Vezot Habrakhah: By Mouth

September 26, 2018 at 9:48 pm | Posted in Simchat Torah, Vezot Habrakhah | 1 Comment

On Simchat Torah(“Rejoicing in Torah”) Jews read the end of the Torah scroll, where Deuteronomy/Devarim comes to a close, then roll the scroll all the way back to the beginning and read the opening of Genesis/Bereishit(We also dance with the scroll when it is rolled up and dressed in its cover.)

How does the Torah scroll end?  The final scene in the final Torah portion, Vezot Habrakhah (“And these are the blessings”) is the death of Moses.

The book of Deuteronomy is set in the lowland (below sea level) at the north end of the Dead Sea, where the Israelites are encamped on the east bank of the Jordan River.  Moses speaks at length to the people he has led for 40 years.  Then at the end of the book, following God’s instructions, he climbs Mount Nebo in the Pigsah range of mountains near the border of Moab.1

Moses knows that God will not let him cross the Jordan River with the people he has shepherded all the way from Egypt.  But God does miraculously enable him to see the entire “promised land” of Canaan from the mountaintop.  (There is a good view from Mt. Nebo, but not good enough to see all the way to the Mediterranean without supernatural help.)

And Moses, the servant of God, died there in the land of Moab, al pi God.  (Deuteronomy 34:5)

al pi (עַל־פִּי) = at the bidding of, by the order of; at the peh of.  peh (פֶּה) = mouth; opening, edge; statement, command.

The Torah makes it clear that even though he is 120, Moses does not die of old age:

Moses was 120 years at his death; his eye was not dim, and his vigor was not gone.  (Deuteronomy 34:7)

He dies because it is time for the Israelites to cross the Jordan and begin conquering Canaan without him.  But what kills him?

The phrase al pi God” (always using the four-letter name of God)2 appears 25 times in the bible.  Twelve of these times Moses, or Moses and Aaron together, take action at the bidding of God.3  Ten times the Israelites act al pi  al pi God, though they do not know they are obeying the God of the Israelites.  God “sends” raiding parties from Babylon and its vassal states to exterminate the kingdom of Judah, and “indeed, al pi God it happened to Judah to clear it away from God’s presence…” (2 Kings 24:3)

One other time Aaron acts by himself at the bidding of God:  And Aaron the Priest ascended Mount Hor al pi God, and he died there… (Numbers/Bemidbar 33:38)

That leaves only one instance in which something simply happens al pi God, without any information about who did it:  when Moses dies at the end of Deuteronomy. Does this unusual use of the phrase “al pi” mean that Moses deliberately died in order to carry out God’s order?  Or does it mean that he died by the “mouth” of God?

Death with an Exhale

Most English translations imply that Moses died when God ordered him to die.5 He does not need to commit suicide; he simply knows God wants him to die now, and he releases life, exhales, and dies.

Is Moses the kind of person who would obediently die at God’s bidding?  When he first becomes God’s prophet at the burning bush, he accepts the job of being God’s mouthpiece only because God will not take no for an answer—and then he tries one last time to get out of it, on the ground that he has a defective mouth.  (See my post Va-era & Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2.)

While he is leading the Israelites across the wilderness for 40 years, his relationship with God is mouth-to-mouth, as God says to Miriam and Aaron:

“Listen to my words: If a prophet of God happens among you, in a vision I make myself known to him, in a dream I speak to him.  Not so my servant Moses; he is trusted in all my household.  Peh to peh I speak with him; and appearing, not in riddles; and the likeness of God he looks at.”  (Numbers 12:6-8)

Ironically, the less advanced prophets Miriam and Aaron hear God directly in this passage.  But they never speak directly to God in the Torah, so in this regard they and God are not in a peh to peh relationship.

Moses, however, often has direct conversations with God.  Sometimes God starts the conversation, sometimes Moses does.  Sometimes they argue, sometimes they negotiate.  Sometimes God threatens to do something and Moses talks God out of it.6

But in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses looks back on the 40-year adventure with resentment at how much trouble the Israelites gave him, and resignation that God will not let him cross the Jordan.  (See my post Devarim: In God We Trust?)  By the time he has retold the history, restated and elaborated on God’s laws, and finally blessed the Israelites earlier in the portion Vezot Habrakhah, perhaps he is willing to die.  Why not leave the world in a final act of obedience to God?

Death with a Kiss

On the other hand, medieval commentary interpreted the word peh literally, and wrote that God took Moses’ life with a kiss, mouth to mouth.  Here is one version:

God said: “Moses, fold your eyelids over your eyes,” and he did so. He then said: “Place your hands upon your breast,” and he did so. He then said: “Put your feet next to one another,” and he did so. Forthwith the Holy One, blessed be He, summoned the soul from the midst of the body, saying to her:7 “My daughter, I have fixed the period of your stay in the body of Moses at a hundred and twenty years; now your end has come, depart, delay not … Thereupon God kissed Moses and took away his soul with a kiss of the mouth … (Devarim Rabbah 11:10, circa 900 CE.)8

In this anthropomorphic interpretation, just as God’s mouth blows the first human’s soul into the body,9 God’s mouth inhales Moses’ soul out of the body.

This is a more intimate way of being peh to peh with God.


This week’s Torah portion, the book of Deuteronomy, and the Torah scroll end:

Never again did a prophet rise in Israel like Moses, whom God knew face to face, for all the signs and the omens that God sent [him] to do in the land of Egypt for Pharaoh and for all his servants and for all his land; and for all the strong power and for all the great awe that Moses achieved in the eyes of all Israel.  (Deuteronomy 34:10-12)

In other words, Moses is unique as a prophet in his tremendous effect on both Egypt and the Israelites.  And by the way, God knew Moses face to face.

And spoke with Moses mouth to mouth.  And, perhaps, took Moses’ soul, his life, with a kiss.

At the end of the Torah scroll, Moses dies al pi God, by God’s mouth or bidding.  Then, on Simchat Torah, Jews roll the scroll back to the beginning, and we read how God created the heavens and the earth through speech.

And God said: “Light will be,” and light was.  (Genesis/Bereishit 1:3)

Both the death of Moses and the creation of the world come, in one way or another, from the mouth of God.

Maybe this is another way of saying that both death and birth are too mysterious for humans to ever understand.

  1. This is the same mountain range where King Balak of Moab led the Mesopotamian prophet Bilam so he could look down on the Israelites and curse them. The king was foiled when God put words of blessing in Bilam’s mouth instead.  (See my post Balak: Three Places to Be Blessed.)
  2. See my post Lekh-Lekha: New Names for God.
  3. Moses act al pi God in Numbers 3:16, 3:39, 3:51, 4:37, 4:41, 4:45, 4:49, 10:13, 13:3, 33:2, 36:5; and Joshua 22:9.
  4. The Israelites act al pi God in Exodus 17:1, Leviticus 24:12, Numbers 9:18-23, and Joshua 19:50.
  5. E.g. “at the command of the Lord” (Jewish Publication Society), “according to the word of the Lord” (King James Version), “as the Lord had said” (New International Version), “at the order of YHWH” (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, Schoken Books, New York, 1995), and “by the word of the Lord” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses,W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004).
  6. For example, after the Israelites worship the golden calf, God and Moses take turns getting angry and calming one another down (Exodus 32:7-35). Then they negotiate, and God reveals some divine attributes to Moses (Exodus 33:1-34:10).
  7. All Hebrew words for “soul” are feminine.
  8. Translation of Devarim Rabbah 11:10 from Simcha Paull Raphael, Living the Dying in Ancient Times, Albion-Andalus Books, Boulder, Colorado, 2015, p. 78-79.
  9. Genesis 2:7.
  10. Talmud Bavli: Mishnah Sotah 1:9, Sotah Gemara 14:a.
  11. Rashi (11th-century CE rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), commentary to Deuteronomy 34:6; explained by 16th-century CE rabbi Obadiah Sforno.
  12. Talmud Bavli Sotah 14:a, commenting on the incident in Numbers 25:1-3.

Ha-azinu:  Raining Wisdom

September 20, 2018 at 10:33 pm | Posted in Ha-azinu | Leave a comment

When Moses is 120, his main worry is that the Israelites and their fellow-travelers will continue to disobey their God.  So in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeilekh (“And he went”), before he climbs up Mount Nebo to die, he gives the people a written scroll called the Torah, and teaches them a song.  Both are intended to remind the people of how they ought to behave.  But while the Torah will be read out loud to the people, the song will become so familiar that the people themselves will sing it and teach it to future generations.

So God orders Moses:

by James Tissot

“And now, write for yourself this shirah and teach it to the Israelites; put it in their mouths, so that this song will be a witness against the Israelites.”  … And Moses wrote this shirah on that day, and he taught it to the Israelites.  (Deuteronomy 31:19, 22)

shirah (שִׁירָה) = song.  (Poem set to music.)

The portion Vayeilekh ends by referring to the song:

Then Moses spoke in the ears of the whole congregation of Israel the words of this shirah, until the end.  (Deuteronomy 31:30)

The song is the Torah portion Ha-Azinu (“Use your ears”), which falls this year of 5779 in between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

Whenever I read the words, Ha-Azinu strikes me as a poor summary of the rules Moses laid out earlier in the Torah.  Instead it seems to be yet another long-winded warning that the Israelites will screw up again once they are living in Canaan.

Perhaps if I heard Ha-Azinu as a song, with its own ancient melody, it would have a different effect on me.  Perhaps the words and melody together moved the Israelites the same way that the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur moves me when we sing it to traditional melodies, even though I might find fault with some of the words.

And even without the melody, the introduction to this poem does stir my heart.

Use your ears, Heavens, and I will speak;

Listen, Earth, to what my mouth says.

May my insights drop like rain;

May my utterances drip like dew;

Like showers upon deshe,

And like downpours upon eisev growing plants.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:1-2)

deshe (דֶשֶׁא) = green sprouts, new grass.

eisev (עֵשֶׂב) = annual plants that grow during the rainy season; grass, herbs, vegetables, weeds.

In the first two lines, Moses is calling upon Heaven and Earth to witness his poetic address to the Israelites.  The next four lines (verse 32:2) express how Moses hopes his words will be received by his audience—both by the children of Israel assembled on the bank of the Jordan, and by everyone who will hear the song in the future.

Most poetry in the Torah is written in paired statements.  The second line may appear to be merely a repetition of the first line, substituting synonyms for some of the words, but actually it adds another shade of meaning.

What is implied by the pairing of rain and dew?  16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno wrote that wisdom from the Torah rains down on intellectuals, but even the common people benefit from the dew of some small knowledge of God.  (He sounds like a snob, but it is true that the more one studies a text, the more one can draw insights out it.)  According to the Zohar, a 13th-century kabbalistic work, the rain is the written Torah, given from heaven, and the dew is the oral Torah, our human interpretations here on earth.  19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch wrote that rain breaks up clods of dirt and prepares the soil of our minds to receive insights, while dew encourages and revives wilting spirits.

I think this couplet considers the two ways that plants get watered in the hills of Israel: by rain during the winter rainy season, and by dew after the rains have ended but there is still enough moisture in the air to condense on low plants overnight, then drip down into the ground.  After divine insights have watered people’s minds, additional bits of enlightenment continue to reach them.

The next couplet refers to effect of rain on annuals, the plants that spring up during the rainy season in Israel.  Rain showers make seeds sprout and send up green shoots; downpours water well-rooted plants so they can continue growing.

Like deshe and eisev, humans find it hard to grow in arid conditions.  A little dampness deep below the surface of the soil might suffice for a tree in the desert, but we need rain showers for our awareness to sprout.  Once we have reached one level of insight, we are ready for downpours, ready to be flooded with teachings, explanations, rules, stories, and poems.  As wise words continue to rain down on us, our souls can grow and stretch out branches and leaves, green with our own new wisdom.

May we all be thirsty for more teachings.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in 2011.)

Jonah: Turning Around

September 12, 2018 at 8:31 pm | Posted in Jonah, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement”, is when Jews spend 25 hours trying to turn around and get back to God.  It is the last of ten days of teshuvah (תְּשׁוּבָה), often translated as “repentance”, though teshuvah literally means “returning, turning around’.  On Yom Kippur we acknowledge our collective as well as individual sins and misdeeds against the inner, or perhaps outer, force we call God.  And we pray for forgiveness and a new start on a more righteous life.

Jonah, National Library of the Netherlands

Late in the afternoon of Yom Kippur, Jews read one last passage from the bible.  What could be uplifting and inspiring enough to help us finally turn around and enter the gates of heaven?

The book of Jonah.

Did the ancient rabbis play a joke on us?  What is the story of this reluctant and ridiculous prophet good for besides comic relief?

The Meaning of Nineveh

The word of God happened to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying: “Kum!  Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim about it, because the perversity of their wickedness [has come] before me.”  (Jonah 1:1-2)

Kum (קוּם) = Get up!  Stand up!  Rise!  Arise!

750 BCE

Jonah son of Amittai is not a new prophet; he appears earlier in the bible as a prophet from Gat-Hachefer in the northern kingdom of Israel.1  At that time, Jonah tells King Jereboam II that God wants him to conquer some Aramean territory from Lebo-Hamat to the Dead Sea.  The king does so.

Jereboam II expanded the kingdom of Israel circa 790-750 B.C.E.  About ten years after his death, the king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Tiglath-Pileser III, began chipping away at Israel, capturing town after town and deporting its leading citizens.  In 722 B.C.E. the Assyrian king Sargon II conquered its capital, Samaria, and the northern kingdom of Israel ceased to exist.

700 BCE

Some of its residents escaped deportation by fleeing to the southern kingdom of Judah, which the Assyrian armies had reduced to a small vassal state required to send annual tribute to Assyria.

The capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire was Nineveh.2  When the book of Jonah was written down, probably in 3rd century B.C.E. Judah, any Israelite would think of “Nineveh” as an evil enemy.

Jonah’s Descent

Vayakam, Jonah, to run away to Tarshish, away from God.  Vayeired to Yafo and found a ship going to Tarshish, and he paid [his] fare, vayeired into her to go with them to Tarshish, away from God.  (Jonah 1:3)

vayakam (וַיָּקָם) = but he got up, and he rose.  (Another form of the verb kum.)

vayeired (וַיֵּרֶד) = and he went down, and he descended.  (A form of the verb yarad (יָרַד) = went down, descended.)

Jonah gets up, but then instead of heading northeast to Nineveh, he flees toward Tarshish, the westernmost city on the Mediterranean known to the ancient Israelites.

Does he think he can run away from God?  Probably not.  Jonah simply does not want to hear God’s call, either because he is afraid of prophesying in Nineveh or, as he says later, because he does not want God to forgive Nineveh for any reason.  So he gets up—and then flees inside himself, going down into denial: down to the seaport and down into the ship.  When a storm threatens to break up the ship, Jonah goes even farther down.

But Jonah yarad to the hold of the vessel, and he lay down, and he fell into a deep sleep.  (Jonah 1:5)

Unconsciousness is the only way he can escape his feelings of fear and hatred regarding Nineveh, or his guilt over disobeying God.

The captain wakes up Jonah and says:

“How are you sleeping so soundly?  Kum, call to your god!  Maybe the god will take notice of us and we will not perish.”  (Jonah 1:6)

The sailors cast lots to see whose god is responsible for the storm, and the lot falls on Jonah.  Jonah admits he is running away from his god, and asks them to throw him overboard in order to end the storm.  He would rather die than do teshuvah.  But at least he is honest, and makes an effort to save the lives of innocent bystanders.

The men rowed hard lehashiv to dry land, but they could not, because the sea was going violently about them.  (Jonah 1:13)

lehashiv (לְהָשִׁיב) = to return, to bring back or restore something.  (From the same root as teshuvah.)

Only Jonah has turned away from God; only Jonah needs to do teshuvah.  Finally the sailors give up and follow Jonah’s orders.  The prophet begins to sink—but God will not let him descend any farther.

Jonah and the Whale,
by Pieter Lastman, 1621

And God supplied a big fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.  And Jonah prayed to God, his God, from the belly of the fish.  (Jonah 2:1-2)

In the subsequent hymn Jonah even expresses thanks to God for saving his life.3  He appears to have turned around.

And God spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land.  And the word of God happened to Jonah a second time, saying: “Kum!  Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the appeal that I will be speaking to you!”  Vayakum, Jonah, and he went to Nineveh, as God had spoken.  (Jonah 2:11-3:3)

Jonah in Nineveh,
by Jakob Steinhardt, 1923

This time Jonah gets up and walks in the right direction.  But we soon learn that despite his poetic prayer inside the fish, he has not really turned around inside his mind.  He obeys God only minimally: he walks into the city, utters five words in Hebrew (“Another forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown”), and leaves with no explanation.

Hope for Ninevites

Today we do teshuvah by praying and searching our souls.  Many Jews also fast during the day of Yom Kippur.  In the Hebrew Bible people do teshuvah by fasting, wearing scratchy sackcloth, and lying in ashes.

That is exactly what the Ninevites do.  Somehow they realize at once that God wants them to repent.  They all fast and put on sackcloth, even the king, who decrees from his ash-heap:

“They shall cover themselves with sackcloth, human and beast, and they shall call out mightily to God.  And every man yashuvu from his evil ways and from the violence in his palm.  Who knows, God yashuv and have a change of heart, veshav from his wrath, and we will not perish.”  (Jonah 3:8-9)

yashuvu (יָשֻׁבוּ) = they shall turn back, turn around.  (From the same root as teshuvah.)

yashuv (יָשׁוּב) = he shall turn back, turn around.  (Also from the same root as teshuvah.)

veshav (וְשָׁב) = and he shall turn back.  (Also from the same root as teshuvah.)

And God saw their deeds, that shavu from their evil ways, and God had a change of heart over the bad thing he [intended] to do to them, and did not do it.  (Jonah 3:10)

shavu (שָׁבוּ) = they had turned away, repented.  (Also from the same root as teshuvah.)

Someone listening to the book of Jonah at a Yom Kippur service might think: If even the Ninevites could do teshuvah, then so could anyone.  And if God could forgive Nineveh, then I could forgive all those people I believe have harmed my people.

Hope for Jonah

Jonah is enraged at God’s forgiveness.  He wants retribution, not compassion, when it comes to Israel’s worst enemy.  He tells God:

“Isn’t this what I spoke of when I was in my own land?  This is why I fled to Tarshish in the first place, because I know that you are a gracious and compassionate god4 …  So now, God, please take my life from me, because better I die than I live.”  And God said: “Is your anger good?”  (Jonah 4:2-4)

With that question hanging in the air, Jonah builds himself a sukkah5 where he has a view of the city, and sits down to wait 40 days to see what happens.  God supplies a vine to give Jonah shade; the next day God makes it wither and sends a hot east wind.  This triggers Jonah’s anger and death-wish again.

The patience of God with his perverse prophet is remarkable.  God keeps giving Jonah another chance—after he runs away toward Tarshish, after he utters a single half-hearted prophecy, after he is angry with God for forgiving Nineveh, and after he is angry about the death of the vine.  God even tries to teach Jonah to stay aware when he wants to be unconscious (during the storm at sea), to realize his anger is not good, and to be compassionate toward the innocent (especially children and animals):

And God said: “You were concerned about the vine, which you did not exert yourself over …  And I, shall I not be concerned about Nineveh, the great city that has 120,000 humans in it who do not know the difference between their right and their left, and also many beasts?”  (Jonah 4:10-11)

Someone at a Yom Kippur service might think: I keep screwing up, like Jonah, but maybe God will be patient and give me another chance, too.  Maybe God will even teach me how to be less angry, more aware, and more compassionate.

Behind the humor of the story, the book of Jonah can indeed inspire listeners to complete the work of Yom Kippur, to finally do teshuvah and atone with God—whether we think of God as the ruler of the universe and creator of miracles (such as a fish a man can live inside for three days), or as a mysteriou force within us.

Anyway, a little humor near the end of a long fast can only help.

(I published some of the material in this post in September 2010.)

  1. 2 Kings 14:25. From about 930 to 722 B.C.E., Israelites lived in two kingdoms, the more prosperous northern kingdom of Israel (capital: Samaria) and the poorer southern kingdom of Judah (capital: Jerusalem).
  2. King Sargon II moved the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire from Kalhu/Nimrud to the district of Nineveh circa 710 B.C.E., when he built a new city called Dur Sharrukin (Sargon’s City) close to the old walled city of Nineveh.
  3. Jonah 2:10.
  4. Jonah actually recites the first five of the 13 attributes of God, given in Exodus 34:6-7 and repeated during Yom Kippur.
  5. Sukkah (סֻכָּה) hut, temporary shelter. It is a Jewish tradition to take meals in a sukkah during the week of Sukkot, which follows Yom Kippur.


Rosh Hashanah: Remembering

September 5, 2018 at 9:55 pm | Posted in Rosh Hashanah | Leave a comment

A new year begins on the evening of September 9, 2018: the first day of the month of Tishrei and the year 5779 in the Hebrew calendar.

Shofar (horn for blasts)

… the first of the month1 will be for you a day of complete rest, of zikhron, of horn blasts; a holy convocation.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 23:24)

zikhron (זִכְרוֹן), zikaron (זִכָּרוֹן) = remembrance, memorial, record.  (Derived from the verb zakhar, זָכָר = remembered, brought to mind.)

Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”) is also called Yom Ha-zikaron (“Day of Remembrance”), even though it lasts for two days.2

Who is doing the remembering on Yom Ha-zikaron?  And what is remembered?

In the Torah

In the Hebrew Bible, prophets in Deuteronomy through Malachi warn the Israelites to keep God in mind, so that they will obey God’s laws and worship only the God of Israel.  When the Israelites forget God and worship other gods, they are punished.3  When times are good, Moses says, the people must remember that their bounty comes from God.  (See my post Eikev, Ve-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?)  In many psalms, the poets remember God when they are suffering, and ask why God has forgotten them.4

Channah Prays,
by Marc Chagall

God also remembers the Israelites again and again.  The bible portrays God remembering the covenant with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with the Israelites who left Egypt, and with all the children of Israel.5  God also remembers individuals; for example, when a long-childless woman finally becomes pregnant, the bible says that God remembers her and opens her womb.  The haftarah reading for the first morning of Rosh Hashanah is the story of Channah’s successful prayer for a child.6

In the Rosh Hashanah Liturgy

Just as some psalmists pray for God to remember them, on Rosh Hashanah Jews pray for God to remember us for a good life—and to keep this in mind by writing down the names of everyone who will live for another year in a “Book of Life”. 7

The following sentences asking God to remember us in the Book of Life are inserted in every Amidah (“standing prayer”) during Rosh Hashanah:

by Jakub Weinles

In the first prayer:  Zakhreinu for life, king who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for your sake, God of life!  (Avot)

zakhreinu (זָכְרֵנוּ) = remember us, bring us to mind.    (An imperative of the verb zakhar.)

In the second prayer:  Who is like you, merciful father, zokheir his creatures for life!  (Gevurot)

zokheir (זוֹכֵר) = who remembers, who brings to mind.  (A participle of the verb zakhar.)

In the fourth prayer:  … on this Yom Ha-zikaron.  Zakhreinu on it for goodness, God, our God, and commission us on it for blessing …  (Kedushat Hayom)

In the sixth prayer:  And inscribe all the children of your covenant for a good life!  (Modim)

And in the seventh prayer:  In the Book of Life, [for] blessing and peace and a good livelihood and good decisions, salvations and consolations, nizakheir and may we be inscribed before you, we and all the people of the House of Israel, for a good life and for peace. (Shalom)

nizakheir (נִזָּכֵר) = may we be remembered, may we come to mind.  (The nifil imperfect of the verb zakhar.)

On regular weekdays. Jews traditionally pray the Amidah three times a day, in the morning, afternoon, and evening.8  But during the two days of Rosh Hashanah, we pray the Amidah 18 times!9  And each time, we pray for God to remember us and record our names in the Book of Life.

from Minhagim, 1707

The repetitions of the Amidah in the morning services and musaf (additional) services also include extra prayers for Rosh Hashanah.  The musaf services add three sections of liturgy on Rosh Hashanah themes (Kingship, Remembrance, and Shofars), with quotations from the bible and shofar10 blowing for each section.  The section on Remembrance is called Zikhronot (זִכְרֺנוֹת), the plural of zikaron.  Its opening prayer includes:

And regarding regions, it is said on [this day] which [region] is destined for the sword and which for peace, which for starvation and which for satiation.  And regarding creatures, they are accounted for on [this day] to hazkir for life or for death.

hazkir (הַזְכִּיר) = prompt recollection.  (The hifil infinitive of the verb zakhar.)

Then the Zikhronot section mentions instances of God remembering characters in the bible and doing good things for them, most notably when God remembers Noah and makes the flood subside,11 and when God remembers the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and brings their descendants out of Egypt.12

The service leader’s repetition of the Amidah in the musaf service includes not only the three sections with shofar blowing described above, but also a dramatic recitation that begins:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

          how many will pass away and how many will be created;

          who will live and who will die,

          who will be cut off [before his time] and who will not;

          who by water and who by fire,

          who by the sword and who by the beast,

          who by hunger and who by thirst …

The list goes on until the declaration:  But turning around, prayer, and charity bypass the evil decree!

On Rosh Hashanah we may get into the Book of Life despite our earlier bad deeds, if we sincerely turn around. On Yom Kippur, nine days later, the Book of Life is sealed.


In the Rosh Hashanah liturgy we plead with God to remember us, the heirs of the Israelites, and to grant us life because whatever our past faults, now we are turning around, praying, and doing good deeds.

But before we can beg God to remember us in the Book of Life, we must remember God.

My God, my soul is prostrate;

            Therefore ezkarekha.  (Psalm 42:7)

I say to God, my rock:

            Why have you forgotten me?  (Psalm 42:10)

ezkarekha (אֶזְכָּרְךָ) = I remember you.  (Another imperfect of the verb zakhar.)

When we feel alienated from our better selves, when we feel that we have not lived up to our own ideals, that we have missed the mark, then we feel alienated from God.  Some of us assume God will punish us, even decree an early death; others assume that our alienation is the punishment.

Either way, our personal task is the same as the communal task of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:  to make amends with people we have wronged, and to pray for atonement with God.  When we remember God (and listen to the inner voice), God remembers us (and the inner voice speaks).  Then our lives improve.

Leshanah tovah tikateivu—May you all be inscribed for a good year!

  1. Leviticus 23:24 specifies the first day of the seventh month. The Hebrew calendar starts counting months in the spring, the first month being Nissan, from the Akkadian word for “first produce”.  But the agricultural year begins in the autumn, when fields are plowed and sown with winter wheat before the rain comes.  The first month of this year is Tishrei, from the Akkadian word for “beginning”.  This is also the time when the first temple is dedicated in 1 Kings 8:2.  (See Yael Avrahami, “Why Do We Eat Matzah in the Spring?”,
  2. Many Jewish holy days are observed for an extra day outside Israel. Rosh Hashanah is the only one that is observed for two days in Israel as well as in the rest of the world.
  3. g. Deuteronomy 8:19-20, 1 Samuel 12:9, Jeremiah 13:24-26, and Ezekiel 6:9.
  4. g. Psalms 42:7-10, 44:18-27, 77:2-12, and 143:1-7.)
  5. g. Exodus 2:24 and 6:5, Leviticus 26:42-45, Jeremiah 14:21, and Psalms 105:8-11 and 42-43, 106:44-5, and 111.
  6. 1 Samuel 1:10-20.
  7. The Rosh Hashanah liturgy was codified in the 9th century CE.
  8. The Ma-ariv service in the evening, the Shacharit service in the morning, and the Mincha service in the afternoon, corresponding to the three times for offerings at the altar in ancient Israel. When one of these services is prayed by a congregation, as on Shabbat and various holy days, the Amidah is traditionally prayed in an undertone first, then repeated out loud by the service leader (with the congregation chiming in).
  9. On Rosh Hashanah we pray the Amidah twice during each of the three evening services, twice during each of the two morning services, twice during each musaf (additional) service following the morning service, and twice during each afternoon service.
  10. A shofar (שׁוֹפָר) is a musical instrument made out of the horn of an animal, usually a ram. The tip of the horn is modified to serve as a mouthpiece.
  11. Genesis 8:1.
  12. Exodus 2:24 and Leviticus 26:45.

Ki Tavo: A Perishing Aramean

August 29, 2018 at 8:12 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo, Passover/Pesach, Shavuot | Leave a comment

Still life by Caravaggio, 1605

Do we own land, prosper in business, or put food on the table entirely because of our own efforts?  The book of Deuteronomy/Devarim says no.  Moses tells the Israelites that they will conquer Canaan only with God’s help.  (See my post Re-eih: Ownership.)  Then they will acquire cities, houses, and farms that other people built.  (See my post Eikev, Va-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?)  After that they will build more houses, and all their enterprises will prosper, making their wealth increase.  Moses predicts they will then forget God, and think:

“My ability and the power of my hand made me this wealth.”  Then you must remember God, your God, who gives you the ability to make wealth …”  (Deuteronomy 8:11, 17-18)

Furthermore, the Israelites must not confuse taking possession of land, or inheriting it from their fathers, with actual ownership.1

Hey!  The heavens and the heavens of the heavens, the land and everything in it, belongs to God, your God.  (Deuteronomy 10:14)


In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you come”), Moses prescribes an annual ritual to thank God for the land we pretend we own, and for the harvest we pretend comes exclusively from our own labors.

Bible card by Providence Lithograph Co., ca. 1900

You shall take some of the first of every fruit of the earth that you bring in from your land that God, your god, is giving to you.  And you shall place them in a basket and go to the place that God, your God, will choose to let [God’s] name dwell.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:2)

The place that “God will choose” is Jerusalem.2  The head of each household brings the basket to the temple. and affirms that the land on which his family grew the fruits is a gift from God.

And you shall come to whoever is the priest in those days, and you shall say to him: “I declare today to God, your God, that I came to the land that God swore to our forefathers to give to us.”  (Deuteronomy 26:3)

The priest sets the basket in front of the altar.

And you shall respond, and you shall say in front of God, your God: “Arami oveid avi.  And he went down to Egypt and he sojourned there with few men, but he became there a nation great and powerful and populous.”  (Deuteronomy 12:4-5)

Arami (אֲרַמִּי) = a male Aramean, a man from the country of Aram (roughly corresponding to present-day Syria).

oveid (אֺבֵד) = wandering lost; being ruined; perishing.  (Oveid is the kal participle of the verb avad, אָבַד, and implies that the subject is lost, ruined, or perishing.)3

avi (אָבִי) = my father, my forefather.

Who is the Arami?  The book of Genesis/Bereishit tells us that Abraham lives in the Aramean city of Charan (also called Paddan-Aram) before God tells him to go to Canaan.  Later in Genesis, Abraham’s grandson Jacob flees to Charan and lives there with his uncle Lavan for 20 years before returning to Canaan.  So we have three candidates for the Aramean in this declaration: Abraham, Lavan, or Jacob.  And only two of those, Abraham and Jacob, qualify as a forefather of the Israelites.

Rashi4 identified the Arami as Lavan and the avi as Jacob.  His interpretation, “Lavan sought to uproot everyone [all Jews] as he chased after Jacob,” requires translating Arami oveid avi as “An Aramean was ruining my forefather.”  But oveid cannot mean “ruining”, only “being ruined”.(see 3)  Furthermore, Biblical Hebrew grammar allows for an implied verb “to be” anywhere in the phrase Arami oveid avi, but not for the Arami to be the subject doing something to avi as a direct object.5  So Arami and avi must be the same person.

Rashbam6 recognized this, and identified the person as Abraham.  He associated oveid with wandering when one is exiled from one’s own land, and rephrased Arami oveid avi as “My father Abraham, an Arami was he, oveid and exiled from the land of Aram.”  Then he cited Genesis 12:1, where God tells Abraham: “Go forth from your land and from your relatives and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  If Aram is Abraham’s own land, Rashbam must have reasoned, then in Canaan he is an exile.

Calling Abraham an exile seems like a stretch to me.  Abraham hears God and decides to leave.  He brings along his wife, his nephew, the people who work for them, and the wealth he has accumulated in livestock and goods.  It sounds like a comfortable emigration.

Rashbam’s explanation also fails to account for the sentence immediately following Arami oveid avi in Deuteronomy 12:5 above.  Abraham and his household do visit Egypt, but the same group returns to Canaan after a very short sojourn there.  They may pick up a few Egyptian slaves, but Abraham’s returning household is far from being “a nation great and powerful and populous”.

That leaves Abraham’s grandson Jacob as the Arami who is the speaker’s forefather.  Jacob, a.k.a. “Israel”, moves to Egypt to join his son Joseph and brings along 66 of his descendants, not counting the wives of the adult men.7  These “children of Israel” stay in Egypt for 430 years.8  When they leave in the book of Exodus, there are “about 600,000 men on foot” along with their families and fellow travelers9—enough to count as a nation in the Ancient Near East.  The sentence following Arami oveid avi fits only Jacob.

If Jacob is the Aramean and “my forefather”, why is he called oveid?  The translation of oveid that best describes Jacob’s life at the time he emigrates to Egypt is “perishing”, since he and his extended family are suffering through a second year of famine in Canaan.  Therefore, Arami oveid avi should be translated: “A perishing Aramean was my forefather”.

A man bringing his first fruits to the temple does identify himself as an Israelite with these three words, but it would be simpler to say “Jacob is my forefather” or “Israel is my forefather”.  The clause Arami oveid avi acknowledges two other things: that his ancestors had not always lived in Canaan/Judah, and that at a critical time they were perishing in a famine.  Remembering these things, the farmer is more likely to feel grateful that God gave the Israelites land, and that the God who makes famines has provided him with agricultural abundance.


The recitation and ritual actions continue in this week’s Torah portion without mentioning that they are part of Shavuot, one of the three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem dictated in the Torah.  In Exodus 34:22 Shavuot is described as a celebration the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and in Numbers 28:26 Shavuot is identified as the “Day of First Fruits” (Yom Habikkurim).

But the recitation beginning Arami oveid avi has also become part of Passover/PesachIn 220 C.E., when Judah HaNasi recorded the Mishnah (the core of the Talmud), the farmer’s declaration before the priest was already included in the seder (the Passover service at home around the table).10  It still is.

Arami oveid avi is a humbling opening line.  If God could let Jacob, one of God’s favorite people, come close to perishing of hunger, any of us might be ruined.  And every human being will eventually perish from this earth.

Yes, while we are alive we must cultivate our crops.  Our own efforts are necessary, but not sufficient, for prosperity; other necessary factors are out of our hands.  The good life is a fragile and temporary blessing.

May we notice the first fruit of every blessing in our lives, and express our gratitude.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in September 2011.)

  1. The real owner of the land is also revealed in Leviticus 25:23, when God declares: “But the land must not be sold to forfeit reacquisition, because the land is Mind; for you are resident aliens with Me.” (See my post Behar: Owning Land.)
  2. Modern critical scholars agree that the earliest form of book of Deuteronomy was written no earlier than the 7th century B.C.E., after the northern kingdom of Israel had been wiped out by the Assyrians, and the only remaining Israelite kingdom was Judah, with its capital and temple at Jerusalem.
  3. The piel participle, me-abeid (מְאַבֵּד = giving up as lost, ruining, letting perish) implies that the subject is abandoning, ruining, or destroying someone else.)
  4. Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  5. In Biblical Hebrew, if avi were a definite direct object instead of a subject, it would be preceded by the word et (אֶת).
  6. Rashbam is the acronym for Rashi’s grandson, the 12th-century rabbi Shmuel ben Meir.
  7. Genesis 46:26.
  8. Exodus 12:40. (In Genesis 15:13 God predicts it will be 400 years.)
  9. Exodus 1:7, 12:37-38.
  10. Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 116a, Mishnah.

Ki Teitzei: Virtues of a Parapet

August 22, 2018 at 9:34 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei, Samuel 2 | 2 Comments

When you build a new house, then you shall make a ma-akeh for your roof; then you will not put blood-guilt on your house if the faller falls from it.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:8)

ma-akeh (מַעֲקֶה) = parapet: a low wall along the edge of a roof or another structure.

This verse appears in a compilation of practical laws in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“When you go out”).  At the most literal level, it simply requires a parapet around a roof as a safety precaution to prevent anyone from falling.  If the faller were being injured or killed the owner of the house would be liable, bearing the “blood-guilt”.

Roofs from Egypt to Babylon (as well as in other parts of the world with dry climates and mild winters) were usually flat and built to bear weight, so people could walk, sit, sleep, and work on them.  In the Ancient Near East, builders ran wooden beams or whole logs from wall to wall.  They covered the beams with framed straw or reed mats, then topped the roof with several layers of clay compacted with stone rollers.  Sometimes they added latticed rooftop structures to provide shade for people using the roof.  A parapet around the edge made the top layer more durable, as well as improving safety.

The Hebrew Bible mentions using rooftops for private conversations,1 for sleeping,2 for storage,3 and for making sacrifices at altars for other gods.4  The Talmud also mentions keeping small lambs or goat kids on one’s roof.5


A roof without a parapet is unsafe not only because a person might fall off, but also because something might fall, or get pushed, from the roof onto a person below.  When an unsavory king in the book of Judges, Avimelekh of Shechem, captures the town of Teiveitz, its residents flee to the tower in the middle of their town.

And they shut themselves inside and they went up onto the roof of the tower.  And Avimelekh came up to the tower… to set it on fire.  Then a woman sent down an upper millstone onto the head of Avimelekh, and it cracked his skull.  (Judges 9:51-53)

The Talmud (Bava Kamma 15b) extends the requirement for a parapet around a roof to all other hazards in a house, such as keeping a vicious dog or setting up an unstable ladder.  If the owner does not remove the hazard, he is liable for damages and a court can even excommunicate him.

Even if the owner is the only person who lives in the house, he must still make it safe for the benefit of guests and future residents.6


A sufficiently high parapet also provides privacy.  According to the Talmud (Bava Batra 2b) if the roof of one house adjoins the courtyard of another house, the owner of the first house must build a parapet four cubits high,7 so he cannot look into the neighbor’s courtyard when he is using his roof.  A similar ruling is that a wall separating the courtyards of two adjacent houses should be four cubits high, so neighbors cannot see into each other’s courtyards  (Bava Batra 5a).

Even if houses are not adjacent, a higher parapet may be needed for privacy.  If two houses are on opposite sides of a public road (Bava Batra 6a), both owners are likely to build a parapet high enough to prevent anyone on the road below from seeing them; but each owner must also build one side of his front parapet high enough to block the view from the opposite roof.  Then both families will have privacy (and share the expense equally).

A story in the bible illustrates another situation in which a high parapet would have provided privacy.

Bathsheba, by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1889

It was evening time, and David rose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the king’s house.  And he saw a woman bathing, from up on the roof, and the woman was very good in appearance.  (2 Samuel 11:2)

For the sake of privacy, Bathsheba would have been bathing either on her own lower roof, or in the enclosed courtyard of her own house.  But King David’s view was not blocked by a high enough parapet.  Enamored of her naked beauty, he found out who she was and sent for her, assuming that since  her husband Uriah was away at war, he would never know.  When Bathsheba became pregnant, King David had Uriah sent home from the front, but he refused to sleep with his wife until the war was over.  So David arranged for the death of the innocent man.  None of this would have happened if King David’s parapet had been four cubits high.

Metaphor for Pride

The original injunction in this week’s Torah portion has also been interpreted allegorically, with the rooftop standing for pride.  Philo of Alexandria wrote in the first century C.E. that when people give themselves credit for intellectual and social advancement, instead of crediting God, they are likely to fall from their high positions and be destroyed.

For the most grievous of all falls is for a man to stumble and fall from the honour due to God; crowning himself rather than God, and committing domestic murder. For he who does not duly honour the living God kills his own soul …  (The Works of Philo, trans. by C.D. Yonge, “XXXIX, On Husbandry, 171”)

A Poet’s Fall, 1760

The Hassidic commentator Dov Baer Friedman interpreted Deuteronomy 22:8 by applying the metaphor of pride before a fall8 to a Torah scholar’s pride in coming up with a new interpretation.

This refers to one offering a new interpretation of Torah.  “Make a railing for your upper storey.”  If the verse were referring to a literal house, it would have said: “for its upper storey.”  As it is, the upper storey is on you, referring to the swelling of your pride at this new teaching.  Do not let your head get turned by pride!  Even though this is a bit of Torah that no ear has ever heard, it comes not from you, but from God.

            “Should somebody fall from it.”  You are all set for such a fall.9


Building a Mental Parapet

Pride: All of us who enjoy either personal achievement or a high position in society should build a mental parapet to prevent ourselves from falling into the self-delusion of pride.  This mental parapet might be a prayer or a reminder that our success depends on the deeds of other human beings, on the family and society we inherit, and on the genes that nature or God gave us.

Privacy:  We can also find an inner meaning of the Talmud’s extension of the law in Ki Teitzei to cover privacy.

Just as humans need privacy in our living quarters, we need privacy in our own mental lives.  You can share your physical space with close family members, and you can share your personal information, random thoughts, and emotional reactions with a trusted partner who knows you well.  But sharing these things with neighbors, friends, or strangers can cause them to feel uncomfortable, to make false assumptions about you, or to feel burdened by your apparent neediness.  It can even give false friends information they can use against us or against other people we know.

When it comes to privacy, we should to set our own boundaries, building a mental parapet so we do not reveal the wrong things, whether in response to an inappropriate question, or in a gush of good will or exhibitionism.

Those of us with flat and inhabitable roofs still need parapets to prevent people and things from falling off.  But we all need parapets when it comes to the contents of our own minds.

  1. Examples of using a roof for private conversations: Joshua 2:6, 1 Samuel 9:25-26.
  2. Examples of using a roof for sleeping: Joshua 2:6, 2 Samuel 11:2.
  3. A roof is used for storing flax in Joshua 2:6.
  4. Examples of using a roof for altars to worship other gods: 2 Kings 23:12, Jeremiah 19:13 and 32:29, Zephanaiah 1:5.
  5. Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 6b.
  6. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Devarim, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2009, p. 513.
  7. A cubit is the length of a forearm from elbow to fingertips. Four cubits would be over 6 feet, or almost 2 meters.  (Bava Batra 2b also provides rules for window and courtyard partition placements to prevent a neighbor from being able to look inside the house next door.)
  8. Proverbs 16:18.
  9. Dov Baer Friedman of Miedzyrzec, Or Torah (1804), translated by Arthur Green in Arthur Green, Speaking Torah, vol. 2, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2013, p. 124.

Shoftim: To Do Justice

August 15, 2018 at 8:17 pm | Posted in Shoftim | Leave a comment

Tzedek, tzedek you must pursue. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:20)

tzedek (צֶדֶק) = right behavior; ethical standards; justice.

The pursuit of justice and/or ethical behavior is an obligation incumbent upon all of us.  But in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), the pursuit of tzedek is an instruction to judges.  The portion begins:

Shoftim and officers you shall appoint in all your gates [of towns] that God is giving to you according to your tribes; veshaftu the people [with] rulings of tzedek.  (Deuteronomy 16:18)

shoftim (שֺׁפְטִים) = judges; those who decide cases; those who deliver justice.

veshaftu (וְשָׁפְטוּ) = and they shall judge, make settlements among, deliver justice to.

Samson, also a judge

The shoftim in this week’s portion are not the kind of shoftim we see in the book of Judges/Shoftim.  There, most shoftim were chieftains or war leaders during a time of frequent conflicts among small states.  They deliver justice to the people by leading an army that frees them from their latest conquerors.  Afterward they usually serve as chieftains who are also judges.1

City gate at Megiddo

The shoftim in this week’s Torah portion also differ from the town elders who serve as judges in biblical passages referring to the time before Israel and Judah had kings. During that period, an individual with a claim to press, or two household heads seeking arbitration, would go to the town gate or the village threshing floor at daybreak and call ten of the settlement’s elders (respected male heads of households) to come over and adjudicate.2  A decision required the consensus of all ten men.3

Although the book of Deuteronomy is set on the bank of the Jordan at the end of Moses’ life, it was written for the citizens of the kingdom of Judah, and refers to their legal system.4  The shoftim in this week’s portion are appointed judges, not the first ten respected elders to pass by.

These appointed shoftim must judge the people with “rulings of tzedek” as follows:

You may not skew a ruling; you may not recognize a face; and you may not take a bribe, since a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and distorts the words of the tzaddikimTzedek, tzedek you must pursue, so you may live and take possession of the land that God, your God, is giving to you.  (Deuteronomy 16:19-20)

tzaddikim (צַדִּיקִם) = the innocent; the righteous, the ethically good, the just.  (From the same root as tzedek.)

To “recognize a face” means to show favoritism, not just in the decision but also in how the parties are treated during the hearing.5

Why would pursuing justice enable the Israelites to live and conquer more and more of the land of Canaan?  Deuteronomy predicts that they will only win battle victories with God’s help.  (See my post Re-eih: Ownership.)  Therefore it pays to do what God wants.

Moses frequently restates what God wants from the Israelites, which includes just decisions about legal claims.  It also includes avoiding the worship of other deities (the first of the Ten Commandments).  If local appointed judges hear that someone has been worshiping other gods, they must investigate thoroughly.  If the rumor proves true,

Stoning, from Piola Domenico, 17th century

Then you shall bring out to your gates that man or that woman who did the wicked thing, and stone them with stones so they will die.  On the word of two or three witnesses they shall definitely be executed, [but] they shall not be put to death on the word of one.  (Deuteronomy 17:5-6)

At least two eye-witnesses must agree that they saw the accused bow down to, or otherwise serve, an alien god before the judges can declare the accused guilty.  One or zero witnesses are insufficient for a guilty verdict, no matter what the circumstantial evidence.6

The Torah portion Shoftim also addresses what local judges should do when it is hard to connect a legal case with the appropriate law or ruling.

If a matter of law is too difficult for you, … then you shall get up and go up to the place God, your God, chooses.  And you shall come to the priests of the Levites, or to the judge who is [serving] at that time, and you shall inquire; and he shall tell you the matter of the law.  (Deuteronomy 17:8-9)

The next few verses say that the local judges must carry out the ruling from Jerusalem (the place God chooses) exactly as instructed.  This passage parallels the scene in Exodus/Shemot where Yitro tells his son-in-law Moses to appoint judges to settle minor disputes, and ask them to bring the major cases to him.7  Yitro explains that the major cases should go to Moses not because he is the central authority, but because God talks to him and gives him the laws.  Perhaps difficult cases must be referred to the priests and judges in Jerusalem not because they are the central authority, but because they are more experienced in interpreting God’s laws.


Just as “Tzedek, tzedek you must pursue” should be a goal for every human being in some sphere of life, we can take to heart other instructions to the shoftim in this week’s portion.  How do you judge the actions of another person?

Do you act like the chieftains and war leaders in the book of Judges, convinced that your own cause is just and therefore you have the right to dictate to everyone else?  Or do you act like the elders in the gate, taking action against someone only if your sense of what is right matches the opinions of other respected people in your community?

Do you “recognize a face” or show favoritism, making excuses for someone you like while judging someone you dislike harshly?  Do you feel obligated to refrain from correcting someone who has given you a gift, such as a job or status?

If one person tells you about the terrible thing a third person did, do you believe it?  Or do you wait until two eye-witnesses confirm it?  Do you draw conclusions about someone from circumstantial evidence?

If you cannot make up your mind about whether another person is guilty of wrongdoing, or whether you need to do anything about it, to whom do you take the case?  Who can you trust?

It is not so easy to pursue justice.

  1. Judges 2:16-19. Specific war-leaders whom the book of Judges cites as shoftim administering justice are Otniel (3:9), Jepthah/Yiftach (12:7), and Samson/Shimshon. (15:20, 16:31).  The shoftim named in Judges who appear to be chieftains who also judge cases are Tola (10:1-2), Ya-ir (10:3), Ivtzan (12:8-9), Eilon (12:11), and Avdon (12:13-14).  One woman, Devorah, takes a dual role.  She is introduced as “a prophetess, a woman of Lapidot, [who] administered justice in Israel at that time … and Israelites went up to her for rulings” (Judges 4:4-5), but then she calls for war and accompanies a general into battle.
  2. Ruth 4:1-11, Proverbs 31:23, and Lamentations 5:14. Also see Victor H. Matthews & Don C. Benjamin, Social World of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BCE, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 1993, pp. 122-124.  Deuteronomy 25:7 calls for the elders at the gate to rule on the case of a new husband who accuses his bride of not being a virgin; perhaps the older system of town elders survived, modified by later laws and rulings imposed by the kingdom’s priests and other higher-ranking judges (see Deuteronomy 17:8-13).
  3. Matthews & Benjamin, p. 124.
  4. Most modern critical scholars date the composition of Deuteronomy chapters 12-25 to the reign of King Josiah of Judah in the 7th century B.C.E., with some editing later.
  5. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) on Deuteronomy 16:19.
  6. Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37b.
  7. Exodus 18:22.

Re-eih: Ownership

August 8, 2018 at 11:14 am | Posted in Eikev, Re-eih | 2 Comments

Mine!  I own this land, these people, this enterprise!

Human beings instinctively claim things as their own—and justify their ownership.  Sometimes the reasons why we own things are ethical.  (She gave her painting to me.  I bought this house from the previous owner.)  But sometimes our justifications boil down to “Because I’m better” or “Because God gave it to us”.

Kingdoms c. 830 BCE

Why did Israelites own a significant part of Canaan (later called Palestine) from the 10th to 6th centuries BCE?  The Hebrew Bible repeats again and again that God gave the land of Canaan to the Israelites.  This “gift” is the premise behind Moses’ instructions in this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See!”).

For you will be crossing the Jordan to enter and lareshet of the land that God, your God, is giving to you, vireshtem of it and you will settle in it.  Then take care to carry out all the decrees and the laws that I am placing before you this day.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:31-32)

lareshet (לָרֶשֶׁת) = to take possession.  (A form of the verb yarash, יָרַשׁ = took possession, inherited, dispossessed.)

vireshtem (וִירְשׁתֶּם) = and you will take possession.  (Another form of the verb yarash.)

How will God give possession of Canaan to the Israelites?  And why?



When Moses gets his marching orders at the burning bush, God tells him:

I have come down to bring them [the Israelites] out from the hand of Egypt and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Emorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites.  (Exodus/Shemot 3:8)

The land of Canaan is already occupied by six nations.1  How will God transfer their land to hundreds of thousands of Israelites?

It turns out that the inhabitants of Canaan do not give, sell, or trade land to the newcomers.2  They do not conveniently decide to move elsewhere.  Instead, they are willing to fight to keep the land they planted, and the houses and cities they and their ancestors built.

In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God promises to “erase” or “drive out” the native inhabitants.3  But in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar it becomes clear that the Israelites must do the driving out.  They get a head start on military conquest before they cross the Jordan.  At God’s urging, the Israelites fight and win battles against three nations on the east side of the river: Cheshbon (the city and its territory), Bashan, and the Midianites north of Moab.  The Israelite men burn towns, kill all the men, and seize all the land.4

When the tribes of Reuven and Gad ask Moses if they can have this newly captured land instead of future allotments in Canaan, Moses agrees on the condition that their fighting men enter Canaan with the rest of the Israelites, and participate in every battle there until Canaan has been conquered.5  Everyone knows, now, that the Israelites will take Canaan through war.

The book of Deuteronomy/Devarim assumes that God will give the Israelites the land of Canaan by ensuring them victory in battle—and that the Israelites will be the aggressors.  In last week’s Torah portion, Eikev, Moses reminds his people:

Listen, Israel!  You are crossing the Jordan this day lareshet nations greater and stronger [than you].  And you shall realize this day that God, your God … will subdue them before you, vehorashtam, and you shall exterminate them quickly, as God has spoken to you.  (Deuteronomy 9:1-3)

vehorashtam (וְהוֹרַשְׁתָּם) = and you shall dispossess them.  (A form of the verb yarash.)



Moses continues:

Not because of your righteousness or because of the uprightness of your heart shall you come lareshet their land.  God, your God, shall be morisham in front of you because these nations are wicked, and in order to carry out the word that God swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 9:5) 

morisham (מוֹרִשָׁם) = taking possession of them, dispossessing them, driving them out.  (Another  form of yarash.)

You are not so perfect that you deserve to own Canaan, Moses tells the Israelites.  God will help you to conquer it only because God made a promise to your ancestors, and because the present inhabitants of Canaan are even worse than you are.

The promise

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all hear God promise that their descendants will someday own the land of Canaan.6  The sixth time God makes this promise, it is part of a covenant: Abraham and his male descendants will be circumcised and follow God; God will give them the land of Canaan and look after them.

“And I will give to you, and to your seed after you, land from your sojourning: all the land of Canaan, as a holding forever.  And I will be their God.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 17:8)

The wickedness

Offering to Molech,
Bible Pictures, 1897

The nations of  Canaan are “wicked” because they engage in practices the God of Israel despises, according to the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.  These practices include sexual unions forbidden in Leviticus, and child sacrifice to Molech.7

In this week’s Torah portion, God tells the Israelites not only to exterminate all the inhabitants of Canaan, but also to destroy their shrines and religious objects.8

These are the decrees and the laws that you must take care to carry out in the land that God, the God of your forefathers, gave to you lerishtah all the days that you live on the earth.  You must utterly destroy all the places where the nations that you are yoreshim worshiped their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every luxuriant tree.  And you shall tear down their altars, and shatter their standing-stones, and burn their goddess-posts in the fire, and break into pieces the statues of their gods; and you shall eliminate their name from that place.  (Deuteronomy 12:1-3)

lerishtah (לְרִשְׁתָּה) = to possess it.  (A form of the verb yarash.)

yoreshim (יֺרְשִׁם) = taking possession of.  (Another form of the verb yarash.)

Ethnic cleansing is not enough, Moses says.  Even after the inhabitants of Canaan have been eliminated, some Israelites might still be tempted to adopt their religious practices.

When God, your God, cuts down the nations where you come lareshet them from before you, veyarashta them and you have settled in their land, guard yourselves lest you become ensnared [in] following them, after they have been exterminated from before you; and lest you inquire about their gods, saying: “How did these nations serve their gods?  Then I will do this too, even I.”  You must not do thus for God, your God, because everything abhorrent to God, [everything] that he hates, they do for their gods.  For they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire for their gods!  (Deuteronomuy 12:29-31)

veyarashta (וְיָרַשְׁתָּ) = and you dispossess.  (Yes, another form of yarash.)

This is the other justification in the Torah for taking over Canaan and eliminating its natives.  The inhabitants of Canaan, like the Israelites, worshipped their gods primarily through burning animal offerings on altars.  But other religious practices of the six groups of Canaanites were so awful that they did not deserve to own the land.  They did not even deserve to live.


The Torah speaks with many voices.  When the context is the period when Israelites own the land, the Torah urges them to treat the foreigners living among them with love and justice.9  But when the context is the period before the Israelites own the land, the Torah urges them to exterminate the foreigners who do own it.

Although modern scholars disagree on when each of the first five books of the bible was first written down, they agree that all five were written down no earlier than the 10th century BCE, when Israelites ruled one or two kingdoms in eastern Canaan.10  Perhaps those who wrote down the old stories noticed the conflict between the injunctions to treat resident aliens with fairness, and tales of the brutal conquest of non-Israelite natives.  How could they justify the aggression of their ancestors?

The solution of those early scribes was to explain that God took Canaan away from its previous inhabitants and gave it to the Israelites.  The conquest by the Israelite army merely carried out God’s will.

Today some groups still believe in a divine right to own land and the people living on it.  When there are rival claims to territory, people of different religions point to their sacred books and their ancient histories rather than working toward an ethical solution for sharing the land.

Today some individuals still believe that might makes right, and the fact that they succeeded in acquiring control over a business or a branch of government means God is on their side.

I pray that someday everyone in the world is blessed with humility.

  1. The same six peoples are mentioned as inhabiting Canaan in Exodus 23:23, 33:2, and 34:11.
  2. Abraham buys one field with a burial site in Canaan (Genesis 23:3-16), and Jacob buys a parcel of land where he is camping (Genesis 33:19), but there are no other purchases of land in Canaan in the biblical record until after the Israelites have occupied a large part of Canaan.
  3. God promises “and I will erase them” (וְהִכְחַדְתִּיו) in Exodus 23:23. God plans to drive the natives out of Canaan in Exodus 23:27-30 (through psychological means), 33:1-3, and 34:11 (as well as in Leviticus 18:24-25 and 20:23).
  4. Numbers 21:21-25, 21:33-35, 31:1-18.
  5. Numbers 32:6-27. See my post Mattot: From Confrontation to Understanding.
  6. The God character makes this promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:7, 13:15, 15:7, 15:18, and 17:8; to Isaac in Genesis 26:3; and to Jacob in Genesis 28:13-14 and 35:12.
  7. Leviticus 18:3-30.
  8. This instruction also appears in Numbers 33:52-53.
  9. Geirim (גֵּרִים) = resident aliens (in biblical Hebrew).  Geirim are included in God’s covenant in Deuteronomy 29:9-11 and 31:12, Joshua 8:33-35, and Ezekiel 47:21-23.  The same laws and rights apply to citizens and geirim in Exodus 12:19, 12:48-49, and 20:10; Leviticus 16:29, 17:8-15, 18:26, 20:2, 22:18, 24:16, and 24:22; Numbers 9:14, 15:14-16, 15:26, 15:29-30, 19:10, and 35:15; Deuteronomy 1:16, 5:14, 16:14, 24:14, and 26:11-13; Joshua 20:9; and Ezekiel 14:7.  The Israelites are warned not to oppress geirim in Exodus 22:20 and 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; and Ezekiel 22:7 and 22:29.  The Torah orders the Israelites to love geirim or treat them like brothers in Leviticus 19:33-34 and Deuteronomy 10:18-19 and 24:14.
  10. The united kingdom of Israel ascribed to kings David and Solomon in the bible dates to the mid-900’s BCE. Its existence has not yet been confirmed by archaeologists.  Hoever, there is evidence supporting the biblical claim that there were two Israelite kingdoms from the 920’s to the 720’s BCE: the northern kingdom of Israel/Samaria and the southern kingdom of Judah.

Eikev, Va-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?

August 1, 2018 at 10:02 pm | Posted in Eikev, Noach, Va-etchannan | 2 Comments

Five Kings of Midian Slain by Israel, 1728

The Israelites are camped on the east bank of the Jordan River, ready and willing to cross over and do to the native populations of Canaan what they have already done to the Amorites and Midianites east of the Jordan: burn all their towns, kill all their men, and take over all their land—with God’s explicit approval and assistance.1

I will explore the evolution of and biblical justifications for this ethnic cleansing in next week’s post, Re-eih: Ownership.  This week, let’s look at how Moses says the Israelites should act after their conquest.

In last week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan, Moses warns the Israelites not to feel entitled after they have taken everything the Canaanites own.

And it will happen when God, your God, brings you into the land that was sworn to your forefathers … cities great and good that lo vanita, and houses filled with everything good that you did not fill, stone-hewn cisterns that you did not hew out of stone, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.  And you will eat and you will be satisfied.  Guard yourself, lest you forget God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:10-12)

lo vanita you did not build.  lo (לֺא) = not + banita (בָּנִיתָ) = you built.  (A form of the verb banah, בָּנָה = built, constructed, fortified, rebuilt; built up a family.)

Once the Israelites own everything the previous inhabitants built and planted, they will have an easy head start in their new life.  But Moses does not tell the Israelites to be grateful for the labor of generations of Canaanites.  He only warns them not to forget that everything they own is a gift from God.

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, takes the idea of God’s gift farther.

Guard yourself lest you forget God, your God, and fail to guard [God’s] commandments and laws and decrees, which I, myself, am commanding you this day—lest you eat and you are satisfied, and tivneh good houses, and you dwell in them; and your herds and flocks increase, and silver and gold increases for you, and everything that is yours increases; and then your heart is arrogant and you forget God, your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  (Deuteronomy 8:11-14)

tivneh (תִּבְנֶה) = you build, fortify, build up.   (Another form of the verb banah.)

Here Moses points out that even if the Israelites do build their own houses and bring in their own livestock, wealth in the land they have conquered is not guaranteed.  What you build yourself, as well as what you take from someone else, is a gift from God.

In general, the Hebrew Bible uses the verb “create” (bara, בָּרָא) for what God does, and “build” (banah, בָּנָה) for what humans do, using materials God created.2  People in the bible build many things just to improve their lives, including houses, towns, walls, and livestock pens.  But sometimes humans build for the sake of their own self-importance, and sometimes they build to honor God.


Building a name

After the story of Noah and the flood, the humans on earth figure out how to make bricks and mortar them with bitumen.

Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563

And they said: “Come, nivneh for ourselves a city and a tower [with] its head in the heavens, and we will make for ourselves a name, lest we scatter over the face of all the earth.”  And God went down to look at the city and the tower than the descendants of the human banu.  (Genesis 11:4-5)

nivneh (נִבִנֶה) = let us build.

banu (בָּנוּ) = they built.

Noah’s descendants start to build a single city for the whole human population, with a tower that intrudes on God’s realm, the heavens.  They want to make a “name” or reputation for themselves.  (Since there are no other humans, perhaps that want a reputation among creatures in the heavens.)  God takes them seriously, believing that humankind is indeed capable of doing too much.  So God decides to scatter them—just what the city-builders fear most—so that they will develop different languages and become mutually incomprehensible.

And [God] scattered them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off libanot the city.  Therefore it was called by the name Bavel, because there God confused the lips of the whole earth … (Genesis 11:8)

libanot (לִבְנֺת) = building.

Bavel (בָּבֶל) = Babylon.3

City gate at Megiddo

Building a city can be problematic in the Torah.  The building of the city and tower of Bavel is portrayed as an exercise in arrogance.  In Egypt, the Israelites are forced to build two brick storage-cities for Pharaoh, Pitom and Rameses.4  Later, King Solomon embarks on building projects in the cities of Jerusalem, Megiddo, Chatzor, and Gazer, all using the forced labor of the remaining natives of Canaan.5  Building a city, palace, or fortress means that the some human beings are likely to lord it over others.

In the Torah portion Va-etchannan, Moses warns the Israelites not to feel self-important when they are living in cities and towns that the natives had already built.  After all, they could not kill or drive away those natives without God’s help.

In the Torah portion Eikev, Moses reminds the Israelites not to let their prosperity in their “promised land” make them arrogant, and not to forget that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt.


Building for God

Living in cities built by other people leads to egotism.  But other kinds of building are for the sake of God.

First Temple reconstruction in Bible Museum, Amsterdam

Noah builds the ark at God’s command, but after the flood has receded he builds an altar for animal sacrifices to God on his own initiative. 6  It is the first of many altars men build to worship God.  In the book of Exodus, all the Israelites, men and women, cooperate to build the portable tent-sanctuary for God.  In the first book of Kings, King Solomon enslaves native Canaanites to build his own palace and several fortresses, but he uses the same forced labor to build the first temple for God in Jerusalem.

The bible praises those who build altars and sanctuaries for God, just as it criticizes those who forget their debt to God when they build or take over cities.  But what about the overlords’ dependence on people they defeated and enslaved?  The bible considers only the Israelite point of view.  No gratitude for the labor of non-Israelites is required.

I pray that all of us today may recognize that nobody becomes wealthy without help.  Nobody builds something without the raw materials this world provides, and nobody builds something without the present or past work of other human beings.

As Moses reminds us, may we be grateful to what is not human (whether we call it God or nature) for everything we have, even the air we breathe.  And as Moses fails to remind us, may we also be grateful for the labor of other human beings—even if we consider them Canaanites.

  1. Numbers 21:21-25, 21:33-35, and 31:1-12.
  2. One exception is when God uses the side of the human protype, adam, to “build” a female counterpart (Genesis 2:22), although in Genesis 1:27 and 5:2 God “creates” female and male humans.  Psalms 69, 78, and 102 refer poetically to God as the builder of Tzion or the cities of Judah.  Another exception is when Joshua tells the Josephites to “create” farmland for themselves by clear-cutting forests in the hill-country (Joshua 17:15-18), although they will only be using materials God created, i.e. trees, fire, and dirt.
  3. The name Bavel comes from the Babylonian god Beil, but the Torah might also be alluding to the sound of foreign languages the Israelites encountered during their enforced exile in Babylonia in the 6th century BCE.
  4. Exodus 1:11.
  5. 1 Kings 9:15-20.
  6. Although both Cain and Abel make offerings to God, the first altar mentioned in the Torah is built by Noah after the flood (Genesis 8:20).

Va-etchannan: Fire, Not Idols

July 25, 2018 at 3:21 pm | Posted in Va-etchannan | Leave a comment

A disembodied voice.  A fire.  A cloud.  These are the ways God manifests most often in the Hebrew Bible.  When Moses recounts the revelation at Mount Sinai (also called Mount Choreiv) in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (“And I pleaded”), what he remembers best after 39 years is the fire.

Vesuvius in Eruption, by J.M.W. Turner, 1817

And you drew near, and you stood under the mountain, and the mountain was blazing with the eish up to the heart of the heavens—darkness, cloud, and thick fog.  Then God spoke to you from the middle of the eish.  You were hearing a sound of words, but you were seeing no shape, nothing but a voice.  And [God] told you [God’s] covenant that [God] commanded you to do, the Ten Words.  And [God] inscribed them on two stone tablets.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:11-13)

eish (אֵשׁ) = fire.

So you must guard yourselves carefully, since you did not see any shape on the day God spoke to you on Choreiv from the middle of the eish, lest you [cause] ruin and you make yourselves a carved image, a shape of any idol … (Deuteronomy 4:15)

Moses continues warning the Israelites never to make any idols.  He reminds the Israelites of both the second commandment and the tragedy of the Golden Calf,1 but he also drives home his point that God appears to them as fire and has no shape—and therefore cannot be represented by any idol.

The account of the revelation at Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus/Shemot mentions fire only once.2  But in this week’s Torah portion Moses describes God manifesting in fire fourteen times.3

Furthermore, he describes the fire in terms that inspire fear.  God’s manifestation as fire could kill people.

Because God, your god, is an eish okhelah …  (Deuteronomy 4:23)

okhelah (אֺכְלָה) = that devours, that consumes, that eats.  (From the verb akhal, אָכַל = ate up.) 

After recounting the Ten Words, Moses describes the fearful reaction of the Israelites.

And it was, when you heard the voice from the middle of the darkness, and the mountain was blazing with the eish, and you approached me, all your heads of tribes and your elders, and you said: “Here, God, our God, let us see [God’s] glory and greatness, and we heard [God’s] voice from the middle of the eish this day.  We have seen that God can speak with humankind and [the human] can survive.  But now, why should we die?  Because this great eish, tokheleinu if we listen any more to the voice of God, our God, and we will die.  Because who of all flesh has heard the voice of the living God speaking from the middle of the eish, as we did, and lived on? You go close and listen …  Then you, you speak to us everything that God, our God, speaks to you.  And we will listen and we will do it.   (Deuteronomy 5:20-24)

tokheleinu (תֺאכְלֵנוּ) = it will devour us, consume us, eat us up.  (Also from the verb akhal.)

Here Moses reminds the Israelites that as children, they heard God’s disembodied voice from the middle of the darkness, and they saw the volcanic presence of God in fire, cloud, gloom, and more fire.  Even their parents were too frightened to stay near the voice and the fire, so they commissioned Moses to listen to God’s rules for them and report back.

He was the go-between for their parents 39 years before, and now he is passing on God’s words to the new generation.4


When God manifests as fire in the Torah, it is not a natural fire. Often the time of day determines whether people see the manifestation as cloud or fire.  God leads the Israelites through the wilderness with an intangible pillar that looks like cloud by day and fire by night, so they can always see it.5  From Mount Sinai on, whenever God wants the Israelites to remain encamped, God stations the cloud by day and fire by night above the Tent of Meeting.6

And on the day the sanctuary was erected, the cloud covered the sanctuary, the Tent of the Reminder, and in the evening it was over the sanctuary like the appearance of eish until morning.  Thus it was always: the cloud covered it, and the appearance of eish at night.  (Numbers 19:15-16)

A divine manifestation can even look like fire to one person, and cloud to another.  Moses climbs to the top of the mountain to spend 40 days and 40 nights learning God’s rules.

And the glory of God settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days.  Then [God] called to Moses on the seventh day from the middle of the cloud.  But the glory of God appeared as an eish of okhelet on top of the mountain to the eyes of the Israelites.  (Exodus 24:16-17)  

okhelet (אֺכֶלֶת) = devouring, consumption, demolition.  (Also from the verb akhal.)

Does God appear as a cloud that conceals, or a fire that devours?  It depends on the beholder.  Moses thought he was walking into fog to hear God’s words.  But the people below concluded he had walked into fire and died, so they made the Golden Calf.  (See my post Ki Tissa: Making an Idol out of Fear.)

The manifestation of fire, or something that looks like fire, is also scaled up or down according to God’s motives.  When God first speaks to Moses, God wants to know whether Moses is good at paying attention to details.  So God manifests as a small fire inside a thorn bush, easy to miss in the glaring sun.

Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt

He looked, and hey! The bush was aflame with the eish, yet the bush was not ukal.  (Exodus 3:2)

ukal (אֻכָּל) = devoured, consumed, eaten up.  (Also from the verb akhal.)

On the other hand, when the Israelites finish making God’s portable sanctuary, the Tent of Meeting, and the new priests lay out the first sacrifice to inaugurate the altar, God makes a more impressive display.

And eish went forth from in front of God, vatokhal the rising-offering and the fat on the altar.  And all the people saw, and they shouted and fell on their faces.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:24)

vatokhal (וַתֺּאכַל) = and it devoured, consumed, ate up.  (Yes, another form of the verb akhal.)

How could an idol of a golden calf compare with the sight of a fire rushing out of the sanctuary and devouring the butchered animals on the altar?


Like fire, God has no definite boundaries, is constantly changing, and is impossible to grasp.

Idols, on the other hand, are man-made inanimate objects—solid, tangible, and immobile, the opposite of fire and fog.  Other religions in the Ancient Near East viewed idols as forms that gods would temporarily inhabit, rather than as gods themselves.  But Moses warns the Israelites against using idols for any religious purpose.

Fire is an unnerving metaphor for God’s manifestation in our world.  Yet I have met people who yearn for God’s unmediated presence.  They are ready to be devoured.  I am more cautious, or perhaps more ego-centered, than that.  A momentary experience of divine unity and purpose is plenty for me.  And I do not expect to be devoured.

I suspect that only our “right brains”, our irrational, intuitive minds, can be touched by an experience of God.  Most of the time, our “left brains”, our rational egos, are built-in mediators that protect us from being consumed by divine fire.

In other words, we have our own inner Moses to translate for us and keep us sane—although we always lose something in translation.

May we all learn that we cannot express the mystery at the heart of existence through tidy, concrete statements and creeds—any more than we can lure God into inhabiting idols.

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

  1. The Ten Words, first recorded in Exodus 20:1-14, are repeated in Deuteronomy 5:6-18. The second commandment begins: You may not make for yourself a carved image, any shape of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below, or in the waters below on the earth … (Deuteronomy 5:8).  The Torah first tells the story of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32:1-35, and Moses retells it in Deuteronomy 9:8-21.
  2. Exodus 19:18.
  3. Deuteronomy 4:11, 4:12, 4:15, 4:23, 4:33, 4:36 (twice), 5:4, 5:5, 5:19, 5:20, 5:21, 5:22, 5:23.
  4. Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy has both some omissions (for example, see my post Devarim: In God We Trust?) and some repetitions, such as the insistent recurrence of God’s fire in this week’s portion.
  5. The pillar of cloud by day and fire by night is first mentioned in Exodus 13:21-22.
  6. First mentioned in Exodus 40:38.


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