Tags: Baal, Canaanite religion, henotheism, monotheism, other gods, polytheism, Psalm 29, Psalm 82, Psalm 97, Ten Commandments
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
The Song of the Sea, in last week’s Torah portion, includes the verse:
Who is like You among the eilim, Y-h-w-h?
Who is like You, glorious in holiness,
Awesome, praiseworthy, doing wonders! (Exodus 15:11)
Y-h-w-h (י־ה־ו־ה) = God’s personal four-letter name. (Many English translations substitute “LORD” for this name, even though it is spelled using letters from several forms of the Hebrew verb “to be” rather than from the Hebrew noun for “lord”.)1
eilim (אֵלִם) = plural of eil (אֵל) = a god. (In some Canaanite religions, Eil was the founding god of a pantheon.)
The Song of the Sea assumes that other gods exist, and rejoices that the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h, is so powerful. Since the Song of the Sea is one of the oldest poems in the Bible, dating to around 1100 B.C.E., one might dismiss its polytheism as an archaic remnant. Yet this verse is included in the daily Jewish liturgy, morning and evening. When Jews sing “Mi chamokha” (“Who is like You?”) we do not always remember that we are comparing our God with other gods.
Yitro and the First Commandment
In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Midianite priest Yitro meets his son-in-law Moses near Mt. Sinai a few days after God and Moses have brought the Israelites out of Egypt.
And Yitro said: “Blessed be Y-h-w-h, Who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh…Now I know that Y-h-w-h is greater than all the elohim…” (Exodus/Shemot 18:11)
elohim (אֱלֺהִים) = gods, god, God. (Grammatically elohim is the plural of eloha, a rarely used word for a god. But the Bible uses the word elohim to refer to a single god as well as to multiple gods. Elohim refers occasionally to a foreign god2, and frequently to the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h.)
Does Yitro believe in the existence of multiple gods only because he is a Midianite? No; many passages in the Bible that were originally written before the destruction of the first temple in 587 B.C.E. share this belief. Even the first of the “Ten Commandments” in this week’s Torah portion does not require monotheism, but only a henotheistic religion in which Y-h-w-h is the best god and the only one the people are allowed to worship.
I am Y-h-w-h, your elohim, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of servitude. You shall have no other elohim over and above My presence. (Exodus/Shemot 20:2-3)
(For other translations, see my post Yitro: Not in My Face.)
Y-h-w-h does not say that there are no other gods, but only that the Israelites must not have them.
A number of psalms3 are similarly henotheistic, at least in the Hebrew. (Some translators strain to make them sound as monotheistic as later Biblical writings.) These psalms treat other gods as real, but emphasize that they are weak and worthless compared with Y-h-w-h, the God of Israel. Here are three examples:
Psalm 29 is probably the oldest of the henotheistic psalms. It opens:
Grant to Y-h-w-h, children of eilim,
Grant to Y-h-w-h magnificence and might!
Grant to Y-h-w-h the magnificence of Its name,
Bow down to Y-h-w-h of holy beauty!
The voice of Y-h-w-h is over the waters;
The eil of magnificence is thundering. (Psalm 29:1-3)
Canaanite poems describe the god Baal as the weather god who speaks in thunder and makes lightning and earthquakes. Psalm 29 goes on to describe the voice of Y-h-w-h as shattering cedars, making the mountains of Lebanon dance, kindling fire, shaking the wilderness, and startling does into giving birth—all images related to thunderstorms and earthquakes.
Then the psalm declares:
And in Its palace everyone says: Magnificent!
Y-h-w-h sat [enthroned] for the flood,
And Y-h-w-h sits [enthroned as] king forever. (Exodus 29:10)
Similarly, in Canaanite literature the god Baal conquers the waters of chaos, builds a palace on a mountaintop, and becomes king over all the other gods except his father, Eil.
The purpose of Psalm 29 may have been to replace Baal-worship among the Israelites with the worship of Y-h-w-h, and to persuade them that all the other gods are less powerful than Y-h-w-h, the mere “children of eilim”. These inferior gods acclaim and bow down to Y-h-w-h in Its palace.
In Canaanite religious writings from Ugarit, the father god Eil periodically convenes an assembly of the gods, each of whom has its own sphere of power. With advice from the other gods, Eil makes the major decisions about the world.4
Psalm 82, however, takes the idea a divine assembly in a different direction.
Elohim takes a stand in the assembly of Eil,
Among elohim he pronounces judgment. (Psalm 82:1)
In the first line “Elohim” refers to Y-h-w-h; in the second line “elohim” refers to all the assembled gods. “Eil” in the first line might be either Y-h-w-h or the Canaanite father god.
Y-h-w-h then accuses the other gods of unjust rulings that favor the wicked and fail to rescue the poor. But the other gods don’t get it.
They neither know nor understand,
They walk around in darkness;
Causing all the foundations of the earth to totter. (Psalm 82:5)
Without true justice, the whole human world is threatened. So Y-h-w-h gets rid of the ignorant lesser gods, commenting:
I used to say to myself: You are elohim,
And children of the Most High, all of you.
Nevertheless, you will die like humans,
And you will fall like one of the princes. (Psalm 82:6-7)
Psalm 82 might be an explanation of why the wicked are not always punished: inferior gods have been acting as judges.
On the other hand, this psalm might be a story exhorting the Israelites to abandon other gods because they are wicked, stupid, and no longer immortal. Only Y-h-w-h is worth worshiping, because only Y-h-w-h administers true justice and lives forever.
The heavens told of [God’s] true justice;
All the peoples saw Its magnificence.
Every worshiper of a carved idol is shamed,
Those who boast of the elilim.
All elohim bowed down to It! (Psalm 97:6-7)
elilim (אֱלִילִים) = worthless gods, nonentities, not-gods, insignificant gods.
“The heavens” in verse 6 probably refers not to the inanimate sky, but to the gods (including stars) who dwell in the heavens. Since even the other gods bow down to Y-h-w-h and acknowledge Its justice, anyone silly enough to worship these insignificant gods should be ashamed.
According to the Bible, it took many centuries for the Israelites to stop worshiping the old gods. The people would declare their allegiance to Y-h-w-h, and then slide back into worshiping some other god, a god “everyone” knew was especially effective at inflicting or solving the problem they were dealing with at the moment.
Henotheism was a hard enough concept. Monotheism was truly radical. After second Isaiah started preaching true monotheism during the Babylonian exile, who knows how long it took before most Israelites believed there was only one god in the universe?
I suspect that psalms and hymns were the most effective way to change the people’s beliefs. The “Ten Commandments” are powerful, but not persuasive. The Bible often shows Moses and other prophets and priests scolding the Israelites for straying after other gods, but the scoldings must have been ineffective, since the people kept on backsliding.
A message embedded in a psalm is different. Music kindles people’s emotions. When I read the words of a psalm or hymn silently, I often have theological objections. But when I sing at services, I am often carried away with the feeling of the song. And the underlying message of the song stays with me, in my heart or my gut.
My advice to religious seekers is to choose your religion carefully, so you do not get emotionally carried away in the wrong direction. And my advice to religious leaders is to make sure the singing is good.
1 I usually translate the four-letter name as “God”, but in this post it is important to distinguish Y-h-w-h from elohim. I insert hyphens because according to Jewish tradition, God’s personal name must not be spelled correctly in writings that are neither biblical nor liturgical. For many Jews this applies even to spelling the name with Roman letters.
The Hebrew for “lord” or “master” is adon (אָדוֹן). When Jews read out loud in religious services, we often substitute adonai (“my lords”) for the four-letter name of God.
2 The Bible uses “elohim” as a singular noun for the gods Baal, Baal-berit, Baal-zebub, Dagon, Kemosh, Milkom, and Nisrach; the goddesses Astarte and Ashtoret; and the golden calf.
3 Psalms 29, 82, 86, 89, 95, 96, 97, 135, and 136 all assume the existence of other gods.
4 A divine assembly also appears in the book of Job and in Psalms 82 and 89.
Tags: drowning Egyptians, Psalm 136, Red Sea, Sea of Reeds, Song of the Sea, torah portion
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
After the tenth plague, the pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go. Then he has another change of heart, and sends a brigade of charioteers after them. At nightfall the Egyptians catch up with the Israelites at the shore of the sea—the Red Sea in English, the Sea of Reeds (yam suf—יַם סוּף) in the Hebrew Bible. Both parties camp for the night, with the Israelites trapped between the enemy and the water.
What happens next? The most familiar version of the story appears in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“When he sent out”).
The Prose Account
Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and God made the sea move with a strong east wind all night. Vayasem the sea dry land, and the waters split. And the Israelites entered the middle of the sea on dry ground, and the waters were for them a wall on their right and on their left. (Exodus/Shemot 14:21-22)
vayasem (וַיָּשֶׂם) = and he/it placed, set, set up, put, put in.
Until I translated these verses, I had the impression that God simply splits the water down to the seabed, which becomes dry and firm enough for the Israelites to walk on. But the Torah says vayasem, as if there were no real bottom to the sea, so God has to install a strip of dry land. (Most English translations say God “made” or “turned” the sea into dry ground—which has the same implication.)
In the cosmology of the ancient Israelites, beneath the land lies a subterranean ocean of water called the tehom (תְּהוֹם —singular) or tehomot (תְּהֺמֺת —plural). This deep water bubbles up through the earth in the form of springs. Under the ocean, it’s water all the way down, with no ocean floor.1
And the Egyptians pursued, and all the horses of Pharoah, his chariots, and his horsemen entered after them into the middle of the sea. …And [God] made the wheels of their chariots swerve, and made them proceed laboriously. (Exodus 14:23, 25)
And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea settled before morning into its normal flow. And the Egyptians were fleeing from it, and God na-ar the Egyptians into the middle of the sea. And the waters turned back, and they covered the chariots and the horsemen of all the army of Pharaoh, the one coming after them into the sea; not one remained. (Exodus 14:27-28)
na-ar (נָעַר) = shook out, shook off. (The form of this verb used in verse 14:27 is vayena-eir (וַיְנָעֵר). This verb appears only 12 times in the entire Hebrew Bible.)
Safe on the other side of the sea, the Israelites are awed by God’s miracle, and moved to sing along with Moses and Miriam.
The Song of the Sea
That was when Moses sang, along with the children of Israel, this song to God… (Exodus/Shemot 15:1)
The whole “Song of the Sea” that follows is a psalm written in archaic Hebrew, possibly the oldest text in the Hebrew Bible.2 The scribe who redacted this week’s Torah portion inserted the well-known hymn without changing its archaic syntax and spellings.
The Song of the Sea does not mention God splitting the sea or the Israelites walking on dry land. Nevertheless, one early verse matches the prose account:
Chariots of Pharaoh and his army
[God] pitched into the sea,
And the best of his captains
sank in the Sea of Reeds. (Exodus 15:4)
Twice the Song of the Sea says the Egyptians sank all the way down into the tehomot.
Tehomot covered them;
They went down into the depths like a stone. (Exodus 15:5)
In the wind of Your nostrils the waters were dammed up.
They stood up like a dike [made of] waves,
Congealed tehomot in the heart of the sea. (Exodus 15:8)
You blew Your wind; the sea covered them.
They sank like lead in the mighty waters. (Exodus 15:10)
This description led 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno to explain that the water at the bottom of the sea became solid, and the Israelites walked across the congealed or frozen water.
The Bible includes several briefer descriptions of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, all used as examples of God’s miracles on behalf of the Israelites. But the descriptions in Second Isaiah (51:9-10) and Psalms 77, 106, and 136 do not explain how the Israelites got across the water.
Psalm 136 does, however, refer to God as the one who split the sea, and like the prose account in Exodus it uses the rare word na-ar.
Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness.
And let Israel pass through the middle,
Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness.
Veni-eir Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds,
Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness. (Psalm 136:13-15)
veni-eir (וְנִעֵר) = And [God] shook off, shook out. (Another form of the verb na-ar— נָעַר.)
We do not know which text first used the poetic image of God shaking off the Egyptians into the sea: Psalm 136, or one of the stories woven into the prose account in this week’s Torah portion. 3
If we follow the prose account, the sea divides and a miraculous strip of earth appears over the tehomot. I can picture the earth getting soggy after the Israelites have crossed, so the chariot wheels of the Egyptians get stuck in mud. Then the bridge of earth buckles and shakes off the Egyptians, chariots, and horses into the water, before God’s second wind blows the walls of water down over them.
On the other hand, if we take the Song of the Sea as the oldest, most authoritative account, and follow Sforno’s explanation that the water congeals into a frozen roadway between dikes of ice, then I can imagine the chariot wheels skidding out of control on the slippery surface. This provides an alternate explanation of the detail in the prose account that God “made the wheels of their chariots swerve, and made them proceed laboriously”. (Exodus 14:25) Then the ice-dikes break and the sea rushes over the Egyptians.
Either of these two pictures of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds is more vivid than most readers—and illustrators—of the Bible imagine.
Unless you are an eye witness, it takes vivid imagery to feel the impact of a miracle. The various Biblical accounts of crossing the Sea of Reeds are designed to make the descendants of the Israelites experience the feeling of a last-minute rescue, and to give them confidence that God has always been on their side. So for centuries the Israelites rejoiced over the miracle at the sea.
Yet after the second temple in Jerusalem fell in 70 C.E., some Jews questioned this attitude. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan says God does not “rejoice in the downfall of the wicked”. He gives the crossing of the Sea of Reeds as an example, saying: “The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said: The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?” (Babylonian Talmud, Soncino translation, Megilah 10b)
I, too, feel sympathy for the Egyptian soldiers. They have no more choice about following the Pharaoh’s orders than the Israelite slaves did before Pharaoh let them go. And their orders were to round up the Israelites (shooting arrows if necessary) and bring them back for re-enslavement.
Suddenly the Egyptians find themselves in the middle of a situation they never imagined was possible. They are chasing the Israelites across a dirt bridge over the sea, or maybe down an ice canyon. They see the ex-slaves reach the far side, but their chariot wheels are either mired in mud or skidding on ice. Then the Egyptians are shaken off the path like crumbs. And the sea crashes down on them.
Today people still experience events they never imagined were possible. Sometimes what seems like a good miracle to one group of people is worse than a nightmare to another group.
May we all learn the humanity to refrain from singing out with joy when our opponents are dying. And may God save us all when we find ourselves trapped in a situation we never imagined was possible.
1 This detail supports Richard Elliott Friedman’s argument in his Commentary on the Torah (HarperCollins 2001) that although the body of water in question is called the Sea of Reeds, it is no shallow lake, but the Gulf of Suez–the western arm of the Red Sea.
2 The exodus from Egypt is set during Egypt’s 19th Dynasty, which ruled during the 13th century B.C.E. The Song of the Sea mentions the Plashet (Philistines), who did not emigrate to Canaan until about 1175 B.C.E. Thus Moses could not have known or composed the Song of the Sea, but the writer of the Song of Sea might have known the story of the exodus. According to modern scholars, the prose version of the story in Exodus is a compilation of three different stories written in Biblical Hebrew sometime after 700 B.C.E. The redactor also inserted the ancient Song of the Sea.
3 Psalm 136 cannot be reliably dated. The language is consistent with the Hebrew in the book of Exodus (excluding the archaic Song of the Sea). But it could have been written much earlier, and rewritten centuries later with updated language. Or it could even have been written during the time of the second temple, 530 B.C.E.-70 C.E.
Tags: exodus from Egypt, miracles, Moses and Pharaoh, Passover, Pesach, Psalm 105, Psalm 78, psalms, ten plagues, torah portion
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
It takes two Torah portions (Va-eira this week and Bo next week) to describe the miraculous “plagues” that force the Pharaoh to let the enslaved Israelites walk out of Egypt. Two psalms, Psalm 78 and Psalm 105, offer briefer versions of the story. And the festival of Passover/Pesach tells the story of how God rescued the Israelites from Egypt in such detail that the seder (“order”; ritual retelling of the story) can last half the night.
In the Torah portion Va-eira, God lays out the plan to Moses:
Therefore say to the children of Israel: “I am God, and I will bring you out from under the burden of Egypt, and I will rescue you from enslavement, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your god. And you will yada that I am God, your god, who is taking you out from under the burden of Egypt. (Exodus/Shemot 6:6-7)
yada (יָדַע) = know, realize, recognize, become acquainted, come to understand through direct experience. (Yada is the root verb. The Hebrew here uses the form viyda-etem (וִידַעְתֶּם) = and you will yada.)
Why does God inflict “great acts of judgement” on Egypt? The first reason given in this week’s Torah portion is so that the Israelites will yada God.
The second reason is so that the Pharaoh and the Egyptians will yada God, or at least recognize God’s existence and power:
And Egypt, they will yada that I am God when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and I bring out the children of Israel from their midst. (Exodus 7:5)
(The Hebrew in this verse uses form veyade-u (וְיָדְעוּ) = and they will yada.)
How many plagues does it take before both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada God? Anyone who has participated in a Passover seder, spilling a drop of wine for each plague, knows the answer is ten. And in the book of Exodus/Shemot God does indeed inflict ten miracles on Egypt—the first seven in Va-eira (And I appeared), and the last three in Bo (Come).
However, the ten plagues are described in two different voices. Any close reader of Va-eira and Bo, even in translation, notices points where the narrative suddenly stops and restarts, rephrasing a bit of the story that has already been told. Scholars examining the language itself have discovered that two stories of the plagues are woven together (but not seamlessly).
Both strands have something to say about the plagues of blood, frogs, and death of the firstborn. The other seven plagues are described by one strand or the other, not both. Maybe each of the two original stories had fewer than ten plagues. Or maybe the redactor(s) who combined the two stories decided to give both descriptions of three plagues, but chose only their favorite descriptions for the other seven.
Psalms 78 and 105 report fewer than ten plagues, and the order is different than in Exodus.
What accounts for these differences? We cannot identify any of these accounts as the original story. At least one strand in the composite story in Exodus was probably written in the 8th century B.C.E. Psalm 78 may have been written as early as the 10th century B.C.E., soon after the first Israelite temple was built in Jerusalem. Psalm 105 could have been written any time after that, maybe before the book of Exodus, maybe as late as the period of the second temple. Probably the story of God’s miracles in Egypt was familiar to all the authors before they began to write down their own versions.
The two psalms and the composite in Exodus borrow language from each other, not only using the same words for the plagues, but sharing pieces of description. For example, Exodus describes the plague of blood this way:
…and he raised the staff and he struck the water that was in the Nile before the eyes of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the waters of the Nile turned into blood. And the fish that were in the Nile died. And the Nile stank and the Egyptians were not able to drink water from the Nile, and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:20-21)
Psalm 78 focuses on the lack of drinking water:
And [God] turned into blood the Nile and its streams;
They could not drink. (Psalm 78:34)
Psalm 105 focuses on the loss of an important food:
[God] turned their waters into blood
And it made their fish die. (Psalm 105:39)
Whether the story is expanded in the book of Exodus, or contracted in a psalm, it is always offered as a decisive example of God’s miracles on behalf of the Israelites.
In the book of Exodus, the purpose of the plagues is to get both the Israelites and the Egyptians to yada God. But the Torah portion Bo also gives instructions several times for the earliest Passover rituals, which were conducted about 3,000 years ago. The purpose of these rituals is to remember the story of the exodus.
This day shall be for you for remembrance, and you shall celebrate it as a festival for God, through [all] your generations. It is a decree forever: you shall celebrate it. (Exodus 12:14)
While Exodus only calls for remembering the story of God’s miracles in Egypt, Psalms 78 and 105 tell the story in order to motivate the Israelites of Judah to action.
Psalms 78 hopes that if the Israelites remember the miracles God did for them, then they will stop backsliding, trust God, and obey God’s rules.
What we have listened to, and we yada,
and our ancestors recounted to us,
should not be concealed from their descendants,
to the last generation recounting
praises of God and Its strength
and Its wonders that It did. (Psalm 78:3-4)
(The Hebrew in verse 3 uses form vaneida-eim (וַנֵּדָעֵם) = and we will yada.)
Why must God’s miracles be recounted to every generation?
Then they will place their kesel in God,
and they will not forget the deeds of God,
and they will comply with Its commandments. (Psalm 78:7)
kesel (כֶּסֶל) = conviction, certitude, unwavering belief regardless of other evidence or arguments; folly, stupidity.
The section of Psalm 78 that tells about the miracles God inflicted on Egypt (78:42-51) is not designed to mention every single plague, but rather to bring the story to life in ten short verses. Psalm 78 leaves out the kinim, the shechin, and the darkness, but it adds a few details that are not in Exodus:
—that the action happened at Tzoan, a specific place in the Nile Delta. (78:43)
—that the arov, the mixed hordes of vermin, ate the flesh of the Egyptians. (78:45)
—that when God sent hail, Egyptian flocks were hit by lightning. (78:48)
—that the hail killed grapevines and fig trees (important crops in Canaan, but not in Egypt). (78:47)
These additional details would make the story more vivid in the listener’s imagination.
Psalm 105 is less concerned than Psalm 78 about lack of faith and commitment among the people of Judah. I believe its purpose is to whip up enthusiasm for God and the religion among the worshipers at the temple.
Thank God, call out Its name,
hodiyu among the peoples Its deeds!
Sing to [God], make music to It,
consider all Its wonders!
Revel in the name of Its holiness!
Let the heart of those who seek God rejoice! (Psalm 105:1-3)
hodiyu (הוֹדִיעוּ) = make known, inform, announce. (A different form of the root verb yada.)
Psalm 105 then tells the story of the people who became Jews, starting with God’s covenant with Abraham and ending with the Israelites’ conquest of part of Canaan. When it describes the plagues, it omits both livestock pestilence and shechin, perhaps because the thought of rashes and boils would depress the congregation. Or, according to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, because diseases do not seem supernatural enough to count as miracles. But Psalm 105 uses some of same vivid details as Psalm 78.
Do the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt achieve their purpose?
Direct experience of miracles works in Exodus; both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada—know, realize, and recognize—a powerful god acting on behalf of the Israelites. The instruction to perform a ritual to remember what happened also worked; we have been celebrating Passover for about 3,000 years.
Does the account in Psalm 78 work, leading people to kesel, an unshakeable belief in God, and to a determination to obey God’s rules? I think it would depend on the listener. Some people believe any account that is vivid (like Psalm 78’s selection of details) and comes from an accepted source (such as the temple priests, or a particular news station, or a friend’s e-mail). Other people are skeptics by nature; they examine a story to see if it is logical and how it fits with personal experience and other information. This type of person would probably need direct experience, yada, to achieve kesel and commit themselves to obeying all the rules of the religion.
What about Psalm 105? I believe that an account of past miracles can inspire both kinds of people, especially when it is poetry set to uplifting music. Even natural skeptics can get caught up in singing joyful praise, and leave the temple (or synagogue) with a better attitude toward their God and their religion. And natural believers might be moved to proselytize, following the instruction hodiyu—make known, announce!
The singing of the psalms continued as part of both Jewish and Christian prayer after the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. It continues today. But Jewish liturgy concentrates on other psalms. It quotes only one verse from Psalm 78 and fifteen from Psalm 105, none of which are verses addressing the plagues in Egypt.
However, serious-minded Jews study the story of the plagues in the Torah portions Va-eira and Bo every winter, when we reach this time in the cycle of Torah readings. And in the spring many more Jews celebrate Passover, a festival of dramatic rituals, prayers, songs, and stories about how God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
The haggadah (“the telling”), the book that provides the texts and ritual instructions, includes many quotes from our two Torah portions in Exodus. Psalms 78 and 105 are not traditionally included. In a modern American haggadah, the song “Go Down Moses” usually is.
Out of all the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt, I would say Passover is by far the most effective at getting Jews to remember the claim that God created miracles to rescue our people from Egypt. The ritual itself has changed and grown over the millennia, so it can speak to new generations. Even Jews who grew up in families that managed to conduct a boring seder every year cannot help but remember the symbolic foods, the song that the youngest child must sing, the exodus story, spilling a drop of wine for each of the ten plagues, and hunting for the hidden piece of matzah.
Thus Passover still serves the purpose given in the book of Exodus: remembering the story. Whether we can go further and yada God (as in Exodus), or commit ourselves to kesel (as in Psalm 78), or be moved to joy and a desire to recommend the religion (as in Psalm 105) depends on the individual.
Personally, I have a skeptical nature, and I actively try to avoid kesel—while remaining committed to studying Torah and being a Jew in a liberal sense. But I remember the exodus story every winter when I study it in the Torah, as well as every spring when I participate in Passover. I do not yada the God of the ancient Israelites, but I do yada something I cannot describe that I call God. And when I sing psalms that have uplifting words and melodies, I am indeed moved to joy. I would recommend that to anyone!
Tags: Baby Moses, Babylonian exile, Psalm 137, weeping
This week begins the reading of the book of Exodus/Shemot in the Jewish tradition. This year my posts on Exodus will relate each Torah portion to one of the psalms.
Too many foreigners live in the country, from the Pharaoh’s point of view in this week’s Torah portion. Unlike those who fear immigrants in our own time, the Pharaoh is not afraid that the Israelites will take jobs from native Egyptians. He is afraid that if another country makes war on Egypt, these foreigners will join Egypt’s enemies.
Instead of integrating the Israelites into Egyptian society to win their loyalty, the Pharoah enslaves them, requiring that the men do forced labor. He also tries to reduce the population.
Then Pharaoh commanded his entire people, saying: “Every son that is born, you shall throw him into the Nile. But every daughter you shall keep alive”. (Exodus/Shemot 1:22)
And a man from the house of Levi went out and married a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived and she bore a son, and she saw that he was good, and she hid him for three months. (Exodus 2:1-2)
Commentators have suggested many reasons why the baby (later named Moses) is “good”. But since his mother (later identified as Yokheved) is able to hide the baby for three months, the simple answer is that he is placid and quiet. As long as his mother is there whenever he wakes up, Moses does not cry.
Why could Yokheved no longer hide him after three months? The commentary offers different theories. I suspect that Moses happens to be three months old when Egyptian bullies start searching the houses of Israelites for baby boys to drown.
It occurs to Yokheved that the best hiding place for an Israelite baby boy is the Nile itself. She tars a floating box made of papyrus stems, and places Moses inside. Then she carries it to the pool where a woman of the royal family goes to bathe, and wedges it among the reeds so the current will not carry it away. The care with which Yokheved picks the spot shows that she hopes her baby will be discovered and adopted.
And the daughter of Pharaoh went down to bathe in the Nile, and her maidens were walking next to the Nile. And she saw the floating box among the reeds, and she sent her slave-girl to fetch it. (Exodus 2:5)
The princess sees the box; she does not hear any crying. Moses, rocking gently inside, is probably asleep.
And she opened it and she saw the child, and hey! It was a boy, bokheh! And she felt pity for him, and she said: “This is one of the children of the Ivrim”. (Exodus 2:6)
bokheh (בֺּכֶה) = weeping, crying, sobbing, wailing. (From the root bakhah, ּבָּכָה = wept.)
Ivrim (עִבְרִים) = Hebrews; immigrants. (From the root avar, עָבַר = passed over, crossed through, emigrated.) Egyptians in the book of Exodus sometimes call the Israelites the Ivrim.
The story continues like a fairy tale, as the Pharaoh’s daughter ends up paying Moses’s own mother to nurse him, then adopts him after he is weaned. But why does Moses begin to cry when the princess opens the lid of the box? Probably the sudden sunlight wakes him—and then, instead of seeing the familiar face of his mother, he sees a stranger.
All infants cry when they are suddenly deprived of their primary caregivers, just as adults cry when someone they are deeply attached to dies. The world is strange and frightening without that familiar presence.
People may also cry when they are forced to leave their homes and live in a strange place. Yet when the Israelites and their fellow travelers follow the adult Moses out of Egypt, they “leave with a high hand” (Exodus 14:8). They rejoice rather than weep because they are choosing to leave a life of slavery and seek a new land to make their home.
On the other hand, in Psalm 137 the Israelites weep when the Babylonian army deports them from Jerusalem many centuries later, circa 586 B.C.E. They have no choice; they are forced to leave their homeland and live as foreigners in a strange place.
There we sat down, bakhinu,
when we remembered Tziyon. (Psalm 137:1)
bakhinu (בָּכִינוּ) = we wept, cried, sobbed, wailed. (From the same root, bakhah, as in Exodus 2:6.)
Tziyon (צִיוֹן) = Zion; a hill overlooking Jerusalem; Jerusalem itself as a religious center.
The deportees weep when they see the place where they must now live. It even looks different from their motherland.
Upon the poplars in her [Babylon’s] midst,
Our lyres will remain hung. (137:2)
Because there our captors asked us for words of song,
Our oppressors for rejoicing:
“Sing to us some song of Tziyon!” (137:3)
The Babylonian officers ask the deportees to entertain them by singing one of their quaint, provincial songs from Tziyon. If the officers merely wanted a folk song, they might have asked for a song from Jerusalem or Judah. By using the word Tziyon, the Babylonians are referring to Jerusalem as a religious center. Thus they remind the Israelites how helpless they are, even in matters of religion, now that the Babylonian army has razed the temple and deported them.
How can we sing a song of God
On the soil of a foreign land? (137:4)
The Israelites, and the Jews descended from them, do eventually sing sacred songs in foreign lands—including the psalms once sung in the temple. But in Psalm 137, they recoil from the idea of singing a hymn to God in order to let the Babylonians mock and humiliate them.
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget. (137:5)
May my tongue cling to my palate,
If I do not remember you,
If I do not exalt you, Jerusalem,
Above my highest joy. (137:6)
Remember, God, the Edomites
On the day of Jerusalem, who said:
“Strip it! Strip it down to the foundations!” (137:7)
According to the book of Obadiah, probably also written in the 6th century B.C.E., the men of the nearby land of Edom joined the Babylonians in sacking the city of Jerusalem (Obadiah 1:11-13).
Babylon the despoiler,
Fortunate are those who will retaliate for your retaliation against us! (137:8)
Fortunate are those who will seize and smash
Your little children on the rock! (137:9)
I picture the Israelites reacting like children, full of desperation at the loss of their mother land and religion, suddenly under the thumb of cruel and all-powerful foreigners. Toddlers in that situation might well scream with outrage and hatred at the mean strangers who have kidnapped them. It takes time to cool down, grow up, and consider the ramifications of one’s initial reaction. For a whole society, it can take centuries.
When the infant Moses cries at the sight of a stranger, it is because the stranger is not his mother, and he fears he has lost his mother forever. When the Israelite deportees cry at the sight of the rivers of Babylon, it is because Babylon is not their home, and they fear they will lose everything that means home to them: their identity, their way of life, and their religion.
They promise themselves they will never forget Jerusalem. Perhaps they recall the stories about Moses as an adult, who breaks with his royal Egyptian family to rescue the Israelite slaves. He never forgets his mother and his own people.
May every one of us remember those we have loved and lost. May we remember our true homes—whether they are the homes we were born into (like the Israelites in Psalm 137), or the homes we adopt (like the Israelites that Moses leads out of Egypt in the book of Exodus).
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) in the Jewish tradition. This week’s Torah portion is Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 2:1-12.
Sometimes a deathbed scene is silent; the dying person is unable to speak, or cannot even recognize the one waiting and hoping for a goodbye. But sometimes there are last words.These words might express acknowledgement, affection, even appreciation. Or the dying person might complain, give advice, or issue an order. Giving a deathbed blessing is different from extracting a deathbed promise.
The Hebrew Bible offers two complete deathbed scenes: Jacob’s speeches to his twelve sons in this week’s Torah portion, and David’s final words to his son Solomon in this week’s haftarah.
The Torah portion Vayechi offers three stories of the death of Jacob (also called “Israel”). In the first, Jacob gives an extremely polite order.
And the time came close for Israel to die, and he summoned his son Joseph, and he said to him: “If, please, I have found favor in your eyes, please place your hand under my thigh and do with me chesed and fidelity: please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, then take me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” And he [Joseph] said: “I myself will do as you have spoken”. And he [Jacob] said: “Swear to me!” And he swore to him. And Israel bowed down at the head of the bed. (Genesis 47:29-31)
chesed (חֶסֶד) = expected kindness; kindness out of loyalty to a family member or treaty partner.
In Egypt, Joseph is the pharaoh’s viceroy, and his father Jacob is only a guest. Although Jacob uses subservient language, he still reminds Joseph that he owes his father loyalty. Then he extracts a deathbed promise from Joseph: to bury him in Canaan, in the cave of Machpelah where Jacob’s parents and grandparents are buried.
And it happened after these things, someone said to Joseph: “Hey! Your father is weakening.” So he took his two sons with him, Menasheh and Efrayim. And Jacob was told: “Hey! Your son Joseph has come to you. And Israel mustered his strength and sat up on the bed. (Genesis 48:1-2)
In this second story, Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons, giving them each a share of his estate. He kisses them, then blesses Joseph and his sons: the ultimate expression of acknowledgement and appreciation.
But Jacob has eleven other sons, and he addresses all twelve sons in a third deathbed story.
And Jacob summoned his sons, and he said: “Gather and I will tell you what will meet you in the end of days.” (Genesis 49:1)
Jacob delivers a long poem with a prophecy about the tribe that will descend from each of his sons. Only one remark is unmistakably about the son himself: a complaint about Reuben.
For when you climbed up on the lying-down place of your father
That was when you profaned it. My couch he climbed! (Genesis 49:4)
Jacob still holds a grudge against Reuben for having intercourse with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah some 40 years earlier1. At the conclusion of the poem, a sentence that scholars attribute to a later redactor of the Hebrew Bible credits Jacob with blessing all his sons.
All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve, and this is what their father spoke to them. And he blessed them, each one according to his blessing he blessed them. (Genesis 49:28)
Finally Jacob returns to the subject most on his mind.
Vayetzav them, and he said to them: “I am being gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers, in the cave … And Jacob finished letzavot with his sons, and he gathered his feet into the bed, and he expired, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:29, 49:33)
Vayetzav (וַיְצַו) = And he commanded, and he ordered. (From the root verb tzivah (צִוָּה) = commanded.)
letzavot (לְצַוֺּת) = Commanding, giving orders. (Also from the root verb tzivah.)
In his three deathbed speeches, Jacob expresses acknowledgement and appreciation of his twelve sons (and two of his grandsons) by blessing them. He complains about Reuben. He gives prophecies rather than advice. And he repeats his orders about where he must be buried, but he has no other final requests.
And David came close to the time of death, vayetzav his son Solomon, saying: I am going according to the way of all the earth. And you must be strong and you must be an adult. (1 Kings 2:1-2)
David’s first command or order to Solomon sounds more like advice. Now that his young son has become the king of Israel, he must behave like a strong adult.
Next come two sentences in a different linguistic style, using synonyms in multiple phrases. Modern scholar Robert Alter has argued that these verses were added later by the editor of Deuteronomy, in order to improve David’s reputation.
And you must guard the custody of God, your god, to walk according to Its ways, to guard Its decrees, Its commandments, and Its rules, and Its admonitions, as written in the Teaching of Moses, so that you shall act with insight in everything that you do and everywhere you turn. So that God will establish Its word that It spoke concerning me, saying: if your descendants guard the way they take before Me faithfully, with all their heart and with all their soul—saying: yours will not be cut off from upon the throne of Israel. (1 Kings 2:3-4)
David reminds Solomon that as king, he must be a guardian of the religion of Israel, and base his own royal decisions on its rules. Then he gives the reason for his pious advice: so that his descendants to rule as kings of Israel forever.
The language of David’s deathbed speech reverts to a simpler style as he remembers the worst part of his life, when his beloved older son Absalom staged a coup and took over Jerusalem. Now he broods about unfinished business from those days.
He tells his son Solomon:
And furthermore, you know what Joab son of Tzeruyah did to me, what he did to two commanders of armies of Israel, to Avneir son of Neir and to Amasa son of Yeter: he killed them and he shed the blood of war beshalom…(1 Kings 2:5)
beshalom (בְּשָׁלֺם) = in peace, in peacetime.
David became the king of all Israel through a treaty with his opponent’s general, Avneir. Then David’s general, Joab, assassinated Avneir.2
About 20 years later, Absalom usurped his father’s throne. David fled with his supporters, including Joab. When David’s army defeated Absalom’s, Joab quickly killed Absalom despite David’s order to the contrary.3 After David was reinstalled as king, he pardoned Absalom’s general, Amasa, but this did not stop Joab from murdering him under the cover of a friendly embrace.4 David did not dare punish Joab for either killing.
And so you must act in accordance with your wisdom, and you must not let his gray hair go down beshalom to Sheol. (1 Kings 2:6)
Even as David criticizes Joab for killing two generals in times of peace, he orders Solomon to kill Joab in peacetime—and make sure he does not die peacefully.
But with the sons of Barzillai of the Gilead, you shall do chesed. And they must eat at your table, because they came close to me when I fled from Absalom, your brother. (1 Kings 2:7)
While Absalom controlled Jerusalem, Barzillai had fed David and his men in exile at Machanayim. When David returned to the capital, he promised to reward Barzillai and provide for his son.5 Now David orders his son Solomon to honor that promise.
Then he issues a third command. When David fled from Jerusalem, Shimi son of Geira hurled stones and insults at him on the road.6 When he returned in triumph, Shimi apologized for his wrongdoing, accompanied by a thousand Benjaminites who offered to serve King David. David had little choice but to accept the apology and swear not to execute him.7 But David still resents Shimi.
So you must not leave him unpunished, because you are a wise man, and you know what you will do to him and send down his gray hair in blood to Sheol. (1 Kings 2:9)
That is the last thing David says before he dies. Once again, he compliments his son for being wise enough to figure out how to carry out his father’s revenge, but does not trust him to make his own decision.
And David slept with his fathers, and he was buried in the City of David. (1 Kings 2:10)
His acknowledgement of Solomon’s wisdom is overshadowed by his demands that Solomon carry out his orders, including finding pretexts to execute two powerful men. Is David so self-centered that his only concern on his deathbed is making his successor promise to avenge him? Or is David urging Solomon to get rid of Joab and Shimi before they make Solomon suffer, too?
Either way, David’s death is not peaceful. He expresses appreciation for Solomon’s wisdom only in order to assure him he can carry out his father’s commands. He complains bitterly about Joab and Shimi. He gives Solomon advice about following his religion, but he also issues commands about killing Joab, rewarding Barzillai, and killing Shimi. His last thoughts are about murder and revenge.
Although Jacob is self-centered earlier in his life, on his deathbed he has a broader view than David. His only command concerns his own burial. He is affectionate with one of his sons, Joseph, and two grandsons. He blesses them, and gives prophecies and blessings to his other sons, despite his complaint about Reuben. Jacob dies with dignity, passing on more blessings than obligations to the next generation.
I pray that my own last words (many years from now, God willing!) will be only blessings. And in case I am not granted a deathbed scene in which I can speak to those I am leaving, I am resolved to express acknowledgement and appreciation every day, and avoid complaining about people and giving excessive advice. May the Holy One grant me the strength!
1 Genesis 35:22.
2 After the death of King Saul, David took control of Judah and Saul’s son Ish-Boshet took over the Israelite lands to the north. For two years they fought for the kingship of all Israel, until Ish-Boshet’s general, Avneir, persuaded him to let David be the king. Avneir made a treaty with David, but afterward Joab tracked him down and assassinated him. David cursed Joab, but did not dare demote him. (2 Samuel 3:6-34)
Later, King David got Bathsheba pregnant, and used General Joab to get rid of her husband Uriah. (2 Samuel 11:1-21) After that, the already powerful Joab was ungovernable.
3 2 Samuel 18:5-17.
4 After Joab kills Absalom, David sends a message to Absalom’s general, Amasa. “And to Amasa you shall say: Aren’t you my own bone and flesh? May God do this and more to me if you do not become my army commander for all time instead of Joab! (2 Samuel 19:14) David succeeds in recruiting Amasa as one of his own commanders, but his attempt to replace Joab fails; when they are chasing down a band of rebels, Joab tricks Amasa by reaching to kiss him with one hand and knifing him with the other (2 Samuel 20:8-13).
5 2 Samuel 19:32-39.
6 2 Samuel 16:5-8.
7 2 Samuel 19:17-24. When David became bedridden and his older son Adoniyah made a bid for the kingship, Shimi joined Solomon’s faction (1 Kings 1:8).
Tags: Assyrian exile, Babylonian exile, haftarah, Israel and Judah, Joseph's brothers, Prophet Ezekiel, twelve tribes
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) in the Jewish tradition. This week’s Torah portion is Vayiggash (Genesis 44:18-47:27), and the haftarah is Ezekiel 37:15-28.
Cut a board into two pieces, then glue them back together. The glued board is not identical to the original board.
Yet Ezekiel, in this week’s haftarah, says two separate ethnic groups that once shared a religion will again become one nation.
And the speech of God happened to me, saying: And you, son of Adam, take yourself one piece of wood and write on it “belonging to Judah and to the Children of Israel, its chaveirim”. And take another piece of wood and write on it “belonging to Joseph, the wood of Ephraim and all the household of Israel, its chaveirim”. And bring them close, one to the other, to [make] yourself one piece of wood; and it will be as one in your hand.” (Ezekiel 37:15-18)
chaveirim (חֲבֵרִים) = comrades, companions, partners. (From the root verb chavar, חָבַר = allied, joined forces.)
In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob has twelve sons and acquires a second name, Israel. Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, alienates his ten older brothers. Led by Judah, the ten young men sell Joseph to a slave caravan bound for Egypt. (Jacob’s twelfth son, Benjamin, is still a baby at the time.) In this week’s Torah portion, the brothers are reunited after a final confrontation between Joseph and a reformed Judah. Their descendants become the twelve tribes of Israel—who escape from Egypt 400 years later, as one people called the “Children of Israel”.
All twelve tribes settle in Canaan, but they only become a unified nation called “Israel” under King David, according to the second book of Samuel. After the death of the next king, Solomon, the northern part of the country secedes.
The new northern kingdom calls itself Israel, since it includes the traditional lands of most of the original tribes. Its richest and most dominant tribe is Ephraim, which is the name of one of Joseph’s sons. In Ezekiel’s time the northern kingdom no longer exists, but one piece of wood represents the descendants of its people by listing Joseph, Ephraim, and the tribe’s chaveirim or companion tribes from the former kingdom.
The truncated southern kingdom calls itself Judah/Yehudah. It includes only two tribal lands: the large area of Judah and the small traditional territory of Benjamin. They, too, are Children of Israel.
For two centuries the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are uneasy neighbors—sometimes allies, sometimes enemies. What they continue to have in common is their attachment to the same God (often called “the God of Israel”)—though they disagree about the correct number of temples and how to furnish them.1
The Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 740-721 B.C.E. and deported its leading citizens, leaving only its peasants and a few puppet administrators. During several waves of deportation, some northerners escaped to Judah.
The southern kingdom of Judah survived another 150 years or so by paying tribute to Assyria. Then the Neo-Babylonian Empire swallowed the Assyrian Empire and went on to conquer Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, in 601-586. King Nebuchadnezzar’s army deported Judah’s leading citizens (including Ezekiel) to Babylon, leaving only peasants and puppet administrators.
God instructs Ezekiel to continue his performance art with the two pieces of wood until someone asks him to explain it. Then, God says, Ezekiel must answer:
Thus says my lord God: Hey! I myself … will be making it one piece of wood. And they will be one in My hand… (Ezekiel 37:19)
Thus says my lord God: Hey! I myself will be taking the Children of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will collect them from all around, and I will bring them to their land. And I will make them a single nation on the land, in the hills of Israel, and one king will be king for all of them. And never again will they be two nations… (Ezekiel 37:21-22)
Ezekiel can only hold the “Judah” stick and the “Joseph” stick together to make one piece of wood symbolically. But God promises to reunite the two peoples literally, making them chaveirim who are not merely allies, but a single, seamless kingdom as in the time of David. This kingdom will be a home for everyone who worships the God of Israel; one land with one king, one capital (Jerusalem), and one temple, greater than the first.
Yet in human experience, time is unidirectional. We cannot go backward; our world never returns to the way it used to be. We can only go forward, building with the material we have now. Boards cut from a tree can never become a tree again, but we might make them into a chair.
Ezekiel’s prophesy never came true. After the Persian Empire took Babylon in 539 B.C.E., some of the exiles from Judah did return to Jerusalem and build a second temple, and some of their descendants served as provincial governors of Judea. Other Judahites stayed behind, building a thriving Jewish community that eventually produced the Babylonian Talmud. Most of the exiles the Assyrians deported from Israel were assimilated and lost their identity and religion.
There never was another independent kingdom of Israel. The third “temple” in Jerusalem is a mosque. After millions of Jews were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators, the nation of Israel was created in 1948 C.E., and its population now includes almost half the Jews in the world. Almost as many Jews live in the United States. If Ezekiel were here to prophesy today, he would write “Israel” on one piece of wood and “U.S.A.” on the other.
Yet the two groups of Jews are so dissimilar that only a trickle emigrate from one nation to the other. Currently, American Jews are generally respected by their fellow Americans; Israeli Jews dominate Israel and deal with entirely different issues. I cannot imagine the two groups forming a single nation in a single land, even if there were room for all of us.
May all human beings, of any religion or tradition, recognize that we can’t go home again; if we try, we find that our old home has changed. Change is the nature of this world, the world of the God whose personal name is a form of the verb meaning “to become”.2
I pray that we may all move beyond Ezekiel’s vision; that we may all find new ways to help our own identities, our communities, and our religions grow, wherever we live. And may we also find new ways to work together with people who were once strangers.
1 The opinion of Judah prevailed in the Hebrew Bible: that there should be only one temple, in Jerusalem, and the only statues allowed are the two keruvim, mythical winged creatures. (See my post Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.) The Bible criticizes the northern kingdom of Israel for maintaining temples at Dan and Beit-El as well as its capital, Samaria, and for the golden calves standing at the entrances of the temples in Beit-El and Dan (2 Kings 10:29).
2 YHVH = the Tetragrammaton or four-letter personal name of God that Jews consider most sacred. The name appears to be a form of havah or hayah (הוה or היה), the root of the verb “to be”, “to happen”, or “to become”, although it is a form that does not fit any standard Hebrew verb conjugations.
Tags: binah, haftarah, King Solomon, two prostitutes ownership, wisdom
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 3:15-4:1.
Solomon, the young new king of Israel, has a dream just before this week’s haftarah reading. God offers him not three wishes, but one wish:
At Gibeon God appeared to Solomon in a dream in the night, and God said: “Ask, what shall I give you?” (1 Kings 3:5)
Solomon, being already somewhat wise, does not ask for wealth. long life, or the defeat of his enemies (as God notices with approval). After mentioning his own inexperience as a leader, the new king says:
May You give Your servant an understanding mind to judge Your people, lehavin between good and bad. For who is able to judge this impressive multitude of Your people? (1 Kings 3:9)
lehavin (לְהָבִין) = to be able to discern, to gain insight. (From the same root as binah, בִּינָה = insight.)
God responds: Hey! I have done as you spoke. Hey! I gave you a mind [which is] wise and navon… (1 Kings 3:12)
navon (נָווֹן) = perceptive, discerning. (Also from the same root as binah.)
In the Garden of Eden, God tells Adam not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad. (See my post Giving Directions.) But in the dream at Gibeon, God grants Solomon’s wish for the ability to discern between good and bad.
The young king wakes up from his dream and returns to Jerusalem at the opening of this week’s haftarah, sacrifices at the altar, and holds a banquet.
It was then that two prostitute women came to the king and stood before him. (1 Kings 3:16)
Solomon asked for understanding and binah in order to be a good judge for the whole multitude of Israel. His first case is a dispute between two of its most despised members: prostitutes. Normally a local elder would judge this case; a king would only serve as a court of appeals or as the judge for affairs of state. Either the two prostitutes have already gone to a local judge, who was unable to decide on a ruling, or they simply barge in on the new king’s party and he decides to hear them out instead of throwing them out.
Since the two prostitutes are never named in this story, I will quote only their dialogue as they present their case, identifying each speaker as Woman #1 or Woman #2.
Woman #1: Please, my lord, I and this woman [#2] are living in one house, and I gave birth with her in the house. And it happened that on the third day after my giving birth, this woman [#2] also gave birth. And we were together; there was no stranger with us in the house except me. The two of us were in the house. (1 Kings 3:17-3:18)
So far, Woman #1 has explained that there were no witnesses to the event she is about to describe. But a discerning listener—and Solomon is now discerning—would notice that unlike other Israelite women, the two prostitutes do not live with any family members. They live alone in a shared house. Clients (including the unknown fathers of their infants) may come and go, but they have only one another for companionship and help.
Woman #1: Then the son of this woman [#2] died at night, when she lay down on him. And she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side, while your servant [woman #1] slept. And she [woman #2] laid him in her bosom. And her son, the dead one, she laid in my bosom. When I got up in the morning to nurse my son, hey! He was dead! Va-etbonein him in the morning, and hey! He was not my son to whom I had given birth! (1 Kings 3:19-21)
va-etbonein (וָאֶתְבּוֹנֵן) = but I looked closely at, but I paid attention to, but I was perceptive about. (From the root binah, like the words lehavin and navon in Solomon’s dream.)
Woman #2: No, for my son is the living one and your son is the dead one! Yet this one [woman #1] is saying: “No, for your son is the dead one and my son is the living one.” (1 Kings 3:22)
While Woman #1 tells a complete story, Woman #2 merely contradicts her on the key question: Who is the mother of the living infant? Like Woman #1, she refers to her housemate and companion only as “this one” or “this woman”. The trauma of the dead baby has alienated the two women; they are no longer friends. Now they are desperate competitors for a baby to nurse and love (and eventually, if all goes well, a grown son to support them in old age).
King Solomon summarizes the dispute, then calls for his sword. His servants place it between the king and the two women. This dramatic visual aid makes his words more believable when he says:
Cut the boy in two, and you shall give half to one and half to the other. (1 Kings 3:24-25)
In a fairy tale, that is what the evil monster would say, prompting the two women to unite against him. But this is a wisdom tale about an insightful judge.
The Bible does not dictate what a judge should do if two people claim ownership of the same object, and there are no witnesses or other evidence. But the Mishnah (written ~200 C.E.) for the Talmud tractate Bava Metzia discusses the problem using the example of a valuable garment two people are holding onto as they speak to a judge.
One of them says “I found it’ and the other says “I found it’. One of them says “it is all mine’ and the other says “It is all mine”. Then one shall swear that his share in it is not less than half, and the other shall swear that his share in it is not less than half, and it shall then be divided between them. (Bava Metzia 2a, Soncino translation)
The Mishnah it is a record of “oral law”, i.e. previously unwritten legal precedents thought to date back to the time of Moses. So the above rule may well have been in use since the books of Kings were written in 6th century B.C.E., about seven centuries before the Mishnah was written.
The haftarah does not say whether both women are holding onto the baby while they stand before the king. But if so, this precedent would give King Solomon an excuse for uttering the same ruling about a disputed baby as he would about a disputed garment.
Both women believe he means it, and are shocked into revealing more about themselves.
And the woman whose son was living said to the king—because her compassion was stirred up over her son—she said: “Please, my lord, give the living boy to her, or you will certainly kill him!” But the other one was saying: “Let him be neither mine nor hers. Cut him!” (1 Kings 3:26)
Which woman begs the king to give the living baby to her enemy, in order to save his life—Woman #1 or Woman #2? Which woman is so fixated on winning the dispute over ownership that she no longer cares about the child? The text is not clear, though perhaps the first woman to present her case (Woman #1) is also the first woman to speak after Solomon’s shocking order.
And the king responded, and he said: “Give her the living boy, and certainly do not kill him. She is his mother! And all Israel heard the judgment that the king had judged, and they were in awe in face of the king, because they saw that the wisdom of God was within him to do justice. (1 Kings 3:27-28)
The bottom line is that only a woman who wants a baby to live is fit to be its mother. Anyone who would rather let a child die than lose a dispute is an unfit parent, even if she reacts that way only in a moment of temporary insanity. King Solomon proves that he can go beyond legal considerations and rule according to his God-given binah between good and bad.
I suspect the compassionate mother is Woman #1, the one who told a coherent story about what happened. She is the one who said “va-etbonein him in the morning”: she paid attention to the infant, looking at him with a Solomon-like discernment. She implied that if she had recognized the dead baby as her own, she would have accepted her loss; she knows infants are not interchangeable.
Woman #2 speaks only to insist that she owns the living baby, without offering any explanation. I can imagine her making the midnight substitution in order to get the advantage for herself, without even considering whether her action is ethical. When Woman #1 demands her own child back, Woman #2 is reduced to saying: No, it’s mine!
If Woman #2 is also the woman who says “Cut him!” she lacks not only compassion, but also any knowledge of good and bad.
Nobody is good all of the time. Waking up next to a dead baby might fill any woman with grief and horror. With no one to comfort her, and breasts full of milk, Woman #2 might have switched the babies in the middle of the night without thinking it through. But when Woman #1 discovered the substitution in the morning, a woman with a heart would have apologized, cried, and handed over the living baby. Who knows, perhaps then the two lonely prostitutes could have made peace and raised the boy together.
But when one of the two women insisted on lying, peace and friendship became impossible. The innocent woman could not bear, and would not dare, to continue living in the same house with a predatory liar. Yet she has no family or friends to help her get away and protect her and her son. She goes all the way to the king, who turns out to have the binah to see the truth.
Unfortunately, compassion and truth do not always triumph in our world. Those who have little power can still be victimized by people who never tasted fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad—people who are impaired either by their genes or their upbringing, and do not understand the moral imperative of being human.
I pray that every powerless victim may either escape or find a wise judge. And I pray that everyone who is called upon to judge may be granted binah—and compassion.
Tags: Amos, Jonah, nazirites, prophets
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), and the haftarah is Amos 2:6-3:8.
The doom of other countries is easier to read about than the doom of your own. So the book of Amos opens with God’s proclamations against the kingdom of Israel’s neighbors Aram, Philistia, Phoenicia, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Judah. In each prophecy, Amos mentions a wicked deed the state committed, followed by the war-related punishment that God will bring down upon it.
I can imagine Amos’s audience in the kingdom of Israel nodding at the well-deserved punishments predicted for other countries, many of which their own king, Jereboam II, attacked in the mid-eighth century B.C.E. Then Amos’s introductory formula for the next prophecy names Israel. This week’s haftarah begins:
Thus said God:
Because of three revolts of Israel,
And because of four, I will not accept it:
Because of selling the innocent for silver,
And the needy for the sake of a pair of sandals. (Amos 2:6)
The first revolt (or transgression) against God in Amos’s polemic against the Israelites is selling people into slavery merely out of greed. In the Bible parents are allowed to sell themselves or their children—but only to fellow Israelites, and only in order to pay off debts.1 Selling someone to an outsider, or for any reason other than debt, is unacceptable.
In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave for 20 pieces of silver, to a caravan bound for Egypt. Their only reason is that they hate him. Later they suffer for this bad deed.
The book of Amos goes on to list four other revolts against God by Israelites:
Mauling the head of the powerless in the dust of the ground,
They stretch the path of the needy.
A man and his father go to the [same] na-arah
For the sake of profaning My holy name.
And on garments taken as security [for debts]
They stretch out beside every altar.
And wine from fines they charged
They drink in the house of their god(s). (Amos 2:7-2:8)
na-arah (נַעֲרָה) = girl; a young woman old enough to marry who has not yet had a child; a female slave or servant.
The Israelites who revolt against God are the ones who victimize the innocent, the needy, the powerless, servants, and debtors. They disregard God’s instructions about the poor in order to accumulate silver and live in selfish luxury, indulging in dubious sex and lolling about drinking beside religious altars. (Either they are worshiping an alien god, as Amos discovers in Bethel, or they are using a shrine built for making libations and animal sacrifices to God as if it were a private drinking hall.)
The wealthier Israelites ignore God despite everything God has done for them: bringing them up from Egypt (where the Israelites were the slaves), guiding them through the wilderness, and destroying their Amorite (i.e. Canaanite) enemies. Furthermore,
I raised up some of your children for neviyim,
And some of your youths for nezirim.
Is this also nothing, children of Israel?
neviyim (נְבִיאִים) = prophets (singular= navi, נָבִיא). From the root verb niba (נִבָּא) = behave like a prophet, either by having ecstatic experiences of the divine, or by serving as a mouthpiece and translator for God.
nezirim (נְזִרִים) = nazirites; men and women who dedicate themselves to a period of sanctity during which they abstain from grooming their hair and from drinking wine and other alcohol. (See my post Haftarat Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer.)
The neviyim transmit God’s messages to the people. The nezirim set an example of inner strength, even in their youth, by holding themselves to a different standard for the sake of sanctity. God’s rhetorical question—Is this also nothing?—is designed to make the listeners agree that neviyim and nezirim are assets to the community.
But you made the nezirim drink wine,
And you ordered the neviyim, saying: Lo tinavu! (Amos 2:11-12)
Lo tinavu (לֹא תִּנָּבְאוּ) = You shall not prophesy! Lo (לֹאּ) = not; tinavu is a form of the verb niba (נִבָּא).
Naturally the immoral, disobedient Israelites do not want anyone reminding them of their own wickedness.
Since the Israelites have rejected God’s gifts, God threatens to make Israel’s army unnaturally slow and weak. The obvious, though unstated, conclusion is that if an enemy army (such as the Assyrians) attacks, the kingdom will be unable to defend itself.
Amos continues God’s prophecy with a list of rhetorical questions, including:
If misfortune happens in a town,
Did not God make it? (Amos 3:6)
This expresses the common Biblical belief that God controls everything that happens to human beings. Individuals are responsible for their own behavior, but nothing else; when bad things happen to them it is always a punishment from God for misbehaving. (The Hebrew Bible questions this ancient belief only in the book of Job.) Biblical writers applied a similar principle to collective behavior: if a whole country is vanquished, the reason is not that the enemy has superior military might, technology, or strategy, but rather that God is using the enemy’s army to punish people who have done wrong.
By sending a prophet, God gives a country a chance to reform and avoid the divine punishment. In the book of Jonah, once the reluctant prophet finally prophesies in Nineveh, the people repent and the city is saved—even though Nineveh is the capital of the evil Neo-Assyrian Empire. Amos pauses in his list of rhetorical questions to remind his audience:
Indeed, my lord God does not do a thing
Unless He has revealed His confidential plan to His servants, the neviyim. (Amos 3:7)
Then Amos finishes his list:
A lion has roared;
Who will not be afraid?
My lord God has spoken;
Who will not prophesy? (Amos 3:8)
God’s voice is as frightening as a lion’s roar. When God speaks to the prophet, he cannot help but obey God by transmitting the message. Amos may be implying that God’s word, spoken by a true prophet, should be just as frightening. Then the Israelites could not help but repent and reform.
Yet the wealthy and powerful of Israel are so resistant to change that they order the neviyim to keep their mouths shut and go away.2 They would rather continue doing wrong and stay in denial than admit their wrongdoing and change their ways in time to avoid the conquest and destruction of their country.
Today, when we face the degradation of the whole world due to climate change, including a high toll on human life, few people consider it a punishment from God. Why blame an anthropomorphic deity, when it is so easy so see how human actions are causing our collective suffering?
Nevertheless, it is hard to change our actions. Many people today offer information about what is happening, and call for reducing air pollution and preparing for rising waters. Some individuals are responding by using less gasoline to travel—and no doubt when Amos prophesied, a few individuals responded by treating the poor and their own families with more justice, and their religion with more respect.
Yet when a whole kingdom, or the whole world, is threatened, the disaster can only be avoided or ameliorated by commitment and action on the part of the leaders at the top. In the book of Jonah, Nineveh would not have repented if its king had not put on sackcloth and issued his decree. In the book of Amos, King Jereboam II never reforms, and neither do his people. By 720 B.C.E. the Assyrian army had captured Israel and its capital, Samaria.
May a divine spirit open all of our ears and hearts today, and may all the leaders and influential people of the world become more like the repentant king of Nineveh than like the leaders of Israel in the time of Amos.
1See my post Haftarat Vayeira—2 Kings: Dance of Pride. Even when someone acquired a slave as a payment of debt, the debtor’s kinsman was obligated to buy back his relative as soon as he could afford it, and after six years a master had to liberate an Israelite slave even without financial recompense. In fact, the Torah says: And when you send him out emancipated from you, do not send him out with nothing. You must certainly provide him [with goods] from your flock or from your threshing-floor or from your wine-vat, which are blessings that God has given you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 15:13-14)
2 An example is given later in the book: Amatzyah, the priest of Bethel, sent to Jereboam, the king of Israel, saying: Amos conspires against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land cannot endure everything he speaks! (Amos 7:10) … And Amatzyah said to Amos: Seer, go with your spirit to the land of Judah, and eat your bread there, and prophesy there! But do not ever prophesy again at Bethel, because it is a sanctuary for the king and a royal palace. (Amos 7:12-13)
Tags: anthropomorphic God, haftarah, Hosea
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), and the haftarah is Hosea 12:13-14:10. Next week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43) and the haftarah is Hosea 11:7-12:12. 1
Together, the passages from Hosea show us a God whose “heart has turned upside down”.
A punishment from God! That’s how the Bible describes almost every plague or military defeat the Israelites suffer, from the time they leave Mt. Sinai to the fall of the temple in Jerusalem. God gets a hot nose (the biblical idiom for anger) when the Israelites fail to live up to their covenant with God—by not trusting God to provide for them, by worshiping other gods, or by neglecting God’s ritual and ethical laws. Then God yells at them through a prophet, and lashes out with a deadly punishment.
Yet in the second half of Isaiah, God says the Israelites have suffered enough, and forgives them. And in the haftarot for this week and next week, two contiguous sections the book of Hosea, God is torn between vicious anger and tender-hearted love.
The double passage begins with God saying:
My people are stuck in meshuvah from me.
Upward they are summoned—
They do not rise at all. (Hosea 11:7)
meshuvah (מְשׁוּבָה) = backsliding, defection (to other gods), disloyalty.
The people of the northern kingdom of Israel (which Hosea also calls Efrayim, after the tribe of its first king, Jeroboam) remain trapped in their habit of worshiping Baal, even though prophets such as Hosea call for reform. When any of the people of Israel or Judah persist in worshiping idols, God usually becomes enraged and threatens destruction. But this time, God says:
How can I give you up, Efrayim?
[How] can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I put you in the position of Admah?
[How] can I treat you like Tzevoyim?
My heart nehapakh.
It is altogether anxious, and I have had a change of heart. (Hosea 11:8)
nehapakh (נֶהְפַּךְ) = has turned upside down, turned around, been overturned.
Admah and Tzevoyim were villages annihilated along with their neighbors, Sodom and Gomorrah, and presumably shared their immorality. Although the northern kingdom of Israel is engaging in the Baal-worship of its neighboring kingdoms, the thought of annihilating Israel turns God’s anger into anxiety.
I will not act on the anger of My nose.
I will not turn to destroy Efrayim.
Because I am a god, and not a man;
The holy one in your midst.
And I will not come with agitation. (Hosea 11:7-9)
The book of Hosea implies that only a human man would reject his unfaithful wife in anger. A god, unlike a man, is able to master emotional reactions. The God of Israel chooses the path of love instead—at least for a few more verses. Then God remembers:
Efrayim encircled Me with false denials,
And the house of Israel with deceit… (Hosea 12:1)
It cut a covenant with Assyria;
Then it brought oil as tribute to Egypt. (Hosea 12:2)
The book of Hosea, like the book of Jeremiah, urges the Israelites not to become vassal states of other empires, but to remain independent and trust God to protect them. The government of the northern kingdom is deceiving itself by pretending that an alliance with a foreign empire does not affect its service to God, but only leads to wealth and power. Israel, personified as Efrayim, says:
How rich I have become!
I have found power for myself.
[In] all my labor they cannot find crooked activity
That is a sin. (Hosea 12:9)
Efrayim knows his shady dealings are crooked, but tells himself that he is good as long as he does not break the letter of the law. However, God knows better.
And now they add sin to sin
And they make for themselves molten images…
They speak to them!
Sacrificers of humans, they kiss calves! (Hosea 13:2)
God’s nose gets hot again, and God speaks of punishing the Israelites in various terrible ways, concluding:
By the sword they shall fall;
Their infants shall be smashed on rocks,
And their pregnant women shall be ripped open! (Hosea 14:1)
Then Hosea advises the Israelites to pray for forgiveness and promise never to worship idols again. (See my post Haftarot for Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuva.) Their words are enough to turn God’s heart upside down once again. God says:
I will heal their meshuvah.
I will love them nedavah.
For my hot nose has turned away from them. (Hosea 14:5)
nedavah (נְדָבָה) = voluntarily, freely, as a gift, spontaneously.
A prayer and a promise are enough to change God from an angry punisher into a loving and forgiving healer. God’s love is not even contingent on the Israelites fulfilling their promise.
God predicts that the Israelites will be cured of their meshuvah, their habit of disloyalty and defection, in response to God’s freely given love.
Efrayim [shall say]: “What are idols to me now?”
I Myself shall respond and I shall look at him with regard. (Hosea 14:9)
Parents and teachers are familiar with the conundrum God faces in these haftarot. After you have told children what they are doing wrong, and what they should do instead, do you wait for them to change their behavior before you reward them? Or do you shower them with love first, hoping that they will then change in response to your trust in them?
I suspect the right answer is different for each child. And once in a while, when a child is testing you, you need to show that your temper has limits, and mete out an appropriate level of punishment.
In most of the Bible, God is not a wonderful parent or teacher. The anthropomorphic God has a hair-trigger temper, and “His” punishments include early and painful death for thousands of innocent people. But Hosea holds up a different model when he suggests that a god has more self-control than a man. The God of Israel need not act like a man who cannot overcome his anger against an unfaithful wife, Hosea says. God can stay calm and heal humans of their slavish devotion to idols and emperors—through love.
Today many adult humans try to meet the higher standards that Hosea set for God, behaving with self-control, good judgment, and love. It is not easy, since we seem to be made in the image of the old anthropomorphic God, full of both anger and love.
Underneath those feelings, can we come close to a more holy God? I believe we can, if we spend enough time reflecting and turning our hearts upside down, as well as recognizing our self-deceit and denial and pushing through to deeper truths.
You, you must return to your own god!
You must observe kindness and just judgments,
And eagerly wait for your god, constantly! (Hosea 12:7)
1 (There is an alternate tradition of reading the book of Obadiah for next week’s haftarah, but Obadiah merely predicts the triumph of the people of Jacob (Israel) and the complete downfall of the people of Esau (Edom), without offering any reasons or any characterizations of God, Jacob, or Esau. Hosea 11:7-12:12, on the other hand, mentions Jacob wrestling with the mysterious being, a key feature of the Torah portion Vayishlach, as well as considering divine and human psychology.)
Tags: emet, haftarah, Malachi, reverence, rituals, torat emet
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Toledot (Genesis 25:19-28:9), and the haftarah is Malachi 1:1-2:7.
The three faults that draw the most condemnation from the prophets in the Hebrew Bible are
1) worshiping other gods,
2) behaving unethically toward other people, and
3) failing to follow the rules of rituals—in that order, if one judges by the number of words devoted to each.
When the prophets criticize the Israelites for their sacrifices at the temple, they usually condemn them for going through the ritual motions while continuing to act unjustly toward the poor, orphans, and widows.
But when the prophets criticize the temple priests, they denounce them for not teaching the Israelites about God (Jeremiah 2:8), for not separating the holy from the unholy and the pure from the impure (Ezekiel 22:26 and Zephaniah 3:4), for charging fees to make religious rulings (Micah 3:11), for promoting sexual sins (Hosea 6:9), and, in this week’s haftarah, for accepting defective animals as offerings for the altar.
The last prophet in the Hebrew Bible is Malachi, whom most scholars date to the 5th century B.C.E., when the homeland of the Israelites has become a province in the Persian Empire, and Ezra and Nehemiah have rebuilt Jerusalem and its temple.
A pronouncement: the word of God to Israel, by the hand of Malakhi. (Malachi 1:1)
Malakhi (מַלְאָכִי) = Malachi (usual English spelling); My malakh.
malakh (מַלְאָךְ) = messenger, either human or divine.
God’s messenger delivers God’s complaint against the priests of the second temple.
“A son should honor a father, and a slave his master; but if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am masters, where is My reverence?” says the God of [Heavenly] Armies to you, the priests who are bozeh of My sheim. And you say: “How are we bozeh of Your sheim?” (Malachi 1:6)
bozeh (בּוֹזֶה) = being in contempt, slighting, disrespecting, demeaning, finding insignificant.
sheim (שֵׁם) = name, reputation.
“Presenting on My altar degraded food, then you ask: How are we degrading you? When you say: The table of God is nibezeh. Then if you present a blind [animal] for a slaughter-sacrifice, there is nothing wrong, and if it is lame or sick, there is nothing wrong!” (Malachi 1:7-8)
nibezeh (נִבְזֶה) = insignificant, contemptible, not worthy of respect. (From the same root verb as bozeh.)
The animals are given by the people, but the priests must decide whether each animal is acceptable to burn on the altar that serves as God’s “table”. Malachi astutely diagnoses the problem with flawed offerings: although the end-product of smoke is the same, priests who accept defective animals as gifts for God are showing contempt for God’s reputation. This teaches the people that they can give God any old leftovers; they need not honor God the way they would honor a parent or a master by serving a beautifully presented dinner.
The haftarah contrasts this negligent attitude with the respect and reverence that Israelite priests used to show for their God.
A torah of emet was in his mouth
And no wickedness was found on his lips;
In peace and on level ground he walked with Me
And he turned many away from wrongdoing. (Malachi 2:6)
torah (תּוֹרַה) = instruction, direction; the sum of God’s law; a book containing God’s laws. (From the same root as yoreh (יוֹרֶה) = he will teach; and moreh (מוֹרֶה) = teacher.)
emet (אֱמֶת) = reliability, trustworthiness, truth; reliable, trustworthy, true.
A good priest teaches the people what to do, both ritually and ethically. The priest’s actions are consistent with his teachings; he is honest, what we call being “on the level” even in English. Therefore his instructions are emet.
And they seek torah from his mouth;
Because he is a malakh of the God of [Heavenly] Armies.
But you turned away from the path;
You made many stumble through the torah;
You wiped out the covenant of the Levites, said the God of Armies. (Malachi 2:7-8)
Just as the author of the book Malachi is a malakh, a messenger from God, every priest must be a responsible malakh.
The Talmud extends this requirement to everyone who teaches about God. Rabbi Yochanan says: “If the rabbi is like a messenger of the God of Armies, they should seek the law at his mouth; but if he is not, they should not seek the law at his mouth.” (Babylonian Talmud, Mo-ed Katan 17a)
Back to our original question: Do rituals matter? And how important is it to get the details right?
For the priests at the second temple in the 5th century B.C.E., it was essential. They had to carry out the letter of the law concerning animal sacrifices, particularly the requirements for unblemished animals, in order for the people to see that they took God seriously.
After the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., Judaism’s new teachers, the rabbis cited in the Talmud, focused on interpreting and extrapolating the laws in the Bible that did not require offerings at a temple. The examples they set in their personal lives were also scrutinized. If you wanted your rulings to be respected about the shape of lamps permissible on Shabbat or which slaves a master is obligated to feed, you had to follow all the rules yourself.
Today many rabbis and other teachers of the Torah, as well as many teachers of other religions, are primarily concerned with ethical behavior toward fellow human beings. The Hebrew Bible addresses ethics, but provides proof texts for contradictory opinions. For example, in one passage Moses commands genocide (see my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent). In another, God tells Moses to tell the people: You shall not wrong a stranger, and you shall not oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (ExodusShemot 22:20)
In the face of conflicting passages, a modern Torah interpreter is responsible for finding the deepest truth and teaching it. Rabbi David Frankel wrote: “Thus, what makes Torah “true” is the sincerity and integrity with which one pursues the process of searching and interpreting.”
I am continually away of the shortcomings in my own behavior when I teach the Torah in a class, in a service, or in this blog. Not only is my idea of keeping kosher too idiosyncratic for most observant Jews, but I catch myself falling short of my own standards for kindness and justice. Are my words emet? Probably not. I can only pray that my sincere attempts to wrestle with the text and reach through to the divine spirit behind it will somehow lead to an occasional flicker of inspiration. I may not walk with God on level ground, but I am grateful for this journey.