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).

Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred

May 24, 2017 at 7:43 pm | Posted in Bemidbar | 1 Comment
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When you have a portable sanctuary, you need a procedure for packing up the holy items when it’s time to move on. And if unauthorized contact with a holy object results in death, the correct procedure is critical. This week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar (“In a wilderness”), specifies that only the priests may wrap up the holy items. Then Levites can carry them, once they are completely concealed.

They may not come in and see the holy even for a moment, or they will die.  (Numbers 4:20)

The first holy item the priests cover is the ark itself. The ark is usually hidden even from them, behind the partition-curtain in the Tent of Meeting that screens off the Holy of Holies.

Aharon and his sons shall come, when the camp is pulling out, and they shall take down the partition-curtain, and they shall cover the Ark of the Testimony with it.  Then they shall place over it a covering of tachash leather, and they shall spread a cloth of perfect  tekheilet over that, then put its poles in place. (Numbers/Bemidbar 4:5-6)

Murex shell

tachash (תָּחַשׁ) = An unknown Hebrew word for either a treatment for leather, or the animal providing the skin.1

tekheilet (תְּכֵלֶת) = Blue dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail.2

Next Aaron and his sons Elazar and Itamar cover up the holy items they use regularly inside the Tent of Meeting.

Then they shall spread over the Table of the Presence a cloth of tekheilet, and they will place upon it the bowls, ladles, offering-bowls, libation jars for libations, and [that week’s] perpetual bread.  And they shall spread out over them a cloth of tolat shani, and then cover it with a covering of tachash leather, and they shall put its poles in place.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 4:7-8)

Shield lice on branch

tola-at shani (תּוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי) =  A vivid red or scarlet dye made from the unhatched eggs of shield-lice living on oak bark.

Although the table also has three coverings, the utensils—and that week’s bread!—are stored on top of the first tablecloth, then covered by the second cloth and the leather.

Next they shall take a cloth of tekheilet, and they shall cover the lampstand (menorah) of the lighting and its lamps and its wick-cutters and its ash-pans and all the utensils for its oil that they use to attend to it. And they shall put it and all its utensils into a covering of tachash leather, and they shall place it on the carrying-frame.  (Numbers 4:9-10)

The priests cover the incense altar the same way, first in tekheilet cloth, then in tachash leather.3

Finally, the priests must prepare the altar used for animal sacrifices, which is stationed in front of the Tent of Meeting for burning offerings of animals and grain products.  Even though everyone can see this altar, the priests cover it before the Levites move it.

And they shall remove ashes from the altar, and they shall spread over it a cloth of argaman.  And they shall place on it all the serving utensils which they use to attend to it—the ash pans, the meat forks, the scrapers, and the sprinkling basins—all the utensils of the altar. And they shall spread over it [the altar and its utensils] a covering of tachash leather, and they shall put its poles in place.  (Numbers 4:13-14)

argaman (אַרְגָּמָן) = purple dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail.

The various coverings of the holy objects are made out of wool dyed in the three most vivid colors available, and a type of leather that is only used for the Tent of Meeting and its holy objects.  Clearly the holy items must be honored with the best possible But why are different colors, in a different order, assigned to each item?

Wool dyed with techeilet

Tekheilet

Later in the book of Numbers the Israelites are told to wear fringes on the corners of their own garments, with a thread of tekheilet in each fringe, so that the sight of the fringe will remind them of everything God has commanded them to do.4 (See my post Shelach Lekha: Glimpses of Blue.) Why is turquoise the best color for the reminder?  Perhaps because it is the color of the sky, which is “the heavens”, the place God descends from.

Tekheilet is not used to cover the animal-offering altar, which stands outside the Tent of Meeting and is less holy.  But it is used for the innermost wrapping of the three holy objects placed inside the Tent, and for the outermost wrapping of the ark behind the partition.

God’s voice comes from the empty space above the lid of the ark, and the ark is sometimes called God’s throne. The Bible also pictures God’s throne in the heavens. And the pavement on which God’s feet appear in the vision on Mount Sinai is sapphire, “like the heavens for purity”.5 (See my post Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.)  Sky blue is the color most directly associated with God.6  So surrounding the wrapped ark with techeilet cloth is like surrounding it with the sky.7

A cloth of tekheilet is the innermost cover touching the table, the lampstand, and the incense altar, the three holy objects that the priests tend constantly inside the Tent of Meeting. Although God does not speak or sit above these objects, they are still imbued with a residue of the heavens.

Wool dyed with tolaat shani

Tola-at shani

Scarlet is the color of fresh blood.  In the Torah, blood represents the soul that animates the body, and therefore the Israelites are forbidden to eat or drink it.8 (See my post Reih: Don’t Be a Soul-Eater.)

Later the book of Numbers describes how a perfect red cow is slaughtered, then burned with other red objects:  cedar wood, hyssop, and shani tola-at. The ashes are mixed with water and sprinkled on anyone who has touched a corpse, in order to make them ritually pure again.9 (See my post Chukkat: Blood and Ash.)

The table in the Tent of Meeting is spread first with a cloth of techeilet, the color of the heavens. Then its utensils and the usual twelve loaves of bread are set out on the blue tablecloth. Even while the table is being carried through the wilderness, the “perpetual bread” is there as a human offering to God.  But the grain to make the bread is God’s offering to humans.  Our bodies cannot live without the food that God provides, so the priests add a cloth of tola-at shani, the color of life-blood.

Cloth dyed with argaman

Argaman

A combination of blue (tekheilet), scarlet (tola-at shani), and purple (argaman) yarns are used to weave or embroider all the cloth walls and door-curtains of the Tent of Meeting, as well as the sashes of all the priests, and several items in the high priest’s costume.

The innermost cover over the ark is the partition-curtain that screens off the Holy of Holies when the Tent of Meeting is assembled. This curtain is woven out of tekheilet, tola-at shani, and argaman. Thus all three colors of holiness are touching the ark while it is being carried.

Cloth woven of only argaman wool, which the priests use to cover the outside altar, appears elsewhere in the Bible as a sign of wealth and royalty. Kings of Midian wear purple robes10, King Solomon sits on purple wool11, and the proverbial “woman of valor” dresses in purple.12

Why is the copper altar used to burn animal parts covered with the argaman of wealth? Perhaps turning the fat parts of cattle, sheep, and goats, or sometimes entire animals, into smoke for God is an expression of gratitude for the abundance that makes this offering possible.

Tachash

The word tachash occurs in the Bible only as a type of skin or leather. In this week’s Torah portion, tachash leather is the middle layer of wrapping for the ark, and the outer layer covering the table, lampstand, and both altars when these holy objects are carried to a new campsite. Tachash leather is also the top layer of the roof of the Tent of Meeting.13

The only other appearance of tachash leather in the Bible is a description of God dressing Jerusalem in embroidered garments, fine linen, silk, jewelry, and sandals of tachash. (Ezekiel 16:10)  The analogy makes Jerusalem not only God’s bride, but also a holy place.

While tachash leather separates Jerusalem from the earth in Ezekiel, it separates the Tent of Meeting from the heavens in Exodus. When God wants the Israelites to remain encamped, a pillar of cloud and fire rests over the Tent of Meeting, above the tachash leather roof. When God wants the Israelites to move on, the pillar ascends, and the priests must cover the holy objects with tachash leather so they can be safely transported. The Levites carry these carefully wrapped items above the earth and below the heavens.

*

Today we move not only to new geographical locations, but to new positions in our interior lives.  When we reach a new insight, or enter a new stage of life, it helps to remember the beliefs in our old lives that helped us to be grateful or ethical. Even as we outgrow some old beliefs, we can reframe the ideas that still inspire us, and carry them into our new lives.

When Jews today finish reading from a Torah scroll, we cover it with a garment that both protects the hand-lettered parchment, and prevents us from taking the scroll for granted.  Similarly, we can wrap our own sacred ideas and imperatives in garments that preserve them and prevent us from treating them too familiarly.

What colors do you need to cover your own sacred ideas?  Sky blue, to remind you of everything beyond your horizon?  Scarlet, to remind you that you owe your own life to living things you did not create?  Purple, to remind you of an abundance you may not have noticed? Or the unknown color of tachash, the skin separating heaven and earth through a divine mystery?

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

1  Those who guess tachash is a treatment for leather translate it variously as tanned, blackened, dyed blue, and dyed ochre.  Those who guess tachash  is the name of the animal providing the skin translate it variously as badger, ermine, wild goat, wild ram, sea cow, narwhal, dolphin, or seal.

2  Although the hue varies according to the amount of exposure to sunlight during the process, modern dye from the same species of murex used for the fringes on prayer shawls, is turquoise.

3  (Numbers 4:11-12)

4  Numbers 15:38.

5  Exodus 24:10.

6  19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that “תכלת, ‘sky-blue,’ is the color that points to the limits (תִּכְלָה) of our horizon, to what lies beyond our field of vision—i.e., to the hidden to the Divine.” (Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, English translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 542 on Exodus 26:14.)

7  20th-century Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Bamidbar, English translation by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, New York, 1993,  p. 29.

8   Deuteronomy 12:23-25.

9  Numbers 19:3-6, 19:11-22. A similar mixture of cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet dye is mixed with blood from a slaughtered bird and sprinkled on someone who has recovered from skin disease in order to return them to ritual purity. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:6, 14:51-52)

10 Judges 8:26.

11  Song of Songs 3:10.

12  Proverbs 31:22.

13  The top of the Tent of Meeting is covered with tanned rams’ skins, and then over that goes a layer of tachash leather.  (Exodus/Shemot 26:14, 36:19, 39:34; Numbers 4:25.)

 

 

 

Vaykheil & Psalm 18: Wings for Chariots

March 22, 2017 at 11:56 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Vayakheil | 1 Comment
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(This is the last of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms. Next week I will begin revisiting some sparks in the ancient priestly religion described in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.)

Skilled artisans among the Israelites make all the items for the portable tent that is to be a dwelling-place1 for God in the Torah portion Vayakheil. Moses then assembles the new Tent of Meeting, the divine fiery cloud covers it, and the glory of God fills the inside in the next Torah portion, Pekudei. The golden calf was a mistake, but this time the Israelites got it right! The success in this week’s double portion, Vayakheil-Pekudei, completes the book of Exodus/Shemot.

One replica of the ark, Jerusalem

The focal point for God’s presence is the empty space above the ark inside the inner chamber of the tent.  The ark is a gold-plated wooden box holding the second pair of tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. The master-artisan Betzaleil hammers out a solid gold lid for the ark—not just a slab of gold but a sculpture, with two winged creatures rising from the lid in one continuous piece of gold.

And he made two keruvim; of gold hammered work he made them, from two edges of the lid: one keruv from this edges and one keruv from that edges. From the lid he made the keruvim, from its edges. And the keruvim were spreading out wings above, shielding the lid with their wings. And each one faced its brother, and the faces of the keruvim were toward the lid.  (Exodus/Shemot 37:76-9)

keruv (כּרוּב) = a hybrid creature with wings and a human face. Plural: keruvim (כְּרוֻבִים  or  כְּרוּוִים). (The English word “cherub” is derived from the Hebrew keruv, but a keruv in the Bible does not look like a chubby baby with stubby white wings.)

Keruvim and ark in First Temple (one interpretation)

When King Solomon builds the first temple in Jerusalem, its back room, the Holy of Holies, contains two free-standing gold-plated sculptures representing keruvim. Each is 10 cubits tall (15 to 20 feet) and has a 10-cubit wingspan. Solomon has the ark carried in and placed under their wings. (See my post Pekudei & 1 Kings: A Throne for the Divine.)

The Hebrew word keruv may come from the Akkadian word kuribu, “blessed ones”, their name for the colossal statues of hybrid winged beasts guarding doorways and gates. Commentators have speculated that keruvim might have the bodies of bulls (like Assyrian shedu) or lions (like Egyptian sphinxes or Phoenician lammasu) or humans. Raanan Eichler has made a good argument that the keruvim spreading their wings over the ark must have stood upright on two legs, and therefore probably had human bodies.

Hybrid beings with wings and human faces appear in many Ancient Near Eastern sculptures. When they are not demons battling heroes, they are either guardians of gates, or servants transporting a god. Keruvim in the Hebrew Bible are never demons, but they do appear as both guardians and transportation.

Guardians

Kusarikku from palace of Sargon II

Assyrians placed sculptures of shedu, winged bulls, as guardians at either side of a gateway into a city or palace. Another guardian figure, called Gud-alim by Sumerians and Kusarikku by later Mesopotamians, represented a door-keeper who protected a house from intruders. He stood upright and looked fairly human, except that he often had wings, horns, or a bull’s legs. In some depictions he carries a bucket.

Phoenician artworks from coastal cities west of ancient Israel and Judah also feature a pair of hybrid winged creatures on either side of a tree of life. Their tree of life is a composite of a lotus and a papyrus (borrowed from Egyptian art) and sometimes a palm tree.

Phoenician sphinxes and tree of life

Similarly, the decorations carved in the walls of King Solomon’s temple—by artisans from the Phoenician city-state of Tyre—featured keruvim and palm trees.2

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, two keruvim serve as guardians of the way back into the Garden of Eden, where the Tree of Life remains untasted.3

One of Ezekiel’s prophesies compares the king of Tyre with a keruv that is supposed to protect its city.4  In an earlier post, Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day, I suggested that since God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the ark,5 the two keruvim are also guardians of an entrance: a portal to the invisible God.

Baal Hadad with thunderbolt, Ugarit

Divine Transportation

Tarhunz from Arslantepe, Turkey

The gods of other religions in the ancient Near East rarely rode on the backs of winged creatures; instead they used these creatures to pull their chariots. Tarhunz, the high god of the Luwian people living north of Canaan, was in charge of weather and war. He used lightning as a weapon, and rode in a chariot pulled by winged horses. South of the Luwians and north of Israel, the Canaanites of Ugarit worshiped Baal Hadad (“Master of Thunder”), a weather and war god who also wielded lightning. The Ugarit writings call this Baal “Rider of Clouds”.

The God of Israel also seems to have a chariot of clouds, in the poetry of Jeremiah and Psalm 104.6

God’s cloud chariot is pulled by keruvim in a poem that appears twice in the Bible, once as chapter 22 in the second book of Samuel, and later (with only slight changes) as Psalm 18. The speaker, King David, faces death at the hands of an enemy army, and calls on God for help. God descends from the heavens.

            Smoke went up from His nostrils

                        And fire from His mouth devours.

                        Embers blazed from Him.

            He tilted the heavens and descended,

                        And a thundercloud was beneath His feet.

            And He drove a keruv and flew,

                        And He soared on the wings of the wind. (Psalm 18:9-11)

I use the pronoun “He” in this translation because God is presented as if “He” were Baal Hadad from the Canaanite pantheon of male and female gods. Psalm 18 continues with imagery of dark clouds, hail, thunder, and arrows of lightning. God then stages a dramatic rescue, and David wins the battle.

A Chariot Throne

The ark with its two keruvim is often considered God’s throne in the Bible—the authoritative location where God sits like a king. But sometimes this throne is movable, like a chariot.

Before David conquers Jerusalem, when the ark is housed in a temple at Shiloh, the Israelite army decides to carry it with them into battle against the Philistines, hoping that God will fight for them.

And they took away from there the ark of the covenant of God of Armies Sitting on the Keruvim … (1 Samuel 4:4)

Although the Israelite forces carry God’s throne, they lose the battle. The Philistines capture the ark, then later abandon it in Israelite territory. When King David retrieves it for his new capital in Jerusalem, it is called

the ark of the god whose name was invoked, the name of God of Armies Sitting upon the Keruvim.  (2 Samuel 6:2)

The title is also used in psalms 80 and 99.

            Listen, Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock!

                        Sitter on the keruvim, shine forth!  (Psalm 80:2-3)

           God, King, the peoples will tremble!

                        Sitter on the keruvim, You will shake the earth!  (Psalm 99:1)

The Babylonian army razed the first temple in Jerusalem in 579 B.C.E., burning it to the ground. The army carried off some of its gold items as booty, but the ark and its keruvim disappeared from history. When some of the Israelites returned to Jerusalem under Persian rule and built a second temple, they left the Holy of Holies empty.

Ever since the destruction of the first temple with its ark and gold keruvim, God’s throne could only be an abstraction or a vision. The prophet Ezekiel reports two mystical visions of hybrid winged creatures during the exile in Babylon (Ezekiel 1:4-28; Ezekiel 10:1-22 and 11:22-23). In his second vision he identifies these creatures as keruvim.

Ezekiel’s Vision, by Matthuas Merian 1670 (some assembly required)

In both visions, the glory of God (not God Itself) appears as a fiery figure on a throne that looks like sapphire, suspended above four keruvim, each of which is accompanied by an interlocking wheel covered with eyes.  Each keruv has a single leg ending in a calf’s hoof, a human body, four wings, a human hand below each wing, and a head with four faces: one human, one lion, one eagle, and one that is called the face of an ox in the first vision and the face of a keruv in the second vision.

The keruvim and their wheels move up and down as well as in all four directions, and the throne suspended above them moves along with them. Although Ezekiel does not call this arrangement a chariot, subsequent Jewish writers developed a school of mysticism based on the merkavah (מֶרְכָּבָה = chariot) in the book of Ezekiel.

Clouds by John Constable

Even without a temple, even without keruvim, the human mind needs poetic images to think about God. Today many of us no longer need to assign God a face, a hand, or a body in robes; we can handle the paradox of God as both invisible and manifest in everything we see. Yet poetic images still well up around the notion of God:  clouds, beams of light, opalescent radiance, perhaps even wings. They are not God, yet God is in the imagery.

When God Itself seems too abstract, perhaps we can think of something like a keruv, a creation that pulls the presence of God toward us when we need rescue, and that stands at our gateways when we need a guardian.

1  (See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.)

2  In the first (Israelite) temple in Jerusalem, keruvim and palms  are carved in relief on the wooden walls and two sets of double doors (1 Kings 6:29, 32, 34). Keruvim, palms, and lions are engraved on the stands for ten bronze wash-basins (1 Kings 7:36).

3  Genesis 3:24.

4  Ezekiel 28:14, 16.

5  Exodus 25:22, Numbers 7:89.

6           Hey! Like clouds it ascends;

            Like a whirlwind is [God’s] chariot;

            Lighter than eagles are His horses.  (Jeremiah 4:13)

In Psalm 104, God’s cloud chariot is pulled by the wind:

            Setting beams for [God’s] roof chambers in the waters [above the sky],

                        Making the clouds His chariot,

                        He goes on the wings of the wind.  (Psalm 104:3)

 

Haftarat Chukkat—Judges: A Peculiar Vow

July 12, 2016 at 11:45 am | Posted in Chukkat, Judges | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Chukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1) and the haftarah is Judges 11:1-33.
Yiftach by Guillaume Rouille

Yiftach
by Guillaume Rouille

Why would a man who is clear-headed, cool, and careful with words suddenly make a vow that threatens his only child?

The haftarah from Judges introduces Yiftach as a man who is an outcast through no fault of his own.

Yiftach of Gilad was a capable warrior, and he was the son of a prostitute, and he was begotten by Gilad. Then the wife of Gilad bore him sons, and the sons of his wife grew up and they drove out Yiftach. They said to him: “You shall not inherit in our father’s household, because you are the son of another woman.” So Yiftach fled from his brothers, and he settled in the land of Tov, and men without means gathered around Yiftach and went out with him. (Judges 11:1-3)

Yiftach (יִפְתָּח) = he opened.  “Jephthah” in English translations.

Grassland in Gilad (now in west Jordan)

Grassland in west Gilad
(now in Jordan)

Gilad (גִּלְעָד) = “Gilead”, the region east of the Jordan River, settled by the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menashe in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar because it was good for cattle. Yiftach’s father is probably called “Gilad” because he is the chief or de facto king of the region; the Bible often refers to a king by the name of his country.

The oldest son of a chief does not automatically become the next chief, but all of a man’s sons are entitled to a share of his property.  As a capable warrior, Yiftach could attack his half-brothers when they refuse to share with him. But he is too sensible to take this risk. Instead he accepts that he has been deprived of both his home and any of his father’s herds, and he flees to a remote part of east Gilad.

There he leads a band of landless men who “go out”—probably to raid villages for spoils, a common occupation in the ancient Near East.

Later, the Ammonites to the south attack the Giladites and capture some of their towns.  Since Gilad has no war leader, a delegation of elders travels to Tov and asks Yiftach to take the job.  He refuses on the grounds that he was disinherited and driven away. So the elders make him a better offer.

“You shall go with us and you shall battle against the Ammonites and you shall become our chief, for all the inhabitants of Gilad.” (Judges 11:8)

Yiftach, clever and careful, rephrases their offer to mean that he will be the permanent chief of Gilad, even after the Ammonites are defeated:

“If you are bringing me back to battle against the Ammonites, and God gives them up to me, it is I who will be your chief.” (Judges 11:9)

The elders agree, but as an extra precaution Yiftach repeats his words in front of God at the nearest high place, the mitzpah or lookout post of Gilad.

We can assume he brings his raiders with him and recruits and trains more soldiers.  But his next recorded move is to send a message to the king of the Ammonites:

Gilad at the end of the book of Numbers

Gilad (Menasheh, Gad, and Reuben) at the end of the book of Numbers

“What is between me and you, that you come to me to make war on my land?” (Judges 11:12)

Yiftach addresses the Ammonite ruler as one king to another, as if it were a personal quarrel.  The king of the Ammonites replies that the Israelites took his ancestral land, between the Arnon and Yabok rivers east of the Jordan, when they came up from Egypt centuries ago.  Yiftach replies by explaining that Amorites captured that land before the Israelites arrived, so the Ammonites have no legitimate grudge against the Israelites of Gilad.  This time, the Ammonite king sends no return message.

Up to this point Yiftach has acted cautiously and reasonably. Then something happens to him.

And a ruach of God came over Yiftach.  And he passed through the Gilad and Menasheh, and he passed the lookout of Gilad, and from the lookout of Gilad he passed ahead to the Ammonites. (Judges 11:29)

ruach (רוּחַ) when immediately followed by a name of God = prophetic inspiration or ecstasy; charisma; mood, motivating force, prevailing attitude.

The book of Judges tells of two war leaders before Yiftach who were overcome by a ruach of God: Othniel and Gideon, both of whom were motivated to go to war.  After Yiftach, whenever Samson is overcome by the ruach of God he has a burst of superhuman strength and commits an impulsive act of violence. In the first book of Samuel, King Saul is overcome both by a ruach of prophetic ecstasy and by a ruach that plunges him into foul and suspicious moods—and both kinds of ruach come from God.

What kind of ruach of God comes over Yiftach? The first effect of the divine ruach is that he gathers his troops and goes to fight the Ammonites. But the ruach may have a second effect; immediately after the sentence quoted above, the haftarah continues:

And Yiftach vowed a vow to God, and he said: “If You definitely give the Ammonites into my hand, then it will be the one that goes out from my door of my house to meet me at my safe return from the Ammonites—[that one] will belong to God, veha-alitehu [as] an olah.” (Judges 11:30-31)

veha-alitehu (וְהאעֲלִיתְהוּ) = and I will make him/it go up. (From the root verb alah (עלה) = go up. The –hu ending can mean either a male human or an animal.)

olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering. (Also from the root alah (עלה) = go up.) In an olah an entire slaughtered animal offering is burned up into smoke.

Camel in Egyptian petroglyph

Camel in Egyptian petroglyph

This is not the vow of someone who is thinking clearly. After all, he does not know who or what will come out the door of his house.  The Midrash Rabbah for Leviticus/Vayikra imagines God wondering if Yiftach would offer up a non-kosher animal unsuitable for altar sacrifice, such as a camel, donkey, or dog, if it happened to come out the door first.

Yiftach, who is so well-versed in Israelite history, would know that human beings are also unacceptable as offerings on God’s altar. Yet his vow implies that not only will he give God ownership of the person or animal that comes out of his house, but that he will do so by burning up the man or animal in an olah offering.

Perhaps Yiftach is still under the influence of the ruach of God, and not thinking clearly.

I found three other if-then vows in the Bible, and all three are more practical about the object of the vow. Jacob vows that if God keeps him safe until he returns to his father’s house, then he will give a tithe of all his property to God (Genesis 29:20-22).  Hannah vows that if God gives her a son, she will give him to God as a lifelong servant—a nazir, priest, and/or prophet. (1 Samuel 1:11)  In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites …vowed a vow to God and said: If You definitely give this people into my hand, then I will devote their towns to utter destruction for God. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:2)

In each case, God fulfills the request, and the person who makes the vow gives what he or she promised to God.  God also fulfills the request in this week’s haftarah:

And Yiftach passed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and God gave them into his hand. …twenty towns … a very great blow. And the Ammonites were subdued before the Israelites. (Judges 11:32-33)

So when Yiftach gets home, he must fulfill his unconsidered vow.

daughter of Yiftach 3bThis is where the haftarah ends, but the story continues in the book of Judges:

And Yiftach came to the lookout post, to his house, and hey!—his daughter was going out to meet him, with tambourines and with dancing.  And she was an only child; he had no other son or daughter. (Judges 11:34)

Yiftach’s response shows that he has recovered from the ruach of God that gave him battle fever and led to his muddled vow.

As he saw her, he tore his clothes [in mourning] and he said: Ah! My daughter, I have certainly been knocked down to my knees! And you, you have become okherai. And I, I opened up my mouth to God, and I am not able to turn back. (Judges 11:35)

okherai (עֹכְרָי) = one who cuts me off from social life, one who makes trouble for me.

When Yiftach’s father died, his brothers cut off from his old life and subjected him to troubles.  Now he blames his daughter for doing it again. He also blames himself for making the vow in the first place.

*

I know some people today who seek ecstatic experiences, who want to be overcome by the ruach of God.  And I know people who are driven by a mission they consider sacred, one that has taken over their lives and muddled their thinking, as if they had been overcome by a ruach of God.

As for myself, I would rather keep my head clear and think before I speak.  I would rather be like Yiftach before the ruach hit him.

What about you?

*

(Look for next week’s post (Haftarah for Balak) for an exploration of how Yiftach fulfills his vow, what actually happens to Yiftach’s daughter, and how this story informs next week’s haftarah from the book of Micah.)

Haftarat Shemini—2 Samuel: A Dangerous Spirit

March 31, 2016 at 10:28 pm | Posted in Samuel 2, Shemini | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) and the haftarah is 2 Samuel 6:1-7:17.

Being touched by God is a dangerous thing.

Uzza, in this week’s haftarah, walks next to the cart carrying the ark of the covenant during King David’s first attempt to move it to Jerusalem.

"The Chastisement of Uzzah" by James Tissot

“The Chastisement of Uzzah” by James Tissot

When the oxen pulling the cart stumble, Uzza instinctively reaches out and grabs at the ark—and God strikes Uzza dead.  (See my post Shemini & 2 Samuel: Separating Holiness.)

And David was angry that God had broken through, [making] a breach in Uzza. (2 Samuel 6:8)

The bible does not say whether David is angry at Uzza or at God, but he is certainly upset that he has to abort his carefully-planned procession to bring the ark to his new capital, Jerusalem. For one thing, David is still consolidating his position as Israel’s second king.

He began his career as King Saul’s loyal lieutenant, a charismatic hero in Saul’s war against the Philistines. After Saul turned against David and repeatedly tried to kill him, David fled and found refuge in Philistine territory. After Saul died, David returned and was acclaimed king of Judah, the southern part of Saul’s former kingdom, but one of Saul’s sons became king of the northern territory. Gradually David conquered that land as well, then captured the foreign stronghold of Jerusalem and made it his new capital. But not all the people of Israel supported King David. Some still viewed him as the charismatic war hero who used to lead Saul’s troops; others resented him for opposing King Saul’s son.

So King David decides to bring the ark of the covenant, the people’s most important religious object, into Jerusalem. That way his new administrative center will also be his subjects’ primary center of worship. But after God breaks through and kills Uzza, David asks: How can it come to me, the ark of God? (2 Samuel 6:9)

David's first attempt with ark, illuminated manuscript

David’s first attempt with ark, illuminated manuscript

David is also angry and afraid because he deliberately set up the transportation of the ark as an occasion of religious rejoicing.

And David and the whole house of Israel were laughing and playing before God, with every woodwind of cypress, and with lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. (2 Samuel 6:5)

At that time, there were companies of “prophets” among the Israelites who entered altered states in order to experience God. Their usual method, according to the two books of Samuel, included playing music and encouraging ecstatic dancing and speaking in tongues.

For example, after the prophet Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel, he tells him:

"Saul Prophesies with the Prophets", by James Tissot

“Saul Prophesies with the Prophets”, by James Tissot

… as you are coming into the town you shall encounter a company of neviyim coming down from the high shrine, preceded by lute and tambourine and flute and lyre, and they shall be mitnabim. (1 Samuel 10:5)

neviyim (נְבִיאִִים) = prophets. (From the root verb niba (נבּא) = raved; conveyed the word of God. The Hebrew Bible uses the word neviyim (singular navi (נָבִיא) for both those who go into an altered state in order to experience God, and those who hear God and serve as God’s interpreters. (See my post Haftarah for Ki Tissa—1 Kings: Ecstatic versus Rational Prophets.)

mitnabim (מִתְנַבְּאִים) = speaking in an altered state (including glossolalia), often with ecstatic movement. (Also from the root niba.)

Samuel continued:

Then the ruach of God will overpower you, vehitnabita with them, and you shall be transformed into another man. (1 Samuel 10:6)

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind, spirit, overpowering mood.

vehitnabita (וְהִתְנַבִּיתָ) = and you shall babble in an altered state, move in ecstasy.

A ruach of God does overpower Saul, but it does not transform him into a better man. It merely makes a breach without killing him, so a ruach can overpower him again and again. Most often Saul is seized with angry jealousy and tries to kill David.

Maybe Saul’s original personality simply could not be transformed so that his altered states were joyful, like those of the neviyim.

David, however, enters the narrative as a charismatic, brave, and clever young man who sizes things up and plans ahead. When things go wrong, he optimistically bounces back with a new scheme.

Although David is a musician, he does not act like the neviyim until it fits his plan to bring the ark to his new capital. And after his first attempt fails because of the death of Uzza, David waits three months and then tries again.

Then David went and he brought up the ark of God from the house of Oveid-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. …And David was whirling with all his might before God; and David had belted on a linen tunic. (2 Samuel 6:12, 6:14) 

King David’s tunic is an eifod (אֵפוֹד), two rectangles of material fastened together at the shoulders and belted at the waist. Elsewhere in the Bible an eifod is a ritual garment worn by the high priest over his robe and underpants. David is planning to take the role of high priest as well as king. But on this occasion, he does not wear anything under his tunic.

The ark arrives in Jerusalem (David not shown)

The ark arrives in Jerusalem (David, scantily dressed, is not shown)

David and all the household of Israel were bringing up the ark of God with shouts and with the sound of the ram’s horn. And the ark of God entered the City of David. And Mikhal, daughter of Saul, looked down from the window, and she saw the king, David, leaping and whirling before God, and she scorned him in her heart. (2 Samuel 6:16)

Mikhal is not only Saul’s daughter, but also one of David’s wives—arguably his most important wife at the time, since David’s marriage to her helps to legitimize his claim to Saul’s kingdom. She notices that while David is ecstatic leaping and whirling, the front piece of his tunic flaps around below the belt—revealing his lack of underpants.

Once the ark is ensconced in a tent in Jerusalem, King David makes animal offerings and blesses the people in the name of God, like a high priest. Then he hands out bread and cakes to everyone before going to his palace to bless his own household. Mikhal intercepts him at the door.

And Mikhal, daughter of Saul, went out to meet David and she said: How he was honored today, the king of Israel—who exposed himself today to the eyes of the slave-women of his servants as one of the worthless exposes himself! (2 Samuel 6:20)

And David said to Mikhal: Before God—who chose me instead of your father and instead of any of his household, to appoint me sovereign over the people of God, over Israel—before God I will laugh and play; and I will be dishonored even more than this, and I will be debased in my own eyes! But with the slave-women of whom you speak, with them I will be honored. (2 Samuel 6:21)

King David is claiming that he knows proper behavior according to members of the ruling class—and that nevertheless, he will behave in the way that wins the love of the common people. There are times when a king is better off dancing with a flapping tunic—as long as the dancing proves the king has been touched by God.

Religious ecstasy did not help Israel’s first king. King Saul lived in the moment, and if the spirit of God touched him, he acted, for good or for bad.

King David, on the other hand, always planned ahead. He whirled ecstatically in front of the ark because a joyful and over-the-top religious procession was part of his plan for uniting his people.

Sometimes it is good to get emotional over God. I have led Shabbat services with a sequence of songs designed to inspire and elevate people into joy, and even dancing.

But there must be a safe container for ecstasy. Samuel did not realize that Saul was not a safe container for the spirit of God.  And Mikhal did not realize that David had created a procession that would be a safe container for religious ecstasy.

May we all be blessed with intuitive knowledge of when it is good to let go, and when it is better to restrain oneself.

Haftarat Pekudei—1 Kings: More, Bigger, Better

March 6, 2016 at 6:41 am | Posted in Kings 1, Pekudei | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38). The haftarah in the Sefardi tradition is 1 Kings 7:40-50; the haftarah in the Ashkenazi tradition is 1 Kings 7:51-8:21.

More, bigger, better.

Moses assembles the first roofed structure for the God of Israel at the end of the book of Exodus, in this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei.  It is a small tent: 10 by 30 cubits (about 15 by 45 feet or 4½ by 13½ meters).

temple comparisons 3Both options for this week’s haftarah are about the temple King Solomon builds in Jerusalem.  A tall building of stone and cedar, its footprint is 20 by 60 cubits (about 30 by 90 feet or 9 by 27 meters). Solomon’s temple is four times as big as Moses’ tent sanctuary—and it needs to be. As the main temple in the capital of a nation-state, it must accommodate many priests.  The tent sanctuary has to be disassembled and reassembled whenever the Israelites move to a new camp in the wilderness, and only Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons go inside.

Like most religions in the ancient Near East, the religion outlined in the Hebrew Bible makes a distinction between public worship and the rituals conducted by priests. The public place of worship is the open courtyard in front of the sanctuary, where animals and grain products are offered at the altar. Only priests are allowed to go inside the tent or temple.

When priests move from serving at the altar to serving inside the building, they stop to wash their hands and feet. So when Moses is setting up the portable sanctuary for the first time,

…he put the basin between the Ohel Mo-eid and the altar, and he place there water for washing. And from it Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet. When they came into the Ohel Mo-eid and when they approached the altar they washed, as God had commanded Moses. (Exodus/Shemot 40:30-32)

Ohel Mo-eid (אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד) = Tent of Meeting.  From ohel (אֹהֶל) = tent and mo-eid (מוֹעֵד) = meeting, meeting place, appointed time or place.

Basin on wheeled stand, Solomon's Temple

One of ten basins
in Solomon’s Temple

The courtyard in front of Solomon’s much bigger temple has a huge bronze “sea” resting on twelve bronze oxen. (See last week’s post, Haftarah for Vayakheil: Symbolic Impressions.) In addition to this much more impressive basin, Solomon’s master artisan makes ten smaller bronze basins on elaborate wheeled stands covered with engraved spirals, cherubim/keruvim, lions, and palm trees.

And he placed five stands at the entrance of the bayit on right and five at the entrance of the bayit on the left… (1 Kings 7:39)

bayit (בָּיִת) = house, important building, household.

Why settle for one small basin when you could have a giant “sea” and ten basins?

Both Moses’ sanctuary and Solomon’s temple are divided into two rooms: a main hall and a smaller chamber in back for the holy of holies. King Solomon adds a front porch with two gigantic bronze columns.

The main room of Moses’ sanctuary contains only three sacred ritual objects: a gold incense altar, a gold-plated table for display bread, and a solid gold lampstand with seven oil lamps.

The main hall of Solomon’s temple has the same three items, also gold—but the lampstands and perhaps the tables have multiplied.

Menorah

Menorah

When Moses assembles everything in this week’s Torah portion,

…he put the lampstand in the Ohel Mo-eid opposite the table, on the south side of the sanctuary. And he lit up the lamps before God, as God had commanded Moses. (Exodus 40:24-25)

Instead of placing one lampstand on the right side of the main hall, King Solomon’s crew positions five lampstands on each side.

And Solomon made all the vessels that were in the House of God, the gold altar and the gold table on which was the display bread and the pure gold lampstands, five on the right side and five on the left side in front of the inner chamber, and the gold blossom [decorations] and lamps and wick cutters …(1 Kings 7:48-49)

In the first book of Kings, Solomon’s temple contains only one bread table.

And Solomon made all the equipment that was in the bayit of God: the gold altar and the gold table that had the display bread upon it… (1 Kings 7:48)

But by the fourth century B.C.E., when the two books of Chronicles were written, the bread table had multiplied.

And he made ten tables and he set them in the main hall, five on the right side and five on the left side; and he made a hundred gold sprinkling-basins. (2 Chronicles 4:8)

After all, if one table is good, ten tables must be better.

The inner chamber in both the tent and the temple contains only the ark of the covenant and two golden cherubs/keruvim, hybrid beasts with wings. (See my post Terumah: Cherubs are Not for Valentine’s Day.)

Ark with Keruvim, one possibility

Ark with Keruvim

In the Tent of Meeting, the keruvim are part of the lid of the ark, one hammered out of the solid gold at each end. Their wings tilt toward each other, enclosing an empty space above the lid, a space from which God sometimes speaks. (See my post Pekudei & 1 Kings: A Throne for the Divine.)

Since the ark is only about four feet long, a keruv wing cannot be more than two feet long. But in Solomon’s temple, each keruv is about fifteen feet tall and has a fifteen-foot wingspan. An earlier passage in the first book of Kings describes how they are carved out of olive wood and overlaid with gold, then set up in the back chamber so that each one touches a wall with one wingtip and the tip of the other keruv’s wing with the other. Since the ark is smaller than these statues, it fits underneath them.

The priests brought in the ark of the covenant of God to its place, to the inner chamber of the bayit, to the holy of holies, to underneath the wings of the keruvim. (1 Kings 8:6)

It is not clear whether the inner chamber of the temple now contains four keruvim—the small pair on the ark and the large pair standing on the floor—or just the two large ones. But either way, the principle of “more, bigger, better” applies even inside the holy of holies.

At the end of this week’s haftarah, when the temple is complete with all its furnishings, King Solomon proudly declares:

I certainly built an exalted bayit for You, an abode for you to rest in forever! (1 Kings 8:13)

When it comes to religious ritual objects, is more or bigger really better?

Anything made of precious metals would have provided a locus for worship that met the expectations of the Israelites Moses led through the wilderness. In Exodus, thanks to the tent sanctuary and its ritual objects, they no longer feel the need for a golden calf. And if the ritual objects were too large or too many, they would be too hard to transport through the wilderness.

Artist's Rendition of Solomon's Temple

Artist’s Rendition
of Solomon’s Temple

The capital of a new nation-state, however, needs not only a large and permanent temple, but also a large and glittering display to impress both foreign visitors and the nation’s citizens with the power of its religion. So in front of King Solomon’s temple are gigantic bronze columns, the oversized bronze “sea” on twelve bronze oxen, ten bronze lavers on elaborate stands, and a host of priests walking in and out of the building.  Inside, there are enough lampstands and tables to accommodate those priests as they perform the rituals, which would help reconcile them to a centralized religion.

In my own life, I have responded to religious cues on both scales, small and large. I know the calm, centering effect of lighting two candles for Shabbat, and the hushed tenderness of reading from a Torah scroll in an otherwise unremarkable room.  I also know the awe I feel when I stand at the ocean, in a forest of tall trees, or in a medieval cathedral (even though as a Jew, I am a foreign visitor there).

I do not want to lose either the personal connection of rituals with small sacred things, or the impersonal awe of encounters with vastness.  Both a tent and a temple are exalted places where God might rest.

Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen

March 2, 2015 at 6:01 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Model of the Ark with Keruvim

Model of the Ark with Keruvim

For 40 days at the top of Mount Sinai, Moses listens to God’s instructions on ordaining priests and making a sanctuary for the new religion. The holiest object in the sanctuary will be the ark—a gold-plated box covered by a solid gold lid with two keruvim (sphinx-like creatures with eagle wings, lion bodies, and human faces) hammered out of the gold at the two ends of the lid.

Meanwhile, in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“When you bring up”), the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai conclude that Moses is never coming back.

The people saw that Moses was horribly late in going down from the mountain, so the people assembled against Aaron, and they said to him: Get up, make us elohim that will go before us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him! (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)

elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = gods; God; divine powers.  (Elohim is the plural of eloha (אֱלוֹהַּ) = god, God.)

When the Israelites ask Aaron to make elohim, they want images of gods that carry some divine power or magic.

Aaron said to them: Pull off the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me. And all the people pulled off the gold rings in their ears, and they brought them to Aaron. He took [the gold] from their hand, and he shaped it in the mold, and he made it a calf of cast metal. And they said: These are your elohim, Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt! (Exodus 32:2-4)

Gold calf, Temple of Baalat in Byblos

Gold calf from Temple of Baalat in Byblos

There is only one gold statue, yet the people use the plural “these”.  Modern commentator Robert Alter wrote that the Golden Calf was not intended to be inhabited by a deity, but rather to serve as the throne for one or more gods. The Phoenician storm god Hadad was pictured standing on a bull.

The ark with its keruvim is not a throne. Later in the Bible, God acquires the title “Who Sits [Above] the Keruvim”, but the only descriptions of God sitting above keruvim refer to angelic creatures in the heavens, not to the solid keruvim in the sanctuary.

Later in the Bible, King Jereboam, the first ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, sets up a golden calf in each of his two temples, one at Bethel and one in Dan. The Torah denounces these golden calves as sinful (reflecting the viewpoint of the southern kingdom of Judah, which retains two keruvim in the temple at Jerusalem).

Why are two gold keruvim acceptable to God, while a golden calf is not?

 

Hammered, not cast or carved

One line of commentary argues that God objects to cast-metal images, but not to images hammered out of a lump of gold. God does say “Cast-metal gods you shall not make for yourselves. (Exodus 34:17)”—but only later in this week’s Torah portion, after Moses has ground up the Golden Calf and climbed Mount Sinai for a second 40-day conference with God.

 

Imaginary, not actual

In one of the Ten Commandments, which come before the Golden Calf episode in the Torah, God declares: “You shall not make for yourself a carved idol, or any image of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters underneath. (Exodus 20:4)” One could argue that the Golden Calf is an image of an animal that lives on the earth, while the keruvim do not represent any known animal.

 

Commanded, not volunteered

In his book Kuzari, 12th-century commentator Judah Halevi argues that images were psychologically necessary for people in that era. Until they reached Mount Sinai, the Israelites followed a visible pillar of cloud and fire. After the pillar disappeared, they waited for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai with some other visible item. Only after they concluded Moses would never return did they make an unauthorized image. Halevi wrote: “They should have waited and not made an image by themselves.”

The difference between the keruvim and the Golden Calf, according to Halevi and subsequent commentary by Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel, is that God ordered the keruvim. God does not want people to use anything that God Itself has not authorized.

 

Heard, not seen

I think the underlying problem is that in the Torah, God is heard and not seen. Later in this week’s Torah portion, God explains to Moses:

You will not be able to see My face, because humankind may not see Me and live. (Exodus 33:20)

Even the pillar of cloud and fire is called God’s messenger, not God Itself. Only God’s creations can be seen. But God’s voice is heard by all the people in the revelation at Mount Sinai. And throughout the Bible, God speaks to select human beings.

The Israelites err in expecting God to manifest as a visible shape, sitting astride the calf or standing on its back.  They want the reassurance of something they can see. But God only manifests as a voice; God wants people to listen for God’s words.

If God’s voice came from the Golden Calf, it would seem as though the words issued from the calf’s mouth—a clear case of idolatry. This is not a problem with the two keruvim at the ends of the ark. The Torah says that after the Holy of Holies is finished, God will speak from the empty space above the cover of the ark, between the wings of the Keruvim.  ART

In the Torah, God does not speak from the solid and visible Golden Calf, but from the invisible empty space in between the keruvim.

In our lives today, God does not speak from visible and mundane things such as gold jewelry or expensive cars.  God speaks to us from out of nowhere—if we make empty spaces in our lives, and listen.

Mishpatim & Ki Tissa: A Covenant in Writing

February 9, 2015 at 6:43 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Mishpatim | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

A covenant can be a comfort.  It’s reassuring to have a signed contract stating what you are required to do, and what the other party will do for you.  When we feel insecure about an arrangement, we say, “Can I have that in writing?”

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”) includes the first covenant in the Torah that is backed up in writing.  Yet it is broken sooner than any of the unwritten covenants in the book of Genesis/Bereishit—because one of the covenantal parties is God.

A classic covenant between two human beings is the compact between Jacob and his father-in-law, Lavan. Jacob heads back to Canaan with the family and livestock he acquired by serving Lavan for 20 years. Lavan, who does not want to lose his best employee, catches up with him on the heights of Gilead. They argue over who owns what, and then Lavan says:

So now, let us go and cut a brit, I and you… (Genesis/Bereishit 31:44)

brit (בְּרִית) = covenant, pact, treaty.

Standing stone at Gezer, Israel

Standing stone
at Gezer, Israel

The two men set up a standing-stone and a mound of stones to serve as a boundary marker, a “witness”, and a sign of their brit.  Lavan announces the terms: neither man will pass that boundary with hostile intent; and in addition, Jacob will neither mistreat Lavan’s daughters nor take any additional wives.

Then each man swears by a different name of the same God. Finally, Jacob slaughters animals, and the two chieftains and their men feast on the mountain.

Both leaders carry out the terms of their brit. Each party gives up something that might be in his self-interest (invading the other’s territory) in order to gain something that is definitely in his self-interest (safety from invasion by the other). The terms are reasonable, and the men do not want to violate a treaty made with an accepted ritual in front of three kinds of witnesses: boundary stones, other human beings, and God.

A brit with God is not so straightforward.

The first two times God declares a brit with human beings, it is really a unilateral promise, with no obligation stipulated for the humans. In the Covenant of the Rainbow, God promises not to destroy the earth with a flood again. In the Covenant of the Pieces, God promises to give Canaan to Abraham’s descendants.

God’s third brit repeats that God will give Abraham’s descendants, and adds that God will “be a god” to them and make them “nations” and “kings”. Then God says:

This is my brit, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Let every male be circumcised. You shall all be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it will be a sign of the brit between Me and you. (Genesis 17:10-11)

Circumcision is the stipulated action for humans, the ritual, and the sign of the covenant, all in one. Jews have performed their part of the brit milah (Covenant of Circumcision) for thousands of years, with or without possession of the land of Canaan, because it is an act of dedication to God—and each infant boy or adult male convert only has to go through it once.

In the book of Exodus, when the Israelites reach Mount Sinai, God proposes a new brit, one that the commentary calls the Covenant of Blood. God gives the Israelites and their fellow-travelers the Ten Commandments, followed by a list of other laws, beginning with a second injunction against making “gods” of silver or gold, and ending (in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim) with: “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. (Exodus/Shemot 23:19)

In return for obeying all these laws, God promises the people that they will never get sick, their women will be fertile and never miscarry, none of their lives will be cut short, their enemies will run away from them, and they will gradually take over not only Canaan, but all the land from the Mediterranean to the eastern wilderness and from the Euphrates in the north to the Reed Sea in the south.

This is the third time God promises to give the Israelites possession of the Promised Land.  But it is the first and only time God promises to exempt the people from natural law by making them super-human, with bodies that are invulnerable to illness, infertility, miscarriage, and even accidental death. Such a deal!

Moses makes sure this new brit is ratified with elaborate ritual, symbolic reminders, and even a written copy.

Then Moses wrote down all the words of God, and he got up early in the morning, and he built an altar at the bottom of the mountain, and twelve standing-stones for the twelve tribes of Israel.   … and they slaughtered animal-offerings of wholeness  for God … And half of the blood he sprinkled over the altar. And he took the Book of the Brit and he read it in the ears of the people, and they said: Everything that God has spoken, we will do and we will listen! Then Moses took the blood and he sprinkled it over the people, and he said: Here is the blood of the brit that God has cut with you concerning all these words! (Genesis 24:4-8)

The blood from the animal offerings is sprinkled both on the symbol of God (the altar), and on the people (or at least the elders in front). The people ratify the brit by shouting “we will do and we will listen”, indicating their willingness to obey not only these laws, but also any future laws God chooses to give them.

According to 20th-century commentator Nahum Sarna, the ritual is completed when God gives Moses an even more impressive symbolic reminder: a pair of stone tablets on which God writes the teachings and commandments.

The people violate their part of the brit only 40 days later, in the Torah portion Ki Tissa. While Moses is receiving the stone tablets on top of Mount Sinai receiving, the Israelites below lose hope that he will ever return, and revert to their old ideas of God. When Moses comes down, the people are carousing in front of the Golden Calf, in clear violation of the rule against making a god of silver or gold. So the whole elaborate brit becomes null and void, and Moses smashes the tablets.

God never makes the Israelites super-human. But Moses does persuade God to forgive them. And God declares a second, modified brit in which God commits only to driving out the peoples living in Canaan. On their side, the Israelites must obey a list of rules that begins with refraining from cutting a brit with any of the peoples they are supposed to be displacing, and ends with “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. (Exodus 34:10-26)

And God said to Moses: Write down for yourself these words, because according to these words I have cut a brit with you and with Israel. (Exodus 34:27)

Moses on south frieze of Supreme Court building, by Adolph Weinman

Moses on south frieze of Supreme Court building,
by Adolph Weinman

The Ten Commandments are not explicitly mentioned, but most commentators assume they are included in the words Moses carves on a second pair of stone tablets.  Later the Israelites make a golden ark, following God’s instructions, and Moses places the tablets inside.

The Israelites continue to backslide on obeying God’s rules (though there is no record that they ever cook a kid in its mother’s milk).  In the book of Joshua, God does not drive their enemies away, so the Israelites conquer most of Canaan by conventional warfare. Thus the second brit between God and the Israelites is also a failure.

Yet the Torah continues to call the ark containing the stone tablets aron ha-brit, “Ark of the Covenant”, and it remains the Israelites’ most revered object until it disappears during the fall of the first temple in Jerusalem.

A contract between two humans, or a treaty between two nations, is a practical affair. The obligations of both parties are feasible and spelled out clearly. The proper ritual and witnesses help to enforce the brit.

A brit between humans and God is more like a modern marriage covenant. Both parties make lifelong promises without any practical limitations.  The ritual, witnesses, symbols, and written documents have emotional importance, but they do not prevent either party from falling short. At some point, a spouse is psychologically unable to be as loving and supportive as he or she intended. At some point, a religious human being is psychologically unable to obey every rule she or he has taken on. And God, at best, appears to operate on a non-human timeline.

Sometimes a marriage ends in divorce, and sometimes a brit with God ends in apostasy. But often, spouses pull themselves together and rededicate themselves to their marriage. And often, people seeking God rededicate themselves to the search for morality and meaning.

Each story of a brit with God remains a reminder of God’s presence. Even today, the two sets of stone tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai loom in our subconscious minds, reminding us that even if full compliance is impossible in a covenant with God, it is still worth dedicating ourselves to the call.

 

Korach: Early and Late Bloomers

June 17, 2014 at 4:47 pm | Posted in Korach | 3 Comments
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When people do the wrong thing in the Torah, God gets angry and kills a bunch of them. This happens over and over again in the books of Exodus and Numbers. We see the same pattern today when parents (standing in for God) overreact to children’s mistakes and lash out at them. And it happens when individuals do something they regret and then cut themselves down.

Does this approach lead to reform and improvement? Rarely. Does the Torah offer a better approach?

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach (“bald”), a Levite named Korach, his 250 followers, and two leaders from the tribe of Reuben, all rebel at once. Their common goal is to depose the leader Moses and high priest Aaron, and take over their jobs. The God-character in the Torah takes this rebellion personally, since God chose Moses and Aaron.  Rebelling against their God-given authority is tantamount to rebelling against God.

First God responds the usual way, with overkill. The ground opens and swallows not only the two Reubenites and Korach, but also everyone in their families who did not run away. Fire pours out from God’s sanctuary and kills Korach’s 250 followers who wanted to be priests. The next day, the Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for all the deaths, and God sends with a plague that kills 14,700 more people. (See my earlier post, Korach: Saying No, Saying Yes.)

At this point, everyone even slightly involved in the attempted coup has suffered one of three kinds of horrible deaths.  The surviving Israelites become meek and passive for a while, but fear rarely motivates inner change. Later in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, a number of Israelite men disobey God again, by worshiping Ba-al Pe-or.

However, the Torah portion Korach also provides a counter-example. After all the killing, the God character responds to the attempted coup with a more positive teaching.

God tells Moses to take a staff  from the chieftain of each of the twelve tribes of Israel.

You shall carve each man’s name upon his matteh. And you shall carve the name of Aaron upon the matteh of Levi, because there is one matteh for the head of each forefather’s house. Then lay them in the Tent of Meeting before ha-eidut, where I meet with you. And it will happen that the man whom I choose, his matteh will blossom. (Numbers/Bemidbar 17:16-20)

matteh (מַטֶּה) (plural mattot) = staff, branch, tribe.

ha-eidut (הָעֵדוּת) = the “testimony” of God inside the ark. (Either the stone tablets God inscribed on Mount Sinai, or a parchment scroll on which Moses wrote down the first part of the Torah, or both.)

The ark with the testimony of God resides inside the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Tent of Meeting. God manifests in the empty space above the ark—as a voice for Moses, and as the source of the fiery glory that the Israelites see emanating from the sanctuary tent. Any miracles happening in the Holy of Holies would be a direct expression of God’s will.

The next day, when Moses came into the Tent of the Testimony, hey!—the matteh of Aaron, for the house of Levi, had blossomed. It brought forth blossoms, and it sprouted sprouts, and it ripened shekeidim. Then Moses brought out all the mattot from in front of God, to all the Children of Israel. And they saw, and each man took his staff. (Numbers 17:22-24)

shekeidim (שְׁקֵדִים) = almonds. (The root verb, shakad, means vigilant, alert, attentive.)

Almond Tree

Almond Tree

There is no question that God chooses Aaron as the high priest, and the tribe of Levi to conduct the religious service at the sanctuary.

The almond flowers and fruits also carry extra symbolism. The gold menorah (lampstand) inside the sanctuary is designed so that its seven branches and various decorative elements look an almond tree, complete with flowers and drupes (fruits containing almonds in their pits). (See my earlier post, Terumah: Waking Up.)  Lamps are symbols of enlightenment. Almond trees are the first to bloom, are called attentive and alert. Thus the tribe of Levi, and especially Aaron and his fellow priests, will be the first and the most vigilant servants of God.

What the other tribal leaders do not notice at the time is that their tribes have also been consecrated for service. The matteh that is both Aaron’s staff and the tribe of Levi becomes an early-blooming tree.  The implication is that the other eleven staffs/tribes could bloom later. They, too, have spent the night in the Holy of Holies, in front of the ark.  They, too, are confirmed as important to God. And when the 40 years in the wilderness end, and the Israelites cross the Jordan into Canaan, every tribe does its job and obeys God’s orders—as transmitted by Joshua, from the tribe of Efrayim.

Alas, in this week’s Torah portion the Israelites overlook the positive symbolism of the twelve staffs. Right after viewing the staffs, they wail: We perish, we are lost, all of us are lost. Everyone who comes close, who comes close to the sanctuary of God dies. Will we ever be done with perishing? (Numbers 17:17-18)

Maybe they are too traumatized by all of God’s death sentences to notice a gentler message. But we can be more alert. What if parents who feel frustrated by their children’s mistakes consider them late bloomers?  Instead of cutting them down, these parents might correct the children firmly but gently, and take care to nourish them until they finally bud.

What if when we get upset at our own mistakes, we remind ourselves that we are late bloomers? It is frustrating to be a bare branch—or staff—when we want to be full of flowers and fruit. But as long as we are alive and growing, we can learn better behavior. And we can learn to serve the divine with our own souls, in our own way.

May all late-bloomers be so blessed.

 

 

Shemini & 2 Samuel: Separating Holiness

March 16, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Posted in Samuel 2, Shemini | 1 Comment
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Aaron, who becomes the high priest on the eighth day of his ordination, hears directly from God in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (Eighth). God tells him that priests must not drink on duty, so they can perform two important jobs:

Lehavdil between hakodesh and the ordinary, and between the ritually-impure and the ritually-pure.  And to teach the children of Israel all the decrees that God spoke to them through Moses. (Leviticus 10:10-11)

lehavdil (לְהַבְדֹּיל) = to make a distinction, to separate, to segregate, to distinguish

hakodesh (הַקֹּדֶשׁ) = the holy, the sacred; everything that is dedicated to God.

In the Hebrew Bible, objects, places, and days can all be holy, if they are reserved for serving God.

The holiest object is the ark, which holds two stone tablets that God wrote on at the top of Mount Sinai. When the ark is inside the innermost chamber of the sanctuary, the holy of holies, God’s presence manifests in the empty space right above its lid. No one but Moses and the high priest may see the ark when it is inside the holy of holies.

According to the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, when the ark is transported to a new location, it is draped with three layers of coverings to protect people from seeing it. No one may touch it except for the priests carrying it by its poles. It is so holy that touching or seeing it would be almost like touching or seeing God.

The haftarah reading for this week’s Torah portion is a selection from the second book of Samuel which describes how the ark is transported to Jerusalem from the house of Avinadav, near the Philistine border. The Philistines had captured the ark in battle, then sent it back across the border. A descendant of Avinadav named Elazar was anointed as a priest to take care of the ark. By the time King David arrives, 20 years later, the men of the house of Avinadav who serve the ark are Achio and Uzza.

They mounted the ark of God on a new cart, and they carried it away from the house of Avinadav, which was on the hill. Uzza and Achio, sons of Avinadav, were guiding the new cart. (2 Samuel 6:3)

Achio walks in front of the ox-cart, and Uzza has the honor of walking beside the ark. The procession includes King David and thousands of Israelites dancing to the sound of musical instruments. Then the oxen pulling the cart stumble.

They came as far as the threshing-place of Nakhon; then Uzza reached out to the ark of God, and he grabbed at it, because the cattle let [the cart] go off by itself. And God’s anger flared up against Uzza, and struck him down there, over the heedlessness. And he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:6-7)

While Uzza is accompanying the ark, he is serving as a priest, who must make a distinction between the holy and the ordinary. His impulsive action, however well-meant, fails to distinguish between the perilously holy ark and an ordinary ox-cart load.

King David sends the ark to a nearby house, and tries a second procession to Jerusalem three months later.

David was whirling around with all his might before God; and David had belted on a linen  efod. (2 Samuel 6:14)

efod (אֵפוֹד) = a tunic or cuirass with the front and back tied together, worn by the high priest as part of his ritual costume.

David is dancing in front of the ark, but the ark is so holy that the Torah says he is dancing before God. His whirling around with all his might reminds me of the prophets who speak in ecstasy in Exodus and the two books of Samuel. Although David is wearing a priest’s efod, he acts more like a prophet filled with the spirit of God—until the ark has been placed inside the tent in Jerusalem.

Then King David soberly plays the role of high priest, performing all the rituals without a hitch.

They brought the ark of God and set it up in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David brought up rising-offerings before God, and the wholeness-offerings. And when David finished bringing up the rising-offerings and the wholeness offerings, then he blessed the people in the name of the God of Armies. (2 Samuel 6:17-18)

David treats the ark as holy in two ways: first as a prophet filled with the spirit of God, second as a high priest conducting ritual. Both responses to holiness are acceptable in the bible, at the appropriate time and place.

When King David goes home, one of his wives criticizes him for exposing his private parts while dancing. She is concerned about what people will think of him. But what occurs to me is that David is wearing the priest’s efod without underpants. The books of Exodus and Leviticus require priests to wear linen underpants while they are on duty, so they will not be exposed.

This seems like one clear failure to distinguish the holy from the ordinary. But God overlooks a few of David’s infractions earlier in the bible, and God overlooks this one as well.

The ark was lost with the fall of the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. The innermost chamber of the second temple was empty, but it was still called the holy of holies, and treated with awe and reverence. The high priest still entered it only once a year, on Yom Kippur.

Since the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., Jews have made do with objects and places of lesser holiness. Instead of an ark, we have Torah scrolls, which are unrolled for everyone to see. Instead of a sanctuary with a holy of holies, we have gravesites and the broken temple wall in Jerusalem.

The most holy things left for us are holy days: feast and fast days every year, and Shabbat every week. On Saturday nights, we make a havdallah, a separation, between the holy day of Shabbat that has ended and the ordinary days of the week to come. The havdallah blessing concludes with some of the words in God’s instructions to Aaron:

Blessed are you, God, hamavdil between hakodesh and the ordinary.

Hamavdil means “the one who makes a distinction”, and hakodesh means “the holy”. The world God created includes a distinction between the holy and the ordinary, which we must discern and act upon.

I think treating a day as holy is harder than treating an object or a place as holy. The sun sets and rises on Shabbat the way it does on any other day; the only difference is what we do. Even if we try to dedicate every moment of Shabbat to serving God, we still have to do some things in the realm of the ordinary.

Maybe we can be like King David, and serve God with enough enthusiasm to make up for serving God imperfectly.

Still, one question remains in our modern age:  What counts as serving God?

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