Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1

July 13, 2017 at 3:12 pm | Posted in Balak, Pinchas | 4 Comments
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And Israel strayed at the acacias, and the people began to be unfaithful [to God] with the daughters of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrificial slaughters of their god, and the people ate and bowed down to their god. And Israel attached itself to Baal Peor, and God’s nose burned against Israel. (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1-3)

The Israelites camp for a while under the shade of acacia trees on the east bluff of the Jordan River, with a view of their “promised land” of Canaan across the water. In last week’s Torah portion, Balak, some local women invite the Israelite people—men and women—to feasts in honor of their god, Baal Peor, and the Israelites accept. (See my post Balak: False Friends.) They bow down to Baal Peor along with their hostesses, perhaps at first out of politeness. But their prostrations become sincere; they end up worshiping Baal Peor. The God of Israel is enraged at their unfaithfulness; in the Biblical Hebrew idiom, God’s nose burns.

This is the second time a large number of Israelites flout one of the Ten Commandments. The first time, at Mount Sinai, they make and worship the golden calf (as an image of the God of Israel), violating the commandment against idols in Exodus/Shemot 20:4. Even after Moses has the Levites kill about 3,000 idol-worshipers, God sends a plague that kills more of them.

The Ten Commandments also include “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). Right after forbidding other gods and idols, God says:

You shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them; because I, God, your god, am a kana god, taking retribution for the crimes of parents upon their children, upon the third and the fourth [generations] of those who hate Me. (Exodus 20:5)

kana (קַנָּא) = jealous, zealous.

In last week’s Torah portion, Balak, many Israelites flagrantly disobey God by worshiping Baal Peor. This time God’s plague kills 24,000 Israelites.

Everyone wants to stop the epidemic—even God. Apparently pestilence is a direct expression of God’s anger (along with the idiomatic burning nose), and God (as portrayed in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar) cannot simply switch off divine anger.

So what can stop the plague? God has the first idea, and tells Moses:

Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them for God in full sunlight. Then the heat of God’s nose will turn away from Israel. (Numbers 25:4)

But Moses, who prefers justice over mass extermination, does not follow God’s suggestion. He  orders a different action to stop God’s anger:

Moses said to the judges of Israel: Each man, execute his men who are attached to Baal Peor. (Numbers 25:5)

The Torah does not say whether Moses’ order is carried out. But in the next verse, a chief from the tribe of Shimon tries another idea for halting the plague.

from Sacra Parallela, Byzantine, 9th century

And hey! An Israelite man came and brought the Midianite close to his brothers, before the eyes of Moses and the eyes of the whole community of the Israelites who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. And Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the Priest, saw it, and he stood up in the midst of the community and he took a spear in his hand. And he entered the kubah after the man of Israel, and he pierced the two of them, the man of Israel and the woman, to kavatah. And the pestilence was held back from the Israelites. (Numbers 25:6-8)

kubah (קֻבָּה) = alcove, small tent. (This word may be related to the Akkadian kabu, a verb for calling upon a god, and/or the Arabic kubatu, a small tent-shrine.)

kavatah (קֳבָתָהּ) = her belly. (The word is probably used here as a pun on kubah.)

The word kubah is not used in any descriptions of the God of Israel’s Tent of Meeting; in fact, it appears only once in the Hebrew Bible. So why is there suddenly a kubah near the entrance of the Tent of Meeting?

The Israelite man, we learn in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, is Zimri son of Salu, a chief of the tribe of Shimon. The Midianite is Kozbi daughter of Tzur, a chief of a tribe of Midian. According to commentator Tikva Fryemer-Kensky, a high-ranking Midianite woman might well be a priestess who sets up her own kubah in the hope that she can stop the plague.1 The religious ritual she uses to invoke her god apparently includes sexual intercourse with Zimri, given the pun about her kubah. Thus Zimri and Kozbi are probably transgressing three of God’s rules at once: worshiping another god, letting a foreigner enter the holy courtyard around the Tent of Meeting, and having intercourse there.2

Although some commentary justifies Pinchas’s violent deed by pointing out that the first two of these rules carry a death penalty, there is no legal trial.3  Pinchas is not an executioner, but someone who murders in the grip of emotion—like God.

Is Pinchas’s action necessary? In other parts of the Torah, God kills individuals instantly when they flout one of God’s rules or decisions.4 But in the Torah portion Balak, God seems to be overpowered by rage, unable to either calm down or attend to anything else.

In the Torah portion Pinchas, God thanks Pinchas.

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the high priest, turned back my rage from the children of Israel through his kina, kina for me in their midst, so I did not finish off the children of Israel in my kina.  Therefore say: Here I am, giving him my covenant of peace.  And it shall be for him, and for his descendants after him, a covenant of priesthood for all time, founded because kinei for his God, so he atoned for the children of Israel.” (Numbers 25:10-13)

kina (קִנְאָ)=  zeal, jealousy, fervor, passion for a cause. (From the same root as kana above.)

kinei (קִנֵּא) = he was zealous, he was jealous.

God recognizes a kindred spirit. Both God and Pinchas act out of kina when someone is unfaithful to God.

Pinchas’s double murder for God’s sake does prevent the deaths of any more Israelites from God’s plague. And murder may be justified if it is the only way to prevent other people from being killed. Does God grant Pinchas a covenant of peace and priesthood as a reward for halting the plague that God is unable to halt?

Or does the covenant modify Pinchas’s kina, giving him an ability to make peace? (See next week’s post, Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2.)

It takes longer for the God character in the bible to master “His” own kina over how “He” is treated by the Israelites. For example, after the Israelites are settled in Canaan, God strikes 70 Israelite villagers dead when they look into the ark, even though they are rejoicing over its return to Israelite territory and worshiping God through animal offerings.5

Eventually God calms down somewhat. When God becomes angry with the Israelites of Judah for worshiping other gods at the temple in Jerusalem, He lets the Babylonian army do the killing. God merely informs the Israelites, through the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that they deserve it.

And in Second Isaiah God finally gives up His kina over the unfaithful Israelites. God promises to take them back with love and never lash out in anger again, despite their infidelity.6

In the western world today we understand jealousy as a natural human emotion, but we caution people not to act out of jealousy, since that often leads to unfortunate or immoral results. On the other hand, we still praise zeal, passionate attachment to a cause.

Yet over the centuries millions of people have been murdered, often in battle, because of zeal for a religion. I pray that more people will question their own beliefs, and stop confusing God with the God-character in the Bible, who kills thousands in uncontrollable fits of rage and kina.

And I pray that all people who are filled with passionate attachment to a cause, even a good cause, will pause and think before taking any action that might harm someone.

May we all become humans of peace.

1  Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, Schocken Books, New York, 2002, pp. 220-222.

2  The Torah prescribes the death penalty for an Israelite sacrificing to any gods other than the God of Israel (Exodus 22: 19 combined with Leviticus 27:29), and for a foreigner approaching the Tent of Meeting (Numbers 3:10). The Israelite religion also forbids semen even in the courtyard around the Tent of Meeting; anyone who has sex must bathe and wait until evening before entering the area (Leviticus 15:16-18).

3  A legal punishment can only be carried out after a trial including the testimony of two witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15). When Moses orders the judges to execute the men who are attached to Baal Peor (Numbers 25:5), he is in effect asking for such trials. Some commentators say Pinchas assumes responsibility for impaling Zimri because God’s plague is raging and the judges of Israel are too slow to act.

4  For example, God employs fire to kill Nadav and Avihu when they bring unauthorized incense into the Tent of Meeting (Leviticus 10:1-2). God makes the earth swallow up  Korach, Datan, and Aviram when they challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:27-33—see my post Korach: Buried Alive). And God inflicts an invisible death (perhaps a stroke or heart attack) on Uzza with when he touches the ark to prevent it from tipping over (2 Samuel 6:6-7—see my post Haftarat Shemini—2 Samuel: A Dangerous Spirit) and on King Achazeyahu after he consults with a foreign god (2 Kings 1:16-17).

5  1 Samuel 6:15, 6:19.

6  Isaiah 54:7-10. See my post Haftarat Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser.

 

Haftarat Korach—1 Samuel: The Man Who Would Not Be King

July 5, 2016 at 10:41 am | Posted in Korach, Samuel 1 | 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 Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32) and the haftarah is 1 Samuel 11:14-12:22.

The prophet Samuel feels insulted when the independent tribes of Israel first ask him to appoint a king. God is the true ruler of the twelve tribes, he says. Samuel intereceds with God, and serves as a circuit judge, deciding case law for the people.  What more do they need?

prophet 3All the elders of Israel assembled themselves and came to Samuel at the Ramah. And they said to him: Hey! You have grown old and your sons have not walked in your ways. So now set up for us a king to judge us, like all the nations. (1 Samuel 8:4-5)

Samuel warns them that kings impoverish and enslave their subjects, and do not listen when their people cry out to them.

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, and they said: No! Because with a king over us, we, even we, will be like all the nations.  And our king will judge our disputes, and he will go out before us and fight our wars. (1 Samuel 8:19-20)

In other words, what the tribes are really looking for is not a judge, but a permanent war leader. They are tired of being picked on by the neighboring Philistines, Amorites, and Ammonites; they want to do their own conquering and nation-building.

Samuel tells God, and God promises to send a king to Samuel.  In this week’s haftarah he tells the assembled Israelites:

And now, here is the king who you have chosen, who she-eltem, and here—God has placed over you a king. (1 Samuel 12:13)

she-eltem (שְׁאֶלְתֶּם) = you asked for.  From the root verb sha-al (שָׁאַל) = ask.

The name of the first king of Israel is Saul, or in Hebrew, Shaul (שָׁאוּל) = asked.

How does Saul, a Benjaminite whose only outstanding trait is his height, come to be king?  The first book of Samuel gives us three different stories.

DonkeyIn the first story, Saul is looking for his father’s lost donkeys.  He and his servant wander far from their home in Giveah.

They were just coming to the land of Tzuf when Saul said to his boy who was with him: Hey, let’s go turn back, or my father will stop worrying about the donkeys and worry about us. (1 Samuel 9:5)

tzuf (צוּף) = (noun) honeycomb dripping with honey; (verb) flooded, flowed over.

The servant talks Saul into entering the nearest town and paying the local seer to tell them where the donkeys are. The town is Ramah, and the seer is Samuel, who drags Saul to the hilltop shrine for a feast.

Samuel Anointing Saul

Samuel Anointing Saul

In the morning Samuel pours oil on Saul’s head and tells him God is anointing him king. On his way home Saul falls in with a band of ecstatic prophets and speaks in ecstasy.  But when he returns to his father’s house he tells nobody about his anointment.

In the land of Tzuf everything is overflowing: the food at the feast, the oil of anointment, and the ecstatic spirit of God. In the second story,

Samuel summoned the people to God at the mitzpah. (1 Samuel 10:17)

mitzpah (מִצְפָּה) = watchtower, lookout post.

When all the important Israelite men have arrived, Samuel casts lots before God three times to find out who the king will be.  The lottery chooses first the tribe of Benjamin, then out of that tribe the clan of Matar, then out of that clan Saul. But nobody can find Saul.

Then God said: Hey!  He has hidden himself in the baggage!  So they ran and took him from there, and he stood himself up among the people, and he was head and shoulders taller than all the people.  And Samuel said to all the people: Do you see the one whom God chose?  For there is none like him among all the people! (1 Samuel 10:22-24)

Saul’s strategy of hiding does not work; even if the people cannot see him from the mitzpah, God can.  Saul is proclaimed king despite himself.

This week’s haftarah gives us a third and more serious installation of Saul as king.

And Samuel said to the people: Come and let us go to the gilgal, and we will renew the kingship there. So they all the people went to the gilgal and they made Saul king there before God, at the gilgal. And they slaughtered their wholeness-offering before God there, and Saul and all themen of Israel with him rejoiced there very much. (1 Samuel 11:14-15)

gilgal (גִּלְגָּל) = (probably) a stone circle. Related to the words gal (גַּל) = heap of stones, goleil (גֹּלֵל) = rolling, galgal (גַּלְגַּל) = wheel, and gulgolet (גֻּלְגֹּלֶת) = skull, head, headcount.

There is more than one gilgal mentioned in the Bible, but the most important one is probably the gilgal at the edge of the city-state of Jericho. It is already standing when Joshua leads the Israelites into Canaan, and its circle of stones was probably used by an earlier religion. Joshua uses it as a sacred site for circumcising all the Israelite men and celebrating the first Passover in Canaan.  Then it becomes his headquarters for most of the book of Joshua.

map Saul 1

The gilgal near the ruins of Jericho later becomes one of the four stops on Samuel’s circuit as a judge (along with the mitzpah, Beit-El, and Ramah in Tzuph).  Then it is the place where Saul is installed as king, and finally the site of King Saul’s main altar.

Why does it take two false starts, in the land of Tzuf and at the mitzpah, before Saul accepts his kingship at the gilgal?

When the redactor of the books of Samuel recorded three extant stories about Saul’s appointment, he put them in the most telling order.  First Saul is blessed with kingship as a gift of tzuf, an overflowing bounty of both oil and an ecstatic experience—but these are gifts he does not want, so he pretends he never received them. Next Saul is chosen by lot at a mitzpah, a lookout post—where he does not want to be seen.  He manages to hide even from everyone except God, even though he is a head taller than the other men.

Finally Samuel summons the reluctant king to the gilgal, the ancient circle of stones where Joshua made his headquarters. Here Saul succumbs to history and takes his place in the line of rulers of the Israelites, after Moses and Joshua.

Some people seize opportunities to become leaders, pushing forward eagerly in their conviction or ambition.  Others are like Saul, shy of fame and happy to lead ordinary lives.  But the first book of Samuel shows that when you are called, denial is useless.  Eventually you will have to answer God and take your place in the middle of the circle.

In your own life, do you step into a new responsibility even when it may not be your calling?  Or do you resist the call to take a necessary job that you don’t really want?

 

 

Haftarat Bemidbar—Hosea: Speaking in Wilderness

June 6, 2016 at 9:25 pm | Posted in Bemidbar, Hosea | 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 (Numbers 1:1-4:20) has the same name as the book it begins, Bemidbar. The haftarah is Hosea 2:1-22.

The Hebrew name of each of the first five books of the Bible is the first significant word in the first sentence of the book. This week Jews begin studying the book called “Numbers” in English, which begins:

Mount Sinai: one possible location

Mount Sinai: one possible location

God vayedabeir to Moses bemidbar of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first [day] of the second month, in the second year of their exodus from the land of Egypt. (Numbers/Bemidbar 1:1)

vayedabeir (וַיְדַבֵּר) = (and) he/it spoke.

bemidbar (בְּמִדְבָּר) = be- (בְּ) = in a + midbar (מִדְבָּר) = wilderness; uncultivated and/or uninhabited land.

Although bemidbar by itself means “in a wilderness”, when it is followed by a definite place-name, such as “Sinai”, a better translation is “in the wilderness of Sinai”. A common custom today is to call the book of Numbers Bamidbar (בַּמִדְבָּר), the word for “in the wilderness’ if it is not immediately followed by a place-name. But some commentators, myself included, prefer to take the name Bemidbar directly from the text.

A more important question is whether midbar comes from the same root as vayedabeir. The modern scholarly consensus is that there are at least two root words with the letters דבר, one that has to do with driving away or going behind, and one that has to do with speech, words, and things. Midbar comes from the first root, and could be translated as “back-country”. Vayedabeir comes from the second root, and is a form of the verb dibeir =speak.

But that does not stop a poetic prophet from using the word midbar both to indicate wilderness and to allude to a medabeir (מְדַבֵּר) = “one who speaks, speaker”.

Hosea’s prophesies were composed in the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E.. Like the later prophets, Hosea keeps warning the people of Israel to stop being unfaithful to God by worshiping other gods. Hosea compares Israel to a woman who abandons her first husband and prostitutes herself with other men. In this week’s haftarah, Hosea passes on God’s warning that Israel must stop soliciting.

drawing by Rembrandt

drawing by Rembrandt

Or else I will strip her naked,

Bare as the day of her birth,

And I will make her like the midbar

And render her like a waterless land,

And I will let her die of thirst. (Hosea 2:5)

God is threatening not merely to humiliate Israel like a women stripped naked in public, but also to turn the cultivated and inhabited land of Israel into the worst kind of wilderness: an empty desert. This is the midbar that the children of Israel feared when they crossed the wilderness with Moses, and panicked three times when there was no water: twice in the book of Exodus/Shemot, and once in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar:

There was no water for the community, and they congregated against Moses and against Aaron…and they said…Why did you bring the congregation of God to this midbar to die here, us and our livestock? (Numbers 20:2-4)

Their complaint was false on at least three counts: it was God who led the people into the wilderness; God led them from Mount Sinai straight to the border of their promised land, but they refused to cross, so it was their fault that God made them stay in the wilderness for 40 years; and finally, they had no reason to believe that God, who provided water and food throughout their wilderness journey, would fail to do so again.

Apparently the inhabitants of Israel in Hosea’s time were just as full of false beliefs. In this week’s haftarah, Israel (the unfaithful wife) says her other gods (her illicit lovers) gave her vines and fig trees; she does not recognize her crops as a gift from her own God.

God promises to turn Israel into a midbar to punish her. But then God will take her back.

Indeed, here I am, seducing her.

And I will lead her through the midbar,

Vedibarti to her heart. (Hosea 2:16)

vedibarti (וְדִבַּרְתִּי) = and I will speak. (From the same root as dibeir.)

Moses at the Burning Bush by Rembrandt

Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt

Now we see the midbar in a different light, as the place where God speaks to the Israelites. God first spoke to Moses out of the burning bush in the midbar of Sinai.

And Moses…led the flock to the back of the midbar, and he came to the mountain of the God… (Exodus/Shemot 3:1)

There God commissioned Moses to serve as God’s prophet in Egypt. After the Israelite slaves were freed, God’s pillar of cloud and fire led them back to the midbar of Sinai.

They journeyed from Refidim and they entered Midbar Sinai and they camped bamidbar, and Israel camped there in front of the mountain. And Moses went up to God… (Exodus 19:2-3)

The Israelites stayed in the midbar of Sinai for two years, while God spoke the Ten Commandments, made a covenant, and gave Moses instructions for the sanctuary and the duties of priests and the various holiday observances. That was the midbar where God was a medabeir, one who speaks.

The book of Hosea says that after God has punished Israel for being unfaithful and the land is reduced to a midbar, God will speak to Israel again—but this time, instead of repeating the rules and instructions for the religion, God will “speak to her heart”, “seducing” her to return to God.

vineyard 1The haftarah continues:

And I will give her vineyards from there,

And the valley of disturbance for a doorway of hope.

And she will answer there as in the days of her youth,

As the day she came up from the land of Egypt. (Hosea 2:17)

God will speak to Israel’s heart, and Israel will answer as in the days when the Israelites lived in the wilderness. The wild land will grow vineyards, and the wild heart will grow hope.

*

The midbar is the place of insecurity, where no wells are dug and no crops planted. But the midbar is also the place where people can hear the medabeir: God speaking.

Does God speak in your heart when you are well-clothed, well-fed, and secure? Or is that when you attribute your good fortune to other gods, such as your own cleverness or hard work?

Are you more likely to hear God speaking in your heart when you are in a place of insecurity?

Haftarat Emor—Ezekiel: No Sweat

May 16, 2016 at 10:53 pm | Posted in Emor, Ezekiel | 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 Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23) and the haftarah is Ezekiel 44:15-31.

Gold gleaming, censers swinging, men chanting, priests in elaborate robes and headgear … When I saw a special Catholic mass on television, I assumed that the officiants dressed up to impress the congregation with the beauty and holiness of their ritual.

priest ordinary garmentsI used to assume the same thing about priests in ancient Jerusalem when they performed rituals in the outer courtyard of the temple, in front of all the people. These outdoor rituals included butchering animals and burning the pieces on the altar; I pity whoever had to do the priests’ laundry. Nevertheless, their costumes seemed designed to impress the congregation, from the turbans on their heads down to the hems of their long elaborately woven robes.

And for the sons of Aaron you shall make tunics and you shall make sashes for them, and turbans you shall make for them, for magnificence and beauty. (Exodus/Shemot 28:40)

The priests had to look dazzling, I figured, in order to inspire the people into a worshipful state of mind.

This week’s haftarah turned my head around.

The book of Ezekiel records the visions and prophecies of a priest who was deported to Babylon in 593 B.C.E., when King Nebuchadnezzar’s army besieged Jerusalem. While Ezekiel was in Babylon, the temple in Jerusalem was razed. Ezekiel encouraged his fellow Israelite exiles by prophesying a future temple in Jerusalem, bigger and better.

In this temple, he said, only the descendants of Tzadok, King Solomon’s high priest, would be priests. (See Haftarah for Emor: Tzadok the Priest.) They would follow strict rules of purity in their marriages, their behavior, and their dress.

When they come inside the gates of the penimit court, they must dress in garments of linen; they shall not dress themselves in wool for their attendance inside the gates of the penimit court and its house. (Ezekiel 44:17)

penimit (ַפְּנִימִית) = inner (part of a temple or palace). (From the noun panim = face, faces, surface, expression, disposition. The inner court was where one encountered the disposition of God or of a monarch.)

temple 2Throughout the ancient Near East, a temple consisted of an unroofed outer courtyard for public worship, and a roofed inner court where priests served their god through other rituals.

And when they go out to the outer court, to the outer court to the people, they must take off their garments that are on them and set them aside in the holy rooms, and they must dress in other garments, and not make the people holy with their garments. (Ezekiel 44:19)

According to Ezekiel, the holiest priestly garments must be worn in the penimit court, which only priests may enter. Thus only other priests—and God—could see them in their sacred vestments performing the rituals of the oil lamps, the bread table(s), and the incense altar.

Since the inner court is such a holy place, the garments worn there are also holy. The priests have to change into other garments before they go out into the public courtyard in order to prevent cross-contamination.

Commentators differ on the direction of the contamination. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105 C.E.) wrote that ordinary garments are not ritually pure, and therefore would contaminate any holy garments they touched.  But according to Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 1160-1235 C.E.), Ezekiel was concerned that the holiness of the priests would rub off on the unqualified.

Turbans of high priest (L), regular priest (R)

Turbans of high priest (L), regular priest (R)

The holy linen garments include headgear and underpants as well as a long tunic and sash.

Turbans of linen will be on their heads and breeches of linen will be on their hips; lo yacheggeru in sweat. (Ezekiel 44:18)

lo yacheggeru (לֹא יַחְגְּרוּ) = they shall not gird themselves, they shall not wrap a belt or sash around their waists.

Girding happens most often in the Bible when men gird on swords or other weapons. A close second is girding oneself with sackcloth as a sign of mourning or repentance; in this case, a man wraps a broad sash of coarse goat hair around his naked midsection. In other references, men gird their loins in order to shorten the skirts of their tunics so they can run or march without encumbrance.

In this week’s haftarah, a priest’s linen sash girds his long linen tunic simply because men wore sashes. In the outer courtyard, a priest’s sash might help to hold his tunic away from spattering blood, or he might shorten his skirts with it to facilitate moving the ashes off the altar. But in the penimit court, the sash is strictly for beauty and propriety.

So are the linen breeches. Linen is cooler than wool; a man wearing linen is less likely to sweat. Today, sweat stains are considered unattractive and inappropriate on formal wear; copious perspiration is associated with either hard labor or excessive nervousness.

The Hebrew Bible refers to sweat only twice: in the sentence from Ezekiel above, and once in the book of Genesis when God sentences Adam to his new life outside Eden, and declares:

By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread… (Genesis/Bereishit 3:19)

Here, sweat is a metaphor for hard labor in the fields. But the work of the priests hidden inside the inner court is stately and spiritual. For this holy service, they need refined and holy clothing—not for the sake of onlookers, but for the sake of their own state of mind.

According to Ezekiel, the priests in the penimit court will be in an altered state. They will wear special clothes that are never worn anywhere else. They will not sweat. And they will not put on a show for the general public.

A second Israelite temple was built in Jerusalem, with construction beginning in 516 B.C.E. It did not follow Ezekiel’s plans, though it still separated the inner and outer courts. It was staffed by priests from the Levite tribe, but they were not all Tzadokites. They wore linen tunics, sashes, turbans, and breeches, though their sashes and the hems of their long tunics were embroidered with colored yarn that might have been wool.

There is no record of whether the priests of the second temple sweated inside the inner court.

After Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 C.E., priests could no longer perform the sacred rituals. But a new form of serving God was already developing. For the last two millennia, Jews have emphasized worshiping God through good deeds and the prayers of every individual. In that sense, we have become a kingdom of priests (and priestesses), as God predicted to Moses in Exodus/Shemot 19:6.

What can we do today to make our prayers and our good deeds like magnificent and beautiful garments we wear without sweating, in a pure and priestly state of mind?

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.

Haftarat Terumah—1 Kings: Solomon versus Shalom

February 7, 2016 at 7:20 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Terumah | 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 Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 5:26-6:13.

To rule as a king, one needs administrators, a standing army, and a capital city. And in the Ancient Near East, the capital had to have a temple for the chief god of the kingdom.

When David conquers Jerusalem (in the first book of Samuel) to be the capital of his new kingdom, he brings in the two objects that are the most sacred to the Israelites: the Tent of Meeting and the Ark of the Covenant. But he leaves the temple-building to his son and heir, Solomon.

map 950 BCEKing Solomon has stone quarries and can command his citizens to do forced labor. But Israel has neither tall timber nor craftsmen skilled with wood. So he makes a pact with Chiram, king of the Phoenician city-state of Tyre.

And it happened: Chiram gave to Shlomoh cedar and cypress wood, all he wanted. And Shlomoh gave to Chiram 20,000 kor of wheat for his household and 20 kor of beaten oil. This Shlomoh gave to Chiram year after year. And God had given wisdom to Shlomoh, as [God] had spoken to him. [There was] shalom between Chiram and Shlomoh, and the two of them cut a covenant. (1 Kings 5:24-26)

Shlomoh (שְׁלֹֹמֹה) = Solomon in English, Suleyman in Arabic. (From the root verb shilam (שִׁלָם) = complete; make amends, repay, fulfill; restore to wholeness.)

Shalom (שָׁלֹם) = peace, wholeness, intactness, well-being. (Also from the root shilam.)

In the tenth century B.C.E., the time of Shlomoh and Chiram, there were two kinds of treaties between kingdoms in the Near East. In one model, the weaker kingdom was a vassal of the stronger one, and paid tribute to it (see my post Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies). In the other, two equal kingdoms made a treaty or covenant for trade and mutual defense.

The treaty between King Shlomoh of Israel and King Chiram of Tyre specified that Tyre would provide wood for all of Shlomoh’s building projects in Jerusalem, and Israel would provide annual large shipments of wheat and oil to Tyre. Although the Bible does not mention a clause about mutual defense, it does state that there was shalom between the two kings, which implies that they at least agreed to mutual non-aggression.

And the king, Shlomoh, imposed a mas upon all of Israel, and the mas was 30,000 men. And he sent 10,000 a month to Lebanon; following a month in Lebanon they were two months at home, in turns… And Shlomoh had 70,000 burden-carriers and 80,000 quarriers in the hills … The king commanded, and they pulled out great stones, valuable stones, to lay the foundation-wall of the House: hewn stones. (1 Kings 5:27-31)

mas (מַס) = conscription for forced labor.

The first mas described in the Bible is the forced labor of the Israelites in Egypt. Although it was an accepted practice for a king to impose a temporary mas on his own citizens, in this case Shlomoh made 180,000 Israelites neglect their own land to do heavy labor for years.  They had to cut and haul materials for the temple, for King Shlomoh’s palace, and for several other large new buildings in Jerusalem.

Limestone quarry under Jerusalem: four stones partly cut out

Limestone quarry under Jerusalem: four stones partly cut out

The text also emphasizes that the stones for the foundation wall of the temple are hewn: huge blocks of stone cut out and smoothed.

And when the House was built, it was built of shleimah stone, quarry stone; but hammers or the axe, any tool of iron, was not heard in the House when it was built. (1 Kings 6:7)

shleimah (שְׁלֵמָה) = complete, whole, uninjured, undivided, peaceable. (Plural: shleimot.)

The king wants to avoid the sound of an iron tool on the site of the new temple because of an old law about altars:

If you make an altar of stones for Me, you must not build it of hewn stones; if you have wielded your sword upon it, you have profaned it. (Exodus 20:22)

And you shall build there an altar for God, your god, an altar of stones; you must not wield iron upon them. You must build the altar for God, your god, of shleimot stones. (Deuteronomy 27:5-6)

King Shlomoh’s laborers are building the foundation-wall of the temple, not an altar. However, the temple will enclose a space even more sacred than the altar. So the king orders the stones to be cut at the quarry, and merely set in place at the temple site. Shlomoh’s attempt to follow the law may actually subvert it, since the stones are hewn.

Similarly, Shlomoh’s treaty with Chiram of Tyre has two purposes: to promote shalom, peace, between the two kingdoms, and also to build a temple that will unite the Israelites under a single god at a single holy place so they will be shaleim, intact, one people. Instead the annual wheat and oil shipments to Tyre become a burden on the farming population.  And the mas imposed on so many Israelite men results in complaints and rebellion. Shortly after King Shlomoh’s death, northern Israel secedes from southern Judah. (See my post Terumah & 1 Kings: Tent vs. Temple.)

Are the stones of the temple wall really shleimot, whole and undivided, when they are cut out of the quarry with hammers and shaped with axes?

Does Shlomoh’s kingdom really live in shalom, peace and wholeness, when building a temple in Jerusalem leads to oppression, revolt, and secession?

Lekh Lekha & Vayeira: Hints of Jerusalem

October 19, 2015 at 8:07 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Vayeira | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

No place called Jerusalem appears in the “Torah” proper, the first five books of the Bible.  The Torah only drops two hints about Jerusalem, both in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.

In the Torah portion Lekh Lekha (“Get yourself going”), Abraham is blessed by the king of “Shaleim”.  And in the next portion, Vayeira (“And he saw”), Abraham almost slaughters his son as an offering on Mount Moriyah, later identified as the temple mount. map Jerusalem hills

A place called “Jerusalem” (Yerushalam or Yerushalayim) does not show up in the Bible until the book of Joshua:

When Adoni-Tzedek, king of Yerushalam, heard that Joshua had captured the Ai… (Joshua 10:1)

Adoni-Tzedek (אֲדֹנִי־צֶדֶק) = My-Lord-of-Righteousness.

Yerushalam (יְרוּשָׁלַם) = Jerusalem (in English).

But thanks to Egyptian archaeology, we have older records of a place in the central hills of Canaan called something like Yerushalam.  The oldest reference found so far appears on Egyptian potsherds from the 19th century BCE, where Rushalimum is one of 19 Canaanite cities.

Rushalimum = uru (city of, founded by) + shaleim (the Canaanite god of the evening star, in the Semetic language of the Jebusites).

In the Amarna letters of the 14th century B.C.E., the king of the land of Rishalimum complains to the pharaoh of Egypt about how the Egyptian soldiers treated his capital city, “Beit-Shulmani”—a Semetic name meaning “House of Shaleim”.

Shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = the Canaanite god of the evening star (in the Jebusite language); completeness, safety, peace (in Hebrew, another Semitic language).

In the book of Joshua, Jerusalem is one more Canaanite city-state that Joshua and the Israelites defeat in battle.  Joshua puts its king to death, but he cannot defeat the city itself.  We can tell because he does not subject the city to either of the two standard treatments for a defeated city: making it a vassal-state of the conqueror, or plundering all the goods and enslaving or killing all the residents.

But the children of Judah were not able to take over the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Yerushalam, as their possession, so the Jebusites dwell with the children of Judah to this day.  (Joshua 15:63)

Joshua sets up the Israelites’ portable tent-sanctuary in Shiloh, about 20 miles north of Jerusalem, and it remains there for centuries, acquiring stone walls and becoming the main temple of the Israelites.

Solomon's Temple, artist's rendering

Solomon’s Temple, artist’s rendering

The city-state of Jerusalem remains an independent enclave until King David conquers its citadel and makes it his capital in the second book of Samuel.  Instead of enslaving or subjugating the native Jebusites, David integrates them into his kingdom.  He brings the ark and the tent-sanctuary to Jerusalem, and his son Solomon builds the first temple there.

Back in the book of Genesis, Shaleim (in Lekh Lekha) and “Mount of the Moriyah” (in Vayeira) seem to refer to locations in Jerusalem, long before the time of King David.  These two references also provide hints that this area is destined to someday become the city of the God of Israel.

A blessing in the city of Shaleim concludes Abraham’s only recorded military campaign.  Five kings at southern end of the Dead Sea lose a battle against four northern kings, who then head north with all the southerners they can round up as slaves, along with their wealth and food. One of the kidnapped families is Abraham’s nephew Lot and his women. map Shechem to Zoar

Abraham and his 318 men chase the northerners beyond Damascus, defeat them, and head south with all the captured people and goods.  Before they even reach Abraham’s encampment in Hebron, on the way to the cities of the five defeated kings farther south, the king of Sodom meets Abraham and his men in the Valley of Shaveh.

And the king of Sodom went out to meet him, after he returned from striking Kedarlaomer and the kings who were with him, to the Valley of Shaveh, which is the valley of the king.  But Malki-Tzedek, king of Shaleim, brought out bread and wine; and he was a priest to Eil Elyon.  (Genesis/Bereishit 14:17-18)

shaveh (שָׁוֵה) = level, made level, made equal.

Malki-Tzedek (מַלְכִּי־צֶדֵק) = My-King-of-Righteousness.

Eil Elyon (אֵל עֶלְיוֹן) = the High God.

Malki-Tzedek, the king of Shaleim, has a name similar to Adoni-Tzedek, the king of Yerushalam in the book of Joshua.

Malki-Tzedek is also a priest, but rather than serving a local god called Shaleim, he serves Eil Elyon, the head of the Canaanite pantheon, and later a secondary name for the god of Israel.

This king-priest comes down to the Valley of Shaveh with bread and wine.  Below the Jebusite citadel that became the City of David is a broad, level area where the Kidron Valley meets the Valley of Ben-hinnom.  Commentators have speculated that this was the Valley of Shaveh—though Shaveh would also be a good name for a place where Abraham, the king of Shaleim, and the king of Sodom meet as equals.

Malki-Tzedek not only gives bread and wine to Abraham and his men upon their return from battle (a gesture that did not occur to the king of Sodom); he also gives Abraham a blessing.

And he blessed him and he said: Blessed be Avram to Eil Elyon, owner of heaven and earth.  And blessed be Eil Elyon, Who delivered your enemies into your hand. And he gave him a tithe of everything. (Genesis 14:19)

Probably it is Abraham who gives a tithe of the booty to Malki-Tzedek, prefiguring the tithes that Israelites brought to the high priest in the temple in Jerusalem centuries later.

prophet 2Abraham adds the name Eil Elyon to the four-letter name of God when he swears to the King of Sodom that he will not keep any of the people or goods that he won in battle. (See my blog post Lekh Lekha: Names for God.) Abraham’s use of Eil Elyon may be diplomatic, but it also implies that Malki-Tzedek and Abraham recognize the same god as supreme.

So the stage is set for the Jebusite city of Shaleim to become the capital and holy city of the Israelites someday. The site is associated with a name of God, with priesthood, with blessings, and with tithes.

The next Torah portion, Vayeira, hints at the future site of the temple through a very different story.

Abraham and his people live in Beersheba at this point in the Torah, and Isaac, Abraham’s son by his wife Sarah, is a young man.  God speaks to Abraham in the night.

And [God] said:  Take, please, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and get yourself going to the land of the Moriyah.  And lead him up there for an olah on one of the mountains, which I will say to you. (Genesis 22:2)

Moriyah (מֹרִיָּה) = Mor of God.  Mor (מֹר) = myrrh.  Mor could also be a shortened form of moreh (מוֹרֶה) = throwing or teaching; or a homonym for mareh (מַרְאָה) = seeing, appearance, vision, apparition, mirror.

olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering: an animal offering completely burned up into smoke.

“The Moriyah” might originally have been the name for an area where myrrh grew.  The fragrant resin of these small thorn-trees was collected for incense, which was in general use for religious ceremonies in the ancient Near East.

After a three-day walk from Beersheba, Abraham sees the place.  The Torah does not say how he knows this particular hilltop is the one God chooses, but he climbs up with Isaac, firewood, a fire-box, and a knife.

Beersheba is 44 miles from Jerusalem.  If the Moriyah is Jerusalem,  then Abraham, Isaac, and the two servants and donkey they leave at the bottom of the hill would have to walk 14 to 15 miles a day—a reasonable distance, especially if the servants carry the firewood and the donkey carries Abraham, age 117.

14th century Icelandic manuscript

14th century Icelandic manuscript: an angel stops Abraham

Just as Abraham lifts his knife to kill his son at the top of the hill, another voice from God calls to him and tells him to stop.  Abraham sacrifices a ram caught by its horns in the thicket in place of Isaac.  (The Torah does not say whether it is a thicket of myrrh.)

And Abraham called the name of that place “God Yireh”, as it is said to this day:  On the mountain of God yeira-eih. (Genesis 22:14)

yireh (יִראֶה) = sees, will see, perceive, look at, consider.

yeira-eih (יֵרֶָאֶה) = he/it will be seen, become visible, appear.

Abraham’s name for the hilltop plays on the word Moriyah, which sounds like another form of the verb “to see”:  mareh (מַרְאָה) = seeing, appearance, vision.  The only other occurrence of the name Moriyah in the Hebrew Bible is in a book written 300 to 650 years later:

Then Solomon began to build the house of God in Jerusalem on the hill of the Moriyah, where [God] had appeared to his father David, where David had appointed the place on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.”  (2 Chronicles 3:1)

The house, or temple, of God in Jerusalem became the place where all Israelite men were required to appear—and be seen—three times a year, on the three pilgrimage festivals.

The first allusion to Jerusalem in Genesis, the story of Malki-Tzedek, mentions priests, blessing, and tithing. The second allusion to Jerusalem, the story of the binding of Isaac, changes the acceptable form of worship from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice, and also explores the idea of seeing and being seen—of perceiving what God really wants, and of being seen by God.

Three of the hints in these two stories—the tithe for the priest, burnt offerings of animals only, and presenting oneself at the holy place—all prefigure the practical religious instructions given later in the Bible for the holy temple of the Israelites.

But the hints about blessing and being blessed by God, and seeing and being seen by God, imply that Jerusalem will become such a holy city that humans will continually meet God there—perhaps not as equals, the way Abraham and the two kings do in the Valley of Shaveh, but as beings who exchange the same currency of blessing and acknowledgement.

Over the centuries, Jerusalem has occasionally lived up to the promise of its name under Malki-Tzedek, which is the same as the Hebrew word shaleim = wholeness, peace, and safety.  At other times, too many of the human beings in Jerusalem have been unable to bless or to see each other—and therefore unable to truly bless or perceive the divine.

May the promises of a holy, whole, peaceful, and safe Jerusalem in Lekh Lekha and Vayeira finally come true, speedily and in our time.

 

Note:  This post covers two weeks of Torah readings.  Look for my next post, on the portion Chayyei Sarah, in the first week of November. By then I will be settled in my new home on the Oregon coast!

 

Terumah: Under Cover

February 18, 2015 at 11:36 pm | Posted in Terumah | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

How do you make a holy sanctuary, a place where God can manifest and be heard? God gives Moses instructions in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”). The instructions require the creation of both ritual objects (the ark, the bread-table, the lampstand, the outer altar) and the creation of ritual spaces through curtains.

The Torah uses five different words for curtains in Terumah. The name of each curtain depends on its position in a sanctuary designed so that the holier and more exclusive the space is, the more it is covered and screened off.

mishkan plan

The outer courtyard of the sanctuary is accessible to all the people, walled off by curtains but open to the sky. It measures 50 by 100 cubits (roughly 75 by 150 feet, slightly smaller than an Olympic swimming pool). Inside the courtyard stands a tent sanctuary, called the “tabernacle” in English (from the Latin word for “tent”), and the mishkan, or “Dwelling-Place” for God in Hebrew. Only priests may enter the mishkan.

The innermost (western) chamber of the mishkan is the Holy of Holies. Only Moses and the high priest may enter the Holy of Holies, where God manifests as a voice above the ark and between the two keruvim, winged creatures hammered out of the two ends of the ark’s gold lid.

You shall make a courtyard for the mishkan; for the south side, kela-im for the courtyard of twisted linen, 100 cubits long for one side. …And thus for the north side, kela-im a hundred long…(Exodus 27:9, 11)

kela-im (קְלָעִים) = curtains, hangings. (From a root verb (קלע) meaning either “slung”, as from a slingshot, or “carved”.)

The word kela-im occurs 16 times in the Bible, 15 times to indicate the linen hangings around the outer courtyard of the portable sanctuary, and once to indicate the carved double door into the great hall of the first temple in Jerusalem.

The kela-im in this week’s Torah portion are made of a single material, twisted linen threads, undyed and therefore an off-white. The kela-im separate the outer courtyard, where all the people can gather around the altar, from the rest of the world. They are the boundary between holy space and mundane space.

There is one entrance into the courtyard, a 20-foot gateway in the east wall covered by a hanging curtain.

And for a gate of the courtyard, a masakh of 20 cubits of sky-blue wool and purple wool and crimson wool and twisted linen, the work of an embroiderer, with four posts and four sockets. (Exodus 27:16)

masakh (מָסָךְ) = hanging curtain across a doorway, portiere. (From the root word sakhakh (סכך)= block off.)

A masakh also hangs in the doorway of the mishkan, the tent inside the courtyard.

You shall make a masakh for the entrance of the tent, of sky-blue wood and purple wool and crimson wool and twisted linen, the work of an embroiderer. (Exodus 26:36)

There is only one doorway into the tent, an opening in the east wall. The curtain screening this doorway between the outer courtyard and the inner priest’s chamber has a different name.

Both of these curtains separate a less holy space from a more holy space, and both hang loose so they can be pushed aside when someone enters or exits. They are both woven from linen, like the walls of the courtyard, but a design is embroidered on them in three vivid colors of wool.

The word masakh appears 25 times in the Bible, all but three times referring to the hangings in the courtyard gate or the mishkan doorway. In the three exceptions, the word masakh is used for the cloth cover over a cistern (2 Samuel 17:19), for the metaphorical gateway to the kingdom of Judah (Isaiah 22:8), and for the cloud God spread over the Israelites when they left Egypt (Psalm 105:39).

The walls of the mishkan are made of another type of curtain.

And the Dwelling-Place you shall make of ten yeriyot of twisted linen and sky-blue wool and purple wool and crimson wool, with keruvim of weaving-work you shall make them. The length of each yeriyah is 28 cubits, and the width four cubits, one measure for all the yeriyot. (Exodus/Shemot 26:1-2)

yeriyah (יְרִיעָה), plural yeriyot (יְרִיעֹת) = curtain, panel of tent-cloth, tapestry.

Ivory from Samaria, Israel, 9th-8th century BCE

Ivory from Samaria, Israel, 9th-8th century BCE

keruvim (כְּרֻוִים) = sphinx-like creatures with lion bodies, eagle wings, and human faces.

Each yeriyah is four cubits (about six feet) wide—which was the standard width of an Egyptian loom. The linen and three colors of wool are all woven together into a tapestry with a design of mythical semi-divine creatures.

A few verses later, God tells Moses:

You shall make yeriyot of goat-hair for a tent-roof over the mishkan; eleven yeriyot you shall make. (Exodus 26:7)

Moses fastens together these tent-cloth panels into a ceiling for the tent-sanctuary. They are not as beautiful as the ones forming the walls, but they also face the holy space of the inner enclosure.

The word yeriyah appears 48 times in the Hebrew Bible, and all but three of those occurrences refer to the yeriyot of the mishkan or of the first temple in Jerusalem. The three exceptions are all poetic.  Jeremiah 49:29 and Habakkuk 3:7 use yeriyot as a poetic synonym for tents. Psalm 104  describes God as “wrapping light like a robe, spreading out the heavens like a yeriyah”. (Psalm 104:2)

The ceiling of yeriyot woven from goat-hair must be covered with another layer of roofing: a curtain of hides sewn together.

You shall make a mikhseh for the tent of skins of rams dyed red, and a mikhseh of skins of tachashim over above. (Exodus 26:14)

mikhseh (מִכְסֶה) = curtain, covering. (From the root word kasah (כּסה) = cover, conceal.)

tachashim (תְּחָשִׁים) = (Nobody knows what this word means; speculations range from badgers to giraffes to dolphins.)

The word mikhseh occurs in the Bible thirteen times, twelve times as the outer layer of the roof over the tent-sanctuary, and once as the roof over Noah’s ark. It serves as a sort of waterproof tarpaulin, covering and protecting the tent-cloth ceiling underneath.

Model of Mishkan

Model of Mishkan

The fifth kind of curtain in the sanctuary is the partition that screens off the Holy of Holies from the priests’ chamber inside the mishkan.

You shall make a parokhet of sky-blue wool and purple wool and crimson wool and twisted linen, the making of a weaver; it will be made with keruvim. (Exodus 26:31)

And you shall place the parokhet beneath the hooks; and you shall bring in there, into the house for the parokhet, the Ark of the Testimony; and the parokhet will make a separation for you between the Holy [space] and the Holy of Holies. (Exodus 26:33)

parokhet (פָּרֹכֶת) = curtain, woven partition. (The word is related to the Assyrian parraku = a chamber or shrine that is shut off.)

The word parokhet occurs 25 times in the Bible, always in reference to the partition screening off the Holy of Holies.

The parokhet is woven of the same materials, with the same motif, as the walls of the mishkan. But it hangs so that Moses, Aaron, or the high priest after Aaron, can push it aside to enter the Holy of Holies and speak with God.

By using five different words for curtains, the Torah portion Terumah emphasizes the importance of the different levels of holiness of each space that is partitioned, blocked from view, or protected.

I think people also have zones of intimacy, each protected by its own barrier. To the outer world of strangers, we present a face like the blank white kela-im of the outer courtyard, without any designs or colors showing—except in the gateway, where our bland, socially acceptable surface is embroidered with a colored design indicating what our personalities might be like inside.

When we make friends, we admit them through the gate into our outer courtyard, where they can see the sanctuary protecting our true selves. Our friends get a glimpse of our own vivid colors, and the mythological animals that indicate our particular life stories.  But our inner self is still hidden and protected by yeriyot panels and by a mikhseh, a roof covering we hope is disaster-proof.

Some people have never been inside the tent of their inner selves; they live only according to social roles and expectations, and find self-examination difficult. Others discover they have an inner priest who can enter the inner self and see what is inside. There, besides working with their own lamps and bread tables, they see the parokhet that screens off the Holy of Holies, where God might speak to them.

These self-explorers might invite one or two people into the priestly level of intimacy. But only the individual can walk through the parokhet and see their own ark, and the keruvim that inspired all their woven and embroidered designs.  Only an individual can see the empty space where the voice of God might manifest.

Some individuals would prefer never to enter their own Holy of Holies, never to risk hearing a voice that comes from a deep place beyond the knowable self.

How intimate do you want to become with yourself?  With God?  Which curtains will you pass through, and which will block your passage?

 

Masey: Magic of an Egyptian Province

July 20, 2014 at 10:17 am | Posted in Masey | 2 Comments
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The Torah does not name the pharaoh in its story about the exodus from Egypt. But some scholars guess the story is set in the 13th century B.C.E., during the reign of Rameses II. At that time the land of Canaan was a remote province of the Egyptian empire. Canaanite vassals ruled individual villages and their surrounding regions, but they reported to the Egyptian government in the provincial capital, Gaza. Egyptian garrisons were scattered around the province.

The two biggest powers then were the Egyptians and the Hittites. The capital of Egypt was in the Nile delta; the capital of Hatti was in present-day Turkey. Naturally the two empires fought over the land in between, until their kings, Rameses II and Hattusili III, made a peace treaty circa 1260 B.C.E. that froze the border. A long period of peace followed—as far as the Egyptians and Hittites were concerned. If one Canaanite vassal overthrew another, that was not their business.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are preparing to cross the Jordan River and overthrow every ruler in the province of Canaan.

God spoke to Moses, saying: Command the Children of Israel, and you shall say to them: When you enter the land of Canaan, this is the land that will fall to you as a hereditary possession: the land of Canaan by its boundaries. Your southern limit shall be from the wilderness of Tzin next to Edom … (Numbers/Bemidbar 34:1-3) 

"Canaan" in Egyptian heiroglyphs, Merneptah Stele

“Canaan” in Egyptian heiroglyphs, Merneptah Stele

Canaan (כְּנָעַן) = a territory roughly including present-day Israel, Lebanon, and part of Syria—but not Jordan. (Probably from the Egyptian name Kanana, though it may also be related to the Hebrew verb root kana (כּנע) = humble, subdue, subjugate. Much later, in the Second Temple period, a kinani (כְּנַעֲנִי) was a merchant or tradesman rather than a Canaanite.)

God promises to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants in the book of Genesis,and to the descendants of Abraham’s grandson Jacob in the book of Exodus.

When God delineates the boundaries of the promised land in this week’s Torah portion, Masey (“Journeys”), the northern boundary is about the same as the boundary between the Egyptian and Hittite empires, as set by their treaty. Like the province of Canaan, Israel is to include the coastline from Wadi el-Arish all the way to a Mount Hor north of Byblos (now the Lebanese city of Jubayl). (This is different from the Mount Hor east of Edom where Aaron dies.)

Canaan in Numbers 34

Canaan in Numbers 34

The northern boundary goes from the Mediterranean to a point deep in present-day Syra. The eastern boundary swings around to the Sea of Kinneret and follows the Jordan River to the Dead Sea, like the eastern boundary of Canaan in the 13th century B.C.E.

The Israelites never rule the entire province. But they are so attached to Canaan as their promised land, that Moses gets upset in last week’s Torah portion (Mattot) when two and a half tribes want to settle on the east side of the Jordan River, in the land the Israelites recently captured from a pair of Amorite kings.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses makes the distinction between Canaan and the land east of the Jordan again.

And Moses commanded the Children of Israel, saying: This is the land that you will divide for hereditary property by lot, that God commanded to give to the nine tribes and the half tribe. For the tribe of the Reubenites…the tribe of the Gadites… and the half-tribe of Menashe, they have taken their hereditary possession. The two tribes and the half-tribe took their hereditary possession from across the Jordan at Jericho, eastward toward the sunrise. (Numbers 34:13-15)

Why must the land promised to the Israelites be no more nor less than the Egyptian province of Canaan?

One answer is that the Israelites are Canaanites. Some archaeologists suspect the exodus was a literary invention, and that although a small band of slaves may have run away from Egypt, the majority of ethnic Israelites lived in the hills of eastern Canaan all along. When the kingdom of Judah conquered more of Canaan during the reign of King Josiah (Yoshiyahu), 600 years later, they rewrote some of the Torah to justify their expansionism.

The Torah, on the other hand, implies that Israelites are Canaanites because an extended family of 70 (plus wives and servants) go down from Canaan to Egypt, and 430 years later in the exodus 600,000 men (plus wives and children and a multitude of like-minded Egyptians) come back up. During their four centuries in Egypt, the Israelites retain their identity and language. Returning to Canaan, therefore, is returning home.

But they do not return to rejoin their fellow Canaanites. The god of Israel orders them to conquer the current population and drive them out of their towns, so that the people and religion of Israel will rule the land. The Torah gives two kinds of justifications for taking over Canaan. One is that Canaanite religious practices are evil in God’s eyes, and therefore must be eliminated. The other is that the Israelites, as descendants of Abraham, are supposed to be a blessing to the rest of the world. Presumably part of this blessing is setting an example of a country run according to God’s laws.

Some mystical commentary claims that the promised land had to include Jerusalem. According to these mystics, the Temple Mount is also Mount Moriyah, where Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac. This is the holiest spot in the world. (Mount Sinai, which lies outside Canaan, is somehow less important!)

I think all of these explanations ignore the power of myth and legend. As an American child, I grew up reading English stories full of menhirs, dolmens, fairy circles, and henges, where magical things happened to previously ordinary people. When I visited England as an adult, it moves me to tears to see these legendary structures cropping up in the woods and in the middle of farms. This was the world of the stories I grew up with, the world my imagination lived in. Every day I spent in the English and Welsh countryside filled me with awe. I can only imagine the awe I will feel when I finally get to Israel and see the places I keep reading about in the Torah as an adult.

The ancient Israelites, whether they stayed in Canaan or migrated to Egypt and back, grew up with the legends that found their way into the book of Genesis. Imagine what it would mean to them to see Mount Moriah, the grove of Mamre, the cave of Makhpelah, Beeir-sheva, or Beeir-lachai-roi.

Never underestimate the power of story. It can turn a rural Egyptian province into the Promised Land.

Behar: Choosing a God

May 4, 2014 at 11:37 am | Posted in Behar | Leave a comment
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Feeling a sense of the numinous or the divine, from time to time, is human nature. So is the impulse to acknowledge and reach out to the ineffable. For thousands of years, many human beings have channeled this impulse into worship of one or more gods.

The Hebrew Bible does not have a separate word corresponding to the English word “worship”. But it does have words for prayer (tefillah), bowing down or prostrating oneself (hishtachavot), service (avodah—often meaning the tasks of priests), and bringing offerings to a god (hakriv korban). Prayer and prostration usually happen on the impulse of the moment in the Torah.  Priestly service and bringing offerings, on the other hand, are rituals for which the book of Leviticus/Vayikra gives detailed rules.

But the most important thing is which god one is addressing. The Torah repeatedly warms its readers to restrict themselves to only one god out of the many available in the ancient Middle East. This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“on the mountain”) ends with these instructions:

You must not make for yourselves eliylim, or a pesel; and a matzeivah you must not erect for yourselves; and a maskit stone you must not place in your land for prostrations upon it; because I, God, am your elohim. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:1)

eliylim (אֱלִילִם) = pseudo-gods (often used to refer to gods in other religions)

pesel (פֶּסֶל) = carved image; idol of cut stone or wood (from the verb pasal = carve)

matzeivah (מַצֵּבָה) = standing-stone

maskit (מַשׂכּית) = paving-stone with a design on it, set into the floor of a shrine

elohim (אֱלֹהִים) = gods (plural of eloha = god); God

What strikes me about this warning is that after the general reference to pseudo-gods, we get three examples of idols associated with stone. In contrast, the God of the four-letter name (approximated in English by Y-H-V-H) is associated with a day of rest and a holy place in the next verse:

Shabbetotai you must guard, and mikdashi you must hold in awe; I am God. (Leviticus 26:2)

shabbetotai (שַׁבְּתֹתַי) = my sabbaths

mikdashi (מִקְדָּשִׁי) = my holy place

Shabbat, the sabbath, is a holy time: one day a week when the people must refrain from labor and honor God. A mikdash is a holy place. A shrine with a pesel, matzeivah, or maskit stone might be a mikdash for another god. But this week’s Torah portion quotes the god of Israel as saying mikdashi, MY mikdash. Throughout the book of Leviticus, God’s mikdash is the portable sanctuary Moses assembles in the book of Exodus; God becomes present above the ark in the sanctuary’s innermost chamber. Later in the Bible, the holy place where God becomes present is the temple in Jerusalem. Since the fall of the second temple, some Jews have viewed Jerusalem as God’s holy place, while others have said holy place is any spot where God becomes present to a human being—as long as it is the correct god.

Both the pseudo-gods and the God of Israel require human actions before they can be worshipped. Humans carve the pseudo-gods out of stones. Humans set aside times and places as holy to the God of the four-letter name.

Like many religious seekers today, I like the more abstract idea of how to approach God. Thinking about time and space dazzles me; looking at a stone sculpture only stimulates my aesthetic sense. But in Biblical times, the sanctuary or the temple was full of tangible objects and decorations made of metals, wood, and thread. Gold flashed, rich colors glowed. And the second temple was built of stone.

A visit to the temple meant not only a feast for the eyes, but an overwhelming experience for the other senses. The Levites chanted psalms and played musical instruments. Priests burned aromatic incense. When you brought any animal offering, you laid your hands on the beast’s hairy head. When you brought a wholeness-offering, a priest burned selected portions into smoke for God, and ate his own portion, but the donor and his guests ate the rest of the meat and bread.

When we make God too abstract, we approach the divine with only one part of ourselves, the rational function of our minds. But our minds are much bigger than that. Reading a prayer silently makes me think about the meaning of words; singing a prayer lifts my spirit. Thinking about time and space dazzles my intellect; looking at a blossoming tree or a smiling face moves my heart with a feeling of the divine.

So I have to reinterpret the phrase:  I, God (the four-letter Y-H-V-H name), am your elohim. Most translations use “the LORD”, a variation of “Y-H-V-H”, or Hashem (“the Name”) for the first god-word, and “God” (always capitalized) for elohim. Yet elohim is a plural, and the Torah occasionally uses the word to refer to multiple gods worshipped by other peoples.

When I come to that phrase, in prayers or in this passage from the portion Behar, I think: I, God, am all gods to you.

In other words, do not get stranded in abstract theories, however dazzling to the intellect. And do not get stuck at the level of a stone carving. Let the stone, or the singing of psalms, or the taste of bread move your heart. Use your head to recognize that the divine is also more than an exalted feeling. And then acknowledge that these things are all part of the holy One.

 

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