Tags: torah portion, Leviticus, Vayikra, mold, skin disease, household
Priests spend most of their working hours, according to the Torah, on three kinds of tasks: maintaining God’s dwelling-place, whether tent or temple; processing the offerings made there; and ritually purifying people who have become ritually impure.
There are many ways a person might become ritually impure, and therefore excluded from communal worship—or even from the whole community—until the situation is rectified. This week’s double Torah portion, Tazria and Metzora, goes into great detail about one: the disease called tzara-at.
If a human has on the skin of their flesh a swelling, or scales, or a white patch, and it becomes a mark of tzara-at on the skin of their flesh, then they shall be brought to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons, the priests. (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:2)
tzara-at (צָרָעַת) = a disfiguring disease of human skin, characterized by patchy white discoloration; something causing patchy red or green discoloration in fabric, leather, or wall-plaster.
Priests are not healers, but they do diagnose the presence or absence of that one disease. Tzara-at was previously mistranslated as “leprosy”, but the descriptions in Leviticus/Vayikra show that human tzara-at is a relatively harmless skin disease, perhaps a form of leukoderma. Sometimes it heals by itself. When the disease is present, the human being must be quarantined from the rest of the community. When the tzara-at is cured, the priests conduct a ritual for re-entry.
The quarantine also applies when a priest finds tzara-at in fabric, leather, or the plastered walls of a house.
God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving to you for property, and I put a mark of tzara-at in a bayit on the land you possess, then the one who has the house shall come and inform the priest, saying: Something like a mark has become visible to me in the bayit. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:33-35)
bayit (בַּיִת) = house, building, home; household (consisting of family and servants living together).
Then the priest shall give an order, and they shall clear out the bayit before the priest comes to look at the mark, so nothing in the bayit will become ritually impure. After that the priest will come to look at the bayit. And he will see the mark, and hey! the mark is sunken into the walls of the bayit, yerakrakot or adamdamot, and appears deep in the wall! (Leviticus 14:36-37)
yerakrakot (יְרַקְרַקּוֹת) = thin greens.1
adamdamot (אֲדַמְדַּמוֹת) = blood reds.2
In that case, the priest must quarantine the house for seven days. If the green or red patches have spread when he returns, the discolored portion of the wall has to be dismantled and its stones must be carried off to the dump. The plaster over the rest of the walls in the house must be scraped off and taken to the dump. Then the house owner has to rebuild the missing section of wall and re-plaster the whole interior. (Leviticus 14:37-42)
If discoloration reappears in the house, and a priest confirms that it is tzara-at again, the entire house has to be torn down and the rubble taken to a dump outside the city. (Leviticus 14:43-45)
Black mold is common the damp climate of western Oregon; I’ve been fighting it for the past twenty years. In some buildings the only permanent solution includes stripping the walls down to the studs, not to mention removing all the grout from bathroom tile. I have not encountered red or green mold, but I know these molds still plague some buildings. Ritual impurity is not an issue for us, but when I scrub my walls or my tile and still see black stains, I feel as if our living quarters are contaminated.
At least the tzara-at contaminates only our walls, not our marriage. But in the Torah portion Metzora, tzara-at of a bayit can also be interpreted as a contamination of the family unit. The Torah often uses the word bayit to mean a household or family rather than a physical house. And the word tzara-at appears to come from the same root (צרע) as the word tzirah (צִרְעָה) = dread or despair sent by God, causing people to flee.3
So we could translate the Torah’s introduction to tzara-at in the bayit this way:
God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving to you for property, and I put a mark of despair in a household in your land, then the head of the household shall come and inform the priest, saying: Something like a mark has become visible to me in my household. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:33-35)
In other words, the head of the household notices that someone in his family is stricken with despair. He (in ancient Israel, the head was always a man) could pretend everything is fine, and keep the problem behind closed doors. But then the despair might spread. Servants or members of his family might even run away. And those who stayed would be ritually impure, unable to mingle with the rest of the community.
So instead of pretending everything is fine at home, the patriarch should inform a priest. He and his family must clear out all the baggage they can. Then the priest comes in to observe whether the household looks normal.
If he sees signs of yerakrakot, “thin greens”, perhaps the family is too repressed, so its members cannnot grow and flourish like healthy green plants. If he sees signs of adamdamot, “blood reds”, perhaps someone is not respecting the Biblical rule that “the blood is the life”: there may be an invasion of personal space and inner life, or even psychological bloodshed.
Both colors of tzara-at sink deep into the household, causing tzirah—depression, dread, or despair. So the priest must separate the members of the household from one another for seven days. If this vacation does not help, the only solution is to start tearing down and replacing some of the family dynamics. And if even that does not work, the household must be disbanded.
Male heads of households in the Torah do not invite interference, but in the case of tzara-at they are required to ask for interference by experts. Adults in our own time also tend to think of the families they have made as their own business, and try to ignore signs of distress.
But if the problem is bad enough, a household cannot continue in its old ways without every member becoming contaminated by despair. The family needs help from an expert. And if that does not work, separation is necessary. People must suffer through divorce or the estrangement of children. Individuals who choose to stay together must build new households or new relationships.
May everyone become able to diagnose tzara-at of the family with the skill of a Biblical priest, and may everyone become able to make major changes.
(An earlier version of this essay was published in April 2010.)
1 Yarak (יָרָק) = green plant, vegetable. Rak (רַק) = thin, slight.
2 Adom (אָדֺם) = red. Dam (דָּם) = blood.
3 12th-century rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra suggested that the word tzirah must be related to the word tzara-at, since it has the same root letters, and concluded that tzirah was a disease. His opinion is reflected in the most recent (1985) translation of the Bible by the Jewish Publication Society, in which “the tzirah” is translated as “a plague”. Another tradition, followed by the King James Bible, translates the word tzirah (צִרְעָה) as “hornet”, but some modern scholars dispute this. Robert Alter uses the traditional translation “hornet”, but proposes that tzirah actually means a supernatural agent called “smasher”. (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, footnotes on pp. 453 and 919; Robert Alter, Ancient Israel, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2013, footnote p. 100.) Everett Fox translates tzirah as “Despair” with a capital D the first time it appears in his The Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, New York, 1983, p. 389), but inexplicably reverts to “hornet” the second time (ibid., p. 887).
Tzirah appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible, always with the prefix meaning “the” (הַצִּרְעָה):
…and I will panic all the people who you come among … And I will send the tzirah before you, and it will drive out the Hivvite and the Canaanite and the Hittite away from you. (Exodus 23:27-28)
And also God, your God, will send the tzirah against them, until those who remain and those who hide from you perish. (Deuteronomy 7:20)
And I sent the tzirah before you, and it drove them away from you, the two Amorite kings—not your sword nor your bow. (Joshua 24:12)
In context, tzirah appears to be an overwhelming dread, sent by God, that induces people to abandon their land and flee.
Tags: glory of the lord, kavod, Leviticus, Naso, Pekudei, Psalm 90, Shemini, torah portion
For seven days after Moses consecrates Aaron and his sons as priests, they sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The Torah portion Shemini (“Eighth”) opens on the eighth day, when the new priests are ready to make their first offerings on the altar: two different offerings for the high priest Aaron, and four different offerings for the people.1 Moses explains:
Because today God will appear to you. (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:4)
After the animals and the grain have been assembled, and the rest of the Israelites are standing in front of the altar, Moses gives further instructions, saying:
This is the thing that God commanded you must do; then the kavod of God will appear to you. (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:6)
kavod (כָּבוֹד) = weight, importance, impressiveness, magnificence; a glorious manifestation (often translated as “glory”).
The Israelites have already witnessed a long string of miracles in Egypt, culminating in the splitting of the Reed Sea. They have followed the kavod of God, in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire, from Egypt to Mount Sinai. On the day of the revelation they experienced God’s kavod as lightning and smoke on the mountain itself, along with thunder and blasts of a shofar.2
Yet once miracles stop, it is hard to keep faith. When Moses stayed on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, and no pillar of cloud and fire reappeared near the camp, the Israelites felt abandoned. Who would lead them to a new home?
In desperation, the men asked Aaron for an idol, then worshiped the golden calf he made.3 Moses returned to them, but God’s cloud and fire did not. The Israelites were so anxious to see the kavod of God again that when Moses called for donations to make a dwelling-place for God, they donated more than enough treasure and labor.4 The dwelling-place, the new Tent of Meeting, is completed at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot.
Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place. (Exodus/Shemot 40:34)
For the cloud of God was over the dwelling-place by day, and fire was in it at night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, on all their journeys. (Exodus 40:38)
Presumably the cloud is resting over the Tent of Meeting on the day the new priests make their first offerings at the altar. So why do the Israelites need another view of God’s kavod?
Perhaps God, or Moses, knows that the Israelites are still insecure. The survivors of the Golden Calf incident have committed their work and treasure to God, and they are ready to follow the new version of God-worship Moses has laid out, in which priests are intermediaries. But they need divine confirmation that Aaron and his sons really are God’s chosen priests. After all, it was Aaron who made the Golden Calf—choosing to pacify the people rather than sticking to God’s commandment against idols. Could they trust him to serve only God from now on—and keep the Israelites in God’s favor?
Then Aaron raised his hands toward the people and he blessed them … (Leviticus 9:22)
The Torah doesn’t say what Aaron’s blessing is, but the Talmud assumes that it must be the blessing prescribed for priests in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar 5 (and still used in Jewish liturgy today):
After this blessing, one might expect the kavod of God to appear as promised. It does not.
19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, claimed that God delays the divine manifestation on purpose so as to prevent any belief that animal offerings make God’s glory appear by magic.6 The kavod appears when God wants it to appear.
Then Moses came, and Aaron, into the Tent of Meeting. Then they went out and they blessed the people … (Leviticus 9:23)
What is this second blessing? According to the Sifra, a 4th-century collection of commentary on the book of Leviticus, Moses says: “May it be God’s will to cause His Presence to rest upon the work of your hands! May God, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold and bless you, as He promised you!”
And the people respond with a verse that appears in Psalm 90:
May the comfort of God, our God, be upon us, and may the work of our hands be an enduring foundation for us. (Psalm 90:17) 7
Moses’ blessing is a prayer that God will indeed dwell in the new Tent of Meeting that the Israelite people made. The people’s response, in this context, is a prayer that the work they did with their own hands will result in both divine comfort and an enduring commitment to serving God.
The children of Israel are moved to commit themselves further to God when Moses and Aaron, their human leaders, come out of God’s dwelling-place and bless them. After this commitment,
… and the kavod of God appeared to all the people. Fire went out from the presence of God, and it devoured the rising-offering and the fatty animal-parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and they shouted with joy and they fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:23-24)
At that sign of God’s acceptance, the people shout with joy—and relief.
A blessing from another person can seem like a useless exercise. After all, a human being has no power to make the blessing come true. We can only express the hope that God will make it happen.
And today, the sudden appearance of fire means an emergency, not divine acceptance.
Yet I remember when I received blessings from Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, and I felt a transfer of good will and even a sense of kavod. This feeling made a psychological difference to me, changing my attitude toward life and toward the divine.
I find I can be committed to an abstract principle, but not comforted by it. Comfort and joy come more naturally when the abstraction is connected with a human being, someone whose warm feelings are palpable. Maybe a blessing in itself can be a manifestation of God.
Bless someone today. It might make a difference.
(An earlier version of this essay was posted on March 20, 2010.)
1 First the new high priest, Aaron, makes a reparation-offering (חַטָּאת) and a rising-offering (עֺלָה) for himself. Then he makes a reparation-offering, a rising-offering, a grain offering (מִנְחָה), and a wholeness-offering (שְׁלָמִים) for the people. For an explanation of these four types of offerings, see my posts Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.
2 Shofar (שׁוֹפָר) = a ram’s horn modified for blowing as a wind instrument.
3 Exodus/Shemot 32:1-6. See my post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen.
4 Exodus/Shemot 35:4-29 and 36:2-7.
5 The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 38a, assuming that Aaron’s first blessing of the people in Leviticus 9:22 is the same as the blessing God commands all priests to give in Numbers 6:22-23, argues that therefore the “priestly blessing” in Numbers 6:24-26 must be pronounced with the hands raised. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) and the majority of medieval commentators agreed that Aaron spoke the “priestly blessing”.
6 Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Vayikra Part 1, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 289-290.
7 Sifra, quoted by W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 804.
Tags: Aaron's sons, Leviticus, Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, ordination, prophets and priests, torah portion
The Israelites complete the tent that will serve as a portable temple at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot. Moses consecrates the altar and the priests who will perform all the required rituals in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, the second portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.
Moses assembles the whole community outside the entrance of the new Tent of Meeting. In front of everyone he washes his brother Aaron and Aaron’s four sons, then dresses them in the white, gold, red, purple, and blue ritual garments described in the book of Exodus/Shemot.1
The ceremony continues with the ritual slaughter of a bull and three rams, offerings of animal parts and three kinds of flat cakes, and the application of anointing oil and blood from the slaughtered animals in various locations and combinations. (See my post Tzav: Horns, Ears, Thumbs, and Toes.) After the gorgeous new ceremonial garments are spotted all over with oil and blood they are holy—dedicated to God. So are Aaron and his sons, but they are not yet priests.
Moses leaves them with a supply of boiled meat (from the second ram) and leftover grain products (from the grain offering), and gives them strict instructions:
You must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day of melot the days of your milu-im; because in seven days yemallei your yad. (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:33)
melot (מְלֺאת) = filling up, being full, fulfilling, completing. (A form of the verb mala, מָלַא = filled, was full.)
milu-im (מִילֻּאִים) = ordination; setting for a jewel to fill. (From the root mala.)
yemallei (יְמַלֵּא) = it will fill up. (Another form of the verb mala.)
yad (יַד) = hand; power, ability.
mala yad (מָלַא יַד) = Literally: filled the hand. Idiomatically: ordained.2
According to God’s instructions to Moses in the book of Exodus, one part of the ritual will be repeated each day during this seven-day period: the slaughter of a bull and consecration of the altar with its blood.3 But Aaron and his sons will simply sit in the tent entrance in their spattered garments, gradually eating their portions of the meat and grain offerings that they had shared with God.
God commanded to do what was done today, to atone for you. And you must sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven days, and you must watch over the watch of God, so you will not die; for so I was commanded. (Leviticus 8:34-35)
The Torah does not say whether the long ritual served as a general atonement and spiritual purification, or whether it atones for Aaron’s sin of making the golden calf back in the book of Exodus.4
Nor does it say what Aaron and his sons must watch over or guard for seven days. Many commentators have written that they spend the seven days meditating on the rules of holiness and ritual purity for serving God.5
Another viewpoint is that they are mourning, because they have a premonition that at least one of them will die on the eighth day, when they first serve God as official priests.6 But when Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, in next week’s Torah portion, it comes as a shock to everyone.
The Torah also quotes Moses as telling Aaron and his sons that they must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days because “it will fill up (yemallei) your ability (yad)”. Maybe it takes seven days in the entrance to God’s dwelling-place to fill up with sufficient holy awe to be able to conduct the business of holiness.
What strikes me is that Aaron and his sons are neither born nor trained to be priests. They get their new positions without any previous job experience.
Up to this point, Aaron has not been the sort of man who wears a gold medallion on his forehead saying “Holy to God”. It’s clear in the book of Exodus that God only calls Aaron in because Moses makes so many objections to the job God gives him at the burning bush.7 To his credit, Aaron greets his long-lost brother without jealousy, and willingly serves as Moses’ sidekick. When the Israelites are attacked by Amalek on the way to Mount Sinai, Aaron literally supports Moses’ arm and helps him save the day.8 But when Moses climbs Mount Sinai and does not return for 40 days, and the people panic and ask for idols, Aaron makes the golden calf.
Now Aaron is promoted from Moses’ unreliable assistant to High Priest. Aaron will officiate over the ritual offerings in the sanctuary. Aaron will light the menorah. Aaron will be in charge of God’s dwelling place.
Aaron’s four sons are also getting major promotions. They have not done anything of distinction, though they would be treated with the respect simply because they are Aaron’s sons.9 Now they are being ordained as priests. They will be the only people besides Moses and Aaron and Moses who are allowed to enter the Tent of Meeting, the only people allowed to handle the holiest objects inside it. Only they will turn the offerings of their people into smoke that ascends to God.
For seven days Aaron and his sons sit inside the sanctuary, in the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Perhaps they face out, gazing at the bronze altar and the wash-basin in the sunlit courtyard. Perhaps they face in, gazing at the golden menorah, incense altar, and bread table under the tent roof, not to mention the curtain screening off the ark itself. For seven days they sit there, without distractions, realizing they will spend the rest of their lives dedicated to holy service.
I doubt they are doing anticipatory mourning for the coming deaths of Nadav and Avihu. But they may be mourning for their old way of life, which has ended forever. At the end of seven days, they will be the servants of God’s dwelling-place, who must act as God’s representatives every waking minute.
Their new lives as priests are imposed on them. They do not apply for the job. They do not even hear God call them, the way prophets in the Hebrew Bible are called into service. Moses simply tells them what God told him do. It might seem like a great honor to them, or it might seem as arbitrary as an accident.
At least they are granted seven days to sit at the entrance of their new lives, experiencing the grief, fear, awe, and whatever else comes along, letting the transformation sink in.
We don’t have a Moses to set aside seven days for us when we face a sudden major change in life. But we have the example in this week’s Torah portion. May everyone who can take time on the threshold between an old life and a new one receive the inspiration to sit and reflect. And whenever our lives change, may God fill up our ability to meet the new challenge.
(An earlier version of this essay was posted in March 2010.)
1 Exodus 28:1-43, 39:1-31. See my post Tetzavveh: The Clothes Make the Man.
2 The source of this idiom is not known, but it may be related to the elevation offering, the tenufah (תְּנוּפָה), in which priests lay the meat or grain cakes to be offered on their palms and either hold them out, raise them, or wave them toward God before burning them. A tenufah was part of the ordination ceremony for Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 8:26-28).
3 Exodus 29:35-38.
4 Exodus 32:1-8, 21-25. See my post Ki Tissa: Out Came this Calf!
5 e.g. 13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman (a.k.a. Ramban, Nachmanides), paraphrased in Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1992, p. 71; 19th-century rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 1, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 277.
6 Midrash Tanchuma, a collection of commentary from the 5th through 8th centuries C.E., paraphrased in Munk, p. 72. Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, consumed by a fire from God (Leviticus 10:1-2); and Moses forbids Aaron and his two surviving sons to engage in mourning for them (Leviticus 10:6-7). The seven days sitting at the tent entrance are compared to the initial seven-day mourning period of shivah, but “sitting shivah” is a later Jewish custom.
7 Exodus 4:10-17.
8 Exodus 17:8-13. See my post Beshallach: Hands Up.
9 Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, are treated as if they are elders when they walk partway up Mount Sinai with the 70 regular elders, Moses, and Aaron to behold a vision of God’s feet (Exodus 24:1, 9-11).
Tags: holy of holies, Tent of Meeting, torah portion, Vayikra
There are only four times in the Bible when Gods “calls” to Moses before speaking to him, and all four happen at Mount Sinai. God calls from the burning bush1 for their first introduction; from the top of Mount Sinai when the ex-slaves from Egypt first arrive2; and from the top of the mountain again (when it is smoking and thundering) to give Moses more instructions before the revelation known as the “Ten Commandments”3.
The fourth time, God calls to Moses from within the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites have constructed at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Vayikra to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them… (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1-2)
vayikra (וַיִּקְרָא) = and he/It called (by name).
This divine call opens the book of Leviticus/Vayikra and this week’s Torah portion, which is also named Vayikra. Why does God call to Moses before giving him a new set of instructions?
One answer is that God always called Moses before speaking to him, as an expression of affection or courtesy, but the Torah does not always mention it.4
Another explanation points out that at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses assembles the new Tent of Meeting for the first time, and the presence of God moves from the top of Mount Sinai into the tent.
Then Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested on it the magnificence of God filled the Dwelling-Place. (Exodus 40:35)
Moses is not willing to try again until God calls to him from inside the tent. When he hears this call, he realizes that his job is not finished; he must continue to serve as an intermediary between God and the Israelites.5 The only difference is that now he will hear God’s voice from the empty space above the ark in the back chamber of the tent, the Holy of Holies.6
A unique feature of the word vayikra at the beginning of Leviticus is that in every Torah scroll, the letter aleph (א) at the end of the word is written smaller than the other letters.
Six words in the first five books of the Bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy, the contents of a Torah scroll) have been written with one letter smaller than the others ever since the 7th century C.E.7 No one knows the historic reason for these miniature letters, but symbolic interpretations have been proposed for each one.
The Zohar explains the small א in vayikra as indicating a restriction in God’s summons. Earlier in the Torah, God calls to Moses in full majesty from out of fire: first from the burning bush, then from the fire at the top of Mount Sinai. Now God calls from the Tent of Meeting, from inside the Holy of Holies.8
The idea of restriction is reinforced by the fact that in the first sentence of Leviticus, the Torah says He/It called to Moses, instead of God called to Moses; the name of God is only used in the second clause, when God speaks to Moses and gives him instructions. Moses hears the initial call when he is standing outside the Tent of Meeting. Then he goes inside to receive God’s new instructions.
From that point on, although Moses occasionally prostrates himself on the ground to get a quick word of divine advice, God usually speaks to him from the empty space above the ark in the Holy of Holies.
What does it mean that God now speaks with an indoor voice instead of an outdoor voice? I think this change is related to a change in the Israelites’ relationship with God. In the book of Exodus, God only speaks to the people once, on the day of revelation, and the people at the foot of Mount Sinai experience thunder, lightning, heavy cloud, the blare of a horn, smoke and fire, and earthquake.9
The experience is too devastating for the people, and they beg Moses to be a go-between for them.10 Moses does so, trotting up and down Mount Sinai, speaking with God at the top and the people at the bottom. The ex-slaves from Egypt remain passive. Even when they are afraid Moses has died, and they want an idol to replace him as their leader, they ask Moses’ brother Aaron to make it; they wouldn’t dare make a golden calf by themselves.
But when Moses passes on God’s instructions for making a dwelling-place for God, everyone with a willing heart donates materials, and everyone with a wise heart helps with the craftsmanship. (See my post Vayakheil: Will My Cup Run Over?) In the book of Leviticus, Moses passes on God’s instructions for when and how the people should serve God by bringing their offerings, both animal and vegetable, to the altar. Aaron and his four sons get new jobs as priests conducting sacred rituals, and at every stop on the journey through the wilderness, each tribe has a designated camping spot in relation to the Tent of Meeting.
Everyone is involved in serving God. But only Moses and Aaron (the high priest) hear God’s voice; only they are permitted to enter the Holy of Holies.
Today we still see a difference between the organized religion of a congregation, and a lone person hearing God’s voice on a mountain-top. People still have individual mystical experiences, usually when they are alone and confronted with a sight or sound that inspires awe. Those experiences are precious. But they are not sufficient for leading a good or holy life. After all, does anyone today get explicit instructions from God whenever he or she needs them? Is anyone today like Moses?
When we yearn for a moral compass or a way to walk with (or at least toward) God, we need help from other people. We need a community of fellow-seekers, wise teachers to advise us, books to study, prayers to chant, rituals to perform. We need our own equivalent of the Tent of Meeting.
If we do build a dwelling-place for God, in the right way for our own community in our own time, then we, too, can draw closer to God. We may not hear God’s voice, but we can all feel that God is calling, and God’s presence rests in our midst.
(An earlier version of this essay was posted on March 6, 2010.)
1 And God saw that he had turned aside to look, vayikra to him, God, from the middle of the bush, and said: Moses! Moses! (Exodus 3:4).
2 And they journeyed on from Refidim, and they entered the wilderness of Sinai, and they camped in the wilderness; and Israel camped there in front of the mountain. And Moses went up to God. Vayikra to him, God, from the mountain, saying: Thus you shall say to the House of Jacob… (Exodus 19:2-3)
3 And God came down onto Mount Sinai, vayikra Moses, God did, to the top of the mountain. And Moses went up. (Exodus 19:20)
4 Rashi (12th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) on Torat Kohanim (Leviticus), after Sifra, ed. by Rav Chiyya of the Babylonian Talmud. Also see Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar, 14:21.
5 “Moses needed constant goading because he was a humble person who instinctively withdrew from the attention and the honors that go with leadership.” (Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1992, p. 2)
6 And when Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God], then he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the lid that was on the Ark of the Testimony, from between the two keruvim; and [God] spoke to him. (Numbers 7:89)
7 During the 7th to 10th centuries C.E., rabbis arrived at a single, authoritative Biblical text derived from various copies written in consonants only. The Masoretes added diacritical marks to the text to indicate vowels, cantillation, and grammar. They also added marginal notes, and made some letters abnormal in size or position. The small letters (zeira) were among the earliest changes by the Masoretes. These six miniscule letters appear in Genesis 2:4 (ה in behibaram = when being created), Genesis 23:2 (כּ in velivkotah = and to wail for her), Genesis 27:46 (ק in katzeti = I am disgusted), Leviticus 1:1 (א in vayikra), Leviticus 6:2 (מ in mokdah = fire-place), and Numbers 25:11 (י in the name Pinchas).
8 Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, p. 3, paraphrasing the Zohar, a multi-volume kabbalistic commentary by Moshe deLeon, 13th century.
9 Exodus 19:16-19.
10 Exodus 20:15-18.
Tags: Babylonian exile, Golden Calf, mishkan, Psalm 74, sanctuary, temple, torah portion
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
Where does God live?
The “heavens” are the primary residence of many gods, including the God of Israel in the Hebrew Bible. In Canaanite and Babylonian religions, the gods inhabit both the heavens and any number of statues on earth. The God of Israel flatly rejects idols, but still wants a second home on earth. In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”), Moses is receiving instructions from God on top of Mount Sinai. God tells him:
They shall make a holy place for me, veshakhanti among them. Like everything that I show you, the pattern of the mishkan and the pattern of all its furnishings, that is how you shall make it. (Exodus/Shemot 25:8-9)
veshakhanti (וְשָׁכַנְתִּי) = and I will dwell, and I will stay. (A form of the root verb shakhan (שָׁכַן) = stay, settle, dwell, inhabit. This is the first occurrence in the Bible of the verb shakhan.)
mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = dwelling-place, home. (Also from the root verb shakhan. This is also the first occurrence in the Bible of the noun mishkan.)
Moses stays on top of Mount Sinai so long—40 days and 40 nights—that in the Torah portion Ki Tissa the Israelites at the foot of the mountain despair of seeing him again. So they make a golden calf in the hope that God will inhabit it.1 God refuses the golden statue and threatens to destroy all the Israelites except Moses and his direct descendants. Moses refuses God’s offer, and God settles for sending a plague.2
After the surviving Israelites have built an elaborate portable tent-sanctuary according to God’s instructions, God descends on it in a pillar of cloud.3 In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the ark in this mishkan’s innermost chamber.
Throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers the only mishkan for God is the portable tent-sanctuary. In the first book of Samuel a temple in Shiloh houses the ark, and God speaks to Samuel there.4
King Solomon builds a temple of stone and wood in Jerusalem for God to inhabit. (See my post Terumah & 1 Kings: Tent vs. Temple.) This temple lasts until the Babylonian army razes it in 587 B.C.E., along with most of the city.
Psalm 74 argues that this act was not merely a political conquest by the expanding Babylonian empire, but an attempt to eradicate the worship of God by destroying God’s home on earth. The psalmist, like most prophets writing after the fall of the first temple, probably believed God arranged the fall of Jerusalem in order to punish the Israelites for worshiping idols. Now that the punishment is complete, the psalmist is waiting for God to rescue the deported Israelites (and punish the Babylonians).
Why, God, do You endlessly reject us?
Your anger smokes at the flock You tended.
Remember Your community You acquired long ago!
You redeemed the tribe of your possession.
Mount Zion is where shakhanta. (Psalm 74:1-2)
shakhanta (שָׁכַנְתָּ) = you dwelled, you lived. (Another form of the verb shakhan.)
The psalm then describes how the Babylonian army replaced all the emblems of the Israelite religion in the temple with their own emblems, hacked up the carved ornamentation, and burned the wooden parts of the building down to the ground.
They set Your holy place on fire;
They profaned the ground inside the mishkan of Your name. (Psalm 74:7)
Given this disrespect, and given that the Israelites are the people God adopted and brought to Jerusalem in the first place, Psalm 74 asks why God is taking so long to restore God’s own mishkan, city, and people.
Why do you draw back Your right hand,
Holding it in Your bosom? (Psalm 74:11)
The psalm then points out that God created the world and the day and night, then did great deeds without a mishkan on earth. Lack of power is not holding God back. And the Israelites, particularly the poor and needy, belong to God.
Look to the covenant! (Psalm 74:20)
If God would only pay attention, the psalm implies, God would honor Its covenant, restore the Israelites to Jerusalem, and cause a new mishkan to be built there to facilitate worship.
Do not let the miserable turn back disgraced.
Let the poor and the needy praise Your name! (Psalm 74:21)
In Psalm 74, the mishkan of God is also the mishkan of the people. They need their own home, and they need to have a home for God in their midst. Then, instead of suffering miserably, the needy can praise God and rejoice.
Many Jews still want a home where we are free to praise God, to practice our own religion without fear or discrimination.
Half of the Jews in the world live in the nation of Israel, founded in 1948 as a homeland where Jews could escape the genocide, as well as less drastic forms of discrimination, inflicted on them in Europe. Yet over the next 69 years, the Jewish and Muslim residents of Israel have been attacked both by neighboring countries and by each other.
Most of the Jews living outside Israel today are American citizens. Discrimination against Jews in the United States has fallen over the past sixty years, and many of us view America as our real home, where we can participate in the life of our country and remain free to practice our own religion. God has many second homes among religious American Jews; every synagogue is a divine mishkan, and each of us can make a mishkan for God to dwell in our own hearts.
Yet in the past year, discrimination against ethnic and religious groups has become more socially acceptable in the United States. Psalm 74 suddenly seems more relevant.
I pray that the divine spirit blooms in all of our hearts. May we quickly reverse this dangerous trend. And may all people, everywhere, find a safe home.
Do not let the miserable turn back disgraced!
1 Exodus 32:1-5.
2 Exodus 32:35: Then God struck the people over what they had done with the calf that Aaron made.
3 Exodus 40:33-34: When Moses completed the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the magnificence of God filled the mishkan.
4 1 Samuel 3:1-10.
Tags: foreigners, Psalm 119, Psalm 39, strangers, torah portion
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
Us and them. Citizens and foreigners. Friends and enemies.
Human nature always divides members of our species into two or more groups. But how we treat the “out” group depends on our ethical, religious, and political rules.
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”), is set at Mt. Sinai, long before the Israelites conquer part of Canaan and set up their own government. But it includes a series of laws written after the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were founded. One of the subjects these laws address is how to treat immigrants and conquered natives.
A geir you shall not cheat nor oppress, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt. (Exodus/Shemot 22:20)
geir (גֵר) = foreigner, stranger, resident alien, sojourner, immigrant, non-citizen. Plural geirim (גֵרִים). (The meaning of geir shifted in Jewish writings after 100 C.E., coming to mean a proselyte or convert.)
And a geir you shall not oppress, for you yourselves know the feelings of the geir, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt. (Exodus/Shemot 23:9)
Unlike foreigners who are merely visiting another country, geirim are displaced persons who cannot call on their former clan chiefs or national governments for protection. They are at the mercy of the country where they now live, subject to the whims of its ruler and its wealthy citizens. Unless their new host country protects them, they are subject to deportation even when they no longer have a home to return to (like resident aliens in the United States today), or to slavery (like the Israelites in Egypt at the beginning of the book of Exodus).
This week’s Torah portion gives one example of not oppressing a geir who works for you:
Six days you shall do your doings, but on the seventh day you shall stop, so that your ox and your donkey shall rest, and the son of your slave woman and the geir shall refresh their souls. (Exodus 23:12)
The Hebrew Bible includes many more injunctions to treat geirim with consideration.1 In summary, if geirim are servants of Israelites, they must get the same holiday feasts and days off as native slaves or servants. If geirim are hired laborers, they must be paid daily, like Israelite laborers. If geirim are not attached to an Israelite household and are impoverished, they get the same rights as impoverished citizens. Geirim are even urged to flee to the same cities of refuge if they are unjustly accused of murder.
Since the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are theocracies, treating their geirim like citizens also means the geirim must conform at least outwardly to Israelite religious life, and suffer the same punishments for transgressions.2
The Bible does sanction discrimination against geirim in two ways: an Israelite may not charge interest on a loan to a kinsman, but may charge interest on a loan to a geir 3; and while an Israelite can always redeem a kinsman from slavery by paying the slave’s owner, a geir has no such right.4
Nevertheless, the Bible urges the Israelites to love the geirim living in their land.5
In three books of the Bible, resident geirim are even included in the covenant with God.6 One example is when Joshua enters Canaan and enacts a covenantal ritual at Mt. Eival.
All Israel—its elders, its officials, and its judges—were standing on either side of the ark, facing the priests of the Levites, carriers of the ark of the covenant of God—the geir the same as the native. (Joshua 8:33)
(In this case, “native” (ezrach, אֶזְרָח) means someone of Israelite ancestry, since both the Israelites and their fellow travelers are newcomers to Canaan.)
Another example is when the prophet Ezekiel predicts a new covenant with God once the Israelite deportees in Babylon move back to their old land.
You shall divide up this land for yourselves among the tribes of Israel. And you shall throw [lots] for hereditary possessions, for yourselves and for the geirim who are garim among you … And the geir will be in the tribe that gar with; there you will give him his hereditary possession—declares my Master, God. (Ezekiel 47:21-23)
garim (גָּרִים) = sojourning, staying with, residing with (as foreigners).
gar (גָּר) = he sojourned, stayed with, resided with. (From the same root as garim, geir, and geirim.)
All these rules ensuring fairness to the geirim would not have been written unless some native Israelites were in the habit of mistreating resident aliens. The Torah correctly points out that the geirim are vulnerable outsiders, just as the Israelites were once vulnerable outsiders in Egypt.
Psalms 39 and 119 take the idea of the geir to the next level. If non-citizens are vulnerable in the country where they live, then perhaps even faithful worshipers of the God of Israel are vulnerable before God.
The last two verses of Psalm 39 address the personal feeling of being a stranger with God.
And listen to my cry for help!
Do not be silent to my tears.
For I am a geir with You,
A resident alien, like all my forefathers.
Look away from me, and I will recover,
Before I depart and I am not. (Psalm 39:13-14)
Earlier in the psalm, the speaker is worried about the shortness of his life. He alludes to a scourge from God, possibly an illness that reduces his life span. Like a geir, he feels vulnerable and uncertain of God’s ultimate protection. So instead of asking God to intervene, he begs God to ignore him so he can at least enjoy the remainder of his life.
Psalm 119, written during the time of the second temple, is the longest in the book of Psalms: 176 verses whose beginning letters go through the alphabet from A to Z (alef to tav), with eight verses for each letter. All are variations on the theme of praying to God for help in learning and understanding God’s laws. The verses that begin with the letter gimmel (ג) open with:
Finish maturing (גְּמֺל) Your servant! I will live and I will observe Your word.
Uncover (גַּל) my eyes, and I will look upon the wonders of Your teaching.
A geir (גֵּר) I am in the land; do not hide from me Your commands.
She pines away (גָּרְסָה), my soul, longing for Your laws at all times. (Psalm 119:17-20)
The psalmist expresses the feeling of being a vulnerable outsider who does not understand what is really going on. Thus the speaker feels like a geir as he seeks to serve a God who has issued hundreds of laws yet remains as inscrutable as if God’s commands were hidden. The theme of the entire psalm is the longing to understand what God wants—which is the longing of geirim to understand the rules and the system of the strange country where they now live.
I appreciate how the Torah insists we must treat non-citizens with fairness and consideration, and reminds us that we have all been geirim at some time. Even if we have enjoyed the rights of the innermost in-group of native citizens our whole lives, we are still geirim with God.
And even within our own circles, we get along better if we continually work to understand what our friends are really saying, how the world really looks to them. Ultimately, every individual is a geir with everyone else, with God, and with themselves.
I pray that everyone may learn to consider the feelings of all human beings, whether they look, sound, and act like us or not. Perhaps only then will our alienation from God end.
1 Enjoying Shabbat and holidays: Exodus 12:19, 12:48, 20:10, 23:12; Numbers 35:15; Deuteronomy 5:14, 16:14, 26:11-13.
Receiving wages promptly: Deuteronomy 24:14.
Receiving assistance like the native poor: Geirim are usually listed along with widows and fatherless children as entitled to glean produce from private fields, orchards and vineyards (Leviticus 19:10, 23:22; Deuteronomy 21:20, 24:17, 24:19, 24:20; also see Ruth ch. 2); to take home a share of the tithe for the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29); and to receive just redress (Deuteronomy 24:14; Jeremiah 7:6, 22:3; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5).
Using cities of refuge: Joshua 20:9.
2 Observing the native religion: Both citizens and geirim must fast on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29), bring their burnt offerings to the alter of the God of Israel (Leviticus 17:8-9, 22:18), refrain from eating blood (Leviticus 17:10, 17:13), obey Israelite laws about permitted sexual partners (Leviticus 18:26), avoid taking God’s name in vain (Leviticus 24:16), and refrain from worshiping idols (Leviticus 20:2; Numbers 15:26, 15:29, 15:30, 19:10; Ezekiel 14:7).
3 Paying interest: Leviticus 25:35.
4 Lacking the right of redemption: Leviticus 25:35-36.
5 Being loved: Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 10:18-19, 24:14.
6 Being included in the covenant: Deuteronomy 29:9-11, 31:12; Joshua 8:33, 8:35; Ezekiel 47:21-23.
Tags: drowning Egyptians, Psalm 136, Red Sea, Sea of Reeds, Song of the Sea, torah portion
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
After the tenth plague, the pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go. Then he has another change of heart, and sends a brigade of charioteers after them. At nightfall the Egyptians catch up with the Israelites at the shore of the sea—the Red Sea in English, the Sea of Reeds (yam suf—יַם סוּף) in the Hebrew Bible. Both parties camp for the night, with the Israelites trapped between the enemy and the water.
What happens next? The most familiar version of the story appears in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“When he sent out”).
The Prose Account
Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and God made the sea move with a strong east wind all night. Vayasem the sea dry land, and the waters split. And the Israelites entered the middle of the sea on dry ground, and the waters were for them a wall on their right and on their left. (Exodus/Shemot 14:21-22)
vayasem (וַיָּשֶׂם) = and he/it placed, set, set up, put, put in.
Until I translated these verses, I had the impression that God simply splits the water down to the seabed, which becomes dry and firm enough for the Israelites to walk on. But the Torah says vayasem, as if there were no real bottom to the sea, so God has to install a strip of dry land. (Most English translations say God “made” or “turned” the sea into dry ground—which has the same implication.)
In the cosmology of the ancient Israelites, beneath the land lies a subterranean ocean of water called the tehom (תְּהוֹם —singular) or tehomot (תְּהֺמֺת —plural). This deep water bubbles up through the earth in the form of springs. Under the ocean, it’s water all the way down, with no ocean floor.1
And the Egyptians pursued, and all the horses of Pharoah, his chariots, and his horsemen entered after them into the middle of the sea. …And [God] made the wheels of their chariots swerve, and made them proceed laboriously. (Exodus 14:23, 25)
And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea settled before morning into its normal flow. And the Egyptians were fleeing from it, and God na-ar the Egyptians into the middle of the sea. And the waters turned back, and they covered the chariots and the horsemen of all the army of Pharaoh, the one coming after them into the sea; not one remained. (Exodus 14:27-28)
na-ar (נָעַר) = shook out, shook off. (The form of this verb used in verse 14:27 is vayena-eir (וַיְנָעֵר). This verb appears only 12 times in the entire Hebrew Bible.)
Safe on the other side of the sea, the Israelites are awed by God’s miracle, and moved to sing along with Moses and Miriam.
The Song of the Sea
That was when Moses sang, along with the children of Israel, this song to God… (Exodus/Shemot 15:1)
The whole “Song of the Sea” that follows is a psalm written in archaic Hebrew, possibly the oldest text in the Hebrew Bible.2 The scribe who redacted this week’s Torah portion inserted the well-known hymn without changing its archaic syntax and spellings.
The Song of the Sea does not mention God splitting the sea or the Israelites walking on dry land. Nevertheless, one early verse matches the prose account:
Chariots of Pharaoh and his army
[God] pitched into the sea,
And the best of his captains
sank in the Sea of Reeds. (Exodus 15:4)
Twice the Song of the Sea says the Egyptians sank all the way down into the tehomot.
Tehomot covered them;
They went down into the depths like a stone. (Exodus 15:5)
In the wind of Your nostrils the waters were dammed up.
They stood up like a dike [made of] waves,
Congealed tehomot in the heart of the sea. (Exodus 15:8)
You blew Your wind; the sea covered them.
They sank like lead in the mighty waters. (Exodus 15:10)
This description led 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno to explain that the water at the bottom of the sea became solid, and the Israelites walked across the congealed or frozen water.
The Bible includes several briefer descriptions of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, all used as examples of God’s miracles on behalf of the Israelites. But the descriptions in Second Isaiah (51:9-10) and Psalms 77, 106, and 136 do not explain how the Israelites got across the water.
Psalm 136 does, however, refer to God as the one who split the sea, and like the prose account in Exodus it uses the rare word na-ar.
Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness.
And let Israel pass through the middle,
Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness.
Veni-eir Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds,
Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness. (Psalm 136:13-15)
veni-eir (וְנִעֵר) = And [God] shook off, shook out. (Another form of the verb na-ar— נָעַר.)
We do not know which text first used the poetic image of God shaking off the Egyptians into the sea: Psalm 136, or one of the stories woven into the prose account in this week’s Torah portion. 3
If we follow the prose account, the sea divides and a miraculous strip of earth appears over the tehomot. I can picture the earth getting soggy after the Israelites have crossed, so the chariot wheels of the Egyptians get stuck in mud. Then the bridge of earth buckles and shakes off the Egyptians, chariots, and horses into the water, before God’s second wind blows the walls of water down over them.
On the other hand, if we take the Song of the Sea as the oldest, most authoritative account, and follow Sforno’s explanation that the water congeals into a frozen roadway between dikes of ice, then I can imagine the chariot wheels skidding out of control on the slippery surface. This provides an alternate explanation of the detail in the prose account that God “made the wheels of their chariots swerve, and made them proceed laboriously”. (Exodus 14:25) Then the ice-dikes break and the sea rushes over the Egyptians.
Either of these two pictures of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds is more vivid than most readers—and illustrators—of the Bible imagine.
Unless you are an eye witness, it takes vivid imagery to feel the impact of a miracle. The various Biblical accounts of crossing the Sea of Reeds are designed to make the descendants of the Israelites experience the feeling of a last-minute rescue, and to give them confidence that God has always been on their side. So for centuries the Israelites rejoiced over the miracle at the sea.
Yet after the second temple in Jerusalem fell in 70 C.E., some Jews questioned this attitude. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan says God does not “rejoice in the downfall of the wicked”. He gives the crossing of the Sea of Reeds as an example, saying: “The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said: The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?” (Babylonian Talmud, Soncino translation, Megilah 10b)
I, too, feel sympathy for the Egyptian soldiers. They have no more choice about following the Pharaoh’s orders than the Israelite slaves did before Pharaoh let them go. And their orders were to round up the Israelites (shooting arrows if necessary) and bring them back for re-enslavement.
Suddenly the Egyptians find themselves in the middle of a situation they never imagined was possible. They are chasing the Israelites across a dirt bridge over the sea, or maybe down an ice canyon. They see the ex-slaves reach the far side, but their chariot wheels are either mired in mud or skidding on ice. Then the Egyptians are shaken off the path like crumbs. And the sea crashes down on them.
Today people still experience events they never imagined were possible. Sometimes what seems like a good miracle to one group of people is worse than a nightmare to another group.
May we all learn the humanity to refrain from singing out with joy when our opponents are dying. And may God save us all when we find ourselves trapped in a situation we never imagined was possible.
1 This detail supports Richard Elliott Friedman’s argument in his Commentary on the Torah (HarperCollins 2001) that although the body of water in question is called the Sea of Reeds, it is no shallow lake, but the Gulf of Suez–the western arm of the Red Sea.
2 The exodus from Egypt is set during Egypt’s 19th Dynasty, which ruled during the 13th century B.C.E. The Song of the Sea mentions the Plashet (Philistines), who did not emigrate to Canaan until about 1175 B.C.E. Thus Moses could not have known or composed the Song of the Sea, but the writer of the Song of Sea might have known the story of the exodus. According to modern scholars, the prose version of the story in Exodus is a compilation of three different stories written in Biblical Hebrew sometime after 700 B.C.E. The redactor also inserted the ancient Song of the Sea.
3 Psalm 136 cannot be reliably dated. The language is consistent with the Hebrew in the book of Exodus (excluding the archaic Song of the Sea). But it could have been written much earlier, and rewritten centuries later with updated language. Or it could even have been written during the time of the second temple, 530 B.C.E.-70 C.E.
Tags: exodus from Egypt, miracles, Moses and Pharaoh, Passover, Pesach, Psalm 105, Psalm 78, psalms, ten plagues, torah portion
It takes two Torah portions (Va-eira this week and Bo next week) to describe the miraculous “plagues” that force the Pharaoh to let the enslaved Israelites walk out of Egypt. Two psalms, Psalm 78 and Psalm 105, offer briefer versions of the story. And the festival of Passover/Pesach tells the story of how God rescued the Israelites from Egypt in such detail that the seder (“order”; ritual retelling of the story) can last half the night.
In the Torah portion Va-eira, God lays out the plan to Moses:
Therefore say to the children of Israel: “I am God, and I will bring you out from under the burden of Egypt, and I will rescue you from enslavement, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your god. And you will yada that I am God, your god, who is taking you out from under the burden of Egypt. (Exodus/Shemot 6:6-7)
yada (יָדַע) = know, realize, recognize, become acquainted, come to understand through direct experience. (Yada is the root verb. The Hebrew here uses the form viyda-etem (וִידַעְתֶּם) = and you will yada.)
Why does God inflict “great acts of judgement” on Egypt? The first reason given in this week’s Torah portion is so that the Israelites will yada God.
The second reason is so that the Pharaoh and the Egyptians will yada God, or at least recognize God’s existence and power:
And Egypt, they will yada that I am God when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and I bring out the children of Israel from their midst. (Exodus 7:5)
(The Hebrew in this verse uses form veyade-u (וְיָדְעוּ) = and they will yada.)
How many plagues does it take before both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada God? Anyone who has participated in a Passover seder, spilling a drop of wine for each plague, knows the answer is ten. And in the book of Exodus/Shemot God does indeed inflict ten miracles on Egypt—the first seven in Va-eira (And I appeared), and the last three in Bo (Come).
However, the ten plagues are described in two different voices. Any close reader of Va-eira and Bo, even in translation, notices points where the narrative suddenly stops and restarts, rephrasing a bit of the story that has already been told. Scholars examining the language itself have discovered that two stories of the plagues are woven together (but not seamlessly).
Both strands have something to say about the plagues of blood, frogs, and death of the firstborn. The other seven plagues are described by one strand or the other, not both. Maybe each of the two original stories had fewer than ten plagues. Or maybe the redactor(s) who combined the two stories decided to give both descriptions of three plagues, but chose only their favorite descriptions for the other seven.
Psalms 78 and 105 report fewer than ten plagues, and the order is different than in Exodus.
What accounts for these differences? We cannot identify any of these accounts as the original story. At least one strand in the composite story in Exodus was probably written in the 8th century B.C.E. Psalm 78 may have been written as early as the 10th century B.C.E., soon after the first Israelite temple was built in Jerusalem. Psalm 105 could have been written any time after that, maybe before the book of Exodus, maybe as late as the period of the second temple. Probably the story of God’s miracles in Egypt was familiar to all the authors before they began to write down their own versions.
The two psalms and the composite in Exodus borrow language from each other, not only using the same words for the plagues, but sharing pieces of description. For example, Exodus describes the plague of blood this way:
…and he raised the staff and he struck the water that was in the Nile before the eyes of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the waters of the Nile turned into blood. And the fish that were in the Nile died. And the Nile stank and the Egyptians were not able to drink water from the Nile, and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:20-21)
Psalm 78 focuses on the lack of drinking water:
And [God] turned into blood the Nile and its streams;
They could not drink. (Psalm 78:34)
Psalm 105 focuses on the loss of an important food:
[God] turned their waters into blood
And it made their fish die. (Psalm 105:39)
Whether the story is expanded in the book of Exodus, or contracted in a psalm, it is always offered as a decisive example of God’s miracles on behalf of the Israelites.
In the book of Exodus, the purpose of the plagues is to get both the Israelites and the Egyptians to yada God. But the Torah portion Bo also gives instructions several times for the earliest Passover rituals, which were conducted about 3,000 years ago. The purpose of these rituals is to remember the story of the exodus.
This day shall be for you for remembrance, and you shall celebrate it as a festival for God, through [all] your generations. It is a decree forever: you shall celebrate it. (Exodus 12:14)
While Exodus only calls for remembering the story of God’s miracles in Egypt, Psalms 78 and 105 tell the story in order to motivate the Israelites of Judah to action.
Psalms 78 hopes that if the Israelites remember the miracles God did for them, then they will stop backsliding, trust God, and obey God’s rules.
What we have listened to, and we yada,
and our ancestors recounted to us,
should not be concealed from their descendants,
to the last generation recounting
praises of God and Its strength
and Its wonders that It did. (Psalm 78:3-4)
(The Hebrew in verse 3 uses form vaneida-eim (וַנֵּדָעֵם) = and we will yada.)
Why must God’s miracles be recounted to every generation?
Then they will place their kesel in God,
and they will not forget the deeds of God,
and they will comply with Its commandments. (Psalm 78:7)
kesel (כֶּסֶל) = conviction, certitude, unwavering belief regardless of other evidence or arguments; folly, stupidity.
The section of Psalm 78 that tells about the miracles God inflicted on Egypt (78:42-51) is not designed to mention every single plague, but rather to bring the story to life in ten short verses. Psalm 78 leaves out the kinim, the shechin, and the darkness, but it adds a few details that are not in Exodus:
—that the action happened at Tzoan, a specific place in the Nile Delta. (78:43)
—that the arov, the mixed hordes of vermin, ate the flesh of the Egyptians. (78:45)
—that when God sent hail, Egyptian flocks were hit by lightning. (78:48)
—that the hail killed grapevines and fig trees (important crops in Canaan, but not in Egypt). (78:47)
These additional details would make the story more vivid in the listener’s imagination.
Psalm 105 is less concerned than Psalm 78 about lack of faith and commitment among the people of Judah. I believe its purpose is to whip up enthusiasm for God and the religion among the worshipers at the temple.
Thank God, call out Its name,
hodiyu among the peoples Its deeds!
Sing to [God], make music to It,
consider all Its wonders!
Revel in the name of Its holiness!
Let the heart of those who seek God rejoice! (Psalm 105:1-3)
hodiyu (הוֹדִיעוּ) = make known, inform, announce. (A different form of the root verb yada.)
Psalm 105 then tells the story of the people who became Jews, starting with God’s covenant with Abraham and ending with the Israelites’ conquest of part of Canaan. When it describes the plagues, it omits both livestock pestilence and shechin, perhaps because the thought of rashes and boils would depress the congregation. Or, according to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, because diseases do not seem supernatural enough to count as miracles. But Psalm 105 uses some of same vivid details as Psalm 78.
Do the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt achieve their purpose?
Direct experience of miracles works in Exodus; both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada—know, realize, and recognize—a powerful god acting on behalf of the Israelites. The instruction to perform a ritual to remember what happened also worked; we have been celebrating Passover for about 3,000 years.
Does the account in Psalm 78 work, leading people to kesel, an unshakeable belief in God, and to a determination to obey God’s rules? I think it would depend on the listener. Some people believe any account that is vivid (like Psalm 78’s selection of details) and comes from an accepted source (such as the temple priests, or a particular news station, or a friend’s e-mail). Other people are skeptics by nature; they examine a story to see if it is logical and how it fits with personal experience and other information. This type of person would probably need direct experience, yada, to achieve kesel and commit themselves to obeying all the rules of the religion.
What about Psalm 105? I believe that an account of past miracles can inspire both kinds of people, especially when it is poetry set to uplifting music. Even natural skeptics can get caught up in singing joyful praise, and leave the temple (or synagogue) with a better attitude toward their God and their religion. And natural believers might be moved to proselytize, following the instruction hodiyu—make known, announce!
The singing of the psalms continued as part of both Jewish and Christian prayer after the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. It continues today. But Jewish liturgy concentrates on other psalms. It quotes only one verse from Psalm 78 and fifteen from Psalm 105, none of which are verses addressing the plagues in Egypt.
However, serious-minded Jews study the story of the plagues in the Torah portions Va-eira and Bo every winter, when we reach this time in the cycle of Torah readings. And in the spring many more Jews celebrate Passover, a festival of dramatic rituals, prayers, songs, and stories about how God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
The haggadah (“the telling”), the book that provides the texts and ritual instructions, includes many quotes from our two Torah portions in Exodus. Psalms 78 and 105 are not traditionally included. In a modern American haggadah, the song “Go Down Moses” usually is.
Out of all the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt, I would say Passover is by far the most effective at getting Jews to remember the claim that God created miracles to rescue our people from Egypt. The ritual itself has changed and grown over the millennia, so it can speak to new generations. Even Jews who grew up in families that managed to conduct a boring seder every year cannot help but remember the symbolic foods, the song that the youngest child must sing, the exodus story, spilling a drop of wine for each of the ten plagues, and hunting for the hidden piece of matzah.
Thus Passover still serves the purpose given in the book of Exodus: remembering the story. Whether we can go further and yada God (as in Exodus), or commit ourselves to kesel (as in Psalm 78), or be moved to joy and a desire to recommend the religion (as in Psalm 105) depends on the individual.
Personally, I have a skeptical nature, and I actively try to avoid kesel—while remaining committed to studying Torah and being a Jew in a liberal sense. But I remember the exodus story every winter when I study it in the Torah, as well as every spring when I participate in Passover. I do not yada the God of the ancient Israelites, but I do yada something I cannot describe that I call God. And when I sing psalms that have uplifting words and melodies, I am indeed moved to joy. I would recommend that to anyone!
Tags: Adam, creation myths, Enuma Elish, Genesis, haftarah, Tiamat, torah portion
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 we read the very first Torah portion, Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8) and the haftarah is Isaiah 42:5-43:10.
In the beginning are the gods, or one god. The god(s) make the sky and the earth. Later, the god(s) invent human beings.
That order of creation appears in most of the myths of the ancient Near East, from the Sumerians of circa 3000 B.C.E. to the Israelites of circa 530 B.C.E. But the reason why human beings were created changes.
Creation of the Human in Enuma Elish
The Sumerian creation myth was retold in Mesopotamia for thousands of years, with different names for the gods. The most complete expression of this myth that archaeologists have found so far is several copies of the Enuma Elish, a seven-tablet book in Akkadian cuneiform dating to about 1100 B.C.E.
The story begins when the two primordial gods “mixed their waters together”, and the female, Tiamat, gives birth to more gods. The gods multiply, and two factions fight against each other. The hero-god (Marduk, in the copy from Babylon) kills Tiamat, the leader of the other faction, and creates the world out of parts of her body. Then he has a clever idea: the gods won’t have to work to get their own meals if they create humans to serve them. The gods bind Tiamat’s favorite consort, Kingu, and an older god, Ea, makes humankind out of Kingu’s blood.
From his blood he created mankind,
On whom he imposed the service of the gods, and set the gods free. (Enuma Elish, Tablet 6, lines 33-34)
Tablet Seven of Enuma Elish specifies the work the humans will do for the gods: providing lavish food offerings, taking care of their shrines, burning incense for them, and retelling their heroic stories.
Creation of the Human in Genesis 2
The first Torah portion in the Bible offers two creation myths. It opens with an account organized into seven days, which was probably written sometime between the 9th and 6th centuries B.C.E. during the time of the first temple in Jerusalem. This account is immediately followed by a story that was probably written down earlier, in the 10th century B.C.E.
The second story begins:
On the day of God’s making the earth and the heavens, no bushes of the field existed yet on the earth, and no greens of the field had sprouted yet, because God had not made it rain upon the earth, and there was no adam to work the ground. But fresh water ascended from the earth and watered all the surface of the ground. God vayitzer the adam out of dirt from the ground, and blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and the adam became an animated animal. (Genesis/Bereishit 2:4-7)
adam (אָדָם) = human, humankind.
vayitzer (וַיִּיצֶר) = then he/it shaped, formed. (From the root yatzar (יָצַר) = shaped, formed, fashioned.)
In this creation myth there is only one god, and no sex. God makes the earth and the sky, but the writer does not care how. The important thing is that the earth consists of bare, moist dirt. This is God’s raw material for making humankind, along with God’s own breath. One can imagine God as a human artist shaping a figure as if modeling clay, then blowing into its nostrils and bringing it to life.
And God took the adam and put it in the garden of Eden, to tend it and to watch over it. (Genesis 2:15)
God runs a few experiments, telling the adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge, inviting it to name animals, splitting it into male and female humans, and providing a talking snake. Eventually God sends the two humans back into the world, which now contains rain, plants, and animals as well as dirt.
God does not create the adam to serve as a slave. Instead, the adam must watch the garden—while God is watching the adam.
Creation of the Human in Genesis 1
The redactors of the Bible placed the creation myth written during the time of the first temple at the very beginning of the book, before the earlier story about God making the adam out of dirt and breath. This story starts:
In a beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)
In this account, God is a spirit and a voice that speaks things into being. No raw materials are necessary. The account is divided into seven days, and God does not create humans until the sixth day, right after the other mammals.
And God created the adam in Its image, in the image of God It created it; male and female It created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subjugate it! And rule over fish of the sea and birds of the skies and all animals that crawl over the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-27)
Today it is obvious that we have gone overboard in subjugating the earth and its animals. But in the Torah, before God assigns humankind that job, God says the human is made in God’s image. Perhaps humans are God’s proxies, assigned to handle the administration of the earth in place of God.
Creation of the Human in Second Isaiah
The second half of the book of Isaiah was written around 550-510 B.C.E., when King Cyrus of Persia finished conquering the Babylonian Empire. The prophet encourages the Israelite families that were deported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar’s conquering army to take advantage of King Cyrus’s policy of letting subjugated populations return to their former lands and rebuild temples for their own gods.
The exiles needed a lot of encouragement. Many of them doubted that the god of a nation that no longer existed would have the power to help them. This week’s haftarah declares that God still has a purpose for the Israelites and will indeed redeem them. Second Isaiah alludes to both of the creation stories in Genesis, reminding the Israelites that their god is the ultimate god, the creator of the world and all humankind, before he or she turns in a new direction.
Thus said the god, God—
Creator of the heavens, stretching them out,
Spreader of the earth and her products,
Giver of breath to the people upon it,
And spirit to those who walk on it—
“I am God. I summoned you with right conduct,
And I held you firmly by your hand,
Ve-etzarekha, and I gave you
A covenant of a people, a light of nations.
To open the eyes of the blind…” (Isaiah 42:5-7)
ve-etzarekha (וְאֶצָּרְךָ) = and I shaped you. (From the root yatzar.)
Here God giving breath and spirit to all humanity, then “shapes” the children of Israel, using the same verb, yatzar, as when God shaped the adam our of dirt in Genesis 2. Second Isaiah implies that God yatzar the children of Israel in order to receive a covenant. Next the old covenant between God and the Israelites acquires a new purpose: in addition to obeying all of God’s rules, the people must now enlighten other nations.
What are the people of other nations (as well as many exiled Israelites) not seeing?
According to the haftarah, the Israelites must spread the word that God’s prophecies always come true, and the God of Israel is the only real god.
You are My witnesses,
And My servant whom I have chosen. (Isaiah 43:10)
In all four creation stories from the ancient Near East, gods create the world and then add human beings. In Enuma Elish, the purpose of humankind is to work for the gods.
In the oldest creation story in Genesis, the purpose of humankind seems to be to increase knowledge: human knowledge of the garden and of good and bad, and divine knowledge of human nature.
In the opening creation story in Genesis, the purpose of humankind is to rule over the earth and its other animals.
In second Isaiah, the purpose of the Israelites is to enlighten other peoples, ultimately leading them to convert to worshiping the God of Israel as the only real god.
Today the theory of evolution provides a logical explanation of why human beings exist, and many people consider our mental complexity an accidental side-effect of the process. In this line of thinking, humankind seems to have no purpose; the best we can do is follow Sartre and invent our own individual reasons for being.
But modern science cannot explain everything; there is room for a new concept of God, and even for the idea of a collective purpose. What if there is a purpose for humankind in general? What might it be?
Tags: call to prophecy, haftarah, Judah, King Josiah, Prophet Jeremiah, torah portion, Zephaniah
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 Mattot (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 1:1-2:3.
Jeremiah discovers his calling in this week’s haftarah:
The word of God happened to me, saying:
Before I enclosed you in the womb, I knew you.
And before you went out from the womb, I consecrated you;
A navi to the nations I appointed you. (Jeremiah 1:4-5)
navi (נָבְיא) = prophet. (Plural = neviyim (נְבִיאִים).)
There are two kinds of neviyim in the Bible: those who have ecstatic experiences of the divine but do not speak for God; and those who serve as mouthpieces or translators for God, giving God’s messages to other people. Jeremiah is the second kind of navi, like Moses, Bilam, Samuel, Natan, Elijah, Elisha, Jonah, Joel, Amos, Hosea, the first Isaiah, Micah, and Nahum before him.
Jeremiah is an adolescent when he hears God tell him he is a navi.
And I said:
Ahahh! My master, God!
Hey! I do not know how to speak,
Because I am a youth. (Jeremiah 1:6)
Ahahh (אֲהָהּ) = a cry of alarm, like “oh no!” or “alas!”
Jeremiah does not want the job.
While Moses tried to get out of being God’s prophet by claiming his speech and his tongue were heavy, Jeremiah protests that he would be a poor speaker because he is too young.
Perhaps he is wise for his age and knows speaking out effectively against what others are doing requires insights that come from experience. Of course, that wisdom would actually make him more qualified!
More importantly, God consecrated him as a navi before he was born. The language in these poetic verses reflects an observation that we explain today through genetics: human beings are born with genes for certain talents and dispositions, which change from potential to actual in the right environment. Skills can be developed through education and practice, but you can become a stellar dancer only if you were born with certain physical traits, a stellar mathematician only if you were born with certain mental traits, a stellar prophet only if you were born with—what?
My guess is that a competent navi must be born with both the kind of intelligence needed by translators and eloquent speakers, and an unusual spiritual sensitivity. Jeremiah must have had a way with words as a child, and he must have experienced glimpses or echoes of a reality behind our mundane reality.
People enjoy using their talents. So why is Jeremiah horrified at news that he must serve as a navi?
The haftarah opens by stating that Jeremiah began prophesying in the 13th year of the reign of Josiah, king of Judah, which scholars date to the 620’s B.C.E. Two neviyim are already active in Jerusalem at that time: Zephaniah (who has his own book) and Huldah (who is mentioned only when she utters a prophecy for King Josiah five years after Jeremiah’s call, in 2 Kings 22).
King Josiah began his reign at the age of eight, and while he was growing up, Zephaniah was predicting a day of reckoning when God would wipe out Jerusalem, Judah, and most of the world for injustice and idol worship, while giving refuge to a small number of survivors.
When Jeremiah is called to prophesy, Josiah is 21 and has not yet begun his campaign of wiping out the images, shrines, and priests of other gods. The kingdom of Judah is still full of polytheists worshipping Baal, Ashtoret, Molekh, Khemosh, Milkom, and various astral deities. Furthermore, the political situation in the region is shifting. The Assyrian Empire, which had earlier swallowed up the northern kingdom of Israel and made Judah its vassal state, is weakening. Wars are brewing between powers bigger than the little state of Judah. It would be all too easy for a sensitive person to imagine God using foreign armies to punish and destroy the Israelites.
Jeremiah probably expects that the speeches he must make as a navi will be at least as grim and unwelcome as Zephaniah’s. If Jeremiah hopes that at least his private life will continue as before, that hope probably dies when he hears God’s response to his attempt to excuse himself on the grounds of youth.
Do not say “I am a youth”
Because anywhere I send you, you will go,
And anything I command you, you will speak.
Do not be afraid in front of them,
Because I will be with you to rescue you –declares God. (Jeremiah 1:7-8)
Theoretically Jeremiah could refuse the call, but God already knows Jeremiah will obey—and that he will need rescuing from “them”, people who have not yet been named. In case Jeremiah did not get the hint, later in this haftarah God says:
And they will attack you
But they will not vanquish you
Because I will be with you—declares God—to rescue you. (Jeremiah 1:19)
Jeremiah rants against dishonesty, injustice, and the worship of other gods until King Josiah is killed in 609 B.C.E. During the reigns of the next four kings of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon vanquishes the old Assyrian empire and his army conquers Judah, putting Jerusalem under siege in 589 B.C.E.
Jeremiah blames idol-worship for the Babylonian attack, and advises each successive king of Judah (Yeho-achaz, Yehoyakim, Yehoyakin, and Tzidkiyahu) to surrender and make Judah a vassal of the new Babylonian empire. He knows it is the only way to save lives and preserve Jerusalem and its temple.
Despite all of Jeremiah’s prophesies, the people do not repent, and none of the kings submit to Babylon. The Jerusalem faction that opposes surrender flogs, imprisons, and attempts to murder Jeremiah, so he will stop interfering with their power over the king.
When the Babylonians finally do raze Jerusalem and its temple, and kill or take captive most of its leading citizens, all Jeremiah can do is save the lives of a few people who helped him. He spends the rest of his own life in exile in Egypt, prophesying about other countries whose kings do not listen to him.
Maybe Jeremiah glimpses his own future when God first calls him to serve as a navi. That future would make anyone cry Ahahh!
When I was young, I was one of many Americans who believed that if you discovered your true calling and did it, you would be successful and happy. The 1970’s and 80’s were the era of “Do your own thing” and “Follow your bliss”.
Gradually I realized that even when you pursue work you have a talent for and are passionate about, the world does not always rearrange itself to give you a clear path. Some individuals are lucky; I believe my father was born to be an engineer, and he had a profitable and satisfying career in that field. Some are unlucky, and pursue what speaks to their innermost heart only to end up broke and miserable. In some countries, those who pursue the work of a prophet speaking out against the government end up imprisoned (like Jeremiah) or killed (a fate he narrowly escaped).
And some people never try to pursue their calling, either because what they were born to do is something society expects from them anyway, or because they run away from the first intimation that they might have a calling.
What if you realized, with deep inner clarity, that you were called to devote your life to work that would lead to frustration and failure like Jeremiah’s?