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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blood for God

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blood to Cover Up

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

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

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

Traveling with the ark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Eikev: No Satisfaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whoever is in awe of God has life;

And he will stay savea;

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

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

Pesach: The Matzah of Misery

April 17, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Re-eih | 1 Comment
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“This is the bread of affliction,” we intone during the Passover/Pesach ritual, holding up a piece of matzah. Many Jews feel that just eating this dry unleavened cracker is an affliction—especially if they eat it for the prescribed eight days and eschew real bread, or anything else made with yeast or other leavening.

matzah001At a traditional Passover seder, we hold up the matzah and say in Aramaic: Ha lachma anya di akhalu avhatana be-ara demitzrayim!  which means: “The bread of misery that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt!” This phrase is based on one of the Torah portions we read during the week of Passover, Deuteronomy /Devarim 14:22-16:17.

You must not eat with [the meat from the animal sacrifice] anything leavened. Seven days you shall eat with it matzot, the bread of oni, because in haste you went out from the land of Egypt. Thus you shall remember the day of your going out from the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:3)

matzot (מַצּוֹת) = plural of matzah (מַצָּה) = unleavened flatbread made of flour and water only, quickly mixed and baked before any sourdough in the air can act on it.

oni (עֳנִי or עֹנִי) = misery, suffering, humiliation, plight, deprivation. (This noun comes from one of the four root verbs spelled ענה, this one meaning “to stoop down in humiliation, humility, or subjection”.)

The noun oni appears 37 times in the Hebrew Bible, although the passage above is the only one mentioning “bread of oni”. Individuals in the Bible experience oni, misery, because they are unloved, infertile, abused, or deprived of their due. The poor live in a state of oni because they are victimized by a selfish upper class. The Israelites live in oni because they have been conquered by enemy armies—or because they are abused slaves, as in the Passover story.

Kneading bowl in the Egyptian royal bakery

Kneading bowl in Egypt

Why is matzah the bread of oni? The book of Exodus claims that the enslaved Hebrews had to hurry out of Egypt before the dough in their kneading-bowls had time to rise. I find this unconvincing. (See my post Pesach: Being Unleavened, Part 2.)

I think the oni, the misery, came first, and the matzah symbolizes it. Matzah, made out of flour and water paste with nothing interesting added, not even sourdough, serves to remind us of the tedious life of slaves making bricks for Pharaoh.

Matzah, the “bread of oni”, can also remind us of times in the Bible when people live in misery and God sees their oni, stops ignoring them, and acts to improve their situation. I counted 13 occurrences of this motif, as well as additional occasions when God acts after hearing people cry out in their oni.

For example, God tells Moses at the burning bush:

I certainly see the oni of my people who are in Egypt, and I have paid attention to their cry for help in the face of their being hard-pressed, for I know their anguish. … And I have said I will lift them out from the oni of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites…to a land flowing with milk and honey. (Exodus 3:7, 3:17)

Channah in the Child's Bible 1884

Channah in the Child’s Bible 1884

Sometimes people draw God’s attention to their own oni, hoping that God will then notice it, stop ignoring them, and act. For example, Channah suffers because she is infertile and verbally abused by her husband’s other wife, who has many children.

And she vowed a vow, and she said: God of Armies, if you will really look at the oni of your female-servant, and you remember me and do not ignore me, and you give your female-servant a male child, then I will give him to God for all the days of his life… (1 Samuel 1:11)

The psalms also include pleas to God to notice the singer’s misery and act. For example,

See my oni and my misfortune

And lift off all my wrongdoing. (Psalm 25:18)

May I sing out and may I rejoice in your kindness

Because you see my oni and you know the distress of my soul. (Psalm 31:8)

See my oni and save me

Because your teaching I have not ignored. (Psalm 119:153)

matzah001

Maybe Jews began holding up matzah during the Passover ritual not just to remind themselves of times of deprivation, but also to draw God’s attention to their own oni. To make sure God gets the point, we call the matzah the “bread of oni”. If God sees our misery, pays attention to it, then maybe God will stop ignoring us and do something to improve our lives—the way God freed the slaves in Egypt.

What is your oni this year? What misery is enslaving you? Is it something that you can fix?  Or something that will lift by itself?

Or is it something that you can only be freed from by a divine intervention? If so, what would a true divine intervention be?

 

Nitzavim & Yom Kippur: Centripetal Force

September 9, 2015 at 9:32 pm | Posted in Nitzavim, Yom Kippur | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Moses reminds the Israelites at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“standing”), that everyone standing on the bank of the Jordan River made a covenant with God.  They will take over the land of Canaan, with God’s help, but eventually they will forsake the covenant, and God will drive them out again

When all these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse that I placed before you, vahasheivta to your heart among all the nations where God, your god, has driven you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:1) 

vahasheivta (וַהֲשֵׁבתָ) = then you will return, revert, recall.  (Vahasheivta is a form of the verb shuv (שׁוּב) = return, turn around, turn back, restore.)

Assyrian soldier drives prisoners into exile

Assyrian soldier
drives prisoners into exile

Why does Moses make such a long-term prediction? Most modern scholars date this section of Deuteronomy to the Babylonian exile, circa 598-520 B.C.E. At that time, Jews had already experienced two exiles from their land.  Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria) in 740 B.C.E. and deported many Samarians to distant parts of the Assyrian Empire. Then Babylonia conquered both Assyria and the southern kingdom of Israel (Judah), and conducted its own deportations from 605 to 588 B.C.E.

Thus “all these things” includes multiple conquests and deportations of Jews.  Jews living (and writing) during the Babylonian exile assumed that their all-powerful god had arranged the curses of subjugation and exile because too many Jews had abandoned their religion. Their own people’s misbehavior had triggered a a divine centrifugal force pulling them away from their center.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses predicts that after 150 years of deportations and exile, a centripetal force would pull them back in to the land of Israel and the presence of God.

Moses lays out five steps to a complete return. In these steps, the people and God take turns moving toward a reunion.

1)  The first step, “vahasheivta to your heart among all the nations where God, your god, has driven you,” is returning to your own heart (the seat of consciousness in Biblical Hebrew) while you still live in a foreign land. In the next verse Moses explains:

Veshavta ad God, your god; and you will listen to [God’s] voice, you and your children, just as I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul.  (Deuteronomy 30:2)

Veshavta (וְשַׁבְתָּ) = And you will return (also a form of shuv).

ad (עַד) = up to, as far as.

The people must reject the gods of the nations where they are living, and cultivate awareness of their own God by listening for the divine voice and paying full attention to it. They must go as far toward God as they can under the circumstances of their exile.

Ezra and exiles return (woodcut by Schnorr von Carolsfeld)

Ezra and exiles return to Jerusalem
(woodcut by Schnorr von Carolsfeld)

2)  Moses predicts that after they have turned their hearts back to God, God will take the second step and return the people to their former land.

God, your god, veshav your fortune and have compassion on you, veshav and gather you from among all the peoples where God, your god, has scattered you.  Even if you strayed to the end of the heavens, from there God, your god, will gather you, and from there [God] will take you back.  And God, your god, will bring you to the land that your forefathers possessed, and you will possess it, and [God] will do you good and make you more numerous than your forefathers. (Deuteronomy 30:3-5)

veshav (וְשָׁב) = will then restore, will then return (also a form of shuv).

3)  Once God has returned them to the land of Israel, the third step is for the Jews to love God.  Loving God is not easy, in this week’s Torah portion; God will have to help humans to do it.

And God, your god, will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your descendants, to love God, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you will live.  (Deuteronomy 30:6)

“So that you will live” means “so that you will thrive”—perhaps materially, or perhaps spiritually.

4)  The fourth step, Moses says, is up to the people:

And you, tashuv, and you will listen to the voice of God, and you will do all [God’s] commandments that I commanded you today. (Deuteronomy 30:8)

tashuv (תָשׁוּב) = you will return (also a form of the root verb shuv).

Once God returns the exiled Jews to their land, Moses predicts, they will become able to obey all God’s rules, as well as listening to God’s voice. Presumably, the people could have obeyed God’s ethical rules and family laws wherever they lived.  But in order to obey the agricultural laws, and in order to conduct religious worship through the system of sacrifices at the altar, they had to live in and around Jerusalem.

5)  The fifth step of return is up to God again:

And God, your god, will add to all the deeds of your hand: in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your soil, for good, because God yashuv to rejoice over you for good as [God] rejoiced over your forefathers—because you will listen to the voice of God, your god, to observe [God’s] commandments and decrees, the ones written in the book of this teaching—because tashuv to God, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 30:9)

yashuv (יָשׁוּב) = he/it will return.

Just as in the first step of return the exiled Jews, called “you”, will bring their hearts back to God, in the final step God will bring Its heart back to the people. The result of God’s rejoicing over the people will be abundant life for the humans, their animals, and their crops.

After this fifth step, both the Jews and God would have made a complete return to one another, in both attitude and practical action.  It sounds like the complete restoration of a marriage after the couple has been estranged and separated.

What if “you” in this week’s Torah portion meant anyone seeking a return from exile, a return to the center, a centripetal path?  The center you return to need not be a particular spot on the globe; it could be a spiritual place.

In the annual cycle of Torah readings, the portion Nitzavim falls either one or two weeks before Yom Kippur, the day Jews dedicate to repentance, forgiveness, teshuvah, and atonement.

teshuvah (תְּשׁוּבָה) = reply, return.  (Yes, it also comes from the root shuv.)

In the Torah and in the time of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, the method used to atone and reach teshuvah with God involved animal sacrifices and sprinkling blood in the Holy of Holies.  (See my post Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles.)  For the last two millennia, the teshuvah of Jews on Yom Kippur has been a matter of prayer, fasting, inner examination, and listening for God with all our heart and all our soul.

Although Yom Kippur is the official day of teshuvah for Jews, anyone might return, any day, to the inner divine spark—and open the way for the divine spark to return to us.

May all people who seek forgiveness, atonement, and reunion find a centripetal path to the holy center.

*

I wish all of my Jewish readers Shanah Tovah—a good new year—beginning this Sunday evening. I will be on my own centripetal path from Rosh Hashanah (the beginning of the year) through Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), Sukkot, and Simchat Torah, the night when Jews gather to roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning and read the opening of the book of Genesis/Bereishit.  After Simchat Torah (October 5 in 2105) I will dive into the book of Genesis again myself, even as my husband and I move to a new town. How could I resist writing another post on the beginning of creation?

Ki Tavo: Making It Clear

September 1, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Moses commands the Israelites to paint orders from God on standing stones in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you enter”).  They are supposed to erect the stones on Mount Eyval, beside the town of Shechem.

And it shall be when you cross over the Jordan, you shall erect these stones, as I command you this day, on Mount Eyval; and you shall paint them with limewash. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 27:4)

Fragments of 8th-century B.C.E. Bilam story on limewash at Deir Alla, Jordan

Fragments of 8th-century B.C.E. Bilam story on limewash at Deir Alla, Jordan

When limewash is painted on a surface in multiple layers, the coating hardens into a thin shell of white limestone, which could last for millennia in dry conditions. (See my post Ki Tavo: Writing in Stone.) Remnants of one ancient text painted in ink on a limewashed wall still survive after 29 centuries!

And you shall write on the stones all the words of this torah, be-eir thoroughly. (Deuteronomy 27:8)

torah (תוֹרָה) = teaching. (The word torah also refers to the first five books of the Bible, to the whole Hebrew Bible, and to any teaching of Jewish law or religion.)

be-eir (בְּאֵר) = (verb) explaining, making clear, making plain.  (The noun be-eir = well, watering place.)

A simple interpretation of this line is that the letters on the limewash must be plain and easy to read. But the Talmud (Sotah 36a) asserts that the teaching was made plain by being inscribed in 70 languages, so anyone who came by could read it.  The purpose of the stones, according to the Talmud, was to teach the laws of the Torah to the native Canaanites.  This would give them a chance to renounce their own gods and adopt the laws of Israel, and thus be spared from death at the hands of the Israelite invaders.

I like the Talmud’s attempt to find a safe path for Canaanites. But it is a stretch to imagine that all the different tribes inhabiting Canaan would immediately send scribes to read and copy the writing on the stones.

Mt. Gerezim (left) before deforestation, Mount Eyval (right)

Mt. Gerezim (left) before deforestation, Mount Eyval (right)

What other purpose is there for the limewashed stones?  In this week’s Torah portion, Moses gives orders for a ritual at the city of Shechem (now Nablus).  Just east of the old town of Shechem stand two hills with a narrow valley between them. Until modern times, Mount Gezerim to the south was wooded, and Mount Eyval to the north was barren. (See my earlier blog, Vayishlakh: Mr. Shoulders.)  Moses wants the standing stones erected on Mount Eyval.  Then his ritual calls for the men of half of the twelve tribes to stand on one mountain, and half on the other.

And Moses commanded the people on that day, saying:  These will stand for blessing the people upon Mount Gerizim, when you have crossed the Jordan: Simon and Levi and Judah and Issachar and Joseph and Benjamin .  And these will stand for the cursing on Mount Eyval: Reuben, Gad, and Asher, and Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. And the Levites shall sing out, and they shall say to all the men of Israel, in an uplifted voice… (Deuteronomy 27:11-14)

The Levites are to pronounce twelve curses, and at the end of each curse all the Israelites are to say “amen”. The curses are conditional; each one begins with the formula “Accursed is the one who…” and then states a prohibition in the Torah.  The prohibitions include making an idol, treating a parent with contempt, moving a boundary marker, leading the blind astray, doing injustice to the poor, three kinds of incest, lying with a beast, two kinds of murder, and failing to perform “the words of this torah”, i.e. the more complete text on the standing stones.

The Israelites are to confirm their acceptance of the torah by saying “amen”.

Although both of the twin hills are part of the ritual, Moses calls for stones with the written torah only on Mount Eyval—the same hill where half the tribes are to stand to represent the curses.  My guess is that Mount Eyval was chosen for both purposes because it was bare, while Mount Gerizim was wooded.  A bare hill implies infertile land, which would be a curse in Biblical times.  And on the bare summit of Eyval, the white stones would be visible from a distance.

They would also be clearly visible to the men of Israel standing on both hills and saying “amen”.  Rabbi David Kasher, in his blog at parshanut.com, points out that the Israelites would internalize their commitment to the laws of the Torah more deeply by looking at the giant stones. “Words and ideas, I guess, even though they are the essence of the Torah, are somewhat elusive.  We human beings relate to reality in physical space, because that’s where we experience ourselves existing.  So objects help us concretize ideas, to bring them into reality.”

Torah scroll, dressed

Torah scroll, dressed

A similar function is served by the Torah scroll in Jewish services today.  Reading the Torah portion out loud is the purpose of the ritual.  But the reader uses a particular chant to sing out the text, because a melody reaches deeper into the heart.  The reader chants not from a book, but from a Torah scroll, written by a scribe with a quill on parchment.  And we have rituals for taking the Torah scroll out of the ark, unwrapping and unrolling it, holding it up afterward for everyone to see the writing, then rolling, dressing, and returning it to its ark.  All of these rituals make the text itself more real, more important, and more holy to us.

And you shall write on the stones all the words of this torah, be-eir thoroughly. (Deuteronomy 27:8)

be-eir (בְּאֵר) = (verb) explaining, making clear, making plain.  (The noun be-eir = well, watering place.)

Yes, the writing on the standing stones must be clear and easy to read.  But the other meaning of the verb be-eir can also be applied to Moses’ directions.  The ritual of the Levites singing out twelve prohibitions from the Torah, while the men of Israel stand on top of the two hills saying “Amen”, clarifies the purpose of the writing on the stones.  The teachings must be taken as mandatory God-given instructions for behavior.  Anyone who does not follow them is cursed; his life will go badly.

In a way, the noun be-eir also applies to part of the Torah portion.  A deep teaching is like a well, a watering-place in the desert.  If you travel through life with no guidance, acting merely according to your intuitions and feelings in the moment, your life will go badly—as if you were cursed. Human beings need instructions, words of wisdom to hold onto.  But it is easy to forget a piece of torah when you need it.  How do you internalize a teaching?  How do you drink it in?

Saying the words out loud helps.  Chanting or singing them works even better.  Conducting a whole ritual around them impresses your subconscious with their importance.

Then when we come to a decision point, the words of the torah emerge from the depths of our minds.  We still have to figure out the best way to apply them to our current situation, but at least we have something to work with.

May we all internalize the best torah to guide our decisions in our own lives!

Ki Teitzei: Crossing Gender Lines

August 26, 2015 at 8:26 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

The kli of a gever shall not be upon a woman, and a gever shall not wear the garment of a woman, for toeivah of God, your god, are all who do these things.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:5)

Joan of Arc 15th century CE

Joan of Arc
15th century CE

kli (כְּלִי) = gear, equipment, implements, vessels, utensils, weapons.

gever (גֶּבֶר) = an adult man; a man in a position of power; a warrior or soldier.

toeivah (תּוֹעֵבָה) = repugnant, causing visceral disgust; an “abomination”.

A hasty reading of the above verse in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“When you go out”) leads some people to think that God finds cross-dressing abominable.

Last week, in Shoftim: Abominable, I wrote about how attributing toeivah to God anthropomorphizes the One.  The verse in this week’s Torah portion probably means that a scribe or an authority in 7th-century B.C.E. Judah found everyone who did “these things” disgusting, and wanted to reinforce the social norm by attributing disgust to God.

If we discount the reference to God’s disgust, does the verse prohibit cross-dressing?

The Babylonian Talmud (Nazir 59a) points out that the purpose of the verse cannot be to teach that men should not dress like women, and vice versa, because mere cross-dressing is not an abomination.  The Talmud offers two other reasons for the verse.  The first is that someone should not cross-dress in order to “mix” with the opposite sex and thus find opportunities for illicit sex, which (according to the Talmud) is abominable.

This idea comes from a long tradition of attempting to prevent heterosexual sex outside of marriage by separating men and women, rather than by requiring that both genders exercise willpower.

Assyrian bronze sickle sword

Assyrian bronze sickle sword

This first interpretation fails to account for specific words in the verse in Deuteronomy.  It prohibits a woman from wearing the kli, the gear, of a gever, not his garment.  Furthermore, the text uses the word gever, which implies a warrior or a ruler, rather than ish, the common term for any man.  In the Torah, the gear of a warrior is his sword or his bow and arrows; the gear of a ruler is his staff.

Ivory cosmetics box from Sidon

Ivory cosmetics box from Sidon

The second Talmudic interpretation, attributed to Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov, fits the verse better:   women should not go to war bearing weapons, and men should not use cosmetics to beautify themselves.  This is also the interpretation of Targum Onkelos, the first century C.E. translation of the Torah from Hebrew into Aramaic, which says more generally that men should not beautify their bodies after the manner of women.

In today’s terms, it would be acceptable for a woman to wear pants, but not for her to carry a gun.  A man could wear a skirt (for comfort, not to show off his legs), but he should not wear jewelry or make-up.

The underlying assumptions are that weapons and war are part of a man’s nature, and personal beautification is part of a woman’s nature.  These assumptions were rarely questioned until the 20th century C.E.

19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch used our verse in his commentary on Deuteronomy to support his belief that a woman’s place was in the home—i.e. that motherhood was the calling of all women, and any other vocation was for men only.  Hirsch wrote that in our verse, “…the Torah forbids each sex that which is specifically suited to the nature of the opposite sex.  A man shall not attend to his external physical appearance in the way appropriate to a woman’s nature, and a woman shall not appear in a vocation suited to a man’s nature…”

I suspect it did not occur to Hirsch, any more than it occurred to most women of my mother’s generation, that women who made beauty and sex appeal a top priority expected to be dependent on men, unable to support themselves.

From Biblical times until my own “baby boomer” generation, marriage followed by motherhood was the primary goal for most young women. Men would bear weapons and fight in wars, while women would stay at home with their children—and hope that enemy soldiers did not reach their houses.

This view of the “natures” of men and women is countered by two stories in the Hebrew Bible: one about an armed woman, and one about a primping man.

The Torah does not say that Joseph primps or applies cosmetics; that tradition began in the commentary.  It does say that Jacob spoils him by giving him a fancy coat or tunic.  When Joseph becomes a slave to Potifar, and Potifar’s wife tries to seduce him, the Torah says:

And Joseph was beautiful of shape and beautiful of appearance.  (Genesis/Bereishit 39:6)

Joseph keeps refusing to lie with Potiphar’s wife, but on one occasion she catches him in the house alone, and grabs his clothing.  He flees outside, leaving his clothes in her hand, but his virtue intact.  The frustrated woman uses Joseph’s clothes to slander him and send him to prison, where his adventures continue, and he eventually becomes Pharaoh’s viceroy.

The Midrash Rabbah on Genesis, edited in the 4th to 5th centuries C.E., says Joseph was vain about his beauty:  “It may be illustrated by a man who sat in the street, putting kohl around his  eyes, curling his hair, lifting his heel, and exclaiming, ‘I am indeed a man.’ ‘If you are a man,’ the bystanders retorted, ‘here is a bear; up and attack it!’”

Yet Jacob’s deathbed blessing praises Joseph’s power with a manly weapon:  And his bow was continually taut, and his arms and hands were agile… (Genesis 49:24)

Joseph has a reputation as both beautifying himself like a woman, and being a gever with weapons and the power to rule.

A story in the book of Judges features two women who engage in acts of war.  The prophetess Devorah serves openly as the general of an army recruited from two tribes of Israel, though she wears no weapon and her male lieutenant, Barak, leads the soldiers into battle. When they win, the enemy general, Sisera, flees to a tent where he believes he will be safe—because Sisera’s king is friends with the owner of the tent, Chever the Kenite.  Chever is not at home, so his wife, Jael (Ya-el), welcomes Sisera inside and gives him a drink of milk.

"Study of Jael in Red Chalk" by Carlo Maratta

“Study of Jael in Red Chalk”
by Carlo Maratta

Sisera naturally assumes all women are subservient to their men, so he drinks the milk and relaxes.  Then Chever’s wife kills him.

The Bible gives two accounts of the murder.  In the first one, Jael waits until Sisera falls asleep, then kills him by hammering a tent peg through his skull.  Next an ancient poem describes the same incident, but implies that Jael crushes Sisera’s head with a hammer while he is still awake and upright.  Either way, Jael does not have access to men’s gear, so she improvises her own weapon.

Far from censuring her for using a weapon and a man’s power of independent decision, the book of Judges praises Jael—as a woman.

Most blessed of women is Jael, the wife of Chever the Kenite; most blessed is she in the tent. (Judges/Shoftim 5:24)

Thus even in the Torah, a woman who improvises the kli (gear) of a gever (warrior), and a man who wears the beauty (and perhaps vanity) that the Torah assigns to a woman, are praised for taking on the roles of both genders.

Adopting roles previously associated with the opposite gender is commonplace in advanced societies today.  Some men are tender parents of infants and young children, and some men devote themselves to looking sexy.  Some women succeed in vocations previously reserved for men, and some women are fighters.

Are we moving toward a society which takes off from the stories of Joseph and Jael, rather than from the verse in this week’s Torah portion?  Are we moving toward a society in which both men and women are complete people?

Shoftim: Abominable

August 18, 2015 at 11:14 pm | Posted in Shoftim | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

lamb 2You shall not slaughter for God, your god, an ox or a lamb or kid that has a defect in it, any bad thing, because it is toeivah to God, your god.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 17:1)

toeivah (תּוֹעֵבָה) = repugnant, causing visceral disgust; an “abomination”.

This is only the first of five times the word toeivah appears in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”). This emotionally loaded noun or adjective appears 117 times in the Hebrew Bible, and its verb form (תעב) appears 23 times. The word has been used to manipulate reactions for millennia.

An object or action can be toeivah to a class of human beings, or to God. Sometimes the Torah simply states that something is toeivah without saying who finds it repugnant; the implication is that the reader or listener should be repelled.

The first three times the word toeivah appears in the Bible, it describes what disgusts Egyptians.  The book of Genesis/Bereishit says that Egyptians find eating at the same table with Hebrews toeivah (Genesis 43:32). We do not know whether Egyptians were disgusted by their manners or by their diet. Next Joseph tells his brothers that all shepherds of flocks are toeivah to Egyptians (Genesis 46:34).  In the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses tells the Pharaoh that the Hebrews must travel some distance to make sacrifices to God because their animal offerings are toeivah to Egyptians (Exodus 8:22).

The first thing considered toeivah to God, rather than to a specific group of humans, is in the book of Leviticus: With a male you shall not lie down as one lies down with a woman; it is toeivah. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:22)

This infamous line (misused by fundamentalists to claim that all homosexuality is an “abomination”) occurs in the middle of a list of sexual prohibitions God tells Moses to issue to the Israelites.  Since God is the speaker in this verse, the implication is that God finds that particular act (whatever it might actually be) toeivah.

disgust 1The first verse in this week’s Torah portion to mention toeivah specifies that an animal offering with a defect is toeivah to God, your god. It establishes that God Itself finds a defective offering repulsive, revolting, viscerally disgusting. I picture God as a human being making a face and swallowing hard because his or her gorge is rising.

The problem is that God, unlike Egyptians, has no viscera.  Attributing visceral disgust to God is an anthropomorphization.

Immediately after warning that God finds offerings with defects revolting, this week’s Torah portion says that if anyone worships other gods,

and it is told to you and you hear, and you inquire thoroughly, and hey!—it is true, well-founded, that the thing was done, this toeivah, in Israel—then you shall take out that man or that woman who did this evil thing within your gates, and you shall pelt the man or the woman with stones so that they die. (Deuteronomy 17:4-5)

Is worshiping other gods toeivah to God, or to the people of Israel? Other parts of Deuteronomy make it clear that any act worshiping other gods is disgusting to God.  For example:

Carved images of their gods you shall burn in the fire.  You must not covet the silver and gold upon them and take it for yourself, lest you be snared by it, for it is toeivah to God, your god. (Deuteronomy 7:25)

The toeivah things and practices in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, include defective animal offerings, the worship of other gods, and the practice of magic.

When you come into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, you must not learn to do as the toavot of those nations. There must not be found among you one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, a caster of cast lots, a cloud-reader, or a snake-diviner, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells with a familiar, or a woman who inquires of the dead, or a man who consults ghosts, or a medium for the dead.  Because everyone who does these things is toavot, and on account of these toeivot, God, your god, is dispossessing them [the Canaanite nations] before you.  (Deuteronomy 18:9-12)

toavot, toeivot  (תּוֹעֵבֹת, תּוֹעֲוֹת) = plural of toeivah.

Since God is dispossessing the Canaanites because of their magical practices, the Torah concludes that God finds the magic repugnant and disgusting. (See my blog post Shoftim: Taboo Magic.)

The word toeivah comes up one more time in this week’s Torah portion, when Moses tells the Israelites that when they conquer any town within the land designated for Israel, they must kill all the inhabitants, men, women, and children—

—so that they will not teach you to do like any of their toavot that they did for their gods, and you would do wrong for God, your god. (Deuteronomy 20:18)

I believe this is one of the places where the Bible advocates something unethical.  Should we commit genocide against a people because we find their superstitious or religious practices disgusting?  Of course not!  Should we kill them all because we are afraid they will convert us?  Of course not!

Genocide motivated by visceral disgust for a group still happens.  The Nazi round-up and slaughter of not only Jews, but also homosexual men, gypsies, and others the Nazis found disgusting, is the most famous example of modern genocide.  Unfortunately genocide still happens around the world.

The Distinguished Member of the Humane Society, by E.H. Landseer

The Distinguished Member of the Humane Society,
by E.H. Landseer

Nevetheless, some reactions of disgust have an ethical component.  I find okra disgusting because of its taste and texture, but I do not consider people who eat it immoral. The idea of cooking and eating a dog repels me in a different way, because I find it unethical.  Dogs have been my cross-species friends; they have enough in common with human beings so I believe it is wrong for humans to kill them for no better reason than to eat them.  (Twenty years ago I realized that this reasoning applies to all mammals, and I have avoided eating them ever since.)

Most Americans find the idea of eating a dog toeivah.  Many (though not all) Chinese still consider dog an acceptable meat.  Should we therefore kill the Chinese?  Of course not!

When we feel visceral repugnance, our impulse is to get rid of whatever is disgusting us.  But in order to be morally upright, we have to step back from our visceral reactions and determine what actions are ethically acceptable.  I can ethically work to pass laws against slaughtering dogs and other mammals for food.  I cannot ethically kill people who happen to be butchers.

Yet if I thought God found eating dogs toeivah, I could use that as a justification for killing dog butchers.  I could even cite an earlier verse in Deuteronomy:  You shall not eat any toeivah. (Deuteronomy 14:3), which is followed by a list of animals that are toeivah to eat, including any animal with paws instead of hooves.

Thus attributing human disgust to God opens the way to truly abominable deeds.

Re-eih: Releasing Your Hand

August 12, 2015 at 10:36 pm | Posted in Re-eih | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Nevertheless, there should not be among you evyon; because God will truly bless you in the land that God, your god, is giving to you to possess as a hereditary holding—but only if you truly pay attention to the voice of God, your god, to be careful to do this entire commandment that I Myself command you today. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 15:4-5) 

Beggar, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Beggar,
by Rembrandt van Rijn

evyon (אֶבְיוֹן) = paupers, needy, destitute, those with no means to make a living.

This week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See!”) claims that the land of Canaan is fertile enough so that none of its residents need be paupers—as long as the Israelites share their wealth according to God’s instructions.

The portion gives directions for several ways to reduce poverty. First, Re-eih calls for landowners to tithe for six years out of a seven-year cycle. The tithe—a tenth of the landowner’s produce—is designated for several different purposes. A third of the annual tithe (or perhaps the whole tithe every three years) is given to the poor in the landowner’s town, specifically to landless resident aliens, orphans, and widows.

In the seventh year of the cycle, all farmland lies fallow, and whatever food grows naturally is available to everyone. This week’s Torah portion also calls  for the release of debts in the seventh year.

At the end of seven years you shall  make a shmittah. And this is the matter of the shmittah: everyone who  has  handed out a loan shamot the loan to his fellow. He  shall not press his fellow or his brother, for a shmittah has been proclaimed for the sake of God. (Deuteronomy 15:1-2)

shmittah (שְׁמִטָּה) = release;  remission of debt.

shamot (שָׁמפּט) = releases.

In other words, borrowers who are simply too poor to repay their debts on time are freed from the obligation. They are no longer dunned by their creditors or burdened by guilt.

The Torah warns people to continue to make loans to the poor, even if it is getting close to the end of the seventh year. It assumes we feel a natural sympathy for paupers, but we sometimes check that feeling with second thoughts.

When there is among you an evyon from one of your brothers within one of your gates in your land that God, your god, is giving to you, you shall not harden your heart and you shall not shut your hand to your brother the evyon. Rather, you shall truly open your hand to him, and you shall truly lend him what he lacks, so that it shall not be lacking for him. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)

At this point, the Torah has progressed from the artificial mechanisms of tithing and the release of debt every seven years to simply giving the poor in your town what they need whenever they need it.

A token donation is not enough. “…you shall truly lend him what he lacks” had been interpreted to mean  not only food, but also anything from a kind word to the tools, training, and starter loan to take up a trade.

The passage in this week’s Torah portion  concludes:

Because the evyon will not cease from the midst of the land, therefore I myself command you, saying: Truly open your hand to your brother, to your oni, and to your  evyon in your land! (Deuteronomy 15:11)

oni (עָנִי) = the poor, the wretched, the  unfortunate, the humble.

This week’s Torah portion first says “there  should not be among you evyon”, then later acknowledges that since not everyone is generous enough, “the evyon will not cease from the midst of the land”.

giving b-wToday we still have evyon, paupers who are unable to earn a living and depend entirely on charity, and oni, people who have become poor because of bad luck. If the products of our planet were distributed evenly, everyone would have enough food and shelter. But the governments of the world still are not generous enough. And individuals with means still are not generous enough.

How often have you had an impulse to give to an unfortunate person, and then hardened your heart by deciding that this person did not deserve your money?

How often have you passed a beggar without opening your hand—either because you were saving those dollars for a latte, or because the beggar looked, smelled, or behaved like someone who might be unpleasant or dangerous?

I am cultivating a practice of opening my hand and giving a dollar to every beggar I pass, regardless of the judgments that pop up in my mind. I also donate a dollar to the county food share program every  time I buy groceries at the store that handles donations. I pay dues to my congregation, which provides the space for many people (including me) to serve as the equivalent of Levites. I pay taxes, of which a small percentage goes to programs that help the poor.

Yet I pass up countless other opportunities to donate to charities and good causes. (Even as I was writing this, a canvasser knocked on my door and I did not answer.) I do not have the time, I tell myself, I do not have the money. And how can I tell whether responding to this particular appeal would do any real good?

This week’s Torah portion says to make loans and gifts to the poor within your gates, the ones whom you encounter in your own life. That sounds reasonable, since you are more likely to know “what they truly lack”.

Yet I wonder what I should give to the people I know who are too handicapped to earn a living and who are not supported by their families. I do not have enough emotional strength to act as their friend or substitute family member, which is “what they truly lack”. So I settle for giving a token—a cookie, a ride, a smile—until the person becomes too difficult  and demanding.  Then I harden my heart and close my hand.

I would rather pay extra taxes for social programs.

A passage in  the book of Proverbs that describes the virtues the eshet chayil or “woman of valor” includes this couplet:

Her palm spreads open to the poor

And her hands stretch  out to the evyon. (Proverbs 31:20)

I am not a “woman of valor”. I am not strong enough to open my hands to all the evyon within my gates. I do not understand how to be an eshet chayil.

If you have suggestions, please reply to this post!

 

Eikev: Not by Bread Alone

August 4, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Posted in Eikev | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

“Man does not live by bread alone” is an old-fashioned aphorism in English, indicating that human beings also have essential spiritual needs. Christian English-speakers trace it to Matthew 4:4, where Jesus quotes it to Satan. But the original source is in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“on the heels of”), when Moses warns the Israelites that when they take over Canaan, they must remember what they learned in the wilderness.

bagelAnd you shall remember the entire way that God, your god, made you walk these 40 years in the wilderness in order to anotekha, to test you, to know what was in your heart: Would you observe [God’s] commandments or not? So [God] anotekha and let you go hungry and fed you the manna, which you did not know and your fathers did not know, in order to let you know—

—that not by bread alone does ha-adam live; rather, on everything that comes out of the mouth of God ha-adam  lives. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 8:2-3)

anotekha (עַנֹּתְךָ) = humble(d) you, humiliate(d) you, impoverish you, deprive(d) you of all independence.

ha-adam (הָאָדָם) = the human, humankind.

This is a new reason for keeping the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years.  In the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, the wilderness time was prolonged from two years to forty when the people first reached the southern border of Canaan and refused to cross it.  (See my posts on the story of the scouts: Shelach-Lekha: Mutual Distrust and Shelach-Lekha: Risking vs. Wandering.)

God decided then that the people would spend an additional 38 extra years in the wilderness, until the generation that refused to cross into the “promised land” had died out.  Now, in Deuteronomy, Moses reveals another reason for the extra 38 years: so that the new generation would be tested.

God’s test had two phases. Back in the book of Exodus/Shemot, the people journeyed for a month and a half after leaving Egypt without running out of food. Then halfway between the oasis of Eylim and Mount Sinai they complained of a famine.

This seems like an odd complaint for people who are traveling with large herds of milk-producing animals. Did their cows, ewes, and nannies all dry up at once?  Was there an unrecorded rule that they could not slaughter any of their livestock for food until after God gave them the rules for animal offerings? God must have done something to the Israelites’ walking food supply, since this week’s Torah portion says God let you go hungry and fed you the manna. In Exodus,

from Maciejowski Bible, circa 1250 C.E.

from Maciejowski Bible,
circa 1250 C.E.

God said to Moses: Here I am, raining down for you bread from the heavens. And the people shall go out and gather up the day’s worth on its day, so that I can test them: Will they go by my teaching or not? (Exodus/Shemot 16:4)

Manna began appearing on the ground every sunrise, looking like tiny white seeds. Unlike any other food the Israelites had known, manna melted in the sun, and rotted when people tried to keep it overnight in their tents. They could cook and eat only one day’s portion for each person—except on the sixth day of the week. On that day only, they were able to cook or bake a double portion of manna, and follow God’s commandment to rest on the seventh day, Shabbat.

The first phase of the test was whether people would go out to gather manna on Shabbat. Some people did, hoping to hoard their extra one-day portion of cooked or baked manna. But the ground was bare on Shabbat, and they had to eat the manna they had saved.  They could never get ahead.

The manna continued the rest of the time the Israelites lived in the wilderness, but the test changed. If the first phase was to train people to observe Shabbat, the second phase focused on the people’s dependence on a food that they were powerless over.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses says twice that God anotekha: humbled you or humiliated you. Moses is addressing the adult children of slaves, who were never as independent as the free and wealthy. But at least the slaves had procured their own food. Now all the adults were as dependent on manna as an infant is on its mother’s milk.

From one point of view (particularly among men used to ruling their own households) this was a form of humiliation. From another point of view, it was a reminder of humankind’s dependence on God’s gifts. The manna tested which point of view each person would take—so they would know what was in their heart.

God humbled—or humiliated—the Israelites by making them dependent on manna, Moses says, …in order to let you know that not by bread alone does ha-adam live; rather, on everything that comes out of the mouth of God ha-adam  lives. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

In context, this statement means:

1) Humans cannot live on what we make for ourselves (such as bread); we can live only because of everything God gives us (which may include the grains, rains, and brains required to make bread—or may include some other food).

and 2) Humans depend on God not only for food, but also for everything else God calls into being to sustain us. In the book of Genesis, this “everything” includes companionship (It is not good for ha-adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18), language (and whatever ha-adam called each living creature, that was its name (Genesis 2:19)), and the ability to learn from tests.

Forty years of testing

For 40 years in the wilderness, God trained the Israelites to accept their utter dependence on God for everything in life. At the same time, God insisted that the Israelites follow all the rules Moses put into words, and punished the most egregious violations with death.

This training seems designed to make people passive and submissive.  Yet when the Israelites finally did cross the Jordan and conquer Canaan, they would need to act independently, first in war and then in agriculture and commerce. Why wasn’t God training these children of slaves to take initiative and manage their own physical needs?

I would answer that all the rebellions against God and Moses indicate that the people were neither passive nor submissive by nature. Left to their own devices, they would act, not just wait for something to happen.  In fact, when they were left to their own devices while Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai, they took the initiative and made the Golden Calf.

The lessons the Israelites really needed, both in the wilderness and in Canaan, were that no matter what they did on their own, their very lives depended on God (or nature); and that the only route to a good life was obeying God’s rules. They had to be trained to accept whatever God gave them, so that they could love and fear (or be in awe of) their god.

We face the same test today. As adults, most of us want to take care of ourselves and avoid being dependent on other people. We may not have spent 40 years in a wilderness, but when we were children, our dependence frustrated us, and we learned that humans we depended on could suddenly be absent when we needed them.

Yet we also know that we cannot do everything on our own; we are not gods.  We will always be at least partly dependent on other people. We will always be dependent on “nature”, which we can alter somewhat for better or worse, but cannot create in the first place. And even though we can often improve our lives by taking the right actions, there will always be surprises: both bad and good things will happen that we have no control over. In a sense, we are always at the mercy of God.

Not by bread alone does a human live; rather, a human lives on everything that comes from God.

The choice we can make in our hearts is whether to feel humble or humiliated; to feel grateful for what we are given, or resentful over what we are deprived of.

After I converted to Judaism 29 years ago, I discovered that I could use prayer in order to cultivate humbleness and gratitude. Life is better that way! May each one of us find a practice that will help us to accept every test and every portion of manna that comes our way.

 

Va-etchannan: All in One

July 30, 2015 at 8:51 pm | Posted in Va-etchannan | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

The most important sentence in Jewish liturgy appears in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (“and I pleaded”). Jews recite it daily in both morning and evening prayers.  We are called to say this sentence before we die, so some of us say it at any time of danger, or at bedtime (just in case). Personally, I feel better if I recite this sentence when I am sitting in an airplane that is just taking off.

If you haven’t guessed, the sentence is:

Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:4)

Shema (שְׁמַע) = Listen! Hear! Heed! Listen up, pay attention! Now hear this!

Jacob Wrestling with an Angel, by Gustave Dore, detail

Jacob Wrestling with an Angel by Gustave Dore, detail

Yisrael (יִשְׂרָאֵל) = Israel, which was the additional name given to Jacob after he wrestles with the unnamed being at the ford, and also the name of Jacob’s descendants (the twelve tribes) and those adopted into the people Israel.  Many personal names in the Bible begin or end in el (אֵל) = god.  An “is” or “of” is implied between the el and the other part of the name. Yisra  (יִשְׂרָא) = he struggles with, he persists with (from the root verb sarah = contended, strove); or upright (from the root verb yashar = was upright, level, straight ahead).

(See below for translations of Adonai, eloheynu, and echad.)

The first two words, Shema Yisrael, tell a certain group of people to pay attention to what comes next.  In Deuteronomy/Devarim, Moses uses the phrase to introduce a fundamental message about God, but it serves the same function as “Hear ye, citizens of Fredonia”, or “Attention, all passengers for Flight 613”.

The only question is which people are being addressed.  Within the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is addressing all the descendants of Jacob, i.e. Israel (including descendants of the non-Israelites who also followed Moses out of Egypt and became part of the people) who arrived at the Jordan River.

By the first century C.E., the Shema was a central part of morning and evening prayers. But only in the past half-century have some Jews have expanded the idea of Yisrael to include everyone who persists in struggling with God.

That means everyone who questions and wrestles with the concept of God, and everyone who strives to follow divine direction, should pay attention to the message: Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad.

Adonai = my lord, my master.  The Hebrew for Adonai does not appear in the actual Hebrew text of the Shema. Instead, the Torah gives the four-letter personal name of God.  In Jewish tradition over the last two millennia, the four-letter name must be treated with the utmost respect; it is never pronounced, and it is spelled out only in prayer-books and the Bible. (It may be a unique four-letter form of the Hebrew verb for “to be” or “to happen”.) When Jewish liturgy is spoken or the Bible is read out loud, a common substitute for the four-letter name is Adonai.

eloheynu (אֱלֹהֵינוּ) = our elohim. Elohim (אֱלֹהִים) = god; gods. (The Hebrew words eloheynu and elohim are in the plural form, but are usually used to refer to the single god of Israel. Three times in the Bible the Philistines say eloheynu in reference to their own god, Dagon.)

echad (אֶחָד) = one; first; single, only, unique; once; the same kind of; united, indivisible.

What does the imperative message Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad mean?

Most Biblical scholars date the book of Deuteronomy to the 7th century B.C.E., and identify it with the holy book “discovered’ in the temple during the 641-609 B.C.E. reign of King Josiah of Judah, and used to lend authority to Josiah’s agenda: expanding Judah to include part of the former northern kingdom of Israel, and eliminating the worship of any other gods in his kingdom. Although Deuteronomy recapitulates much of the history and law in the books of Exodus through Numbers, there are a number of differences.  Most (though not all) of the differences support the theory that Deuteronomy was written just before or during King Josiah’s reign.

An English translation for the Shema in the context of King Josiah’s reforms could be:  Listen up, residents of Judah and survivors of the kingdom of Israel!  Adonai is our god, only Adonai!

The idea that the primary message of the Shema is to exclude the worship of other gods continues in some English translations. Many modern works use the “JPS” translation:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. (Jewish Publication Society, 1962)

But this is not the only possible meaning of Adonai echad.  Even a book written in the 7th century B.C.E. might also declare that God is one-of-a-kind, the only god in the universe.

The book of Amos, written in the 8th century B.C.E., not only credits Adonai with the creation of the universe, but also quotes God as saying:

Like the children of Kushi-im, aren’t you mine, children of Israel? —declares Adonai.

Didn’t I bring up Israel from the land of Egypt,

And the Philistines from Kaftor, and Aram from Kyr? (Amos 9:7)

In other words, although the Kushites, Philistines, and Aramites believe they have their own separate gods, there is actually only one God for them all.

detail by John Constable

detail by John Constable

Many modern Jewish and Christian translations of the Shema into English treat Adonai echad as a statement of monotheism. For example:

Listen, Israel, God is our Lord, God is One. (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, 1981)

Listen, Israel! The Lord our God is the only true God!  (American Bible Society, 1995)

Yet there is a third way to interpret Adonai echad. The word echad is also used in Biblical Hebrew to mean united or indivisible.

A key concept in Kabbalah, presented in the earliest known book on the subject, Sefer Yetzirah (written sometime between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E.) is that the universe was (and continues to be) created through ten sefirot (divine powers or qualities). Later Kabbalist writings changed the sefirot to forces such as compassion or discipline. The various traditions of Kabbalah all emphasize that God is one and indivisible. The sefirot only appear to be separate powers; really they are aspects of the One.

This idea of the unity of everything is part of an unusual translation of the Shema by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014):

Listen you Yisrael person, Yah who is, is our God, Yah who is, is One, Unique, All there is. (quoted in Rabbi David Zaslow, Ivdu Et Hashem B’Simcha, 1997)

When I pray, in Hebrew or English, I want to know what the words mean—not just what the traditional meanings are, but what the words can say to my own heart. Sometimes the personal meaning of a prayer changes over the years for me, as I change.

Here is my own interpretation of the Shema, this summer of 2015:

Pay attention, you who persist in struggling with the idea of God: Being is our god, and Being is all there is.

What is your interpretation this year?

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