do not feel dread in front of them [the Canaanites], because God, your God, is going with you Itself. It will not let go of you and It will not forsake you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:6)
chizku (חִזְקוּ) = (plural) Hold strong! Hold on! Be fortified! Be stalwart! Be strong!
imetzu (אִמְצוּ) = (plural) Be resolute! Be firm! Be strong!
Then Moses called Joshua and said to him, in the sight of all Israel: Chazak and ematz, because you yourself shall bring this people to the land that God swore to their fathers to give to them, and you yourself shall apportion it among them. (Deuteronomy 31:7)
chazak (חֲזָק) = (singular of chizku) Hold strong! (etc.)
ematz (אֱמָץ) = (singular of imetzu) Be resolute! (etc.)
After Moses dies, Joshua may have felt like running run away, but he accepts his new life. The book of Joshua begins with God speaking to Joshua.
It happened after the death of Moses, the servant of God; God spoke to Joshua, son of Nun, Moses’ attendant, saying: My servant Moses is dead. So now get up and cross this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the children of Israel. (Joshua 1:1-2)
Joshua says nothing, but I imagine him feeling fearful and doomed. He served as a general once, 40 years ago, when Amalek attacked the Israelites; but the untrained ex-slaves won the battle only when Moses raised his hands toward heaven. Joshua has never led a war of conquest or administered a country. When he was one of the scouts Moses sent to report on the land of Canaan, he could not even persuade anyone that the land was worth entering. How can he persuade the Israelites to cross the Jordan and enter it now? And how can he turn himself into a conqueror, judge, and administrator?
God tells him:
No one shall be able to stand against you, all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, I will be with you. I will not let go of you and I will not forsake you. (Joshua 1:5)
I expect it would help to know that God was on your side. When I embark on a new phase of my life, it helps to know that I am doing the right thing. But that knowledge by itself is not enough to make me step forward.
Chazak and ematz, because you shall apportion among this people the land that I swore to their fathers to give to them. Only chazak and ematz very much to guard and do according to all the teaching that My servant Moses commanded to you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left, so that you shall act with insight everywhere you go. … Did I not command you: chazak and ematz? You shall not be afraid and you shall not be dismayed, because God, your God, will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:6-7, 9)
Joshua proceeds to become the leader he never was before. He makes decisions based on the teachings of Moses, he conquers large parts of Canaan (with the help of two divine miracles), and he divides up the land among the tribes of Israel.
Chazak and ematz, he probably reminds himself; hold strong and be resolute! The Bible uses this particular pairing of words only at four times of major change: when Joshua replaces Moses as the leader of the Israelites (in Deuteronomy and Joshua), when Joshua encourages his officers to continue the conquest of Canaan (in Joshua), when Solomon replaces David as the king of Israel (in the first book of Chronicles), and when King Hezekiah encourages his people to defend Jerusalem against the Assyrians (in the second book of Chronicles).
In all four transitions, the people who were told to be resolute felt nervous and insecure. And all four times they succeeded in their new roles.
It takes a lot to turn over a new leaf, to embark on a new direction in your life. From the Jewish holy days at this time of year we learn to wake up, face what we did wrong, make amends, and let go; to live for a while in the insecure space of transition as we stay open to guidance and pray for growth; to acknowledge the blessings in our old lives before we begin creating our new lives; and, in this week’s haftarah, to proceed with an attitude that will keep us going on our new path. We must trust that we are doing God’s will or the right thing, and we must be determined to keep going regardless of anything frightening or discouraging along the way.
Chazak and ematz; hold strong and be resolute. Keep going.
Tags: Channah, haftarah, Hosea, prayer, Rosh Hashanah
Almost every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). But the Torah portion this week is Vayeilekh (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:1-30), and it is not assigned a haftarah of its own.
Nevertheless, this week is especially rich in haftarot (plural of “haftarah”) because it includes the two days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) and Shabbat Shuvah, the “Sabbath of Return” to God—all before we dive into Yom Kippur (the “Day of Atonement”) next week.
The haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10. The reading for the second day is Jeremiah 31:2-20. And the haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah this Saturday is Hosea 14:2-10. Perhaps it is no accident that during this time of intense prayer from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, two of these three haftarot show that praying with words is better than slaughtering an animal and burning it up into smoke for God.
Prayer is not a dialogue with God, although persons in the Hebrew Bible from Adam to the prophet Malachi do talk with God and hear God’s responses in words—in fact in complete sentences. Sometimes prophets report what God said; other passages are like conversations between two human beings of different rank and power.
Besides having many conversations with God, Moses also prays on behalf of the Israelites when they are traveling through the wilderness south of Edom, 40 years after their exodus from Egypt. The Israelites complain again about their diet of manna, and God sends poisonous snakes.
Then the people came to Moses and they said: We did wrong when we spoke against God and against you. Hitpalleil to God so He will clear away from us the snakes! Vayitpalleil, Moses, on behalf of the people. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:7)
Hitpalleil (הִתְפַּלֵּל) = Pray! (Probably from the same root as pilleil = reassess. Prayer may be asking for a reassessment from God.)
Vayitpalleil (וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל) = And he prayed.
Here the Israelites confess their misdeed, but they do not believe they can pray to God directly, so they ask Moses, God’s prophet, to do it for them.
Smoke, not spoken prayer, is the primary way to worship God in the first seven books of the Bible. If you want to bring God your devotion, you slaughter an animal and burn up part or all of it on an altar, turning it into smoke. God appreciates the smell of the smoke. (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.)
The book of Leviticus/Vayikra lays out five categories of offerings burned up into smoke, and each one was transformed into a type of prayer.
1) olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering, to maintain the relationship between the worshiper and God. This became liturgy, written prayers to read, recite, or sing at specific times and occasions.
2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering, to show homage or respect. This corresponds to prayers of praise.
3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering, to thank God or to express devotion. This corresponds to prayers of thanksgiving.
4) chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering, to fix an unintentional transgression against one of God’s laws; and 5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering, to atone for an intentional wrong (after making amends with the human whom you wronged). Instead of these two animal offerings, we have prayers of confession asking for God’s forgiveness.
(For more on these smoke offerings, see my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.)
A additional type of prayer in the Bible is the petitionary prayer, in which we ask God to do us a favor. This category includes intercessory prayer, in which a prophet or someone else who is known to be on speaking terms with God utters a petitionary prayer on behalf of a community.
In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, any male head of a household can worship God by building an altar and turning an animal into smoke on it. Gradually this right is restricted in the Hebrew Bible, until animal offerings can only be made at the temple in Jerusalem and under the supervision of priests. Meanwhile, the tradition of individual prayer expands until anyone can do it, and God will hear.
The first prayer in the Bible is an intercessory prayer. King Avimelekh takes Sarah into his household thinking she is Abraham’s sister, not his wife. God responds by afflicting the king and all his women with a disease. Then in a dream, God tells Avimelekh: And now restore the wife to the husband, because he is a prophet vayitpalleil on your behalf, and you will live. But if you do no restoring, know that you will certainly die, you and all that are yours. (Genesis/Bereishit 20:7)
After the king gives Avraham his wife Sarah along with some gifts, Avraham does pray, and God removes the disease.
Intercessory prayers continue to be mentioned in the Bible, including Moses’ prayer regarding the poisonous snakes. But not until the first book of Samuel, in the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, does someone who has never conversed with God pray for her own sake. On her own initiative, Channah, who has been childless for many years, walks up to the doorway of the temple in Shiloh and prays for a son.
And she was bitter of spirit, vatitpalleil to God, and she wept continually. And she vowed a vow, and she said: God of Armies, if You really see the wretchedness of Your maidservant and You remember me and do not forget Your maidservant, and You give to Your maidservant a seed of men, then I will give him to God for all the days of his life… (1 Samuel 1:10-11)
vatitpalleil (וַתִּתְפַּלֵּל) = and she prayed.
God does not answer Channah in words, but she does have a son (a “seed of men”), and she brings him to the temple in Shiloh once he is weaned. There she and her husband sacrifice a bull, following the established ritual, then give him to the priest so the boy can serve as an attendant at the temple. (Channah’s son, Samuel (Shmu-eil), later becomes a prophet and a judge of Israel.)
…and they bowed down there to God. Vatitpalleil, Channah, and she said:
My heart rejoices in God…
There is no holy one like God,
Because there are none except for You. (1 Samuel 2:1-2)
Channah continues with a long psalm praising God’s power. This time her prayer is not petitionary, but a prayer of praise, like a minchah offering.
This Saturday, on Shabbat Shuvah, we read in the book of Hosea:
Shuvah, Israel, all the way to God, your god,
For you have stumbled, through your wrongdoing.
Take devarim with you
And shuvu to God.
Say to [God]:
May You forgive all wrongdoing
And take the good.
And we will make amends of the bulls
Of our lips. (Hosea 14:2-3)
Shuvah (שׁוּבָה) = Return! (singular, addressing Israel)
shuvu (שׁוּבוּ) = Return! (plural, addressing the people)
devarim (דְּבָרִים) = words; events, affairs.
Hosea asks the Israelites to make amends and return to God not by slaughtering bulls and burning them on an altar for God, but through the words of their lips, praying for God to forgive them. Instead of the smoke from a chataat or an asham offering, God wants people to return and atone with spoken prayer.
As we approach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the haftarah from 1 Samuel reminds us of the power of individual heartfelt prayer, and the haftarah from Hosea reminds us to return—shuvah!—to God through prayer.
A priest cuts the animal’s throat, blood gushes, smoke roils up into the sky—that kind of worship was sure to have an emotional impact. But even if someone brought the animal for an asham offering to atone for his own misdeed, or even if the high priest was killing the goat for God on Yom Kippur, people watched the show from a distance.
Channah worked harder, pulling out her own words to plead with God. Hosea asks us to work harder, bringing our own personal words of confession to God, and returning to the holy one by praying for forgiveness.
It is possible to mouth formulaic prayers without thinking about them. But I believe it is better for our souls if we plumb our own depths, find our own words to bring to God, and do the work.