Kohelet: Is Life Meaningless?

October 5, 2017 at 1:24 pm | Posted in Ecclesiastes/Kohelet, Sukkot | 1 Comment

Modern sukkah in Israel

During the Jewish week of Sukkot, which began on Wednesday evening, the traditional reading is the book of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet. Sukkot is called zeman simchateynu, the “time of our rejoicing”. In the Torah Sukkot celebrates the harvest of autumn fruits (grapes, figs, pomegranates, and olives), and the people live in fragile temporary shelters called sukkot. Today Jews still erect and decorate sukkot and hold rituals and meals inside them.

Modern sukkah in America

Although these huts only last for a week, we rejoice inside them. The author of the book of Kohelet (“Assembler” or “Assemblyman”1), on the other hand, would be depressed.

The famous opening of the book in the King James Bible translation includes “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

The word “vanity” here means doing something in vain, i.e. with no resulting change. Futility is is indeed one possible translation of the Hebrew word haveil.

Haveil havalim, said the Assembler.

          Haveil havalim! Everything is havel. (Kohelet 1:2)

haveil (הֲבֵל), havel (הָבֶל), hevel (הֶבֶל) = (noun) puff of air, vapor; (adjective) evanescent, futile, absurd. (Also the name of Adam and Eve’s second son, called “Abel” in English. See my post Bereishit: Fairness and Free Will.)

havalim (הֲבָלִים) = plural of haveil. In biblical Hebrew, a plural noun immediately following the same noun in the singular noun is an intensive.  Thus haveil havalim means utterly evanescent, utterly futile, or utterly absurd, though it can also be translated as “futility of futilities”.

The poetic introduction of the book of Kohelet describes how the cycles of nature never change; the sun keeps rising and setting, the wind keeps going around, water flows down to the sea and then returns to its sources.

What will happen has happened before

            and what is done has been done before.

And there is nothing new under the sun.  (Kohelet 1:9)

After the introductory poem, the writer uses an exclamation that becomes a refrain throughout the book:

Everything is hevel and herding ruach! (Kohelet 1:14)

ruach (רוּהַ) = wind; spirit; mood.

In a world of futility and absurdity, trying to achieve anything is like trying to herd the wind.

The rest of the book reports the writer’s fruitless attempts to find meaning in life despite the fact that everything in this world, “under the sun”, is hevel.  Chapter 2 points out that no matter how much you achieve, no matter how much luxury or wisdom you acquire, you still die, and whoever inherits from you also dies.

Chapter 3 starts with the famous poem beginning:

For everything there is a season

            and a time for every business under heaven:

A time to be born

            and a time to die… (Kohelet 3:1-2)

Humans also follow natural cycles, making no progress and doing nothing truly new. God has determined everything, according to Kohelet, and humans die just as beasts do.

Everything goes to one place; everything comes from the dust and returns to the dust. Who knows if the ruach of a human rises to [what is] above, and the ruach of the beast goes down [what is] below, to the earth? (Kohelet 3:20-21)

Judging by the rest of the book, the writer does not believe the spirit (ruach) of any human rises to another life after death. Death is simply an ending that usually comes before the person has had enough of life.

And life, according to Kohelet, is depressing. The author points out the inevitability of oppression, evil, envy, and folly.2 Wealth may disappear, and power is no good because every boss is at the mercy of a superior, and even the king is at the mercy of the crops of the land.3  God might grant someone every desire, along with wealth, possessions, honor, 100 children, and a long life, but that person will still die before being sated with good things; we can never live long enough.4 God makes good and bad things happen; humans have little effect.5

Here is hevel that is done on the earth: that there are righteous ones who God treats as if their deeds were like those of the wicked, and there are wicked ones who God treats as if their deeds were like those of the righteous. I say that this, too, is havel. (Kohelet 8:14)

Life is absurd, rather than meaningful, in the face of the “problem of evil” (also called the theodicy).

Sukkah roof

Kohelet also points out that wisdom is easily brought down by one foolish act6, and that we have decay to look forward to as well as death7. Yet our fragility is part of the celebration during Sukkot; every sukkah is designed to let the rain in, and every morning we stand inside and conduct a ritual to encourage the rainy season to begin.

The most the author of Kohelet can recommend is to enjoy life despite its meaninglessness:

Go eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a good heart since God has already approved your deeds. At all times let your clothes be clean, and oil not lacking on your head. Choose life with a woman whom you love, all the days of your life of hevel that God granted you under the sun, all the days of your hevel, because that is your share in life and your exertion that you exert under the sun. Everything that your hand finds to do, do with all your power, because there is no doing nor reckoning nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol [underground], where you are going. (Kohelet 9:7-9)

*

I cannot argue with Kohelet’s advice about cultivating physical pleasure, loving companionship, and zest in your work. Nor would I deny that everything decays and dies. But unlike the author of Kohelet I believe that new things do happen, and humankind is making progress in some areas, however slow and faltering. And I believe that even though life is too short and reality is absurd, life has meaning. What gives life meaning to me is the conviction that even though so much is out of our hands, we humans can, with conscious attention, change our own minds.

So what if all my thoughts and experiences vanish when my body dies? So what if the whole earth and all human achievement is lost forever when the sun explodes? What happens right now, this moment, is still meaningful if we make it so.

The book of Kohelet ends (excluding the postscript) in the same place it begins:

And the dust returns to the earth, where it was,

            and the ruach returns to God, who gave it.

Haveil havalim, said the Assembler.

            Haveil havalim! Everything is havel. (Kohelet 12:7-8)

Yes, everything is like a puff of air, evanescent and absurd—but some things still matter. And yes, as long as we live, we humans are herding ruach. But we are not always futilely trying to herd the wind. Ruach can also mean mood or spirit. Sometimes we learn how to herd our own moods, so we can rise above them. Sometimes we can even herd our own spirits, nudging our own souls to make our lives meaningful.

Then it is easy to rejoice inside the fragile, evanescent, absurd sukkot of our lives.

  1. The word kohelet ( קֹהֶלֶת) comes from the root verb kahal (קהל) = assemble. But the -et ending is a mystery; it might indicate either a female or a vocation, and it might mean a member of an assembly rather than the one who calls the assembly. See Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010, p. 337.
  2. Kohelet chapter 4.
  3. Kohelet chapter 5.
  4. Kohelet chapter 6.
  5. Kohelet chapter 7.
  6. Kohelet chapter 10.
  7. Kohelet chapter 12.
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Yom Kippur & Isaiah: Ending Slavery

September 27, 2017 at 11:57 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, by Maurycy Goittlieb

We do it every year on Yom Kippur. This Friday at sunset, observant Jews whose health permits will begin a 26-hour fast, accompanied by communal prayer Friday evening and all day Saturday.  One of the readings on Yom Kippur is a passage from second Isaiah1 in which the Israelites ask God:

We fasted; why did you not see?

          Inninu our bodies, but you did not notice!

inninu (עִנִּינוּ) = we overpowered, we subdued, we humiliated, we oppressed. (From the root verb anah, ענה.)

God replies:

Hey, on the day of your fasting, you meet [to do] business,

          and you beat all your laborers!

Hey, you fast with a lawsuit and a quarrel,

          and you strike with a wicked fist!

You cannot, with a fast like today,

          make your voice heard on high.

Is it [only] like this, the fast I would choose:

          a day of humans annot their bodies? (Isaiah 58:3-5)

annot (עַנּוֹת) = overpowering, subduing, humiliating, oppressing. (Also from the root verb anah.)

The divine objection is that while the Israelites are annot their physical appetites by fasting, they are also annot other people. God will pay attention only to people who behave morally toward other human beings.

Is not this the fast I would choose:

          Opening the shackles of wickedness,

breaking the harness ropes of the human yoke,

          and setting free those who are crushed?  (Isaiah 58:6)

Most books of the Bible accept slavery, and issue laws ameliorating it somewhat by providing for the emancipation of Israelite slaves (by redemption2 or after six years3), by limiting who can be sold as a slave4, and by giving all slaves, Israelite and foreign, the day of Shabbat and all festival days off from work.5

But in second Isaiah, God calls for slave-owning Israelites to free all their slaves. God will not pay attention to anyone who is annot other people by owning them as slaves.

Then God implies that neglecting anyone so poor as to be without food, shelter, or clothing is another form of annot. God continues the description of the fast God would choose:

Beggars, by Rembrandt

Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry,

and bringing home the homeless poor?

When you see a naked person, you must cover him,

and not hide yourself from your fellow.  (Isaiah 58:7)

This is a tall order for getting God’s attention. If I take it literally, I at least feel relieved that I have no slaves (or even employees), I never use my fists, and I am not quarreling with or suing anyone. But I would be afraid to invite a homeless stranger into my home unless I had a lot of friends there in case of emergency.

Taken less literally, the reading from second Isaiah encourages me to continue making donations to food banks, giving spare change to beggars, and donating money and goods to charities. It also reminds me that I am happy to pay taxes for programs that assist the poor.

But maybe I could do more about “opening the shackles of wickedness” and “setting free those who are crushed”. In the United States today slavery is illegal, but there are people living here without government papers. “Illegal aliens” who have no other home are not free. Many are oppressed and harassed by their employers or by government employees. Many do not dare complain about inhumane working conditions; what if they got deported? There is no American law to free them after six years of menial and insecure labor, so that they can pursue higher education and better jobs.

Freeing the oppressed resident aliens in America is not only the right thing to do, but the religious thing to do. The Bible repeatedly warns us not to “oppress the stranger”, i.e. resident alien.6 What can ordinary citizens do to free “illegal aliens” from annot? We can keep letting our elected officials know that all shackles are wicked, and that everyone deserves freedom and equality—and therefore legal status in their own country, the country where they have lived for years.

That is when you call and God answers,

            you cry out and [God] says, Here I am:

When you banish the human yoke,

            the pointed finger, and unjust speech. (Isaiah 58:9)

  1. Modern scholars agree that chapters 1-39 of the book of Isaiah were written in the 8th century B.C.E., when the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. Chapters 40-66 are dated to either the 6th century B.C.E., during the Babylonian exile of the prominent families of Judah, or the 5th century, after the Persian Empire had swallowed the Babylonian Empire and given Jews permission to return to Jerusalem and build the second temple.
  2. Leviticus 25:35-37. See my post Mishpatim and Psalms 39 & 119: Foreigners.
  3. Deuteronomy 15:12-13. See my post Haftarat Mishpatim—Jeremiah: False Freedom.
  4. Deuteronomy 21:10-14. See my post Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 1.
  5. Exodus 23:12 for Shabbat. Similar laws are given for each festival day when it is ordered.
  6. Exodus 22:21, 23:9; Deuteronomy 24:17, 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6, 22:3; Zechariah 7:10.

 

Ha-azinu: A Hovering Bird

September 18, 2017 at 10:55 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Ha-azinu | Leave a comment

Might God help us learn to fly?

This Shabbat, the one between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we read Ha-azinu (Use your ears). Most of the Torah portion is a long poem predicting that even though that God brought the Israelites up from Egypt and protected them, God’s people will continue to do wrong and worship other gods. At one point, Ha-azinu compares God to an eagle teaching its fledglings to fly.

Like an eagle1 [God] rouses Its nest;

Over Its fledglings yeracheif.

It spreads out Its wings, It takes one;

It carries it up on Its wings.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:11)

yeracheif (יְרַחֵף) = it hovers like a bird. (A form of the verb rachaf, רָחַף = flutter like a bird.)

This verse may describe a parent eagle hovering nearby while its young are practicing short flights. If an eaglet falls, the parent swoops under it and catches the fledgling on its own wings. (Eaglets usually learn to fly without assistance. Yet this type of parental rescue has been observed in our own time with golden eagles.)

The verb rachaf occurs only three times in the Bible: here, in the book of Jeremiah, and in the book of Genesis. Jeremiah describes his anguish over the false prophets in Jerusalem this way:

My heart is broken inside me.

            All my bones rachafu.

            I have become like a drunken man,

            Like a strong man who passed through wine. (Jeremiah 23:9)

rachafu (רָחֲפוּ) = they tremble, flutter.

Jeremiah uses a form2 of the verb rachaf  to show that he is so overwhelmed, the bones that are normally stiff enough to hold him up are fluttering, trembling, unreliable.

Golden eagle

But when the verb rachaf  refers to God, it is in a form3 that means hovering. Near the end of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God hovers like a parent ready to rescue young birds learning to fly.

In a few weeks, on Simchat Torah, Jewish congregations around the world will read the last lines of Deuteronomy, then roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning and read about the creation of the universe in Genesis/Bereishit.

In a beginning God created the heavens and the earth. But the earth was a vacancy and a void and a darkness over the face of the deep, and the wind of God merachefet over the face of the waters. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1-2)

merachefet (מְרַחֶפֶת) = was hovering (like a bird).

Before God even speaks light into being, the wind or spirit of God is hovering over the face of the water and darkness.  It seems as though God is watching, waiting to see if something will rise up, evolve on its own initiative.  When nothing arises, God has to take the next step and say “Let there be light”.

In this week’s Torah portion, almost at the end of the cycle of readings, God watches over human beings like a parent bird, waiting to see if we will evolve on our own initiative. If we are like eaglets, at first we simply eat the food (or live the life) that is given to us, without questioning it. Then we experiment, like fledglings flapping from branch to branch. Finally we are roused by ineffable longings, and we attempt to fly out into the blue.

When we get morally confused or mentally tired, we falter and fall. But the Torah says God is hovering over us, and catches us briefly so we can fly again.

This description may be true for people who feel a religious impulse and reach for the divine with open hearts and minds. Their religion can help to inspire awe and gratitude, and it can catch them when they begin to fall.

But all too often, purveyors of religion lose track of where God is. All too often we humans turn our religions into weapons instead of wings.  Then who, or what, will catch us and carry us back up to the light?

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

  1. nesher (נֶשֶׁר) = a general term for any eagle, vulture, or large bird of prey. In this case, the bird’s behavior indicates a golden eagle.
  2. The kal stem.
  3. The pi-el stem.

 

 

Nitzavim: Secret Idolatry

September 14, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Posted in Nitzavim, Yom Kippur | 1 Comment

What happens when you make a solemn promise while secretly planning to betray it?

Moses announces in last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, that as soon as the Israelites cross the Jordan they must enact a ritual in which they all say “amen” to twelve declarations. Each declaration begins “Cursed be the one who—”, but since the people say “amen” at the end of each one, they are actually making covenantal vows. (See my post Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.) Thus the whole community must vow to refrain from secretly worshiping idols, to follow six rules about treating other people ethically, to refrain from sex with beasts, to avoid three kinds of incest, and to uphold the teaching (torah) of God.1

Moses says in this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“taking a stand”) that the vows cover everyone: men, women, children, strangers who joined the Israelites leaving Egypt, and everyone’s future descendants. Then he reminds the people that they vowed to give up all gods except the one God of Israel.

Poison hemlock

What if there is among you a man or a woman or a clan or a tribe whose mind is turning this day away from God, our God, to go serve the gods of those nations?  What if there is a root bearing the fruit of rosh and la-anah? (Deuteronomy/Devarim 29:17)

rosh (רֺאשׁ) = poison—sometimes from a plant (perhaps poison hemlock, a highly toxic plant different from a hemlock tree), sometimes from snake venom.2

Wormwood in bloom

la-anah (לַעֲנָה) = wormwood (Artemisia absinthium): a plant used to add a bitter flavor to drinks. (Excess doses of wormwood cause convulsions.)

People who swear fealty to one God while secretly resolving to serve other gods are compared to roots hidden in the ground that inevitably grow into like rosh and la-anah.3 People living a lie may believe they are safe, but their deeds will result in bitterness and poison, for them and the people around them.

And it might be, when one hears the words of this curse, then one will call oneself blessed in one’s mind, saying: “All will be well with me, even though I go with the stubbornness of my mind”—with regard to sefot the drenched with the dry.  (Deuteronomy 29:18)

sefot (סְפוֹת) = sweeping away, destroying; or sweeping together, heaping up. (Either kind of sweeping is a prelude to doom in at least 17 of the 20 times a form of this verb appears in the Hebrew Bible.)

Drenched?

Again the Torah uses vivid language to bring the warning to life, though the phrase “with regard to sefot the drenched with the dry” is more ambiguous. One interpretation is that God punishes all the misdeeds of secret idolaters harshly: the inadvertent misdeeds they do out of carelessness, as if they were drunk (drenched) swept together with the deliberate misdeeds they commit because they are thirsty (dry), i.e. craving the forbidden thing.4

Another is that the clandestine idolaters (the dry) expect to live well by freeloading on the virtues of others (the drenched); they assume that if the community in general is honest and good, God will not single them out for punishment.5

One can also read the verse as a warning that when secret idolaters anger God, God is likely to sweep away everyone, the drenched along with the dry. By any interpretation, all will not be well with the idolater.

God will not be willing to forgive him. For that is when God’s nose will smoke, and [God] will be zealous against that man, and these bad results written in this book will crouch down over him, and [God] will wipe out his name from under the heavens. And [God] will separate him out from all the tribes of Israel for misfortune, according to all the oaths of the covenant in the book of this Torah. (Deuteronomy 29:19-20)

Moses then predicts two misfortunes: an increase in diseases, and devastation of the land belonging to the individual, clan, or tribe that continues worshiping idols despite the covenant with God.

Today we see an increase in devastation of land all over the world, since our air pollution is changing climates and causing bigger storms and floods and forest fires (and this is just the tip of the melting iceberg). But although many countries have laws limiting pollution somewhat, humans are barely beginning to consider a covenant requiring everyone to serve the health of our God-given planet. And there is nothing secret about the thirst for more money and power that leads people with authority to ignore pollution.

But the warning in the portion Nitzavim also applies to millions of individual vows: oaths of office, business contracts, marriage vows and promises to partners, public moral standards for authorities. All too often people deliberately violate these vows, reassuring themselves that no one will find out.

Do these secret sins lead to rosh and la-anah, poison and bitterness?

I believe the answer is yes. Human beings (apart from the rare amoral sociopath) have a built-in desire for integrity. We want family, friends, and leaders we can trust to be honest, trust to be who they appear to be. We want to be trustworthy ourselves.

And we are also thirsty for sensual delights, addictions, luxuries, power, fame, even the thrill of getting away with something.

When we discover someone has fooled us with a false front we feel outraged, then bitter. We can go into denial, but consciously or unconsciously we will abandon or otherwise punish the one who betrayed us.

The secret sinner can also go into denial, saying “All will be well with meor “It’s not really my fault” or “Just one more time”. But even before anyone uncovers the lie, the liar lives with a nagging guilt, a betrayal of the divine will within, a poison that seeps through the wall of denial.

This week’s Torah portion gives hope to all of us who pretend to be saintly, but secretly serve the “gods” we promised to avoid.  Moses says:

And you will turn back to God, your god, and you will listen to [God’s] voice as everything that I commanded you this day, you and your children, with all your mind and with all your soul. Then God, your god, will turn around your condition and have compassion on you… (Deuteronomy 30:2-3)

We can stop and do teshuvah, returning to God, turning back to the right path. One can do teshuvah at any time, but we Jews also dedicate the month before Rosh Hashanah (Elul) and the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to examining our behavior during the past year, apologizing to people we have harmed, correcting what we can, and turning back to God. This is a time to recognize and atone for the vows you have secretly broken. This is a time to repent and make honest vows to the divine within.

May we all face ourselves and the divine voice within. May we all turn around and become whole.

  1. Deuteronomy 27:11-26. Joshua 24:1-28 reports that a version of this ceremony was carried out at Shechem, the location of the two hills (Mount Gerezim and Mount Ebal) that Moses specified in Deuteronomy.
  2. Rosh (רֺאשׁ) = poison and rosh (רֺאשׁ) = head are spelled the same way, but the two words are merely homonyms.
  3. The pairing of rosh and la-anah is a Biblical idiom also used in Amos 6:11-12, Jeremiah 9:13-14 and 23:15, and Lamentations 3:19-20. In these instances, God punishes the two Israelite kingdoms for worshiping other gods by letting invading armies conquer them; metaphorically, God is feeding them la-anah and making them drink water of rosh.
  4. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yistchaki) cites Onkelos in this interpretation.
  5. “Though God may have no intention of watering him with the bounty of His blessings, he must willy-nilly enjoy them as part of the community which receives them. The phrase ‘I shall have peace’ implies therefore two things: (1) the excluding himself from the community in respect of entering into the covenant and the curses; (2) saving himself from retribution because he is part of the community. (Akedat Yizhak)” (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim, translated by Aryeh Newman, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1980, p. 306)

Ki Tavo & Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 2

September 5, 2017 at 6:36 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo, Ki Teitzei, Yitro | 1 Comment

A person’s inner state and outer garment should match, according to the Torah.

And God said to Moses: Go to the people and consecrate them, today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their semalot. Then they shall be ready for the third day, for on the third day God is coming down before the eyes of all the people on Mount Sinai. (Exodus/Shemot 19:10-11)

semalot (שְׂמָלוֹת) = plural of simlah (שִׂמְלַה) = a long, loose outer garment resembling a caftan or cloak. (A variant spelling is salmah (שַׂלְמָה), plural salmot (שַׂלְמֹת).)

If you are consecrated, made holy enough to behold God, then your simlah must also be purified. Although men remove their semalot to do physical labor, stripping down to a less bulky garment underneath, the Israelites in the Bible wear their semalot for public appearances, as well as for protection from wind, sun, and rain. At night one’s simlah serves as a blanket.

Three of the laws in last week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, assume every individual has the right to a simlah. Even an impoverished debtor and a captive of war must be allowed to sleep in their semalot. Depriving someone of a simlah would not only expose them to the elements, but deprive them of human dignity. (See my post Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 1.)

Two other laws in the portion Ki Teitzei (4 and 5 below) show how a simlah can reveal something about the essential nature of the person who wears it. And this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you enter”), ends with miraculous semalot that reveal the nature of humankind.

  1. Abominable or godly?

One of the laws about the simlah in Ki Teitzei has become notorious:

The equipment of a man shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not put on the simlah of a woman, because anyone doing this is to-eivah to God, your God. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:5)

Head of a prince or princess from Ugarit, 13th century B.C.E.

to-eivah (תוֹעֲבַה) = abhorrent, abominable, anathema.

The first clause in this verse may be a reaction against a Canaanite myth (discovered in the ruins of Ugarit) about Paghat, a young woman who wears weapons under her female clothing and sets out to avenge her brother’s murder.1 The Bible frequently denounces Canaanite religions, and the Talmud (Nazir 59a) agrees that the “equipment of a man” consists of weapons of war.

The second clause in the verse may be a reaction against a Canaanite practice in which male temple functionaries cross-dressed and offered themselves as surrogates for gods in homosexual religious acts. According to the Bible, this happened even at the Temple in Jerusalem until King Josiah put an end to it.2

A man wearing a woman’s simlah may be to-eivah because the only men who appeared that way in public were those paid for sexual rituals from another religion—a practice God clearly abhors according to a later law in Ki Teitzei:

No daughter of Israel shall be a female religious prostitute, and no son of Israel shall be a male religious prostitute. You shall not bring into the house of God, your God, the fee of a harlot [female prostitute] or the price of a dog [male prostitute] for any vowed offering, because both of them are to-eivah to God, your God. (Deuteronomy 23:18-19)

Nevertheless, for more than two millennia people have used the law in Ki Teitzei about cross-dressing to promote the traditional gender roles in their own societies. (See my post Ki Teitzei: Crossing Gender Lines.)

Today many people reject the idea that every individual must squeeze into one of two gender roles defined by a particular society. Some individuals in the 21st century C.E. choose apparel that blurs gender lines in order to reveal their own nuanced identities.

In the 7th century B.C.E. kingdom of Judah, a man who wore the simlah of a woman also revealed an essential part of his identity: he was dedicated to gods other than the God of Israel, and he served these gods by providing ritual sex for worshipers.

  1. Fraud or honesty?

The remaining law in Ki Teitzei that mentions a simlah is about the virginity of a bride. It begins:

If a man takes a wife and he comes into her, and then he hates her, and he brings charges against her and gives her a bad name, and he says: “I took this woman, and I approached her, but I did not find evidence of virginity in her!”— (Deuteronomy 22:13-14)

Detail of “Hymen” by Marc Chagall

This was a serious charge in ancient Judah. A marriage was a contracted alliance between two households. The legal contract included the dowry paid to the groom’s household, and the bride-price paid to the bride’s household. When the bride and groom had intercourse, the marriage was completed. The bride (but not the groom) was expected to be a virgin (unless the contract stipulated otherwise).

So if a man claimed, after the wedding, that his bride was not a virgin, he was not only defaming her and her parents, but also suing her family for contract fraud. If the village elders ruled in his favor, he got a divorce, the bride (if she was permitted to live4) became unmarriageable, and the bride’s father had to return the bride-price to the groom. The grooms’ household, on the other hand, got to keep the dowry, the bride price, and the family’s good name.3

What if a groom tells a lie in order to get a divorce with a lucrative financial settlement? Then, according to Ki Teitzei, the bride’s parents should bring “evidence of the girl’s virginity” to the elders sitting as judges, and the bride’s father should say:

“But this is evidence of the virginity of my daughter!” And they shall spread the simlah before the elders of the town. (Deuteronomy 22:17)

The evidence is the simlah the bride wore on her wedding night. When the couple goes to bed, she lies on top of her own simlah—and leaves a bloodstain if her hymen breaks.

In much of the ancient Near East, a bride’s parents collected her wedding simlah the morning after—just in case they would need to display it.

The law in Ki Teitzei affirms that a bloodstained simlah is evidence of virginity, and punishes the lying husband. He is flogged; he pays 100 shekels of silver to the bride’s father (to compensate for impugning his honor); and he may never divorce the bride.

The good name of the bride’s family is restored. The bride herself at least has the consolation of a salvaged reputation and a guaranteed home (even if she might prefer to be the property of a different man).

Thus the condition of the bride’s simlah proves something about her character: she was honest when she affirmed she was a virgin.

  1. Natural or miraculous?

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses quotes God:

“And I led you forty years through the wilderness. Your salmot did not wear out upon you, and your sandal did not wear out upon your foot. Bread you did not eat, and wine or alcohol you did not drink, so that you would know that I, God, am your God.” (Deuteronomy 29:4-5)

During their 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites did not need to grow grain and grind it into flour; manna miraculously appeared every morning. They did not need to cultivate grapes and make wine; God provided fresh drinking water in the desert. They did not need to make leather for sandals, or weave cloth for semalot; God continuously renewed their clothing.5

Instead, the Israelite women wove cloth to make God’s sanctuary. All the weavers were generous volunteers.6  And God generously volunteered the small miracles that kept the people clothed and fed. All God wanted was acknowledgement “he” was their god.

The Israelites in the books of Exodus and Numbers did praise God for saving them at the Reed Sea and for giving them victories in battles. But in ordinary daily life, they complained about the food, were impatient when they ran out of water, and did not even notice the condition of their semalot.

Moses introduces God’s words at the end of Ki Tavo by saying:

But God did not give you a mind to know, or eyes to see, or ears to hear, until this day. (Deuteronomy 29:3)

Only at the end of 40 years in the wilderness to the people notice God’s daily generosity.

The portrayal of God’s character must be taken with a grain of salt. The Torah sometimes portrays God as a patient parent, sometimes as an angry mass murderer. This is the result of trying to explain everything in terms of an anthropomorphic god.

Yet the passage at the end of Ki Tavo does offer insight into the character of human beings. Human nature takes good situations for granted—until we are deprived of them, or until we grow wise enough to see how fragile our lives are. To find that wisdom—a mind to know, eyes to see, ears to hear—might take 40 years. And we cannot force ourselves to become wise.  It comes as a gift.

  1. She emerges, dons a youth’s raiment, puts a k[nife] in her sheath. A sword she puts in her scabbard, and over all dons woman’s garb. (“The Tale of Aqhat”, The Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, by James B. Pritchard, Princeton Univ. Press, 1958, p. 132)
  2. And he smashed the houses of the male religious prostitutes that were inside the house of God, where the women wove fabrics for Asherah. (2 Kings 23:7).  The book of Deuteronomy was probably written during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 B.C.E.), and encouraged his campaign to wipe out the practice of other religions in Judah.
  3. Victor H. Matthews & Don C. Benjamin, Social world of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BCE, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass., 1993, p. 127-128.
  4. But if this charge is true, evidence of the girl’s virginity was not found, then they shall bring the girl out to the entrance of her father’s house, and the men of the town shall stone her with stones. And she will die because she did a serious offense in Israel, fornicating in the house of her father. (Deuteronomy 22:20-21)
  5. Deuteronomy 8:2-6 and Nehemiah 9:20-21 report similar miracles. (See my post Eikev: Not by Bread Alone.)
  6. Exodus 35:20-29.

Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 1

August 30, 2017 at 6:37 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei | 3 Comments

If he is a man overwhelmed by poverty, you must not lie down with his pledge. You must definitely return the pledge to him when the sun sets, and he shall lie down in his salmah, and he will bless you, and you will be righteous before God, your God. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 24:12-13)

Semites, tomb of Knumhotep II, painted circa 1900 BCE

simlah (שִׂמְלַה) or salmah (שַׂלְמָה) = a long, loose outer garment resembling a caftan or cloak (two variant spellings).

The Torah assumes everyone has at least one simlah or salmah. At night one sleeps in a simlah instead of a sheet or blanket. By day one might wear it over other clothes to provide protection from cold, sun, rain, or blowing sand—or to dress formally in public. But a man takes off his simlah to do physical labor.

What does a simlah look like? Around 1900 B.C.E. a simlah was a single rectangular cloth wrapped around the body, leaving one shoulder bare.

Three men from Israel wearing simlahs over tunics; Assyrian relief, 850 BCE

By 640-610 BCE, when most scholars believe the book of Deuteronomy was written, a man’s simlah was an ample cloak or caftan. One common pattern was to sew two long rectangles of cloth together up the back, but leave the front open, and belt the whole thing with a sash.

Assyrian woman, 700 BCE

All we know about a woman’s simlah is that it looked different from a man’s, and that she wore a tunic under it. So far, archaeologists have found neither art nor text describing the clothing of women in Judah. But clothing styles might have imitated those in Assyria, the empire to which Judah paid tribute.

The simlah or salmah appears in five of the laws given in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“If you go out”). In the three laws under discussion in Part 1, the difference between justice and injustice hinges on whether a person gets to be home with his or her personal simlah.

  1. Uncompromising or compassionate?

You must definitely return the pledge to him when the sun sets, and he shall lie down in his salmah(Deuteronomy 24:13)

salmah appears in this excerpt from the passage opening this post as a typical item used by an impoverished man as security for a loan.

The poor had to repay loans with labor. One repayment method was to give a wife or child to the creditor as a temporary slave. Then that family member also served as security for the loan. Another method was for a man to work as a day-laborer for the lender. In this case, he generally gave the lender his simlah as a pledge; he not have any other item of value.

But the lender is obliged to return the cloak every night, so the borrower has something to sleep in.1 He may be impoverished, but he is still a human being with a right to protection from the elements. A minimum level of compassion is a legal part of the justice system.

The verse immediately before the rule about returning a poor man’s salmah at night declares:

If you make a loan to a poor person who gives you something as security, do not enter his house to seize it. Stay outside and let the debtor bring the pledge to you. (Deuteronomy 24:11-12)

And later in the Torah portion, a creditor is forbidden to take any garment belonging to a widow as a pledge.2

Considered together, these laws about pledges for loans assume that all citizens (including temporary slaves) are entitled not only to food, clothing, and shelter, but also to human dignity.

  1. Loot or person?

The requirement for granting human dignity to an impoverished citizen also applies to a woman forcibly brought into the country as a potential wife. The Torah portion Ki Teitzei opens with the instruction:

Women of Midian Led Captive by the Hebrews, by James Tissot

If you go out to battle against your enemies, and God, your God, gives [them] into your hand … and you see among the captives a shapely woman, and you desire her and you would take her as a wife, then you shall bring her inside your house, and she shall shave her head and do her nails and remove the simlah of her captivity. And she shall stay in your house and cry for her father and mother for a month, and afterward you may justly come into her [have intercourse] and you may marry her as a wife. And if you do not like her, then you shall let her go free; you definitely may not sell her for silver, since you have violated her. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 21:10-14)

Female war captives are often raped, enslaved, and/or killed in the Torah. (For example, see my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.) However, this week’s portion prescribes a more humane treatment. The soldier who wants a captive as his concubine must treat her as a mourner; after all, she has lost her parents (either when they were killed or when she was forced to move to another country). He must give her food and shelter in his house as she goes through the rituals of head-shaving, fingernail-trimming, and weeping for a full month. Moreover, he must replace her simlah of captivity.

We can only guess the meaning of “simlah of captivity”. Maybe it is a torn and bloodied garment, the simlah she was wearing when the Israelite soldiers captured her town and dragged off the women. Or maybe she was stripped of her own clothing and given a cheap cloth to wrap herself in.

Either way, the change of clothing is important because when someone wears a captive’s garment, she is seen as a captive, a foreign slave. If she wears other clothing, she can be seen as a person, an individual who will either become a full-fledged wife or be set free.

  1. Finder or keeper?

The Torah portion Ki Teitzei also mentions a simlah as a lost and found item.

You shall not watch an ox or a lamb belonging to your brother [fellow man] going astray, and hide yourself from it; you must definitely return it to your brother.  And if your brother is not in your vicinity, and you do not know him, then you shall hold it inside your house, and it shall be with you until your brother inquires about it. Then you shall return it to him.  And thus you shall do for his donkey, and thus you shall do for his simlah, and thus you shall do for any lost item of your brother’s that goes astray and that you find.  You shall not dare to hide yourself!  (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)

This law defends the right to personal property. If you find a stray farm animal or a simlah, you may neither keep it for yourself nor leave it abandoned. You must guard it until you can return it to the owner, even if you have to wait a long time.

Keeping a stray animal safe includes feeding it, though the Talmud notes that one can also use its labor until the owner shows up.3 I would argue that keeping a simlah safe includes not wearing it yourself. The practical reason would be to avoid tearing it or wearing it out. The psychological reason would be to avoid the appearance of theft or of impersonating the owner of the simlah. Garments are expensive in the Torah. Only kings and their chief advisors could afford large wardrobes. Anyone else might be recognized from a distance by their simlah. Just as you must respect the owner’s personal property, you must respect the owner’s identity and reputation.

These three examples of laws involving a simlah or salmah recognize the rights of people who are otherwise powerless: the impoverished, the war captive, the person who has lost something valuable. The other two examples in the portion Ki Teitzei, about cross-dressing and about a bride’s virginity, are more problematic. I will discuss them in next week’s post, along with the salmah in next week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo.

Meanwhile, may we all be inspired to extend the ethical principle of these three laws in Deuteronomy, and grant every human being the right to respect and dignity, as well as health and safety. May we view all people as if they are wearing their own inviolable simlah.

  1. An earlier version of this law is given in Exodus 22:24-26.
  2. Deuteronomy 24:17. Perhaps it would shame a woman to be seen outside wearing only a tunic, without a simlah.
  3. Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 28b, which also says that the finder of an animal that does no productive work can be sold, and the money set aside to return to the owner whenever the owner is discovered.

 

 

Shoftim: No Goddesses Allowed

August 24, 2017 at 7:06 pm | Posted in Shoftim | 1 Comment
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In beginning, elohim created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1)

elohim (אֱלֺהִים) = gods (plural); one of the names of the God of Israel. (Other common names include the tetragrammaton, El, El Elyon, and El Shaddai.)

How many gods does it take to create the universe? For most of ancient Canaan and Mesopotamia, in the beginning there were two: a father god and a mother goddess, who proceeded to beget additional gods. The universe was dualistic from the start.

But the book of Genesis clarifies that only one God created the universe, without any sexual partner.  God makes all the separations and distinctions, including gender, during the course of this creation. And unlike the gods of other peoples in the Ancient Near East, the God of the Torah demands exclusive loyalty. Anyone who worships God is forbidden to worship any additional gods or goddesses.

God first reveals this at Mount Sinai, with the commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an idol or any image of what is in the heavens above or what is in the earth below on what is in the water below the earth. You shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them. Because I, God, your elohim, am a jealous eil. (Exodus/Shemot 20:4-5)

eil, El (אֵל) = a god; the father god of Canaanite religion; the God of Israel.

Matzeivah at Gezer

Worshiping an idol is equated in the Bible with worshiping the god that the idol represents. In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), Moses orders the Israelites:

You must not plant for yourself an asherah of any wood next to the altar of God, your elohim, that you shall make for yourself. And you must not erect for yourself a matzeivah which God, your elohim, hates. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:21-22)

asherah (אֲשֵׁרָה) = the mother goddess of Canaanite and Phoenician religions (called Ishtar in Akkadian and Inanna in Sumerian); a carved wooden post representing this goddess. (Plural: asherim, אֲשֵׁרִים.)

matzeivah (מַצֵבָה) = a standing stone used as a marker, or as an image representing a god. (Plural: matzeivot, מַצֵּבֺת.)

Clay figurines from Judah

Although very few wooden artifacts have survived the millennia in Israel, archaeologists have unearthed numerous small clay figurines in ancient Judah that may have been modeled after large wood asherim.1

All asherim are forbidden in the Bible, but not every matzeivah is. Standing stones that mark graves, boundaries, covenants, or great events are acceptable.2 So are the standing stones Jacob erects for God and anoints with oil.3 The matzeivot that God hates are the standing stones that people bowed to and anointed in order to worship a different god.

Asherim and matzeivot are mentioned together in eleven biblical passages.4 These wood and stone vertical idols were erected at the shrines of other gods—and even, at times, inside the temple of the God of Israel in Jerusalem.5 Thus when people came to a shrine or, during the reigns of more permissive kings, to a temple of God, they also acknowledged the divine power of the gods represented by the asherah and the matzeivah.

Who were the gods behind these two ubiquitous types of idols?

Asherah from Ugarit

The religion of Canaan (later known as Phoenicia) had a founding pair of gods who mated and produced 70 more gods. The father god was named El. In a long poem from Ugarit in northern Canaan6, El is associated with the bull, and holds court in a field at the source of two rivers. The mother goddess was named Asherah or Atirat, and was associated with the seashore, stars, fertility, and trees.

El and Asherah’s most important son was Baal, the weather god. In the Ugaritic poem, Baal asks Asherah to ask El for permission to build a palace on Mount Tzafon and hold court there. Both parents give permission, thus making Baal the ruler over all his sibling gods and goddesses. In other Canaanite stories, Asherah and her son Baal are a sexual pair.

Baal from Ugarit

An asherah represented the mother goddess Asherah. A matzeivah probably represented her son and lover Baal, since Canaanite rituals focused on the pairing of Asherah and Baal, not Asherah and El.7 Most biblical references to matzeivot do not specify the god; the only exceptions are Jacob’s matzeivot for God in the book of Genesis, and two matzeivot of Baal in the second book of Kings.8

The first time the Israelites are told to destroy asherim and matzeivot is in the book of Exodus:

For their altars you shall tear down and their matzeivot you shall shatter and their asherim you shall cut down (34:13); because you must not bow down to another eil, because God is jealous of “his” name; a jealous eil is “he”. (Exodus 34:14)

The Torah consistently uses masculine pronouns and conjugations to refer to its asexual God. Hebrew is a gendered language, in which even inanimate objects and abstract concepts are assigned genders, so the masculine gender is often arbitrary. But it may not be so arbitrary in the case of God.

In the Torah the head of a household is a man, who is entitled to complete obedience from his wife and adult children as well as his slaves. God is often described in the first five books of the Bible as a demanding father, and in the books of the Prophets as the husband of the Israelites, who collectively take the role of God’s unfaithful wife.

Canaanite and Mesopotamian religions had both priestesses and priests; the Israelites had only priests. In other Canaanite and Mesopotamian cultures, women could also own land, make contracts, and initiate divorce. The Israelites reserved these privileges for men.

Is the biblical condemnation of goddesses, including both Asherah and the later goddess Ashtoret, “Queen of the Heavens”9, a result of this discrimination against women?

Or is it merely part of the condemnation of all gods other than the one God, a condemnation that includes the worship of matzeivot as well as asherim?

Complete dedication to a single god does have an advantage. If you begin with two gods, male and female, you can certainly understand our universe of separations and distinctions. But it might be hard to grasp that everything is part of a whole.  Beginning with a single god who creates all the separations and distinctions makes it easier to transcend dualism and get an inkling of the underlying unity of everything.

For me, as for many human beings, it is hard to keep remembering that we are interconnected parts of the whole, and that the whole means more than the sum of its parts.  It is hard to keep returning to any sort of God-consciousness.

So I agree with the Torah portion Shoftim that we should not plant any goddess-posts or god-stones. What we need is a new pronoun and some new metaphors for God.

  1. See Aaron Greener’s essay What Are Clay Female Figurines Doing in Judah during the Biblical Period?, published on thetorah.com.
  2. Jacob marks Rachel’s grave (Genesis 35:20) and his boundary pact with Lavan (Genesis 31:45-52) with matzeivot. Moses erects twelve matzeivot for the twelve tribes around an altar for a ceremonial covenant between the Israelites and God (Exodus 24:4). Joshua erects twelve standing stones in a circle at Gilgal to commemorate the crossing of the Jordan River (Joshua 4:1-9, 4:19-24).
  3. Genesis 8:18, 28:22, 31:13, and 35:14.
  4. Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 7:5, 12:13, and 16:21-22; 1 Kings 4:23; 2 Kings 17:10, 18:4, and 23:13-14; Micah 5:12; 2 Chronicles 14:2 and 31:1.
  5. King Hezekiah shatters matzeivot in the Jerusalem Temple in 2 Kings 18:4. King Menashe erects an asherah in the Temple in 2 Kings 21:7. King Josiah removes all the objects made for Asherah and Baal from the Temple and burns them in 2 Kings 23:4-6.
  6. Translated by H.L. Ginsberg in The Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, edited by James B. Pritchard, Princeton University Press, 1958.
  7. Similarly, in the annual fertility rituals of Mesopotamia to the east, a high priestess embodying Asherah (called Inana or Ishtar in that region) has sexual intercourse with the city’s king, who embodies Asherah’s son Baal (called Tammuz or Dumuzi there).
  8. 2 Kings 3:2 and 10:26-27.
  9. Ashtoret, originally one of the daughters of Asherah and El, replaced Asherah as the primary goddess in the region of Canaan during the 6th century B.C.E. The worship of Ashtoret is denounced in Judges 2:13 and 10:6, 1 Samuel 7:4 and 12:10, 1 Kings 11:5, and 2 Kings 23:13. Israelite women worship the “Queen of the Heavens”, one of the titles of Ashtoret, in Jeremiah 7:18 and 44:15-18.
  10. 1 Samuel 28:3-20.

 

Re-eih & Acharey Mot: The Soul in the Blood

August 17, 2017 at 11:55 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Re-eih | 1 Comment
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Only the blood you must not eat! (Deuteronomy/Devarim 12:16)

Eight times the Torah commands people not to eat an animal’s blood: once in the book of Genesis/Bereishit when God tells Noah that humans may now eat meat; five times in Leviticus/Vayikra; and twice in Deuteronomy/Devarim.1

We learn in this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See”), that the temptation to eat blood is hard for the Israelites to resist.

Only be strong, do not eat the blood! Because the blood is the nefesh, and you must not eat the nefesh with the basar. (Deuteronomy 12:23)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = animating soul, vital force; mood, appetite, desire; individual; throat. (This word applies to both humans and other animals.)2

basar (בָּשָׂר) = flesh, meat, soft tissue.  (This word also applies to both humans and other animals.)

Of course there is some blood in all soft tissue. Talmudic law on slaughtering explains that the forbidden blood is the arterial blood that spurts out when the animal is killed, because the animal dies when it loses this life-blood.3 In the Torah, eating an animal’s life-blood would mean eating its soul.

We can deduce that this would be a powerful act of magic. One clue appears in the portion Acharei Mot in Leviticus, when God commands that the Israelites may no longer slaughter livestock in the open field, but must now do it on the altar at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, God’s portable sanctuary.

And the priest shall sprinkle the blood on the altar of God at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and he shall make the fat go up in smoke as a soothing fragrance for God. And they must no longer slaughter their slaughter-offerings for the goat demons they go whoring after. (Leviticus/Vayikra 17:6-7)

There must have been a ritual in another religion involving animal slaughter, blood, and goat-demons.4 Later in Leviticus, You must not eat over the blood (Leviticus 19:26) heads a list of Canaanite ritual practices to avoid. Maimonides explained that some people ate a meal sitting around a basin of blood, on the assumption that invisible spirits would join them to eat the blood.5 Summoning spirits is prohibited in the next item on the list: You must not do sorcery.

Although eating blood and eating over an animal’s blood are both forbidden, animal blood is featured in two magical rituals in the Bible. In the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses instructs the Israelites in Egypt to slaughter a lamb or kid on the evening of Passover, and splash some of the blood on their doorposts and lintels as a signal to God to skip over their houses during the plague of the death of the firstborn (Exodus 12:7 and 12:21-23). In Leviticus, someone who recovers from the skin disease tzara-at cannot enter the precincts of the sanctuary until a priest has performed a ritual that includes dipping a live bird into the blood of a slaughtered bird (Leviticus 14:1-7).

Blood for God

The blood of an animal slaughtered as an offering to God is sacred in the Torah. New priests are ordained when this blood is daubed on their right ears, thumbs, and big toes and sprinkled on their vestments (Exodus 29:19-21). The Torah portion Acharey Mot decrees that once a year, on Yom Kippur, the high priest must enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed bull and a goat on the ark itself in order to purge any spiritual impurity from human transgressions over the past year (Leviticus 16:11-15).

Every time an animal is slaughtered on the altar in front of the sanctuary, some of it must always be daubed on the horns of the altar and/or splashed on its sides. This sanctifies the blood, i.e. the nefesh, of the animal to God. But before the animal is slaughtered, the donor lays his hands on the animal’s head, symbolically transferring some of his identity to the animal. Thus when the priest splashes its blood on the altar, he is dedicating the donor’s own nefesh to God.

Because the nefesh of the basar is in the blood, and I myself give it to you on the altar to atone for your nefesh … (Leviticus 17:11)

The Torah portion Acharey Mot insists that every time people slaughter their livestock, they must bring the animals to the altar in front of the sanctuary, so the priests can dedicate each animal’s nefesh to God.

Anyone from the House of Israel who slaughters a bull or a sheep or a goat in the camp, or who slaughters it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to offer it as an offering to God in front of God’s resting-place, it will be considered blood that man has shed, and that man will be cut off from his people. (Leviticus 17:3-4)

In other words, failing to offer the animal at the altar is equated with manslaughter. According to the Torah, the only difference in the Torah between humans and other red-blooded animals is the human mind. The nefesh is the same. And an animal you have raised is identified with you, even if you do not lay your hands on it at the altar.

Blood to Cover Up

In Leviticus, the only animals one may slaughter without bringing them to the altar are kosher wild animals.

Anyone … who hunts a wild animal or a bird that will feed someone, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with dirt. Because the nefesh of all basar, its blood is its nefesh; and I say to the Children of Israel: The blood of all basar you must not eat … (Leviticus 17:13:14)

Although the animal’s blood cannot be dedicated to God, it must be covered—both to forestall any “eating over the blood”5 and to show respect for the animal’s nefesh.6

Traveling with the ark

The decree restricting livestock slaughtering to God’s altar is reasonable as long as all Israelites live near the sanctuary. This is no problem in the books of Leviticus and Numbers, in which everyone travels through the wilderness with the portable Tent of Meeting. But once the Israelites have spread out and settled around Canaan, there are only two ways they could meet the requirements in Leviticus:

* They could build multiple altars for God. Israelites in the books of Judges, first and second Samuel, and first and second Kings do, in fact, sacrifice livestock to God on makeshift altars in various locations, as well as at the temples at Dan and Samaria in the northern kingdom of Israel, which rival the temple containing the ark in Jerusalem to the south.

* Or they could kill and eat their livestock only on the three pilgrimage festivals, when everyone who is able travels to the central place of worship.7 The rest of the time they could only eat meat from kosher wild animals, which can be slaughtered anywhere.

This week’s Torah portion in Deuteronomy eliminates the option of multiple altars. The portion Re-eih insists that there must be only one holy place for God, and only one legitimate altar.

Re-eih also assumes that the Israelites are not psychologically able to restrict themselves to eating meat from cattle, sheep, or goats only three times a year. So having eliminated both ways to meet the requirements in Leviticus, the Torah portion decrees a new law:

Only wherever your nefesh is craving [meat], you shall slaughter and you shall eat basar according to the blessing that God, your God, gave to you, in all your gates; the ritually pure and the impure shall eat it the way [they eat] the gazelle and the deer. Only the blood you must not eat! On the ground you must pour it out like water. (Deuteronomy 12:15-16)

Pouring blood on the ground and covering it is more respectful that eating it, but it does not treat the animal’s nefesh as sacred the way an offering at the altar does. This is the price of the conviction in Re-eih that a) there must be only one altar for God, and b) people cannot resist eating meat.

Today the price is higher. Treating an animal’s life-blood as sacred would remind us that all life is sacred. But how many people today butcher animals following the rules of Jewish kashrut or Mulsim halal? It is hard to treat an animal’s life as sacred when you receive its meat already cut and wrapped in a package, or already cooked on a plate.

How can we remember that every animal’s nefesh is as holy as our own?

  1. Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 3:17, 7:26, 17:12, 17:14, and 19:26; and Deuteronomy 12:16 and 12:23.
  2. For more on the concept of nefesh, see my posts
    1. Balak: Prophet and Donkey (The nefesh versus the mind)
    2. Korach: Buried Alive (The nefesh after death)
    3. Beha-alatokha & Beshallach: Stomach versus Soul (The nefesh as craving.)
    4. Toledot: To Bless Someone (The nefesh versus the conscious mind.)
    5. Bechukkotai: Sore Throat or Lively Soul (The nefesh as a throat metaphor.)
    6. Omer: Kabbalah of the Defective (The nefesh versus other kinds of souls in kabbalah)
  3. Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 16b, 22b, and Keritot 22a.
  4. The word seirim (שְׂעִירִים) usually means “hairy goats”, but it can also mean “goat demons” or “fearsome ones”. Many scholars have suggested that the Yom Kippur ritual in the same Torah portion, in which one goat is sacrificed to God and the second goat is sent off to Azazel, is a concession to the worship of a goat demon. Isaiah prophecies that God will destroy Edom, and the ruins will be inhabited by various wild birds and beasts and two kinds of demons: goat demons and Lilith (Isaiah 34:14). The second book of Chronicles reports disapprovingly that when the northern kingdom of Israel seceded from Judah, their first king, Jereboam, appointed for himself priests for the high shrines and for the goat demons and for the calves that he had made. (2 Chronicles 1:15) Rambam (12th century Rabbi Moses ben Maimon or Maimonides) wrote that some sects of Sabeans worshiped demons who took the form of goats (Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, 3:46).
  5. Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, 3:46, covers both eating over the blood and covering the blood with dirt instead.
  6. “The blood of wild animals and fowl is to be covered with earth out of respect for the soul, just as we are commanded to bury a human corpse out of respect for the dead person.” (Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, translated by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, New York, 1992, p. 191.)
  7. During the centuries covered by the books of Joshua through 2 Samuel, the sanctuary containing the ark was set up in Gilgal, then in Shiloh, then in Beit-El, then back to Shiloh, and finally in Jerusalem, where it remained until the Babylonians destroyed the city in 587 B.C.E. The part of Deuteronomy including the Torah portion Re-eih was probably written in the 7th century B.C.E., when King Josiah was centralizing religious worship in Jerusalem.

 

 

 

Eikev: No Satisfaction

August 9, 2017 at 8:00 pm | Posted in Eikev | 2 Comments
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If you really heed My commandments that I am commanding you this day, to love God, your God, and to serve [God] with all your mind and with all your body, then I will grant rain … and you will gather in your grain and your grapes and your olive oil, and you will eat, vesavata. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:13-15)

vesavata (וְשָׂבָעְתָּ) = and you will be saveia. saveia (שָׂבֵעַ) = satisfied, full, sated, surfeited. (The Hebrew Bible uses forms of these words equally in regard to food, and in regard to other things that are enough—or too much.)

The above promise from this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“On the heels of”), is part of both morning and evening Jewish prayer services to this day. (See my post Eikev: Reward and Punishment.) Reading or reciting these lines can be unnerving. What if we are not completely devoted to God all the time?  Can we still get enough food?

The Torah answers that the important thing is to avoid being devoted to other gods.

Guard yourselves, lest your mind deceive itself, and you turn away and you serve other gods and bow down to them. Then the anger of God will blaze against you, and [God] will shut up the heavens and it will never rain and the ground will not grant its produce, and you will quickly be lost from upon the good land that God is giving to you. (Deuteronomy 11:16-17)

So serving only God means that it will rain and we will have plenty of food—or, at another level, that we will be saveia, satisfied. Serving other gods means that it stop raining and we will starve—or, at another level, that we will never be saveia.

The word vesavata appears two other times in this week’s Torah portion. Moses tells the Israelites that God is bringing them to a well-watered land full of wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, olives, honey, iron, and copper—all the raw materials they could want.

And you will eat, vesavata, and you will bless God, your God, concerning the good land that [God] has given to you. (Deuteronomy 8:10)

The Talmud cites this verse as the foundation for the Jewish tradition of saying blessings both before and after meals (Berachot 48b). These blessings express gratitude to God for blessing us with abundance.

But blessing God is only one requirement; we must also observe all of God’s rules.

Watch out, lest you forget God, so that you do not observe [God’s] commandments and laws and decrees that I command you today; lest you eat, vesavata, and you build good houses and you live in them, and your herds and your flocks increase, and your silver and gold increase, and everything you have increases—but your mind becomes haughty and you forget God, your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  (Deuteronomy 8:11-14)

As long as our prosperity is increasing, we feel satisfied even as we are forgetting God. It is not just the American dream to move up to a better house, eat better food, and get more money to buy whatever we want. Everyone enjoys luxury, at least as long as it does not mean giving up something else we cherish.

This week’s Torah portion warns the Israelites to remember that God is the source of their new wealth, and to respond with prayer (blessing God), love, and the service of following God’s rules. If they forget God, they will lose something: their food (Deuteronomy 11:17), their land (8:10), or their lives (11:17).

When Deuteronomy was written, perhaps around 2,650 years ago1, the Israelites were in danger of attributing their material blessings to Canaanite or Mesopotamian fertility gods.  Today, we might mistakenly attribute an abundance of food to the agrochemical industry, or to capitalism, or to some other system humans invented and now treat as sacred. Alternatively, we might make the pursuit of wealth our god.

While we serve these “gods” we continue to eat, but we are no longer satisfied. While our bodies get a surfeit of calories, our minds sense that something is missing. Our stomachs are full, but our souls are empty. What we lack is gratitude, love, and service to our own God—whether “God” means the mystery of oneness, the beauty and purpose of the universe, or the highest ethical ideal.

If you have fallen into worshiping the god of money, you can save yourself. Practice gratitude, and look for occasions to give thanks. Instead of waiting for love to arise, act lovingly toward other people, and practice feeling love for those close to you.  Remember to ask yourself throughout the day: Am I about to do something easy or self-indulgent? Or something good?

Whoever is in awe of God has life;

And he will stay savea;

He will not be called up for misfortune. (Proverbs 19:23)

  1. One theory is that most of the book of Deuteronomy was written during the reign of King Josiah of Judah, 640-609 B.C.E. In 2 Kings 22:3-13, the high priest Chilkiyahu gives King Josiah (Yoshiyahu) a “book of law” he has “discovered” while renovating the temple in Jerusalem. (Two scholars who agree on the dating of Deuteronomy, though they disagree on the dating of other strands in the Torah, are Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 2003, p. 24-26; Israel Knohl, The Divine Symphony, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2003, p. 155.)

1 Samuel: How to Stop a Plague, Part 4

August 3, 2017 at 12:37 am | Posted in Bo, Samuel 1 | 1 Comment
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One mageifah is upon all [of you]and your princes! (1 Samuel 6:4)

mageifah (מַגֵפָה) = plague, epidemic, pestilence. (Plural = mageifot.)

Angry gods cause epidemics. This was the obvious to writers in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Canaan several thousand years ago, long before the germ theory of disease. The best way to stop a plague or epidemic was to determine which god was responsible, and then appease that god.

My last three posts on “How to Stop a Plague”1 concern an epidemic caused by the jealous rage of the God of Israel when “His” people are unfaithful to “Him” and worship a god named Baal Peor. The plague kills 24,000 Israelites before Pinchas halts it with an act that shocks the God-character out of “His” uncontrolled anger.2 This plague begins in the Torah portion Balak, but the repercussions continue through this week’s portion, Va-etchannan.

The God-character also kills thousands of Israelites with plagues after they worship the Golden Calf3, after they complain about the food God provided4, after they complain that God killed the 250 rebels led by Korach5, and after God becomes angry with the Israelites for some unreported reason and tells King David to order a census.6  In all of these cases, the plague is a direct result of God’s rage.

However, when the God of Israel afflicts other peoples with epidemics, “He” is offended, but calm. The God-character uses plagues to make the foreigners acknowledge the superior power of God and do the Israelites a favor. Once those objectives have been met, God simply stops the plague.

Pharoah Merneptah

In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God creates ten miraculous disasters in Egypt, two of which are infectious plagues.7 Yet the Pharaoh keeps refusing to do what the God of Israel wants. After the second epidemic, God orders Moses to tell the Pharaoh:

…Thus says God, God of the Hebrews: Let My people go so they may serve Me. Because this time I am sending all My mageifot to you and to your courtiers and to your people, so that you shall know that there is none like Me in all the world. (Exodus/Shemot 9:13-14)

Only after the tenth miracle, the overnight death of the firstborn, does the Pharaoh admit God’s superior power and free the Israelite slaves.

*

The Philistines are more rational when the God of Israel afflicts them with a plague.

The problem begins when the Philistines take God’s most sacred object, the ark of the covenant. Israelite soldiers in the first book of Samuel unwisely bring the ark with them from the sanctuary at Shiloh onto the battleground at Even Ha-eizer, hoping that the magic of its presence will give them victory. It does not; God wants “His” ark in a sanctuary, not on a battlefield.

Dagon

And the Philistines took the ark of God, and they brought it from Even Ha-eizer to Ashdod. And the Philistines took the ark of God and they brought it into the House of Dagon, and they placed it beside Dagon. (1 Samuel 5:1-2)

The next morning, the priests of Ashdod discover that the statue of their own chief god, Dagon, has fallen face-down in front of the ark. The second morning, the statue of Dagon has fallen again, and its head and hands are cut off. Naturally, the shocked Philistines move the ark out of the sanctuary and into a field.

Then the hand of God was heavy on the Ashdodites, and He devastated them, and He struck down Ashdod and her territory with ofalim. (1 Samuel 5:6)

ofalim (עֳפָלִים) = probably buboes—lymph nodes swollen to the size of chicken eggs due to the bubonic plague—in the groin area. (According to the Masoretic text, when this chapter is read out loud, the word ofalim is replaced with techorim (טְחֺררִים) = hemorrhoids or anal abscesses. Techorim was considered a more polite word to say in public.)

The people of Ashdod send the ark off to another Philistine city, Geit.

The ark journeys from Shiloh to Beit Shemesh in six stages

…and the hand of God was on the city, a very great panic, and the people of the town from young to old had ofalim in their secret parts. So they sent the ark of God to Ekron… (1 Samuel 5:9-10)

The people of Ekron protest even before they start dying of the bubonic plague, and the princes of all five Philistine city-states meet there to decide what to do. Philistine priests and diviners urge them to send the ark back to Israelite territory, along with a guilt-offering, in the hope that then the God of Israel will stop the plague and heal the survivors.

And they [the princes and the Ekronites] said: “What is the guilt-offering that we should send back to Him?” And they [the priests] said: “The number of princes of Philistine is five. Five golden ofalim and five golden rats—for one mageifah is upon all [of you]and your princes! So you must make images of your ofalim and images of your rats that are destroying the land, and you must give honor to the God of Israel. Perhaps them He will lighten His hand from upon you and from upon your gods and from upon your land.” (1 Samuel 6:4-5.)

The Philistines probably noticed a plethora of dying rats in same areas where humans were afflicted. Today we know that bubonic plague is carried by fleas that bite both rats and humans.

Perhaps the Philistine rulers hesitated to send the golden ark and ten gold statuettes to their enemies the Israelites, because the Philistine priests add:

Why should you harden your heart as Egypt and Pharaoh hardened their heart? Did He not make a fool of them, so they let [the Israelites] go, and off they went? (1 Samuel 6:6)

The five Philistine princes, unlike the Pharaoh, are willing to do whatever will end the plague. Their priests then give instructions that will prove whether the God of Israel is responsible for it. The Philistines must load a cart with the ark and also a box containing the ten gold images. Then they must take two milk cows that have never pulled a plow and separate them from their nursing calves. They must shut up the calves inside, and harness the cows to the cart.

Then you will see: If it [the ark] goes up on the road to its own territory, toward Beit Shemesh, He made this great evil for us. But if not, then we will know that His hand has not touched us; by happenstance it happened to us. (1 Samuel 6:9)

Normally, the two cows would refuse to pull the cart, since they have never been harnessed before. Furthermore, they would try to get back to their calves as soon as their udders were full. Only a divine miracle would make the cows pull the cart to the nearest town in Israelite territory.

And the cows went straight on the road, on the road to Beit Shemesh. On a single highway they kept walking, lowing as they walked, and they veered neither right nor left. And the Philistine princes were walking behind them as far as the border of Beit Shemesh. (1 Samuel 6:12)

The action then switches to the arrival of the cart in Beit Shemesh, but we can assume that God responds by halting the bubonic plague in Philistine. The Bible does not mention it again.

*

Today the prompt administration of antibiotics can cure people of even the bubonic plague. But humans still experience a psychological kind of plague when panic spreads because our neighbors seem like enemies. In the United States today, people have become deeply divided by their anger and fear over the perceived political and moral differences between the left and the right. On each side, we are afraid that our own compatriots will force us to change our way of life, or even let us die.

And on each side, we want to take away things that are sacred to the other side. Unlike the Philistines appropriating the ark, we may not even realize what our “enemies” on the left or right consider sacred.

The people of Ekron get upset when the people of Geit send the ark to their city, yet they neither pick a fight nor pass the ark on to the next city. They call a meeting, get expert advice, and save all the surviving Philistine people by sending off the cart, even though it means giving up some wealth and honor. The five Philistine city-states not only cooperate with each other, but also honor the sacred object of the Israelites, and make a peace offering to the God of their enemies.

May we all become realistic and flexible like the Philistines, rather than hard-hearted like the Pharaoh. May we determine the causes of our own country’s plague, and may we all find the strength to do what we must in order to bring health and peace to all people.

__

1.  Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1; Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2; and Mattot, Va-etchannan, & Isaiah: How to Stop a Plague, Part 3.

2.  Numbers 25:6-8.

3.  Exodus 32:35.

4.  Numbers 11:31-35.

5.  Numbers 17:6-15.

6.  This story is included in the second book of Samuel, although its language and themes do not fit the rest of the book. After King David has followed God’s instructions to order a census of all Israelite men of fighting age, God makes him choose between three punishments for doing so. David chooses a plague, which kills 70,000 Israelites before David stops it with an animal offering (2 Samuel chapter 24).

7.  Ten according to Exodus; see my post Va-eira & Bo; Psalm 78 & Psalm 105: Responding to Miracles. The two plagues are livestock pestilence (dever) and an inflammation with boils (shechin).

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